Sunday, September 30, 2012

squirming facts

Clues, clues, Charlotte Brontë, knowing the mental tendencies of her mortal audience, which needs to recognise things quickly thanks to a short lifespan; if immortal they could contemplate "vaster than empires and more slow," etc, and no wonder vampires get dolorous when they're switched so quickly from one state to the other -- the author plants clues, the banshee is a clue, the volcano is a clue, put it together with the wind, this is all a clue to the wind, which is a clue to the scene after the wind, and another clue to add to my ideas about Lucy Snowe's character generally, and it affects my ideas about the death, the dead woman Miss Marchmont looking "all calm and undisturbed" but this calm is a contrast to volcanoes.

Any reader, coming across the wind paragraph, probably begins to anticipate a quick concrete doom in the book, not believing that the author will let these volcanoes tootle away to nothing, the grammar of the situation demanding a response, as one part of language follows another in a sentence, as a The is followed eventually by some noun, so the predicting wind is followed by an event for it to have predicted, which will seem associated with the wind by its proximity to the wind, as the number 1 is associated with the next number that comes after the plus sign -- say a 2 --

1 + 2 =

-- and not another number that floats around two lines below, say a 4 -- the 4 gets ignored, like this --

1 + 2 = 3

-- when it could have been loved, like this --

1 + 2 = 5

I (reading) don't think this wind is having an intimate effect on an event occurring on page three hundred if it only blows on page forty-five (unless the author reminds me deliberately once again of that wind, which Charlotte Brontë does, actually, much later, in association with another death, but that's a different story) -- these things, when they're close, they cuddle -- and if Miss Marchmont had waited for two hundred pages before dying then would I associate her with the wind, even if that was what the author had in mind but never told me, ah, behold, says Brontë in my hypothetical world, behold, she says, this is a significant wind, and then the hypothetical book wambles off on another topic and everybody has a picnic, then they go on an adventure with a panther, and then they have a bike ride, then another picnic, this time with chocolate ice cream, and then the woman decides to pack it up and die all calm and undisturbed and Lucy Snowe must go to notBelgium with the Catholics.

One of Languagehat's readers looks over that Herbert Fiegel post and makes an association between Fiegl's point and two poems by Wallace Stevens, the quote was one shoe falling, now there's room for another shoe and Wallace Stevens is that shoe, one clue leading to another, the second clue provided and the circuit begun; room now for someone else to suggest a third poem, or a biography of Wallace Stevens, or a critique of the poem -- ourselves on the ground floor here -- primed for further thumps --

The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind,
If one may say so. And yet relation appears,
A small relation expanding like the shade
Of a cloud on sand, a shape on the side of a hill.

(Connoisseur of Chaos, Wallace Stevens, 1942)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

but, as night deepened, it took a new tone

"The wind was wailing at the windows," says Lucy Snowe, the representation of a young woman who is narrating Charlotte Brontë's Vilette, "it had wailed all day; but, as night deepened, it took a new tone -- an accent keen, piercing, almost articulate to the ear; a plaint, piteous and disconsolate to the nerves, trilled in every gust" -- but this is not enough for the author, she is impassioned, this wind should not be ignored, and so she makes a paragraph around it; this wind will not be an absence, this air needs to be noticed: "Three times in the course of my life, events had taught me that these strange accents in the storm -- this restless, hopeless cry -- denote a coming state of the atmosphere unpropitious to life" -- and now if the reader is asking O Ms Brontë, what kind of unpropitiousness do you mean? she tells them, she answers the unasked question, she makes the damage specific and not vague -- she fills a crack with epidemic diseases -- "Epidemic diseases, I believed, were often heralded by a gasping, sobbing, tormented, long-lamenting east wind" -- and if "I believed" seems too solitary, then she will attach this wind to other people's beliefs not only hers, it will be a legend that flies everywhere nebulously and it will have a mythical dimension. "Hence, I inferred, arose the legend of the Banshee."

