Ulysses, Wilde, and a Theory of Literary Compression

“He looked at the cattle, blurred in silver heat. Silvered powdered olive trees. Quiet long days: pruning ripening. Olives are packed in jars, eh? I have a few left from Andrews…

A cloud began to cover the sun wholly slowly wholly. Grey. Far. No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea… Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain.”

Ulysses, 4.200-221

An introduction to this text can be found here.

The mobilization of Ulysses and Earnest is purposefully audacious and inevitably missteps. The overarching tone, and parts of the analysis, I would characterize as understandably wrong.


Text, Telos, and Ritual

I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound
To the memories of yesterday’s clouds
I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound
And now I’m set free
I’m set free to find a new illusion

— “I’m Set Free,” The Velvet Underground

“As time goes on… the universe becomes more and more what experience has revealed, less and less what imagination has created, and hence, since it was not designed to suit man’s needs, less and less what he would have it be. With increasing knowledge his power to manipulate his physical environment increases, but in gaining the knowledge which enables him to do so he surrenders insensibly the power which in his ignorance he had to mold the universe.”

— Joseph Wood Krutch


A Few Types of Literary Compression

“And I said to Mabel, I said, ‘computational aesthetics, super-short. Jürgen Schmidhuber’s Theory Jürgen Schmidhuber, an AI theorist and theoretical computer scientist, has proposed a computational account of aesthetic judgments. In his view, a stimulus is judged to be beautiful or attractive by a subject T to the extent that the stimulus is compressible for T. Schmidhuber’s notion of compressibility is taken from algorithmic information theory, but concerns actual rather than ideal compression: it refers to the actual # of bits in T’s mental representation of the stimulus, bounded and fallible as T may be. Beholden to the limitations of T’s computational resources, two kinds of stimuli should be the most compressible: stimuli with evident internal structure (e.g. fractals or a chessboard), and stimuli with noticeable similarities to stimuli already stored in T’s history (e.g. English words or a the sight of a friend’s face). Experimental psychology supports both a preference for stimuli with internal patterns and a preference for stimuli with a similarity to past stimuli.”

— Peli Grietzer, Amerikkkkka


Generic Fit

“This makes the pop song an indispensable mirror: The way in which a listener imposes himself upon the text, or transforms the text from generic to specific, shows that listener something about himself. He learns his yearnings, his sadnesses, his loves; he recognizes an emotional life which is otherwise elusive, and solidifies in time an emotional state which is otherwise ephemeral.”


Chekhov’s Gun and Red Herrings: Meaning, Rules, and Transgression in Storytelling


“If I think of somebody telling a story, I see a group of people huddled together, and around them a vast space, quite frightening.”  — John Berger

It’s probably important to start off by quickly distinguishing  between a “story” and “literature,” at least in a way that is, if not universally true, at least instrumentally valuable. Literary works often include one or more stories — did, almost always, until the twentieth century — which are used as starting points to launch all sorts of philosophical investigations into language, morals, structure, society, politics, and human behavior. Storytelling meanwhile (which will be the focus of this essay) refers to that tradition passed down from campfires and Aesop and early human history, where plot is the dominant element and engagement the primary end. Parable can occur too but is secondary, something that happens along the way or is woven in the with the narrative. The relationship between storytelling and literature then, at least as conceived here, is a spectrum between plot-driven and idea-driven texts, where the each tradition prioritizes one end more than the other. Some might simplify the narrative end of “engagement” to “entertainment,” but this strikes me as reductive — the Berger quote above illustrates a way in which engaging storytelling builds almost an abstract shelter for early man, an inner space in which structure engenders a desirable sensation of safety, predictability, and teleological meaning far removed from some “frightening,” meaningless, and ostensibly chaotic outer world.

Good storytelling is certainly an art, and all art forms develop principles or rules which, when followed, improve an artist’s odds of making a meaningful product. Art is consequentialist in this way — it isn’t an adherence to the rules itself which makes good art, it’s just that certain techniques, approaches, or decisions lend themselves to higher rates of artistic success. Chekhov’s Gun is one such narrative principle, a piece of advice popularized by the playwright Anton Chekhov, which counsels that all notable objects or details in a story should somehow contribute to its plot: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This is arguably part of a larger principle of compressed or economic storytelling, where every event, character — basically every word and paragraph — goes to work in some meaningful, valuable, and irreplaceable way in developing a narrative or else keeping the reader engaged. In a broad sense, even elements like character development are merely means towards shuttling the reader from the first to last page of a story: