Sunday, July 29, 2012

who, without indeed attempting union

Pretend that the brand of butter presented to the boy on a crumpet by his mother is the connective word in the sentence that removes parataxis: his happy and sad states join together and become a consequence of one another, so, imagine it as though the mother had brought along an And on a crumpet, whatever that would look like, and then she said to the boy, here, take this, let's have some continuity in this kitchen rather than these moods occurring right and left without obvious connections between them, because that disconcerts me, she said: I don't want to do all the work and feel as if I have to live on assumptions, my own assumptions, existing in the middle of this surrealism or haiku, strange haiku, first you're sad, and, I don't know: then there's an event that lets us know we're both affected by mono no aware, but you're too young, she decided to the butter knife, too too young to be worrying about the pathos of transience, though it is, she says, genuinely sad.

In the Duino Elegies, she told the melancholy boy, the poet Rilke sees transient objects begging us to recognise them and name them, but we are even more transient than the objects, says Rilke (this butter knife will be around when I am dead, she adds: and when you are dead also) which is an additional unique sadness, our superiors begging us for help. Kings, she says, kings in the dust, queens at our feet, and all passing away, she looks at the knife which does nothing but stands still with its end in the crumpet, collecting sunlight as it comes in through the curtains, this hard basking element upright and apparently alert. If I had brought you the wrong brand of butter, she continued, it would be as if I'd invented a word that didn't make any sense. Blarghenargh for example. Can I eat now, said the boy.

The stork has a problem with the bats in Aelian, then the bats leave; there had to be a connection thought the onlooker and so this observer made a scientific deduction or in other words baseless fabrication, since it's a fact today that plane tree leaves do not repel or paralyse the poor bats even if you are a stork.

How do plane tree leaves know that you're a stork, or does the bat-repelling force come from an outside source that only takes advantage of plane tree leaves because they're the type of leaf the stork has learnt to choose, but it would really work through any kind of leaf if the stork tries those instead?

Aelian never mentions any other kind of leaf in conjunction with those bats, and like this he allows the reader to believe that plane tree leaves are the only object that would do the job, but did the storks ever experiment with alternative utensils, perhaps a random stick? It is easy to grab the nearest object and never go any further and possibly this happened to the storks more than two millennia ago. So they are sort of human in a way, and I'm sure we can all relate to their situations and beliefs.

The Ancient Greeks (I don't know who) concocted the stork phenomenon and passed it on in their writing, forward it went, forward, until it reached Aelian, a scholar of Greek though he was personally a Roman (AD 175 – AD 235, he lived). Like the imaginary storks he must have seen a likely-looking tool and grasped it, this piece of information that would make his existence better and easier, helping him to solve a problem in his life. What problem? His book-series (On the Characteristics of Animals in seventeen small volumes) wasn't finished yet. Not finished! Deadline? The author champs the end of his pen. Like a horse attacking a straw he goes at his pen with big teeth. What else can I say about animals? What else, wonders Aelian, sucking his pen, if he used pens, which he may not have done -- how did the Ancient Romans write? -- with pens I'm going to assume for now -- what else can I say about animals? He sucks or chews whatever he has, probably a pen.

Elsewhere in the world there are wars, there is hunger, starvations, famine, rare animals becoming extinct, an egg on an island consumed by a rat, a horse steps on the tail of a snake, a bee unrolls its tongue, an Australian foot steps in a puddle after a big northern Wet, the place where I am sitting is a pure desert with no building, I sit magically in the air now exactly here at every point in history, I am positioned over a cactus, and Aelian stops chewing his pen because a thought has occurred. Storks! But seriously, at almost every point in history I am dead.

Storks, he writes: storks, stork eggs, nests, bats, infertile, wind eggs, plane tree leaves, bats repelled; he puts his pen down, there's another page finished, and some years after this event he inevitably dies.

Each book in Animals is made of discrete articles, and next to each article or each new topic within the same article, the Loeb edition has printed subtitles to let the reader know what this portion of the book is about, "The Great Sea-Perch," or, "The Hawk and Eye-Troubles," "Tame Fish of Various Lands," "Honey-Dew in India," otherwise "Examples of Incest." Here is one example he gives of nonincest: "The camel, for instance, would never couple with its mother."* Loeb's version was translated by A.F. Schofield and published in three volumes, the first volume in 1958, the last in 1959. I believe the author must have been running out of material because he ends some of the entries with a note to let the reader know that in his opinion this information he's just passed to you is too strange to be anything other than a lie, but, he says, as the author of this book it is my duty to write down everything that I can find without making a judgment. I really do have to include this, he insists. He is more likely to write these notes in book three than book one, and am I wrong when I imagine that this is a sign of anxiety, bred from his greed for words, pressing with steady force upon his conscience?

* He writes:

In the name of Zeus our father, permit me to ask the tragic dramatists and their predecessors, the inventors of fables, what they mean by showering such a flood of ignorance upon the son of Laius who consummated that disastrous union with his mother; and upon Telephus who, without indeed attempting union, lay with his mother and would have done the same as Oedipus, had not a serpent sent by the gods kept them apart, when Nature allows unreasoning animals to perceive by mere contact the nature of this union, with no need for tokens nor for the presence of the man who exposed Oedipus on Cithaeron.

The camel, for instance, would never couple with its mother.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

to peruse it

[continued from the last post]

It's a nightmare of dying for the small thing, everybody stands there, nobody reacts, the player character runs on unconcerned, the non-player characters go on shifting their feet or bouncing on their toes, and yet the scenery the little creatures run through while they're living (call that living) is sweetly fresh, O the green slopes, O the high silent trees on their beautiful roots, and the little morsel collapses with a squeak, gone, gone, gone -- I once shot a moth and it flew on with the arrow emitted upwards for at least three seconds, distressing even now.

The wild joy depends on the presence of the second rock, and then an implied third rock, a fourth rock, and unnumbered other rocks, infinite rocks, untold wildness, limitless joy, freedom promised to Saul, who feels glum and impermeable, a brick wall sitting there, depressed in spite of David's singing and his lyre: depressed when the younger man came into the tent to cheer him up, his chest heaves, he folds his arms, he pushes David by the hair and and stares at him.

Lifted up the hand slack at his side, till he laid it with care
Soft and grave, but in mild settled will, on my brow: thro' my hair
The large fingers were pushed, and he bent back my head, with kind power --
All my face back, intent to peruse it, as men do a flower.

But my point, which I was going to reach sooner or later, is that ideas might come from corporeal instances, we hear a description of death and so we think of death, or we see something else and think of death, as in Proust, or we see death and think of something else, eg, spoons, letter-openers (one string of our internal web has been touched), we see a stork chase a bat away from its nest and conclude that the bat must be damaging the eggs (though why the Ancient Greeks and Romans thought it made them sterile I don't know -- there's an unanswered mystery) -- and so we have to wonder where this love of pairs comes from, we think, we consider, we look around, and the conclusion comes with massive logic:because we have feet, and how many feet?

Two feet -- which require maintenance, and which reward us by carrying us here and there, the brain understanding its situation and developing an innate respect for pairs as it feels those two feet moving parataxically, ie, constantly near one another yet not intimately connected anywhere along their length. The hip bone bridges the gap between the legs but it doesn't remove that gap. So we love pairs, it's very natural. Which leads me of course to think of the mysterious recurrence of threes and trios in fairy tales, and my brain is conducted to a further conclusion -- which is? -- that in the past we must have had three legs, and developed a love of threes, and either jolted across the earth like mobile tripods on three staffs or else rolled like the triskelion in the story that one character tells the others in Christina Stead's Salzburg Tales. Possibly a fossil record of this somewhere, quint-limbed in the lava.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

leaping from rock to rock

"Pairs," I say, "pairing," I say, thinking back to the end of my last post, and then I wonder if all ideas come from the physical world; something is heard, something is seen, and an idea comes afterwards. Each sense a reef and the wilt and sprout of coral. Perhaps people like to put two remarks together for emphasis, to make each one seem stronger and more influential than a single remark on its own -- each friend draws attention to its neighbour; together they're a larger target, better fighters, more thuggish, four fists instead of two; and on some occasions they can make a singsong --

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low.

-- writes Robert Browning in Meeting at Night, putting asymmetry inside the possible symmetry of the first noun-pair, first one adjective, grey, then two, long and black then another rearrangement in the next line, making little sonic upticks with the letter L; and so he keeps the reading citizens awake with his irregularity -- or perhaps the writer of the hypothetical pair puts the phrases together to create a frisson when the two disagree (those two sentences in the Hangover Heaven advertisement, for instance: such close friends and yet they fight) or for the pleasure of creating a suggestive lacuna, which may or may not be filled invisibly by an association (which might depend on a single connective noun, adjective, verb, or occurrence, as in W.G. Sebald's poem Poor Summer in Franconia, which has been translated, for the book Across the Land and the Water, by Iain Galbraith, who writes these three lines, "In the afternoon / my crazy grandfather / torches the fields," followed by this new verse, "My last aspirin / dissolves gently / in a glass," the two scenes, one large-scale one small-scale, connected by things dissolving, burning, and disintegrating (and containing, like two parentheses, everything in the middle ground, which I will imagine is disintegrating sympathetically as well -- the world in other words, is irresistibly getting away from you -- O --)) or by the expectations of the reader. And the singsong itself is a habit and a pleasure for many.

