Thursday, January 27, 2011

hollow lands and hilly

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Our host picked three bird-pecked grapefruit off her tree and threw them away into the desert where they're resting now, one after the other on the bare dirt, glowing like Yeats' golden apples, and making me think of Elizabeth Jolley's Lovesong, which uses those two lines about the apples as a lietmotif. The book is arranged like a piece of music, with certain ideas and events recurring like riffs or fragments, these repetitions growing more loaded as other ideas change place around them, throwing their different aspects into relief. Crucial moments in the protagonist's past are hinted at but unexplained, and the lietmotifs seem to provide clues, but the purpose of those clues, the meaning of them, and the deductions we should draw, are obscure. David Lynch works in a similar way. Inland Empire was the last Lynch I saw, and there was a shot of a bedside table lamp, coming back and coming back, burring and buzzing, weirdly ominous. In Jolley a woman picks up and picks up a single eclair until it becomes the most depraved eclair in all literature. Spike Milligan had the notion that you could make a pointless idea funny by repeating it, so he tested it out in one episode of the Goons -- I think Eccles opened a door and said hello, then closed it -- and by the second or third time the audience was laughing. (To do something once is to make it mean something; to do it more than once is to make it mean more.) The repetition of the words "Look" and "Listen" in Evan S. Connell's Compass Rose irritated me, but repetition in Lovesong had me spelled and solemn. What's the secret? Lovesong and Empire are both mysterious; Compass Rose is bustling, extroverted, and bossy. Is tension the answer? The tension of a mystery? The tension of restraint?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

by the perusal of newspapers

On Saturday in the Guardian I read an article on Montaigne and sympathy. Saul Frampton argues, in a nutshell, that one's feelings for another person are likely to grow more sympathetic if the person can be seen, or felt, or heard. "For in many ways," Frampton writes, "the Essays constitute not only an argument for people's capacity for sympathy, but an extended disquisition on how and why it breaks down …

Above all, [Montaigne] concentrates on a very simple element, one that we tend to overlook in our attempts to arrive at a universal moral code – that our ability to feel sympathy with others is directly proportionate to our proximity to them. So while the Stoics advised that one can prepare oneself for death and bereavement by imagining our children and wives as fragile objects, Montaigne insists: "No wisdom is so highly formed as to be able to imagine a cause of grief so vivid and so complete that it will not be increased by the actual presence, when the eyes and ears have a share in it."'

Which made me think of a passage I'd read in Swann's Way only the night before. Françoise, Aunt Leonie's chief servant, is woken in the middle of the night by the suffering of a young kitchen maid, recently pregnant and moaning with after-birth pains. "I had taken note," writes Proust's narrator, "of the fact that, apart from her own kinsfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself. The tears which flowed from her in torrents when she read of the misfortunes of persons unknown to her, in a newspaper, were quickly stemmed once she had been able to form a more accurate mental picture of the victims."

So, kinfolk aside, Francoise is actually less likely to sympathise with a person who is in close proximity to her, than with an absent person suffering from a set of symptoms explained in print.

Françoise … had begun to read the clinical account of these after-pains, and was violently sobbing, now that it was a question of a type of illness with which she was not familiar. At each painful symptom mentioned by the writer she would exclaim: “Oh, oh, Holy Virgin, is it possible that God wishes any wretched human creature to suffer so? Oh, the poor girl!”

But when I had called her, and she had returned to the bedside of [the kitchen maid], her tears at once ceased to flow; she could find no stimulus for that pleasant sensation of tenderness and pity which she very well knew, having been moved to it often enough by the perusal of newspapers; nor any other pleasure of the same kind in her sense of weariness and irritation at being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night for the kitchen-maid; so that at the sight of those very sufferings, the printed account of which had moved her to tears, she had nothing to offer but ill-tempered mutterings, mingled with bitter sarcasm

Perhaps Françoise's capacity for sympathy is being overwhelmed by habit. The reader can see that she is in the habit of being moved by "printed accounts" and elsewhere the narrator has let us know that she is in the habit of hating the kitchen maid. (Françoise is one of the book's great haters, and the other servants in the house make her jealous.) Her pity depends on the right stimulus, delivered in a convenient form -- in a book, which she can read as she pleases, which states facts unambiguously, which doesn't weep at her, which has never roused her irritation, and which excites her by describing "a type of illness with which she was not familiar," or, in other words, by introducing her to a dramatic novelty.

