Sunday, December 30, 2012

corresponding to the English "game"

What a death-like existence she must have had, Katherine Anne Porter, whose life was incomparable according to the blurb on her biography by Darlene Unrue, what a ghoulish mortality, how strictly repellent: the black hole of her presence making people uneasy as they witness eerily a pit or vortex in the air where this woman should be; she is the answer to the sum of her actions and the actions that would have made up each component of the incomparable life are incomparable too, an intense or lax nexus of null multiplication and plus, and so she looks as if she is doing nothing; she is doing nothing, she is not doing anything that can be described; she is performing actions but no one can describe them, they are inhuman troubling actions; she seems to be a god and yet she does nothing miraculous.

She moves her right leg forward. Everybody feels sick. Finally one of the people near her decides to describe her in any way, even the wrong way, because they think that would be better than not describing her at all.

They pick up the closest book, which is a translation by Robert Firmage of poems by Georg Trakl (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) and they point to Katherine Anne Porter while they read this line: "Something sick weeps silver." Everything is easier now: there is a starting point. Porter moves and the person reads again, "A pure blue flows from husks of moldered dullness." Soon everything she does can be described with a line from a Georg Trakl poem. People stop throwing up around her and finally she can write a sentence people will understand although all of it is Expressionist. Nevertheless it is recognisable words in an order that can be deciphered and that is a blessing.

But everything she does now is an extreme thing, that is how it is understood, that is how she understands it, because Trakl wrote extremes and juxtapositions, saying, "sweet corpse," or, "the dark cries of the blackbird | In childlike gardens," savagery corresponding with children and angels: his poetry is that correspondence, which becomes known by its other name in such circumstances, and that is juxtaposition. Her behaviour exists at extremes, the moon dies when she walks out at night, and nondomestic animals that come near her become Wild, a German word that Firmage usually translates as "prey," though he is cautious and writes an explanation in the introduction to the book: "Wild, however, is primarily a hunting term ... corresponding to the English "game," and thus bears the connotation of victimization of innocence, of something born to be destroyed ... the best English equivalent possessing both the connotation and the objective reference of Wild ... is prey, which is neither as common nor as specific as the German term."

Katherine Anne Porter's behaviour can be described but it cannot be reconciled with the moderate behaviour of other people: she is either extremely peaceful and silvery because Trakl has used the word silvery or else she is cruel and holding a corpse, though some aspects of her being remain static: her eyes are always blue because Trakl likes to write blue eyes. Ideas that seemed apart from one another are brought into conjunction by her presence; her nouns are reasons for colours to be closely settled, "A blue moth crept out of its silver cocoon," "The river glimmers greenly, ancient alleys silver." A colour is a complete thing, an utter thing: here are two utter things, here is energy between them, like a relationship between two nations. Her closest friends insist that there must be something in the middle, unobserved; these extremes are like parentheses, they say, constraining or bordering the inexpressible. "Which makes her no different from anybody else," they tell her detractors.

The detractors respond knowledgeably: "You have been reading Heidegger on Trakl."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

capturing the incomparable life

Bob Rochester, diswived by the freedoms that have made this country great, decides that he is going to resurrect his personal morale with the help of a good deed: he will save the Devil's Hole pupfish. He puts it in a bucket and the pupfish is saved. "What else can I do for Nevada?" he wonders. He attends a Preserve Nevada symposium where a man insists that Las Vegas does have a history though nobody thinks so. "And you don't have to dig deep either to find it. It's sitting in the old part of town, in all the old casinos there. The bones are there. You just have to look under the shell to see what you can find," he says, and his speech is noted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Las Vegas loves its old historical bones so much that it puts them behind walls where nobody can damage them. Lucretius tells us that sight is possible because all visible objects spew little balls, which we take in with the assistance of the wonderful dark pupils that have punched two holes into our faces with unnoticed efficient modesty. The concealed sections of Las Vegas have been saved from the wastage of atomic spewing. They can keep all their molecules. No one looks at them. Preservation! But the catwalks in the Imperial Palace ceiling are still visible from the blackjack tables. Security used to dawdle there and stare at the customers through darkened glass. The owners have decided to destroy the ceiling and rename the casino. History is everywhere! One of the metal accoutrements outside Planet Hollywood has rust.

Rochester decides to make up numbers at a cultural evening. He takes a forty-minute walk from Planet Hollywood down Harmon to UNLV where a biographer is giving a talk in a room attached to the museum. I know that he was there because I attended the same lecture. On the screen above the biographer someone has projected a picture of her book with this line printed above the blurb: "A biography capturing the incomparable life and times of one of America's finest writers."

He is chilled by the thought of this incomparable life, which would not be able to be described or measured, because, without comparisons, you would lose your place in the world: you would not be able to say, "My life is tempestuous," because you would not be able to compare it to a tempest, and you would not even be able to say that your life was good or evil, deprived of the ability to compare it to other lives. It can't be an impressive life, or a boring life, or any kind of life; if it is incomparable then you can't even describe it to yourself, and you never know how well or badly you're doing and can't guess, because every time your brain tries to make a comparison your estimations are blanks. Even the Elder Gods can be descr -- I want to stop mentioning H.P. Lovecraft, this is ridiculous, back to William Hope Hodgson: even the demon in Hodgson's short story The Hog can be compared to something, namely a hog, and a giant pig coming through the floor, and Carnacki, although he has found this comparison, is still desperate and keeps asking his friends if they see, if they understand? And Bob Rochester tries to imagine Katherine Anne Porter, who was the subject of this biography, desperately asking her friends what they thought of her, but she would not have any friends because they would not know what to think, and she would have to go through life like a black holes asking like Carnacki, "Do you see, do you understand?" but she would not be able to help or prompt them with even such a sketchy definition as, "My life is like a giant demon pig."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

a massless particle passes through the void

It's Christmas Eve. Thank you to all the year's visitors and commenters and may the owner of that Russian spambot give the poor overworked thing the night off.

A 2012 memorial mash-up.

We all begin well, for in our youth a massless particle passes through the void preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word we. "The principle of subjective inwardness is a wily creature and resembles a bedrock poverty, like falling against many armies or a great horseman in a potatoe," quoth the housekeeper. For of a very troth, there are thousands of little heaps of crumbs that were once granite boulders. Salt was born of a yearning for unilateral Mildred, whom everyone tried to amuse, whom everyone tried to please; that pretty creature in the drawer of a sublet room. I have known that cave since I was eleven, yet furtive birds (wrens and rails, for example) have only one secret, valid within its own framework, like a painted death. This delightful residence was situated on a small manuscript for the benefit of senators, and there is always a danger that the British Minister may run at once through the convent, beating on a lawyer who suggested both a cat and a geranium. This is very disquieting; if there was one thing we thought we could depend on it was a perverse mood of the mind which is rather soothed than irritated by misconstruction; and in quarters where literature is the attempt to interpret, in an ingenious way, the myths we no longer understand, at the moment we no longer understand them, I languish thus, drooping and dull, as if I were in a dusky and tempestuous night having a read of what her mother would have called a Book.

The authors.

Gertrude Stein: The Making of Americans / Rae Armentrout: Chirality / Simone Weil: The Need for Roots, translated by Arthur Wills / Hegel: The Philosophy of History, translated by J. Sibree / Aelian: On the Characteristics of Animals, translated by A. F. Scholfield / Jorie Graham: The Geese / Marguerite Young: Miss MacIntosh, My Darling / Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer / George Gascoigne: Dedicatory Epistle to 'The Posies' / John McPhee: Basin and Range / John Berger: Seker Ahmet and the Forest / Thomas Pynchon: V. / Baudelaire: The Old Woman's Despair, a prose poem translated by Michael Hamburger / Adrienne Rich: Leaflets / Gottfried von Strassburg: Tristan and Isolde, translated by A.T. Hatto and revised by Francis G. Gentry / Lyn Hejinian: The Book of a Thousand Eyes / André Breton: Arcanum 17, translated by Zack Rogow / Gilgamesh, translated by N.K. Sandars / Ann Radcliffe: The Italian / Graham Robb: Balzac / Henry Adams: Democracy / The Letters of Abelard and Heloise translated by Betty Radice / Miguel Angel Asturias: El Señor Presidente translated by Frances Partridge / Walter Murdoch: On Sitting Still / Charlotte Brontë: Vilette / Gilles Deleuze: Desert Islands translated by Mike Taormina / George Herbert: Dullness / William Drummond of Hawthorne: Sonnet / Patrick White: Riders in the Chariot

Sunday, December 23, 2012

pathless with untrodden snow

Summer was almost all sunshine, now winter is sunshine again but colder and I swear it was like balm to have Jane Eyre sitting around staring out the window at the drizzle in Charlotte Brontë's book, a subterranean sensation arising in me as of real drizzle observed somewhere far away, down a tunnel, associating itself hazily with the English countryside, where I have never been, also with Melbourne, where I have seen most of my drizzle (wattle blotting it), and Oregon where the moss was damp; gradually, motivated by longing, I saw a picture of her countryside as as I have seen it in films, trees black-trunked because they are soaked (why black though?), the grey clouds, "rooks" because there are rooks in these scenes (I have to insert crows, I don't know rooks), long green lawn, damp muted light, perfect for sheep wrote John Dyer in his poem about sheep, The Fleece which is only available online in a scanned version that makes every s an f so that the glassy sea is the glaffy fea, and I love this rain, said Geoffrey Hill once to an interviewer as they sat in a room somewhere in Britain, but a poet being interviewed in Las Vegas would rarely and by mad fluke have the chance to say that they loved rain (looking out the window at it as G.H. was in the interview, the interviewer perhaps remembering that The Triumph of Love begins with these words that are attentive to rain: "Sun-blazed, over Romsley, a livid rain scarp" and the poet talking to himself throughout the poem, then realising the particular existence of phenomena more concretely at the the end; to show you this he repeats the line and changes the a to the or that is my interpretation: Sun-blazed, over Romsley, the livid rain scarp.); it would be a significant event and a huge drama, the air beforehand not so much freezing as thick with rain-smell, thicker than I have smelt it in places where rain is normal. So thick the other day that it was if the atmosphere had rotted. (It is not like that when wind blows.)

