Sunday, August 1, 2010

the sequence of the three epithets assumed

As M. said, once you start to think of a thing you see it everywhere. Familiarity launches you into plenitude. The day after I'd been reading excerpts from Ruskin's Modern Painters I opened a book in a secondhand shop and discovered a selection of articles from the Cornhill Magazine, among them parts two and three of Unto This Last. The book seemed illuminated by that inclusion; I still remember the colour of the spine. I remember too, a drawing of two men in curled wigs outside a gate. Then I was reading Mira Sethi's article about Henry James when I came across a quote from What Maisie Knew -- framed like so:

He replies, suspiciously flippant, that he hasn't seen "the tip of her nose." And Maisie has "the faintest purest coldest conviction that he wasn't telling the truth." The sentence, authentically hyperbolic and unimpeded by commas, articulates Maisie's rapid and unassailable conviction that the adult is lying to her.

At the sight of the three adjectives, I thought. "Proust's letter writer, who wrote the three words in diminishing order, which character was she?" My mind longed for the identity of that woman (so much that I had a vision of her hair). She eventually revealed herself as Mme. de Cambremer.

It was the time when well-bred people observed the rule of affability and what was called the rule of the three adjectives. Mme. de Cambremer combined the two rules in one. A laudatory adjective was not enough for her, she followed it (after a little stroke of the pen) with a second, then (after another stroke), with a third. But, what was peculiar to herself was that, in defiance of the literary and social object at which she aimed, the sequence of the three epithets assumed in Mme. de Cambremer’s notes the aspect not of a progression but of a diminuendo. Mme. de Cambremer told me in this first letter that she had seen Saint-Loup and had appreciated more than ever his ‘unique — rare — real’ qualities, that he was coming to them again with one of his friends (the one who was in love with her daughter-in-law), and that if I cared to come, with or without them, to dine at Féterne she would be ‘delighted — happy — pleased.’

Three is a pregnant number in Europe. Sisters and brothers in folk tales come in threes, and Shakespeare had his three weird witches. Proust's narrator had three trees and three steeples. A natural birth needs two bodies but a magical birth wants three. We were talking about folk tales the other day, M. and me, after we'd helped a woman a few blocks over by the railway line catch her cat. Large, ragged, somehow mentally disabled, with a downy dark beard,* she walks the cat up and down the streets on a leash. What we did was kindness to her and probably cruel to the cat, which, back in her arms, flagged its tail and stared at the air with eyes like maddened lemon slices, as if it saw into the abyss where Tennyson's Kraken is battening on seaworms. I pointed out to M. that if we were in a folk tale, this would have been the point where the old woman who asked the third son to help her gather wood in the forest now uncases herself of her disguise and becomes a fairy queen. As you were the one who stopped and helped me catch my cat, I grant you three wishes, she says, and makes a gesture with her wand.

The third coincidence -- because now that I'm talking about threes it occurs to me that the recent coincidences I was thinking of when I opened this post arrived one after another in a set of three -- which reinforces M.'s point, I suppose -- the third one turned up while I was looking at John Allison's Scary-Go-Round forum. I lurk there briefly after I've read his daily strip, Bad Machinery, which is a story of three girls and three boys. One of the posters had this for her signature: War is an art and as such is not susceptible of explanation by fixed formula. I thought. "That's Saint-Loup's opinion."

"There was a side of the war he was beginning to perceive," I said, "which is that it is human, that it is lived like a love or a hatred, can be recounted like a romance, and consequently if people keep on repeating that strategy is a science, it does not help them to understand it because it is not strategic. The enemy no more knows our plans than we know the motive of a woman we love, and perhaps we do not know ours either."

Then I looked it up and it was a quote from the American general George Patton, who startled people when he slapped a malarial soldier inside a tent, as Proust's Narrator was startled when Saint-Loup slapped a journalist outside a theatre. I was pleased that I'd made this connection between the quote and Saint-Loup, and it wasn't until later that I thought, "If I'd known that it was Patton then I wouldn't have thought of Proust, and why was I so pleased when what I'd really discovered was that I was half-ignorant?"

* The witches had these too.


How far is't call'd to Forres? What are these
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth,
And yet are on't? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

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