Monday, May 6, 2019

faraway eyes, then three-quarters

Walking down the street to the cinema with them she is still the mistress of the unknowing: “in spite of the weight of her [pregnant] belly Elisa had no difficulty in placing her feet steadily on the stones of the road.” In the house, just after she had taken the money in her hand, she found herself looking at “the things that made up her familiar world” with unusual attention, then the physical approach to her husband and sister is described as a movement of eyes: “slowly turning, at first only halfway, looking straight in front with faraway eyes, then three-quarters, then at last full face. She looked at them both.” So it’s not only her words that’re finding their way to something, it’s also her eyes: now in the street “she let her eyes range brightly over the houses as they passed them, looking first right then left, keenly registering everything that came into her vision. She noticed every dirty little icicle that shone in the rivulets against the pavement; she marked the exact point at which the halo round the streetlamps disappeared into the sky.” Nowhere else in the book does she notice like this. “Passing in front of a lit window she saw a woman leaning over a half-cleared table; she had time to observe her face, her hair, her mouth, her gestures, her life. In that one look, which had lasted merely the few seconds that it takes three walking figures to cross a rectangle of light, Elisa came to know that woman.” When she realises that her husband and her sister beside her “had no real knowledge of such things at all” she is proud she can see them.

I was going to go on like that but then I opened The Journals of Mary Butts, 2002, ed. Nathalie Blondel, and read this sentence in the entry for the twelfth of April, 1920: “Again the difficulty of writing down the most vivid experiences. They fade, & remain just below the surface. This pregnancy appears to be good for clairvoyance.” Mary Butts, I thought, would add something to my thoughts about Elisa’s acute seeing, so I stopped writing the post and read Butts’ autobiography, The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns, 1937 (I had the 1988 edition), and The Journals. No, though, aside from the mutual acknowledgement of the possibility of seeing with intensity there wasn’t anything to say about Butts and Madeleine Bourdouxhe except a series of negative differences. Butts presents her seeing as part of a lifelong cultivation of the numinous stemming from an original sensitivity to landscape, a willed and steady process that is always there, while Bourdouxhe pictures it hitting her character like a moment of shock. Here is Elisa, elevated, pleased, finding herself with new powers, while the reader waits for her to catch up, discovering themselves on a bridge. There they stand, hands full of the knowledge the author has given them, witnessing the character who comes closer. Elisa feels as if a peak has been achieved. (I‘ve just read Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. and a Hilda Hilst personage would not have made that much fuss about eating a cockroach.) No, no, thinks Bourdouxhe’s reader to Elisa, we are not there yet. Our realisations will crash together again in a moment. Then you will suffer.

Meanwhile, Butts is adding new information to her life of research.

Remember: Cocteau in bed; white light in a white room through blue shutters. Jean Desbordes & he in pyjamas blue like the dress of the Virgin. (February 1928)

Remember: The sea tonight when the sun was like a rose – it hardly ever is, but tonight like a huge Cornflower sinking in a mist. The rose path & blue-jade water shadows. The rocket-smoke erect in air, a cone upside down violet hedges below at Chapel Idny. (26 June 1932.)

Remember: As I came into this room about 10:30 – through the windows the sea & sky in the last light – inside jade & pearl. (8 June 1934)

Soon Elisa will have to do something, but you don’t know what: maybe she will be frightened and stunned, maybe she will make an accusation, maybe she will run away from home or commit suicide, though probably not yet because the book has barely started and what are we going to do without her? After she has reached us she will never see a dirty little icicle like that again. They will all vanish from the landscape. We don’t know it yet, but this is the kind of robbery that is approaching us. Butts, however, will not change her determination to see things and soon she will write “Remember” again with underlining; soon we will have from her the sea or a cliff or a tree or the light on a hedge.

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