Tuesday, December 27, 2011

this purpose we take

Twelve months ago I finished the year by posting a list of favourite quotes poached from books I'd been reading and the year before I did the same, but this year I have so many candidates that instead of choosing favourites I'm going to take the first sentence of the first book I finished in January, and a sentence from the book I'm reading now, and between them I'm going to put fragments from the rest of 2011 and see what comes out -- like so -- and Merry Christmas, by the way, and a relaxed Boxing Day in retrospect, and a Happy New Year -- so -- starting with The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt --

Many still consider it an accident that Nazi ideology centred around this secret in me from which I am separated and which is like my own separation, a precise spot that a human sometimes enters rolling bales of hay, bowing and scraping and flourishing his hat left and right. Dust is plural: infinite dust. This structure we shall call the metaphysical purport of all intuitive revelation of being; and this is precisely what we ought to achieve and disclose by lengthy supplications at passers-by. One of them breaks out in a low howl every time he senses the potential largesse of a deep and complex thing propped up with a stake in the middle. The primitive mind sees disorder in itself and enlists every discipline to keep from contaminating the world. We, says Levi-Strauss, see all disorder outside ourselves, in the world and in other people; our anxiety is that they will contaminate us, a phenomenon that one American commentator rightly saw as "such an unaffected tribute of admiration as few other authors have ever obtained." My own literary work on the contrary was always done as quietly and methodically as a partly dismantled giraffe. People who expect sentiment from children of six years old will be disappointed, and will probably teach them affectation which can only sweat and stare at its own hooves -- a scrawled-over bit of paper becoming a person with a past and a future! The mighty future is as nothing, being everything! the past is everything, being the Englishman, who made his name training bees, who walked about the countryside covered with them, even to his face and hands, and caressed them and let them drink from his eyes. Children at this age give us no such information of themselves; and at what time were we dipped in the sheer quantity of his reading. Reading has not merely deformed his imagination, it has put it in a Drawer. You are to note, that in March and April he is usually taken with worms, in May, June, and July, he will bite at any fly, or at cherries, or at beetles with their legs and wings cut off, or at the pet of the household, thrusting Sir Christopher's favourite bloodhound of the day, Mrs Bellamy's two canaries, and Mr Bates' largest Dorking hen, into a merely secondary position for four years, at the end of which he died in excruciating pain from cancer of the jaw as his facial bones disintegrated. Not insincerity, but a translated sincerity, is the basis of all art. For this purpose we take a scrap of paper and we write the truth down: "Here is the chalk."

(Maurice Blanchot, Awaiting Oblivion translated by John Gregg; Cole Swensen, Anamorphosis from Ours and also The Invention of Automata from Goest; Ruth Stone, her poem Always on the Trains from In the Next Galaxy (Stone died this year and one of the obituaries quoted that same poem); Samuel Beckett, The End; Brenda Shaughnessy, Epithalament from Interior With Sudden Joy; Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness translated by Hazel E. Barnes; Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary translated by Richard Sieburth; Macedonio Fernández , The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel) translated by Margaret Schwartz; Virginia Woolf, The Years; Guy Davenport, What Are Those Monkeys Doing? from his book of essays, Every Force Evolves a Form; Michael Slater, Charles Dickens; John Ruskin, Praeterita; Jean Sprackland, Tilt, a poem from the book of the same name; Maria Edgeworth, Belinda; John Cowper Powys, Maiden Castle; Charles Lamb, Oxford in the Vacation from the Essays of Elia; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria; Susan Sontag, DQ, an essay from Where the Stress Falls; Emily Dickinson, You Cannot Put a Fire Out from her Complete Poems; Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler; George Eliot, Mr. Gilfil's Love Story from her Scenes of Clerical Life; Barbara Goldsmith, Obsessive Genius; Fernando Pessoa, The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa translated by Richard Zenith; Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? translated by W. B. Barton, Jr & Vera Deutsch)

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.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

in matter is something

M., feeling cold, decided to make us mugs of Lamb's Wool, which is ale and spice and apples warmed together, Granny Smiths in our case, and bottles of Fat Tire. Lamb's Wool is a wassailing drink, and it owes its name either to the fluffy layer that is supposed to appear on top -- in theory it does, ours didn't have any fluff -- or to an Anglicisation of the Irish-Gaelic La Mas Ubhal, or, Day Of The Apple.

