Thursday, August 30, 2012

gestures and movements of the human body are laughable

Thomas de Quincey swerves and so does Robert Walser. Walser was an author who could write a sentence that was like a game of Exquisite Corpse, a series of pieces fitted together, as I was reminded ages ago by a post at Wuthering Expectations, a quote there -- "Outside a car awaited me, which then whisked me away, and so off I drove, and no doubt am still doing so to this day" -- a line from the end of The Dinner Party a piece from a book of Walser pieces, Masquerade and Other Stories, translated by Susan Bernofsky -- with the fold in this Exquisite Corpse coming between drove and and, both the first segment and the second segment making sense in themselves, but together disconcerting.

Nonsense writing, this is, I think, the sensibility of Nonsense writing, the awareness that sentences are made up of parts, and that the parts can be played with -- and if sentences then maybe also the world? -- the spectre of that imaginary dictatorship is tantalising; the Nonsense writer is a dictator in that dragon world; the dictatorship is called Nonsense and funny but every dictatorship looks ridiculous from the outside -- North Korea's Kims like fat dumb bears in playtime suits -- which he, Walser, achieved with a pencil not a pen, I read, in an essay by J.M. Coetzee in the New York Review of Books.

The pencil and the self-invented stenographic script allowed the purposeful, uninterrupted, yet dreamy hand movement that had become indispensable to his creative mood.

Suggest that this putting-together of parts is comic in accordance with Henri Bergson's description of comedy movement: "The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine." (Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the word comic, published 1900 in French, as Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique.)

The last part of Walser's sentence sits against the first part as it would if it had been imported from a foreign place that was hostile or indifferent to the first part; pieces of a machine don't care about one another either, but the mechanic bolts them together so that the machine works; Walser has bolted two parts together to make the machine of the sentence work; it's a strange sentence but it's a sentence; you can paint your cog with daisies but the clock still works; develop this if you like into a philosophy of the world, indifferent parts fitting together, the indifference reflected everywhere, Nonsense reflecting that reflection, the hostility in Alice, the solitary characters in Peake, and the people in Lear's limericks who're brutal to one another.

There was a Young Person of Smyrna,
Whose Grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized on the cat,
And said, "Granny, burn that!
You incongruous Old Woman of Smyrna!"

Proust's narrator wants to retaliate against Charlus but cannot do so on the same plane as Charlus; he does not live on that plane, he is not an aristocrat, he is in the other man's house, he cannot read the other man's behaviour, what does he do? He grabs the Baron's hat, he stamps it to pieces, and this strange and unexpected activity is quickly absorbed into the realistic scene, Charlus adjusting -- Proust alert to Nonsense -- Nonsense is not unrealistic --

Sunday, August 26, 2012

they served me for a bridle

I'm thinking of de Quincey and his swerve into the subject of crocodiles during The English Mail Coach. He achieves this swerve by, one, talking about coaches, then, two, talking about coachmen, then, three, comparing one specific coachmen to a crocodile (they both have "a monstrous inaptitude for turning round"), then, four, saying that "all things change or perish," then, five, connecting that idea to crocodiles, "Mr. Waterton tells me that the crocodile does not change -- that a cayman, in fact, or an alligator, is just as good for riding upon as he was in the time of the Pharaohs," then, six, continuing with Egypt, crocodiles, Mr. Waterton, and the idea of crocodiles being ridden. "The use of the crocodile has now been cleared up -- it is to be ridden; and the use of man is, that he may improve the health of the crocodile by riding him a fox-hunting before breakfast."

By now the author has moved a long way from English mail coaches but he gets back by picking up change again: "Perhaps, therefore, the crocodile does not change, but all things else do: even the shadow of the pyramids grows less. And often the restoration in vision of Fanny and the Bath road, makes me too pathetically sensible of that truth." So he has an idea, change, not-change, and attaches unusual things to that idea: here, crocodiles: the thought stays steady, the basic drive endures, but the decoration is unexpected.

The mind, I'm guessing, high, loose, curious, ready to take the unusual thing when it finds it and continue with that thought, not stopping at a simple statement like, "The coachman was like a crocodile" (which he could have done, or not mentioned crocodiles, never compared the coachman to a crocodile, compared him to an elephant instead, compared him to a rock or an oven, compared him to nothing, never mentioned him, never written the essay, never written anything, died at birth, been illiterate, been literate but lost both hands in an accident at the age of five, been literate but had wet cow hide stitched over his hands to dry and cripple him as happened to one of the two captains in charge of the Mongol ships that tried to invade Japan and were wrecked in the thirteenth century -- the great Khan not forgiving of this escapade --), but willing to find out what else crocodiles can do. What comes into his head when he thinks about crocodiles? He thinks, he wonders, he recalls Charles Waterton, an Englishman who rode a cayman and wrote about it in his book Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824; with original instructions for the perfect preservation of birds, &c., for cabinets of natural history (1825) -- Waterton says --

By the time the cayman was within two yards of me, I saw he was in a state of fear and perturbation: I instantly dropped the mast, sprang up, and jumped on his back, turning half round as I vaulted, so that I gained my seat with my face in a right position.  I immediately seized his fore-legs, and by main force twisted them on his back; thus they served me for a bridle.

He now seemed to have recovered from his surprise, and probably fancying himself in hostile company, be began to plunge furiously, and lashed the sand with his long and powerful tail.  I was out of reach of the strokes of it, by being near his head.  He continued to plunge and strike, and made my seat very uncomfortable.  It must have been a fine sight for an unoccupied spectator.

And it's possible that the idea of crocodiles being hard to turn round came to him from Waterton's story in the first place, in other words it might have come to him before he mentioned Waterton in the essay. Thinking of the coachman struggling to turn around he might have had a memory of the paragraph about this cayman trying to dislodge the Englishman from its back: that beast plunging and lashing the sand. The animal in Waterton's story does not sound like a nimble turner, not mobile and lissom, more like an angry plank, and so de Quincey, remembering or seeing that the coachman had "a monstrous inaptitude for turning round," might have considered Waterton's cayman.

Therefore he compares the coachman to a crocodile. But he doesn't bring Waterton's name into the writing straight away; he spends the rest of the coachman paragraph describing himself and the coachman's daughter Fanny. "In fact, the utter shadowyness of our relations to each other, even after our meetings through seven or eight years had been very numerous, but of necessity had been very brief, being entirely on mail-coach allowance -- timid, in reality, by the General Post-Office -- and watched by a crocodile belonging to the antepenultimate generation." Waterton is in abeyance, then Waterton is there: "The Fannies of our island -- though this I say with reluctance -- are not improving; and the Bath road is notoriously superannuated. Mr. Waterton tells me that the crocodile does not change ..." but that name, Waterton, might have been lurking in the atmosphere throughout the story of Fanny in the previous paragraph and we didn't know, we couldn't know, it's impossible to know.

Charles Waterton fits into de Quincey's essay and helps him onwards but the essay could have been different, in another life de Quincey might not have read Waterton or heard of Waterton, Waterton might have died on his cayman and never written the book about his Wanderings (instead he waited for several decades before he tripped on a bramble, fell on a log, and perished on a chair, an ending not more strange than the death of someone we knew who lived through rural starvation in the American Depression, then endured World War II, then died this year by falling off the bottom rung of a ladder) which means that de Quincey would never have written him into the essay about the Mail Coach and how arbitrary is Waterton (now that I think about it, I who had taken him for granted before, inevitable feature, like the mountains, which are only there because the earth kicks up, and they move, says Francis Ponge, they move, but so slowly it's inhuman, alien regression from the pitch of creation, wearing away in the wind --): what an arbitrary thing he is, but nailed into de Quincey's essay. In fact the Wikipedia page about the essay says that "Perhaps the most memorable and frequently-cited portion of Part I is De Quincey's comparison of one veteran mail-coachman to a crocodile."* I don't know how they know that this is true.

* So it says as of today, August 25th, 2012. Someone might edit that away in the future. Today, though, it says it.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

growing thin

A line is a dot that has gone for a walk, said Paul Klee, allegedly, somewhere or somewhere else, and as a matter of fact I can't discover where. Everybody quotes it, nobody tells me the source, or I can't find the source; the source is somewhere and I do not have it, or it was somewhere once, the words appeared, there they were, and now exist and were disseminated outward from that long-ago point of composition, if outward is the word.

Here is this statement of an idea and take it, you, said one person, and all right, said the other, and on it went, and was streamlined, as things are streamlined, Sherlock Holmes for example, who never said a certain famous phrase and of course actually never said anything, being fictional and what's more, silent, and as silent as the gramophone in Magritte's painting of the murderer who is listening to a gramophone while three men stare at his back, the body lies on a stiff chaise-lounge, he may be detained soon by two other men nearby but of course not: he will listen to the music forever, which does not exist, and he did not commit the murder either, nor did Mr Dawes in For the Term of His Natural Life, neither in the story nor out of it, and whatsername, Sylvia, did not draw the words Good Mr Dawes in the sand of the beach, "with the sceptre of the Queen," where they were shipwrecked, poor Mr Dawes who was scourged but never really scourged, chained but never really chained, and so you can erase anything that happened in a book by pointing out that it never did and yet a memory in the reader nonetheless and not erased.

