Tuesday, December 27, 2011

this purpose we take

Twelve months ago I finished the year by posting a list of favourite quotes poached from books I'd been reading and the year before I did the same, but this year I have so many candidates that instead of choosing favourites I'm going to take the first sentence of the first book I finished in January, and a sentence from the book I'm reading now, and between them I'm going to put fragments from the rest of 2011 and see what comes out -- like so -- and Merry Christmas, by the way, and a relaxed Boxing Day in retrospect, and a Happy New Year -- so -- starting with The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt --

Many still consider it an accident that Nazi ideology centred around this secret in me from which I am separated and which is like my own separation, a precise spot that a human sometimes enters rolling bales of hay, bowing and scraping and flourishing his hat left and right. Dust is plural: infinite dust. This structure we shall call the metaphysical purport of all intuitive revelation of being; and this is precisely what we ought to achieve and disclose by lengthy supplications at passers-by. One of them breaks out in a low howl every time he senses the potential largesse of a deep and complex thing propped up with a stake in the middle. The primitive mind sees disorder in itself and enlists every discipline to keep from contaminating the world. We, says Levi-Strauss, see all disorder outside ourselves, in the world and in other people; our anxiety is that they will contaminate us, a phenomenon that one American commentator rightly saw as "such an unaffected tribute of admiration as few other authors have ever obtained." My own literary work on the contrary was always done as quietly and methodically as a partly dismantled giraffe. People who expect sentiment from children of six years old will be disappointed, and will probably teach them affectation which can only sweat and stare at its own hooves -- a scrawled-over bit of paper becoming a person with a past and a future! The mighty future is as nothing, being everything! the past is everything, being the Englishman, who made his name training bees, who walked about the countryside covered with them, even to his face and hands, and caressed them and let them drink from his eyes. Children at this age give us no such information of themselves; and at what time were we dipped in the sheer quantity of his reading. Reading has not merely deformed his imagination, it has put it in a Drawer. You are to note, that in March and April he is usually taken with worms, in May, June, and July, he will bite at any fly, or at cherries, or at beetles with their legs and wings cut off, or at the pet of the household, thrusting Sir Christopher's favourite bloodhound of the day, Mrs Bellamy's two canaries, and Mr Bates' largest Dorking hen, into a merely secondary position for four years, at the end of which he died in excruciating pain from cancer of the jaw as his facial bones disintegrated. Not insincerity, but a translated sincerity, is the basis of all art. For this purpose we take a scrap of paper and we write the truth down: "Here is the chalk."

(Maurice Blanchot, Awaiting Oblivion translated by John Gregg; Cole Swensen, Anamorphosis from Ours and also The Invention of Automata from Goest; Ruth Stone, her poem Always on the Trains from In the Next Galaxy (Stone died this year and one of the obituaries quoted that same poem); Samuel Beckett, The End; Brenda Shaughnessy, Epithalament from Interior With Sudden Joy; Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness translated by Hazel E. Barnes; Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary translated by Richard Sieburth; Macedonio Fernández , The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel) translated by Margaret Schwartz; Virginia Woolf, The Years; Guy Davenport, What Are Those Monkeys Doing? from his book of essays, Every Force Evolves a Form; Michael Slater, Charles Dickens; John Ruskin, Praeterita; Jean Sprackland, Tilt, a poem from the book of the same name; Maria Edgeworth, Belinda; John Cowper Powys, Maiden Castle; Charles Lamb, Oxford in the Vacation from the Essays of Elia; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria; Susan Sontag, DQ, an essay from Where the Stress Falls; Emily Dickinson, You Cannot Put a Fire Out from her Complete Poems; Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler; George Eliot, Mr. Gilfil's Love Story from her Scenes of Clerical Life; Barbara Goldsmith, Obsessive Genius; Fernando Pessoa, The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa translated by Richard Zenith; Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? translated by W. B. Barton, Jr & Vera Deutsch)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

one thing for another

M. made Lamb's Wool again and this time there was white froth on top -- tasted better -- delicious -- how did he do it? -- he put it in a blender. The downside was that later I had to clean the blender. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the two things were linked, are linked, and if I had known that I would take the blender apart and clean it later would I have had the same uncomplicated reaction to the froth? Paul in Dune is given powers of prescience and Frank Herbert makes him see that the future is not one path but several paths between which he has to choose; the difference between his prescient and non-prescient selves is that the choice is now conscious, and he never lives happily after that. To live, writes José Ortega y Gasset, is to act in spite of the forces that surround you, and these forces are, for instance, your country, your culture, your family, your soul, and your bad stomach. Reading Carlyle's French Revolution I wanted Marie Antoinette to escape somehow, to veer off from history and flee, in short I was afraid that she would die, and this fear was born not from the simple facts of the story (which I already knew, I knew that she was doomed) but from Carlyle's way of writing about them, which was so exciting that at one point I was actually clenching my fists and leaning forward over the book and all the muscles in my shoulders were bunching up to make knots that spelt out these words: Run, French Royal Family, run! If they weren't going to start running away with some conviction then the muscles in my arms were ready to do it for them. You can't carry out someone else's destiny but I was tense with willingness to try.

They were so bad at escaping that the temptation is to say, "They were asking to get caught," and then, "They must have wanted to get caught," because all of their actions seem so absolutely aimed at that one goal. If an activity is the sum of the actions that constitute itself then their escape would have failed in its objective if they hadn't been caught. Getting away would have been a failure. Everything was calibrated for capture. And yet they wouldn't have said that if you'd asked them -- if you'd said to the adults, "Do you want to be captured and have your heads lopped off in the Place de la Révolution?" then they would have said No, and if you'd asked the children if they wanted to be shuttled around and die of diseases then they would have told you no as well but they didn't have much say in the escape or in any of it. The starving poor women of Paris felt helpless as well (a common human problem, writes Ortega: to be kept away from paths that would realise your destiny), and finally they acted, they demanded bread, a demand that wasn't inventive or new but the persistence was novel and new, they would not be told to go away, they wanted bread they said, they wanted food they said, marching into the room, although if you judge their desires by the results they got then they wanted revolution and not bread -- not bread but the head of Marie Antoinette dropping into the basket, not bread but the crowd running forward with handkerchieves to collect the king's blood, and not bread but modern France itself, so that what they were shouting was not, "Bread!" but "Modern France!" not "Give us such and such," but "Allow the future so and so," not hands reaching forward to take, but hands reaching forward to pass us all Agnès Varda, the Eiffel Tower, and existentialism, and the mouths saying not, "We want, we want," but "You're welcome."

They died, of course, Marie died, everybody dies, the future is always unhappy, but people still want to predict it, although predicting it is absolutely easy: you will die. I know at least one person who puts his trust in a godly apocalypse, preferably sooner rather than later, and when an earth tremor hit the countryside around his aunt's house he believed that it was a sign, or so he said to us, observing, also, that there had been an earthquake in Turkey just the week before, and that other countries had suffered from other disasters. Think of the quake that knocked down the cathedral in Christchurch. He had already predicted the future, now he was looking for evidence that would connect it more tightly to the present. His earthquakes are all metaphorical; they represent the apocalypse as roses represent romance. "A strange thing in man," remarks Ortega, talking about metaphors, "this mental activity that substitutes one thing for another -- from an urge not so much to get at the first as to get rid of the second." These associations depend on memory (we learn that roses mean romance and then we remember it and act on it) and what if (I thought) we did things the other way around, and formed our metaphors presciently, associating one thing closely with another before we learnt that they should be connected? Then the world would be different, for one thing, Yu Muroga would never have had that trouble with his car.

Muroga was a delivery driver in Sendai when the tsunami hit earlier this year, and I thought of him because I'd been watching footage from his dashboard camera on youtube. First the camera sees the earthquake. The arm of the street light pats an invisible ball. The trees along the sides of the road wave their hands. Muroga stops and waits for it to pass. Everything slows, the light loses interest in the ball, he resumes driving. The video fades out and fades in. This quick fade represents about an hour in which nothing unusual happened. Now he's stopping in a traffic jam. Why is there a traffic jam? Cars begin to run across the road ahead of him as cars do at intersections but they're all going backwards and a grey cushion of liquid is lifting them off the asphalt; they are on a river and none of them are under the control of their drivers, not even the semi-trailer truck that shoots past directly and meaningfully, like a ship going to shore, also backwards. The sky is cloudy, everything is grey, the cars are grey, the water is grey, and a heavy drop runs down the windshield glass. Now water is coming under Muroga's car from behind, the water is running to join the new river ahead of him, now his car is being picked up, now it's wobbling on the surface, now another car has gone nose-down, now there's a ruffle over a current, now the car is caught in this current, now it's flying strongly backwards, now the camera is looking at the sky from the inside of a cave, the cave mouth is framing the camera's point of view, now the car tilts, the water is rolling over the window, the video ends, the car is drowned.

Muroga escaped but the camera never saw him do it. "Yoshi," he said to himself -- all right then, ok, here I go -- and out of the window into the water before the car encaved, this cave being either a warehouse full of debris or just a mass of debris on its own. (Some reports mention the warehouse, some don't.) Next time I see a twig being dragged along a stream I will remember this video and I will believe that the twig's poor life is one paralysing horror of disorientation and vertigo; I will probably want to rescue it.

If Muroga had had the power of prescient metaphor then the sight of the swaying traffic light would have meant, "My car sucked underwater an hour from now" as surely as roses mean romance, and he could have done -- what he could have done I don't know, but he could have done it.

Ortega wrote about metaphors in his essay The Dehumanization of Art, which was translated into English by Helene Wyl. He wrote about life for In Search of Goethe from Within, translated by Willard R. Trask.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

in matter is something

M., feeling cold, decided to make us mugs of Lamb's Wool, which is ale and spice and apples warmed together, Granny Smiths in our case, and bottles of Fat Tire. Lamb's Wool is a wassailing drink, and it owes its name either to the fluffy layer that is supposed to appear on top -- in theory it does, ours didn't have any fluff -- or to an Anglicisation of the Irish-Gaelic La Mas Ubhal, or, Day Of The Apple.

