Sunday, October 30, 2011

the sea is one hydra

The blind men come up to the elephant and one of them finds a tail, "The elephant is like a rope," this person says; and another finds a fat leg, "The elephant is like a tree," and a third finds the trunk, "The elephant is a hose," but if they hadn't already experienced a rope, a tree, and a hose, then what would they find? A Ponge from another planet might recognise other qualities in bread. Christina Stead starts The Man Who Loved Children on a specific street, with a specific house, "Tohoga House, their home," and everything she finds from there onwards, is the book. Perhaps each book is a long search. Mervyn Peake goes to a building of his own, larger than Stead's, almost blank at first, a wall and houses outside the wall, and he discovers everything in that one focussed area of land, not walking through it with the personal and monodirected tone of Ponge, but sensing it multipronged through characters, using them to feel the castle as if they were several tentacles. Mr Flay enters the Kitchens to watch Swelter and the author witnesses the Kitchens; one of the Twins walks through a room and he follows her and voila, the room is exposed to him, here are its details. His voice reaches around like a curious octopus, touching here and there. How many rooms does the reader never see because no character visits them?

Peake was grabbed by an octopus once off the island of Sark, or this is what he told his friend Gordon (or Goaty) Smith in a letter, and he had to beat it to death; in Hugo's Toilers of the Sea the hero in similar straits slices the animal's head off. "He had plunged the blade of his knife into the flat slimy substance, and by a rapid movement, like the flourish of a whip in the air, describing a circle round the two eyes, he wrenched the head off as a man would draw a tooth." Parts of Hugo could make prose poems if you picked them out of his novels, for instance, this description of the sea, also from Toilers:

The indivisible cannot be broken up into compartments. There is no intervening wall between one wave and another. The Channel Islands feel impulses coming from the Cape of Good Hope. Shipping throughout the world is confronting a single monster. The whole of the sea is one hydra. The waves cover the sea with a kind of fish's skin. The Ocean is Ceto. On this unity swoops down the innumerable.

This stolen poem works in strong declarations, certain things are so, and other things cannot be treated in that way, but a word like "indivisible" is precisely ineffable and "Ceto" and "hydra" are mythical -- he is declaring the unprovable, he is declaring the air. Then there is a closing mystery and a new idea. What is "the innumerable"?* Then silence after the mystery. There is a tussle between the power of the language to say and its power to mean. It says what it says very directly, but it means what it means very obliquely. And the same goes for Peake's Groan which is not in favour of the aristocracy but not against it either, which is Dickensian but not, which reflects the England of his day but doesn't, and Steerpike is Hitler but he isn't, and the Rituals are army regulations but they're not, and the author, using passionate and heightened language, posits a dry static society that damages its inhabitants, yet places the book's only egalitarian statement between the lips of a selfish arsonist. The book ends with the baby Titus "enter[ing] his stronghold" after an act of symbolic rebellion (it can't be anything other than symbolic, the baby is a baby, we recognise the rebellion, he can't) which the author regards as a kind of mystic heroism, but the stronghold, to which he comes surrounded by triumphant language, is a prison, antithetical to his humanity. It will not, like a stronghold, protect him from harm. It will do the harm. It will warp him. He comes to his triumphant mutilation.

There is another tension in the books. The readers, if they love Peake, love the castle and the society of the castle, and depend on this society to produce and to frame the characters that they also love. These characters are different expressions of isolation. Fuchsia isolates herself in her attic, Swelter isolates himself eminently above a crowd, Gertrude can remove herself from any conversation by addressing a raven, Prunesquallor separates himself from his sister by chattering, and so on, and so on, or to a cat, and so on. Each one of them is a machine that manipulates isolation (and an experiment in isolation management), and they reveal themselves to us by their methods; by their methods we know them. Castle society makes isolation essential; it also makes it possible. If we love the books then the castle is the heart of everything we love. And the hero wants to take us away from it. The hero, the person we're supposed to be supporting, if we support anybody -- he is our enemy, and we are his.

* It's not a mystery in the book. He means "the wind." James Hogarth translated. Malcolm Yorke mentions Peake's letter to Gordon Smith in his Peake biography, Mine Eyes Mint Gold.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

it gives you an itch to look into the nests of spectres

The father in Bruno Schulz has his cosmology of mannequins, Ponge has his cosmology of bread, and so there is this idea of starting in one place and swelling out, stepping from one point to another (and once you've reached that one you can see the next, so that the more you step, the further you can go, although each step is still a step), until you've reached a point on your single path where you can look back and observe that bread is the universe, or mannequins are humanity and "To see a world in a grain of sand" -- writes Blake -- is a great thing -- "Hold infinity in the palm of your hand." Here in Las Vegas the casinos try to provide us with the sights of the world in a street but we are not fooled, this is not infinity; the street ends, and a grain of sand ends too, but you are considering the grain and it is your consideration that is understood to be infinite, not the object, which is your trigger; and maybe it helps if the trigger is roundish, unique, and so tiny that you struggle to make it out, like a grain, and not, like a roadway, a clear cluttered straightish line that comes to a halt.*

(The Las Vegas Strip is so fulsome, no wonder people feel free to knock it, and call it tacky and undignified. "No dignity is perfect which at some point does not ally itself with the mysterious," writes Thomas de Quincey. The grain, self-contained, focussed, and delicate, is more obviously mysterious than the Strip. Submerged historical processes created the Strip, as they created everything, but the street would rather not have you think about them. "Look," it says, "at this big clean Eiffel Tower. You can make out every single rivet!" Away goes the mystery of the rivets, which might even be decoration and not functional. Possibly there are other forces, more modern forces, keeping the structure together.)

In Ponge, one thing, bread, discovers its equivalents everywhere -- one type of object shows the potential to summarise all objects -- Walt Whitman's persona in the person of a loaf -- and this discovery is the essence, is the poem -- not the thing itself but the discovery, the step-step-step, the taking of steps -- which is thought, or one way of illustrating it.

"When you are hunting something," wrote Victor Hugo in Toilers of the Sea, "you are undergoing a course of training; when you are seeking to discover something, you are caught up in a chain of action. If you have been in the habit of looking into birds' nests, it gives you an itch to look into the nests of spectres."

So, following on from this, say that Ponge, looking at fire, is training himself to look at bread, or vice versa, whichever came first in his life. Lucretius, once he starts thinking about atoms, starts to believe that every natural effect can be explained if you introduce the idea of tiny particles to the equation. He is wrong, so singular concentration is not always fruitful. But go back: this might be the opposite of Ponge. On one hand you take a single starting point and colour the universe diversely (Ponge), on the other hand you take the diverse universe and colour it with one quality (Lucretius). I think I'm just fooling myself with language but the point I'm trying to get to is this: with a system you re-author the universe, you have the appearance of being correct. A barber in George Eliot's Romola says that narrowness is dangerous:

"Besides, your druggist, who herborises and decocts, is a man of prejudices: he has poisoned people according to a system, and is obliged to stand up for his system to justify the consequences. Now a barber can be dispassionate; the only thing he necessarily stands by is the razor, always providing he is not an author. That was the flaw in my great predecessor Burchiello [also a barber]: he was a poet, and had consequently a prejudice about his own poetry. I have escaped that; I saw very early that authorship is a narrowing business, in conflict with the liberal art of the razor, which demands an impartial affection for all men’s chins."

