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.")

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