Culture Magazine

Structural Instability: Two Examples and a Question

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Bumping this to the top of the queue. Why? Because! FUNdaMentAl. 
From The Valve. This post concerns two of my favorite texts, "Kubla Khan" and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And rounds things off with a parallel to music. Complements my slender working paper, 3 Against 2: Splitting the Mind.
Structural instability is one of the things that interests me. What do I mean by structural instability? Consider these lines (17-24) from "Kubla Khan":
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragements vaulted like rebounding hail,
Of chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
We've got eight lines, rhymed as four rhymed couplets (seething-breathing, forced-burst, hail-flail, ever-river), though the rhymes are not all strong, which, of course, is fine. But look at the syntactic organization; we've got three large phrases, each consisting of multiple clauses. The first phrase runs for three lines (17-19), as does the second (20-22), while the last phrase is only two lines long (23-24). Those first two phrases thus correspond to three rhymed couplets. The syntactic grouping is different from, cuts across, the rhyme grouping. That's an example of structural instability.
Here we've got a string of 58 words. And we've got three ways of organizing that string into groups of substrings. First we break it into lines, eight of them. Now we've got to group those lines in units that are themselves smaller than the whole passage. One principle groups lines according to rhyme, another principle groups them according to syntax. These two principles produce different groupings. Hence, the two structural principles work against one another rather than reinforcing one another.
My larger argument about "Kubla Khan" is that there are only two places in the poem where we have this kind of structural instability. The second place is in the second part of the poem, lines 45-48 (as explained in this paper or this online article; see also this bit of intellectual biography, especially Fig. 2). I think that is an important feature of this poem. That is to say, if we want to understand how this poem works, we need to understand that instability.
Another Example: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Let's consider another, and somewhat different, example, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The third part of the poem is organized around events that happen over three days, a series of hunts, courtship encounters, and exchanges. Each of the three days is organized in the same way: 1) Bercilak goes off to hunt, 2) his wife pursue's Gawain, 3) we return to the hunt and finish it, 4) Gawain and Bercilak exchange the days winnings. As you may recall, Gawain doesn't play it straight on the third day. He obtains a green girdle (scarf) from Bercilak's wife -- actually, it's more or less forced upon him, but he doesn't give it to Bercilak at the end of the day. Naughty, naughty.
The fourth part of the poem follows Gawain to the Green Chapel, where he meets his fate at the hand of the Green Knight. The Green Knight takes three wacks at Gawain's neck. The first two miss (for different reasons), while the third nicks Gawain's neck, drawing blood, but doesn't do serious damage. That ends the challenge.
What I find particularly interesting is that the point where the Green Knight explicates the significance of the three blows is one of structural instability in the verse form. Here’s the passage in the Boroff translation (which preserves the elements I’m interested in):
First I flourished with a feint, in frolicsome mood,
And left you hide unhurt—and here I did well
By the fair terms we fixed on the first night;
And fully and faithfully you followed accord:
Gave over all you gains as a good man should.
A second feint, sir, I assigned for the morning
You kissed my comely wife—each kiss you restored.
For both of these there behooved but two feigned blows
              by right.
     True men pay what they owe:
     No danger then in sight.
     You failed at the third throw,
     So take my tap, sir knight.
For that is my belt about you, that same braided girdle,
My wife it was that wore it; I know well the tale,
And the count of your kisses and your conduct too,
And the wooing of my wife—it was all my scheme!

The account of the final blow extends from the end of stanza 94 into the beginning of stanza 95. That’s the only place in the entire poem where a speech runs through the end of one stanza and into the beginning of the next in such a way. That little 5-line rhymed cap and wheel rather definitively finishes a stanza off and each stanza has one, as it’s part of the form. To run through it in that way is really quite extraordinary.
This too is a case of structural instability, and at the climax of the narrative. Two structural principles are at odds with one another. One principle is versification, but I'm not quite sure what to call the other one: semantics, rhetoric, discourse? -- call it discourse. We've run a single discourse unit, a speech, from one stanza to another.
This example is rather different from the "Kubla Khan" examples (and it's not the only example in this text, but that's more exposition than I want to write at the moment). What kinds of structural instability to do have? For example, do we have structural instability in prose fiction? If so, what are the organizational principles that are at cross purposes?
I don't know the answers to those questions. But if you stuck a gun to my head and forced me to address these larger issues on pain of death I'd hazzard the guess structural instability is unbiquitous and that control of structural instability is an important aspect of literary art.
A Musical Analogue
Here's a musical example, from my notes:
I was at the piano working on an arrangement of George Harrison's "Something". I was working on the end of the introduction, where I had a very simple rhythm, quarter note followed by two eights, starting on the first beat of a 4/4 measure and repeated several times. Chords changed on beats 1 and 3. I decided to see what would happen if, instead of holding each chord for 2 beats, I would hold each chord for 3 beats. Thus, starting from the beginning of this section:
beats: 1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4
The 3-beat chords no longer changed in synch with the rhythm pattern, which was built in 2-beat units.
As soon as I played this sequence tears came to my eyes and I got choked up. What caused this emotional reaction? The chords were perfectly ordinary dominant 7th chords in a perfectly ordinary sequence. The rhythm was equally ordinary. What triggered this "opening up" must have been the momentary conflict between the harmonic rhythm and the basis logic of a 4/4 measure. But where did the emotion come from?
This musical example is clearly about the physical; it's about the organization of sound patterns, but also about the organization of the physical motions required to create those patterns. I would argue that the literary examples are also about the physical. To be sure, only one of the two structural principles in each case is about the structure of sound, rhyme in "Kubla Khan," stanza boundary in Sir Gawain. But the other structural principle -- syntax in one case, discourse in the other -- becomes physical in the brain. The neural process that tracks syntactic structure or discourse structure is as physical as the neural process that tracks sound structure.
That's how structural instability has an effect on our experience of the text, though the physical process that the text occasions in the brain. That physical process in the brain is what we experience in the text. But it is invisible to a criticism that privileges meaning.
What to do?

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