Friday, September 16, 2011

there was no other amusement but to look

There's a five-floor building near here, walls in three directions made almost completely out of glass, with solid struts and sections, but mainly glass -- and a storm swept across the valley toward this building last Sunday as I was sitting on the fourth floor reading Tim Robinson's Connemara, which is a record of everything around the coastal area of Ireland where he lives -- and it's a rainy place, Ireland, he suggested, as a vertical sheet of water moved across the Strip and ate the golden casinos as it came, everything vanishing; the pink mountains disappeared behind this curtain and came back later blue with cold.

There was a stand of trees outside the window of the building, and, as the rain closed in, the distance from the building to the trees became the visible world for me, each leaf turned brilliant, outlined in a darker green and standing out staring like an asparagus tip, or monumental graven image. Robinson in my hand was quoting Thackeray, who was caught in Connemara rain about one hundred and seventy years ago and found shelter with a family by a lake. "When the gentlemen had finished their repast, the boatmen and the family set to work upon the ton of potatoes, a number of the remaining fish, and a store of other good things; then we all sat round the turf-fire in the dark cottage, the rain coming down steadily outside and veiling everything except the shrubs and verdure immediately about the cottage."

And "there was no other amusement but to look at the rain," wrote Thackeray, but the lit place ahead of me was full of detail and I was transfixed, see, the flag on its pole blew one way and then turned and blew the other way, kicking up against the rain, a woman ran across a carpark with papers under her arm, and the flower bushes below whipped their heads not quite in unison but differently, depending on their constitution, lightness, and structure -- meanwhile others too, came away from their desks to watch the rain.

Thackeray had objects to look at inside the cottage and he noted them, the "herd, the herd's wife, and a nondescript female friend, two healthy young herdsmen in corduroy rags, the herdsman's daughter paddling about with bare feet, a stout black-eyed wench with her gown over her head and a red petticoat not quite so good as new, the two boatmen, a badger just killed and turned inside out, the gentlemen, some hens cackling and flapping about among the rafters, a calf in a corner cropping green meat and occasionally visited by the cow her mamma." Yet he was bored, but show me a badger inside out and I will be interested in it, I think.* And Xavier de Maistre would have found something more to do with those objects than just put them in a list, this man whose Journey Round My Room I'd read in the same building only a day earlier, when the sky was still regular, and the clouds were white and clean. De Maistre was confined to his room for six weeks, house arrest after an illegal duel in approximately 1790, and he wrote this shorter Tristram Shandyish book about it, a whole book of diversions, taking the features of his room for starting points and flowing off from there, so that the sight of his manservant bringing him breakfast leads to thoughts on the character of the manservant, and a layer of dust on a portrait of his mistress leads him to thoughts about loving her, and the feel of his bed leads to thoughts about the nature of a bed, "the ever-changing theatre where the human species enacts, by turns, engaging dramas, ridiculous farces, and horrible tragedies," and those thoughts lead to other thoughts, until his prison is a fountain of thought.

After Journey I read Kate Jennings' Snake, in which one of the characters is trapped on a farm by her marriage to a farmer, and when I set this against de Maistre's book I wondered if you could say that a definite period of confinement from which someone else will free you is better for the human brain than an indefinite period of confinement from which you have to work out how to free yourself, if you're going to be free -- because de Maistre's tone is happy and confiding, like Sterne's in Shandy, while Jennings' character is distracted and miserable, fretful, isolated, and spiky, but, I said to myself, I can't draw a conclusion from only two books. The idea feels right, but that isn't enough; history tells me that it isn't enough; the idea that the earth was flat felt right once too, and Sir Thomas Browne in the 1600s is in despair over people who believe that a root vegetable has a personality like a human being because it can split and grow in tines and look as if it has legs, "a bifurcation or division of the Root into two parts, which some are content to call Thighs" -- as if the parsnip is another race of human being, or else a sub-group of mythical creature, a botanical fairy. "Many mola's," he writes, "and false conceptions there are of Mandrakes, the first from great Antiquity, conceiveth the Root thereof resembleth the shape of Man; which is a conceit not to be made out by ordinary inspection, or any other eyes, then such as regarding the Clouds, behold them in shapes conformable to pre-apprehensions." (The clouds coming across the Strip had disintegrated into Waterfall. The World was Cloud.)