The biblical David in Browning's Saul tells the sad King that "leaping from rock to rock" is one of the "wild joys of living" and I notice that he doesn't say, "from one rock to another rock," or "from rock one to rock two" -- does not tell us that "rock" in each instance means a different rock -- instead he lets us know through the certain ordinary phrasing of this absence (from x to x, he says, a shorthand so embedded in the English language that it must have come to him automatically; it has to be an agreed-upon group-thing because it omits a significant piece of information yet he is confident that the reader will fill the gap without his help) -- that there are two rocks, and that the person is not leaping from the same rock to the same rock, or in other words just prancing or bouncing up and down the way the night elf women do in World of Warcraft, bouncing lightly on their toes when they have nothing else to do, and visible sometimes doing this, through doorways, and out of the corner of your eye, mysteriously unmotivated by anything except what you imagine to be boredom and childishness, -- childishness, even though they are grown women and capable of fighting demons, wizards, ogres, and the magical embodiments of water, wind, fire, and earth, as we so often see in our travels across Azeroth and other planets: those monsters they fight, the otherworldly powers in the shapes of whirlwinds with burning eyes, fire-spirits wearing shackles on their wrists, and also the ordinary bears, wolves, angry deer, even the small harmless animals if she wants to, squirrels, skunks, beetles, moths, anything can be murdered, an idea that has been taken of course from the physical world, where, if I hit a squirrel with an axe, it changes forever, and so does the computerised one but does it die?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

real brows turn smoother for our sake

Aelian's myth is the myth of sudden action, it is a dream, it is nature by advertisement, his strange bird takes the place of the child, his triton is the mother with the crumpet, his gods drive the car that is too efficient to be real, his stork is the sad customer whose life is affected by one primary misfortune, which is this: the bats won't stay away from its eggs.

[O]ne touch from the bats turns them to wind-eggs and makes them infertile.

The solution is a leaf. "They lay the leaves of a plane-tree on their nests and and directly the bats come near the storks they are benumbed and become incapable of doing harm." Aelian is revising Nature into the shape of a machine, with a leaf for a button or lever, the stork presses that button, the machinery glides into action, the end product appears, and the bird writes Nature a letter that ends with the words, "From a satisfied customer."

Swallows are faced with almost the same problem but their enemy is the cockroach. You notice in Aelian's lists of animals hating each other that the hatreds normally occur in pairs, not threesomes or complicated integrations of dislike, not the bat hating the -- say the dog -- and then the dog hating the mouse, the mouse hating the cockroach, the cockroach hating the bat, the mouse also hating the bat, but the bat not hating the mouse -- nothing tangled like that, it's very straightforward.

Nature fits beautifully together, for each reaction an equal and opposite -- and so on -- this idea sensed and extrapolated by Aelian in the early Anno Dominis, everything fits, and this is far away from the sensibility that created Balzac's Paris, with its jumble of objects piled up, and the excitement of that jumble, though there is no reason why a nineteenth-century guide-book to Paris might not be as clear as Aelian, and a different author writing about nature in Aelian's time might make the trees and animals sound like Paris in Balzac, with its clotted alleyways, small rooms, astonishing secrets up wooden stairwells, etc, all of this understood as the rugged forest path, the tree bole, the white maggots hugging in a corpse, and so forth, long ago, in the early Anno Dominis.

If you can state your problem in the Aelian universe you will be provided with a solution. Then the problem becomes, how do I describe the problem? Simple problems are the best. To state is to ask the universe a question, the universe sends back an answer, eg, celery leaves for cockroaches if you are a swallow. "Therefore the mother-birds protect their chicks with celery leaves and hence the cockroaches cannot reach them." A book is a problem for the author, the answer is sometimes first-person narration, or the right character, and Robert Browning on the opening page of Sordello says that dead people are useful when you are a poet looking for characters to carry your theme.

Confess now, poets know the dragnet's trick,
Catching the dead, if fate denies the quick,
And shaming her; 't is not for fate to choose
Silence or song because she can refuse
Real eyes to glisten more, real hearts to ache
Less oft, real brows turn smoother for our sake:
I have experienced something of her spite;
But there 's a realm wherein she has no right
And I have many lovers.

The city of Las Vegas, where I live, looked for a way to advertise itself and came up with the slogan, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," which worked as they wanted it to, the tourist numbers went up, though this slogan was not always the solution to that problem; in the 1980s they decided that they needed to appeal to families with children and hence the city built its themed hotels, the ones like fantasy parks, but now the aesthetic is nightclub, a little secretive, a little what the newspapers would call quirky, therefore the Cosmopolitan with its Art-O-Matic vending machines, and the towers of the Aria with its chairs like metal pigeons, so that I once saw a man sitting on the back of an unconcerned pigeon; he was wearing an expensive suit and holding his forehead in his hands as if he'd heard bad news.

