Sunday, April 28, 2013

he had filled their pages with his archaic handwriting

Hadrian behaves as if you inhabit the same piece of mental earth as the protagonist -- even if you don't, it address you as if you do -- if it treats you like this firmly enough, if it only treats you in this way, if it hammers you with persuasive details, then you will be bent into the right shape -- this is how it seems to think -- if it never lets you have a crack to escape through -- if it never stops squeezing -- if it never shows weakness -- then it will win -- if it does not let you speculate ambiguously -- if it will not let you disagree or laugh -- if it only ever shows approval of its protagonist -- if it only ever seems repulsed by its villains -- "then," it seems to say, "I will triumph."

The protagonist represents this point of view distilled into a person. He is the book itself, he is the book's idea of itself replicated inside itself like a reflection in a mirror, a picture of the author beaming through the medium of prose and shining, smaller, in colour, against a white panel -- he is a proudly stubborn aesthete in a dirty world, retrograde, austere, rebellious, unbending, his taste "exquisite" --

At the upper edge of the board a number of Publishers' Dummies reposed, having the outward similitude of six-shilling novels: but he had filled their pages with his archaic handwriting --

-- two lines later he is quoting Sophocles in Greek, and so the information piles up, the room is graced with "sixteen exquisite Greek intagli" and "a curious Greco-Italian seal shewing St George as a winged-footed Persys," "four tiny ingots of pure copper," and you notice that the scale of the treasures is important here, diminutive items preferred ("tiny ingots"), objects you can only admire if you're being rewarded with a view at close range, "a miniature in a closed morocco case," smallness stressing the character's privacy, poverty, and modesty, "a small low armchair," "a small fire," the items listed and lined up on display by the exactness of a detail that guides the reader's inner eye to one spot, "done on the back of an Admiralty chart," the author never admitting that this heap of little delicates is getting ridiculously large; you either respect it or you're out.

"Cultivate the art of saying No," says the protagonist to himself because he is afraid he is too nice. The book erects boundaries as it goes, such is its temperament, it creates and discovers them; if it hates then it wants you to hate, if it loves then it wants you to love. If you are not its kind of person then it does not want you. "It does not want me," I thought. Rolfe does not try to persuade, he tries to obliterate, banish, or crush.

"He behaves as though I am somehow him," I thought, "and as though I am reading this book through his own brain, so that all he has to do is use a word like "low" or "conventional" or "socialist" and his disgust will be transferred instantly into my veins, he treats his words as if they are hypodermic needles."

Here was the spoor of a time that had departed. I was supposed to know. It was supposed to be in the air. I was supposed to be viscerally revolted by pre-Revolutionary Russian Communism. The book was published in 1903. I feel a wall. The book is on the other side. There was no wall, now there is a wall. It wants ascetic coolness and visceral hating emotion together. A character speaks with a slang accent. I am supposed to think that he is morally squalid not only because he has those thoughts but because he expresses them in that voice. The voice is coarse and coarseness is vile. Rolfe is so repelled he's spitting. Through no other route may I emphathise with this book. But I am so distant from that time and place that I couldn't sacrifice myself like that even if I wanted to. I am blocked even from the pyre. The author is suffused with disdain. I believe that I can read his mind that far. I can describe the shape of his hatred by borrowing the words that he uses. He hates people who bark, he hates people who drop an h, he hates people who don't respect the monarchy. But my description is pure word-borrowing. I am only making a quick skin for that hatred so that I can tell you, "He hates."

Thomas Bernhard's books call people pigs and philistines but they're not as smug as Hadrian -- they're not martyred saints -- they don't insist so coldly and soothingly on their own holy infallibility -- and I get along with them better -- their protagonists who'd like to scratch off their own faces -- Rolfe likes his own face intact and noble -- the more petty he is, with his hatred of accents or ugliness, the more he wants his nobility -- I have learnt something here, I thought --

Thursday, April 25, 2013


And this book, Finnegans Wake, is so fully occupied by portmanteaus or sentences exquisitely corpsed together, that it never relaxes, there's no part of it that's not playing, nothing seems unconscious (even though the story happens through a programmed swamp of language-subconsciousness), the reader approaches this crossword puzzle for hundreds of pages without ever solving it (because it is so huge), and, considering this, I say it's not a book that wants to feed those associations and crossreferences that occur ad-hocishly, the inadvertent accidental links that live and die in a single person or a group of people, it closes them down, it seals them off, it presents you with its own hermeticism, which is the nature of every book, but this one explicitly and forcefully re-routes you back inside (back to words, I mean), not like Casino, my mind flying away from the movie frequently and thinking of the memoir-woman and her friends who lived in Robert De Niro's house by the golf course, my own connection, mine, worthless possession but I can't give it away, helpless owner, me, all condemned we are, to these pointless gifts or burdens.

