Friday, December 31, 2010

we have wanted to be too active; we have wanted

I was thinking about late Henry James after an exchange in the comments earlier this month when it occurred to me that the frame of mind I learnt to adopt while I was reading Wings of the Dove was something like Simone Weil's idea of attention --

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all, our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking, anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it. All … faulty connection of ideas … all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth. The cause is always that we have wanted to be too active; we have wanted to carry out a search.

Waiting on God, translated by Emma Craufurd

-- that is -- regarding the book as a landscape and hovering over it rather than attacking -- attentively absorbent -- something that came naturally, after a while -- as if the book itself had caused it -- which it did, or we did, it and I, I and it, in partnership -- go too close to James, try to interpret severely, quickly, and behold, there's nothing there, the more forcefully you attack -- he writes the reverse of whatever is happening, the back of the tapestry -- so the way to explain a Dove or a Golden Bowl is to tell you what it doesn't say -- or take the first words of Roland Barthes' S/Z (translated by Richard Miller) : "There are said to be certain Buddhists whose ascetic practices enable them to see a whole landscape in a bean."

-- and then Jane Gardam, coming at it from the opposite direction -- opposite of the reader -- the direction of the writer -- her preparation -- which is to not prepare -- but to hover --

"I don't have a story in my head to begin with," Gardam explains. "I vaguely know but I can't say more than that. I brood and think, apparently doing nothing for ages and then I write in a huge frenzy."

(Interview with Lucasta Miller)

Weil's attention -- perhaps a heightened and detached brooding -- a religious chicken in spectacles …

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

blocked by a crab

Our host dropped me off in Casa Grande, at a secondhand bookshop where so many of the shelves were labelled Romance that the owners had separated the books into subcategories, so, rows of Harlequin Romance, rows of Paranormal Romance, rows -- and so on -- and then other shelves of Mystery/Thriller and SciFi/Fantasy, and then, on the nonfiction shelves, (smaller than Paranormal Romance), a strange autobiography, amateur-published, written by an American woman who grew up in the West Australian outback on a mission station, speaking the local language -- which was something beginning with W. I don't remember what.

She loved the years she spent killing animals for food with the W children, and the rest of her life up to the point of authorship was lived in North America and misery.

I didn't buy the book, otherwise I'd excerpt passages to support myself, but trust me when I say that this woman's tone was all despair. Why did her missionary parents send her away? Why did the adults in North America beat her? Why couldn't she return to the W? Why, why, was everything so awful, and why was she fated to be so helpless and unhappy? "Why," she says in a thousand different ways, "can't I go back to the place where I was satisfied?" A pair of Canadian foster brothers threatened to make their pet budgerigar flap around her head and she told them that if they did then she'd strangle the bird and eat it.

By the end of the book she is living in Arizona where the desert reminds her of the countryside she believes is her true home, the land of the W. I had the impression that misery had made her both frantic and inert. Her real autobiography was not the book she had written, which was passive, polite, surreptitious, and bewildered. It was a passage from Les Chants de Maldoror.

I am filthy. Mice gnaw me. Swine, when they look at me, vomit. The scabs and sores of leprosy have scaled my skin, which is coated with yellowish pus. I know not river water nor the clouds' dew. From my nape, as from a dungheap, sprouts an enormous toadstool with umbelliferous peduncles. Seated on a shapeless chunk of furniture, I have not moved a limb for four centuries. My feet have taken root in the soil forming a sort of perennial vegetation … filled with vile parasites. My heart, however, is still beating. But how could it beat if the decay and effluvia of my carcase (I dare not say body) did not abundantly feed it? In my left armpit a family of toads has taken up residence, and whenever one of them moves it tickles me. Take care lest one escape and come scratching with its mouth in the interior of your ear: it could next penetrate your brain. In my right armpit there is a chameleon which endlessly chases the toads so as not to die of hunger … Oh! If only I could have defended myself with my paralysed arms -- but I rather think they have turned into legs … My anus has been blocked by a crab.

(Isidore Ducasse, translated by Alexis Lykiard)

Those are the biographer's sentiments, distilled. It is clear that she wrote herself into the wrong book. After volumes of sadness she terminates her life story with pages of Christian instruction -- but why, when no one who reads this book is going to want to live a Christian life? "This is a Christian?" the reader will think. "Then evidently the life of a Christian is one of passive-aggressive misery and pain, which religion does not relieve." It's as if she doesn't know what she's written. There it is on the page, yet she can't take it in. Ducasse's protagonist: "Loss of memory took residence in my imagination when, by the inflexible laws of optics, I happen to be confronted with the failure to recognise my own reflection!"

If only she could have written her autobiography like the Chants (I fantasise this) then the evidence on the page would have been so bald that she wouldn't have been able to ignore it. "To appear before your eyes as I really am," she should have written to the reader, "I shall not cast virtue's mask at your feet for I have never worn it ... and if from the very first you observe my features closely you will recognise me as your respectful disciple in perversity but not as your deadly rival." Bold and fair! Looking back over her own words, she would have risen from her desk and fled the house she shares with husband John (his one memorable act, throwing her tuna casserole at the wall), away to the outback, where she would kill animals for food forever, and live with the W.

Ducasse's protagonist is a fictional character, and she is real, but he is living her life and she is living like a ghost.

But where is he living it? This is the place she needs to go. Not the land of the W.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

in a manner inconsequent and unfounded; the visitor felt

There's no public transport out here in the Arizona countryside, but every now and then I manage to hitch a ride with someone going near a secondhand bookshop. This state has an abundance of Melville, plenty of Twain, multiple copies (at the Mesa Bookmans store) of Zora Neale Hursten's Harlem Renaissance novel, And Their Eyes Were Watching God (all similar too; a nearby school must have it on a reading list), and a good amount of Henry James. I've picked up two-dollar copies of the Sacred Fount and the Ambassadors.

By the third chapter, Ambassadors has already delivered an apogee of fastidious Jamesian sentence-making, a sentence that seems to be trying to, on one hand, look prim, armoured, and fastened in place, and, on the other hand, writhe away off the page or dissolve into mist. It says everything very properly and at the same time you get the feeling that it would prefer not to say anything at all, or somehow avoid having a meaning -- because it takes so long to reach a conclusion, and then, when it arrives, it pulls back. 'Agreeable' becomes a loaded word because it seems to be avoiding something, more vehement perhaps -- or perhaps the character doesn't know, exactly, the word that would describe his feelings just there, so he picks 'agreeable' because it seems to work well enough; he might find out more about those feelings later maybe, after he has spent some time working out whether prepared is the word he needs to use, or if already confirmed would be the right phrase -- in this way he fusses around to distract himself, as if he's trying to get out of the responsibility of finishing his thought.

The discomfort was in a manner contagious, as well as also in a manner inconsequent and unfounded; the visitor felt that unless he should get used to it -- or unless Weymarsh himself should -- it would constitute a menace to his own prepared, his own already confirmed, consciousness of the agreeable.

The nature of the menace is vague. James' menaces are typically vague and potentially endless. (Speaking of: I was lying awake at three a.m. a few nights ago when the Turn of the Screw came into my head, that face pressed against the window, "the hideous author of our woe--the white face of damnation" and that was that for at least half an hour of imagined floating Quints.) Meanwhile the Sacred Fount is the story of a man who decides that he is better than anyone else at detecting secret vampires and spends the rest of the book watching peoples' eyeballs twitch.

There's something of Jane Austen's exactness in James -- the weight he puts on agreeable is the weight that she can set on top of a little word like nice. Those words become mostly punchline or post-preface, like icebergs hiding their keels. "There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis," wrote Walter Benjamin, and James, decompacting, diffusing himself across the ether (or, as this is his universe, creating the ether across which he diffuses himself, so that the medium and the matter floating through it are one and the same, the verb and the noun simultaneous, united, indivisible), is elaborately so chaste that his virginity curdles. Psychological analysis might, at any moment during one of his books, begin, but never does. The story is always taking place away to the side somewhere.

(In the Wings of the Dove a woman's doctor tells her that she is deathly, incurably ill, but this takes place on some plane of existance outside the actual book -- we, the readers, only witness a conversation about the weather. This conversation about the weather is the same as the conversation that tells the woman she is going to die; that is, she understands, from this conversation about the weather, that she is going to die, but the information about her deathly illness was conveyed at a pitch too high for the readers' ears, as if spoken in the language of bats or angels. The woman understood it, and her weird saintliness is confirmed).

I've seen a few Australian authors for sale here, and the sight of those names on the spines surprises me every time, except in the case of Peter Carey and Stead's Man Who Loved Children. Both have been spruiked in the US pretty well, so no need for astonishment. Bookmans had all three of Eliot Pearlmans' books, as well as Les Murray's Subhuman Redneck Poems (and a book in the travel section called Around Australia in 22 Days or similar). In a tiny one-room bookshop at the end of a right-angled arcade in Prescott, north of Phoenix, I found anthologised Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. Carey turned up in both places, and also in a cellar of books underneath a charity shop across the street from the Coolidge post office. You know where this place is because there is an A-frame board on the pavement outside with Cellar of Books written across it next to an arrow. Everything in the town around it looks defunct, but, behold, below, there is a man with a beard and his Cellar of Books, concrete-walled and cold after the warmth outside.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

to form a sufficiently grand, detatched and self-substantial object

Matt Jakubowski in the Quarterly Conversation thinks back over Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet in consternation and rue, and Levi Stahl at his terrific blog wonders if he should take the books off his shelves and read them for the first time. I read Durrell -- I read him to be seduced -- but like anyone who's been brought up on the idea that Othering other people is Not Done, I read him wincing. He Orientalises with joy, he thinks woman are very much from Venus, and he despises grocers. He is a bully, an aesthete, he is certain, he is sure of himself; he says to the reader, "Be in my gang," and he does it rapturously, seeing the world either grand or beautifully stark -- this is the temptation he holds out to us. His tone is both lush and bracing -- lush for his sensuous interests, and bracing because he is mean.*

Durrell works with extremes, like a Romantic, like a Gothic; he deals with aristocrats and peasants, or gods and shepherds, or beauty and filth -- or kindness and cruelty; Jakubowski picks out one scene in which his narrator in the Quartet sees a pleasant Egyptian man throwing away a severed human head -- and he prefers to stay away from the middle-mundane unless he's depreciating it. He Others as a matter of course; it is part of the mode his mind works in. The Other is dramatic, the Other is mysterious, the Other provides him with material for exciting contrasts and strangenesses, sadisms, yes -- take note: the first book of the Quartet is called Justine, and the epigraph? From de Sade. So this is not going to be a kind book. We know that by the first page. Very well. Sadism reaches from the larger gestures of the plot down to fragments of background detail. On the major scale, our narrator is fooled and humiliated, and on the minor scale, an African servant at a party, who appears for perhaps a single sentence, is forced to wear small white gloves on his large black hands.** (One of the schoolgirls in Colette's Claudine books deliberately wears her gloves a size too small. They can be sexual fetish objects, gloves. They can squeeze.) The major and the minor are equally important. Together they create an atmosphere of mystic and pervasive punishment.

