Monday, September 29, 2014

in which we arrive at the kind of ecstasy described by Proust

I think of John Cowper Powys and the message that he offered to any moment, glance, glimpse, or little incident. “You are massive and endless,” he promised, “you are not closed, you are not over, nothing is over,” expanding the glimpse of ordinary dung in Porius, and seizing, for example, a wall in Spain -- “I have no doubt that my turning the walls of the Seville tobacco factory into a clash of such vast immemorial ideas as those represented by Siegfried on one hand and Parsifal on the other, was one of the most deeply authentic, deeply felt and fully realized gestures of my life” (Autobiography) -- stuffing the moments; and by stuffing he is trying (if you believe him) to hint at an ecstasy there, noting it in Proust:

[T]he mood in which we arrive at the kind of ecstasy described by Proust and without which, he admits, most people go through their entire life, is not a mood connected with what we call “beauty,” nor with what we call “truth,” nor with what we call “love.” It is a mood or let me say a moment when we are made rapturously happy by what Wordsworth calls “the pleasure which there is in life itself.”

(Marcel Proust: Reviews and Estimates in English, ed. Gladys Dudley Lindner)

He will make his characters “rapturously happy” in that way -- though “happy” is the wrong word: they are beyond happiness into a place where “happy” is irrelevant, the invocation of rapture dismisses happiness -- hence the mythopoeic realism of his books, in that any instant, no matter how minute, is the hero at the end of the fairy tale, the human being, formerly misrepresented by their smallness, becoming a king or queen: the moment is momentous, it is ecstatic, it is in fact monstrous (if you think of the endlessness of it, and this piece of royalty reigning forever, getting bigger, attaching itself not only to Parsifal and Siegfried but also to everything that those two are attached to, and then furthermore, etc, seeping instantly everywhere, the whole world gassed in microseconds); it is full of words, it has bulk, it risks being ridiculous up there with its prosy fat and sceptre; and an onlooker during one of Powys' lectures in the United States described the entire performance as “vaudeville.” “Instruction or interpretation of literature was entirely subordinated to entertainment” (J.W. Abernathy, in a letter to The Dial, March 26th, 1917).

Powys, however, called it “a sort of transmigration of my soul.” “I succeeded eventually in hollowing myself out, like an elder-stalk with the sap removed, so that my whole personality, every least movement I made, and every least sound I made, and every flicker, wrinkle, and quiver of my face, became expressive of the particular subject I was interpreting,” which he sees in Proust as well. “Proust keeps up his serpentine progress through the hearts, nerves, and brains of all his people with an intensity of analysis so exquisite, so finespun, so levelling, that instead of feeling the mixture of puzzled and respectful awe we feels in the presence of Joyce and even of his alter-ego Stephen, we are prepared to argue with him in our own minds, so real have his people become to us, and expostulate with him as to his treatment of them, as if all he had done was just introduce us to them, and that formality once safely over we could take our own view of their proceedings and their fate ...”


  1. This is good, really good, this series of posts, turning the cathedral on the crab's back into Powys' self on the factory wall. All this about the uses of memory is good stuff. The weight of the memory is transformed into new cathedrals, as it were.

  2. I keep reminding myself that I haven't described the second reason why Walter Murdoch used the word "fair" (after writing "Here the word “fair” has two meanings" in a post about a fortnight ago) but other ideas get into me before I can circle back.

    If you ever want to see an absolutely whiplash transition between two subjects, there's a footnote at the end of Thomas de Quincey's Autobiographic Sketches in which he switches from the history of the word "bluestocking," ("Dr. Bisset (in his Life of Burke) traces it idly to a sobriquet imposed by Mrs. Montagu ...") to a description of forks. "Something of the same kind has happened in the history of silver forks." Followed by proof that the two things overlap perfectly.