And if the Gaelic theory is correct (and maybe there was a confluence, the fluff suggesting the direction the Anglicisation should travel in, perhaps the white fluff was an arrow pointing the way, eye and ear acting together since they're so close, biologically speaking, only a handshake apart -- I once stayed home from school because I had an earache that appeared also in a tooth) then the lamb in Lamb's Wool is not anything mammalian or woolly, instead it means an apple, and when we say "Lamb" we should think of something alive without legs, a cold round life held together by the same force field as the other kind of lamb, if the physicists are correct: held together by a field of energy that came into existence one moment after the Big Bang -- assuming they're right about that too. The Higgs boson particle will prove the existence of the field, if you want to call it a field, or at least it will make the assumption more concrete and sure -- if I'm understanding this right. It has the power of a mysterious Clag. So they're looking for it, and they thought they might have found evidence a few days ago but no Higgs as yet. Higgs is always elsewhere. It eludes. And there is no lamb, in this drink, the mammal-lamb of Lamb's Wool is not present ever, it is away with the Higgs boson (which I keep thinking of as the Higgs Bosun, a nautical particle), and all the solid things of the world are run through with holes, "Inherent in matter is something unwounded by holes," as Alison Hawthorne Deming states in a poem: all gaps, we are, tight nets that would not look so tight if we were Higgs boson particles, which are perhaps nets of their own holes whose holes are further nets.

The field is a fantasy, the Higgs is the fairy whose appearance will prove it real, it is the fixed shoe that exposes the life of the elf, and the words "Lamb's Wool" described our drink in an evasive way, by giving us its history and not its appearance or its contents, and history is one dimension of a thing, but an invisible one, as the three-dimensional sketch your hand performs with the pen or above the keyboard is an invisible part of any word you write, your wiggle is its history. (I take no credit: this is Walter Benjamin again.) When M. said "Lamb's wool" I didn't know what to expect and when he produced the drink I realised that I had been expecting something different. I was expecting wool in there somewhere. Maybe it would be strained through something, through fibres. But no. I think, said one scientist before the press conference earlier this week, that it would be more exciting if we didn't find the Higgs boson. All that searching and then after all that it's just prosaic and there. What a letdown. What an end.

But take heart, one stepping stone leads to another, the establishment of atoms did not mean the end of the tiny universe, obviously, even though they thought for a long time that they had gone as far as they could go in the direction of extreme smallness. "The word atom itself means "indivisible," or more technically derives from the Greek words for not and to cut," explains the biography of Marie Curie I'm reading at the moment, ἀ-τέμνω, which was once upon a time an accurate description of the object itself, and is now a record of that period of human existence when the atom was understood to have no interior parts. The interior parts of our Lamb's Wool dazzle me, the history, the apples, the different kinds of apple we could have used, M.'s rationale for that particular apple -- I knew you liked Granny Smiths, he said -- which suggests a knowledge of my preferences, which must have been acquired over time, and which relied not only on observation but also on memory, and the conscious retention of that particular memory -- he didn't forget that I liked Granny Smiths even though I don't think I've said the words "Granny Smith apple" for ages. "Every reunion of men, is it not, as we often say, a reunion of incalculable Influences; every unit of it a microcosm of Influences; -- of which how shall Science calculate or prophesy?" saith Carlyle. So there is a seething invisible net tied by invisible points and the giant visible knot in that net is my Lamb's Wool. Next time, says M., he will make an experimental adjustment and try a different kind of ale. Fat Tire may not be the best one if you want to heat it.

Deming's poem is The Charting from her book Genius Loci and the Curie biography is Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith: a light, short book. Thomas Carlyle was feeling Influence in The French Revolution.

You can make Lamb's Wool with cider too, but we used ale. William Hone wrote about it for the first volume of his Every Day Book (published 1825):

It is mentioned by a writer in the "Gentleman's Magazine," that lamb's-wool is a constant ingredient at a merry-making on Holy Eve, or on the evening before All Saints-day in Ireland. It is made there, he says, by bruising roasted apples, and mixing them with ale, or sometimes with milk. "Formerly, when the superior ranks were not too refined for these periodical meetings of jollity, white wine was frequently substituted for ale. To lamb's-wool, apples and nuts are added as a necessary part of the entertainment; and the young folks amuse themselves with burning nuts in pairs on the bar of the grate, or among the warm embers, to which they give their name and that of their lovers, or those of their friends who are supposed to have such attachments; and from the manner of their burning and duration of the flame, &c. draw such inferences respecting the constancy or strength of their passions, as usually promote mirth and good humour." Lamb's-wool is thus etymologized by Vallancey:—"The first day of November was dedicated to the angel presiding over fruits, seeds, &c. and was therefore named La Mas Ubhal, that is, the day of the apple fruit, and being pronounced lamasool, the English have corrupted the name to lamb's-wool."

(from the entry for October 31st)

Strangely, coincidentally, the last book I finished before the Curie was the Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb -- and some of those Letters are addressed to the same William Hone who wrote the Day Book. "Pray let Matilda keep my newspapers till you hear from me, as we are meditating a town residence," Lamb says to Hone, for example, on July 1st, 1830. "Let her keep them as the apple of her eye."

But what really impressed me, as I was reading the Letters, is that Lamb knew Barron Field, the author of the first book of poems published in Australia. "Kanagaroo, Kangaroo! / Thou Spirit of Australia," etc.

She had made the squirrel fragile;
She had made the bounding hart;
But a third so strong and agile
Was beyond ev'n Nature's art;
So she join'd the former two
In thee, Kangaroo!
To describe thee, it is hard:
Converse of the camélopard,
Which beginneth camel-wise,
But endeth of the panther size

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

living by violating the core principles of stillness and tranquility

Now that the subject of Vikings and of people being trees and flowers and the beams of the sun has been handled very adequately and well I will get back to the thing I was going to do before I climbed into the shower full of ants, which was ask my friend the security supervisor if Proust would have made a good officer in a Las Vegas Strip casino. I think, decided the supervisor at the end of our conversation, that he would be better than Ruskin.

I mentioned Proust's asthma and the supervisor said, yes, we have officers with severe asthma, and they're able to take time off when they need to because they're covered by the FMLA, the Family Medical Leave Act. All they have to do is let us know that they have an ongoing medical condition. So we wouldn't penalise him for that. And anyway, I said: medication has improved since the 1920s and so let's guess that he could do something more decisive today than lie in bed limp as a footless sock, with the windows shut, burning pastilles; possibly he could lead an active life, so take the asthma out of the equation, but we'll say he can't work at the Bellagio, because they have that conservatory, and flowers made him choke.

Then, I said, there was that one time he had a job (he took it to satisfy his father, who was worried about his dilettante son) and never turned up for work but just took sick leave for several years -- That sounds exactly like FMLA says the supervisor -- For years? I said -- Psh he says, you have no idea --

Strip casino security work is customer-oriented, and this is where Proust would shine. He was friendly. That would be his strength. He wasn't repelled by people, as Ruskin often was, and he could find value in small talk, as Ruskin couldn't, and he was attentive and complimentary. He cultivated friendships with society people and sometimes his acquaintances called him a snob and a climber but he was not the kind of person Charles Lamb criticises in Modern Gallantry, the one who is only polite to people who will benefit him and then rude to servants and anyone poor or ugly.* Proust was friendly to waiters and butlers, he gave away a couch to a brothel-keeper, and you can see in his book that he thought seriously about the lives of cooks. (All of this is asserted by his biographers, and Walter Benjamin makes it a part of his essay, The Image of Proust. He quotes the memoirs of Proust's friend the princesse de Clermont-Tonnerre: "And finally we cannot suppress the fact that Proust became enraptured with the study of domestic servants [...] domestic servants in their various embodiments and types were his passion.") The social strata of Lost Time dissolve into one another, tailor's daughter marries aristocrat, and the author doesn't sound censorious, he isn't frightened by this liquid mingling (in translation he isn't anyway); it's part of a natural movement.

Here his mind is nothing like the mind of Ruskin, who thought that nature was the opposite of this -- everyone in their place, the world solid not liquid, that was Ruskin's idea of a natural society. Proust's Narrator misses the past, but he decides that movement is inevitable -- the dissolving experience doesn't panic him -- he is fascinated by the telephone, dissolver of distances --

Proust's cook-character Françoise speaks with the kind of subliterate speech quirk that Dickens would have been happy to borrow, but the literate author never despises her for that quirk any more than Dickens despises Mr Dick for his constant reversion to the subject of King Charles' Head or despises his Cockneys for saying w when somebody else would say v, or the other way around. "It's sealed vith a vafer ..." explains Mr Weller in Pickwick. "The wery thing." And Dickens is pleased and loves him.

And Françoise's quirk interests Proust, and if a couple from Iowa came to his casino with speech quirks of their own then they would interest him too, and he would be genial and curious, as security officers are supposed to be; he would say Hello folks, good to have you with us, where are you visiting from? and then Iowa? I have a cousin in Sioux City! How's the snow over there? but only if he actually had a cousin in Sioux City, and if not then he would just express a fascination with Iowa in general, etc, or with the professions of the Iowans, one of which might be turbine engines, and then, Really? he'd say, one of the people who used to live in our apartment worked in turbine engines. Last week the American Society of Mechanical Engineers sent us an invitation to Turbo Expo 2012 in Copenhagen.

The Narrator in Lost Time tries to correct Francoise's vocabulary at least once but this assumed superiority is shallow, it's done unthinkingly, easily, it isn't fruitful, it doesn't lead him into the deep trains of thought that he finds when he starts to consider her seriously, holistically, connecting her back into myth and history or running off into ideas about the human mind. The humane thing to do (which is not to sneer at people who don't know cultured French) becomes the intellectual thing as well; Francoise's quirks are valuable and he has convinced himself of their value, the Narrator has reached a virtuous frame of mind not through moral precepts but through his own intelligence.

What else? Ruskin was disgusted by gambling but it's not likely that Proust would have that Ruskin-disgust. He lived in a different atmosphere. His temperament wasn't built to be disgusted by gambling. He had too much respect for Baudelaire. He was a gambler himself, on the stock market, tempted into buying certain shares by the foreign charm of their names: S. A. Chemin de Fer de Rosario à Puerto Belgrano, Banco Espanol del Rio de la Plata, United Railways of Havana. So say that he wouldn't have been opposed to casinos.

