When I was building #dwitd, I decided to build a companion piece based on the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom—because those are the two texts I’m juxtaposing in my (still unwritten) essay.¹ (There’s a link to this new thing below.)
The core of Sade’s work is a list of 600 “passions”—his term for transgressive sexual activity—four lists of 150 passions each, ranged under the headings “simple,” “complex,” “criminal,” and “murderous.” The first list is presented as a series of stories, but the circumstances of composition² prevented him from embedding the subsequent lists in a narrative—so they’re just lists, which makes them easy to browse (though the content sometimes makes them difficult to browse).
There’s a significant amount of narrative that sets up the relating of the 600 passions—settings set; characters introduced; rules, regulations, timetables, and punishments pronounced—but the bit that is significant to this project is the following explanation of ‘libertine refinement,’ which occurs almost immediately before the commencement of the main action:
“As for the diversity, it is authentic, you may be sure of it; study closely that passion which to your first consideration seems to perfectly resemble another, and you will see that a difference does exist and that, however slight it may be, it possesses precisely that refinement, that touch which distinguishes and characterizes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.”
So, tiny differences are the source of great pleasure—at least for more advanced libertines. This is, in my reading, the guiding principle of The 120 Days, the thing that dictates the logic of the lists. Maybe you already see why it doesn’t work, but for me, it took this entry, number 40 on the list of criminal passions:
“He fucks a goat in the nostrils which meanwhile is licking his balls; and during this exercise, he is alternately flogged and has his asshole licked.”
The first time I read this, I thought—well, which nostril? Does he pick one, or go back and forth? If he alternates, which nostril does he start with? What if the goat chews on his balls instead, or screams? Is the goat male or female? What color is it? What breed is it? And as far as the bit after the semicolon, well…
Let’s do a little math: there are four choices with regard to nostril, two with regard to the sex of the goat, and three actions (that I’ve listed) for the goat: 4 * 3 * 2 = 24 variations on this one entry. If we take into account the breed and coloration of the goat, other things the goat might be doing, and the dozens of possibilities for things happening to the man “during this exercise,” there are tens of thousands of variations.
Tens of thousands of variations on a single “passion,” and each one—according to the logic of the text—”possesses precisely that refinement” that produces pleasure for those advanced in libertinage. But Sade’s text collapses this profusion of passions into a single entry, and moves briskly on.
I built “he [blanks] a goat in the nostrils” (#hbgn) to illustrate the impossibility of Sade’s project—or, if not “impossibility,” at least the irresolvable tension between the text’s guiding principle and its rigid division and enumeration of libertine passions. I wanted to show both the huge amounts of variation possible within a particular format, and how boring those variations actually are—despite the appalling violence and unbelievable amounts of coprophagia, The 120 Days is relentlessly monotonous.
I wasn’t sure how to show that, though, until I found this macro for producing cycling links. The game (after a content warning) is just one screen, initially containing the text “he fucks a goat in the nostrils while it licks his balls while he is flogged” [noun, verb, noun, prepositional phrase, noun, conjunction, noun, verb, possessive pronoun, noun, conjunction, pronoun, verb phrase]. Thirteen moving parts, as it were—some with only a few choices, and some with many—out of which innumerable variations³ on a particular grammatical construction of a particular sex act can be constructed.
It is, I hope, both transgressive and boring, with occasional moments of genuine surprise:
2. Sade wrote the 120 Days while imprisoned in the Bastille, over the course of about five weeks, in a tiny script on a twelve-meter scroll of paper. It was lost when the Bastille was stormed—Sade had been transferred out about ten days beforehand—and though it was later recovered unharmed, Sade never saw it again, and never attempted to reconstruct it.
3. Well, not really “innumerable”: if I’ve done the math right, there are just under 76 billion grammatically-correct combinations. That number grows to 303 (and a half) billion if we ignore pronoun agreement rules, and 26 (and a half) trillion (American trillions) combinations if we ignore grammatical correctness altogether. This last number is what #hbgn is actually capable of producing, which is astounding.