Durrell sat at the tail-end, I suspect, of a particular European love for the Ancient World, a Hellenism that was so ordinary in the second half of the 1800s, so little associated with it now, at least in popular memory -- the common picture is one of Victorian gentlemen upright in black, and their women repressed in skirts -- or else of industry, steam power -- but the Greeks turned up all over the place, in erotic fiction, and in the essays of the nonerotic Matthew Arnold, who, echoing the erotics, praised the long-dead ancients for their "exquisite sagacity of taste." ***

"[W]hoever wants to enjoy must take life gaily, in the sense of the ancient world," says Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Wanda in Venus in Furs (1870: translated by Fernanda Savage):

"he dare not hesitate to enjoy at the expense of others; he must never feel pity; he must be ready to harness others to his carriage or his plough as though they were animals. … That was the world of the ancients: pleasure and cruelty, liberty and slavery went hand in hand. People who want to live like the gods of Olympus must of necessity have slaves whom they can toss into their fish-ponds, and gladiators who will do battle, the while they banquet, and they must not mind if by chance a bit of blood bespatters them."****

Wilde's Happy Prince and Dorian Gray stand at the friendly end of this exquisite spectrum; Pierre Louÿs' Aphrodite, with its moments of sexual murder and torture, stands at the cruel end. The Quartet lies between the two. When you've decided that it is your duty, as an artist, as a Decadent, to toss the slaves of moral thought into your fishpond then the ideas you come up with can be -- what's the word I want here? They can have the relief of outrageousness. I laughed at the sharks in Lautreamont.

Jakubowski says that he was in a heroic frame of mind while he loved Durrell uncritically. "I thought I had found another pure and wonderful reading experience." Me too -- that yearning for the heroic, which is also a love of the simple. Sometimes I feel sad, as if I've missed a time I should have been born into (and which never existed) -- the age of the grand, the tragic, the jewelled, the gorgeous. Durrell's ideal artist is an aristocrat of the sensitive, the justified snob who won't bow, the Byronic noblility, boldly laughing. E.R. Eddison, living also in this strain, sees virtue in nothing but heroism, and his fantasies are even more snobbish than Durrell's. (That man's books are granite with a core of mould.) Durrell is a snob -- this is the larger category that contains the racism and antisemitism that Jakubowski observes in him.

How does the reader tolerate it? Durrell keeps us a little stupid, a little begging. There are mysteries. What are they? Our narrator is trying to work out what's going on, but he can't help us, because he doesn't know the answers himself. We're a bit persecuted and kicked around. But always we have the promise of an answer, and we keep going, with faith (or else shut the book and leave). The frisson of privilege comes off the pages, but not perfect privilege. We know some secrets, but not all, or maybe the wrong ones. Through the page Durrell establishes a bullying relationship with his readers; the proof of his control is that they continue to read.

When have I felt the Durrell spell broken? When he explains himself and the explanations are -- wrong. He likes his aphorisms Jakubowski says -- "Durrell’s greatest powers are aphorism and worldly wisdom" -- but his wordly wisdom is, when you stop and examine it, mainly flights of fantasy. (And in the Quartet it is mainly delivered through poor ignorant Darley, wrong about virtually everything.) At one point about three-fourths of the way through the Avignon Quintet he forgets to be recalcitrant and explains his ideas about gnostic sex for pages -- and suddenly he is not Lawrence Durrell any more, assured snob -- he shrivels into an old shab with a pet theory, grabbing your arm on a street corner. It's when he behaves like one of his own women-characters -- mysterious, teasing, refusing to reveal secrets -- that he maintains his hold. He is Justine, he is Darley's Alexandria, shadowy, withdrawn, making false promises. Lawrence Durrell, I thought, embarrassed, reading the Quintet, oh Lawrence Durrell, please don't be sincere. It makes you so boring.

* No one who has ever enjoyed Roald Dahl can afford to turn up their nose at an author for being mean.

** I write 'perhaps' because I don't have the books here. I can't check. They're all in storage. So the details in this post might be wrong. I can't quote. The only Durrell I have on me is a 1962 Poetry of Lawrence Durrell, which I discovered at a Mesa secondhand bookshop on, coincidentally, the same day I read Jakubowski's essay. When I talk about his love of the Greeks I'm really thinking of the poems rather than the Quartet. It's there in the Q but more obvious in the poems. His disdain for Britain comes through in the poetry too, very clearly. Britons who have escaped Britain manage to interest him, but Britain itself is "Pudding Island" where "all as poets were pariahs" and "spring … never comes to stay." (Cities, Plains, and People) When I say that he sneers at grocers I'm remembering a passage in the Quintet.

Jakubowski, discovering the words "ordinary people" in one of Durrell's sentences, identifies this as a slight, and apologises for it, suggesting that the author was an idealist, but I would argue for snob. Why? Because I have seen him, in other parts of his work, refer to "ordinary people" with a more loaded and unnecessary term, "the common," and because his tone, when he makes his jabs at grocers, and (also in the Quintet) the Cockney accent, is lazily dismissive -- not elite rage, not idealistic sorrow, but the old sneer at those who engage in what used to be called trade.

"The common" crops up in one of the poems in his Selected Poems 1935-1963. I don't remember the title, but the poet is celebrating an aristocratic and wise Roman who sits in his country villa, contemplating life, away from "the envy ... of the common."

*** "The Greeks felt, no doubt, with their exquisite sagacity of taste, that an action of present times was too near them … to form a sufficiently grand, detatched and self-substantial object for a tragic poem." (Preface to Arnold's Poems.)

**** It was in Sacher-Masoch's surname that the Austro-German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing found the word masochism. Hannah Arendt, describing the artists of the postwar early twentieth century in her Origins of Totalitarianism, refers to their "antihumanist, antiliberal, antiindividualist, and anticultural instincts ... their brilliant and witty praise of violence, power and cruelty," and goes on to say, "They read not Darwin but the Marquis de Sade," adding, in a footnote, "In France, since 1930, the Marquis de Sade has become one of the favoured authors of the literary avant-garde." Durrell, despising literary Britain, aligned himself with the overseas avant-garde. The first book of the Quartet was published in 1957.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

the product of this fascination

Twelve months ago I published a list of ten favourite quotes, all of them from books I'd read that year. This week I decided I'd publish a list for 2010. I've left out Proust again, deliberately, along with everything I've already excerpted onto this blog (and I think I've already used my favourite pieces of Ruskin, so no him, and no Ernestine Hill -- and no Anita Brookner either, because I've decided that her intelligence (which nobody can deny) doesn't come across well in quotes. In her books she's thoughtful but in quotes she sounds arch or non sequiturial. You can't tell the quality of an author through their quotes. Henry James quotes badly. Like trying to quote a cloud. His moments need masses behind them).

The moment was gone by; there had been no ecstasy, no gladness even; hardly half an hour had passed, and few words had been spoken, yet with that quickness in weaving new futures which belongs to women whose notions have kept them in habitual fear of consequences, Mrs Transome thought she saw with all the clearness of demonstration that her son's return had not been a good for her, in the sense of making her any happier.

My griefe, quoth I, is called Ignorance,
Which makes me differ little from a brute:
For animals are led by natures lore,
Their seeming science is but customes fruit;
When they are hurt they haue a sense of paine;
But want the sense to cure themselues againe.

And euer since this griefe did me oppresse,
Instinct of nature is my chiefest guide;
I feele disease, yet know not what I ayle,
I finde a sore, but can no salue prouide;
I hungry am, yet cannot seeke for foode;
Because I know not what is bad or good.

Hence the predicament of the poor after self-preservation has been assured is that their lives are without consequence, and that they remain excluded from the light of the public realm where excellence can shine; they stand in darkness wherever they go.

It would be easy to enumerate many important and splendid gifts in which Butler as a novelist was deficient; but his deficiency serves to lay bare one gift in which he excelled, which is his point of view. To have by nature a point of view, to stick to it, to follow it where it leads, is the rarest of possessions and lends value even to trifles.

For human intercourse … is seen to be haunted by a spectre. We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly, we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life. In this direction fiction is truer than history, because it goes beyond the evidence and each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence … [Fictional characters] are people whose secret lives are visible or might be visible: we are people whose secret lives are invisible.

Throughout the seventeenth century we find a deepening fascination with the complexity of the ego, complexities not to be disciplined or even negated in the interest of immediacies of religious encounter, but on the contrary to be mapped and cultivated for their own sake. The prose novel, whose beginnings are so characteristically those of the fantasy journey, or of the epistolary dialogue, is the product of this fascination. And many of its early triumphs … directly embody the techniques and rhetorical conventions developed in previous periods of religious ethical introspection.