The short time he spent in the military might be a point in his favour. A number of Las Vegas security officers are ex-military. He could tell the interviewer that he had enjoyed the uniform and the camaraderie. His biographers would back him up. As a security officer he could have some of that camaraderie back again, everybody meeting, uniformed, for the day's preliminary briefing, a gathering of collaborators in the secret area of the casino known as Back of House, all of them coming together in that behind-the-scenes room with the metal lockers and the laminated floor, under the plumbing that runs across the ceiling like endless pan pipes, with several tubes lined up together all going in the same mysterious direction, everything nude and industrial and undecorated, greyish-white, and easy to clean -- and then, after briefing, he would step through the door marked Staff Only and onto the casino floor where everything is carpeted, coloured, full of noise, distracting, and the constraining arrow of the backstage corridor becomes a tundra.

By now he is an employee, he knows the secrets of the building, he can navigate the confusing plain of the Floor (and the ordinary word floor in the casinos is pronounced with the same stress of capitalisation that culture takes on when you are talking about Aboriginal Australians; in this context it has a history that sprang off some time back from the common meaning of floor and wound away on its own), and the difference between this environment and Back of House sparks him, inspires him -- why not? -- his Narrator keeps returning to the subject of theatrical artifice and where is there a bigger theatre then the casinos? Every interior is a stage -- Caesars Palace with its massive Ancient Roman set dressing, and the New York New York, which boxes you into imaginary city streets between scale-model tenement buildings, and those uncanny blackish metal trees in the Aria's Crystal shopping arcade, the sinister trees that drip blue light as you walk under them; also the Venetian, where Venice has been streamlined down to a set dresser's symbols, one Lion of St Mark on his pillar, one Bridge of Sighs, one primal song for the gondoliers, "O Solo Mio." (They sing others, but "O Solo Mio" is the default.)

And the Chandelier in the Cosmopolitan which I will never stop admiring because the person who designed it went against the prevailing Las Vegas ethos that says, Build Upwards, and instead created a spectacle that plunges down.** It takes independence to go against the simple orthodoxies.

And he would enjoy the tourists who, walking into this theatrical space, begin shouting out lines as if they've been prompted, usually, "I'm here!" and "Aow!" or "Woo!" and the place name. The script is there, they walk in, they pick it up, over and over again, the same words. I never saw a gaijin in Tokyo screaming Hey, Tokyo! or I'm here! although they probably felt as excited as the people in Las Vegas, and just as thrilled to be here, here, in, my god, look, look, in Tokyo! in Harujuku itself! in legendary Shinjuku! where you go down one of the sets of stairs from the station, turning left into an alleyway, and the pachinko parlours make the evenings more vivid than the middle of the day, a variation on the same suspended timelessness that you find when you walk into the shopping arcade at Caesars with its painted sky always calm and lit, even at midnight and even when the air above the casino is screaming with thunderstorms, a pretty pale blue thoughtful sky with little clouds, the kind of well-fed innocent oil-paint puffs that should attract the fatty putti but never do; the putti are kept out as serenely as the storms. That sky is weirdly silent.

I'm here! says the tourist on the Strip and they try to concentrate and gather themselves in one spot, this is their focus, they are a focus for themselves, they want themselves to be absolutely present, and it's impossible perhaps not to inhabit multiple places at once, in memory, in thought, in body, but they wish it, they're made aware of that wish, they call out, they summon themselves, oh, myself, where are you?

Little soul little stray
little drifter
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone

(from Hadrian: Little Soul, translated by W.S. Merwin)

and the answer for once is a decisive shout, Here! Las Vegas!, although I think it sounds less spontaneous than they want. It's an I-wish rather than an I-am.

Proust would have something to work with. And the past is a constant theme in this town, because the city is young, and it has changed so quickly, and parts of it keep being thrown out, imploded, and replaced. "In Vegas, when things get old, we tear them down," begins an article in the Las Vegas Weekly. "When a show on the Strip runs its course, it closes. Businesses, restaurants, even people come and go, sometimes with little-to-no fanfare. Here, history is fleeting, and what's seen as dated is often demolished instead of saved." Save your ephemera, the writer says, "your theater programs, your menus, scrapbooks, business files and notes -- save this magazine -- because you never know what kind of clues they might one day hold to the past." So little history and yet we demolish it, the journalists reiterate, over and over again in different articles: let's talk to the woman who runs the Neon Graveyard, let's walk through the oldest cemetery in the city, let's go to an exhibition of historical photographs at the Boulevard Mall on Maryland Parkway -- it was built in the 1950s and it's the state's most senior large-scale shopping experience.

If you walk around Liberace's house, which is a suburban ruin, you can see how the large back garden has been segregated into plots of land for smaller houses, and those houses have kept sections of his garden wall in place for their fences. The signature L built into the ironwork has been adopted by people who might not have any other relationship to L, they might be called Jamie or Claire, but they've inherited the dead man's initial. Proust the security officer would have an opportunity to think about Time; in fact Time would be pushed in his face; the magazines fret about Time. "This town makes its living by violating the core principles of stillness and tranquility," writes another journalist, gathering up his resources for a push into the subject of Buddhism. Anything here is connected to transience.

His theme is the theme of this city and that theme is forgetting.

* Lamb is thinking of men being rude to women specifically, but if you replaced "gallantry" with nongendered "civility" the indignation would still make sense. Think of "I shall see the same attentions paid to age as to youth" as "I shall see the same attentions paid to the bus driver as to the politician."

** The light from the Luxor shines upwards, the huge statues at Caesars stand upwards, the Eiffel Tower at the Paris goes upwards, the waterfall at the Wynn comes off a cliff that towers above a lake, the dancing fountains roar upwards, the billboards shoot as high as they can etc, etc.

I'm basing my back-of-house description on only two casinos. The rest might be different. Even those two are different. The flooring in one of them is the colour of the grey skin around a hard boiled egg yolk, and in the other one it isn't.

The Benjamin essay was translated by Harry Zohn.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

webs of thought, almost impalpable, coming from every direction

This is the second part of the post I made a few days ago. It was getting so long that I cut it in half. The "stories" I'm talking about in the first paragraph are the Axe Cop webcomic by Ethan and Malachai Nicolle, and the Norse sagas in Gautrek's Saga and Other Medieval Tales, which were translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. The Djoleto book turned up three posts ago, so that's why I'm mentioning it without preamble. "Freezing" in the last paragraph is not an exaggeration.

The logic of these stories is not the logic of nature but the logic of need. Axe Cop, who has been locked in a gaol cell, needs to know how to overcome the villain, and so the words A Golden Bladed Chainsaw Can Beat Me, taped to the shoulderblades of the vampire baby standing in front of him, is sensible, sane, efficient, and the reader has the pleasure of seeing a problem solved and the coherence of the fictional world upheld.

These worlds are coherent in the way that a person is coherent. The hero needs a villain and a villain arrives; the tongue is dry and the hand picks up a cup. These person-worlds are sensitive, they have nerves, vessels, blood, running everywhere from the fictional clouds through the fictional air to the fictional grass -- they are responsive, they are in sympathy with their fictional people, they're like those old cartoons -- first the character walking along a road starts to dance, and then the trees dance, and the flowers dance, the sun wiggles its illuminated tentacles in time to the beat, everything is dancing; the person is also the sun, the person is the cloud, the person is the flower.

And "of course," I thought in the shower, "it's true, everything in a piece of writing comes from the author and nowhere else, no character history and no setting can account for it, and psychological realism is only the author's clever fake moustache," and then I remembered my favourite example of this author-giving-improbable-presents phenomenon (I know I've mentioned it before), which is Irma Prunesquallor's hot water bottle (where did they get the rubber? from the author), and then, in the same book, you've got Steerpike's monkey, which he obtains with ease, in spite of the fact that wild monkeys don't exist anywhere in Mervyn Peake's world and there isn't any pet vendor, monkey salesperson, animal trapper, or anyone else who could have found it for him. Charles Dickens could change the nature of a cup.

"What an unfathomable mystery there is in it all!" he said one day. Taking up a wineglass, he continued: "Suppose I choose to call this a character, fancy it a man, endue it with certain qualities; and soon the fine filmy webs of thought, almost impalpable, coming from every direction, we know not whence, spin and weave about it, until it assumes form and beauty, and becomes instinct with life."

So he said to James T. Fields. "Amu Djoleto's Money Galore," I reasoned, "with that strange two-tone jerkiness -- I can imagine it hovering between the two modes of writing, the realist and the post-Viking, those descriptive passages about headmasters' offices being the realistic parts, and then the suddenness with which things happen being saga-like, and there's the author's evident wish that he could make an event occur now and not have to sit around preparing for it, which is not his forte; and, if I'm remembering this rightly, his crooked politician has the magical number of girlfriends -- three -- as fairytales have three good fairies or three questing siblings or as Bosi and Herraud provides three women for Bosi, or as the tall strangers encountered by Thorstein Mansion-Might arrive in a trio. They ride up and surprise him. And if he hadn't met them then he wouldn't have needed to come unseen into Gerroid's kingdom, and the dwarf's magic invisibility ring might never have been useful, so, see, without them he would have been left trekking on and on, waiting for intervention, as people do in the real world, where the sun and the trees are not sensitive to us, as proven by the weather here in Las Vegas right now, which is freezing cold against my wishes, and in an icy wind last week there was that woman I met outside the Post Office, the one who asked me for cigarettes which I did not have, and then money but I only had enough for the stamp I was about to buy for a letter to my granny, and we talked about that wind, which had been blowing all day, sucking crowds of autumn leaves across the roadway in front of the cars like mobs of yellow jaywalking handkerchieves, but all the time I was talking to her she kept putting her tongue in and out, and this was a tic not an insult, since she went on talking casually through it all, telling me that she had lived in Las Vegas for a year and a half and never before had she witnessed such a wind, and, she added, you can't wear sandals in Las Vegas, because the sand will come in from the desert and coat your feet, all the time in and out went her tongue, curling down to her chin and back inside again, and what author gave her this strange trait, this power," I wondered, "what saga is she in, what guidance would she have given me?"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

the type continued to be written for many years after

This post was so long that I've split it in half. I'll put the second part up in a few days.