But that would be one way to write a blog post, starting with a dot, a book, and taking it for a walk, wondering if one day there might be a moment of cohesion and insight or whatever word you want to use (although concentrated thought might do the job better, and strictness, I concur, rather than this hoping), so that I am thinking of de Quincey with his English Mail Coach rather than the English teachers at school who told us, when we were writing essays, to restate your initial point in the final paragraph, and fasten it down with the information you've introduced in the middle; if you asked a question in paragraph one then have you answered it? If no then rewrite.

De Quincy here I reckon, or Victor Hugo and his William Shakespeare, which is not about Shakespeare (and which I discovered through Wuthering Expectations), or say even Geoffrey Hill, who I'm told described his essays as "vortices" during an interview that was published in the Times Literary Supplement. There are those writers who set their essays out in short parts and change with each part, and fall pregnant between each part with the next part. Helen Garner wrote about the ice floes that way once, I think, but my copy of her book is on the other hemisphere of the earth inside a box and I hope not eaten by the silverfish who follow the natural imperative toward nourishment and thereby propagation of the species, that the society of silverfish be proved eternal, a plan that is probably not conscious within them.

Now I'm going to finish this post with two paragraphs that were both originally part of the first post on Browning and Eliot. They stayed for a while, then they were estranged from the beginning of the post by a sentence that expanded into longer passages until finally they were not related to the start of the post in any powerfully connective way at all.

"[Meeting at Night is] an encounter of two characters who do not criticise one another or themselves; in Eliot the physical appearance is critiqued by the mind, the two hearts are in disparate bosoms, there is no spiritual communion: an ideal is not met, the person can't prove itself in any significant way through its appearance, or else you could say that its appearance disconcerts it or pollutes it: my personality is narrow and so are my legs, thinks Alfred J. Prufrock, and he imagines the women looking at his head and saying, "How his hair is growing thin." But whether the people in Browning's poem are bald or thin or ugly we don't know, he doesn't mind, he doesn't think about it. His man is crossing the fields on legs that are long or short or fat or thin; he has no legs, he is movement. One narrator is concentrated, one is diffused, one moves urgently, the other says, "There will be time, there will be time," and hesitates, he thinks of everything else, he thinks of the ocean, he thinks of Shakespeare. One narrator knows where he aims and drives toward that aim; the other has a rough idea of what his aim might be if he could find it but doesn't know if he is about to look in the right or wrong place or what the outcome might be: the power of certainty to make me move, says Browning, the power of uncertainty to hold me still, says Eliot.

But "each to each" in both cases. Words have friends everywhere, duplicates everywhere, doppelgängers back and forth through time or is it the same word, travelling to each point of time in an instant; what is a word? the word is the thing in the ink or something else, the ink and not the ink, the stock phrase is here, is there, it is a thing, it is not a thing, it is mine, it is not mine, you can take it but you can't steal it; I still have it but I don't own it, it's been stolen so often that it hasn't changed. It is the same but it isn't the same; it's different but identical, and the question then, since words evidently have a changeable condition and a static one, does this make them comparable do ourselves: do words have souls, or could they be a model of the body and the soul, or do they have souls and we don't, as we can see the static and eternal conditions of a word operating in front of us, whereas in the case of humans we have evidence of only one state, the changeable, and the immortal has to be taken on trust. The existence of souls in words can be reasonably observed and explained, which doesn't mean that they have them."

Sunday, August 19, 2012

shy buds venture out

-- resuming main point again after parenthesis -- if main is the right -- hello -- done --

-- although (resuming) I'm guessing that when you read the sentence at the end of that post, the sentence that was written in a trance, then it doesn't look different from any of the other sentences, even though to me it's completely different and like a visitation, written (though I'm assuming this is not obvious, as I said) when I was in a different mood, and it can't be read now by me (but no one else) without a memory of that mood, tired, itchy, annoyed, my lips peeling in this weather, my mind looking for a sentence and hoping that something would occur to me, because "it's a useful invention, very Victorian," wasn't an ending, I thought, and what more, what more, something needs to come I felt, but whether it was destined to come, or whether it would have come in that form even if I hadn't wished -- one last sentence, one ending, was what I wanted -- whether it would have formed itself like that, or whether I might have gone away on a longer speculation I don't know.

