Wednesday, July 29, 2015

waddling with distended craw

I want, when I see Blaine Hill say that the last post reminds him of Macbeth, to write a sentence about Dorothy Richardson that ends with the words "like John Clare," but what would the rest of the sentence look like, that's my question to myself; how should I connect that slight faint feeling that they are somehow sympathetic, to the firmness or thoughtfulness of a sentence? The impression is not firm or thoughtful.* I begin to work out the amount of time I will have to spend talking about the ways in which they are not alike before I will feel entitled to say, "in this respect they are similar."

What is the connection, really: it's only the aheroic sublime that she observes in shabby wallpaper, and the sublime ditto that he finds in ruts or wind, and their mutual stubborn decision to record time passing over these things.

The crib stock fothered – horses suppered up
And cows in sheds all littered-down in straw
The threshers gone the owls are left to whoop
The ducks go waddling with distended craw
Through little hole made in the henroost door

(from Clare's Winter Evening)

But the dark yellow graining of the wall-paper was warm. It shone warmly in the the stream of light pouring through the barred lattice window. In the further part of the room, darkened by the steep slope of the roof, it gleamed like stained wood. The window space was a little square wooden room, the long low double lattice breaking the roof, the ceiling and walls warmly reflecting its oblong of bright light.

(Richardson: The Tunnel)

Opening Windows on Modernism: the Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson (ed. Gloria G. Fromm) I read this sentence, "And perhaps the Australian outsider, Christina Stead, also bears comparison to Richardson, if not in her political commitment, then in the disposition of her unconventional life;" and I see that it is only there because Fromm wants to place Richardson in a group, even one that does not, she says, function usefully: "sui generis […] But this is a company of originals." Leah Dickerman, one of the essayists I read a few days ago in Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage, had the reverse of Fromm's dissimilarity problem: she was arguing against other commentators who have tried to downplay Schwitters's influence on Robert Rauschenberg, hoping to manufacture (the other commentators, that is) a state of heroic separation where the American artist can thrive freely.

So you have a fret over the debt that one artist should pay to another or be seen to pay to another, and at the other end of the struggle you have the desire to place people in a contextual group (Fromm), a desire that comes from a simple question: how do you summarise Richardson's effect for people who haven't read her?

But then why are they reading her letters?

* This post of mine is not a reflection on Blaine Hill's comment, only on the thoughts I had afterwards.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

leap and sizzle, making the cauldron bubble like boiling silver

I think over Powys' criticism of Woolf on the grounds of "Life Itself" and wonder if it is a) legitimate because the gap between Life Itself and life-in-fiction is a phenomenon that she often considers on the page and here is someone willing to situate her on one side or the other, but b) illegitimate because I have already seen her decide that she is making art, not life.

It would be intellectually dishonest of her to pretend that a book is "Life Itself;" that's her belief.

But tantalised, she's tantalised. "Let us again pretend that life is a solid substance, shaped like a globe, which we turn about in our fingers," says Bernard at the end of The Waves; "Let us pretend that we can make out a plain and logical story –" she'll concede that perfect possession of life is impossible: "Whatever sentence I extract whole and entire from this cauldron is only a string of six little fish that let themselves be caught while a million others leap and sizzle, making the cauldron bubble like boiling silver, and slip through my fingers." Or: "Out rush a bristle of horned suspicions, horror, horror, horror — but what is the use of painfully elaborating these consecutive sentences when what one needs is nothing consecutive but a bark, a groan?"

The question that she asks of herself is, how should life be misrepresented?

She has already judged Edgeworth, who can't achieve the detachment that she wants from him.* She is uneasy in the face of Margaret Cavendish, "diffused, uneasy, contorted," as well as charmed by her; in the Cavendish essay she comes back and back around the other writer's inability to measure her capacities and be guided by them. "It was from the plain of complete ignorance, the untilled field of her own consciousness, that she proposed to erect a philosophic system that was to oust all others." So there needs to be cool estimation and measurement ...

She invents other modes of symmetry or patterning. She reasserts order. It will be her own order, which she has made, in order to measure and assess and weigh, and also to contain the awareness that measurement is not possible: "How impossible to order them rightly; to detach one separately."

