Getting it on the page: a few notes on Guy Davenport’s ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’

Courbet, Gustave, 1819-1877; Pomegranates

(Gustave Courbet, Pomegranates: People’s Palace and Winter Gardens, Glasgow)

Half a pomegranate, falling from the middle shelf of a refrigerator, has a startling effect upon a kitchen floor. On my hands and knees, I grope under cupboard and table, picking up seeds.

Responding to William Carlos Williams—‘We have/ a microscopic anatomy/ of the whale/ this/ gives/ Man/ assurance’—the Czech poet and scientist Miroslav Holub wrote ‘Wings’:

We have
a map of the universe
for microbes,
we have
a map of a microbe
for the universe.

We have
a Grand Master of chess
made of electronic circuits.

But above all
we have
the ability
to sort peas,
to cup water in our hands,
to seek
the right screw
under the sofa
for hours

This
gives us
wings.[1]

Referring to Ovid’s story of the invention of wings—the master craftsman Daedalus and his lost son—Guy Davenport wrote that the first two stories in Tatlin! ‘are both the tale of Icarus told in different styles’. The first story is ‘Tatlin!’, the second, ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia.’

The Air Show at Brescia, 1909

(From Peter Demetz, The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002): Blériot is on the right)

This is probably the most discussed of Davenport’s short fictions, perhaps not least by the author himself, both in interviews and in the discussion of his stories in ‘Ernst Machs Max Ernst’. This is in part because it was based on Kafka’s first published writing, his report of the airshow at Brescia (8–20 September 1909), which appeared in La Sentinella Bresciana, in part because the story represented Davenport’s own first foray into fiction since ‘undergraduate days’: he was forty-three when he wrote it, he says, though that was his age on its first publication – the writing of it was more likely 1967-1969. Edward Burns points to the letter of 10 February 1966, in which Hugh Kenner asked Davenport if he knew of any evidence that Kafka’s novel The Castle drew on the castle at Brunnenberg, Merano, where Ezra Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz lived with her husband Boris, and where Pound himself lived for a while after his return to Italy. Not until September 1967 did Davenport mention Kafka’s ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’.[2] Davenport’s story first appeared in The Hudson Review, in the issue for Winter 1969-1970.

In ‘Ernst Machs Max Ernst’, he discussed the ways in which he went about assembling material for his story: Kafka’s article,[3] of course, from which he draws several details and phrases, including the passage from La Sentinella Bresciana, describing the forthcoming air display; Max Brod’s biography of him, what Davenport could discover of people who were there (the poet and novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio, the composer Giacomo Puccini), ‘as well as of people who might well have been there (Wittgenstein).’ He studied contemporary photographs, read histories of aviation and built a model of Blériot’s Antoinette CV25. ‘Notice everything’, Franklin, a young character in one of Davenport’s later stories says, ‘Know where everything comes from, a hundred years back.’[4]

Franz Kafka (right) with Max Brod’s younger brother, Otto, at the Castel Toblino near Trento, Italy, 1909

(Max Brod and Kafka, via New York Review of Books)

‘I knew that Kafka’s first entry in his notebooks that led to writing The Castle was made at Merano, where he would have been gazing at the castle in which Ezra Pound was living at the time I was writing. What kind of symbol (if any) this constructs I do not know, but I felt that something was inside the image. It can be said of all my involucra [anatomical term for envelope] that I hope there is a meaning inside, but do not necessarily know. I trust the image; my business is to get it onto the page.’[5]

One of the most unsettling aspects of reading Davenport’s stories is his own repeated assertions that his fictional art is ‘primitive’—‘This last term is slippery, and has several implications’, as Erik Reece remarks[6]—and references to these writings as his ‘ravings’. Yet they proceed from a breadth and depth of knowledge—historical, artistic, literary, scientific, anthropological—that is consistently astonishing; they also draw upon a vocabulary that frequently evidences an intimate relationship with Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, references to which are scattered through Davenport’s essays. There are also words, phrases, sentences, in French, German, Dutch, Latin, Greek, Italian, Danish.