A character in a novel set here would not spend the first portion of the book looking out the seeing rain, rain, coldness, rain, over weeks and months and years, as Jane Eyre does while she is a child having a bad time, the weather improving when her times get better, a disaster presaged with a lightning bolt, and her despair described with ruined weather.

A Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud: lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, to-day were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and flagrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway. My hopes were all dead -- struck with a subtle doom.

There would have to be some other way for a Las Vegas novelist to show you misery in the weather over months and years; they would have to use the opposite of rain, so I'll say heat, and then we have to make it terrible not warm so flat heat, years of hardbaked sky, and then, when the character is happier, modulated cool weather, a mist scene on Mount Charleston with fog coming up the long ravine as the character makes her way down the hiking trail by Cathedral Rock. Clouds, mist, a change, relief: we are meant to reflect on the character's changing circumstances, now not relentlessly bad but improving.

She has been employed on a horse ranch where she falls in love with the owner, Bob Rochester, who manages a small chain of suburban hotel-casinos. He is devoted to her. He is ferocious. Shania Twain had her chance with Bob but she gave him the cold shoulder when she heard that he did not in fact own a controlling share in Caesars Entertainment.

Brontë's Eyre in England sees spring, birds, blossoms, and her life is opening, her love is awakened, but the weather in this Vegas novel has a different character, not so gentle, green, and blossoming, the light is rarely muted, normally bright, and this difference changes the course of the story; events and thoughts become appropriate to a desert, the heroine's thoughts are not like the thoughts of Jane Eyre even in translation, she has developed in a way that is the opposite of the way that Jane Eyre has developed, the dryness and the heat have reversed her, the curled plastic spines of the barrel cactus rather than the short thorn of the roses like the fingers of tiny starfish; she is directed by these changes until she decides she will murder Mr Rochester and stab his mad wife who has been sequestered with a pony in one of the stables on the ranch.

The mad wife Bertha catches her, chops her up instead in self-defence, rescues Mr Rochester from the pit of Jane's death trap which I am associating now with Eli Roth's Goretorium (corner of Harmon and the Strip, second floor, find Walgreens and look up), is cured of her madness by explosive bravery, sees the light, becomes sane immediately, becomes the hero, refuses to stay married now to Mr Rochester, obtains a quick divorce downtown, and is recruited by one of the ten dozen bail bondsmen who live there in the area around the Stratosphere where everybody wants to sell you meth. Your mother may have been a Creole loon, says the bail bondsman, but I have a non-discrimination policy.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

the skin on the table

But what I was going to point out, when I started that second-to-last post, is that White appears to be an idealist and Zoshchenko seems not to be an idealist; the people in his satires are squabbling over small things but what else do they have to think about? Nothing, nothing, nothing, I don't think he ever even suggests that there might be something there for them to miss out on; he looks at the spot where White sees something elevated and he sees the word "Love" written in letters, he asks the real world to show him proof that this idealistic situation exists and the world gives him a man biting a woman in the nose. Chaos, he writes in his autobiography. A baby is surrounded by chaos. How does the baby navigate? I was happy until I was in my teens, then I was in anguish, and I have been miserable ever since, says Zoshchenko. He is a depressive clown. Where is the source of his misery? He believes in sources. He must have seen something. He will follow back, using reason and logic; he will try to remember his earliest memories. So he does and early memories are not the solution. Dreams are the solution. Perhaps dreams. Water dreams. He has a sort of Freudian-Pavlovian-scientific theory mixed up with the ideas of other mental practitioners who are not Freud or Pavlov. Now he is not being funny any more because he is trying to work out what these ideas are so that he can take them seriously. He explains them carefully in order.

(This is the most boring part of the autobiography. The earlier parts are more interesting because he will tell you his memories in the form of short stories, like this:

I am sitting in a high chair. I am drinking warm milk. I get some skin from the milk in my mouth. I spit. I roar. I smear the skin on the table.

Behind the door someone cries out in a terrible voice.

Mama comes. She is crying. Kissing me, she says, "Uncle Sasha is dying."

After smearing the skin on the table, I begin drinking my milk again.

And there is a terrible cry from behind the door.

(all still being translated by Hugh McLean)

In every other part of his work he makes fun of the future, he makes fun of the present, he makes fun of the government's improvements and the overpowered lightbulbs they've given to their people. He is kinder to his petty-bourgeoisie than Patrick White is to his, but he is kind by default and out of misery; they are not capable of aspiring to the world of sensitivity and art and sacrifice, not because they are thick, but because that area of the world isn't there.

Patrick White observes that a higher life is possible, he creates Miss Hare in chapter one of Riders so that she can be this finer thing, then he can be cruel and kick his villains because they are insensitive, and they are letting down the human race with their sodden spitey dumbness, but Zoshchenko, seeing no possibilities, has no villains, and his people flail of course, they flail like Miss Hare's father in White's Riders (a man who senses the ideal-world and tries to enter it by building a mansion -- the wrong way to go -- becomes surly, uncharitable, unhappy), but he can't condemn them, and this is not even (going back to that word) kindness, it's because he can't, not in the environment he has made for them to inhabit. What stops him? His own construction. He tries to explain dream-water-theories with a straight face: he is boring, the reader shuts the pages, the prose environment has turned on its progenitor. It says, "I am being misused." It suspects that it comes from his misery and his confusion. If he cures himself will he still be able to write? The prose isn't taking any chances. Prudently it strangles him.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

an unsolved mystery to the author

Blame science! they both say, waving their hands, Walser and Zoshchenko, a Swiss and a Russian with different lengths of arm, palm, and finger, separate here though united in other ways: science has been telling us it will explore every aspect of life, it sorts out the animals and fossils, it dates rocks, it considers the atoms, the nineteenth century has been industrially revoluting all over and giving us bombs, bicycles, telegraph, and cars (Zoshchenko was born in 1895, Walser in 1878) , now Einstein and his friends are sorting out the powers of the universe with their theorems: why not us too, listen, we will do the same with literature, we will cover everything, we will describe it all -- (they don't know but they are gesturing in the direction of The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein who was b. 1874) -- we are only trying to participate in the world, we are doing what the age seems to be demanding, and if it doesn't work then don't blame us. Literature can't cope, poor literature, what use is it in the new world of describing-everything when it is the art of leaving-out?

I am going for a walk, says Walser, and is not heard from again.

And me, I, insists Zoshchenko on the surface of his prose, which is so blatant it is a joke, I am only being kind and useful, I am trying to be perfect for the Party and the people.

In the opening chapter of his novella or long story, the same one I mentioned before, which has a good romantic title, namely What the Nightingale Sang, he has addressed any Party member who might be reading this book and asked them to believe that love is still a relevant topic in spite of the revolution ("I can see that these lines about love will call forth a volley of rebuttals on the part of public leaders" -- but --) -- I am a good comrade, he explains, I am only going to take up your time for a tiny while with this one worthwhile thing, and then he goes on severely criticising himself during the story, and correcting himself in the name of correctness, and insisting that he is working hard ("Phew!What a job it is to write literature!"), doing his duty ("At present, however, the author has to say something about citizen Vassily Vassilyevich Byekin"), confessing to the crowd when he can't fill in a detail that the reader might want to know ("How he managed to eat was an unsolved mystery to the author"), and even doubting the truth of his own statements which of course is pointless because being fictional they are always both true and false ("The author is ignorant of the details of his moving and of the bitter moments experienced by Lizochka. Did she experience them?"), until the romance is saggy under these duties and corrections and finicky adjustments, second-glances, self-questions, which take up so much of his attention that the story is practically over before he realises that he hasn't given you any reason why there should be a nightingale in the title, and all in all, I have to say ladies and gentlemen, it looks like a comedy on the subject of the same self-castigation that the Soviet authorities were enforcing earnestly and with prisons and murder.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

in your opinion, was the nose bitten off for savory satisfaction?

Different people dwell alert or blind in front of the same phenomenon: I read Patrick White, patrician, Australian, disgusted on paper by the material aspirations of the petit bourgeoisie, and then Mikhail Zoshchenko, Russian, expensive childhood undone by the Communist revolution and his own itches (dropped out of university; restless), non-patrician, scraper-by, writer of very short pieces, his satires peopled with that same materialist bourgeoisie group (a different nationality, Russian not Australian, but the desire for plumbing and clothing stays intact): he sees them grasping pathetically for tiny things, sees them squabbling over paltries, the author does not redeem the paltries, the author sees that they are greedy, and yet the author is different. Where are the White-lessons in spirituality? Where are the characters like the suffering intellectual Holocaust survivor in Riders? Where is the sensitive mystic employer and her mosaic goat?

Nowhere, not in the sample of his work translated by Hugh McLean anyway, and published as Nervous People and Other Satires by Indiana University Press, a collection that contains forty-seven of his very short satirical pieces as well as skinnied-down versions of his novellas and the autobiography he never finished, the Party finally catching up with him in the mid-late 1940s during a crackdown, sending his publishing career into the wilderness, allowing him back eventually but too late: the author never got his wheels back on the rails after that disaster and died in 1958.

I am going to write about love he says at the start of one of the novellas (a good love is sacred in White -- Voss -- love-telepathy --), and he looks for an example of love to show you what he means when he writes the word: the first example he can find is grotesque.

