Thursday, December 18, 2014

the chief ingredient of this composite? Scorn.



Defending himself, he suggests he is too porous but imperfectly porous even, not everything getting through: penetrable, enstormed, deaf, "I'm deaf, and have to speak at random," though others are not leaky; a woman is "charming," a dog is "yellow," just one adjective each is enough for that summary, a solid nice adjective, so, not everything is indistinct and hard to understand, a teenager in the United States was wrong not to care when her mother sold the family home. "She should have laid her cheek against that wall and never gone away from it." What is he reflecting on here, besides a fact of his time overseas?

Language, that is to say, does not issue from reflection but is an inherent element within the activity of reflection itself; it is an integral part of the body of reflection.

-- wrote Geoffrey Hill in the essay Poetry and Value. There's a contrast between the helplessness that Hamsun describes and the control that he asserts. Something between those two states is unstated. The words "Shipwrecked sailors lie quiet as dead goats | in a winding sheet of sponges," occur to me, from Sally Purcell's translation of Nikos Gatsos's long poem of 1943, Amorgos. The feel of smothering, I think, is where that goes (there's a beautiful poem) -- and then -- I try to remember if Hamsun's characters ever have those moments of revelation that fix an impression by attaching it to some memory or influence from the past, those moments of conclusion, like the one that Henry Miller described in a letter to Anaïs Nin, dated July, 1933, when he told her that "a whore sitting in this cafe" had "a composite" resemblance to his mother, his first wife, and his second wife. "What should I say was the chief ingredient of this composite? Scorn." So he is able to summarise three women from three different periods of time; he reaches a kind of fastening. "I see the three of them by their nostrils, that telltale dilation."

Hamsun would have been angry if anyone had tried to enclose him in the way Miller has enclosed the three women. There is nothing in Overgrown Paths that makes the author more scornful than one doctor in an asylum who pretends to know about him. "This was probably his way of showing his staff how infinitely deep his investigation of me went, almost back to the womb." A bully, this psychiatrist Langfeldt. "He knew that the staff would remain silent." This is what you are like when you want people to think that you absolutely know things. "[A]ll the modern knowledge he has picked up from textbooks" is not as intrinsically right as the author's humble confusion, good confusion, as Nagel's confusion is good and ultimately harmless; as the narrator in Hunger harms no-one but himself. "An intentional helplessness, an infection from the Bible"

He [Langfeldt] is so secure in his knowledge. But that is not the same as being secure in the old knowledge: nothing can be known for certain!

(Yet, yet, Hamsun will psychoanalyse him: "Professor Langfeldt knows in his heart that he is not very well suited for delving into and fiddling with the intimacies of someone else's marriage.")


Monday, December 15, 2014

helplessness, an infection from the Bible



If the authorities listened to Hamsun then they would know that he lives muddled, according to himself: he reiterates it in Overgrown Paths. "It is a mysterious concept which I am unable to figure out." "But here the riddle began for me." "I wasn't great shakes at thinking deep yet and I just stood there." "A sheath knife has found its way into my room, I don't know how." "I have long wracked my brain over getting my galoshes repaired now that fall is approaching. They go back to the First World War but still have good soles; it's just that the right one is torn and won't stay on my foot." When a young woman walks into the room "not only do I stand there naked from the waist up, I don't even have my teeth in place." He sees himself characterised by "a sufferance of my own shortcomings. An intentional helplessness, an infection from the Bible."

Politics are not divorced from the galoshes, the false teeth, and the decent helplessness, this Biblical failure that is dignified by abjection, submission, which appears in the holy text many times -- it is not -- Biblical -- he implicitly protests -- to ask a person to pretend to know their politics. The letter that he wrote to the court when he was defending himself against the charge of fascism is the most tangled expression of helplessness in the memoir.