I was going to follow up a prompt from Whispering Gums and write about Proust's chances as a Las Vegas security officer, but then when I was standing wet in the shower on Wednesday watching ants go up the wall from the gap around the tap I began thinking about the Norse sagas I'd been reading and how much they reminded me of the webcomic known as Axe Cop.

These weren't the more famous sagas, not the more serious or historical or developed ones, no Story of Burnt Njal or Egil's Saga, nothing from the saga-groups known as Icelanders or Kings -- the most disseminated sagas come from these groups -- but smaller sagas, pieces of "entertainment," according to Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, the translators of the book I'd been looking at, which was Gautrek's Saga and Other Medieval Tales. "The Legendary Sagas, from which the five stories in this volume come, originated in the 12th century, though the type continued to be written for many years after," say they. "They were intended primarily as entertainment -- one might almost say as escape literature." The character Bosi from Bosi and Herraud, "might remind the reader of one or two popular modern fictional figures" because he performs "amorous feats" and has "a fondness for occasional arbitrary violence."

In fact everyone in these sagas has "a fondness for occasional arbitrary violence," and so do the characters in Axe Cop, which is a mad, cartoonish, imaginative comic, all wild battles and people getting smashed, but it wasn't the violence on its own that got me thinking, it was the way the violence was introduced, the way the characters were described and named, and a kind of uncanny purity in both of them, the particular way the stories move, their mutual rhythm, the way they deal with the different parts of themselves.

Characters in Axe Cop are named after their traits, with Axe Cop being a cop who carries an axe, and Uni-Baby a baby with a unicorn horn growing out of her forehead, and Flute Cop a cop who played the flute until dinosaur blood turned him into a human-dinosaur hybrid, whereupon his name changed to Dinosaur Soldier, not only in the minds of his fellow characters but also in the minds of his two creators, who didn't try to hide or normalise this transformation but gloried in it, writing, "And so they became ... AXE COP & DINOSAUR SOLDIER!" Several of the saga characters acquire nicknames from their traits too, Ragnar Hairy-Breeks, Asmund Berseker-Killer, or Stunt-Brunhilda (who is stunted), and one of them goes through a renaming process, like Flute Cop, when his trait changes.

That character is a Norwegian, Thorstein Mansion-Might, "so big that in the whole country there was hardly a door he could walk through without some difficulty," and he is travelling away from home on an adventure when a group of uniquely massive strangers rides up on horses and befriends him. From a tall person in a society of smaller people he becomes a tall person among even taller ones. "In my opinion," says the largest of these strangers, surveying Thorstein's height, which is instantly nonimpressive, "you ought to be called Mansion-Midget, not Mansion-Might." The Norwegian agrees. With that, the story abandons his original name and refers to him from then on as Thorstein Mansion-Midget.

It's this fluidity that characterises both Axe Cop and the sagas -- fluidity coupled with the principle of surprise -- the idea that names and things aren't fixed, that they can change or appear or vanish at will, that Thorstein can be a skilled bowman for one paragraph when he needs to shoot an eagle, even though we've never heard anything about him having a talent for archery before and never will again, that the dwarf whose child he has saved from the eagle happened to have a magic ring which he gives gratefully to the rescuer, who, a few chapters on, discovers that this is exactly the kind of magic he needs if he is going to sneak into the kingdom of King Geirrod the giant. Strange events occur in both saga and comic, not to advance the plot but because the author thinks they're interesting or funny: a giant-woman wears a skirt short enough to display her genitals; a kidnapping is carried out not by a normal kidnapper but by a mythical animal called the hjalsi; Axe Cop can't drive a magic riding spider because a sticker on the dashboard tells him that driving is restricted to "Cowboys and Warriors," and he is not a cowboy and not a warrior and so he has to let a vampire werewolf drive instead, because this vampire werewolf is also a ninja warrior from the moon.

(And it's the word that is magical here. Axe Cop behaves like any warrior hero, always looking for people to fight, but the narrator never describes him as a warrior -- he is a cop. Axe Cop knows this and he abides by it. He doesn't try to drive. And now you could argue that the practice of Law, which relies so much on definitions and words, is an extension of the logic of a six-year-old, because the boy who comes up with Axe Cop's stories and rules is six. His thirtysomething brother turns the ideas into scripts and draws the artwork.)

The reader rarely needs to wait, gifts appear instantly in the characters' hands, inspiration is a fact of life, everything uncanny is real. The people in Axe Cop obtain powers with wishes -- "I wish to be super strong!!" shouts Uni-Baby's father, "And," explains the narrator, "it happened" -- or they know where to go or what to do to find the weapon they need, or it just appears. A king sends Bosi to fetch a specific vulture egg decorated with gold lettering, and in less than a page he's met a woman who can tell him where the vulture lives and how it can be beaten. Gangrene in Thorstein Mansion-Might's saga happens immediately.

They rode as far as the river. On the bank there was a hut and from it they took a set of clothes for themselves and their horses. These clothes were made so that the water couldn't touch them, but the river was so cold that it would cause instant gangrene to any part of the body that came into contact with the water. They forded the river, with the horses struggling hard, but Godmund's horse stumbled, so Thorstein got his toe wet, and gangrene set in at once. When they got out of the river they spread their clothes on the ground to dry. Thorstein cut off his toe, and they were immensely impressed by his toughness. So they rode on their way.

If you turned Axe Cop into prose without the pictures it would look pretty much like that, complete with that touch at the end, And then they went on to the next adventure. There's a terrific transparent naturalness in the way the characters receive their gifts, just taking them as they come, like that set of waterproof clothes "made so that the water couldn't touch them," or, in Axe Cop, "a database of every bad guy, which included all their locations and powers," using them blithely and not feeling surprised by the sheer handiness of it all -- and events around them will barely disguise the fact that these treasures come from one place only, which is the author.

That's why the gifts can arrive immediately, and that's why they're always precisely and foresightfully the right thing, that's why a big man is not just a big man but a man so big he can barely get through doorways, or when the Norse heroes find gold it's not just a little bit of gold or even a usefully comfortable amount of gold but "They found so much gold there they had more than enough to carry." An author can create a tonne of gold as easily as a tiny handful, so why not the tonne?

An audience that expected realism would make the saga-tellers pause and reduce their gold, concerns about the strict believability of the events in the story might freeze them up, but they pre-date Flaubert by centuries upon centuries; they don't have to ignore the genre of literary realism (with its subtle psychological build-up, its immunity to magic dwarves) because that aesthetic does not exist, it is a unicorn or an atom bomb or a rocket ship, and the author of Axe Cop can ignore Flaubert too, because he is six years old, and, so, as far as storytelling goes, he is free to operate at the level of a twelfth-century Scandinavian. His lifespan is his history and he is still in the twelfth century, living through the High Middle Ages of his existence, later he will graduate to the fifteenth century, the eighteenth century, and the twenty-first, his expectations changing all the time, and how long will he be able to keep it up, I wonder, this kind of storytelling -- and so perhaps it is true what they say about older writers, they lose their edge. Philip Roth worries about ageing too, allegedly.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

of what we now know

On Sunday I started a novel by William Heinesen, the same author whose short stories I was reading earlier this year in Faroese Short Stories -- the one who wrote about the two women whose house blew away in a storm -- the author who couldn't mention a man without also mentioning his ship, and then the name of the ship, and then the king of Sweden, and then the king of Sweden's son -- the author who loved digressions -- that one.

The novel starts modestly but gradually it thickens, the characters pile up, their histories pile up, there are several different flavours of everything -- three different Christian leaders (two pastors, one prophet), multiple women dating the British soldiers who are stationed on the Faroes, several ship-owners individually worrying about their fish -- everybody arguing, sailing off, becoming pregnant, dying, falling in love -- and every time someone falls in love or dies it's a new love and a new death, not like any of the rest, and we go inside the heads of cynics and journalists and mystic fox-farmers from Iceland. Then there is the war, which is World War II, people are worried about the Communists, and there is the growing pro-Faroes movement among the islanders, who are subjects of the Danish king. The thoughts of the characters are sketched in quickly and sharply, even crudely, simply, but the simplicity has a purpose; it makes each cast member easy to identify. The subtlety of the book comes not in the fineness of their thoughts but in the variety and shading between competing points of view. And this builds and builds and the story moves along in a bubbling mass.

But I was thinking about Lisa over at ANZ Litlovers, who, in the middle of November, mentioned a Ghanaian Literature Week, held by Kinna over at Kinna Reads, and Lisa had read a Ghanaian short story for this book week, and, coincidentally, I'd been reading Money Galore by the Ghanian writer Amu Djoleto only a month before, and Money Galore was what I was thinking of, in connection with the Heinesen book, which was named The Black Cauldron.* It was the tempo of the two books that I was reflecting on, the way that Money moved in jerks, jumping up one minute, fading out the next minute, and how different it was to the constant bubble of Cauldron, how opposed they were, temperamentally speaking. Because inside each book there is a personality that has nothing to do with the characters or the narrative, and is only concerned with the thickness or thinness of the writing, the speed and start and stop of the sentences, "the particular density with which detail occurs in that writing, the span of sensory stuff in that writing," as David Malouf said once on the radio.

Djoleto writes like a man who had moments of excitement when the story riveted him, moments when he knew exactly what he wanted, followed by moments when he was wandering from A to B and not sure how he was going to get there. He gropes, he repeats. His women characters will enter in a mass of detail, the exact shade of their skin tone will be noted, then their build, but this description will not play a role in their development afterwards, their actions are sketchy, their brains are halfhearted; they become a collection of vaguely sexy presences. They enter with a summary of themselves; the rest is a diminishing of their original essence. We hear passing references to the construction of a new public toilet, and then suddenly the toilet exists, ready to be opened by a politician, and the formal opening is a scene that bounces into focus -- it is a comic set piece. The book wakes up then drowses again. The author gets deeply interested in a headmaster's office, and for a few pages it looks as if this headmaster's school is going to play an important ongoing role in the book, then we go somewhere else, the school becomes background noise, the introduction was out of proportion to its importance.