Then she will enlarge the effect by attaching the wind to concrete things, hard, huge things, deadly fires, massive destruction, identifiable and romantic, scientific horrors, and inescapable global terrors: "I fancied, too, I had noticed -- but was not philosopher enough to know whether there was any connection between the circumstances -- that we often at the same time hear of disturbed volcanic action in distant parts of the world; of rivers suddenly rushing above their banks; and of strange high tides flowing furiously in on low sea-coasts." The character does not usually talk to herself in print but now she does, she breaks briefly into a new style, she is punctuating the end of this idea. ""Our globe," I had said to myself, "seems at such periods torn and disordered; the feeble amongst us wither in her distempered breath, rushing hot from steaming volcanoes.""

Yet the wind is not necessary: a woman named Miss Marchmont was already frail and sick, and then this wind blows and the next night she finally dies of a stroke that does not seem to have been caused in any medical way by the blowing of any wind anywhere.

We were prepared for that death pages ago but the wind is a moody poison running into the atmosphere and killing her; the reader sees this description of doom and they probably decide, since this woman's death is the most obviously bad thing that is likely to happen -- they believe, "That's it, she's going to die," or at least, "Something terrible is going to happen, she'll probably die although something else might happen too." But the woman's death will probably feature in their reasoning somewhere.

This emphasis on the wind has turned the wind into a clue.

A post at Languagehat quoted this from Herbert Fiegl: "The attempt to know, to grasp an order, to adjust ourselves to the world in which we are embedded, is just as genuine as, indeed, is identical with, the attempt to live. Confronted with a totally different universe, we would nonetheless try again and again to generalize from the known to the unknown. Only if extended and strenuous efforts led invariably to complete failure, would we abandon the hope of finding order. And even that would be an induction." A book is a ghost of that totally different universe; it's not the one where the reader lives, yet the rules of the known universe are the base rules by which the other one is judged: each book is the judgement of a mystery.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

myself stuck between its hinges

So there were these quotes going to and fro between several books, the evangelical with a book in his suitcase, Heat-Moon with a book in the back of the van, both of them with the books in their heads, Murnane with a book somewhere in his house probably or the quote written in a notebook he might keep close by, Orthofer somehow able to identify the same quote possibly because he owns the book from which Murnane borrowed it, and then I read Thomas Bernhard's Frost translated by Michael Hoffmann, and in Frost the lead character goes on a journey with a book, not one that he knows but one that he does not know, one that he has not read yet, a novel by Henry James which he thinks will give him something to do during the trip at those times when he is not talking to the person he is going away to meet.

He doesn't give away the title of his James but he does describe one memory of the plot as far as he has understood it. "I read my Henry James without understanding what I've read: I seem to remember women following a coffin at a funeral, a railway train, a destroyed town, somewhere in England."

A Frost reviewer at the New York Times decided that he must have been reading The Ambassadors, because "as in “Frost,” one character’s task is to go on a journey and bring back confidential tidings of a loved one in trouble" and "In both novels, the traveler is transformed" yet the narrator's description does not match anything in The Ambassadors, nor does it even sound like a bad memory of The Ambassadors, which for a start does not take place somewhere in England.

The narrator quotes this sentence from his James, "The earth might be clear, I feel myself stuck between its hinges without regard to myself, you understand" -- a sentence that does not appear anywhere in The Ambassadors, nor does it seem to appear anywhere in the work of Henry James, as far as I can tell. I might be wrong, it might exist somewhere, the "destroyed town" might be the burning house in The Spoils of Poynton, it might be one of the Jameses I haven't read (The Awkward Age and Roderick Hudson), the narrator might be reading a German James and Michael Hoffmann might have translated the sentence from German back into English and come up with an arrangement that is nonJamesian, but I am ready to be told that this is not in fact a James, and that Thomas Bernhard invented it with some idea that people reading his book in the future would assume that this James was real and that its identity was a riddle they'd be able to figure out if they followed the clues (but if this is not a James then they are inventing the clues, as clues; there are no clues); and they will pursue the riddle, since literature students are taught to follow clues. What symbolism is this? they ask. What does the tower represent? Why is that flower a rose?

What if this James in Frost is a clue that does not lead to a book but is an arrow pointing to the reader and saying, You thought this was a book, didn't you? You thought I was William Least Heat-Moon, having a person read an actual book you could pull off your shelves and open to page eighty-five.

