Thursday, May 31, 2012

the indistinct and airy colours of fancy

So Ann Radcliffe believed that emotions could be understood, and then, a few years later, in one of his essays, not answering her but making an independent statement, William Hazlitt said that the feelings we don't understand are the ones we prefer. Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza in his Ethics (1677, posthumous, published by his friends) decided that anyone who thought God planned chains of events so that they would lead to an outcome addressed to human beings, was impious. These people, he said, chase every accident back toward its source until their imagination is exhausted and then they think they have found evidence of the divine. I suspected that Hazlitt had been reading Spinoza and became almost sure that I was right when I came across this sentence in his 1822 essay, On Going on a Journey: "We measure the universe by ourselves, and even comprehend the texture of our own being only piece-meal." Radcliffe, in her books, wrote a description of each character's emotion as it moved from cause to effect or vice versa, and doing this she imitated the manners that Spinoza described as impious, although there is no evidence as far as I can see that she was pursuing or proving the divine. What was she pursuing? Reason? She loves reason, as any reader can see for themselves. And the same reader, coming later to Hazlitt's essay, remembers that she loved reason and suspects therefore that it was far away from her; she did not possess it; it was distant -- reading thus -- "Distant objects please, because, in the first place, they imply an idea of space and magnitude, and because, not being obtruded too close upon the eye, we clothe them with the indistinct and airy colours of fancy." So says Hazlitt. Radcliffe was pleased by reason and her heroes and heroines were those characters who chose to view their situation through a reasonable frame of mind and not one of the other frames they might have chosen, for example, exasperation (which is one I select for myself very easily and normally and as proof I offer this vision of me standing in the bedroom yesterday exclaiming, "This is stupid, everything here is stupid," and otherwise denigrating the state of Nevada, which has done what exactly to deserve it I ask you, beyond being hot, this poor long state with the shape of a knife?). They do choose, it doesn't come naturally, they select it. The villains see that reason exists but decide to live unreasonably. Assume that each villain in Radcliffe is the same person, since they all reject reason, and you see she is testing (probably unconsciously) Boethius' suggestion that a bad person confronted by good people may on some occasions become good. The villainous Marquis in Romance of the Forest performs a good deed on his deathbed. Radcliffe, hopeful in her faith, has prepared for his change of heart, the story allows it to take place, and a balanced ending grows calmly from that root. The good characters not only succeed, their success is well-proportioned. Triumph is not excessive, which means that, according to the unstated calculations underneath her fiction, it is not villainous. No character can be good in Romance of the Forest unless they adhere to a set of nonextravagant proportions. A Radcliffe villain who managed to fit his wickedness into a set of reasonable proportions couldn't be a villain. He would have to be something not-quite.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

reason, by anticipating the future, brought before her mind the full picture

Pulling a name out of nowhere, or pulling anything out of nowhere, is contrary to the spirit of Radcliffe, a writer who surrounds the emotions in Romance of the Forest with calm explanations and can describe the movement of any character's mind from one state or feeling to another -- the plot twitches with shock sometimes, when banditti appear, or ghosts, but the prose itself is indomitable -- the plot tries to smack it in the head and it never raises an eyebrow, it cruises on serenely like the swan of folklore, a spectacle I have seen myself, in Australia, where the black swans heaved around on the salt waves like carved stoics, brave as a doll nailed to a rocking horse -- for example --

Adeline, mean while, in the solitude of her prison, gave way to the despair which her condition inspired. She tried to arrange her thoughts, and to argue her herself into some degree of resignation; but reflection, by representing the past, and reason, by anticipating the future, brought before her mind the full picture of her misfortunes, and she sunk in despondency.

