Sunday, July 28, 2013
If humour is the detection of gaps -- as in tickling: the body writhing as if it is anticipating harm but then a harmless kitty-paw of fingertips, and no hurt, no blood, but an attack nonetheless, this warfare with no blood or cuts -- if humour is the sensation of an incredible lacuna -- if poignancy is likewise the detection of gaps between the desirable and the actual -- then see that the poignancy of the untouchable cows and the humour of the imperfectable hat are living in the same family of conjunctions.
Not peace in these cows, but the stage setting of peace, as established in past writings on the subject, the atmosphere summoned up by the cows and horses in Dorothy Wordworth's Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland for example, so that her sentence about the horses and cattle in the Scottish fields is visible now in its old or new role as the precursor and part cause of Samuel Beckett's cows "chewing in enormous fields, lying and standing, in the evening silence" her work reinforcing the notion that the role of cows in books is to give the audience a sense that this landscape is well-charactered and able to be encompassed by the imagination or the human heart, like the suburban garden in Blue Velvet by David Lynch before the man with the hose has his fatal attack which is followed by shots of the ants in the grass grappling like centurions, acts of miniature warfare that would have been going on, too, among the deep white roots of the paddocks where Dorothy Wordsworth saw her cattle abstracted in their serenity.
Who are the only two friends in Molloy? The mouth and the anus, which are the same sphincter: "a thin red mouth that looked as if it was raw from trying to shit its tongue."
Thursday, July 25, 2013
The Moran part and the Molloy part of the book gesture at a meeting but they never meet; Lousse might want to communicate with Molloy but she must hide in a bush and stare at him like a shy cockroach, and the Moran and Molloy parts might be the same story in two registers but that's not definite: this is a conclusion that needs to be approached from two directions (a Molloy direction and a Moran direction, the cry from one answered by the other, some firm clue that Moran is writing Molloy, for example -- evidence that he is deranged and imagining his prey on a bicycle as he himself has been on a bicycle and in a forest as he has been in a forest) but the points do not touch and merge (there are only those similarities that are so uncannily like coincidences, and then a further gesture -- go and find Molloy, Moran's told, and he does not find the man's body but he finds the shapes of his behaviour, which he inhabits in his own way, riding a bicycle or bopping people), so there is no certainty, only the possibility of one if some further conditions are met but they are not met, they are only announced, they are possible -- and once you've finished enumerating them you will have to say that they are not conclusive, so you have gone all this way to dwell in ambiguity, "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason," wrote Keats -- and many things are possible; it is possible that Molloy might be able to speak unselfconsciously one day, for example; it is possible that his hat might stay on, although by positing these possibilities only to deny them and in fact make that denial part of the essential character of Molloy's universe the book makes sure that they are impossible.
There are gaps between the possible and the achievement of the possible and I think these gaps produce an illustration of stasis -- in another book the action might move into the possible climax but in this book it can't. The characters struggle but they struggle stilly. Even going backwards would be a direction. And when I write "direction" I remember those ways in which the prose will develop an intense concentration on the location of a thing: is the stone in the right trouser pocket or the left shirt pocket, and is a person in Turdy or are they in Turdyba? But the idea of location is conjured up only so that it can be made ridiculous, with this man arranging stones in his pockets and these areas named after turds. Then the ridiculous mother, who is also a location.
The two narrators are trying to get somewhere but location itself seems silly; the fundamental nature of their quests was mad from the start, for they are trying to reach these ridiculous things, locations. And there is an edge of ridicule in the location of the cows because the language gives them the characters of rote objects. Which is not merely Beckett's language but language he has borrowed.
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Samuel Beckett has ambient country cows and so I see that they are safe from no human being, these poor concepts known as cows, "It was on a road remarkably bare," says Molloy, "I mean without hedges or ditches or any kind of edge, in the country, for cows were chewing in enormous fields, lying and standing, in the evening silence." Always there like props or trees, the interior foreigner of British literature, present, reliable, and inhuman, with their unreadable minds and their unknowable possibly violent, vicious, or conniving characters, weirdly four-legged, and so steady in the background that they are like Indian servants when an old story is set in the Raj, though destined eventually for stew, chops, shoes, or fertiliser, an undertone not often mentioned.