The left brain is the part that will connect one thing to another (so I read), it is the hemisphere of invention, it is given the words "Henry James" and connects them to its experiences of the sensuous world and if you are a reviewer for the New York Times then it will encourage you to say that The Ambassadors must be the work the narrator is reading because you can find a similarity there, you notice that a man is travelling to meet another man, and you are disregarding almost all other elements of the book but that, so that one book will lead to another, and the continuation of life and habit will not be derailed, all this knitting over absences.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

as many possessions as a vehicle could carry

So, a repetition, things coming in threes, me reading a review of Gerald Murnane's Inland at the Complete Review and seeing that M.A Orthofer had identified the author of a quote that Murnane didn't attribute, and then me the next day opening William Least Heat-Moon's non-fictional Blue Highways and encountering a woman named Barbara Pierre, "a secretary at the agency and took classes at the University of Southwestern Louisiana when she could," who had underlined two sentences on page eighty-five of her copy of Miguel Ángel Asturias' El Señor Presidente: "The chief thing is to gain time. We must be patient."

I went to the shelf for my copy of Presidente and found the same words on the same page. "You'll endanger yourself, you'll endanger your father, you'll endanger me. I'll come back this evening and take you to your father's house. The chief thing is to gain time. We must be patient. One can't arrange everything all at once -- some things are trickier than others," says a male character to a young woman, both of them existing for that moment in an atmosphere of threats and planning, which is Pierre's position too, but hers is not so compressed; it's a long-term lurking pressure of racism in the town where she is about to be fired from her job. The street is dangerous, says Asturias, who is being translated by Frances Partridge.

A house makes it possible to eat one's bread in privacy -- and bread eaten in privacy is sweet, it teaches one wisdom -- a house enjoys the safety of permanence and of being socially approved; it is like a family portrait with the father wearing his best tie, the mother displaying her finest jewels and the children's hair brushed with real eau de Cologne. The street, on the other hand, is an unstable, dangerous, adventurous world, false as a looking-glass --

-- which Heat-Moon will not believe as he drives around the United States in a converted van, talking to lurkers and feeling irritable when he sees a rich couple cushioning themselves inside a massive comfy campervan, "an Airstream trailer ... Often I'd seen the American propensity to take to the highway with as many possessions as a vehicle could carry -- that inclination to get away from it all while hauling it all along -- but I stood amazed at this achievement of transport called a vacation ... in the trailer I saw pine paneling, Swiss cupboards, and a self-cleaning oven. What the owner really wanted was to drive his 3-BR-splitfoyer so he wouldn't have to leave the garage and basement behind."

Disliking these people he decides he will read their behaviour scornfully; he has heard of these attitudes somewhere, the ones he attributes to them, he has discerned this caricature, or he secretly inhabits it himself, this fear (and afterwards, interviewed, Heat-Moon said that he felt afraid on the trip, in ways that he does not reveal in the book, though not specifically like this --). "The couple ... hoisted themselves into the Argosy, and clicked locks against my type ... After all, they read the papers, they watched TV, and they knew America was a dangerous place." America is not so dangerous, he tells his readers, always pointing back to the Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass he has brought with him and from which he quotes regularly; when a hitchhiker tries to convert him to Christianity he trades extracts with the man, giving him a Whitman for a Corinthians, and they enjoy one another. The evangelist has grown a huge beard and obtained a small apple, he eats the apple and carries his clothes in an aluminium suitcase, smiling regularly and stating his blessings.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

the more one saw her less

She wants to pursue her taxonomy project until it is complete, she needs, she says -- need is the word she uses -- "I am needing to have it in me as a complete thing" -- she thinks about the amount of time she will need to finish, then she thinks of death, which will stop her finishing, thinking it in that order, and by that I mean that she progresses from one idea to the next, writing as if she is addressing the page in genuine chronological time, putting down her plans for ideas -- "I am going to begin ..." and then not beginning whatever-it-is -- or maybe she's letting you know that in her opinion she is constantly beginning it, but in a nonobvious way, and that every point of the book is the beginning of the next part -- the arbitrary nature of beginnings, mere pin stabbed on map, or a similar idea -- Joyce in Finnegans Wake ending the book part-way through the first sentence -- Stein's style progressing through Americans as if this is a first draft, done over years, with the author changing during those years: not the no-time of a manuscript that has been redrafted until the conclusions the author came up with when she reached the end are integrated at the beginning.

