Thursday, May 2, 2013

for I watched it reverently, careful, sadly

The temptation is to shortcut the distance between myself and this book, Hadrian the Seventh, by judging the author as he seems to reveal himself here, powerless and seething, then transferring that judgment to the book wholesale, overwhelming it with a sort of depressed scorn.

The aesthetic cultural surge that he's riding has been washed away by time (the surge in that precise form -- the one represented by an exquisite mantlepiece of Greek intaglios next to squalor -- there are modern equivalents but they're not the same, not even the feeling around them is the same, though they have that longing for refinement --), and as I read the word "Ruskin" in one of his paragraphs, I can think, "Ruskin writes with this disdain too, for anything he can call "low," still, in him the definition of lowness is more of an eccentric one, less conventional, it's as though he's been alone in himself for so long that he finds it necessary to anthropomorphises people -- and one of the ironies of Rolfe's book is that this protagonist who hates conventional souls is filled with conventional prejudices and doesn't Dostoevsky touch on this phenomenon in the fourth book of The Idiot? -- but Ruskin makes all of his prejudices seem so strange and pitiable -- I can watch Ruskin building the architecture of his sentences where Rolfe's sentences are ordinary reasonable sentences (in other words I feel reassured that there is more to Ruskin, his mind is operating elsewhere, I can believe that the disdain is an excuse for the mission of sentences; the disdain is the patron of the sentences as the Church was the patron or conduit of Michelangelo, who came from a silent point that was not-them and was emitted through them), and at least Ruskin sounds as if he's in actual berserk and helpless prophetic agony when he tells you that steel is evil, but Rolfe doesn't have those sentences or that agony, he doesn't have those mitigations or padding, he writes like a man who's confident that he will find an audience that agrees with the idea that people who don't talk like classically-educated Englishmen are revolting or funny, and it might have been the agony of Ruskin, decades earlier, that helped to nourish the aesthetic audience, giving them confidence in their disdain, but Ruskin's own peace of mind doesn't seem to have benefitted from it since he wrote more and more like a mad Cassandra until he died, so that even when I read his diaries I see the depression-words dominating the last years: "intensely ill and sad," he writes, "Despondent exceedingly," "languid as well as sad" --

A perfectly pure golden and orange sunset found me listless and careless of it; or rather, for I watched it reverently, careful, sadly, that I could not care (Tuesday, February 4th, 1873))

-- and it is thanks to his distress that Rolfe was given that opportunity to be bitterly and yet complacently spiteful in this exact way; the work has all been done for him, the atmosphere was pre-established, though he was poor, apparently, and suffered in life, fighting with his friends and experiencing bitterness and otherwise constructing an atmosphere around his person; but in his prose life in this book he does not construct anything except his hatred, he is parasitical on his era, as C.S. Lewis, seeing cynicism in John Donne's poetry, insisted that Donne was parasitical on the universe of idealistic love poems, no matter how bad they were -- Rolfe appears to be easily condensed and dismissed, and Ruskin not, though if I had met them in life I might have gone away thinking that their personalities were virtually the same, both, let's say, hovering by the mantlepiece, silently gloomy, waiting, passively, to be approached by a conversation that seems to be up to their standards, this behaviour described in at least one Ruskin biography, the name of whose author I cannot now remember, and if Rolfe is true to his protagonist then he would have exhibited behaviour like it -- and both of them would have hated the bus ride I took yesterday, the man and woman opposite discussing their drug addictions, the man irritated because the U.S. military doesn't take you unless you have paperwork to prove that you've been off your bipolar medication for two years -- "Two years! I can't be off my medication for two months --"."

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