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.


  1. Replies
    1. It's the Australian equivalent of spackle, or one of those other useful gap-filling putties.(Looking at your blog, I'm going to guess you're American.)