The physical activity of the razor (constantly in contact with the world) opens you out; the mental activity of poetry and druggist-systems closes you in and gives you something to defend; the outward-directed person should have nothing to defend, suggests the barber, and if changing one's mind, as Ruskin says somewhere in Modern Painters,** is an essential part of thinking and being fruitfully thoughtful, then the poet and the druggist are not as alive as the barber who shaves chins. "Much time is wasted in general on the establishment of systems," Ruskin says too, "and it often takes more time to master the intricacies of an artificial connection, than to remember the separate facts which are so carefully connected."

And yet the barber is not completely freethinking, he has his standards, his world is coloured, he measures and assesses, as the reader finds out a few paragraphs later when he goes on talking to his customer, a handsome stranger. "Ecco!" says the barber, "your curls are now of the right proportion to neck and shoulders; rise, Messer, and I will free you from the encumbrance of this cloth. Gnaffè! I almost advise you to retain the faded jerkin and hose a little longer; they give you the air of a fallen prince."

Maybe say that the difference between this barber and his druggist, is that the barber thinks of the result, the druggist thinks of the structure you climb through to get there. The barber sees a man in tatty clothes and intuits, quickly, that the best advice he can give to this man is the opposite of normal advice -- he must not buy clean new clothes, he must keep the old ones -- inventing a new process on the spot, this barber. The new process is unconventional but he trusts in his own prescience -- "almost " -- almost he believes it will work -- and also he likes to tickle people with his opinions.

* Or it seems to. The street itself (going purely north and ignoring the other direction) turns from South Las Vegas Boulevard into North Fifth Street and then ends near a freeway, if you follow it directly, but if you resist directness and turn right around a circle then the street that used to be North Main Street sacrifices its name and becomes the rest of the Boulevard. Now North Las Vegas Boulevard, it heads through the city, going and going for miles, past fast food places and houses, shedding its lanes, getting thinner and more anaemic and less important, and eventually running away into the open desert. Wasting down almost to nothing it walks parallel to the Great Basin Highway for a while, dies away into a dirt road, recovers itself, wriggles, crosses the Basin, and perishes finally at an insignificant T-intersection.

** I can't see it but I know it's in there somewhere. Volume three or four or five. Somewhere near the beginning.

The Hugo was translated by James Hogarth.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

like an amoeba and a giraffe

Calves are born from cows and worms are born from corpses as everybody knows, says Lucretius, but if worms have souls then does this mean that a person's soul, after they die, divides itself into parts and each part enters a worm? He is asking rhetorically because he already knows that the answer is no, of course not, each worm has its own private soul, which it obtains at birth as it germinates inside the corpse.

No two souls are ever the same, he adds, each one is different, they are modulated, and so, reading this, I realise that the Lucretian sense-seeds of hearing and seeing must modulate too, like the souls of worms and people and also the cows, different each time, or else we'd see nothing but a single plane of colour and never hear anything except a single unending sound. One sight-atom must be red, the atom next to it not quite red, the atom next to that one even further into the colour brown, etc, small changes between definite states, those definite states being pure red and pure brown, very rare, and perhaps only ideas in our heads, ultimate measurements that we need to keep to ourselves so that we can describe our world of modulations, holding onto that pure brown so that we can look at a tree and judge it "light brown" or "greenish brown" or in other words not-pure-brown; and anyone who assumed that it was striving for the colour brown in the first place would have to call it an imperfect tree and a failure.

The difference between light brown and greenish brown is the difference between hoops and hoopla; the physical differences between the words are not great but the understood difference is much greater, a hoop is not a hoopla, a hoopla is not a hoop. The contrast between the two letters and the one letter is the journey between one country and another country.

Hoopla and hoop, by the way, goes back to a post I made a few days ago (I'm putting this here in case someone out there is asking themselves, Where did this hoop-hoop come from?), when I was talking to M. about wordplay in French, and the reason I was considering French in the first place, was that I had seen a review for a book by Gérard Macé at the Complete Review website, and from there I discovered an article that mentioned the prose poet Jean Follain, and also another prose poet, Francis Ponge. There was nothing by Macé at any of my local libraries, but I found a copy of Dreaming the Miracle: Three French Prose Poets: Max Jacob, Jean Follain, Francis Ponge and read that instead.

Ponge wrote (this is a word I saw applied to him) cosmologies, and like a god or wizard or autistic naturalist he would take a single thing, "Snails," for instance, or "Fire," and concentrate on it until it was a universe of separate parts or actions -- he wrote a tense psychoanalysis of water ("passive yet persistent in its one vice, gravity"), and saw a generative world-making power in the development of bread in an oven.

He is the father in Bruno Schulz's short stories and bread and fire are his mannequins. He announces new characters and natures for every nonhuman thing he considers. His fire doesn't have the usual personality of written fire -- it's not angry blazing fire or glowing cosy fire -- fire, a phenomena judged by the way it warms or threatens humans -- this is an alien fire, self-contained, strange, "it moves like an amoeba and a giraffe at the same time, its neck lurching, its foot dragging …" an effect of radiant oddity that doesn't only appear in Ponge, of course, or only in prose poetry, and I thought of Les Murray giving muscles to a liquid in The Butter Factory, "paddlewheels sailed the silvery vats where muscles / of the one deep cream were exercised" or Alice Oswald, in her new spin on the Iliad, bringing death down on an ancient Greek with the modernity of a lift. "They met a flying spear / And like a lift door closing / Inexplicable Hephaestus / Whisked one of them away / And the other died."

A reviewer pointed out the lift door and I thought, he's right, a lift door in the Iliad, what a mind, to think of that, what an intelligence, and I was filled with respect for Alice Oswald, and compared her to the Lucretius translation I was reading, which, although it was published in 1916, uses archaic language, all "doth" and "e'en" and "nay," as if the poem had been translated much earlier. The translator loves "vasty" too, as in "vasty deep." There is no Deep in this book that is not also Vasty. Those two words together in that order, "vasty deep", sends the culture-brain zhooshing away like an omnivore vulture, to Shakespeare, Henry I, Part I, and Glendower announcing that, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep," but Lucretius' translator William Ellery Leonard does not have a use for that reference, even though he's the one who put it there; there is no indication that he wants to connect On The Nature of Things to Henry I, Part I with any theme, any idea, any mood, or anything besides those two words, "vasty deep" which run between them now like a fishing line, with the fish on one end and the rod on the other, each made of a substance alien to the other, one flesh, the other wood or plastic -- and each one moved by different aims, one to live, the other to kill. Leonard the fisherman has pulled up Shakespeare on his hook but now he doesn't know what to do with him, all he can do is let him flop back in the water, and then, pages later, fish him up again with exactly the same bait.

It looks as though he had the words "vasty deep" trapped inside him in a mental folder labelled Use This! Correct Poetic Language and when the right Latin trigger arrived in the poem he was translating then they flowed out like a native force, as Blanchot saw words crowd through an author: "Words give to the one who writes them the impression of being dictated to him by usage, and he receives them with the uneasiness of finding in them an immense reservoir of facilities and effects already assembled -- ready without his powers having any role in it." Leonard had been infected by this fragment of literature, possibly picking up the sickness from a schoolbook like the one I found a few years ago at a library sale, a copy of Henry I, Part I, with an index of words at the back, an introduction for children, and the owner's name and the number of their class written inside the cover.

