Sunday, February 4, 2018

Literary Corner: Economy of Abstraction

Asobu (Play), by Japan--Calligraphy (that's a dumb nym, but it's a lovely piece) at DeviantArt.

Two of the endless fascinations of Donald Trump's work are its peculiarly bloodless but potent economy of abstraction, absence of sensuality or thinginess, reduction of experience from sensation to pure value terms; and its use of repetition. They come together for a remarkable effect in the new work, offered to the press in the Oval Office Friday after he signed off on the declassfication of the Nunes memo, which is the poem's subject:

It Was Declassified
by Donald J. Trump

I. I Think It's a Disgrace
I think it's terrible
you want to know the truth
I think it's a disgrace
what's going on in this country 
I think it's a disgrace
the memo was sent to Congress
it was declassified 
Congress will do whatever
they're going to do but
I think it's a disgrace
what's happening in our country

II. A Lot of People Should Be Ashamed
and when you look at that
and you see that
and so many other things
what's going on 
a lot of people should be
ashamed of themselves
and much worse than that
so I sent it over to Congress
they will do what they're going to do
whatever they do is fine 
it was declassified
and let's see what happens
but a lot of people should be ashamed
thank you very much
(Remarks to press in Oval Office February 2, transcribed from Fox News video)

Perhaps this is what was occupying him over the "few hours" it reportedly took him to read the three and a half pages (in the words of Jonathan Chait, who suspects he may not have read it at all):
The Washington Post comes closest to addressing the mystery, yet fails to resolve the matter. The Post reports that the president “tuned in to cable television segments about the memo. He talked to friends and advisers about it.” He thereby “became absolutely convinced” it must be published. After becoming convinced, Trump “was then left alone to read the memo in its entirety.” And then Chief of Staff John Kelly “returned a few hours later and shared with the president his opinion.”
Because an almost Japanese spareness like this (only 56 different words used in a total of 140, I spent close to an hour counting, but that's close to Dr. Seurss's "I Can Read It All By Myself" standard) can't easily be achieved without labor.

What I wanted to say about the abstraction (which could be merely a function of his being afraid to use words of any specificity because it would reveal he doesn't know what he's talking about) and the repetition is that they almost add up to a kind of music, beyond "making sense" to simply making patterns. The repetition defines the pattern, in its two sections for (a) disgrace and (b) shame, with the theme of sending the memo to Congress providing a cyclic unity, and the tiny size of the vocabulary makes it so that none of the words has much of any information value (strictly, in Shannon and Weaver terms), they're just glorious sound existing an und für sich. Gloomy as they might seem considered as words, the lilt and simplicity make the general effect incongrously cheery and warm.

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