The author read recently in Pravda of a young barber's apprentice who, out of jealousy, bit off the nose of a girl citizen. Isn't that love? ... Or, in your opinion, was the nose bitten off for savory satisfaction? You can go to hell! The author has no wish to upset himself and stir up his blood. He still has to finish writing this story. Then he has to take a train for Moscow and make some unpleasant calls on several literary critics to ask them to take their time about writing critical articles and essays about this story. Well then -- Love!

And his story about love is made of these digressions, the writer letting you know how prudent he is -- he is ridiculously practical -- he is nonsensically practical -- he is practical with the kind of scrupulous selectivity that nonsense is, he decides that it is a waste of time to describe the hero because if he does that now, then "the son-of-a-bitch will grow up by the time this story is published." The ordinary housekeeping parts of a novel, character descriptions, motivations, all of this evades him; he goes to do it and the world turns him into a liar -- yah -- he seems to say -- I would describe it for you if it would stand still for once but it never does. If I describe that then I have to describe this. I write the word "love," I think about your reaction to that word, I defend the idea, three pages go by, and now I'm in a worse mess than before, we've got noses bitten off and appeals to the Party and oh god I'm just a harmless nice man trying to get through a basic plot.

The subject of this story: chaos: the idea of romance is a contrast to chaos, the ideal gets put down in the world and, look, it's bent and kicked, you wouldn't even recognise it if he wasn't there using the word "romance" to remind you, the circumstances are grubby, the people are not handsome or interesting, they get distracted, the author is ignorant, and time keeps passing and wrecking everything, chaos wins, there is a stupid argument, the hero spits on his fiancée's mother, chaos is stronger than the power of storytelling, it's stronger than Zoshchenko the author: he lets it in by trying to be good and truthful (describing the hero would be dishonest) and it undermines him. So much for good deeds.

Miles away in Germany Robert Walser was having the same problem; he would decide to describe a couple sitting on a bench and then the objects around them wanted to be described as well, a snail, a snake, he would tear himself away from the snake and some other digression would push its way in, he would end up describing an angel; the story would ask for an interesting touch so he would insert a military man in a hat, then confess immediately that the military man was irrelevant, he was only there to give you, the reader, a handsome surprise, which he, the author, had just ruined by explaining everything.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

she sat in it

Not all of the poets who described their beloveds's hair with the phrase "gold wire" would have thought of a sea urchin, though some readers might have done so, keeping it to themselves as readers helplessly do while they read, muted, gagged, stuffed, digestive process taking place, quiet as they submit to the experiment, the book a theory and themselves the vital element, the magnesium of one swells up in the acid of the other and dissolves inward, the experiment can take place now, and the reader afterwards is the result, result proven though not explained, perhaps never explained, but present, walking around, picking its teeth, eating lunch, and watching the Melbourne Cup, which was won this year by deep brown Green Moon pursuing equations on her four mud-coloured socks, the Cup being a theory worked out by horses.

Afterwards the reader might write their thoughts down and enter the same place as the book, which is the landscape of prose; they are armed with weapons that might not be as strong as the book itself, or might be stronger: intelligence one weapon, held confusedly, ability to write hanging like a meathook in the other hand, hook blunt, meat absent. I have not read the pulp novel that Virginia Woolf reviewed for the Times in 1919, or it might have been the Telegraph, but I'm guessing that her review was possibly a more rememberable piece of writing than the book since she goes against the rules of form and the novelist apparently did not, she has a sense of humour and the novelist did not, she doesn't waste her words and the author sounds as if he wasted all of them: she goes against a reviewer's-law (which might not have been a law back then but was surely understood to some extent: "Don't do this," people must have said) and spends the entire review describing the plot of the book from start to finish with almost no other commentary.

Her opinion is all held in and radiated by, the selection of the words she uses to describe that plot, so serious as she explains the lunatic mystery of the evil heir searching for his treasure that she is laughing, she is disdainful but not disdainful because that sounds too straight -- smiling, she is cruel at the small scale of this novel's emotions and its plotting, the thing is so small that it's funny, the idea of anyone spending their time reading it, the largeness of a human life, the minuteness of this book (I am putting words in her mouth; she never says any of this, she only lets you imagine that she was calling to Leonard across the room, and asking, "Listen to this," before reading him an excerpt, then both of them rolling around): the scale is off, the fact of reading is funny, in a few sentences she has made herself a giant, the book is a fly, then she rips off its wings; she uses the same voice when she kills The Angel in the House, reporting, "if there was a draught she sat in it."

And this notion of scale you can watch in her other prose (it occurs to me I had to put words in her mouth so that I could carry on to the thought I'm having now): the spectacle of London and the ideas inside Mrs Dalloway's head, these things that seem larger or smaller depending on your viewpoint, the air coloured with infusion of lighthouse and then the stick itself.

Your income scaled to one size will let you write, scaled to another size it will trip you over -- she thinks about class differences when she gives a speech to working women, she notes the spaces between her imaginary Shakespeare and his sister, the scale of William, his influence as a man, and the scale of the sister, the morsel of her strength when Woolf compares it with his, and the sister's helplessness when she tries to increase her strength since the forces opposing her are actually a network that has formed between the head-interiors of other people, where she cannot go, or it is not in their heads but in some region of electricity of which their skulls appear, from the outside, to form the boundary. How soft is a mind, how hard is a head? M. says that he saw a man last week using a concrete kerb for a pillow. If M. had been wearing night vision goggles then that head would have been a burning fire on the concrete and the body in the gutter of a driveway, burning too with heat and shooting the warm blood through its chutes at thirty-something degrees Centigrade though without the goggles it looked cold and still, marked with little textures that might interest the observer but the concrete was speckled with textures that were fascinating too, and no difference between them in that respect. If we wore night vision goggles we would be surrounded by walking stars. And all the books would be dead but still rectangular.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

clothes a wantonness

When I read the words "gold wire" (referring to hair) in one of these poems my mind glosses over "gold" and sees predominantly "wire," the stiff, tough line, harder to bend than a hair, rough not supple; the word "gold" does not modify this effect at all. I see "gold" next to "wire" and it is as if I've read the word "metal" and then another word in parentheses, which is something like potscrubber, one of those metal nests that take the crusts off saucepans.

Then the poet is strange since he seems to be loving this woman because of her scrubbly hair, not in spite of it, he is expecting us to love it too, and gathering us in innocently and with such trust, as though we too, myself and everyone else who might one day read this poem or has, one day in the past, read it, loves also this clotty hair. There he is, glowing over that wig as if it's come off an ad for Pantene. I've arrived at this gold-wire poem from the romantic poem before, also by the same poet but not with any mention of wire hair; I thought he was the same as the rest but now I am surprised by the perversity of his fetish: brave man, I think, admitting this in public.

In his next poem I wonder if he will tell me that he likes something else, sniffing feet, or collecting used undies from vending machines, or he was not fetishistic, he was only Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674) and he liked the mess that pushed back against the tyranny of order.

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility;--
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

But disorder can be tyrannous as well if there is too much of it. What does that mean? That this morning I walked into a fresh public toilet and homelessness was washing in the sink. That's primarily what I mean by that sentence, or else it's the aura I felt around that sentence as I was writing it, or the inspiration, or the compulsion, or the fuel. The word "disorder" in Herrick's poem set me off and I thought, "The homeless woman had disorder and it was too much, it was not sweet; she wanted order, disorder is not always wonderful, just a hint of disorder is what we like, the touch as he says (the stomacher is not erring all over, only "here and there"), and the huge disorder, like this woman's disorder, sticky and stuck to her, is not what we like. (The most vital words in the poem are those that make the disorder smaller, and contain it, and describe it.) When is there too much of a thing? When we can't get away from it. Here is an idea," I said to myself, possibly wrong, possibly not totally wrong, so stash the notion away and save it for later, "assume that part of the pleasure you get from the careless shoe-string or other slight disorder comes from the idea that this a secret thing, mostly concealed, and you've spotted it, you've exposed it, it is your triumph, other people can't see this thing, and you might have looked in the wrong place too if you were not so canny and smart, but nobody congratulates themselves when they notice an untidy homeless person, and nobody would think they had found out a secret if they had walked into that public toilet and noticed that this woman had an unusually strong smell; then there is not self-congratulation, there is another set of ideas instead.

'Now imagine the ratios changed in this situation and the woman is rich, clean, and beautiful with almost no scent, just a tiny tiny whiff as you walk past, of sweat, come then gone, and she strides onwards with business to do, she doesn't stand by the sink carefully soaking up water with a paper towel."

Then I had a reaction to that specific and powerful smell, which was the strongest homeless smell I'd ever smelt, and stronger than the smell of the man in green, who is clean and likes mathematics, and stronger than the smell of the man who seems to be homeful not homeless but for whatever reason never washes his clothes or teeth. My disorder-sentence ("tyrannous" etc) is maybe or maybe not a gesture in their direction too: look, it says, this broad comparison of scents, and the scent of this woman placed at the top in the category of Strongest and A Prompt. If you had been with me this morning then I wouldn't have bothered to write about tyranny. I would have written, "Remember that sink this morning and the amazing smell?" But then I might think, "I have to explain why I'm putting this after Herrick's poem, otherwise they won't trust me and will think I'm just writing now whatever comes into my head," which would be true, because it was what came into my head, but, saying so, you would sound as if you thought it was random.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

in thy heart a child he lies

"Hears not my Phillis how the birds
Their feathered mates salute?
They tell their passion in their words:
Must I alone be mute?"
Phillis, without frown or smile,
Sat and knotted all the while.