So assume that the translator was haunted as Lovecraft's characters can be haunted, through the medium of a book ("No eye had seen, no hand had touched that book since the advent of man to this planet," writes one Lovecraft narrator, shuddering with madness) but the American's Old Gods are unsubtle haunters, they make their victims gibber, babble, rave, stare, suffer visions, and argue with their colleagues ("It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic" says another narrator, referring to a scientific expedition), but the haunting known as Henry I, Part I only has this very quiet manifestation -- it makes you write vasty deep several times in the same poem -- the subtlest ghost you've ever met.

Ponge was translated by Beth Archer Brombert. Blanchot is the same Blanchot I quoted a couple of weeks ago. I've probably used the Murray before as well. Lovecraft's "no hand had touched that book" comes from the end of The Shadow Out of Time and "this contemplated invasion of the antarctic" comes from the first sentence of At the Mountains of Madness.

The Shadow:

It has been hard for me literally to set down the crucial revelation, though no reader can have failed to guess it. Of course it lay in that book within the metal case -- the case which I pried out of its forgotten lair amidst the undisturbed dust of a million centuries. No eye had seen, no hand had touched that book since the advent of man to this planet.

Glendower's line exists so that Hotspur can make his smart reply: "Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?" and it probably wouldn't be so memorable if it wasn't being chased up by that quick snap, which fulfills everybody's dream, l'esprit de l'escalier realised before it's too late, and the responsive one rescued from regret, saved by himself, which is the best way to be saved.

The great thing about that lift door in Oswald's poem, is that it sounds absolutely natural and normally descriptive, and yet if you describe it baldly, "Alice Oswald put a lift door in the Iliad," it sounds as if it might be attention-getting and purposelessly strange, something that leaps out and throws the poem off, sucking all of your attention to that novelty -- but it doesn't, it is purposeful, the poet maintains her rhythm, treating it as if it's any other bit of description, and it suits everything -- the finality, the sharp mechanical bang-bang of the action -- it looks right.

But why should I say it should sound strange, I ask myself (this is me, asking myself: I ask) when people have been doing this for years, back, back, down to Dickens and the modern science of his fog-dinosaur, right next to -- in the same sentence as -- the waters of Genesis and a city? "As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill."

Monday, October 24, 2011

all things act

Atoms, says the Roman poet Lucretius, who never in De Rerum Natura uses the word atoms -- atoms are tiny elemental objects, "seeds" and "primal particles" and they slip past one another, or else hook and stay close; boundaries hold them in and so they become people or cattle; and there are voids between them, either smaller or larger voids, depending on their purpose.

Besides, if there were not
Some smaller thing, each tiniest body must
Of infinite particles consist, since halves of halves
Will still have halves, not aught will set a bound.
How then will differ the full sum of things
From least of things?

he argues in William Ellery Leonard's 1916 translation, and then states that

... whatso'er
Itself is without parts can ne'er possess
The properties creative matter needs
Must have -- bonds, weights and blows diverse,
Meetings and motions, whereby all things act.

So if we are going to have bodies then we need to have parts, very minute parts, unseeable, invisible parts, but parts. It was 54 BC and he had learnt his atoms from the Epicureans. He wonders, How do we see? and comes up with this answer: that visible objects fire off waves of particles, and our eye receives them. "Since from all things, of whatsoever kind / Matter doth ever flow; so some will shed / Bodies that strike the eye and stir our sight." We hear like this too, he says, we receive waves of sound-seeds, the squek and chirrup of the UNLV basketball players as they warmed up before their scrimmage, for example, the noise of their rubber soles trapping on the polished floor as they ran across the court one way and then back the other way, taking small steps deliberately to juice up their muscles, which were moving there, under the baggy shorts, there, under the skin, the cords flexing and clenching, and all that blood moving, those tall cathedrals on the move, bone staircase, ropes of vessels up and down like pneumatic tubes (prevented by Lucretius' boundaries from dissolving into a universal mass of loose atoms), lovely doomed engineered pieces, one with a chinstrap beard.

Their soles made a specific high-pitched chirp, which was also the sound of the rosellas in the big gum tree in the street behind our house in Melbourne. Those rosellas would mumble around the flowers with their beaks and toes, and then they'd launch themselves into the air like those atomic sense-seed particles and skim down the road in trios, shooting off -- and then you'd think to look up and stare for a moment and the rest of the flock, still in the tree, would become visible to you. A few individuals came out and there were the rest behind them, a single enigmatic clambering body; it was like Fernando Pessoa firing off his heteronyms. Out come the heteronyms with their names and histories (Ricardo Reis, Alexander Search, the Crosse brothers; all the rest of his creations) and somewhere behind this mass of commentary by unbodied people you sense Pessoa, who is thinking, "it so scares me, like a dark forest, to pass through the mystery of speaking" as he writes letters to Ophelia, the woman he never married, and to the fat-faced poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, who at the age of twenty-five kept his word about the strychnine.

These tiny things, these atoms, these seeds, round seeds, I'll say, ball-shaped walled seeds -- if atoms had looked like this then the atomic bomb would have been something else, it would have blown up and the balls would have -- inflated, I'm going to say inflated -- they would have swollen into spheres about ten centimetres in diameter, and the two cities in Japan would have looked like the room of plastic balls at Ikea, which was a treat for me when I was little, and the people are not dead but rising up in shock, with balls dropping off them, ah what power, let us stop the war at once (says the emperor) or they will send something worse next time.

And now these balls, what do they do with them -- the balls roll away, the wind picks them up, and they stand in whirlwinds on streetcorners with one foot forward (which was the way I saw a column of petals standing once, in Mito, at an intersection on the way to the railway station, a tornado only three feet high, waiting to cross the street, with one toe in the gutter, and if petals are not heavy then these airy atoms will not be heavy either) -- so there are tornadoes and winds of coloured balls, rolling off the land and into the sea until the main island of Japan is sending off flotillas of expanded particles, and making itself internationally visible with this large-scale demonstration of Lucretius' Epicurean ideas about the senses.

The multicoloured balls float to other countries, and these other countries receive them on their beaches, which are functioning, in this instance, as eyes, and so the other countries believe that Japan resembles a bowl of hundreds and thousands.

But this is too hectic, frowns Lucretius, who has stopped existing (his boundary broke, so did Pessoa's, and who can prove that the baby Pessoa was not in fact assembled out of dispersed Lucretius), no, he says, the balls during their long journey would have sloshed around at random on the waves and this is not how my particles and atoms work. They maintain their formations. For this to be right, your Ikea balls need to land on those other countries looking exactly like Japan when the sand sees them. How are they going to do that? you ask him, severely perplexed and not knowing how it's possible. They are atoms, he tells you, still not using that word. They will know what to do.

That scrap of Pessoa comes from his early play, The Mariner, and I found it translated by Richard Zenith in the Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa. In this play there are three characters called Watchers, and the Third Watcher says, "When speaking, I think about what's going on in my throat and my words seem like people … My fear is larger than me. I can feel in my hand, I don't know how, the key to an unknown door. And I'm suddenly, all of me, a talisman or tabernacle conscious of itself. That's why it so scares me, like a dark forest, to pass through the mystery of speaking."