Ruskin as he looked at tree leaves wanted to write about the intricacy he saw, these things constructed in their complicated way, and in his writing he congratulated God on this effort, which he believed was obviously His, but as for these inner trees, I'm not even sure that I make them, or where the praise should be aimed, if anyone wanted to aim praise and say, "O Pykk, I have read many thirteen-word sentences recently and yours at the end of that post was the nicest" -- which possibly it was because anything might be possible, and if you happen to look at the world like that, says Browning's Middle Eastern sage Ferishtah in the poem Mihrab Shah from Ferishtah s Fancies (1885), then it should be a constant source of wonder to me that my head doesn't fall off for if anything is possible then why not that, additionally hands, knees, and other parts, a rain of pieces, immediately all at once, or one by one; or complete instant disintegration and back to molecules, whose ambidextrous capabilities and other talents, if possessed, go unloved?

There are forests of these inner trees, perishing from view, these shapes and networks with their roots running wherever and their branches ending wherever, impossible to see, coming and going, time passing faster than dog years in this atmosphere of the brain, or wherever thought takes place, not a place but the idea of a place (which I invent now specifically for this post: an area with shapes representing trees, therefore something like a countryside with an open sky), inventing it with what of course but more ideas: the thoughts building houses for themselves, and proposing a vision, saying, "I picture myself like a tree in a piece of nice scenery, say I'm near a mountain, because you have mentioned Ruskin, who walked in the Alps. He described their geography in Modern Painters and stood on the heaves of their rocks looking at the clouds, beauty, he said: science. 'I have often seen the white, thin, morning cloud, edged with the seven colours of the prism.'"

The only conclusion I want to extract from this windering-wandering, is that the immaterial thoughts do take their apparent substance from the district of actual substances outside the body, since every place I can picture exists as places exist in the solid world: even an imaginary space with no walls, walls or ceiling or boundaries is still discernible as though existent and hard, having a colour, texture and a temperature, myself not alone in this inescapable mental habit I see when I read one of the last poems Browning wrote, Reverie (1889), in which he wonders if godly "Power" will "come about" "amid whirl and roar / Of the elemental flame / Which star-flecks heaven's dark floor" or whether it will happen in some other location, with flowers and grass. "Is it here, with grass about, / Under befriending trees, / When shy buds venture out."

The denseness or false denseness or temporary clotted bit of the medium of language (which is killing the imaginations of readers, say the characters in one book by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, which, fair enough, you can't die if you don't have a body, and what else is a word to a thought but a body or maybe just a suit) brings the hard world to immaterial soft thought -- example -- room, floor, ceiling, and so on; no space can fail to have these items or else not have them. and one word is added or another substituted, the space has grass but no floor, it has no walls, it has mountains, it has the sky and the sun but no moon or moon but no sun or else heavy cloud cover hanging mattress-like over the whole environment -- the different parts, like head and hands and knees; removable it's possible, but if some other body part, ie sentence-part, is not substituted then the paragraph dies into the Invisible, poor thing.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

enigmas which we all in our innocence believe

I didn't know that I was going to end that last post with a question about Prufrock's soul; the sentence didn't come to me until I'd finished the one that's now before it, and then it presented itself intact and was written down as presented, a sentence that came through trance --

-- (though if I had stopped to reason out an idea I might have said that his creator hadn't given him a soul to ignore, and that was one difference between a Browning and an Eliot, or a Victorian and a Modernist, etc, etc in other words my opinion would have been a simpler and more received opinion, since it would have come more or less from vague memories of places where I'd heard that Victorians were more religious than the Modernists -- and that T.S. Eliot was that thing known as a Modernist -- and Browning a Victorian -- and so forth -- and I have seen what these sort of vague crusts of received thought are worth, I saw it two weeks ago in fact, when I was talking with someone who said that certain smart people in Israel were identifying prophetic codes in the bible with computers and working out the messages therein, himself being serious about this as does one who knows information pertaining to the matter, but when I said, The way they do in kabbalah, he looked blank -- he had never heard the word kabbalah -- and he repeated strongly, You have to know Hebrew, no, you have to know Hebrew -- on reflection I felt myself like a veneer most of the time -- or wing of moth, easily obliterated by brighter fires -- but he was not embarrassed or extinguished and explained that these methods had prophesised famines. Which famines? I asked, but he said, Just famines.

I would have been drawing my conclusion more or less from rumourish info and would have not considered the idea of a concealed soul in Prufrock, even though Eliot converted devoutly to the Anglican faith in 1927 and was therefore, as I should have guessed, interested in the correct mode of spiritual perpetuosity -- liking the Catholic side of Anglicanism, he said -- for he possessed, in his opinion, "a Catholic cast of mind" (On Poetry and Poets, 1957).

