Monday, May 31, 2010

a strange and wonderful motion takes place: the memory arts

Titus Groan, I decided. I'll read it from start to finish. How often have I done that? I didn't know. My usual way, with a book I like as much as I loved this one when I was in my mid-teens (devoutly), is to read it in pieces, out of order, opening the volume in some region of the story (near-the-endish, in-the-middlish, at-the-startish, expecting in one instance to find myself reading Fuchsia in her attic or Steerpike on the rooftops; in another instance that Flay and Swelter would be in the middle of their battle or that his Lordship would be, slightly post-battle, coping with the owls, or Barquentine, post-owls, would be listening to the messengers in his room) and running my eyes over half a page or so of words, a soothing exercise, like moving your feet in bed and realising that the blankets are still there.

I must have read the book in the start-to-finish way at least once, because I remembered how the plot was ordered. I knew that Steerpike meets, first Fuchsia, then the Doctor, then Irma, then the Twins, and not, say, Irma, then Fuchsia, then Nannie Slagg; and I knew who would die in the fire, and why it would be lit, and how those events would lead to the closing chapter. So I had this evidence, quod erat demonstrandum, that I had read it, but no actual recollection. I must have, or else how did I know the plot so well? But I couldn't see myself, standing or sitting, for the first time, reading Titus. (Why don't we remember the moment we learnt we would die? asks Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in Stoppard's play. Why didn't it sear itself into our brains?) My absence of memory was so complete that it would have been easy to erase my own assurance, and convince myself that I had never read Titus before from start to finish, that this would be the first time, and that I had, forever, only known the book in pieces.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing about Godard's Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma --

Curiously, Godard accords the ultimate honor of achieving some sort of power through art to Alfred Hitchcock, “the greatest creator of forms of the 20th century,” who “became the only poète maudit to meet with success.” We may forget the plots and situations of his films, “but we remember a handbag . . . a bus in the desert . . . a glass of milk . . . the sails of a windmill . . . a hairbrush . . . a row of bottles, a pair of spectacles, a sheet of music, a bunch of keys” because “through them and with them Alfred Hitchcock succeeded where Alexander, Julius Caesar, Hitler, and Napoleon had all failed, by taking control of the universe. Perhaps there are 10,000 people who haven’t forgotten Cézanne’s apples, but there must be a billion spectators who will remember the lighter of the stranger on the train.”

This was my Titus Groan, before I began to re-read: a bitten pear ... a thin man ... a mountain ... Fuchsia ... glass grapes ... and the dark cactus ... a series of scenes, without anything between them, disconnected from a plot, or at least, the plot never seemed important, it gave the scenes some background, therefore a purpose, but everything else stood out on front of it -- it was the wax in a lost wax casting. The map of authors inside my head is like this as well -- a fog or a cloud, with bright or dark patches here and there and each patch an author -- not a picture of an author, or the name of an author, but some sign by which I know the author -- like a memory palace, come to think of it, but a palace with planless architecture, outhouses constantly tacked on the wings, fresh random cupolas, not as orderly as the ones John Crowley gives to Giordano Bruno in his Aegypt books.

And now by degrees, more quickly for some than for others, a strange and wonderful motion takes place: the memory arts of the Brunist have begun to create within the souls of the ladies and gentlemen the image of a living world, a world of innumerable and endless processes producing an infinite number of things, inside every one of which is a divine spark that orders it without error or hesitation into its place in the ranks of creation from lowest to highest.

Ruskin inside my head is a book, a specific book, open to a specific page, and one long sentence standing out from the others, somehow, by a light of its own that I can feel but not see -- that's Ruskin -- George Eliot is a mass of books superimposed on top of one another, as if the books were spirits, all coexisting. Those books are, specifically, The Mill on the Floss, Felix Holt the Radical, and Middlemarch. Christina Stead is my copy of The Man Who Loved Children, with its diagonal white crease running across the bottom right-hand corner.

All of this changes from time to time.

Strange to have Titus Groan reassemble in front of me as I read, regaining its length and distance. For the first time in how-long I was doing this journey one foot in front of the other, not darting down from the sky into the castle like a hovering god. I was wing-clipped, very slow. I had forgotten, if I had ever known (it felt like a brand new realisation), how much scenery there is in this book. How much weather. And I had forgotten entirely the bit at the end, all the cats on turrets, looking down at the procession. New! I was astonished.

A little to the left and about fifty feet beneath his window was a table-land of drab roof around the margin of which were turrets grey with moss, set about three feet apart from one another. There were many scores of them ... every turret was surmounted by a cat, and every cat had its head thrust forwards, and ... every cat, as white as a plume, was peering through slit eyes at something moving -- something moving far below on the narrow sand-coloured path which led from the castle's outhouses to the northern woods.

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