Sunday, March 30, 2014

with distasteful feast

Science appears to be the most professional and dissecting field that Powys can think of and he hates science whenever it is close-structured and tries to answer questions, so he creates (out of the flesh of his own hatred) a disgusting scientific man who would rather vivisect a dog than rescue his own daughter in Morwyn or the Vengeance of God, hypocritical Mr. ---, a maniac and torture addict whose ghost colludes with the ghost of Torquemada on a flying ship in Hell after a meteorite hits the main trinity of characters and pushes them through the surface of the earth for the sake of a book that the author, in a 1937 letter, called "slightly like Dante, but not really."

Mr. -- and the Inquisitor are both torturing with the same true motivation, states Powys. They might tell the rest of the world that they are saving souls or producing medicinal discoveries but really they both have a slavering craving for screaming and cruelty, and the same goes for the Ku Klux Klan, who dwell in Hell as well, along with European settlers from East Africa, and anyone else he can think of who might make his vivisectors look worse by proximity.

Geoffrey Hill speaks critically when he finds, in Cardinal Newman, a set of words that skip along on their nursery rhyme the way "dwell in Hell as well" just did, and when I think of that, and of Powys' I-won't, I decide to keep my hop-skip because it makes me feel as if I am obscurely ruining Geoffrey Hill. Hill has his own wordplay tactics, sometimes using the Elizabethan method that combines a noun with a surprising adjective, "high-spent poverty with distasteful feast," in The Triumph of Love, and sometimes, as he does a while earlier in the same long poem, repeating a word while he calls your attention to another meaning that the previous iteration of that word might have had, if the poet had put it in a different setting; but he did not. So calling your attention to I did not as well as I did.

Southwell, addressing the cordial
cordially: "it does my heart good."

Hill's art is the art of not letting you take words lightly (which should rightly transmit itself to the poem as a whole, not taking that lightly either), and it is the opposite of "dwell in hell as well," which asks you to enjoy the easy movement across the surfaces of the words, downplaying their histories and their meanings in favour of immediate music. Whereas the drop between "cordial" and "cordially" is a link between meaning and meaning with cordial as trigger and vehicle.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

on not being a professional

Colebrook refers to Modernism as a liquid state, "dynamic, open, fluid and affective," with "deflection, divergeance, deviation and dehiscence," and "attention to the force of the dead," a flow not only from one idea to another but the flow also extending back in history, picking up a scrap of lingo and carrying it into the current text, book, poem, whatever that is, making it into a prose-moue, ie, hint of another language of emotion coming into the present discourse, making, maybe, a mosaic of personalities or utters of the dead.

In a state of nondifferentiation before the historic Big Bang you would not have these divergeances for no one is dead and there is no death; and if modernity is "liquid" then it must be a time of extreme deviations, knowing that Powys is an author of extreme deviations who goes in pursuit of those deviations once he finds them, this Modernist with a theory of his own, maybe, so compare him to others in that area and say he is more easily frightened than a Joyce or a Woolf or an Eliot because he stopped before they stopped and planted his mule feet stubbornly in the ground, never leaving the foreknown field of narrative as per the famous nineteenth century model, all his deviations recycling themselves into that shape; and perhaps you could call him a more eccentric and amateur author than the others, amateur on purpose, defending, like Clarice Lispector, his right to be an amateur. "I only write when I want to. I’m an amateur and insist on staying that way. A professional has a personal commitment to writing. Or a commitment to someone else to write. As for me … I insist on not being a professional. To keep my freedom," she said in her last interview, these very Powys sentiments coming out of a different mouth, freedom or free will being paramount, and both of them saying, "You can't make me if I don't want to," those words being metamorphosised from a pout into a value.