First, a few things about the game itself:
I refer to “dirty words in the Dictionary” (hereafter #dwitd) as a game, although it lacks one of the more important features of games: it can’t be won or lost (maybe this makes it not-a-game; I don’t really care). Play continues as long as the player has patience.
#dwitd is an exploration of the gaps, omissions, lacunae, and loops in the definitions of sex-and-sex-related words in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. It is, literally, the Twine-enabled equivalent of flipping through a dictionary—and, like that activity, it is potentially endless.¹ Beginning with either fornication or debauchery, players “look up” the words used to define other words, building—at least ostensibly—a fuller picture of what it means to “commit lewdness.” Not every word in every definition is an active link to a new entry: only those words that I thought important to the task at hand have their own entry/passage.
#dwitd contains 73 playable passages, 69 of which are entries from the Dictionary; some passages contain multiple, related words. “CORRUPT,” for example, includes the definitions for three senses of that word (active [transitive] verb, neutral [intransitive] verb, adjective) as well as “corruption”—and it lists, but does not define, eight other derivatives of corrupt. Whore, sensual, and lewd are also compound entries. The entries themselves are quoted directly from Johnson’s Dictionary (which is why he gets an author credit). I’ve omitted the etymological notes and the example quotations (with one exception), and sometimes omitted some of a word’s definitions. (I’ve retained the order of the included definitions, but the numbers don’t always match the numbers in the Dictionary.)
There are four words for which I’ve made the subtext explicit (under a horizontal rule, in a different font)—and, with two of these, I’ve made leaps that aren’t strictly permitted by the game’s internal logic: from sex to genitals, and from genitals to castration. With the first, I just wanted to include genitals—but the second leap was suggested by the supporting quotation included with genitals (the only one I included, and I included the fuller quote from which Johnson [or his source] edited the example).
So, why did I make this thing?
I’m working on a conference-paper-draft-of-a-dissertation-chapter about Johnson’s Dictionary and Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I’m arguing (at least at this point) that each of those texts works against its own organizing principle. Here’s part of the abstract:
In the Preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson writes that the lexicographer’s task is cultivation: he ‘toils’ to “remove rubbish and clear obstructions,” tending the language in order to preserve and prolong its earlier state of undefiled perfection. The Dictionary is, according to its compiler, an attempt to regulate and control an otherwise dangerously fecund and indiscriminate tongue. But in practice it is something else, containing as it does a number of “obsolete,” “low,” “vulgar,” and “cant” words; the lexicographer allows the language to remain defiled.
Sade’s 120 Days is structured, like the Dictionary, as a list: 600 perverse sexual “passions” are equally distributed under four major headings. But its ‘preface’ describes proliferation instead of pruning: it is the minute differences between two sexual acts that contain “precisely that refinement … which characterizes and distinguishes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.” The text works against its stated principle, however: with only 600 slots to fill, multiple variations on the same act are limited, and the ‘refinement’ necessary to pleasure is foreclosed. Indeed, where the lists are most in line with Sade’s theory of libertinage, they are the most monotonous.
Elsewhere in the abstract I write that I want to “read the Dictionary as erotica,” and that’s what #dwitd is an attempt to do.
It all began with the definition of “fornication”: to “commit lewdness.” Well, what’s lewdness? and what are lustfulness, and libidinousness? The Dictionary circles around “the physical act of love” without ever candidly defining it (even the words penis and vagina are absent). This circling can certainly be read as reticence and propriety on Johnson’s part, but it can also be read as lexicographic foreplay, a definitional tease-and-denial game. That’s the reading #dwitd foregrounds: clicking through the looping and intertwined definitions might be enjoyable (or not), but it offers no sense of closure or completion—there is no clear place to stop.²
I have no idea if the game is “fun” or not; I can’t play it for more than a few minutes at a time, but I also find myself clicking through it for no real reason. I built it as a way of visually organizing the connections between the words, because trying to sketch it on paper was insufficient. That didn’t quite work: with 73 passages and 228 connections, it’s hard to parse as a diagram:
[Also, Twine doesn’t count multiple links between passages: so debauch, for example, is only connected to corrupt and intemperate once each, despite each word appearing five times in the definitions for debauch and its forms.]
