Tuesday, February 28, 2012

eat it, I'll know you


Why should the women cook? The author has made their home a symbol of hospitality in her book and this man is counting on her to stand by her symbol. His joke depends on the reliability of his god. But aside from that, why don't they tell the strangers to go away? I look in M.'s secondhand copy of the 1965 Farm Journal's Complete Pie Cookbook and feel as if I'm holding evidence of a complicated answer in my hands. From beginning to end, the author, who is nameless, and probably a committee, tells women to cook and men to eat. That arrangement is described several times clearly in the introduction.* If a man isn't present then the food can be aimed at friends, family, guests, or children. (Chocolate Crinkle Cups are "Party dessert for the Junior High set.") But the idea is that the person who bakes must be a woman and that the woman must give her cooking away.

The assembling of the ingredients and the baking of a pie is not the complete action of a cook. The cook is expected to bake, then distribute, then receive gratitude. This is the life cycle of cooking. One excerpt: "To a farmer, an apple tree covered with blossoms is a lovely sight [...] But you can bet he also has thoughts of a juicy wedge of apple pie. We predict that any of the apple pie recipes in this cookbook will bring you his compliments. Try them all to find his very favorite!" The worth of a pie can be measured by the enthusiasm with which other people receive it. "One time I made 25 of these pies for a men's dinner," says the inventor of the Harvest Apple-Cranberry Pie on page fifty-five. "I served them with cheese slices and the pies really made a hit." That is how she sells it.**

Anything can be co-opted into a bid for power, suggests Christina Stead; the man in Dogs can turn the women's habit of generosity against them, and the host in House of All Nations can force the guest to eat even when that visitor is so stuffed and faint he's asking her to open a window. The exercise of her "strange feminine instinct" seems imperative. And I suspect that this word "instinct" is Stead's way of saying that the same information that passed from the wider world so naturally and easily into the language of the Complete Pie Cookbook (where it is taken for granted like an ancient folk myth) has affected Mme Haller so profoundly that the power to feed and receive compliments feels like her native right. "If you don't eat it, I'll know you don't like it," she says, and the guest eats.

(Contemplating that scene, I realise for the first time that the Pie Cookbook never tells you how to cope if your guest doesn't want your pie, although "Try them all to find his very favorite," and similar sentences should provide you with a solution that the authors don't explicitly state -- the answer is, of course, that you should offer them another pie. The natural life cycle of the pie would be interrupted if the guest said No forever; you might as well cut down a rainforest and expect the monkeys to go on living. But that problem never comes up in the Cookbook, where all the people who aren't cooks, are vacuums of lubricious greed.)

It's true that the food in Stead is not a pie, but the dynamic in the book is identical, ie, the cook expects to give her food away and other people expect to receive it. Stead's point, or my point, since I'm the one comparing the two books, not her, is that a mass of different manipulations can be built around this elementary armature, and White, too, packs multiple ideas around the skeleton verb of eating. Dorothy and Basil both have a meat pie but Dorothy's eating is not like Basil's eating, and the reader has seen enough of their mother Elizabeth by now in the book to know that her meat pie eating would be different again, and her nurse (who is one of three, I don't think I've mentioned the other two), would be different as well, and this situation would pertain even if each of them had exactly the same kind of pie, same size, same shape, containing the same sort of meat, bought from the same shop, for the same price.

People will always wage power struggles, demonstrates Christina Stead: whatever tools they have they'll use, even generosity is a tool. Human beings are innocent animals; the parasite vine grips the tree trunk without hatred, a snake uses the venom it's given. Four decades after 1965 the language around pies has changed only slightly, just enough to stop Ken Haedrich's Pie (The Harvard Common Press, 2004) telling you that one sex should do all the cooking and the other sex should do all the eating. But the language that encourages you to give your productions away has endured. ("Serve this to your family and friends and see if they can guess what's in it.") And the people who read the book use the same language -- it has to be cultural, I think, this pie-language, this vocabulary that goes with the atmosphere of North American pie. Here's an online review by someone named Sheree from Illinois: "The joy a fresh baked pie gives to someone makes me feel like I am making a difference. People love getting homemade pies, so much so it almost brings them to tears. My husband's co-workers, people at the gym, employees at stores that I frequent, and neighbors have been the beneficiaries of most of them. The reviews have been outstanding!" Here's her ammo: "during the past month I have made over 20 pies." With House of All Nations between my brain and my ears I hear these "people at the gym, employees at stores that I frequent" grinning, grinning, and uttering the words of Mme Haller's visiting lunch-couple, eyes bubbling, delirious and feeble with nourishment, "Oh, wonderful, wonderful, I wish I could cook like that. How did you learn to be such a wonderful cook? Did you learn it at home?" Surge, surge, confident Sheree, a tank who cannot be stopped: "It is time to make pie!"

