Sunday, April 13, 2014

we were at any time

Death in the late novellas is restless. Hades, at the end of Real Wraiths, decides to abdicate from his position as king of the Underworld and instead “plunge, dive, sink into the whole great mass of universal matter and become its living soul,” eliminating himself as himself, but the other characters will communicate with him afterwards, they say, in Switzerland, near the Alps, at “a chapel dedicated to William Tell.”

Would it make you feel better about erasing yourself if we promised to contact you? one of them asks. Hades says yes it would.

If we were all to make that, yes! the chapel of William Tell our home you would know where we were at any time and we would be able at any time to communicate with you our Lord and Master now become the Soul of Matter.

It is not only the late books either, come to think of it. Powys' oeuvre as a whole assumes that a dead person might possibly go on speaking and being spoken to, or at least they will be in communication with the rest of society in one way or another (that corpse in Porius), or anyway that death is not always the end of personality, and that the dead can still be treated like the people that they used to be, these late stories not always bothering to introduce the person before they died, instead starting straight off with them dead and ghostly in a kingdom of ghosts. “Before they set off from Florence to Venice they had to be interviewed by the king of the Florentine ghosts. His name was Tarralalanko ...”

I have to say "might possibly go on" because it doesn't always happen. "Lalanika was dead, and all the consciousness she had had was lost forever." (All or Nothing) Lalanika is a star, by the way. Sleeping, she wakes and finds the human character Nezzar Nu staring at her weirdly from the foot of the bed. Then she tears off the nightdress that she has borrowed from Jilly Tewky and explodes.

I wasn't thinking about Powys two posts ago when I wrote the words “and every character would come back as a ghost, not really gone, just feinting, now returning to continue the story in a slightly different way,” but that is what happens in Real Wraiths when Persephone smashes her brains out on a stone. “What was her astonishment when after only a second of total blackness she found herself in an ecstasy of happiness such as she had not known since her childhood, being embraced by the real wraith of her mother!”

They fly away to join the rest of the cast, Wang, Tang, Pop, Sock, the Devil, and King Hades, who have all gone to the planet Venus, which is very soft unless you spit on it, which is Powys' way of introducing the mother/whore dichotomy into the book, using this violent whimsy and then passing on to other ideas, leaving me to wonder why the idea is there. Why the brutality of spitting? By this point in his life he has become a pedestalising feminist who will tell you that there are strong differences between men and women but neither one is inferior to the other, though the extreme female characteristics of some characters are frequently superior to the extreme masculine characteristics of other characters, and he occasionally will bung his female characters together in an undifferentiated clump; and the pedestalising tactic of course has severe problems on bothly sexed sides when you apply it to actual people, one size not fitting all.

I submit that he is a feeler, not a thinker, and that his absolute love of juxtaposition and difference makes that enthusiastic pedestal conclusion a natural one for him, the man having trained himself in a habit of oppositions as I have already noted, amen, so that opposition and juxtaposition were the modes that felt right to him; and similarity felt cold, scientific, and unnatural.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

something in us that watches these outward things

All of this leads me back to John Cowper Powys, who, at the end of his life, wrote at least two novellas with apocalyptic storylines, the earth committing suicide in Up and Out, and the characters deciding to abandon the entire planet so that they can start a commune on the Asteroid Nubilium in Two and Two. The Titan Typhoeus visits the Asteroid Nubilium, and he and Wat Kums, who is the ruler of the commune, become such good friends that they fly away together into even deeper space until universal nature is changing around them.

But in any case and in whatever direction they were going, on and on they went, at a terrific pace, into absolute Nothingness, without Sun or Moon or Stars, without hope or fear; but at least aware that they were friends.

Both of these books are massively peopled. Life ends or life is dismissed but life keeps pouring in, multiple gods and demons arrive, Chinese philosophers ride up on turtles, the stars talk (“And then Aldebaran assumed control of the whole situation”), the newcomers bicker, they explain themselves, and they behave in ways that are humanly rather than godly. God and Satan hold a long discussion after the suicide of the earth and God decides that he will commit suicide too. His motivation is a human motivation. The decisions confronting him are confusing and the confusion has paralysed him. “I am at my wits' end.”