And the example of sympathy that Frampton describes for us at the start of his article could also be attibuted to habit. He tells us that one of Montaigne's neighbours tricked his way into the essayist's house, meaning to kill him, but just as his prey was at his mercy he changed his mind, "abandon[ed] his advantage," and left. "He remounted his horse, his men keeping their eyes on him for some signal he might give them, very astonished to see him leave," Montaigne wrote. "He has often said to me since … that my face and my frankness wrestled his treachery from him." The sight of Montaigne in the flesh acted like a magic charm; the murderer reverted to the role he was accustomed to inhabit, the role of a harmless neighbour.

Imagined at a distance, as Françoise imagines the sufferer in her medical book, Montaigne is attackable. The person who conceives an imaginary person can take action against them. In the case of the neighbour he can kill them, in the case of Françoise she can pity them. Once the person is corporeally present -- once they are no longer imaginary -- the actor's feelings grow complicated; they are no longer facing the same person at all. They realise that the imaginary person and the living person are different things.

And this is why I feel uncomfortable when I see an assertion like this one by Hilary Mantel, quoted some weeks ago at the Reading Matters blog:

I think good fiction expands our sympathies, asks us to consider people and places and circumstances very remote from our own, and asks us to consider how we would act and what we would feel if we were in their shoes. Much wickedness stems from our failure to imagine other people as fully human, and as our equals. So, yes - I think fiction does have a moral dimension.

Does fiction really expand our sympathies? How fruitful is this expansion? How does fiction affect our actual behaviour toward the counterparts of the "people and places and circumstances" presented for us in books? The people of fiction are imaginary people, they are ideas that have sprouted out of a collaboration between an author and ourselves -- the author at a huge distance from us, and ourselves, prompted, feeding on our own experiences to fill in the gaps. We cruise omnipotently through the lives of these imaginary people, like gods we create them out of ink. "[I]n the novel we can know people perfectly," claims E.M. Forster, "we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life." But they are less dimmed because we illuminate them. We are their light, their life, their salvation from darkness. No real person stands to us in the same position of dependence. No one else partakes of us in the way a fictional character does. How do our feelings translate, and what does this mean for fiction that doesn't try to introduce us into the lives of its characters in the ordinary storytelling way? Finnegans Wake, for example, how do we measure its "moral dimension"? The correlation she's suggesting is too simple, and her fictional model is limited.

Anecdotally, thinking only of myself, I'd suggest that reading might make you more sympathetic toward a broad notion of people, but it won't help you when it comes to people in the round. In real life I am anti-social and impatient. In my mind I am exquisitely sympathetic towards the citizens of Stalinist Russia. Why? Because I have read Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. I am sure I would do anything for those characters. It's a very satisfying kind of sympathy. I never have to do a thing except imagine it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

an over-excited brain, kept in continual action

Enjoyment recently with Edward John Trelawny's Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author, a gossipy, wayward, autobiographical book by a moustach'd Romantic who tracked down both poets in 1822 and stayed with them for a while by the Mediterranean. He was still there when Shelley died, and alert enough to rescue the poet's unburnt heart from his funeral pyre. The seaside cremation, though romantic on paper, was not a romantic gesture; the body had to be carried from the shoreline, where it was found, to Rome for burial, and the authorities, fearing infectious disease, weren't going to let them travel through the countryside with an intact corpse.

"In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace," Trelawny writes, "my hand was severely burnt; and had anyone seen me do the act I should have been put into quarantine." The heart was passed on to Mary Shelley, who wrapped it in a copy of her husband's Adonaïs and deposited it in a box on her desk.

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings.-- We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

It's Trelawny's biases and his breezy style that make the book interesting -- his willingness to exaggerate an anecdote -- to lie and invent -- his preference for Shelley over Byron, who disappoints him with flippancy and cynicism.