Think of Prufrock's guilt, I could have said to myself. Think of that sense of sinning and being punished and of pinnacles unreached. "I am not Prince Hamlet," he says. My own memory of Anglicanism is mainly the paint splatter machine at church fetes along with the Sunday School teacher who confiscated my rubber kangaroo; a long time ago but the desire for vengeance lives in me, lives, lives, lives, which places me I believe temperamentally in the Old Testament rather than the New, though I did get my kangaroo back and so there was no hammering of tent pegs through anyone's head as per Jael, wife of Heber, Judges 4: 21. "Then Jael Heber's wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died." King James version, and makes me think of E.R. Eddison, who was large on the violence and the smoting, yet more about castles than tents; in fact no tents whatsoever but rather stone and gardens, the hard and the soft, peg versus head, and much, as I said, of the smoting. Anglicanism involves cake said Eddie Izzard and that was pretty much my experience.

Then reflect that I don't know anything about Modernism besides reading bits of it, then reflect that I don't know anything about most things, forests, deserts, trees, ovens, etc, which reminds me of a sentence I saw months ago in a post at the good tumblr named Writers No One Reads: "Amongst so many strange things: the predictable sun, the countless stars, the trees that resolutely put on the same green splendor each time their season mysteriously comes round, the river that ebbs and flows, the shimmering yellow sand and summer air, the pulsating body which is born, grows old and dies, all the vast distances and the passing days, enigmas which we all in our innocence believe to be familiar, amongst all these presences that seem oblivious to ours, it is understandable that one day, in the face of the inexplicable, we experience the unpleasant feeling that we are just voyagers through a phantasmagoria" -- from The Witness, by Juan José Saer, translated out of Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and the translation published by Serpent's Tail in 1990) --

-- end of parenthesis --

Sunday, August 12, 2012

we shall each meet each

Say for fun that Browning's characters are migrating towards the Prufrock point of view, which is, I cannot explain myself, I cannot understand others, we are all separate, but they still have action, they're not Alfred standing still on the stairs, they still act, they have a kind of faith, or action itself (in Meeting at Night) gives them faith, or faith gives them action, or allows them to have it. The narrator of Fifine charges at the problem of doubt as if he thinks he's going to reach a solution. And does not, but the poem still ends with the optimistic concluding statement, "Love is all and Death is naught," which is the same as, "The soul exists" (more on this in a second) and "Hope exists, hope supersedes doubt."

Prufrck is charging at doubt as well, but this is so that he can describe his failure and redescribe it several times, not working towards Browning's soft positive conclusion but trying to refine his despair and prove it; Browning worries the question of soul, Prufrock worries the question of hopelessness: I'm an irritant, I'm boring, my legs are too thin, I am "an easy tool

Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous --
Almost, at times, the Fool"

-- stalls, mourns, won't talk, gets into the past tense and regrets peaches. They don't understand me, they won't understand me, I don't understand them, "That is not it, at all," they'll say, it's too much, I wilt, physically speaking, though my thoughts are active; I can't absolve myself of myself, I try, I will not be forgiven, I dissolve myself through different characters and ideas, I am multiple, I am the Fool, I am really a crab, I am Lazarus; this corse is a cage.

Browning's characters aren't free from despair but they have action, they move, they pursue, the poet getting them over their separation dilemma with the help of a presence he calls the soul. Everyone has a different point of view in Browning, he makes it an ordinary theme, but points of view belong to the material world, they're acquired because no two bodies can exist in the same space at the same time; meanwhile your true self, which is also your soul, can come into very close contact with other souls, and it can transfer the intimacy of itself to others through the eyes, or through hearts "beating each to each," or, in his later poem La Saisiaz (1878), after death, when the poet hopes he will meet once more Miss A. Egerton-Smith, who died in her hotel room while she was on holiday. "The next morning she did not appear, and Browning and his sister waited for her," explained Lilian Whiting, in The Brownings Their Life and Art (1911). "They sat out on the terrace after having morning coffee, expecting to see the 'tall white figure,' and finally Miss Browning went to her room to ask if she were ill, and she lay dead on the floor."

The words "tall white figure" come from the poem.

But, for once, from no far mound
Waved salute a tall white figure. "Has her sleep been so profound?
Foresight, rather, prudent saving strength for day's expenditure!
Ay, the chamber-window's open: out and on the terrace, sure!"

Then Browning the poet rearranges her, the words of the poem are searching for her again in the next verse, slightly refreshed yet essentially the same, the poem restates her, it stares twice, nothing there, puzzlement increases: "No, the terrace showed no figure, tall, white, leaning through the wreaths."

