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.

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