Thursday, January 31, 2013

turning over every stone of any size

So Mr Vane never has to think about work or putting ink in the printer because the author George MacDonald has given him tonnes of money, doling it out with the same vivid and enviable freedom that he used when he was killing the forebear, not feeling guilty about either largesse or murder, and Mr Vane takes the dead beautiful woman into a cave where he begins the river-water experiment, bathing her every day even when something decides to come at night while he is asleep to nip blood out of him through the hand. "The back of it was much swollen, and in the centre of the swelling was a triangular wound, like the bite of a leech.

As the day went on, the swelling subsided, and by the evening the hurt was all but healed. I searched the cave, turning over every stone of any size, but discovered nothing I could imagine capable of injuring me."

That "imagine" is the potent word in this sentence; the reader (meaning me) can see one obvious culprit lying there with him, soaking up water, and they are shouting, "Look behind you!" as in a pantomime. And the hero is shrugging at the children in the audience, shading his eyes, scanning the horizon, turning around (the villain stays behind him as he turns) -- "Where?" and the children are shrieking, "There!" and so anxious they're nearly throttling themselves, their faces go blue and they fall off their chairs. Still he goes on bathing the sweet corpse (Trakl) in a dutiful and reliable way, as if some higher power has ordered him to act like this, which (the author) it has, washing the dead woman and sleeping in the cave where the unknown thing drains his fluid. What are you doing, Mr Vane? I am being in an allegory. But he doesn't know that he is in an allegory, he can't, otherwise why would he give names to the objects around him, "bread," "princess," "white leech," and so on, why would he not cut to the chase and spend his time thinking, mm, now, never mind names, what does this object represent? What is that giant going to do, he could wonder, and then remind himself, "I am in an allegory," and at that moment he figures out what this giant-thing's allegorical behaviour has to be. Like this he will stare straight into the monster's subconscious. He will have a periscope into its heart and brain, he will be the reader. As for the monster, it will never know. It will still be a character in the book.

After he has thought about allegories for a while he realises that if this is an allegory then he must be allegorical too, and if so, what does he represent? He does not know that he is the narrator necessarily; he does not know that he is the focus or Everyman. He suspects that he is the Everyman but then he tells himself that everybody in an allegory would think they were the Everyman if they knew they were in one. He wouldn't know for sure. He might be one of the other characters. But why is he the only one like himself, why is he travelling, why does he keep meeting people? I am behaving like an Everyman, he thinks. I can't look at myself clearly, though. I don't know.

Now he has firm ideas about other peoples' manners and a shaky idea of his own, which puts him in the same mental category as so many people that he is confirmed as the Everyman though that fact is invisible to him and does him no good.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

strangely in this strange world

The narrator in Lilith never could have realised that the person who created him did so in order to thwart him and turn him into a liar, since he can't name the things he is looking at and must lie about them; and he describes them like this, "A white leech, a loaf of bread, a princess," when he does not, according to himself, see any of those objects and so he might as well say, "A suction pump, a slice of roast beef, the prime minister," or, "A vampire bat, a bag of chips, my employer," though he has no employer; he is a man of independent money, having inherited a manor house from somebody who dies before the story starts -- dying purely to get this narrator intimately engaged with the necessary housing arrangements; this dead man was destined from the instant of his creation to become a neglected forebear, he is a martyr to storytelling and to George MacDonald's ideas about religion, which, ultimately, he serves with his death, delivering the narrator into allegory.

This narrator, whose name is Mr Vane (vanity, lightness, maybe weathervane-wind), pursues a magical raven-man around the house he has inherited and by following this man-bird or bird-man he discovers the mirror with the magical world on the other side. If he had been employed in a normal business and working regular hours like the people I see on the streets in the morning then would he have had time to involve himself with resurrection-allegories and follow the raven through the mirror or would he have had other things to do, like soap his knees, put on his shoes, and brush mud off his hems, and would he not have spent the whole time he was in the magical country wondering if he was late for work, if he was going to get fired when he went back, what deadline he was missing, what time today's shift ended, whether that other employee had been notified about the problem with the chair in the break room, etc etc, and when he came across the corpse of a woman who maybe or maybe not seemed almost not quite deathly cold and sort of perhaps able to come back to life although that might have been wishful thinking ("Could she be still alive? Might she not? What if she were! Things went very strangely in this strange world"), wouldn't he have hesitated and turned his back on the time-consuming job of trying to resurrect her with river water?