Money has its own pace, a shout followed by a mumble, or a leap followed by a stall -- a book like a lumpy bed. And I thought, also (my brain walking up West Africa to the chopped-out reverse-L of Mali), of Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence, which has the dense bubbling-pace of Heinesen with a different emotion behind it: the book is one flood of brutality and murder, a tightrope performance on a wire of satirical rage. Heinesen is satirical as well, but less brutal. Both of them will vary the bubbling by taking the reader from a scene with one character to a scene with two or three characters, to a scene with a mass of characters, and then back again. Brutality in Ouologuem is almost absolute, but the flavours of that brutality are so various, so florid, that it becomes both decorative and hideous. Add ennui and it would be Decadent. Mass deaths are followed by more detailed personal deaths and then the miniature story of a dynasty that goes mad and dies. There is gross indiscriminate death and then very precise death. A single kitten is poisoned. A man is torn apart by exactly three crocodiles. One crocodile would have been enough. Two, and you could call it a reasonable amount of competition among natural enemies. But three is just enough to be overkill. The edge of absurdity is tickled with a fingertip.

George Eliot plays this one-character, two-characters, group-of-characters game blatantly in public, devoting whole chapters to one idea or the other -- those groups of men talking in the local pub in Middlemarch, or in the barber shop in Romola, etc -- and then scenes between married couples or family members. Like this she gives us the domestic setting and then the community whose ideas will affect the domestic setting, putting these two spheres of action in proximity. Djoleto doesn't have this ongoing attention to the community; he brings it in when he needs it for a crowd scene and then it's gone.

At the start of the month in a coffee shop I listened to someone giving their opinion on commas (authors used to use more commas in the old days because they didn't know any better, said this person, but now we know better and we take them out), and I thought of this speaker when I came across an editor online explaining that The Man Who Loves Children "breaks an awful lot of what we now know to be rules for good writing" adding "You couldn’t get away with it now" -- and I remember them because I know that if Djoleto had handed in Money Galore during a writing class he would have had it given back to him with marks in the margins, "add more here" "build up to this part" "uneven" "who is speaking here?" and "fix."

But then I hear Ruskin stepping in and saying, no, this unevenness is human, and he tells the story of the glass beads again, and says that he prefers flawed exploratory sincerity to accomplished callow gloss, and he points out that Djoleto wanted to (judging by the story) write about corruption in Ghanaian politics, and behold, he has done that. Would evenness have made the book better? Evenness would have made it even, which is a different thing. It's been proposed that Dante came up with The Divine Comedy because he wanted an excuse to say the name of Beatrice (as lovers love to speak or hear the name of the beloved: see also: Proust) and Money might as well have been written to showcase the opening of that public toilet, a scene that gives us the author's opinion of his country's politicians in one tight burst.**

How do we describe, how do we value, how do we judge? Could I say that Djoleto's book moves like an organism, that it has periods of wakefulness and periods of restfulness, and periods when it wants to sit and fatten itself and periods when it is very lean, and, so, when I'm tempted to describe one of those dense and bubbling books as organic, because I want to do tribute to its motion, its vitality, am I perhaps using the word too quickly and easily, am I disregarding a less flattering idea of "the organic," of life, the life that is not steadily vital, but fades and dies and revives and gasps and dies again ...

Give us uneven beads, says Ruskin the Awkward, devilled in front of his naked wife, give us awkwardness --

*Which has nothing to do with Lloyd Alexander's fantasy novel. Same title but two books completely alien. Heinesen sets his story in a Faroese harbour nicknamed "the Cauldron" and one of the characters makes a sarcastic mechanical diorama-cum-social-critique which he calls "The Black Cauldron," and, therefore ...

Alexander's cauldron is an honest to god necromagical black pot.

** I came across that idea of Dante for the first time in one of Borges' non fiction pieces. If you can get hold of the Selected Non-Fictions then look in the Nine Dantesque Essays section and it should be there somewhere.

Friday, November 25, 2011

in her the peacock-feather-fluttering illusion

After I'd made a post in a thread on someone else's blog I left the house, and only once I'd got to the place that I was going did I sit down, and, thinking back, say to myself, "That last part sounded passive-aggressive."

The word "passive-aggressive" hadn't occurred to me while I was writing, passive-aggression was not my plan, and yet somehow it had been: it was not my creation and yet it was mine. Sometimes passive aggressiveness can only be seen after the event, and then the passive-aggressive person is like one of those soldiers who receive medals for bravery and say, surprised, "It didn't feel brave while I was doing it. It was my duty. It was the only thing I could do. Anybody else would have done it like that too if they'd been there."

There's someone I once knew whose passive-aggressive statements always made me build nests inside for angry wasps, and for the rest of the morning my thoughts about myself were inextricable from thoughts of this other person,* which was tormenting, and so I went on like this, on and on, tormenting myself for hours, until my torment, trying to make sense of itself, lost its purity and frayed out into contemplation, after which I spent an hour and a half in a coffee shop listening to a member of the Unification Church talk about the Divine Principle of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. This person's friend had once seen a manifestation of God (the friend was there too, the description was hers) in the shape of a gold light behind the back of a stranger in the street; it was an area of such intense feeling that she cried all night afterwards, and now in the cafe she explained -- "I couldn't sleep."

"You have been reminded of the back-end mechanics of passive-aggressive statements," I said to myself during the contemplative period, before I met the Unification Church members, "which is a gift, and if you ever meet that old passive-aggressive person again then you will remember this and your irritation will be more complicated, and yet I'm positive you'll still be irritated, because this is a matter of complication and not the erasure of the wound, yes, that's it, not erasure but scab, new cells assembling and weaving together overhead in mat or knot. Turgenev: "Not without reason has someone said: there is nothing more oppressive than the realization of a stupidity just committed." (Rudin.)"

Proust must have felt ashamed sometimes while he was writing Temps Perdu, it's true, he must have been remembering the embarrassment that he translates into fiction, otherwise how could he translate it?** So these experiences, considered from a different angle, are valuable as well as shameful. I thought: I could go back and ask that person to delete my post, but then what? "Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy since you really do not know what those states are working upon you?" Rilke asks the Young Poet. And Walter Benjamin decides that the inhuman thing about Robert Walser's characters is their health from which harsh guilt has been removed. "If we had to sum up in a single phrase the delightful yet also uncanny element in them, we would have to say: they have all been healed." They are fugitives who have left madness behind them, they have found happy sense in their extreme self-effacement -- and if they are healthy then they have preemptively abandoned their creator, who perished schizophrenic in the snow outside a sanatorium years after he had given up writing (picture the characters running away from the sick man), this creator who politely tried to bury them under a snowfall of qualifiers and surprises, which is perhaps passive-aggressive too, towards them, although from the point of view of the reader it is a unique and interesting literary strategy doled out benevolently by the author like bags of very soft sweets. Dying and homeless as he was, he still desperately had sweets.

His characters are suspended, fraying, masklike, domestically agitated -- each one a bunraku puppet, with a frozen face and extra hidden people hovering behind their shoulders.

Not having learned all too much with regard to herself in the course of her not particularly numerous experiences, she proceeded to acquire, on the basis of an income piling up as if playfully or jestingly, a household which featured silver and gold forks, knives and soup spoons and also leafy plants and a number of sofa pillows, and then from here it as a mere trifle for her imagination -- beginning suddenly to awaken or grow active after having slept or reposed perhaps for days or even weeks -- to instill in her the peacock-feather-fluttering illusion, gliding gently past as if upon a river in a boat bedecked with garlands, that she was a sort of Cleopatra longing for viper bites.

(Microscripts, translated by Susan Bernofsky.

Mire it is then, I decided, mire is where I'll stay. I won't ask them to delete it. I'll leave it where it is. With this in mind I returned to the other blog and discovered, looking at another person's response, that the passive-aggressive aspect of my post had shrunk and faded and now the phrases I'd used seemed insufficient for reasons I hadn't even thought about. But that's what always happens.

* If you're reading this then don't worry, it isn't you. The chance of this person ever reading this, or knowing that I've written it, or of you ever meeting them and knowing that it's them (or of them ever suspecting that I've written it, etc), are so extraordinarily tiny that you might as well regard this person as a straw man I've made up.

** At first I wrote "transmuted into fiction" but the humiliating incidents weren't eliminated, only imitated in another form, remaining in the world like an original language, even though everybody who spoke that language is dead.

I've forgotten who translated Turgenev. (I've looked it up. Harry Stevens.) Rilke was translated by M.D. Herter Norton. The Benjamin quote comes from his essay Robert Walser, translated by Rodney Livingstone. You can find Robert Walser bundled in with the Microscripts but it was originally published in the Walter Benjamin: Selecteds. Which means that I've read it twice in two different books in the past two weeks.

Monday, November 21, 2011

crumbling stone

I'm still turning over the potential nothingness of most of Gormenghast castle in my head, so excuse me while I part-repeat myself. I'll throw in a few new words so this won't be totally boring. The castle is huge, according to Peake, but vaguely huge, with miles of stone, hundreds of rooms, so big that it can't be detailed by the author (suggests the author indirectly), and this absurd uncontained hugeness is a part of the structure itself, and so it seemed wrong to me when I saw the building framed by the screen in the 2000 BBC television miniseries as though it were a compassable assemblage like an architectural butte; and if I ever filmed it, I think I would give you a very high high shot, with a patch of green nature in one of the lower corners -- because the reader knows there is a forest and a mountain, and paths running away into them so we need the greenery there -- and the rest of the screen would be rooftops, on and on, tiny, detailed, like grains on a beach (but then you will remember that people as large as yourself are living under those grains and your brain will pitch forward and slew around in terrifying vertigo), rooftops covering the rest of the screen, taking up one whole wall of the theatre where you're sitting, which for the effect I want should be an IMAX. And you will feel as if you are falling forward and drowning.