There is no despondency in the voice though, this murmur that asserts itself. No decision in her book comes from nowhere, and no behaviour is spontaneous. Her prose doesn't imitate the speed of the events but always moves at its own pace. Her commas soothe thought by dividing it into portions. Each sentence proceeds like a menu. One item then another. Characters are startled, the writer is never startled. "Adeline was surprized and shocked," she observes, "at this careless confidence, which, however, by awakening her pride, communicated to her an air of dignity that abashed him," moving on serenely from surprize and shock to the product of surprize and shock and then to the result, the abashment of a villain, one thing connected so logically to another that the abashment in retrospect was always his imperative destiny, laid down by a creature that is like the idea of God in Boethius, a being that can see past, present, and future as though they were all happening at the same time; it's only mortals who have to move through time to catch up with events.

Jane Austen read Radcliffe, and the reasonable tone surfaced again in her like a dolphin (and not only her, though English society at that point had loved Reason so much that it was also abandoning it and loving Romance, the long century of Enlightenment becoming Counter-Enlightement as they wrote), yet Radcliffe never made a Mr Collins, and Austen did not write an Adeline; and there is no sign that Radcliffe ever joked as Austen joked in a letter to her sister: "Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted." (Sent from Cork Street, Mayfair, London in 1796.)* I haven't seen the biographical Austen movie Becoming Jane but I know that it represents the meeting between them by using actors, which sounds like a sane way for a film to engineer an encounter, even if one of the actors was really playing a book, Austen in reality speaking to the book and listening to the book, and not the real woman, who was reclusive in her husband's house.

Two users on have submitted this dialogue:

Mrs Radcliffe: Of what do you wish to write?
Jane Austen: Of the heart.
Mrs Radcliffe: Do you know it?
Jane Austen: Not all of it.
Mrs Radcliffe: In time, you will. But even if that fails, that's what the imagination is for.

The Romance of the Forest has an implicit message that goes like this: I, Ann Radcliffe, I believe that "all of it" could be known and explicated if you took the time to think your behaviour through one step at a time. Nothing but the constraints of space and literary convention prevent me following every one of my characters' emotions to its ultimate progenitor, whatever that is.

A woman who can go a little way so clearly could go the whole way if she had enough time. She would follow the stages of each feeling until the start was revealed. The moment beating in her hand.

* I wouldn't have thought of the letters if Whispering Gums hadn't written a post about them yesterday.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

subject us further to its power

Whatever is going to be, is learning from what is; whatever is happening is possessed by whatever has already happened, and "If each word wins us a victory over nothingness, it is only to subject us further to its power", wrote Cioran the pessimist. Nothing is fated until it happens. Everything present is its own premonition. The ruin from Ossian occurred to the writer of Romance, and I was interested to see that Ann Wroe in her book on Shelley described the poet working in a way that was not like that Radcliffian leap from one phrase into another; instead, she said, he would mark down the rhythm of the poem (that was the main thing, the propelling thing) and spaces were often left blank, waiting to be filled in later with some word that wouldn't sound out of place.

Before this I imagined Marguerite Young rolling from word to word in her sentences but Miss MacIntosh, My Darling depends so much on rhythm that the Shelley method could have been used instead and it would have had the same result: she could have written it one way or the other way, and there is no rule that says you have to write one word after another, or even a book in order. John Crowley once said that he starts his books in the middle, and the landscape to right and left of that island a whitened tundra where the moss whistled to the wind.

So the shape of a finished thing doesn't always let you know how it was done, and mystery novels, no matter how many observed details they include, will never be realistic; they are attuned to an a-real philosophy, or a hopeful one.

All of Young's words are her own, she's not a quoter, or if she's quoting or misquoting excerpts then she doesn't give herself away. She resuses herself but not anyone else; large areas of Miss MacIntosh are made of words that have already been used, as all books are, if you want to be pedantic, everybody lifting everybody else's "the" and "but" and "I", doing this without remorse or shame because nobody ever detects them, or everybody does but nobody calls them out, we are this collective of thieves, and you have to reach a higher status of word before people start shouting plagiarism or sequel. You have to reach the arena of proper names, and even then you can disguise it. I could write a serious book about a girl named Alicia and, as long as I was careful, nobody would know that she belonged to Lewis Carroll, whose own name cannibalised the words Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

"This pseudonym was a play on his real name; Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll an Irish surname similar to the Latin name Carolus, from which the name Charles comes," explains somebody on his Wikipedia page. They refer you to Morton Cohen's 1996 book Lewis Carroll: a Biography for proof, but none of the Carroll biographies I've been able to actually get my hands on around here will support the theory, although they don't support any other theory either, they just don't mention it at all. In my local Carroll biographies it's as if he pulled the name out of nowhere and relied on nothing, nothing inspired him, there was no forerunner, only pure Carroll.