The narrator learns her own point of view as you learn your point of view by talking about it, by pronouncing it through time and changing your mind as you go, I need to explain that again, I need to explain that in more detail, they're not getting it, I didn't mean that, I need to go over it again, re-arguing a point, going away into descriptions of your friends who illustrate your point, moving further and further out from the original beginning of the conversation, on the tightrope of speech, discontinuing some old baggage that seems irrelevant now -- the baggage of social wit phrases like "one whom one might like better the more one saw her less" -- you're past that -- but she doesn't go back and alter it. That's an interesting fact. She leaves the nineteenth-century language at one end of the book and lets it change into this computed language that works its way through permutations. At the end of the book she's still in the middle of her equations, this plus this plus this minus this, add this, take away this like an Oulipo looking for a movement.

There are millions of other books that seem self-knowing from the start, the style is consistent, their substance was organised for them before they began, they begin and end with their adult language fully-grown but hers grows, the more traditionally sophisticated style is the baby and the basic style with the small vocabulary must be the adult.

So too her friend Picasso put aside his academic pictorial accomplishments and tried to sort out an idea that was not completely like the old skill of perspective, trying not to make the traditional assumption, that if you paint the front and side of a house you can rely on the viewer to believe in the back, assuming that the painting never goes to sleep, it never loses sight of every part of its object, it has no areas of unconsciousness: in fact the back of the house is like sleep in the viewer: it is not there, it is dreamed of, it is intuited by signs, it is prophesised, the front of the house is the prophecy of the back.

But cubism assumes that the back of the house should be awake in the same way that the front is awake, ie visible, it tries to show us those parts multidimensionally, and Stein tries to project her literature into something with more than the normal number of dimensions: there is the assumptive movement at the start and then the nonassumptive movement at the end. And so describes the increments that her earlier sentences have assumed as if writing from an alien planet, and needs to explain to us these things.

She has learnt the inadequacy of knowledge, the impossibility of knowing everything in this small life, an idea that can be presented to you in many ways as all ideas can (we are besieged by tributaries) but the grasping of is difficult, and now I remember a morning at the Clark County Library when I brought up memory palaces in conversation but could not remember who wrote the Art of Memory, Ars Memorativa, saying Dr Dee when I meant in fact Giordano Bruno and then in fact kept hurtling on about Dee as if I absolutely meant Dee when I did not mean Dee and was skating on thin ice.

And I went out further and further, saying "the Ancient Greeks and Romans" -- not being able to remember who exactly promoted memory devices at that early time, or who has been said to have promoted them, or by what path they made their way to the Middle Ages. But only a vague cloud of anticipation.

And discovered as I spoke how little I knew, and how difficult to explain it was, and one listener actually had his mouth hanging open and I believe was staring at the cover of a book about Missouri which had been propped open like a fan and placed upright on a shelf. And Stein seems to be discovering the same difficulty but tries to overcome, and perhaps is groping around an idea that Wittgenstein expressed in his Philosophical Investigations like this, "We talk, we utter words, and only later get a picture of their life" (translated by G.E.M. Anscombe).

What a mimicry of knowledge I thought, as I talked about memory palaces, and, later, after I'd read the Investigations, I thought: but how did I know what I imagined I was mimicking?

Americans is a book written in the language of adamant statements, "It is..." "I will ..." "I am going to ..." but part of the lesson is doubt.

Friday, September 14, 2012

and my eyes are large

But, she adds -- this is still Gertrude Stein -- everybody has their own way of working out the "kinds of men and women", and then there is the lifelong effort of watching people to discover how they fit into your system, and then, trying to describe her own system, she sounds so doubtful and vague -- going backwards and forwards, and defining and redefining -- using the word "complicated" -- describing the effort she had to exert to work out just one person, "this one then was baffling" -- that you start to suspect (or I did, so join me in this if you like) that she is discovering that her system is impossible to complete unless you are immortal, which you aren't. You don't have the time to pay that much attention to every one. So this leads her to the subject of death, or "being a dead one."

