Saturday, February 28, 2015

already done, captain

But Kingsley is teasing you with the impossible book because he is about to overcome it. This is not brokenness he is showing you, it is triumph

I replied not, but went into my bedroom, and returning with a thick roll of papers threw it on the floor—as on the stage the honest notary throws down the long-lost will,—and there I stood for a moment with my arms folded, eyeing Brentwood triumphantly.

"It is already done, captain," I said. "There it lies."

It is the book we are about to read. Kingsley uses the same pattern again later when he wants to introduce a parson named Frank Maberley. One character has suggested that an action is impossible; another character has performed it already.

The dinner time was past some ten minutes, when they saw a man in black put his hand on the garden-gate, vault over, and run breathless up to the hall-door. Tom had recognised him and dashed out to receive him, but ere he had time to say "good day" even, the new comer pulled out his watch, and, having looked at it, said in a tone of vexation: --

"Twenty-one minutes, as near as possible; nay, a little over. By Jove! how pursy a fellow gets mewed up in town! How far do you call it, now, from the Buller Arms?"

"It is close upon four miles," said Tom, highly amused.

"So they told me," replied Frank Maberly. "I left my portmanteau there, and the landlord-fellow had the audacity to say in conversation that I couldn't run the four miles in twenty minutes. It's lucky a parson can't bet, or I should have lost my money. But the last mile is very much up-hill, as you must allow."

Power, power; and the author of Kingsley's entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography believes that the man was in awe of his brother Charles, the famous Muscular Christian. "Sensitive about his puny and ugly appearance, he was inclined to adulate more personable contemporaries, especially his brother." That might be wishful gossip but it prompts me to notice that the narrator's writing-deed has been brought into the same framework as the Muscular Christian parson's running-deed, not only power, but power legitimised by the framing, made not-random, not enigmatic or questionable, or, put it this way: the deeds are not personal, not held and nourished in private, instead they are social, since other people are evidently rolling them around in their minds and calling out for their accomplishment.

Kingsley likes to present the actions of his characters in this call-and-response way, and some of those actions should have been personal, perhaps, and I am wishing, when I think about it, that a person could put flowers in her hair without being hijacked.

Her complexion was very full, as though she were blushing at something one of them had said to her, and while I watched I saw James rise and go to a jug of flowers, and bring back a wreath of scarlet Kennedia, saying: –

"Do us a favour on Christmas night, Mary; twine this in your hair."

She blushed deeper than before, but she did it, and Tom helped her.

Monday, February 23, 2015

that old horse is alive still

When I mention magic I remember Frank Kermode in his essay Between Time and Eternity, writing, "All plots have something in common with prophecy, for they must appear to educe from the prime matter of the situation the forms of a future," and I wonder vaguely about the predictive or coercive power of systems (a system in itself is a prediction; to note a system is to note a prediction) -- and also I consider the mechanisms that trigger or indicate or introduce you to those systems, and then naturally I think of the aged horse in the opening pages of The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), that book by Henry Kingsley, the brother of Charles (The Water Babies (1862-63, serialised)).

"Bless me!" I said; "You don't mean to say that that old horse is alive still?"

"He looks like it," said the major. "He'd carry you a mile or two, yet."

"I thought he had died while I was in England," I said. "Ah, major, that horse's history would be worth writing."

"If you began," answered the major, "to write the history of the horse, you must write also the history of every body who was concerned in those circumstances which caused Sam to take a certain famous ride upon him. And you would find that the history of the horse would be reduced into very small compass, and that the rest of your book would assume proportions too vast for the human intellect to grasp."

"How so?" I said.

He entered into certain details, which I will not give. "You would have," he said, "to begin at the end of the last century, and bring one gradually on to the present time. Good heavens! just consider."

"I think you exaggerate," I said.

"Not at all," he answered. "You must begin the histories of the Buckley and Thornton families in the last generation. The Brentwoods also, must not be omitted,-- why there's work for several years."

So if you tell the story of those families then you will also have to tell the stories of the people connected to them and so on and so on until by Major Buckley's logic the entire world is swallowed (recalling that Ruskin in one book contemplates the holy profusion of leaves), which is the problem Gertrude Stein enunciated in The Making of Americans, when she talks about the neighbours and then the neighbours of the neighbours, until she reaches the same conclusion as Major Buckley, this playful and useless idea that any grossly representational book would be "too vast for the human intellect to grasp" and what does that say about the human intellect and also Kingsley's playfulness, and then Gertrude Stein's playfulness, which is an oblique or self-defending reflex, and also self-conquering as it indicates that it is biting off more than it can chew, in fact creating that too-much obstacle and showing it to you so that it can throw up its hands and say, "Non" – here is the book desiring to have that Non-action inside itself and going to these abnormal lengths to get it, and asking you to observe its crippledness, its broken-wingedness, ha, ha, ha?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