"The god of love in thy bright eyes
Does like a tyrant reign;
But in thy heart a child he lies,
Without his dart of flame."
Phillis, without frown or smile,
Sat and knotted all the while.

"So many months in silence past,
And yet in raging love,
Might well deserve one word at last
My passion should approve."
Phillis, without frown or smile,
Sat and knotted all the while.

"Must then your faithful swain expire,
And not one look obtain,
Which he, to soothe his fond desire,
Might pleasingly explain?"
Phillis, without frown or smile,
Sat and knotted all the while.

Phillis is one of the rare times when the woman-character in this anthology of seventeenth-century poetry (it is a book called Seventeenth-Century Poetry, edited by John Hayward, Chatto and Windus, 1961) , seems to have a human presence and is not a conglomerate of flowers, birds, and weather; she is a bare spot in a gross of Arcimboldos. She is described less but suggested more; she is the same word but she is a different species of thing, with different attributes and manners, and though it is hard to believe that all the other poets really did love a woman with hair the exact colour of "gold wire," as they say, it is not hard to believe that Sir Charles Sedley one day in his life did try to butter up a woman who preferred to go on knotting, which, according to an online search I've just done, is a word that slashfic groups use when they want to refer to a subset of porn that goes on mainly between part-animal demihumans who are mostly but not exclusively gay.

It must have meant something else while Sedley was alive in the 1600s but the fanfic porn result sits at the top of my page, and under that the same definition, both from different wikis. Then there is a link to Urban Dictionary, which attributes knotting to dogs, and calls it with this Latin name, bulbus canis.

I start to wonder if every word is not like pink slip in the Matthews poem, a gateway to different trains of thought depending on the railway station: your brain the station, or more the platform, and above you a sign that says, "Epping," while other trains in the near distance pull away to Werribee or Deer Park but only one train is possible at a time for you, you're stuck with Epping, the word that characterises your language.

There are potato cakes in the food stall nearby and a seagull wobbling on the train cable where its feet can't grip; beyond that the block of flats behind the Arts Centre, and this is filling up your Epping-understanding of the world, which is not the Werribee-understanding, or the understanding that lands you in Belgrave among the eucalypts, a smell of smoke from the chimneys of the houses down the road and the corpse of a secondhand bookshop where once upon a time I found for seven dollars John Crowley's Little, Big, a book that seems to have borrowed one phrase from the poem Aramantha by Richard Lovelace (1618–1657), who belongs in this book of poetry (though whether he is in it or not I can't say because between Phillis and the end of this paragraph someone has gone to sleep in the room with the bookshelf).

Fairies (writes one character in Crowley on a typewriter, not using the word fairies), are "made not born." Then she crosses out "made not born" and replaces it with the opposite, "born not made."

Those colour'd things were made, not borne.
Which, fixt within their narrow straits,
Do looke like their own counterfeyts.

wrote Lovelace. And in Peake, the Doctor, giving Fuchsia a drug in a cup, tells her to "drink to coloured things" -- I think I am remembering that correctly but bear with me on some of these quotes -- still -- I think that's when the line comes out. He says it at some point. Put those three together and say that he is telling her to drink to unnamed fairies. The evidence I've assembled points to this conclusion; the conclusion is wrong. It mat be possible that every word in the world, in at least one mind in the world, has no resonance, and indicates no association, but points to nothing at all.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

the hipster whose identity is defined by the post-Modern imperative

Five hundred names, says Aelian. (Considering the end of my last post, he decides to speak up.) Well done. That's an easy solution. That's perfect. That's fast. You'll be done in minutes. Mechanical simplicity, says PJ Ray: hipsters love it because it gives them a feeling of autonomy and control, and they hope that they are released from the humiliation of dependence that is contingent upon their existence, which supplies them with iPhones, computerised cars, and other gadgets that are too difficult to fix without a technician. "In short, the fetishization of low-tech is about the illusion of agency; it provides affirmation for the hipster whose identity is defined by the post-Modern imperative to be an individual, to be unique."

George Scialabba, paraphrasing Christopher Lasch's ideas about modern industrialisation in his .pdf chapbook, Divided Mind, pictured this "imperative" as a psychological development, Freudian rather than post-Modern, and a paraphrase like to have a well-composed adult mind would take the place, in his argument of to be an individual, to be unique. He writes:

And in promising an endless supply of technological marvels, it evokes grandiose fantasies of absolute self-sufficiency and unlimited mastery of the environment, even while the quasi-magical force that conjures up those marvels – i.e., science – becomes ever more remote from the comprehension or control of ordinary citizens. This is a recipe for regression to psychic infancy: fantasies of omnipotence alternating with terrified helplessness.

An irony, says Ray, is that the companies selling gadgets will use the ideas of autonomy and psychic freedom to sell the gadgets; these ideas are a marketing tool and how do you escape from the iPhone that is like a ritual in Gormenghast, administered only by the authorities? "We are built," he writes, "to desire what society needs from us and to demand the same from others. Delueze observes with transparent contempt that “young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated;’” they require no institutional coercion," they want, and are tempted, and are not like the kings or the narrator in The Grasshopper, by Richard Lovelace (1618–1657).

Thus richer than untempted kings are we,
   That, asking nothing, nothing need:
Though lords of all what seas embrace, yet he
   That wants himself is poor indeed.

Which is desire not unfulfilled but short-circuited, or routed back to the one object, oneself, though many of the other poems of that time and place (if the anthologies I've been reading are good guides, and the collected Donne, etc) are about longing for a thing not oneself, instead another's self, the beloved, a complicated machine but one that may be modified without technicians, let me try to pry you open with this hammer darling, oh let us come together --

Love me less or love me more,
And play not with my liberty,
Either take all or restore,
Bind me at least or set me free ...

(from Song, by Sidney Godolphin (1610? – 1643) )

-- switch me on or off, he begs, but don't leave me in the middle, a poor dickering bulb, don't leave me with my friends, the other poets, whose "fantasies of omnipotence alternating with terrified helplessness" recur throughout these poems you could say, or am I stretching it? The beloved's gaze or promise will annihilate or restore, it is worth more than diamonds or more than the sky, or it is heaven and the hair is gold, or some similar thing, so let that loved one be contrasted with some object, usually a flower or a star, the paps are snow, the cheeks cherry, nature feels shy when she walks, "The sun would steal a kiss: | The wind upon her lips | Likewise most sweetly blew" (George Wither (1588 - 1667), A Love Sonnet) and she is sometimes resistant to the poet's appeals, this resistance interpreted as cruelty ("I see you wear that pitying smile | Which you have still vouchsaf'd my smart," from the Godolphin again), though in Phillis Knotting by Sir Charles Sedley she is preoccupied, or else she is wishing the speaker would go away, or feels shy for some other reason. Enclosed in her own unpenetrated quiet she is closer to the characters in Peake's book, who are "themselves" as the author often reminds us: themselves with a bottomless reserve of self. "Titus is not a symbol. Titus is himself."

You could take the whole Titus trilogy as a piece of support for the idea that being yourself does not make you happy, seeing that so few people who live in Gormenghast castle are happy, if in fact any of them are, possibly none whatsoever except the Doctor, yet all drenched in Themselves. This notion is so prominent in my mind that when I was listening the other day to an album by the Californian band Los Cenzontles and the singer sang this line, "I want to be free to be me," I thought, No you don't, look what happened to Fuchsia. And could not stop feeling that this was an extremely legitimate criticism of the entire song.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

so much refin'd

The agony of thinking that you would like to be one with everyone and the difficulty when you discover you can't become that: this was a quality of David Foster Wallace said one commentator I read a few weeks or months ago, and this attitude was juvenile in him, the commentator added, if I remember rightly, but I never bookmarked the article and articles about David Foster Wallace proliferate like stars or freckles. If you have moved into a state of separation through the medium of shame like the people in the William Matthews poem then unification is possible and even desirable since you could reach it by eradicating that shame. Shame is in the action of hiding or wanting to hide; without that hiding impulse there is no shame and by describing the motivation he classified the shame; it is the shame of certain people who understand the words "pink slip" in one way and not another way; in that other way they would not understand them without further explanation, and so the work of comprehension can take different paths even when it starts from the same place, in this case, "pink slip," two words, but what small items are misunderstandings made of, as in comedies of manners and Victorian tragedy novels, which are in this sense identical.

... None here thinks a pink slip
("You're fired," with boilerplate apologies)
is underwear.

So the two phenomena are connected and intimately indicate one another, or have done so since 1998 at least, when his posthumous book was published and the poem inside.

Love can eliminate the alienated separations between people, hints John Donne, "we shall | Be one, and one another's all" (Love's Infiniteness),

But we by a love so much refin'd,
   That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one ...

(A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)

So the poems chat, Matthews' explains a problem, shame, separation, and Donne's work proposes a solution, unity, love, romantic love, suggesting that if the men in Matthews' bar could all manage to fall in romantic love with one another then their situation would be cured, they might lose their habit of speaking Demotic, the words "pink slip" would open for them like a blossom: one man might see himself sliding on strawberry gelati, another man might salute his wife's unmentionables.