I am not knowing what way each one is experiencing in being living and about some I am knowing in a general way and I could be knowing in a more complete way if I could be living more with that one and I never will live more with every one. ... I am needing to have it in me as a complete thing of each one ever living and I I know I will not, and I am one knowing being a dead one and not being a living one.

She is self-conscious about her own grief and she hams gravely: "I am in desolation and my eyes are large from needing weeping and I have a flush from feverish feeling." If she had not discovered that her system is impossibly complicated before she started writing about it then she has done so now: she has discovered the impossibility of a detailed human taxonomy.

This is the way you do it, she says at the start, it will be done she says, "There will then sometime be a history of every one who ever is or was or will be living," "a history will be written of men and women" -- repeating this point over and over -- but by the sheer length of the book she lets you know that it is unamanageable -- because she has not managed it, in all these pages -- she dissects smaller and smaller, ending up with not more precision but with vagueness or dissolute mist. The book is an uncompletable project, and life too, she says is an uncompletable project. The last few pages are so minutely incremental that they are almost gibberish; it's as though the narrator's thoughts are trying to vanish in refinement. By the final page, which is page nine hundred and twenty-five in the 1999 Dalkey edition I was reading, she is writing like this:

Family living can go on existing. Very many are remembering this thing are remembering that family living living can go on existing. Very many are quite certain that that family living can go on existing. Very many are remembering that they are quite certain that family living can go on existing.

Like that, each change taking place on a constricted scale; the literary atom is a particle used by the mad, as on the photocopied sheets they give you on the street (or have given me at least, maybe not you) of diagrams and phrases crammed together in a meaning. And staring at those final pages is like staring at a mass of things so tiny you can't understand them; you can't see the whole, the whole is actually invisible, and your perspective, your viewing position, might change very strangely. The opening of the book established you at a certain size and proportion, now your proportions are being altered, you reduce, you are placed inside a tiny rocket ship and fired into the bloodstream of a human being who is too huge for you to see, only bits you see, only meaningless pieces.

In the beginning of the book she is writing in a way only slightly altered from a nineteenth century novelistic language -- Americans was published for the first time in 1925 --

Yes Mrs Dehning was a woman whose rasping insensibility to gentle courtesy deserved the prejudice one cherished against her, but she was a woman, to do her justice, generous and honest, one whom one might like better the more one saw her less.

This is the large body that we lose sight of by the end (the body of writerly language itself, and conventional contemporary signalled intelligence): the narrator at the beginning assuming we will understand her wit, we will fill the gaps, we have the kind of experience with language that will encourage us to be amused at the positive word cherish associated so intimately with the negative word prejudice, we will recognise a known stereotype in this description of a fictional woman, "one whom one might like better the more one saw her less" -- wit, comfortable wit, insulting someone else -- and we will feel close to the author, who recognises us and is a member of our gang even if we're muttering because she didn't include the comma we think we should see after "Yes," and even if there is something about the delivery that seems so faintly stiff and off -- still, it is familiar enough; it is one of the kinds we know.

By the end of the book the narrator has decided that she will stop assuming, she will fill the gaps with written explanations in place of invisible assumptions, she will look into those gaps that she was skipping over when she rested in that bed of a shared gang, and what she sees she finds she cannot describe: I cannot look with my language, the prose can't see for me any more: blindness, blindness, blindness, and death, a novel that tries to explain itself in the author's way not the community's way and therefore can't sustain itself as a novel, and has to fall apart; or you could say that the author, by trying to dissolve herself in a myriad of facts, is in fact attempting to remove herself from the book, books not being able to exist without authors -- I will destroy my own critical faculties, she says, I will say everything, I will not choose -- and as an author, she dies.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

the steady pounding of repeating

You should pay attention to repetition in people if you want to learn about them, Stein says. They reveal themselves through their repetitions; even the activity that seems surprising at first is only one item in a pattern of repetitions, and the language of Americans itself is an arrangement of very incremental repetitions, one sentence will differ only slightly from the one before, two paragraphs in succession will begin with the same sentence, a word used to denote a thing once will be used to denote that thing again; the behaviour of the book itself imitates the behaviour she believes she sees in people, and so her advice for understanding a person is also an instruction on how to read the book, like this --

Always, one having loving repeating to getting completed understanding must have in them an open feeling, a sense for all the slightest variations in repeating, must never lose themselves so in the solid steadiness of all repeating that they do not hear the slightest variation. If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating they will not learn from each one.