In literature I respect the I-won't but the last time I met it in real life it was a dam-like stunting force coming out of a man who said that he would never understand any modern art, it was all Renaissance and Rome for him, meanwhile producing the same small vocabulary of stiff figures in a bad imitation-classical smooth-surfaced style. Speaking of figuration, I saw a piece of observation in an oil portrait two days ago that gave me an instant interest in the artist, no matter what else they ever did with their lives, and that was the subtle way they had depicted the shadow between the person's fingers as a compacted fiery glow, not brown or grey or black or any of the other colours that people paint on shadows when they haven't looked at them, but rose.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

the differentiating fluxes of time

"[T]he condition of any ongoing sameness is some capacity to resist the differentiating fluxes of time," writes Colebrook, memory making us what we are, not the particulars of the memory but memory itself, memory as a feature of the mind, memory attaching us, as if with magnets, to a phenomenon that is not time-as-it-passes, and thereby holding us together: the rest is only decoration on the essential fact. Imagine, then, that our personalities are only side-effects of the event that is our life, and sort of an inevitable but not essential companion or parasite. If literature is a system of interlocking personalities that have been extruded in some way from their parents then literature is a parasite on a parasite, or else a new and semi-independent species.

Anthony of Time's Flow Stemmed quoting Michel Houellebecq on March 16th and Houellebecq or else his narrator paraphrasing an idea he believes he found in Schopenhauer. "We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than a novel we once read." What would we be if our memories were perfect? what shape would we have? and would Powys discover that a person like that was as impossible to write about as the person who had a genuine and nonillusionary free will, this person who does not exist anywhere in his work, or not the works of his that I have read and probably not the others either, I say, guessing? -- that person whose existence he eradicated once and forever with the words "ultimate illusion"?

Perhaps we are lucky that we forget so much, so many memories being nearly unbearable. “How little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” (Sebald, Austerlitz) Though I need to add that I am only quoting Sebald because I have been reminded of him.

Powys loves illusionary "free will" and he promotes, praises and advocates behaviour that is unexpected, capricious and wanton (giving mental capriciousness to all of his key figures and all of the title characters from Porius, Wolf Solent, and Owen Glendower), but he also believes in a stable state, in a solidity so intense that it goes beyond the normal everyday natural solidity and lurks with an unnatural power, one character dying of love in Porius and her emotion so strong that people who pass by that spot centuries later will still feel themselves influenced, writes Powys -- influenced without knowing why.

But these two ways of behaving are both attached to the same essential phenomenon, which is the power of the person's emotional component, a power so independent that it not only acts on its own, "capriciously and wantonly," it also capriciously lingers.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

and a counter-tendency of resistance

Why does Powys refer to free will as an illusion ("by the true illusions of life, above all by the ultimate illusion of free will"), why do I look at the paragraph and think that it can't reach the place it wants to go, and not only because Powys is unwilling to push his ideas to their conclusion but because he in fact cannot push that far, and can't, in other words, declare that pure untethered spontaneity is desireable or possible?

Wondering like that, I go back to Death of the Posthuman and Claire Colebrook arguing that "a living being is never 'pure life,' for a living being closes itself off, to some extent, from the world's energies; a being is in part its open engagement with the world, but also a certain refusal of the dynamic life of the world, a selfsameness that remains unto itself and limits relations and stimuli." Life is characterised by a "certain intertia."

Life can be considered a double tendency, an explosive power of creative difference, and a counter-tendency of resistance.

(Anthony of the Time's Flow Stemmed blog linked to Colebrook's book on Twitter.)

Meanwhile pre-life (theoretically imagined, as it it has to be) was a time (or a not-time) of supreme undifferentiation, it was nothing graspable whatsoever and might as well not have existed (and may not have existed anyway, since this entirely fictional description is like a mermaid deduced from a manatee), and this (declaration!) is why Powys can't write it.

Isn't it wonderful, I marvel, the way my points of view come to meet me when I go looking for them. For I am going to suppose for a moment that this (the above) is an explanation of the feeling my gut was giving me, which is that the state of absolute freedom would be, from a human point of view, nothing at all, or anyway not human, and that if Powys started advocating a non-illusionary freedom then he would have to throw all of his characters away and write, somehow, a nonhuman book, which is not within the scope of his longings. He wants to write people, he centres everything on people, his "queerest side-way impressions" go through a human consciousness, the problems are human problems; the insects themselves have human perceptions.