The mistress of the Establishment holds no place in our memory; but, rampant on one eternal door-mat, in an eternal entry long and narrow, is a puffy pug-dog, with a personal animosity towards us, who triumphs over Time. The bark of that baleful Pug, a certain radiating way he had of snapping at our undefended legs, the ghastly grinning of his moist black muzzle and white teeth, and the insolence of his crisp tail curled like a pastoral crook, all live and flourish. From an otherwise unaccountable association of him with a fiddle, we conclude that he was of French extraction, and his name FIDELE.

From the Renaissance onward marvels were no longer those from distant lands … curiosities or the relics of saints, but the wonders of the human body and its recesses that had been secret until then.

Magic is the rudimentary form of that causal thinking that ultimately liquidates magic.

For Prospero remains the evergreen
Cell by the margins of the sea and land,
Who many cities, plains, and people saw
Yet by his open door
In sunlight fell asleep
One summer with the Apple in his hand.

George Eliot: Felix Holt, the Radical, Rachel Speight: The Dreame, Hannah Arendt: On Revolution, Virginia Woolf: In a Library, E.M. Forster: Aspects of the Novel, George Steiner: On Difficulty and Other Essays, Charles Dickens: Our School, Umberto Eco: The Infinity of Lists, Theodor Adorno translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor: Aesthetic Theory, Lawrence Durrell: Cities, Plains, and People.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

profuse, even if inaccurate

I was on the plane before I had time to read a book again, and the book I read was Henry Treece's Dylan Thomas. "This," says the flap inside the cover, "is a fully revised edition of the first full-sized critical work on Dylan Thomas to appear." The revised edition came out in 1956; the first edition came out in 1949. Thomas died in 1953, riddled with bronchitis and pneumonia. "His stanza patterns, though individual, are usually uniform, and his use of balanced alliteration and half-rhyme is unoriginal," writes Treece. "His technical innovation lies rather in his vocabulary, in his imagery, which affects the reader primarily and principally through the emotions."

Treece pitches up and down between praise and condescension. He writes like a man who wonders if his opinion might be unpopular. He thinks it might be -- he isn't sure. He hedges. He says: "Such exciting rhetoric and imagery grow out of a rich and profuse, even if inaccurate, word-sense." The book is filled with bits of business like that "even if inaccurate" -- the good opinion being modified and qualified before it can take its final shape -- the whole thing muffled, or puzzled, maybe, or baffled, as the writer keeps coming up against the idea that Thomas, a simple poet to like, is a difficult poet to write about. Treece's evaluations can be heroic, "He rolled [words] on his tongue as a lesser spirit might roll a wad of chewing gum," but afterwards he pulls back. A paragraph later he's calling Thomas' vocabulary "limited."

And these qualifications do seem to me to be pullings back, not simply continuations of the critic's opinion, because one tone follows the other, regularly, all the way through the book. There's a pattern to Treece's criticism and it goes like this --

1. Dylan Thomas was a natural, musical poet, unique, a genre of one,


2. Dylan Thomas was underdeveloped. Dylan Thomas was unadventurous. Dylan Thomas kept using the same repertoire of tricks

-- stated over and over again in different ways, this one see-saw rocking away under everything else -- such as -- the comparisons between Thomas and the Surrealists, the examination of Thomas' debt to Gerard Manly Hopkins, and the consideration of Thomas as a prose writer. I came away from Dylan Thomas believing that Treece's one great discovery was this: he could not deal with Dylan Thomas. He couldn't dissect him, he couldn't praise him, he couldn't dismiss him, and so his decision to write about Thomas trapped him in a cycle of movement that pushed him forward and back, first, the poet is good, then, and yet the poet is not good.

Treece (I thought, reading) is smart enough to see the bind he's in, he wrestles with it, he keeps trying to banish it, he comes at it from new directions, he sees other people wrestling with it,* and he's still caught in it. He doesn't have Thomas, but Thomas has him.

The next book I started was Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, with its theories about thought, about the human habit of sorting information into categories so that it seems united and can be judged. "But we can reduce all acts of the understanding to judgments, so that understanding may be represented as the faculty of judging." And looking back through the lens of Kant, it occurs to me that Treece's problems might be described mathematically. The critic has approached his book with a critical sense that divides writers into x and y. A poet who writes in a certain way is sufficient and admirable and should be discussed in certain critical terms, and this is x. A poet who writes in certain other ways is insufficient and must be discussed in certain other terms, and this is y. A critique shouldn't =0 but x+y=0.

Treece can come up with endless ways to turn Thomas into a y -- "His stanza patterns, though individual, are usually uniform, and his use of balanced alliteration and half-rhyme is unoriginal", his vocabulary is "limited," he is unadventurous, he is passive, he refuses to be influenced by Hart Crane** -- and yet he is also an x. The two categories shouldn't coexist but in Thomas they do. He is neither sufficient nor insufficient. Then how can Treece discuss him? The answer is this see-saw.

But as I read the Antimony of Pure Reason section of Kant's book I concluded that a better response would have been this: stop trying to find ways to answer the question, Is Dylan Thomas x or y, and ask yourself instead, Is this an answerable question?

On the evidence of Dylan Thomas you'd have to conclude, No. Treece could have escaped his trap if he had begun the process of evaluation by questioning his own understanding of criticism. What is criticism? How does a critic sound? What do they think? And should he try to mimic them or not? (His book is a failure of mimicry.) Would it help him to reach his goal? What is his goal? I, Henry Treece: what is my purpose here, as I think about writing Dylan Thomas? I am not a critic, I am a man with an aim; I am Henry Treece. (Drums and trumpets.) Now what? (Matthew Arnold: "to have the sense of creative activity is the greatest happiness and the greatest proof of being alive, and it is not denied to criticism to have it; but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge.")

My Everyman copy of Pure Reason is a revision by Vasilis Politis of the 1887 translation by J. M. D. Meiklejohn.

* "He had the critics confused too, for, whether or not they approved of his work, its force demanded their consideration."

** a weird moment. In summary:

Treece: Dylan Thomas has been influenced by Hart Crane

Dylan Thomas: No I haven't.

Treece: Ssh.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Warnie Hat

There'll be no post here this week. We're due out of this house tomorrow and still we're having conversations like this:

M: Should I keep this?

Me: Where else are you going to find a Summer of Cricket Warnie hat?

The paint on the walls is so old that I'm not sure whether the brown I'm cleaning off is filth or its natural colour. Large cracks in the plaster, but they were there to start with. The house spider has gone into hiding.

Some friends of ours are launching an album in Melbourne tonight. It's their fourth, I think. Dreampop, with dulcimer and flute and so forth. Nick is a demon on the strings. I'll exert all sinews to be there, but the wall-filth is calling.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

classification of the giraffe

All of my spare time this week has been taken up with packing. I've barely opened a book. I've barely read a thing. Instead I turn on the television. Almost without fail I end up with Rolf Harris telling me about dying penguins. His latest dying penguin is named Tilda. Tilda is a chick too young to swim or feed herself. She still has her fluffy grey waistcoat of down. Tilda screams for food. She is starving. "She makes her unique call," says Rolf. Her father is discovered by the camera some way distant, hunched over in a drainpipe. He has forgotten her. Barely fledged, she risks the ocean. We confidently expect to see her drowned by the next show.

I'm in the middle of Ephemera, which is, oh, boxes and boxes of papers: programmes for old plays, a bus ticket to Narita airport, a paper mask covered with dry mud, a postcard from Chloride, Arizona, a thesis titled Subspecies classification of the giraffe using DNA analysis with particular reference to the Melbourne Zoo population by Rachel Hawkin, and a doggerel poem written years ago while I was playing the aunt in an amateur production of Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler
Wilful gorgon
Went and married
Tesman, Jørgen.

Hedda Gabler
Won't be fair
Hates poor Thea
For her hair.

Hedda Gabler
Hates his aunt.
He says, "Love her."
She says, "Can't."

Hedda Gabler
Winks at Brack
Ruins Løvborg
(He loves back.)

Hedda Gabler
Babe impending
Shoots herself
And that's the ending.

Jørgen Tesman's
Got some brains
In arrear ...

He gets with Thea.

There are ribbons, stickers, pencil sharpeners, a volunteer worker's badge from the Zoo, a letter from L. who is dead (seeing his name I thought, "I haven't talked to him in years. I should --" and then I remembered why), a tight green pincushion surrounded by Chinese figures holding hands, a ball of red wool, a rubber monster that lights up within when you squeeze its stomach, a smiling yellow dinosaur, a paper doll, and a photograph of someone else's cat.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

opened up, with a little statue in the corner

The Melbourne Arts Festival ended on the 23rd, but a Festival show called the Carnival of Mysteries went on for a few nights more. M. bought tickets. This Carnival, even though it never mentioned Christina Stead, was closer to her in spirit than I Write What I See.* Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith (the creators) might never have heard of Stead for all I know, but they had her willingness to go too far and to risk being misconstrued -- an act of faith in the audience, which was Stead's faith also.**

When I come across a production like this it reminds me -- and this is one of the reasons why I keep returning to Stead as well -- it reminds me that there is sometimes value in going beyond the point that seems normal and comfortable, and that, in fact, things can improve if you go too far (or put it like this: some ideas seem designed to be taken too far, as sharks are designed to swim), and if you have faith and dedication, for example, Moira Finucane standing naked on a low pedestal in a dim tent, her face tilted upward and rapt into the light, with the recorded sound effects of calving glaciers moaning and roaring around her, and the actor herself booming, "Don't touch it. It will burn you," then lowering her chin and opening her mouth and eyes in rectangles until she had the face of the Parco Dei Mostri ogre -- piling one idea on another -- a strange and archetypal figure, with her fingers splayed and tents of light descending between them to the floor.

There is no virtue in doing a thing like this halfheartedly. Either do it with a whole heart or look silly.

