Friday, October 7, 2016

crossed the bar, hove to

On page ninety-two of Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr last week (it was the 1990 Black Sparrow Press edition, subtitled The 1918 Version because the book was published three times during Lewis’ life with changed edits) I had the feeling that I was reading a sentence that had been written to be quoted. Once I went back to it I didn’t know why I would have mechanically (unconsciously, as if in a reader’s adaptation of Surrealism’s automatic writing) picked it out: “People feel with the ‘lonely’ man that he is going about with some eccentric companion, that is himself.” The afterword by the editor Paul O’Keeffe argues against the idea that the character Tarr is the Dostoevsky-Double figure Lewis planned for Kreisler (he wrote Soltyk in that role, O’Keeffe says. “[I]t is surely no coincidence that Soltyk’s original name was ‘Partikoff’”), but when David Trotter reviewed O’Keeffe’s biography Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis in 2001 he recalled that Lewis had referred to someone’s veil as “apoplectic gristle” in paragraph two of the short story Bestre, from Wild Bodies, 1927. When you read that, you know that no matter how many intelligent essays Trotter ever comes across, Lewis will always be his gristle author. Likewise I noticed last night in Saint-John Perse, how this poet of huge landscapes, deserts, wind, and seas, is never able to keep focus without drawing down now and then to a small object: “And the ships taller than Ilion under the white peacock of the sky, having crossed the bar, hove to | in this deadwater where floats a dead ass.” From section IV of Anabasis, 1924, tr. T.S. Eliot, 1938. Also, bees, birds’ eggs.

Lewis doesn’t have a Dostoevskian personality, as an author. His version of the desperate underground man doesn’t strut helplessly. And the writer seems to believe that strutting is justified (at some level other than the Dostoevskian 'soul'), rather than wretched, that Kreisler’s defiance is seriously recognised, not ludicrous.

The most memorable thing about Lewis in Tarr is not that he is reflecting Dostoevsky but that he is brusque. He can write. As always there is Dorothy Richardson talking about sentences that are written to show you that an author is clever, to advertise – sentences that take the place of persuasive branding for the writer. I wondered about an ethics of sentences, and whether there should be a penalty for quotable lines. Would writers take the penalty voluntarily; would that in itself become advertising? The Bulldogs skipper Robert Murphy is trying to get a kind of poetry around himself I think, in the article I read after the Dogs won on Saturday, when he ends an extended use of the word “loch” with the line, “[M]y lot this year means I won't get to lead my boys out in front of the Bulldog clan. That's my little loch that I shall keep locked.” He can expect his readers to know that he is talking about the acl injury that wrecked the upward trajectory of his life in April (removing him from the field) but “my little loch” is rhythm, singing, and not dictionary-meaning, since you can’t lock a lake, but it indicates a space where meaning somehow by suggestion, distinct from words, is.

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