In the course of building #dwitd, though, I realized that a clearly parseable word-web isn’t really what I wanted; the image above is about as clear as I want things, because the game—like the dictionary—is something to get lost in.
1. With one exception: there is one word which doesn’t loop back into the others; finding that word is as close to a win (or loss) as #dwitd gets. There’s also one—I think just one—unescapable loop (unless one deploys one’s browser’s ‘back’ button).
2. Again, with the exception mentioned in the first footnote. This is an exception I may remove in a future revision, though I also like that the only word offering closure is a bit of a disappointment.
To be or not to be … that is the adventure!
Monday was devoted to an in-class read-through of Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be. A read-through and a half, actually: after successfully killing Claudius as the ghost of Hamlet Sr., we played a bit as Ophelia (stopping somewhere around Hamlet’s fouling of his stockings). It was fun, and interesting to see what choices the students made—and their choices were often nearly unanimous, which surprised me.
Also on Monday, I gave them a post-paper cool-down assignment, due Friday: find a picture, and describe it in
a thousand five hundred words. I haven’t read these yet, but most of them said on Friday that it was fairly difficult—perhaps because they didn’t choose images based on how easy it would be to write about them.
Wednesday was a bad day. I was being observed by one of the writing program’s senior faculty, who’s tasked with overseeing the grad students teaching writing. (She’s very nice, and this is the fifth semester we’ve worked together in this capacity. She’s a bit unsure about the CYOA approach I’m taking, but still very supportive.) The students came unprepared—all but one or two forgot the book I’d asked them to bring, which we needed for the paragraph-coherence exercise I had planned. I improvised, using Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” instead of student writing, and it did not work. They were completely disengaged—several students were reading for other classes, one was surfing the internet, several were about to fall asleep… it was a bad day, and I’m done talking about it.
…except to say that the students played a few rounds of Five Card Flickr, except with cards from the first Cards Against Humanity set.
Friday went pretty well, I guess. I assigned their second paper—an analysis of a contemporary cultural phenomenon, written as an outline (to emphasize structure and organization)—and we talked about it, briefly. We talked about the “worth a thousand words” assignment, and I had them describe a few of the images in far fewer words (15; 10; 5).
Then we returned to To Be Or Not To Be, and I had them spend fifteen or twenty minutes, in groups, mapping part of the book. I started them, as Ophelia, at the moment when she and Hamlet are trying to decide how to kill Claudius: stabbing, drowning, blasting into space (they settle for a hot air balloon, and he first suffocates and then plummets to earth), and a CYOA-book-within-a-CYOA-book. Each of the four groups had a different branch—Hamlet and Ophelia have different, diverging plans for drowning, so nobody got “blast him into space.”
I’m planning to map, as a class, a different section of the book on Monday—Ophelia and Gertrude’s “to the death” chess match, probably—and that will probably be the end of that. My hope is that these exercises are helping them think about structure and organization in a slightly different way, and that this will result in better outline-papers. We’ll see.
Now, I have to finish grading their first papers, so that I can hand back at least part of the growing pile of student work on my desk.
Most of this week was devoted to the first paper, which was due today. The students brought rough drafts on Wednesday for peer review—which actually worked pretty well, for once—and Friday’s class was cancelled so that I could hold individual conferences.
Monday was our only “fun” day; I introduced the students to the “choose your own adventure” genre—only one of the fifteen had read them as a child, which sort of surprised me. I gave them a brief lecture on the history of the genre (Edward Packard, Sugarcane Island, RA Montgomery, Bantam’s CYOA series and spinoffs, Scholastic’s short-lived knockoff, French experimental literature from the early 1960s, &c). I showed off my recently-acquired ex-library book-club edition of The Third Planet From Altair (from 1979, before it was re-issued as CYOA #7).
