Thursday, May 26, 2011

the horror of the fixed

The air conditioning for this building is powered by a machine in the room next to this room, and when it starts up, and for as long as it runs, I can hear a long mushy detonation of rushing air, always the same speed and constancy and flatness, on and on and on.

Outside, the wind hisses through the cactus spines, and (listening to one and thinking of the other) I believe that the air conditioning machine is more aggressive than the wind, which sometimes meanders and sometimes takes a deep breath and blows and then dies again; the machine shoves the air constantly, it doesn't let it rest, but in spite of this pushing and force it doesn't sound energetic; it seems monotonous, dutiful, and bored. It needs Macbeth's porter, coming in to change the mood (which is his role, and he has been waiting for his chance since the witches), "But this place is too cold for hell," says the porter, "I'll devil-porter it no further," and at this point "Mind knocks," writes Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, "and breaks into the play, with the first and only comedy allowed in this drama. Shakespeare employs his company's leading clown (probably Robert Armin) to introduce a healing touch of nature."

A "touch of nature," with its variations and changes and its sense of three-dimensional space (the birds making their noises outside provide you with an aural map, one noise high, one noise low, one noise close, one far away, as if they're marking out the corners of a geometric shape with thousands of sides; the name of this geometric shape is probably Robert Armin) is the thing that gets smothered out of the atmosphere by this machine.

Its appearance doesn't change, no matter whether it's on or off. In the desert the stiff spines of the cactus vibrate a little as the air passes through, and the dangling leaves of the mesquite tree stream up from vertical to horizontal. But there is no sign that the machine is making the noise. "Oh," I think, "The noise might as well not be part of the machine," and then I start to believe that I would find this situation inspirational if I became a composer of musique concrète, if I could be Francisco López, who samples the noises of cities and makes albums out of the samples. In 2001 he released Buildings [New York], in 2008 he released TDDM, "based on sound materials recorded in factories in Asia," and recently he masterminded a series of projects named Sound Matter Cities. I've been listening to his Untitled #244, which is a single track, almost an hour long, put together from the sampled sounds of the Paraná and Paraguay rivers. "The air conditioner is an ingredient," I would think, if you turned me into Francisco López.

Untitled #244 has been left as one long track, not broken up, because envelopment and immersion are important, says Francisco López, the album envelops and immerses; he wants his music to fill the ear and head as fully and envelopingly as Dunsany's Elfland in the King of Elfland's Daughter fills the valley where the parliament of Erl sits, wishing for more magic in the world, and this air conditioning machine is like Elfland too in its monotonous endurance. "[N]othing stirs or fades or dies, nothing seeks its happiness in movement or change or a new thing" in Elfland, and this changeless mood is created by a sound, by elvish "incantation and song."

I would be more interested in this machine's blank white noise if I could think of it as an incantation preparing to create an Elfland, or as a partner to Gormenghast's timelessness, or even as the weird suspended atmosphere that William Hope Hodgson writes about, although he has to make the world end first, either supernaturally, or by removing the reader to another planet.

If I were Hodgson I could find a story in this air conditioning machine. The noise would begin, time would be distorted, my dog Pepper would turn into a heap of dust, "there came a faint and distant, whirring buzz … [it] reminded me, in a queer, gigantic way, of the noise that a clock makes, when the catch is released, and it is allowed to run down," the sun would rise and set at an insane speed, a hundred lightning flashes would flood downwards, "the world-noise was drowned in the roar of the wind," I would totter to a window, the sky would change, an enormous stream of luminous spheres would pass me at an unvarying rate, then a jade sun, then two suns, then no sun, then a terrifying Arena, then a Beast-God, then an Eyeless-Thing, and finally I would realise that the house had gone green. "All at once, there came a bewildering, screaming noise, that deafened me," and I am sitting in my chair again, the room has been restored, but the dog is still dead.

(This happens in The House on the Borderland, chapters XV to XXIII, right after the attack by the Swine-Things.)