Byron's wit or humour might force a grim smile, or hollow laugh, from the standers by, but they savoured more of pain than playfulness, and made you dissatisfied with yourself and him. When I left his gloomy hall and the echoes of the heavy iron-plated door died away, I could hardly refrain from shouting with joy as I hurried along the broad-flagged terrace which overhangs the pleasant river, cheered on my course by the cloudless sky, soft air, and fading light, which close an Italian day.

Byron stays Byron, but Shelley is quickly transformed into The Poet.

Events not worth narrating in the lives of ordinary men are interesting as regards our Poet; they illustrate the character and the workings of an over-excited brain, kept in continual action by a fervid imagination and metaphysical studies.

Which tickled me massively.

The Poet, hearing his name -- for all his senses were marvellously acute -- glided into the room, with his boyish face and radiant expression. He seized some bread and grapes ...

The Poet vanished, and tea appeared.

The Poet in this book is often coupled with food. Either he is gliding in and seizing it, or else he is forgetting to eat it.

If food were near him he ate it, if not he fasted, and it was after long fasts that he suffered from spasms.

Dreamy genius, he sits in a glade.

"Hello, come in"

"Is this your study?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered, "and these trees are my books -- they tell no lies. In composing one's faculties must not be divided; in a house there is no solitude; a door shutting, a footstep heard, a bell ringing, a voice, causes an echo in your brain and dissolves your visions."

I said: "Here you have the river rushing by you, the birds chattering and the beasts bellowing."

He answered; "The river flows by like Time, and all the sounds of Nature harmonize; they soothe: it is only the human animal that is discordant with Nature and disturbs me."

I sympathise. In the background right now someone is running a television, and all I can hear is that television. I should go out into the desert and plant myself in a wash. So it's disappointing when Trelawny starts to insert the Poet's letters into his story and we discover that the dreamy one is rather polite and self-conscious in prose, and not nearly as interesting --

We see the Williams every day and my regard for them is every day increased; I hardly know which one I like best, but I know Jane is your favourite.

-- as slapdash Byron in his letters.

You will have heard of our journeys and escapes, and so forth,-- perhaps with some exaggeration; but it is all very well now, and I have been some time in Greece, which is in as good a state as could be expected considering circumstances. But I will not plague you with politics -- war -- or earthquakes, though we have had a rather smart one three nights ago …

Sunday, January 16, 2011

give me the greatest possible pleasure

Reading Evan S. Connell's Points for a Compass Rose I began thinking about tautness in poetry -- why? -- because I was trying to work out why this poem (book-long, but that wasn't the reason) seemed so idle, and why my attention kept floating away while I was reading it.

Oddly, it's a busy poem on the surface -- a full, full poem. Connell, American, who published the Compass Rose in 1973, has taken his cues from Pliny and Robert Burton* and chocked the work full of historical anecdotes, quotes, facts, for example, "Eggs laid by the roc, or Aepyornis, / measure 13" in length, 9" in width, / each shell holds two gallons of fluid" or "truly ancient bronzes, / those which have lain in the earth for centuries, / acquire a pure blue color like that of the kingfisher" or "The Derbikkai who inhabit the Caspian littoral / punish every crime with death, according to Strabo" or "William II of England felt a cold wind pass through his side; / the next day Tyrell's arrow killed him" or "Jean Fouquet / commissioned to paint the king's mistress, Jeanne Sorel, / depicted her as the Virgin Mary with an aureole / of angels," and so on. I can open to any page and find four or five or six interesting stories. So why (I wondered) am I not riveted?

I thought the answer might lie with his narrator, who is a chatty man, prissy, with a habit of summoning your attention. "Look," he says, or, "Listen," or

Now come closer. Sit next to me.
What would you like to hear?
I deal mostly in mysteries and fables

The prissiness, or aloofness, or verbal self-protection, comes through in his throwaway words and phrases: "indeed," "You may know or you may not," "I don't presume to know," "I must say," "Quite a few years," "What I'm getting at," "If it pleases you / to believe them, very well," "I consider," "Permit me," "I would perhaps suggest." He has a personal story too: he is American, the Vietnam war is on, he is afraid that his son is going to be called up, and he is angry at the politicians and journalists who are promoting the war. Here, perhaps, is a reason for his self-shielding language, which acts like a verbal padding: he is hurt and depressed, as well as learned, and so his agitation expresses itself pedantically.