And if the Gaelic theory is correct (and maybe there was a confluence, the fluff suggesting the direction the Anglicisation should travel in, perhaps the white fluff was an arrow pointing the way, eye and ear acting together since they're so close, biologically speaking, only a handshake apart -- I once stayed home from school because I had an earache that appeared also in a tooth) then the lamb in Lamb's Wool is not anything mammalian or woolly, instead it means an apple, and when we say "Lamb" we should think of something alive without legs, a cold round life held together by the same force field as the other kind of lamb, if the physicists are correct: held together by a field of energy that came into existence one moment after the Big Bang -- assuming they're right about that too. The Higgs boson particle will prove the existence of the field, if you want to call it a field, or at least it will make the assumption more concrete and sure -- if I'm understanding this right. It has the power of a mysterious Clag. So they're looking for it, and they thought they might have found evidence a few days ago but no Higgs as yet. Higgs is always elsewhere. It eludes. And there is no lamb, in this drink, the mammal-lamb of Lamb's Wool is not present ever, it is away with the Higgs boson (which I keep thinking of as the Higgs Bosun, a nautical particle), and all the solid things of the world are run through with holes, "Inherent in matter is something unwounded by holes," as Alison Hawthorne Deming states in a poem: all gaps, we are, tight nets that would not look so tight if we were Higgs boson particles, which are perhaps nets of their own holes whose holes are further nets.

The field is a fantasy, the Higgs is the fairy whose appearance will prove it real, it is the fixed shoe that exposes the life of the elf, and the words "Lamb's Wool" described our drink in an evasive way, by giving us its history and not its appearance or its contents, and history is one dimension of a thing, but an invisible one, as the three-dimensional sketch your hand performs with the pen or above the keyboard is an invisible part of any word you write, your wiggle is its history. (I take no credit: this is Walter Benjamin again.) When M. said "Lamb's wool" I didn't know what to expect and when he produced the drink I realised that I had been expecting something different. I was expecting wool in there somewhere. Maybe it would be strained through something, through fibres. But no. I think, said one scientist before the press conference earlier this week, that it would be more exciting if we didn't find the Higgs boson. All that searching and then after all that it's just prosaic and there. What a letdown. What an end.

But take heart, one stepping stone leads to another, the establishment of atoms did not mean the end of the tiny universe, obviously, even though they thought for a long time that they had gone as far as they could go in the direction of extreme smallness. "The word atom itself means "indivisible," or more technically derives from the Greek words for not and to cut," explains the biography of Marie Curie I'm reading at the moment, ἀ-τέμνω, which was once upon a time an accurate description of the object itself, and is now a record of that period of human existence when the atom was understood to have no interior parts. The interior parts of our Lamb's Wool dazzle me, the history, the apples, the different kinds of apple we could have used, M.'s rationale for that particular apple -- I knew you liked Granny Smiths, he said -- which suggests a knowledge of my preferences, which must have been acquired over time, and which relied not only on observation but also on memory, and the conscious retention of that particular memory -- he didn't forget that I liked Granny Smiths even though I don't think I've said the words "Granny Smith apple" for ages. "Every reunion of men, is it not, as we often say, a reunion of incalculable Influences; every unit of it a microcosm of Influences; -- of which how shall Science calculate or prophesy?" saith Carlyle. So there is a seething invisible net tied by invisible points and the giant visible knot in that net is my Lamb's Wool. Next time, says M., he will make an experimental adjustment and try a different kind of ale. Fat Tire may not be the best one if you want to heat it.

Deming's poem is The Charting from her book Genius Loci and the Curie biography is Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith: a light, short book. Thomas Carlyle was feeling Influence in The French Revolution.