Being here in the United States I pick up one thing or another thing that I would not have picked up in Australia, the sun coming up behind the palm trees down the road, the solitary soft luminous cloud shaped like a scimitar over the mountains to the west, then the clouds dissolving into milk, or, then, in another piece of scenery, the South American death-pottery with a hole in the bottom of the bowl so that the spirit can escape, this bowl kept in an archival bag behind the back wall of a museum, and behind that room there is a safe as big as a cupboard, kept shut with a lock like a steering wheel, and within that safe further ceramics, larger and more precious than the bowl, made up like shamans and monkeys, the shaman holding a spiked shell in both hands and smiling away from it in a way that the museum people interpret as ecstasy, these ancient rituals and sacrifices occurring while the participants were in hallucinogenic states, though perhaps not the llamas -- one of the ceramics is roofed with a diorama of five men stretching a llama out on its back like a trampoline mat so that it can be killed with a knife to the stomach -- and anyone who pours water into that vessel and tilts it will hear the clay give a whistle -- or, said one museum worker -- a scream --

But I might have picked up better samples if I had stayed at home, who knows, and thoughts like this make the world hard to judge; you have a faint sense of impossible complexity, you become indecisive, you sit making blog posts for an audience of about two people (hello ZMKC, hello Tom), or you find a magnifying glass for yourself, like the protagonist of Frederick Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh (ZMKC, your recommendation), who sharpens his opinions of people through a set of temporal aesthetics, loving anything that he can call shapely, active, clean, noble, handsome, or otherwise reminiscent of Ancient Greece, and imagining or thinking that he can clarify his disgust at another character by telling you nothing more than that they are ugly, or they seem "conventional," or that they "bark" when they speak, and they are not like his idea of the Ancient Greeks, a group of people that Ruskin, who must have influenced Rolfe, and whose name he brings into the book, did not like: he liked the Gothic, and in his private journals (1848 - 1873, ed. Joan Evans and J.H. Whitehouse) he had no patience with people who venerated the older Ancients.

I have a lot of sympathy for Ruskin's love of smaller, hidden things, which I can find even here, where the sky, so free of clouds on most days, is one undifferentiated detail, where the mountains are so bare from a distance, and the casinos on the horizon so large and blunt (but Steve Wynn of the Wynn is in love with tassels, as anyone can see when they walk into his current casino, and also the old one, sold by him years ago, the Bellagio -- the interior of the Wynn is decorated with tassels and butterflies -- and a frog on a rainbow waterfall singing Low Rider -- this is known as the Lake of Dreams --).

Sunday, April 21, 2013


So I'm remembering the spectacle of Finnegans Wake, a book that digests other books, as all books do, and it digests language-outside-books as well as all books do, ok, though weirdly it likes to prove that it has digested them, it shows off its bones or makes them up: the skeleton of other books the author has read become the book, nice gift for investigators I'd think if I considered it hypothetically, for imagine what it would be like if the Bible had been written by people who decided to put all their references in, but I know he hasn't used all of his references, and how many has he decided to leave out, how many thousands have been left aside, no, he says to himself in the mid-1930s, this didn't work, no, I don't want to put that in he decides, squinting through his round mushroom glasses which are being worn at the same time, in other photographs, by Himmler, blindness, blindness; the book of references that didn't make their way into the Wake would be larger than the Wake, the mind dealing with the composition as it deals with the presents the senses give it, a piece of the scenery, a puddle of smells: notice that, discard that, winnow, winnow, and conclude.

The conclusion not total or passive; it streams out now toward the reader.

