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.


  1. Well, reviewers are paid to write facile comments about books, to uphold the illusion of full understanding and the ability to distill their understanding down into buying recommendations for the rest of us, right? I am perhaps being too harsh.

    I like the Powys claim that the mist could only be described poetically, which is to say in a mist of language, because isn't even the most specific of poetry still open-ended? Maybe I mistake poetry. But I grow less certain every year about the ability of language to describe the world. It's the tool we have, but that doesn't force the world to be thus describable, does it? I think sometimes we as writers are left waffling around in vagueness because we just don't know.

    But I was talking last night to some people about how young adult novels generally are very full of claims, of definitions, of moralistic determination, and nobody in them is neither hot nor cold; everything is clearly delimited, rule-bound and measured and nearly arranged by height.

  2. How did something so impossible get so facile? "As full of ... as ..." has no literal meaning. It's nothing more than a sonorous "and." "I detect joie de vivre in both this thing and that thing."

    I'm going to get into Powys in the next post. (I saw that he's just been mentioned in the comments on your blog too.) Paragraphs like that measuring-mist one keep occurring to him, and it's very sudden -- he'll be writing about something -- mist -- maybe a bubble (I might quote the bubble part) -- and the activity of grappling with that thing will develop into half a page of comparisons between the thing the thing is doing, and what it could otherwise have been doing, and how it is connected to the loam, and how it is actually an eye as well as a bubble, and how that eye is the eye of the pagan universe and how the character is raptured into the vortex of this abruptly-magical object, and so on. His version of the world is so speculative that science wouldn't be able to get near it. He's a science-evader. (The science-versus-romance theme doesn't appear in fiction so much any more.)

    I think there might be at least two kinds of specificality in poetry, the specificality of words and the specificality of meaning, and they don't necessarily lie over one another.

  3. I don't know Powys; I realize I've had him long confused with Cowper of the 18th century, who wrote about his pet rabbits and things like that. Powys' string of comparisons, if I'm properly imagining it, is very attractive.

    I think I understand the specificity of meaning despite language in poetry, and language despite meaning. You also get that in prose with formalists like Nabokov, where the symbolic structures can have nothing at all to do with the aboutness of a novel. I look forward to reading about Powys, is what I'm saying.

    Hey, I wrote a novel about science-versus-something...something not science, anyway.

    1. That would be your Astrologer? I've been looking out for it. Do you know how the science-versus theme has changed over time? I have a feeling that there was a definite change of direction once Modernism started to seem irrelevant, but that's an anecdotal hunch, not a studied position.

  4. Yeah, that's the book. Currently out of print. The argument in that is more like 'does science bring any more morality with it than religion does?' Sort of like that, anyway. Not a brilliant book; no need to buy it when it comes back into print.

    I had always felt that it was the advent of Modernism that quashed the science-versus theme, pushing aside everything except investigations of the psychological. Science was merely an aid in showing how indifferent reality is to suffering, maybe Camus' Plague being my example of that. So I'd say arguments about science versus Romantic or science versus religion (same thing, almost) were swept away by the end crop of realists and the early Moderns. Where is the debate in Joyce, or Woolf, or Faulkner, or anyone? Maybe it's still going on, though, hidden behind metaphor? I can't see it if it is.

    1. You could be right. I was thinking of people like Peake, and Heidegger in the essays I've been reading, carryovers of the Romantics rather than Modernists themselves.