You can make Lamb's Wool with cider too, but we used ale. William Hone wrote about it for the first volume of his Every Day Book (published 1825):

It is mentioned by a writer in the "Gentleman's Magazine," that lamb's-wool is a constant ingredient at a merry-making on Holy Eve, or on the evening before All Saints-day in Ireland. It is made there, he says, by bruising roasted apples, and mixing them with ale, or sometimes with milk. "Formerly, when the superior ranks were not too refined for these periodical meetings of jollity, white wine was frequently substituted for ale. To lamb's-wool, apples and nuts are added as a necessary part of the entertainment; and the young folks amuse themselves with burning nuts in pairs on the bar of the grate, or among the warm embers, to which they give their name and that of their lovers, or those of their friends who are supposed to have such attachments; and from the manner of their burning and duration of the flame, &c. draw such inferences respecting the constancy or strength of their passions, as usually promote mirth and good humour." Lamb's-wool is thus etymologized by Vallancey:—"The first day of November was dedicated to the angel presiding over fruits, seeds, &c. and was therefore named La Mas Ubhal, that is, the day of the apple fruit, and being pronounced lamasool, the English have corrupted the name to lamb's-wool."

(from the entry for October 31st)

Strangely, coincidentally, the last book I finished before the Curie was the Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb -- and some of those Letters are addressed to the same William Hone who wrote the Day Book. "Pray let Matilda keep my newspapers till you hear from me, as we are meditating a town residence," Lamb says to Hone, for example, on July 1st, 1830. "Let her keep them as the apple of her eye."

But what really impressed me, as I was reading the Letters, is that Lamb knew Barron Field, the author of the first book of poems published in Australia. "Kanagaroo, Kangaroo! / Thou Spirit of Australia," etc.

She had made the squirrel fragile;
She had made the bounding hart;
But a third so strong and agile
Was beyond ev'n Nature's art;
So she join'd the former two
In thee, Kangaroo!
To describe thee, it is hard:
Converse of the camélopard,
Which beginneth camel-wise,
But endeth of the panther size

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

living by violating the core principles of stillness and tranquility

Now that the subject of Vikings and of people being trees and flowers and the beams of the sun has been handled very adequately and well I will get back to the thing I was going to do before I climbed into the shower full of ants, which was ask my friend the security supervisor if Proust would have made a good officer in a Las Vegas Strip casino. I think, decided the supervisor at the end of our conversation, that he would be better than Ruskin.

I mentioned Proust's asthma and the supervisor said, yes, we have officers with severe asthma, and they're able to take time off when they need to because they're covered by the FMLA, the Family Medical Leave Act. All they have to do is let us know that they have an ongoing medical condition. So we wouldn't penalise him for that. And anyway, I said: medication has improved since the 1920s and so let's guess that he could do something more decisive today than lie in bed limp as a footless sock, with the windows shut, burning pastilles; possibly he could lead an active life, so take the asthma out of the equation, but we'll say he can't work at the Bellagio, because they have that conservatory, and flowers made him choke.

Then, I said, there was that one time he had a job (he took it to satisfy his father, who was worried about his dilettante son) and never turned up for work but just took sick leave for several years -- That sounds exactly like FMLA says the supervisor -- For years? I said -- Psh he says, you have no idea --

Strip casino security work is customer-oriented, and this is where Proust would shine. He was friendly. That would be his strength. He wasn't repelled by people, as Ruskin often was, and he could find value in small talk, as Ruskin couldn't, and he was attentive and complimentary. He cultivated friendships with society people and sometimes his acquaintances called him a snob and a climber but he was not the kind of person Charles Lamb criticises in Modern Gallantry, the one who is only polite to people who will benefit him and then rude to servants and anyone poor or ugly.* Proust was friendly to waiters and butlers, he gave away a couch to a brothel-keeper, and you can see in his book that he thought seriously about the lives of cooks. (All of this is asserted by his biographers, and Walter Benjamin makes it a part of his essay, The Image of Proust. He quotes the memoirs of Proust's friend the princesse de Clermont-Tonnerre: "And finally we cannot suppress the fact that Proust became enraptured with the study of domestic servants [...] domestic servants in their various embodiments and types were his passion.") The social strata of Lost Time dissolve into one another, tailor's daughter marries aristocrat, and the author doesn't sound censorious, he isn't frightened by this liquid mingling (in translation he isn't anyway); it's part of a natural movement.