But that's too simple, argues Matthews. Listen to you, Mr Donne, there's a problem you say, we apply a solution, romantic love, boom, the problem is fixed, no, listen, it wouldn't work, not with the people in my After All poems, whose lives are muted and complicated, something like Raymond Carver people: life or the situation has gone too far, and who knows how to get back -- not me or them. Your way is the Aelian way of dealing with things, and he, the Ancient Roman, would say that there is a natural method that could be used, he would make me this proposal as if we're all a stork in De Natura Animalium having troubles with a bat. Pick this leaf at midnight, he would say: find the right herb at the bottom of a lake, administer it to the source of your problem, and the bat will disappear. Romantic love is not a herb, announces Donne, and there is more to it than that. Not material but spirit. Telepathy too I suppose, says Matthews, like that couple in Voss, having communication over distances because they're in love, no, I still don't swallow it. I haven't read Voss, says Donne, but I know that the narrator in The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson likes to communicate telepathically with his beloved across a landscape full of monsters. Really, says Matthews, but that's the second time in two weeks this blog has connected Hodgson with Patrick White, seeing as Hodgson was an inspiration to Lovecraft and there was that post about Riders in the Chariot and the Lovecraft goat, which I admit I only got halfway through. I think they must be almost identical then, says Donne, this White person and this Hodgson. I look forward to the monsters in Voss.

Writing "herb" I realise that Foster Wallace, being American, might have pronounced that word urb, like Uriah Heep, and I think of the numbers of people on this continent turning Cockney when they meet those four letters.

So that's Charles Dickens who's been brought in, and Aelian, who else, David Foster Wallace, the poet William Matthews, and John Donne. I could save myself the trouble of thinking out another post just by writing, now, "What other names? Who isn't here yet? I'll tackle that in a few days," and then spend my time writing five hundred names: there's my next post: done. Robert Burton sticks his head in. All you need to do is quote something, he says. Something rude in Latin.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

extra bloodshed was useless

So the action in Dorothy Dunnett's world is not the action of her language, the imagined world is described but it is not present in the souls of the words, it is not sympathised with by its materials, the atom-word fights against its role, this fight was clawing at me, and my princess was offended by her pea.

Dunnett must have read over her books before she sent them to the publisher and the feelings that came between myself and her book must have never have struck her, instead she saw the substance of her language being the substance of her plot's action, and the same with the person who told me to read her work; they did not see a split between the language and the action, they were rapt and stayed up past their bedtime with the Lymond Chronicles. The queen gave her an OBE; there was an International Dorothy Dunnett Day in 2011 with another Day planned for this year, and people travel to the places whose names she has used in her books though probably not Timbuktu at the moment due to the fighting and the destruction of monuments.

So I feel like a person who swears they have seen a ghost when everyone else says, "There is no ghost," and I am Ruskin in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, frantic over ribands.

Seeing the differences between myself and her I want to fill this gap out with a piece of reasoning to settle myself down, and I would like to decide that she was using her language unconsciously and not consciously, and that those well-mannered words she put directly into Macbeth's thoughts, one would hope ("He was sensible enough, one would hope, to realise that extra bloodshed was useless") were noises that came to her without shyness or premeditation; it must have seemed normal to her that a person should say that phrase, any person of any class or race, and this middle class formality in the mouth of a royal thug would never have seemed strange, never mind if she had read her draft a hundred times, though even when I remember that it is a modern translation of the imagined speech of an eleventh-century Briton (with the emphasis on translation) it still seems strange to me, this niceness, under the circumstances, which are bloody, and in the mouth of a man brought up among ancient Orkney sheep and hideous rocks.

She is everywhere in the book but she seems asleep, she seems to be using phrases because they are familiar. Patrick White -- going back to Riders in the Chariot -- seems alert in everything, and arch, alive, frustrated; not only does he have an opinion everywhere but he is aware of that opinion, and pushes it hard, often with disgust; every time he writes "brick houses" he is disgusted, and bristles with disgust. He is filled with force-points. The black goat is a force-point, he charges it with Mrs Jolley's foot, with the shock of that attack, the sudden cruelty, which is an emphasis, a Decadent technique, this violence, this sadism, and then maintains the shock with tension in the conversation that comes afterwards, about the goat, the aggression in the sentences, aggression generated between the characters but not released -- the goat is a multiple symbol but tension holds it tight, it does not dissipate. White's style is the fist-style. He likes diffusion but not dissipation. He places his opinion, you are never allowed to forget what he thinks of the brick houses, and his eyes exist throughout the book, his opinion looking out at you and pressing itself home in the arch placement of words; he writes a panopticon, you are always under surveillance, and the books crush in on you. "White ... does more than get under your skin; in his best work, he flays the reader bare," wrote Nicholas Shakespeare in the Telegraph on the nineteenth of October. I'm going to throw this in: he wants to make you hysterical.

Meanwhile the countryside in a book by Freya Stark or Ernestine Hill is filled with surprise performances, vaudeville acts, announcements, somersaults, nothing is completely expected, and at any moment another person might come on and entertain you with some strange behaviour. The right response (in the language of the books) is not hatred or disgust but it should include some kind of applause, in other words a description, which is evidence of the writer's attentiveness to this thing that is even more decisively not herself as she describes it. Ernestine Hill can see the man staring at a chicken and figure out his mental state from a distance, therefore she is not that man, and when she records him speaking to her then she is doubly not him. A sign of unity in these books would be silence.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

sensible enough, one would hope

Some of those opinion-words (the ones like "perfect," "good sense," etc) have been palmed off on Dunnett's characters but the language is the same once and again the same in everyone's mouth -- it is herself, badly disguised -- or she decides to involve the reader in these opinions, doing this (for example) after a tense scene that takes place between two characters during a festival, writing, "after that, the day was more the sort of festival it ought to be," without letting you know who has defined "the sort of festival it ought to be." It must be you and her together, maybe, working all this out with the collusion of a vague society of the book's anonymous inhabitants who are engaged in the festival: but it is not them, it is her, she assumes that anyone who reads the word "festival" will experience notions of frolicking happiness, the opposite of that angry just-read dialogue, and feel, at a level of thought formulated so automatically it is virtually subconscious, that this is how the day "ought to be."

(But, but, isn't that interesting, an author assuming her readers into herself and inhabiting them like a subtle Walt Whitman, see how intriguing it is, well, I say, well, clawing at my head, I don't want myself coerced into this nudge, nudge, nudge of a condemning mood against the characters, who are unnatural people, she says, because they are perverting a human day into what-it-ought-not-to-be -- that judgment is not my judgment -- maybe I was bullied as a child --)

The action in the plot is violent and surprising, one man betrays his uncle, a merchant is sabotaged, the kingdoms of the ancient British Isles can't keep their boundaries stable, but the language neuters violence with complacent words like "satisfactory" -- "The meal, served in the large room of the Vatican Palace, was satisfactory" -- it has the same opinion as the Countess in Proust's unfinished Sainte-Beuve book, a woman who does not like people who "exaggerate" (she is criticising Balzac); these people make things seem larger than the scale her mind inhabits; a meal in King Hereafter will never be an ecstatic experience, only a satisfactory one. The author gives a character a present and eviscerates his delight.

His wife of course would be delighted, and so was he: no one in Alba had such a cup. It was perhaps churlish to feel that something of a less domestic nature, a psalter perhaps, would have been more flattering from one high bishop to another.

Wry, wry, and wry again when a man during an attack sighs at his enemy because the weather is cold, "I don't know why, in the midst of all the elaborate plotting, you didn't have the common sense to keep your cloak on." Reading, I realised that Dorothy Dunnett couldn't endure the same world that she was trying to invent, rough sty where a cooked meal makes the air stink "with the smells of hot beef and grease," and you have to slosh your horse through an icy stream if you want to get to the other side; suffering in this world is necessary, but in her language no one suffers, though they may do a thing that is not "convenient."

They battle, herself and her world, they wrestle, she wins, she has won before the first page opens (you have to imagine the war from its traces), she murders violence, and here is the point where I connect her to Freya Stark (two posts ago), saying that Stark's language wants to unite sensuously with the world it is describing, and grasp it, and note a green thing with the simple adjective "green," planting it in the sentence firmly so that it suggests absolute greenness with acceptance of that greenness by the author who is issuing this undisguised description (and William Carlos Williams, when he wanted to explain a sight that was "the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon" gave his nouns a single word-friend each, first "red" for the wheelbarrow, then "rain" for the water, then "white" for the chickens, implacable, solid, planted, loved, respected), while Dunnett's language flies away from the world it is pretending to describe, evading the green thing's greenness by escaping into these otherwordly measurements of the gods. The character Macbeth has a hard point to make about another man, brutal, horrible; he has to soften it with a little polite bit of exasperated language before he can form his thought in the Dunnett-world: "He was sensible enough, one would hope, to realise that extra bloodshed was useless."

He is not protesting against bloodshed, he is protesting against too much extra bloodshed, which is not convenient or satisfactory, not shed with good sense, skilfully as it ought to be.

She goes to write thugs and plotters and Vikings, all pragmatists, but her language is polite, polite, it searches for the boundary line of taste, and remains carefully on the good side, manufacturing sins and informing you that they have been dodged. I protest, "But I do not think that those are sins."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

the transformation imposed on reality

I found a secondhand Vintage Books reprint of Dunnett's King Hereafter with the words "stunningly realized novel" on the back: "the celebrated author of the Lymond Chronicles peels away a thousand years of legend to to uncover the historical figure of Macbeth," but after the first few pages I was reading the language rather than the story because the language was biting me while the story was not and I think it makes sense for animals to pay attention to anything that attacks them (myself a book-animal) so that they can stay away, in future, from the bushes in which that enemy hides itself, and the caves where it sleeps; my animal mind nipped back and now it will express itself in quick barks and bite a flea under the back leg where fleas hide.

I was comparing her to my memory of Henry Treece, whose books I do not have here, but he was a historical novelist too, and one whose work I read when I was a child or teenager, and I was absorbed in them, especially the end of Man With a Sword, in which Hereward believes he is talking to someone when he is in fact falling over dead. For a few words Treece lets you think that the character really is speaking, then he slides up to you with the news that he is not; his death arrives in your mind while you're still occupied by the idea of his dialogue. Reality in Henry Treece's books is made up of these acts of surrealism. I am going to call this effect magical, by which I mean that he uses sleight of hand to show you things you know are impossible; you know they're impossible even while they're happening. Hereward is not dead and alive at the same time because this is not that kind of book; your brain has to turn the idea over and conclude that he is dead or else you can't finish and will be stuck forever mentally at the second-last page.

