Tuesday, April 26, 2016

suppose you never were there

The discussion around the excerpt that Scott G.F. Bailey posted on his blog from the rough manuscript known as The Bottom of the Earth included the suggestion that northern hemisphere people used to think of the southern hemisphere as “the bottom of the earth,” or another phrase that was something like that, and so (looking for more knowledge in that area) I read Weitemeyer’s book out of curiosity to see if he used those words or any other while he was planning (euphemism) his move to Australia, but Weitemeyer did not use any phrase at all: he used a series of scenes that suggested a difficulty in obtaining accurate information; difficulty was his description of distance. “Travellers who come from this distant continent, bring us very conflicting statements,” he remembers his school textbook telling him before it segued into a paragraph about kangaroos, wool, and the “vast lake of salt water” that it saw in the centre of the island – imagination – didn’t exist. “It was really an ignorant and disgraceful morsel of information for one of the best schools in Copenhagen to offer to its pupils,” he writes, “but it was all the knowledge I had or could get.” He spoke to a man in Hamburg who was being paid to encourage European citizens to migrate to Queensland.

"Do you yourself know anything much about Queensland?" I ventured to ask; "I suppose you never were there?" "I, no, I never was there-- [says the man] I wish I had been, I should not have to stand here to-day. But we have every information. They have found gold-diggings again. Here are the statistics of exports; I will read them for you:--

Weitemeyer buys his ticket, trusts that he knows nothing; imagines that bushranging will be his recourse if all else fails. “To be the captain of a gang of warriors, half robbers, half gold-miners, roaming over the continent of Australia, seemed a delightful prospect.” On the ship he “stood aloof looking round me in silent wonder as to what the end would be.” Distance is underinformednation and so is wonder. Proust, corresponding about stock investments with his cousin Lionel Hauser, once mentioned that he was interested in Australian gold mines. “With Marcel his investments reflected not incompetence but aspects of his character,” writes Jean-Yves Tadié. “When he dreamed about these names, stock exchange quotations came to resemble railway timetables.” Marcel Proust: a Life, 1996, tr. Euan Cameron. The dying man who whispers the murderer’s identity to his son in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Doyle, 1892, would not have been able to name his killer if Sherlock Holmes had not been capable of covering the mental distance between the “allusion to a rat” that the son heard and the presence of a large goldfield town west of Melbourne. “He mumbled a few words,” says the son, “but I could only catch some allusion to a rat.” The Coroner asks him how he interpreted the rat. “It conveyed no meaning to me,” says the son. “I thought that he was delirious.” Not until Holmes has wired to Bristol for a map of Victoria with place names marked on it is he in a position to show Watson that “a rat” is not a rat but the end of a word, “-arat.” The abstract proceeds to materialism. “We have come now out of mere vagueness to the definite conception of an Australian from Ballarat with a grey cloak,” Holmes says. The son who, on the day of his father’s death, heard his father calling, “Cooee,” thought that he was being summoned, but the father was shouting to someone else and he did not expect to see the son crossing a distance towards him. “He appeared to be much surprised at seeing me and asked me rather roughly what I was doing there.” Here, at first, is the sound -- in the son’s imagination -- of the father absolutely desiring the presence of his son, and now secondly the father is nonplussed, he appears to have cried out ambiguously and confusingly, both desiring and not-desiring his son – but then thirdly and finally, thanks to Holmes, we all know that he did not think he was calling his son at all, in spite of the fact that “Cooee” was understood by the young man to be “a usual signal between my father and myself.”

