Thursday, February 27, 2014

vivid and palpable

Noticing is masochistic and disgusting, and the scientific Victorian and pre-Victorian request to pay attention was a lever that could be used to pry Victorianism itself off the wall. Powys is as conscientious with "the red-brown heap" as he has been, in the past, with a dog. His character Porius is aware of it for nearly a hundred pages. Even though Porius' mother is here when she is usually elsewhere, even though Gog and Magog are mentioned, and prisoners brought in, and his soul mate has been killed, and his male relatives are being killed by people who want to overrun the forest kingdom, corpses are desecrated and the horses are speared, he still notices the heap, "neither discouraging the flies nor obliterating the disgust."

New component of his thought machine, it conducts him to ideas that he would not have had without it there; in other words it will lead Powys to sentences, and then those sentences will abandon him (being finished and full stopp'd) and he will go on to other sentences. (The notion of the heap must have come first and then the sentences must have occurred to him afterwards, the author setting himself up for his own surprise, or lighting his own firecrackers with a long fuse.) Porius wonders if thought itself could have some properties of excrement. "What if to certain avidly greedy insects certain thoughts in certain minds possessed the same sort of attractive taste as this shining heap of excrement? Why shouldn't certain thoughts which could be as vivid and palpable as mine of that Uriconian flask, possess enough of the substance of matter to be actually nibbled at by greedy flies?"

And Powys is not following the train of ideas that might seem obvious when a character in a book is comparing thoughts to excrement -- he doesn't say, Life is excrement, this is all pointless, thinking is stupid, a shit is as good as a think -- making it storybook-symbolical-meaningful in that direction -- he is demanding a different aspect of the heap, which is its tangible solidness. The flies' senses respond to the "vivid and palpable" object, the response is proof that the object exists. One of the male relatives is dying. Porius is discriminating between the insects that will be attracted to the thoughts. He imagines that his father and mother will have their thoughts nibbled by less interesting insects, "bronze-coloured dung-flies and blue-bottle blow-flies," while his own thoughts will be nibbled by "languid brown moths."

The heap, the flies, and his estrangement from his parents, are all inside the same machinery of thought. The integrity of that machinery must be important to the author because he spends so much time following it.

(He starts by measuring the immeasurable again, and again with an if -- if such a measurement could be made ... which means that, since it has come to occupy the same world of prose now as everything else, it genuinely has been made:

There is no doubt, however, that had the servant of the late Druid, who was soon to be established in Ty Cerrig, used all the thought-reading power he possessed he would have been in a position to show that instead of Euronwy's and Einion's thoughts being fit food for lively dung-flies, while the uncle's and the nephew's were worthy of languid moths, it was, in the judgement of higher beings, just the other way round. Both Porius and Brochvael were at that moment projecting thought-clouds into the autumnal sunshine by no means marked by any superiority over those of the wounded man or his wife.)

He imagines thought made solid, but the solidness is unwieldy, it is not static, and not controlled: Porius is not concentrating on the gradual death of the male relative in front of him, and if you asked the question, "What would be one of the irrelevant and unlikely things you could think about during one of the most dramatic moments of your life?" then "I would think about my mental processes as if they were a heap of dung and brown moths were eating them," would be one of the answers. I believe in the integrity of thought, says Powys: therefore I need to believe in the integrity of waywardness. I will not only acknowledge it but mine it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

this unhappy Manichean rag

Rabelais has a "prediliction for excrement," says Powys in Visions and Revisions. "This also, though few would admit it, is a symbolic secret. This also is a path of initiation. In this peculiarity Rabelais is completely alone among the writers of the earth. Others have, for various reasons, dabbled in this sort of thing -- but none have ever piled it up -- manure-heap upon manure-heap, until the animal refuse of the whole earth seems to reek to the stars! There is not the slightest reason to regret this thing or to expurgate it. Rabelais is not Rabelais, just as life is not life, without it.

'It is indeed the way of "salvation" for certain neurotic natures. Has that been properly understood?"

In 1915 he published those words, suffering regularly from constipation throughout his adult life, this vegetarian who didn't enjoy vegetables; and so he ate bread and milk and other items that tied knots in his bowels until in one memorable section of his autobiography he vomits an interior sewerage. The character of Porius in Porius thirty-six years later (published truncated in 1951 because it was so long, published unabridged in 1994, though note that I read the 1994 version and am only assuming that this appears in the 1951 version as well) will see a heap of excrement standing on the ground during a long scene:

The man who had eased himself there -- and he must have had bowels that badly required easing -- had partially concealed the red-brown heap, of which hosts of coloured flies were already aware, by throwing down a piece of rag upon it; but instead of concealing what he had done to these immemorial cross-ways, sacred to older deities than either Jesus or Mithras, this unhappy Manichean rag emphasized the sacrilege, neither discouraging the flies nor obliterating the disgust.