The older cookbook has savoury pies and the new one doesn't, so I like the old one better in spite of its assumptions. Here in the US I've learnt that when Americans hear the word "pie" they think of a pie with sweetness in it -- a sweet chiffon, or sweet fruit, or sweetened spiced pumpkin, or sweet-tart lemon -- creams, curds, puffs, and fluffs. But the pies in my mind are closer to the pies in Basil's hand, the meat pie, the steak and kidney, the beef and mushroom -- Four 'n' Twenty puts the cow's anus in there, we used to tell one another at school, innocently bringing Patrick White's connection between the mouth and the arse into our discussions, literati in embryo we were -- my idea of a pie is an object with gravy; a pie without gravy is the thing that appears in the world while the world is waiting for a pie with gravy to arrive; it's a stopgap; and this is the reason I began writing about meat pies in the first place, not so much for Patrick White, or his characters, or his book, or even Christina Stead -- to be honest with you, I want a meat pie.

* For example: "Some young men still refer to their homes as 'the pie house' -- a tribute to their mothers' baking skills." "And some Farm Journal readers tell us they bake birthday pies for their husbands by request." "Young women, as recently as a generation ago, practiced to bake pretty pies of exceptional quality for pie-supper auctions in one-room country schoolhouses [...] [the auctioneer] hinted who baked the pie he held, removing the lid of the box just enough to give the tantalized young beaux a glimpse of the treat within." "Remember that pies please men. Since men are the great pie eaters and promoters, let's give a rancher friend the last word ..."

**According to both books, the cook can anticipate at least four different categories or types of praise. Type 1: Surprise and delight at the physical presence of the pie, its dimensions and colouring. Type 2: Explicit reference to the taste of the pie. Type 3: Requests for the volume of the gift to be increased, eg, I'd love another slice. Type 4: Attempts to discern the origins of the pie, its Eden, eg, Did you make that yourself, Oh I must have the recipe.

After I'd finished typing that post I came across this conversation in Leonora Carrington's Hearing Trumpet, and thought; ha; coincidence.

Mrs. Gambit thought, no doubt, that I was getting too familiar, so she changed the subject of the conversation. "We have cooking classes once a week," she said. "People can practise self-control by making sweetmeats for everyone else, without tasting any of their own cooking."

Though neither Pie nor the Pie Cookbook expects the cook to starve. "This is the best cheese pie you've ever made or tasted," they say: etc.

(Edit: Tom from Wuthering Expectations's said some friendly things about this post on Twitter. Much appreciated.

Second edit: I don't know if anyone remembers the muttering some months ago when the current owner of Boongarre (which was one of Stead's childhood homes), decided to add redevelopments to the place, but now he's selling it. That listing will vanish eventually, and the link will go dead, but for now the property blurb looks like this:

History, charm, absolute waterfront

Sydneys most privileged waterfront locale on the tip of Watsons Bay peninsula in the heart of exclusive Camp Cove. "Boongarre" nestles within Sydney Harbour National Park, Green Point Reserve and the waters of Sydney Harbour, on 1214sqm land (approx). Its 270 degree exquisite views, with all that is Watsons Bay at the forefront and Sydney CBD on the near horizon.

Originally built in the 1870s, its original features are still very much in evidence and these integrate harmoniously with an aesthetically faithful restoration and renovation. It has both the allure of an easygoing 4/5 bedroom family retreat and the grace of an architecturally significant Australian residence. It was the childhood home of renowned author, Christina Stead, and owned by the Stead family from 1918-1980.

Both the elegant lounge on ground level and the gracious master on the floor above are fronted by bay window clusters that overlook its own huge stretch of private gardens and the vast spread of Sydney Harbour beyond. Leafy stone courtyards extend all major ground floor rooms. One of these edges an early extension that provides an extra large casual family room or a teenage retreat with ensuite.

A babys room links conveniently to the master through its ensuite. The 3 car lock-up garage spreads to a generous workroom, and there is forecourt parking for 2-4 more cars.

Property ID: 2009546006)

Monday, February 27, 2012

join the mess round her mouth

Patrick White often gives his characters food and he often lets them fart. Both ends of the alimentary canal are allowed to have their say, and I even wonder if he found himself doing it, for the first time, because he wanted to be fair: imagine that one end of the relevant tube made its appearance in a story he was writing, and by its presence it invoked, like magic, the other end. After that he couldn't leave that other end out. It was pressing to get into existence, so he let it through. Elizabeth Hunter in his Eye of the Storm, is provided with a pineapple, and she drops, too, stony pellets into a commode. "Naus-e-ating!" says Elizabeth's daughter Dorothy when her brother Basil gives her a meat pie. "She could feel the tears hurtling hot down her cheek to join the mess round her mouth." White's characters are often disgusted by their food, or the author will be disgusted for them, they're left grubby, and eating is dirty and babyish. "Basil has swallowed his last mouthful. He was wiping fingers on his breast-pocket foulard." Basil fouls his foulard* and gravy runs from the pie down his chin, he speaks and "sprays the windscreen with several fragments of gristle."