Here his mind is nothing like the mind of Ruskin, who thought that nature was the opposite of this -- everyone in their place, the world solid not liquid, that was Ruskin's idea of a natural society. Proust's Narrator misses the past, but he decides that movement is inevitable -- the dissolving experience doesn't panic him -- he is fascinated by the telephone, dissolver of distances --

Proust's cook-character Françoise speaks with the kind of subliterate speech quirk that Dickens would have been happy to borrow, but the literate author never despises her for that quirk any more than Dickens despises Mr Dick for his constant reversion to the subject of King Charles' Head or despises his Cockneys for saying w when somebody else would say v, or the other way around. "It's sealed vith a vafer ..." explains Mr Weller in Pickwick. "The wery thing." And Dickens is pleased and loves him.

And Françoise's quirk interests Proust, and if a couple from Iowa came to his casino with speech quirks of their own then they would interest him too, and he would be genial and curious, as security officers are supposed to be; he would say Hello folks, good to have you with us, where are you visiting from? and then Iowa? I have a cousin in Sioux City! How's the snow over there? but only if he actually had a cousin in Sioux City, and if not then he would just express a fascination with Iowa in general, etc, or with the professions of the Iowans, one of which might be turbine engines, and then, Really? he'd say, one of the people who used to live in our apartment worked in turbine engines. Last week the American Society of Mechanical Engineers sent us an invitation to Turbo Expo 2012 in Copenhagen.

The Narrator in Lost Time tries to correct Francoise's vocabulary at least once but this assumed superiority is shallow, it's done unthinkingly, easily, it isn't fruitful, it doesn't lead him into the deep trains of thought that he finds when he starts to consider her seriously, holistically, connecting her back into myth and history or running off into ideas about the human mind. The humane thing to do (which is not to sneer at people who don't know cultured French) becomes the intellectual thing as well; Francoise's quirks are valuable and he has convinced himself of their value, the Narrator has reached a virtuous frame of mind not through moral precepts but through his own intelligence.

What else? Ruskin was disgusted by gambling but it's not likely that Proust would have that Ruskin-disgust. He lived in a different atmosphere. His temperament wasn't built to be disgusted by gambling. He had too much respect for Baudelaire. He was a gambler himself, on the stock market, tempted into buying certain shares by the foreign charm of their names: S. A. Chemin de Fer de Rosario à Puerto Belgrano, Banco Espanol del Rio de la Plata, United Railways of Havana. So say that he wouldn't have been opposed to casinos.

The short time he spent in the military might be a point in his favour. A number of Las Vegas security officers are ex-military. He could tell the interviewer that he had enjoyed the uniform and the camaraderie. His biographers would back him up. As a security officer he could have some of that camaraderie back again, everybody meeting, uniformed, for the day's preliminary briefing, a gathering of collaborators in the secret area of the casino known as Back of House, all of them coming together in that behind-the-scenes room with the metal lockers and the laminated floor, under the plumbing that runs across the ceiling like endless pan pipes, with several tubes lined up together all going in the same mysterious direction, everything nude and industrial and undecorated, greyish-white, and easy to clean -- and then, after briefing, he would step through the door marked Staff Only and onto the casino floor where everything is carpeted, coloured, full of noise, distracting, and the constraining arrow of the backstage corridor becomes a tundra.