Now this specific cry of “Cooee” identifies the father as a man who could utter that word without regarding it, as the son does, as a privately-owned set of consonants and vowels. Why is the father in this position of wisdom? Because he has emigrated from Australia. He is trying to communicate with a different man, one who has lived in Ballarat, a diabetic who is about to hit him on the head with a rock: someone who is still remembered on the Victorian goldfields by the name he called himself while he was living out Weitemeyer’s dream of bushranging. “'Cooee' is a distinctly Australian cry, and one which is used between Australians,” Holmes explains to Watson. The word that the son thinks of as his own is shared by thousands of people he has never met, inhabiting a continent that he has never visited, all so far away that the news of ownership has never reached him. When Captain James Cook wrote about his Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World, 1777, he gave you some idea of the distance between the hemispheres partly by describing the volume of supplies he would have to order before he left, and if I am wrong about this (I haven’t read the book in a while) then I am focussed on it because the phrase, “inspissated juice of wort” has stuck with me. What’s this word, “inspissated”? I wondered, when I read it. In my recollection I crossed the distance between myself and “inspissated” immediately by looking it up. Cook meant that the juice of wort was thickened by a process of dehydration. If I had not been impatient I would have discovered after a few more lines or paragraphs (I forget which) that he wanted to explain inspissation to me himself. Today I know the definition but I am still not comforted and calmed and undisturbed by the words “inspissated juice of wort” and I expect to go on being uneasy until I have found some and drunk it. Fanny Burney’s brother sailed with Cook, by the way: he must have known what it tasted like. A small bat-shaped island near the Australian coast has been named after him. See Henry Stuart Russell’s The Genesis of Queensland, 1888.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

wild and ashamed of myself, I could not help feeling amused

Thorvald Weitemeyer, 1850 – 1919, says that his autobiographical book Missing Friends: Being the Adventures of a Danish Emigrant in Queensland (1871-1880), 1892, has to end where it does because “I could not continue the history of my life and still preserve my incognito unless I wrote fiction.” It’s not as if he became famous or notorious or adopted a public position of authority and power that might have been affected by this record of his first, itinerant, ten years in Australia -- I searched for him on a genealogy website, no fame – but there was evidently a wariness or politeness or modesty in him that he trusted was general to human nature: the book was published anonymously and he removed the names of other people too, he says, in his introduction – also, “I have erased such private matters as, of course, would be out of place in a publication … Should any one who may read this book think they recognize themselves in any part of my descriptions, I must beg them to accept my apology. They will most likely then also recognize the substantial truth of my description and my endeavour not to be too personal.” At the end of the second-last chapter he rides into an anonymous town and this is where the danger of being recognised must have begun for him in hindsight because there is no story afterwards.

Then I go to the genealogy website:

The family settled in Bundaberg (1880-85); then Brisbane (1885-87), eventually becoming the first settlers of the Montville area in 1887. Their youngest child, Henry, was the first white person born on the Blackall Range in 1888. After Jane died, in 1900 Thorvald married Mary Wynne, a widower from Brisbane. The marriage did not last very long and Thorvald travelled to New Zealand for a number of years. It is unknown how long he was away from Australia, but he was in the Maleny district in 1913-14 and then went to Herbaton on the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland. Thorvald opened a joinery shop and stayed there until he suffered ill health. In late 1918 his son, Christian, took him to his residence in Bundaberg and he died about 6 months later. He was buried in the Bundaberg Cemetery, June 1919. He was, indeed, a colourful and sometimes "eccentric" character who, in his own way, helped shape Queensland's history.

The website doesn’t tell me why he should be called “eccentric”, which I find tantalising, because his description of himself in Missing Friends is not the description of an eccentric man, and in fact he ends by notifying us that his restless movement, which might seem eccentric in some places, was normal in Queensland, not only during the time that is covered by the book but also in the early 1890s when he was preparing to publish the manuscript: “Australia is full of young men who, like myself at that time, travel about from place to place.” He hears of something interesting, he sells his belongings, he abandons his job, he gets on a horse, he goes: it is quite natural. Groups of other men around him are behaving in the same way. He comes back months later to discover that the people who stayed behind have prospered; he is regretful, but he does it again. There is supposed to be gold in the Palmer or somewhere and everyone goes to the Palmer. He describes them tearing through the streets in the direction of wherever the Palmer is. Other people are watching. “The baker and his wife, and a young girl also, were peeping out through the half-opened door, and seemed to enjoy the spectacle of the crowd racing down the street. I said to myself, 'Bother running like a fool here, I am going for a bottle of beer.'” There are two Thorvalds in the book, one of them running, the other believing that running is ridiculous: he is a ludicrous spectacle to himself. No doubt it is only the fact that they are both Scandinavian that makes me want to compare this to Knut Hamsun's way of looking at whatever you are doing, and simultaneously condemning it for a disgusting, stupid thing and believing that you must continue to do it. It is like the production of the book itself: he must expose himself immodestly with an autobiography but at the same time he may not make his life easier by writing "fiction:" this is a set of rules that he sees hovering heavily before him.