One hand-picked set of influences has been placed in this book, and on purpose they are left recognisable, or, not left, made recognisable; the rug of dirt is wiped diligently off the top of this graveyard, fluorescent arrows applied to some of the bones, the knob of a thigh protrudes, the top of a skull is visible, and some of the skeletons are trying to sit up and talk, but the book could have been different, the author could have tried to write a family saga with the inspiration concealed and only a faint trace of someone else's accent sticking through to guide the reader to the spot (I put down Nicola Barker's Behindlings once because it would not stop shouting, "Cowper Powys, John Cowper Powys" in my mind's ear), graveyard covered over, the earth almost flat, the moss quiet, the stones upright, the rabbits running between the stones as they do in the Williamstown cemetery in Victoria, dying sometimes and the entrails hauled up tautly by the crows, stringing the sails of this fur ship on the green sea of the lawn and sailing away into port.

Exposure is part of an author's arsenal and Joyce's way is one way to do it, not by having a character talk to the reader, not by killing off the plot suddenly to remind the reader that there is this thing here known as plot, but by pretending to only half-digest his elemental matter; this book a multisonic multidirectional amplification of the occasional direct homages that books pay directly and openly to their beloveds; it glances at Steven Carroll in the last volume of the Glenroy trilogy as he names a character's girlfriend Madeleine.

A person can read Carroll's books without paying attention to the allusion, it doesn't matter, you can understand The Time We Have Taken and you don't have to think of Proust gently moistening his crumbs, but in the Wake your ignorance is publicised inside the relationship between reader and book -- the book knows; Carroll's book doesn't have to know, both parties can stay politely mum -- but Joyce's book does not remain mum about your ignorance, it is not so nice and mannerly, it says, "I would like you to know what I am referring to when I say, Goat to the Endth, thou slowguard. Where else do I give you to go besides knowledge and singing?"

Thursday, April 18, 2013

of Alle

But why have I mentioned those portmanteaus I wonder, looking back at my last post, when you already know about them, you can pick up Finnegans Wake tomorrow and see them, you can work it out for yourself by page twenty, or it is mentioned in every overview, it is mentioned every time the Wake is mentioned, "Joyce uses portmanteaus," they say very casually in newspaper articles, "in Finnegans Wake AS WE ALL KNOW," and not only in articles about the Wake itself but in traffic reports and news of the world; weather announcers tell you that we are expecting a cold front from the north over the next few days and also that James Joyce uses portmanteaus in Finnegans Wake, it is mentioned by very tiny children, it is mentioned by intoxicateds in gutters, it is mentioned by tourists who come to Las Vegas from Phoenix and commit domestic violence in hotel corridors, it is mentioned by the people who drown in Lake Mead where the descending pillow of the water has left a ring of bathtub chalk on the rocks, it is probably well known by the homeless man who tells me he is planning to write a paper on Marxism as soon as his back stops hurting him; so there was no reason to describe it; but any criticism is fanfiction with a non- in front of the fiction, it is a nonfiction fanfiction and sometimes there are these compulsions to spell things out again and again, impressed with your own urge to state the obvious because the obvious happens to be the thing that has occurred to you (if it has occurred to thousands of other people as well then that's not your fault, you didn't force them), and for you you can read I, meaning me, you do not have to understand this word to refer to your own self (meaning I to you) if you prefer to resist statements of the obvious in your own works, or even if you do something else, which very politely I will allow that you do or may do or not do as it pleases you perhaps, amen and thank you.

So someone might have thought at some point in say the last two or five seconds or so, "Therefore fanfiction is also criticism, ipso facto, kew ee dee," which, again, is obvious, like everything else in this post so far, it is as obvious as the sun in the sky, which is clear here, as usual, very blue, fairly hot, good beach weather but no beach, different locations cutting nature in different ways, sand but no sea if you're in Nevada, sea but no sand if you're far away on a ship, and chaos too, writes Elizabeth Grosz in her book Chaos, Territory, Art, is cut across in different ways by different artworks or ideas, a common material but a different slice, steaks and chops from the same butchered animal, all cuts partaking of the nature of meat but not identical; chaosmos, says Joyce somewhere in the Wake: "Chaosmos of Alle," which I then saw again as a description of Hélène Cixous' Neuter.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

my neighbour’s fire

There are children's rhymes represented in Finnegans Wake too, and songs, and other unliterary language, so that the reader's attention is out of the book as well as inside, the brain detects the type of language being used, it is swollen with the scenery around that language (a tender raised spot with material underneath, like a pimple), it re-senses the idea of a playground as it has understood the word before, perhaps it is haunted briefly by the absence of an actual playground (it was not aware before, now it is aware that it is not in a playground), or it feels a sea shanty and senses an atmosphere of sailors who are not there, it experiences the ability of the book to utilise a word it has seen before (but now it is in a new setting), it sees "wisden" "grace" "bails" close together in one paragraph about sex and it intuits an atmosphere around the word "cricket," even though the writing does not announce in so many strict and informative words, "Now I am going to talk about the sport known as cricket, which you are not watching because you are reading my book but which once upon a time you watched or experienced; however I have taken it into myself now as a part of my own essence" (the book would turn everything into a dream of the past if it had that power; that is the power it is trying to exert, a power that would expel the rest of the universe) or, another scenario, the mind does not recognise the rhyme, it does not recognise the shanty, it does not know bails or Wisden, and then the pimple that the writer must have imagined himself producing in the reader's mind does not appear, the brain is calm and mild, it goes on as if nothing has been said, there is no wound or mark, nothing will burst.

And any book can make a reference to the outside world, saying, "cat," and suggesting in this abbreviated way that you might summon up some sort of rough mental silhouette of living cats-slash-cat-associations, or "house" and reminding you of houses, but in this instance it is different, it is the reference within language to another form of itself, it is as though you saw a gum tree refer to an apple tree by growing an apple; the Wake grows an apple, it grows a pear, it grows the frond of a fern, and so, I ask myself, Joyce the straddling ringmaster, how does he maintain his own presence in that orchestra?

He glues puns, portmanteaus and riddles in and between all the styles he picks, this is his style, the in-packed-style, tucking a word that belongs to one style into the language of another style, and that tucking and portmanteauing and in-bridging is his continuity, in other words knots with different-textured strings or cords; if this action of knotting and craftwork went away then I would be in a different book, but as long as I feel as if I'm doing a crossword puzzle I can keep my composure, I have not suddenly begun reading another book, I am still looking at Finnegans Wake.

The author is this knitting action, that is how he has chosen to be, and in other books chose differently but here in Finnegans Wake he is a knit, and it occurs to me that he does not celebrate or frame the other styles so much as eat them. (You may light a candle at your neighbour's fire, says Jonathan Swift in his Letter of Advice to a Young Poet (1721), but the candle is still your own; though it is not always easy, as Geoffrey Hill once pointed out, to know when Swift is serious.)

So every style supports his style and is linked to every other style by his style.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

all her engauzements

"Where is the mark," I asked myself, still thinking of Wole Soyinka's absent acute accent over the e, "it is putting its emphasis in a spot, planting one thing there, it is in French, it is in another language, it is next door, it is with the neighbours, it is the compressive slanting finger that removes the need for a footnote or for Carol C. Harter (with three buildings named after her on the UNLV campus) pronouncing "wol-ay" after years of me imagining "hole," it is the behaviour of Joyce in Finnegans Wake, which is a poem or pun or puzzle or compressive act and a monument of thoughtful battle or mimickry of long playtime, the sustainment of its compressive effort to fuse the foetal and the adult words at once (burning parts off and melting the remains together), the words in the book are recognisable as their adult forms but other words have been grafted on to them and they grow together (all the warm soil around, which sustains them in that form, the landscape built for them, the stubborn, isolated and enclosed terrarium world) into this hybrid -- and here is one example from the middle of the book, 'engauzements' instead of 'engagements,' 'she cancelled all her engauzements,' writes Joyce -- she is not engaged any longer and her mind is not misted over either, the engagements were light and gauze, the gauze like a veil has been dismissed from her eyes, she sees what she must do and throws herself over a bridge I think it is, in the next sentence, being in a gauzy environment or in the middle of romantic questing novel prose just there, which drives her to accept dramatic acts when they occur to her, or so you can assume, for the brief time that you know her, which is about a page or so (pretending for one moment that she is a person --).

'You draw that conclusion" I told myself, "because the romantic-dramatic language says, 'She is likely to do this,' even before it says, 'She is doing this,' and meanwhile it is also saying, 'The presence of this specific and taxonomically more or less identifiable language means that she could be quickly constructed by the speaker, she is not built up in the slow way that someone in a realism-novel is built up, by acts reported and observed (being created as she proceeds through the time of the reader's reading, which is the way people come to me in life, appearing in the world and becoming a character through their acts or reported acts), but her history is inside this short box of romance-prose which exists within the larger box of Finnegans Wake.'