But he was probably drunk, and for that there is Hangover Heaven, a mobile service staffed by medical practitioners who will attach an IV drip to your arm and feed you chemical solution for forty-five minutes, removing the ache in your head to some degree so that your attention can be shared among other phenomena and not concentrated there, on the pain, although when you are a child it is often beautiful, the way you feel when your attention is claimed by specifics; and they have an ad for this cure too, a photograph of a handsome man, mostly naked, looking in a mirror under these two sentences (Aelian and this copywriter are both under the influence of pairs): "The good news: you're alive. The bad news: you're alive."

Sunday, July 15, 2012

waves beating in

One thing worked when I had my sinus cold. I stood under a hot shower until the heat soothed the side of my head. But I boiled my own skin, or scalded it -- my arm went red -- the blotches itched, I scratched generously, I was a champion, I gave myself a welt, and it occurred to me that I could keep heading in this direction, with one thing going wrong and then another thing going wrong until something ultimately bad happened, namely decay, wounds, and death.

First the cold, then the itch, then the welts, then bleeding, then an infection, then weakening of the organism, then hospitalisation, then lack of money, then not able to pay for the funeral, gradually descending in gentle terrifying steps, a tempo of movement that Aelian's old Roman On the Characteristics of Animals doesn't always support, with its stories about sting-rays whose barbs will kill you instantly and the pairs of animals that hate one another on sight without stopping to worry or investigate any nuance, or move from one state into another in any way other than abruptly. "The Fox detests a Falcon and the Bull a Raven, and the Buff-backed Heron the Horse. And an educated man who attends to what he hears should know that the Dolphin is at feud with the Whale, the Basse too with the Mullet, and the Moray with the Conger Eel, and so on."

Then there are the herbs that will protect you utterly, as long as you know what you are and what to pick, which is possibly not as easy as the author makes it seem, for, and here is an example: earlier this evening as I was reading an article about sportspeople who had qualified for the Olympic Games I discovered that many of them chose their champion sport by accident one day while they were trying to get out of a different sport that made them feel embarrassed because they couldn't practice it without looking useless, they dropped the ball, nobody wanted them in the team, and they were humiliated. Then they must have concluded that they were no good at sport in toto, dammit, they thought: get me away from sport, but since school is making me do it let me pick this other thing. Fencing. They chose randomly whatever was being offered and some time later wondering what had happened they arrived at the Olympic Games.

In Aelian the people and animals are sure of themselves; they know what to choose. "The Land Tortoise after eating some marjoram treats a land viper with contempt. But if it lacks marjoram it arms itself against its enemy by consuming some rue. If however it fails to find either, it is killed." Events in television advertisements move at this speed, the dose is effective straight away, the car invigorates the spirit; and the child is happy because its mother gave it a crumpet covered with this kind of butter and no other kind of butter; it is not happy for some ambiguous or private reason but solely because the specific butter is present on the crumpet. The viewer may like to conclude that under other circumstances it would not be happy. What an emotional rollercoaster this child endures, its whole sensitive life nothing but wild hurtling depending on presence or absence of butter. Deduce then that it is not a character in a book by Henry James, where it would be delicate, ambiguous, reticent, and similar words; but it is there to love the butter, it is in the frame of the camera, it smiles with joy, it is out of the frame, it is gone, it was as sudden as its own happiness, it was haiku.

The morning glory also
turns out
not to be my friend

(which is Bashō, translated by Robert Hass)

Poor child of pathos, what happens when you've eaten all the butter? The sadness of age overcomes you, and you are still little yet you have nothing more to hope for, the time of happiness is over, there is nothing ahead but bewilderment and memory, the butter not eternal, the body aging, the muscles weakening, the bones brittling, the spine curling, the desire for death closing in, and your only friend is suicide.

The short night --
waves beating in,
an abandoned fire.

(Buson, translated by Robert Hass again. Both of these haiku translations were taken from The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson and Issa, which was published by The Ecco Press in 1994.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

its thinning shores

The details of an attraction can be so slight, or so hidden, that the attraction seems mystical. Undetected, it seems indetectable, until you say, "Mystic attraction," and detect it like that.