The chinstrap beard belongs to a player named Carlos Lopez.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

what remains abidingly

The French enjoy wordplay, I said to M. -- is my impression -- and I was considering French overall, but French is huge, and my mind, putting itself through a swift process of summarisation (concentrate on a flower, advises Ruskin, when the Alps get overwhelming), whittled the idea down to one sentence, or the impression of sentence -- specifically, a part of Jacques Derrida's Demeure, a speech that came with sentences that were so difficult for the translator* that she wrote out her translation and then added the French words as well, so that we could see what Derrida had been trying to do, for example: "I will attempt to speak of this necessary but impossible abidance [demeurance] of the abode [demeure]. How can one decide what remains abidingly [à demeure]?"

(Which is not only a record of Derrida but also a record of the translator's battle as she stands on that crossing between one language and another, a lone Horatius not defending her narrow bridge but struggling to let the invading army across.)

Each new chosen word is like a mirror, tilted slightly back at the one before it, picking up part of its reflection, but reflecting a landscape of its own as well; it comments on the last one and advances it, or -- in other words, a pun.

But behind that impression of Demeure I felt a cloud of other French words pressing forward, Georges Perec, Raymond Roussel, the film Ridicule in which aristocrats hang themselves from ornamental garden trees because the language-games of Versailles are beyond them -- I couldn't think of an example in English, I couldn't even think of a pun (used seriously, I mean, in the public arena -- a pun in public -- not a pun of my own but a quotation, an example of someone else's pun). I tried but nothing would come into my head.

Days later on Sunday evening I was at a basketball scrimmage for the UNLV basketball team. This scrimmage, in which the team splits in half and plays a reduced version of a full game, is an annual tradition, said the journalists later, writing about it, but I went because it was free and I hadn't seen basketball played live before. The new-season's team had already introduced itself to the fans on Friday evening at an event on Fremont Street, bringing along cheerleaders, the new coach, and a set of fireworks. "Friday night was all about the hoopla," said the coach on Sunday before the scrimmage started, "tonight is all about the hoops." So there was my English-language word game, and I was thunderbolted, I was very excited: radiance, radiance, it existed.

In a very small way the conversation had primed me to pay attention, as Ruskin, writing about landscape artists, wants them to understand the anatomy of a tree, and learn to see it, otherwise he is afraid that they will be distracted by the superficial and obvious details on top, "the bark and moss of the trunk." Instead the artist should perceive "the swell and fall and change of all the mass," which is ruled by the "leading lines" of the hidden woodgrain. "[A]s an artist increases in awareness of perception, the facts which become outward and apparent to him are those which bear upon the growth or make of the thing." The "make" here was wordplay. So if I had not been watching for the skeleton or wordplay spirit-dwelling of those words, they would have flown past me meaning almost nothing, glib slogan, cheap phrase, but, hearing them acutely, I noticed how interested he sounded, as if he were not simply a man who was remembering easy lines, but a man who enjoyed being there, and was relishing his basketball, or I might have only imagined that upwards excited smiling inflection in his voice, because I was pleased too; I had received a present, and everything at that moment (which had collected like a concentrated globe) was waiting for the opportunity to mean more than it seemed.

* Elizabeth Rottenberg.

Ruskin's tree comes from Modern Painters. The new coach's name is David Rice and the team is so rapt with hm that they've made a teaser trailer. "Everybody pulls for DAVID. Nobody ROOTS for Goliath. But there was once a time. When this DAVID. Was Goliath." He used to be a stunning player, they mean. Now he is a coach. Another teaser.

David Bellos, Perec's translator, had a good article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.

In Chapter 51 of Perec's masterpiece, "Life A User's Manual" (1978), the character Valène imagines a painting of the apartment house in which he lives with its façade removed, showing all its street-side rooms with their contents and the characters who lived there. The project is laid out as an inventory of items numbered from 1 through 179, and each "item" is a summary of a story told elsewhere in Perec's 99-chapter novel.

I was translating the novel, so I had to locate the stories to which the lines referred. But in doing so I noticed (thanks to some prompting) that each line of the inventory was exactly the same length. Exactly 60 keystrokes.

On top of that, the inventory is separated into three blocks, two of them consisting of 60 lines and the last one of just 59. The "great compendium," as Perec called it, thus consists of three squares, the last one slightly defective.

Monday, October 17, 2011

convulsed with a hellborn fever

On Monday I asked a security supervisor from one of the Strip casinos if he thought Ruskin would have made good security or not, and the conclusion we sort of came to was, Perhaps. "Was he judgmental?" "Extremely judgmental." Then maybe yes ... Or maybe not, but, adds the supervisor, sometimes you get a weird one who surprises you. Could he make decisions? He could. Well that's a good sign.

His pedantic steadiness might have been helpful when he had to write out incident reports, but to get to the report-writing stage he would have had to talk to the guests, gamblers, and visitors, greeting and smiling, following various procedures, being polite and patient, and coping with comatose drunks, who, once woken, would have thrashed and hooted, tearing at his clothes, arms, and hip-mounted radio equipment, not knowing who he was or where they were, or what was going on, in fact knowing almost nothing, having moved purely into the realm of those senses the author would have called animal, sensual, and lower -- an inhabitance he would have despised, surely, respecting knowledge as he did, and writing in his diary, after dinner parties, that the evening had been "boring" because nobody had taught him anything new.

His impatience with smalltalk would present problems in the security world; he would struggle to execute that part of the engagement procedure known in some casinos as Delight.

In Modern Painters, in the category of visual "facts [that] are unimportant" or not worthy of an artist's attention, he placed "a gambler quarrel[ing] with another gambler" and "a sot enjoying himself with another sot." A history painter should not take either of these scenes as his subject, he warned, otherwise the painting will be "trivial." Employed as a casino security guard he would have to work in the land of the Historical Trivial, "the entirely infernal atmosphere of the common cafes and gambling-houses ... infecting every condition of what they call 'aesthesis,' left in the bodies of men, until they cannot be happy with the pines and pansies of the Alps" -- or, in the case of Vegas, happy with the rocks and flowers of the Spring Mountain ranges, the fields and peaks outside the city, along with those other parts of the state so little remembered that you can buy a frame for your license plate that reads Nevada at the top and then Outside Las Vegas at the bottom, dividing all 286,350 square kilometres of the region as people usually divide them, into the one thousand and sixty two square and valley-kept kilometres of Clark County where the city sits, and then afterwards, the rest, an open mysterious wedge-shaped place where someone must live but nobody knows who, and something must happen but nobody knows what, and nobody knows these things because they are too busy getting drunk on the Strip and gurgling and trying to tear off security's trousers and throw up on its shoes.

And therein lies another problem, because Ruskin went vivid with horror at the sight of stain, filth, or dirt, and this vomit on his shoes would have repelled him even more than that time Bartolomé Esteban Murillo pointed a foot at him.

But observe another point in the lower figure. It lies so that the sole of the foot is turned towards the spectator; not because it would have lain less easily in another attitude, but that the painter may draw, and exhibit, the grey dust engrained in the foot. Do not call this the painting of nature: it is mere delight in foulness. The lesson, if there be any, in the picture, is not one whit the stronger. We all know that a beggar’s bare foot cannot be clean; there is no need to thrust its degradation into the light, as if no human imagination were vigorous enough for its conception.

(He's describing Murillo's Two Children Eating a Melon and Grapes.)