Dorothy loathes the meat pie, and not the pie on its own, but herself in the act of eating: "her unwillingness and contempt turned to loathing; worse on discovering something loathsome in herself: she was filled with a guilty voluptuousness as though biting into her own flesh." A person has to open a mouth in order to eat, and Dorothy would rather not open herself for anything; her way of coping with awkward moments is to open her handbag and look inside seriously for nothing in particular, then snap it closed. Sometimes I read her like this: The world has tried to open me up? I take my revenge with this bag. I open it, I look inside. I make a little mimicry of the world's assault on me. Revenge in miniature. I'll be the prosecutor here. (There are other ways to look at the bag. I won't go into them.) But she can't live without "biting into her own flesh." She has to eat.

She is sensitive and hysterical, and so is her author. His prose is screwed so tightly to a point, and the implications he draws are so large and supernatural (Elizabeth Hunter opening her eyes slightly in my last post and her nurse perceiving, all of a sudden, beauty, death, a pure spirit world, and a goddess), he describes incomprehensible eternity pressed into small physical events, like big feet in small shoes, repeated events -- and eating and the eviction of morsels and gases, what's that but the epitome of compulsory repeated events? Here is pressure and sadism carried out in a routine way: the dismemberment, torture, and crushing of food.

In life he liked to cook, he liked to eat with friends, and ate a meal with Christina Stead on more than one occasion. Stead's character Sam Pollit forcing chewed banana between his lips into the mouth of his daughter has a mirror image in literature, and that mirror image appears in Patrick White, during the early chapters of The Vivisector, as Hurtle Duffield's mother pushes soft chocolates from her mouth into the mouth of her son.

There is food-warfare in White and food-warfare in Stead, and they are two different styles of warfare. Food in White is personal and invasive, the characters smear themselves, they betray themselves with food (we see Basil's thoughts about the pie and he looks like a poseur), they become dirty with food, the food attacks anything ethereal in them, the act of being in the world is plain and grubby, this grubbiness is a reminder that they exist. The nightmare of this book is the opposite of a sleeping nightmare, that dissolving and slippery evanescence: the nightmare in Storm is to be helplessly embodied, awake and trapped in flesh, to be Samuel Beckett's Unnamable, a consciousness revolving on top of a tower of carcass.

But Stead's people are not sensitive to that kind of anxiety, they like to know that they exist, in fact they don't want anyone else to forget it, and so they talk and talk (one in Cotters' England talks another character to death), or they make displays of money, the warfare they wage is directed outward, at the social human world which they desire on general principle to overwhelm (as did their creator, proud of the fact that House of All Nations was eight hundred pages long), and food is part of that warfare, an exterior battle, character against character. Henny Pollit's fight against her husband takes many forms and one of them is this: she insists on butter for her table and meat instead of beans. But the most spectacular example of food-warfare comes in the middle of House, when one couple stuffs another couple with so much food that the husband of the other couple nearly faints. His wife discreetly puts a single peach on his plate. The other couple fight back -- they pile him high with fruit and cream. "Some strange feminine instinct prompted Mme Haller to feed that great mountain of flesh till his eyes popped." This is a hostile generosity, this hospitality is greed reversed; greed is an idea that Stead pursues through this book -- the idea of overfeeding. A man in The People With the Dogs decides to play a prank on a women, so he puts up a sign, inviting strangers into the house for all-you-can-eat steaks and potato, cooked by this women. A mob of passers-by arrives demanding food. The women as a group are taken off-guard. They feel compelled to cook.

[to be continued.]

* I don't think White uses this word anywhere else in the book, which makes the placement here seem deliberate, the foul in foulard brought out by the foul scene around it -- the spraying gristle, the hot liquid running down Dorothy's face -- here is the precise naming of a clothing item in partnership with floppy gross sloppery; accuracy mating with a sewer, which is a common kind of sadism in White's language.

You can look in David Marr's Patrick White, a Life for stories about the man's cooking.

Monday, February 20, 2012

from which comes congruence, and the harmony of dissident parts

(The first paragraph of this post refers here and there to earlier posts. If you haven't read them then don't worry, it should all clear up by paragraph two.)