the infidelity of this outer world

Ruskin has a fidelity to the nonhuman world, either material and dumb, or religious and not materially existent, or the unity of the two. There was the time he was lying by the Fountain of Brevant and saw a thunderstorm. "Suddenly, there came in the direction of Dorm du Goûter a crash -- of prolonged thunder; and when I looked up, I saw the cloud cloven, as it were by the avalanche itself, whose white stream came bounding down the eastern slope of the mountain, like slow lightning." The power of the thunderstorm crushes him; it is not "mingled [with] the associations of humanity." "It was then only beneath those glorious hills that I learned how thought itself may become ignoble and energy itself become base -- when compared with the absorption of soul and spirit -- the prostration of all power -- and the cessation of all will -- before, and in the Presence of, the manifested Deity." It is sublime; he is sublimated. "It was then only that I understood that to become nothing might be to become more than Man." That was in the footnotes to Modern Painters, Volume II, but he doesn't take his own advice; he spends years mingled with the associations of humanity, and decades later in the Fors Clavigera letters he will write:

Looking back upon my efforts for the last twenty years, I believe that their failure has been in very great part owing to my compromise with the infidelity of this outer world, and my endeavour to base my pleading upon motives of ordinary prudence and kindness, instead of on the primary duty of loving God.

The iron is in the hills, the iron is in your blood -- permanently and indelibly -- not anything happening from my point of view: it is just there, Ruskin says, I am the one who is seeing, I am the one who will see, I am not imagining anything; the thing is in two places and connected by physical sympathy. This sorting-out of the world's parts into its own society which the human being can observe and learn is a fundamentally magical arrangement.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

lying ahead

This dependence [on language] is absolute, despotic, but it unshackles as well. For, while always older than the writer, language still possesses the colossal centrifugal energy imparted to it by its temporal potential -- that is, by all the time lying ahead.

(Joseph Brodsky, from the essay Uncommon Visage)

But if the sick woman is near her end and has reached her death-agony, someone who is with her must run at once through the convent beating on a wooden board to give warning of the sister's departure.

(The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, tr. Betty Radice)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

exposed to the alternations

The history of the authentic regime of art could be thought similarly to the history of this mutilated and perfect statue,* perfect because it is mutilated, forced, by its missing head and limbs, to proliferate into a multiplicity of unknown bodies.

(Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (2013), tr. Zakir Paul)

To induce immigrants to bring with them useful property, the Government offered a bonus of twenty acres for every three pounds worth of goods imported; and the colonists -- quite unconscious of the future that lay before them -- carried out great numbers of costly, though often unsuitable, articles, by means of which the desired grants were obtained. It was found difficult to convey this property to the town, and much of it was left to rot on the shore, where carriages, pianos, and articles of rich furniture lay half-buried in sand and exposed to the alternations of sun and rain.

(Alexander Sutherland and George Sutherland, History of Australia and New Zealand from 1606 to 1890 (1894))

* The Belvedere Torso

Saturday, January 31, 2015

deny that the impressions of beauty are in any way sensual

He'll find an idea, Ruskin, and follow the force of that idea, unless it is something like the Indian statue of a bull, and then he rams himself shut, "it may rest in the eternal obscurity of evil art" -- but not afraid to follow a small piece of the world, like the dirty foot on one boy in a painting, or the rust on fence rails, and so naked he is willing to be, revolted by his fence railing, saddened by his fence railing, and looking at the audience with this fence railing in his mouth and calling it "an uneducated monster" while the engineers sit and wonder, Did he just tell me that iron is morally good? -- and all his writing is extruded very intimately from his art criticism, which is an aesthetic criticism, or morally "theoretic" for him -- theoretic is the word he picked when he was young, and the man circled around his principle.

Now the term "æsthesis" properly signifies mere sensual perception of the outward qualities and necessary effects of bodies, in which sense only, if we would arrive at any accurate conclusions on this difficult subject, it should always be used. But I wholly deny that the impressions of beauty are in any way sensual,—they are neither sensual nor intellectual, but moral, and for the faculty receiving them, whose difference from mere perception I shall immediately endeavor to explain, no term can be more accurate or convenient than that employed by the Greeks, "theoretic," which I pray permission, therefore, always to use, and to call the operation of the faculty itself, Theoria.

(Modern Painters, Vol. II)

If beauty is moral then the journalists making fun of Turner are not wrong but evil because what other word can express it, "the crying evil which called for instant remedy" (this is feeling, not analysis, you think, reading the whole passage, in which he insists that it is analysis, evil intellectually determined, but I call it the hammer word, the word by which he commits himself, the magical word, evil and good his own shaman words of transcendent explosion); and meanwhile Turner himself is moved upwards by his art: "nothing so great or solemn but that he can raise himself into harmony with it," until painting is "the most exalted truth, and the highest ideal," an idea affecting the writer so much that when he sees it in the artist he will follow the paint with his prose.