In La Saisiaz it seems Browning believed that the soul contained, or was, the true character or personality-essence of the person, it was her he was going to meet again, Miss Egerton-Smith. If souls existed (which he couldn't prove but hoped for), then there would be recognition and reunion, not of two inhuman postdeath energies (which is another way to envision the soul), but two people. "Grant me (once again) assurance we shall each meet each some day," he wrote.

The soul in his work is only theoretically a sublime substance; he treats it like a human being who happens not to have a body, it is described in human terms, it is addressed as if it still interested in Beethoven and Mozart, it can "Walk -- but with how bold a footstep," its supreme purpose was to go through experiences that are purely material and human ("Soul was born and life allotted: ay, the show of things unfurled / For thy summing-up and judgment"), it is not separated any longer from other souls by flesh and the privacy of brains, a soul can mingle with other souls; this mingling in Browning is a human noun, it is love.

How can a person be a person as we understand people and be also immortal, which is precisely inhuman, I do not know (but this is a consequence of the living trying to find words for unlife, an inbuilt conundrum, perhaps the other way around too, when one soul asks another, "What did you do while you were alive?" -- and the other soul replies with death-appropriate words that we would not recognise as descriptions of living behaviour -- among the living, the horror of the grave is described as the horror of a dark cold sealed hole when the real horror is that you are not in the dark cold sealed hole -- any description of an afterlife is necessarily dishonest, as far apart from life as a written representation of thought is from thought, by which I mean that it's made of a whole different substance), but somehow this refinement is achieved by undescribed mechanics in which Browning has unconscious faith, and this belief in the true, fixed self, existing somewhere, somehow caught in the body during its lifetime, propels the narrator of Meeting at Night across the sea in a boat so that his immortal self can commune with the self of another. Soul in Browning is a practical resource, like a locomotive, or like the taurine in that drink I had a couple of days ago, it gets you going, it's a useful invention, very Victorian. What is it that Prufrock's behaviour betrays or abandons, wonders Browning. Is it his soul?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

beating each to each

Robert Browning incorporated the phrase "each to each" in more than one of his poems. When I came across those three words in Meeting at Night (a poem he published in 1845; I rediscovered it a while ago in the Cambridge Editions' Poetical Works of Robert Browning, published 1974, edited by G. Robert Stange) I heard in my mind, as if someone had pronounced the words, "I heard the mermaids singing, each to each" from T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock (1915).

Then I began to wonder if the word coincidence could be applied to the fact that Browning is in the middle of some sentences about sand, coves, waves, and beaches, while Eliot is mentioning mermaids, crabs, beaches, and waves, and that the action in each poem is the opposite of the action in the other one, Browning's narrator travelling across the sea and crossing fields to meet the person he loves, while Alfred J. Prufrock is so strangled by indecisiveness that he can't make himself step across a dry doorway and say hello to the women in front of him: not strangers, he knows them.

He worries about conversation, "And should I then presume? / And how should I begin?", but Browning's narrator is eager, he thinks that speech is less important than the material encounter --

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

-- the encounter will solve everything if there was anything to solve, this point of view more described but also more doubtful in a poem Browning wrote and published nearly three decades later Fifine at the Fair (1872) (and he brings up the same point in other poems along the way so might as well assume it was a constant idea). The Fifine narrator concludes that the important thing between people is the glance or active encounter (there's that Victorian faith in eyes, glances, and orbs, a British faith and not only a British one, "It was a fatal glance she gave him with her Aldebaran-like eyes," writes Hugo in The Man Who Laughs, as translated by someone anonymous, and Chrétien de Troyes was using the eyes as long ago as the twelfth century: "The eyes, which channel love and send the message to the heart, renewed themselves with looking" he wrote in Erec and Eneide, which was Englished by Carleton W. Carroll and published by Penguin) -- "to me, one glance / Was worth whole histories of noisy utterances," writes Browning in Fifine but qualifies himself, "At least, to me in dream," since the narrator at this point is explaining a dream of masked Venetians.

Fifine (two thousand four hundred and sixty-three lines), which is longer than Meeting (twelve lines), gives Browning more room to doubt and explain but since he himself chooses the length of the poem (whether this is conscious or subconscious, never mind which for the moment: the poem itself dictating the length of the poem perhaps, this fits, this doesn't: here, it's done, no more now, rhythm subsiding, finishing, gone slack, ended, says the subconscious to the hand with the pen, whereat the poet surfaces and blinks) conclude that he didn't want doubt in Meeting at Night and did want it in Fifine, and guess for one moment that doubt developed in him as he aged. Call it a theory: doubt began to seem necessary, he had written The Ring and the Book (1868 - 69), a poem two hundred pages long in this Poetical Works, small font, double column on each page; and it spends its length moving from one point of view to another around the subject matter of a triple homicide, encouraging the reader to doubt, since the opinion you are reading at any given moment might be contradicted later.