Or if I were Dickens I would be vivified by the monotony, I would be roused and provoked, and Chesterton would state after I had died (stating because Chesterton liked to state), that I couldn't abide boredom, and I couldn't create it when I wrote. "The one thing [Dickens] did not describe in any of the abuses he denounced was the soul-destroying potency of routine. He made out the bad school, the bad parochial system, the bad debtor's prison as very much jollier and more exciting than they may really have been."

I read this and wish that I could be like Dickens, who did not abide boredom but rang a stranger's doorbell and lay down in the doorway, or else raced away to France. Why do I sit here bored? I wonder. Why can't I rush away to France? I spend too much time wishing that I had the good qualities of famous people, M tells me when I let him know that I want to be Hayao Miyazaki. If I became Dickens then the machine would excite me, I would write a book with it as the villain and have the rest of the people in this building picking up their pitchforks to exterminate that whooshing devil.

Chesterton writes:

As long as low Yorkshire schools were entirely colourless and dreary, they continued quietly tolerated by the public and quietly intolerable to the victims. So long as Squeers was dull as well as cruel he was permitted; the moment he became amusing as well as cruel he was destroyed. [ie, in real life the schools were closed] As long as Bumble was merely inhuman he was allowed. When he became human, humanity wiped him right out. For in order to do these great acts of justice we must always realise not only the humanity of the oppressed, but even the humanity of the oppressor.

I would realise the humanity of my oppressor, I would give it the energy that Dickens gives even to a building of Furnished Apartments in Calais, a "dead sort of house with a dead wall over the way and a dead gateway at the side, where a pendant bell-handle produced two dead tinkles, and a knocker produced a dead, flat, surface-tapping, that seemed not to have depth enough in it to penetrate even the cracked door. However, the door jarred open on a dead sort of spring; and he closed it behind him as he entered a dull yard, soon brought to a close by another dead wall, where an attempt had been made to train some creeping shrubs, which were dead; and to make a little fountain in a grotto, which was dry; and to decorate that with a little statue, which was gone."

This house, which is a list of the same word, or similar words, is not like Mr Pickwick's bright street, which is a list of different words, and dissimilar words.

'The principal productions of these towns,' says Mr. Pickwick, 'appear to be soldiers, sailors, Jews, chalk, shrimps, officers, and dockyard men. The commodities chiefly exposed for sale in the public streets are marine stores, hard-bake, apples, flat-fish, and oysters.'

Pickwick, states Chesterton, is light itself, it is vitality, it is primeval. "It is the splendid, shapeless substance of which all his stars were ultimately made. You might split up Pickwick into innumerable novels as you could split up that primeval light into innumerable solar systems." Chesterton is thrilled by Dickens as Annie Dillard was thrilled by creeks, "an active mystery, fresh every minute." She wrote: "Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection."

Meanwhile this machine churns on in the next room, unvarying, perfect, and outside a ground squirrel crossing the road tosses up a plume of dust, and I see that the fecundity of the natural dusty road, its numberless mass of dots and specks, has given the ground squirrel a chance to make its mark in a way that an impenetrable and constant surface would not: the dust spreads and hangs, the surface of the earth is impressed with footprints, and another ground squirrel on the other side of the road, startled, manifests its personality by deciding to vanish down a burrow with a cheep.

Monday, May 16, 2011

then, from hour to hour, we rot

Now and then we have a chance to visit an art gallery, and I notice that when an Arizona artist decides to paint or photograph a desert plant, the plant they usually choose is a cactus, the bollards of the barrel cactus or the prickly pear, or the obvious saguaro, or, more rarely, the cholla. The two cholla that we see most often around here are cylindropuntia bigelovii, commonly called teddybear for the sake of its apparent, but false, fluffiness, and cylindropuntia fulgida also known as the jumping cactus, for the way knobs of it seem to leap and attach themselves to your clothes as you walk past. Early European-American artists had the same problem with unfamiliar terrain as early European-Australian artists, the hand with the paintbrush veering back into the shapes it had been taught in preference to the shapes that were in front of its eyes, and in a painting in the Phoenix Art Museum, you can see that one of those hands has turned the cholla into parasols, so that a river valley becomes a landscape of bushes and umbrellas.

