Monday, April 20, 2015

stag-headed men, winged lions

Will, will ... and now I'm re-reading E.R. Eddison -- the second of the Zimiamvia books -- whose characters have a more basic and elevated sense of will; they are kings and ladies waging war bravely, and very ruthlessly and gaily, staring calmly at death; and they are a little like Malory but less fallible, much less fallible, because the fall in this fantasy world, the end of this one form of the social order, is not the collapse of a loving clique. It is betrayal by someone whose utter nature is betrayal, as we have known ever since he was introduced, and the person he betrays knows it too, and ditto the betrayer’s sidekick, his family, other members of the nobility, the people he has made treaties with -- nobody trusts him -- and so you cannot say that it is a shock. And yet Eddison makes a similar point to Malory, that what he calls "beatitude" can't survive in the world as it is. His fantasy world "is like the sagatime, there is no malaise of the soul." So he said in a letter. "A very unearthly character of Zimiamvia lies in the fact that nobody wants to change it."

He lists lovely things in the fantasy world but not the real one (when his characters are in the real one):

Hedgehogs in little coats he beheld as household servants busy to bear the dishes; leopards, foxes, lynxes, spider-monkeys, badgers, water-mice, walked and conversed, or served the guests that sat at supper: seals, mild-eyed, moustachioed, erect on their hind flippers and robed in silken gowns, brought upon silver chargers all kinds of candied conserves, macaroons, fig-dates, sweet condiments and delicate confections of spiceries; and here were butterfly ladies seen, stag-headed men, winged lions of Sumer, hamadryads and all the nymphish kind of beck and marsh and woodland and frosty mountain solitude and the blue caves of ocean: naiad and dryad and oread, and Amphitrite’s brood with green hair sea-garlanded and combs in their hair fashioned from drowned treasures of gold.

And wants to enchant you with precision, which opposes him to the "always" that Dorothy Richardson was criticising in that quote a few posts ago. The always in his work is a now. Now there is a hedgehog. Now there is a hawk and it is hovering over a field where there are poppies. Now there is a diamond on a column. And seems to grasp hold of this presence so desperately, with these rows of notations, like gravestones passing by me as I read. So that it is like walking through a cemetery.

Richardson, on the other hand, wants to integrate a beautitudinous frame of mind into the world as it is, or perhaps I'll say that the fantasy is just better disguised in her book and not naked; Eddison's books with their longing on display are naked in that sense but not naked in other ways; the characters are invulnerable. They’re inclined to the fastidiousness that is a sign of will in Richardson as well, that casually hyperattentive ability to feel that a certain XYZ is right and therefore it must occur. One man, Lessingham, released from a dungeon, tells a servant to take his shirt away and burn it, because a shirt that he has worn in a dungeon is not a shirt that should exist. This is in the middle of a thousand other things that are going on and you’d think they were more important than the shirt but the detail of that shirt is necessary to his well-being – not just thrown away but eliminated. And these wills are holistically perpetual, and they need to endure as they are for the authors' peace of mind.

(How can I guess that? Because they both reinforce them so often, and they are both so aware that they are fragile events that need to be protected. The real world, in Eddison's book, exists in a zoo-cage bubble that can be popped with a hairpin, but the reader knows that this is the opposite of the truth. It is the book itself that can be closed away, and that will exist only in the memories of the people who have experienced it.)

In Villette though (going back to that), the invulnerable will is in danger of being melted and that is deeply exciting, not bad nor good but both and neither -- which in Eddison would be an unambiguous disaster, I think you can say, after reading that letter -- the will, in Vilette, is embattled from the inside of the body it lives in – it – may – concede to the outside – and then – some miracle -- the fall is not a fall but a swooping-up. (Will, character, and worldly pressure, are going to war in that book.)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

alone, I grew calm

It might be simpler to say that perception in Dorothy Richardson's work is aligned with will, though this will never shows its real character to anyone outside the human being whose exercise is its life; to others it can be understood as stubbornness or as intelligence. It never tries to control or force anyone because it is the most undictatorial will in the world, and you could even call it anti-dictatorial, for freedom and calm are two of the conditions it is working for, and dictators are never free or calm.

Miriam knows that her job is perfect because it absorbs her intelligence and attention without asking her to be in command. The wage is enough to keep her living independently and that is what she wants. More money would be fine but not supremely important. It's not worth the price.