The violent movement of the stickleback disturbed a water-beetle from its afternoon sleep by shaking off a little group of vegetation-parasites which still clung to its primrose stalk. These unarmed miniscules of the land now drifted, clinging to each other in shivering apprehension, into the watery gulf of unknown regions, regions which to their simple minds must have been full of all the hungry monarchs and all the torture-loving archbishops of the aquatic world.

(Owen Glendower)

Objects at a house in Weymouth Sands do not remain in their un-named states -- their owner gives them names -- these are garden spades and so on -- meanwhile the character-owner Powys locates his people in specific places, he involves the unhuman earth and treeline with the bodies of humans, acknowledging Thomas Hardy as his teacher, dedicating his first book to Hardy, writing admirations of Hardy and even meeting Hardy in the flesh one day.

Whoever tries to visualize any scene out of the Wessex Novels will be forced to see the figures of the persons concerned "silhouetted" against a formidable skyline. One sees them, these poor impassioned ones, moving in tragic procession along the edge of the world, and, when the procession is over, darkness re-establishes itself. The quality that makes Mr. Hardy's manner such a refuge from the levities and gravities of the "reforming writers" is a quality that springs from the soil. The soil has a gift of "proportion" like nothing else. Things fall into due perspective on Egdon Heath, and among the water-meadows of Blackmoor life is felt as the tribes of men have felt it since the beginning.

(Visions and Revisions)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

it was only himself

Free will (or "the ultimate illusion of free will") in Powys proves itself to itself by defying some other power "unexpectedly, capriciously and wantonly." If it is defiant then it must be self-conscious. It has its own strict standards. What if it defies that power slowly and thoughtfully? Then is its free action tainted by "any motive at all, or by any urge at all"? Can not thinking about your motive genuinely remove an action from any influential context, as the character John Hush believes? He is blurring ideas about spontaneity into ideas about freedom. One image of freeness is moving on top of another. Freedom needs to be freed from the brain itself. I think that's where this passage is trying to go. It can't get there, but it's heading in that direction. The word "free" has infested the paragraph. Everything has to be free, even freedom. Peake makes Titus capricious too, especially at the end of Gormenghast when he has decided to kill Steerpike. Steerpike is responsible for his dead sister, but Titus decides that he is going to fight him because he loves his missing canoe. As though Peake thinks that the less reasonable and expected motivation will make the action seem more lifelike, strange, respectable, and true. Earlier Modernists having already argued that people do not have direct thoughts from A to B, Peake cuts the Gordian knot of psychological representation by making his character go through C instead. I believe he is refusing to acquiesce to a demand that he can sense hanging behind him as he writes. But confused. The tempo of the book changes here.

And the people in Powys, at crucial moments, are noticing those bubbles or those piles of dung or, in that same scene from The Inmates, they are being invaded by ideas that seem to come from nowhere. "[T]wo rather unusual words came into John's head which he tried in vain to connect either with what he was watching of the person and the proceedings of Morsimmon Esty, or with himself as he peered out from under those sweet-scented spruce-branches." Rhisiart in Owen Glendower watches a man draw a sword in front of him and "the queerest side-way impression rushed through Rhisiart's consciousness."

Then there will be a massive sprouting-outwards from the irrelevant observation of dung or bubbles, or the two words will stay in the mind of Hush for more than a page, or the sword in Owen Glendower will turn into a paragraph. "Its ancient cross-handle in some fantastic way conveyed to the lad's mind the notion that it was a kind sword!" Things are no longer irrelevant if they have this weight. Powys elevates and enlarges his defiance. He is a de-irrevelantor. The defiance becomes its own excuse. Rhisiart often believes that he is being invaded or "swamped," particularly by women. "Call it his wickedness, call it what you like, he felt he must keep the central core of his identity from being drugged, swamped, dissolved, in this Tower-room piety." In another chapter, when a stronger man is crushing him unconscious, he spontaneously decides that he is not going to call for help. "You can't make me call for help!"