Make me a painter, I said to M., and I'd ignore the cactus and paint the grass and branches, because the desert is full of brilliant spindles, those very long thin white arching growths that make fine lines across one another, streaks and sweeps of movement and monochrome Bridget Rileys, and then there's the way those small grasses have been moulded into waves, combed like hair in the directions of the washes (the rain must have run across them once and left them frozen in that position, Medusa rain) -- and that same small green grass is growing now across its ancestors from last year, all ash-grey as if struck with an apocalyptic blast, the bright green extraordinarily vivid over the withered and dead grey, as Proust, according to Tadié, grew over Ruskin: read him, translated him, absorbed him, and passed on, developing, sprouting, taking nourishment. (This is not a secret, but Tadié makes it sound vampiric.)

Perhaps they do paint those grasses, the artists, and then they don't exhibit them because they believe that grass won't sell, so they exhibit the cactus, and keep the unpopular subject matter at home in their studios, or give it away to friends. Look at you for example, I say to myself, if you only knew yourself from your public exhibition in this blog you'd think you read almost nothing but Proust and Stead and a few dead Britons, because you never mention the Kawabata you read in January, or the Canadian Margaret Laurence, or Three by Peter Handke. Ditto, perhaps, for the artists of Arizona: they keep their grasses back for reasons that they never consider, or their eyes skip past them and they go on to the cactus as naturally and lazily as you go on to Proust. Or not lazily: "This," they say to themselves, "is a subject worth extrapolating, the curve along the side of this barrel cactus ..."

Online there's only one sign that I've read Kawabata -- I submitted a sentence from the first chapter of Beauty and Sadness to the literary clock project in the Guardian. "At midnight his wife and daughter might still be bustling about, preparing holiday delicacies in the kitchen, straightening up the house, or perhaps getting their kimonos ready or arranging flowers." Searching for more literary time, I sketched out a hesitant theory: that almost everything in fiction happens on the hour or at half past, or maybe, more rarely, a quarter past or a quarter to (some Americans say, a quarter of) but never at an irregular time, six past two, or eleven thirty-seven. When Kevin Jackson put together an anthology of prose time, The Book of Hours, he discovered mainly rounded times, for example, Edith Wharton in her House of Mirth, "Four o'clock found her in the drawing room: she was sure that Sheldon would be punctual," and Shakespeare, in Act Two, Scene Seven, of As You Like It:

And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, 'It is ten o'clock:
Thus we may see,' quoth he, 'how the world wags:
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.'

In Jackson only the comedy writers use irregular time. Sarah Dunn in A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994 finds activities for 1.26 am and 2.42 pm.

3.14 pm. Leave the house and wander around aimlessly.

Ask me to search for for irregular times and I'd look in comic novels. Graham Greene's nonfictional In Search of a Character / Two African Journals, comes near irregularity once or twice, "At 2:10 pm at last away. Terribly hot. Uneasy siesta," but usually rounds things off: "Explosion in one ship at about 6 a.m. and a warning bell to the crew," "A rough day between 9 and 4 and a little before tea I was sick." Dorothy Wordsworth in her diary does the same, toying with irregularity but returning to roundedness: "I walked to Keswick. Set off at 5 minutes past 10 and arrived at 1/2 past 2." "We had not much sunshine or wind but no rain till about 7 o'clock when we had a slight shower."

In The Man Who Loved Children even the baby being born tries to adhere to a rounded schedule. "See what time it is, Looloo," Sam says.

It was six-thirty. When the baby's cry came, they could not pick it out, and Sam, eagerly thrusting his face amongst their ears, said, "Listen, there, there, that's the new baby." He was red with delight and success. They heard voices, and their mother groaning still, and then, quite free and separate, the long thin wailing, and voices again.

"Six-forty-five," said Louie.

Conclusion? People don't think in irregular times, they don't consider them, they shy away from them, they think they're funny or ridiculous, too precise and Puritan (they fix you down, perhaps, they say, "You are in this minute and no other," and life itself is so natively vague and many-sided that any kind of pinpoint seems wrong, it makes us a little frantic maybe; in that contrast lies Dunn's humour), they lack the rings of generosity that surround an o'clock or a half past. We spend most of our lives in time we don't want to think about. Things happen about 6 a.m. but never about 5:56. Five fifty-six is only five fifty-six. Five fifty-six is finite. Five fifty-six dies quickly. Six o'clock has a whole hour to play with before it turns into seven. Long-lived six o'clock, short-lived five fifty-six.