But "I have erased such private matters as, of course, would be out of place in a publication" is a reminder that the firmness of the rules that you have set for yourself is an illusion that you can bend and make as you like; and so Weitemeyer's book can be true and confessional and still erase his wife (m. 1878) just as John Cowper Powys' self-abnegating Autobiography, 1934, deletes his mother: there is something there that cannot be touched, something other than embarrassment.

In Weitemeyer, as in Hamsun, you have an ‘I’ who is determined to show you the times he behaved rudely, disgraced himself, confused everyone -- ruined a play that he was supposed to be acting in, drilled holes in the floor of a house he was supposed to be guarding, locked a woman in a room for her own safety and then threw the key outside thinking somehow that this would make her safer, fired a gun at the wrong time, and got laughed at.

The Yankee sat and smoked his pipe, and laughed in a peculiar way; and, wild and ashamed of myself, I could not help feeling amused at him, because he laughed, although the grimaces in his face were exactly those another man would make if he were going to cry. By and by the captain began to feel calmer, and as I was disposed only to feel angry with myself for the fear which had caused me to press on the trigger of the rifle until it went off, we were soon friends again.

None of the running men have been to the Palmer before -- “no one seemed to know properly where the Palmer was, and as conflicting and disparaging statements soon arrived from the Palmer, and the wet season was coming on, the north was everywhere swarming with men who were ready to camp and prospect anywhere” – but masses of them persist. People run and ride, they will get lost, and there will be a flood, a death, and Thorkill from Iceland will never see Reykjavik again though he’ll witness a Russian emigrant ship flying through the air above the tent, a sight that Weitemeyer cannot see. “I somehow thought he was looking at a bird, and wondered he had not got the gun, so I sat still and said nothing, but kept watching him.” Then “My mate was dying, and I knew it now.” The author himself has hallucinations as he rides through bushland at the end of the second-last chapter before he reaches the town that may (guessing from information on the genealogy page) have been St George in the Shire of Balonne, where, today, council meetings are held on the third Thursday of every month. From Monday 9th May until Friday 13th May 2016 there will be a Wild Dog Trapping Campaign. Spirits were high as community members gathered for the Declaration of Office by new Councillors for the Balonne Shire on Friday, April 8th, 2016 at the St George Cultural Centre. Following each Councillor making their declaration, newly appointed Mayor Richard Marsh highlighted the diversity of the group of elected members and focused on working cohesively as a team to progress the shire in his first public address. Councillor Fiona Gaske was elected to Deputy Mayor at the Inaugural Post Election meeting, held on the same day. Scads of ladies and gentlemen are “lolling out their tongues” at Weitemeyer as he travels through the lonely trees on his horse, whereat he sees a pan of eggs and potatoes on a log, moments later he notices that it is a woman, then it is a devil, but he recovers. “About noon I had a bath in a water-hole I came to, and ate some snails I found in the water. After that I felt somewhat better, and shortly after I came on to the road. I became quite collected in my mind at once, and jumping on to the horse tore away at full gallop for the town.”

I reflect that there was much suddenness in Queensland at the time, and I see now that the first art movement in colonial Australia had to be Impressionistic and not Futuristic because the exercise of speed was already there, the artists had no need to create it, “And on we raced,” Manifesto of Futurism, 1909, Filippo Marinetti, tr. R.W. Flint (?). There was a drunk tourist at a casino in Las Vegas one night, who, deciding that he did not want to walk down three floors to reach his car, climbed over a railing shouting, “Man up!”, crossed those three storeys in one plummet, and broke his arm. His friend began laughing, it was that sudden. “What a lark! What a plunge!” Mrs Dalloway, 1925, Virginia Woolf. “To the reader who has kindly followed me so far, I would say that he may believe that Australia is full of young men who, like myself at that time, travel about from place to place, and that similar scenes to those I have described happen every day in all parts of Queensland.”