Stead, who rarely wrote halfheartedly, worked in an archetypal way too: Henny Pollit is a mother, but she's also a fairytale witch, "a charming slatternly witch" living in "a cave of Aladdin," Marpurgo in the Beauties and Furies is a seductive demon, and Edward in the People With the Dogs is a charmed prince.

Beyond Sam stood the physical world, and beyond Henny -- what? A great mystery.

By appealing to archetypes the show invites the audience to step into the roles played by Henny's children, witnesses to some colossal mystery, strange displays, unexplained behaviour that seems significant because it is being carried out with great conviction.

The Carnival's different acts were staged in tents and alcoves with fanciful names, for instance, The Tent of Miracles, The Midnight Pleasure Garden, while the performers were named The Handsomest Dancer Ever Born, The Man They Couldn't Hang, The Gothic Horror Librarian, The Queen of Abyssinia, Eye In Hand, The Daughters of Rasputin, but the execution was not whimsical -- by which I mean that it was not light, and not jokey -- any more than Henny is a joke witch.

They staged the Carnival in a downstairs room divided into different, smaller areas, the Tent at the centre, the Shrine in a little white space at the back, the Sideshow Alley like a set of boxes only slightly more significant than cupboards, enough to seat six or eight people each, with the performers about a foot away, clawing at the walls. There were three or four short acts running at the same time. These performances went for ten minutes, more or less, and after one act was finished, the people who had been inside that room came out, looked around, and chose another door.

If you ran all of those acts back to back (reckoned Finucane in interviews) then the Carnival would last for six hours, but the audience was only allowed in for an hour and forty-five minutes. After that there was a mass sing-along and you trailed away, up the pale square staircase, back to the street. So everyone saw a different Carnival. M. saw the Ice Queen, and so did I, but he was watching a magician disappear in one part of the Sideshow while I was watching Yumi Umiumare crawl across the floor in another part, and neither of us saw Garçon Gigolo (who, it's said, took off all of his clothes and stared you in the eye) or Eye In Hand -- what was Eye In Hand?

Then there were the decorations, for instance, a set of eyeholes cut unobtrusively into a wall, and if you bent down and looked through them you saw a dioramic painting of a grotesque battle. Eleven artists decorated the Tent of Miracles, eleven different painters, but I was so busy looking at the Shrine and the peepholes that I missed the work of every single one of the eleven.

“You know, Celeste, I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature," said Proust to his last housekeeper. "That is why it is never finished. Even when the construction is completed there is always some decoration to add, or a stained-glass window or a capital or another chapel to be opened up, with a little statue in the corner" -- In Search of Lost Time being similar to the Carnival in this way: a long, long experience embroidered with thousands of tiny moments you might miss.

As you come out the other side the person next to you asks, "Did you like the painting through the peepholes?" or, "Wasn't it funny when the Guermantes decided to tour the fjords?" and you reply, "What and where was that?"

One blogger who reviewed Carnival wrote, "[U]nfortunately the limited time means that you will not see all of the performers," but the show was obviously designed that way (so it was not a misfortune but a plan) -- and that's one difference between this and a book -- you can go back to the book, but the Carnival ended last night, and I never will find out what Garçon Gigolo looked like with his clothes off (with them on he was tall, thin, straight, and bald, like a baton in a wrapper).

* Darryl Emmerson's Christina Stead biographical play. I wrote a post about it two weeks ago.

** Letty Fox.

Friday, October 22, 2010

a lodge of leaves

Enter a spirit. It is M. You have a lot of books, he says. Avaunt! Exits. I'm boxing books again. All of my Australian authors are coming with me because I'm afraid I won't be able to replace them in the US. The Americans have heard of David Malouf, so I'm not afraid of losing him, but Elizabeth Jolley seems to be an unknown quantity, in spite of the quote from the Washington Post that sometimes appears on her book jackets ("Elizabeth Jolley joins the handful of Australian writers of whom it may be said that their books are able to alter the direction of one's inner life" -- Elizabeth Ward, Washington Post), and so I will hold on to her -- and to the Selected Poems of Gwen Harwood as well, and the Selected Poems of J.S. Harry. Harry writes in bursts or hiccups, with dashes and extra spaces in the middles of lines -- or just short lines --

The butcher's dreams
of sleep 're transposed
onto the carcass of a sheep.
Half-asleep on his feet
he says he often dreams
he is the sheep - but alive -
and somebody else
is doing the cutting

(from Behind the Slice)

-- and often the poem ends in a pair of steps, one line, two lines, "and somebody else / is doing the cutting," with other lines wriggling around above it, fiddling a little ("he is the sheep - but alive -") as they search for the place they want to go, and then in two swift plunges they get there. In losing a lover / finding a place to keep seagoats the two lines are "it is months / since you started walking;" in the wanderer it's "so comes rain / to a lodge of leaves," and sometimes it's one line instead of two, which completes the poem with a stronger thud -- "This poem ends by a pile of cooling scrap" (Report, From The Outlands, Mating Habits There Being In A State Of Flux).

In other poems none of this applies, but there is usually a sense of wandering and then deciding in her work, and also a strangeness, verging on Nonsense --

1) Into the valley of death last night
six hundred/ butterflies/ our belov'd
field specimens/ they were carrying
duskyfoot woodrats

(from The Non-Naturalistic Weapon There should be gaps between "specimens/" and "they" and before "(loaded)" but I'm not sure how to insert them.)

If I try to imagine her sentences taken out of the poems I can see that they're usually clear and decisive, but the spaces, dashes, and other punctuation (more prevalent than they must seem from the examples I've quoted here) turn them into tentative bees, not sure where they should set themselves down. Instead they dart out in stabs. Harwood's poems are tighter, slower, more elegant, unhurried (next to Harry's skidding surface breathlessness), and they tend to take place in definite pieces of scenery. Often there will be a person, and this person will be carrying out an activity in a landscape. The landscape will be established quite firmly.

I dream I stand once more
in Ann Street by the old
fire station. The palms
like feather dusters move

(from Dust to Dust)

or from Home of Mercy

By two and two the convent girls are walking
at the neat margin of the convent grass
into the chapel

or from A Postcard

Snow crusts the boughs' austere entanglement

Once she has settled the reader's feet on the ground she goes on to describe a change, or a revelation, or an embitterment. The solid beginning takes on the role of a stepping stone. There is the very beautiful and dense Sea Anemones, with its two colours, first grey

Grey mountains, sea and sky. Even the misty
Seawind is grey. I walk on lichened rock
In a kind of late assessment, call it peace.

then red.

Then the anemones, scarlet, gouts of blood.

and with that, the poet goes from one plain word for everything around her, "grey," to no language at all, nothing adequate -- she is burst open --

There is a word I need, and earth was speaking.
I cannot hear.

Then she is earthed again, she regains her body, and there is a sort of seeking through resistant elements, cold and hardness.

Kneeling on rock, I touch them through cold water

Or an act of penitence. The peace is undone, there is no more lichen attached flat to rocks, but the anemones remind her of a baby's lips, and, "I woke once, with my palm across your mouth" and within a few lines the poet seems to have come to the conclusion that the peace of line three was not a desirable peace, but a closing-down of memory, and that the full life is a stimulated life: "Anemos, wind. The spirit where it will." The anemones appear to be inanimate but they are not. They are engaged in a struggle. "Not flowers, no, animals that must eat or die." She is condemned to this too, apparently, she either struggles, and sees, and has these memories about babies' lips and palms and spirit, or else she goes into the peace, and suffers a kind of death. Blood throughout the poem. Harwood is a romantic, often rueful, with the kind of alertness that seems always ready to come out in comedy.

Quite often in some trendy quarter
the passion to redecorate
those areas concerned with water
results in an expanse of slate.
Cork tiling's warmer, vinyl's neater.
Slate's forty dollars a square metre.
In kitchen, laundry, loo, I see
The stuff the state school gave us free

(from Class of 1927)

Born and raised in Queensland, she moved to Tasmania after her marriage. The grey sky and beach in Sea Anemones are probably chilly Tasmanian.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

the girls in their ordinary costumes

On Sunday afternoon I took a break from the boxes and went over to Trades Hall on Lygon Street to see Darryl Emmeron's play about Christina Stead, I Write What I See. Emmerson directed as well as wrote, and an actor named Olivia Brown plays Stead. Dressed in old-fashioned dark blue jacket and skirt, with black polished shoes (the kind of outfit you can see Stead wearing in her adult photographs), she delivers a biographical monologue with the facts placed in chronological order, beginning a few years after the author's birth (1902), and ending in 1968 or 1969, soon after the death of Stead's husband, William Blech. In the final moments of the play she says, "Bill," in a lingering voice, then picks up a boxy suitcase, turns to her right, aims herself straight down the wings, and walks offstage. Pause, darkness, light, applause. People around me said positive things to one another: "Now wasn't that marvellous?"

I wasn't the ideal audience member for I Write, I decided, as I was watching it, because I knew Stead's life well enough to wonder why he'd decided to leave certain facts in and other facts out, and what was motivating him on the whole, besides a craving for the life story of a writer he admires. Emmerson puts it down to passion. "I am passionate that the lives and work of artists can be presented on the stage. Their childhoods, the stance they take up towards other people, the decision to encourage their own creativity, the ambition, quiet or otherwise, that lies behind their decision, where their lives and art lead them, these are all of great interest to me."

The words "passion" and "passionate" have been set in motion around this play. The director uses them, the publicity uses them ("Her fiction, passionate and often confronting ..."), and Brown-Stead uses them -- but passion was one thing I missed in her performance. She stood neatly, she tilted her ankle and planted her foot (heel first, then toe, deliberately on the stage-boards) she sat on a white cane chair with hands laid on knees, but I never saw anything beyond or beneath -- transcending -- this neat behaviour, nothing to give us a sign that here was a woman whose Man Who Loved Children was described by Clifton Fadiman as "Little Women rewritten by a demon," or whose For Love Alone prompted a reviewer at the British Listener to label her "a fiery comet" or who devoted herself to Nietzsche as a teenager, or who could write with a furious combination of detail and gusto, even in her private letters, and with so much lust for lists and beauties -- red silks and rich cloths, guts, muck, and romance.

