Friday, November 21, 2014

how false, how little authentic



At first this was a comment at Séamus Duggan's Vapour Trails blog but it disappeared when I hit publish or post or whatever that button says and therefore I am going to try to reconstruct it here; or think back on it, more likely, since that was several days ago. I had already been saying something about the childishness of Nagel in Mysteries, the naivete of his attention-getting performances (“performance” from Scott G.F. Bailey in those same comments); the kidlike haphazard cunning that he has, how he would rather confound people with lies than cultivate his reputation steadily and slowly with his violining adult skill: “he switched to a weighty, powerful pathos, a fortissimo passage with the force of a fanfare.”

Musicianship means attainment in ordinary forward-progressing chronological time. He feels disassociated; he assures his audience that the disassociation is part of his own feeling, and the reader is asked to wonder what sincerity means when he says, “If you only knew how false, how little authentic it was! But I made it look very authentic, didn't I?”

Conclude that this disassociation is not meant to be casual, helpless, or simply “a result of” some condition apart from him -- urbanisation, the industrial age, "the modern spirit of Norway" (which Hamsun hates in Look Back on Happiness (1912)) -- since he is working to uphold it with his words and actions.

Not "hapless," as Woods says, unless it is a willed haplessness.

He refuses to be known as a violinist. Instead he wants to live inside a state of being not-known, and committing himself to the, you could even say the word job, of embodying the not-known thing, which, in the work of Arthur Machen (who lived around the same time, born in 1863 and dying in 1947, Hamsun living a little longer, from 1859 to 1952) -- was often a woman or a part-woman transported by uncanny magic into a protoplasmic state of existence. See: The Great God Pan, The Shining Pyramid, The White People, and carry over into the prosaic multisex theatricals of The Three Imposters.

Now that I've mentioned Machen I want to decide that Nagel strives to uphold himself as a protoplasm; nobody knows what he is; and he puts effort into his bad disguises that are typically penetrable, but the penetration is always confusing and never revealing. Nagel keeps the potential for conclusions to himself.

The conclusion of Hamsun's protoplasm is the same as the conclusions of Machen's.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

built in one


I'm going to begin this post with a list of other people who have been writing about Hamsun -- so --

- Séamus at Vapour Trails
- Jean at Howling Frog Books
- Tom at Wuthering Expectations
- Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
- Scott G.F. Bailey at Six Words for a Hat

“A storm of interruptions,” in Wood's description of Hamsun, is also a storm of truncations. What is being truncated? Not the book. A book is never truncated or interrupted. Every mystery is a truncation and the solution at the end is a shot at de-truncation in retrospect. From now on I'm going to have it in my head that Mysteries is called Truncations, or else Interruptus. The seasonal rolling-round chronology described by Hamsun in Growth of the Soil isn't able to be truncated: you can't clip half the winter months out of a year.

Hamsun loves the natural world* but his stories do not behave like nature, like bees or flowers. They behave in an opposite way, and the people in these stories, by virtue of being people, are forced to move around and speak (turning this over in my head after a response to Richard in the comments) -- they are not permitted to be treelike, which, I think, would solve all of their problems, poor muddled lambkins, why not dole out a pat and a hand of grass from the godlike clouds, unless we're enjoying their angst -- see -- for example -- Isak in Growth, that trunkish man, “enormous, with a torso that seems built in one to the knees. A certain pomp and splendour about him; his equator was astounding” (tr. W.W. Worster) -- how elemental he is, and how satisfied, "a worker," and he always acts like one; he is not the narrator in the Wanderer books, who has run away from another life in the city, of some kind.

Is he a philosopher? asks the narrative voice on the first page, is he a criminal? but on the second page the author lets you know that the question doesn't matter. Isak is what he is. He is what he appears to be. “Only a worker, and a hardy one.”

