Sunday, June 29, 2014

make me new or strange

I was thinking about that last post when I opened An Anthology of Australian Verse (1906, ed. Bertram Stevens), and read until I came to James Lionel Michael's poem Personality (1858), which begins and ends with the same stanza:

A change! no, surely, not a change,
 The change must be before we die;
Death may confer a wider range,
 From pole to pole, from sea to sky,
It cannot make me new or strange
 To mine own Personality!

Ten years later he had a chance to find out whether he was right or not when they discovered him floating in the Clarence River near Grafton. He is responding to a fragment of a line from The Heart of Midlothian, "Death is to us change, not consummation,” which he quotes for a preface. The rest of the poem is an elaboration on, but not a development of, the same theme. “This vital spark — this loving soul, | Must last for ever and for ever.” What struck me was the close overlap between the last four lines of that stanza, the beliefs of Therese Weichbrodt, and the ideas of John Cowper Powys in his posthumous novellas, where the characters have a “wider range” conferred on them, and in which death can't estrange anybody from his or her personality except in unique circumstances, eg, the supernatural destruction of the universe.

It's possible that Tony Buddenbrooks would be a heroic character in a Powys novel, and the quality in her that Powys would valorise – her adherence to her own personality – is the one that Mann describes when he wants to reinforce the idea that she is ignorant.

Her strongly developed family sense was instinctively hostile to conceptions of free will and self-development; it inclined her rather to recognise and accept her own characteristics wholesale, with fatalistic indifference and toleration. She had, unconsciously, the feeling that any trait of hers, no matter of what kind, was family tradition and therefore worthy of respect.

The challenge for her in a Powys book would be to keep that stubborn dumbness and separate herself from her family (cf. Porius, Wolf Solent) – but the heavily moored ignorance – would be respected – would be defended – if it kept her in a condition that the author could describe as “herself” -- because intelligence in a Powys book is not more important than that unique triangulation of the will.

(Note: the struggle of the title character, in Porius, to carry out the extroverted actions that seem necessary because he was born into a position of responsible authority, as well as the long, deep, lonely introversions that he needs or else he will lose "himself.")

Thursday, June 26, 2014

boundless space

The universe is not listening to Therese Weichbrodt, and it's clownish to think that the universe will bend itself to your will; that's why she is a clown, the little one against the big one, taking herself seriously when all she's doing is playing a game.

Because it's a game of pretending, if you think your will is going to change the mind of time.

That's what you should believe when you are talking about this book, in which Mann makes it so very clear that time does not stop. Reason wins, seeming like fate (“the good fight which, all her life, she had waged against the assaults of Reason”). The clues were there from the start. Readers were allowed to see them but the characters were blind. The ability to see fate is a privilege, like the ability to see ghosts – you, reader, enter into this privilege of form -- “great by the perfection of its art,” writes the translator in a short preface, “a triumph of style” -- and there's the form in front of you, a shape that you can start to grasp immediately when you look for it, beautifully, lucidly, the big physical gathering at the start when everybody comes to lunch, then the slow disintegration from one species of misfortune to another until the book ends with a small group of characters (the only ones left) pinning their hopes on another gathering in the afterlife: they've lost their fortune on earth, and religion is being discussed again as it was on page one.

Inside that large form you can begin to puzzle out little forms, sub-stories, and so on, so that even the fractal details make up the shape of fate, aside from those static, independent moment, like the piano being played on the shoulder.

I can say that the action in Mann's story is striving against Therese Weichbrodt but I can't say that the book disagrees with her, or that the author thinks her faith is silly, especially not in retrospect when I remember that other characters in Mann's books have reached out for unobtainable essences and been thwarted fatefully, “beauty” in Death in Venice, going away finally into the “misty, boundless space” of the sea as Aschenbach dies (tr. Martin C. Doege). And tragedy, for Mann, seems to depend on this image of the unrequited open hand. Do you learn to reach for an ideal? asks Mann in general. The Buddenbrooks have a spiritual tragedy as well as a financial one and a physical one. They don't learn to reach.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

the good fight

Therese Weichbrodt is the most respected repetitive object in the book. Why is she respected? Why does Mann call her a prophetess: “eine kleine, strafende, begeisterte Prophetin”? He is striving against her. Let her be an opponent then, or let her have a clownish power and be a mimic opponent, fighting “the good fight which, all her life, she had waged against the assaults of Reason.” She is only the headmistress of a private girls' academy in an ordinary German town. Furthermore she is a hunchback with a speech trait. What is her power? She arrives at all the important family ceremonies to give one of the Buddenbrooks a kiss on the forehead and tell them that they are a “good child.”

