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. The most false-languaged book I've read, in memory -- the most degraded -- has been Richard Flanagan's Wanting.)

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 nicest and 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).

Saturday, February 28, 2015

already done, captain

But Kingsley is teasing you with the impossible book because he is about to overcome it. This is not brokenness he is showing you, it is triumph

I replied not, but went into my bedroom, and returning with a thick roll of papers threw it on the floor—as on the stage the honest notary throws down the long-lost will,—and there I stood for a moment with my arms folded, eyeing Brentwood triumphantly.

"It is already done, captain," I said. "There it lies."

It is the book we are about to read. Kingsley uses the same pattern again later when he wants to introduce a parson named Frank Maberley. One character has suggested that an action is impossible; another character has performed it already.

The dinner time was past some ten minutes, when they saw a man in black put his hand on the garden-gate, vault over, and run breathless up to the hall-door. Tom had recognised him and dashed out to receive him, but ere he had time to say "good day" even, the new comer pulled out his watch, and, having looked at it, said in a tone of vexation: --

"Twenty-one minutes, as near as possible; nay, a little over. By Jove! how pursy a fellow gets mewed up in town! How far do you call it, now, from the Buller Arms?"

"It is close upon four miles," said Tom, highly amused.

"So they told me," replied Frank Maberly. "I left my portmanteau there, and the landlord-fellow had the audacity to say in conversation that I couldn't run the four miles in twenty minutes. It's lucky a parson can't bet, or I should have lost my money. But the last mile is very much up-hill, as you must allow."

Power, power; and the author of Kingsley's entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography believes that the man was in awe of his brother Charles, the Muscular Christian. "Sensitive about his puny and ugly appearance, he was inclined to adulate more personable contemporaries, especially his brother." That might be wishful gossip but it prompts me to notice that the narrator's writing-deed has been brought into the same framework as the Muscular Christian parson's running-deed, not only power, but power legitimised by the framing, made not-random, not enigmatic or questionable, or, put it this way: the deeds are not personal, not held and nourished in private, instead they are social, since other people are evidently rolling them around in their minds and calling out for their accomplishment.

Kingsley likes to present the actions of his characters in this call-and-response way (I mean he lets you know that these actions are wanted), and some of those actions should have been personal, perhaps, and I am wishing, when I think about it, that a person could put flowers in her hair without being hijacked.

Her complexion was very full, as though she were blushing at something one of them had said to her, and while I watched I saw James rise and go to a jug of flowers, and bring back a wreath of scarlet Kennedia, saying: –

"Do us a favour on Christmas night, Mary; twine this in your hair."

She blushed deeper than before, but she did it, and Tom helped her.

Monday, February 23, 2015

that old horse is alive still

When I mention magic I remember Frank Kermode in his essay Between Time and Eternity, writing, "All plots have something in common with prophecy, for they must appear to educe from the prime matter of the situation the forms of a future," and I wonder vaguely about the predictive or coercive power of systems (a system in itself is a prediction; to note a system is to note a prediction) -- and also I consider the mechanisms that trigger or indicate or introduce you to those systems, and then naturally I think of the aged horse in the opening pages of The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), that book by Henry Kingsley, the brother of Charles (The Water Babies (1862-63, serialised)).

"Bless me!" I said; "You don't mean to say that that old horse is alive still?"

"He looks like it," said the major. "He'd carry you a mile or two, yet."

"I thought he had died while I was in England," I said. "Ah, major, that horse's history would be worth writing."

"If you began," answered the major, "to write the history of the horse, you must write also the history of every body who was concerned in those circumstances which caused Sam to take a certain famous ride upon him. And you would find that the history of the horse would be reduced into very small compass, and that the rest of your book would assume proportions too vast for the human intellect to grasp."

"How so?" I said.

He entered into certain details, which I will not give. "You would have," he said, "to begin at the end of the last century, and bring one gradually on to the present time. Good heavens! just consider."

"I think you exaggerate," I said.

"Not at all," he answered. "You must begin the histories of the Buckley and Thornton families in the last generation. The Brentwoods also, must not be omitted,-- why there's work for several years."

So if you tell the story of those families then you will also have to tell the stories of the people connected to them and so on and so on until by Major Buckley's logic the entire world is swallowed (recalling that Ruskin in one book contemplates the holy profusion of leaves), which is the problem Gertrude Stein enunciated in The Making of Americans, when she talks about the neighbours and then the neighbours of the neighbours, until she reaches the same conclusion as Major Buckley, this playful and useless idea that any grossly representational book would be "too vast for the human intellect to grasp" and what does that say about the human intellect and also Kingsley's playfulness, and then Gertrude Stein's playfulness, which is an oblique or self-defending reflex, and also self-conquering as it indicates that it is biting off more than it can chew, in fact creating that too-much obstacle and showing it to you so that it can throw up its hands and say, "Non" – here is the book desiring to have that Non-action inside itself and going to these abnormal lengths to get it, and asking you to observe its crippledness, its broken-wingedness, ha, ha, ha?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

the infidelity of this outer world

Ruskin has a fidelity to the nonhuman world, either material and dumb, or religious and not materially existent, or the unity of the two. There was the time he was lying by the Fountain of Brevant and saw a thunderstorm. "Suddenly, there came in the direction of Dorm du Goûter a crash -- of prolonged thunder; and when I looked up, I saw the cloud cloven, as it were by the avalanche itself, whose white stream came bounding down the eastern slope of the mountain, like slow lightning." The power of the thunderstorm crushes him; it is not "mingled [with] the associations of humanity." "It was then only beneath those glorious hills that I learned how thought itself may become ignoble and energy itself become base -- when compared with the absorption of soul and spirit -- the prostration of all power -- and the cessation of all will -- before, and in the Presence of, the manifested Deity." It is sublime; he is sublimated. "It was then only that I understood that to become nothing might be to become more than Man." That was in the footnotes to Modern Painters, Volume II, but he doesn't take his own advice; he spends years mingled with the associations of humanity, and decades later in the Fors Clavigera letters he will write:

Looking back upon my efforts for the last twenty years, I believe that their failure has been in very great part owing to my compromise with the infidelity of this outer world, and my endeavour to base my pleading upon motives of ordinary prudence and kindness, instead of on the primary duty of loving God.

The iron is in the hills, the iron is in your blood -- permanently and indelibly -- not anything happening from my point of view: it is just there, Ruskin says, I am the one who is seeing, I am the one who will see, I am not imagining anything; the thing is in two places and connected by physical sympathy. This sorting-out of the world's parts into its own society which the human being can observe and learn is a fundamentally magical arrangement.