Nothing is ordained, suggests this poem: a small change could have changed everything, say the characters, people do not understand you, explains the poet. The elderly Pope who orders the murderer's execution goes on for pages reasoning out his decision to himself, the good, the evil, and the possible outcome -- weighing it out -- but no one else in the poem has the faintest idea of the work he's put in: they assume the sentence of death was the one-second spiteful careless spasm of an old man who was going to die himself pretty soon. I notice also, in Prufrock, that the reader is asked to believe that the women in the room will never know or care about the intricacies of the man's thoughts, instead they will be satisfied if they can judge him by his hair and legs.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

see from the impression made

Then -- this is following on from the last post -- then there are instances in which two separate events draw together and seem to match one another in a mysterious way that begins in an instant and develops; the aspects that pertain to the connection become overwhelming, the pleasure of unity can become dominant or sometimes doesn't dominate but lingeringly and powerfully exists along with other thoughts, and you sit, working it out in more detail, you pick your way along, you reconstruct it yourself, might be a way to put it; every step an arrival wrote Rilke during the Duino Elegies, overflowing, in German. I was at a taiko demonstration not long ago, watching the sculptural poses of the drummers; they stretch one leg back at the right moment, bend the other knee, strike an arm branchlike back into the air, stand upright again, raise the two sticks above their heads so that the tops are level (the two flat ends like two circular eternal platforms standing next to one another, tables for flies), then one stick falls onto the drum in a certain way, and if this is done ideally then the fall of the stick doesn't seem to have any muscle behind it.

This is how people faint too: this is unconsciousness within a structure. And there are writers who seem to write transparently, even passively, so it is as if you can see through the medium of language into their intentions. Colette in translation is this way to me. Joyce in Ulysses does the other thing, he reminds you, "I wrote, and you are reading, and people before us have written and read."

All this movement is part of taiko drumming, not only the noise but the appearance of the people making the noise, necessary, like the season-word in classical haiku, without which the poem is not haiku, said a Japanese man to me once, when I asked him what you would call a haiku without a season word. "It would be nothing." But he was a traditionalist and I am not convinced that modern haiku agrees.

The season-word is the word that lets you know when the poem is taking place, the bird that suggests summer, the leaves that suggest autumn, the activity that takes place in winter: all well-known to the classically-aware audience, and potentially felt by them as well, perhaps knowing from lived experience the singing of the cicada or the call of the bird. And so this dimension which is not metre, syllable, or anything else, becomes necessary to the poetry: the poem extends deliberately into the dimension of memory in this specific way, instinctive memory, folk-memory, as blatantly taught or softly absorbed through the environment. Not haphazard and by chance as described in Proust, where accidental incidents bring back the resonant memory of masturbation in the little room at the top of the house and the blot of pearl dropping on the leaf, but in haiku aesthetically aimed.

And in other poetry as well, but in haiku a special set of Japanese references and a particular spacious sharpening.

And not personal (as in Proust again) but communal, and there is an opportunity for a short essay here on the personal memory of the author becoming a written memory that can be understood communally by a collection of readers, etc, but not right now, as it is hot and every leaf outside the window is a brilliant surface. The haiku, once it is constructed, becomes part of a body of work that forms the exterior conditions for a certain group of people and pushes their personalities in various ways or in other words tightens a cord on the unseen corsets in which their floating selves were locked at birth: Buson a fibre, Bashō a fibre, Issa a fibre.

I thought about this sculpture in the noise of the drumming, sculpture invisible if you heard the music afterwards coming out of a radio or in some sound-only online format, nothing then but the boom-boom of the drums, with no legs stretched back, no sticks evenly matched above the head, and the same with writing (I thought, bringing the two activities together, the mind a magnet), the movement of the hand above the paper or keyboard as you move from one word to the next becomes invisible when a reader sees the screen or book, that lifting and falling, the careful manipulation of the musculature, all dissolved, and the residue left behind is what on paper we call handwriting (residue in the way that a nail that fastens two planks together is the residue of hammering), and Walter Benjamin was interested in graphology. He wrote, in a review of A. y G. Mendelssohn's Der Mensch in der handschrift --

Handwriting is only apparently a surface phenomenon. We can see from the impression made in the paper during printing that there is a sculptural depth, a space behind the writing plane for the writer; on the other hand, interruptions in the flow of writing reveal the few points at which the pen is drawn back into the space in front of the writing plane, so as to describe its "immaterial curves." Could the cubic pictorial space of writing be a copy in microcosm of a clairvoyant space?