"It will be found in this picture (and I am now describing nature's work and Turner's with the same words) that the whole distance is given by retirement of solid surface; and that if ever an edge is expressed, it is only felt for an instant, and then lost again; so that the eye cannot stop at it and prepare for a long jump to another like it, but is guided over it, and round it, into the hollow beyond; and thus the whole receding mass of ground, going back for more than a quarter of a mile, is made completely one -- no part of it is separated from the rest for an instant -- it is all united, and its modulations are members, not divisions of its mass. But those modulations are countless -- heaving here, sinking there -- now swelling, now mouldering, now blending, now breaking --"

(Modern Painters, Vol. I)

"The eye" is "guided over [the sentence] and round it, into the hollow beyond … it is all united, and its modulations are members, not divisions of its mass ... heaving here, sinking there." And this shape of the writing only becomes active when he reaches the description of that painting. A moment earlier he was discussing a painter who didn't impress him, and the prose is not like that. This prose will not be extricated from the subject matter, and he is pressing towards a unity that is a moral unity, believing that the form of writing should not be separated from the form of morality itself, which is the form he understands in Turner; and the words pushing towards that form, fragments in unity, which he loves everywhere, for his entire life, but also the freedom of things, the fireflies that he mentions in two different books, coming into town and seeing them "moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves."

Fine-broken, therefore done beautifully and intentionally by whatever created them. "Broken" on its own would have been different.

"Is it not strange to find this stern and strong metal mingled so delicately in our human life, that we cannot even blush without its help?"

Because the iron in the hills is also the iron in your blood.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

without some legitimate cause

In conclusion (tapping pages on the podium and licking my thumb), Knut Hamsun is ambiguous, and I like Geoffrey Hill when he says

... glowery is a mighty word with two meanings
if you crave ambiguity in plain speaking
as I do.

Hamsun is a plain word; he tells you he's plain, and so this is part of his ambiguity, the plainness, while Hill plains you with these puns or rhymes so daggy that I'm consternated, writing

Spot on

in Clavics and what is this, you wonder: John Skelton?

Then I stop feeling consternated because I believe that it is indeed John Skelton, revenant with influence.

Now that I have read Best European Fiction 2010 as well as Knut Hamsun I have decided that a writer should always be a bit stupid or not-knowing of themselves, the way that Gertrude Stein advises in Paris France, because the writers in Fiction all seem to know who they are and what they're doing, they write wittily in vignettes or they write towards a clear end (the teenage prostitute is going to go from disaster to disaster in that one story and you know it); they might surprise yourself but not themselves. It was so eerie that I fell into a melancholy and thought, "How can these authors be alive?"

I was so riveted or spelled that I read the whole book slowly in that dreary mood.

There was a mismatch between myself and these writers who were proceeding absolutely smartly or knowingly to the end of the story, but there is also a mismatch between themselves and Ruskin, who was not calm in what he knew; he will stand there in public and sound bewildered even while he is telling you what's what; he will still behave raggedly if it seems true to him to do so; on one hand he is trying to persuade you, and he wants it forcefully, but on the other hand it is not right not to acknowledge his puzzlement; he sees that he is not completely correct and he will not gloss over it, he must say it; he won't pretend.

I can understand, in some sort, why people admire everything else in old art, why they admire Salvator's rocks, and Claude's foregrounds, and Hobbima's trees, and Paul Potter's cattle, and Jan Steen's pans; and while I can perceive in all these likings a root which seems right and legitimate, and to be appealed to; yet when I find they can even endure the sight of a Backhuysen on their room walls (I speak seriously) it makes me hopeless at once. I may be wrong, or they may be wrong, but at least I can conceive of no principle or opinion common between us, which either can address or understand in the other; and yet I am wrong in this want of conception, for I know that Turner once liked Vandevelde, and I can trace the evil influence of Vandevelde on most of his early sea painting, but Turner certainly could not have liked Vandevelde without some legitimate cause.

(Modern Painters)

It would have been easier to pretend that his hatred for Dutch seascape painters was only mild, and to have pushed the difficulty away like that, and to have looked serene at the end instead of puzzled (it's probably what I would have done. I am a coward), but instead he insists that people who like Dutch seascape painters are a mob of loons, which is a good thing for him to say because it will leave everything disturbed and unsettled. Turner likes them, he likes Turner, what can he do? "There is another man within mee that's angry with mee, rebukes, commands, and dastards mee," says Thomas Browne.