(This will is clear about its priorities, which translate themselves into all areas, so that the money-feeling, when she applies it to the women's independence movement -- this is in the very early 1900s -- becomes disquiet and conflict, because, a woman who has the vote, will she be distracted by the requirements of command, and drawn away from her essential absorption in the world, a problem that Richardson sees afflicting men, who are too tempted by grand sentences and falseness when they write -- their style -- she believes -- the elegant, forceful, exciting style and appealing contrived plottishness -- is a peacock symptom, "lollipops for children," and the only way to write closer to the world as it is, is to avoid it ...)

I have seen the form of a will like this in characters before, I tell myself; and think of Louie in The Man Who Loved Children, who practises her self-determination without knowing why (anticipating that it will be useful), and Lucy Snow in Villette, who is watching everyone from a position apart, and aware of being apart, and feeling in herself the work that she does to defend that apartness, since it is her nature -- "Once alone, I grew calm, and collectedly went to work" -- but Miriam in Richardson's book is the one who invents an articulate purpose for the Lucy-like nature, though this higher calling is internal, and rescues no one except her; and is unable to rescue them.

So Richardson has two points to make about this kind of will: 1., it is the most precious thing in the world, and 2. it is useless.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

alone and unchanged, however surrounded and accompanied

Reading the first of Knausgård's six volumes I remember John Pistelli's post about the similarities to Richardson's Pilgrimage (Anthony linked to it on twitter) and feel uneased by the comparison -- not the details of the comparison, simply the fact that the comparison exists -- seeing, strongly, the two writers placing themselves distinctly in separated isolation, and their views of themselves different, Richardson serious about her "joy," diagnosing a tragic abdication of people from the challenge of joy and believing that it is her duty not to abdicate from joy (not questioning that assumption but trusting it) ; and therefore working, working with a conscious effort to maintain her own access, having a plan for it, avoiding marriage because of it, living and walking in places where she hopes she will find it -- whereas Knausgård describes himself as a haphazard clown who has the vaguest ideas about anything that he might want, and almost no plan to get it, feeling desires instead of plans; he would like to be cool ("cool" is his word, in the translation by Don Bartlett) but he is ordinary; he does everything that he doesn't want to do; he is "feminine" when he wants to be masculine, he cries when he doesn't want to cry, he is a bad musician when he wants to be a talent, he capitulates to people, he has studied art but he can't tell you why he likes a painting ("It was a fantastic picture, it filled me with all the feelings that fantastic pictures do, but when I had to explain why, what constituted the "fantastic" I was at a loss to do so" -- where Richardson will tell you how she comes to appreciate a piece of music); his little success in journalism is an accident and he junks it by being cocky, then he knows that he has been cocky: his cockiness is revealed to him: and his humiliation is constantly revealed to him and refreshed with a new event as if this is Fawlty Towers and he is Basil, "I was getting drunk too often, and I did not flinch from harassing someone once I got the idea in my head," also with Basil Fawlty's pettiness: "Usually something to do with their appearance, or small, silly mannerisms that I might have observed."

Richardson meanwhile perceiving transcendent vigour or insight in "small, silly mannerisms," and the transcendence of the world is up to the person who is perceiving it, that's her belief : anything is some sort of gateway, even a bit of light; and there is a question of things having or not having a hold -- "Immediate things had lost their hold" -- whereas the hold-having for Knausgård has dissolved with childhood; it is impossible now, he is too adult. The petty emotions in her can flow into a whole, and are restructured by their relationships: "But even as she felt this jealousy's deep-seeking manipulations, the vision of Amabel alone and unchanged, however surrounded and accompanied, sent it to its death [...] Released, she could seek those to whom she belonged."

She has what you could call a better self. She can be rescued, she can rescue herself, but he can't, and here is part of his clown atmospheric in My Struggle, the impossibility of self-rescue, and the undisciplined disappointment of that.

Friday, March 27, 2015


When I think back on that trip to LACMA I believe that I think of paintings in the way that I experience books; the recognition of similar aspects, the white collar in Rembrandt's Portrait of Martin Looten (1632) being in the same family as the black space in Giovanni Battista Cremonini's Christ Nailed to the Cross (c. 1595), for in both of them you see the colour denying the other colours around it, and emphasising them by denying them, or, if you want to look at it another way, by herding them into pens and prisoning them there, or by imprisoning themselves; the white not going outside its own nature, and the black not going there either, but both staying in their dazzling corrals, so that everything outside the corral is a seething jungle by comparison, and subtle, like a jungle, coursing around with tiny wildlifes.

As I was talking to an artist on Monday evening about Robert Walser's The Robber, he said that it had something in common with Richardson's Pilgrimage, in that both authors were interested in the phenomenon of solitary joy.