(n.b. Wroe's book is an alchemical biography, Becoming Shelley, devoutly researched, which is more than I did for those Carroll biographies, scuffling around in the UNLV library among the England 1800s shelves under D, Dodgson, with the black weight of Dickens falling to my left and Eliot nesting like Eagles on the right.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

by the fall of the walls

After I had finished Melmoth I opened William Hazlitt's Table Talk and voilà, he was making quotes as well, in the same slang way as Maturin, and the identical for Ann Radcliffe in The Romance of the Forest, which is flattened out right now on the chair beside me with the word Asshole written by the last owner in blue pen under one of La Motte's speeches to Adeline. "Your father may ere this have commenced these measures, and the effects of his vengeance may now be hanging over my head," says La Motte. "My regard for you, Adeline, has exposed me to this; had I resigned you to his will, I would have remained secure," and the top of the exclamation mark after the e in Asshole is almost touching the bottom prong of the r in secure. People insult fictional characters; sometimes they insult real ones through fictions, example, racist insults directed at groups of people you've never met; or they praise them too, through fictional names.

All three of those authors were alive at the same time, they crossed the bridge between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: deduction: quotes were a fashion in fiction back then: and when did they die out? On the first page of Chapter II Radcliffe makes a description of a ruined abbey longer by borrowing a sentence from the Songs of Ossian, by the Scotsman James Macpherson, which was published in 1765, when she was one year old, the same age that a child was when it died in Las Vegas a short while ago, bitten in the head by the family dog, and it was also the age of another Las Vegas child who flew two storeys into the arms of the crowd during a fire a day later, and survived, although, as if the disaster had happened in a mirror, the same fire killed a dog.

"The lofty battlements," Radcliffe says, "thickly enwreathed with ivy, were half demolished, and become the residence of birds of prey. Huge fragments of the eastern tower, which was almost demolished, lay scattered amid the high grass, that waved slowly to the breeze. 'The thistle shook its lonely head; the moss whistled to the wind.'"

The original author of the thistle shook its lonely, etc, is describing a ruined building too, so here, between Macpherson and Radcliffe, is the thematic connection that I couldn't see in Maturin's Bible quotes. "The stream of Clutha," writes Macpherson, "was removed from its place by the fall of the walls. The thistle shook there its lonely head: the moss whistled to the wind. The fox looked out from the windows, the rank grass of the wall waved round its head. Desolate is the dwelling of Moina, silence is in the house of her fathers."

And if I were following this theme of ancient ruined buildings for my own pleasure I would go now to the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book of the late 900s, where a ruined building is the end of the world. "[T]hroughout this middle-earth walls are standing wind-blown, rime-covered, the ramparts are crumbling, the rulers are lying dead, deprived of pleasure, the whole proud company has fallen near the wall; some war snatched away and carried of along the onward road; one a bird bore away over the deep ocean; one a sad-faced man buried in a grave in the earth. Thus the Creator of men laid waste this earthly abode until, bereft of the sounds of the citizens' revelry, the ancient gigantic structures stood desolate." (Translated by S.A.J. Bradley.)

