Tom McCarthy 1 jan 2000

The Generative Crash (1)

Emulation in a Literary Context

This paper is called 'The Generative Crash: Emulation in a Literary Context.' What do I mean by 'generative'? Simple: generation is the means by which something is created, by methods natural or artificial - the process through which something is produced, reproduced, replicated, emulated.

What is emulation? The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'emulate' as 'to imitate with the object of equalling or excelling; to vie with, rival'; indeed, the word comes from the latin aemulus, rival; it appears in Hamlet as an adjective meaning 'ambitious'. It also, as you all probably know much better than I, denotes a phenomenon within the world of software and computing: the ability of a program or device to imitate another program or device, to trick a pc into thinking it's a mac or vice versa - or a BBC Micro, an Atari or a ZX Spectrum. This is to overcome not only incompatability but also obsolescence: emulation makes us able to run programs designed for machines long added to the junkyard of technological progress, to play old games and access old documents. It has a curatorial function.

Hiding, or only half-hiding, behind the term 'emulation' is another, 'simulation'. To simulate, the OED informs us, is 'to assume falsely the appearance or signs of; to counterfeit, imitate; (in biology) to mimic'. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard founds his whole oeuvre on the concept: simulation, he claims, is 'a copy without an original', 'an imitation of something that is not real'. Arjen Mulder, in his excellent essay Trancemedia: from Simulation to Emulation, points out that even Baudrillard cannot entirely dispense with the notion of the real, however: it remains inextricably present within simulation, 'albeit in negative form'. For Mulder, if we want to understand both simulation and emulation, we must first understand media:

Media, considered as an autonomous sphere, are not out to inform; what they create in their users is not informedness, knowledge or insight, but transport, ecstasy - hot or cool - hypnosis. Trance.

While simulation is this mode of trance, emulation, being 'the only means the computer has of safeguarding its own history now that one antique carrier and format after the other is disappearing', is

the manner in which the posthistoric computer generation keeps its trances available in order to experience them all, to be able to keep becoming them all.

Emulation, I want to suggest, this synthesising process through which trances of mimicry, of imitation are preserved and re-entered, generated and regenerated, is, has been and will remain crucial to Western literature, both as praxis and as theme.

Where better to start than the Renaissance - the great cultural 're-birth' in which Europe rediscovered the main templates of its own antiquity and carried them forwards in a giant surge of convergence? Three classical authors who acquired particular importance in this period were Plato, Aristotle and Ovid, and each of these proposes a different model for generation, especially in the field of art and poetry. For Plato, poetic representation, being no more than an imitation of the natural which is itself a mere reflection of the ideal, stands at third remove from what is real, really real. The less abstract Aristotle is a kind of proto-structuralist: for him, poetry and drama work because they're stylised, coded formats which, when run in front of audiences who inhabit the same landscape of allusion (and illusion), generate fear, pity, catharsis and so on. Ovid, a practitioner rather than a theorist, sings not of reproduction or of coded enactments but rather of transformation. He spells this out in the first line of his Metamorphoses: I am moved to sing of bodies in a state of transformation. Statues become living women, women become artificial cows who copulate with real bull-gods to produce hybrid minotaurs, men become birds who crash into the sea. Metamorphoses is an inventory, an almanac of transformations which, while often violent and horrific, invariably produce what Shakespeare, massively indebted to Ovid, would, when having Aerial sing of Alonso's underwater transformation in The Tempest, call 'something rich and strange'.

Miguel de Cervantes was intimately familiar with Ovid's work, and with that of Aristotle, Plato, Horace, Cato, Plutarch and a host of other classical authors he mentions directly in his enormous novel Don Quixote. It is not this body of texts, however, with which Cervantes's book is directly concerned, but rather a more recent one: the chivalric fiction popular in Spain in the late sixteenth century. The premise of Don Quixote is very simple: a gentleman of leisure named Quixada or Quesada spends his time reading books of knight-errantry, so much so that he neglects to care for his estate; indeed, he even sells 'many acres of arable land' to purchase more of these books. Initially Quixada plans to become an author and add to the genre works of his own; eventually, however, he identifies so strongly with the stories that

A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination; and now his head was full of nothing but enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, complaints, amours, torments, and abundance of stuff and impossibilities; insomuch, that all the fables and fantastical tales which he read seemed to him now as true as the most authentic histories.