But if he had worried about those things then the book would have been comedy or comic, the adventures would have been shrunk or altered by the contrast, Mr Vane saying, "I can't devote myself to you magical tiny people, I need to go back and put ink in the printer," and the seriousness of the giant-villains shrivelling like snow.

In my imagination George MacDonald feels himself veering in that direction but he doesn't like the idea of a comedy so he makes Mr Vane renounce work. He writes these words: "Suddenly none of that mattered, and I devoted myself joyfully to the wellbeing of these tiny magical children. I disregarded the duty of the printer ink." (He does it in the narrator's voice. I'm just inventing a paraphrase.)

"That's it," George MacDonald says to himself as he finishes that sentence, "now this book is not a comedy," and renunciation becomes another theme in the story.

Now that the idea is there it strikes him that he should extrapolate and so he does, now the idea of work is incredibly important in the manuscript, but in the version of Lilith that I have with me today it was not important, it was invisible, it was banished on page one.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

call it a state of things, an economy of conditions

The narrator of George MacDonald's Lilith chases through a mirror after a man who is a raven, and once he is through the mirror he tells the reader that he has trouble explaining to them what he can see because it is an economy of conditions.

He says, "I beg my reader to aid me in the endeavour of making myself intelligible -- if here understanding be indeed possible between us. I was in a world, or call it a state of things, an economy of conditions, an idea of existence, so little correspondent with the ways and means of this world ... that the best choice I can make of word or phrase is but an adumbration of what I would convey."

So there's a trick he can't do, this narrator, and he feels aware that he can't do it, the naming of experience in words on paper, and it might have been possible to solve his problem as Georg Trakl does, by juxtaposing words poetically and strongly and thereby meeting one economy of conditions with this other economy of conditions known as poetry (afterwards he might have felt satisfied that he has risen to the challenge even if he has not won), but the narrator's serious temperament leaves him disabled in this particular area, him, instead, wanting to write prosaically and be the dutiful person that Mikhail Zoschchenko was pretending to be in his Nightingale novella, that decent reporter who lets you know with jokeless fidelity what the character looks like and how he ate.

Now he will ask the reader to aid him in "the endeavour of making myself intelligible," begging this as if it is a special request, as if it is not the exact thing all readers are called upon to do the moment they put their eyes on the pages and agree to read; he encourages them to clasp him extra-tightly, and come very close to the story, and merge with it, because it is set in a strange place and the reader's role needs to be reaffirmed he thinks; they need their spines stiffened and they are being alerted to the existence of a fact they will discover fully much later in the book: that Lilith is a religious allegory.

To disarm the reader MacDonald pretends that the narrator is failing them, and writes as if they should think that the characters are real, and that these real characters should see a thing that is actually there, but the magical landscape on the other side of the mirror thwarts him (though not really: it is playing into his hands, into the plans of the author), this landscape being inhabited by things that correspond only vaguely and irregularly to princesses, leopards, giants, white leeches, loaves of bread, and the other words that the narrator comes up with, yet the reader probably forgets after a short while that the narrator did not really see a leopard, a princess, a white leech, but according to himself ("the best choice I can make of word or phrase is but an adumbration of what I would convey") he saw only some phenomena that had to be suggestively expressed in those terms or else never be talked about or mentioned, and then the book would be unwritable and it would not be in front of you in your hand or anywhere else.

White leeches possibly exist somewhere but not in the place the narrator has visited, not in the mirror-land for whose sake he has written the words "white leech."

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Then there are the ends of poems, which are in Trakl's works the ends of all juxtapositions except the one between black print and white page, and in a sonnet they are suddenly two lines rhyming in succession where before the rhyming lines were separated by other rhyming lines but now these two rhymes are like a pair of feet stamping, one, two, like a pair of ritual taps or raps or when a staff is knocked on the floor or a bell rung: the impact is percussive, a pair of thrusts and a contact -- rhymes being contacts I think, one set of letters intimately headbutting another, and not behaving as letters do in a word when they are clumped together and given a meaning that has nothing to do with their personalities; a t is forced to participate in the word feather without its consent when feather is out of character for a t, the t saying T! and the feather saying fuh fuh fuh thhh.

But rhyme or alliteration pays attention respectfully to the natures and personalities of letters as those personalities are expressed by the softness or hardness of their shapes and the sound they make as individuals; it pays a different kind of attention to them and makes them meet others who might be their friends: they go on this blind date to see if they feel natural together in this meeting and encounter that is expected, and not a juxtaposition as Trakl juxtaposes, with the nonexpectedness of the two words being the important thing there, and drawing attention to the words, sweet and corpse, or bleak and crystal, being surprising and jarring, but the partner in a rhyme is expected like the Messiah and arrives serenely, it is the second knock, it is the second shoe, it is received with joy and relief, it is satisfaction in miniature, it is the expected coming; it is the end of a world that began with its partner, oh world, oh bubble, oh implacable pop that carries on with your reverberating noises, in the mind, into the next period of existence, the future light-cone of prose opening from that concentric point onto the rest of the universe, the narrow impact coming on the next line, and new impacts in the future become possible as the cone widens, each letter or word blossoming into a fresh cone, the page sprouting trumpets, and the rings of influence spreading into tomorrow.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Sometimes in a long book I forget who's who and then one note in the juxtaposition chorus goes dung in a baffled space, the present is supposed to echo deeply off the past but it does not; there is a deadness in some aspect of the character's behaviour when they appear after a long time away and speak again, when I can tell (by the way the author has made a phrase) that their conversation is supposed to have extra meaning due to who they are, whatever the hell that is.

And sometimes I only realise that I could tell in retrospect when the clues mount up, memory hits me, and I think, Wait, this is so and so. Then I see that there have been clues for pages and that I was disturbed by them without knowing what I was disturbed by: it was disquiet, it was a stranger coming up to you fervently and calling you by your name and Hey, yes, hi, hello! you say, while you wonder, Who are you?

That happened last year when I was reading Pynchon's V. and there was a character who was supposed to have resonance when she turned up again, but I thought she was new, and didn't realise that she had been there in the beginning, chapter one or two, then gone underground, the buzz of juxtaposition not there, the character dead, or not dead but subdued. Here was a woman who had been brought in, I thought, to fall in love with one of the male leads, a fresh existence in the book, but then I realised after she said a few words about gear sticks that she had to be the one who had appeared at the beginning, and then she was also that woman; they were not separate, and this new doubled-person had a different point of view on everything; she was more tomboyish than she had been a moment earlier (though her behaviour on the page had not changed) and in an instant this behaviour made no sense, ladies and gentlemen, or else seemed too convenient (for the plot) and too warped from what she should be (in my mind: suddenly she was out of character), and not even aging a few years and shifting to another part of the country (as she'd done) accounted for it I thought, this abrupt girlfriendishness in which she had become engaged, and which I had been following tamely and which I imagined she had been introduced to conduct (so she had, but earlier than I had imagined).