The priest in the Mishima novel burns down a building, the loss of a building starts the descent of the Pollitt family in The Man Who Loved Children, and all of the worthwhile people in the world will live in new buildings after Ragnorok, according to the Wise Woman in the Poetic Eddas. The most loving and generous character in Melmoth the Wanderer is the only person in the book who doesn't have to worry about buildings, for she lives on an island without them, off the coast of India. There are the crumbled remains of a temple but she ignores the bricks and prefers to live "amid the leafy colonnades of the banyan tree." And her serenity is explicable when you see how buildings treat people in this novel, constantly looming over them, trapping them, hugging them in cells, locking them up, trying to kill them in fires, and shoving them down underground tunnels in company with parricides who sing licentious songs and lose patience with you totally when you faint. Buildings in Maturin are bad news. If I'm ever in a Gothic novel I will avoid anything with walls.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

all their winding streams and hamlets

Charles Maturin in Melmoth likes to insert a three-word Biblical excerpt into a sentence when there is no reason why those three words need to come from the Bible, or from any outside source, for, I swear, they're so innocuous he could have written them himself without attributing them. That quote could have stayed a secret forever; only the author would have known. The presence of the Bible there adds nothing to the story, it's as pointless as the word "like" in a conversation, "It's, like, cold today, it's like, freezing," but slang, a category that shouldn't disinclude literary quote-slang -- slang smothers in the mind like subdued fire, it's ever-present, the instant words always ready to bounce out as if they've come from nowhere, not consciously impelled, faster than thought, the quotes lift their heads keenly when they see a nestly setting approaching in the sentence as it forms on the page, realising that somebody is about to shed a tear, so here they come: "he at last yielded to his feelings, and 'lifted up his voice and wept.'" (Genesis 29:11)

Just this morning I said the words, "Come as you are," during a conversation and a Nirvana song said, Aha, in the other person's brain; I know, because they began to sing. Into the dangerous world it leapt piping loud, as in Blake.

Not a passive storehouse, then, the memory waits; the brain like an old mattress is packed with springs, disruptive, maybe useless (not useless: I knew the song too, and I saw we had something in common) but whichever way it goes, we're stuck with it: big rattlebag of info that it is, this coat with a thousand pockets and one thing or another constantly falling out.

Saying "shrimp" in the presence of shrimp is a different thing, I think, the cue is internal but the word is not and it has to be discovered then borrowed.* If the room had presented the buffet man with a plate of ham he would have said that word instead without feeling that he was betraying himself, I mean, he wouldn't have felt as if he had some indigenous proclivity toward the word Shrimp and now Ham had crushed it. He would have been happy saying Ham, like the man who went for a walk with Max Beerbohm in the English countryside and read any sign he came across without minding what was written there. "We pass an inn. He reads vapidly aloud to me: "The King's Arms. Licensed to sell Ales and Spirits." I foresee that during the rest of the walk he will read aloud any inscription that occurs. We pass a milestone. He points at it with his stick, and says "Uxminster. 11 Miles." We turn a sharp corner at the foot of a hill. He points at the wall, and says "Drive Slowly." I see far ahead, on the other side of the hedge bordering the high road, a small notice-board. He sees it too. He keeps his eye on it. And in due course "Trespassers," he says, "Will Be Prosecuted." Poor man!--mentally a wreck."

"I trust," says Maturin in a footnote, "the absurdity of this quotation here will be forgiven for its beauty. It is borrowed from Miss Baillie, the first dramatic poet of the age." He's right, it sounds absurd where he's put it, but with this move he has made Miss Baillie his side-step, he has given himself a reason to write her name, which must have thrilled him; the quote was kept for the sake of the apology. Miss Baillie, Miss Baillie, Miss Baillie is more wonderful than Beatrice, who was introduced into Dante's poem for the same reason, suggests Borges in his commentary. The name is there because it charmed the writer and that charm must have made it feel, to the charmed man, like a kind of power he could borrow. In The Romance of the Forest, by Maturin's contemporary Ann Radcliffe, a character named Adeline cuts a useful conversation short purely because she doesn't want to give her enemy an opportunity to say the name of the man she loves. "Indignation, grief, and fear struggled in the bosom of Adeline; she disdained to give La Motte an opportunity of again pronouncing the name of Theodore." Such unexpected things inspire us, and she wasn't going to give him any triggers.