Which reminds me that I was standing on a lawn at UNLV one green evening when I looked down and saw the grass two feet away from me beating its head on the earth in a line, then the grass a little closer beat its head in a line, then closer again it was anguished again in a line, different blades each time of course but the same action and by this I learnt that the sprinklers in these grounds had silently come on; one blade bowing on its own would not have taught me that lesson but the repetition taught me.

Standing at the same place in those grounds you can see the aeroplanes flying one by one between the branches of the the trees, so low at this point in their flight that they look as if they're about to land on the street before they reach McCarren Airport, low enough that they look as if they're flying out of the windows of buildings when all they're doing is cruising behind them. After watching for a short while I decided that Southwest Airlines could be singled out as the city's most reliable aerial friend, and it was a Southwest Airlines plane that was struck by lightning when a storm hit the city two weeks ago. On that same evening I was in a room full of amateur local poets, one of them going quickly outside to move her moped, which, as she must have realised, was getting soaked, a fact that I could see through the window next to me, and which she could not have seen, sitting in the corner where she was, on a vinyl couch, but she guessed it through the sound of a million dots of water breaking against the roof above us, dot-dot-dot-dot-dot and she rose from her couch and went out. Repetition told her --

I could find evidence in any situation to fit any idea I think, pointing out one telling item or another, and this picking and selecting is one of the writerly habits that Stein tries to abandon in her book; she tries to get away from the single telling moment and recommends in its place a multiplicity of similar moments that should culminate in a conclusion. It is a replacement for that magical moment of transference from one literary eye-orb to another, the kind that is represented by phrasery like, one glance from his eyes told me all that was passing through his heart, or In his stare was the whole story (Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan) -- instead the transference needs to take place over time, with observation happening at every point during that time. Again: "If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating they will not learn from each one."

The word "one" is one of her repetitions and when you see it repeated twenty times in a few pages then you have been shown something about her ideas. "One" is a single person with certain habits and then there are "kinds of men and women" who have repeating patterns of their own; by noticing the repeating patterns in the ones you can fit them into a kind of men or women. Humanity is made up of these "kinds," and so, by watching the repetitions in ones and sorting them into kinds, you can understand the nature of the human race in its entirety, she tells you, a symphonic taxonomy, but --

Thursday, September 6, 2012

that comes out from them

Walser repeats one species of word, the polite species, this kind always comes when he whistles, it's his own guard dog, and repetition, says Gertrude Stein in her large and repetitive book The Making of Americans, is the way you get to know a person: by paying attention to their repetitions.

(One footprint is an indication but multiple footprints are a trail.)

"Every one then has a history in them by the repeating that comes out from them," she writes, always putting "every" and "one" apart like that and resisting any temptation that would make her write "everyone" in normal English; because the book is an experimental taxonomy of the human race, and the human race she sees is made of "ones," which is a fact that needs to be noticed because it complicates everything for her. She takes this point seriously, she is serious about a number of small things, or about revelations marked out by small gestures like this, and her style has a facetious tone but this facetiousness I think comes from despair and not cynicism.

Each time she isolates her "one" in "every one" I think she is trying to remind you, or herself, or both, that she does not mean instances-of-the-same-thing-together (which is one way of understanding the word "everyone:" a group) as much as she means each-person-who-is-a-singular-thing. This singular thing can be extracted from its surroundings; it can be observed, and she observes, she advises us to observe. "Watching carefully repeating in each one, one can come to then know of each one what is in them." The reader, addressed here, is among those who "can then come to know", in other words you are also a "one," you can also be extracted and observed, you must be like the other ones (she suggests, using the same word to demonstrate it), and the ideas that apply to them apply also to yourself.