Then I had the students form groups of three—which required more prodding than I expected, especially considering it’s not the first time I’ve done it—and gave each group a CYOA novel out of my private library (which sounds pretentious as hell, for some reason) (the novels were The Abominable Snowman, The Perfect Planet, The Island of Time, Journey Under the Sea, and Twistaplot’s Secrets of the Lost Island, if you were curious). The students spent most of class mapping the texts; they noticed the preponderance of unhappy endings, the outsize consequences of minor decisions, and the relatively simple branching structure that defines the genre (or these examples of it, anyway).
To end the class, I showed them this map of The Third Planet From Altair (which I found by googling the name of the book)—I could have given it to them as a guide, since it’s what I wanted them to do, but I think/hope they learned a bit more by fumbling with the task for a bit. Then, to give them a sense of the complexity of To Be Or Not To Be—which we started today!—I showed them this:
…which is totally nuts.
This has been a hectic and unproductive week for me—but it’s been a good week of classes.
Monday opened with some syllabus planning: the students decided to postpone our reading of To Be Or Not To Be—a book I am super-excited about—until after their first paper is due (the Monday of week five), and to put off their individual paper conferences until the Thursday and Friday before (so that we won’t have class on Friday, of course). Not major choices, but not minor ones either.
We talked about the review as a genre—I had to do some coaxing, but we compiled a list of common features (a “hook-y” opening paragraph, some short plot summary near the front, limited use of first and second person, no “I recommend” sentences, &c). Hopefully this will improve their papers—we’ll see how much they incorporate into their own writing. I tried to get them to talk about Fish’s How to Write a Sentence one last time—his division of sentence styles into “subordinating” and “additive” is intuitive and workable, and applicable to writing at all scales. They were unconvinced.
Lastly, we talked about the xkcd assignment a final time (last Wednesday, when they turned it in, we mostly talked about how they felt about writing it). I’d read and commented on all of them, and noticed that most of them were either totally implausible, or totally plausible, but very few managed to be both at the same time. (One that came close was about the civilization under the ice in Antarctica, built by NASA under Nixon; another was about the Coriolis effect necessitating rounded bullets.) I told them why I hate CARS—its premise is so totally implausible that I can’t even begin to suspend disbelief.
Wednesday we talked about three reviews of Man of Steel—in the New York Times, in WIRED, and at HitFix—that they’d read as homework. Our discussion of their responses to these reviews went well, and I hope it clarified for the students what things a review can be and do. Less useful was the “turn these reviews into outlines by taking the most important sentence of each paragraph” exercise—partly because I’d explained it by email, probably not clearly enough, and partly because only Dargis’s review worked that way. I talked a little about coherence in paragraphs, but that’s something we’ll have to return to.
The second half of Wednesday’s class was a bit more fun. I showed them this:
…and asked them to tell me how to draw it. Then I showed them this:
Alan Moore; script for page 1, panel 8 of The Killing Joke
NOW WE ARE LOOKING AT THE POLICE CAR SIDE-ON SO THAT WE SEE THE UNIFORMED OFFICER STANDING FACE-ON TO US OVER ON THE LEFT AS HE STANDS WITH HIS BACK TO THE CAR AND COMMISSIONER GORDON FACE-ON OVER TO THE RIGHT, LEANING AGAINST THE CAR AND DRINKING HIS STEAMING COFFEE, MAYBE LOOKING UP WITH A QUIZZICAL AND CONCERNED LOOK OVER THE RIM OF HIS CUP TOWARDS THE EXTREME LEFT OF THE FOREGROUND, WHERE WE CAN SEE THE BATMAN ENTERING THE PICTURE FROM THE LEFT, IN PROFILE. SINCE BATMAN IS (a) CLOSER TO US AND (b) TALLER THAN EITHER THE COMMISSIONER OR THE PATROLMAN IN THE BACKGROUND WE CANNOT SEE THE TOP OF HIS HEAD HERE ABOVE THE BOTTOM OF THE NOSE AS THE FRONT OF HIM ENTERS THE PANEL ON THE LEFT. HIS EYES AND UPPER HEAD ARE INVISIBLE BEYOND THE TOP PANEL BORDER AND ALL WE CAN REALLY SEE IS HIS MOUTH, WITH THE BIG AND DETERMINED SQUARE JAW AND THE GRIM AND DISAPPROVING SCOWL OF THE LIPS. THE BATMAN DOES NOT APPEAR FROM HIS POSTURE TO SO MUCH AS GLANCE AT EITHER GORDON OR THE PATROLMAN AS HE WALKS PAST THEM EVEN THOUGH BOTH OF THEM STEAL GLANCES AT HIM WITH DIFFERING LOOKS OF UNEASE. THE PATROLMAN LOOKS UNEASY JUST TO BE IN THE BATMAN’S PRESENCE, WHILE GORDON LOOKS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT THE BATMAN’S POSSIBLE STATE OF MIND. RAIN DRIPS FROM EVERYTHING, INCLUDING THE BATMAN’S JUTTING AND GRIZZLED CHIN. GORDON GIVES THE LARGELY-OFF-PANEL VIGILANTE A PENETRATING LOOK OVER HIS COFFEE CUP, AND THE BLUE LIGHT ATOP THE CAR WASHES OVER ALL OF THEM AS IT CIRCLES.
