Monday, November 4, 2013

Prose Rhythm, 2 Sentences by Hemingway

I’ve read a great deal of Hemingway, but years ago. He’s noted for his style. Here’s a paragraph from the Wikipedia entry:
The simplicity of the prose is deceptive. Zoe Trodd believes Hemingway crafted skeletal sentences in response to Henry James's observation that World War I had “used up words.” Hemingway offers a “multi-focal” photographic reality. His iceberg theory of omission is the foundation on which he builds. The syntax, which lacks subordinating conjunctions, creates static sentences. The photographic “snapshot” style creates a collage of images. Many types of internal punctuation (colons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses) are omitted in favor of short declarative sentences. The sentences build on each other, as events build to create a sense of the whole. Multiple strands exist in one story; an “embedded text” bridges to a different angle. He also uses other cinematic techniques of “cutting” quickly from one scene to the next; or of “splicing” a scene into another. Intentional omissions allow the reader to fill the gap, as though responding to instructions from the author, and create three-dimensional prose.
He was a master of prose rhythm. That’s what I want to talk about.

I want to look at two sentences from “Chapter Eighteen” of his book on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon (1932, 1960). The chapter's opening pages are about fighting style and technique and, for all I know, the entire chapter is about technique; I’ve not reread the whole. Hemingway believed that, at its best, bullfighting achieved an ecstatic magic, “an experience that either you will have in your life or you will never have” (p. 207).

Here is a sentence that caught my attention years ago. It seemed to me that Hemingway was imitating the matador’s movements in the rhythm of his prose. This is a single sentence of 131 words and consists of three major clauses (I’ve colored the background to highlight them, from p. 214):
Gallo, too, was a master of gracious passes made before the bull’s horns, passes made with both hands, changing the muleta from one hand to the other, sometimes behind his back, passes that started as though they were to be natural and instead, the man spinning around, muleta wrapping itself around him and the bull following the spinning loose end of it; others in which the man turned on himself getting close to the bull’s neck and winding him around him, passes made kneeling, using both hands on the muleta to swing the bull around in a curve; all passes that needed a great knowledge of the bull’s mentality and great confidence, were beautiful to see and very satisfying to Gallo to make although they were the negation of true bullfighting.
In order to bring out the rhythm I’ve reset the sentence so that each phrase begins on a new line and no phrase takes more than a single line. The resulting print is rather small, but I’m not asking you to read the lines, simply to note their rhythm:

hemingway gallo

The first clause is almost as long as the other two combined, and is broken into many short phrases:
1) 62 words: Gallo, too, was a master…
2) 36: others in which the man…
3) 33: all passes that needed…
That first clause consists of nine phrases of varying lengths; seven of those describe various kinds of passes with the cape.

That’s what struck me as being a prose imitation of what the bullfighter does. Imagine speaking those phrases. No, more, actually speak them and as you do so, wave your hand as though it held a cape draped over a sword. You will see that the time scale of Hemingway’s prose is on the same order as the motions he is describing. Even when you are not speaking those phrases aloud you read them in time. George Lakoff (2012)* reports that Teenie Matlock
demonstrated that subjects actually traced metaphorical fictive motion sentences (as in “The road runs along the cliffs above the ocean”) in real time via mental simulation.
So, whatever that is, precisely, that’s what you’re doing when you read Hemingway’s description of passes with the muleta. When the language itself in some way imitates that which it depicts, that’s called iconicity (Lakoff and Turner, More Than Cool Reason, p. 156).

Now let’s look at the last half of the long paragraph that opens that chapter. The first half of the paragraph, roughly 18 lines, consists of four sentences while the last half, 17 lines, consists of a single sentence with a total of 170 words (pp. 206-207):
If spectators know the matador is capable of executing a complete, consecutive series of passes with the muleta in which there will be valor, art, understanding and, above all, beauty and great emotion, they will put up with mediocre work, cowardly work, disastrous work because they have the hope sooner or later of seeing the complete faena; the faena that takes a man out of himself and makes him feel immortal while it is proceeding, that gives him an ecstasy, that is, while momentary, as profound as any religious ecstasy; moving all the people in the ring together and increasing in emotional intensity as it proceeds, carrying the bullfighter with it, he playing on the crowd through the bull and being moved as it responds in a growing ecstasy of ordered, formal, passionate, increasing disregard for death that leaves you, when it is over, and the death administered to the animal that has made it possible, as empty, as changed and as sad as any major emotion will leave you.
The sentence is longer than the first (170 vs. 131 words) and the rhythm is if anything more varied:
hemingway ecstasy
Here’s how the three clauses lay out:
1) 57 words: If the spectators know…
2) 33: the faena that takes a man…
3) 80: moving all the people…
Hemingway’s heading for the magic moment (this sentence is on the page before the one I quoted at the top, “an experience that either you will have…”), telling under what conditions spectators have reason to believe that such magic may be in the offering for the day. Then he gives us that moment in the second clause – well, he doesn’t give it to us, but he names it. And the third clause concludes with the crowd and the matador swept up in the moment.

But is the sentence iconic in the way that the first one is? There is no single physical act being described. The first, the longest, clause doesn’t describe an act at all, but only lists very abstract attributes of that act, that they have valor and great beauty, and contrasts them with mediocrity. The second clause evokes a magic moment, but in a very abstract way. The third clause begins with two long phrases, as though the language itself were gathering us up in the ecstasy of the faena, and then tapers down to the end.

Is this what Lakoff and Turner mean by iconicity?

One can, for example, imagine that the rhythm in those short clauses about abstract matters – “art, understanding and, above all, beauty and great emotion…” – is imitating that “consecutive series of passes” mentioned just before. And then there’s the middle of the middle clause: “that gives him an ecstasy, that is, while momentary”. Does that central “that is” mark the ecstatic moment itself?

* * * * *

I don’t know what to make of these questions. I don’t know how to answer them. I don’t know what kind of questions they are.

I’d like to have an electronic text of Death in the Afternoon and the tools I’d need to examine on these issues. Not all of Hemingway’s sentences are that long, but I have no reason to believe that those two sentences are unique. What’s the distribution of sentences by length? Is it smooth or lumpy? How close are these two sentences to the upper end of the distribution? What’s the internal structure of the longer sentences? These have three long clauses; is that typical or not?

And there is the question of iconicity. It is certainly a real phenomenon. If you google the phrases “pattern poem” and “concrete poem” you’ll come up with many images of poems where the visual form has been deliberately constructed to imitate the subject matter of the poem. But I rather imagine that a virtuoso stylist of Hemingway’s caliber can write sentences such as those almost without consciously doing so. You just turn on the juice and the rhythm comes. That’s different. Is it a difference worth noting and studying?

Then there is the question of prose rhythm in general. Any written document will have some kind of rhythm by virtue of the fact that language unfolds in time. But most people do not deliberately manipulate prose rhythm. Hemingway does. Is there a statistical difference between writing where the author deliberately manipulates rhythm and writing where the rhythm is not taken into account? Is the relative lack of subordinating conjunctions – assuming it to be statistically real – in Hemingway’s prose a device that gives him greater rhythmic freedom? That is, subordination places emphasis on logical relations within a sentence, relations that must be satisfied. If you drop such relations you have more freedom with word placement.

And so on.


Still, Hemingway was a damn fine stylist.

* * * * *

*Lakoff, G. (2012), Explaining Embodied Cognition Results. Topics in Cognitive Science, 4: 773–785. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01222.x

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