And she was left there by her creator, who had to finish the book somehow, sending off his characters or abandoning them when they were still in the middle of an action. Some books will kill their characters, some will chase them away (Christina Stead does one or both), some will summarise their fates (Dickens), some will philosophise (Middlemarch), some will present themselves with a problem, as does Yambo Ouologuem when he spends the book, Bound to Violence, describing massacres, armies, wild huge actions, then finishes the manuscript with two people sitting alone and holding an unrushed discussion; some will fade their people out gently, like John Crowley in Little, Big, when everybody is at a table among trees and the book looks over the weather that attacks their house, the lightbulbs going out (darkness setting in as the story prepares to vanish); then there is Titus Groan and everyone in a procession, going inside the castle -- the book ends -- they go in and the book ends at the same time; they have walked themselves out of the book. Inside the castle and outside the book they are still walking; they continue on, they are going past the spine, they are off the edge of the table, they are out of the room, they have found their way into the kitchen and they are heading past the cockroach traps into the area under the fridge with the crumbs and shadows and those hard objects like springs and boxes that hide under there, the workings of the machine.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

autumn enters with fruit

The stone tilts under Marcel's foot, the memories are born for the first time, the act of production is compressed, and there are other yolkish egg-generations throughout the book, each at a different stage; the madeleine the most famous; and now I am thinking of Georg Trakl who takes one word and another and sets them in that productive compression, the words "child" and "sweet" close to "death" or "corpse," or the words "bleak ferns" and then in the next line "crystal blossoms," (The Night), or describing autumn with "dark" then a bright word, "yellowed" (The Autumn of the Lonely One) --

The dark autumn enters with fruit and fullness
The yellowed sheen of lovely summer days.
A pure blue flows from husks of moldered dullness

-- the prose tilting between one feeling and the next.

Imbalance is the word I think (and once I say a thing I am never sure -- always I think, I think --): but there is a force running back and forth between the balance of the poem and the imbalance of the word-ideas, gravity not knowing where to seat itself, a miniature torture niceness and pain, as in Lautreamont, the little boy and his tortured fingers, Trakl removing the padding that would be natural (though not inevitable) if he was writing prose (I am thinking of a prose-exposition like this: "The little sweet girl crept to the gate that opened into the dark garden where crows were flying and the leaves the of the trees were rustling, the gate creaked as a skeleton was moving its joints, and she put her hand on the metal ..." which he would compress down to a few words like "child in dark garden"), he places the words close together as if there is no other thought or calculation between them, and as if the one followed the other intensely and natively in the poet's mind. The girl is only juxtaposed with the garden and is not in it or located in a physical spatial relationship to it, but with it in some place where one thing is with another, and what space is that: where do these things exist together that are declared firmly, the existences of them, and placed there, juxtaposed, but juxtaposition itself is the landscape they live in.

All characters are juxtaposed with their books and with other characters in other books, this protagonist existing against a backdrop of other protagonists, this villain against other villains, though once upon a time each one of us must have encountered the ur-seed of them all: the one who represented that ur for us, the beginning of the whole rigmarole of protagonists and villains in our lives, whose identity and significance, at that point in time, to us, would have been invisible, even if that ur was in fact, as I have no doubt someone somewhere has already theorised (and probably I have read and forgotten), ourselves the readers, us: ourselves wandering divorced from us through each book and the reader pursuing them, crying come back, come back or watching in resentment and despair as those other creatures embark on their adventures.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