When she is dissatisfied with Richardson's Tunnel she will say that the other author does not measure and asses, "sensations, impressions, ideas and emotions glance off, unrelated and unquestioned;" but Richardson is willing to risk the Cavendish judgement where Woolf is not; she will write from "the untilled field of her own consciousness." She will risk not being witty. A reviewer in Full Stop who has read Viviane Forrester's "strange little book about Virginia Woolf," says that aesthetes prefer wit, therefore literature will be judged for its lightness – Richardson will not do it – and she will drive herself against the sensible realisations of Woolf, about art and life – she will go into the tantalisation – like someone driving their boat down the whirlpool plughole –

* I think he's more aware of romance than she says.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

on where we wanted to go

Why should I compare David Ireland to Virginia Woolf, I ask myself, when there's nothing in common between them, and the difference is so obvious, so absolutely gaping and open, like a chasm or pit; why should they be brought to the same area – because I had his two books in my head and then I read hers; that's why – it was the chronological proximity of my reading. Taking a non-fiction hardback off the shelf at UNLV a few days ago I discovered that the North American author (whoever they were, I'm not sure) had read a number of Australian books and come away feeling puzzled because the authors seemed not to arrange an ambition for themselves and move after it in pursuit; instead they circled around an idea that they did not directly reveal or, perhaps, she suspected, understand. Then the book would end.

The two David Irelands were like that, I thought: this circling around a large unstated balloon (through a mosaic of small scenes) and the ending would be a conclusive destruction.

But he tells you that direction itself is a treacherous idea, and the suspicion he feels towards any purposed motion is one part of his satire; purpose will be thwarted, it's the way of the world. "The Boatman and I were concentrated absolutely on where we wanted to go. We had no mind left over to escape each other. Back and forth we went from side to side, left right left right in perfect time, getting no farther forward; each, for the sake of a tiny inconvenience, wishing the other had never existed." Those are the last lines of The Unknown Industrial Prisoner.

Completeness and intellectual working-through are problems in Woolf's work, according to John Cowper Powys in his 1931 monograph on Dorothy Richardson. It is a strength in Richardson that she doesn't do that, he says. "She takes her place in the great role of thinkers who, like Heraclitus and Goethe and Nietzsche are intent on Life Itself, in its mysterious flowing stream, rather than any human hypothesis of its whence and whither."

Saturday, July 4, 2015

she drew a line there, in the centre

Going back to some of Woolf's earlier essays in the first Common Reader I saw her searching here and there for ways to impregnate the landscape with the weight of her ideas, which was also the weight of time, with biography as a means to parcel out time; see (I say to myself) how many autobiographical books she reads, and how she tends to detach the events from the person's method of telling them, and then how she will re-tell the same events for her own audience, and comment on the veracity or strangeness of the original teller's own telling when she compares it to the broader view that she has created out of her fertilised imagination. "He was impervious to the romance of the situations in which he found himself." (The Lives of the Obscure.)

There she is in the first essay, The Pastons and Chaucer, returning like an elastic to John Paston's grave: "the grave of John Paston in Bromholm Priory without a tombstone," "his father’s tomb was still unmade," "the very church where her husband lay unremembered," this focus that can locate her in any other subject she decides to discuss; and later in her writing she will, again, find a physical object where the weight of some ineffable force will hang: think of the car in Mrs Dalloway with the unknown person inside, and everyone compelled to orbit around it for a moment.

How does a person describe their own life, she wonders: but the point-of-focus idea doesn't seem to have come from any of these diaries or books of letters. It appears to have evolved out of her way of storytelling. This structural device is being used as a way of parcelling out time-in-life as well as time-in-story. (Is that a good thing -- question --)

I go back to David Ireland yet again to compare their methods of approaching the Ineffable: Woolf hanging this focal point out like a hook to find that fish (not expecting to catch it, but planning for the sight of a ripple), and Ireland, who is less scientific, making his people butt their heads blindly and stupidly in the direction of Something: they don't know exactly what. Whatever it is, they can't have it, a fact that makes him savage; this savagery is absent from Woolf's civilised holistic observations. She oversees the broad reach of time but he is inflamed by the obdurate present, that will not let his people proceed to the end-point right now; and so he is more violent than her; and so the Canoe and the Prisoner can end with bursts of destruction that, in her books, are replaced by quiet gestures of reconciliation and wholeness. "With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished." (To the Lighthouse.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

presently there broke out a huge windy conflagration

Putting down the Judge I opened one of Virginia Woolf's posthumous essay collections, Death of the Moth, and asked myself a question: why am I pleased by Woolf when she moves from her description of the landscape into a meditation on living energy, when I'm irritated by West when she goes from "little strawberries" into potatoes and then, in Ellen's mind, to the memory of "a potato-field she and her mother had seen one day when they went to Cramond. Thousands and thousands of white flowers running up to a skyline in ruler-drawn lines"?