'It is the history of a form of language that prophesises her behaviour for me and not the imitated history of a person, she is the expression of a language and not of a species that is time-borne and made of meat, she is not a person as I am a person even though someone has disguised her with a name, as a different person once did me, either my mother or my father, I have not actually asked and what a gap in my development is represented here.

'The language itself is throwing her over the bridge; she would not have done it if she had been in the middle of a more ruthless passage. Slang would have saved her."

(And I felt that all those among us are stricken with unnecessary suffering, and so her as well, and so she is a person in that aspect of herself, though almost anything can be a person in one or more aspects of itself, even trees can be people in one aspect of themselves, the presence of skinlike coatings for example, or a habit of what could be called breathing which is conducted by the tree on a regular basis in order to sustain life; and people can be trees by a reverse process; by this argument we are all characters in books.)

Sunday, April 7, 2013


Whether her way (Carol C. Harter's way) was the best way or not I do not know but it was undoubtedly a way, and humiliation might have fixed the same fact into my memory if these hundred people had known that I was being corrected, but this method of Carol C. Harter's has worked so far, myself some weeks later still remembering that wol-ay is the correct pronunciation of Wole Soyinka's first name rather than my own invention which was woal to rhyme with hole.

I felt the enlightenment come upon me, for I had been thinking of him was as the wrong Wole for so long that the weight of mistaken time came in like the mechanical pressure above a metal die and stamped it down.

I told myself, "I should have guessed, think of the other names ending with e in that region, the ones you know already, the ones with acute accent already included, Toumani Diabaté, Rokia Traoré, and why do they have the mark and him not? Does it come from the British colonising Nigeria (him) and the French colonising Mali (them), and the French liking their flecks and the British not liking them but liking instead their uninflected word that you somehow have to guess and how are you supposed to do that when they spell Wole as if they were writing hole?

'Where is the telltale mark, where is that heartbeat underneath the floorboards, and we who hear it are the murderers, the guilty parties, in other words we are the ones who know, like the citizens of the Heian court (screens and fans and sleeves), we have the background, we intuit other minds and the body of one background in each, but this language is written haphazardly as if we are still an oral culture with the storyteller standing there to be spoken to and asked about the words, this is not a language for writing, this is a language that has strayed illigitimately into writing, history has stuffed it into this unnatural role, this is the language in which the surname Menzies can be pronounced as if the z is a g, which once upon a time in the foetal stage it was, as each human being was once a frog and fish in embryo so these two, that z and a g, were fused along the spine of the yogh, entering in one direction the word knight, and in another direction the pronunciation Min-gis."

Thursday, April 4, 2013


"Writers are sorcerers," said Wole Soyinka when I saw him give a speech at the UNLV student union in February and I had not realised until that night that the 'e' at the end of his name needs be respected with a diacritical mark the way it is when you say café. His friend Carol Harter introduced him as the word "wol-ay" and I saw the sloping fleck rose illuminously on precious cushions erupting out its beams.

(Soyinka was once a lecturer at this university, he is one of the reasons why Las Vegas was the first City of Asylum in the United States, in other words it offers residencies to persecuted writers, one from Sierra Leone, one from China, currently an Iranian woman, and a man named Glenn Schaeffer was one of the other reasons for the City of Asylum being established, he was a bigwig with Mandalay Bay when it began, that gilt curtain dropped by architects at the south end of the Strip beyond the pyramids, bigwig and literary enthusiast, casino managers not apparently born in their moneyed chairs but must go through other stages first; the Iowa Writer's Workshop in his case.)

If Carol Harter had been able to read my mind and see that I did not know how to pronounce Wole Soyinka then she might have intuited also that her casual method was one of the correct ways to make me know, saying, "wol-ay" by that podium in her particular voice (herself not possessing another, and no one else possessing hers, every person chained to a voice, a voice chained to every person), and the pressure of the audience came around me and I took in the pronunciation, I had not been embarrassed by being corrected, I had received it privately; it had been whispered to me in a room filled with people, all buttocks flat on padded chairs, their number determinable by this method: count the buttocks and halve the amount.

And some books too go blindly out like her voice and reach you as if they had read your mind, always to my surprise when it happens.