The qualities of Beckett's cows are so roundly and carelessly enumerated (and in the present or else eternal with no past or future state for the cows except perpetual exercise of the identical activities) that they are like a summary of other writers' cows, of cows that have belonged to scenes forever, and the reader I believe is not close to the cows because they are not particularised cows, they are not detailed, they are tapped on like dabs of paint that represent tree leaves, roughly in the correct position as taught by other teachers and not offensive to any mild or general critic.
So that the promise of contentment in these cows seems somewhat false and distant; they are a hallucination of peacefulness that the reader is reminded that they cannot touch, though they see it represented.
The cows have offered me a segue from the last post into the subject of Molloy, which is a book that Kevin Neilson at Interpolations has asked me to discuss or talk about, and yet states of extreme separation, I notice, are present throughout Molloy, and nonsegue could be in fact the essence of the book or a significant part of the essence anyway, not the essence I think but something at least, and maybe a clue or more than idle thought: the two narrators themselves never meeting, the polarisation between silence and speech being a primary source of action or torment, the separation too of locations (Molloy imprisoned in a room or extremely outdoors, Moran at home or away from home); and then there are the clumsy physical acts that perpetually will undo or ruin a possibly-spiritual state of perfection or unity as if one part of life is by default at war against the other, like sin and not-sin, humanity living in a state of hopeful damnation.
Why else is it sad and ridiculous, the hat on the lace attached to the buttonhole, if there is not an ethereal position of flawlessness that it might otherwise have inhabited?
Thursday, July 18, 2013
"Details give charm," writes Charlotte Brontë, placing a Romantic landscape in a room and transforming its details into her domestic items: the serene view is boring, the piqued spots of drama are vital, the grotesque detail is a treasure, the frightening vertigo element, the shocking grotto, or not shocking, it doesn't have to be shocking, it can be cattle and ponies as it is in Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A.D. 1803, after she decides that one lake is a disappointment because it has too much uniformity: "there is an uniformity in the lake which, comparing it with other lakes, made it appear tiresome. It has no windings: I should even imagine, although it is so many miles long, that, from some points not very high on the hills, it may be seen from one end to the other."
"Tiresome," is a word I have seen used about humans but never scenery, which leaves me with the impression that she is disappointed in this lake as if it is a person that has let her down. It is being that way on purpose. It refuses to give her a winding. An accident would have been enough for her, a cow could have done it. "We passed by many droves of cattle and Shetland ponies," she wrote later about a different landscape, "which accident stamped a character upon places, else unrememberable -- not an individual character, but the soul, the spirit, and solitary simplicity of many a Highland region."
The cattle and ponies chewed the grass; the spirit of Accident had passed through them. They had been manifest Accidents as they were chopping up the daisies. The carriage vanished over a hill. Ann Radcliffe's prose comes across the herd in The Mystery of Udolpho where they fill the same role: they "[stamp] a character upon places, else unrememberable -- not an individual character, but the soul, the spirit, and solitary simplicity" of a country region. Functionally they are the same cattle.
These tremendous precipices were contrasted by the soft green of the pastures and woods that hung upon their skirts; among whose flocks, and herds, and simple cottages, the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose.
The cattle are restful signs of human civilisation, gentle stoics in a paddock; nothing gives scale to a landscape like a sign of human habitation, wrote young Ruskin, though he took it back later when civilisation seemed too industrial for him: these people would not stop at cattle, they'd be in there with factories next. But Dorothy Wordsworth not worried about that, earlier than Ruskin, never anticipating a factory in the field where there is today possibly a supermarket. So she is calm in her pleasure. The Australian women I've been reading -- all born before 1900, all out of copyright -- like to pick up on flowers, I have noted, they tend to see flowers, and they will spend their poems describing flowers.
Bring flowers for the wearied one,
The wearied one of pain;
Bright flowers from the glorious sun,
Will give her joy again.
But, oh! seek them not from gardens,
Nor from the gay parterre,
Wander far into the woodlands,
For blossoms hiding there.
(from VII, in Lyra Australis, or, attempts to sing in a strange land (1854), by Caroline Leakey)
Again above thy fragile flowers
I bend, to bring their perfume nigh;
For only in the evening hours
Thy odors pass thy blossoms by;
But when the ministering day
Deserts thee with the warmth and light
That lulled thee, -- waking thou wilt pay
For these, in sweetness, to the night.