The workers came from four sections of the city, with their massed flags, beautiful things, red silk and silk Italian flags, gold fringed, with streamers in various colours, embroidered names of sections, Communist and other sections of the Garibaldi 'Fronte Populaire', many carrying flowers, the girls in their ordinary costumes, blouse skirts and coloured sweaters (green, blue, scarlet, puce ...

(from a letter to Leon and Pilar Libenson, 1948)

When Brown-Stead had to recite something like that then she lifted her voice and made it a little loftier, drew words out in a way that said, "I think this is beautiful," but her diction was writerly-rounded, and the atmosphere was pleasantly magical rather than intense. It was not exciting -- it was nice. Stead had been whitewashed. The facts that make it into this biography are ones the audience will not have to struggle to approve of. She had a book banned in 1947 by the puritanical Australian censors, and this seems charming and progressive now; we spend a while hearing about it. Flirting with other women's husbands is not charming -- and we don't hear about it, even though it's relevant to one of the themes of the play, Stead's veneration of love. We spend a solid amount of time reviewing her childhood, but her lifelong socialist sympathies come into the story at a glancing sprint and leave so quickly that I wonder how many of the audience members who didn't already know about them remember that they were mentioned at all.

"I am not ... political," she wrote in 1942 for a book called Twentieth Century Authors, "but on the side of those who have suffered oppression, injustice, coercion, prejudice, and have been harried from birth." These people occur throughout her fiction, and some of the books, Cotters' England, for example, and Seven Poor Men of Sydney, concentrate on them exclusively. The audience for I Write What I See learns about love instead, and the angrier books, A Little Tea, A Little Chat, Miss Herbert, Cotters', vanish completely.

Her life has been streamlined, and this streamlining means that we lose nuances of awkwardness. Brown's performance took Stead at face value. There were none of those uneasy moments when you realise that someone is saying something but doesn't quite mean it, or that there's more to the situation than they're willing to admit. This doesn't jibe with the picture of Stead that comes out in the two biographies that have been written about her life, or the sometimes-cagey person who seems to lie behind her letters. One example: in Christina Stead: a Life of Letters, Chris Williams spends two pages trying to puzzle out Stead's communication with her stepmother after the publication of Man. "In this letter Christina perhaps tried to make amends for her severe characterization of 'the man who loved children' in the novel ... Christina did want to make peace but she could not seem to allow herself to do it ..." and so on.

The set was simple and useful -- two chairs to sit on, a typewriter, two suitcases to remind you that the author travelled away from her homeland in her twenties and lived on three different continents. The role of Stead's favourite wooden marionette Nello was played by a white-faced Muppet, anachronistic, but a canny reinvention because it allowed Brown-Stead to interview herself. Here the Stead character was most vulnerable. When Nello asked a question she didn't want to answer she withdrew her hand from his head. But even here, mortally challenged, her emotion was closer to a snit or a sulk.

Pictures were sometimes projected on the back curtain to augment the script. Brown-Stead talked about her lustful and frustrated teenhood; voila, some nudes appeared, Norman Lindsay's Spring's Innocence, a reminder that she wasn't the only Australian in the 1920s who wanted more sex in her life. (Lindsay had a novel banned by the Australian censors too, Redheap (1930).) Sound design was minimal and might as well not have been there. For example: Stead-Brown tells us that she found a job in an office and a typewriter rattles for a minute, then stops.

I had wanted something different. But, as I said, I wasn't the audience Emmerson was looking for. My ideas about Christina Stead were not completely congruent with his, and I Write didn't persuade me to change my mind. The play is about her but I don't think it is in sympathy with her. "The essence of style, in literature, for me, is experiment, invention, 'creative error'," she wrote. Read her books and you can see that she is willing to take risks, she is willing to seem too verbose, and too overblown, and overemotional, and to write about the kind of subject matter that saw Letty Fox labelled Lewd and Smut. In I Write, Brown-Stead writes "to be loved." Which, said in Olivia Brown's most wistfullest voice, seems too simple, and too sweet.

Friday, October 15, 2010

trudging along the road, advancing upon the estate

We're packing for the move to the US, and I've been reading some of my unread books to find out if I should keep them or get rid of them. I was going through Theodore Roszak's The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein when, near the end, I came across this sentence: "Today, reading the Countess de Genlis, I look up from the page to see a lone figure trudging along the road, advancing upon the estate."

Then (as it has before) my mind jumped to another sentence in another book, one from Titus Groan, a sentence about a man on a horse riding away from the castle in the distance. The reader never knows the name of this man and we never hear about him again. He exists for that one sentence, and then he is gone. A number of items like this are dotted throughout the book, tiny moments of acute detail that have the effect of drawing my attention aside from the plot and concentrating it briefly before letting it go. I find this calming, stilling; it throws the events of the plot into a certain perspective -- "Look," it says, "while you're paying so much attention to those people, another story, just as interesting, is happening in this other direction. You will never see it, but it is there."

"It is difficult, in post-war English writing, to get away with big rhetorical gestures," wrote Anthony Burgess about Titus Groan, "Peake manages it because, with him, grandiloquence never means diffuseness; there is no musical emptiness in the most romantic of his descriptions." I believe these moments of drawing-aside serve a purpose there too, cooling the blood, not distancing the reader, but telling them, "The world of this book is large, and you are small in it." Not pulling you away, then, but working to embed you.

The similarity between the two sentences was this: in both instances I saw the figure clearly in my mind, then a patch of landscape around the figure, as if the figure itself had brought that landscape into existence. The area of illumination was roughly circular or oval, and around the edges it faded into a black fog that surrounded it to the edges of my vision. I could see that ink-coloured darkness as clearly as I saw the figure in the landscape. My eyes were fixed on this small space. As I saw the man in Elizabeth Frankenstein, I thought, "A point of simplicity." Why simplicity? I decided that it must be thanks to a post I read at the Wuthering Expectations blog a short while ago -- the last of a series of posts on the subject of beauty. I read this: "I now see my problem: I want “beauty” to be both simpler and more complex than it is." Simplicity, I thought, and concentrating on a small area.

Then I remembered something else. In the opening of an essay about a journey to Moscow he undertook in the mid-1920s, Walter Benjamin wrote --

But, equally, this is why the visit [to Moscow] is so exact a touchstone for foreigners. It obliges everyone to choose his standpoint. Admittedly, the only real guarantee of a correct understanding is to have chosen your position before you came. In Russia above all, you can only see if you have already decided ... the question at issue is not which reality is better or which has greater potential. It is only: Which reality is inwardly convergent with truth? ... Only he who clearly answers these questions is "objective." ... But someone who wishes to decide "on the basis of facts" will find no basis in the facts.

"I wonder if beauty is like this Moscow of his," I thought, "and you can "only see" after you've chosen your standpoint, or after you've charmed yourself (in an existentialist way) with an idea of yourself as a thing, a solid, fixed, and impossible object -- a person who is certain." Ruskin (discussed in Wuthering Expectations' posts) had his standpoint: his beauty was a theological beauty, its existence was evidence of the divine, and from there he could discuss a beautiful painting as if it were not only attractive, but also morally good. Theological critical theory led him (Wuthering shows us with a diagram) to compare natural curves: here is a leaf, here is a glacier, here are their curves, God's work! The characteristic tone of Ruskin's writing is that of certainty. One thing is noble, another is wicked, a third had a chance to be noble but it took a wrong turn. "Thus treated, drapery is indeed noble; but it is as an exponent of other and higher things. As that of gravitation, it has especial majesty, being literally the only means we have of fully representing this mysterious natural force of earth ... But drapery trusted to its own merits and given for its own sake ... is always base," he writes in The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

Losing his faith in the late 1850s he judged himself afterwards "stunned — palsied — utterly helpless —" By 1869 he was trying to find simplicity in his new state. "That I am no more immortal than a gnat, or a bell of heath, all nature, as far as I can read it, teaches me, and on that conviction I have henceforward to lead my gnat's or heath's life."

Ruskin discovered Beauty one July evening as he was lying next to a fountain. A storm struck, and from his prone position he saw a gathering of pyramids standing still.

Suddenly, there came in the direction of Dome 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 vapour parted before its fall, pierced by the whirlwind of its motion; the gap widened, the dark shade melted away on either side; and, like a risen spirit casting off its garment of corruption, and flushed with eternity of life, the Aiguilles of the south broke through the black foam of the storm clouds. One by one, pyramid above pyramid, the mighty range of its companions shot off their shrouds, and took to themselves their glory — all fire — no shade — no dimness. Spire of ice — dome of snow — wedge of rock — all fire in the light of the sunset, sank into the hollows of the crags — and pierced through the prisms of the glaciers, and dwelt within them — as it does in clouds. The ponderous storm writhed and moaned beneath them, the forests wailed and waved in the evening wind, the steep river flashed and leaped along the valley; but the mighty pyramids stood calmly — in the very heart of the high heaven — a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold — filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God. And then I learned — what till then I had not known — the real meaning of the word Beautiful.

So it goes in Titus Groan and Gormenghast too, the massive edifice of Gormenghast Castle is always there, solidly, through every kind of weather, floods and snow, "the mighty pyramids stood calmly," a static constant behind the moving figure of the enigmatic man on his horse (whatever he is doing, it must relate somehow to the castle -- thinks the reader -- for everything does), and giving ballast to the various ridiculousnesses in the books; Irma Prunesquallor, for example, object of the author's mockery, decides to give herself breasts by arranging a hot water bottle in her dress -- and my thought is -- who manufactured that bottle and where did they get the rubber? But everything is excused by the existence of the Castle.