Shame, but shame exposed and revealed vulnerably, this is very Powysian and there are variations on that idea throughout his books, along with the invocation of mythical figures or notions, these things forced into intimacy with ordinary and often dirty objects, the "older deities than either Jesus or Mithras" being exposed and vulnerabilised here too, I suppose, by implication, majesty not brought low but transformed, or perhaps reformatted.

That note of noticing too, the introduction of excrement into a work of literature being maybe a signal of your willingness to notice, and I would even go so far as to say that it is a sign of your helpless enthusiastic capitulation to the act of noticing, because you are going to point out an object that most other writers will not point out; they will pass over the dung but you will point it out for the world as if to say that noticing must be done, even if it is strange like this, and even if we are noticing the thing that is supposed to silence us with shame until we are "throwing down a piece of rag upon it." We will embarrass ourselves by staring at a flower, says Ruskin, a little fragile temporary flower; we will embarrass ourselves by staring at our crap, says Powys, accepting that lesson from Rabelais. Our dear majestic glittering crap pile.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

an impious deed

I won't be able to make a new post tonight, so I'll write out an excerpt from Porius instead.

But Morfydd now began to suffer from a nervous trouble that was one of the very few things that could -- and it only happened very rarely -- keep her from going to sleep the moment she desired to do so. This was a tendency for some physical object, like the horn-cup rimmed with silver out of which the Henog had spilt that wine, some object associated with an accident, a tribulation, a blunder, a sacrilege, an impious deed, or simply with a malicious and vindictive deed, to obsess her brain so that the more or less thick darkness about her bulged and bellied and billowed with the object in question and she would feel -- such was the horrid fancy -- that this accurst devil of an ordinary object was bent on persecuting her and with this purpose went on and on projecting itself into her inmost being, into her flesh, so it seemed to her, and into her consciousness too, until her soul felt like a mouse, surrounded on all sides by grinning cats.

"Bulged and bellied and billowed" reminds me that he liked Rabelais. "To read Rabelais is to gather, as if from the earth-gods, spirit to endure anything [...] What he has the power of communicating to us is a renewal of that physiological energy, which alone makes it possible to enjoy this monstrous world." (Visions and Revisions: a Book of Literary Devotions)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

super-conscious indifference to the eye in a human skull!

The mist in Porius flows up to a man and he dies, not for any of the sane reasons that mists in fiction kill people (then it would be constructed out of poison) but because the two of them are ideologically opposed. Slightly earlier in the book this same man gave a speech and the sound of his voice went out into the forest until it came to a clearing where a corpse was lying on the earth, and at that corpse it stopped. "The voice was lost in fact with that sort of abrupt shock that we experience when we unexpectedly touch the ice that is called cat-ice, from beneath which all the water has been drawn away."

(It touches then, this voice. Where are its fingers? Where are its nerves? Lovely beyond all things, that there is no answer to that question: it has them.)

The world that Powys likes to describe is limitlessly anthropomorphic and casually miraculous. The miracles are not the property or responsibility of a god, they are the native behaviour of the world, and it is natural for everything to have a personality, and for the personality of a voice to not be able to bear the personality of a corpse. For every atom is enpersoned.

They have eccentric likes and dislikes, as did Powys himself, according to his Autobiography. He could not stand the thought of dogs being vivisected, or of a person looking at their own snot in a handkerchief. I believe that vivisection was on his mind when one of the Ancient Britons of Porius puts a spear through a dog.

Where does an author stop, when he could have made the mist talk if he'd wanted to, or had it do anything else; make it coalesce into the form of Shane Warne who will bow and recite his own Twitter feed, "Still feeling good & happy with Smiths decision to bowl first ? That's right, you guys weren't worried ! Go on Mitch"? Why shouldn't the mist do that?

Here is my thought. I am sentimental. The author tip-toes out and stops or starts with their own nature, smelling the scent of that and writing or not writing, this nature being inconstant as you can see in Porius, not always carrying a thought on but sometimes carrying it on, not always creating a murdering mist but once upon a time creating one, not always, but sometimes, explaining the personality of a bee, and on one page, and one page only, putting "the whole chemical substratum of planetary elements" inside the word bubble.