Donning a rusty suit of armour that doesn't fit, Quixada renames his lame horse Rozinante. For himself he chooses the grand title Don Quixote de la Mancha. As he sets out on 'adventures' which consist of mimicking or imitating his various heroes' exploits, he plays himself a soundtrack pieced together from the imagery and rhetorical register of knight-errant novels:

I cannot but believe, he said to himself, that when the history of my famous achievements shall be given to the world, the learned author will begin it in this very manner, when he comes to give an account of this my early setting out: "Scarce had the ruddy-coloured Phoebus begun to spread the golden tresses of his lovely hair over the vast surface of the earthly globe, and scarce had those feathered poets of the grove, the pretty painted birds, tuned their little pipes, to sing their early welcomes in soft melodious strains to the beautiful Aurora? when the renowned Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, disdaining soft repose, forsook the voluptuous down, and mounting his famous steed Rozinante?'"

Don Quixote, as it soon becomes apparent to everyone he meets, is mad. But his madness consists of a generic tension, a tension between genres, a collision even. Don Quixote is a perfect example of Marshall McLuhan's dictum that the content of a new medium is the previous medium. What this first 'modern', sophisticated novel frames is the older, simpler genre of knight-errantry. McLuhan's formula is true - and yet it's not the whole truth. The essence of Cervantes's book resides in a kind of system failure: Quixada-Quixote interprets literally what was meant to function as metaphor or allegory. In search of authenticity, he executes the codes of the old program as actions within the new. To put it the other way round, the old program, carried forward into a new system, malfunctions. But it is this very malfunction, or system failure, or crash, that generates the scope and landscape of the new work: it is disastrous, but it is creative too. Quixote's very actions reinscribe the failure, this paradoxically creative disaster. He would look ridiculous enough if he managed to mimic chivalric acts succesfully, but he keeps screwing up: as he charges at a group of merchants from Toledo whom he takes for enemy knights, Rozinante stumbles; Don Quixote crashes to the ground; prevented by the weight of all his armour from getting up again, he lies there while the merchants beat him half dead with his own broken lance. This type of slapstick reoccurs throughout the book: he keeps tripping over, bumping into things and getting battered; he keeps going back for more.

Don Quixote is more than simply mad: he is entranced. His slide from Quixada to Quixote is a slide into both simulation and emulation. When his friends the curate and the barber try to treat his madness, they go not to his bedside but to his library: that's where his trances are all kept available. There's a long chapter in which they analyse its contents with Quixote's housekeeper. They want to burn the lot, but keep reprieving books whose merit they find undeniable. The Mirror of Knighthood, for example, 'contains something of the famous Boyardo's invention, out of which the Christian poet Ariosto also spun his web', and Palmerin of England should be 'preserved as a singular relic of antiquity; and let such a costly box be made for him, as Alexander found among the spoils of Darius, which he devoted to enclose Homer's works'; of The Tears of Angelica the barber says:

I should have wept had I caused such a book to share the condemnation of the rest; for the author was not only one of the best poets in Spain, but in the whole world, and translated some of Ovid's fables with extraordinary success.

Their role as destroyers turns into a new one as curators. Cervantes executes a clever double-manoeuvre here. As with Quixote's farcical misreadings, he manages to signal the intertextual kinship between generations of literature while at the same time enacting the downfall of a genre: while the barber and curate go off to feed Don Quixote, still deliberating over each work's fate, the housekeeper burns the entire library. This, far from curing Don Quixote, fuels his madness, convincing him that Freston the enchanter from Don Belianis of Greece has come on a dragon and spirited the books away, leaving only smoke; he resolves to take revenge. Again, the disaster is creative, generating more delirious landscape. It's not until several hundred pages later that, lying on his deathbed, Don Quixote renounces the delirium, dictates his will, then dies.

Cervantes himself died on the 23rd of April, 1616, on the same day - not the same date but the same day - as Shakespeare. The two men's work shows strongly shared preoccupations: ''The Tempest'''s Prospero has, like Quixote, let his lands slip from him by burying himself in books. After his brother emulates him politically by usurping his crown back in Naples, he goes off and emulates - imitates, equals and excels - that earthly kingdom by creating a magic one whose air is full of music and spirits. Prospero's trance is general, not sollipsistic like Quixote's, covering his whole island home and captivating everyone whose boat crashes on it. Like Quixote, though, he turns his back on it eventually and shuts it down, declaring that 'our revels now are ended'.

