Wednesday, June 8, 2011

the rapidity of the flash, and other circumstances

Sleepy and delirious with a head cold I've been reading Paul Muldoon's long poem Madoc with its puns, riddles, and historical, philosophical allusions, and always at least two things going on at once. In the section headed [Davy] he quotes one of Coleridge's footnotes to Lines Written at Shurton Bars --

In Sweden a very curious phenomenon has been observed on certain flowers, by M. Haggern, lecturer in natural history. One evening he perceived a faint flash of light repeatedly dart from a marigold. From the rapidity of the flash, and other circumstances, it may be conjectured that there is something of electricity in this phenomenon.

Shurton Bars is a reflection on marriage, and it is relevant to Madoc because Coleridge was preparing not only to marry but also to go on a journey that he never took, a trip to North America with Robert Southey. Madoc is a version of that imaginary trip. It opens with Coleridge being shot by Geckoes. In Shurton he addresses his fiancée, Sarah Fricker. "With eager speed I dart! -- / I seize you in the vacant air, / And fancy, with a husband's care / I press you to my heart!" The marigold comes a moment later: "'Tis said, in Summer's evening hour / Flashes the golden-colour'd flower / A fair electric flame: / And so shall flash my love-charg'd eye / When all the heart's big ecstasy / Shoots rapid through the flame!" -- science and literature uniting in one excited whirl of invention, invention and invention saying hello in different languages, as they do when Dickens has his Megalosaurus "forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill," or as George Eliot does in Middlemarch,* or when Thomas Hardy's Knight sees a trilobite "standing forth in low relief from the rock"; and George Steiner delivering a series of T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures in 1970 at the University of Kent, didn't see how any serious reader could avoid being also a mathematician. "The notion that one can exercise a rational literacy in the latter part of the twentieth century without a knowledge of calculus, without some preliminary access to topology or algebraic analysis, will soon seem a bizarre anachronism." This is reported in Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture. Steiner was sad to see that students in 1970 were not learning about the Ancient World, and that footnotes were becoming necessary where they had not been necessary before.

How is Pope's Essay on Man to register its delicate precision and sinew when each proposition reaches us, as it were, on stilts, at the top of a page crowded with elementary comment? What presence in personal delight can Endymion have when recent editions annotate "Venus" as signifying "pagan goddess of love"?

But Borges, delivering a different set of lectures a few years earlier at Harvard (the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1967-1968), is intrigued by footnotes, and loves to follow them, he chases through dictionaries after words, he enjoys translations for their differences, and believes that not-knowing or half-knowing can turn a poem or book into a marvellous dream or riddle. The fact that he sees possibilities expanding where Steiner sees them closing and contracting makes him seem, to me anyway, wiser and more thoughtful than the other lecturer, more exploratory and adventurous, in spite of the fact that he doesn't appear to know topology or calculus or any maths at all; and I come away thinking that it is not always mastery of things that makes a person seem astute, but rather an advanced way of wondering about them.**

His answer to Steiner's rhetorical question about Endymion might be, "Because the student finds the lines beautiful," or "Because it is sonorous," which is the word he uses to praise a sonnet by "that too-forgotten Bolivian poet Ricardo Jaimes Freire." Freire's lines "do not mean anything, they are not meant to mean anything; and yet they stand. They stand as a thing of beauty."

Peregrina paloma imaginaria
Que enardeces los últimos amores
Alma de luz, de música y de flores
Peregrina paloma imaginaria

Meanwhile Virginia Woolf in her Diary has discovered items other than Endymion or dreams to worry about, and her juxtapositions of two things are not, like Muldoon's, fun. She is thinking about her servants in the kitchen.

* For example, at the start of chapter twenty-seven:

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable.

** Madoc is a poem for the Steiner-people rather than the Borges-people, since so many of its puns, etc, depend on the reader's familiarity with philosophers, writers, American history, and so on -- see, for example, here's the whole section named [Camus]:


June 16th, 1837. The Mandan villages are ravaged by smallpox.

The Plague says the reader. La Peste! Oh, that Muldoon.

And yet, I think I'm wrong about that Steiner-people, Borges-people split, because Borges' dreaminess, aside from the dreaminess that he describes as a recognition of "beauty" in a poem like Freire's, is the dreaminess of erudition, of the footnote as the entrance to a labyrinth, a Narnian wardrobe door leading to other Narnian wardrobe doors, of an artificial infinity, the infinity of literature, and you could argue that Muldoon's poem points back and forth in that way, one bit of knowledge leading to another. And yet, again, and yet, is there something stage-managed about this poem, in the fact that the reader is ushered very insistently through these wardrobe doors -- there's no other way to make sense of it, you have to jump -- which seems to be the Steiner approach -- one must know Venus -- not the Borges approach -- which could be summed up as: one loves what one sees, and may proceed further into it if one wishes, and look up the old Norse meaning of the word dreary ("the word 'dreary' meant 'bloodstained'"), and whatever else you like, with no coercion?

No comments:

Post a Comment