Sunday, October 21, 2012

standing forth in low relief from the rock

So Peter Matthiessen likes integrations and primal systems. Freya Stark does not like them, or does not dislike them but they do not occur to her or they occur but do not make an impact, she cannot include them in her style, her style is a romantic not a mystic, she sees the lone person standing clear, she takes joy in things that are eccentric, and she will pick them out then assign a clear adjective or pair of them to an object to make it quickly distinct; she will set the objects apart in the sentence with the help of an "and," like this -- "the village itself, with flat roofs and arched mud gateway on a rise, and vines and fruit trees and a grassy glade of old mulberry trees where the crows cawed like English rooks in a park, were all hidden from us by poplar trees and willows."

Matthiessen is pleased when things are same and the Native American is also the Tibetan, but if Stark mentions a similarity between an item in the Middle East and one anywhere else then it is only to give the British reader (she is imagining British readers) a clear picture of this solitary event. "Like English rooks in a park."

When she wakes one Iraq morning in a thick "Scotch mist," she does not invite the reader to extend those two words, "Scotch mist," into a theory about the fundamental natures of mists, the mists in Scotland connected instinctively to the mists in Persia, this word "Scotch" uttered in a foreign setting suggesting understandings flowing secretly through the currents of the world's liquids, speaking and haunting one another as they sit suspended in the chilly air ("It often covers," she writes, "the Shah Rud Valley for days like a ceiling"), but this is Matthiessen's plan when he compares a Tibetan custom with one from Africa or the Arctic Circle; he is inviting speculation on a mystic-anthropological level, he is serious, but she is delighted, and she is not serious merely sane, and when she is knocked unconscious by near-fatal malaria she records her symptoms and spends time observing the character of the doctor, but Matthiessen appears to find his troubles more troublesome, they are a serious matter to him, and he will cure them if he can by reflecting on Zen Buddhism.

Meanwhile Stark's prose habits will not let her take the troubles solemnly; this style is too easily romantic and entertained, it repels the Matthiessen philosophy; it cannot save itself through a unity of everything but looks for a strong individuality of one, whose duty is to remain level-headed no matter what.

And this style must have been influenced by the styles of books she had read, and so those other books helped her to a legacy of this level-headedness, this faith in observation, which was recommended to the world by Lawrence Durrell and others. He edited an anthology of her writing, The Journey's Echo: selections from Freya Stark. I do not know for sure what she read but I think of the habits of the Victorian British -- she was born Victorian in 1893 -- and their observations of fossils, rocks, and rockpools, the trilobite in Thomas Hardy,* the family of the boy Gerard Manly Hopkins pacing along the shoreline, searching for specimens, and the adult poet Hopkins describing leaves or pigeons in his journal: "They look like little grey jugs by shape when they walk, strutting and jod-jodding with their heads. The two young ones are all white and the pins of the folded wings, quill pleated over quill, are like crisp and shapely cuttleshells found on the shore." (June 16th, 1873) though a mention of Barron Field's poetry at Whispering Gums reminded me how profoundly their descriptive language tripped over under the people of this same race when they tried to see Australia; for decades they could not see it and the English language in this area was purblind.

Jenny Uglow, in her biography of Gaskell, believes that Ruskin helped to make this habit of observationliterary as well as scientific; an author such as Eliot, she says, owed him a debt in this respect -- look, he said, like Hopkins in that poem -- look! look! -- you can see him in Modern Painters telling the landscape painters of the United Kingdom to look at a tree and not just jot down whatever shorthand for trees they seem to have learnt.

It was not until I had finished the previous sentence that I remembered my selected Hopkins has a painting by Ruskin on the front.

*The trilobite appears in A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873): "By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites." Assume that if Hardy had been writing one hundred years earlier, before the Victorian fossil craze, then the character would have been blind to the fossil.

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