All of the characters eliminate themselves completely, following the example of God. “But who will hear my last words?” asks Gor the narrator. “Oh, I do so, so want somebody to hear them! I want someone, somewhere, to know how deeply I understood the best Greek and Latin poets! Yes! It's to you, somebody, somewhere, that I'm talking now!” […] There must be somebody there, there must, there must, there must, there must be somebody!” The reader knows that there is, because they're it. And then there is the room or lawn around them, a confirmation that the world did not end. In Two and Two the characters decide to leave their bodies and join infinity but it is made clear that this does not mean abandoning their personalities and there is no chance of their bodiless selves drifting into someone else's bodiless self and getting mixed up or combined or adulterated. Their separate consciousness will remain absolutely distinct. In fact their distinct selves are imperishable. “According to this view the self-hood of each of us, which includes in it the shape and attributes of our former body can never vanish away.”

“Gallant Mrs Smith” reiterates that last idea in You and Me.

Why shouldn't this something, Professor, this something in us that watches these outward things and considers the fate of these outward things, the something that has the inherent power to survive when all these outward things including the outside universe, have entirely vanished?”

Powys illustrates Colebrook's point and exacerbates it, the end of the earth (either by disintegration or abandonment) leading to fecundity and the end of the body leading to impenetrable personal boundaries. You do not go into the afterlife alone, and death is not a moment of isolation. You do not go into a silent void. You talk. There is no peace. There is no rest. There is only assertion.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

the supposedly self-maintaining organism

Claire Colebrook's Death is not about Modernism, though I quoted from it a few posts ago and that quote was a quote about Modernism; but she is writing about the extinction of the human race. The arts are not dealing well, she says. One day it will happen but we are not prepared. Artists go up to a point and then they baulk. All of our post-apocalypses have people in them. The end of the world will come and go and we think will still be running around the streets shooting vampires. Summoned into a fresh life of weary heroism. Untrue! This is where prose and its “disintegration” come into her argument. “[I]t is only when writing is liberated from life, when one no longer grounds systems of inscription on the supposedly self-maintaining organism, that one disrupts the normalizing figure of bodily life.” The apocalypse is the moment of incorruptable disruption. The normalizing figure of bodily life will vanish.

Modernism seems optimistically added-on in this book, not conclusive or even decisive – it comes along like a thought that has just occurred to her -- but her central point still stands, and if personal death had always been dealt with as falsely as species death usually is, then literature, I think, would feel like a more dishonest enterprise or maybe a more relentlessly playful one, very sweatily playful, until frivolous might be the word I'm looking for, and every character would come back as a ghost, not really gone, just feinting, now returning to continue the story in a slightly different way, maybe with two heads, the equivalent of the post-apocalypse with the campfire 'mongst the muddy ruins and all the can openers gone missing.

Or else the last person on earth poisons themselves and the book ends there, predicting the moment of disintegration but not venturing in, or it is like John Crowley's Little, Big and the cast has moved on to a different place, the slow crumbling of the old place described by the author but this description is a sweetly sad goodbye from a creator who can't follow them to the next iteration of their existences. They have gone to fairyland, which is beyond description. Their adventures will have to be imagined in some other way. Dead but not dead dead. Equivalent to the inhabitants of an escape pod volunteering for detachment from the mother ship. Compare Gertrude Stein at the end of The Making of Americans, hammering herself spastically into a cul de sac. She tries to summarise everything, she gives up, there's nowhere smaller to go, she has pounded her “history of men and women” into fragments but each set of words, no matter how basic they are, makes her pen hop on to another set of words, nothing final, but nothing more to say that is meaningful either, the story told and told and told but the words keep coming in their ever-tinier permutations, rattling on almost beyond meaning but retaining a trace of it, that indelible serpent of intent.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

balance, poise, and relative gravitation

A word in Hill is always volatile, excluding those nuts and nails like "the" or "of" and could you write a poem that would make no other word volatile except those words? -- so you always knew that cordial meant polite and not drink, even though you never knew if the meant for instead? The word "vivisector" in John Cowper Powys, however, is unwaveringly evil. It is like an "and" for Powys. It always means the same thing. "[W]e soon got an entrance to all the cruellest and wickedest vivisection laboratories in New York City." (Up and Out.) "For the wickedest and most abominable practise made use of in these modern days is vivisection." (Two and Two.) "From the point of view of our mysterious System-of-Things, to be a vivisector at all is to put yourself on the side of evil against good." (Morwyn. The ghost of the Marquis de Sade is speaking.)

