Sunday, April 29, 2012

impel me without my own concurrance

The word "compelled" in the sentence I quoted a few posts ago, from Olga Masters' book Amy's Children, puts Amy's aunt in the category of characters who have felt, at different times in the history of literature, strangely driven to do this or that thing; they are the woman in the horror movie who hears a noise in the haunted woods and finds herself strolling out the door insanely in her filmy nightie shouting, "Hello, hello, is anybody out there, hello," into trees that she absolutely knows are filled with demons.

That hello-hello dementia stopped seeming unbelievable one night last week when there were gunshots down the street and everybody around me fled outside to look at this strange and dangerous event. No one was happier or more confident than the man who knew what gauge it was, although I didn't hear the number.

Compelled to look at Amy, the aunt fills her time contemplating the niece's clothes. What compels her? "The power of dislike," the reader says, maybe: it seems to be the explanation. Masters doesn't tell you clearly but she hints. The dislike is a mixture of emotions, you deduce, an alchemical mix that produced this bit of gold -- every description of an emotion is a recipe for that emotion -- an untested recipe with a hopeful cook, and the ingredients, Spinzoa said, were always desire, joy, and sadness, reasoning that these three could be manipulated and diluted into as many combinations as the human race would require -- maybe the aunt is driven by habit; she might be a woman who always looks down on other women who are well dressed, or women who work under a male employer as Amy does, and perhaps that aunt maintains her morsel of selfhood in the face of all nieces; it is this stubborn cupidity that gives Dickens the seeds of his characters, who will not be moved; the aunt is this cupidity diffuse, a Miss Murdstone is the same quality solidified.

Masters' "compelled" is very naked, but I suspect that the progress of literary compulsionism is evolutionary, and that earlier extrapolations prepared future generation to accept that brevity. "The precipitate vigour of Juan's movements seemed to impel me without my own concurrance, and as the shortness of the time left me no opportunity for deliberation, it left me also with none for choice," is a decompression of her single word, and it was published by Charles Maturin in 1820.

Trust me, begged Maturin and other earlier authors, proving with their busy sentences that they could explain themselves, and the generations of readers passed down that trust like heirloom blankets knitted by themselves so that later authors could take that trust for granted and made themselves cosy under it, is my suspicion, realising that they could discard Maturin's "seemed to" etc etc, or they decided that the blankets were too hot and now they wanted to explain compulsion in words less blatant, feeling the crusty past pushing them and believing that they were compelled to write in a new way; it was their new duty, it was the duty of Amy's aunt to look at Amy, it is the duty of Maturin's narrator to follow Juan, and it is the duty of the woman in the nightie to walk into the woods and die; a belief in irresistible compulsions covers a lot, for example, modernism, postmodernism, the romantics, Young Werther, suicide, gambling, and the way I keep clicking away from this post to look at newspaper headlines in the Age.

There is something mysterious about this compulsion. It seems to me that the characters would always have done something else if that unexpected flood of emotion hadn't been introduced to shove them on (emotion is an invisible force and it has to be an invisible force here because the story hasn't provided a visible prod that would take the place of that mystery, eg, a gun pointed at the left ear, a ceiling collapsing, nothing exterior to them is adequate so they have to do the work internally) but the emotion can never be completely explained, Maturin the Gothic romantic keeps his "seemed" (which is a word that says, "I can't explain why"), treasuring it, excess of sensibility necessary to his genre, there is a strange completeness in the compulsion's victory over the character's mind, the character pursuing their action with a vehemence that seems unusual, or unusually complete; Amy's aunt is "compelled" to stare at her niece until all the details the author needs have been absorbed.

Here is a lantern labelled "Amy's aunt" and the author picks it up and points it at a patch of the darkness that occupies so much more of every book than it will ever be able to illuminate, although, scratch that: any part of a book that hasn't been illuminated with prose is not the book, not lighted, not unlighted, but nonexistent. The aunt is the writer's guide, she is a temporary god-power, bringing into being all the world just then, though she is also nothing, she is the author showing the author a surprise, she is the unseen leading the writer from one word to another, she is the force that produces prose, which may be compulsion; and some writers when they are interviewed will praise compulsion, saying, I can hear my characters talk to me, I can see them so clearly, I only take dictation.


  1. No real woman in a filmy nightie (really, it would have been cotton pajamas) would ever have done any such thing. It's a male director's construct.

  2. It's titillation, absolutely, and the more vulnerable the character the more frightening the scare, is, I think, the theory here. Anybody looks vulnerable in a nightie. Sheer cloth, and no protection from below. Although sanely everybody knows that if they were facing supernatually powerful demon-spirits in a haunted forest in the middle of the night then solid corduroy trousers and a duffel coat wouldn't save them either, but it's the idea.