Saturday, February 28, 2015

already done, captain

But Kingsley is teasing you with the impossible book because he is about to overcome it. This is not brokenness he is showing you, it is triumph

I replied not, but went into my bedroom, and returning with a thick roll of papers threw it on the floor—as on the stage the honest notary throws down the long-lost will,—and there I stood for a moment with my arms folded, eyeing Brentwood triumphantly.

"It is already done, captain," I said. "There it lies."

It is the book we are about to read. Kingsley uses the same pattern again later when he wants to introduce a parson named Frank Maberley. One character has suggested that an action is impossible; another character has performed it already.

The dinner time was past some ten minutes, when they saw a man in black put his hand on the garden-gate, vault over, and run breathless up to the hall-door. Tom had recognised him and dashed out to receive him, but ere he had time to say "good day" even, the new comer pulled out his watch, and, having looked at it, said in a tone of vexation: --

"Twenty-one minutes, as near as possible; nay, a little over. By Jove! how pursy a fellow gets mewed up in town! How far do you call it, now, from the Buller Arms?"

"It is close upon four miles," said Tom, highly amused.

"So they told me," replied Frank Maberly. "I left my portmanteau there, and the landlord-fellow had the audacity to say in conversation that I couldn't run the four miles in twenty minutes. It's lucky a parson can't bet, or I should have lost my money. But the last mile is very much up-hill, as you must allow."

Power, power; and the author of Kingsley's entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography believes that the man was in awe of his brother Charles, the Muscular Christian. "Sensitive about his puny and ugly appearance, he was inclined to adulate more personable contemporaries, especially his brother." That might be wishful gossip but it prompts me to notice that the narrator's writing-deed has been brought into the same framework as the Muscular Christian parson's running-deed, not only power, but power legitimised by the framing, made not-random, not enigmatic or questionable, or, put it this way: the deeds are not personal, not held and nourished in private, instead they are social, since other people are evidently rolling them around in their minds and calling out for their accomplishment.

Kingsley likes to present the actions of his characters in this call-and-response way (I mean he lets you know that these actions are wanted), and some of those actions should have been personal, perhaps, and I am wishing, when I think about it, that a person could put flowers in her hair without being hijacked.

Her complexion was very full, as though she were blushing at something one of them had said to her, and while I watched I saw James rise and go to a jug of flowers, and bring back a wreath of scarlet Kennedia, saying: –

"Do us a favour on Christmas night, Mary; twine this in your hair."

She blushed deeper than before, but she did it, and Tom helped her.

Monday, February 23, 2015

that old horse is alive still

When I mention magic I remember Frank Kermode in his essay Between Time and Eternity, writing, "All plots have something in common with prophecy, for they must appear to educe from the prime matter of the situation the forms of a future," and I wonder vaguely about the predictive or coercive power of systems (a system in itself is a prediction; to note a system is to note a prediction) -- and also I consider the mechanisms that trigger or indicate or introduce you to those systems, and then naturally I think of the aged horse in the opening pages of The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), that book by Henry Kingsley, the brother of Charles (The Water Babies (1862-63, serialised)).

"Bless me!" I said; "You don't mean to say that that old horse is alive still?"

"He looks like it," said the major. "He'd carry you a mile or two, yet."

"I thought he had died while I was in England," I said. "Ah, major, that horse's history would be worth writing."

"If you began," answered the major, "to write the history of the horse, you must write also the history of every body who was concerned in those circumstances which caused Sam to take a certain famous ride upon him. And you would find that the history of the horse would be reduced into very small compass, and that the rest of your book would assume proportions too vast for the human intellect to grasp."

"How so?" I said.

He entered into certain details, which I will not give. "You would have," he said, "to begin at the end of the last century, and bring one gradually on to the present time. Good heavens! just consider."

"I think you exaggerate," I said.

"Not at all," he answered. "You must begin the histories of the Buckley and Thornton families in the last generation. The Brentwoods also, must not be omitted,-- why there's work for several years."