In Mysteries you can spend the whole book asking, "What is this person, who is this man?" but in Growth you are answered and answered: "A tiller of the ground, body and soul; a worker on the land without respite." "Isak could not work a mine, being a farmer and a clearer of forest land." "A broad-shouldered man, well filled out, nothing astral about him at all." He is solid and whole, says the author. Even historically, he is intact. "A ghost risen out of the past to point the future, a man from the earliest days of cultivation, a settler in the wilds, nine hundred years old, and, withal, a man of the day." (Meanwhile the narrator in Hunger is shuddering on the spot. Is he a man of now or then, or only of the moment in which he makes his decisions?)

Hamsun's proactive blocking in fact echoes or mimics the tactics of his own characters. Nagel is still present, but he is the author. You thought I wrote about men who wander? Here is a man who absolutely does not. You thought you knew who I was -- ha --

The book itself, though, comes with the sense of truncation or lacuna; the mining company barges in with its equipment as if it's about to dominate the local naïfs (this set-up has been brewing for a while, with Hamsun dropping hints) but the showdown never happens, the company peters out and wanders off, the farmer keeps going as he must … it's very strange. You think: shouldn't something have happened there?

Nagel and his violin case are figures in a similar trick.

It's people, in Hamsun's books, who are the avatars of truncation. The tremors in Pan begin to spread when Edvarda comes to visit the narrator in his hut at the edge of the forest and afterwards “a breath of something strange met me; it was as though I were no longer alone there.”

From then on people are always popping their heads in. It's like Flinders Street Station in that hut.


* Many examples. Here's one: "I walked through the forest, I was moved to tears of rapture, I kept saying, Dear God, to be here again!" (Under the Autumn Star, tr. Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass). Another: "I thank God for every heather flower I have seen; they have been like tiny roses on my path and I weep for love of them" (Pan, tr. James W. McFarlane).


Saturday, November 1, 2014

not a continuous wave but a storm of interruptions


James Wood, discussing Hamsun in the LRB, compares the behaviour of the protagonists of Hunger, Mysteries and Pan to that of “escaped convicts, these heroes erase their tracks as they proceed, and this seems to be hapless rather than willed: they carry no continuous memory of what they have said or done from scene to scene.” The self is “patched together,” Wood writes, quoting Strindberg, but the word he uses is “soul.” “[Hamsun] took from Strindberg the idea that the soul is not a continuous wave but a storm of interruptions.” Where does Woolf's work fall in that continuum, I wonder, but more pressingly I ask myself why Wood should describe the acts of these characters as the behaviour or experience of souls rather than selves, unless he is thinking of Strindberg's title-in-translation, Growth of a Soul (1914).

 (Myself, if I tried to imagine a soul, I would describe it as a supernature that does not act, it is not decisive and changeful or impressed: it is, as Gormenghast castle essentially is, regardless of its damaged walls, the snow around it, the sun in summer, or other eventualities.)

“Hamsun’s novels of this period, and in particular Hunger, are deliberate perversions of the Christian system of reward and punishment, confession and absolution, pride and humility,” writes Wood, who was raised in an Evangelical household, like Ruskin; his one work of fiction is called The Book Against God (2003), and he sees religion, souls, souls, but I, thinking about Hamsun some more, I see houses; and the narrator of Hunger (1890) is unhoused, the protagonist of Mysteries (1892) has to pay to house himself for a while in a rented room (where he stays in bed during the day and roams around at night but more on that later); and the one in Pan (1894) has troubles with his housing because it doesn't belong to him; then you have the author's dream-travel memoir (1903), you have Knud Pedersen roaming the Norwegian backwoods in the Wanderer books (1906, 1909, 1912); you have this restlessness.

Homes are likes twigs in a stream: they touch and snag the characters, they do not keep them still; even the miller's son who remains in love throughout Victoria (1898) (which makes him unusually steady for Hamsun since the reader always knows what he wants) -- even he will shift from the country to the city and back again several times as if locations make him itch.

