Monday, November 30, 2015

chimneys smoke in the cross light

When I heard that an author I hadn’t read had won the Patrick White Award then I went to the Guardian website where there was an excerpt from her recent book, The Golden Age, 2014, but the excerpt was so boring that I couldn’t reconcile it with the idea of this author, whose name is Joan London, winning a prize named after Patrick White, who believed, 1) that the independence of a serious human person would be understood as a kind of offensive violence, and 2) that this offensiveness should exist in fictional expression as well as in fictional character: putting White on a wavelength with Rabelais.

If I want to believe that the London who should win the Patrick White Award exists then I have to trust the reviewers and critics who say that she is exceptional and unfairly neglected, that she deserves all of the awards that she has won (this is Kerryn Goldworthy in the Australian Book Review) and that she should win more of them (this is Elizabeth Webby in The Conversation).

I need to believe two things, 1) that in its place, in the book, the excerpt is evidence that London is a singular writer, and 2) in isolation it misrepresents her. I have read her and not read her, and she vanishes in the excerpt; the excerpt has concealed the writer instead of revealing her, and she is eerily going and present and incomplete without the absence being structured, polite, poetic, or tempting. There are lines in Pound’s Cantos about the action of recession.

Sail passed here in April; may return in October
Boat fades in silver; slowly;
Sun blaze alone on the river

Where wine flag catches the sunset
Sparse chimneys smoke in the cross light (Canto XLIX)

He describes things disappearing but he has made something that is there and so you must describe disappearance in order to have the present thing that is not absence but something like a calm memorial in its favour, not it, itself, as war memorials are not like death. You can dwell on a war memorial but not on death as it is happening, you can’t stand there dwelling as the muddy soldier is straining to tolerate a bullet, but you can look at a stone. The fading boat was invented so that it could stand like a still part in Pound's machinery while the sad vivacity of things in transition appealed to him … (at that moment in my draft I wrote, “but the form of disappearingness itself was not tempting, the poem does not vanish”, then I rethought it and I am wrong because the strange words “wine flag” have established an unbridged gap between the English language that they were written in and the Chinese scenery that he hints at in another way three lines afterwards: “a world is covered with jade.” London is withdrawn from me when I read the excerpt, yet at no moment is she curtailed completely below the shape of a suggestion, which is also the shape of things within the Cantos, these existences that the poet gives to you before questioning them, first “Comes the snow scur on the river,” but three lines later, “The flowing water clots as with cold.” My italics).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

in the vaults they were secure so long as the report prevailed of their being haunted

Now I want to touch on the sensation of melting-away that comes to me when I think of Droste-Hülshoff 's book with its production of murders and then the promise of murderers, and then the absence of the murderers who should be there. The murderers are not revealed until the local Jews cut a curse into a beech tree, whereat two people confess, in different ways and at different times, to the same murder. The two confessors are both equally sincere. I mean that the author treats them equally sincerely. But they cancel one another out. What does she want me to think? She does not sound like a mind that is planning a trick; she is not ambiguous; she is not Coleridge.

Giving does not seem to be her intention but withholding is not her intention either.

After a suspicious axe has been discovered she gives us a hint that her interest lies in the equilibrium of information: "It would be wrong to disappoint the curiosity of the reader in a fictitious story, but this is how it actually came to be; I can't add or subtract anything from it" (tr. Jolyon Timothy Hughes).

Heidegger, discussing some lines in Hölderlin's poem The Ister, decides that the river, a noun characterised by flowing, is the location of its own absence from its location. As he pursues that thought he is led to the character of Antigone, whose obduracy he describes with a word that the translators McNeill and Davis give as "unhomely," meaning more or less that she is un-hearthed, or intrinsically unhomed or uncanny. (Hölderlin's Hymn, 'The Ister' (1984), tr. William McNeill and Julia Davis.) All human beings are unhomely, says Heidegger; they are not at home in the world. "As a human being, she not only belongs to the most uncanny that looms and stirs among beings; rather, within the most uncanny, Antigone is the supreme uncanny." By going further into extremity she inhabits the human state more fully than any other character. So she advances to her death. On the other hand Mudpuddle down there in the comments is bringing up The Mysteries of Udolpho, a book in which the magical ghosts turn out to be bankers.

"But why," said Emily, "were not these pirates contented with the cave -- why did they think it necessary to deposit their spoil in the castle?"