Instinct drives the lion in Aelian and things seem correct or incorrect; the Muse arrives, she is correct; the narrator of Thomas Bernhard's Concrete waits for the moment when he will be able to write the first sentence of his book about Mendelssohn, o virgin moment which will coincide with the sentence he needs, it never comes, all his moments are pre-deflowered, whereas the Australian poet John Kinsella is prolific, he is Georges Simenon, he is an anthill pouring ants, he has dozens of first sentences, he is endowed: "Glass -- brilliantly coloured / fused to granite -- caught his attention ..." "The mulga ghost / skirts its thinning shores ..." "Written time over OMO DEI, / read in rock-carvings, translated / out of Dreamtime." "And the morning rises out of the city's / Trailing archipelago and over the first trains ..." -- no stopping this man -- "The wreck foundered / on the foam ropes / of coral troughs ..." "To the bee / the red light / of the city / is colourless ..." "Outflanked by the sheep run, wild oats / dry and riotous, barbed wire bleeding rust / over fence posts, even quartz chunks / flaking with a lime canker ..." -- his selected Poems 1980 - 1994 published by Bloodaxe is three hundred and fifty-two pages long in baby-blue hardcover -- "A brown-shouldered kite's plunge / mimics the deep hum of high voltage ..." "A fox skin / in a nitrate bath / and a fox skin drying / stiff as a card ..." "The wire takes hold and spins in the hand / severing shirt buttons ..." -- books, essays, poems, he writes them all, he writes the gamut, he has taught on two continents, he works with Salt Publishing, which makes me wonder, as I sit here, how a person gets to a point where people offer them the opportunities to do all these things.

His mother sent his first book of poems to a publisher, and it was published; John Kennedy Toole's mother offered his manuscript indomitably after her son had killed himself and the dead man won an important prize; Kate Beaton's mother introduced her to artists when she wanted to apply to an art school, but there must be more to it than that because I remember my mother being helpful too and yet here I am; I don't even know what to post. She likes to walk a lot, my mum, and likes a book with animals. Dickens walked a lot.

Someone I know has recently joined a production of Warhorse, she's been cast as the horse, and her mother never had anything to do with it. It must be a matter of knowing people, seeing an opportunity, putting your hand up, and then somebody says, yes my friend, come and do whatever it is, and then other people know you, they recommend you for more things, and away you go. Walt Whitman wrote thumbs-up reviews of his Leaves of Grass, not under his own name, and supposed in prose that he himself was very likely a first-rate fellow; Ezra Pound reviewed himself as well, also positively; Joseph Furphy reviewed his own Such is Life in the Bulletin and (I think I've heard) was less complimentary than either of the poet-Americans, in spite of the novel's opening line, which is minorly famous: "Unemployed at last!"

Articles titled, "Best first lines of books" are useless; they always mean "Best first sentences of famous books," and so you see them offer you "Call me Ishmael" and the one from 1984 about the clocks striking thirteen, and so on; never the mysterious opening sentences of books you don't know, instead they flatter you, always a recognition, never an enticement; you might as well call them great closing sentences since the article is happy to let you think that you can stop there because you already know it all -- obscure books, I wish they'd use -- look at what we've found in this corner, this remote first sentence in a book you don't know, leaving you the reader of the article saying, well, the rest of the book might be trash for all I am aware, but that opening sentence is magnificent. The first sentence of Henry Adams' Democracy is pretty good. "For reasons which many persons thought ridiculous, Mrs Lightfoot Lee decided to pass the winter in Washington."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

a natural appetite kindles the desire for a specific food

Indigenous Literature Week is over but I direct you to the concluding post at ANZ Litlovers, which sums things up and proposes hope for the future, the future being an ideal place for things such as hope to repose and perhaps even the only possible place unless you can hope in reverse, which not even Merlin in T.H. White's Once and Future King seems to be able to do, though that was surely the author's problem before it was his. He lives backwards, in that book, I mean Merlin.

I sat down to write another post about The Italian, but Paolo's death feels like such a natural end point that I can't think of anywhere else to go. Ann Radcliffe has been sliced off me like the end of a sausage (I am thinking of sausages because we had bratwurst yesterday and why, says M., do we call them Brats for a nickname and not Wursts? It is Americans who do that, I said, and thinking of Americans I had to think also of the homeless and the schizophrenics outside, for, why, I had asked him, are so many people here so poor and so mad? why do they shout? who helps them? and both of us sitting in the Harrahs casino where the nation's sane children were appearing in an advertisement on one of the wall-mounted televisions, laughing, smiling, playing in long grass, and responding to a dinner bell rung by one of their mothers, the contrast between those children and the homeless man twitching in his sleep on the concrete outside Buffalo Exchange being so strong and so terrifying -- we are all doomed -- but anyway -- we were trying the America-themed milkshake at the casino's hamburger bar, patriotic due to the Fourth of July -- there was genuine apple pie crumbled into it) and what should I replace her with, Ann Radcliff? -- I wonder to myself, and I wonder it now to you as well, not that you can help, future-creatures that you are, flying forward unknown in some part of the world as I'm writing this, not knowing how useful you could be, and so I should say, Poor You, because it is very refreshing to help someone, especially when you can help them as easily as you could help me right now, just by typing, for example, "You should write about _____" into a window on the screen and hitting the key named Enter.