You could write something on the significance of a headmistress praising the failing Buddenbrooks by referring to them perpetually as good children, particularly when they themselves like to think about the time when the family business was more childlike and direct, not the modern financial world where cunning people win. “He was a fox, Hinrich Hagenström.” Complicated, brutal, adult business is not theirs in the end; it belongs to the Hagenströms.

You could suggest that the Buddenbrooks family is growing up like a person and that adulthood is being yardsticked by financial solvency, but I'm going to go back to Therese Weichbrodt. The Reason against which she fights is the impetus of the book itself. Events are being crushed irretrievably by time. One person is born, another person dies, a second person dies, someone goes somewhere and meets someone, they return, they never see that person again; they get married, they divorce. But what she prophesises is eternity, she asserts the family's right to meet again in the afterlife, as though the basic force of the repetition that she herself manufactures should be enough to crush time, and the endless recreation of that activity should make the universe aware of the responsibilities that she has assigned to it.

Not stasis for everything indiscriminately, please note, but an oasis of calmness where she is always kissing someone's forehead.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

and made a gesture

I'm still surprised by the notion that so many moments in this book are either action-oriented or stasis-oriented; that some of them you can look back on and say, “That was the first step in a chain of events,” and of other ones you can say, “That could have happened in a different place, or it might not have happened at all and nothing else would have had to change.”

Also: not knowing which is which when you encounter them.

(I believe it was an education in Mervyn Peake that made me sensitive towards static moments, because he values them: recall the reflective drop near the end of Titus Groan, Peake's response to nihilism if you like, the world being so full, “mine eyes mint gold;” a book with no indifferent instants. The chapter in Gormenghast about the old man who says that death is life until a young man kills him by setting his beard on fire, is a crude version of the same idea. Gormenghast is a cruder book than Titus Groan.)

Not only moments but sometimes words, which I know you could say about any book, but that thought occurs to me especially now because Mann uses so many adjectives to describe furniture and other household objects, and he seems to feel a weight inside these adjectives when he uses them. I'm remembering the word “heavy” in the description of heavy chairs and heavy food in my last post: “There they all sat, on heavy high-backed chairs, consuming good heavy food ...” which (that repetition existing in an undifferentiated and contented utopia) was like opening a story, seeing that the first line was, “They all lived quietly in the peaceful countryside ...” and anticipating trouble.

“Heavy” is a knowing and therefore sinister word, not an innocent word; it can see the future, the characters can't, though it shares their dining room, and supports their bottoms and lies on their plates.

For an example of an adjective that seems static to me, there is the word “oval” when Tom Buddenbooks holds a doorknob (p. 328, Cardinal, 1957). “He held the oval doorknob in one hand and made a gesture of weary protest with the other.”

This “oval” not presaging future disaster or commenting on the present, Tom's weariness not having discourse with the shape of the doorknob, and a square doorknob would have seen him equally weary, or a brass doorknob, or a clean doorknob, or a blue doorknob, none of them having anything to say except that a doorknob of such and such kind existed in this fictional room off its own bat, in a lonely way, filling or defining space; and that the author might have been picturing one kind of doorknob, not another kind of doorknob, that he might have had a specific doorknob in mind (you're allowed to presume) -- maybe there are oval doorknobs in his house at the moment that he's writing this book, or, if you've heard that Buddenbrooks is supposed to be based on the history of his family, you could imagine that his childhood home, or his grandparents' home, had oval doorknobs. You could speculate for hours on the multitude of routes he might have taken before he encountered oval doorknobs.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

consuming good heavy food

Buddenbrooks moves along in set pieces or literary moments – I mean in scenes that I can think of in isolation -- either long or short, the briefest ones being those miniature performances that take place in solitary sentences, like Herr Kesselmeyer playing the piano on his shoulder.

That moment is inert, it comes and goes without an aftermath, which means that it is the easiest kind of scene to pick out, but there are other moments that act as triggers, making them less easy for me to bring them out quickly because they seep into their own repercussions. The beginning of Tony's hatred for the Hagenström family is signalled by the scene in which the son kisses her, the hatred goes on throughout the book, occasionally mentioned, then, almost at the end, the kiss re-enters the story.

