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."


  1. The subtle ghosts that haunt me are mainly Molesworth and Alice through the Looking Glass - I wonder if it's better to be haunted or to have no ghosts of this kind in your head at all (or perhaps only ghosts from television programmes; the words of characters from Friends are probably the unnoticed residents of many 25 year olds' heads, plus bits of Seinfeld)

  2. I know nothing about the way language-learning happens, but, guessing, I wonder if this picking up of phrases is a refinement of the whole process of acquiring grammar, sentences, vocabulary, etc -- and so "vasty deep" (etc) becomes part of the instinctive feeling that saying such-and-such is correct and saying so-and-so is wrong. The brain a net, hauling up useful grammar and gathering in "vasty deep" as it goes, and instructing the writer to deploy both, not caring that the grammar, used over and over again, is useful and evergreen, and "vasty deep", used over and over again, is not.

    So, what I'm getting to, is this: I wonder if it's possible to be unhaunted, and have no ghosts at all, and I wonder what a person like that would be. Could you somehow stop your language acquisition short, and not haul up the Molesworthisms and Vasty Deeps? (The Goon Show is one of my triggers. Every time I hear anyone discussing wind I hear Spike Milligan Ecclesing: "Winds light to variable. Further outlook, fine, fine, fine." I haven't listened to that episode in years but it sticks. And when Milligan died I was intrigued to see how many people commenting online had "Spike Milligna, the well-known typing error" trapped inside them.)