Monday, January 9, 2012

for soþe

I was walking back from the mailboxes when I overheard a woman on the other side of a tree say, "You had your hair cut off!" and I knew that she was talking to S., even though I couldn't see either of them, her or S.; and in fact I haven't seen S. for weeks. But M. had spotted him earlier that morning and came to me afterwards saying, "S. has had a haircut, his hair is as short as mine." I didn't see a single physical sign of S., nor did I hear him reply, but if you asked me who was behind that tree with the woman, I would tell you that it was S. Walking up the street I went past a man who had surrounded himself with a fleece of yellow and white string (unwound from ball or cylinder, it was all in curls), and he was holding part of it in one hand and making gestures with the other, cutting the string with a knife, I thought, and not for at least a minute did I ask myself if I had actually seen a knife, to which the answer was no, not a knife, not even the faintest glitter of metal, absolutely nothing that would establish the actual presence of a knife except the tugging action he was making over the string, which seemed to be the kind of tug you would make if you were trying to cut string with a knife.

Deductions! The teenage narrator in Fleur Jaeggi's Sweet Days of Discipline has a friend who looks at her shrivelled chilly palms and says, "You've got an old woman's hands." The narrator tells us then, "I knew that she was attracted to me." She adds: "I can hardly describe how proud I was." Marguerite Young in Miss MacIntosh My Darling creates her characters like this: first she plants them in a location, like a model in a diorama box -- the mother is lying in her bed, and Miss MacIntosh herself, the narrator's nurse, will walk along the beach -- and then she'll extrapolate their characteristics, getting more and more extravagant -- it's as if she's placed a dot on a bare page and then begun to draw circles around it until the page is full. The dot is the core. But the bulk of the book is made of circles. I wonder if it would have been possible to erase the dot and leave the reader to work it out for themselves. What is walking along the beach?

Miss MacIntosh turns out to be less honest than she seemed; she is also the lord's castle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is not what it seemed to be either, although, like Miss MacIntosh it both was and wasn't. The two childlike leads in their different books encounter the castle and the woman and they come away perplexed, sorrier, and aware that the world can be more complicated than they'd imagined. Gawain draws back into a mood of adolescent shame. "Now am I fawty and falce and ferde." He groans with misery and anger, the blood runs into his face. "He groned for gref and grame / þe blod in his face con melle." He can't stand this mixed state, he blames other people, he wants to be fixed. What can he do? he asks the Green Knight. Give him a solution! Give him a challenge and he'll beat it! The knight laughs and invites him home to dinner. (Doing it in Middle English which means that he doesn't laugh, he loȝe, and þe ryche fest is in his wonez. Come to my wonez, Gawain, he says but Gawain quod Nay for soþe.)

The castle and Miss MacIntosh deliver invisible wounds, they cut, they're invisible knives -- they gesture, their actions gesture, their falseness is a gesture and a knife, but a necessary knife; the wound is the story; the blood muddles out into the cheeks. Gawain wants to be whole and sole again but everyone else treats him as though nothing serious has happened. His friends at Arthur's court offer to show how much they sympathise by putting on sashes to match his sash -- they'll all be in the same club -- but how is this going to satisfy a man who thinks he's a sinner because he was fooled and scared?

Now he's aware of the goulash-world where quests (which are like games, because they have rules), can be manipulated, and people can't be taken at their word, where there are hints -- and there was a book I read last year that had hints built into the prose itself, written by an author who kept using adjectives like oddly and infinitely so that the world of his language would seem to have more depth than it was possible for him to explain: characters were "oddly close" and "oddly troubled" they felt an "odd comfort" though they were "oddly cold" and caught up in "odd tumult" suffering from "odd vertigo" and hearing an "odd sound" or a "sound of infinite dread," yet they had "infinite patience" and things seemed "infinitely simpler" and "infinitely better" in spite of "an infinite darkness beckoning."

And in defiance of that atmosphere of anti-exactitude they kept trying to pinpoint their emotions and discipline them, "resolv[ing] not to let such feelings frighten" them they "refuse[d] to open [themselves] up to such morbid sensations" and instead they were "Determined to banish these loathsome thoughts from [their minds]" and "suppress the dangerous, undisciplined thought." Breathing a grey smudge of odds and infinitelys they were trying to wrestle control of their own selves from the air and earth of their planet -- that was the story it seemed to me I was reading, though it was not the story the author was trying to tell on the surface of the book; on the surface it was a historical drama with thoughts about the nature of love.

They were holding themselves together or trying to; they wanted to fix themselves in place as Gawain wants to do, stubbornly, against the mass of unspecificness that forces itself in on them -- they want to be themselves, under their own control, defined, exact, revealed, not wafted around with odd feelings, infinite longings -- these blurry hints frightened them, or alarmed them, or made them dig their heels in like children -- and by the end I was backing them against the author, who wanted them to open their hearts lovingly and unrepress, but what did he give them to unrepress into, bar this mush of foggy oddlys? You're a con man sir, they could have said to their creator. I think that bridge you're trying to sell me just doesn't exist.

Fleur Jaeggi's book was translated by Tim Parks. Come to think of it the narrator is not a teenager -- she's telling a story about the time when she was a teenager but she's not one now.

Sir Gawain is available online in several versions. Here it is in Middle English with a modern prose translation.


  1. Oddly enough, I have no idea how to respond to this one ... except to say that I understand completely about old woman's hands. They, in my case at least, are far too well defined, far too revealed. A little bit of blurry wafting in their vicinity would not go astray ...

  2. Definedness is what the narrator notices first, actually, not the shrivelled palms I mentioned there. The shrivelling comes second. "She looked at the backs of my hands: you could count the veins and the bones. She turned them over: they were shrivelled up."

  3. But then the narrator is proud of them, because she knows that this girl she admires has feelings for her. So these are distinctive and impressive hands. (I could have done more with Jaeggi's book in this post, I realise now, thinking about it, because the narrator makes a fetish out of things that are slightly off-kilter, and not what they're meant to be -- teenage girls with shrivelled hands, or people who seem to be destined for one future and end up with another, or a stranger entering a monoculture.)