(from To the White Julienne, from Where the Pelican Builds and Other Poems (1885), by Mary Hannay Foott)
Myrtle, myrtle lying low,
With the moss about you creeping,
With the torrent round you leaping,
And the grand old mountain keeping
Vigil as the seasons go,
Still to me your music comes
Set in chords august, specific,
When a storm-voice, weird, terrific,
Beats across the waste Pacific
Like the roll of muffled drums.
(from Mountain Myrtle in the The Horses of the Hills (1911), by Marie Pitt)
They write about the larger items of the scenery as well, the cliffs and so on, "strange green hills and the glint of a far bay" (Marie Pitt again, Doherty's Corner) but they're drawn back to the tiny things in that huge continent, the flowers, always the flowers, little items; Leakey writes about violets, she writes about the primrose, she mentions bluebells, not the wattle, not an Australian flower. They miss British things in their colonial or just-Federated lives, they miss the peaceful cattle, they miss the village smoke coming up from chimneys, they want the churchbell but they see the bushland, Ernestine Hill in the 1930s saw the jungle gym of exhydrated cattle around a dead waterhole, and a character in Catherine Martin's Silent Sea wills herself to death in the salt brush because her mother has died. She loves her flowers, gardens of flowers, she cultivates them, she talks about them, she has opinions on the right colours for orchids, then she leaves the pocket of garden her mother has helped her to inhabit, she goes through the salt brush on a cart, she gets ill, she dies, poisoned by a landscape "gray, voiceless, sinister, for ever the same," or without windings, you could say: tiresome.
She could see the sky growing darker, even the sunset flush trembling into wanness, as the dust-storm raged with the fitful wails of a wind that rushes at its own wild caprice over boundless plains, without a solitary wall or hill, or even a line of trees, to impede its course.
"Not even herds," says Dorothy Wordsworth, passing in a carriage and looking, "it has neither cow nor pony." But Ernestine Hill journalistically struck and solemnly exultant about the hollow animals in the dead land.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
But in these Shirley pages there are other details that have nothing to do with entering and exiting, eg, "a silver pen, a crimson berry or two of ripe fruit on a green leaf." I look until I begin to doubt: I might be wrong, there might be no entering and exiting, it might be me, only me, entering and exiting stuck my mind maybe and not the author's -- why then not hers but mine: why mine? Dilemma, doubt, hands clutched.
Assume, imagining, that some earlier experience had primed me for it; was it the situation in the book itself that put the idea of erotic enterings and exitings in my head, the two evasive love-mutes coming closer but still hesitating, Shirley and her tutor, those two ripe fruits framed on their green leaf, they are on the verge of holding hands, and so I misread a chapter that had a totally normal number of innings and outings occurring, and thought these ins and outs were significant when really they had been happening at the same rate for the past two hundred pages. Nothing material has changed, only the surge of energy that came before the chapter; the flavour changed, of that surge: call that a theory but I doubt the theory too and honestly imagine that it is completely wrong and my first idea was right, namely, that enterings and exitings had come genuinely into the story for the first prominant time.
A pretty seal, a silver pen, a crimson berry or two of ripe fruit on a green leaf, a small, clean, delicate glove -- these trifles at once decorate and disarrange the stand they strew. Order forbids details in a picture -- she puts them tidily away; but details give charm.
Detail is excessiveness in this formulation, the presence of a detail is the sign of excessivity and wildness, the regular movement of the world is stopped up or diverted, maybe for a moment or maybe forever, until even the little detail of the hand-holding is wild in thought when it finally occurs, and on the surface it is not a romantic hand-hold -- his brother has been hurt and she is being sympathetic -- but the author electrifies the detail of that quick lay; the point was this electrification. "It lay like a snowflake," thinks the tutor, "it thrilled like lightning."
A thousand times I have longed to possess that hand -- to have it in mine. I have possessed it; for five minutes I held it. Her fingers and mine can never be strangers more. Having met once they must meet again.
