Sunday, January 5, 2014

etiolating and moderating influences

Critical theory -- from its beginnings in the work of Marx and Nietzsche -- sees the human being as a finite, material body, devoid of ontological access to the eternal or metaphysical. That means that there is no ontological, metaphysical guarantee of success for any human action -- just as there is also no guarantee of failure. Any human action can be at any moment interrupted by death.

(Boris Groys: Under the Gaze of Theory)

I'd argue that Cambridge is a writer who senses and reacts, not a writer who reasons, but she is a prime noticer of interruptions even at the end of A Humble Enterprise when she has spent her book leading up to a marriage, arranging the marriage, getting rid of oppositions to the marriage; now she begins to wonder if she should be happy because she has succeeded. "Also, however well a marriage may begin, nobody can foretell how it will eventually turn out." The marriage could go wrong, everything could go wrong, the world could explode tomorrow; Proust points out that the sun might kill us all next weekend.

People pursue their pleasures from habit without ever thinking, were etiolating and moderating influences to cease, that the proliferation of the infusoria would attain its maximum, that is to say, making a leap of many millions of leagues in a few days and passing from a cubic mili-meter to a mass a million times larger than the sun, at the same time destroying all the oxygen of the substances upon which we live, that there would no longer be any humanity or animals or earth, and, without any notion that an irremediable and quite possible catastrophe might be determined in the ether by the incessant and frantic energy hidden behind the apparent immutability of the sun, they go on with their business, without thinking of these two worlds, one too small, the other too large for them to perceive the cosmic menace which hovers around us.

How is Ada Cambridge going to stop progress, which is the book itself? Calling on "nature, who is the mother of all wisdom" she finally shuts herself up. Nature believes in marriage and nature says that marrying was the best thing the characters could do. An appeal to nature as a fixed finite authority, recognised by everybody, this is how she puts on her brakes, by becoming Rosa Praed for a minute. The spirit of finity is Praed's friend; it has to come to Cambridge, she has to summon it, for once, like a genie that will get her out of trouble.

(I'm going to modify "she doesn't reason" by saying that she does reason (she makes equations out of thoughts, "this plus this plus this") but the expectation that she will come to a conclusion perplexes her; it amazes Ruskin too, when he thinks about it --

Do you suppose I could rightly explain to you the value of a single touch on brass by Finiguerra, or on box by Bewick, unless I had grasp of the great laws of climate and country; and could trace the inherited sirocco or tramontana of thought to which the souls and bodies of the men owed their existence?

-- even though he comes to conclusions constantly and in the same book, Ariadne Florentina, calls an Indian painting "damnable" without any more reasoning than, Because it is:

Giotto or Raphael could not have made the black more resolutely black, (though the whole color of the school of Athens is kept in distinct separation from one black square in it), nor the green more unquestionably green. Yet the whole is pestilent and loathsome [...] entirely damnable art.)


  1. A lot of writers' language doesn't lend itself to the creation of endings, of the escape from a novel. Writers take these characters, or maybe ideas of what a human might be like, and press upon them and so we have stories, but often the stories are not passageways to new vistas or new ideas; they're just an idea dramatized, and so you get situations where the writers sit in disbelief at their own claims in the tail end of their own novels. I think of Euripides, and "Hippolytus," where after the death of Phaedra the playwright was obviously no longer interested in the remaining cast members at all; Phaedra was the thing in which Euripides was fascinated, the source of his ideas. The last half o the play is just a mechanical working out of the plot. I know just how he feels. To dramatize some made up causality is just to march on parade for the generals and their wives; nothing is accomplished and none of it's true. One looks then for something else to dramatize. Somehow one is not quite sure what else there is. I'm obviously no longer talking about Euripides or Ada Cambridge.

    I'm reading Stones of Venice, and Ruskin's starting to claim that he has objective laws of art and aesthetics that he will enumerate for us. You can feel him nerving himself up in order to make these claims, hanging on to his entire concept of truth which he swears he's got all worked out but clearly he doesn't. Ruskin's language is excellent for describing what but he falters every time when he tries why; he has no idea why but I think he senses his failure.