Then he couples it with the word "scientist," and if I had the library's copy of The Inmates still with me I could quote one of those paragraphs about the scientific institutions of Britain giving the vivisectionist asylum owner its top awards and honours.

But Powys himself likes to take scientific language and scientific discoveries for his own use, inventing personal “currents” and “rays” and “fields,” and sending one of his people to “electricity school” where she learns to build “a neat little ball of electrified feathers” so that she can fly. Plundering the enemy he is inspired by the enemy; he perverts the hard world of science that he sees, he rewrites it fantastically, he is a parasite upon it, he will resist his parasite status, he whimsies it, he allows the word “astronomy” into Up and Out but immediately he diverts it away from itself.

“You mean,” murmured Rhitha, with just the faintest tinge of mischief in her smile, ”those books about galaxies and nebulae; things of which I never hear mention without wondering why one of them ends with a Latin plural and the other with an English plural! Is that because a Latin plural means they can't ever stop going on, while an English plural means that we just don't know whether they stop or don't stop?”

So he plays. The characters in Morwyn survive the trip to Hell through a vague invocation of mythic-scientific principles. The seriousness here is similar to the seriousness of Carnacki the Ghost Finder  when he discusses his famous electric pentacle, though it is more elaborate in Powys. I am telling you a fantasy as if it is not lies.

The blow carried down the whole block of stone, carried it down to the centre of the earth with ourselves on it, but it was so large that it must have carried with it, if not some of its own atmosphere, at least something of its own balance, poise, and relative gravitation, so that it was really like sinking down with our feet securely planted on a solid segment of our planet and all the while being protected from the whole spatial sensation of "up and down" by some of the deepest laws of the cosmos.

The problem he has with real scientists is that they're not mystic enough. Carnacki would be closer to his ideal. “I came to make the Electric Pentacle, which is a most marvellous 'Defense' against certain manifestations. I used the shape of the defensive star for this protection, because I have, personally no doubt at all but that there is some extraordinary virtue in the old magic figure.” (The Gateway of the Monster.) Every scientist, in Powys' perfect world, would have the Carnackian instinct for magic.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

with distasteful feast

Science appears to be the most professional and dissecting field that Powys can think of and he hates science whenever it is close-structured and tries to answer questions, so he creates (out of the flesh of his own hatred) a disgusting scientific man who would rather vivisect a dog than rescue his own daughter in Morwyn or the Vengeance of God, hypocritical Mr. ---, a maniac and torture addict whose ghost colludes with the ghost of Torquemada on a flying ship in Hell after a meteorite hits the main trinity of characters and pushes them through the surface of the earth for the sake of a book that the author, in a 1937 letter, called "slightly like Dante, but not really."

Mr. -- and the Inquisitor are both torturing with the same true motivation, states Powys. They might tell the rest of the world that they are saving souls or producing medicinal discoveries but really they both have a slavering craving for screaming and cruelty, and the same goes for the Ku Klux Klan, who dwell in Hell as well, along with European settlers from East Africa, and anyone else he can think of who might make his vivisectors look worse by proximity.

Geoffrey Hill speaks critically when he finds, in Cardinal Newman, a set of words that skip along on their nursery rhyme the way "dwell in Hell as well" just did, and when I think of that, and of Powys' I-won't, I decide to keep my hop-skip because it makes me feel as if I am obscurely ruining Geoffrey Hill. Hill has his own wordplay tactics, sometimes using the Elizabethan method that combines a noun with a surprising adjective, "high-spent poverty with distasteful feast," in The Triumph of Love, and sometimes, as he does a while earlier in the same long poem, repeating a word while he calls your attention to another meaning that the previous iteration of that word might have had, if the poet had put it in a different setting; but he did not. So calling your attention to I did not as well as I did.

Southwell, addressing the cordial
cordially: "it does my heart good."

(from The Triumph of Love.)

