Saturday, January 14, 2012

beyond them he could see into the room

A few months ago as we were walking along a main road I asked M. if the rodeo finals were still in town, and, Look at the taxis, he replied. Are they still advertising country music? Most of what I know I deduce; I see nothing, I hear nothing, or no primary thing, I see the shadows of what once was, I hear its footsteps, seldom witness the thing itself. Two Tuesdays ago we went to a panel discussion called Mob Wives and our compere asked the former wife of a dead hitman when she had begun to wonder what her husband did for a living. When I walked into the room and he was seeing ghosts, she said. Bill Sykes throws a rug over Nancy's corpse, pulls it off again, secondhand information goes up from the flesh like a smoke signal and the news of her murder manifests, manifests, manifests. "He washed himself, and rubbed his clothes; there were spots that would not be removed, but he cut the pieces out, and burnt them. How those stains were dispersed about the room! The very feet of the dog were bloody." But he's a lucky man, say Proust's Swann and the Narrator, both suspicious of their girlfriends -- we'd pay time and money for evidence that solid. Instead they ask other men to spy for them, they concoct stories, they imagine lesbian orgies, they read seduction in a glance, and Swann frustrated stands in Odette's street at night staring at the light seeping through the slats of her closed window shutters -- she's in there, she's with another man -- he knocks -- it's not her window.

Two old gentlemen stood facing him, in the window, one of them with a lamp in his hand; and beyond them he could see into the room, a room that he had never seen before.

He apologises to the men for disturbing them and goes home, feeling glad, not only because his love of Odette is still intact, but also because she will never have to know about that knock on the shutters, which is the physical evidence of his emotions. He's afraid that if she knew he was jealous she might take him for granted. "[H]aving feigned for so long, when in Odette’s company, a sort of indifference, he had not now, by a demonstration of jealousy, given her that proof of the excess of his own passion which, in a pair of lovers, fully and finally dispenses the recipient from the obligation to love the other enough." Behaviour is exposure. The inner predisposition puts on flesh; now people can spot it and make deductions. Proust's jealous Narrator spends months struggling unsuccessfully to uncover the same evidence that he receives, years later, suddenly, completely, with absolutely no trouble, from someone who believes that exposure doesn't matter any more, and the experience of jealousy, and the fading of his jealousy, and his later understanding of that jealousy, his reflections on that jealousy, all feed the philosophy that makes him arc up rejuvenated at the end of the book. Pain comes first, followed by an illumination that goes beyond the pain itself, more solution than he'd dreamed or hoped for, and you remember that Proust was raised Catholic.

The promise of writing is that we can have everything we want but only if we take it second hand. This is literature, says Proust, this is meaning, in fact this is reality. Reality is not understood directly but only through reflection and metaphor, secondarily, away from the thing itself.

What we call reality is a relation between those sensations and those memories which simultaneously encircle us [...] that unique relation which the writer must discover in order that he may link two different states of being together for ever in a phrase. In describing objects one can make those which figure in a particular place succeed each other indefinitely; the truth will only begin to emerge from the moment that the writer takes two different objects, posits their relationship, the analogue in the world of art to the only relationship of causal law in the world of science, and encloses it within the circle of fine style. In this, as in life, he fuses a quality common to two sensations, extracts their essence and in order to withdraw them from the contingencies of time, unites them in a metaphor, thus chaining them together with the indefinable bond of a verbal alliance.

But it's a curse, exclaims Fernando Pessoa through a heteronym named Alberto Caeiro (a pastoral poet), it's too much, this connecting, concluding, fishnet intelligence, this brain-made reality, it's exhausting, and it distorts, it's nothing but us, us, us all the time, and why can't we be free of ourselves? Proust was sociable, Pessoa was antisocial, their lifetimes overlapped, Proust was born in 1871 and died in 1922, Pessoa was born in 1888 and died in 1935. "[A] true and real ensemble / Is a disease of our own ideas," he writes, and "thinking is not understanding" and

To see the trees and flowers
It isn't enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas
There is only each one of us, like a cave
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened

So if we were ideally Caeiro-wise in front of a flower we'd see nothing but the flower, in front of a tree we'd absorb nothing but the tree, a tall object that would become inexpressible since we wouldn't be satisfied with the word "tree," which is an idea, or a trigger that creates one, and so, there, then, maybe we're doing the next best thing -- or another thing anyway -- when we detach the tree-thing from the word tree by making metaphors about it. A rose meaning also romance is not only a rose, but also love and pain and Valentine's Day, and, imagine this -- this is all imaginary, but I fantasise it -- the word "rose" actively lifts away from the thing itself on a mattress of metaphor and the thing itself is left there like a pea, waiting to be detected in some inhuman way that's not deduction.

The first two Proust quotes come from Swann's Way (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff), and "What we call reality ..." comes from Time Regained (translated by Stephen Hudson). Bill Sykes comes from Oliver Twist, which is Dickens, and you can find the rest of the Caeiro poems in The Keeper of Sheep, or in Fernando Pessoa and Co.: Selected Poems, translated by Richard Zenith, which is the version I've used here. Anyone who's been thinking of reading Pessoa's Book of Disquiet might want to know that Wuthering Expectations is holding a Disquiet read-along.

Jane Anne Morrison at the Las Vegas Review-Journal published an opinion piece about that Mob Wives panel. In another article she says that she saw the hitman husband giving evidence at a trial in 1979, before Thanksgiving, and she went away on her Thanksgiving break telling people that he wasn't as sick as he looked on the stand, a fake, she said, he's putting it on -- he didn't live to Christmas.

The hitman's wife, whose name is Wendy Mazaros, recently co-wrote a memoir.

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