This is a book about a family and about some of the people who surround that family, there are the ones and then the group to which they belong, which expands until it includes the neighbours, it gets on top of them with a sort of leaping or inspired or helpless extension, the author coming across these neighbours casually at first, then intuiting an opportunity in them for the revelation of a new point of view, then following that point of view, then being caught up in her own long language, then pages later coming back to the central family and rarely mentioning those neighbours again; they were good for the point she had to make (there were many points she discovered she had to make and discovery becomes an element of the book) and now away, away, she goes, and now some other neighbours; there is potentially no end to the neighbours and the neighbours of neighbours and friends of neighbours and friends of friends of neighbours and then these people remind the writer-narrator (who may or may not be synonymous with Stein herself, you don't know; the writer itself is a character, not exactly in the story but not exactly out of it -- because this narrator seems to know some of the people in the book on a personal basis and yet she is not of the peopled world that she herself describes in the book, she is not identified as so and so's cousin or one of the neighbours; she somehow knows people and yet she goes away on tangents that prove she's living an entirely other life) -- remind the writer-narrator of a man she met last night and about whom she will talk now for a paragraph or so, and this possibly endless extension of people is one of the problems with her stated theories, which I will describe in slightly more detail in a day or two -- this is getting long --

Sunday, September 2, 2012

they revealed quite a lot

Walser was staying in an asylum when he died, a fact that I recalled especially sharply when I came across a blog that had been written and recently abandoned by an American Vietnam veteran [NSFW: epithets] who performed those swerves too, from one fixed bloc of thought to another, each new bloc triggered by "moods, fancies, and associations," though his stock phrases appear to have been ignited by a purely internal fuel; strange triggers prompted him to write "pogo stick" or "gravy train," which are not like Walser's adapted social politenesses, those epithets, "lovely," "charming," "magnificent" though these also appear to have been set off in ways that are not normal, they are used by Walser with hyperattentive fulsomeness, but the incongruity is disguised, for the things the European is telling us about might indeed be delightful and charming, where not many things in this world besides a pogo stick would make you write "pogo stick," not even a kangaroo, and I have seen them, ripping up the grass with their teeth as they do, and looking up with their camel eyelashes over their hummocked black eyes.

There are strange associations that come up in everybody; the man I meet who connects sunflares to famine, the man who thinks crows belong to Satan, the man who appears at the intersection of Maryland Parkway and Flamingo Road holding a message about Zionism painted on a board, and walks across on the green signal lifting two fingers sideways to remove his cigarette; there is my own fascination with the mountains you can see at the ends of both those streets, and then the woman cutting my hair who said that she had lived in Las Vegas now for eight weeks without even registering the presence of mountains because she came from Reno where the mountains rise out of the suburbs and bear the houses on their backs, huge winds sweep down from the snow peaks and through the petrol station that is the only architectural feature I can remember of that city, remembering it I think at least partly because of that wind, or because of a consequence of that wind; a customer there was telling the man behind the counter that the wind had stopped her chickens laying, and the cold frightened chickens have stayed with me: where did she live precisely, where were her chickens huddled on that day as she was buying petrol, or, since she was American, gas, and more than a year later have they recovered? If not, what has happened to them?

And Walser making a wispy gauze surface or plated turtle-shell, each plate a phrase or sweet word, each bit a prattle, "The ladies' dresses were magnificent," "the finest wine," "leaving nothing to be desired" and behind this, what? the imagination is assembled over something but what?

The reader doesn't know what the meal was like; the reader thinks that perhaps no writer in the world ever tells you what the meal was like, and behind it all there is a void, there are no meals, there is nothing, nothing, only descriptions of meals and so forth, and nothing, nothing there where we are going, which reminds you of Phillip Larkin. By this point you are depressed. "Markedly depressed and severely inhibited," as the report on Walser ran when he was committed to the asylum. (This is Coetzee's translation perhaps.) Outside against the sky the leaves of the olive tree are streaming in a silvered mob like fish. "To please you," Walser seems to say, and he pulls away from nastiness, the frozen guest indicated so that he can be avoided. "One of the guests was frozen. All attempts to bring him to life were in vain. The ladies’ dresses were magnificent, they revealed quite a lot ..." Why would you make a style like a mask? To tell the other person that there is something underneath, I suppose, or for other reasons: compulsion: who knows, a mystery, the central mystery, all the mysteries that are being covered by that mysterious style, are Robert Walser.

He is so exceptionally aware of banality that he overuses banality to see if anyone else will join him. In one of his other essays he describes the beautiful qualities of an angel; at the end of the paragraph he kills it. I would not be surprised if someone told me that he regarded himself as a monster.