But your knowledge of gardens isn't confined to only two examples, you know they're not defined solely by what can be excluded from them, the conclusion at the end of the last post was based on minimal evidence, madness, madness, and yet if that was all you had, then why wouldn't it seem convincing? Ideas about plants, trees, beautiful flower beds, whatever else strangers imagine when they think of gardens, none of that reaches you. The idea of gardens solidifies around the idea of exclusion and your brain starts to provide you with a logical shape for this garden that can keep things out, it explains to you, your brain does, this -- a high wall, spikes, invisible force fields, signs erected, unspoken social understandings, children scolded, spy cameras, laws to protect the desires of garden owners, and so on, a society and shape builds up inside you, and humbly you live there for a while. My brain was linking one thing to another eagerly again yesterday when, as I was reading The Eye of the Storm, I came across a character who was (and as I write this I wonder what I mean when I say that a character is something, but how else do I phrase that thought) a married woman's French great-aunt named Eulalie. There is a Eulalie in Proust as well, not an aunt herself, but a friend of an aunt, and the words "Eulalie" and "aunt" so close together put my brain into a state where, when, later, Patrick White brought a couch into the story, I had the impression very vividly that the character in his book was going to sleep on the same couch that Proust's Narrator gave away to a brothel.

It seemed so convincing that I only dreamishly wondered how the characters had made their way into a brothel since they hadn't been in one a moment earlier. (When I say "dreamishly" I mean that my mind coped with the question automatically, as it does in dreams whenever anything impossible happens.)

When one of White's nurses on page one hundred and eleven tries to imagine "beauty, such as you had longed for, but had so far failed to grasp" I saw (prompted by the appearance of the word "beauty" and the idea of failing to grasp it) that she was going through the same dilemma as Julian in Lawrence Durrell's Revolt of Aphrodite. They should get together -- I thought immediately -- it would be mutually beneficial, and I congratulated myself on this brilliant thought, wondering if there was any way of somehow getting a message through to one of them, to let them know how much better their lives would be if they followed my advice, which would only be a suggestion, nothing pushy, just a good idea in which they might be interested.

Furthermore, I could point out, not only are both of you thinking about grasping beauty, you're also both inspired by a woman who is like an "idol" and who has blue eyes. The dying Elizabeth Hunter in Storm had eyes like sapphires when she was younger, while Iolanthe in Aphrodite has a pair "bluer than any stone." Julian wants to find an example of a beautiful woman because he believes that an experience of beauty will introduce people to a distinct and valuable definition of freedom. He explains, "But the only road to freedom of such a kind lies through an aesthetic of some kind. Beauty, from which comes congruence, and the harmony of dissident parts and which echoes back the great contrivances of nature." Elizabeth Hunter's nurse has already had a vision of a state that might be the freedom Julian is envisaging. Her patient opens her eyes and "one of the rare coruscations occurred, in which the original sapphire buried under the opalescence" forcefully appears. "Momentarily at least this fright of an idol became the goddess hidden inside: of life which you longed for, but hadn't yet dared embrace; of beauty such as you imagined, but had so far failed to grasp (with which Col grappled, you bitterly suspected, somewhere in the interminably agitated depths of music); and finally, of death, which hadn't concerned you, except as something to be tidied away, till now you were faced with the vision of it." And Julian's plan for Iolanthe reaches one of its crucial moments when she opens her eyes: "with a long delicious inspiration the lady woke; the two eyes, bluer than any stone, inspected first the clean white ceiling, and then travelled slowly down to take in our own surrounding faces; recognition dawned."

At the end of Storm a character looks into a genuine sapphire and goes into a rapture, his chest becomes painful, "flesh was translated into light," and when, confronted, he accidentally drops the gem he is "temporarily blinded:" he has mislaid his eyes.

So in these stories there is the idea that there is a thing that can work like a shock or, in Julian's word, "congruence," leaving you disembodied and freed, or with an idea of disembodiment and freedom. (Though you know as soon as they start describing this state of freedom, that every attempt to reach it has to fail: what else could happen?) There is probably some way I could compare that to the experience of being freed (or not freed but shaken loose) from the book, when I thought that Storm had shifted magically into the same brothel that appears in Lost Time, the identical brothel, and we were in Paris even though we were also in Sydney, where most of Storm is set.