The pavement of the Strip is dirty, dotted, spittled with spit,** and covered with the escort service cards, each one smaller than a playing card, that are handed out by Latin American men who rattle the stacks in their hands; you can pick up dozens of soft-porn illustrations this way, women with stars or bubbles on their nipples to keep the pictures legal, women in leotards bending over, women gnawing their bra straps, etc -- and as he lifted his eyes away from these cards in convulsive distress Officer Ruskin would have noticed that the refurbished erupting volcano outside the Mirage was an even stranger imitation of the real thing than the handpainted Victorian marble and fake woodgrain that he hates across several of his books, and as he fled from the volcano to the huge gilt statue of three severed heads outside the same casino -- Siegfried, Roy, and a tiger -- he would have noticed that there was no sign of workmanship on the surface, that it was absolutely free of the human fingerprint of creation, a smooth and flawless object made from no evident natural material.

"Their work should be full of flaws," he said, of young artists, "for these are the signs of effort." Be wary of gloss and finish. But there is no sign of effort around him here; every effect along the whole Strip is achieved by a power that removes flaws. There is ambition and spectacle but none of the personal evidence he liked, signs that people with fingers and minds had been at work -- the hidden carving at the top of the spire, put there by the sculptor who made it for the exuberant human pleasure of making it, the independently-imagined griffon that hangs its paws forward like a "sleepy puppy," and the uneven glass bead that was not clipped out in a factory.

But here, around him on the Strip, the only clear evidence of individual effort has been placed inside all the things he hates, like the dirty spit-marks on the concrete, each positioned there with an individual and induplicate aim, as varied as the leaves that he sees nature provide in infinite arrangements for his joy; and there is your hidden carving and your flawed glass bead and griffin, in a blob of spit (but not made -- not good, not human, because not intelligent, he thinks, as a great brainless tide closes in, and he works out his categories, sorting and numbering the different kinds of intelligence into lists, and unknowingly in spite of his dislike of German philosophy,* he demonstrates one of the observations of Kant, who saw people sort and organise things); and the protest against smooth surfaces is carried out by the thrashing drunk, who knocks one of the guards' factory-manufactured radios off its belt-clip and smacks it to bits.

George Eliot opened Daniel Deronda in a "scene of dull, gas-poisoned absorption" which was a European casino's gaming room, and "gambling" she wrote privately, was "a vice I have no mind to, it stirs my disgust even more than my pity. The sight of the dull faces bending round the gaming tables, the raking-up of the money , and the flinging of coins toward the winners by the hard-faced croupiers, the hateful, hideous women staring at the board like stupid monomaniacs -- all this seems to me the most abject presentation of mortals grasping after something called a good that can be seen on the face of this little earth." Michael Flavin's book on Gambling in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel comes with the subtitle, "a leprosy is o'er the land," a quote, he says, from "a prize-winning entry in the National Anti-Gambling League's hymn-writing competition," and as I try to imagine leprosy o'er the land, seeing it whitely misty drifting down, I realise that I'm remembering two Alice Oswald lines describing frost: "Last night without a sound / a ghost of a world lay down on a world." My leprosy is frost. Baudelaire saw --

Around the gaming tables faces without lips,
Lips without color and jaws without teeth,
Fingers convulsed with a hellborn fever
Searching empty pockets and fluttering bosoms

-- writing like this so that later Walter Benjamin could observe, in his essay, Some Motifs of Baudelaire, that gambling might obtain money for you, like work, but it was unlike work in that it did not build on your past knowledge, and experience was no use to you, each dice-roll was as likely or unlikely to come up trumps as the last one or the next one or the one yesterday or the one next week. Perhaps this would appeal to Ruskin least of all, this spectacle in which learning, knowledge, experience, history and everything else he valued, loved, and stormed over -- the past, in a word: the intelligent past -- had absolutely no importance.

The past, he always had his eye on the past, the childhood root of an adult's knowledge -- and there's a long-lost good little boy that I think I see running through Ruskin's work, a bossy child, subordinate and praiseworthy, showing the latest draft of Modern Painters or The Stones of Venice to his mamma and papa at the breakfast table "as a girl shows her sampler" he tells us in Praeterita, explaining his writing methods in the language of an obedient student. "My own literary work, on the contrary, was always done as quietly and methodically as a piece of tapestry." (He is comparing himself to Thomas Carlyle, the student who is not so quiet and good.) He looks at a picture by Turner and thinks, "The painter has returned affectionately to his boyish impression, and worked it out with his manly power." Turner was like him, he thinks, Turner needed his childhood too, Turner was faithful to the past, Turner would not have been great had he not loved his boyish impressions, and it was not only Turner who was like this but other geniuses as well -- and even the "imaginative mind" itself agreed with him, the very food of it was the past, and the gut of it was memory.

How far I could show that it held with all great inventors, I know not, but with all those whom I have carefully studied (Dante, Scott, Turner, and Tintoret) it seems to me to hold absolutely; their imagination consisting, not in a voluntary production of new images, but an involuntary remembrance, exactly at the right moment, of something they had actually seen.

Imagine all that any of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid up accurately in their memories as in vast storehouses, extending, with the poets, even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the beginning of their lives, and, with the painters, down to the minute folds of drapery, and shapes of loaves or stones; and over all this unindexed and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as shall justly fit each other: this I conceive to be the real nature of the imaginative mind ...

There's a void when he looks at the rolling dice, an absence where the past should be, and in fear he picks the coin out of Rosencrantz's hand at the start of the Stoppard play and throws it into that darkness, this coin that defies chance and proves it too, by continually coming up heads, making a pattern across what should be a patternless open reach, marking the void, like a spoon that can take bites out of the ocean.

A hard-working cardsharp would be closer to Ruskin's ideal than an ordinary lucky gambler. At least the cardsharp is applying some knowledge.

Benjamin draws parallels between gamblers and factory workers. "Gambling even contains the workman's gesture that is produced by the automatic operation, for there can be no game without the quick movement of the hand by which the stake is put down or a card is picked up." This is even truer today when all the pokie player has to do is press a button, rest, watch, wait, and press the button again, archetypical factory work. "Since each operation at the machine is just as screened off from the preceding operation as a coup in a game of chance is from the one that preceded it, the drudgery of the labour is, in its own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler."

The German goes on to make refinements, to quote Goethe and muse about the gambler's job of wishing. "A wish, however, is a kind of experience … The further a wish reaches out in time, the greater the hope for its fulfilment." But Officer Ruskin, who hated factories, would never have moderated his view into anything sunnier than condemnation. The only wish we should project far forward in time, he would perhaps have said, is the wish to enjoy eternal life in heaven (feeling a pang if this is happening during the doubting phase of his life, loftiness if he's still an Evangelical), as, staring at this Benjamin essay with rage, he wonders if he sees gambling trying to take the place of God.

* "The reader," he writes in Modern Painters, "must have noticed that I never speak of German art, or German philosophy, but in depreciation." Pretty much, replies the reader.

* although it depends where you are. You can eat off the pavement in front of the Bellagio.

Baudelaire was translated by William Aggeler. The poem is called Le Jeu. Alice Oswald's two lines were borrowed from Pruning in Frost, which you can find in The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, or, if you're in North America, in a collection named Spacecraft Voyager I published by Graywolf Press with a front cover illustration that looks like one of the giant crystal trees in WoW's Northrend, or if you want you can read it online. I like everything I've heard about her new Memorial. Plans afoot to get hold of that somehow. Benjamin was translated by Harry Zohn and I read the essay in the Schocken Books paperback edition of Illuminations.

