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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Monday, December 21, 2009

For the Season, Categories in Red and Green

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/21/09 at 06:40 PM

Coiled Alizarin, by John Hollander:

Curiously deep, the slumber of crimson thoughts:
While breathless, in stodgy viridian,
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Commentary below the fold.

Troping the Linguist

One of the best known sentences in modern intellectual life appeared in Noam Chomsky’s 1957 exposition of Syntactic Structures. The first of one-hundred and seventeen (117) numbered examples, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” was introduced to illustrate the independence of grammar from syntax. Chomsky contrasted that example with a second, “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless,” asserting that both are nonsense “but any speaker of English will recognize that only the former is grammatical” (p. 15).

But this nonsense was not just any nonsense.  It was not like Shakespeare’s Dogberry contradicting himself by asserting that “for the watch to babble and to talk is most tolerable, and not to be endured” (Much Ado About Nothing, III.iii.35-36). That is a nonsense of contradiction. Nor was it like Louis Carroll telling us that “’Twas brillig and the slithey toves/ did gyre and gimbal in the wabe.” That is a nonsense of nonsense words strung together in the semblance of meaning, which is a bit closer to Chomsky’s nonsense, but not quite there. At its syntactic core Chomsky’s was a nonsense of ontological sin, a pair of category mistakes.

It makes no sense to assert of ideas that they have any color whatsoever.  Ideas can be new or old, complex or simple, limited in scope or broadly applicable, and so forth, but they cannot be black, white, red, blue, green, or any other color. Ideas aren’t the sorts of things which can have color. That is one category mistake. The second lies in attempting to have ideas sleep. An idea can awaken someone’s interest or it can be so boring that it puts that person to sleep, but the idea itself cannot sleep—though it might lay dormant in someone’s soul, which is very close to sleeping, but not quite. These two offenses are then conjoined with other sins—the contradiction between “colorless” and “green” and the quasi-categorical mismatch between “sleep’ and “furiously”—to complete the impression of nonsense.

And a very convincing impression it is. It really doesn’t make sense. That property, however, turns out to depend on context. John Hollander, the poet, brought sense to Chomsky’s line by providing it with two lines of context and a title, “Coiled Alizarin.” The title itself presages the poem’s method, for alizarin is a red dye and, as such, cannot sensibly be said to coil—though an artist might be put in mind of coils of Alizarin Crimson paint, which is very common, squeezed onto the palette. Here is the poem, which is dedicated to Noam Chomsky:

Curiously deep, the slumber of crimson thoughts:
While breathless, in stodgy viridian,
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

The poem works by establishing a context in which Chomsky’s category mistakes become natural; category error thus become the poem’s modus vivendi.

The opening line of the poem presents us with the assertion that there is something curiously deep about the object designated by the following noun phrase. The concluding two lines elaborate on that object, whatever it is. Thus the first line frames the poem, telling us that something is curiously deep.

That something is the slumber of crimson thoughts. The notion of crimson thoughts gives us the two category mistakes upon which Chomsky launched his example. The agent, thoughts/ideas, is the same in both cases, as is the verb, sleep/slumber. The color, crimson (continuing from the titular alizarin) is, in terms of color theory, the opposite of green; but it is a color and thus cannot be sensibly predicated of ideas. However, that that compounded error should be curious is perfectly natural, the question lies in the depth—which may well, of course, be an allusion to the deep structures of Chomsky’s syntactic theory of the time.

The second line of the poem presents us with two more category errors, one in each of two modifying phrases that apply to those ideas which are the object of this exercise. It makes no sense to assert white of breathlessness nor stodgy of veridian, which of course presages the concluding green. Note that breathless tends to ground these ideas in a body, perhaps a sleeping body which is breathless from its furious nocturnal exertion. While ideas cannot, in normal circumstances, sleep, they can be dormant, which doesn’t imply agency of ideas in the way that sleep does. However, breathlessness definitely implies a breathing agent and so pulls these ideas from meta into physics. In terms of color theory, white is neutral while red/crimson is hot and green/veridian is cool and, for what it’s worth, in the additive color mixing of lights, as opposed to the subtractive color mixing of pigments, red and green mix to form white. The poem then concludes with Chomsky’s famous example, which now seems perfectly natural.