Ruskin sometimes wrote nonsense too, not intentionally, as Peake does, but, seemingly, as a consequence of his mind flying away on the wings of theocriticism. He makes his madder announcements -- that cave fish are ugly because we cannot see them and that therefore God had no reason to make them attractive, or that iron reaches a personal apotheosis when it rusts -- with the same tone of conviction that he uses when he discusses ideas that are uncontroversial. Give yourself a solid thing to stand on and you can talk about anything you like. Imaginary conversation: "Mr Ruskin, can you tell us about the interior of Mars?" "Indeed! Sir, it is not beautiful. If God had made it beautiful, He would have put it where we could see it."

I came across those Ruskin quotes in this article at the Victorian Web. The ugly cave fish appear in The Seven Lamps of Architecture and rust is mentioned in The Two Paths.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

with sustainable ply

I'm about to mention the grand final again. At first I thought this was going to be a footnote to the last post, but it grew. We were at a Melbourne Fringe show on Friday night, a dance piece called Intimate Exposure, and at one point in this show the dancers began to speak. "I've got wool in my mouth," one of them said, and then, looking at a member of the audience who was holding a glass of wine, "I wish I had a drink." A different one commented on a woman's handbag. Then one of them was turning with her arms in the air, and she said, "Another grand final!"

I don't know if that was the line exactly, but it was something like that -- another grand final or the grand final again, or two grand finals or similar. She was talking about the replay on Saturday, which Collingwood won by fifty-six points.

That was going to be the end of my story, but then, thinking about the dance, I began to think about the art in the gallery above the rooms where the performance was taking place, and about the labels the artists had written for the exhibition -- there was a paragraph propped up next to each piece. We'd been up there the evening before, and I'd noticed that the language the artists used to describe their own art was sometimes inflated, and sometimes vague, as if they were describing an idea of an object, and not the concrete thing itself. Perhaps you could say they were describing their hopes for the thing, as if the thing itself had only been thought of but not constructed, as if it had remained in the realm of the possible without entering the material world, or as if they pined for what it had once been, an imaginary thing.* For example, one of the artists said that her work was "[a reinterpretation of] Hieronymous Bosch's triptych of humanity from creation to damnation.

Scenes from present existence and an imagined future are depicted in repurposed propylene. Cohabiting with sustainable ply they cast an elegant facade for the purpose of illumination."

It looked like a chandelier made of cardboard with white balls strung off the sides. Automatically I began to fret over the language. Why "cohabiting," I wondered. Of course they were cohabiting -- or coexisting -- she'd attached them to one another with string -- they were inanimate objects -- they had no choice -- why use a word that gave them agency? What did she mean by "cast an elegant façade"? The chandelier was casting a shadow, but a shadow isn't a façade, and casting a shadow doesn't serve "the purpose of illumination" except inadvertently -- shadows are a byproduct of illumination. Did she mean something closer to "constitute"? "Together they constitute a façade"? But why "façade"? The curved shape cut from sustainable ply wasn't the façade of the object, it was the object itself. If the chandelier was a façade then the real object of the artwork (its core, its true self, the meat behind the mask) was the lightbulb.

So I fretted and picked.

The obvious answer is, she's not sure about the word façade, she used the word "cohabit" not because the ply and the balls are creatures choosing their habitats but because she wanted to let the organizers know that she was in sympathy with the theme of the exhibition ("The city has a face, the country has a soul," or, the creep of the suburbs from the city into the country), and the word "cast" seemed appropriate to chandeliers because chandeliers throw out light. The application got a little muddled, but the idea is there. She's circling it. She reminds me of -- who does she remind me of? She reminds me of Françoise. Her written English is Françoise's spoken French, but where Proust attributes Francoise's inventions to her peasant background (picking up unfamiliar words she uses them wherever they seem to fit, placing them firmly like Humpty Dumpty ('"When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less"')) this artist seems to have come at hers from the opposite direction, from years at university or collage, or some other place where your superiors tell you to produce a work in the style of a well-known artist and then explain your process and goals. You, the student, you will be judged on this. And so, living in a universe where nothing is certain, you decide that you need an advanced degree of protection (Greek gods, if you could, but they're no longer available) and you erect a bulwark of words. Protect me words! you say. Make me sound smart, thoughtful, and accomplished! Propel me, O words, into the universe of my lecturers and judges! And then you write, with hopeful emotions, "façade," and "reinterpreting" or, if you are the people behind the Home Is Where The Craft Is craft exhibition, you summon a phrase from your old textbook -- oh yes, you think, "mixed medium" -- and you put the following note in the Fringe programme, "No longer obscured by it's residential location, creativity is expressed through home based mixed mediums," and with this spell you hope to project an image of power, O some great dark dominant phenomenon with eyes and teeth, or at least wisdom -- great and evident wisdom, flagrant and shining, your marvellous ambassador and bodyguard.

And it's a fact that once I thought of the chandelier artist as Françoise, I felt friendly towards her, I stopped fretting at the gap between the prose and the object (it felt as if the gap had been filled, even though nothing outside my head had changed at all), and I said to myself warmly -- Françoise, Françoise! It was an interesting transformation.

* Two days later in a gallery I saw a piece of computer artwork: a monotonous green screen with a red oval jerking to and fro at the centre. It was, said the artist on his label, a representation of a football being bounced at the beginning of play, but he had left out the figure of the umpire who was handling it. The sight of this work (he wrote) prompted the viewer to consider the nature of Australian masculinity. The chasm between the object itself and the effect it was meant to have was so extraordinary that I wondered if anyone would ever be able to straddle it. One of those times when the only bridge between the artwork and the outsider is a note. To the point where it feels to me as if the only reason he made the artwork was to give himself a reason to write two paragraphs explaining it.

I'm reminded of this quote from José Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, which I came across a while ago on Mills Baker's tumblr page --

Take stock of those around you and you will ... hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which will seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyse those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to the reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual us trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. Life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his ‘ideas’ are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defence of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality. The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic ‘ideas’ and looks life in the face, realises that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground.

-- and I wonder if this should help me to explain the irritation, the itch, that I feel when I see artists on their labels saying that "My artwork prompts the viewer to do such and such," or "I have created an allegory of so and so," and then the relief when I come across a more open-handed note, like this one in the Intimate Exposure programme: "'Intimacy,' 'exposure' and electrical energy sources led them [the dancers] to an interest in physical ramifications of invisible threats on the body; they have contemplated nuclear technology, atomic theory, personification of weaponry and the sexuality of war."

Not, "We have created an allegory of atomic theory," or, "Our dance piece prompts the viewer to think about the sexuality of war," (and there's nothing like these stark declarations to make the audience say rebelliously, "Well it didn't make me think about that," or, "Like hell you have") but more humbly, wisely, and helplessly: "We have contemplated it."

Monday, September 27, 2010

a hydra to deliver out a hiding

I might have been reading one of Greg Baum's articles when it occurred to me that some of the more imaginative football commentators, verbal and written, do as Dickens did, and superheat their prose with allusions, both classical and vernacular -- treating the classical as a more powerful and tweaked version of nonetheless natural language, so that if Dickens can, in chapter eleven of Bleak House, allude to Macbeth by writing, "It is anything but a night of rest at Mr. Snagsby’s, in Cook’s Court, where Guster murders sleep by going ... out of one fit into twenty," then Greg Baum can allude to Romeo and Juliet with,

Perhaps also, it was Gary Ablett's valedictory as a Geelong player, for Gold Coast's bullion will weigh more heavily now. If so, this was parting with sweet sorrow; in a team that was crushed ...

Rex Hunt, calling Saturday's Grand Final on Triple M, urged the players on the field to, "Run like the Light Brigade!" meaning, I suppose, quickly and forcefully and in a heroic manner. This was delivered in a shout, at the heat of the moment, without preparation or special treatment, as if a reference to Tennyson is more or less the most natural thing in the world to summon out of your memory half-way through a Saturday afternoon in 2010 at the climax of the footy season.*

I'm not sure exactly what goes on here, but it seems to me that the emotion that collects around the phrase in its original context, plus the emotion of recognition, the extra scrap of mental effort that goes into making that recognition, the unexpected engagement of the brain in directions that it didn't expect to be engaged right at that moment -- the surprise -- the joke -- the reminder of the larger and less focused world -- coupled, in a contradictory way, with the comforting endurance of tradition -- gives the allusion its kick, its heightened burst, in an atmosphere that is already heightened by the tensions of the game; and wraps football itself in the mantle of history, as if those forty-four men and their Sherrin and a crowd of one hundred thousand and sixteen, are part of the same world as -- are unified with -- poets and warriors. Which, you could argue, they are, simply by being human, as the poets and warriors were human, and alive, as the poets and warriors were alive; and everything mixed together, a vast web of human behaviour, with Collingwood and the Saints tucked in there somewhere next to the Mayans, the Greeks, and Proust's imaginary Françoise, the cook who is also an artist, and her teased kitchenmaid, Giotto's Charity.

And the language used around football is intensified anyway, with slang, with ritual descriptions, and with a habit of grand phrasings, so that the game, in the prose of football journalists, is transformed into "the land," as in, "He's the fastest runner in the land!" or, "He's got the finest boot in the land!" as if the speaker is conferring magical qualities on knights and princes. Australian Rules takes on the enclosed attributes of a principality kingdom, and it becomes apparent that its true language is the language of mythology. Ablett, Baum writes, "is, as all the world knows, Gold Coast's cynosure and the club's ardent courtship of him has grown into a saga." In another article: "Football fans love signs from their gods: here were three." A team can be a "hydra." "Collingwood played its patented total football, marked by feverish, frenzied tackling, with lots of goalkickers, a hydra to deliver out a hiding."** When the final was followed by rain, then a vivid and symmetrical double rainbow, M. noticed that the last part of the rainbow to disappear was the leg that landed near St Kilda, and suggested that it was a prophecy.