I tried to understand what National Union was about, I tried to get to the bottom of it, but it didn't amount to anything. However it may very well be that I wrote in the spirit of National Union now and then. I don't know because I don't know what the spirit of National Union is. But it may have happened that I wrote in the spirit of National Union, that something had seeped into me from the newspapers I read. In any case my articles are there for anyone to see. I'm not trying to minimize them, to make them more trifling then that are, it may be bad enough as it is. On the contrary I am ready to answer for them now as before, as I always have been.


This is the only time when the expression of muddle is itself in any way muddled. In every other instance he is clear. He can even remove himself to the camera-like distance necessary for humour. "I stand there naked from the waist up." (I need to remember that Hamsun is a clown. Nagel is a clown and the narrator of Hunger is a clown.) When he writes he is not confused. He wanders between the distant and recent past but his intentions are constant. He has more self-control than Ruskin, who propels himself into Rose La Touche.

The anti-British xenophobia from his pro-Nazi writings has disappeared. Now he praises British authors. "[T]he great Swift in England …" "Stevenson […] was a genius in eruption …" Is this of a piece with the instinctive dodging that I think I see in, "But it may have happened …"?

Readers of The Last Joy (1912) know that his ideas were leaning toward fascism twenty years before the National Union/Nasjonal Samling party was invented (1933) and the something in the newspapers would not have seeped so much as chimed.


Monday, December 8, 2014

if I could speak without any restriction, the wind would turn around to acquittal



Hamsun's gaolers have told him that he mustn't go farther away than a certain specific point but his character in the book has been clarified until we can see that it is in his nature to walk a long way through the trees, and therefore he must go past the designated point; nothing else would be reasonable: he will go up a hill.

His good judgment is proven when he meets, in the forest, a man named Martin who encourages him to read an unpublished autobiographical manuscript, a strange man and not a fool, Martin, a wandering preacher, with the habits of one of Hamsun's own characters, staying apart in a baffled, thoughtful way whenever someone is suffering. "I didn't dare show myself too often but only sent greetings at Christmas and the other holidays. This, too, made her sore at me …"

The authorities do not know what is best, Hamsun says; he would solve the whole problem if they would stop locking him up and let him speak. "For I knew in my heart that if I could speak without any restriction, the wind would turn around to acquittal for me, or as close to acquittal as I would dare to go and the court accept. I knew I was innocent, deaf and innocent; I would have done very well in an examination by the public prosecutor just by telling the truth. But this situation was confounded by the circumstance of my being locked up month after month …"

Martin is innocent too. The woman is "sore at me" because he lent her husband money for a project and the man died. Now the widow blames him. "Here," Hamsun might as well be saying, "is the way this drama should be played out. The accused is not imprisoned, he is free to roam, he presents his case freely, a reader reads it freely, and nobody can blame him now that we understand his side. Events were beyond his control."

Distressed, then, choked, restricted, his point of view not seen. "I do not think it is distinctly enough felt by us that the beak of a bird is not only its mouth, but its hand, or rather its two hands." (Ruskin, Love's Meinie.)


Thursday, December 4, 2014

in charge of it all for the time being



What evidence we think we have of that obduration might be called character. Hamsun's early people try to avoid the fixative effect of character as it exists in the construction of books where a human being is thickened and slowed down, or slowed down then thickened so that the author can observe whatever they hope is there, Hamsun using that thickened, slowing, simplifying technique on himself in his memoir, On Overgrown Paths: behold, a stubborn, humble, deaf old man confronted by a whimsical bureaucracy, a man who is easy to understand, a decent prosaic man.

On the 14th of June I was taken by car from my home and brought to the hospital at Grimstad -- my wife had been picked up a few days earlier and and taken to the women's prison in Arendal. Now, of course, I could no longer look after the farm. That was very unfortunate, inasmuch as a mere youth was left in charge of it all for the time being. But it couldn't be helped.

(tr. Sverre Lyngstad)

They remove his pistols, they put him in an institution; they are unreasonable and he is tolerant. "Again, this [command] was surely not to be taken literally, but I would like to be an obedient probationary prisoner."

