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."


  1. Very kind of you to give the trolley man this small podium at least. Haven't had time to dig out the Savige thing yet.

  2. Sudden vision of him at the podium at Oxford. Gets up. Nods to audience. Straightens tie. Takes polite sip of water. Pats throat. Shuffles papers. Shouts, "Are you a police officer? Have you come to arrest me?" at the audience for half an hour. Bows. Ahems. Has another small sip. Gets down. Goes home. Thunderous applause.

    It's a strange world, where one man is sane and honoured and a professor and everyone is rapt when he speaks, and another man is trapped in semi-schizophrenia and nobody pays him any attention unless he's shouting at them from a distance of half a tennis court away and asking if they're going to take him off to prison.

  3. Perhaps you said "p'lice" and not "PO-lice"! I'm sure you confused him and maybe if you hadn't he might very well have been able to share that PO-dee-um!

    A different matter, sorta, but your discussion of change reminds me of those famous quotes that get misquoted: You know "Play it, Sam" and "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio". Taken out of context they seem to lose their flow so we fiddle to make them work and then forget it was ever different. And so it goes ... a propos of nothing really but I just had to comment on a post that had you being yelled at in the supermarket aisle by a man with a trolley. Wish I'd been a can on the shelf that day!

    1. The idea of forgetting is interesting here I think: do we really forget that they were ever different? We know we're borrowing those quotes from somewhere else, since that's part of the point of using them. I wonder if there's a sort of frisson in suspecting that we might be getting them wrong, quoting them from memory like that. (I know someone who misquotes Handel's Messiah every time he sees a crumpet come out of a toaster: "The crumpet shall sound." Knowing that he's misquoting is the joke. I might be possible to make some sort of argument here: "Jokes exist to expose tensions, therefore --" etc etc -- and extrapolate.)