"The cave, madam," replied Ludovico, "was open to any body, and their treasures would not long have remained undiscovered there, but in the vaults they were secure so long as the report prevailed of their being haunted."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

the most dissimilar to all

The effect on my feelings [...] I cannot better represent, than by supposing myself to have known only our light airy modern chapels of ease, and then for the first time to have been placed, and left alone, in one of our largest Gothic cathedrals in a gusty moonlight night of autumn. 'Now in glimmer, and now in gloom;' often in palpable darkness not without a chilly sensation of terror; then suddenly emerging into broad yet visionary lights with coloured shadows of fantastic shapes, yet all decked with holy insignia and mystic symbols; and ever and anon coming out full upon pictures and stone-work images of great men, with whose names I was familiar, but which looked upon me with countenances and an expression, the most dissimilar to all I had been in the habit of connecting with those names.

This imaginary friend is reporting his amazement. Knowing that the Ancient Mariner was amazed, shattered, shocked, adjusted, I'm wondering if this was the poet's vision of an ideal exchange, one party returning from a mind-blower and the other party listening humbly until they are transformed. The action of the Ancient Mariner is transmission. The fake friend tells Coleridge not to rest, the Mariner needs to "pass, like night, from land to land," and the Guest is not completed. "He went like one that hath been stunned." Friend Wordsworth venturing back from childhood. Richardson's Miriam, who has to leave home so that she can earn a living, notices, whenever she takes a holiday back to her old milieu, that she has been modified psychologically because she has adventured out. She knows that she has deepened. But she can't convey it to the others. Their experiences are different now, and her ability to communicate has developed a gap. She wishes people would read the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. "These wonders are brought to our own door." (Emerson, Nature (1836)) John Clare, going out to glean the wood for his brain's nourishment, decides to retrieve the noise of a nightingale. That written transcription is not a poem to him. He never wants to publish it. The words he picks are the same ones that people before him have used when they wanted to show a reader the same bird, "tweet tweet" and "jug jug jug:" established words. What did he go to find? The German poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff transmits her uncle's story and it is not her uncle's story. Born in 1797, four years after Clare, she died sixteen years before him. I don't wonder who killed those men in her Judenbuche (1842). I want to know where Johannes the doppelgänger went.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

choose but hear

Hugh Kenner, mentioning the "peaked cap" that James Joyce gave to the character Frank, drew the reader's attention to a photograph of Joyce with his hands in his pockets on the streets of Dublin, and there, said Kenner, there on his head, was the peaked cap. I realised that I had never thought of real peaked caps as I was reading that story and if I wanted to be honest then the hat in the picture was not a hat that I would have described with the phrase "peaked cap," or not "peaked" because "cap" would have occurred to me; but not "peaked." On other pages in The Pound Era (1971) I was willing to believe that Kenner and myself were in correspondence but with this material evidence reproduced in front of me I could not go along with him and so I watched as the triumph of his discovery appeared to contract in upon him and draw him away from me into a state of distinct separation, like Mars, or like those Greek gods who come down to give you your impulses and problems before restoring themselves to the clouds or to Olympus. What is it about Coleridge that amazes me when I witness the machinery that is his fake friend who wrote the letter in the Literaria, and who was not his friend, and the letter was not a letter but a piece of writing in the same way that other chapters were pieces of writing (ie, written by Coleridge himself), and in fact this letter was replacing the actually nonexistent piece of writing that Coleridge told you he was suppressing in obedience to the opinions of the friend who wrote the letter? He asks you to imagine himself, the essayist, sacrificing his philosophical intelligence for the good of the public, when really he was happy and relieved -- for it was easy to promise a chapter about the theory of "esemplastic power" and then replace it with a letter, he said to his publisher in another letter; it "was written without taking my pen off the paper except to dip it in the inkstand," that panegyric dodge was the simplest and fastest thing to write in the whole book, the most natural thing, just as it was easier for the Ancient Mariner to chuck his stories off on strangers by pulling them up with eye-glittering stratagems than it was for him to establish a mutual conversation in an ordinary tone with sensitive and well-chosen questions about the other person's friends and family. He could have begun by telling the Guest that it was very interesting to hear that someone was getting married and he hoped the bride was nice and by the way here is a story about a bird he shot once; he hopes you don't like birds. (Trigger warning.)