* Although Tim Lane confused everyone around him when he decided that a game between Sydney and West Coast needed a direct quote from his lordship's Ulysses.

** I've seen Caroline Wilson use 'hydra' as well, but where that article is I do not know.

Why -- I'll add this in case you're outside the Rules umbrella and you're wondering -- why a prophecy? Because the game was a draw, and the two teams have to play again next week, and one of the teams comes from St Kilda, a bohemian seaside suburb in the process of returning like a greedy dog to its pre-bohemian state of gentrification. It took its name long ago from a schooner named Lady of St Kilda, which took her name in turn from a Hebridean archipelago where there never was a saint.

Update. St Kilda lost.

Friday, September 24, 2010

the real secret and enchanting things

Kimbofo, responding to a Whispering Gums post about kookaburras, provided a link to a page at her blog where she wrote about a David Sedaris essay, Laugh, Kookaburra, a four-page autobiographical piece in which Sedaris, who is American, visits Australia and sees a kookaburra eating duck. The essay was published on the New Yorker website in 2009 with an illustration by someone who, had they lived in a finer world, would have had time to look up a picture of a kookaburra first. "For an American," Sedaris writes, "Australia seems pretty familiar: same wide streets, same office towers ... or that’s the initial impression." On the other hand there is M. also American, who has been in Australia for nearly seven years, and who said on Wednesday that it has taken him this long to realise that there is such a thing is as a distinctly Australia face. On Thursday morning at about half past eight he said he believed that mate was "more functional" than dude, by which he meant that it was more flexible, more, if you like, open to permutation. He deduced this from his workmates, who have been saying the word around him for years. That is how long these things take.

So it is when I'm reading a book, I'm attracted by this thing and that thing at first (the obvious and glinting things, the exotic animals), then I read it again and those things change, they sink back, they stop making an impression, and a different passage comes forward; all of a sudden this new part of the book seems to be the reason for the book. The second time I read Proust I was so taken by the paragraph about Mme Guermantes and the fjords that I read it three times before I went on, but, reading the book for a third time, I found that the fjords made no impact. I was waiting for them, expecting to have the same reaction, but they went past, they vanished, they were superficial, and the book took on a new complexion. (A yellow-tailed black cockatoo sat next to us in a tree on Wednesday evening and M. was beyond nonchalant.) The late Frank Kermode, describing a similar experience, writes about "the more occult part of the memory"

You may begin by admiring certain discrete poems or even certain lines, but when he goes deep into your mind many things that did not consciously impress you arrive in the more occult part of the memory and establish themselves, eventually, as the real secret and enchanting things while the obvious attractions, which are more or less available to everybody, come to seem superficial.

This was my own experience during a long affair with Wallace Stevens ...


An older affair with Yeats left me with colder feelings; precisely what I had thought fine was what I could not longer stand; it caused me something like embarrassment. I have not read Yeats for years, but when I did I read him amorously, which may explain why certain poems especially, but more generally certain repeated locutions and rhetorical tricks, came to disgust me.

The other day I noticed wandering loose in my head, unconnected with any conscious movement of thought, a single line: “But not from her protecting care.” I knew it was by Yeats but had forgotten its context. So I hunted it up, and found it in the sixteenth poem of “Words for Music Perhaps,” called “Lullaby”. ... The complexity and beauty of “Lullaby” had somehow escaped me in the time of total infatuation; and I remember other instances of the same thing. I should certainly have called “Meditations in Time of Civil War” a great poem, but I could not have guessed that the lines which would turn into unpredictable isolated revenants would be, not the obviously tremendous opening and conclusion, but some quiet, anxious words that the younger eye slipped over

Thursday, September 23, 2010

a few encounters with the irrecuperable

ZMKC remembers reading when she was small. One teacher gave her books she liked; another didn't. Now I jump from that story into this one. When I was a child, of preschool age I think, my father used to read a few pages from a book to me every night before I went to sleep. The book was Peter and Wendy, which I remember being titled Peter Pan and Wendy, but my memory must be wrong. The book is called Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie, published in 1911 by Hodder & Stoughten, and it's the same book that most people know as plain Peter Pan.* Our copy was an old one.

One day I am in my room, where Peter and Wendy has been left face-down on my dressing table (which seems high to me). I am so impatient for the rest of the story that I take the book down and read to the end. This is wrong, I know, because I am not supposed to be reading Peter -- in fact I am not supposed to be able to read at all, but that distinction is too fine-grained for my mind to handle, and I only recognise that the book has been left within reach because there is an expectation on the part of the adults that it will be left unread, and that when my father comes in that evening the book will be as he left it, as far as my awareness of its contents is concerned. I will know nothing beyond the place where he chose to stop. I will be ignorant, from that point forwards, of the story. It is as if we have pitched camp in a fixed place, and tomorrow we will hike over the hill together. But I have walked off on my own.

That might have been my first thick book. How bright everything seems when you're being lured like this, when you've got a solitary objective, which is being withheld, and towards which you move. How good a serial story is. When Garth Ennis' Preacher was still coming out in monthly installments I used knew which comic book shop unpacked their boxes first, and that was the one I visited, on the afternoon of the day it was released, which was a date I knew, every month. That date stood out in my mind. And I can remember times when I didn't have a serial but I tried to create one. After I'd read all three of Mervyn Peake's Titus books (a teenager then) I went on to read the other books he'd written, and then biographies of him, and, searching libraries for books of literary essays, I looked for his name in the indexes, and I checked the internet for websites. Like this I extended him into a serial event. I never want to be reminded that the book I love is mortal after all, and ends. (The agony of the people on the New York pier, shouting like spectres on the far side of the river of the damned, Is Little Nell Alive? Borges, in his essay Beatrice's Last Smile, proposes that Dante wrote his Divine Comedy (and the writing of a long poem is a serial event for the poet) with the purpose of meeting Beatrice again on the page when he couldn't meet her again in the living world. "I suspect that Dante constructed the best book literature has achieved in order to interpolate into it a few encounters with the irrecuperable Beatrice." Dante forces himself to wait through the Inferno and most of Purgatory before he gives himself the satisfaction of seeing her fully and allegorically attended with chariot, gryphon, dancing women, and so on. "At the beginning of the Vita nuova we read that once, in a letter, he listed sixty women's names in order to slip among them, in secret, the name of Beatrice.")

"So from the moment I first encountered The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to when I was eleven or twelve, the seven Chronicles of Narnia represented essence-of-book to me," writes Francis Stufford in his 2002 memoir, The Child That Books Built. "They were the Platonic Book of which other books were more or less imperfect shadows. For four or five years, I essentially read other books because I could not always be re-reading the Narnia books ... But in other books I was always searching for partial or diluted remains of Narnia." I have noticed that journalists who advise parents to keep books in their houses so that their children will grow up to be readers prefer to use the word encourage to describe the duty of the parents -- this is how you can encourage your child to read -- or else sometimes they will use help. But the word that is, I believe, the true word, is a word with more sinister connotations, those of wickedness, sin, and furtive, engulfing desire. The word is tempt.

"There is nothing unusual about a wretch who imagines joy," writes Borges, "all of us, every day, do the same."

* Is this true, I wonder.

Beatrice's Last Smile is one of the essays in the Borges collection, The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922 - 1986, translated by Eliot Weinberger.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

be they silk or worsted

Reading Jay Parini's The Last Station soon after writing that last post about Dickens, I start to think about the older writer's similes and metaphors, because Parini in this matter is an unDickens or an anti-Dickens. His metaphors fall into the story and out again without leaving a lasting impression. Meanwhile Dickens is a hot octopus, his tentacles start at one point and go out in all directions, clutching things together, so that Mr Tulkinghorn's clothes represent Mr Tulkinghorn's personality and behaviour, and the personality and behaviour represent the clothes.

He is of what is called the old school ... and wears knee-breeches tied with ribbons, and gaiters or stockings. One peculiarity of his black clothes and of his black stockings, be they silk or worsted, is that they never shine. Mute, close, irresponsive to any glancing light, his dress is like himself. He never converses when not professionally consulted.

The effect is so holistic that it changes the properties of light itself in a private zone around Mr Tulkinghorn's clothes -- "they never shine" -- and he becomes a kind of small planet with its own atmosphere and law. Dickens is a cosmology of these people, these characters who are Types rather than Stereotypes, extremely forceful and exaggerated. If a person is not already an eccentric then they become one because Dickens is writing them.

Meanwhile the Last Station author chops his metaphors off dead. Parini writes brief descriptions --

... the long serpentine drive with parallel rows of silver birches rising along it like an honour guard.

Varvara Mikhailova, who has the sensitivity of a granite monument

... each moment shines separately, like cobbles on a strand. One yearns to repossess them, and mourns their distance.

His fingers opened and closed mechanically, like the mandibles of an insect.

-- and never takes the idea further. Varvara Mikhailova's granite behaviour does not infect her clothes, as Tulkinghorn's behaviour infects his; she never does anything stonelike, her skin does not look hard, her manners are not monumental, and so this comparison to granite vanishes. The man connected to the insect-fingers is not insectlike, the scenery around him is not transformed sympathetically into a insect-nest, and the doctor who comes along in the next sentence to help him with his fearsome convulsions is not compared to a predatory and insectivorous bird, or to an ant helping the queen ant, or to anything else that might carry the idea of insects onwards. This is how he appears: "Dushan Makovitsky gave orders like a military captain." With that the idea of insects is utterly gone. The military captain has erased the insect, and the reader can expect that when the next metaphor or simile comes along it will obliterate the military captain.

Here we are. Three lines later Dushan is "a scientist."

Dushan remained cool and dispassionate, a scientist through and through.

"A scientist" in turn drops through the text and vanishes.