By now he is an employee, he knows the secrets of the building, he can navigate the confusing plain of the Floor (and the ordinary word floor in the casinos is pronounced with the same stress of capitalisation that culture takes on when you are talking about Aboriginal Australians; in this context it has a history that sprang off some time back from the common meaning of floor and wound away on its own), and the difference between this environment and Back of House sparks him, inspires him -- why not? -- his Narrator keeps returning to the subject of theatrical artifice and where is there a bigger theatre then the casinos? Every interior is a stage -- Caesars Palace with its massive Ancient Roman set dressing, and the New York New York, which boxes you into imaginary city streets between scale-model tenement buildings, and those uncanny blackish metal trees in the Aria's Crystal shopping arcade, the sinister trees that drip blue light as you walk under them; also the Venetian, where Venice has been streamlined down to a set dresser's symbols, one Lion of St Mark on his pillar, one Bridge of Sighs, one primal song for the gondoliers, "O Solo Mio." (They sing others, but "O Solo Mio" is the default.)

And the Chandelier in the Cosmopolitan which I will never stop admiring because the person who designed it went against the prevailing Las Vegas ethos that says, Build Upwards, and instead created a spectacle that plunges down.** It takes independence to go against the simple orthodoxies.

And he would enjoy the tourists who, walking into this theatrical space, begin shouting out lines as if they've been prompted, usually, "I'm here!" and "Aow!" or "Woo!" and the place name. The script is there, they walk in, they pick it up, over and over again, the same words. I never saw a gaijin in Tokyo screaming Hey, Tokyo! or I'm here! although they probably felt as excited as the people in Las Vegas, and just as thrilled to be here, here, in, my god, look, look, in Tokyo! in Harujuku itself! in legendary Shinjuku! where you go down one of the sets of stairs from the station, turning left into an alleyway, and the pachinko parlours make the evenings more vivid than the middle of the day, a variation on the same suspended timelessness that you find when you walk into the shopping arcade at Caesars with its painted sky always calm and lit, even at midnight and even when the air above the casino is screaming with thunderstorms, a pretty pale blue thoughtful sky with little clouds, the kind of well-fed innocent oil-paint puffs that should attract the fatty putti but never do; the putti are kept out as serenely as the storms. That sky is weirdly silent.

I'm here! says the tourist on the Strip and they try to concentrate and gather themselves in one spot, this is their focus, they are a focus for themselves, they want themselves to be absolutely present, and it's impossible perhaps not to inhabit multiple places at once, in memory, in thought, in body, but they wish it, they're made aware of that wish, they call out, they summon themselves, oh, myself, where are you?

Little soul little stray
little drifter
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone

(from Hadrian: Little Soul, translated by W.S. Merwin)

and the answer for once is a decisive shout, Here! Las Vegas!, although I think it sounds less spontaneous than they want. It's an I-wish rather than an I-am.

Proust would have something to work with. And the past is a constant theme in this town, because the city is young, and it has changed so quickly, and parts of it keep being thrown out, imploded, and replaced. "In Vegas, when things get old, we tear them down," begins an article in the Las Vegas Weekly. "When a show on the Strip runs its course, it closes. Businesses, restaurants, even people come and go, sometimes with little-to-no fanfare. Here, history is fleeting, and what's seen as dated is often demolished instead of saved." Save your ephemera, the writer says, "your theater programs, your menus, scrapbooks, business files and notes -- save this magazine -- because you never know what kind of clues they might one day hold to the past." So little history and yet we demolish it, the journalists reiterate, over and over again in different articles: let's talk to the woman who runs the Neon Graveyard, let's walk through the oldest cemetery in the city, let's go to an exhibition of historical photographs at the Boulevard Mall on Maryland Parkway -- it was built in the 1950s and it's the state's most senior large-scale shopping experience.

If you walk around Liberace's house, which is a suburban ruin, you can see how the large back garden has been segregated into plots of land for smaller houses, and those houses have kept sections of his garden wall in place for their fences. The signature L built into the ironwork has been adopted by people who might not have any other relationship to L, they might be called Jamie or Claire, but they've inherited the dead man's initial. Proust the security officer would have an opportunity to think about Time; in fact Time would be pushed in his face; the magazines fret about Time. "This town makes its living by violating the core principles of stillness and tranquility," writes another journalist, gathering up his resources for a push into the subject of Buddhism. Anything here is connected to transience.

His theme is the theme of this city and that theme is forgetting.