Then we will have Gormenghast wallpaper, which will be the same thing, with the blot of sward by your pillow, or by the sink or by the dog bowl or television or whatever you want, (depending on the room, depending on your furniture) and the rest of the four walls will be nothing but detailed tiny fields of tiny tiles, each tile absolutely delineated and in black and white to make it more unreal and disorienting.

Or else nothing except one small area of detail, measuring less than a cubit square as you will be able to see when when you put your arm against the wall, and in here the story in the books takes place, and beyond that a void with words sketched across it, "crumbling stone," "vistas" and so on, just these thin lines of sketch stretched across the whistling gap to keep it from dropping away. I thought, "If he is writing then he is compelled to name, there is no way to write and not name something, which is perhaps why it had never occurred to me before, this idea of the castle being nothing." Every word either names a thing or prepares it for placement, the ors and buts and verbs and thens being the design and scaffolding, and then the nouns bringing the thing about and submitting it to a category of existence, pin, leg, moose, or table, and even if I write, "There was no moon" (as Beckett does somewhere in Molloy, I think) I have still named a moon and created a moon, and then I tell you that my created moon is somewhere else, which is what I would expect you to understand when you read "no moon" -- not "the moon had stopped existing" but "the moon existed and it was not visible in the sky right then."

I can't deny the moon. I have named its absence, but then I haven't, because I've still named it and not the phenomenon of not-it, which needs a hyphen, "There was a not-moon," or a newly minted word, "There was an unmoon." It was an unmoonish night, I say, and not very starrish either.

"Unmoon? No such thing. Means nothing to me. Pointless," says the reader probably. Can you write about an object in a way that removes it? And then there is Romola's flashing eye, which has a strange existence. If we were somehow in the room where these two people were staring at one another we wouldn't expect to see the flashing eye (am I being presumptuous? are there readers who seriously expect flashes? I'm wary of this "we" but on I'll go) because the rest of the book around this scene has been written in a way that signals Realism. Film it, and we'd see the woman sitting, we'd see her turn her head to her husband, we'd see him put his keys in his scarsella, all of these would be real events, in the terms of the fictional-real, but the flashing eye would be symbolic everywhere, and the flash would go away instantly and live in one of the rooms that Peake never visits.

And once when I was standing on one of the upper floors of the Leid Library at UNLV and looking through a window at the horizon I saw a yellow strip at the feet of one mountain, an area of open desert between the city and the foothills, and then because I was so tall at that moment I saw the desert on the other side of the same mountain, which was the same barren tawny tiger colour, and in that moment I imagined leaving the building and travelling over the mountains, and going and going like Voss, and finding nothing there, until realising finally that the only patch of detail in the world was the city of Las Vegas, and there is nothing else out there at all, no world, no northern hemisphere, no sea, only Las Vegas, and the rest was only the rumours that had come to us through the internet and books, somehow generated by the city itself, which likes to keep us here with the desert cutting us off like an axe from something else, which is maybe Gormenghast castle.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

enough to go round

Almost every morning I type Christina Stead's name into Twitter to see if anyone has posted a link to a new review or article and this morning for about the millionth time I came across somebody tweeting this quote from House of All Nations, "If all the rich people in the world divided up their money among themselves there wouldn't be enough to go round." It's really a slight misquote but you can say that for most of those lines that get quoted and requoted, "Play it again, Sam," and so forth; people like to sleek down the fluff, a human instinct for tidiness and tool-handiness steps in, and Stead's "amongst" becomes "among" by process of natural evolution. (At least one of the old desert washes under the Las Vegas Strip now feeds into a roadway that slopes down from both sides into the centre -- a street that is also a river -- and either way the rain has a place to rush.)

And I wonder sometimes if the people who post that quote ever want to know how the rest of the words on the page stand around it, the context, the bedding, the rabbit hutch through whose wires that quote's eyes melancholy stare, etc, etc, so I'm going to write down the paragraphs it sits in, on the off chance that anyone out there ever comes searching --

The scene: Michel, an intimate subordinate of the French banker Jules Bertillon, has told his employer that he spent a recent commission on "fifty German Communist books for my library." Then:

"Hey I thought you knew enough already," said Jules, just as suddenly restored to good temper. "I'm surprised at you, Michel, being such a mooch for the Reds. Stalin found out that the workers don't know what to do with money. That's all right. It isn't the Stalins that bother me. They know their game. But a man like you, Michel! A guy makes the money he can. Anyone who doesn't is a bit crazy. If there were the difference of a hair in your brain, Michel, you'd be batty: you'd be standing on soapboxes. That's a tomfool idea to want to try to make everyone rich by confiscating from the smart guys who know how to get out of the tangle early! Why, if all the rich men in the world divided up their money amongst themselves, there wouldn't be enough to go round! It all proves there are constitutional dreamers -- they're sick; you're sick, Michel.

'I say, don't you realize if you gave everyone the same amount of money today, in a fortnight, somebody, some Citroën, some Oustric, some De Wendel would have got half of it back! You're too intelligent, Michel, not to see that! Why, types like me only think in money. Why, take me. When I take off my pants I'm thinking up a gag, when I make water, what the deuce! I'm asking myself why I didn't take a crack at the cheap crook who tried to do me in yesterday. I dream all night and I get up at three o'clock to write down all I've dreamed because there are good schemes among them. When I wake up I think of a check with a big figure if I'm good-tempered, and of petty cash if I'm out of my humor: big or little, but I only think of money. How can the workers beat a man like me?"

House of All Nations, page 102, Scene: Twelve: The Revolution

Angus & Robertson: third printing: hardcover: 1974. First published, 1938.

Bertillon is one of her mad, massive, force-of-nature characters, like Sam in Man Who Loved Children, or Nellie in Cotters' England.

I'm inserting an edit here in early December to say that this is the first time I've seen the quote tweeted in Thai. It looks like this:

ถ้าคนร่ำรวยทั้งหมดในโลกแบ่งเงินทองของพวกเขาแก่กันและกัน จะไม่มีเงินพอให้แบ่ง

Sunday, November 13, 2011

paused and turned her eyes on

The idea of a theatre in the last post didn't come from Peake. I was trying to work out something around a sentence in George Eliot's Romola. The sentence goes like this: "Her eyes were flashing, and her whole frame seemed to be possessed by impetuous force that wanted to leap out in some deed." Romola is the person with the flashing eyes, and she is flashing them at her husband, pausing while she flashes, staying still: "Romola had paused and turned her eyes on him as she saw him take his stand and lodge the key in his scarsella." It's this contrast between stillness and action that stopped me, the body tensing (that is how I picture her "possessed by impetuous force") and all the dramatic movement being placed in the eye.

Around a real eye the muscles pinch and go taut or loose, but the eye itself, the genuine eye, stays round and non-indignant, rotating slightly in the socket but not moving in the free way that a hand or a leg moves. The face moves, the cheeks move, the lips are narrowed or fattened, the angle of the chin changes, all of this goes into a facial expression, but the eyes on their own, flashing like lightbulbs or fireflies -- never, never, never. Two bits of wet and glass. The fictional eye is more flexible. Every real eye wishes that it could be fictional.

I was trying to sketch out a difference between Peake's characters (who take their eyes into a room and then the author sees the room), and Romola, whose eyes are performing a movement of their own without the help of a moving body (the force of them is throwing itself at her husband, they're walking forward and grabbing his shirt). "She's stuck in place, she's still, she's like a what, like a building containing two objects, like a theatre," I thought, "with her eyes like two actors."

She is a presentation-box and her eyes are onstage. Her eye is expressive. The fictional flash is a concentrated emotion. I've seen fictional eyes flash before. The most modern example I think I've read is the one near the end of the first Dune Prelude. One character loses her temper and "Her eyes flashed fire." The flashing eye is always sure of its object. It flashes at someone. The person with the flashing eye is having her emotions obviously. They are clear. (Emotions are not often this clear.) It's as if she's given him a photograph of her mood, look, here it is, unmistakeable. No more work is required. She doesn't have to move a muscle. Romola doesn't actually need to tense her body, or tremble, or perform whatever subtle action it is that suggests the "impetuous force." The character is in fact disabled. She is fixed in place by her emotions and she is therefore harmless.

The author has borrowed the attributes of the entire body, all of its expressive moving power, and given them to the eye. The flash is a fantasy of an effective action that is not taking place.

The flashing eye stays where it is and directs its rays outward. There must be absolute puissance within for the eye is charged like a battery. Most surprising: the owner of the eye is not exhausted and does not collapse. She has moved beyond doubt and now she transfers this lack of doubt to the other party. His job is to know that she is angry. A human being who has lost doubt has moved briefly away from the physical realm, where multiplicity and confusion is normal, and onto a high plane of ideas, where clarity can be obtained. Therefore the flashing eye becomes unnatural. The globe spits out a straight burst of light. A flash of light is spearlike, dry, active, it is not a soggy bobble, it isn't stuck in a bone cup and laced up with meat.* Free and direct, it is maybe Romola's hallucination of herself, just then, as she sits, congealed, locked inside a cage of horror, facing her husband, who has done something terrible.

When Romola's eyes flash she is primarily her eyes, she has absconded from the rest of her body and left it standing empty, and if you could extract the eyes right there in the book and put them in a cage then you would have her like one who had captured her ghost.

* Maybe the eye is productiveness in Walter Benjamin's formulation and the flash is effectiveness: "Effectiveness and productiveness are incompatible. Dampness, closeness, vagueness in productiveness; dryness, outline, distance in effectiveness." (I'm borrowing this from a fragment called "Notes (II)" in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 1: 1927-1930. Rodney Livingstone translated.)

I don't have the Dune Preludes here to check that line (it's somewhere near the end of House Atreides and she's arguing with Leto if you want to look it up) but I'm almost sure of that flash.