Food is present almost as soon as the book opens. In chapter one they are waiting for the lunch bell to ring; by chapter two it has rung. “There they all sat, on heavy high-backed chairs, consuming good heavy food ...” (translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter). Food goes on vibrating throughout the book, the wealth of the family often expressing itself in food (and the black sheep Christian jumps up from his chair because he has a nightmare fear of choking on a peach), until my idea of their money was also a feeling for spongy substances decaying and vanishing. They could have been buying jewels in chapter one instead and showing off their jewels in chapter two. At the end of the book they might still have owned the jewels. They were never going to keep the food.

The value of food is effervescence. It starts with the gastric juices. So the family's loss, a soft haemorrhage, is a different species of loss to the losses of a character such as Shylock, who could have kept control over his money and his religion (identifying himself by both of those as soon as he appears onstage) if the Merchant of Venice hadn't taken place. But it does, and he is dispossessed. Other people are dictating to him. A state of loss exists at the end of both stories but the value of that loss is different in each case, even though you could sum up both of them with the same words: “Their wealth is gone.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

truth must be alive

You can call them gossip if you want, those posts of mine about Cavendish, since they are less about her books on the whole and more about the other people who have circled around her. I wouldn't have written like that if I hadn't looked up the essay by Woolf when I was writing the first post. I am not blaming Woolf for my tangent though I say again (third time I think) that she was relying too much on rumour, and on Firth's opinions; and her argument took precedence over the instructions that she gave to biographers in The Art of Biography. “His sense of truth must be alive and on tiptoe.”

If she had read Whitaker's book then she would not have written the essay that she wrote, and the sentences about Margaret Cavendish in A Room of One's Own would not have been the same sentences. “She shut herself up at Welbeck alone,” would not have gone on the page without modification.

But her conclusion could have stayed the same. “No one taught her.”

Cavendish herself was not alive to truth when she wrote her husband's biography. Look at the inconvenient facts she ignored, says Whitaker, listing a few of them. You'd never know that the Cavendishes rackrented their tenants. And Whitaker, defending the subject of her research against the world's Woolfs, must be writing her own book of gaps. How do I evaluate the information when she shows me, contra Woolf, that some of Margaret Cavendish's contemporaries praised her behind her back? Is this decisive evidence in Cavendish's favour or are they the exceptions that prove the rule?

Next I opened Buddenbrooks. After a while it struck me that this was a book of gap-characters, because Mann described them so often and from so many angles. Sometimes he would describe their clothes, sometimes he would go inside their heads, sometimes he would ignore their heads and speculate on their ideas as if they were unknowable, sometimes he would be the god-author and sum them up, sometimes a sentence would agree with their wrong ideas about themselves, sometimes he would give them a tic. “Herr Kesselmeyer stuck his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat and played piano on his shoulders with his fingers.” He could edit these angles all day. There the people are, at the centre of big flocks of pecking detail-birds, in this mimicry of a biography.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

her dress so antic

Margaret Cavendish dressed inappropriately, says Pepys, she put doves' eyes in a poem inappropriately, says me, she hewed to her own metaphysics when that kind of imagination was least appropriate, say the scientists of the Royal Society, and she was shy and miserable as a lady-in-waiting until she met William Cavendish, who put her two favourite qualities in her epitaph, wise and witty, for she was appropriate in his opinion and she stayed by him in his exile while he trained horses, and he would rather have sold anything else he owned, said someone, before he would have sold his Barbary horses.

Katie Whitaker amends us, she moderates the vision of Margaret Cavendish, she writes a biography, she is an amending agent, saying so or suggesting herself so in the introduction; explaining that she was “studying the meetings of the early Royal Society as part of the research for my doctoral thesis in the history of science” when she found Pepys' description of the writer, “her dress so antic,” then other descriptions by contemporaries contradicting Pepys, “an heroine,” “the prince of all wit,” “Majestic Quill,” wearing a velvet cap or trimming her nipples with scarlet (and though Whitaker describes the method that other women used when they wanted to make their nipples red she doesn't tell us that Margaret Cavendish used the same method so I am unsure how it was achieved in her case but she visited the theatre like that if I'm recalling that page correctly, not able to find it now and no nipples in the index when they should come after Sir Edward Nicholas and before Dr Nodin but go on) and exchanging letters with philosophers and scientists, good friends with some, Glanville one of those close scientist-friends in spite of their differences (they used to send refutations of one another through the mail), until she, Whitaker, came across an introduction to an 1872 edition of Cavendish's Life of her husband, this introduction written by someone named Mark Antony Lower, and Lower claims that Cavendish had a nickname among her contemporaries, “Mad Madge of Newcastle!'”