Books are made of cues and holes, the reader fills those holes, the reader goes to work and patches up the countryside that the writer presents in glimpses, filling out the landscape with a sincere inner anticipation aimed (depending on the book) at trees and paddocks (we approach objects before they are there, suggests Heidegger, we anticipate them so that we can encounter them) or buildings, mountains, city streets, houses by creeks (Christina Stead), sombre forests (Ann Radcliffe), until you're convinced that if a character walked over to the left of their present location they still wouldn't fall into space, even though the author could fling them into space as easily as they could make them stroll into a room -- still, you think they won't, unless the author has already let you know, via examples, that this is the way they prefer to work, booting characters into the stratosphere, dropping them off cliffs in the middle of Bourke Street, tormenting them with vacuums, etc. There are many authors who try to make you forget that evidence in a book is not a law of nature but an author's choice. The narrator of Gerald Murnane's short story When the Mice Failed to Arrive believed, when he was a boy, that a storm overhead meant lightning was going to come in through the classroom window and strike one child dead, specifically, exactly one, so he prayed that it wouldn't be him. When he took an unusual route on his walk home from school he imagined his father searching for him, and when he saw him, the narrator thought, his father would tell him that something terrible had happened and the house had burnt down. There he was, this narrator, walking through a peaceful calm Australian suburb (I don't remember Murnane using the words "peaceful" or "calm," that's my personal polyfilla) believing that a disaster had struck his home and nothing else around it. There were no visible signs of this disaster yet he was sure it had happened; his lying mind was completely convinced.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

to use his garden

When I said in my last post that Ruskin wouldn't let Carlyle have free run of his garden because he spat, I was thinking of a passage in Joan Abse's book, John Ruskin: the Passionate Moralist. It goes like this: "Later, in Praeterita, Ruskin was to express remorse that he had not in these years given Carlyle complete freedom to use his garden, whenever he wished, as a refuge from the heat and dust of Chelsea. But, in some unpublished passages of the manuscript, he disclosed his reasons for not doing so which subsequently he evidently thought better of making public. The 'insuperable obstacle' had been Carlyle's smoking and, even worse, his spitting! Ruskin confessed that he had liked to keep his garden in pristine condition so that he and sometimes Joan, could always lie down at any time to examine flowers or grass without fear of anything but a little dust on their clothes. With Carlyle in the garden, indulging his bad habit, this would clearly have become an impossibility. So he concluded wryly: 'I never was happy in listening to Carlyle, but when the end of his pipe was up his own chimney."

Ruskin, according to that paragraph, felt no desire for the pleasure Carlyle must have acquired by smoking and spitting, a fact interesting to me, who in his shoes might have felt jealous that I couldn't have that pleasure too, smoking and spitting, spitting and smoking, and tipping out my pipe ash on the lawn, as Carlyle might have done, or injecting samples of my own private liquid into the secretive soil of the planet, leaving my saliva behind to spin away from me into the night with the turn of the earth, leaving it to arrive one day perhaps at the top of a mountain, as Ruskin in Modern Painters imagines a grain of sand doing, elevated by heaving topography from the subterranean strata bed of a dead stream to the peak of a mountain where comets fly past with their arses on fire and clouds precipitate rain or snow, depending on the time of year. (I came across a webpage recently where someone was claiming that the word mystical came from the antique mist-hakel, or mist-hat, a common phrase about seven hundred years ago among English-speaking people who wanted to refer to the clouds that hover around the peaks of mountains or hills, but this is contradicted by every online dictionary I've been able to find. They all say it's plain mystic plus -al, and this is a disappointment to me, imagining, as I wanted to do, that every time anyone described something as mystical they were in fact subconsciously contemplating the qualities of clouds, specifically lingering ones, seen from below by people in valleys, or, another way of putting it, the word mystical would always have suggested looking upwards.)

When he was a boy, John Ruskin I mean, he wanted to play with the anthills in his parents' garden, but the gardener kept sweeping them away. "I had nothing animate to care for, in a childish way, but myself, some nests of ants, which the gardener would never leave undisturbed for me, and a sociable bird or two." If you put this fact next to the adult Ruskin's private dislike of Thomas Carlyle's spit, and let's say for the sake of argument that you knew nothing else about gardens, you might conclude that gardens exist so that people can keep certain things out of them, and that the definition of "garden" is "an area of land from which objects are excluded," with these objects being whatever the controller of that land wants them to be, anthills, body fluids, anything, or perhaps, taking these two examples, you could narrow it down to, "objects which are physical evidence produced by the activities of living creatures" (eg, ants, Thomas Carlyle) for we have seen no proof that any other kind of thing can be excluded, and perhaps nothing else can.

Monday, February 13, 2012

designed to be seen in relation

I was reading Ruskin's Fors Clavigera when I came across Giotto's Charity, like this, in the Ninth Letter, "and make the field gain on the street, not the street on the field; and bid the light break into the smoke-clouds, and bear it in their hands, up to these loathsome city walls, the gifts of Giotto's Charity, corn and flowers." Of course I was rivetted immediately, as you are too, I know, because Proust read Ruskin, translated him as well, critiqued him in the preface that has been published separately as On Reading, and he uses Giotto's Charity in Swann's Way, Swann himself giving that nickname to a kitchen maid who wears "ample smocks" which "recalled the cloaks in which Giotto shrouds some of the allegorical figures in his paintings." Well, how goes it with Giotto’s Charity? he says to the Narrator, in Moncrieff's Englishing.