The crushing man doesn't care whether Rhisiart calls for help or not. He's not deliberately trying to kill him or even bully him, or extract information, he's only crushing him for fun because they've been drinking and people are getting rambunctious: "he had simply given way to a whole-hearted joy in the power of his hairy arms." (He is behaving "unexpectedly, capriciously and wantonly.") But Rhisiart reacts as if someone or something is telling him to shout for help. There is that power of expectation letting him know that it wants him to do something and he won't do it. Refusing to save himself, he is transported. "Rhisiart began to find something in the pain itself that gave him a strange exultation." He is doing it for Owen Glendower, he thinks: somehow Owen Glendower will know that he didn't cry out. "'It's for Owen,' he thought." Then he feels himself wrestling his own corpse.

And he kept crying out to it, 'I know your name!' though how it could have a name when it was only himself remained one of those problems that often confront a mind under some cracking tension.

Powys doesn't know the answer to that question any more than his character does. He cuts off the transport there and uses another man to knock Rhisiart loose. In his Autobiography he reads Proust -- Proust could have shown him how to get past the high montaintop of drama in these situations, and analyse, but the lesson didn't get passed on.

In Peake it is a plot manoeuvre. The plot excuses it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

the power to act or not to act

The male relative dies. Porius imagines his moth. Insects appeared earlier as well, after the death of a mare. "Drudwyn was licking the cold nose of the dead mare, about whose nostrils and eye-sockets crawled several black ants, while a tiny brown insect whose identity, had Porius tried to verify a matter of such sub-human interest in that dim light, would have struck him as belonging rather to the race of beetles than to that of flies, kept approaching the slippery surface crossed by the dog's devoted tongue and then again precipitately retreating."

The evasiveness of that phrasing hits me, now that I've been associating him with words like "avoidance" and "distraction," the insect described as an inconclusive and infinite beetleishness, and Porius thinking about this beetle-thing but not thinking about it: "had Porius tried to verify ..."

That seems to be Powys' way of confronting the confinement that language sets up around whatever it describes. He will use a phrase like "it was," "it is," "he knew for sure," but then he will rebel against it. It is as if he's saying, "I used you once, but you can't make me use you again. Here is a situation in which I could use you, but I won't."

And if it in fact is his way of confronting that confinement then that method is in sympathy with his celebrations (overtly in The Inmates, thus) of "all those creatures of the earth [...] who, unaffected by the attractions of logical scientific reasoning, lived by the true illusions of life, above all by the ultimate illusion of free will," a state of affairs intuited by the protagonist John Hush who is crawling through the bushes on all fours. "And like an animal he raised one knee and then one hand, thinking, "I will crawl there," or, "I will crawl there," and then thinking, "I will crawl a little in that direction, and then I will turn round, not urged by any motive at all, or by any urge at all, or by any desire at all, but simply and solely to prove to myself, for my own interest alone, and at a moment decided upon quite arbitrarily and capriciously by myself, that I possess, along with every other planetary identity, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, together with all the atoms that compose us, the power to act or not to act, and the power to defy, unexpectedly, capriciously and wantonly, for the pure pleasure of proving to myself that I am free, every sort of cause and pressure exerted by every sort of material sequence as well as every sequence of thought or feeling or action!"

Sunday, March 9, 2014

the life of a creature resembling a sea-anemone

How do you pull it off outside the page, that potent Self, Bruno Schulz being the embodiment of a concentrated environmental mythology but this embodiment behaving with such hesitation, timidity, ineptitude and dithering, that it had to write Sklepy cynamonowe and Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą to prove that it existed. (Why prove it?)

Light like melting pears, is one of the ways I remember Schulz, though what story was he writing then? Cinnamon Shops itself, I see, now that I check, which was as easy as typing in the words "Bruno Schulz" and "pears."

Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.

(translated by Celina Wieniewska)

He had his town and his poverty, as the people of Gormenghast have their confining rooms, their stone walls, and Powys had his own poverty and small abodes; the protagonist of the The Inmates, locked in an asylum, believes that he can see a self-contained soul in a chipped teacup (it is the physical imperfection that leads him there, says Powys: it becomes apparent to him that this cup is a particular, irreplaceable cup); the other inmates perceive a "sub-human life of its own" in a man's beard, "the life of a creature resembling a sea-anemone, whose tentacular filaments drew their lustre from the gradual dissolution of fathom-deep masses of gem-breeding scum," until, reading them, I conclude that some aspect of external miring is necessary, and the upsoak of dreamlife is inaccessible to those people who are mobile and fulfilled, or "professional" and "sane and sensible and shrewd and competent."

Against them you have the vitalists, the "amateurs," people with "weaknesses that perhaps escape the usual categories but brim over into manias, vices, neuroses, phobias, and superstitions, that become a real trouble as their victims wrestle with life.

These are the people, and you can call them artistic, sensitive, and poetical, or you can simply call them morbid and eccentric [...] who in our own day are forever protesting with a positively ghastly naturalness against the inhuman specialisation of our time." (In Spite Of.)

That rich "sane and sensible" man in Weymouth Sands needing to become poetical and morbid by inviting a man to his house to see his miserly tendencies before the book will notice him as if he is a person rather than a demonic rumour.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

simmering gallipots

Avoidance is lush, distraction is fruitful, it is not a passive or evasive thing in Powys, nor when Countess Gertrude Groan in Peake thinks about the advice she will give her son Titus; she will tell him to sustain himself with an internal dream.

As I was writing "with an internal dream" I felt myself tracing over the words of millions of inspirational books, the ones that say, "Hold onto your dream," or "Follow your dream" or "Keep your dreams alive," which is what Gertrude will advise her son to do (though in the end she doesn't, she just has the idea of doing it), and yet it is not the same, because the inspirational quote books are imagining that the dream will lead you to a useful or externally fruitful and successful end point, the one known as Movie Star, or Athlete or Scholar or Small Business Owner, or some other net result at the culmination of a purpose.

Whereas Gertrude's dream and the daydreams in Powys are sustanence in themselves. This is especially true in Porius and Wolf Solent, whose protagonists are tempted to give up everything in their lives except their mental transports. It's a pity that "dream" and "daydream" are such sweet-sounding words because the state, in each book, is recalcitrant and suctioning.

The inspirational books' point of view is not strictly recent. Even in Dickens it is triumphant if your dreams sustain you until you are a District Magistrate in Port Middlebay and pitiful if they sustain you in an attic above an alcoholic combustible.

The inspirational dream pertains, I think, in places where a progress up through the ranks is seen to be possible or necessary or desirable and all persons are neighbours to an aspiration.

In Peake the nonprogression is part of the society and in Powys it is due to a social crippledness that the author confers upon the characters. He likes to make them obsessive, confused and truculent. (But he pulls against that tendency in them as well. Compare Prince Porius to his lordship Titus Groan. Porius doesn't abdicate.)

"Truculent," says Geoffrey Hill in one of his Keble lectures, quoting the critic Donald Carne-Ross on a Latin translation of John Dryden, "'the massive truculent English of John Dryden.' How my heart warms to that phrase." Truculence is not insolence, he says: "Truculence of course is not impudence or impertinence." Thinking back to his other lectures, I believe that "truculence" is one of the human characteristics that he hopes will help us to resist "our particular phase of oligarchical consumerism." The people in Gormenghast expect their fellow citizens to be truculent, and to hold their truculent personalities steady and unchanging.