To the mind behind Parini's prose, the important thing is that the fingers are moving, not that they're moving "like the mandibles of an insect." You could substitute anything for these mandibles and nothing would happen to the next sentence, or the sentence before. You could say that the fingers open and close "like the claws of a dying crab." You might call them the toes of a falcon clutching and releasing its prey. Dushan Makovitsky would still give orders like a military captain and soon he would turn into a scientist. Parini's description-things keep to themselves. They're private and self-contained. They are Mr Tulkinghorn. They don't talk to their fellow metaphors, they don't share themselves around, and they don't reflect light. The state of Parini's metaphor-objects (the mandibles, the granite, etc) is the state that Dickens won't let Tulkinghorn achieve, since the motto of Bleak House is connection, and the motto of Parini's metaphor-objects is isolation. Mr Tulkinghorn can behave with as much reticence as he likes, but the author still obstinately puts him in relationships with other people and gives consequences to his actions.

He never converses when not professionally consulted. He is found sometimes, speechless but quite at home, at corners of dinner-tables in great country houses and near doors of drawing-rooms, concerning which the fashionable intelligence is eloquent, where everybody knows him and where half the Peerage stops to say “How do you do, Mr. Tulkinghorn?” He receives these salutations with gravity and buries them along with the rest of his knowledge.

Sir Leicester Dedlock is with my Lady and is happy to see Mr. Tulkinghorn. There is an air of prescription about him which is always agreeable to Sir Leicester; he receives it as a kind of tribute. He likes Mr. Tulkinghorn’s dress; there is a kind of tribute in that too. It is eminently respectable, and likewise, in a general way, retainer-like. It expresses, as it were, the steward of the legal mysteries, the butler of the legal cellar, of the Dedlocks.

Even in his reticence he can't escape the observant eyes of other characters. They take him and insert him in their worldviews just where they want him. But in The Last Station nobody comments on the insect mandibles except the first-person narrator, nobody thinks that Varvara has a granite sensitivity except the narrator -- the wider world goes by unaffected. Parini's sunlight doesn't start swerving around a certain set of clothes because a certain character is wearing them. The hand can be a pair of insect mandibles, or a housebrick, or a whisker on a tiger, and the prose does not care. It ploughs on. Dushan Makovitsky persists in being a military captain. The mandibles occupy their part of the sentence undisturbed and viginal. For them, there are no consequences. In his saddest and most hopeful fantasies, Mr Tulkinghorn is a metaphor by Jay Parini.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

it was one which would be resuscitated

A poster in one of the comment threads at Whispering Gums wrote, "Mrs Jelleby in Bleak House is supposedly based on Caroline Chisholm," and as I read that sentence it occurred to me to wonder, "What do we mean when we say that a character is based on someone?" Then I thought, "Where did my question come from?" I didn't know, but I was remembering a passage in Ackroyd's Dickens biography in which the biographer quotes a letter from Dickens to Angela Burdett-Coutts. "I dream of Mrs Chisholm and her housekeeping ... The dirty faces of her children are my constant companions." "Familiar companions too," Ackroyd adds, "since this image of them was one which fully embodied his own disgust at the way certain philanthropists attended to distant causes while ignoring those closer to home, and of course it was one which would be resuscitated in the house of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, one of a number of scenes and episodes from this period, which, blocked from access into David Copperfield [Dickens was in the middle of Copperfield], found their way into Dickens's next novel. The day after he had seen Mrs Chisholm, for example, he was sent by his brother-in-law, Henry Austin, a Report on a General Scheme for Extra-Mural Sepulture, which contained harrowing detail on the state of city graveyards."

Why did he visit Caroline Chisholm? He was moved by the misery of poor Londoners, and Chisholm had come from Australia to promote her Family Colonisation Loan Society. What was the Family Colonisation Loan Society? A body that offered financial help to needy Britons who wanted to try their luck in the southern colonies, where they would not have to struggle against the same problems of overcrowding and class stigma that faced them in London. The idea was presented to his mind; he seized on it -- inspiration! -- every needy member of the Copperfield cast moves to Australia at the end of the book and Martha Endall the prostitute is rewarded for her migration with a suitable husband and a bush pastoral. "They was married," reports Mr Peggotty, "and they live fower hundred mile away from any voices but their own and the singing birds."'*

Conclusion? If we can say that Mrs Jellyby is based on Caroline Chisholm then we can say that the end of David Copperfield is, too. By which we mean that it is and it isn't, that the inspiration of her entered the brain of Dickens and reacted to things already there, that this sprouted out in various ways, and that Mrs Jellyby was one of those ways, and that the singing birds are another. That if she is Mrs Jellyby then she is also the singing birds, and the four hundred miles, and Mr Micawber becoming a magistrate in Port Middlebay -- and that she is the words on paper representing those things, and that she is the individual letters, and that she is the ink, the components of the ink, that some instance of her has been translated into ink-molecules and ink-atoms, that she is our learning of letters and our accomplishment of reading, which allows us to make sense of these letters, which is a communal sense, because everybody agrees that an e is an e and a p is a p and never anything else, and they have done so for a while, historically (and we can keep zooming in).

In Bleak House Dickens calls Mrs Jellyby's activities "telescopic philanthropy," meaning that they concentrated on matters far away and ignored matters up close, but he did not oppose Chisholm's ideas, or Chisholm's support of them. He was their champion and devotee. When he gave them to Mrs Jellyby he made them ridiculous by transposing them to Africa. (The idea of Europeans bothering themselves with Africans is hilarious to him in The Noble Savage, and he seems to have never changed his mind.) He seats her in a nest of paper, he makes her dress gape at the back, he jams her child's head through a set of stair railings. "We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger," says Mrs Jellyby. She goes on to give encouragement to "a loquacious young man called Mr. Quale" with "a project of his for teaching the coffee colonists to teach the natives to turn piano-forte legs and establish an export trade." And it is intriguing to see Dickens mock, here, and twist, the same thing that he praises so seriously elsewhere, the work done by ambitious migrant British.

It's worth noticing that he never has his migrants educate "the natives" of Australia. I don't think he mentions the indigenous Australians at all. Even The Noble Savage never mentions them, although it mentions the natives of Africa and North America. The key quality of Martha's bush idyll is the distance it puts between her and any human voice besides her own and that of her husband. This bushland is uninhabited. The needy were being posted off to purest terra nullius, which was not a country at all, but an imaginary area conjured up by a law, in other words, a fantasy.**

For the creation of Mrs Jellyby and her household Dickens only needed to take a tiny part of Chisholm, an impression. And I was thinking about all of this in the light of my notion of Dickens as a deep-sea fish, or large object, extruding things that look like characters, and "agitating" them, as E.M. Forster says, in the way that a deep-sea fish jiggles its tempting light. I was in the shower thinking about this when the word interface came into my head. "Ah," I thought. "That was what the dirty faces of the Chisholm children became." They were an interface through which he could translate the ideas inside him into a sign-language that could be understood by the outside world. "Part of him has taken on this shape, which is not the shape of Caroline Chisholm, but wears her face like a mask. Somewhere Mrs Jellyby splits open, as the false human beings in horror movies split open, and the alien inside reveals itself through the split, a creature connected to the mother ship, which is Charles Dickens, sitting at his desk (dead), somewhere this hive-mind, extending one part of itself into Mrs Jellyby, as if she is a finger puppet."

Interface, that's what her household was, handed to Dickens gratis (by this supreme migration agent, who, in this one instance, was migrated into, by a writer who took her for terra nullius as well, and went there to make a habitation) and one part of Dickens' brilliance is this alertness to interfaces, this seeing of them everywhere, perceiving everything that might give him an opportunity to extrude his own personality, even those pictures of battle scenes at sea that I've referred to before,*** which do not have the character of actual prints but the personality of Charles Dickens.

She was a flesh version of the mechanical device that allows a person with a disability to pick up a spoon, or travel down the street -- to act upon the outside world, and make the world take notice in some way (the spoon lifts, the air parts) -- and these fleshy devices are not given to us with a clear purpose (as a wheelchair is) but must be constantly detected and identified for what they are, and tried and rejected. And so a writer is a person who identifies one kind of disability (the gap between the human interior and the outer world) and searches for ways to overcome it, or bridge it, or struggles to find a way through, knowing (because they are very wise) that it is not possible and that their struggles are in vain, like most things. And now I'm looking for some way to describe this writer as a cyborg, without metal parts, but with alien technology introduced to the basic system to achieve a specific effect. The alien technology in this case being another person.

* She is possibly living in the kind of environment that Henry Lawson describes here:

Bush all around – bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple-trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few she-oaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. Nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilisation – a shanty on the main road.


All days are much the same for her; but on Sunday afternoon she dresses herself, tidies the children, smartens up baby, and goes for a lonely walk along the bush-track, pushing an old perambulator in front of her. She does this every Sunday. She takes as much care to make herself and the children look smart as she would if she were going to do the block in the city. There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet. You might walk for twenty miles along this track without being able to fix a point in your mind, unless you are a bushman. This is because of the everlasting, maddening sameness of the stunted trees – that monotony which makes a man long to break away and travel as far as trains can go, and sail as far as ship can sail – and farther.

Henry Lawson: The Drover's Wife

** Tolkein liked fantasy countries to be governed by believable and solid lifelike laws, so it is reasonable to assume that Terra Nullius, rooted in law, was a country in the epic high fantasy mode and that the migrants (some of them prostitutes from Urania Cottage, the refuge co-founded by Dickens in partnership with Burdett-Coutts) were performing the same voyage taken by Frodo at the end of The Return of the King, but in reverse.


The walls were ornamented with three or four old coloured prints in black frames, each print representing a naval engagement, with a couple of men-of-war banging away at each other most vigorously, while another vessel or two were blowing up in the distance, and the foreground presented a miscellaneous collection of broken masts and blue legs sticking up out of the water.

Sketches by Boz