"The entirely infernal atmosphere …" appears in the footnotes to Love's Meinie: Three Lectures on Greek and English Birds. Footnote one hundred and thirty four if you're keen. The "beggar’s bare foot" comes from Stones of Venice. All the other stray quotes come from Modern Painters. That "boring" and its cousin-words can be picked out of several entries in his journals. Eliot wrote about the "dull faces bending round the gaming tables" in a letter to her friend Mrs William Cross. I want to give the woman a less anonymous title but I can't find her referred to as anything other than "Mrs William Cross:" a widow with ten children, wearing her husband's name over her own, a breathing tombstone. With all the Cross children around her she made a necropolis.

Monday, October 10, 2011

in them an immense reservoir of facilities

I am about to give away the ending to Victor Hugo's book, The Man Who Laughs.

The Occupy Wall Street protests have come to Las Vegas, but Las Vegas doesn't have a Wall Street, Wall is a street in New York, so the protesters started their march outside the New York New York casino and moved on from there. We are an ingenious species. Our habit of drawing parallels may be unparallelled. (If we could read the minds of other animals, we would know.*) On September eleventh, people were laying flowers in front of the same casino. These things have their own logic. "Words give to the one who writes them the impression of being dictated to him by usage, and he receives them with the uneasiness of finding in them an immense reservoir of facilities and effects already assembled -- ready without his powers having any role in it," wrote Maurice Blanchot -- the phrases of the world coming into us invisibly, selecting themselves with a force of habit that might as well be their own, and going out on paper or on screen, one sentence not seeming right in the mind of its creator unless it ends itself with after all, and another wanting to include thing in place of a more exact word (a principle that must apply to Blanchot's sentence too, so that, as we read him, we witness the machine of language telling us about itself).

And the protests, the impulse coming in, entering, fed by various streams, and then it comes out, and a group of people walk along the Strip from Tropicana Avenue northwards, up the map where the Boulevard lies straight as a pipe all the way to the Bellagio, the indigenous habits of protest sitting evidently upon them, "an immense reservoir of facilities and effects already assembled," a protest as a kind of writing implement, and the casino standing there in a representative way, offering itself up for the role of a focus, and screaming at them as they march, screaming wildly and insanely at us all, this casino, through the throats of the tourists who have decided to ride the roller coaster on the roof.

When Victor Hugo introduces a rich woman to The Man Who Laughs he is moderate at first, filling in factual blanks, "Lady Josiana had her own fortune. She possessed great wealth, much of which was derived from the gifts of Madame sans queue to the Duke of York. Madame sans queue is short for Madame," but the blanks fill and then they overflow, and the author seems excited by his invention; and he heaps her up. "She wore great dresses of velvet, satin, or moire, some composed of fifteen or sixteen yards of material, with embroideries of gold and silver; and round her waist many knots of pearls, alternating with other precious stones. She was extravagant in gold lace. Sometimes she wore an embroidered cloth jacket like a bachelor. She rode on a man's saddle." Josiana is a "prude," he says, and she is also the most luscious and perverse soul in the book. She is one of the author's fantasy figures, she is full of sex but doesn't care for it, she is full of money and doesn't care for it, she compels awe and jealousy and barely bothers to notice, she is a Zenith!

The Zenith goes to the theatre and eclipses the stage. The audience stares at her.

The woman watched them, and they watched her.

At the distance at which they were placed, and in that luminous mist which is the half-light of a theatre, details were lost and it was like a hallucination. Of course it was a woman, but was it not a chimera as well? The penetration of her light into their obscurity stupefied them. It was like the appearance of an unknown planet. It came from a world of the happy. Her irradiation amplified her figure. The lady was covered with nocturnal glitterings, like a milky way. Her precious stones were stars. The diamond brooch was perhaps a pleiad. The splendid beauty of her bosom seemed supernatural. They felt, as they looked upon the star-like creature, the momentary but thrilling approach of the regions of felicity. It was out of the heights of a Paradise that she leant towards their mean-looking Green Box, and revealed to the gaze of its wretched audience her expression of inexorable serenity. As she satisfied her unbounded curiosity, she fed at the same time the curiosity of the public.

It was the Zenith permitting the Abyss to look at it.

One piece of footage from Wall Street shows the crowd walking underneath a balcony on which, for whatever reason, a group of people in formal clothes are drinking champagne and chuckling. Some websites assume that they were deliberately mocking the protesters, others say that the building was a restaurant just by chance; the people from the balcony don't seem to have said anything. The sources that have picked mocking are outraged; the sight of rich people laughing on balconies has a history, and so the shot seems perfect -- the Abyss below, the Chimeras above. But no one on the balcony is starlike, no one has a bosom you'd call splendid, and the light that falls on them is the same light that falls on the protesters and on the greyness of the brickwork; they have no special illumination, they look ordinary and it's not hard to imagine that no matter how much champagne was flying around, any party with these people would be uninteresting, and you'd wish you were somewhere else, possibly in the street below with a placard, protesting your own adherence to a stereotypical roundabout of balconies and champagne flutes, while, in another place, a police officer was filmed swearing that he was going to beat the protesters with his nightstick; see, we all have our expressive tools: there are placards for one occasion, champagne flutes for another, and flowers in front of casinos when we're mourning.

The zenith and the abyss look at one another in Hugo's book again, but this time Josiana is not present and the abyss is occupied by her diametric opposite, a poor blind humble young woman named Dea. Dea is in the book because she loves the hero, Gwynplaine. He rescued her from a snowstorm when she was a baby. They grew up together. Gwynplaine is deformed, but Dea can't see the deformity. She sees his good qualities, "Gwynplaine sympathetic, helpful, and sweet-tempered." This makes their love perfect. "Dea quivered with certainty and gratitude, her anxiety changed into ecstasy, and with her shadowy eyes she contemplated on the zenith from the depth of her abyss the rich light of his goodness. In the ideal, kindness is the sun; and Gwynplaine dazzled Dea." Gwynplaine adores her. "One nest and two birds -- that was their story."

This pair is so closely associated that when one half seems to have vanished, the other half wills itself to death. Gwynplaine goes missing, Dea falls into a delirium. "Father," she says weakly to the misanthrope who adopted them both, "look here; when two beings have always been together from infancy, their state should not be disturbed, or death must come, and it cannot be otherwise. I love you all the same, but I feel that I am no longer altogether with you, although I am as yet not altogether with him." There is a vacuum between these two matching halves and she is rushing into it.

Gwynplaine returns from his adventure and and finds her at the brink of death. He begs her to live but she is too far gone. "You will hardly believe that I have just explored the whole of life in a few hours!" he says. "I have found out one thing -- that there is nothing in it! You exist! if you did not, the universe would have no meaning. Stay with me! Have pity on me! Since you love me, live on!" She does not. "She folded her thumbs within her fingers -- a sign that her last moments were approaching." "Come to me as soon as you can," she says, "I shall be very unhappy without you, even in heaven." Then "she expired. She fell back rigid and motionless on the mattress." Gwynplaine cries "I come" and walks off the desk of a ship into the water, where he drowns: "the void was before him; he strode into it." Everything is voids and meetings with Hugo, plurals and singulars, either two words or ideas clashing together -- "His head lived, his face was dead" -- or one grand solid declaration of unity: "Gwynplaine was the religion of Dea." He goes from a pair of cymbals to a drum.