The answer I came up with was this, and it's virtually the same as the thoughts I had in the last post, but as I've said before, I repeat myself -- Woolf invites the landscape to attack her privacy and disturb her equilibrium while West's description has the opposite effect: it restores equilibrium, it serves the plot, it reasserts themes and brings them back into line. "The skies intervened to patch it up between them, for presently there broke out a huge windy conflagration of a sunset –"

Also: West's lyricisms are like musical interludes: the atmosphere relaxes. We are not asked to do anything. We can listen to the author lilt. "[T]he dark glassy water, which slid over small frequent weirs, the tents of green fire which the sun made of the overarching branches, the patches of moss that grew so symmetrically between the tree-trunks on the steep river-banks above the path that they might have been the dedicatory tablets of rustic altars …"

But Woolf's countryside involves her in contradictions and us as well … it does not solve anything ... it does not exist so that Mrs Yaverland will look picturesque against a spooky cliff ... "when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely" … ruminating like that as I was reading the other essays in Moth I was in the mood to recognise my own ideas when they were formulated by someone else & so I quivered when I saw the writer critique the authored landscapes of her contemporary George Moore, with these words: "nature [...] lifts him up and enhances his mood without destroying it." This is a negative criticism: the writer should allow their mood to be affected by the sight of trees and birds, even ruined, believes Woolf. I don't think it would be outrageous to assume that the Moth essay was written by the light of that thought. A little later I became alert again when I read this phrase in John Ashbery's translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations: "In the wood there is a bird, his song stops you and makes you blush."

Monday, June 22, 2015

the different delicate textures of the nuts of meat

Wrongness – I thought: wrongness somehow: there are thoughts in this book that are not – they are not ... what are they not? -- I was trying Rebecca West's second novel, The Judge (1922), the story of a young secretary who meets a charismatic man and his mother, of whom: "everything about her threatened that her performances would be too strange."

Philip E. Ray has argued* that readers would be less likely to misdiagnose the Judge if they stopped thinking of it as exaggerated naturalism and began to look at it instead as a piece of self-consciously Gothic literature, with its isolated house, piratical seducer ("terrifying strength and immensity"), and the naive heroine Ellen Melville who is coaxed out of her home and away into danger after her parent dies, like Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Ellen doesn't suffer from Emily's "intensity of anguish," not even after her fiance commits a crime at the end of the book; she "broke into sobs" but that's nothing compared to Emily's struggle against dissolution, which she loses and wins and loses and wins over hundreds of pages.

Emily checked the tears, that trembled in her eyes. [...] Her tears were concealed, but St. Aubert heard her convulsive sobs. [...] Emily dried her tears and attempted to speak. [...] Emily, having turned away to hide her tears, quitted the room to indulge them. [...] Emily felt tears swell into her eyes, and then resentment checked them. [...] Valancourt ... learned from the flood of tears, which she could no longer repress, the fatal truth.

Emily is like Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, so fine-tuned that she needs to liquidate herself.

She resurrects, however. "Emily checked her tears, and followed her father to the parlour."

West's heroine cuts her sobbing short when the author wants style and reason to reassert itself: the tears do not stop Ellen speaking, she immediately offers an explanation for her fiance's behaviour, and soon she is thinking in Poetry: "But surely this was far too much to ask of her, who had learned what life was; who knew that, though life at its beginning was lovely as a corn of wheat, it was ground down to flour that must make bitter bread between two human tendencies." West reverts to Style: a tic: she retreats into it: a farce.

"I do mean to commit suicide, though I am getting my tea!" she snapped. [...] It was only because of all the things there are to eat this was a dreadful world to leave. She thought reluctantly of food; the different delicate textures of the nuts of meat that, lying in such snug unity within the crisp brown skin, make up a saddle of mutton; yellow country cream, whipped no more than makes it bland as forgiveness; little strawberries, red and moist as a pretty mouth; Scotch bun, dark and rich and romantic like the plays of Victor Hugo; all sorts of things nice to eat, and points of departure for the fancy.

Dorothy Richardson warned us against literature like this: charming, attractive, assertive, assured of the reader's complicity.

* The Judge Reexamined: Rebecca West's Underrated Gothic Romance (1988)

Monday, June 15, 2015

the golf club

The experience that I am circling around as I go over The Glass Canoe is a remote irreducible tickling, the idea that that Ireland senses the possibility of a calm stillness and believes that the things of this world are either taking us towards that point or away from it, whereas Crowley by contrast perceives a net, without that poised, central, gladelike place.

No, you say, that's not a tickling, it's bloody obvious: look at the Meatman when he thinks about the scenery at the golf club. But I believe that the concentration of the still place in those clear and physical phenomena, the sunshine and the grass, and the mowing, is not that place itself, it is too outwards, too specific, and it's doing double duty, it is telling us that the Meatman is a sensitive person – it is sketching and dumping it in very crudely.

He likes dew! – well – there must be more to him than drinking at the pub – the book insists.

It's a defensive blow against the reader who wants to call him a yob.

The pub is a parody of that calm place or another species of it, a deformed species; the men are not calm so much as paralysed, and the fights are like spasms against the restraint of that paralysis.

The calm place exists somewhere outside the prose, and outside anything that is in the prose, and the noise of writing in this book exists in order to highlight a particular silence.