And when he disobeys them he is only being sensible, he is sane, and I think of Ruskin demonstrating his sanity in the Praeterita, these two men appealing to fairness and goodness; both of them are sure that it is there in the reader's heart: the reader is sensible, the reader will see, the reader is not a human displaced from them as the authorities are displaced; the reader, the reader, this friend the reader who can be trapped inside their point of view and not allowed out, behold this frankly predatory view of the reader, who will not immediately learn why the author of Overgrown Paths has been taken away from his farm, or why his two pistols were confiscated, or why his wife was removed to a prison, and so it seems dystopian inside the book, though outside the book he was being charged with treason.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

of disorder



Nagel and the equivalent characters in Hamsun's other books are “like escaped convicts” writes Woods. I agree so where is the crime?

(Not even what but where?)

Time is after them, police officer Time (they keep trying to evade Time. Nagel stays in bed when he should be up; it's petty), but Isak in Growth is contented at all points of time.

In them all you have a kind of Romantic self-ness: very emotional; they would rather be emotional than comfortable. Not to burn with a hard gemlike, etcetera, but to flutter, or, in Isak's case, to be a Norwegian brand of immovable potato. That secret immobility seems to be the evidence of self-ness in so many books, as I keep noting and noting, even in Joyce, Ulysses flying around the core Bloom, until the unstated question in so much of literature becomes, how much inconsistency will it take to destabilise a person's self-ness; and then there is Clarissa in Clarissa, whose will is an annihilating bomb, but I am not referring to anyone's will, only to the phenomenon that so many writers seem to detect at the heart of everything else in a person; and which may only be, hark, the tentative definition that A.R. Ammons once gave of poetry: "a linguistic correction of disorder" (A Note on Incongruence, 1966).

(I am not sure that the phenomenon is there in Clarissa. I don't think so. I believe that the characters, as they are described, have aspects, the despairing aspect for instance, or the friend aspect, and then will, but not the detached central obduration that I believe I can see depicted by implication in, eg, Hamsun, or by statement in Peake, the isolate apartness that is assumed to exist, no character really isolated in Clarissa but linked constantly with letters so that they are always spoken about: Samuel Richardson not assuming that Clarissa has it, nor assuming that she doesn't have it, but the idea not occurring to him anywhere; the whole notion absent from that book, though do the letters themselves, the mental picture of letters, does that make me think of aspects, aspects, turned towards the reader's face like a set of pages?)


Friday, November 21, 2014

how false, how little authentic



At first this was a comment at Séamus Duggan's Vapour Trails blog but it disappeared when I hit publish or post or whatever that button says and therefore I am going to try to reconstruct it here; or think back on it, more likely, since that was several days ago. I had already been saying something about the childishness of Nagel in Mysteries, the naivete of his attention-getting performances (“performance” from Scott G.F. Bailey in those same comments); the kidlike haphazard cunning that he has, how he would rather confound people with lies than cultivate his reputation steadily and slowly with his violining adult skill: “he switched to a weighty, powerful pathos, a fortissimo passage with the force of a fanfare.”

Musicianship means attainment in ordinary forward-progressing chronological time. He feels disassociated; he assures his audience that the disassociation is part of his own feeling, and the reader is asked to wonder what sincerity means when he says, “If you only knew how false, how little authentic it was! But I made it look very authentic, didn't I?”

Conclude that this disassociation is not meant to be casual, helpless, or simply “a result of” some condition apart from him -- urbanisation, the industrial age, "the modern spirit of Norway" (which Hamsun hates in Look Back on Happiness (1912)) -- since he is working to uphold it with his words and actions.

Not "hapless," as Woods says, unless it is a willed haplessness.

He refuses to be known as a violinist. Instead he wants to live inside a state of being not-known, and committing himself to the, you could even say the word job, of embodying the not-known thing, which, in the work of Arthur Machen (who lived around the same time, born in 1863 and dying in 1947, Hamsun living a little longer, from 1859 to 1952) -- was often a woman or a part-woman transported by uncanny magic into a protoplasmic state of existence. See: The Great God Pan, The Shining Pyramid, The White People, and carry over into the prosaic multisex theatricals of The Three Imposters.