* Lamb is thinking of men being rude to women specifically, but if you replaced "gallantry" with nongendered "civility" the indignation would still make sense. Think of "I shall see the same attentions paid to age as to youth" as "I shall see the same attentions paid to the bus driver as to the politician."

** The light from the Luxor shines upwards, the huge statues at Caesars stand upwards, the Eiffel Tower at the Paris goes upwards, the waterfall at the Wynn comes off a cliff that towers above a lake, the dancing fountains roar upwards, the billboards shoot as high as they can etc, etc.

I'm basing my back-of-house description on only two casinos. The rest might be different. Even those two are different. The flooring in one of them is the colour of the grey skin around a hard boiled egg yolk, and in the other one it isn't.

The Benjamin essay was translated by Harry Zohn.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

webs of thought, almost impalpable, coming from every direction

This is the second part of the post I made a few days ago. It was getting so long that I cut it in half. The "stories" I'm talking about in the first paragraph are the Axe Cop webcomic by Ethan and Malachai Nicolle, and the Norse sagas in Gautrek's Saga and Other Medieval Tales, which were translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. The Djoleto book turned up three posts ago, so that's why I'm mentioning it without preamble. "Freezing" in the last paragraph is not an exaggeration.

The logic of these stories is not the logic of nature but the logic of need. Axe Cop, who has been locked in a gaol cell, needs to know how to overcome the villain, and so the words A Golden Bladed Chainsaw Can Beat Me, taped to the shoulderblades of the vampire baby standing in front of him, is sensible, sane, efficient, and the reader has the pleasure of seeing a problem solved and the coherence of the fictional world upheld.

These worlds are coherent in the way that a person is coherent. The hero needs a villain and a villain arrives; the tongue is dry and the hand picks up a cup. These person-worlds are sensitive, they have nerves, vessels, blood, running everywhere from the fictional clouds through the fictional air to the fictional grass -- they are responsive, they are in sympathy with their fictional people, they're like those old cartoons -- first the character walking along a road starts to dance, and then the trees dance, and the flowers dance, the sun wiggles its illuminated tentacles in time to the beat, everything is dancing; the person is also the sun, the person is the cloud, the person is the flower.

And "of course," I thought in the shower, "it's true, everything in a piece of writing comes from the author and nowhere else, no character history and no setting can account for it, and psychological realism is only the author's clever fake moustache," and then I remembered my favourite example of this author-giving-improbable-presents phenomenon (I know I've mentioned it before), which is Irma Prunesquallor's hot water bottle (where did they get the rubber? from the author), and then, in the same book, you've got Steerpike's monkey, which he obtains with ease, in spite of the fact that wild monkeys don't exist anywhere in Mervyn Peake's world and there isn't any pet vendor, monkey salesperson, animal trapper, or anyone else who could have found it for him. Charles Dickens could change the nature of a cup.

"What an unfathomable mystery there is in it all!" he said one day. Taking up a wineglass, he continued: "Suppose I choose to call this a character, fancy it a man, endue it with certain qualities; and soon the fine filmy webs of thought, almost impalpable, coming from every direction, we know not whence, spin and weave about it, until it assumes form and beauty, and becomes instinct with life."

So he said to James T. Fields. "Amu Djoleto's Money Galore," I reasoned, "with that strange two-tone jerkiness -- I can imagine it hovering between the two modes of writing, the realist and the post-Viking, those descriptive passages about headmasters' offices being the realistic parts, and then the suddenness with which things happen being saga-like, and there's the author's evident wish that he could make an event occur now and not have to sit around preparing for it, which is not his forte; and, if I'm remembering this rightly, his crooked politician has the magical number of girlfriends -- three -- as fairytales have three good fairies or three questing siblings or as Bosi and Herraud provides three women for Bosi, or as the tall strangers encountered by Thorstein Mansion-Might arrive in a trio. They ride up and surprise him. And if he hadn't met them then he wouldn't have needed to come unseen into Gerroid's kingdom, and the dwarf's magic invisibility ring might never have been useful, so, see, without them he would have been left trekking on and on, waiting for intervention, as people do in the real world, where the sun and the trees are not sensitive to us, as proven by the weather here in Las Vegas right now, which is freezing cold against my wishes, and in an icy wind last week there was that woman I met outside the Post Office, the one who asked me for cigarettes which I did not have, and then money but I only had enough for the stamp I was about to buy for a letter to my granny, and we talked about that wind, which had been blowing all day, sucking crowds of autumn leaves across the roadway in front of the cars like mobs of yellow jaywalking handkerchieves, but all the time I was talking to her she kept putting her tongue in and out, and this was a tic not an insult, since she went on talking casually through it all, telling me that she had lived in Las Vegas for a year and a half and never before had she witnessed such a wind, and, she added, you can't wear sandals in Las Vegas, because the sand will come in from the desert and coat your feet, all the time in and out went her tongue, curling down to her chin and back inside again, and what author gave her this strange trait, this power," I wondered, "what saga is she in, what guidance would she have given me?"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