Sunday, April 10, 2016

to shop with her

“To explain is never more than to describe a way of making: it is merely to remake in thought. The why and the how, which are only ways of expressing the implications of this idea, inject themselves into every statement, demanding satisfaction at all costs.” Paul Valéry, Sea Shells, 1936, tr. Ralph Manheim. I’ve been thinking of Camilla’s Mrs Mittin, the character in Burney who (aside from Briggs) most successfully evades the “why” that the author gives her, which is this, “simple egotism.”

She would work, read, go on errands, or cook a dinner; be a parasite, a spy, an attendant, a drudge; keep a secret, or spread a report; incite a quarrel, or coax contending parties into peace; invent any expedient, and execute any scheme ... all with the pretext to oblige others, but all, in fact, for simple egotism; as prevalent in her mind as in that of the more highly ambitious, though meaner and less dangerous. [vol V., bk II, ch XII, ellipsis in text]

She advertises her willingness to oblige you, but (we discover) she can only oblige you in the way she has decided you want to be obliged – by telling you to go to shows she likes and finding bargain hats for you – by shopping and gossiping -- Burney using the word “gossiping” in association with her fairly often, and never “shopping,” though it had been in the English lexicon since she was a child, both born at roughly the same time according to the OED, which says somewhere between 1755 – 1765 for “shopping” while Burney appeared in 1752 -- and the description of shopping (not called by that name though “shop” as a verb is used, “to shop with her,” vol. V, ch. VI), is that it is an activity of shame, in which Mittin pulls Camilla down the street by the arm and the heroine is humiliated as she imagines people sneering at the spectacle of two women going from place to place and looking without buying. If you do not want to pay for the cheap cape that Mittin has brought back to your room then she will become “evasive” when you ask her to return it to the shopkeeper. Does she secretly hate you? You will never know. The author herself does not know. Vulgarity per se is enough of an essential negative in Burney’s eyes. You do not have to be kind or cruel on top of it, although her vulgar characters are also kind and cruel. ("Mrs Mittin [...] a character so forward, vulgar, and encroaching." Bk VIII, ch I.)

“To please was her incessant desire, and her rage for popularity included every rank and class of society. The more eminent, of course, were her first objects, but the same aim descended to the lowest.” Mittin is flexible but stiff: she will contort anywhere but only inside the boundaries that she recognises. The motivating factor that Burney identifies as “egotism” is invisible or harmless to the other characters* until they bump against it, when, as with Camilla, Mittin becomes a haunting presence who sabotages the heroines’s desire to guard her tiny money by insisting that Camilla congratulate her effort and buy the hat or cape. Or not insisting maybe, but refusing to recognise her No. To “remake” Mittin, ‘in thought,” you would need to inhabit, not an external history (as with Mrs Ireton in The Wanderer, whose backstory is a lesson against indulgence), but the unexplained internal core of Mittin-egotism itself, keeping in mind that the core flexibly remakes everything that comes to it, attempting to draw it in and reform it, until Camilla, in a false sense, is a young woman who would like that cape. News outlets reform the world like that for their audience: the protester gassed at the rally was violent.

Camilla falls into debt, runs away, and suffers death visions whose Gothic intensity owes something to the popularity of Ann Radcliff. But Mittin is blithe: the brother who keeps borrowing money from his sister is also blithe: they are both smiling. The brother breaks down eventually. He is tortured, tortured. Mittin is impenetrable. “She's the good-naturedest creature I ever knew,” says Miss Dennell to her father in bk. VI, ch. VI. In bk. X, ch XIV, “The notable Mrs. Mittin contrived soon to so usefully ingratiate herself in the favour of Mr. Dennel, that, in the full persuasion she would save him half his annual expences, he married her.”

*or actively useful. “Mrs. Berlinton, tired of remonstrances she could not controvert, and would not observe, was extremely relieved by finding a person [Mrs Mittin] who would sit with her aunt, comply with her humours, hear her lamentations, subscribe to her opinions, and beguile her of her rigid fretfulness by the amusement of gossiping anecdotes.”

Mudpuddle's comment below is prompting me to add this .pdf link to a good Mittin-essay by Li-ching Chen. "But I Do My Own Way": Mrs. Mittin's Autonomy and Quest for Respectability in Frances Burney’s Camilla.