By the time Hamsun writes Growth of the Soil in 1917 (why is the translated title so similar to the Strindberg?) the transcendent spirit that represents all of the main characters in his novels is ready to try a different tack. It goes out on the first page into the wilderness and finds a place for a house. “He nods, to say that he has found himself a place to stay and live: ay, he will stay here and live” (tr. W.W. Worster).

But he is still stubborn and not-sensible -- the sensible citizens only come along after he has shown them that it is possible to live here -- the not-sensible protagonists in the earlier books who will do this or that because a whim has told them which way to go are still in the soil-man who stays in one spot, for if he decides to move a rock now then he will move it, and he doesn't know why he feels compelled to say one thing or another; his memory is scaled to seasons rather than humans; it is instinctive feeling rather than thought, and he has no particular background, like the others -- is he an escaped criminal? wonders the narrative voice on page one -- “or a philosopher, maybe, in search of peace”? -- the author suspecting that the reader expects a character to have a chronological background and likewise chronological thoughts -- but refusing to let them have those things, no, they'll have something else.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

you know not, you omniscient nullity



Captain, laughs the audience, we have been allowed to know who is suffering in this scene and it is not you -- thinking like that as they hear the Captain complain to the badgered, haunted Woyeck, “You keep stabbing at me with those eyes of yours.” Woyzeck has been stabbed too; the Doctor pays him to eat nothing but peas and then he assaults him with scientific attention. “It walks upright. Wears coats and pants.”

Doctor examines a cat through his magnifying glass and spots a rabbit louse. Rare new species, he says. I go back to Woolf again, whose self won't stop passing judgment. “And further, there was another prick of the pin: one was wasting one’s chance.” Once she decided in a letter, that “To a person of imagination, Land's End is as impressive as the Equator” (1st of October, 1905, writing to Violet Dickinson, in The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 1, 1888 - 1912), which, if you wanted, you could connect to Ruskin in his private correspondence with himself (The Diaries of John Ruskin, Vol. 2: 1848 - 1873), writing, “that all forms are thus either indicative of lines of energy or pressure, or motion, variously impressed or resisted,” with Land's End as the form and the measuring, weighing imagination as energy, pressure, or motion.

Then I turn to Knut Hamsun, whose narrator, in Hunger, is trying to find the source of judgment; and who tries to evict it from its stronghold with his transgressions. Accusing God of hating him, he shouts --

I tell you, you have used force against me, and you know not, you omniscient nullity, that I never bend in opposition! I tell you, all my life, every cell in my body, every power of my soul, gasps to mock you -- you Gracious Monster on High. I tell you, I would, if I could, breathe it into every human soul, every flower, every leaf, every dewdrop in the garden! I tell you, I would scoff you on the day of doom, and curse the teeth out of my mouth for the sake of your Deity's boundless miserableness! I tell you from this hour I renounce all thy works and all thy pomps! I will execrate my thought if it dwell on you again, and tear out my lips if they ever utter your name!

(translated by George Egerton)

Nothing responds to the blasphemy and soon he's saying “God” casually again without shame, as if that speech had never existed. “I was, God be praised, all right in my senses as any man.” Judgment isn't always very perpetual, though in Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals it seems to be, and if she loves her brother today then she will love him again tomorrow; and the sheep will be beautiful no matter when they appear in the landscape -- next week, next month, whenever -- she seems to have a steady source of appreciation on which she naively draws; like a fictional character she seems guileless, whereas the narrator of Hunger is volatile, like a person.

(n.b., I began reading Hamsun after I saw this post at Wuthering Expectations.)


Saturday, October 18, 2014

beauty extravagantly greater than one could expect



I clicked on a link to Berfrois' reprint of Evening Over Sussex by Virginia Woolf from Death of a Moth (1942), and found her approaching a similar experience, different solution; her method is unphysical: she will push ideas outwards by writing an essay, and she does not need to touch the countryside of Sussex. Her imagination observes itself creating compartments so that it can share help between them. The self in her is not monolithic, it is social. “[I]t is well known how in circumstances like these the self splits up and one self is eager and dissatisfied and the other stern and philosophical,” she says. (This is a clearly-drawn picture in contrast to Lawrence's dusky lily-innard. Woolf looks around and witnesses democracy. Lawrence sees it too, and hates it. He hates that promising scientific clarity. No wonder his solutions are so whimsical and useless. "If the men wore scarlet trousers as I said, they wouldn't think so much of money" (Lady Chatterley's)).

