Saturday, December 24, 2011

one thing for another

M. made Lamb's Wool again and this time there was white froth on top -- tasted better -- delicious -- how did he do it? -- he put it in a blender. The downside was that later I had to clean the blender. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the two things were linked, are linked, and if I had known that I would take the blender apart and clean it later would I have had the same uncomplicated reaction to the froth? Paul in Dune is given powers of prescience and Frank Herbert makes him see that the future is not one path but several paths between which he has to choose; the difference between his prescient and non-prescient selves is that the choice is now conscious, and he never lives happily after that. To live, writes José Ortega y Gasset, is to act in spite of the forces that surround you, and these forces are, for instance, your country, your culture, your family, your soul, and your bad stomach. Reading Carlyle's French Revolution I wanted Marie Antoinette to escape somehow, to veer off from history and flee, in short I was afraid that she would die, and this fear was born not from the simple facts of the story (which I already knew, I knew that she was doomed) but from Carlyle's way of writing about them, which was so exciting that at one point I was actually clenching my fists and leaning forward over the book and all the muscles in my shoulders were bunching up to make knots that spelt out these words: Run, French Royal Family, run! If they weren't going to start running away with some conviction then the muscles in my arms were ready to do it for them. You can't carry out someone else's destiny but I was tense with willingness to try.

They were so bad at escaping that the temptation is to say, "They were asking to get caught," and then, "They must have wanted to get caught," because all of their actions seem so absolutely aimed at that one goal. If an activity is the sum of the actions that constitute itself then their escape would have failed in its objective if they hadn't been caught. Getting away would have been a failure. Everything was calibrated for capture. And yet they wouldn't have said that if you'd asked them -- if you'd said to the adults, "Do you want to be captured and have your heads lopped off in the Place de la Révolution?" then they would have said No, and if you'd asked the children if they wanted to be shuttled around and die of diseases then they would have told you no as well but they didn't have much say in the escape or in any of it. The starving poor women of Paris felt helpless as well (a common human problem, writes Ortega: to be kept away from paths that would realise your destiny), and finally they acted, they demanded bread, a demand that wasn't inventive or new but the persistence was novel and new, they would not be told to go away, they wanted bread they said, they wanted food they said, marching into the room, although if you judge their desires by the results they got then they wanted revolution and not bread -- not bread but the head of Marie Antoinette dropping into the basket, not bread but the crowd running forward with handkerchieves to collect the king's blood, and not bread but modern France itself, so that what they were shouting was not, "Bread!" but "Modern France!" not "Give us such and such," but "Allow the future so and so," not hands reaching forward to take, but hands reaching forward to pass us all Agnès Varda, the Eiffel Tower, and existentialism, and the mouths saying not, "We want, we want," but "You're welcome."

They died, of course, Marie died, everybody dies, the future is always unhappy, but people still want to predict it, although predicting it is absolutely easy: you will die. I know at least one person who puts his trust in a godly apocalypse, preferably sooner rather than later, and when an earth tremor hit the countryside around his aunt's house he believed that it was a sign, or so he said to us, observing, also, that there had been an earthquake in Turkey just the week before, and that other countries had suffered from other disasters. Think of the quake that knocked down the cathedral in Christchurch. He had already predicted the future, now he was looking for evidence that would connect it more tightly to the present. His earthquakes are all metaphorical; they represent the apocalypse as roses represent romance. "A strange thing in man," remarks Ortega, talking about metaphors, "this mental activity that substitutes one thing for another -- from an urge not so much to get at the first as to get rid of the second." These associations depend on memory (we learn that roses mean romance and then we remember it and act on it) and what if (I thought) we did things the other way around, and formed our metaphors presciently, associating one thing closely with another before we learnt that they should be connected? Then the world would be different, for one thing, Yu Muroga would never have had that trouble with his car.

Muroga was a delivery driver in Sendai when the tsunami hit earlier this year, and I thought of him because I'd been watching footage from his dashboard camera on youtube. First the camera sees the earthquake. The arm of the street light pats an invisible ball. The trees along the sides of the road wave their hands. Muroga stops and waits for it to pass. Everything slows, the light loses interest in the ball, he resumes driving. The video fades out and fades in. This quick fade represents about an hour in which nothing unusual happened. Now he's stopping in a traffic jam. Why is there a traffic jam? Cars begin to run across the road ahead of him as cars do at intersections but they're all going backwards and a grey cushion of liquid is lifting them off the asphalt; they are on a river and none of them are under the control of their drivers, not even the semi-trailer truck that shoots past directly and meaningfully, like a ship going to shore, also backwards. The sky is cloudy, everything is grey, the cars are grey, the water is grey, and a heavy drop runs down the windshield glass. Now water is coming under Muroga's car from behind, the water is running to join the new river ahead of him, now his car is being picked up, now it's wobbling on the surface, now another car has gone nose-down, now there's a ruffle over a current, now the car is caught in this current, now it's flying strongly backwards, now the camera is looking at the sky from the inside of a cave, the cave mouth is framing the camera's point of view, now the car tilts, the water is rolling over the window, the video ends, the car is drowned.

Muroga escaped but the camera never saw him do it. "Yoshi," he said to himself -- all right then, ok, here I go -- and out of the window into the water before the car encaved, this cave being either a warehouse full of debris or just a mass of debris on its own. (Some reports mention the warehouse, some don't.) Next time I see a twig being dragged along a stream I will remember this video and I will believe that the twig's poor life is one paralysing horror of disorientation and vertigo; I will probably want to rescue it.

If Muroga had had the power of prescient metaphor then the sight of the swaying traffic light would have meant, "My car sucked underwater an hour from now" as surely as roses mean romance, and he could have done -- what he could have done I don't know, but he could have done it.

Ortega wrote about metaphors in his essay The Dehumanization of Art, which was translated into English by Helene Wyl. He wrote about life for In Search of Goethe from Within, translated by Willard R. Trask.


  1. I heard someone reading a book about Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser on the radio once. The description of her execution was v moving - I recommend it, if you can get hold of a copy. As to this remark of yours - "They died, of course, Marie died, everybody dies, the future is always unhappy" - one of my mother in law's favourite conversational gambits springs immediately to mind: "Why can't we talk about happy things?" Hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year and look forward to reading more of your perceptive essays in 2012.

  2. We'll possibly still be alive at the same time next year. That's sort of happyish. The flowers will still bloom, and you can photograph them. That person on your blog might have managed to sell all of her floppy seasonal antler headbands and retired to the Whitsundays on the proceeds. So that's happiness for her, unless she's allergic to seawater or islands or beaches or fish.

    Thank you for the Christmas wishes, and the same to you. I can't tell you how surprised and moved I am that someone actually reads these "perceptive essays." I look back on the length of them and think: "You'd need crampons to get over that thing."

    (I've looked up the Fraser book. The local library has got it, but the local library is going to be out of commission for the next few days. The staff are having a Christmas break.)

  3. That is just why I asked for crampons for Christmas, for mountaineering in the Pykk Range. It is superior exercise, good for the lungs and brain.

  4. I'd call myself an Alp, but Ruskin never hikes me, I hike Ruskin.