But reality in Dunnett's book is simple and a person does not hallucinate; instead the colour of their hair is noted truthfully, and they smile or frown to show their moods; every bit of behaviour is measurable, any action can be set out along her invisible ruler, as in, for example, "she parried them, thoughtfully, in different ways. Several places along the table she could hear the Earl her husband doing the same, but more skillfully." "Different ways," being unnumbered, might be infinite; her husband is more skilfully infinite, talent is limitless but even the infinite can be judged; and the author is an utter judge, squinting and saying, "This is less skilful, this more so," but by what measurement?

And like this her language removes her from the world of the characters to an environment of particulate estimation of the vague where she can write, "The ceremony was not a success, and neither was the banquet afterwards, at which the King's mother found herself seated staring across two tables at the young King of Alba, who had the good sense to stare woodenly back."

It was this appeal to alienated assessment that agitated me, these words that measure invisible things so absolutely, a phrase such as "good sense," for example, and then the extension of that evaluating sensibility through the entire book at the level of a white-noise hum with phrases like "perfect teeth" ("Lulach's perfect teeth showed in his slow, charming smile"), or the news that a man in a ship "made no mistake about his landing," or that another man decided to "dwell rather longer than was convenient" in someone's house when he could have gone elsewhere, all these words staving off an opposite existence, sadder and sharper, where teeth are not perfect but scratched or mucky, and a man landing a ship might not be perfect either, a wooden stare might not be good sense or even bad sense but only an ambiguous thing with inestimable consequences, that the success of a ceremony might not be able to be measured in a summary, that the length of a man's stay might not be able to be described with urbane words (that the anger and shame of the host might crack through), and that no one could ever say confidently, "It was a good answer, and a correct one," as the author does at one point, and again, "It was good advice" -- denial, I say, and wring my hands: it pretends to be a world like my real world, but it is not; it is an alien that will not admit itself, staring me in the face -- (I point, it wears an innocent expression, it is a lamb ) -- uncanny animal -- bright -- prose like plastic surgery -- it doesn't know what it is --

This is one of the reasons why I don't write book reviews. Whenever I don't agree with a book I feel frantic and not methodical; I am extinguished by outrage, and I am not like Proust, who attacks Sainte-Beuve in well-paced sentences translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner. He is angry but the speed of the prose in translation is the speed of reason. "Style is so largely a record of the transformation imposed on reality by the writer's mind that Balzac's style, properly speaking, does not exist." (Calm, sharp, thoughtful man, arming himself for the next sentence, rolling up a little ball of trust in the reader's heart, yus, ya, I'll trust him --.) "Here Sainte-Beauve is completely off the scent."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

here thinks a pink slip

I'm going back to the Matthews poem. Separation in this poem is not the state where you natively begin your life but a state into which you move by acquiring shame. Shame has been added to you and a new creature has evolved. The people in the bar have picked up a particular kind of shame and now their species of creature can be classified; it has particular attributes, which the poet describes like this: "None here thinks a pink slip | ("You're fired," with boilerplate apologies) | is underwear. None here says "lingerie" | or "as it were."" These are his characters, he reads their minds, he knows what they think about pink slips; he is possibly thinking of actual people he has met and as he judges their behaviour and speech ("We speak Demotic") he decides that if he said the words "pink slip" they would not think of underwear, he takes this belief, he makes this his hint, and why not a different hint, why "pink slip" and not -- unanswerable question, he's dead, and the whole brain gone.

His men are anonymous, they could be anyone, and anyone who has those experiences can have this shame, the narrator of the poem has shame, and it seems to be assumed that the reader will understand this shame situation as well. But separation in Freya Stark and Ernestine Hill is not attached to shame; it is a product of the material universe and they present it as a person's indigenous state, or at least the state that other people occupy when these two travel writers meet them, and those strangers exist there without explanations.

Hill's man in the gulley with the mad chicken does not have a history, or a reason for his chicken, he is a man with a chicken, the chicken is mad, and he is desperate, and there they are, these phenomena, without the explanation that would have accompanied them in the work of the other travel writer Peter Matthiessen; they do not come trailing clouds of glowing reason from a birth that the author has imagined -- their author does not soothe them -- she leaves them squatting on the page -- she exposes them -- the wind beats their peaks --

The world in Stark and Hill is primarily a material world, more sensuous in Stark's case, more sensationalist in Hill's, but material in both. This leads me, along a pathway that is open to myself though no one else, to the subject of Dorothy Dunnett, who was recommended to me months ago by someone who had been reading her at bedtime and couldn't get to sleep. Whenever anyone recommends anything I will say yes, unless I know of the author already, and then I tell the good kind person who is making the recommendation that I do not want to try the collected works of Lee Child.

Try James Patterson, said someone else, years ago, and when I opened the book I saw an entire paragraph taken up with the one word, "BANG." This kind of prose that was once upon a time experimental has caught on, I thought. The writer does not expect the reader to be confused by a sentenceless BANG. The last line in the paragraph before the BANG was something like, "He pulled a gun," or, "He fired his gun." What brains we have, I thought: we are able to see these three letters, gee yew en, and this BANG and we imagine that a man's finger has been resting next to a trigger, now has utilised his musculature in the drawing of that fingertip closer to his body, now a bullet has leapt explosively out of a hole (but we probably think all this in summary, we have a vague impression of an action which, if broken down, would look like this, but anticipated wholly has to be described with a word that is not like any of those individual actions or even hints at them; in fact it could describe a million other situations -- that word is threat -- or excitement --) and soon the two co-authors of this book might stop writing about the main character because he will have been described with the word "dead" though that is almost guaranteed not to happen for the rules of this genre forbid the realisation of that possibility, a situation that affects poetry too, or did in the 1790s because Wordsworth mentions it in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads (1798), "It is supposed, that by the act of writing in verse an Author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only thus apprises the Reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully excluded," and so, applying this same logic to the genre of serial detective action thrillers, I will predict that the hero of that James Patterson book was never described with the word "dead" and instead he was compelled to retaliate and destroy or disable the character whose existence led to the BANG.

From those two sentences I prophesy that piece of action. Anyone who has read Thomas Hardy's poems will be able to guess that I lifted the Wordsworth quote from the introduction he wrote for Late Lyrics and Earlier, which was published in 1923; following on from that you might decide that Henry Matthews one night in his local bar overheard a man saying, "Pink slip."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

thereof came the likeness

There is an H.P. Lovecraft character called Shub-Niggurath, or "The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young " -- black goat -- but it didn't occur to me, when I was writing the last post, that I should draw a connection between the mosaic in Patrick White's floor and Lovecraft's Goat. I have an impression of Lovecraft and an impression of Patrick White and the possibility that White might have been thinking of the Elder God from The Last Test and The Mound sounds ridiculous; that possibility was rejected so immediately that I didn't even feel it being rejected, and yet the words, "black goat," if they prompted me to write about paganism, and see goats under olive trees, and think of scapegoats, and fly around looking for legitimate connections, why shouldn't I believe that those words tested the knob on the doorway of this illegitimate connection and discovered it was locked? I never felt their hands on the door, no nerves there, a dead spot detected by rational thought now, and not by instant touch.

Mrs Jolley is "evil," quote, unquote, states the book, saying it not shyly but openly. She drives her employer terrified and frantic, and Lovecraft has his evils as well, that drive people mad, like the evil of the housekeeper, which seems to be an indigenous thing, not the result of poverty or of rough parents in White's depiction of her, but an innate quality, as the indifference of the Elder Gods is likewise beyond explanation. Characters who are good or at least harmless like to recoil from both of them -- you'd think this connection between the two goats would be obvious -- but it isn't, I believe it's pointless, and the more congruous I argue it the more I want to point out that I do in fact think it is incongruous, while the connection between the mosaic goat and classical pagan Greece seems obvious; it was a deduction that leapt up naturally and immediately.

Patrick White would have known the pagan goat (I must have said this to myself without thinking about it), and not have known H. P. Lovecraft's goat, or not have wanted to make a reference to that Goat even if H. P. Lovecraft's stories had been his favourite bedtime reading.

He would talk about good and evil in other terms, I say to myself, classical terms with references to works of art whose importance is supported by years of influence and consideration, and witness the chariot in the title, the merkabah, mentioned in Ezekiel, with four animals to correspond to White's four martyred main characters ("Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man," Ezekiel 1:5), though, now, reading the Shub-Niggurath page at Wikipedia to remind myself of the spelling I see that Lovecraft's Goat might have been inspired, like White's black mosaic, by Pan, or perhaps both Pan and Satan: "we may believe that here Lovecraft was inspired by the traditional Christian depiction of the Baphomet Goat, an image of Satan harking back to the pre-Christian woodland deity Pan," wrote the theologian Robert M. Price, quoted there at Wikipedia.