Maturin uses Shakespeare in other places, and his book is a corridor or mansion or maze leading to other authors. What is Hamlet? you ask, and it answers: one of my antechambers.

* The man at the buffet who said "Shrimp" appeared in one of my posts a few weeks ago. I'm not making self-references to mystify anybody, I promise, but he's useful.

The Beerbohm excerpt comes from his essay, Going Out for a Walk (1918). William Hazlitt published an essay on the same subject almost exactly a century earlier, and wrote, "I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time."

"Miss Baillie" was a poet and playwright from Scotland whose first name was Joanna. The line Maturin admired came from a two-act tragedy called Ethwald, although he misquoted slightly and wrote, "like a stilled infant smiling through its tears" when Baillie's script (which was published in 1802) had the stilled infant smiling in his tears, like this:

When slowly from the plains and nether woods
With all their winding streams and hamlets brown
Updrawn the morning vapour lifts its veil,
And tho' its fleecy folds with soften'd rays
Like a still'd infant smiling in his tears,
Looks thro' the early sun.

But I think Maturin's variation is the natural way for the line to stick in anyone's brain.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

battling with a cat and her brood of kittens for a pair of old boots

I think that Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer is best when it's taking side-trips, and by this I don't mean the discrete life histories of different characters that occupy most of the book, but the very small stories, the delaying tactics that he loves, those things that come and go, they're barely there, he picks them up, inserts them, and drops them. A storm off the coast of Ireland is ripping up a ship and the rain has been terrifying the narrative for a while now, but the rescuers are held back by a very modest set of kittens in a boot. There is nothing better than these kittens.

While the men were in search of a hundred coats, boots, and hats of their old master, to be sought for in every part of the house, -- while one was dragging a great coat from the window, before which it had long hung as a blind, in total default of glass or shutters, -- another was snatching a wig from the jack, where it had been suspended for a duster, -- and a third was battling with a cat and her brood of kittens for a pair of old boots which she had been pleased to make the seat of her accouchement, -- Melmoth had gone up to the highest room in the house.

The most eccentric of these details, the ones that might have actually occurred to the author because they are stranger than anything else, they appear in the first part of the book, while the story is taking place in Ireland, where Maturin lived; otherwise we are in Spain and India, where he did not live, and those last two places have luxurious flowers, idols and the Inquisition but nothing as exotic as this potato --

This resolution he found it impossible to execute immediately, for, on inquiring for lights, the gouvernante confessed the very last had been burnt at his honor's wake; and a bare-footed boy was charged to run for life and death to the neighbouring village for candles; and if you could borry a couple of candlesticks, added the housekeeper. "Are there no candlesticks in the house?" said Melmoth. "There are, honey, plinty, but it's no time to be opening the old chest, for the plated ones, in regard of their being at the bottom of it, and the brass ones that's in it (in the house), one of them has no socket, and the other has no bottom." "And how did you make shift yourself," said Melmoth. "I stuck it in a potatoe," quoth the housekeeper.

-- nothing that has the same promise of a larger life taking place outside the book, kittens born, cats looking for mates, mother cats finding nests for their litters; the housekeeper one day with a candle in her hand notices a potato. The Wanderer himself has been cursed, he prowls the world searching for a victim, but around him this bright life goes on; his magic supernaturally transfers him through brick walls but there are other forces moving with a different gravity, too quick for his changed mind to grasp, because they have no effect on him, as though his artificially extended life span has altered his sense of present time.

