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.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

a light crown of tufty scum standing high

A proposition affirms every proposition that follows from it.

Wittgenstein, tr Pears/McGuinness, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Now, at the end of the spring runoff, dead creatures were everywhere. Osmotic shock had killed shrimp outnumbering the flies. Corpses, a couple of centimetres each, lay in hydrogen-sulphide decaying stink. Interlayered with the oolites on the bottom of the lake was a kind of galatine of brine shrimp, the greasy black muck of quintillions dead.

John McPhee, Basin and Range

In an enclave of rocks the peaks of the water romped and wandered and a light crown of tufty scum standing high on the surface kept slowly turning round: chips of it blew off and gadded about without weight in the air.

From the diary of Gerard Manly Hopkins, August 16th, 1873

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

with a string of pearls

Ruskin writes in his Ariadne Florentina, "Do you suppose I could rightly explain to you the value of a single touch on brass by Finiguerra, or on box by Bewick, unless I had grasp of the great laws of climate and country; and could trace the inherited sirocco or tramontana of thought to which the souls and bodies of the men owed their existence?" -- as if each object, box or touch, was a marshalling of chaos, and by approaching it you approach a universal nexus point, and as if, by knowing enough, you could comprehend, absolutely, the various phenomena united there; and once you believe that you will believe that any bit of information is useful, the author himself remembering, in the Harbours of England, how he once spent his time after a meal at an inn outside London measuring the dining room. "I found it exactly twice and a quarter the height of my umbrella." Not wasted.

"Great laws" are not flowing into the nexus point calmly, and resting there; this is what I think when I remember the way that the younger Hamsun makes parts of Overgrown Paths seem dubious, though the older Hamsun, who is writing them, says that he wants to be plain. When I say "the younger Hamsun" I mean the mode of writing that he represents, hysteria, provocation, and dry ludicrosity, which appears, for example, in a memory of the memoirist in "the days of my youth" giving up his seat to a woman on a tram while he was in France visiting Versailles.

She was a handsome old lady in a widow's veil and with a string of pearls around her neck, perhaps a duchess of the blood, forsooth -- she could have adopted me. Anyway, I gave those gentlemen, those Frenchmen, a lesson in courtesy which they won't forget, I was first.

"Perhaps a duchess of the blood," he says, and, "she could have adopted me," and with that he is larger than the event; he is the agent of disproportion. A nexus-point showing its influences is also infected by them. Ruskin writes, in the Poetry of Architecture, "It is always to be remembered, that he who prefers neatness to beauty, and who would have sharp angles and clean surfaces, in preference to curved outlines and lichenous color, has no business to live among hills." There's a vision of responsibility, not-infection, and cleannness.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

the huge, unrecorded hum of implication

Some of the charm of the past consists of the quiet -- the great distracting buzz of implication has stopped and we are left only with what has been fully phrased and precisely stated. And part of the melancholy of the past comes from our knowledge that the huge, unrecorded hum of implication was once there and left no trace -- we feel that because it is evanescent it is especially human. We feel, too, that the truth of the great preserved monuments of the past does not fully appear without it.

Lionel Trilling, Manners, Morals and the Novel, from The Liberal Imagination (1950))

The fact that there is a word for silence is an aesthetic creation.

(Jorge Luis Borges, Poetry, from Seven Nights, tr Eliot Weinberger (1984))

