Thursday, July 21, 2016

not to be too serious upon it

Writing suffer because in Moon Lake everything that might be like a digression is preemptively overruled or ruled, that is, dominated, by the plot. It does not allow itself to recognise the plants as an impediment, and it blends them in and ends them and goes on as if everything had a reasonable purpose. If I had to define “middlebrow” in the pejorative sense then that would be one consideration. And some things that get qualified as Middlebrow would be disqualified by that qualifier; they are not middle by my calculations, they are only mild, not blind. When I read Wallace Fowlie’s translations of Rimbaud next to John Ashbery’s then I see that Fowlie has decreased the poet’s hysteria by changing his punctuation. And there is a moment in vol. I, letter 20, of The History of Sir Charles Grandison, Samuel Richardson, 1753, that comes like a flash into the story. Up to this point, the men and women in the book have been speaking to one another regularly in civilised rooms, the epistolary sometimes-narrator, Harriet Byron, being wooed by the men and telling them straightly that their requests are hopeless because she is not in love with them. “I have never yet seen the man who is to be my husband,” she says. They have been using the phrase “your hand” in its symbolic matrimonial sense, when the tense decorum is shocked by one of the suitors taking Byron’s actual hand and pressing his teeth into it. The word “hand” acquires a retrospective build-up of pressure which can only be recognised by that release.

Why, Mr. Greville, I do most sincerely declare to you, as to a neighbour and well-wisher, that I never, yet, have seen the man to whom I can think of giving my hand.

Yes, you have! By heaven you have (snatching my hand): You shall give it to me!—And the strange wretch pressed it so hard to his mouth, that he made prints upon it with his teeth.

Oh! cried I, withdrawing my hand, surprized, and my face, as I could feel, all in a glow.

And oh! said he, mimicking (and snatching my other hand, as I would have run from him) and patting it, speaking thro' his closed teeth, You may be glad you have a hand left. By my soul, I could eat you.


I rushed into the company in the next room. He followed me with an air altogether unconcerned, and begged to look at my hand; whispering to Mrs. Reeves; by Jupiter, said he, I had like to have eaten up your lovely cousin. I was beginning with her hand.

I was more offended with this instance of his assurance and unconcern, than with the freedom itself; because that had the appearance of his usual gaiety with it. I thought it best, however, not to be too serious upon it.

Then there is this strange sentence.

But the next time he gets me by himself, he shall eat up both my hands.

In what sense is she saying that? Is she reporting Greville’s lines again, or is this her? What does she mean by “hand” in that sentence and what does she mean by “eat”? Why does it come after the assurance that she is not going to “get too serious upon” his behaviour? Richardson allows her to say it in any sense you choose to understand: it has come out weirdly and the weirdness is allowed to stand without being softened.


  1. it sounds like Mr. Greville is trying to create his own absolute. things are relative to each other. you can only have a percentage of something unless there is 100% to begin with. like mowing the lawn: you can mow half the lawn, or a quarter, or all of it but you can't trim the hedge and claim that you're mowing the lawn. Biting is maybe a gesture of total ownership and Harriet is wise to avoid being trapped into that totality...

  2. Greville is introducing irrationality and physical assault into a book that has been advertising civility and rational discourse, and these paragraphs hit the story like a sort of psychic rupture. Harriet has been wise all along, or sensible anyway, sane; the trouble is that the suitors are not sane in the same way: they are not rational, they don't see the point in it: they are selfish.

    I think this is a moment when Richardson becomes overtly Dostoevskian: a character makes a stupid movement, the movement does him no actual good, it is nonutilitarian, it even pushes him away from the goal that he tells you he wants to reach, and yet you 'know' (or feel) why it happens. It was unpredictable and yet it made complete contextual sense.

  3. sort of a trend, lately; i'm reading Martin Chuzzlewit and in chapter 30, the abominable Pecksniff tries to bite the pinkie of Mary Graham, old Chuzzlewit's ward/keeper... as a symbol representing possession, it sounds like...

    1. Possession, consumption (because you eat something you possess and you possess something by eating it) -- that sort of idea -- like cannibals owning the traits of their victims by swallowing them.

    2. Beneath the bush a wolf will howl
      Spitting bright feathers
      From his feast of fowl:
      Like him, I devour myself.

      Rimbaud is attempting to possess himself. (tr. Paul Schmidt)

      That's good, that biting of hands, the whole sequence of events and reportage. Harriet's "he shall eat up both my hands" is quite sexual.

    3. The sexualness of that line is one of the things that makes it so strange. Richardson doesn't normally write like that; he doesn't use that kind of double entendre (he gets at sex in a different way), and as far as the story is concerned there's no reason for Harriet to feel deeply, sexually threatened or secretly seduced by Greville at this point. All she has to do is find him creepy and stay away from him. "Eat up both my hands" is overkill. It's brilliant.