Not the time in the future or in the past, which is what you might expect, but time now, seems to move at a different pace around him; he has been disconnected from the universe of incidental detail, and his whole atmosphere is portentous. Like the kittens he appears at moments when people are in desperate straits but his character is different, he does not flit through, appear and go away, he does not take himself that lightly, he is not prepared to live his life away from the main action of the book. In spite of the detachment from human endeavours (due to his curse), he is more attached than the mother cat in the boot, who carries on a completely other life, and does not need the plot, does not need the characters, and would have been happy if Maturin had never found her. The ultimate alienation belongs to the cat, the cat is the Romantic hero shunning the concerns of normal people, and I imagine it like Lucifer in Milton, battling the greater force of the giant and powerful boot-stealer, and persevering in the face of definite defeat.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

the shortness of the time left me no opportunity for deliberation

Here's a quick idea: a plot is a question made larger with stories, or a story is a question made larger with plots.

The word "compelled" in the Olga Masters paragraph is a door to a side-story but that door never fully opens, which is an author's way of saying that it can't fully open, because if anything can be done in their book then they will be the ones who do it -- why does the aunt feel compelled? -- why does the ordinary desire to look at someone who is irritating you deserve this strangely powerful word? I can't get off the subject; it niggles at me.

I don't know how Masters (over years and years) came up with the tone of voice that brought her to the moment, raw and flaming, when she decided that "compelled" was going to be the perfect word to use there, with nothing else to support it in its work except hints: compelled would carry the main weight, compelled had to be strong.

There might even have been a time in her life when she would have thought about using the Charles Maturin approach to "compelled," which I've quoted before: "The precipitate vigour of Juan's movements seemed to impel me without my own concurrance, and as the shortness of the time left me no opportunity for deliberation, it left me also with none for choice." Maturin opens the side-story door wider without pretending to have opened it all the way, ie, without pretending to have explained everything about the character's compulsion, ie, he writes a long explanation but uses the word "seemed" to let you know that he isn't pretending to interpret, exactly, only to hint or sketch, or dramatise without commitment -- a tone that Gothic literature seems to like, I muse, remembering that none of the ghosts in Udolpho are genuine and that the ending of that book is a Scooby Doo or Hitchcock's Psycho, an entry in the annals of science-minded characters sitting down at the end of a tale to explain away its mysteries, because, you see, they say, sighing, strangers happen to enjoy wandering through the forest just there with sheets over their heads every night at three a.m., screaming and playing a lyre, and so everything is logical, your fear is due to ignorance, and if you knew everything down to the habits of the local amateur lyre-playing collective, then there would be no mysteries in the world; if we lived long enough to learn everything then Gothic literature would be impossible, and therefore Ann Radcliffe is uncontroversial proof of human mortality, not only in the fact that she is dead but also because she wrote as she did, with the ideas she did, and the horrors she did. Without death we would have to find different horrors.

Masters might have decided that Maturin was trying to pin compulsion down too hard, "untruthfully," she might have thought: "A person who believes they can separate an emotion into its component parts like that is not being honest. I won't play these old games," she thought, "I won't pretend that I can do the impossible, I will be honest." I think this same frame of mind could be one of the inner differences between the work of John Kinsella and Les Murray, both Australian poets, though they separate themselves onto different sides of the continent. Murray, in his poetry, often inhabits another creature, or travels imaginatively inside a mountain but Kinsella's voice tends to stay in his own human throat, he doesn't often occupy the brains of animals, or put words in the mouths of creatures besides himself -- this is my impression, although I should point out that I haven't read a lot of Kinsella.

There is rectitude in Masters, there is rectitude in Kinsella too. The novelist in her rectitude omits any explanation except hints, she writes without splurge. And Kinsella too writes without splurge, but Murray splurges, and he even wrote a poem about splurge.

Argue that Masters' "compelled" might be the result of self-doubt. Thinking she can't do it, she doesn't do it. It's a shy literature, and the hints punctured by a blurt are shyness speaking, first withdrawn, sampling the sound of its own voice, then rushing forward awkwardly with too much power. The point of Maturin's long sentence is crushed down to "compelled," which swells there like a balloon crammed with helium because it is really three lines' worth of sentence stuffed into nine letters.

