Typing with the Left-Hand Blues Again

According to “The QWERTY Effect,” a 2012 study published in something called Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, words that you type predominately with your left hand are associated more frequently with negative emotions. The study concludes that the keyboard is “shaping the meanings of words as people filter language through their fingers.”

I’m not sure about these conclusions, but I have always liked Dallas Wiebe’s experimental story, “Dexter Weaver Serves Breaded Crested Grebe,” which appears in the phenomenal Oulipo Compendium, one of my favorite books of all time. The story, as you might be able to detect from the title, is written using only letters and punctuation found on the left-hand side of the keyboard. Here’s an excerpt:

“dear secret fasters #
easter exacts vast rewards # screw fasts # feasts create a
freer texas # crab rears fast # water bearer deceases # stars
agree a sweet taste averts graves # set feet faster #
sweetwater deserves carvers stabbers eaters carafe drawers
steadfast feeders # wear fast rags at 5 # 2 # 45 caveat
regrets regarded bad#
dexter fred weaver # sweetwater texas”

This is not mere madness (though, so what if it were!) As with many Oulipo writings, the text has a secondary effect (the primary effect is joy, I believe) of linguistic and philosophical commentary.

“Dexter Weaver” argues three things:

1) Language is largely an arbitrary medium of signs that can be manipulated and constrained for  a variety of silly effects, causing it to crater back in on itself, reminding the reader of its material properties and its tenuous connection to the external world.

2) Technology affects language. Writing with pen and paper is different from typing. Whether or not the emotional effects of the study above are true, there is little doubt that the medium massages the message. It’s nice to be reminded that our devices contribute to the meaning of a text as much as the intentions in our heads. Language is also one of those devices.

3) Literary texts gain their aesthetic qualities not from magic and emotion, but instead from constraint, form, repetition, and limitation. Read “Dexter Weaver” out loud. It sounds rich and poetic (and maybe insane). Its musical qualities are derived from the form. The writer is forced to repeat “e” and “a” vowels (the way in which an Italian poet is forced to repeat the same two rhyming sounds at the ends of first eight lines of a sonnet), as well as a restricted list of consonants. Music in poetry comes from repetition, from words echoing each other, building up resonance, then shifting away, then returning. Look at the closing paragraph of James Joyce’s short masterful story “The Dead” and listen to his use of the letters “s” and “l” for example (those of you trained to be anti-adverb drones should look away):

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Music is not freedom. It’s freedom struggling against constraint. This is why, to my ears, the truly “free jazz” of John Coltrane (think Ascension) is mere noise compared to his work that came before and after (A Love Supreme or Interstellar Space, to cite my favorites), when his aggressive, wrenching saxophone was attempting to break free from notes and melody. Once he finally did break free, a fundamental necessity of making music (form) was gone.

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1 Comment

  1. Just One Of Your Students

     /  March 13, 2013

    Sexaphone.

    Reply

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