Woolf:

But, I thought, there is always some sediment of irritation when the moment is as beautiful as it is now. The psychologists must explain; one looks up, one is overcome by beauty extravagantly greater than one could expect — there are now pink clouds over Battle; the fields are mottled, marbled — one’s perceptions blow out rapidly like air balls expanded by some rush of air, and then, when all seems blown to its fullest and tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses. But what is the pin? So far as I could tell, the pin had something to do with one’s own impotency. I cannot hold this — I cannot express this — I am overcome by it — I am mastered. Somewhere in that region one’s discontent lay; and it was allied with the idea that one’s nature demands mastery over all that it receives; and mastery here meant the power to convey what one saw now over Sussex so that another person could share it. And further, there was another prick of the pin: one was wasting one’s chance; for beauty spread at one’s right hand, at one’s left; at one’s back too; it was escaping all the time; one could only offer a thimble to a torrent that could fill baths, lakes.


If her self did not prick her air balls then maybe she could continue to watch the pink clouds forever or until the sun goes down, but the brain flooded by products of the senses (“beauty and beauty and beauty” -- the best description, in her opinion, is this repetition, which I read as closer to an uttered groan or sigh than to Mrs Morel's dumb swoon) has reasserted itself in the form of a duty, “one was wasting one's chance” comes the warning; the essay itself is the cyst that has come from an “irritation.” The self is not only mastering the landscape, it is mastering her.

Or interrupting her: this thing you are doing so easily, you may not do it.

None of that answers the question, “Why an essay?' when she could have used interpretive dance or any other method. Writing is not being explained. Reading Carl Richard Mueller's translation of Georg Büchner's Complete Plays and Prose I thought of Woolf's words, “escaping all the time,” in light of the Captain's conversation in the opening scene of Woyzeck.

Captain: Not so fast, Woyzeck, not so fast! One thing at a time! You're making me dizzy. What am I to do with the ten extra minutes that you'll finish early today? [etc]

The Captain is flooded with world and he doesn't have any way out; he has not found a solution, as Woolf has done -- her mind's eyes rotating from one phrase to another as they search for an intellectual hook. So she rescues herself.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

falling of waters



There are senses in all three of them, the touching in Lawrence, the seeing for Wordsworth and the listening for the character in Jahn, Geoffrey Hill being closest to Lawrence, early Hill most directly: “There is no bloodless myth will hold,” from Genesis, and those lines about things being struck, faced, and walked on; then going on through more forces until the revealment of forces becomes one of the oeuvre's purposes. “The mountain stamped its foot | Shaking, as from a trance. And I was shut | With wads of sound into a sudden quiet” (God's Little Mountain (1959)). The biggest force has always been the one that is trying to shut him up. It appears in different disguises. “Recap on words like compassion that I | never chanced in your living presence” (In Memorium: Gillian Rose (2007)).

John Donne in his tenth sermon believes that prophets should always speak with strength, which means against some opposition. “[T]hunder, and wind, and tempests, and chariots, and roaring of Lyons, and falling of waters are the ordinary emblems of his [ie, God's] messages, and his messengers, in the Scriptures.”

Dorothy Wordsworth, though, just states everything that is most immediate: that's how she seems to proceed, and very gentle, but I never forget her glittering sheep, which I mention often.