suspecting that I owed each moment of life

So the chilly weather came and the dandelions burst into those seed moons that look like frost but feel like fur. Put one against your lips and you have kissed a mouse. (Home is a bushfire summer, the trees are burnt, the Tasman Peninsula roars, here the winter, the cold ground, the dull car noises.) The leaves turned yellow in the grass, the Cosmopolitan sign was the same as it had always been, but the sign over the hamburger restaurant down the road lost six of its letters when the lights went out in them (the shapes still present but the intelligence gone); the changes in the natural world seemed seasonal but the humanly-constructed things seemed to deserve a prejudicial word like "broken," though the hamburger sign goes dead so regularly that you could call it seasonal and say that its seasonal cycle lasts about three weeks, and that it has a faster life than flowers. Conan Doyle, speaking through Sherlock Holmes, said that once you have eliminated all the impossibilities then whatever remains no matter how loony, must be the case, and what is the case, Wittgenstein said, is the world, though Einstein tried to fix his own theories to make the universe static, yet it would not remain so, and the possibility that the sign is simply breaking down at random in a planless way and can't be fixed is a possibility that won't be eliminated, which is why no one can say seriously that the sign is in fact informed by nature to go dark on cue every three weeks; perhaps some worker stays in business this way and nature likes him in particular for reasons it cannot articulate to the rest of us except through this sign; note that the Lord spoke to Elijah out of personal preference. The idea that the sign is designed to cycle through its behaviour like a plant is whimsical and whimsy or magic should be ignored sometimes, I think, because it did not help me when I was searching for the lard in the kitchen a few minutes ago, and I was making an automatic buttering action with my hand as if I had a knife and the knife was lifting lard out of its lard-box. That magical summoning gesture did not work, magic was doing nothing for me except give my wrist a little exercise, reason was everything, or memory, and the power of my hands, and the muscles that run up the arm, the whole collection of pieces, long strings, damp flocculents like curtain cords, juice, gum, red strata, the buttering gesture not powerful on its own, but only after memory had reminded me that M. had moved the lard into a plastic yoghurt container, and then my fingers lifted the lid and there was the lard that shone like snow and was welcome to my eyes though it would not have been welcome to the eyes of others, who I have heard say, "Lard!" in horror voices just before they pour sugar sugar sugar into their coffee -- ha ha I think, watching them with this pour pour pour, you will die of sugar but no man is an island and thoughts of death remind me that as they die so will I, and not seasonally but forever although George MacDonald in Lilith thinks this is a good thing, and that we will find a more religious and therefore spiritual life in death; also childhood ponies will be returned. I never had a pony and will miss out on this part. MacDonald dwells on this resurrection, and it is the climax of his book, and the point of the whole thing, and the reason it was written, but the passage I remember comes earlier, I gloss over the resurrection blah blah blah and recall instead the monster worms that come out of the ground to eat the hero but moonlight paralyses them. He walked through the night "never suspecting that I owed each moment of life to the staring moon." We are kept safe sometimes by mysterious accidents. Safety stands on a cobblestone, the cobblestone tilts, safety comes awake and feels inspired, aha, orroight it says: then it puts itself in motion. Of course that cobblestone is a reference to the last book of In Search of Lost Time, and Marcel stopping in the courtyard, saying with pages of words, aha, orroight, like a man about to fix a sink. I need to do something with my life or be forever like Marcel in the first one billion pages of the book, and not the Proust who is the narrator (Roger Shattuck divides him like this into Proust-the-Narrator and Marcel-the-Aging-Boy, and I think it works well) and not, I don't know what, always staring at the three trees, which say to me nothing and only wave.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


"You romantics," say the detractors, "you're anthropomorphising this underlining pen, and why don't you think about it this way: the person didn't have personal feelings about decadence, they had a teacher or a lecturer standing there telling them, 'Write an essay about the book you're reading, give me the key ideas,' so they wanted to find phrases that would sum up the author's unifying or driving notion, or, hang on, here's another idea, there were no teachers, they're just a reader who prefers to remember what their novels are about.

'They underlined these words so that if they came back in the future they could search through the pages until they saw those lines, and then their future selves would know what their current selves think Pynchon's point of view is, ultimately; the old self is saying to the modern self, 'This is how you can sum up this novel: it's about 'the tag-end,' it's about 'decadence,' it's about decay.' Then a memory of the details comes back to the modern self, that's the plan, and they remember that parts of the book are set in the twilight of the British Empire, an island is being bombed, a man began a marriage but then it disintegrated, a gang respected a woman then they didn't, and there was this failed attempt in the sewers, to Catholicise rats before the world ended; this was the insurance of the Faith and it didn't work. All summed up by the word decadence: decay, decay, decay, and rot, and the slaughter of the innocent crocodile in the underground church, the pet is betrayed because it has been ruined by adulthood, and then the coloured monkey frozen under the ice, the beautiful terrible place that tantalises you and you fear it: perhaps this place is an inhuman extremity that does not die, but all human things die.