Monday, November 7, 2011

had held at bay the illness

As I was finishing this sentence about Titus Groan in my last post, "How many rooms does the reader never see because no character visits them?" it occurred to me that the answer had to be "None" and "Innumerable." Titus, in the third book of Peake's trilogy, removes himself from the castle and runs into the wide and open outer world, but the author keeps restoring him to enclosed spaces, putting him in a prison cell, or an underground tunnel, or a car, where he usually acts against one other key person, Old Crime in the cell, or Veil in the tunnel. He enters from the wings of one of these stage-areas, exchanges dialogue, then exits to another stage. This two-way opposition works in the other books as well, where you have Flay against Swelter, or Prunesquallor exclusively talking to Gertrude, but Titus Alone is unique in that one side of the dialogue rarely changes. It is usually Titus. He is the static force now, he is Gormenghast castle, the object that carries through the story from one end to the other.

He is trapped and released and trapped and released and trapped again. (You could even argue that the endings of the last two books are being mashed together and relived, mashed together and relived. End of book one: Titus is imprisoned. End of Book Two: Titus escapes from that prison. The body of Book Three: ditto ditto ditto. So that Titus Alone is not a sequel to the other two books but a compression of them, their anthology or compilation tape.)

An alien society is surging somewhere outside the walls that the author keeps putting in place around him, or at least that's my feeling when I read the book -- this surging, this muttering -- the strange culture exists and it has its own rules and laws, it picks up the young man and puts him in a courtroom, then shuttles him into the cell, then persecutes him, but the mutter of this society is happening apart from him; it happens outside and away and it touches him only to harm him, and otherwise it's foggy.

To extend the idea of a stage: this society is the audience gathering in the theatre foyer during the interval to make a verbal judgment that can be heard perhaps dimly through the walls backstage, and the actors come out again at the start of act three to meet this judgment, not knowing what it is. Titus emerges onto the stage, he gestures dimly against judgment, he sulks, strives, panics, and runs to evade it.

Peake wrote a stage play, hoping to make money, but "The reviews were not good," states John Watney in his biography Mervyn Peake, "the work of seven years wasted; the magic wand that was to solve all their worries had broken." It had a short run and he received seventeen pounds. "He had expected too much from it, he had worked too hard on it, and had held at bay the illness that had started to take hold of him."

The next work he finished before "the illness" broke him down irrevocably was Titus Alone, and the characters keep returning to these stage-areas, they present themselves on stages again and again, and the book's writer-character, who squats behind mouldering remaindered copies of his novel in the dark Under-river, is a pessimistic object; he is set up next to his failures, they are on display; and Titus is sent to the Under-river by his author to witness this failure and misery, and to fight an evil pimp named Veil.

Titus fought a different man in the previous book, and won, but now he isn't saving his homeland, as he did in Gormenghast, he goes to commit murder because the other soul disgusts him (as Steerpike did: it is important to Peake that the fight be subrational), and he fights in order to rescue a sick woman so that she can be allowed to die as she wants, on clean linen. Veil is foul in the author's estimation, morally filthy; this is a battle over the clean and the unclean; she dies on clean linen but she is still dead, a small wish is granted but nothing is saved, unless you consider Freud, and the idea that the most independent wish of every life is to control the manner of its death, and yet she didn't control it, she didn't command it, she only wished for it, and it was only through the intervention of a stranger that the wish was fulfilled. It was a ruthless culture that damaged her, and a ruthless culture that pushed her saviour down there to put her on a flawless pillow, which kills her instantly.

I don't have the book with me, so all of this might actually be wrong.

On the subject of that flawless pillow: notice that clean things in Peake are often dangerous. Swelter's axe is clean. Steerpike is clean. The evil technology in Alone is sleek and neat. Fuchsia is messy and harmless. But the Doctor is clean too, and we even see him taking a bath, so I can't say that Gormenwashing is universally bad. Whimsical washing versus serious washing? (The Doctor plays in his bath.)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

the sea is one hydra

The blind men come up to the elephant and one of them finds a tail, "The elephant is like a rope," this person says; and another finds a fat leg, "The elephant is like a tree," and a third finds the trunk, "The elephant is a hose," but if they hadn't already experienced a rope, a tree, and a hose, then what would they find? A Ponge from another planet might recognise other qualities in bread. Christina Stead starts The Man Who Loved Children on a specific street, with a specific house, "Tohoga House, their home," and everything she finds from there onwards, is the book. Perhaps each book is a long search. Mervyn Peake goes to a building of his own, larger than Stead's, almost blank at first, a wall and houses outside the wall, and he discovers everything in that one focussed area of land, not walking through it with the personal and monodirected tone of Ponge, but sensing it multipronged through characters, using them to feel the castle as if they were several tentacles. Mr Flay enters the Kitchens to watch Swelter and the author witnesses the Kitchens; one of the Twins walks through a room and he follows her and voila, the room is exposed to him, here are its details. His voice reaches around like a curious octopus, touching here and there. How many rooms does the reader never see because no character visits them?

Peake was grabbed by an octopus once off the island of Sark, or this is what he told his friend Gordon (or Goaty) Smith in a letter, and he had to beat it to death; in Hugo's Toilers of the Sea the hero in similar straits slices the animal's head off. "He had plunged the blade of his knife into the flat slimy substance, and by a rapid movement, like the flourish of a whip in the air, describing a circle round the two eyes, he wrenched the head off as a man would draw a tooth." Parts of Hugo could make prose poems if you picked them out of his novels, for instance, this description of the sea, also from Toilers:

The indivisible cannot be broken up into compartments. There is no intervening wall between one wave and another. The Channel Islands feel impulses coming from the Cape of Good Hope. Shipping throughout the world is confronting a single monster. The whole of the sea is one hydra. The waves cover the sea with a kind of fish's skin. The Ocean is Ceto. On this unity swoops down the innumerable.

This stolen poem works in strong declarations, certain things are so, and other things cannot be treated in that way, but a word like "indivisible" is precisely ineffable and "Ceto" and "hydra" are mythical -- he is declaring the unprovable, he is declaring the air. Then there is a closing mystery and a new idea. What is "the innumerable"?* Then silence after the mystery. There is a tussle between the power of the language to say and its power to mean. It says what it says very directly, but it means what it means very obliquely. And the same goes for Peake's Groan which is not in favour of the aristocracy but not against it either, which is Dickensian but not, which reflects the England of his day but doesn't, and Steerpike is Hitler but he isn't, and the Rituals are army regulations but they're not, and the author, using passionate and heightened language, posits a dry static society that damages its inhabitants, yet places the book's only egalitarian statement between the lips of a selfish arsonist. The book ends with the baby Titus "enter[ing] his stronghold" after an act of symbolic rebellion (it can't be anything other than symbolic, the baby is a baby, we recognise the rebellion, he can't) which the author regards as a kind of mystic heroism, but the stronghold, to which he comes surrounded by triumphant language, is a prison, antithetical to his humanity. It will not, like a stronghold, protect him from harm. It will do the harm. It will warp him. He comes to his triumphant mutilation.

There is another tension in the books. The readers, if they love Peake, love the castle and the society of the castle, and depend on this society to produce and to frame the characters that they also love. These characters are different expressions of isolation. Fuchsia isolates herself in her attic, Swelter isolates himself eminently above a crowd, Gertrude can remove herself from any conversation by addressing a raven, Prunesquallor separates himself from his sister by chattering, and so on, and so on, or to a cat, and so on. Each one of them is a machine that manipulates isolation (and an experiment in isolation management), and they reveal themselves to us by their methods; by their methods we know them. Castle society makes isolation essential; it also makes it possible. If we love the books then the castle is the heart of everything we love. And the hero wants to take us away from it. The hero, the person we're supposed to be supporting, if we support anybody -- he is our enemy, and we are his.

* It's not a mystery in the book. He means "the wind." James Hogarth translated. Malcolm Yorke mentions Peake's letter to Gordon Smith in his Peake biography, Mine Eyes Mint Gold.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

it gives you an itch to look into the nests of spectres

The father in Bruno Schulz has his cosmology of mannequins, Ponge has his cosmology of bread, and so there is this idea of starting in one place and swelling out, stepping from one point to another (and once you've reached that one you can see the next, so that the more you step, the further you can go, although each step is still a step), until you've reached a point on your single path where you can look back and observe that bread is the universe, or mannequins are humanity and "To see a world in a grain of sand" -- writes Blake -- is a great thing -- "Hold infinity in the palm of your hand." Here in Las Vegas the casinos try to provide us with the sights of the world in a street but we are not fooled, this is not infinity; the street ends, and a grain of sand ends too, but you are considering the grain and it is your consideration that is understood to be infinite, not the object, which is your trigger; and maybe it helps if the trigger is roundish, unique, and so tiny that you struggle to make it out, like a grain, and not, like a roadway, a clear cluttered straightish line that comes to a halt.*

(The Las Vegas Strip is so fulsome, no wonder people feel free to knock it, and call it tacky and undignified. "No dignity is perfect which at some point does not ally itself with the mysterious," writes Thomas de Quincey. The grain, self-contained, focussed, and delicate, is more obviously mysterious than the Strip. Submerged historical processes created the Strip, as they created everything, but the street would rather not have you think about them. "Look," it says, "at this big clean Eiffel Tower. You can make out every single rivet!" Away goes the mystery of the rivets, which might even be decoration and not functional. Possibly there are other forces, more modern forces, keeping the structure together.)

In Ponge, one thing, bread, discovers its equivalents everywhere -- one type of object shows the potential to summarise all objects -- Walt Whitman's persona in the person of a loaf -- and this discovery is the essence, is the poem -- not the thing itself but the discovery, the step-step-step, the taking of steps -- which is thought, or one way of illustrating it.

"When you are hunting something," wrote Victor Hugo in Toilers of the Sea, "you are undergoing a course of training; when you are seeking to discover something, you are caught up in a chain of action. If you have been in the habit of looking into birds' nests, it gives you an itch to look into the nests of spectres."