Hill's art is the art of not letting you take words lightly (which should rightly transmit itself to the poem as a whole, not taking that lightly either), and it is the opposite of "dwell in hell as well," which asks you to enjoy the easy movement across the surfaces of the words, downplaying their histories and their meanings in favour of immediate music. Whereas the drop between "cordial" and "cordially" is a link between meaning and meaning with cordial as trigger and vehicle.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

on not being a professional

Colebrook refers to Modernism as a liquid state, "dynamic, open, fluid and affective," with "deflection, divergeance, deviation and dehiscence," and "attention to the force of the dead," a flow not only from one idea to another but the flow also extending back in history, picking up a scrap of lingo and carrying it into the current text, book, poem, whatever that is, making it into a prose-moue, ie, hint of another language of emotion coming into the present discourse, making, maybe, a mosaic of personalities or utters of the dead.

In a state of nondifferentiation before the historic Big Bang you would not have these divergeances for no one is dead and there is no death; and if modernity is "liquid" then it must be a time of extreme deviations, knowing that Powys is an author of extreme deviations who goes in pursuit of those deviations once he finds them, this Modernist with a theory of his own, maybe, so compare him to others in that area and say he is more easily frightened than a Joyce or a Woolf or an Eliot because he stopped before they stopped and planted his mule feet stubbornly in the ground, never leaving the foreknown field of narrative as per the famous nineteenth century model, all his deviations recycling themselves into that shape; and perhaps you could call him a more eccentric and amateur author than the others, amateur on purpose, defending, like Clarice Lispector, his right to be an amateur. "I only write when I want to. I’m an amateur and insist on staying that way. A professional has a personal commitment to writing. Or a commitment to someone else to write. As for me … I insist on not being a professional. To keep my freedom," she said in her last interview, these very Powys sentiments coming out of a different mouth, freedom or free will being paramount, and both of them saying, "You can't make me if I don't want to," those words being metamorphosised from a pout into a value.

In literature I respect the I-won't but the last time I met it in real life it was a dam-like stunting force coming out of a man who said that he would never understand any modern art, it was all Renaissance and Rome for him, meanwhile producing the same small vocabulary of stiff figures in a bad imitation-classical smooth-surfaced style. Speaking of figuration, I saw a piece of observation in an oil portrait two days ago that gave me an instant interest in the artist, no matter what else they ever did with their lives, and that was the subtle way they had depicted the shadow between the person's fingers as a compacted fiery glow, not brown or grey or black or any of the other colours that people paint on shadows when they haven't looked at them, but rose.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

the differentiating fluxes of time

"[T]he condition of any ongoing sameness is some capacity to resist the differentiating fluxes of time," writes Colebrook, memory making us what we are, not the particulars of the memory but memory itself, memory as a feature of the mind, memory attaching us, as if with magnets, to a phenomenon that is not time-as-it-passes, and thereby holding us together: the rest is only decoration on the essential fact. Imagine, then, that our personalities are only side-effects of the event that is our life, and sort of an inevitable but not essential companion or parasite. If literature is a system of interlocking personalities that have been extruded in some way from their parents then literature is a parasite on a parasite, or else a new and semi-independent species.

Anthony of Time's Flow Stemmed quoting Michel Houellebecq on March 16th and Houellebecq or else his narrator paraphrasing an idea he believes he found in Schopenhauer. "We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than a novel we once read." What would we be if our memories were perfect? what shape would we have? and would Powys discover that a person like that was as impossible to write about as the person who had a genuine and nonillusionary free will, this person who does not exist anywhere in his work, or not the works of his that I have read and probably not the others either, I say, guessing? -- that person whose existence he eradicated once and forever with the words "ultimate illusion"?

Perhaps we are lucky that we forget so much, so many memories being nearly unbearable. “How little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” (Sebald, Austerlitz) Though I need to add that I am only quoting Sebald because I have been reminded of him.

Powys loves illusionary "free will" and he promotes, praises and advocates behaviour that is unexpected, capricious and wanton (giving mental capriciousness to all of his key figures and all of the title characters from Porius, Wolf Solent, and Owen Glendower), but he also believes in a stable state, in a solidity so intense that it goes beyond the normal everyday natural solidity and lurks with an unnatural power, one character dying of love in Porius and her emotion so strong that people who pass by that spot centuries later will still feel themselves influenced, writes Powys -- influenced without knowing why.

But these two ways of behaving are both attached to the same essential phenomenon, which is the power of the person's emotional component, a power so independent that it not only acts on its own, "capriciously and wantonly," it also capriciously lingers.