Note also that, whereas the first two lines had internal pauses, the final line comes with a rush, without pause. This is also the only line of the three which could stand alone as a sentence. Though we could reorder the first line to make the autonomous assertion that “the slumber of crimson thoughts is curiously deep,” that assertion is put to different use in this poem. In this poem it functions to lead us somewhere, as does the second line. And even as the third line comes rushing on, it also brings that rush to a halt.

Hollander is playing with the combinatorial and selectional axes of language, to use Roman Jakobson’s terms. The possibility of category mistakes implies the existence of conventionalized associations between these two axes. And that is what we have at the core of one of the major tropes of Western thought, the Great Chain of Being. Physical things, plants, animals, and human beings differ systematically in the properties which can be reasonably attributed to them and the roles they can take in actions.  Physical things can be heavy or light, but they cannot be trustworthy or brave. Animals can run, jump, see, and hear, but plants cannot. Metaphor can be used to transfer conceptual structure from items, and stories of such items, lower on the chain to items (and stories) higher on the chain. Category errors result when one tries to violate the great chain without benefit of metaphor; thus Davids Bloom and Hays offer trustworthy mush in a 1978 paper and Chomsky offered colorless ideas in his seminal 1957 pamphlet on syntax.

Hollander naturalizes Chomsky’s category mistakes by systematically repeating them. He operates at that particular nexus in the chain which Chomsky singled out and builds his poem by selecting different terms from the same classes in the chain—white and crimson instead of green, breathing instead of sleeping, stodgy instead of furiously—and running them through simple (re-)combinations. By repeatedly instantiating the same Great Chain nexus Hollander makes the violation of that nexus the axis of his poetic world. By thus signifying on the Great Chain — to use a term from the African-American vernacular which Henry Louis Gates has introduced into criticism — Hollander foregrounds the fact and/or inscrutability of Being Itself.

The inscrutability of Being, indeed. Sounds about right for the Winter solstice.

Curiously deep, the slumber of crimson thoughts:
While breathless, in stodgy viridian,
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Ho ho ho.


Comments

I want to offer a counter reading.  The color imagery here—red, white, green—is obviously an allusion to *Sir Gawain and the Green Knight*.  The one color it leaves out of its palette, however, is gold: the rich gold thread and treasure objects of the chivalrous lords, which enable their beneficence.

Hollander is clearly referring to a late capitalism by eliding the gold/gift nexus from his texualization.  The natural imagifications, of blood, of a green world, of snow, return to their proper place in our valufications. 

Now, I also propose that the crimson thoughts are both a reference to Hamlet’s demand for bloody thoughts as well as a transgendering of the male poet, a queer identification with the menstrual cycle.  The speaker destroys his own subjectivity by denying a clear “I” even as the colors make clear an “eye” seeing into the deep slumber of a female principle too often repressed in the patriarchal matrices of Western culture. 

And yet, the poem works against its own grain, for the deepness of the red thoughts’ sleep reminds us that, despite the erasure of male subjectivity, the speaker is still vaginalizing nature, looking into its deepness, no doubt sexually objectifying it in the interest of filling its curiously deep void.  The female, the natural, is deep but somehow empty, and this reminds us that all references to nature recall to us the equations in Western patriarchal imperialism between the natural and the racial other. 

This gets us to the “white breathless,” for in the face of the deep slumber of the vagina/blood/nature pattern, the white male swoons.  He looks into the void and feels the sublime danger of being lost in what we could call the redness of blackness, the othering of the other.  Loss of breath recalls to us the swoons caused by a constricting corseting of female sexuality, but now the white male identifies with the loss of breath.  The inspired white poet loses breath, spirit, in the face of the rise of the other. 

I have to run, but I’d also like to point out the poem’s final resolution: dispirited by the rise of the menstrual, black Other (black, of course, is present in its absence in the poem), the speaker finds solace in a neoliberal world of color blindness: even green ideas are now “colorless,” even as the furious sleep of race disturbs the calm elision of the poet’s own recognition of a negative capability.

By on 12/21/09 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I recall the phrase being parsed in its own terms: colorless~unelaborated, green~untested, sleep~remain dormant, furiously~whilst in ferment.

but cf Marvell’s gardening

By nnyhav on 12/22/09 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Clive James also wrote a poem in teh late 60s or early 70s around this line.  His poem took the line as being about Vietnam ... a little clunkingly, I’d say.

By Adam Roberts on 12/27/09 at 04:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s “while breathless”, FWIW.

By on 01/04/10 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Vance.

By Bill Benzon on 01/04/10 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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