Here is a fantasy story. Every word in Masters' book is the severely compressed equivalent of a sentence in Maturin's. They are the same book.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

lyft hit vp

A plot is a prompt followed by a prompt. The aunt who looks at Amy and wonders if her employer gave her an outfit for free, is one piece of a machine that Olga Masters builds for her book, a machine that you can call the sub-plot of Amy and Lance, a little drum she touches now and again until the reader is ready to see a conclusion, hoping that the effort that writer and reader have put into this construction doesn't go to waste. They anticipate that Amy will either tell Lance never to come near her again or else the two of them will date, and then other events will come out of that.

The question people ask when they see a strange machine is, What does it do?

Machines are expected to help, to gratify, to entertain, to comfort, to exaggerate speed or finesse or skill, and in this they are like people, how will this machine assist me or annoy me, a person wonders, how will this person assist me or assail me they wonder when a stranger appears in the room, how can I graft them to me, can we make an android together, and be useful? Ruskin was wroth in his diaries when people at a dinner party engaged themselves in small talk and wouldn't tell him any practical facts that he could use -- pointless, he complained: a waste of my time. He wanted them to teach him about geology, or any piece of science. That was what he would respond to; he'd react and a conversation would begin. He was a writer, he knew the opening he wanted, and he was rigid; his wife complained; he stood by the mantlepiece at parties.

Two parts, two beings, teacher and pupil together are a centaur, the mechanical arm fixed to the living shoulder is half an android, the centaur is an android and the android is a centaur, the reader and writer together are both. Olga Masters in the 1980s is screwing the pieces together for her mechanical arm or horse body. The appearance of a machine creates anticipation. The reader lifts the front cover and looks inside, ready to set this contraption going. The Green Knight rides into King Arthur's court where the men and ladies are eating a Christmas lunch of dere mete and he suggests that someone should chop his head off for fun, then, after that, if he survives, they can visit him at home and he will chop their head off in retaliation, a good game, he says, a fantastic entertainment, for these were the days before television.

With that the quest asserts itself, the Knight is strange and aggressive to heighten the mood, and of course he survives the decapitation otherwise this would be a majestically short poem and the story would end there, which it can't, the blood of storytelling itself will not let it end there, on page whatever -- say page five, I don't have the book on me, but early is the point I'm making -- the Knight is forced to survive, the muscle of storytelling gets into his eyes and makes them blink on the detrunked head as it rolls across the floor under the Christmas dining table, getting kicked and spraying gore, then the cruel momentum of the story makes him "lyft hit vp," this head, which is squirting red against his green clothes, and put it back on his shoulders "as non vnhap had hym ayled."

He leaves efficiently and grandly. The story is triumphant, it has manhandled itself into existence, it secures the head on the neck, and the horse gallops out of the dining hall, through whatever architecture leads it to the front door of Arthur's castle. We have to picture this part for ourselves, the exit of the horse from the castle, the horse managing to get through doorways, the horse leaving the building, the Knight looking around to work out how to make his way home from here, he consults an internal map, he guesses the right direction immediately because the story has no reason to let him go astray, therefore it won't stand in his way, trip him over, or slow him down with adventures, rainstorms, mountains, wolves, or anything else, the scenery is indistinct ahead of him, it is colourless, there is no village or building anywhere nearby, there is no grass, there are no trees, there is nothing that resembles countryside or sky, and the journey between Arthur's court and his far distant Green Chapel will not present him with any of the obstacles that confront Gawain when he rides out a year later to find this Knight again, because the camera-eye of the poet will be sitting on Gawain's shoulder, while the Knight has nothing now, he has left that eye behind at the lunch table, so with that he fades, and is no longer there.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

lives set into the bowl

I believe that there are some things we do naturally; we see faces in everything, and personalities; I say look at any piece of wood and you'll find a mouth or a profile. Next to the Methodist church I noticed two sets of cardboard eyelashes attached to a parked car above the headlights, fixed there, curled up a little prettily, as though the lights were eyes and the wires running behind them went back into a brain that sat under the hood coming to its own conclusions about the driver.

