Friday, November 25, 2011

in her the peacock-feather-fluttering illusion

After I'd made a post in a thread on someone else's blog I left the house, and only once I'd got to the place that I was going did I sit down, and, thinking back, say to myself, "That last part sounded passive-aggressive."

The word "passive-aggressive" hadn't occurred to me while I was writing, passive-aggression was not my plan, and yet somehow it had been: it was not my creation and yet it was mine. Sometimes passive aggressiveness can only be seen after the event, and then the passive-aggressive person is like one of those soldiers who receive medals for bravery and say, surprised, "It didn't feel brave while I was doing it. It was my duty. It was the only thing I could do. Anybody else would have done it like that too if they'd been there."

There's someone I once knew whose passive-aggressive statements always made me build nests inside for angry wasps, and for the rest of the morning my thoughts about myself were inextricable from thoughts of this other person,* which was tormenting, and so I went on like this, on and on, tormenting myself for hours, until my torment, trying to make sense of itself, lost its purity and frayed out into contemplation, after which I spent an hour and a half in a coffee shop listening to a member of the Unification Church talk about the Divine Principle of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. This person's friend had once seen a manifestation of God (the friend was there too, the description was hers) in the shape of a gold light behind the back of a stranger in the street; it was an area of such intense feeling that she cried all night afterwards, and now in the cafe she explained -- "I couldn't sleep."

"You have been reminded of the back-end mechanics of passive-aggressive statements," I said to myself during the contemplative period, before I met the Unification Church members, "which is a gift, and if you ever meet that old passive-aggressive person again then you will remember this and your irritation will be more complicated, and yet I'm positive you'll still be irritated, because this is a matter of complication and not the erasure of the wound, yes, that's it, not erasure but scab, new cells assembling and weaving together overhead in mat or knot. Turgenev: "Not without reason has someone said: there is nothing more oppressive than the realization of a stupidity just committed." (Rudin.)"

Proust must have felt ashamed sometimes while he was writing Temps Perdu, it's true, he must have been remembering the embarrassment that he translates into fiction, otherwise how could he translate it?** So these experiences, considered from a different angle, are valuable as well as shameful. I thought: I could go back and ask that person to delete my post, but then what? "Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy since you really do not know what those states are working upon you?" Rilke asks the Young Poet. And Walter Benjamin decides that the inhuman thing about Robert Walser's characters is their health from which harsh guilt has been removed. "If we had to sum up in a single phrase the delightful yet also uncanny element in them, we would have to say: they have all been healed." They are fugitives who have left madness behind them, they have found happy sense in their extreme self-effacement -- and if they are healthy then they have preemptively abandoned their creator, who perished schizophrenic in the snow outside a sanatorium years after he had given up writing (picture the characters running away from the sick man), this creator who politely tried to bury them under a snowfall of qualifiers and surprises, which is perhaps passive-aggressive too, towards them, although from the point of view of the reader it is a unique and interesting literary strategy doled out benevolently by the author like bags of very soft sweets. Dying and homeless as he was, he still desperately had sweets.

His characters are suspended, fraying, masklike, domestically agitated -- each one a bunraku puppet, with a frozen face and extra hidden people hovering behind their shoulders.

Not having learned all too much with regard to herself in the course of her not particularly numerous experiences, she proceeded to acquire, on the basis of an income piling up as if playfully or jestingly, a household which featured silver and gold forks, knives and soup spoons and also leafy plants and a number of sofa pillows, and then from here it as a mere trifle for her imagination -- beginning suddenly to awaken or grow active after having slept or reposed perhaps for days or even weeks -- to instill in her the peacock-feather-fluttering illusion, gliding gently past as if upon a river in a boat bedecked with garlands, that she was a sort of Cleopatra longing for viper bites.

(Microscripts, translated by Susan Bernofsky.

Mire it is then, I decided, mire is where I'll stay. I won't ask them to delete it. I'll leave it where it is. With this in mind I returned to the other blog and discovered, looking at another person's response, that the passive-aggressive aspect of my post had shrunk and faded and now the phrases I'd used seemed insufficient for reasons I hadn't even thought about. But that's what always happens.

* If you're reading this then don't worry, it isn't you. The chance of this person ever reading this, or knowing that I've written it, or of you ever meeting them and knowing that it's them (or of them ever suspecting that I've written it, etc), are so extraordinarily tiny that you might as well regard this person as a straw man I've made up.

** At first I wrote "transmuted into fiction" but the humiliating incidents weren't eliminated, only imitated in another form, remaining in the world like an original language, even though everybody who spoke that language is dead.

I've forgotten who translated Turgenev. (I've looked it up. Harry Stevens.) Rilke was translated by M.D. Herter Norton. The Benjamin quote comes from his essay Robert Walser, translated by Rodney Livingstone. You can find Robert Walser bundled in with the Microscripts but it was originally published in the Walter Benjamin: Selecteds. Which means that I've read it twice in two different books in the past two weeks.


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  2. To me passive aggressive means being on the surface terribly nice and submissive, while sticking the boot in at every turn, making it clear that you, the speaker, are the wronged one. In this context, Penelope Fitzgerald's letter to her first publisher, ostensibly apologising for leaving him, but really complaining, passive aggressively, that he hurt her feelings, is one of the finest examples of the method I've ever seen:

    "Dear Colin,
    I'm terribly distressed at having done the wrong thing and caused trouble when I meant to remove it. That is, I'd thought the most helpful thing to do would be to take myself off without making a fuss. You did tell me, you know, that if I went on writing novels you didn't want it blamed on you and that Anna thought I should do detective stories and also, by the way, that you had too many short novels with sad endings on your hands, and I thought, well, he's getting rid of me, but in a very nice way. I don't at all expect you to remember everything you say to 32 authors, but the trouble is we take all these remarks seriously and ourselves too seriously as well, I expect.
    I would have liked to stay, because I'm not the sort of person who ever has any money anyway, and I admire the firm so much and then you were always so clever and funny that everyone else seemed exceedingly slow by comparison. However having made this mistake, and I'd rather be taken for an idiot than a liar, I'll be careful to make it clear that it was my mistake, which is what you want, I think."

    "longing for viper bites" - ugh

  3. Sorry, that deletion wasn't some weird super-repressed piece of passive aggression - it was just that I'd left a comma out.

  4. That "what you want, I think" at the end is just nicely judged. If he didn't know she was sinking the boot in during Paragraph One, he definitely knew it by the end of Paragraph Two. It's the indirection and muffledness that characterises passive-aggression, for me -- it's that, "I'm criticising you in a way that makes it difficult for you to reply because it's not really presented as criticism." I once knew someone (not the same person I've mentioned above but another one who will never in a million years actually read this) who, if she was complimenting, for example, your haircut, would say something like, "Oh that's a lovely short haircut, it looks so good on you! So much nicer than that ugly long dirty hair you used to have." And all the time you'd had the long hair she wouldn't have said a word. (I've been reading your blog, by the way, even though I don't comment. I had something about the dog grave yesterday and then decided not to post it.)

  5. Re that haircut woman - I wonder where you met my mother (except she would have been able to say a lot without saying anything during all those years of ugly long hair).

  6. In a library. And I've heard the same style of sentence coming out of someone else's mouth too. Both of those people were over seventy or eighty. They can't all have met each other -- my two women and your mother. Is this sentence an artifact of the past? Did society used to, once upon a time, have masses of people walking around saying to one another, "I like your X, it's so much nicer than your stupid Y"? Do people under sixty (say) have another sentence to use when they want to mean the same thing? I wonder.