By the time you read this it will be too late; it is always too late to stave off the present problem although you might be able to prevent the one that would happen one minute from now, and it could be the same thing -- hunger for instance -- a sandwich -- solved --

Very easily you could improve very slightly the planet that is attached to you and which you attach to yourself, in so many ways, using it like tool, arm, or leg, and the sky too is attached to you, and the sun, by extension the entire solar system, then the universe beyond that, because nobody says you have to stop, anywhere, recognising these things you are beholden to, so that the bell that tolls for a moon-lizard falling off a cliff of rampant flame ten billion light years from your seat tolls also for thee. Ding dong, as they say in Shakespeare, tick tock goes the clock, but I have made remarks about Frank Kermode and his tick and tock at least twice already in this blog, if not three times, so I will not do it again.

So for now let me keep writing in a sort of flailing hopefulness similar to the one I experienced when, a while ago, when my right sinus was blocked, I ate a clove of raw garlic to see if that would help. It didn't, and as I sat there with tears running down my face I decided never to do that again. Childhood never completely ends; there is always something new to discover, which is surely a lovely thought. How did they pick their cures, back in the days when medicine was, for example, putting a slug on your wrist and licking a weasel's chine at midnight (I had to wait until Pepys to find out what a chine was; he spends every day and night bolting chines of beef); how did they choose one method over another; how do you rank the action of tying a hangman's rope around your knee against rubbing the wart of a rabbit on your ear? The reasonable answer is that someone tried one of those methods and got better, after which everyone said, oh, that must be the method that works, but it's possible that some of them merely sounded more appealing when they were described, and people were drawn to them by aesthetic pleasure, or else instinct, which is the way says Aelian, that lions are driven to eat camels. "At any rate I should not be surprised if it were by some mysterious instinct that the lion, in spite of never having seen one before, delights to eat the flesh of a Camel, if he chances to come across one. For a natural appetite kindles the desire for a specific food, even in those who have never seen it before," he wrote. (A.F. Scholfield made the translation.)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

what happened and how things were

First, the formal warning about these things: this post may contain the names of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are deceased.


Lisa Hill shouted me a sandwich once and I have not forgotten it, therefore, because one thing leads to another, etc, I have been reading a chapter from the book Don't Take Your Love to Town, which is a memoir by Ruby Langford Ginibi, a Bundjalung woman from the town of Coraki in northern New South Wales. Lisa is running an Indigenous Literature Week on her blog and it was either this or I read Alexis Wright's Carpentaria again, which I wasn't in the mood for, or reviewed Doris Pilkington's Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, which is written in the language of comic strip information boxes, "Little did he know that soon devastation and desolation would shatter this tranquil environment," and so on until you want to kick somebody but probably not Doris Pilkington because she is a granny; hence it would be disrespectful and you would look like Satan.

My chapter (which I found on Google Books) is Chapter One. Langford is born and grows. "Autobiography," wrote Carole Ferrier in an article about the book (Ruby Langford Ginibi and the Practice of Auto/biography), "has been the dominant genre over this time for most Aboriginal women writers, including Labumore (Elsie Roughsey), Glenyse Ward, Sally Morgan, Doris Pilkington and Mabel Edmund. In writing autobiography, they have been able to construct a visible identity as indigenous women within Australian society, and to write about aspects of the past that have been hidden from view as Langford Ginibi puts it `so we don't get left out of the next lot of history'" That article was published inside a Langford study pack in the late 1990s but the idea of memoir evidently obtains in the same group of authors now, more than a decade later; the Wiradjuri Jeanine Leane's Purple Threads (UQP, 2011) is a fictionalised autobiography, like Proust, and when Crikey interviewed the Rembarranga-descendant Marie Munkara about Every Secret Thing, (UQP, 2009), her reason for writing was the one that Ferrier suggested, to construct a visible identity for indigenous women within Australian society, expressed by her like this: "I really only wanted to write down some of the funny stuff so that one day my daughters would be able to know what happened and how things were for their mother, grandmother and other people."

That idea of not wanting people to be left out was the most useful one to have while I was facing this bit of Langford's work because she puts a mass of people in, she names people, she describes people, a neighbour enters, the neighbour receives a name, the neighbour waves and vanishes, and various numbers of these souls have no bearing on the story as a story, by which I mean that they do not push a narrative forward or even provide insights into the behaviour of the autobiographer, but she remembers them and so they go in. They are not left out. Christina Stead, when she was a teenager, wanted to write an encyclopaedia of unfamous people. Langford has done something like that, but it is a memoir. It has connective tissue.