For a thing with a face has a brain, and that brain might be dictating its behaviour, the eye of the watching person wants to predict the intentions of the creatures standing nearby, from which it can judge its position in the world, a desire that does not seem to end when those things are trees or cars or stains on the wall, in other words they are genuinely brainless: and I think: what a longing we must have for faces and expressions, which we want to mistake for books in which the mind can be read. Look at my dog, said a man in the room with me on the weekend: she's smiling. The dog was pulling its lips back. "A lizard," wrote Martial in his Epigrams, "fashioned by Mentor, lives set into the bowl; and we fear the silver." Inserta phialae Mentoris manu ducta / lacerta vivet et timetur argentum.

I can discover an emotion anywhere, I can look at a sentence and call the writer happy or angry, believing with an instant instinct that if I met them they would behave in such and such a manner consistent with their sentences. Which character would you like to have a beer with, journalists ask their readers in an intimate written voice; which man from Austen would you want to date, Mr Darcy or the one in Emma? It is as if there is really a man in the book, and the question they ask is the question they ask real people about real men: who would you date, why do you like them, and how will you exercise your discrimination? A question followed by an answer is one of the simplest forms of story, a beginning followed by an end, with the middle occupied by mechanics of consideration.

The question is a prompt, the prompt preemptively places whatever is said next into a certain category of utterances, and grammar itself is a system of prompts, asking the question, what is this? and answering, it is a noun, until everybody who reads Jabberwocky knows that tove is not an adjective. Individual words seem to have characters too, the word slithy, for instance, which leads me to another question, which is: if we can imagine that these words are flavoured with largeness or sneakiness, or, in mimsy, twee, then do we also think they have their own brains, and if they don't have brains then where do we think those innate qualities are generated?

Marguerite Young worked out how to build a sentence that ran very purely on prompts. There was that one from the chapter about the bus driver, "His hair had grown three inches since he left Persia at sunset, just when the sun was setting over the empty box factory, over the bare razorback hills snouting like wild pigs against the dark sky, over the trees naked of flowers, the leafless bushes, the foundry that had no bricks and no fires and the bell-tower that had no bells and the flour mill where the flour was black as coal dust ..." the earlier words predicting the later ones, "no fires" triggering "no bells," "trees" igniting "bushes," but the nouns themselves don't intimately matter, as long as they can attach themselves to the nouns before, throwing out their hooks like mountaineers climbing up from nonlife into life; the bushes after the trees would work as well if the bush was a different kind of plant. The sentence could even have accommodated more plants. It would have been larger but not deformed. The sentence is a perpetual motion machine. As long as she can find a word that can be coupled with a previous word then this machine won't finish itself naturally; she'll have to make the decision herself, cutting into its momentum, and leaving the ghost of the longer sentence behind, an impossible sentence that never ends.

And there are other ways for a word to bring another word into the world, the rules of different poetic forms can encourage one word to appear and another word never to make its appearance, a fact that was made even clearer to me when I read the footnotes for D.R. Shackleton Bailey's Loeb translation of the Epigrams, and saw that the Roman had been forced to use allusive language in several of his tiny works because there were words that would not fit his meter.*

Would the sunlight in Thomas Grey's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard still have fallen on the lawn if it had been shining at midday and not at dawn? Would the wren in Sounds Assail Me by Oodgeroo Noonuccal have sung a song, if human beings did not know evil and wrong? If people were sweet, the wren would have said tweet. That wren is the slave of comprehension. The brain of the wren is the writer.

* Being annoyed at them was a joke he used at least twice. "That noble, soft, and dainty name I wished to put into polished verse," he wrote in Book IX, referring to the word Ěǎrǐnos, or Spring. "But, contumacious syllable, you rebel. And yet poets say Eiarinos; but they are Greeks to whom nothing is denied, whom it beseems to chant 'Ǎres, Ǎres.' We, who cultivate more austere Muses, cannot be so clever."