Later I opened a book of essays onto a poem about another farmer's wife, one who feels trapped even more firmly then the wife in Jennings -- her husband comes in and finds her sitting at the piano, not playing the instrument but sitting like a fern. Then a cow eats too much sweet clover and the farmer punctures it with an ice pick, and we can see parallels between the woman and the cow; the man is not cruel, not stupid, but he deflates her life through the natural processes of his animal husbandry. Jennings' woman makes a break for it but the fern-wife never does, her imprisonment is perpetual, de Maistre runs past her and away to Russia where he is wounded in the Caucasus and marries a Mrs Zagriatsky who is related to the Tsars. Later he comes back to the room in Turin where he was imprisoned and discovers that everything has changed, years have passed, the room is transformed. If Kate Jennings' woman had ever come back to the farm she would have discovered a change as well: her husband went out (feeling miserable and desperate now too, but a different misery to hers) and bought a herd of pigs, and the pigs ate her garden, the hydrangeas, gone, geraniums gone, all the green bystanders, vegetable creatures that did nothing, offended nobody without help, simple as the Mandrake ...

On his return de Maistre tries to tour the room for a second time in Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, but the new book starts off flatly, weakly, struggling, the old fluid tone gone rusty and slow like Sam's when he returns from Malaya, and for a while I thought de Maistre was going to fail -- he was an author trying to imitate another author who was the author he used to be; he was trying to write himself back into himself, but this is impossible, as Proust in the future would have reminded him, the same water won't come twice out of the well (or put it this way: he wants the power his old self had, which was the power of fluid writing, he wants to ambush his old self and take it back), and he finally starts to have success when he abandons the room and hangs out of the window. The moon is up, the stars are out -- he gives us his theory of the universe, which takes an entire chapter that runs for three lines, and then there is a longer chapter explaining that he doesn't know what the theory means but he's proud of its brevity and "the indulgent reader will also note that it was composed, in its entirety, atop a ladder." After that he tries to both look and not-look at a woman on a different floor who is putting her foot in a slipper, and the old tone is back; he had to get away from his old self to write like himself again.

He can't recreate the pleasure of his entrapment but nonentrapment turns out to be a new pleasure. The author has a problem, a creaky start, he seems to detect it, he searches for a solution to his problem, he perseveres, he abandons the strictly interior environment of his first book, he goes to a fresh place, the windowsill -- and his problem is solved.

And me here in Las Vegas, I was trapped by the summer heat, then the rain came, and when I went outside it was cool, it was fresh, and I thought that I could walk a mile now without sweating, and everything seemed solved -- I experienced freedom as a temperature.

* or not bored but once he's put those phenomena in a list he's finished with them. A spirit of purity fills him, he turns away from the plural world, and watches the rain.

Both of de Maistre's books were translated by Stephen Sartarelli. Robinson was quoting from Thackeray's Irish Sketch-book and the Browne quote comes from Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors.


  1. Freedom as a temperature ... now that's an idea. Once again you have inspired me with your wanderings through various works finding connections and links. Entrapment is partly, I guess, a state of mind ... that sounds a little simplistic ... but some women cope with the life of the Snake farm-woman and some don't. I don't think anyone should HAVE to cope with that sort of entrapment, that loss of choice and control over your life, but it's interesting to consider the role of the mind. Of course, Thackeray's entrapment was short term - that makes a difference too. There, I've just gone around in circles and proved nothing!

  2. Your point about Thackeray's entrapment being short-term is a good one, I think -- and I wonder if the reason he paid more attention to the rain than the people or the cow or the badger, was that he knew it was going to be short-term, and that by tomorrow he'd be out of there and would never have to look at any of this again, and so he was thinking, "All right, when's it going to stop? Is it stopping now -- did it get lighter there for a moment? -- did it get heavier --" trying to gauge the length of his imprisonment from the weather. The cow wasn't keeping him there, and the badger wasn't, and the people weren't, so perhaps they seemed less important.

  3. Perhaps ... and perhaps also rain plays (or can play) more on the emotions than a cow or badger. Does the grey make me miserable? Does being trapped make me feel cosy. Does it free me to do those quiet contemplative things I like but can't when it's fine and I feel I should be active? It doesn't, though, sound like that was Thackeray's reaction.

  4. "This is grey and dim and dank and I don't know when I'm going to get out but I hope it's soon and this place is small and there's no way to position myself but sitting ..." I wonder how his reaction would have changed if he'd been in a well-lit house with rich people at a party, and paintings to look at, and chandeliers, and a library of books, and room to move around, with exactly the same rain outside.

  5. Oh yes, then. I wonder too! Btw, saw The guard the other night, set in Connemara. Great film.

  6. I've just gone and watched the trailer. So that's what the place looks like when it's not in a book.

  7. More or less! I have been there (well, nearby in Galway) but many moons ago ... the area didn't look like it had changed a lot.

  8. Is it boggy? In the book he spends half his time walking through bogs and the other half climbing mountains. The trailer makes the countryside look solid and flat, but Robinson lives around to the west of the place where they did most of the filming, as far as I can work out from maps.