Whitaker says that “When I first encountered the story I assumed, as others had done, that he must have had access to some historical record that no one else has seen.” But when she searched for the record she couldn't find it, when she read the letters that people had written to one another about Cavendish she couldn't find it, even in the hostile letters of Mary Evelyn she couldn't find it, not in Pepys could she find it, and not in the writings of any enemy could she find it, nowhere could she find it, and concluded that it was nowhere to be found, and Mark Antony Lower had invented it in 1872 when he was writing his introduction, this antiquarian by profession who liked his own coinage so much that he never bothered to notice that the only extant shortened pet name for Margaret Cavendish during her lifetime was not Madge but Peg.

“It was her early nineteenth-century admirer, the essayist Charles Lamb, who seems first to have named her “Madge Newcastle” as a mark of his affection,” says Whitaker. She guesses that Lower found “Madge” in Lamb. And “Mad” had been Cavendish's reputation since John Evelyn's diaries were published in 1818, containing his wife's description of her, which led to Walter Scott introducing her as “that old mad-woman” in Peveril of the Peak (1823). Pepys' diaries were published in 1825. So her name during the Victorian age was linked to eccentric lunacy, though the lunacy hinged completely on two bits of writing in printed diaries, one of them by a woman who held a grudge against Margaret Cavendish for a reason that had nothing to do with madness or sanity but was due to the fact that Cavendish had promised her a thousand pounds as a wedding present, and then not seen her again for many years, and forgotten to give her the money.

“The early twentieth century represented the nadir of Margaret's reputation, both as a person and as a writer. And the most influential figure in her demolition was the essayist, novelist, and literary critic, Virginia Woolf,” Whitaker writes (then taking Woolf's description apart), and I think, look, here is my villain then, here is the one who gave me a vision that didn't jibe with the prose that I was reading; and Woolf's essay is not a source of information, it is a trapper's pit or distracting sideways arrow.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

the flame is pale, like the Sun, and hath a violent motion in it

On her grave her husband called her “a wise, wittie, and Learned Lady, which her many Bookes do well testifie.” Her philosophy was as good as anybody else's, was his opinion, and it would have been hypocritical of him not to have said so when he also had the “native wit” that would not accept help from others. “ I have lived in the great world a great while, and have thought of what has been brought to me by the senses, more than was put into me by learned discourse; for I do not love to be led by the nose, by authority, and old authors; ipse dixit will not serve my turn," he writes in his memoirs.

She suited him, he suited her, they were both curious and science-minded; he had scientists visit his house and he consulted them.

The sun, no doubt, is a great fire, and must have something to maintain it; but before I deliver my opinion to you, I desire leave to make you a little relation, and it is this: Dr. Payn, a divine, and my chaplain, who hath a very witty searching brain of his own, being at my house at Bolsover, locked up with me in a chamber to make Lapis Prunellae, which is saltpetre and brimstone inflamed, looking at it a while, I said, Mark it, Mr. Payn, the flame is pale, like the Sun, and hath a violent motion in it, like the Sun; saith he, It hath so, and the more to confirm you, says he, look what abundance of little suns, round like a globe, appear to us everywhere, just the same motion as the Sun makes in every one's eyes. So we concluded the Sun could be nothing else but a very solid body of salt and sulphur, inflamed by his own violent motion upon his own axis.

Everything must be made of something, the maggots made of cheese in The Blazing World, the sun made of salt, and the responsibility of the scientist is to discover that origin or that substance. Once there, then what? There is a parody of this in those stories that trace a character's badness to parental neglect at the age of two or Ruskin pretending to blame his absent career on his aunt's cold mutton. Where is that source? What is the behaviour of that source? The scientists in those days asked themselves if a fire atom had the same shape as a water atom, so says Katie Whitaker in her biography of Margaret Cavendish. They argued about light and never spoke again. Light was that heated. Why should cheese “by its own figurative motions” turn into maggots? Whitaker's book is called Mad Madge because the Victorians had that name for her. Weeks ago I read an article which suggested that everything seeks a quantum equilibrium and so hot tea goes cool as it submits to the peer pressure of the air but you would have to “outlive the universe,” the article said, before you were lucky enough to see it defy the world and turn hotter.

Imagine the quantum battle between a warm body and the South Pole, the skin forced to be a battleground in both directions since the landscape does not want to heat up any more than the body wants to cool down, though if there is a chance that the tea could get hotter then there might be a chance (which you would have to more than outlive the universe to see) that the person's body temperature will win the war against the freezing landscape and then it will be hot enough in that place to grow geraniums, the air will be all thirty-two degrees Celsius, though dirt will be a problem then or maybe not, why not dirt spontaneously arriving, the ice transformed to earth, why not; or cheese, and then maggots, the ground bubbling with maggots (which are the gateways to heaven, wrote Yusef Komunyakaa in his Ode to the Maggot, "you | Go to the root of all things. | You are sound & mathematical"), and the person dead by now though still mysteriously warm, unless they have lived forever by mistake.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

but she did not settle for the method

Can't say she's neutral about it though, Margaret Cavendish, can't say she thinks multiplicity is positive per se, but it needs to be contained a bit featly, “you have enclosed it with elegancy and eloquence” – she is against argumentative multiplicity – the Bear-men in her Blazing World arguing over the actions of the stars until the Empress tells them that they would be better off smashing their telescopes than bickering over their opinions.

[T]hey had seen three Blazing-Stars appear there, one after another in a short time, whereof two were bright, and one dim; but they could not agree neither in this observation: for some said, It was but one Star which appeared at three several times, in several places; and others would have them to be three several Stars; for they thought it impossible, that those three several appearances should have been but one Star, because every Star did rise at a certain time, and appear'd in a certain place, and did disappear in the same place: Next, It is altogether improbable, said they, That one Star should fly from place to place, especially at such a vast distance, without a visible motion; in so short a time, and appear in such different places, whereof two were quite opposite, and the third side-ways: Lastly, If it had been but one Star, said they, it would always have kept the same splendor, which it did not; for, as above mentioned, two were bright, and one was dim.

They beg her to let them keep their telescopes even though those telescopes are “meer deluders” “for, were there nothing but truth, and no falshood, there would be no occasion to dispute,” and they love that fruitless separation play. Without their telescopes “we should want the aim and pleasure of our endeavors in confuting and contradicting each other; neither would one man be thought wiser then another, but all would either be alike knowing and wise, or all would be fools; wherefore we most humbly beseech your Imperial Majesty to spare our Glasses, which are our onely delight, and as dear to us as our lives.”

Now she detects a negative variety, says William White of Stanford, variety is the slave of muddle: '“Cavendish showed with this example that, although the telescope may have revealed new objects in the night sky, the interpretation of these observations was never completely inherent or self evident.” (Science, Factions, and the Persistent Specter of War: Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World.)

Trust, as White does, that the scientific and philosophical societies that the Empress reviews in the Blazing World are Margaret Cavendish's commentaries on the Royal Society in the living world, and that the eyes of the “grey Drone-flye” that the Bear-men show her through their microscopes are the same ones that appear in the illustrated Micrographia of Robert Hooke (1665), then the criticism of the Bear-men's addiction to their instruments is her criticism of everyone who was in the room when she encountered Evelyn and Pepys. “The Empress at last consented to their request, but upon condition, that their disputes and quarrels should remain within their Schools, and cause no factions or disturbances in State, or Government.“ Remember, writes White, she had gone through the English Civil War and the Restoration, and was a Monarchist. Her husband's estates had been taken. She met him while they were both in exile. The Puritans executed her brother.

She valued science for social utility and feared that unchecked discourse could have led to social divisions and chaos, but she did not settle for the method of the Royal Society. Instead, Cavendish promoted a method fueled by human reason, deductive reasoning, and use of the unaided senses to study the external world.

Now her disregard of Glanville's advice can be considered from a new direction, looking less wilful, more thoughtful, the author having already, let's say, examined the evidence and concluded that the methods of official science would not give her the results she wanted. Instead they would ask her to depend on “meer deluders.” No, she won't.