What wish fulfilment is this for the author of the Ancient Mariner, "He cannot choose but hear," followed by a monologue that leaves the one on the receiving end a "sadder and a wiser man" without any of the reciprocation that might have given the poor Guest the satisfying sense that he, too, was an interesting human being in some way, and not just a sounding board, echo-cave, or inadvertent visitor to one of the haunted houses that the shopping centres around here were erecting in their carparks a week and a half ago? What's this gunslinger fantasy of the human amazement who bursts into the frame, shocks the world, then zooms off? The Guest has to make a little struggle before he can be subdued; so too the poet assumes a resistance on the part of the audience as he constructs his easy letter; he invents the "reader who, like myself [ie, the imaginary friend], is neither prepared nor perhaps calculated for the study of so abstruse a subject so abstrusely treated" and "will, as I have before hinted, be almost entitled to accuse you of a sort of imposition on him," "persons [...] who feel no interest in the subjects," and "many to whose unprepared minds your speculations on the esemplastic power would be utterly unintelligible," generally conjuring up the presence of an audience that needs Coleridge to repress his philosophical essay -- which nonetheless is a stunner, says the friend, who has read it, making him the only being in the entire history of the world who has done so, not excluding Coleridge himself.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

from the loom of his own magical brain

Maundering about the vocabulary of individualisms I went to pull some sentences out of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817). “Essence, in its primary signification, means the principle of individuation, the inmost principle of the possibility of any thing, as that particular thing. It is equivalent to the idea of a thing, whenever we use the word idea, with philosophical precision. Existence, on the other hand, is distinguished from essence by the superabundance of reality.” My attention dragged aside by what Oxford University Press in its one of the abstracts for its Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge refers to as the “components of his eclectically derivative corpus and compulsively devious practice,” and like hundreds of other readers I looked at the many ways this man could find to be himself without admitting it, or only admitting it with a hiding-flirting methodology; how the fake friend (who was himself) wrote him a letter so pangyrical that it seemed calculated to make you suspicious though not conclusively accusing; how he prefaced his plagiarism of Schelling by admitting that the words he was about to write were ahemmingly similar to passages from the untranslated System de transscendentalen Idealismus (1800), “many of the most striking resemblances, indeed all the main and fundamental ideas, were born and matured in my mind before I had ever seen a single page of the German Philosopher,” a fig leaf that no one pulled off until he was dead, which is not the same as saying that nobody had noticed.

After this, what was my astonishment to find that the entire essay, from the first word to the last, is a verbatim translation from Schelling, with no attempt in a single instance to appropriate the paper by developing the arguments or by diversifying the illustrations? Some other obligations to Schelling, of a slighter kind, I have met with in the Biographia Literaria; but this was a barefaced plagiarism, which could in prudence have been risked only by relying too much upon the slight knowledge of German literature in this country, and especially of that section of the German literature.

Thomas de Quincey, Literary and Lake Reminiscences (1834-40)

De Quincey forewords with a bit of magic, “Eight hundred or a thousand years hence, some reviewer may arise who having read the Biographia Literaria of Coleridge, will afterwards read the Philosophical ______ of Schelling, the great Bavarian professor -- a man in some respects worthy to be Coleridge's assessor; and he will then make a singular discovery.” The reviewer in “eight hundred” is identical with de Quincey himself. But how is his information going to be smothered again so that it can arrive freshly, as if for the first revelation, in a thousand years? The request for fantasy complicity against a fantasy contaminant is eccentric; Coleridge was eccentric when he plagiarised Schelling*, C. was stealing, de Q. was dobbing on a dead man, both of them hoping to put a hiding smudge over the mark of wrongness, the evidence, the words, the print, the literature, those things that are the reality but not the essence – no -- they can both say – it’s fine, my essence is right -- distinct – (too many men have written books, said Dorothy Richardson, as if they were controlling an impressive science problem).

*”Had, then, Coleridge any need to borrow from Schelling? Did he borrow in forma pauperis? Not at all: there lay the wonder. He spun daily, and at all hours, for mere amusement of his own activities, and from the loom of his own magical brain, theories more gorgeous by far, and supported by a pomp and luxury of images such as neither Schelling -- no, nor any German that ever breathed, not John Paul -- could have emulated in his dreams. With the riches of El Dorado lying about him, he would condescend to filch a handful of gold from any man whose purse he fancied, and in fact reproduced in a new form, applying itself to intellectual wealth, that maniacal propensity which is sometimes well known to attack enormous proprietors and millionaires for acts of petty larceny.” (ibid)