Now that I've mentioned Machen I want to decide that Nagel strives to uphold himself as a protoplasm; nobody knows what he is; and he puts effort into his bad disguises that are typically penetrable, but the penetration is always confusing and never revealing. Nagel keeps the potential for conclusions to himself.

The conclusion of Hamsun's protoplasm is the same as the conclusions of Machen's.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

built in one


I'm going to begin this post with a list of other people who have been writing about Hamsun -- so --

- Séamus at Vapour Trails
- Jean at Howling Frog Books
- Tom at Wuthering Expectations
- Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
- Scott G.F. Bailey at Six Words for a Hat

“A storm of interruptions,” in Wood's description of Hamsun, is also a storm of truncations. What is being truncated? Not the book. A book is never truncated or interrupted. Every mystery is a truncation and the solution at the end is a shot at de-truncation in retrospect. From now on I'm going to have it in my head that Mysteries is called Truncations, or else Interruptus. The seasonal rolling-round chronology described by Hamsun in Growth of the Soil isn't able to be truncated: you can't clip half the winter months out of a year.

Hamsun loves the natural world* but his stories do not behave like nature, like bees or flowers. They behave in an opposite way, and the people in these stories, by virtue of being people, are forced to move around and speak (turning this over in my head after a response to Richard in the comments) -- they are not permitted to be treelike, which, I think, would solve all of their problems, poor muddled lambkins, why not dole out a pat and a hand of grass from the godlike clouds, unless we're enjoying their angst -- see -- for example -- Isak in Growth, that trunkish man, “enormous, with a torso that seems built in one to the knees. A certain pomp and splendour about him; his equator was astounding” (tr. W.W. Worster) -- how elemental he is, and how satisfied, "a worker," and he always acts like one; he is not the narrator in the Wanderer books, who has run away from another life in the city, of some kind.

Is he a philosopher? asks the narrative voice on the first page, is he a criminal? but on the second page the author lets you know that the question doesn't matter. Isak is what he is. He is what he appears to be. “Only a worker, and a hardy one.”

In Mysteries you can spend the whole book asking, "What is this person, who is this man?" but in Growth you are answered and answered: "A tiller of the ground, body and soul; a worker on the land without respite." "Isak could not work a mine, being a farmer and a clearer of forest land." "A broad-shouldered man, well filled out, nothing astral about him at all." He is solid and whole, says the author. Even historically, he is intact. "A ghost risen out of the past to point the future, a man from the earliest days of cultivation, a settler in the wilds, nine hundred years old, and, withal, a man of the day." (Meanwhile the narrator in Hunger is shuddering on the spot. Is he a man of now or then, or only of the moment in which he makes his decisions?)

Hamsun's proactive blocking in fact echoes or mimics the tactics of his own characters. Nagel is still present, but he is the author. You thought I wrote about men who wander? Here is a man who absolutely does not. You thought you knew who I was -- ha --

The book itself, though, comes with the sense of truncation or lacuna; the mining company barges in with its equipment as if it's about to dominate the local naïfs (this set-up has been brewing for a while, with Hamsun dropping hints) but the showdown never happens, the company peters out and wanders off, the farmer keeps going as he must … it's very strange. You think: shouldn't something have happened there?

Nagel and his violin case are figures in a similar trick.

It's people, in Hamsun's books, who are the avatars of truncation. The tremors in Pan begin to spread when Edvarda comes to visit the narrator in his hut at the edge of the forest and afterwards “a breath of something strange met me; it was as though I were no longer alone there.”

From then on people are always popping their heads in. It's like Flinders Street Station in that hut.


* Many examples. Here's one: "I walked through the forest, I was moved to tears of rapture, I kept saying, Dear God, to be here again!" (Under the Autumn Star, tr. Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass). Another: "I thank God for every heather flower I have seen; they have been like tiny roses on my path and I weep for love of them" (Pan, tr. James W. McFarlane).