Reece-Balance

The subjects chosen for stories in Tatlin! ‘are all in the position of being, as fact, almost not there’, Davenport writes, noting that he sidestepped verisimilitude of the Gustave Flaubert or Walter Scott kind at the outset, deciding that his ‘best hope of a sustained reality would be one like Max Ernst’s world, which is always of verifiably real things that are not, however, where they are supposed to be’ (Geography, 376, 377). Indeed, that constantly unsettling vocabulary, the jolts and blanknesses and near-misses (your dictionary has that word, more or less, yet not quite in the form that Davenport’s used it), is a major, integral part of disrupting what is sometimes the trance, the state of suspended animation in which we find ourselves with some naturalistic prose. Ford Madox Ford wrote that, ‘Carefully examined, a good—an interesting—style will be found to consist in a constant succession of tiny unobservable surprises.’[7] The surprises in Davenport’s fiction, if not quite constant, are certainly not tiny and inarguably not unobservable.

In ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’, which takes place just five years before the beginning of a machine age war of unprecedented destructiveness, Kafka and Max Brod are accompanied by Max’s brother Otto: ‘The newest style, he said, is always in love with the oldest of which we are aware. The next Wiedergeburt [rebirth, regeneration] will come from the engineers.’[8] Present in Davenport’s story, though not in Kafka’s, is ‘[t]he man named Wittgenstein’, who is ‘again holding his left wrist, massaging it as if it were in pain’ (Tatlin! 70). There was, of course, another ‘man named Wittgenstein’, one of Ludwig’s elder brothers, Paul, a concert pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War but afterwards taught himself to play with his left hand so successfully that he was able to continue his career.

Wittgenstein-New-Statesman

(Ludwig Wittgenstein via The New Statesman)

Since the autumn of 1908, Ludwig Wittgenstein had been registered as a research student in the Engineering Department of Manchester University, where he had gone to study aeronautics. ‘It was his apparent intention to construct, and eventually to fly, an aeroplane of his own design.’[9] He began by experimenting on the design and construction of kites. The Wright Brothers too had so begun. ‘The kite was their beginning, not the bird. That was da Vinci’s radical error’ (Tatlin! 55).

In a 1991 exchange, Laurence Zachar remarked: ‘A proportionately large part of your work is Utopian. It deals with happy people, in an ideal place where there is no violence.’ Davenport responded that ‘The Dawn in Erewhon’ the novella that closes Tatlin! is all about a Utopian vision. Communism is a Utopian vision, first story [‘Tatlin!’]. In “The Aeroplanes at Brescia”, there’s the implicit sense that aeroplanes were going to stop all wars; the Wright brothers wrote a famous letter to the War Department which paid no attention to it, saying: with the aeroplane, there can be no more troop movements because they can be observed from the air, and therefore no more wars.’[10]

Bleriot-25Jul1909-EngCh.NYT

(Louis Blériot, 25 July 1909, having just flown across the English Channel: via New York Times)

When the story first appeared in the Hudson Review, a paragraph on the final page put that assertion into the mouth of Otto Brod but Davenport must have felt that such an unbearably painful irony was too easy, a little too obvious. It was omitted when revised for book publication.

Nevertheless, like so much of the history of flight itself, Davenport’s story ends in tears:

‘—Franz! Max said before he considered what he was saying, why are there tears in your eyes?
—I don’t know, Kafka said. I don’t know.’ (Tatlin! 70).

Davenport once said that he wanted ‘several transformations of each tale simultaneously, because we have reached this possibility.’ He added: ‘The story about Kafka, for instance, which follows his own account of the event, is based on a scene in Proust, where the aeroplanes are not at Brescia but at Le Bourget. It was Proust, not Kafka, who wept inexplicably when he saw an airplane for the first time.’[11]

GD_Apples_pears

This has another fictional relation in Davenport’s work. In Apples and Pears, the narrator, Adriaan van Hovendaal, and Sander, on the island where they often spend time, are talking of buying the house on Spiegelgracht: it will be another island but in Amsterdam, their version of Fourier’s Utopia. ‘Adriaan, he said, there are tears in your eyes.’[12]

And, after all, was it actually Proust who wept? Or was it, rather, his narrator, the ‘almost’ Proust, ‘Marcel’:

All of a sudden my horse reared; he had heard a strange noise, I had difficulty in controlling him and not being thrown to the ground, then I raised my tear-filled eyes to the spot from where the noise appeared to be coming, and I saw, fifty metres or so above me, in the sunlight, between two great wings of glittering steel that were bearing him away, a being whose indistinct face I fancied resembled that of a man. I was moved as might a Greek have been setting eyes for the first time on a demigod. I was weeping also, for I had been ready to weep from the moment when I recognized that the noise was coming from above my head – aeroplanes were still a rarity in those days ­ and at the thought that what I was about to see for the first time was an aeroplane.[13]

One final ‘transformation’, perhaps.

 

References

[1] Miroslav Holub, ‘Wings’, translated by George Theiner, in The Fly, translated by Ewald Osers, George Theiner, Ian and Jarmila Milner (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1987), 43. In ‘Histology’, this reads ‘There is/ the/ microscopic/ anatomy/ of, the whale/ this is/ reassuring’: William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Volume II: 1939-1962, edited by Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1988), 419.

[2] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, xii.

[3] Franz Kafka, ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’, in The Transformation and Other Stories: Works Published During Kafka’s Lifetime, translated and edited by Malcolm Pasley (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 1-10.

[4] See the title story in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon: Nine Stories by Guy Davenport (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 108.

[5] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 374.

[6] Erik Anderson Reece, A Balance of Quinces: The Paintings and Drawings of Guy Davenport (New York: New Directions, 1996), 45. One such implication is the rebirth of the archaic in modernism, a reminder that industrial and military innovations are ‘not the only indicators of progress’.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 197.

[8] Guy Davenport, Tatlin! Six Stories (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 53.

[9] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991), 28.

[10] Laurence Zachar, ‘Guy Davenport. Lexington, Kentucky: December 1991’, Effets de voix (Tours: Presses universitaires François Rabelais, 1994).
See: http://books.openedition.org/pufr/3904 (accessed 20 March 2019)

[11] Guy Davenport, ‘From Indifference to Attention’, New York Times Book Review (4 April 1982), 30.

[12] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 153.

[13] Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. 4: Sodom and Gomorrah, translated by John Sturrock (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 423.

 

Cooking, cleaning, washing the pig

; Chinese People Washing Three Large, White Elephants

(Unknown artist, ‘Chinese people washing three large, white elephants’: Wellcome Collection)

07:30 and my Spelt loaf is underway. But I actually enjoy bread making so can this count as housework? Cooking, fine, washing up and vacuuming, okay; ironing, less so; cleaning, much less so.

When Rudyard Kipling moved into Bateman’s in September in 1902, the house and thirty-three acres costing £9300, he was, Andrew Lycett notes, looking forward to washing his 335 apple trees ‘with oil, limewash, salt and soap’ as recommended in the agricultural textbooks.[1] Would that count as housework? Probably not. Gardening or perhaps, on that scale, farming—‘We began with tenants – two or three small farmers on our very few acres – from whom we learned that farming was a mixture of farce, fraud, and philanthropy that stole the heart out of the land’—and would Kipling have done that work himself? He certainly had views on domestic service – of some of the people he met on his return from India to England: ‘They derided my poor little Gods of the East, and asserted that the British in India spent violent lives “oppressing” the Native. (This in a land where white girls of sixteen, at twelve or fourteen pounds per annum, hauled thirty and forty pounds weight of bath-water at a time up four flights of stairs!)’[2]

Batemans

http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/batemans.htm

D. H. Lawrence might turn his hand to sweeping floors and baking bread—and the Skeptic philosopher Pyrrhon of Elis was, apparently, ‘known to dust the house and sweep the floors for his sister, and was once seen washing the pig’[3]—but the real (male) literary demon when it comes to housework is Patrick White, whose letters are littered with references to the daily tasks. ‘I seem to spend all my time washing up and preparing for the next meal’, he wrote to Frederick Glover and, on the eve of a long trip to Europe, remarked to Mollie McKie: ‘Still, it will be a change not to do the washing up for a few months. I did go away for a few days recently. but found myself washing up in self-defence as my hosts were so bad at the sink.’ To Geoffrey Dutton, he confided that: ‘My rheumatics only left after house-cleaning days: I suppose all the stooping and stretching drove them out; so you can tell Max [Harris] that is another good reason not to keep a “char”.’ Later, furious at a review of one of his plays which asked what Patrick White knew about suburbia since he was brought up ‘in a mansion’, he told Mary Benson: ‘I had lived in suburbia for twelve years, between sink and stove, and scrubbing my own floors, before writing that play.’ Again to Dutton, describing a call from a friend, he noted in passing that ‘I was labouring at the house-cleaning when the telephone went’.[4]

White-Letters

When White and Manoly Lascaris moved to the house in Martin Road in October 1964, White’s biographer records, they had a cleaning woman for a short time but White stated that, ‘after doing everything in the way of house-cleaning ourselves over the last fifteen years, I find it a great strain having somebody else about, and I am always relieved when those mornings are over.’ She didn’t last and, ‘Once again, he took up the broom and Hoover himself.’[5]

How long does all this stuff take? How long should it take? Judith Flanders writes that most Victorian houses (above a certain social level, of course) ‘operated a system that ran more or less as follows:

Monday: laundry

Tuesday: servant’s room [if time was allowed for it at all, her note adds], one bedroom

Wednesday: remaining bedrooms

Thursday: drawing room, breakfast room, morning room

Friday: dining room and polishing the silver

Saturday: hall, stairs, kitchen, passageways

Sunday: collect, sort and soak laundry ready for Monday’[6]

Edwardian-maids

http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/occupations/general-servants-time-table/

Lucy Lethbridge, writing of the Edwardian period, notes that ‘Cotton, woven in the great textile factories of the industrial Midlands, needed mangling, starching, bleaching and pressing to keep its appearance. For the working-class housewife, washing her own family’s clothes took up two full days of the week.’ Midway through the twentieth century, ‘In 1950 a survey of full-time housewives showed that they spent an average of seventy hours a week on housework; in a survey in 1970 that average had risen to seventy-seven hours.’[7]

Leaving aside the fact that ‘labour-saving devices’ are assumed to do precisely that—and surely they became more widely available in those twenty years—seventy-seven hours? Really? Eleven hours a day every day of the week? Madness. I shall continue to cook, wash up, hoover and sweep a bit – and make bread. As for the bathroom and shower. . . the Librarian and I will draw lots.

 
References

[1] Harry Ricketts, The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: Chatto and Windus, 1999), 278; Andrew Lycett, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld, 1999), 347.

[2] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown, (1936; edited by Robert Hampson, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 146, 87.

[3] ‘Pyrrhon of Elis’, in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon: Nine Stories by Guy Davenport (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 25.

[4] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 123, 125, 352, 436-437, 493.

[5] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 447.

[6] Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbed to Deathbed (London: Harper Collins, 2003), 106-107.

[7] Lucy Lethbridge, Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 76, 308.

 

Betwixt and between

Tart

‘A perfect tart to weave together spring and summer’, Anna Jones wrote of her roast tomato and asparagus tart with rosemary.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/may/28/anna-jones-vegetable-tart-recipes

And so it is. While asparagus is available (so long as it’s not flown thousands of miles), I make it every week or so, the cherry tomatoes slowly roasting, the eggs coming slowly to room temperature, the lemons warily eyeing the zester and the Librarian sometimes bringing home the crème fraîche that I’ve forgotten to replace.

Meteorologically speaking, we are a little over halfway through our British Spring. The bright sky lures and the brisk wind bites; today is briefly alluring in between the showers, though yesterday the wind repeatedly lurched into explosive rages, scattering recycling bins along the street and wrecking the Librarian’s mini-greenhouse, spilled plant pots slewing soil across the gravel.

Wind breaking, then, rather breaking wind. Alluding to national habits of hat-tipping in a letter to James Laughlin, Guy Davenport noted that, ‘The French removed the chapeau and swept the air with it. The Elizabethan English swept the ground, after three twirls while making a leg.’ He added: ‘It is told of a provincial mayor that whilst so saluting Elizabeth I, he broke wind. He was thrown into confusion and slunk away. He later received a gracious note from his sovereign, saying, “I have forgot the fart.”’[1]

Salome-Rilke

Seasonally, then, we’re betwixt and between, as Ford Madox Ford wrote to his agent James Pinker about the genre of the manuscript that became No Enemy. ‘For what is going on here, heaven knows, has for three or four days not been spring any more, has been dense, young summer’, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé from Rome in April 1904:

The hyacinths in my little bed, which have long been hesitating, are flinging open their blossom eyes like one hammered awake by an alarm-clock, and have already been standing there quite long and straight. The elms and oaks by my house are full, the Judas tree has shed its blossoms, and all its leaves will be ready overnight; and a syringa tree that stretched out its clusters only three days ago is already in process of fading and scorching. The nights are scarcely cool any more, and the busy clamor of frogs is their voice. The owls call less often, and the nightingale still hasn’t begun. Will she still sing now that it is summer?[2]

Winter

Yes, good question. What is that song we hear so indistinctly – nightingale or Siren? Nationally, we are, along with a good many other countries suffering political rupture, very much between: in our case, divergent forces wrenched between Little Britain and the wider world. I sense in myself, on some days, that ‘armchair reformist’ Louis MacNeice wrote of, who ‘sits between two dangers–wishful thinking and self-indulgent gloom.’[3] Things are, in some senses, quieter at the moment but the building is still subsiding, the body still nearing the ground at a troubling speed.

As for Ford Madox Ford’s phrase, ‘betwixt and between’: does that imply movement or simply the state of being stranded, neither one thing nor t’other? Ford himself had identified an historical moment when, ‘The old order, in fact, is changing; the new has hardly visibly arrived.’[4]

ER1

Ford was writing towards the end of the reign of Edward VII—you might say ‘Edwardian’ but things get complicated around then, not helped by some of the connotations of the word ‘Georgian’—a juncture anyway to which critics and literary historians are prone to referring as ‘transitional’. Of Ford’s journal The English Review, Malcolm Bradbury once observed: ‘the magazine marks a moment of strong literary transition.’[5] Well, yes: December 1908 to February1910, that phrase seems reasonable enough, so it may be unsurprising—and I’m not sure how ironic—that the word, certainly the idea, of transition, is applied to Ford himself with remarkable frequency. I confess to doing it myself all the time.

Of a slightly later period—a decade or so—Laurence Rainey wrote that ‘by now it should be clear that the publication of The Waste Land marked the crucial moment in the transition of modernism from a minority culture to one supported by an important institutional and financial apparatus.’[6] The avant-garde journal Transition was founded by Eugene Jolas and Maria McDonald in 1927 and ran for a decade; English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, began in 1957 and remains one of the leading literary journals today.

Macaulay-Told-Idiot

Critics and literary historians, then, find ‘transition’ everywhere, though Stephen Kern sternly declares that, ‘One of the greatest fallacies of historical reconstruction is the characterization of events as transitional.’[7] In her 1923 novel, Told by an Idiot, Rose Macaulay writes ‘Stanley always reflected her time and it was, people said, a time of transition. For that matter, times always are, and one year is always rather different from the last.’ And later in the same book: ‘A queer time! Perhaps a transition time; for that matter, this is one of the things times always are.’[8]

Safe to say, then, that we are probably betwixt and between – and almost certainly in a time of transition.

 
References

[1] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 165.

[2] Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910, translated by Jane Bannard Greene and M. D. Herter Norton (New York: Norton, 1969), 148.

[3] Louis MacNeice, The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, edited E. R. Dodds (Faber paperback 1996), 134.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Attitude (London: Duckworth, 1911), 128-129.

[5] Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 81.

[6] Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Cultures (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 91.

[7] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 (Harvard University Press, 1983), 142.

[8] Rose Macaulay, Told by an Idiot (1923; Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1940), 55, 150.

Gunmen and bowmen: Don McCullin at Tate Britain

McCullin

The Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain has been receiving five-star reviews in the press. Would we quarrel with this? Hell, no. The photography—together with the magical arts practised in the darkroom—sits perfectly on a level with much of the art that, in the broadest context, surrounds it. The subject matter is often appalling, the quality of construction and composition superb, the result frequently unnervingly beautiful. A large chunk of the second half of the twentieth century, its public history and its private grief, is here. And what a hell of a century that was for so many people.

Part of the way round the exhibition, I was conscious of several strong but distinct strands of feeling. One was a recognisable impulse to weep, at the sheer unstoppable waves of slaughter, suffering, grief, loss and despair, in Biafra, in East Beirut, in Vietnam, in London’s East End, in Cyprus, in Northern Ireland, in Kurdistan, the Congo, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Iraq. I was also getting flashbacks to my reaction to Raoul Peck’s superb 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, based on a James Baldwin manuscript, when I was struck by how little progress had actually been made in the intervening years and how much of what had been so appalling then remained appalling now. On the walls of the McCullin exhibition were images from the 1970s not only of the many bloody, vicious and pointless conflicts but of homeless and destitute people, house interiors in foul condition because of exploitative landlords, anti-fascist demonstrations in London, vile racist graffiti on exterior walls. Forty years ago, fifty years ago—and those huge stretches of time simply fall away or dissipate like smoke when you open a newspaper or turn on the news now.

Waterloo-Bridge

We’d walked along Waterloo Bridge, where a great many people were demonstrating to draw attention to climate emergency here in our last chance saloon, most of them young, since my generation and the one before it have proved themselves so utterly useless in this regard, trashing the planet while wasting twenty or thirty years after a good number of the relevant facts were already known, so the response at this absurdly late stage must necessarily be more radical, more comprehensive, more disruptive, than if intelligently conceived, planned and executed policies had existed before now.

GD-GB

The other response I recognised was a recurrent desire to shout obscenities at the top of my voice, remembering then a moment in a Guy Davenport story, typically highly allusive, sometimes cryptic, culturally wide-ranging, stylistically elegant, which abruptly and shockingly lurches into quite another register. ‘The Bowmen of Shu’ centres on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed at Neuville-St.-Vaast on 5 June 1915 at the age of twenty-three, and consists of 42 sections, varying from a single line to several pages, interspersed—in the version included in Apples and Pears—with thirteen drawings, two by Gaudier and the others by Davenport. Section 10 reads: ‘THE SOLDAT’S REMARK TO GENERAL APPLAUSE / Fuck all starters of war up the arse with a handspike dipped in tetanus.’ And yes, I think, yes, I second that emotion. And please include all the suppliers of arms and the political and financial shysters that actively or passively facilitate such slaughters.

Men with guns. Always a particular cause, a particular locality, particular grievances, occasions, pretexts, justifications. But that particularity leaks away, blurs, dilutes, leaving only men with guns. Dead children, grieving parents—and men with guns.

It is, in any case, one of the very best exhibitions, if also one of the most harrowing, I can remember seeing.

Letting in water

Durer-ill-ShipFools

(Albrecht Dürer, illustration to The Ship of Fools)

There was a piece in The Guardian a few days back, which rounded up some foreign views of the state the United Kingdom is in, reminding us, if we needed reminding, that to many people outside this country, such a spectacle must seem extraordinary.

The Washington Post had a piece called ‘Brexit will mark the end of Britain’s role as a great power’, which observed that the UK, ‘famous for its prudence, propriety and punctuality, is suddenly looking like a banana republic’. Here was a country ‘determined to commit economic suicide but unable even to agree on how to kill itself’, led by ‘a ship of fools’ unwilling to ‘compromise with one another and with reality’. The result was an ‘epic failure of political leadership’, Friedman said: scary stuff, but ‘you can’t fix stupid’.

