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.

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