"The character," you might say, "feels overwhelmed by the past and the present, and so he tries to control the only thing left to him, which is speech. "I consider strict control essential," he says at one point. (Here his creator is poking fun at him: the rest of the poem lets us know that strict control is impossible.) He refines his meaning by qualifying it; at the same time he makes it baroque with stock phrases. Perhaps he is numbing himself with these cushions. Perhaps he is full of self-doubt. He sees the massive complications of the past, and its viciousnesses, and he says to us, Look! Listen! We do this over and over again. Vietnam is the contemporary version. He tells us about Mongols who slaughtered their enemies, and about ridiculous instances of humankind trying to identify an enemy so that it can be punished -- "A host of beetles that ravaged the vineyard / of Saint Julian were commanded to appear in King's Court" -- and then stories about witches hanging themselves in their cells, and about German soldiers carrying bat wings to protect themselves from harm, and from this he concludes that people are irrational, volatile, and superstitious."

But this is nonsense, the character feels nothing and does nothing, he is being written by a poet, and the poet is overdoing it -- overdoing the interjections, I mean; there are too many of them -- or (I think now, remembering Ezra Pound's Cantos) underdoing it, in other words, he is not utilising the possibilities of the character as a character. When Pound brings in a voice that takes the long way round, as Connell's narrator does, he gives the roundaboutness a comic point. He exaggerates the fussiness.

So far as I can concerned, it wd
Give me the greatest possible pleasure
or be more acceptable to me,
And I shd. like to be party to it, as was promised me,
either as participant or adherent.
As for my service money,
Perhaps you and your father wd. draw it
And send it on to me as quickly as possible

Under all the politeness we're talking about money. (It's interesting, as an aside, how writers who acknowlege the power of money -- Christina Stead, Balzac, Pound here -- are often so meaty and funny as well as acid, despairing -- look, they say, people have such elevated pretensions, but living thwarts them. Money to these authors is like food in Rabelais, it's an earthy, dirty need.)

And looking at Pound I think of something else about Connell: he doesn't have the puns and wordplay of other poets -- he lacks the basic element of surprise, an elementary pleasure. Les Murray in his recent short poem The Conversations draws on the same mass storehouse of folk tale and Aubrey-fact, but he does it brusque and crisp:

A full moon always rises at sunset
and a person is taller at night.
Many fear their phobias more than death.
The glass King of France feared he’d shatter.
Chinese eunuchs kept their testes in spirit.

The heart of a groomed horse slows down.
A fact is a small compact faith,
a sense-datum to beasts, a power to man
even if true, even while true—
we read these laws in Isaac Neurone.

In "The glass king of France" and "Isaac Neurone" I see the creator's alert joy-with-words that I was expecting from Connell (my brain saying, "This is a poem, therefore it will be like this …" an expectation that comes from exposure to other poets besides Murray and Pound -- opening the Selected Gwen Harwood I find her punning -- "Dad the Impaler!" -- and opening the Selected of Geoffrey Hill I find him riffing on "lilies of the field" with "lilies of the veldt." Opening Milton I see him rrrolling on words like a fat seal on a rock: "Restore us, and regain the blissful seat," "To mortal men, he with his horrid crew"). There are moments when his train switches tracks from one thought to another -- surprises there -- but these moments are softened by the long relaxed feel of the thing, those throwaway "indeeds" and "If you wills," and other words that have nothing to do with the character of the narrator, but seem to be there for no reason at all, like this "countless" and "the very finest:"

In Peru is an aquaduct of hewn stone and cement
Extending countless miles across sierras and rivers. .
There is also an artificial garden whose soil
Is composed of the very finest flakes of gold

Prose can cope with that kind of chatter (the reader more likely to expect expansion and length), but in poetry even a small unnecessary word is a roadbump. "Poems are short fast religions," says Murray, and "In expressing the inexpressible poetry remains close to the origins of language," says W.S. Merwin, but those null-words and stock phrases are something other than the origin of language, perhaps they are a return to a state of pre-origin -- for if words were invented to describe objects and state intentions then those throwaways do neither; they establish empty space, describe nothing, state no intention, and fill the role of grunts and ums, pre-language space-fillers and gropings -- and the brain of the character seems introverted; it shrinks back and flops its hands out in despair.