So, following on from this, say that Ponge, looking at fire, is training himself to look at bread, or vice versa, whichever came first in his life. Lucretius, once he starts thinking about atoms, starts to believe that every natural effect can be explained if you introduce the idea of tiny particles to the equation. He is wrong, so singular concentration is not always fruitful. But go back: this might be the opposite of Ponge. On one hand you take a single starting point and colour the universe diversely (Ponge), on the other hand you take the diverse universe and colour it with one quality (Lucretius). I think I'm just fooling myself with language but the point I'm trying to get to is this: with a system you re-author the universe, you have the appearance of being correct. A barber in George Eliot's Romola says that narrowness is dangerous:

"Besides, your druggist, who herborises and decocts, is a man of prejudices: he has poisoned people according to a system, and is obliged to stand up for his system to justify the consequences. Now a barber can be dispassionate; the only thing he necessarily stands by is the razor, always providing he is not an author. That was the flaw in my great predecessor Burchiello [also a barber]: he was a poet, and had consequently a prejudice about his own poetry. I have escaped that; I saw very early that authorship is a narrowing business, in conflict with the liberal art of the razor, which demands an impartial affection for all men’s chins."

The physical activity of the razor (constantly in contact with the world) opens you out; the mental activity of poetry and druggist-systems closes you in and gives you something to defend; the outward-directed person should have nothing to defend, suggests the barber, and if changing one's mind, as Ruskin says somewhere in Modern Painters,** is an essential part of thinking and being fruitfully thoughtful, then the poet and the druggist are not as alive as the barber who shaves chins. "Much time is wasted in general on the establishment of systems," Ruskin says too, "and it often takes more time to master the intricacies of an artificial connection, than to remember the separate facts which are so carefully connected."

And yet the barber is not completely freethinking, he has his standards, his world is coloured, he measures and assesses, as the reader finds out a few paragraphs later when he goes on talking to his customer, a handsome stranger. "Ecco!" says the barber, "your curls are now of the right proportion to neck and shoulders; rise, Messer, and I will free you from the encumbrance of this cloth. Gnaffè! I almost advise you to retain the faded jerkin and hose a little longer; they give you the air of a fallen prince."

Maybe say that the difference between this barber and his druggist, is that the barber thinks of the result, the druggist thinks of the structure you climb through to get there. The barber sees a man in tatty clothes and intuits, quickly, that the best advice he can give to this man is the opposite of normal advice -- he must not buy clean new clothes, he must keep the old ones -- inventing a new process on the spot, this barber. The new process is unconventional but he trusts in his own prescience -- "almost " -- almost he believes it will work -- and also he likes to tickle people with his opinions.

* Or it seems to. The street itself (going purely north and ignoring the other direction) turns from South Las Vegas Boulevard into North Fifth Street and then ends near a freeway, if you follow it directly, but if you resist directness and turn right around a circle then the street that used to be North Main Street sacrifices its name and becomes the rest of the Boulevard. Now North Las Vegas Boulevard, it heads through the city, going and going for miles, past fast food places and houses, shedding its lanes, getting thinner and more anaemic and less important, and eventually running away into the open desert. Wasting down almost to nothing it walks parallel to the Great Basin Highway for a while, dies away into a dirt road, recovers itself, wriggles, crosses the Basin, and perishes finally at an insignificant T-intersection.

** I can't see it but I know it's in there somewhere. Volume three or four or five. Somewhere near the beginning.

The Hugo was translated by James Hogarth.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

like an amoeba and a giraffe

Calves are born from cows and worms are born from corpses as everybody knows, says Lucretius, but if worms have souls then does this mean that a person's soul, after they die, divides itself into parts and each part enters a worm? He is asking rhetorically because he already knows that the answer is no, of course not, each worm has its own private soul, which it obtains at birth as it germinates inside the corpse.

No two souls are ever the same, he adds, each one is different, they are modulated, and so, reading this, I realise that the Lucretian sense-seeds of hearing and seeing must modulate too, like the souls of worms and people and also the cows, different each time, or else we'd see nothing but a single plane of colour and never hear anything except a single unending sound. One sight-atom must be red, the atom next to it not quite red, the atom next to that one even further into the colour brown, etc, small changes between definite states, those definite states being pure red and pure brown, very rare, and perhaps only ideas in our heads, ultimate measurements that we need to keep to ourselves so that we can describe our world of modulations, holding onto that pure brown so that we can look at a tree and judge it "light brown" or "greenish brown" or in other words not-pure-brown; and anyone who assumed that it was striving for the colour brown in the first place would have to call it an imperfect tree and a failure.

The difference between light brown and greenish brown is the difference between hoops and hoopla; the physical differences between the words are not great but the understood difference is much greater, a hoop is not a hoopla, a hoopla is not a hoop. The contrast between the two letters and the one letter is the journey between one country and another country.

Hoopla and hoop, by the way, goes back to a post I made a few days ago (I'm putting this here in case someone out there is asking themselves, Where did this hoop-hoop come from?), when I was talking to M. about wordplay in French, and the reason I was considering French in the first place, was that I had seen a review for a book by Gérard Macé at the Complete Review website, and from there I discovered an article that mentioned the prose poet Jean Follain, and also another prose poet, Francis Ponge. There was nothing by Macé at any of my local libraries, but I found a copy of Dreaming the Miracle: Three French Prose Poets: Max Jacob, Jean Follain, Francis Ponge and read that instead.

Ponge wrote (this is a word I saw applied to him) cosmologies, and like a god or wizard or autistic naturalist he would take a single thing, "Snails," for instance, or "Fire," and concentrate on it until it was a universe of separate parts or actions -- he wrote a tense psychoanalysis of water ("passive yet persistent in its one vice, gravity"), and saw a generative world-making power in the development of bread in an oven.

He is the father in Bruno Schulz's short stories and bread and fire are his mannequins. He announces new characters and natures for every nonhuman thing he considers. His fire doesn't have the usual personality of written fire -- it's not angry blazing fire or glowing cosy fire -- fire, a phenomena judged by the way it warms or threatens humans -- this is an alien fire, self-contained, strange, "it moves like an amoeba and a giraffe at the same time, its neck lurching, its foot dragging …" an effect of radiant oddity that doesn't only appear in Ponge, of course, or only in prose poetry, and I thought of Les Murray giving muscles to a liquid in The Butter Factory, "paddlewheels sailed the silvery vats where muscles / of the one deep cream were exercised" or Alice Oswald, in her new spin on the Iliad, bringing death down on an ancient Greek with the modernity of a lift. "They met a flying spear / And like a lift door closing / Inexplicable Hephaestus / Whisked one of them away / And the other died."

A reviewer pointed out the lift door and I thought, he's right, a lift door in the Iliad, what a mind, to think of that, what an intelligence, and I was filled with respect for Alice Oswald, and compared her to the Lucretius translation I was reading, which, although it was published in 1916, uses archaic language, all "doth" and "e'en" and "nay," as if the poem had been translated much earlier. The translator loves "vasty" too, as in "vasty deep." There is no Deep in this book that is not also Vasty. Those two words together in that order, "vasty deep", sends the culture-brain zhooshing away like an omnivore vulture, to Shakespeare, Henry I, Part I, and Glendower announcing that, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep," but Lucretius' translator William Ellery Leonard does not have a use for that reference, even though he's the one who put it there; there is no indication that he wants to connect On The Nature of Things to Henry I, Part I with any theme, any idea, any mood, or anything besides those two words, "vasty deep" which run between them now like a fishing line, with the fish on one end and the rod on the other, each made of a substance alien to the other, one flesh, the other wood or plastic -- and each one moved by different aims, one to live, the other to kill. Leonard the fisherman has pulled up Shakespeare on his hook but now he doesn't know what to do with him, all he can do is let him flop back in the water, and then, pages later, fish him up again with exactly the same bait.

It looks as though he had the words "vasty deep" trapped inside him in a mental folder labelled Use This! Correct Poetic Language and when the right Latin trigger arrived in the poem he was translating then they flowed out like a native force, as Blanchot saw words crowd through an author: "Words give to the one who writes them the impression of being dictated to him by usage, and he receives them with the uneasiness of finding in them an immense reservoir of facilities and effects already assembled -- ready without his powers having any role in it." Leonard had been infected by this fragment of literature, possibly picking up the sickness from a schoolbook like the one I found a few years ago at a library sale, a copy of Henry I, Part I, with an index of words at the back, an introduction for children, and the owner's name and the number of their class written inside the cover.

So assume that the translator was haunted as Lovecraft's characters can be haunted, through the medium of a book ("No eye had seen, no hand had touched that book since the advent of man to this planet," writes one Lovecraft narrator, shuddering with madness) but the American's Old Gods are unsubtle haunters, they make their victims gibber, babble, rave, stare, suffer visions, and argue with their colleagues ("It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic" says another narrator, referring to a scientific expedition), but the haunting known as Henry I, Part I only has this very quiet manifestation -- it makes you write vasty deep several times in the same poem -- the subtlest ghost you've ever met.

Ponge was translated by Beth Archer Brombert. Blanchot is the same Blanchot I quoted a couple of weeks ago. I've probably used the Murray before as well. Lovecraft's "no hand had touched that book" comes from the end of The Shadow Out of Time and "this contemplated invasion of the antarctic" comes from the first sentence of At the Mountains of Madness.

The Shadow:

It has been hard for me literally to set down the crucial revelation, though no reader can have failed to guess it. Of course it lay in that book within the metal case -- the case which I pried out of its forgotten lair amidst the undisturbed dust of a million centuries. No eye had seen, no hand had touched that book since the advent of man to this planet.

Glendower's line exists so that Hotspur can make his smart reply: "Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?" and it probably wouldn't be so memorable if it wasn't being chased up by that quick snap, which fulfills everybody's dream, l'esprit de l'escalier realised before it's too late, and the responsive one rescued from regret, saved by himself, which is the best way to be saved.

The great thing about that lift door in Oswald's poem, is that it sounds absolutely natural and normally descriptive, and yet if you describe it baldly, "Alice Oswald put a lift door in the Iliad," it sounds as if it might be attention-getting and purposelessly strange, something that leaps out and throws the poem off, sucking all of your attention to that novelty -- but it doesn't, it is purposeful, the poet maintains her rhythm, treating it as if it's any other bit of description, and it suits everything -- the finality, the sharp mechanical bang-bang of the action -- it looks right.

But why should I say it should sound strange, I ask myself (this is me, asking myself: I ask) when people have been doing this for years, back, back, down to Dickens and the modern science of his fog-dinosaur, right next to -- in the same sentence as -- the waters of Genesis and a city? "As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill."