Autumn comes but once a year

Branch

The season turns. I wear a jacket for the first time in months, with a faint but definite sensation of relief. Strolling around in a shirt is fine—but where do you put things? In summer, I always have to carry a bag, not least because a good many shirt makers seem unacquainted with the concept of pockets. In any case: book, phone, notebook, memory sticks, black pen, red pen, pencil (rubber, pencil sharpener), tissues, sugar free sweets? What you need, my man, is a jacket.

We have had a week of uneasy, rather schizophrenic weather, some of it quite lively—though even the reported 70 m.p.h. around Avonmouth would likely seem a soothing breeze to the poor, battered Caribbean and southern United States. Yesterday, though, when I walked through the park, everything was so calm, bright, untroubled, so normal, that I experienced one of my apocalyptic moments. Unsurprisingly, these occur more often these days, given the last fifteen months or so and tend to consist of images of mayhem overlaying the scene in front of my eyes, the mown grass, trimmed flowerbeds, relaxed adults, playing children, gambolling dogs somehow provoking and evoking their opposite. That opposite is, of course, the ‘normal’ for a great many people: if not barrel bombs, snipers and nerve gas, then insufficient food, filthy water, inadequate shelter. And, always, the fear.

But in Bath, again, there are crowds of people at their ease, tourists from every part of the world as well as locals revelling in what may be one of the last really warm days of the year. We thread our way through, reach the bookshop, head directly home again.

New-Books

I revisit George Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’, looking at his explanation of why the young British writers in the thirties had turned to Communism, one of which was ‘the softness and security of life in England itself’. ‘With all its injustices,’ Orwell went on, ‘England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the overwhelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality.’[1] This is still true, of course, though Orwell would find the current state of the country rather more worrying than he did then, I suspect, even though his essay was published in March 1940. The ordeal of the Blitz was still to come yet, bad as that was, other countries—Poland, Japan, China, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and, of course, Germany itself—fared far worse.

Yes, we have been lucky: but that luck has had its negative effects. One is an enduring fixation on the Second World War and a largely mythical version of our country’s role in it. This oddly skewed version of history, with its inflated view of our current relative importance in the world is constantly reinforced by the virulently anti-EU and anti-immigration sections of the press. Yet we also see, on an almost daily basis, a markedly tangential relation to reality displayed by some senior politicians, including cabinet ministers. Elsewhere, there seems a curious sense of paralysis and exhaustion, as if a period of extreme complexity and challenge were ended, rather than barely begun. Almost a century ago, John Maynard Keynes, in the aftermath of the First World War, wrote:

Keynes_Consequences

‘In this autumn of 1919, in which I write, we are at the dead season of our fortunes. The reaction from the exertions, the fears, and the sufferings of the past five years is at its height. Our power of feeling or caring beyond the immediate questions of our own material well-being is temporarily eclipsed. The greatest events outside our own direct experience and the most dreadful anticipations cannot move us.’[2]

There are dreadful anticipations enough. But, as the saying goes, we must bet: we are in the game. Okay, not actually a saying: this is Pascal on the ‘wager’ of whether or not God exists. (The comments that ‘Reason cannot decide anything. There is an infinite chaos separating us’ seem worryingly topical.)[3]

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,

That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.[4]

 

References

[1] George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, in A Patriot After All: 1940-1941, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), 103.

[2] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), 278.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 154; the English phrasing is more that of John Fowles, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), 220.

[4] Louis MacNeice, ‘Autumn Journal’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 102.

 

 

‘Tiring people! Without manners!’

Prometheus

(Ancient Greek vase painting: Prometheus pecked)

‘Tiring people! Without manners! . . . They would presumably run the world now. It would be a tiresome world.’[1]

So Christopher Tietjens, on the Western Front in the latter stages of the First World War. Writing a couple of years before Ford Madox Ford’s novel is actually set, Ezra Pound, thinking of Henry James, wrote in ‘I Vecchii’:

They will come no more,
The old men with beautiful manners.[2]

I was thinking of manners as I stood in the newsagent’s yesterday. In front of me, a man held a phone clamped to his ear while he vaguely pushed small piles of coins around on the counter. The shopkeeper waited patiently. I stood behind phone man, holding my newspaper, scanning the headlines. Eventually, I flapped my paper a couple of times. It might have seemed no more than a small, nervous spasm; or it might have sounded like a voice from a dense, black cloud, saying: ‘I am the great Death Bird, your Apocalypse Now. And in the afterlife, I shall eat your liver daily, as did the eagle to Prometheus, unless you move your sorry and mannerless arse now!’

In any case, he shifted the necessary distance, even murmuring—could it have been ‘Sorry?’ Perhaps. It may, of course, have been ‘Sherry’, ‘Surrey’ or even ‘Slurry’. When I used to walk to work, I would pass, most mornings, a wide blonde woman with three children. I would sometimes linger a little on the pavement, just out of curiosity, but no, my presence always remained wholly unregistered and I always had to step into the road. I was reminded of how, when I was bookselling, we reached the point at which we had to explain to indignant customers that, if they wanted to buy something from us, they had to finish their phone business first since it was damned rude to think they could do both simultaneously. They gazed in moonfaced, baffled wonder. Rude? Whassat?

Different times, different manners. A great many people seem unable to distinguish ‘deference’ from common courtesy. I always thought that the best defence against undue deference was to be equally polite to everyone: cleaners, computer scientists, cloakrooms attendants and countesses. Others apparently believe that the safest way is to be equally offensive to everyone. It is, I suppose, a point of view.

1906-House-Party-at-Goodwood-with-Edward-VII1

(Goodwood House 1906 via periodliving.co.uk)

In earlier periods, there certainly was deference; and there was a class-based expectation of unearned respect. Writing of the aftermath of the complete destruction of Edwardian England, Samuel Hynes observed that the ‘conclusive factor’ in this was ‘the attitude of the soldiers themselves towards their elders, the Old Men in Whitehall who had sent them into battle. The mood of bitterness that emerged from the First World War has no like in any other war that England has fought; no other British army felt itself so betrayed, or so scorned the causes for which it had fought. In that mood the post-war generation rejected altogether the world-before-the-war – its propriety, its overstuffed luxury, its conceptions of society and manners, its confidence in England and in Progress.’[3]

And, of course, manners change. Boswell recalled Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘all works which describe manners, require notes in sixty or seventy years, or less’. Elsewhere, he remarked of the Letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son—purportedly instructing him in etiquette and the worldly arts—that ‘They teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’.[4] It was with the Doctor in mind that Norman Lewis wrote of several men of his acquaintance in wartime Italy who were impoverished descendants of eminent families: ‘They had grand manners, and hearing them talk one sometimes seemed to be listening to Dr Johnson in an Italian translation.’[5]

Moore-via-Spectator

(Marianne Moore, via The Spectator)

Of George Moore, W. B. Yeats remarked that he ‘lacked manners , but had manner’.[6] It’s a useful distinction. By all accounts, Marianne Moore’s manners were faultless but Randall Jarrell commented that, ‘Sometimes, in her early work, she has not a tone but a manner, and a rather mannered manner at that’.[7] (It was also Jarrell who remarked that, ‘to Americans, English manners are far more frightening than none at all’.)[8]

My favourite exposition on such matters is Guy Davenport’s, who records ‘the best display of manners on the part of a restaurant’ he’d witnessed, at the Imperial Ramada Inn in Lexington, Kentucky. Davenport went there in the company of the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (‘disguised as a businessman’), the poet – and Trappist – Thomas Merton (‘in mufti, dressed as a tobacco farmer with a tonsure’) and an editor from Fortune magazine, ‘who had wrecked his Herz car coming from the airport and was covered in spattered blood from head to toe’. The meal was served, Davenport adds, ‘with no comment whatsoever from the waitresses, despite Merton’s downing six martinis and the Fortune editor stanching his wounds with all the napkins.’

thomas-merton

(Thomas Merton)

‘Who has manners anymore, anyhow?’ Davenport asks. ‘Nobody, to be sure; everybody, if you have the scientific eye.’ And so it proves.[9]

So manners, or the perceptions of them, or expectations of them, are constantly revised. Once or twice I’ve tried to remember this: when I was young and someone older said in my hearing that something or other ­– a product, a company, a service – used to be much better, did I think: ‘That’s just because you’re old and sentimental and living in the past; when I’m your age, everything that is brilliant now will still be brilliant then’? My general sense of collapse and disintegration is sometimes sharpened by specific moments that neither confirm nor deny that general sense but merely serve as punctuation marks. As I walk across the pedestrian crossing, carefully avoiding the arrestingly ugly vehicle which some bulky fool has stranded there by moving forward when his path was not clear; or read the newspaper; or watch the news on any day at all, I sometimes suspect that there are no more questions about the future of the species that need detain us. We can fool around with the word ‘extinction’, making whatever anagrams are available but no other raw material than that is called for. (‘Toxic in ten’ occurs to me – the countdown has begun.)

Sometimes, though, in the optimistic moments that still startle me from time to time, fluttering up abruptly like birds almost stepped on at the edges of paths, I wonder how much of it is not boorish and antisocial but simply heedless. The slack-brained noddies cycling on pavements or wandering into the road or leaving their toddlers to stray into ponds or ditches or the jaws of dragons while they moon over their mobile phones and other handheld toys, the featherheads I must walk around while they drift unseeingly across whichever planet may be accommodating them ­– it may not be enemy action, may not be expressly designed to make me bury my head in my hands and whisper the word ‘doomed’. Yet sometimes it’s actively damaging: I recall Nick Carraway’s reflections as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby draws to its close:

daisy-buchanan-tom-buchanan

(Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton  in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby).

‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’[10]

Ah, the other people. Yes.

 

References

[1] Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), 119.

[2] ‘Moeurs Contemporaines: VII’, Personae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), 180.

[3] Samuel Hynes, An Edwardian Turn of Mind (1968; London: Pimlico, 1991), 14.

[4] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 509, 188.

[5] Norman Lewis, Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth ((1978; London: Eland Books, 2002), 50.

[6] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 443.

[7] Randall Jarrell, ‘Her Shield’, Poetry and the Age (1955; London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 177.

[8] Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution (1954; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 12.

[9] Guy Davenport, ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 348, 349-350.

[10] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1926; edited by Ruth Prigozy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 142.

 

The Sea – and James Agee

Beach

We have been to see the sea. We see it fairly often in any case but this time it was for a long, hard look, the window of the sitting-room of the rented apartment giving straight out onto the smaller beach and a wide view of the sea.

We are, of course, acquitted of the need to fashion trenchant or memorable remarks about it. It has all been done so many, many times before. ‘MER: N’a pas de fond. Image de l’infini. Donne de grandes pensées,’ Gustave Flaubert wrote, a hundred and fifty years ago, in his posthumously published Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Bottomless, a symbol of infinity, prompting deep thoughts.[1] That more or less covers it.

The fact is that gazing at a calm sea or, indeed, a restless one, is as transfixing as staring into an open fire, far more so, in fact. I might have added ‘watching other people work’ but this is often oddly gender-specific: men will watch for hours while other men dig a hole but perhaps they are ex-diggers themselves, so the watching is simply an exercise in nostalgia. Certainly, I can regard the open sea for a considerable period of time without strain; and have seen innumerable other people—regardless of gender—doing the same.

Agee

(© Walker Evans, 1937; via Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Writing of summer evenings in Knoxville, 1915, James Agee describes at length ‘the fathers of families’ all ‘hosing their lawns.’ After closely describing the varied sounds emitted by the hoses, singly and in concert, and then the dwindling and final ceasing of such activity, he notes that the locusts ‘carry on this noise of hoses on their much higher and sharper key.’ There is, again, the doubled effect, of the individual and the choral:

‘They are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums, the boldest of all the sounds of night. And yet it is habitual to summer nights, and is of the great order of noises, like the noises of the sea and of the blood her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening.’[2]

That wonderful sentence is echoed for me, in another book published that same year, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, in which he stands with the Hodja (teacher) as darkness falls over the sea. ‘It was a blessed moment—a sunset which the Greeks and Romans knew—in which the swinging cradle-motion of the sea slowly copied itself into the consciousness, and made one’s mind beat with the elemental rhythm of the earth itself.’[3]

Bitter-Lemons

That ‘great order of noises’ evokes for me a faint tang of the divine, as of a religious order, which may not be fanciful, since religion played a significant part in Agee’s development: from the age of about ten, he lived for years in the dormitory at St Andrew’s School, established by Episcopal monks of the Order of the Holy Cross. His short novel The Morning Watch is set in such an institution, and centres on the thoughts and emotions of a young boy, Richard, in the early hours of Good Friday.

‘Knoxville: Summer 1915’ now stands as a brief prologue to Agee’s major novel, A Death in the Family. The central event, the death of the father in an automobile accident, is drawn from Agee’s boyhood: his own father died in just that way when James was seven. It’s an uneven but often very powerful book. The unevenness, or variations in control, focus and intensity, derive in part from the fact that Agee did not live to effect final revisions, which means, on occasion, that choices haven’t been made and words or phrases overlap and blur into one another. Then, too, the first editors chose to italicise sections of the book which they feel are not strictly part of the story: these are the reflections of the boy, Rufus, but it’s highly problematic to decide what is or is not ‘part of the story’ when that story largely comprises an intense recall of the events and its consequences: psychological, emotional and religious. The italics, anyway, are a little disconcerting at first – though only at first – recalling Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Agee explores the reactions (and fears and repressions) of several members of the extended family, sometimes with a startlingly close-up, penetrative stare. Not formally perfect then, not aesthetically neat, but very effective, often strong, sometimes delicate.

Agee worked on A Death in the Family for several years from the late 1940s. When he died in 1955, it was completed, with the addition of ‘Knoxville : Summer 1915’, by the editors at McDowell, Obolensky (Agee’s friend David McDowell, was one of the co-founders), who also produced books by Hugh Kenner and William Carlos Williams, among others. Published in 1957, Agee’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The University of Tennessee Press published a scholarly edition of the ‘restored’ manuscript ten years ago, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, professor of American literature and American and cultural studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

There’s a nice photograph by Helen Levitt, dating from 1939, which sat on my desktop for a while: Agee sitting at the wheel of his convertible beside his second wife, Alma, with, in the back seat, the young Delmore Schwartz.

Agee-Alma-Schwartz

Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art © Estate of Helen Levitt (1913-2009)

Clouds of cigarette smoke, inevitably, drift up from the front seat; and all three are facing forward, Agee in what looks like a corduroy cap, Schwartz with his intent, distinctive profile; Alma, with her headscarf slipping back a little, gazing slightly down and, perhaps, inwards, maybe already sensing trouble to come. Here’s another photograph of Alma, by the great Walker Evans, taken in Brooklyn in 1939.

Alma-Agee

Walker Evans Archive, 1994 © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evans took the photographs which are so integral a part of the classic book he produced with Agee, published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (included in the Agee volume together with A Death in the Family and Agee’s shorter fiction: his novella The Morning Watch and a handful of short stories).

Much of Agee’s creative energy went into his film criticism (and co-writing the screenplay for The African Queen; he wrote the script for Charles Laughton’s 1955 The Night of the Hunter too, though Laughton cut it substantially). Agee also adapted ‘The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky’ by Stephen Crane. He appeared in a minor role in the film, which was released in a two-part Face to Face, the second section being an adaptation of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer.

That last detail interests the Ford Madox Ford scholar, because of Ford’s very specific allusions to Crane’s story,[4] and because several commentators have seen in Conrad’s novella evidence of his complicated attitude towards the collaboration with Ford (which produced two full-length novels and a long short story) and its ending.[5]

When her marriage to Agee broke down, Alma moved to Mexico with their young son, Joel; then back briefly to New York, then Mexico again, where she finally married the writer and political activist Bodo Uhse. She had some interesting encounters while working in a Mexico City Gallery, coming to know Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Pablo Neruda. In 1948, Alma, Bodo and Joel moved to East Germany. Joel later wrote a memoir called Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany (2000), published by the University of Chicago Press. Also for Chicago, Joel Agee has translated from German a number of volumes by writers including Rilke and Hans Erich Nossack, but principally, Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Pledge, The Assignment, The Inspector Barlach Mysteries and the three-volume Selected Works.

Alma lived into her mid-sixties, dying in 1988: her memoir, Always Straight Ahead, appeared in 1993. But one striking fact about Agee’s generation of writers is how many of them failed even to attain that age. Agee himself died at 45, suffering a massive heart attack in a New York taxicab, while Delmore Schwartz died in a shabby hotel at 52. Weldon Kees was 41, John Berryman managed 57, and Robert Lowell 60. The slightly older R. P. Blackmur died – very slightly older – at just 61.

References

[1] Published in 1913: Robert Baldick’s translation of The Dictionary of Received Ideas is included in the A. J. Krailsheimer translation of Bouvard and Pécuchet (London: Penguin Books, 1976).

[2] James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction, edited by Michael Sragow (New York: Library of America, 2005), 470, 471.

[3] Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 240.

[4] See Ford, Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 108; and, particularly, ‘Stevie and Co.’, in New York Essays (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1927). 29.

[5] See Frederick R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 673; letter from Thomas C. Moser, quoted in Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, translated by Halina Carroll-Najder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 361; Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 149.

 

Trust; and his sister, Miss Trust

TSE-and-cat

(T. S. Eliot—a British subject, anyway—and a definite cat)

Being an Englishman of a certain age and type, I rarely speak to strangers in the street, though I always speak to cats—and strangers sometimes speak to me. Not long ago, a woman, elderly and rather frail, came out of her house as I was passing and asked me to open a tin of baked beans for her: the ring pull was stiff and her fingers were arthritic. In fact, the ring pull came off in my hand and, though she said she owned an old-fashioned tin opener and looked for it while I waited just inside her front door, she was unable to find it.

What struck me in retrospect was the fact of my being left for several minutes standing on my own inside her home. She’d never set eyes on me before. Did she trust me or was it more a matter of her not mistrusting anybody? Had she just been extraordinarily fortunate in her previous dealings with random strangers? Thinking of some of the people that I’d seen, and passed, within a few minutes’ walk of her house, I could only think it lucky for her that it was me, and not any of them, that she’d happened upon.

At the time of the horsemeat scandal about five years ago, someone on the news observed that trust takes a long time to establish but no time at all to lose. True enough, and true also of other things, which take so long to build up but can be so quickly screwed up, national health services, national public library systems and the like—civilisations, even.

zounds-room-already-full-devils
‘Zounds, the room is already full of devils!’ Gustave Doré, from Œuvres de François Rabelais (Works of François Rabelais), Paris, 1854. (Source: archive.org)

So who do we trust? Two or three generations ago, a lot of people would have opted for doctors, teachers, bank managers, clergymen, the police, solicitors. Not all of those groups have lasted well in this respect. Politicians may never have been especially trustworthy but trust in them was probably never quite as damaged or as threadbare as it is now.

Who else is there? Family, friends, perhaps neighbours – and? Some people ‘trust’ the internet or social media – or yes, journalists (some journalists).

‘Artists are the antennae of the race’, Ezra Pound wrote, remembering Shelley and adding, characteristically, ‘but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists.’[1] Adrian Stokes wrote later, in Stones of Rimini, that ‘Poets alone are trustworthy interpreters’ – which sounds a little Poundian, and it should come as no surprise to learn that Stokes was drawn to the materials and settings of his major work by Pound’s Cantos.[2]

George Santayana, who had presumably had a few unlucky encounters at the local pub, wrote in his Soliloquies in England: ‘Trust the man who hesitates in his speech and is quick and steady in action, but beware of long arguments and long beards.’[3]

And here is John Ruskin—who did, indeed, sport a long beard, certainly in his later years and was not averse to long arguments—explaining in his Fors Clavigera (addressed, a wee bit optimistically, to ‘The Workmen of England’) some of the ramifications of his title:

Ruskin-1894

‘Certain authoritative conditions of life, of its happiness, and its honour, are therefore stated, in this book, as far as they may be, conclusively and indisputably, at present known. I do not enter into any debates, nor advance any opinions. With what is debateable I am unconcerned; and when I only have opinions about things, I do not talk about them. I attack only what cannot on any possible ground be defended; and state only what I know to be incontrovertibly true.’
‘You will therefore find that whatever is set down in Fors for you is assuredly true, – inevitable, – trustworthy to the uttermost, – however strange.*’

Followed by this excellent footnote: ‘*Observe, this is only asserted of its main principles; not of minor and accessory points. I may be entirely wrong in the explanation of a text, or mistake the parish schools of St. Matthias for St. Matthew’s, over and over again. I have so large a field to work in that this cannot be helped. But none of these minor errors are of the least consequence to the business in hand.’[4]

Now there was a – trustworthy – man with work to do. And rather wonderful, the comment that ‘when I only have opinions about things, I do not talk about them’. Lately, of course, a great many people feel no need to be informed about things or to know about things: why would they when they have opinions to voice?

Hindsight, even in fiction, is a wonderful thing. But—in or out of fiction—there is a need to adjust your opinions should the facts, or new knowledge of the facts, demand it. As Ford Madox Ford’s John Dowell remarks of Edward Ashburnham: ‘You would have said that he was just exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with. And I trusted mine—and it was madness.’[5]

 

References

[1] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 297.

[2] Adrian Stokes, The Quattro Cento and The Stones of Rimini (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 20, 26.

[3] George Santayana, ‘The British Character’, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922; Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1967), 32.

[4] John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), II, 379, 380.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 16.

 

Seeing again, making it new

Inheritors

Re-reading an early Ford Madox Ford work recently, I noticed that, while my scrappy and often baffling notes from the previous reading ran to little more than a page, I now have something over ten pages of extracts, cross-references and occasionally more general comments. Should I be impressed or anxious? Was it admirably thorough or mildly deranged? Clearly, this reader had changed substantially in the intervening period and, to that extent, the book itself was changed. Curious, since it had seemed stable enough in its hard covers, more than a century old.

Yet – how stable, exactly, even at the most basic level? It was written by Ford Madox Hueffer, who would subsequently become (in 1919) Ford Madox Ford, in collaboration with Joseph Conrad, who had become a British subject in 1886 and was previously known as Konrad Korzeniowski. It was written when work on their initial collaborative venture, Romance, was already well-advanced but was completed and published first; an unsteady hybrid of science fiction, political satire and roman à clef, it concerned itself with nefarious dealings in a country—‘Greenland’—which was clearly in Africa and, pretty obviously, the Congo Free State of the rapacious King Leopold II of Belgium. As Ford recalled it more than twenty years later: ‘The novel was to be a political work, rather allegorically backing Mr Balfour in the then Government; the villain was to be Joseph Chamberlain who had made the [Boer] war.’[1]

Conrad_1904

(Joseph Conrad, 1904)

Stability. A key word for those that have followed, with bafflement or appalled disbelief, the mad pantomime of British politics over the past few months. In The Inheritors, we find: ‘I became conscious that I wanted to return to England, wanted it very much, wanted to be out of this; to get somewhere where there was stability and things that one could understand.’[2] Cue a pained smile. ‘Permanence? Stability? I can’t believe it’s gone’, a later Ford narrator lamented.[3] Of course, it was—it is—always already gone. . .

In any case, I find it an intriguing and curious business, this revisiting—of a place, a person, a painting, a book, a film, a piece of music—and finding it so changed. It’s commonplace and banal, yet enduringly mysterious and fascinating. There are, to be sure, many thousands of pages of philosophy, psychology, biology, neurology, physics, optics and more, devoted to just this phenomenon. We’re increasingly comfortable with the idea that the observer alters what is observed, that the slightest shift in position or perspective alters the thing seen. Some of us saw the intriguing 1974 Alan Pakula political thriller, The Parallax View, with Warren Beatty and Paula Prentiss, and looked up the meaning of the title. (‘Parallax, you see. Observed from different angles, Gestalts alter.’)[4] Fifty years before that, in 1923, Wallace Stevens published ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’.

Parallax_View_movie_poster

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying. [5]

A goodly proportion of those thousands of pages, though, can probably be reduced to just two words of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, panta rei, everything flows, flux and change as the essential characteristics of the world.[6] 

T. S. Eliot used two quotations from Heraclitus to preface Four Quartets, the second of them translated as ‘The way up and the way down are one and the same’. Eliot wrote of being ‘much influenced’ by Heraclitus when younger and thought the influence a permanent one. The quotations were, he said, ‘a tribute to my debt to this great philosopher.’[7]

In Little Gidding, the last of the Quartets, Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.[8]

See it again but know it for the first time.

Stanley Spencer wrote of his celebrated painting, The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard: ‘The resurrection is meant to indicate the passing of the state of non-realization of the possibilities of heaven in this life to the sudden awakening to the fact. This is what is inspiring the people as they resurrect, namely the new meaning they find in what they had seen before.’[9]

The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, 1924-1927, © Tate Gallery)

That ‘awakening’ is, again, indissolubly linked to the familiar or, at least, to that which has been seen before. Much of Spencer’s art is ‘religious’ but very idiosyncratically so, ‘visionary’ rather, an art constantly linking back to his feelings about the village of Cookham and its people, his childhood and familial memories and sensations revisited, recaptured and reworked.

Time slips and eddies. We return, retrace, revisit and see again, in thought, in dreams, in conversation. Memories lose their edges, become indistinct, bleed into others. We can’t always predict what has taken root in the mind or the nerves, what doesn’t need to be consciously recovered, what can be held and turned in a glancing light and mysteriously made new.

I could not draw a map of it, this road,
Nor say with certainty how many times
It doubles on itself before it climbs
Clear of the ascent. And yet I know
Each bend and vista and could not mistake
The recognition, the recurrences
As they occur, nor where. So my forgetting
Brings back the track of what was always there
As new as a discovery.[10]

 

References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 133.

[2] Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 106.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 13.

[4] Hugh Kenner, ‘Joyce on the Continent’, in Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 114.

[5] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 92, 94.

[6] ‘All things are a flowing,/ Sage Heracleitus says’, Ezra Pound wrote, adding: ‘But a tawdry cheapness/ Shall outlast our days.’ See Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in Personae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), 186.

[7] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 907. John Fowles offers: ‘The road up and the road down are the same road’, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), the ‘original impulse’ for the book and ‘many of the ideas’ in it having come from Heraclitus (214).

[8] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I, 208. Another faint connection for John Fowles readers: this is the first marked passage in the poetry anthology which Nicholas Urfe finds on the beach, in The Magus (London: Pan Books, 1968), 60.

[9] Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 226, citing the Spencer collection in the Tate Archives, reference TA 733.3.1.

[10] Charles Tomlinson, ‘The Return’, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 413.

 

Everything as something else

Sea

When I read John Banville’s novel, The Sea, some years ago, one statement stuck in my head, when the narrator observed: ‘Everything now reminds me of something else.’ It stayed with me because this seemed increasingly my own case. If you have an associative memory, in which details tend to cling to others like burrs, as the sheer quantity of matter in that memory becomes unmanageable, it’s increasingly difficult to dredge up a thing cleanly. ‘To see the object as it really is’—a central concern for Matthew Arnold, meaning rather to remove the incrustations of orthodoxy or class habit or cultural assumption: perfection ‘can never be reached without seeing things as they really are; and it is to this, therefore, and to no machinery in the world, that culture sticks fondly.’[1]

How much of a problem is it if something read or heard or, increasingly, seen recalls something else, quotations, images derived from similar-sounding words, parallels and echoes? And, problem or not, is it in any case avoidable—or even desirable that it should be?

‘Now, this power of suggestion is one of the most mysterious properties of words. Everyone who has ever written a sentence must be conscious or half-conscious of it. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations—naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today’. This is Virginia Woolf, who gives the example of ‘incarnadine’, adding: ‘who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”?’[2]

Woolf.2

‘Incarnadine’ isn’t a word I’d use that often anyway, to be honest, but the essential case is made and plenty of other examples confirm it. The word ‘swaddled’, for instance, is now, I think, inextricable from images of the Christ-child, even in the minds of those least-versed in Christian imagery and symbolism. Yet that’s immediately complicated by the example of the word’s use that first springs to mind, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, where, to borrow a phrase, ‘the quotabilities swarm’:[3]

Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

Tiger

The poem is two and a half pages long; the commentary, twenty. ‘Swaddled with darkness’? ‘The Book of Job’ (38, 9) via a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes.[4]

But the Banville, yes. At some point, without foreboding or focused intention, but merely happenstance (how often and how genuinely are things ‘merely happenstance’?), I browsed my way back to it and noticed (of course) that what I recalled so vividly was not present at all. He had actually written: ‘…everything for me is something else, it is a thing I notice increasingly.’[5]

And (of course) this, or something like it, had cropped up before; many times, probably, but one occurs to me without searching or straining. Towards the end of To the Lighthouse, James, the Ramsay son to whom the first words of the novel are addressed, recalls what the lighthouse has meant to him in the past and compares it with the reality of the structure very close to him, as the boat journey to the rocks on which it stands is almost ended. And he understands that ‘the Lighthouse’ is neither one thing nor the other, not simply, not always. ‘For nothing was simply one thing.’[6] And in Orlando, a work notable above all, I suppose, for changeability, mutability and instability: ‘Everything, in fact, was something else.’[7]

Something else as well, I want to write. Everything turning out to be something completely different from what we believed it to be is too scary a thought; but multiplicity is fine, better than fine, desirable, no, indispensable.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[8]

We are deluged with information now, much of it crazy, much of it incorrigibly plural—and much of it by routes where nothing is filtered or ordered. The internet is a wonderfully accurate reflection of this: a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand links brought up by a typed keyword or phrase. We may recognize a few of the sources and already have them arranged in a loose hierarchy in our minds; but in most cases we can’t tell without clicking on them, assessing, questioning. Many people assume, based on other contexts, that the ‘best’ links are at the top of the page. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so. And the question we ask of them can often not be answered since the lack of the information required to answer it was what prompted the original inquiry. I recall this from the novelist Nicholas Mosley: ‘The experiment is to discover the mechanisms of the brain. But the instruments are constructed by these mechanisms, so the operation is impossible.’[9]

Byron

Information overload. Recreation overload. Writing a letter to Lord Byron (as you do), W. H. Auden remarked:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.[10]

I remind myself that we’ve had eighty years since Auden published his poem to develop ways of wasting our time – and that my favourite edition of Ulysses is 933 pages.

 
References

[1] Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf, ‘Craftsmanship’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 88 (referring to Macbeth, II, ii, 59).

[3] Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.

[4] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 31, 474.

[5] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 138.

[6] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; edited by David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165-166, 152.

[7] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928; edited by Rachel Bowlby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 138.

[8] Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[9] Nicholas Mosley, Natalie Natalia (Dalkey Archive Press: Victoria, Texas: 2006), 130.

[10] Auden, Letter to Lord Byron, Part II (first published in Letters from Iceland, his 1937 collaboration with Louis MacNeice), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 177.

 

Sorrows, joys, magpies

magpies

Watching a magpie on the garden fence, trying to identify the memory that its gestures and movements called to mind, I realised that it was Jacques Tati, in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. (One of my earliest visits to the cinema: the only time I ever saw my father crying with laughter.) The abrupt uplifting and lowering of the head, the stiff yet rapid leaning forward from the waist, the quick flicks of the head to left and right: mais oui, c’est Monsieur Hulot!

Tati

Their distinctive staccato chatter sounds from the roof, the fence, the tree, the neighbouring chimneys. It’s everywhere in the nearby park, though generally singly. There was a period during which we would see five or six in a group, strutting, leering, looking distinctly thuggish. But lately it’s one at a time. More than a dozen years ago now, my wife was walking to work over the park and had just noted two magpies when she slipped on black ice and fractured her wrist. Since then, we have been wary of rhymes’ prophetic validity. Two may not be lucky but do the loners necessarily signify misfortune?

One for sorrow, two for joy
Three for a girl, four for a boy

That’s the version most people know, at least if of a certain age and able to recall the television programme. What is, presumably, the older rhyme runs:

One’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth[1]

This survives in the version – from a sixteen-year-old Birmingham schoolgirl, recorded by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey:

One for anger, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth

This version gets ‘saltier’ (their word) as it progresses:

Five for rich, six for poor
Seven for a bitch, eight for a whore[2]

The origin of the name runs back through Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘maggot-pie’) to ‘Margaret’ or ‘Margot the pye’, from a French equivalent. Iona and Peter Opie have a nice story of the poet laureate, Henry James Pye, appointed in 1790, whose first (very poor) ode was for the king’s birthday, and was guyed by a punster named George Steevens (‘when the PYE was opened’), unimpressed as he was by Pye’s feeble effort. The Opies quote a version of ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, the rhyme published in 1784, which ends with ‘Up came a magpie and bit off her nose.’ The maid still suffers, then, but at the hands – beak, rather – of a different bird.[3]

‘Pie’ is ‘pied’, of course, the black and white plumage, and bishops were sometimes termed ‘magpies’ because of the similarly contrasting colours of their vestments. The magpie’s occurrences in literature include one in Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto 81’:

Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail[4]

The black and the white together is a handy representation of the opposing strains of interpretation of this passage and the question of just who is being addressed here (‘Pull down thy vanity’): some say it’s Pound himself, others the U.S. Army (Pound’s captors at that time, in the Disciplinary Training Center at Pisa).[5]

Ezra_Pound_1945_May_26_mug_shot

In ‘House and Man’, Edward Thomas recalls a man in his house amidst ‘forest silence and forest murmur’, the only house for miles:

But why I call back house and man again
Is that now on a beech-tree’s tip I see
As then I saw – I at the gate, and he
In the house darkness, – a magpie veering about,
A magpie like a weathercock in doubt.[6]

This is, as you’d expect from Thomas, quite accurate: I’ve watched magpies, precisely, veering about; and ‘a weathercock in doubt’ is wonderfully suggestive.

John Fowles had a bookplate which showed his name surrounded by magpies, a pictorial representation of his habits as both reader and buyer of books. ‘A quite literal pair of magpies breed in my garden every year,’ he closes his essay on the subject. ‘Wicked creatures though they are, I let them be. One must not harm one’s own.’[7]

‘Wicked’? The magpie certainly has a justified reputation for being omnivorous: eggs and nestlings feature among many other food sources. It’s a famously intelligent bird, sociable, mischievous and, I’d venture, with a strong sense of humour. Pretty widespread too: Jonathan Trouern-Trend, who served in Iraq, notes sightings of grebes, egrets, kites, vultures, bustards and avocets galore but, happily, our friend Pica pica is also there: ‘Seen year round at LSAA [LSA – Logistics Support Area is my guess – Anaconda, his home base], seemed more common at higher elevations.’[8]

 

References

[1] The version quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner, in a letter to Julius Lipton, 21 October 1935: Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 36-37.

[2] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 400.

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 471, 472.

[4] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 521.

[5] So, for instance, Christine Froula—‘self-accusations’—in A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1983), 236; and A. David Moody—‘humbled’—Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 159; as against Jerome McGann—‘not himself but the US Army’—in Towards a Literature of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 114.

[6] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 60.

[7] John Fowles, ‘Of Memoirs and Magpies’, in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, edited by Jan Relf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 33.

[8] Jonathan Trouern-Trend, Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 79.