It was the upper classes who abducted Gwynplaine, doing it for their own purposes, without knowing that Dea was in love with him, or caring, or even suspecting that this love existed. They kill her, with her collusion. All the suctioning force of her love, which drags her into her death, has no power over the disproportionate strength of the aristocracy, which can carry a character away whenever it likes. The void in this book is not only between Gwynplaine and Dea when he leaves, it is also the gap between the poor and the rich, the untitled and the aristocrats, those who have houses and those who travel in a caravan, and the author isolates this gap, describes this gap, with his abysses and zeniths (or whatever French words the translator is translating; I'm taking it for granted that the meaning is intact) and occupying the gap is what? -- is him, Victor Hugo -- he is the filling in this sandwich, staring at both sides, he holds it together. He grapples it with the hooks of his prose. He talks about the power of a "will." (Ruskin in his autobiography grumbles about those French who can't get their minds off "gloire.") And the inequality being reported here in the US is the reporting of a vacuum -- a vacuum is an imbalance, too much over here, too little over there, that's a vacuum -- which nature abhors, and not only nature in its atomic, vegetable, and animal aspect, but human nature. Any move to fill that vacuum has the character of a necessary force.

* I wanted to branch off and start talking about alien species here, but the digression was getting unwieldy.

The person who translated Hugo is anonymous. The Blanchot quote comes from his his book of essays, Faux Pas, translated by Charlotte Mandell.

Here is someone else's footage of the New York New York roller coaster ride. The screaming that starts at about .50 is audible from the road. This is the video of the people on the balcony.

"Upper classes" in the last paragraph refers to certain aristocrat-characters and their immediate friend-underlings who are not aristocratic but still powerful.

Monday, October 3, 2011

overcome, in this particular area, as we are all overcome

A week ago, or more than a week, I was waiting for a show to begin when I overheard one of the women behind me talking about "my last trip to Italy" and "my next trip to Italy" which had to include Venice, she said, because Venetian architecture was interesting. She had seen the architecture in Rome, and it was interesting and she had seen the architecture in Turin and it was interesting and in fact the architecture in all of Italy was interesting, and there was one place which was not only interesting but clean, "no trash, no graffiti," but I didn't catch the name of that town, wherever it was.

Interesting was the word she liked, and she used it so often that I wondered what she saw or felt when she said it, and what was being subdued into that concertina packed with folds -- the compacted instrument called Interesting -- on one fold the Colosseum, on another fold the Pantheon, on another fold a dome, a tower, a flight of doves (and "craftsmanship" suggests ZMKC), and on other folds the architecture she expected to see in Venice, all the architecture she had heard about, cool walls, archways, canals, an effusion of statues -- Alexander Herzen's "magnificent absurdity" -- "To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself; but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of a genius," he wrote, and then he went on and called the Venetians "eccentric:" "There is no earth, there are no trees, what does it matter?" he imagined them saying, "Let us have still more carved stones, more ornaments, gold mosaics, sculptures, pictures and frescoes. Here an empty corner has been left; into the corner with a thin sea-god with a long, wet beard! Here is another empty recess, put in another lion with wings and a gospel of Saint Mark! There it is bare and empty; put down a carpet of marble and mosaic! and here, lacework of porphyry!" -- a frame of mind the woman must have seen before because it was incarnate only a short way away on Las Vegas Boulevard, a street that anyone could describe with an echo of Herzen: There is no river, we are in a desert, what does it matter? Let us have a lake, a fountain, a canal, a waterfall! Let us have still more gilt statues, more magicians, more lights! There it is bare and empty; erect the Sphinx, the Statue of Liberty, and the Eiffel Tower!

But the audience is the pivot of a difference: the Venetians lived in their decorated city and enjoyed it proudly, but the decoration in Las Vegas is all in one area, and it is not for the residents, it is not theirs, they do not live in that area, and nobody minds whether they enjoy it or not. The statues and waterfalls are meant for tourists, who have no reason to judge the street with love or sympathy; they can go home. If we could get the decorative frame of mind out into the suburbs then this city would look like the Butterfly Club and the Palais Idéal, and people would feel absolutely eminent --

Around all of Vegas the mountains stand, bare, brown, wrinkled, and beyond that, if you're high enough, you can see the long stripped plain of the desert, a hot death; and Venice is approached by by a plain, a river, and a dusty road, wrote Ruskin in 1851; and if you leave Las Vegas and climb one of the mountains then you will see the city in the sunlit valley like a scatter of glitter, or if you approach at night then this massy airy upshot light of the Luxor rises out of the desert behind a confetti of smaller lights, or if you stand in one of the suburbs then you might not see the casinos at all, only townhouses among stones, or the public library where a huge man comes out of his small bashed white caravan every morning and walks away with his dreadlocks tapping at his ears.

As you come into Venice on your boat, writes Ruskin, you will find yourself with nothing grand in sight, only "dismal arches," and "low and confused brick buildings, which, but for the many towers which are mingled among them, might be the suburbs of an English manufacturing town." This is probably not the interesting architecture that the woman sitting behind me expects to see, these areas are not the Venice she imagines, and yet they are Venice, they are not anywhere other than Venice; they are the stair in the children's poem that can only be described by very simple references to the places where it's not: not at the bottom, not at the top, "It isn't in the nursery / It isn't in the town … It isn't really anywhere / It's somewhere else instead," a place like an English manufacturing town, but not quite, or like a towered region, but not quite.

"Ruskin's was a great and scrupulous mind," writes Geoffrey Hill. The scrupulous mind opens his Stones of Venice by telling the reader that he has not trusted other sources blindly but wherever he mentions a measurement in the book it will be a measurement he has taken himself. However they must excuse him, for he did not travel incorporeally and in his imagination, as they are about to travel while they are inside his book, no, he went with a real body in space and time, a nonideal method which comes with restrictions. Sometimes he couldn't get close enough to see a thing; always his understanding was not as adequate as he would have chosen if he'd had a choice. "Life is not long enough; nor does a day pass by without causing me to feel more bitterly the impossibility of carrying out to the extent which I should desire, the separate studies which general criticism continually forces me to undertake," a fret he has already brought up in his journal:

Several times about the same time on Sunday morning, a fit of self-reproach has come upon me for my idling style of occupation at present, and I have formed a resolution to be always trying to get knowledge of some kind or other, or bodily strength, or some real available, continuing, good, rather than mere amusement of the time.

(June 6th 1841)

The character of the Stones has been won from the struggle of its author: he searches for the right description, the right idea, he draws comparisons, but the further he travels into the comparisons the less accurate they seem to him, and the more adjustments he needs to make, and the more he refines the more he needs to refine, the more he sees the more he finds himself seeing. The row of "dismal arches" is noted, and then his eye carries on like the eye of a picture and sees the end of the row, where the brick buildings begin, and the "line" of these buildings needs to be described; it is "straggling." Then there are "four or five domes" rising over that straggling line, and they are "pale" but "the object which first catches the eye" is not those pale domes, it is "a sullen cloud of black smoke" which broods in the air over the straggle -- not over the whole line indiscriminately, he observes, but over a specific area, "the northern half of it." The black smoke has a source, and his eye finds that too; it is "the belfry of a church." Now finally he relaxes into a simple pronouncement: "It is Venice."

