Thursday, December 19, 2013

the earth is her habitation

But Ada Cambridge does not behave as if she is agonised, the way butoh dancers often do (or as they are known for doing, with their whitened faces, hands turned back, lips quivering, etc); she writes as if harm is always about to arrive and yet like the storm it invigorates her. "Bee—a—utiful!" In her first autobiography she wants to touch a wrecked ship: "When the Ormuz had that accident in the Rip she so tightly filled the dock that her skeleton bow was almost within my touch. No more do I wonder at what ships can go through, having seen how that giant frame was put together. I went down to the bottom of the dock and held up the great hull in the palms of my hands. It was a strange sensation." Noticing here that she remembers "almost" touching it as well as touching it, and that she had to move to complete the touch. "I went down ..."

So her characters like to touch as well and important moment in her book are sometimes marked by touching, one character hands another character a tray in A Humble Enterprise and their worlds change: the tray travels, a ship travels in Uncle Piper, the circumstances are altered, the first character goes from poor to rich like the ones in the Tasma book. It takes longer than just the tray-pass, but the tray-pass is the crucial moment. "The world became a changed place to Jenny Liddon from the moment when Anthony Churchill stood up to take her tray." Then she goes to the sea to think about it. "It was absolutely necessary to have the sea to commune with, under the circumstances -- darkness and the sea." She goes to a genuine place, St Kilda pier, or in other words a place that the author could herself touch and probably had touched.

Afterwards, when she has decided to marry Anthony Churchill, she is still invigorated by the weather on the pier at night: "nightly taking her down to St Kilda for that blow on the pier which still refreshed her more than anything."

The touch of a train half-orphaning her in the opening paragraph, and the launch that throws the couple overboard in the opening of Sisters destroying the book that had been building until then and transforming it into another book.

Thinking now of Leopardi in his Zibaldone saying that a state of nature is the happiest state, because it allows for "illusions" whereas reason does not allow for illusions and therefore makes a soul unhappy: the people of his day were unhappy because they had decided to rely on reason instead of nature, they were developing farther from nature with every year, he said, and as I remember him I wonder if he would believe as I think I do, that Cambridge is obliquely in sympathy with that point of view, or not even obliquely when she refers to "the dictum of nature, who is the mother of all wisdom" -- nature in this case advising everybody to get married -- A Humble Enterprise is a book that wants you to marry, which I suppose means that Ada Cambridge, the author of that book, is mistaking herself for nature and that the dictum of nature is in fact the dictum of Cambridge. Nature wants you to marry someone because it will make you enjoy touch: "the husband necessarily makes his wife feel that the earth is her habitation and the clouds of heaven many miles away."


  1. This is very interesting, this idea of touching. I almost said "contact," but Cambridge is more about deliberate effort to close the physical gaps, seemingly to possess somehow these objects and people. Quite unlike Henry James, say, where nobody touches anyone else, and where physical objects are mere pretty set dressing that reveals character for the people who don't touch. The boat image is really compelling; the hull of the wreck must've been quite dirty, so she would've carried away some of that dirt with her.

    Stories are so different from real life, and story tellers tend to use surprisingly small and limited tool kits, and so I think that stories in which touching, contact, the closing of physical gaps, are significant events are going to be quite different stories from those which are not concerned with touching. I've never thought about this before. I have no idea which sort of writer I am; I'll have to have a look.

    That last sentence, about heaven/earth and marriage is very pretty, and also kind of ominous.

    1. Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to you. The last few days have been interesting.

      The limitations of those toolkits fascinate me, the idea that every writer at every moment could look through any one of their senses but they can't look through every sense at once (because they can't describe a smell at the same time that they're describing a sight or a taste at the same time that they're describing a sound) and so they have to pick and choose with every word they write, and this picking and choosing is (I'm assuming, though I'm not an author) very close to instinctive -- Ada Cambridge's author-personality directing her towards touch, and Rosa Praed's author-personality directing her away from touch and towards sight. (Characters in this Praed book I've been reading tend to see first, then react to whatever they've seen, eg, a man sees that a woman looks tired and he feels sorry for her; a woman doesn't believe that there's been a massacre until she comes across a dead body and sees it.) So there's the idea of a a book as a record of instinct in motion or even as a statue of the person who has written it (the choices chipping away at the invisible, like ink dripped over the Invisible Man).

      The whole last paragraph of that book is pretty and ominous.She writes as if she wants to say something straightforwardly praising about marriage but she can't block out the internal voices: "But what about domestic violence? But what about the arguments in that suffragette article you read yesterday?"