Satan! I think, and a new word occurs to me: the housekeeper's evil is demonic, in the sense that it is indigenous, as a demon's evil is indigenous. And I start to think, "She is kicking the mosaic in two ways. She gets rid of the things she doesn't like but which she isn't, the scapegoat part, for instance, and she denies the things she is, the black demon of her." It is a kick in several dimensions. The evil Mrs Jolley comes from Melbourne and misses the trams, as do I, though the automated ticketing system is stiff and the inspectors in their bundly dark coats look like Paddington Bears.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

the animals that see

That news is all extraneous to Patrick White's book and no use to you in understanding the novel and no use to me in understanding it either, though it might in some way help me to think about something else, not a thing about novels but a thing about brains, and yet this thing is a thing that I have thought before and am perhaps only retreading, or re-emphasising to myself, driving the groove deeper, and creating an idea-shaped sore or perhaps moat, or else let me go up not down and call the moat a wall or barrier, between myself and other of the world's citizens who think in different ways, or, to give you one example, a man the other day told me that crop circles were not caused by aliens, as the History Channel mistakenly believes, but by fallen angels, a statement that assumed the shape of a gulf between himself and me in my mind, though apparently no gulf whatsoever in his for he told me confidentially that the History Channel people are materialists, hence their reliance on the alien theory and their rejection of the angelic, saying this in a tone of voice that let me know that he believed I now shared with him this fallen-angel-crop-circle picture of the world. Then he asked me if I would like to go to the circus. "Do other people have experiences like this or is it just me?" I asked M., who confirmed that other people in the world did indeed have similar experiences, and that he was personally acquainted with a Taylor Swift impersonator who had been invited out by a hunchback.

The number of events that might occur in this world at any moment is very large and on some future fantasy day I might have to abandon the word "unexpected" because I will have learnt not to be surprised by anything, reaching this state of mind via a system of mathematics combined with an infinite knowledge of objects and actions; in an instant I have multiplied everything and in that way I am never astonished because this thing that has been presented to me is always the answer to one of my million million instant and automatic calculations.

Mrs Jolley in White's book is not like Mrs Flack in that she is poor where Mrs Flack owns her own brick house, but Mrs Jolley is also physically vicious where Mrs Flack is I think solely verbal, and when Mrs Jolley sees a picture of a goat in the mosaic on her unwordly employer's bathroom floor she decides to kick it apart, making a symbolic assault on the anti-philistine sensibilities that White's educated contemporaries attributed to the pagan era (with its mosaics and Mediterranean goats: see: shaggy Pan), denying also truth, clarity, honesty (because the sensitive employer Mrs Hare says, "Goats are perhaps the animals that see truth most clearly"), and additionally killing a scapegoat (the book has character-scapegoats, all this ties in); she is wrecking art and attacking the aesthetic longing that made the sensitive Mrs Hare's father bring Italian craftsmen to Australia so that they could install a goat in his floor, and, then, because the goat is black, she is being a symbolic bigot, the hue black associating itself with the main black thing in the book, the character sometimes nicknamed "the blackfellow," the Aboriginal painter Alf Dubbo.

She is attacking the mansion as well, because it is antithetical to the sharp new houses she prefers, she hates this house on a gut level, and on the most basic level of the story she is behaving like a villain, cruel woman, damaging an object that someone else loves and preferring plumbing to romance. Any Patrick White character who likes domestic convenience is going to be a philistine. It is like a law of nature in his books. It is like weather.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

of that relationship

Separation between people in Matthews' poem comes down to shame -- without shame they wouldn't have to camouflage themselves so secretly -- "A shared culture offers camouflage | behind which we can tend the covert fires | we feed our shames to" -- which reminds me that this idea of a sharp split between the inner and outer worlds of the person has been used by other writers; I've read it recently in Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot, "Where the road sloped down she ran, disturbing stones, her body quite agitated as it accompanied her, but her inner self by now quite joyfully serene. The anomaly of that relationship never failed to mystify ..." -- and why the word inner and why the word outer, and why only two: that's a question, though note that White is an author who likes strong divisions, and he likes to clash them against one another, so that when a sensitive unworldly woman in Riders decides to hire a housekeeper you see that she is really importing a cactus to scar herself against.

Everybody scratches one another in that book, all the characters have some angular difference, and even when they are representing the same general idea they will come at it from different directions, until each example proves something different about the idea; and the martyrdom of the Jewish character in Riders is not the same as the martyrdom of the painter, and the philistinism of the housekeeper Mrs Jolley is not the philistinism of her friend Mrs Flack.

When I see the name "Mrs Jolley" of course I think of Elizabeth Jolley, the author of Lovesong and Mr Scobie's Riddle, and I remember that White often argued with people, but Chariot came out in 1961 from Eyre & Spottiswoode, which is too early for anyone in literature to start feuds with Elizabeth Jolley, who didn't publish a novel until 1980, yet, still, even knowing that, I have trouble reading the name "Mrs Jolley" in this book without imagining a photograph I know of Elizabeth Jolley's face, very black and white with herself coming into the frame diagonally. I do not think that the character looks like this photograph, I only imagine the photograph. Mrs Jolley is not an imaginary woman who looks like Elizabeth Jolley, she is, simultaneously, a line of dialogue on a page and a photograph of Elizabeth Jolley's head and neck inside a rectangular border, which somehow moves around, associating itself with the name Jolley and representing itself in an imaginarily visual sense inside my idea of the sensitive employer's mansion, in the foyer by the staircase with bannisters (this is a picture of a house from some other source; I don't remember if this foyer or these bannisters appear in White's book), but remaining aloof from the housekeeper's beliefs, for those beliefs are not represented anywhere in the works of Elizabeth Jolley, in a way that would make me think that she supported them, and in fact the opposite; she was like White in that she wrote, also, about people scarring one another, and about their imaginations.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

shared culture offers camouflage

Speaking of travel writers, their individualities and primal connectednesses, reminds me of Ernestine Hill, the Australian journalist who recorded the stories about the band in Darwin and the desperate cobbler down the gulley with "a ragged little hen, crazed with heat" turning "over and over in vertigo. 'It won't die,' he assured me. 'I wish to God it would'" -- she wrote -- characterising her book with an interest in the grotesque that Stark possesses gently and Matthiessen not at all, since he is in the market for a human race that is primally connected through its rituals, and not one in which an Australian can distinguish himself with non sequiturs and a chicken, this man separating himself from Hill twice, once with his chicken and once with his non sequiturs, which are not part of any ritual, or not a ritual that anyone would want to share with him, for the chicken-man is miserable, and the ritual is only the ritual of an Australian lonely madness, a state of mind that has been described by Henry Lawson in several venues, for example, The Bush Undertaker, and it is only a marker of unity in that people who are Australian and not mad do recognise it, and acknowledge it as a potential past-time in that national resource, the bush, "the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird," writes Lawson, who lived for most of his life in Sydney but obtained insights by travelling between the towns of Hungerford and Bourke in 1892 during a drought.

This chicken-man, if he had appeared in Matthiessen, would surely have been useful in a different way, and the author would have placed his remark against a cosmic thoughtfulness; it would have had some correlation with Zen, or Buddhism; his despair might have been described as a possible prelude to enlightenment, it would have been one item in a large design that might have saved him if he had acknowledged it, and as we left the man we might have been allowed to imagine that he would submit to that realisation in future, or the author might decide that the existence of this vertiginous chicken was a message to himself, or at least he would have tried to set the man's behaviour in a smoother and more detailed context (he would have done this as smoothly and sympathetically as he explains the behaviour of two women at a Himalayan temple who are wary of himself and the other hikers) or at least the presentation would have seemed less stark -- but the journalist Hill is as thrilled as a newspaper; the man is not intimate with her, nor is his chicken, and she is not visited by any Zen enlightenment; she is visited by a sense of theatre, and presents the man like a performance.

Her grotesque scenes would not seem grotesque if Matthiessen had written them. Nothing in The Snow Leopard is grotesque when he describes it, not even the wise porter pretending to be a yeti and shouting, "Kak-kak-kak! KAI-ee!" around the campfire. These people would not seem so irreparably separated from the writer, the chicken man would not have been prized as though he were a star or remote comet, as Hill prizes him, or a natural phenomenon, like an intractable cactus.

If we are all primally connected by our rituals, as in the Matthiessen book, then a thing would have to be outside that historical context to seem grotesque, it would have to seem to have come alienly from elsewhere, but you could make it seem this by perceiving it to be so, you could announce that there is no connection between this alien thing and the rituals of the Nepalese: it is an anomaly, you could say, it is not part of proper humanity I do not see the join there, between ourselves and this thing, the points of reference I expect to identify in these cases are absent, and the join is perverse or wrong; it is a polluted join, says the writer, and this separation between ourselves is unnatural, as it was in a poem by William Matthews I was reading the other day

We speak Demotic
because we're disguised as ordinary
folks. A shared culture offers camouflage
behind which we can tend the covert fires
we feed our shames to ...

(part of The Place on the Corner, a poem from After All (1998))

Thursday, October 25, 2012

in and out of the game

I like Freya Stark's romantic singularity more than Matthiessen's primal hugging and why I prefer it is a thing I might one day sit down and think about, though it may have been Peake when I was younger, helping to teach me, yet I believe it may have been my own sense of privacy, standing foremost, fitting me to like Peake's books, and also, recently, Vilette, with its protagonist who loves her interior, her loneliness, and her thoughts. I looked at a copy of Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot and remembered one nurse in The Eye of the Storm running through a paragraph of thought while she's alone in, I think, the garden.

Walt Whitman makes me uneasy whenever he decides that he is large, he contains multitudes, he sees all of America, "The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom, | I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the pistol has fallen," this big web he says he is, this interconnection, this human being as a spy camera never letting you away, or me; all of us his grist, but then I remember that he says

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

and that the conglomerate poem is made of discrete pieces, two-line verses, aphorisms, and other independent units: it contains antisocial elements, and people will normally remember a line or two or a scrap, but rarely the whole poem at once: the isolated reserves itself, and is a mark of mortality. The isolated is the thing that stops.