Several of Shakespeare's plays rehearse these themes, but it is his sonnet sequence that most interests me here. The Sonnets are obsessed with generation, with the need to preserve and copy data which is both genetic and aesthetic - the beautiful face of the young man to whom most of them are addressed - against the entropic ravages of time. The basic starting argument can best be seen in Sonnet 12:

''When I do count the clock that tells the time,

And see the brave day sunk in hideous night,

When I behold the violet past prime,

And sabled curls all silvered o'er with white;

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,

Which erst from heat did canopy the herd

And summer's green all girded up in sheaves

Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard:

Then of thy beauty do I question make

That thou among the wastes of time must go,

Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,

And die as fast as they see others grow,

And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence

Save breed to brave him, when he takes thee hence.''

Time kills beauty, but nature lets us reproduce it. As Shakespeare writes in Venus and Adonis,

''Seeds spring from seeds and beauty breedeth beauty;
Thou wast begot: to get it is thy duty.''

The problem is, as we learn right in Sonnet 1, that the young man doesn't want to perform his duty by procreating:

''But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel?''

In refusing to produce an heir, the young man, like Prospero and Quixote, is neglecting land, 'making a famine where abundance lies'. In Sonnet 3 the poet warns the young man that

''if thou live remembered not to be,

Die single and thine image dies with thee.''

He repeats this warning in Sonnet 11: nature, he says,

''carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby,

Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.''

The metaphor he uses here is a mechanical one: having a child is like printing a copy of a seal carved by an artisan. Another artisanal thread can be found back in Sonnet 5, and takes the form of distillation:

''were not summer's distillation left

A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass

Beauty's effect with beauty were bereft,

Not it nor no remembrance what it was.

But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,

Lose but their show; their substance still lives sweet.''

If you extract perfume from a flower, you safeguard its essence, to be smelt and re-smelt long after the flower is dead. In the next sonnet, the walls of glass become a womb, the essence sperm.

The early sonnets, then, all urge the young man to reproduce his beauty naturally, by breeding - albeit using language borrowed from specific artificial processes. In Sonnet 15, however, there's a sudden shift. The poet tells the young man that:

''all in war with Time for love of you,

As he takes from you, I engraft you new.''

What does he mean, 'engraft'? Grafting is placing a shoot from one plant (usually a dying one) into a slit within another so that the host plant, tricked into thinking that the shoot is native to it, will support it while it grows and flourishes. In a word, emulation, in the strict computing sense of the word. What Shakespeare actually means, as the next sonnet makes clear, is that by writing about the young man he can regenerate his beauty: his artifice can rival and excel nature - emulation in its lay, dictionary sense. This is made crystal clear in Sonnet 18: the young man cannot be compared to a summer's day, because a summer's day - and summer itself - ends;

''But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,

Nor shall death brag thou wandrest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st.''

The 'eternal lines' are the lines of the poem, about which Shakespeare boasts:

''So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.''

It's interesting to note in passing how this sonnet sets up and confounds the generic Petrarchan conceit, in which the poet is supposed to list the ways in which his loved one and another subject of his choice are similar. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? No. Here again, a system failure which, paradoxically, creates a new mode, a whole new poetic landscape.

Shakespeare comes to conceive the Sonnets''' texts themselves, then, as an emulative library - emulative in both senses. Both marble and the gilded monuments of princes will crumble and fall, he states in Sonnet 55, but you shall live forever in 'this powerful rhyme'. Within this framework, though, several graftings and regraftings occur. In Sonnet 31'' the friends the poet has lost over the years are stored up and safeguarded in the young man:

''Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts

Which I by lacking have supposed dead,

And there reigns love and all love's loving parts,

And all those friends which I thought buried?''

In Sonnet 53 the young man's face curates cultural antiquity, and vice versa:

''Describe Adonis and the counterfeit

Is poorly imitated after you,

On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,

And you in Grecian tires are painted new?''

'Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn?In him those holy antique hours are seen', claims Sonnet 68, before proceeding to renounce all artifice and skill in favour of the very nature that's previously been rejected as inferior:

''And him as for a map doth Nature store,

To show false Art what beauty was of yore.''

We seem to have come full circle. In the Sonnets, emulation works in all directions: natural to artificial, past to future, present to near and distant past and any combination of all the above and more. It is this constant oscillation, plus the scope and richness of their language - not to mention its sheer force - which makes them, now as much as ever, such astonishing pieces of literature.

See for continuation of this text: The Generative Crash (2)