And when I look at one of the other books I'm reading at the moment, a translation by Lewis Thorpe of The Journey Through Wales, a twelfth-century travel account written by a highly educated Welsh-Norman Archdeacon named Gerald, I wonder if this is how Langford's book will seem in the future. Gerald's book is autobiographical too, and his sense of structure is somewhat like hers, he names and describes incidental people and events as he remembers them, with a chronological framework around it all like a box. His ambition is not exactly the same as hers, he is not recording his family, and yet he too is motivated by the idea of preservation and rescue. "I published the Archbishop [Baldwin]'s Journey Through Wales, thus preventing his far from easy mission from ever being forgotten," he says. "What one owns must perish, but what I have will live. Possessions pass away but my skills live forever."

The descriptions in both books sit there, Gerald's and Langford's, these fossils in the fossil-bed of autobiography, and by these fossils we detect the long-dead dinosaurs, which are both "a certain knight named Gilbert, surname Hagurnell" who "after a long and unremitting anguish, which lasted three years , and the most severe pains as of a woman in labour, at length gave birth to a calf," and also a teacher named "Miss Pie, and she taught us to sing" in the Australian town of Casino where the author's family "rented a wooden house on the Lismore Road."

Miss Pie and Gilbert Hagurnell are preserved because the lava of someone else's memory happened to wash over them just there, they are baked in place, two silhouettes created and maintained, not the full creature but an idea of them; and Miss Pie would probably not have recognised herself from that description. "Listen," she would have said. "I am an encyclopaedia of my own."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

ebb and flood

So, say Paolo is allowed to talk, he talks so much he becomes a first person narrator, he feels independent, he doesn't want to be a servant any more, he leaves the country estate where the married couple employs him, those two, Vivaldi and Ellena, the former protagonists whose prominence he has usurped, it's the 1800s, democracy is in the air, he goes to the city, where, in Radcliffe, characters are corrupted, and he is still a Radcliffe character, in spite of this new first-person narration technique, whose seeing eye observes smart-mouthed city-people summing up their fellows in a businesslike and greedy way, they're well-dressed, he's dressed like a clod, he realises that he has spent years being treated like a moron, he remembers himself prancing around with the peasants, shouting, "O giorno felice!" and he is flooded with shame, so much shame that he becomes the narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, "I'm a sick man," he says, "a mean man. I think there's something wrong with my liver," but he has never been sick before, living in the countryside of a Radcliffe book where good health is everywhere, and yet now he's in the city, he is suffering, he has joined the stream of human beings from country to city, the movement of the nineteenth century, he roams through Balzac's city, "a terrible desert," he feels thirsty; through Baudelaire's' city "time to get drunk", he buys champagne; through the city of Cesário Verde, "The gas from the streetlamps makes me queasy," he reels, his head swims, the street rolls like a wave; through James Thomson's city, "The mighty river flowing dark and deep, / With ebb and flood from the remote sea-tides / Vague-sounding through the City's sleepless sleep, / Is named the River of the Suicides," then plunges into the cold water, is hauled out downstream by Gaffer Hexam, who, looming, bundled in clothes, frisks his pockets and reminds him of a monk, and the monks at home, Paolo recalls, could say anything they liked, due to their habit of gliding (always gliding) up to his old master Vivaldi under a ruined archway and murmuring threats, and there, he muses, is a set of people who knew how to represent themselves verbally with minimum effort, thinking this as the boatman drops him again, he drifts through the mud to the bottom of the river, he is drowned.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

of the most irrational

Vivaldi's servant Paulo deserves a further mention, so I'll mention him: he is a man who makes virtue out of necessity and turns the borrowed tic (by which I mean prolixity) into a mania, smart move, since talking means that the author has to give him things to talk about, which means that he has a character, or something closer to a character than's possessed by Peter or any of the other servants, who are more likely to do as they're told. The Inquisition arrives to drag his master away and Paulo talks them into arresting him too, then goes on shouting as they're carrying him to the relevant place, "I demand to be sent to the Inquisition! I demand to be sent to the Inquisition!" Even the fulfillment of his desires doesn't keep him quiet, because his real desire is to talk. As long as he talks he's present, and the author's tone becomes affectionate towards this unshutuppable servant who is also herself writing him. He is Sheherazade, he stays alive with his voice. She lets him keep going. She gives him the last word. There are one hundred and sixty-three words in the final paragraph and one hundred and thirty-seven of them come out of him. Three of them are other characters repeating him.

