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.


  1. You make me think of other houses that feature strongly in books ... the standout for me though is Toni Morrison's Beloved which, as I recollect, commences with "124 was spiteful" though in the end it's not really "124" as all.

    Another house that seems to have a strong presence in a novel is the one in The sea, the sea by Iris Murdoch. At times Charles seems at one with the house (as I recollect) but it's a while since I've read it so my recollection is now impressionistic rather than concrete.

    (Have been quieter than usual this last week or so, as my dear ma-in-law died suddenly 10 days ago - on her 97th birthday. And she wasn't one of the sick ones we've been concerned about over the last 3 months. A good innings, but sad nonetheless).

  2. "At all" I meant ... and of course I meant that it wasn't the house at all that was causing trouble for its inhabitants.

  3. And The Sea's house had that uncanny interior window, which stays with me because, when I read the book, I was in a house that had one too. Someone in the past had built an extension on the back without changing the wall, so the windows stayed. In the book I think there's the idea of looking within, from the unreflective outer level where the character exists, and the idea that if he did look in, he'd see something more terrible than he expects. She uses strong buildings in a number of her books, Murdoch, places with rooms in towers, or draughty halls, or dirty kitchens suggesting the squalor of a certain character's personality -- she thinks her habitations through; she turns them into presences.

    I'm sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. Gees, with everybody else doing their thing you must have been blindsided.

  4. Yes, the house stays with me too ... though I suspect your memory is better than mine. There certainly was a sense that the closed-in house (as I recollected it) reflected him. Is that interior window in the upstairs room? Or am I misremembering? I have only read about 4 Murdochs but in The Bell, too, the abbey has a strong presence, though I suppose that's less surprising, it bein' an abbey 'n all!

    Yes, we "were" blindsided really ... she was at our place, as she always was, on the Sunday night (she died the following Friday) having dinner and doing the crossword together (a regular activity when she became legally blind). She did say to me that night "I'm fading" but her crossword skills were as good as they'd been since her blindness. (I had to email Nigel and say my reading and review of his book would be delayed yet again!)

  5. I don't remember if the window was upstairs or downstairs but he looked through it into another room, which was generally dark, and I think he hallucinated a hanging woman in there, or just a woman's face. She might have been his childhood love (the same one who lives in a village, near the house, with her husband) but it's been so long since I read the book that I don't know how that vision fits into the idea that the house is a reflection of the man -- has he trapped her in his nostalgic and self-serving brain, or is he putting a face on his own anima, or is the house telling him that he cages people away (not just her, but everyone), or that he needs to face up to the way he treats ... I don't remember. The Bell I haven't been able to get hold of, but I've seen a couple of people offer it up as an example of a really good Murdoch novel. I've read nineteen of her books, and, out of all of them, The Sea was the most dense fusion of the ideas that seemed to occupy her: philosophy, love, people who dominate others, mysticism. My first Murdoch and still the best.

    Delayed review? I'm surprised you're still managing to post as much as you do. It's heroic.

  6. Yes, of the smaller number I've read, The sea stands out. My first was An unofficial rose ... But I never did finish it. It was a set text and I ran out of time, but each time I've gone back to it, I've put it down and yet have managed to "happily" read others.

    Heroic? That's going a bit far! It's more a case of blogging giving me a little space of my own, and so finding things I can write on that interest me but that don't require huge preparation!

  7. You make the time to actually do it though. You sit down and get it done. Rose was more stage-managed than Sea, I thought -- the mechanism of the plot was more naked, the whole apparatus of getting people onstage and offstage and making them meet and part was less concealed, and more convoluted, and so the characters seemed less autonomous and more manipulated and faintly dead and cold. "Overt stage-management" is not a novel criticism to make, re. Murdoch (I saw it for the first time coming out of Martin Amis) but unnovelty doesn't make it untrue. She made it work perfectly for her at least once, in A Severed Head, which was a sprinting farce, and speed and entrances and exits were part of the whole language of the book, but sometimes she wobbles between character-building and philosophy and stage-management and they all mash and stagger into one another -- the people are not totally people, and the stage-management doesn't feel organic and necessary, as it was in Severed Head, which would have suffered without it.