[S]he paused and turned and stared down in fascinated wonder while a particular sequence of tiny bubbles met and lost themselves in a larger one, and indeed kept on increasing the size of this larger one till it came to resemble a sub-human and at the same time a super-human eye! It became in fact the living eye of the whole chemical substratum of planetary elements, out of which water, earth and air draw the fluidity, the solidity, the imponderable vacuity of their essential beings. The girl bent down as she crossed this little stream and stared steadily into one of these constantly-growing bubbles; and this arbitrarily chosen eye of the whole inorganic world stared back at her -- the eye of matter itself responding in sub-conscious or perhaps super-conscious indifference to the eye in a human skull!

The large mass of the fluctuating human attention-focus is mapped out in Porius, like coral.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Embodiment stimulates John Cowper Powys, or else, put it another way, ideas stimulate him and then he describes their embodiment, not natural embodiment then but his own powers thereof as an author or authour as Samuel Johnson spells it, which reminds me that only last night I was listening to an author or authour read from a short story in which the American narrator, who was described by his own creator as "persnickety," complained that American English had written away its o-u-rs. French was curlicued and rich, he said, occupying, unconsciously, an opposite position to that of Leopardi in the Zibaldone, where, as anyone who has read that book will feel compelled to remember, the writer spends an amazing and indeed jealous and resentful amount of time complaining that French is only popular with everybody because it is "arid."

Only popular because it has handed itself over to science, he said in the 1820s. It's so strait that anyone can pick it up. Italian, though -- and then he rails off into praise of Italian, which is closer to Latin and not arid, he insists, in fact infinitely flexible and magnificent and the queen of languages. I told a Spanish-speaking Peruvian about Leopardi's position and he said that Leopardi sounded about right, even though Spanish (said Leopardi) was not as good as Italian. He'd give it this though: it was better than French. English, says Leopardi, will never seriously catch on, because it doesn't have a solid foothold on the European mainland. Only overseas, he says. It's scattered around overseas in the British colonies but that's not enough to really make it work, as a popular language.

I believe that the character's complaint about o-u-r-s was supposed to be understood, by the reader or in this case the listener, as a sadness over the loss of a communal ours as well, which removes the story from the realm of psychological observation and puts it closer to literary sophistry, or, it takes the narration away from the character and gives it to the author and to us, as there is no reason why a person, in the privacy of his discourse, should conceal his own exclamation of pain in a pun.

But it was only one line and I might have been wrong. Now that I have the idea of Powys in my head I start to wonder what the author's story would have been like if she had been more Powys-ish, or like a Rabelais or a Robert Burton, or even Christina Stead in The People With the Dogs, who writes herself up to the arrival of a storm and then has an elaboration occur to her. Ruskin, also, with his pebble that goes to the mountaintop, or the boats in The Harbours of England that lead to the word "love," thus: "The nails that fasten together the planks of the boat's bow are the rivets of the fellowship of the world. Their iron does more than draw lightning out of heaven, it leads love round the earth," which seems so unusually optimistic and desiring in him, and so vulnerably overt, vulnerability being one of his characteristics, grinding against the invulnerable hides of his preacher-sentences, all designed from birth (he did not give birth to them, he inherited them) to be impregnable and to thrill.

So the narrator of the short story inherited an English without its o-u-rs; so Leopardi inherited a language that made him spend page after page defending its unpopular integrity.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

equally with joy and sorrow

The system of signals that you are being given has become, for the space of a few words, extremely clear, but, because the fiancée doesn't have a human presence outside that outline of a flag, your response is (I believe mine was) possibly more intellectual than emotional, assuming that the amount of intellect in a response can be reliably measured against the amount of emotion, which it probably can't. Yet I can write sentences like that and you probably know what I mean by them.

It seems uncanny to me, my ability to write these more or less gibberish sentences, but I am a reader who is in the habit of feeling uneasy whenever I come across one nebulous thing being compared confidently to another nebulous thing, as when people say, "The sight filled him equally with joy and sorrow," or when William Dalrymple in the Financial Times decides that the biographer whose work he is reviewing "has written a lovely admiring account of his life which is as full of joie de vivre as its subject." (A Man of Gifts, November 12, 2012)

William Dalrymple, then, has the power of discerning accurately the amount of joie de vivre in a book and the amount of joie de vivre in a human being (even more eerily, he does not seem to have ever met the subject of the biography in person; what's more his measurement is being made posthumously) and, oh God, he can compare them with pinpoint accuracy; what a science fiction story I think, sitting here gloomily in front of this banquet, what magical powers we mimic in our depressing lust for brevity, ease and certainty, if that is what it is, I think, rolling my head against the desk.

So I felt relieved when I was reading Porius by John Cowper Powys and as I crossed the boundaryline between pages 503 and 504 I saw that he is another one confronted by my own problem of things that can't be measured:

And it was accompanied by the rapid arrival upon the scene from the direction of Cader Idris of a wet, cold, clammy, straw-coloured mist, a most that was unmistakably of the kind that can only be described poetically, since any scientific description would require a lifetime of chemical analysis based on minute daily physiognomic observation.

