Wednesday, January 25, 2012

their owne perfection so

Pastorella, Spenser says, is the name of one character, a shepherdess (she's pastoral, you see, like me, down in the country last week, housed in high chaparral, looking at horses and grass) and it makes her sound like a brand of butter, I thought (farm maiden holding out a yellow brick), or noodles (Pastarella), and then I began to wonder where the difference sat between this and any other marketed identity. A man on a lion is named Wrath, a brand of boxed-up cake mix is called perhaps D'Lish, and the chopped lettuce I see in our last delivery of supermarket junk mail is named Ready-Pac, which tells me two things, one, that the lettuce is inside a pac or packet and two, that it is always, always ready to be removed from the packet and eaten, which puts it in defiance of rot, decay, death, and passing time, the principles that govern all our days, flesh and vegetable alike; these laws are personalised by Spenser and named Mutabilitie. Mutabilitie in the final cantos of the Faerie Queene tells grandmother Nature that the "greatest part" of everything should be acknowledged hers because everything changes, every part of the world is "incontinent," she is the dominant principle, but Nature thinks about it and refutes her, agreeing that "all things stedfastnes doe hate," and yet, she says, these changing things do not alter utterly and permanently, instead they come back to themselves again.

  They are not changed from their first estate;
  But by their change their being doe dilate:
  And turning to themselues at length againe,
  Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
  Then ouer them Change doth not rule and raigne;
But they raigne ouer change, and doe their states maintaine.

So there is some steady quality in everything, declares dame Nature, some self that recurs and recurs, defying change, which in the case of Wrath must be his wrathfulness, in the case of the imaginary cake mix its deliciousness, and in the case of Mutabilitie, her mutability. She is a state of affairs as well as a woman; she can stand arguing with Nature while at the same time she is happening, she occurs, she is a condition: the moon is "now bright, now brown & gray," "euery Riuer still doth ebbe and flowe," fires become ash, lightning flashes and vanishes, people grow old, buds bloom, and seasons pass. And she doesn't say, "I do this," but "I am this."

Mutabilitie's quality is innate, Wrath's condition is innate, it is utterly inner and outer, it permeates them, meanwhile the cake mix called D'lish is named from the outside, for qualities that it might have, or it might not, but the important part is that the customer should believe, just briefly, or just foggily, or even tiredly or cynically (but somehow going along with the idea because why not, it sounds good enough, it'll do, and even though they know that, "It's just marketing" they still wouldn't buy a cake mix called Crap or Chewy Socks) that the name, D'Lish, is also innate, that the cake really will be delicious, even just a little bit delicious, even just slightly more delicious than the cake mix in the box next door; and the picture on the front of the box plays a role too, but the name holds the impression together.

Yet the name is not a heart but a hat. The product is labelled; the allegorical person is exposed.

It's the growth of detail around D'lish that gives the game away, the fact that the customer can take the box home, make the cake, and decide that the taste doesn't suit them. Not delicious, this cake, not firm but soggy, and the filling tastes like water. Considering, it occurs to me that most of the characters with the decisive names in Spenser are occupying minor roles, those parts that don't ask them to do much more than appear with their qualities on show. The characters who go through extended periods of action, however -- the ones the reader can judge, weigh, and test by watching their behaviour -- their names are less blatant and less restricting.

So Spenser doesn't want a purely wrathful person doing nothing but show wrath, wrath, wrath for pages of adventures, falling in love wrathfully, holding conversations wrathfully, accepting quests wrathfully, never having any other emotion but wrathfulness, and never getting off his angry lion. As the actions began to pile up we'd be able to look at them and triangulate some response more complicated than "He's wrathful" -- and we would do that, I'll bet you, we would move off along the pathways of our own opinions, even if Spenser kept telling us to our faces that the character was nothing but wrathful and angry. People don't always go along with these lecturing tactics, people develop sympathy for villains, people refuse to laugh at the comic relief, people dislike the hero, a thing I've seen on more than one occasion, and a thing I've seen myself do more than once -- hating good King Arthur in Idylls of the King, for instance, that dehydrate prim prissy CEO boofhead, patting himself on the back. I'd run off with Launcelot too.

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