Friday, March 20, 2015

someone to explain the picture to me

We saw some of those eyeballs at LACMA last weekend, all of them falling or flying around on their pink balloon strings, or bouncing out of soupbowls of blood; and the blood was very vivaciously heaving in evenly matched waves of careful lines, which were unmistakably pretty in their sweetiepie colours. There was one long vertical sheet-shaped piece dotted with these votive pictures (sometimes corpses, sometimes bells), like a page of little stickers. "After gazing admiringly at many scenes, all of a romantic nature, I was seized by a longing to write a verbal equivalent of the painting,' says Longus in his preface to Daphnis and Chloe – which is not what I've done; he doesn't describe the painting or praise it in the body of his story, he is breathing it or attempting to breathe it out as prose. "So I found someone to explain the picture to me, and composed a work in four volumes as an offering to Love and the Nymphs and Pan; and as a source of pleasure for the human race."

He says he's doing it to honour the aspects of life that the painting itself honours. So there is pleasure for him in giving honour. Dorothy Richardson in her Pilgrimage books is concerned because the novels she reads (this is ventriloquised through the character of Miriam) don't do honour to Life. It drives her mad – "It simply drives me mad" -- when an author tells you that a character "always" does something just-so. "Jones always wore a battered cricket cap, a little askew," is her example. "You know the whole thing is going to be lies from beginning to end."

(Her imaginary author is trying to mask his static "always" by waving active details in front of it: a "battered" cap has moved through various experiences, and the "askew" angle is humanly careless. She's right, the sentence she's invented would be degrading to any author who wrote it. Why? Because it's trying to hide what it is. And stabs itself in the back. And doesn't seem to know itself, or be aware of itself, or recognise itself; it's a stranger to itself. Which is a haunting vulnerability when you see it in someone, and you wonder what to say to them.)

Then I wonder, were the eyeballs "all" flying or falling around, or have I written an "always"? Thinking about it. Some were being carried by birds, that counts as flying, some were sailing through picture space – that counts as flying too – and the rest were toppling out of the blood-bowls, as far as I can recall. All of the disembodied eyeballs that I can remember were genuinely flying or falling. There were also kidneys and hearts but eyeballs were the favourite. Why eyeballs?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

disembodied eyeballs

When I decided to write about Kingsley's Geoffrey Hamlyn I was remembering people online who had mentioned the book and yet they hadn't read it – they were wondering what it was like -- and I thought that I would write something, and then they would be less apprehensive, which would disperse, magically, some benefit over the earth, and who knew what but there it would be, god help us all; and the Tibetan Buddhists who paint disembodied eyeballs must be relieved to know that other people will be reminded of the impermanence of life by the sight of these eyeballs, but other people have not written about Geoffrey Hamlyn as often as Tibetans in the past have painted disembodied eyeballs, and so I was not so sure, but you have to start somewhere – I said to myself – which is a lie …

Nobody is going to read Kingsley, though, after seeing that description of the call and response patterns I think I see in him, absolutely nobody. I am an unreliable executor, which is worse than being an unreliable narrator; at least the unreliable narrator still gets you where you need to go, being, in fact, secretly, a completely reliable narrator. Unreliable narrators are the kindest people. They sacrifice everything.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

allow me to write of other people's experiences

Henry Kingsley had never written a book but then he went to Australia and afterwards he did it. The same for Mary Theresa Vidal and Caroline Leakey. Australia convinced them to commit violence on their own unblemished previous records of not publishing books. It was a great silent continent, thinking of the quiet of the deserts. Longus of Daphnis and Chloe hopes at the end of his preface that fiction will not derange his mind with alien ideas. "I hope that god will allow me to write of other people's experiences while retaining my own sanity" (tr. Paul Turner). But the others are not afraid of that possibility at all: they have been stimulated or shocked and they drive ahead without a fear of their own characters; they don't worry about their sanity: they are reassured that they are quite strong or else they are insensitive to this form of brutality, and Longus was as well, if you read those words as a rhetorical gesture rather than a serious statement of feeling.

The readers are the ones who obsess and go deranged over characters, writing fanfic as they do, not being able to absorb or possess the characters themselves because their beloveds are already tied up with another, and will always be so, no matter how diligently they press towards them, and the author is not interested in that character by now, and would let it free if they could, for the fanfic writers to take (if they want it so much), but they can't, the characters can't be released, any more than you could pull out a word somehow and give it to somebody (André Maurois, in his autobiography, suggests that when you are a child words are not so much meanings as fields of emotion and that some children, in this respect, never grow up).