It is his scrupulous nature that compels him to write down this string of words: straggling had to be there because line was there and line had to be there because the brick buildings were there, and each one cried out for its due, and then a movement had to be worked out, from one end of the line to the other, and from pale to black. "Style is not simply the manner in which a writer 'says what he has to say,'" states Hill, "it is also the manner of his choosing not to say." Ruskin would rather choose to say, than not choose, but his own humanity obstructs him -- or so I imagine when I read -- he would like to be superhuman -- "I wish Vesuvius," he writes in his diary, "could love me ..."

That sentence, It is Venice, is not meant to sum up the city or act as a conclusion or a final resting place, it is only a pause, a musical beat, a moment of introduction -- see -- he is going to go on explaining Venice for the length of another two books, and by the end of volume three he is still finding new topics. The last chapter before the one called Conclusion is a digression into a subject he labels "Grotesque Renaissance," and in order to discuss the Grotesque Renaissance he discovers that he has to mention a number of disparate things, the poetry of Samuel Rogers, for example, and cottages in Scotland, "the instinct of playfulness" (in four subsections), the "destructive phenomena of the universe," the greatness of nations, Divine beauty, Flemish streets, Biblical Evangelists, the differences between species of dream, and the Inferno of Dante. The "It" in "It is Venice" is not Venice. It is only the euphoric impression that comes to you before you realise that Venice is impossibly complicated. (False mastery followed by apprenticeship; life is an agony of ignorance for the scrupulous.) A description of the Ducal Palace alone takes up nearly a hundred pages of volume two. There is so much ground to cover that the author shortens his observations into lists --

LXVII. First Capital: i.e. of the pilaster at the Vine angle.

In front, towards the Sea. A child holding a bird before him, with its wings expanded, covering his breast.

On its eastern side. Children’s heads among leaves.

On its western side. A child carrying in one hand a comb; in the other, a pair of scissors.

-- which recur for pages.

LXXVII. Eighth Capital. It has no inscriptions, and its subjects are not, by themselves, intelligible; but they appear to be typical of the degradation of human instincts.

First side. A caricature of Arion on his dolphin; he wears a cap ending in a long proboscis-like horn, and plays a violin with a curious twitch of the bow and wag of the head, very graphically expressed, but still without anything approaching to the power of Northern grotesque. His dolphin has a goodly row of teeth, and the waves beat over his back.

Second side. A human figure, with curly hair and the legs of a bear; the paws laid, with great sculptural skill, upon the foliage. It plays a violin, shaped like a guitar, with a bent double-stringed bow.

Third side. A figure with a serpent’s tail and a monstrous head, founded on a Negro type, hollow-cheeked, large-lipped, and wearing a cap made of a serpent’s skin, holding a fir-cone in its hand.

Fourth side. A monstrous figure, terminating below in a tortoise. It is devouring a gourd, which it grasps greedily with both hands; it wears a cap ending in a hoofed leg.

Fifth side. A centaur wearing a crested helmet, and holding a curved sword.

Sixth side. A knight, riding a headless horse, and wearing chain armor, with a triangular shield flung behind his back, and a two-edged sword.

Seventh side. A figure like that on the fifth, wearing a 337 round helmet, and with the legs and tail of a horse. He bears a long mace with a top like a fir-cone.

Eighth side. A figure with curly hair, and an acorn in its hand, ending below in a fish.

He perseveres, he iterates, but the reader knows that it all feels inadequate to him for he says elsewhere in the book, "The eye is continually influenced by what it cannot detect; it is not going too far to say, that it is most influenced by what it detects least … Indeed there is nothing truly noble either in colour or in form, but its power depends on circumstances infinitely too intimate to be explained, and almost too subtle to be traced." So Venice can't be compassed with lists, or with physical description, or with historical description, or with any description ("too intimate to be explained"), the Ducal Palace is a Questing Beast and he is a Pellinore, chasing it in rings around its columns. His intelligence introduces him to this idea; his intelligence shows him the impossibility; we can all say the word immortality but we are all mortal.

And there are more possibilities. Earlier he saw a piece of work that struck him the wrong way and there his tone changed and he became sarcastic: "The whole monument is one wearisome aggregation of that species of ornamental flourish, which, when it is done with a pen is called penmanship, and when it is done with a chisel should be called chiselmanship, the subject of it being chiefly fat-limbed boys sprawling on dolphins, dolphins incapable of swimming, and dragged along the sea by expanded pocket-handkerchiefs." If he had hated Venice instead of loving it then the tone of all three volumes might have been like that, the Venice of the Stones of Venice would have been a different Venice, because here, although there's no sign that he saw it as he was writing, was a doorway to another Venice, which only sticks its head out of his book now and then, a Venice despised by John Ruskin, hidden usually behind the Venice he respected, and behind that Venice another Venice, to which he is indifferent, and behind that Venice another Venice, which he never visited, and behind that Venice another one, to which he migrated permanently after marrying an Italian woman, and behind that Venice another Venice, where his mother died of food poisoning -- all of these are fantasies now -- and behind that Venice another one where the duty of tourism exhausted him until he didn't want to write the word Venice ever again, and behind that Venice another one, le città invisibili, explains Italo Calvino.

These three volumes are the record of a fight against the despair that has occurred to a conscientious human being who recognises infinity, and Ruskin finds his rest in two places, the idea of Art and the idea of God. He seems most sure of himself when he is sensing the sublime. Geoffrey Hill, who is thinking of a sentence in Unto This Last, writes sympathetically: "He is overcome, in this particular area, as we are all overcome at some time or another in our particular areas of discourse, by a kind of neutral, or indifferent, or disinterested force in the nature of language itself: a force that Coleridge describes incomparably well in the sudden blaze of a sentence at the beginning of Aids to Reflection: 'For if words are not THINGS they are LIVING POWERS, by which the things of most importance to mankind are actuated, combined, and humanized.'"

The woman behind me sounded confident in her single word, she didn't pause or apologise (Ezra Pound said that his great-aunt-in-law used "beautiful" all over Europe but apologised) -- she was happy -- she sounded happy -- she sounded happier with her one word than Ruskin sounded with his three volumes -- she had found a word through which the "disinterested force in the nature of language itself" could be ducked or defeated or ignored (something in her had felt infinity approaching and defended itself with Interesting) -- she had short-circuited struggle -- and then the musician arrived.*

* A Senegalese guitarist named King Ibu. He sounds something like Habib Koité (he pointed this out himself, and it's true). The Herzen excerpt comes from the end of My Life and Thoughts. Constance Garnett translated. Ruskin wished that Vesuvius could love him on April 20th, 1841. "I wish Vesuvius could love me, like a living thing; I would rather make a friend of him than of any morsel of humanity." I was reading Geoffrey Hill's Collected Critical Writings. I found the Pound quote in Hill's book, and then I looked it up online and found it again on Google Books in Pound's Pavannes and Divagations: "she consented to admit that the one adjective, beautiful, was not universally applicable to all European phenomena ... but continued to use it with apologies." The "children's poem" is Halfway Down by A.A. Milne.

The Butterfly Club is a cabaret saloon in South Melbourne.

Later: A post about Ada Cambridge at the Whispering Gums blog sent me away after her poems, and it looks as if she wrote about Venice too:

Numb, half asleep, and dazed with whirl of wheels,
And gasp of steam, and measured clank of chains,
I heard a blithe voice break a sudden pause,
Ringing familiarly through the lamp-lit night,
“Wife, here's your Venice!”