the type continued to be written for many years after

This post was so long that I've split it in half. I'll put the second part up in a few days.

I was going to follow up a prompt from Whispering Gums and write about Proust's chances as a Las Vegas security officer, but then when I was standing wet in the shower on Wednesday watching ants go up the wall from the gap around the tap I began thinking about the Norse sagas I'd been reading and how much they reminded me of the webcomic known as Axe Cop.

These weren't the more famous sagas, not the more serious or historical or developed ones, no Story of Burnt Njal or Egil's Saga, nothing from the saga-groups known as Icelanders or Kings -- the most disseminated sagas come from these groups -- but smaller sagas, pieces of "entertainment," according to Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, the translators of the book I'd been looking at, which was Gautrek's Saga and Other Medieval Tales. "The Legendary Sagas, from which the five stories in this volume come, originated in the 12th century, though the type continued to be written for many years after," say they. "They were intended primarily as entertainment -- one might almost say as escape literature." The character Bosi from Bosi and Herraud, "might remind the reader of one or two popular modern fictional figures" because he performs "amorous feats" and has "a fondness for occasional arbitrary violence."

In fact everyone in these sagas has "a fondness for occasional arbitrary violence," and so do the characters in Axe Cop, which is a mad, cartoonish, imaginative comic, all wild battles and people getting smashed, but it wasn't the violence on its own that got me thinking, it was the way the violence was introduced, the way the characters were described and named, and a kind of uncanny purity in both of them, the particular way the stories move, their mutual rhythm, the way they deal with the different parts of themselves.

Characters in Axe Cop are named after their traits, with Axe Cop being a cop who carries an axe, and Uni-Baby a baby with a unicorn horn growing out of her forehead, and Flute Cop a cop who played the flute until dinosaur blood turned him into a human-dinosaur hybrid, whereupon his name changed to Dinosaur Soldier, not only in the minds of his fellow characters but also in the minds of his two creators, who didn't try to hide or normalise this transformation but gloried in it, writing, "And so they became ... AXE COP & DINOSAUR SOLDIER!" Several of the saga characters acquire nicknames from their traits too, Ragnar Hairy-Breeks, Asmund Berseker-Killer, or Stunt-Brunhilda (who is stunted), and one of them goes through a renaming process, like Flute Cop, when his trait changes.

That character is a Norwegian, Thorstein Mansion-Might, "so big that in the whole country there was hardly a door he could walk through without some difficulty," and he is travelling away from home on an adventure when a group of uniquely massive strangers rides up on horses and befriends him. From a tall person in a society of smaller people he becomes a tall person among even taller ones. "In my opinion," says the largest of these strangers, surveying Thorstein's height, which is instantly nonimpressive, "you ought to be called Mansion-Midget, not Mansion-Might." The Norwegian agrees. With that, the story abandons his original name and refers to him from then on as Thorstein Mansion-Midget.

