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.