So if you tell the story of those families then you will also have to tell the stories of the people connected to them and so on and so on until by Major Buckley's logic the entire world is swallowed (recalling that Ruskin in one book contemplates the holy profusion of leaves), which is the problem Gertrude Stein enunciated in The Making of Americans, when she talks about the neighbours and then the neighbours of the neighbours, until she reaches the same conclusion as Major Buckley, this playful and useless idea that any grossly representational book would be "too vast for the human intellect to grasp" and what does that say about the human intellect and also Kingsley's playfulness, and then Gertrude Stein's playfulness, which is an oblique or self-defending reflex, and also self-conquering as it indicates that it is biting off more than it can chew, in fact creating that too-much obstacle and showing it to you so that it can throw up its hands and say, "Non" – here is the book desiring to have that Non-action inside itself and going to these abnormal lengths to get it, and asking you to observe its crippledness, its broken-wingedness, ha, ha, ha?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

the infidelity of this outer world

Ruskin has a fidelity to the nonhuman world, either material and dumb, or religious and not materially existent, or the unity of the two. There was the time he was lying by the Fountain of Brevant and saw a thunderstorm. "Suddenly, there came in the direction of Dorm du Goûter a crash -- of prolonged thunder; and when I looked up, I saw the cloud cloven, as it were by the avalanche itself, whose white stream came bounding down the eastern slope of the mountain, like slow lightning." The power of the thunderstorm crushes him; it is not "mingled [with] the associations of humanity." "It was then only beneath those glorious hills that I learned how thought itself may become ignoble and energy itself become base -- when compared with the absorption of soul and spirit -- the prostration of all power -- and the cessation of all will -- before, and in the Presence of, the manifested Deity." It is sublime; he is sublimated. "It was then only that I understood that to become nothing might be to become more than Man." That was in the footnotes to Modern Painters, Volume II, but he doesn't take his own advice; he spends years mingled with the associations of humanity, and decades later in the Fors Clavigera letters he will write:

Looking back upon my efforts for the last twenty years, I believe that their failure has been in very great part owing to my compromise with the infidelity of this outer world, and my endeavour to base my pleading upon motives of ordinary prudence and kindness, instead of on the primary duty of loving God.

The iron is in the hills, the iron is in your blood -- permanently and indelibly -- not anything happening from my point of view: it is just there, Ruskin says, I am the one who is seeing, I am the one who will see, I am not imagining anything; the thing is in two places and connected by physical sympathy. This sorting-out of the world's parts into its own society which the human being can observe and learn is a fundamentally magical arrangement.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

lying ahead

This dependence [on language] is absolute, despotic, but it unshackles as well. For, while always older than the writer, language still possesses the colossal centrifugal energy imparted to it by its temporal potential -- that is, by all the time lying ahead.

(Joseph Brodsky, from the essay Uncommon Visage)

But if the sick woman is near her end and has reached her death-agony, someone who is with her must run at once through the convent beating on a wooden board to give warning of the sister's departure.

(The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, tr. Betty Radice)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

exposed to the alternations

The history of the authentic regime of art could be thought similarly to the history of this mutilated and perfect statue,* perfect because it is mutilated, forced, by its missing head and limbs, to proliferate into a multiplicity of unknown bodies.

(Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (2013), tr. Zakir Paul)

To induce immigrants to bring with them useful property, the Government offered a bonus of twenty acres for every three pounds worth of goods imported; and the colonists -- quite unconscious of the future that lay before them -- carried out great numbers of costly, though often unsuitable, articles, by means of which the desired grants were obtained. It was found difficult to convey this property to the town, and much of it was left to rot on the shore, where carriages, pianos, and articles of rich furniture lay half-buried in sand and exposed to the alternations of sun and rain.

(Alexander Sutherland and George Sutherland, History of Australia and New Zealand from 1606 to 1890 (1894))

* The Belvedere Torso