'That was the old self's opinion, and now the modern self knows what its thoughts were, years ago, when they read the book, now they don't have to read the whole four hundred and, how many is it, fifty pages again, because all they have to do is look at those phrases. It was laziness on their part, or practicality: they weren't being depressed," say the detractors, "they were being practical. They were passing notes to themselves, the past self leaving its ghost behind, or a sign, or its signature, saying, 'I existed, here are my thoughts, this is how I make you pay attention to me, I give you this useful information, otherwise you will forget --' but it's already dead."

"We like our version better," say the friend of Katherine Anne Porter, "and we'll point out that if they had wanted to remind themselves of ideas that run through the book then there were other sentences they could have underlined without too much stress for themselves or wear and tear on the pen, and why not make a mark in the margin by that long description of a surgical nose-job, the detailed destruction there, and the arousal-by-destruction, destruction sexy, sex in this book generally destructive rather than generative, which might be a significant idea if they're writing an essay or remembering ... but we like to think that their personality felt itself answered in some way by the words they underlined, which seemed to have a secret shattering meaning that stood apart and away from their role in the story so that, for this person, the whole book, with its dozens of characters, was written for the sake of these words, and the father-related problems of this fictional man named Stencil do not matter, and the way these Germans torture these Africans for pages is not as electrifying as the words "Decadence, decadence," taken in through the eyes at the correct time; those words make an impression as if they are glowing in the dark or dimness, and the preference for these words, these words, above everything else, is like love, not fair or reasonable."

Thursday, January 3, 2013

a clear movement

"That's right," they say, "we have been reading Heidegger on Trakl, but as soon as we saw those words we knew it was true, so it is not as if we're fishing," they say, "it's not as though we were groping for a phrase; we do believe it, and it suits and fits the feelings that we are sure were there prior. People sometimes find what they are looking for," and they pick up my phenomenally brutalised secondhand copy of Thomas Pynchon's V., lifting, along with the book itself, stains and brown leaves, which they open to page one hundred and eighty-three where an old owner has underlined the words, "what was the tag-end of an age if not that sort of imbalance, that tilt toward the more devious, the less forceful?"

"They had to wait nearly until page two hundred to find it," say the friends of Katherine Anne Porter, "but they found it eventually, and then there's nothing else until page three hundred and one --" which they show, and the words "Decadence, decadence" have been underlined at the start of a paragraph.

It says:

Decadence, decadence. What is it? Only a clear movement toward death, or, preferably, non-humanity.

"You can imagine," they say with a sort of fluttering pleasure and thrill, "the same kind of mind picking out both those sets of words; you can imagine the same person wanting to remember that their point of view here in the book, was upheld, by this author, who had expressed it so well, and so beautifully, and honoured their feelings, which may well have been paranoia, and maybe delusion, and depression, and a belief that the world was going to the dogs, and horror, and suicidal despair, but respected here by this famous writer, who lets them know that other people have conceived the bones of the same thoughts on which they have clumped the meat they have collected (this meat that cooks and seethes in their minds, the memories of atrocities in the newspapers or the argument they hear downstairs); to this meat they may now add the words of Thomas Pynchon. and if they try to explain their point of view to someone later they could quote V. for support, saying to the other party, look I am not alone, I am less mad than you think, and from these words of Thomas Pynchon's though he wrote them so long ago, they can say, today, "Thomas Pynchon thinks this" -- showing that page -- because they have never heard anything that would contradict that belief, and yet he ages, Thomas Pynchon, like the hero of the Zoshchenko novellette who will never be described because he is going to get older before the end of the story, and whatever you describe him as now he might not be today, and may have conceived the opposite point of view in secret, deciding that the world is not going to the dogs, that decadence is not a problem, and that all his old thoughts about entropy were just his body trying to warn him about an oncoming case of alcoholic poisoning because he had been drinking too much gin; the whole book could have been gin.

'We have no idea if Thomas Pynchon actually imbibes," they add, "that was just an example. Maybe he is a teetotaller." They wring their hands.