[translated by Rodney Livingstone.]

I jib my finger and there is the shape of a borderland where a thing prepares to appear.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

part of their body turned in a backward direction

I have to get from one end of my project to the other somehow: this is how Aelian feels -- imagine it for a moment, let me make this up -- momentum has got him in a fist, he has said he will do something and now momentum is pushing him along, he violates the author's ethics that would make him check the information, he won't discard or stop, momentum is dictating his behaviour now, momentum is not him, he is its slave he feels, and perhaps momentum is the breeding-ground or food of the duty-feeling he wants to acknowledge with his note to the reader, but knowing your own impulses is always hard, describing them difficult -- so he fishes, he finds a rational explanation or phrase: he says, it's cracked isn't it, this pretend fact I'm telling you about the moray eel?

We are in conversation, he suggests, and I am apologetic, I shrug but I speak, and the words that occur to me are social words, I will give you this explanation, he says, you will forgive me, and I will stop and breathe, for my objective all along was to stop and breathe, a clearing, peace in the forest, the grip of time relaxes for a second, which is the purpose of an apology, or this one anyway, maybe not all of them, imitation, all imitation, the imitation of a fact followed by the imitation of an apology, and what am I doing here: is this my pen, is this my hand on the pen, are these my fingers?

Outside this rented flat the summer heat flares, the sunshine inflames the atoms, the landscape is white as heaven, the carpark glares like a bomb blast.

How did this project get away from me? he wonders, sucking or chewing the pen again, or putting it down, or looking for a new one because the end has broken, or staring at a bird outside eating an ant, and cannot think of ants now without remembering that in Babylonia there occur ants with the generative part of their body turned in a backward direction, as he records in Book XVIII of his series, section forty-two, still translated by Scholfield.

It's such an easy project, he thinks, I do nothing, I read, I pass on other people's stories, I've never seen a moray eel in my life, I never will see one, I wouldn't know a dolphin if it fell in my lap, and I don't care about storks; why am I being dragged along like this? Something is wrong somewhere. But hard work is good for you, he thinks, how will I get anywhere without hard work? The elder Pliny never stopped writing. He wrote before dawn. He wrote in the bath. And I am staring at this bird.

The bird makes a noise, perhaps Coo.

So a mix of motives drags him on and you can call that momentum. Now I'm switching from him to me. I say: ideas occur and where do they come from, and how do you negotiate the universe of other people to whom these ideas occur, to whom they fly, I imagine, out of the darkness, but only imagining it this way because it is easier than unravelling the pathway of the idea in any serious way, any scientific way, any way that might in the end actually make sense, if you could only find it, if it were not beyond human ability to find, and so, like the people Spinoza despised in the Ethics because they reached the end of their imaginations and decided that everything they couldn't be bothered to understand was God, I am tempted to say that the ideas come from darkness, as though this honestly vague word indicated anything definite, and I might as well also have said God, or, borrowing from a sign I noticed once at Disneyland, the magic of imagineering. Here I move to the next paragraph quickly and wonder if this is getting too self-conscious and facile: possibly, but keep going.

So I was reading Will Owen's Aboriginal Art & Culture blog a while ago when I came across a review of a book by the Japanese historian Minoru Hokari, a scholar who was, like Aelian, interested in a group of ancient-established people, but his were the Gurundji, who live in the area of the Northern Territory now called Wave Hill, and they told him that in the year 1966 they had been visited by the American president John F. Kennedy, who gave them verbally his support in their endeavours. There must be a way of reconciling histories, suggests Minoru Hokari who knew that the president had been assassinated in 1963. His book is called Gurindji Journey (2011), published by the University of Hawaii Press or the University of New South Wales Press, depending on your location.

Sometimes pieces of information repel one another, they can't exist together in the same place, and the idea that John F. Kennedy was extinct and that he was giving advice to the indigenous people of Wave Hill at the same time, these two ideas are driven apart if you try to put them together, they are the same ends of two magnets, or they are the Ancient Greek and Roman information about storks and bats versus the new information in the modern world where I sit today on this hard chair, which is wooden and screwed together. As long as the magnets stay apart there's no problem. But when they try to exist harmoniously then both parties are disturbed, very much like the cockroaches that try to come into this bald little flat, and when they do I kill them. The subjects of death and John F. Kennedy remind me of an American not so long ago who told me that she remembered the day Kennedy got assassinated.

They sent us home early from school, she said, because the president had been shot. As we were getting our bags to leave they came on the loudspeaker again and informed us that he was not only wounded but definitely dead. My parents were out hunting. When they came home we gave them the news that the president was killed. Stop lying, they said. What are you doing out of school?