Sunday, December 15, 2013

the length of the ship through the spindrift of the gale

Fugitive Anne: a Romance of the Unexplored Bush, by Rosa Praed

This book begins on a ship, as does The Soul of Countess Adrian by the same author, and ships are not rare in the Australian Colonial and just-Federated fiction I've read so far (I want to write so far because the more I read in this area the more I realise how little I've read: the boundaries are slightly more clearly delineated and they are far away).

Examples: everything changes in The Broad Arrow after the characters have crossed the sea in their ship, even the author's approach to her own story (which is not her own story I realise, when that happens, but a contentious collaboration between herself and the activity of writing), and the Rev. Mr Lydiat in Uncle Piper of Piper's Hill can't get on a ship without splitting into two personalities who are so separate that the author can imagine them talking to one another: "That celebrated appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober might have been made with almost equal effect from the Rev. Mr. Lydiat on board ship to the Rev. Mr. Lydiat on land." The characters land in Australia, the rich uncle picks them up, and they have travelled from poverty to luxury.

The people in Ada Cambridge always love ships; their author goes on loving ships after ships have drowned them, and the love of ships and boats in her books is tied to the presence of danger. "I believe," says the narrator in Materfamilias, "we were somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Cape when the most noteworthy of our experiences befell us. We were struggling with the chronic "dirty" weather -- absurd adjective for a thing so majestic and inspiring! -- and I was on deck, firmly tied to my chair, and my chair to the mast, dry under oilskins, and only my face exposed to wind and spray, which threatened to take the skin off. I could hardly see the length of the ship through the spindrift of the gale, and the way it shrieked in the rigging was like fiends let loose. Bee -- a -- utiful!" -- which is something like a fictionalisation of George Santanyana's description of the sublime in The Sense of Beauty:

The suggestion of terror makes us withdraw into ourselves: there with the supervening consciousness of safety or indifference comes a rebound, and we have that emotion of detachment and liberation in which the sublime really consists.

Any water vessel in Cambridge is going to behave like an independent animal or an unstable mass of particles jumbling together in a mixture: "a sudden wave struck the launch, and nearly turned her over, and the young wife and husband, holding to nothing but one another, and simply sitting upon an unprotected plank, were tipped out as easily as balls from a capsized basket" (Sisters).

Cambridge is closer to the practice of literary butoh than any of the other authors I've been reading in this -- series I suppose, call it a series -- because her language is so extremely reactive to the sensual world that she imagines. "Listen to the god of weight," wrote Michizo Noiguchi in the 1970s, referring to physical movement, but Cambridge writes as though this physical movement was always taking place within a world that is inside her own prose.


  1. I think I just lost a comment. Perhaps it was the universe saying it wasn't very interesting.

  2. It was a suggestion for you for a lifetime work of literary research.