"O! giorno felice! O! giorno felice!" repeated Paulo, as he bounded forward to mingle in the dance, and "O! giorno felice!" was again shouted in chorus by his joyful companions.

I say that as if I think Paolo's persistence is a miraculous character trait, but when the Jehovah's Witnesses were being persistent, and coming around every weekend for months to push tracts around the door, and even handwritten messages -- sample text --

We come by but you
are not available. I want to
invite you to a special talk
this Sunday. Hopefully you
can come & if you do give
me a call [telephone number redacted].
Hoping to talk to you soon.

[names of Jehovah's Witnesses redacted]

-- then persistence was as lovable as demons, I wished they had the reticence that Vivaldi tries to inflict on Paolo, I wanted them to give up, and yet I still like persistence when I see it on the page, where Paolo is resisting a clear desire beamed from the rest of the book's universe in his direction. He is one man against the hero, the author's pet; he stands also against an army of all thoses. "I wish that all those, who on this night are not merry enough to speak before they think, may ever after be grave enough to think before they speak" -- he says -- butting against the forces of the sober universe the writer has constructed around him, this universe that would like him to be endlessly told off (and the Jehovah's Witnesses too, perhaps humiliated by doors shut in their faces, and the universe resistant), yet he treats this like an opportunity to make something out of himself (them too I suspect and yet I love them not); then I read in Graham Robb's biography, Balzac, about the writer persisting, sitting writing for hours, up till four a.m. with coffee, dressed in his monk's robe, writing even when he was writing pulp novels, at first, continuing to go, persevering through debt and disaster, the collapses of his businesses and the falling price of his shares in French railways -- which, Robb suggests, was a subconscious tactic to keep bum on seat, because as long as he was in debt he had a reason to write. Debt was a stimulus. Why did Paolo persist? His speeches get longer as the book goes on, he speaks more often, he speaks more nonsensically, and the spectacle of him demanding to be taken to the Inquisition at the same time as he's being taken to the Inquisition, by people who tell him that he's being taken to the Inquisition, is one of those rare moments when Radcliffe seems to be inspired by something outside her own tone. The talkative servant was a convention of the Gothic genre, explains Chloe Chard in the notes to Romance of the Forest, but a man who wants to start a quarrel with with the law because it won't arrest him, and continues this quarrel while he's in the middle of being arrested, is a representation of the one force in the universe that Radcliffe was explicitly and constantly against, which is unreason.

Paolo babbles, but her ethos is anti-babble, her god is reason, thoughtfulness, self-control; her protagonists are good because they are able to control themselves, her villains are bad because they can't; she has an Updike serenity in her sentences.

Ellena, had she obeyed the dictates of her heart, would have rewarded his attachment and his services, by a frank approbation of his proposal; but the objections which reason exhibited against such a concession, she could neither overcome or disregard.

Reason is the language she calls on when she wants to denigrate the Inquisition, saying,

Can man, who calls himself endowed with reason, and immeasurably superior to every other created being, argue himself into the commission of such horrible folly, such inveterate cruelty, as exceeds all the acts of the most irrational and ferocious brute.

The Italian (release date, 1797) was her last book while she was alive, though she published another one posthumously, three years after her death in 1823, of asthma, her husband said, of brain-fever said the rumourists who thought that, for Gothic authors, going mad was the only appropriate way to die; call it a tribute, one of The Italian's sinister monks gliding up to her in a ruin and murmuring, "Go not to the villa Altieri. That way lies DEATH," upon which, insanity struck. *

But pretend, imagine, that she spent those last twenty unpublished silent years being dragged in two directions, reason one way, unreason the other; the unreason of Paolo, the lure of humour, disconcerted her, I, Ann Radcliffe, could be funny -- I could be a funny writer if I went in this direction further, and babbled. It was there, it was a possibility, it tormented her on the country estate where she lived; Paolo let her enjoy herself in a way that no other character did, not the villain, not the heroes and heroines, so she lost faith in reason, the reasonable style had a crack in it, and her internal see-saw between rational neatness and voluminous chatter was represented in the Italian itself -- one tilt was indicated by the flood of Paolo's speech -- the other tilt represented by the master asking him to dial it down -- the dumb-servant dialogue that was meant to bore other characters by being prolix -- bore and annoy them to the point where they said, shush now, cut it short -- she liked it -- she enjoyed writing it -- she wanted it to keep going -- don't shut him up, she might have said if she was speaking the thoughts of her heart: I want him to talk.

* "Go not to the villa Altieri," says a monk in the book, "for death is in the house." Gliding is the ultimate verb of locomotion for all monks in this book. Glide, glide, they go. Glide glide glide glide glide. Mad gliding.