It's this fluidity that characterises both Axe Cop and the sagas -- fluidity coupled with the principle of surprise -- the idea that names and things aren't fixed, that they can change or appear or vanish at will, that Thorstein can be a skilled bowman for one paragraph when he needs to shoot an eagle, even though we've never heard anything about him having a talent for archery before and never will again, that the dwarf whose child he has saved from the eagle happened to have a magic ring which he gives gratefully to the rescuer, who, a few chapters on, discovers that this is exactly the kind of magic he needs if he is going to sneak into the kingdom of King Geirrod the giant. Strange events occur in both saga and comic, not to advance the plot but because the author thinks they're interesting or funny: a giant-woman wears a skirt short enough to display her genitals; a kidnapping is carried out not by a normal kidnapper but by a mythical animal called the hjalsi; Axe Cop can't drive a magic riding spider because a sticker on the dashboard tells him that driving is restricted to "Cowboys and Warriors," and he is not a cowboy and not a warrior and so he has to let a vampire werewolf drive instead, because this vampire werewolf is also a ninja warrior from the moon.

(And it's the word that is magical here. Axe Cop behaves like any warrior hero, always looking for people to fight, but the narrator never describes him as a warrior -- he is a cop. Axe Cop knows this and he abides by it. He doesn't try to drive. And now you could argue that the practice of Law, which relies so much on definitions and words, is an extension of the logic of a six-year-old, because the boy who comes up with Axe Cop's stories and rules is six. His thirtysomething brother turns the ideas into scripts and draws the artwork.)

The reader rarely needs to wait, gifts appear instantly in the characters' hands, inspiration is a fact of life, everything uncanny is real. The people in Axe Cop obtain powers with wishes -- "I wish to be super strong!!" shouts Uni-Baby's father, "And," explains the narrator, "it happened" -- or they know where to go or what to do to find the weapon they need, or it just appears. A king sends Bosi to fetch a specific vulture egg decorated with gold lettering, and in less than a page he's met a woman who can tell him where the vulture lives and how it can be beaten. Gangrene in Thorstein Mansion-Might's saga happens immediately.

They rode as far as the river. On the bank there was a hut and from it they took a set of clothes for themselves and their horses. These clothes were made so that the water couldn't touch them, but the river was so cold that it would cause instant gangrene to any part of the body that came into contact with the water. They forded the river, with the horses struggling hard, but Godmund's horse stumbled, so Thorstein got his toe wet, and gangrene set in at once. When they got out of the river they spread their clothes on the ground to dry. Thorstein cut off his toe, and they were immensely impressed by his toughness. So they rode on their way.

If you turned Axe Cop into prose without the pictures it would look pretty much like that, complete with that touch at the end, And then they went on to the next adventure. There's a terrific transparent naturalness in the way the characters receive their gifts, just taking them as they come, like that set of waterproof clothes "made so that the water couldn't touch them," or, in Axe Cop, "a database of every bad guy, which included all their locations and powers," using them blithely and not feeling surprised by the sheer handiness of it all -- and events around them will barely disguise the fact that these treasures come from one place only, which is the author.

That's why the gifts can arrive immediately, and that's why they're always precisely and foresightfully the right thing, that's why a big man is not just a big man but a man so big he can barely get through doorways, or when the Norse heroes find gold it's not just a little bit of gold or even a usefully comfortable amount of gold but "They found so much gold there they had more than enough to carry." An author can create a tonne of gold as easily as a tiny handful, so why not the tonne?

An audience that expected realism would make the saga-tellers pause and reduce their gold, concerns about the strict believability of the events in the story might freeze them up, but they pre-date Flaubert by centuries upon centuries; they don't have to ignore the genre of literary realism (with its subtle psychological build-up, its immunity to magic dwarves) because that aesthetic does not exist, it is a unicorn or an atom bomb or a rocket ship, and the author of Axe Cop can ignore Flaubert too, because he is six years old, and, so, as far as storytelling goes, he is free to operate at the level of a twelfth-century Scandinavian. His lifespan is his history and he is still in the twelfth century, living through the High Middle Ages of his existence, later he will graduate to the fifteenth century, the eighteenth century, and the twenty-first, his expectations changing all the time, and how long will he be able to keep it up, I wonder, this kind of storytelling -- and so perhaps it is true what they say about older writers, they lose their edge. Philip Roth worries about ageing too, allegedly.