“Do I need to touch the world if I want to experience it at the swooning level, or do I look at it instead, or hear it?” you ask, and there you go; you have various replies. The purpose or goal is that greater privacy which comes through the flesh: other people might make up thoughts for you but no one else can look for you, and no one else is swooning in the garden except Mrs Morel. Lawrence is all about a collaboration between flesh and non-flesh. Still, it looks as if it is the frustration with people outside himself that helps him to write, especially later. The Plumed Serpent is a frustrated book. Not even the violence at the end seems cathartic for him. In Sons and Lovers it is enough to have Mrs Morel putting her hand in a flower. In Serpent he wants cults, drums, and costumes, and I laughed. An artist needs to find their scale, said Richard Tuttle as he was being interviewed by Ross Simonini recently. “One can distinguish between scale and size. Usually, we are happy with the issue of size—if it's small, it's small; if it's big, it's big. But scale is a question of the individual. Each person, everyone ever born, has a unique scale. They have it like a unique fingerprint. You can decide to find your scale. The day you find it is a day you remember. It changes your life. Your parents may determine your size, but you determine your scale.” In the Serpent I think I see Lawrence mislaying whatever it is that Tuttle means by the word scale. Lawrence is scaled to a lily.


Monday, October 6, 2014

all swum together



Powys made me think of Mrs Morel from Sons and Lovers who has the Powysian infinity in her garden with the flowers stretching and the air itself shiny, as if it is solid or magical (glass is shiny, water is shiny, surfaces are shiny but where is the surface of the air?), everything, all emotional effects, physical, physical, which C.S. Lewis decided was one of the characteristics of medieval allegory: “It is as if the insensible could not knock at the door of the poetic consciousness without transforming itself into the likeness of the sensible [...] Allegory, besides being many other things, is the subjectivism of an objective age,” in The Allegory of Love: a Study in Medieval Tradition.

She became aware of something about her. With an effort she roused herself to see what it was that penetrated her consciousness. The tall white lilies were reeling in the moonlight, and the air was charged with their perfume, as with a presence. Mrs. Morel gasped slightly in fear. She touched the big, pallid flowers on their petals, then shivered. They seemed to be stretching in the moonlight. She put her hand into one white bin: the gold scarcely showed on her fingers by moonlight. She bent down to look at the binful of yellow pollen; but it only appeared dusky. Then she drank a deep draught of the scent. It almost made her dizzy.

Mrs. Morel leaned on the garden gate, looking out, and she lost herself awhile. She did not know what she thought. Except for a slight feeling of sickness, and her consciousness in the child, herself melted out like scent into the shiny, pale air. After a time the child, too, melted with her in the mixing-pot of moonlight, and she rested with the hills and lilies and houses, all swum together in a kind of swoon.

Here is the thing itself and not a euphemism; here is the lily, here, touch. Becoming “aware of something” was the smallest part, the easiest part, your consciousness is penetrated, so, now, you didn't do that: it was done to you by the atmosphere, now she feels the atmosphere with her hands. She has to make an “effort,” she has to “rouse” herself; this transcendence has a work ethic. “She touched the big, pallid flowers on their petals.” Go in, go in. “She put her hand into one white bin.” Establishing her critique, “She bent down to look at the binful of yellow pollen; but it only appeared dusky.” It's only after she has gone through this physical wrestle that she gets her savoury moment.

Then I'm looking at the passage flowerville quoted from Hans Henny Jahnn under the heading, “The Nature of the Artist,” in her essay Landscape as the Origin of Music in Hans Henny Jahnn's Shoreless River: the artist is listening and absorbing, not touching, and Dorothy Wordsworth, in her journals, doesn't have to fondle the landscape the way Mrs Morel does and still she comes away with similar sensations, she feels swoony and rapt, she sees nature shining “and she rested with the hills and lilies and houses,” but she gets there by walking across the countryside and seeing the objects in it.

After tea we went to Butterlip How and backwards and forwards there. All the young oak leaves are dry as powder. A cold south wind portending Rain. After we came in we sate in deep silence at the window -- I on a chair and William with his hand on my shoulder. We were deep in Silence and Love, a blessed hour.

(The Grasmere Journals, Wednesday 2nd June, 1802)