I know it is not the same thing, since at least there is some hope of measuring the mist physically whereas joie de vivre is unphysical, but I am happy that he is being dazzled, confounded and crushed, as I am, by the idea of measuring anything at all unless it is extremely obvious in front of me, like the square of a frame around a painting, or the temperature of ice.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

waiting for him

It is better if you don't fall in love inside a Mary Gaunt story at all, since the ones who experience love in person so often end up dying or in pain and the ones who have it in their imaginations are so often using it to cope with terrifying or miserable situations.

If you insist on falling in love in person then the author will anatomise your emotions and see that you are a network of selfishness or at least blindness until the reader suspects that Mary Gaunt, who keeps returning to the subject of romance as if she loves it and cannot keep away because she adores it so much, is secretly a pessimist who is warning you against real life romances because the imaginary ones are much more quick, complete, loving and satisfying. They don't take up a lot of time and you can get back to whatever it was that you were doing, eg, not getting burnt to death in one of her short stories, The Doctor's Drive.

In these cases (the imaginary romances) the author is sometimes only using your romance as a little nice touch of spice for the larger story, ie, won't it be sadder if this character gets burnt to death now that we know he has a fiancée "waiting for him so patiently"?

So that you might despise the fiancée, who is only a well-worn emotional tuggy-tactic being deployed in a nonreflective manner at a strategic moment, and you might wonder why you should care whether the protagonist will get back to marry her or not, if you even wonder about her at all, which you don't; you register the fact that the author is using a device that you've seen before, and you identify the response you are expected to have to it, and you understand that the stakes have been raised even if you don't believe a single word. The protagonist is no longer existing in the present moment only: he is being tied to a past and a possible future; the future might change, and so the meaning of this device is nothing more nor less than the entire universe with all the planets rolling around on strings of cosmic force forevermore until the Big Bang reverses itself, assuming that it ever existed, a huge area of subject matter all accessed through this word "fiancée."

Every corridor has been narrowed down to two in this story, life or death for the doctor, and to go one way will be a relief and the other way will be terrible. His death in this fire is not only a matter of flesh burning (a person being translated into the cooked state that has become the destiny of so much other meat, flesh of chickens for instance) and a life ending, it is also a matter of fairness and manners. If this person has been waiting for you "patiently" -- for a long time, in other words, or what seems to her like a long time, or at least a period of time when she could have been doing something interesting -- then your death is not only agonising to you, it is also rude to others, and you have penetrated all the elementary borderlands of courtesy until you are hurtling through the uncharted clouds like a free star or meteorite.

The fiancée is probably a coloured flag that has been stuck in the top of the idea so that you will notice it more clearly.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

make a home for her up here among the mountains

Ends of the Earth by Mary Gaunt (1916)
Dave's Sweetheart by Mary Gaunt (1894)

Mary Eliza Bakewell Gaunt (1861 - 1942) "was one of the first women to sign the matriculation roll of the University of Melbourne," states the Australian Dictionary of Biography, but she never finished her degree and travelled around the world instead, visiting West Africa, China, Jamaica, Siberia and other locales, writing as she went, setting every story in Ends of the Earth in a different place, I think, starting with the Australian bushland, then going off to somewhere snowy, and ending on a Pacific island where a woman is being abandoned by her lover.

Every one of her stories has a romantic relationship in it somewhere, many of them only happening in a character's head, some of them very tiny and perhaps only a line but the infallible presence of this theme gets surreal after a while with all these different settings, one character in danger of burning to death, another character in danger of freezing to death, and yet both of them finding time to think sentimentally about the beloved one, so (message): no matter where you go and no matter what happens to you, you will find yourself contemplating a significant other, "his little sweetheart waiting for him so patiently till he could make a home for her up here among the mountains," as if a god of monogamy is hovering in the sky over the entire world, touching the earth with a finger sometimes and at other times with a felty thumb.

Then you have Dave's Sweetheart, which was the first book she published, and the romantic theme is there too as you can tell from the title even if you haven't read it, but romance, in both books, is divided into two types, the one that takes place in the imagination and the one that takes place in person.

A Gaunt romance works out best for the character when it is inside their head and they can call it up when they need it then forget it when the moment is over, but in the flesh, when the person is standing in front of them and behaving independently, there will be trouble, one person will be in love and the other will not, or the job of being in love will get boring, and there will be no coinciding between them.

This misunderstanding is usually not resolved or healed and in some cases it is fatal. "'I'll send down four men with a stretcher for the body,' said the Commissioner."