And, so, because I have a human mind and because that mind likes to link thing to thing and make what seem like logical deductions at the time (following the same neat and weblike system as more obvious logical deductions, such as, for example, the one you'd come to if you saw a body hit the pavement ahead of you, then looked up and spotted an open window) -- because my mind likes to deduce, and I can't say the same for yours, since it would be presumptuous, you being you and not me, so I shouldn't -- and perhaps I shouldn't even say this about me, but that's another deduction, and as I said, I'm addicted to them -- a hunter in a jungle, thrilled by pawprints -- anyway, because my mind likes to deduce, I thought that Proust must have had Giotto's Charity lodged inside him after reading the Fors, and, therefore, when the opportunity arrived for a comparison to surge up in his mind and run out of the brain into the medium of language, which was waiting like a prophylactic to enclose it, then Giotto's Charity was there, ready to go, schloop, into the rubber. Well done Giotto's Charity -- provided by chance, stored against need, and utilised at last. The final step being the rare one. Think of all the brainstuff we never use, piles of it, lounging in heaps. They talk about an author's influences; one day they should look at all the author's noninfluences, all those hundreds of books they read and forgot. Reading: what a near-total waste of time.

If all the authors in the world mentioned Giotto's Charity in every single book then I would probably have passed over it in Ruskin and taken no notice, but as it was the words gleamed out at me, a point of focus and apparent clarity, golden bridge for a second, and I shaded my eyes, impressed by the shine or sheen. And the same when I came across the phrase "all the year round" on the first page of Charles Dickens' introduction to the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, knowing that he used the same set of words twenty years later as the title of a magazine. That human habit of linking, too, might have been the reason why an article about Geoffrey Hill appeared in the Guardian on January 31st, an article that ZMKC linked to in a comment after my post about Les Murray's Manuscript Roundel. "Carol Ann Duffy is 'wrong' about poetry, says Geoffrey Hill", is the article's title, and the journalist, Alison Flood, was referring to a lecture Hill gave last November in Oxford. It was one of the same Oxford lectures I was listening to while I was unscrewing my bottle of oil. Duffy in an interview had decided that "the poem is a form of texting" and Hill in his lecture disagreed, saying that poetry is language condensed but texting is language truncated, and also that "texting is linear only. Poetry is lines in depth designed to be seen in relation or in deliberate disrelation to lines above and below," which is true.

He mentions two of Duffy's poems, and mentions, too, her background and his, very similar, he says, neither of their families were wealthy. One of Hill's grandmothers at least was very very poor, as we know from the Mercian Hymns. She was a nailmaker, "hare-lipped by the searing wire." "Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak / this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood / and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg." But he and Duffy have gone in different directions: she is Britain's poet laureate, a populist, eager for outreach, and he is Geoffrey Hill, with a reputation for difficulty and being a crank and a harlequin, as he describes himself, a Ruskinian role -- Ruskin in the Fors is aware of his popular place as a crank, and plays with it -- I think plays is the right word -- he plays with it and also is it; and the same with Hill, who refers to himself in the lectures as a "Ruskinian Tory," and again in an interview he gave afterwards. "I would describe myself as a sort of Ruskinian Tory. It is only Ruskinian Tories these days who would sound like old-fashioned Marxists. I read and re-read Ruskin, particularly Fors Clavigera."

But Duffy. It's worth mentioning that Hill doesn't drag her into the speech gratuitously, no, this isn't a tangential attack, instead he integrates her, combining her with other references, for she is, it seems, like them ("them" being the Elizabethan poets, London riots, popular singers, and other items he mentions) part of the ordinary material of his days, whatever came along to aid him, debris that he seeks out or scoops up by chance. She is part of a larger atmosphere of opinion. He brings her in as he brought everything else in, ideas clustering around a core, a hazy rather than direct method of building an essay-point. As far as essays goes he really does essai, like Montaigne, like Fors too, in a cumulative way which lets him wander, like water in a mangrove swamp, as opposed to, say, water firing itself straight down the chute of a ravine, instead spreading out into marshes, pools, and billabongs, but always remaining water. So too Geoffrey Hill, no matter what he talks about, always reminds you that he is Geoffrey Hill. "Shit-eating grin," he happens to remark at one point, discussing the behaviour of politicians, and the phrase seems so appropriate that he stops and relishes it all over again, "shit-eating grrin," and gives his considered opinion of the words. And he marvels as he remembers that he is standing near a place where Ruskin lectured, once upon a time, with Thomas Carlyle in the room, a pair of friends, although Ruskin wouldn't let Carlyle have free run of his garden, because he spat.