…and asked them to draw it. (I’ve done this exercise several times, and stole it from SEK.)
I’m still reading through these; I’ll let you know how they were next week.
For today’s class, the students wrote three summaries of the book/movie they’re reviewing—one at 500-600 words, and two at 100-150 words (one spoiler-y, one not). We talked about their experience writing these for a few minutes, and then I had them write twenty-word summaries, on the spot. I haven’t read any of these yet, obviously—summaries are on the docket for next week.
We spent a big chunk of today’s class playing Five Card Flickr. We voted on which photos to use, and collaborated on the stories—we did two of them, neither of which ever really cohered, but they were wonderful and ridiculous and kind of violent. The students all seemed involved, even the ones who don’t talk much, which was nice. A good way to end the week.
The third week is over, and I’m just now writing about the second week. This is an ominous sign.
Monday was lost to Labor Day—nice to have a long weekend, but it has always seemed counter-productive to take the second Monday of the semester off.
Wednesday we diagrammed sentences. I decided to add this exercise after reading this Opinionator piece; I’d intended to practice over the summer, maybe teach my ten-year-old how to diagram, but that didn’t happen. So when I walked in, I sort of knew what I was doing, but not really—and the students knew about as much as I did. In spite of our collective ignorance, class went pretty well: the students were fairly involved—some of them, anyway—which doesn’t always happen for me. I was trying to reinforce some ideas from Fish’s How to Write a Sentence (which the students did not like, btw)—specifically the idea that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships—but I’m not sure how much of that I got across. We’ll probably diagram some more sentences later, if/when I have clearer idea how to do it.
Friday … what did we do on Friday? *consults notes* Wait, apparently we diagrammed sentences on Friday, not Wednesday … so what did we do Wednesday? *consults other notes*
Oh, right. Wednesday I tried to get them talking about a number of things—the rhetorical triangle, their introductory emails, the xkcd assignment, How to Write a Sentence … I did most of the talking, I think, which rarely makes for a good class. I did find out that they perceived the “introductory email” assignment as “casual,” which surprised me. I’d intended it to be a bit intimidating—I gave them very little direction, just “send me an email introducing yourself,” and I thought that would be anxiety-producing (but, you know, in a good way). Of course, I’d also told them the story of getting thrown out of college the first time I was an undergrad, so…
Finally, I assigned their first paper—a book or movie review—and had them hunt down three example reviews. They had varying levels of success with this, corresponding to how closely they were listening when I told them what I wanted. After some editing, we had a list of thirty or so, of which they had to read about a dozen, and which we talked about during the third week.
This happened on Monday:
As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to come up with a writing assignment based on it. So, over their long Labor Day weekend, my students are going to pick a question and answer it. Incorrectly:
Your answer should do two things simultaneously: it should be patently and outrageously false, and it should be as plausible and convincing as possible. Your audience—in this case, your classmates—should know that your answer is totally wrong, but still believe it when they’re done reading.
The full assignment is here; I’ll let you know how it goes.