The detail can't be revoked, the author says: the action is final, destiny has been pushed in a concrete direction, and with this small gesture a new explosive future has been triggered. And a degree of intensity in Brontë coming from this reminder, which happens over and over again in different ways throughout Shirley, that actions in her books do not happen, they are committed. The book has been written as if every movement is a fatal sacrifice to the future. I'm suggesting, then, that Shirley mimics the irrevocable forces that create a universe.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
The surges in Shirley (the surge in favour of Shirley, for example, the surge against the old main character Caroline), are all contained inside the thrust of the book, the frustration and thrust, but Amanda McKittrick Ros in Irene Iddesleigh does not have the overarching push that would absorb and thereby rationalise her surges, her bursts, her boats of dreamland; extravagance is not her problem I think, it is the absence of a field where extravagance is justified by the force-field of meaning or in other words the intention around the story.
So the surges are there in Brontë's book, the moments when one area of interest emerges onto the page that was not there before, and it has a rulership there; it has some domination for a short while, or a presence anyway.
This is a thought I had in Chapter XXVII, when a process of things entering and exiting came into the story: a sad lover left his room and went into another room, the desk was open, he looked inside, there was a bag, there were gloves. "A bag -- a small satin bag -- hangs on the chair-back. The desk is open, the keys are in the lock."
The small bag, softly satin, is the companion to the word "slightly" in Brontë's description of the conversation between Shirley and Caroline; because of the pushing author there is a pressure behind it, as there is in D.H. Lawrence when he uses a diminutive or decreasing word, eg "very" or "little," which he loves --
The little white feet nod like white flowers in the wind,
They poise and run like ripples lapping across the water;
And the sight of their white play among the grass
Is like a little robin's song, winsome
-- which he deploys like an exquisite pinch when he needs it, and he can strategically overload the last line there with "winsome," pushing the point and punching his pulpit till you understand: the feet are little and they are winsome, they are everything in that direction of meaning.
And I think that, in a story dedicated to power, these littles and slightlies are repressive and compacting agents, holding back the thrust for a moment and keeping it strongly in abeyance to let it come out again with uninhibited force when the word little has gone past. Power is being ignored, it will come forward and make a revelation. The bag will open, the desk will open, a beam of strength is waiting to surge out of the interior. The man contemplates: "A whole garment sometimes covers meagreness and malformation; through a rent sleeve a fair round arm may be revealed."
Entering and exiting and coming in and out, just here, as the climax between Shirley and this man prepares to happen, open-mouthed things coming into the story, interior secrets are inside the current mind of the story now, they are not only in concrete objects, they are in abstracts. "Indeed, through this very loophole of character, the reality, depth, genuineness of that refinement may be ascertained," thinks the man, then he ends the chapter like this: "He locked the desk, pocketed all the property, and went."
Sunday, July 7, 2013
The characters in Shirley have been written so that they push, push, push, into a future where they will be better-known, better-seen, better-realised; even the obnoxious clergyman who insults Shirley in her home is trying to reach a better future state. The author has decided that this clergyman doesn't deserve to succeed, her opinion manifests itself fictionally in the hostess who tells him to leave. Charlotte Brontë is one of the condemning authors, like D.H. Lawrence.
They push steadily, either a thrusting shove or a stymied thrusting shove (see: Caroline in despair), and there is always more that could be revealed to the reader if these people could take another step in their lives, if Caroline could convince Robert to marry her, for instance, then the reader would be allowed to experience a relaxation of tension and a wedding. They butt against the frustration of being poor or being jobless, they thrust and stew until force is the main character in the book, it is there all the way through, it is there on every page; it even fills the clouds and the weather. "Rain has beat all day on that church tower."
This frustration and pushing is very steadily applied, "the revolt of its pride was seen in the heaving of her heart, stirred stormily under the lace and silk which veiled it," and Shirley is not spasmodic like Irene Iddesleigh, the author's sympathy doesn't suddenly come and go; her withdrawal of interest in Caroline after Shirley has arrived does not happen immediately, the newcomer gradually increasing her grip on the real estate of pages, she is rich there too and not only in her inherited property, "an excellent cloth-mill, dyehouse, warehouse, together with the messuage, gardens, and outbuildings, termed Hollow's Cottage;" O she gets chapters, page-property, Caroline shrivelling away in the background for the love of Robert until her long-lost mother decides that she is going to provide this weakening and declining part of the story with a modicum of filler. Darling, she cries, starting from her blind.