But the point I was getting to when I mentioned the Guardian, was that the interview Hill read, the one with Duffy, was published in the culture pages of that same newspaper, as was a review by Sam Leith which Hill critiques later, and in fact listening to these lectures I get the impression that he reads the book pages of that publication pretty avidly, and so, when, at the end of the lecture, he makes a disdainful comment about the art and culture sections of newspapers overall, you could connect that disdain back to the Guardian in particular, although all other papers can be implicated as well, since he didn't name one when he was doing his disdaining.

I suspect that the link between the article and the speech, the initial bridge, the moment when Alison Flood felt the focus of alertness take shape between herself and Geoffrey Hill, was the same instant that he brought up the name of her employer, a word to which she must be perpetually alert, brain trembling for its cue like brain of lynx or jackal, his voice tickling the trigger marked Guardian inside her head, so that the true subject of "Carol Ann Duffy is 'wrong' about poetry, says Geoffrey Hill" is not Geoffrey Hill or Carol Ann Duffy or the lecture or Oxford or poetry or professor or laureate, but the paper itself.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

richer than the humblest real one

I was picking up a bottle of oil and listening to one of Geoffrey Hill's lectures on a borrowed set of headphones when Hill said, "Thank you," and as I began unscrewing my oil I heard a screwing noise in the headphones and so Geoffrey Hill opened my bottle of oil for me at the same time as he opened a bottle of water someone had given him last year at the podium in Oxford while he was talking about perjury in poetry. The word poem came out of him sounding hyphenated, like this, po-im, or po-em, which reminded me irresistibly of the man with the purple shopping trolley, probably homeless, who shouted at me down the street two days ago, "Are you a po-lice officer, have you come to arrest me?" It's impossible to describe this hyphenated style of pronunciation if you haven't heard it but it's not only Americans with trolleys in the street who do it, it's American sports commentators too, who will hyphenate defense and say DEE-fens, or offense and say OH-fens, with the whole word banging its skull forward into dee and oh, and where the source of this frontloading lies I do not know but the sports broadcasters announce words like this with satisfied confidence; they will even shout when there is no need to shout, which is what the man with the trolley was doing too, and it is as though these television journalists do not believe that the microphones are really there in front of them, or as if they think the microphones do not have the power of increasing the volume of their speech, as if maybe they're dummy microphones, maybe they're mock-ups, maybe the universe is conspiring, maybe nothing in this television studio is real -- they show a massive mistrust in physicality, these sports commentators, which is almost definitely the reason why they're so excited whenever they see sportspeople, whose whole job is to test out every physical thing that they come across, starting with themselves and moving on to balls, sticks, sand, holes, etc.

Poetic utterance perjures the poet said Hill, and in a later lecture from the same series he talked about poets being forced, by the strictures of poetry, to make revelations. A dedication to form will wring things out of you, he suggested. I thought: so a writer is someone who always has to live with the guilty party. Well, and the same for anyone, we all have to do that, if to act is to self-betray, as Proust suggests, and who is there in the world who doesn't act? And how not to, when we reach out to everything through acting, like bony big amoebae, and the self-betrayal (as Swann betrayed himself by knocking at the lit window) is a side-effect? "The Worthiness of Suffering like / The Worthiness of Death / Is ascertained by tasting --" (Emily Dickinson).

This perjurous exposure is the only genuine kind of danger I can imagine Francesca Rendle-Short's Glory-character talking about in the quote over at Whispering Gums, "Glory decides writing is a way of thinking: to think, to write, is dangerous." Who does it endanger if she writes? No one as much as her. She'll mention someone, who? A dangerous writer. D.H. Lawrence, says Rendle-Short "attests that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a beautiful book, that it was tender like a naked body" -- but wait, I thought, self was the word Lawrence used -- "To me it is beautiful and tender and frail as the naked self is," he wrote in a letter to Nancy Pearn, April 12th, 1928 -- self, not body, not meat, which is a different thing, as Lawrence would have known, this man who loved the "fine, unquenchable flame" of the will. "What then was its will?" wonders Ursula in his Rainbow, as she examines a plant under a microscope. "If it was a conjunction of forces, physical and chemical, what held those forces unified, and for what purpose were they unified?" A "knowledge" occurs to her. "Suddenly she had passed away into an intensely-gleaming light of knowledge." The cells of the plant are visible but the plant itself must be more than whatever is visible. "Self was a oneness with the infinite." Which makes each of us like a book constantly being read, if you think of the book's self and assume that the reader is filling in for "the infinite."

