Sunday, April 17, 2011

earth hath no fruitfulness without showers

Looking at the dryness outside I realise that my books have recently been full of water. "The water is more productive than the earth," says Izaak Walton's Piscator. "Nay, the earth hath no fruitfulness without showers or dews; for all the herbs, and flowers, and fruit, are produced and thrive by the water; and the very minerals are fed by streams that run under ground, whose natural course carries them to the tops of many high mountains, as we see by several springs breaking forth on the tops of the highest hills; and this is also witnessed by the daily trial and testimony of several miners." (And Oregon was wet and fruitful.)

Then there are marvellous rivers: "The river Selarus in a few hours turns a rod or wand to stone: and our Camden mentions the like in England, and the like in Lochmere in Ireland. There is also a river in Arabia, of which all the sheep that drink thereof have their wool turned into a vermilion colour. And one of no less credit than Aristotle, tells us of a merry river, the river Elusina, that dances at the noise of musick, for with musick it bubbles, dances, and grows sandy, and so continues till the musick ceases, but then it presently returns to its wonted calmness and clearness."

But here in the desert we have the dry white washes, the beds of dead streams, calm and unmusical -- inhabiting the still atmosphere of silence -- running under low trees and grasses and the delicately thin and tendrilled plants, like paths engineered by spirits for their especial use; they go nowhere that a human would go, and the branches fall too low for people to follow them, though you do see the tracks of coyotes down there, and the jackrabbits dart down those raceways when you startle them -- or else they run into cholla patches -- and two weeks ago I was walking down the bank of a wash at dusk and almost trod on a rattlesnake, which let me know that it was there, and I said, "Yoh!" and then, "Hoo," and jumped backwards, a planned jump, which sounds like a joke, but it's true, I did have time to think, "What's the fastest way away from this rattlesnake? What would an onlooker tell me to do?" and the answer came lucidly, "Jump backwards," which turned out to be good advice.

Then we scouted around in the bosky dusky darkness, trying to find another route back to the house, and vowed never to go walking after dinner again in springtime, which vow we have adhered to.

The natural dry rivers of Arizona are as beautiful as the wet ones of Oregon, but in a different way; they do not change; they are rivers without fish, like a prehistoric or Biblical withdrawing of the waters from the earth, or (in my imagination) like that moment I saw reported when the Boxing Day tsunami hit in 2004, and the sea preemptively rushed away from the beaches leaving bare sand and the people running onto the sand to gather the beached fish were swept away and killed moments later, because the sea hadn't left forever or even for an hour or a day, it was only inhaling. Jean in Jean Santeuil goes down to the unfamiliar North Sea "to the very edge of the sea, where the little waves were breaking in an infinity of sand."

Their shape, their movement, their linked and following run gave to them that general look which makes us say of certain things that they are "just the same," that we know them. And so it was that in this evening light he was oppressed by a feeling of sadness, a more melancholy feeling perhaps than that which comes to us when we fail to recognise familiar sights. It comes in part, that feeling, from our recognizing as familiar things we do not know, but chiefly from our not being recognized by things we do know, from an awareness that they have become strangers.


For places change less in appearance than do men, and waves can never change at all, but seem to say to us, "It is no longer ago than yesterday," and cry to us to resume the life that once was ours.

Proust sorts through that idea, and then, in a massive leap that lasts for about six pages, he discovers the idea that will bind and animate In Search of Lost Time, the idea that habit can be broken into by unplanned memories, triggered by similarities between different events, which transport a person outside time and space. In Lost Time he uses madeleines and flagstones, but in Jean it's the sea, and it comes almost at the end of the story, a revelation for the protagonist, and, you suspect, for the author as well -- the book, a rough draft that stayed unpublished during Proust's lifetime, moves back and forth between third-person Jean and the author's I -- he has never before seen himself describe his own intuitions so clearly, perhaps, and now his mind is racing, boiling, boiling onward to that sentence: "Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure," which, like Piscator's rivers, carried him to the top of many high mountains, himself both the mineral and the miner.

Credit for the Proust translation goes to Gerard Hopkins.

Proust's boiling mind boiled on for a number of years before it finally got to that sentence, and it boiled all the way through the pieces of unpublished critical writing that Bernard de Fallois discovered after his death and put together under the title Contre Sainte-Beauve. Fallois assembled Jean too, out of rough papers, or, as André Maurois puts it more heroically, "Bernard de Fallois took on the labour of garnering this abundant crop." Reading Sainte-Beauve after Jean I sometimes have the feeling that they're competing with one another. "I have the madeleine-prototype!" "Well I have the asparagus!"


  1. Is that translator Gerard Manley Hopkins or just some poor unfortunate whose parents didn't think very carefully? (I've been reading a bit of GM Hopkins, thanks to a relative's infectious enthusiasm: the most striking thing I've found is from a sermon he gave in which he points out to the congregation that there is 'one thing certain of your place of death; you are there now, you sit within your corpses' Quite a statement to chew over while they ate their Sunday lunch post-church - 'you sit within your corpses'. Although gruesome, it's pretty hard to deny. And on that cheery note, Happy Easter

  2. The name threw me too, and it throws me again every time I look at it, but the dates don't work. Gerard Manley Hopkins died in 1889, and Proust wouldn't start writing Jean until the mid-1890s, so unless the poet came back from the grave and repossessed his "place of death" (which is a phrase I'm not going to be able to get out of my head for a while, thank you) it couldn't have been him. Which is a pity, because Proust translated to a Hopkins rhythm would have been interesting.

    A pity, Proust's prose, never, soaring,
    Hopkins-heard, grasped by Gerard, got
    or grappled, dappled, mapped
    with Manley mapplings.

    It sounds as if even Hopkins' sermons were pieces of poetic compression, talented man. And Happy Easter.

  3. Silly me, I had the idea Hopkins was early 20th century. For some reason, I have him filed in my mind along with Ralph Vaughan Williams and I've never bothered to check until now. So it was just thoughtless parents for poor Gerard - like my husband, whose middle initials are WC, cue much merriment at school, not that he seems to have cared particularly. And then there's those who marry into a crazy name, like an acquaintance of my mother's - Honor Heap.

  4. Starry-eyed parents, thinking, "Ah! poetry! lovely!" My parents have a friend who named his daughters after drinks, "Sherrie," etc. The names worked as names, too, so it wasn't as if strangers would be meeting these women singly and raising their eyebrows, murmuring, "Bloody Mary? Are you serious?" but if you looked at them all together you'd know where his inspiration had come from.