Which behaviour Powys perceives as an explosive force:

We must, in fact, "in spite" of both old-fashioned and new-fashioned experts, embrace the ridiculous self-love and the physically funny ways of our elders and betters to such a point of humorous intensity that we end by stirring up what Heine calls "the Atistophanic spirit of world-destruction" and although we only do this from the simmering gallipots of our domestic suppressions, the thing swells and swells and swells until it spreads over all of the earth and all of the sky that we can catch from our parlour window, and the destructive enjoyment of Aristophanes coalesces with the creative enjoyment of Rabelais.

(In Spite Of: a Philosophy for Everyman)

So that a tight confinement, managed correctly, might bring you to a Nietzschean joy.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

upon his brain, the thought kept coming back to him

That bit of a sentence in my last post, The integrity of [thought] must be important to the author, was disingenuous, because I already knew that it was important to him -- how did I know -- because he says so elsewhere, says it blatantly, defending (year after year, it's in his non-fiction as well as his fiction) the right or necessity of people to be eccentric, and to think in wayward ways, and to have those wayward ways respected and not attacked, especially by psychoanalysis, a science that he has placed in a mental cupboard next to the one where he keeps the vivisection of dogs.

The doctor who runs the lunatic asylum in The Inmates (1952) is a dog vivisectionist and in fact keeps a pit of dead dogs in a grove of fir trees on the asylum grounds. The same combination of asylum and vivisection occurs in Weymouth Sands (1934). "And all this while, like an evil blood-clot upon his brain, the thought kept coming back to him of the vivisection he felt sure went on in one of those buildings of iron and glass and pale brick, where Dr. Brush studied pathology among the inmates of Hell's Museum."

His characters in other books are often mad or they behave madly, or they have "fetishes," or moments of fetish or moments of vision, like the one that Morfydd in Porius goes through when she sees the spirit of the world staring at her through a river-bubble. There is a financier in Weymouth Sands who becomes praiseworthy when the author discovers that he is a miser. "[F]or all his daring financial schemes, [he] had something of that romantic intensity of a miser's psychology which like all great passions possesses its own especial dignity."

In 1953 when Powys writes In Spite Of: a Philosophy for Everyman he refers to the "new-fashioned psychiatrists and psychoanalysts," who are "our modern medicine-men."

Anything less philosophical than their invention of the whole idea of what they have come to call " the unconscious ", that tank of monsters shaped like the excrement of antidiluvian sea-serpents, could hardly be imagined, or anything more grotesquely mediaeval and luridly fantastic than the human faces of these excremental abortions as they bob up and down out of their bloodstained excrescences, just as certain gargoyles, that most frequenters of cathedrals can remember, emerge from the choir-stalls, at particular moments of riddling and ransacking emotion, and then retreat again into the recesses of their green-black woodwork.

But if our experts emphasize the monstrous water-demons that coil round each other in that tank we all are accused of concealing in the depths of our being, it begins to grow clearer and clearer why of all illusions of the human mind the one about which our soul-physicians are most deeply concerned and most anxious to "cure" is the "Messiah-Complex".

"Us mad ones," he says: "The more Messiahs there are in our mad world the more of us mad ones will be cured."

[S]ince our two world-wars have slid into what exists to-day, the medical science of our time has returned full circle to all the cruel, horrid, disgusting, black-magical dabblings in methodical witchcraft, in hypnotism, in vivisection, in experimental medicine-making from excrescences ejected from every conceivable organ of beast-organism that can be squeezed or wrung out, against which the prophetic Paraceleus warned us in vain.

To squeeze, to wring, to extract, to lay bare, is wrong in Powys; to repress, to forget, to leave a flower alone, to mythologise a hint, all of those are good talents. "Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the Muses, but she is also the mother of what is best forgotten. I pray, O convertite, that you may acquire not only a good memory but a good "forgettory"."

Porius, distracted by dung and moths during the death of his male relative, is not entering a period of repression or avoidance that needs to be cured, he is instead extending himself into a new area of conception where his ideas densen into a mass of connections that gives him insights and comprehensions; it is the opposite of a psychoanalyst's mythology.