(A book is "a small, hermetically sealed universe," says José Ortega y Gasset, as translated by Helene Wyl, and "what novelistic horizon could be wider and richer than the humblest real one?" The reader must be imprisoned by the author inside the smaller horizon-line of the book, a process that Ortega says is like putting a citified person in a village and convincing them to become so provincial that they "find [themselves] vehemently taking sides in the local gossip." So the limited book stares up at this sky above it called a reader, which seems as infinite from its concentrated perspective as the real sky does to the same reader, and, oh look, the book must say to itself: infinity!)

But leave Rendle-Short alone, I lecture myself: she was taking for herself the same freedom that Montaigne took for himself, which was the freedom to quote from memory; and Francis Bacon, who was inspired by Montaigne's essays, adopted the same freedom, and sometimes got his quotes slightly wrong, but the sense of the essay remained steady, as Rendle-Short's book remains steady too (so I'm guessing, anyway, reading the post at Whispering Gums). Sometimes when the original quote doesn't fit the material of the essay you see that Bacon's mind has whittled it so that it's in a neater shape, and yet "whittle" is too preemptive, I think, it suggests that the activity was all on one side, the mind whittling, and then the essay coming along quietly to borrow the byproduct; all right, change that; say that the essay, the mind, and the quote worked in tandem simultaneously until everything had been forged together: big fire and melt. Whatever the quote is, whether it has the name Plutarch attached to it or Plato or Marcus Aurelius, it's also Bacon himself, smuggling himself out under a disguise, the way that Australians do when they borrow from Donald Horne and refer to their nation as "The Lucky Country." Use that phrase online and someone else will jump in sooner or later to remind you that Horne meant it as a critique not a compliment. But Australian society has taken it and worked on it like the pressure of the planet on the trunks of drowned trees, turning them into diamonds. Horne designed "the lucky country" as a dead tree, now it is used for a diamond and he complained before he died in 2005, "I have had to sit through the most appalling rubbish as successive generations misapplied this phrase," but he couldn't turn the lucky country back into wood. The American author Greer Gilman, too, in Moonwise takes Old and Middle English and changes it -- keeping some archaic vocabulary, keeping the short cadences and the habit of alliteration, "Not ruing now but ranting," she writes, or, "They are meddled, neither breath nor blood, but flawed things, frail and bonefast" -- she changes it into the language of her book, having this old language speak through a mind that is not like any mind the ancient authors ever used. The enthusiasm for battles is nowhere any more and the characters tease and giggle, all soft with unfanged modern whimsy. "Sylvie giggled; and he began softly, hoarsely, to sing." "A wild storm of giggles, but the wind's eye was eery." "Ariane giggled in her sleeve ..." "Ariane bit her lip. She felt ticklishly close to laughter ..."

When Sir Gawain meets wild men in the wilderness the anonymous Middle English poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes it for granted that his audience will expect him to fight them immediately and violently and never say hello or otherwise treat them like people; in fact he puts them briskly in a shopping list of Things The Knight Fought along with dragons and wolves. "Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez and with wolues als / sumwhyle wyth wodwos þat woned in þe knarrez." (Somewhile with wyrms he warred and wolves also, / somewhile with wildmen who dwelt in the crags.) Gilman's Ariane meets a lonely man living wild in the woods too, but the language immediately assumes that he is harmless, he is going to be a ragged, kind companion in a "wraprascal" coat. It doesn't occur to Moonwise that Ariene will do anything else but make a friend out of him. Moonwise is a hateless book. Meanwhile there was my man with his trolley up the street, also in old clothes, also behaving wildly, neither dangerous wodwo nor kind companion, literature helpless here. I told him that I was not a police officer, I had not come to arrest him, and as far as I was concerned he could do whatever he liked in any street in Las Vegas, but he shouted the same phrase again, and went on shouting it while I said no, no, sir (as Americans do I said sir, which might have sounded like a parody of respect if you had seen it, me shouting back down the street at this homeless man, sir!, but it was impossible not to actually and truly respect someone who was so determined not to be lied to, and who was like an unconquerable Sherlock Holmes trying to penetrate a mystery with only one instrument, he was a man using a fork on soup because fork was all he had), sir, I said, there's no police around here, but he went on and I saw that the phrase had got hold of him, language would not let go, and whatever else he might want to say, he couldn't say it. There must have been about thirty years between him and Geoffrey Hill, with Geoffrey Hill older, but there is no podium at Oxford for the trolley man, not now or ever; he was a soul enspooked.

José Ortega y Gasset was writing in The Dehumanization of Art. Donald Horne's book was The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties, published by Penguin in 1964. Dickinson's poem doesn't have a title unless you know it by its first line, and then it's Despair's Advantage is Achieved. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas H. Johnson) makes it poem no. 799. Podcasts of Geoffrey Hill's Oxford lectures are available at the website of Keble College, Oxford. The physical part of Keble College was designed by a man who believed that he "had a mission to give dignity to brick."