Sunday, May 11, 2014

native wit, so abundant that outside succour pained it

Margaret Cavendish is not the first person in literature who has stared at small natural phenomenon, “infinitely various“ -- King Solomon, ages before, staring at a woman's navel but Cavendish treating tiny nature as the subject of her “thy.” “ How beautiful are thy feet with shoes,” Solomon says, and then he describes a monster, “thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus” “thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes,” (Song of Solomon, King James version), piling up these freakish points of interest until it is the dove all over again.

“From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change,” writes Tim Parks as he worries about the rise of the global novel and the decrease of the local: “In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. […] Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.” Then there will be no equivalents of the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus in these Scandinavian authors, and no Las Vegas author will ever write “thine eyes are like the entrance to the Circus Circus,” meaning by implication that they sparkle. For it would be nothing in every other location.

Though in conversation, not prose, you could say, "like North Las Vegas," and the other person would understand that you meant rough and dangerous, geographical exactitude possible when the conversation is so restricted but at the same time so free; where there is no lasting value placed, no paper bought, no rights purchased from the author, and no publisher riding on it.

Say that restriction is needed for this cuddling, all closed, hermetic, beloved, surrounded, cut off; and restriction leading to metaphor, and the tightening circle of accumulated descriptions bringing Cavendish and Solomon to their extravagances, until I wonder if the best place for metaphor and simile would also be the smallest place, maybe a dog kennel, or, as Christina Stead intuited, a family, where in-jokes can be developed, refined and performed over multiple decades for an audience so tiny that no publisher would recognise it.

Alan Marshall took from Solomon when he wanted to give a name to his book about life in a Melbourne shoe factory during the Depression, How Beautiful Are Thy Feet (1949), leaving off the word that the rest of the book would supply – shoes -- he relies on the reader's attention to detail to complete the line which will run into the book, or the book runs on from the line. Pinter, in his Nobel speech, said that one of his plays came out of the word "Dark," and another one came out of "Scissors," so there is evidence of attention to detail being rewarded. I was interested enough in “fondling the details” (Tom at Wuthering Expectations, quoting Nabokov, though myself not doing it the way he means it) to look up the place where Marshall genuinely worked: the Trueform Boot Factory at 43 Groom Street in Collingwood. Now flats. There must have been jokes about him working there, a one-legged man. Woolf disparages Cavendish's curiosity, or not the curiosity per se but the unrigorous pursuit of her conclusions.

She has only seen Des Cartes and Hobbes, not questioned them; she did indeed ask Mr. Hobbes to dinner, but he could not come; she often does not listen to a word that is said to her; she does not know any French, though she lived abroad for five years; she has only read the old philosophers in Mr. Stanley’s account of them; of Des Cartes she has read but half of his work on Passion; and of Hobbes only “the little book called De Cive”, all of which is infinitely to the credit of her native wit, so abundant that outside succour pained it, so honest that it would not accept help from others.

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