Sunday, November 13, 2011

paused and turned her eyes on

The idea of a theatre in the last post didn't come from Peake. I was trying to work out something around a sentence in George Eliot's Romola. The sentence goes like this: "Her eyes were flashing, and her whole frame seemed to be possessed by impetuous force that wanted to leap out in some deed." Romola is the person with the flashing eyes, and she is flashing them at her husband, pausing while she flashes, staying still: "Romola had paused and turned her eyes on him as she saw him take his stand and lodge the key in his scarsella." It's this contrast between stillness and action that stopped me, the body tensing (that is how I picture her "possessed by impetuous force") and all the dramatic movement being placed in the eye.

Around a real eye the muscles pinch and go taut or loose, but the eye itself, the genuine eye, stays round and non-indignant, rotating slightly in the socket but not moving in the free way that a hand or a leg moves. The face moves, the cheeks move, the lips are narrowed or fattened, the angle of the chin changes, all of this goes into a facial expression, but the eyes on their own, flashing like lightbulbs or fireflies -- never, never, never. Two bits of wet and glass. The fictional eye is more flexible. Every real eye wishes that it could be fictional.

I was trying to sketch out a difference between Peake's characters (who take their eyes into a room and then the author sees the room), and Romola, whose eyes are performing a movement of their own without the help of a moving body (the force of them is throwing itself at her husband, they're walking forward and grabbing his shirt). "She's stuck in place, she's still, she's like a what, like a building containing two objects, like a theatre," I thought, "with her eyes like two actors."

She is a presentation-box and her eyes are onstage. Her eye is expressive. The fictional flash is a concentrated emotion. I've seen fictional eyes flash before. The most modern example I think I've read is the one near the end of the first Dune Prelude. One character loses her temper and "Her eyes flashed fire." The flashing eye is always sure of its object. It flashes at someone. The person with the flashing eye is having her emotions obviously. They are clear. (Emotions are not often this clear.) It's as if she's given him a photograph of her mood, look, here it is, unmistakeable. No more work is required. She doesn't have to move a muscle. Romola doesn't actually need to tense her body, or tremble, or perform whatever subtle action it is that suggests the "impetuous force." The character is in fact disabled. She is fixed in place by her emotions and she is therefore harmless.

The author has borrowed the attributes of the entire body, all of its expressive moving power, and given them to the eye. The flash is a fantasy of an effective action that is not taking place.

The flashing eye stays where it is and directs its rays outward. There must be absolute puissance within for the eye is charged like a battery. Most surprising: the owner of the eye is not exhausted and does not collapse. She has moved beyond doubt and now she transfers this lack of doubt to the other party. His job is to know that she is angry. A human being who has lost doubt has moved briefly away from the physical realm, where multiplicity and confusion is normal, and onto a high plane of ideas, where clarity can be obtained. Therefore the flashing eye becomes unnatural. The globe spits out a straight burst of light. A flash of light is spearlike, dry, active, it is not a soggy bobble, it isn't stuck in a bone cup and laced up with meat.* Free and direct, it is maybe Romola's hallucination of herself, just then, as she sits, congealed, locked inside a cage of horror, facing her husband, who has done something terrible.

When Romola's eyes flash she is primarily her eyes, she has absconded from the rest of her body and left it standing empty, and if you could extract the eyes right there in the book and put them in a cage then you would have her like one who had captured her ghost.

* Maybe the eye is productiveness in Walter Benjamin's formulation and the flash is effectiveness: "Effectiveness and productiveness are incompatible. Dampness, closeness, vagueness in productiveness; dryness, outline, distance in effectiveness." (I'm borrowing this from a fragment called "Notes (II)" in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 1: 1927-1930. Rodney Livingstone translated.)

I don't have the Dune Preludes here to check that line (it's somewhere near the end of House Atreides and she's arguing with Leto if you want to look it up) but I'm almost sure of that flash.


  1. Once again you demonstrate your superior intellect - in my provincial doltish manner, I was stopped not by the concept behind the sentence but by a word within it, namely 'scarsella'. I shall go and look it up and then read on.

  2. I can't read the sentence without thinking of something mildly obscene, like rubber underwear. Disappointment when I discover that he's only put it in a "pocket or pouch."

  3. Hmmm ... flashing eyes. Do you think they can be a little chiched ... though the way you describe them is anything but cliched.

    My favourite eyes in literature are of course Elizabeth Bennet's: Here is Darcy, as I'm sure you remember: "I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow." And, of course, from then on, Caroline Bingley cannot let the matter of Lizzie's "fine eyes" drop. I have always thought that Lizzie's "fine eyes" are of the flashing variety but whether they take the full place of her body I canna say!

  4. I think they're incredibly cliched, which is another way of saying incredibly natural, in other words, the author expects the reader to read past this and not take it literally. Eliot knows the reader is not going to imagine Romola with lights going on and off inside her head. You can tell that she believes it because the husband doesn't react. He doesn't drop his keys, panic, call a doctor, try to smother this monster with a cushion, or do anything that a person would do if another human being started shooting beams out of their sockets like MechaGodzilla. And the scene is a realistic scene, and the book is a realistic book, and none of the characters do anything unnatural, they don't fly, they don't breathe underwater, they're not magical creatures, and the husband carries on as if his wife has done nothing strange, so, what I'm trying to get at, is that one of the strangest things for me, when I read this scene and try to think about those "flashing eyes," is the fact that nobody is supposed to notice them. They're expected to carry on as if the words they've actually read are something like, "and then Romola experienced a very strong emotion, which was visible in her expression." That's what's understood. But that's not what's there.

    I wonder if fine eyes were the forerunner of flashing eyes. "Well," said authors to themselves," people are used to eyes looking fine, so let's pump it up a bit, let's make them shinier. Amazingly shiny. So shiny they give off light." Is there a natural evolution of the shiny eye in literature? From the normal candlelight of Elizabeth Bennet to the casino neon of eyes that flash fire?

  5. Could be a PhD in it, if you are looking for something to do besides accost security guards in casinos about Proust (was it?)!

    Oh, and I did like your analysis of flashing eyes, btw.

  6. 1. Ruskin. But Proust would be an interesting one too. "So, security guard, as you stand here on a carpark exit ramp in the cold at two in the morning listening to someone in the distance shout "Vay-gaas!" what are your thoughts about Time? Hedgerows? Parisian duchesses?"

    2. Thank you.

  7. 1. I wait for the response in a future post!

    2. You're welcome!

  8. I'll ask him. But I can see two obvious stumbling blocks standing in the way of Proust The Security Guard. One: potentially fatal asthma attacks. Two: for the short period of time that he actually had a job, he never turned up to work.