I'm inhabiting one of the ridiculous minutes right now. It's eight forty-eight in the morning.

The narrator of Handke's Short Letter, Long Farewell, which was the second novella in my Three is an Austrian man on holiday in the US. He visits several places in the east and south, which I had no mental references for -- and therefore they didn't interest me, they might as well have been Mordor -- but then he went to Tucson, south of us, and I lit up like a tour guide, ah! yes! Tucson! even though I have only been there once, briefly, when someone drove us through the downtown area. "There ain't a lot here," the driver observed, and then we went to a shopping mall, where there was even less. The only shop with any customers was a pet store where a Mexican woman with long nails was making a rattling noise on the glass cages to attract the attention of the puppies. All of the shopping centres -- malls -- I've seen in Arizona have been indoor urban ghost towns, with a few people sitting by a fountain, a family pushing a child in a stroller, a Macy's, and when you stand at one of the decorative palm trees and look upwards you can see two or three tiers of shops without customers.

These are called dead malls, says the internet, and they are an eerie experience, well-lit and expectant and inhabited by security guards who must get a lot of leisurely exercise, strolling and strolling, as we stroll up and down the dirt road outside this house, although in our case we see the footprints of animals impressed in the dust, lines of forks arranged heel to toe that mean quail, and the tiny clawed fleur de lys of the ground squirrel, all unknown to the guards of the dead malls, who see only goods behind windows and the open neanderthal caves of absent shops.*

Handke's narrator, landing in Tucson, notices desert around the runway. "The city is in the middle of a desert, a hot wind blows all day; sand clouds race across the runway, and on both sides of it there was cactus with white and yellow flowers." If there were flowers then he must have been here at this time of year, springtime. He sees an agave, a lawn, and a palm tree by a swimming pool; and I think those are the only plants he notices in Arizona before he buys a plane ticket and flies to Oregon. There he visits two places, first a logging town named Estacada, "Charred tree trunks, gashed hillsides, burned trash bins," in the forest south-east of Portland, and then Twin Rocks, "a town on the Pacific coast some seventy-five miles west of Estacada" (seventy-five miles: even alienated characters think in round zeroes and fives) where he stands by the sea until another person appears. "With rigid, graven faces we approached one another; suddenly she looked away and screamed," translates Ralph Manheim. Like Estacada, Twin Rocks has "burned-out trash bins."

We didn't go to those places but that was the Oregon we saw, a state made up of forest and coast. It's the rivers that haunt me though, running by the sides of the roads, and then rushing away into the trees, coming from somewhere and going to somewhere -- mysterious amber rivers, with no beginning and no end, like a point on Kant's line, a moment connected to time by the action of the observer, but ours were not connected, they were only the segment moments, and the beginnings and ends of the lines were invisible to us. My parents went through Oregon some years ago, on a train, at night, said my mother on the phone, and they saw nothing but darkness.

*While they're on duty, that is. Off-duty they might spend hours walking up and down dirt roads looking at quail prints for all I know.

Beauty and Sadness was translated by Howard Hibbett.

Monday, May 9, 2011

the pathological causes of the physical and moral personality

The saguaro in the distance are stiff as salt shakers, the rabbits hunch over the spring weeds in the evenings with their mouths down and the whole head shaped in silhouette upwards into the listening ears; the mesquite trees sing with unseen bees. A pair of young ground squirrels came over the wire fence into the back garden and the dogs proudly worried them to death. After two hundred pages of Jean-Yves Tadié's Marcel Proust: a Life as translated by Euan Cameron, I looked at my notebook and realised that the only excerpt I had written down was this:

In the army the proportion of Jewish doctors was average. One notable doctor was Michael Lévey, a GP and author of a well-considered Traité d'hygiène. This dealt with personal hygiene (the pathological causes of the physical and moral personality) -- he even covers the subject of "nostalgia" (among the French expeditionary force in Greece, in 1831), which, "once diagnosed, can only be cured by repatriation"

