Thursday, May 3, 2012

lives set into the bowl

I believe that there are some things we do naturally; we see faces in everything, and personalities; I say look at any piece of wood and you'll find a mouth or a profile. Next to the Methodist church I noticed two sets of cardboard eyelashes attached to a parked car above the headlights, fixed there, curled up a little prettily, as though the lights were eyes and the wires running behind them went back into a brain that sat under the hood coming to its own conclusions about the driver.

For a thing with a face has a brain, and that brain might be dictating its behaviour, the eye of the watching person wants to predict the intentions of the creatures standing nearby, from which it can judge its position in the world, a desire that does not seem to end when those things are trees or cars or stains on the wall, in other words they are genuinely brainless: and I think: what a longing we must have for faces and expressions, which we want to mistake for books in which the mind can be read. Look at my dog, said a man in the room with me on the weekend: she's smiling. The dog was pulling its lips back. "A lizard," wrote Martial in his Epigrams, "fashioned by Mentor, lives set into the bowl; and we fear the silver." Inserta phialae Mentoris manu ducta / lacerta vivet et timetur argentum.

I can discover an emotion anywhere, I can look at a sentence and call the writer happy or angry, believing with an instant instinct that if I met them they would behave in such and such a manner consistent with their sentences. Which character would you like to have a beer with, journalists ask their readers in an intimate written voice; which man from Austen would you want to date, Mr Darcy or the one in Emma? It is as if there is really a man in the book, and the question they ask is the question they ask real people about real men: who would you date, why do you like them, and how will you exercise your discrimination? A question followed by an answer is one of the simplest forms of story, a beginning followed by an end, with the middle occupied by mechanics of consideration.

The question is a prompt, the prompt preemptively places whatever is said next into a certain category of utterances, and grammar itself is a system of prompts, asking the question, what is this? and answering, it is a noun, until everybody who reads Jabberwocky knows that tove is not an adjective. Individual words seem to have characters too, the word slithy, for instance, which leads me to another question, which is: if we can imagine that these words are flavoured with largeness or sneakiness, or, in mimsy, twee, then do we also think they have their own brains, and if they don't have brains then where do we think those innate qualities are generated?

Marguerite Young worked out how to build a sentence that ran very purely on prompts. There was that one from the chapter about the bus driver, "His hair had grown three inches since he left Persia at sunset, just when the sun was setting over the empty box factory, over the bare razorback hills snouting like wild pigs against the dark sky, over the trees naked of flowers, the leafless bushes, the foundry that had no bricks and no fires and the bell-tower that had no bells and the flour mill where the flour was black as coal dust ..." the earlier words predicting the later ones, "no fires" triggering "no bells," "trees" igniting "bushes," but the nouns themselves don't intimately matter, as long as they can attach themselves to the nouns before, throwing out their hooks like mountaineers climbing up from nonlife into life; the bushes after the trees would work as well if the bush was a different kind of plant. The sentence could even have accommodated more plants. It would have been larger but not deformed. The sentence is a perpetual motion machine. As long as she can find a word that can be coupled with a previous word then this machine won't finish itself naturally; she'll have to make the decision herself, cutting into its momentum, and leaving the ghost of the longer sentence behind, an impossible sentence that never ends.

And there are other ways for a word to bring another word into the world, the rules of different poetic forms can encourage one word to appear and another word never to make its appearance, a fact that was made even clearer to me when I read the footnotes for D.R. Shackleton Bailey's Loeb translation of the Epigrams, and saw that the Roman had been forced to use allusive language in several of his tiny works because there were words that would not fit his meter.*

Would the sunlight in Thomas Grey's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard still have fallen on the lawn if it had been shining at midday and not at dawn? Would the wren in Sounds Assail Me by Oodgeroo Noonuccal have sung a song, if human beings did not know evil and wrong? If people were sweet, the wren would have said tweet. That wren is the slave of comprehension. The brain of the wren is the writer.

* Being annoyed at them was a joke he used at least twice. "That noble, soft, and dainty name I wished to put into polished verse," he wrote in Book IX, referring to the word Ěǎrǐnos, or Spring. "But, contumacious syllable, you rebel. And yet poets say Eiarinos; but they are Greeks to whom nothing is denied, whom it beseems to chant 'Ǎres, Ǎres.' We, who cultivate more austere Muses, cannot be so clever."


  1. The way your mind works DKS is a wonder to behold. (I'm sorry I've been absent for so long - the last month or so has almost defeated me).

    Anyhow, my possibly non-sequitur response to your last paras has to do with the chicken and the egg. In other words would Oodgeroo Noonuccal write about people being sweet? But, then, you answer that anyhow by your final statement ... the brain of the wren is the writer so while words force the words that follow it is in fact the writer who chooses the first word (in the first - hmm - place). The challenge for the writer is to ensure that the words s/he chooses prompts the emotions and ideas in the readers that s/he wants but s/he can never be 100% sure of where the readers' brains will take them. And once again I've rambled here and there and got nowhere in particular.

    I do like your discussion of how we see faces everywhere, and then ascribe emotions to them. Only the other day my friend said she liked the front of her new car because it was smiling, and I distinctly remember my family's first holden had a big grin. I wish though that those thoughts had prompted something more creative out of me.

  2. My mother's old Holden Camira has headlights that slant down so slyly at the centre that it's impossible to look that car in the face without thinking, "You're cunning. You're scheming." You can blame the first paragraph of the above on years of me catching glimpses and wondering what was going through its head.

    "The challenge for the writer is to ensure that the words s/he chooses prompts the emotions and ideas in the readers that s/he wants " -- so I suppose the next question is, How does the writer know what she or he wants?