BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): Martin Vaughn-James’s (2014) The Cage

6 November 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

“Don’t speak; don’t speak” Helen Sinclair in Woody Allen’s (1994) Bullets over Broadway.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Martin Vaughn-James’s (1975)[2] The Cage

I’ve finished a heap of books lately and want to reply to them all, so I feel pressed for brevity more than usual.

This book benefits from my reading it proximate to Woodring’s (2011) Congress of Animals, insofar as both offer a profusion of (seemingly) random imagery.

I want to say in this respect, in the introduction (by Seth), he confesses he subjected this book to a rigourous examination, but in the end, he remained “perplexed. Which is what I suspect Vaughn-James wanted” (7). And Vaughn-James said, “But see what [in the book], exactly? Thirty years later I have no satisfactory answer, an author orphaned by his own creation” (11). Since neither a qualified critic (supposedly) and the author alike decline to say anything definitive, this gives me no particular reason to feel I ought to expend much effort on it. We may contrast this with Joyce, who once asked a reader what he thought of Ulysses and how long he’d spent reading it; the reader replied nonchalantly and said that he’d spent a couple of weeks on it. Joyce answered testily, “I spent twelve years writing it; you should take twelve years reading it.” Cheeky and maybe apocryphal, but one can’t deny in Joyce demand the overwhelming amount of attention he expended on his work and could have elaborated upon about it if asked.

The most immediate echo here—if one has to immediately try to find something familiar in a defamiliarizing text—goes to Edward Gorey’s West Wing, which provides a wordless tour through a number of interior spaces, mostly empty. Vaughn-James, however, appends a text to the pictures.

To a certain degree, the book moves along by a process of accumulation—or it at least seems that way at times. More or less spare images become more and more populated with recurring objects, and the text more or less seems to do the same thing as well, always to a far more ridiculous degree than the imagery.

Especially reading this with proximate to Woodring’s book (I read it before), the absence of text in Congress of the Animals makes Vaughn-James’s choice to include text dubious. The issue hinges on the kinds of repetitions, and especially the continuous shrillness of the text. Just one example, by opening the book randomly, “… as if in drawer closer to the stone, its inscrutable façade would conveniently collapse revealing at once and for all time … or even quietly flake away in a host of thread-thin rivulets … a million tiny cracks clicking in succession … all seeping with the same mysterious excrement … the waste of events” (54–5).

Too many superlatives recur, too many attempts at expressing the utmost in emptiness, abyss, meaningless, &c. To say it reaches and strains understates the matter by an order of magnitude. Read charitably, somehow this howling contrasts with the inhuman interiors and landscapes Vaughn-James supplies; read less charitably, they seem to denote a lack of faith in the imagery he supplies.

Not a want of intention: sometimes he provides text that obviously describes previous frames (even if you can’t locate which one), and other times the imagery seems to bear directly on the image itself. So some relationship of text and image seems implied, but the overwhelming impression I get—again and again—centres around something like the artist’s own lack of faith that his images can carry the day.

Some time ago, I watched Roy Anderson’s Songs from the Second Floor, a movie so visually striking (and narratively befuddling) that once it ended, I immediately watched it again, but with the director’s running commentary on. More the fool me, in one sense. For while Anderson, of course, ably demystified the various images and “symbolisms” he deployed in his film, he also trivialized them to a reactionary degree. In other words, it seemed like the narrow interest of his own (intended) narrative for the film short-sold what it meant.

We’ll see something like this in my review of Woodring’s Congress of the Animals (upcoming), but there the “explanation” remains on the dust-jacket of the book, probably composed by Woodring but still “external” to the book itself. Here, Vaughn-James seems to have provided the crib notes as the text itself—or at least something like crib notes. If nothing else, whatever odd or striking imagery he produces visually—much of it interesting enough—gets folded into a logorrhoea of words that not only distracts from the images but actually subtracts as well, on the one hand serving to narrowly trivialize the imagery (much as Anderson trivializes the imagery of his film) but at the same time making it mawkish by the overblown rhetoric and wearisome repetition of superlatives: “ … the room choking on its rancid cube of air, dismembered by the spastic acrobatics of the machine, the skewered whirlpool at its core, the blurred and ruptured cylinder[3] … its stricken contents glued against its melting wall, clawing frantically to free from all the stinking painted refuse that thing still slinging to the centre of the pit” (178–9).

You can see the syntagmatic repetition—“spastic acrobatics of the machine, the skewered whirlpool … the blurred and ruptured cylinder”; many examples of this kind of verbal piling up occur—and this seems to parallel the multiplication (repetition of objects) and their piling up in the imagery as well. It reminds me of the kind of parallel, piling up of (negated) images Faulkner often resorts to, except not only does Faulkner have more aesthetic interest in his phrases,[4] he also piles them together very differently. A most familiar heaping involves a series of negations (“it was not this, and not this, and not this”) followed by a final assertion (“but this”). Not to say that Vaughn-James aspires to the same aesthetic effect as Faulkner, but the novelist has at least found a way to concatenate multiple (verbal) objects in a way that makes for an aesthetic whole.

Not so here. And one might say that Vaughn-James, in fact, aims for the opposite: to convey breaking down, entropy, the opposite of an aesthetic object. Except that project must fail both specifically and generally. One cannot annihilate meaning with language, but only reduce it in sense or increase it in uncertainty to a hopeless diffusion.

But the argument that Vaughn-James aspires to the condition of nothingness doesn’t wash. Not only does the book exist, he populates his individual frames with vast litters of specific objects, most of which more convincingly have some symbolic value (whatever he intends) than the opposite. Moreover, whatever coyness Vaughn-James maintained about the “purpose” of the book, its titular object he describes as a machine, and so both the cage and The Cage do have a teleology, a purpose, however mechanical or mindless or unattended by human presence (beyond the reader’s). Wisely, he doesn’t claim he has built a meaninglessness engine, but at the same time, he seems to have nervously appended a verbal element that subtracts from the numinous potential of the images.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Vaughn-James, M. (2012). The cage. Toronto: Coach House Books, pp. 1–192.

[3] I find it unfortunate and unintentionally comic that “the spastic acrobatics of the machine, the skewered whirlpool at its core, the blurred and ruptured cylinder” should remind me of a washing machine.

[4] I can hardly condemn Vaughn-James for not matching Faulkner’s literary talent.


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