I was melancholy, thinking of home, and then I read Guy Davenport's essay on Montaigne's travel diaries, the man from Bordeaux journeying through Europe and having inquisitive discussions with strangers, for he was curious and intelligent and would "talk with people in every level of society, from children to cardinals," proving that he was "a wide-awake traveller," which made me anxious, oh no, I thought, "I don't question people, look at me, I have been in Arizona all this time and I do not question the Americans enough, I am not Montaigne," which made me yet more melancholy, and then I wondered what I could do to be more questioning and curious and similar to the dead Frenchman in his arctic ruff, the obvious answer right now being, "Go to a part of America where there are more people to talk to," as the desert south of Phoenix is not exactly the Greffulhe salon or Flinders Street Station or even our old local St Vinnies, where a man once turned to me in the corner and said, "Have you read this? It's fantastic," and the book he was holding was the Da Vinci Code.

Conversation here often seems to revolve around other people's damaged knees, or the medicine they're taking, and when they last saw the doctor, all subjects that might have interested Montaigne, who was suffering from kidney stones. "Montaigne's constant scrutiny of his urine in a chamber pot, his colics and dizzy spells, his ability to drink heroic amounts of hot sulfurous water, locate his journal in a time when the body was still part of personality." The body is part of the personality out here in Arizona Desert Location X where we are staying, or at least part of the public persona, for nobody here is anybody without a wrecked joint or a headache. Even one of the dogs suffers from a crippled leg and goes around with one front foot dapperly turned sideways. Montaigne would have had endless things to talk about. All I ever seem to manage is an occasional splinter which is not even in the same league as these failing knees and kidneys, and besides, the number of tetanus shots I had before coming here will keep me protected from the consequences of splinters more or less forever. I am a massive gurgling tank of anti-tetanus medicine. No splinter can do me harm unless it enters my bloodstream, whirls through the waterslide of my innards and penetrates the wall of my heart. I have a vague memory that when I was very little someone told me about a man who had died like that, but then they also used to tell me not to go barefoot or else I would get bilharzia, which, in suburban Melbourne, was actually impossible.* My Nanna's sister died of a mosquito bite.

Proust, who was sick for most of his life, liked to ask questions. Tadié writes: "As we have seen, Proust never stopped asking questions and investigating, either because he lacked experience of the world (though he would behave similarly where inversion was concerned) or because he wished to substantiate certain things: hence the importance of his relationships, entirely literary ones, with these glittering society ladies; he blended their stories or or character sketches with those he obtained through his reading: everything was put to use." Then again he also quotes Proust's friend Anna de Noailles: "Let there be no mistake: Marcel Proust was not asking questions, he did not obtain information through contact with his friends. It was he himself who, in his meditative silence, was posing questions to himself, which he later answered in his conversation, in his actions, in his books." But Tadié sees him on a yacht and presents evidence for his side: "Proust used to like chattering to the crew, whom he persuaded to talk about their lives."

Proust was anxious for other reasons, afraid that he would end up like Eliot's Casaubon, labouring for years on projects that would turn out to be useless just when it was too late for him to correct them. Do we ever really find out how stupid we are? Casaubon was ignorant of the German thinkers who had surpassed him, and when Will came along with news of the surpassing Germans he refused to listen, avoiding a relevance paradox but perishing in misery of a heart attack or was it a stroke? See where jealousy gets us. Proust was jealous in love but not intellectually close-minded in the Casaubon way. He wrote against Symbolism (in an article, Contre l'obscurité) but he knew what it was (although the Symbolist Mallarmé disagreed, responding, "I prefer, in the face of attack, to retort that some of our contemporaries do not know how to read").

Dickens was a primitive thinker, suggests Wuthering Expectations, comparing Hard Times to Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, but he was creative -- a different kind of intelligence -- and (this is my addition) he had recreational activities of terrifying vigour. "Most of the major Victorians are exhausting to contemplate, Dickens even more so," wrote Bill Tipper as he reviewed Michael Slater's Charles Dickens. "In his later career, after finishing a major work, he would unwind by hauling Wilkie Collins or another friend along as he hurled himself up a mountain." He went for miles of walks by day and by night, something which at this moment I would willingly do as well, but we tried that the other week and behold, another rattlesnake, shaking its maracas and winding itself up into an S like a grey tie dropped on the floor, ready to fling out and fix itself into our legs.

Our dry countryside is full of rattlesnakes and no walkers but the English countryside is full of walkers and no rattlesnakes. Jane Austen's people put on their boots and set off, "a walk to Meryton was necessary to amuse their morning hours and furnish conversation for the evening," the Famous Five were always going on rambles, and Dorothy Wordsworth went out with her brother Wm, striding across the hills and and talking to "an old man, almost double, he had on a coat thrown over his shoulders above his waistcoat and coat."

His trade was to gather leeches, but now leeches are scarce and he had not the strength for it. He lived by begging and was making his way to Carlisle where he should buy a few godly books to sell. He said leeches were very scarce partly owing to this dry season, but many years they have been scarce -- he supposed it owing to their being much sought after, that they did not breed fast, and were of slow growth. Leeches were formerly 2/6 [per] 100; they are now 30/.

-- which makes me think, all of a sudden, of Mark Tredennick in his Blue Plateau, learning about the Blue Mountains west of Sydney from some local farmers, and recording their conversation in a dialect so strange and antique that I had the feeling he'd transcribed it all out of Barbara Baynton, or that the characters from Baynton's stories had come forward into the real world to guide him around the countryside there, taking him out on their horses and drinking billy tea, and that perhaps they would conduct him down a cavern in the earth and there they would go through the different circles, until, finally emerging, they would travel up a slope he had never seen before, and encounter Beatrice accompanied by green dancing wallabies in a chariot drawn by a six-foot echidna. A mysterious figure with two heads taps him on the shoulder and says, Hello, I'm Ern Malley. Dialogue from life must be transformed by the author, not merely transcribed, says Tadié somewhere in this biography. I remember reading the page, but can I find it again? I can't.


Is anyone writing your biography?


I have no life.

-- from an interview in the Paris Review.

* Or anywhere in Australia. The person who was giving me this warning had once been shown a terrifying educational film, but the film was filmed in Africa.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

where I first saw you, must be just beyond

Standing by the bookshelf in the bedroom the other day I picked up the Selected Poems of Geoffrey Hill and began to read the Triumph of Love --

Benevolent, like a Young Fabians' Club
vision of labour; invariable routine
produced the same hot water, brought to the boil --

-- and at that moment I heard the electric kettle in the kitchen switch itself off. M. had turned it on to make hot water and now it had boiled. The coincidence gave me a shock, and I saw my own shock in the form of a luminous electric halo that appeared and expanded in front of my forehead. When I went back to the book later and opened it at roughly the same place I was ready to hear that click from the kitchen again, even though this time I knew that the kettle wasn't on.

When I walk outside now, after nearly stepping on that rattlesnake, I have a similar sense of anticipation; I'm always ready to hear the rattle again and meet an identical snake, I tow this snake invisibly on an invisible string, like an invisible helium balloon or a pet, as Little Dorrit in the second part of her book is followed around by the debtor's prison where she spent chapters two to thirty-six.

She describes the sensation in a letter: "For instance, when we were among the mountains, I often felt (I hesitate to tell such an idle thing, dear Mr Clennam, even to you) as if the Marshalsea must be behind that great rock; or as if Mrs Clennam's room where I have worked so many days, and where I first saw you, must be just beyond that snow."

My adoption of the invisible parasite was quicker than hers; she suffered quietly for more than twenty years (or over thirty chapters in book time, which makes chapters something like dog years), I only had a sharp surprise. Picking the Marshalsea out of London she brings it around with her, either stripping the building of London or stripping London of the building, pulling it off the street and forcing it up hills, around rocks (unwilling shepherd with her sheep as internal as hookworms), dislocating it from its place as I dislocated my kettle-click from its specific time and attached it for an unknown number of days or years to that line in the Selected Geoffrey Hill.

Detaching it from the moment of actual boiling I have tucked it forever on page one hundred and eighty-four, where I am coercing it into the shape of a bookmark.