Monday, September 5, 2011

we approached unto those monsters fleet

Every night as Louie is going to sleep in The Man Who Loves Children she hears a horseman riding along the road outside, ker-porrop, ker-porrop, but after she has slept and woken and slept and woken and days and weeks have passed in the book she realises that these hoofbeats are really the blood throbbing in her head as she lies there in the dark.

Now she knows what the horseman is but she doesn't lose him, she doesn't dismiss him, "she still thought of him riding, though he was now only a phantom," and this is one of the signs Stead gives us that the girl is assimilating the forces around her -- her father's faith in the science of biology, and her mother's faith in magic and superstition -- forging those two influences into the steady selfish spar that will defend her against both of her parents. I've never read an idea like this anywhere else, this subtle and organic use of the confused borderland of sleep, a scene so strange and so natural, so natural because so strange (truth being stranger than fiction, this seems strange enough to be truth) -- so absurd and so likely -- that I think of Ruskin in Modern Painters, announcing that all of the valuable artists are the ones who feel compelled to chase after things they can see, or have seen, either in actuality or vividly in their imaginations, that their most characteristic and brilliant touches are "involving pieces of sudden familiarity and close specific painting which never would have been admitted or even thought of, had not the painter drawn either from bodily life or from the life of faith. For instance, Dante's centaur Chiron, dividing his beard with his arrow before he can speak, is a thing that no mortal would ever have thought of, if he had not seen the centaur do it. They might have composed handsome bodies of men and horses in all possible ways, through a whole life of pseudo-idealism, and yet never dreamed of any such thing.

But the real living centaur actually trotted across Dante's brain and he saw him do it."

After reading that it's natural to imagine that Louie lay in Christina Stead's brain hearing the horseman, possibly as no character ever before had heard the horseman, and Stead saw her do it. Because her mind was working she caught her in the act. Ruskin loves the idea of seeing; he values it so much that he gets agitated in his diary when, travelling in Italy, he believes he is not seeing well."I, with every faculty cultivated and directed to receive the impression of beauty, with every sensation and feeling raised ... was in a state of actual severe mental pain, because I could perceive materials of the highest mental pleasure about me, and could not receive it [ie, pleasure, happiness] from them."

(This is Proust territory, as are the sentences a line or two later: "I was tormented with vague desires of possessing all the beauty that I saw, of keeping every outline and colour in my mind, and pained at the knowledge that I must forget it all; that in a year or two I shall have no more of that landscape left about me than a confused impression of cupola and pine. The present glory is of no use to me; it hurts me from my fear of leaving it and losing it, and yet I know that were I to stay here it would soon cease to be beauty to me -- that it has ceased, already, to produce the impression and the delight. I believe the only part of a journey really enjoyable to be the first six weeks, when every feeling is fresh, and the dread of losing what we love is lost in the delirium of its possession." From The Diaries of John Ruskin 1835 - 1847.)

Chiron puts the arrow in his beard at this moment in the Inferno. Canto twelve:

Near we approached unto those monsters fleet;
  Chiron an arrow took, and with the notch
  Backward upon his jaws he put his beard.

After he had uncovered his great mouth,
  He said to his companions: "Are you ware
  That he behind moveth whate'er he touches?

Thus are not wont to do the feet of dead men."

(translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

This faith-in-observation over rhetoric and established literary protocol is Proust's strength too, I think, when he describes his narrator's dream about his grandmother, the natural dream-strangeness of that conversation he has with his dream-father, and, just as an aside, although Stead didn't like "dull Proust," I notice that she has Louie go down into sleep in the same way that the narrator comes up out of it, disintegrating into a string of words: "it was a horseman," Louie thinks, awake, "riding up and down and -- wampum, purple strings of shells, fimbriate horsemane shell and the ctenidium deep deep down in this dusty -- red --"

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