* He mentions both of them, and Herodotus too I think. Here's his Burton:

What next? Burton asked leave to establish before us
a stupend, vast, infinite ocean of incredible madness
and folly -- a sea of shelves and rocks, sands, gulfs,
Euripuses and contrary tides clogged with monsters,
uncouth shapes, roaring waves, tempests and Siren calms,
Halcyonian seas, unspeakable misery, such Comedies
and Tragedies, such preposterous ridiculous feral and
lamentable fits that he knew not whether they were more
to be pitied or derided, or be believed

Sunday, January 9, 2011

such a man or what a man

I was trundling through Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, when, on one of its five hundred and ten pages (ten more if you count the index), I came across this footnote, which stood out, dealing, as it did, with an idea different to the ideas on the rest of the page -- all of a sudden she was talking about writers --

The emancipation of nations from domestic rule and the overlordship of an international aristocracy [during the first decades of the 1900s] was accompanied by the emancipation of literature from the 'international' language of the learned (Latin first and later French) and the growth of national languages out of the popular vernacular. It seemed that peoples whose language was fit for literature had reached national maturity per definitionem. The liberation movements of Eastern European nationalities, therefore, started with a kind of philological revival (the results were sometimes grotesque and sometimes very fruitful) whose political function it was to prove that the people who possessed a literature and a history of their own, had the right to national sovereignty.

-- a point that struck me harder than it might have, because, a few days before, I'd seen Sue at the Whispering Gums blog discussing Katharine Susannah Pritchard's first book, The Pioneers, published in 1915. Pritchard was an Australian patriot at a time when the nation was still very young, and The Pioneers ends with a boy called Dan telling one of his parents about a conversation he's had with his grandmother:

"… she told me that my four grandparents were English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh. 'They have quarrelled and fought among themselves, but you are a gathering of them in a new country, Dan,' she said. 'There will be a great future for the nation that comes of you and the boys and girls like you. It will be a nation of pioneers, with all the adventurous, toiling strain of the men and women who came over the sea and conquered the wilderness ... You will be a pioneer too, Dan ... a pioneer of paths that will make the world a better, happier place for everybody to live in."

The newly independent countries of Europe fuelled their literary traditions with retellings of national myths and legends, in Finland the Kalevela, in Estonia the Kalevipoeg. Naim Frashëri, an Albanian writer who was so admired that the country later put his face on two banknotes, crowned his oeuvre with a epic poem about Albania's fifteenth-century hero-lord Skanderbeg.* Pritchard had to concoct her own myth -- Australia the purifier, fusing and healing the arguments of the old country. Corny or aspirational? is the question at Whispering Gums, but I think the answer is Necessary. Some circumstances justify unreasonable aspirations.

This man who had returned home could not remember any time in his life that had not been animated by his determination to become a man of importance; it was as though Ulrich had been born with this wish. It is true that such an urge may be a sign of vanity and stupidity; it is no less true, however, that it is a very fine and proper desire, without which there would probably not be many men of importance.

(Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser)

The aspiration is not merely to become a country, but a country of importance; to have the aspiration itself is a kind of dignity, or dignity in its jelly or egg state, and no cornier than the child who wants to grow up and be Napoleon, and who, growing up, discovers that they will never be Napoleon. The "results" of that desire will be "sometimes grotesque and sometimes very fruitful."

The only snag was that he did not know either how one became such a man or what a man of importance was. In his schooldays he had taken Napoleon for one; this was partly out of youth's natural admiration for criminality, partly because his schoolmaster emphatically represented this tyrant … as the most tremendous evil-doer in history. The result was that as soon as he escaped from school Ulrich became an ensign in a cavalry regiment.