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

in animals

Though the Senses know not from what Places or Parts, Cold comes, or what it Causes, yet they know that we have here at this time Cold with all its Potent Strength, as an Army of Flakes of Snow, with Ammunition of Hail for Bullets and Wind for Powder, also huge Ships of Ice, which Float in the Main Sea, and stop up all the Narrow Rivers; also Cold and its Army Shooting forth the Piercing Darts, which fly so Thick and Fast, and are so Sharp, as they enter into every Pore of the Flesh of all Animal Creatures, whereby many Animals are Wounded with Numbness and Die Insensibly although Mankind bring what strength they can get against Cold, as an Army of Furs, where every Hair stands out like a Squadron of Pikes, to resist Cold's Assault; and Ammunition of Coals serves for Bullets, and Ashes for Powder, with great Loggs for Cannons, Billets for Muskets and Carbines, Brush. Faggots for Pistols, where the Bellows as Firelocks, makes them fly up in a Flame; also great Pieces of Beef for Ships for Men of War, with Cabbages for Sails, Sausages for Tacklings, Carrots for Guns, and Marrow-Bones for Masts, Ballasted with Pepper, and Pitch'd or Tarr'd with Mustard, the Card and Needle being Brewis* and Neat's Tongues, the Steers-men Cooks, besides many Pinnaces of Pork, Mutton, and Veal, and Flying Boats, which are Turkies, Capons, Geese, and the like, all which Swim in a Large Sea of Wine, Beer, and Ale, yet for all this we are Beaten into the Chimney-corner, and there we sit Shaking and Trembling like a Company of Cowards, that dare not stir from their Shelter; and many in the Sea-fight have been Drowned, from whence some have been taken up Dead-Drunk, then carried and Buried in a Feather-bed, where, after a Long Sleep, they may have a Resurrection, but how they will be Judged at that time they Rise, whether Damned with Censure or Saved by Excuse, I cannot tell.

(Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters (1664))

So slight
that in animals and limbs
- what more that in reputation and disrepute -
like a worm and trampled down
and like me
              and soon
So slight
             and as all
so slight and

(Gunnar Björling, from You Go the Words, tr Fredrik Hertzberg (2007). The dates I'm giving for translated works are the dates of the published translations, not the originals. This long poem was completed in Swedish in 1955. I read You Go just after or before Inger Christensen's Alphabet and was surprised a little bit later when Christensen cropped up at Biblibio and Wuthering Expectations. She is not a household name in the English-writing world but there she was anyway, like a sprig of mushroom in the grass.)

* brewis could mean either broth or bread soaked in broth, according to the Collins English Dictionary. "C16: from Old French broez, from broet, diminutive of breu broth."

Monday, December 29, 2014

from the describable qualities of things

Slow execution was typically associated with lasting artistic value in classical art theory. Thus Zeuxis explained that he painted "slowly so that my paintings will live for a long time," and Apelles mocked the artist who completed a painting in a single day saying, "you need not tell me … the work itself shows it." In the Renaissance too mistrust of rapid execution remained paramount. For example, Vasari himself was strongly criticized for completing his frescoes in the Cancellaria at Rome too quickly. Michelangelo's withering comment on being told that they had been finished in a hundred days ("e si vedi") directly echoed that of Apelles. However, the same theoretical tradition certainly championed works showing the kind of lightness of touch which merely suggested quickness of execution. […] And yet this modern lightness of touch was not to be confused with mere time-saving.

(Tom Nichols, Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity (1999))

We involve ourselves in endless perplexities in trying to deduce excellence and beauty, unity and necessity, from the describable qualities of things, we repeat the rationalistic fiction of turning the notions which we abstract from the observation of facts into the powers that give those facts character and being.

(George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty (1896))

Sunday, December 28, 2014

so tiny that they are like the sound of a tinkling bell

The sky is pure and cool, lying wide open to all the stars. There is a great flock of worlds up in that endless meadow, tiny, teeming worlds, so tiny that they are like the sound of a tinkling bell; as I look at them, I can hear thousands of tiny bells.

(Knut Hamsun, tr. Paula Wiking, Look Back on Happiness)

O up in height, O snatcht up, O swiftly going,
Common to beechwood, breathing was loving, the yet
Unknown Crickley Cliffs trumpeted, set music on glowing
In my mind. White Cotswold, wine scarlet woods and leaf wreckage wet.

(Ivor Gurney, Old Thought, from the Collected Poems)

The world is not to be cheated of a grain; not so much as a breath of its air is to be drawn surreptitiously.

(John Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive)