Saturday, April 14, 2018

the multiplication of his failure all over the world

About two months ago (I haven’t checked) I told Twitter I would say something about Eleanor Dark's The Little Company. Everyone already knows that Dark wrote The Timeless Land, 1941. Little Company is different, not set historically but at the beginning of the 1940s, only a few years before it came out in 1945. It was set when Land was published. None of the Company characters bought the other book, however. They didn't hear about it.

Setting? Sydney, Outside Sydney, and the Blue Mountains: bushland, house, and waterfall.

People? Debating their positions on current events. What does it mean, World War II? What about Marxism? How should Australian society evolve? They fight overseas and water the lettuces. "A democracy without faith [in itself] is just a machine without power," thinks the novelist Gilbert Massey. The mental disturbance that stands in the way of his next book is a symptom of radiant global trauma.

He would not allow himself the easy mistake of seeing it of seeing it merely as a personal problem; of setting it aside; of saying, "How small a thing, how trivial in the face of a crumbling civilization!" He knew very well that the immobilisation of the creative mind was one symptom of that crumbling, and that the multiplication of his failure all over the world was no small and unimportant matter.

Dark was in one of those Leftist intellectual groups that gave a grounding to the Sydney Push; in Gilbert Massey you have a feeling for how they might have seen themselves or fantasised themselves: reasonable, serious, flawed, flawed but trying not to be in denial about their flaws, thinking about them instead. He is her Charles Grandison, her good man. (Saying this, you realise that Samuel Richardson was an alien.) Gilbert is self-reflective; he builds a fire so that he can think about his past for five pages (p. 15 – 20). His habits are useful to the author, that mercenary parasite. Gilbert's wife, Phyllis, whom no one can stand, never does anything like that; she is not one of the pre-Push people. She is resentful, petty, selfish, emotionally obtuse, frustrated, miserable, inattentive, intellectually stupid, vacantly respectable, provocatively dependent, passive-aggressively submissive, horrible, and an orphan. For her, Dark has put together a set of qualities that no author's lead characters will ever want to like. Alice Notley would not put her in a poem, even though she is obdurate.* Dorothy Richardson's Miriam would tell herself consciously not to be like Phyllis.

Whenever I think of the book I think of Phyllis. I like Phyllis. She is so anti-.

You would grit your teeth at Phyllis. Phyllis would be in torment because you were gritting your teeth. There would be an unbreakable sense of pain everywhere. Phyllis wants to break and she cannot break. Only other unbearable, insensitive people would like Phyllis. But there are so few of them in the book. Leaping off a suicidal waterfall she lands on a close jut instead of dying. "She had bungled it," thinks Gilbert. "Poor Phyllis." Phyllis is a kind of excess in life: she is not needed, she is a failure, she is the one really insoluble flaw, no Pushes can cure her. "The stem of the vessel cut through the thick mass of waves with a hideous crash, and, at the helm, torrents of water flowed away eddying as from the mouth of a sluice. Amid all this uproar, nothing was so alarming as a certain dull, murmuring sound, like that of a vase filling." (Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, 1849 – 50, tr. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos)

*I'm thinking of Medea in The Songs and Stories of the Ghouls and the desert woman in Culture of One (both 2011).

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