Friday, September 06, 2013

Crypticism 1: An introduction to a preoccupation

I've created the term "Crypticism" to describe my current fixation on things that are intentionally, aesthetically incoherent. I don't mean they literally can't be understood... rather, that they push the boundaries of basic comprehensibility. For a couple blog entries, I want to talk about this idea. I know I don't discuss books much, but for at least these entries, I'll be mostly lingering in the realm of literature, with occasional forays into film dialogue.

I like how this word -- "cryptic" -- is connected to the word "crypt," in that both have to do with obscurity and concealment. Here's the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1630s, "hidden, occult, mystical," from Late Latin crypticus, from Greek kryptikos "fit for concealing," from kryptos "hidden" (see crypt). Meaning "mysterious, enigmatic" is recorded from 1920. Related: Cryptically.
It's a strange and amazing analogy... that language is sort of like a cemetery, or a morgue, and that the meaning is the substance that's locked away. The image is totally reversed from our normal picture of language as a device for clarity, communication, and exposure. If, in cryptic language, the meaning is willfully buried, it's because it's lifeless and decaying, a decomposed remnant of what it might have been when it was embodied in vibrant, transparent language.

I don't have to be so Manichean about the whole thing, though... death is not evil, as the Tarot tells us. If we were really to exhume the bodies of our ex-countrymen, we would discover that they've taken on new life... the life of the Earth, with its vermin and bacteria, with its organic evolution of the flesh and the bones and the clothing those bodies were buried in. The "death" of meaning is not so much about its stasis, as it is about its renewal through dissolution. In cryptic language, meaning unfolds from its corporeal shell, returning to the Earth and being resurrected as new raw material.

Cryptic language is not merely a mistake or a trick to conceal incompetence. It is a powerful stylistic tool, a vehicle for flirting with meaning without inflicting the violence of closure. In cryptic language, we can see the borders of a whole world, an interior governed by intimate and alien logics, whose vocabulary only brushes up against consensus. The mode of cryptic language is can be a performance, a misdirection, or a glamour...  a way of preserving mystery and plurality while sculpting meaning... and it can also be ruthlessly authentic beyond any pretense of politeness. The result can be a truly multithreaded text, or it can be an empty shell, a vessel inviting the reader to pour themselves into it.

I've got two types of cryptic language in mind, and hopefully I'll get around to writing about both. The first type is stream-of-consciousness writing, which attempts to access the contents of the mind before it's been structured by language.

The second type of cryptic language I want to discuss is intentionally obscure intellectual exposition, which I've been running across more and more lately. There's probably a whole thesis to write on this topic, as it occurs in postmodern theory, occultism, and at the margins of specialized disciplines. Its use as a stylistic effect is becoming more common, and I don't know of a word that's been invented to describe it.

There are a few particular works that have inspired this little excursion. The first is the iconic, brilliant, hopefully immortal House of Leaves, written by Mark Danielweski. The second is the book I'm just now finishing, Cyclonopedia, which, like HoL, provides some examples of both types of cryptic language. The third is a book I got most of the way through, but didn't quite finish, entitled Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, that (in my reading) is a prime example of stream-of-consciousness writing.

If anybody knows of any writing or studies of language or journal articles that might be relevant, definitely let me know. I'm not an expert on these rhetorical modes, and my musings may be numbingly primitive, or wander far afield of the technical understandings. Still, when I get an idea into my head, I can't help but talk about it. Hope that's okay with everyone.

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