In Simon Ley's The Death of Napoleon, Napoleon himself failed to become Napoleon, and instead ended his life selling (if I'm remembering this rightly) melons.

* The independence and the literature didn't come at the same time. All of those examples date back to the 1800s.

The day after I made this post I came across Karolína Ryvolová writing about Romany literature on the Transcript website -- a young literature, she says, in an early stage of development. "The lack of any written canon is the reason why their current writing must be regarded as a literature in development, self-taught in many respects, meeting and grappling with many challenges and as yet striving towards literariness." The interesting thing -- in light of everything I've written above -- is that she tells us this young literature does not lean on myths.

Romany writing portrays convey the Romany people’s tradition of strong community bonds and reflect the disintegration and/or loss of these; they speak of age-old traumas such as persecution, both civil and during wars; they mourn the disappearance of traditional lifestyle and values, call for a stronger adherence to the concept of romanipen (‘being a Rom’), and simultaneously celebrate the vast opportunities of today, stressing the utmost importance of education ... Their primary function is to record and inform, not to enlighten spiritually ... The autobiographical aspect is still overwhelming, allowing little space for hyperbole ...

From this article you could conclude that a group's myths and stories are more likely to be written down by its litterateurs than by the "folk" whose oral traditions they are. An undercurrent: "the Roma need some litterateurs!" But then in a profile of Ilona Ferková she identifies oral storytelling as one of the "certain traditional values" that Roma writers like to incorporate in their work. The short Ferková story that she's chosen introduces us to a Roma man in a hard-luck modern setting; he sits down with another character and tells him a story. The author writes down the story as if she's transcribing him. Conkers is a written record of an oral tradition with a bit of a fictional preface added. But the story is not transformed in a literary way. (Define "literary" for the moment as "an event that can only take place in writing.") It is only an oral story that happens to have crept onto paper. (The fictional preface, with the invented character, leaves it half-shifted into the purely fictional or literary, but the transition is incomplete. The characters in the two halves of the story -- Conkers the oral tale-teller, and then the husband in the tale he's telling -- have different thicknesses; one is invented by a single author the other, denser, has been assembled by a multitude. The told character is more substantial than the teller.) So then Ryvolová's call for literary Roma can be reiterated.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

with fantastic garlands

Over Christmas, inspired by the Arizona desert outside the back door, and by the news of Emily Martin's Paper Doll Primer, I decided to present the world with Great Works of Literature interpreted by a Barrel Cactus.

Click on these links for the images:

Page One

Page Two

You'll find the barrel cactus on page one, along with six of its fine costumes, all rendered in exquisite and extraordinary detail. There are five more costumes on page two. The images will be scaled down at first. Mouse over them and your cursor should turn into a magnifying glass. Magnify. Right click and save. Print. Colour them in if you like. Those oval fruits on top are yellow in real life, but suit yourself.

Cut out the cactus and glue it to cardboard so that it doesn't fall over. Cereal box cardboard is about right. You don't want the poor thing too thick otherwise the flaps will fail and the costumes fall off. Cactus nudity is not what we're going for here.

If you prefer, you might like to buy a roll of magnetic sheeting, and turn your cactus into a dressable fridge magnet. There are hobby shops that will sell you small quantities of this sheeting, but it's cheaper if you can find a supplier. Look in your Yellow Pages, or regional equivalent.

Then thrill, if you will, at the succulent's postmodern take on Lady Macbeth. Out, damned spot! Godot is, of course, imaginative, but we've taken our cues from the rest of the play and presented what we hope is a reasonable insight into the rôle.

The nature of the Ophelia costume might not be immediately apparent. It's a head-wreath of flowers. "There with fantastic garlands did she come." One flap should be hooked over the cactus between Fruit One and Fruit Two (I'm counting left to right) and the other left to rest against the side of the body below Fruit Three. Throwing the doll into a bath or, if you have one, a nearby brook, will make the performance more compelling.

Let me know if the links give you problems.