And I wonder if the removal in Song of Myself is less the removal of a door between the narrator and other people ("Unscrew the locks from the doors! | Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!") than it is the imaginary removal of the door between imagination and life, for if he is "hauling my boat down the shallow river, | Where the panther walks to and fro on a limb overhead, where the buck turns furiously at the hunter" then he is living an imaginary life, he is his imaginary life, and he is only doing and being the things that Walt Whitman has heard about in his private brain, from books he's read or papers he's heard, or lessons he's had, these bits of news about Egyptian gods, ships, horses, and buck hunting, but anything he does not mention I assume he does not, in his role as a singular and absolutely disconnected nineteenth-century North American person, know. He has assembled a primary set of sources; he arranges them so that they radiate out from him. He is a little adventure-story writer, and all lives are adventure-story lives, all imagined, as the person takes the available information and dreams up boundarylines and relationships -- Whitman dreaming heavily of both, and having both, being the sensual unit and the universal object at the same time, an ambiguity, as Peake's characters in Gormenghast are hampered by the society of the castle and yet the author tells us that they are "themselves;" they are coherent, as no reader in their modern choice-world will ever be. The Countess Gertrude, buttocking up the ladder in the seared library, is expressed beautifully by her bottom, but my bottom has never done the same for me.

(This idea of being "yourself" is a strange one now that I come to think of it; what does it mean?

In Titus Groan and Gormenghast it seems to mean that you are consumed in yourself, your nature dictates everything you do, and even your features, your nose, your feet, your hair, will be examined by an author who wants to know whether this part of yourself suits you or not; you behave absolutely in the way that the thing that is you should behave (you're not only never out of character, you're always reinforcing that character), you do not let anything else distract you; you are solitary in the ongoing consummation of yourself, you are a vacuum into which anything of you disappears if it does not express that character.

I see commentators who say that Peake's characters have been damaged by their setting; I do not often see one who points out that they have brutally been perfected by it.)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

standing forth in low relief from the rock

So Peter Matthiessen likes integrations and primal systems. Freya Stark does not like them, or does not dislike them but they do not occur to her or they occur but do not make an impact, she cannot include them in her style, her style is a romantic not a mystic, she sees the lone person standing clear, she takes joy in things that are eccentric, and she will pick them out then assign a clear adjective or pair of them to an object to make it quickly distinct; she will set the objects apart in the sentence with the help of an "and," like this -- "the village itself, with flat roofs and arched mud gateway on a rise, and vines and fruit trees and a grassy glade of old mulberry trees where the crows cawed like English rooks in a park, were all hidden from us by poplar trees and willows."

Matthiessen is pleased when things are same and the Native American is also the Tibetan, but if Stark mentions a similarity between an item in the Middle East and one anywhere else then it is only to give the British reader (she is imagining British readers) a clear picture of this solitary event. "Like English rooks in a park."

When she wakes one Iraq morning in a thick "Scotch mist," she does not invite the reader to extend those two words, "Scotch mist," into a theory about the fundamental natures of mists, the mists in Scotland connected instinctively to the mists in Persia, this word "Scotch" uttered in a foreign setting suggesting understandings flowing secretly through the currents of the world's liquids, speaking and haunting one another as they sit suspended in the chilly air ("It often covers," she writes, "the Shah Rud Valley for days like a ceiling"), but this is Matthiessen's plan when he compares a Tibetan custom with one from Africa or the Arctic Circle; he is inviting speculation on a mystic-anthropological level, he is serious, but she is delighted, and she is not serious merely sane, and when she is knocked unconscious by near-fatal malaria she records her symptoms and spends time observing the character of the doctor, but Matthiessen appears to find his troubles more troublesome, they are a serious matter to him, and he will cure them if he can by reflecting on Zen Buddhism.

Meanwhile Stark's prose habits will not let her take the troubles solemnly; this style is too easily romantic and entertained, it repels the Matthiessen philosophy; it cannot save itself through a unity of everything but looks for a strong individuality of one, whose duty is to remain level-headed no matter what.

And this style must have been influenced by the styles of books she had read, and so those other books helped her to a legacy of this level-headedness, this faith in observation, which was recommended to the world by Lawrence Durrell and others. He edited an anthology of her writing, The Journey's Echo: selections from Freya Stark. I do not know for sure what she read but I think of the habits of the Victorian British -- she was born Victorian in 1893 -- and their observations of fossils, rocks, and rockpools, the trilobite in Thomas Hardy,* the family of the boy Gerard Manly Hopkins pacing along the shoreline, searching for specimens, and the adult poet Hopkins describing leaves or pigeons in his journal: "They look like little grey jugs by shape when they walk, strutting and jod-jodding with their heads. The two young ones are all white and the pins of the folded wings, quill pleated over quill, are like crisp and shapely cuttleshells found on the shore." (June 16th, 1873) though a mention of Barron Field's poetry at Whispering Gums reminded me how profoundly their descriptive language tripped over under the people of this same race when they tried to see Australia; for decades they could not see it and the English language in this area was purblind.

Jenny Uglow, in her biography of Gaskell, believes that Ruskin helped to make this habit of observationliterary as well as scientific; an author such as Eliot, she says, owed him a debt in this respect -- look, he said, like Hopkins in that poem -- look! look! -- you can see him in Modern Painters telling the landscape painters of the United Kingdom to look at a tree and not just jot down whatever shorthand for trees they seem to have learnt.

It was not until I had finished the previous sentence that I remembered my selected Hopkins has a painting by Ruskin on the front.

*The trilobite appears in A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873): "By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites." Assume that if Hardy had been writing one hundred years earlier, before the Victorian fossil craze, then the character would have been blind to the fossil.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

years from their source

The sky in Las Vegas this summer was white and clear; the walls kicked the heat back at you, the road kicked the light back at you, everything in the sunlight kicked the sunlight back at you, especially first thing in the morning, when the sun was at the right angle, whatever that was, to change your ideas about the star, now rough against your eyes, this radiant mugger that boiled the atmosphere into two large storms, of which, the first one dragged away a high school student, and the second storm washed a groundskeeper off his golf course. Twelve feet of water on parts of that golf course, said a source whose name I forget. Twelve feet looks like such a high number (due to ideas about twelves and due to the amount of water I usually see lying around on the ground in this city, which is none but rather a hard baked matte surface on everything) that I want to point it might have been inches, which would be more reasonable but memory insists on the unreasonable one, and the reasonable conclusion is not always true; for example, on the gravel verge by the intersection on that same day I saw a broken plastic flipper lying alone and unexplained, and a million other things that could have been there would have been more normal in this desert and yet undoubtedly it was a flipper.

(If you turned me into a different person then that flipper would become right now the start of an essay, the mind of the writer opening from flipper into universe, and I would start a chapter now and title it, Of The Natural Causes and Original of Flippers, following which I would record my acceptance of the seal flipper, the dugong flipper, the flipper of the majestic whale with its little eyes like a soulful pig, the bone of the whale flipper as translated into the human arm, into the dog's leg, and into the wing of the bat, then what is it to be a bat, what is it to be a whale, what is it to want to write Moby Dick, Melville moody in an attic, then I would move on to the subject of famous historical or literary moodiness, Christina Stead writing The Man Who Loved Children in a New York apartment with a bad view, her sourness during A Little Tea, A Little Chat, then I would go back to flippers again, and the webbed toes of ducks or gulls, then mention the grey bird we saw under a cliff-face in the mountains while within sight roamed two feral horses eating the grass, one black horse, one amber with a black tail, and the name of that bird we did not know, "Those ancient men of genius who rifled nature by the torch-light of reason even to her very nudities, have been run a-ground in this unknown channel; the wind has blown out the candle of reason, and left them all in the dark," I'd write, borrowing from Daniel Defoe's book The Storm, where I found my chapter title, only in him it is Of The Natural Causes and Original of Winds -- and etc, etc.)

Towards the end of the season, after months when leaving the house made me sweat piggishly, each pore a piddle, I read travel books because it was the only way to go anywhere, Freya Stark's The Valleys of the Assassins for one and Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard for another, Stark British and Matthiessen American, Stark going through the dangerous countryside between Iraq and Iran ("I spent a fortnight in that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered"), Matthiessen hiking through the Himalayan mountains with a biologist named George Schaller who wanted to watch Pseudois nayaur go through its mating rituals in order to find out whether they behaved like sheep or like goats; also perhaps Matthiessen would see a snow leopard though the leopard was not a guarantee.

They hired porters for their baggage. Matthiessen admires one of these porters more than the rest because this porter has a kind of intelligent expression that suits the American's idea of an instinctive wise man. Zen Buddhism is the prime category through which Matthiessen understands the world; he measures his surroundings by integrating them into this category or determining that they do not fit. This porter fits into his category; now he can find more to say about him; the man appears to demonstrate this or that point that the author wants to make, so he is mentioned and the point is made, he is a gate and sign for an idea, for several ideas, and the author, at the end of the trek, recommends him to a porter company for an elevated position in the local porter hierarchy but the man behind the desk responds, Are you high, that man is a drunk.

Matthiessen concludes that these Tibetans have a lot in common with Native Americans. "I am struck by the resemblance between our native Americans and these Mongol peoples." There are physical similarities, there are also their "ornaments of turquoise and silver," and their beliefs: "The native American traditions are Eastern cultures, thousands of miles and perhaps thousands of years from their source." There is "the Aztec concept of existence as a dream state," for example, and "the Algonquin medicine man" would recognise the Tibetan yogi; but there are resemblances to other cultures as well, in fact resemblances to everybody everywhere, to the mysticisms of those religions born in the Middle East, and "the Australian aborigines -- considered to be the most ancient race on earth," have a dreamtime, which is a very Eastern thing, he says. Things are matched all over the earth and no fact goes unfriended. Ancient ideas have survived since primitive eras. "Knowledge" writes Jeremy Taylor in Holy Dying, "is nothing but remembrance."