  2. That sounds sane. One thing that interests me, in that bit of Cambridge, is that she didn't have to write it. She could have concluded with the two newlyweds riding away after their wedding. That was how she left them in the paragraph before: "[T]he bride and bridegroom, being already dressed for travel, with their baggage at the station, fared forth into the wide world." Any reader would have accepted that as the ending. But she keeps going. "I don't know whether the moral of Jenny's story is bad or good ..." and then she considers it for another two paragraphs. You have the story, clearly done, and then this non-story piece of compulsion arrives. "The bride and bridegroom..." was driven by the pure propulsive force inside the story. "I don't know ..." is being driven, at least partly, by something outside. It won't let "The bride and bridegroom ..." be the ending. There was, in Ada Cambridge, the idea that the natural ending for her story, was wrong. Not badly written, not unbelievable, not clumsy, but wrong at a more fundamental level. And now that I have read most of Ruskin I think this is his feeling too: that things are right or wrong within himself, that there is a voice in him that says very strongly, "This is good, this is bad, this is wrong, this is right," as preachers are right or wrong according to their Book. It is hard to forget his Evangelical upbringing. The words he uses are schoolboy words; noble, ignoble, fine, loathsome, purity, all enormous and final words. It's that articulate inarticulacy that s me love him: he writes like a grand, intelligent, and desperate boy. His fidelity to childhood: "now, looking back from 1886 to that brook shore of 1837, whence I could see the whole of my youth, I find myself in nothing whatsoever changed. Some of me is dead, more of me stronger. I have learned a few things, forgotten many ; in the total of me, I am but the same youth, disappointed and rheumatic." (Praeterita.)

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  4. All of this reconciliation is a problem, between the well-formed novel or the well-reasoned essay, and the impulses to say what seems true and right and important. "I am trying to write a novel" and "I am trying to say something I can't resist saying" are not equivalent statements. Cambridge goes crashing through the back wall of her own novel to let the stereotype drain off (maybe "crashing" is too strong a word?). She was writing when? Around the turn of the century? She was having, it looks like, the same problems the Modernists had, with ideas of fidelity to reality, or fidelity to her beliefs about reality. I like her solution, though, to give the formalist traditional ending and then to comment on that ending. She "senses and reacts" even to herself.

    Ruskin is so endearing. I had not noticed that about his vocabulary, the enormous and final words. There's a guy who built out of granite. Evangelist is a good word for him, a literal and unquestioning belief in his beliefs and an unstoppable urge to share those beliefs. He is an apostle for his own aesthetics, which he wraps in ideas about truth of humankind. He demands that we open ourselves to beauty, to delight, but we must not be delighted by things that lower ourselves and deny our humanity, whatever that is. I love his visit to the burlesque you just posted about.

    I'm reading Stones of Venice while reading Bleak House. They were written at the same time, the early 1850s, and it's interesting to compare what the two writers found important as subject matter, and their solutions to the problems of social evil and how they express those solutions. Dickens read Ruskin; I don't know if Ruskin read Dickens. I'm still in early days with Ruskin; there is so much of him to read.

  5. (I'm going to come back and write more here later -- I have to get away, for now -- but he has a footnote in Unto this Last that sums up his opinion of Dickens pretty well. It's on Project Gutenberg if you want to search for it. Briefly, he thinks it's a pity that Dickens writes about ignoble and silly things (in another place he excoriates Barnaby Rudge for that reason, leaving out the raven, which he likes) but "Allowing for his manner of telling them, the things he tells us are always true [...] He is entirely right in his main drift and purpose in every book he has written; and all of them, but especially Hard Times, should be studied with close and earnest care by persons interested in social questions."

    I think I've written something very similar to that "I love him because ..." line on the internet before. I have these speeches in my head and sometimes a trigger appears and out they come, which is an interesting phenomenon, but frustrating as well, because it would be nice to think that you're creating yourself in dynamic explosions every second, but nay, in spite of all the molecules being sloughed off every seven years or so, the internal scripts and speeches carry over.)

  6. Around the turn of the century, absolutely, on both sides of 1900. This book was just before the turn -- (looking up the exact date) -- 1896. I like that idea of her ending as a kind of pre-Modernist Modernism. She has the impulse but not the form. This is one of the things that pulls me to her. I believe I can see her struggling towards something but then some phrase or some convention snags her and she lets herself stop. She gets as far as that and never goes past. Earlier in her career she diverts her train of thought into God (for example, in her long doubting-marriage poem from 1887, Unspoken Thoughts) but by 1896 she's diverting it into "the dictum of nature." God and nature are filling the same basic role: they give her an excuse to say, "Enough of this doubt: here's an authority who tells us XYZ, and that modifies everything I've just said."

    I think I see the same tactic used less naturally in other nineteenth-century poems I've been reading. The poets will get up to a point ("My mother has died, I want to kill myself, life is despair, life is pain") and then they short-circuit ("Suicide is morally wrong, have faith, end poem"). And I suspect that this shape has been taken from sermons and pious writings, in which the pain is used with the ultimate aim of ending in a moral lesson -- the moral lesson is the point, a parable is the point -- but in some of these poems it seems to me that the pain and the thought is the point, and the moral at the end is the convention that allows them to smuggle the pain onto the page.

    1. ... and I know I'm being influenced here by the kind of modern secular mindset that makes the pain seem confessional and genuine while the piety at the end seems faded and robotic; there is no reason to believe that this short circuiting actually exists when I'm not looking at it.