This mother comes so close to the land of utter revelation that all the characters are straining for that she goes from a mild character into a ferocious one and seizes her child carnivorously. "I am your true mother. No other woman can claim the title; it is mine."
But the love for Robert will be answered eventually, X will marry Y, the characters are galloping towards the end of the book, when they will be terminated, the pages are holding them back, the characters are trying to bite through, all Very Hungry Caterpillars, and shortcut their way, Caroline pining and trying to die because she is not allowed to reach the final chapter. She has to be restrained so that two engagements can happen more or less at the same time, hers and Shirley's: the author wants it that way, and holds her back temporarily from that oblivion.
I know that Brontë wants it that way because that's the way she does it, very starkly, not in a confused subliminal way but deliberately as if to plan, even though it means she has to fade her old main character out of the story nearly utterly. Caroline becomes sick, she has to go to bed, she receives her mother like a consolation prize or muzzle, keeping her so satisfied that she doesn't have a place among the strivers any more, surrendering with an exclamation, "My mother -- my own mother!" She can be left to her rest, which is like a small version of death, everybody gradually forgetting you.
Thursday, July 4, 2013
I want to marry my tutor, thinks Irene Iddesleigh, and so does the title character of another book, Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, a fictional woman who made the name Shirley popular with the parents of real baby girls; those girls burped and farted in their bassinets, two feats that the fictional Shirley would never achieve, never burping herself, never associated by her god-author with the word fart, though she is allowed to claim the words "brilliant, and probably happy," "independent as to property," "surefooted and agile; she could spring like a deer when she chose," and she possesses other features or attributes that the real girls might not have possessed.
Shirley is the second-appearing significant woman in the book; the first is Caroline who lives in the neighbourhood where Shirley has her property. "The very first interchange of slight observations sufficed to give each an idea of what the other was."
It's the same way in Jeannie Gunn's 1908 book, We of the Never-Never, all of her stockmen so taciturn that an "interchange of slight observations" makes them friends for life with the author (not the author but the author's fictional substitute) when she arrives at their cattle station saying "How do you do" -- a stockman coughs and grins -- "It was a most eloquent grinning, making all spoken apology or explanation unnecessary; and by the time it had faded away we thoroughly understood each other, being drawn together by a mutual love of the ridiculous. Only a mutual love of the ridiculous, yet not so slender a basis for a lifelong friendship as appears, and by no means an uncommon one 'out bush.'"
Some of the men are so shy that they dodge her for days or weeks after she gets there but then they talk about horses briefly and the friendship exists: it lasts forever, the mob of them go cattle-mustering, the woman from the city camps under a tree with her swag, her husband owning the place, the cattle, and the trees.
This is almost the only point where I can put together a formula to make the two books touch, Shirley and We of the Never-Never, otherwise they are not alike; Shirley's essence is a pushing-forward movement being thwarted; We of the Never-Never wants its people to stay still, stay still, keep their attributes intact, and display, and reinforce -- "But a Fizzer without news would not have been our Fizzer." It has a deep love of the same event, in other words, nostalgia, the clock hand that always comes back to twelve.
These linkages appear like theorums in bureaucracy or physics, only regarding or explaining the points that coincide with their equations, then lighting a small aura-area around them, the rest of each book is dark matter, obscured even further perhaps if you put several titles together in a genre, listing Shirley next to Irene Iddesleigh in a list called, "Books about women who want to marry their tutors," or you could extend the formula by calling it, "Books about people who marry the teacher-employees in their families," which means you could include Ada Cambridge's Materfamilias, and add the first two lines to your list, explaining that if you cut off the rest of the book these two lines would be a short story by Lydia Davis. "My father in England married a second time when I was about eighteen. She was my governess." It was for the sake of those two lines that you changed the name of the list to get the Lydia Davis comment in there, which you think is a brainwave, then you have doubts, you wonder if it was really a brainwave, you think about changing the name of the list back again but by now you have already spent half an hour hunting down ten more names to justify the new title and you don't want to get rid of them -- anyway -- you think -- maybe somebody will be impressed -- but already you are lugubrious with regret like Eeyore and you haven't even put it out there yet.