‘Ship of fools.’ That was an adaptation (1509) by the poet Alexander Barclay of a 1494 allegory by the German satirist Sebastian Brant; also the title of an allegorical novel by Katherine Anne Porter, published in 1962. The nautical theme recurs, not only in the header illustration by the Guardian design team, showing the HMS Britain steeply angled in an unfriendly-looking sea, but in one or two other comments. Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, said many Indians saw Brexit as the latest chapter in a ‘sharp decline in the place Britain commands as a great power’. The UK ‘is not a gold standard to look up to’, he said. ‘We get a feeling of a sinking ship, and everybody wants to leave a sinking ship.’

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/apr/06/a-shambles-on-which-the-sun-never-sets-how-the-world-sees-brexit

I was reminded of that stout phrase, ‘the Ship of State’, which I see is traced back to Book Six of Plato’s The Republic. In the old Jowett translation, one section caught my eye: ‘The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering—every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.’

No contemporary parallel there, obviously. Precisely in the middle of the nineteenth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow waxed optimistic:

‘Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O UNION, strong and great!’

And:

‘In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!’[1]

Traffic-Hole-Shoe

That of course, was another Union, which, eleven years later, didn’t seem so solid; while ours is certainly lower-case and seems to be letting in water. In another lifetime, Traffic had a hit with a Dave Mason song, ‘Hole in My Shoe’ (‘And all that I knew/ The hole in my shoe/ Was letting in water’) – only a shoe then, so the situation’s clearly deteriorated.

I’ve never been in a shipwreck before—certainly not one caused by the crew and passengers together scuttling the ship—so, while the joy is hardly unconfined, there is at least an element of novelty.

I remembered poor Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.[2] The survivors in their small boats were finally reduced to eating the bodies of the dead; the next stage, once those supplies were exhausted, was the drawing of lots and the shooting of those who lost. In Captain Pollard’s boat, the man shot was the captain’s own nephew, named Owen Coffin. In later life, Chase apparently developed an obsessive fear of starvation, ‘never wasting a morsel at the dinner table, and frequenting the market to buy supplies that he larded [stuffed] in his attic.’[3] We can perhaps glimpse certain elements of his story in our own too likely future—but not, we hope, all of them.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; The Shipwreck

(J. M. W. Turner, The Shipwreck: Tate Britain)

More relevant, perhaps, is Declan Kiberd’s comment on Homer’s epic: ‘The logic of the Odyssey is that of many tales involving shipwreck – the answers to problems will be found only after the act of destruction. The catastrophe must precede clarification.’

And he adds a little later that resurgences, such as modern Ireland’s, ‘often come after a period of trauma – what Gaelic poets called longbhriseadh (shipwreck), a terrible but challenging disaster which becomes the precondition of a change to a new future.’[4] ‘Resurgence’: rising again, basically resurrection which, as I recall, requires death as a precondition. So that’s another cheering thought.

Thoreau queried the sort of impulses that have been driving a number of political developments lately: ‘Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at the true ethereal heavens far above, as if the former were not?’[5]

Walden_1854_cover_image

Elsewhere, he suggests that ‘A book should contain pure discoveries, glimpses of terra firma, though by shipwrecked mariners, and not the art of navigation by those who have never been out of sight of land.’[6]

‘In our time’, Guy Davenport’s Dutch philosopher Adriaan van Hovendaal writes in his notebook, ‘we long not for a lost past but for a lost future.’[7] Thirty-five years on, that is true of some of us—but clearly not of others, which at least partly explains how we got here. Wherever here might be.

 
References

[1] ‘The Building of the Ship’, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (London: Ward, Lock: n.d.), 103.

[2] His account was published in 1821. Herman Melville saw him, though not to speak to, in 1841; he did meet Chase’s son, who gave him a copy of his father’s Narrative: Melville, Moby Dick (1851; edited by Harold Beaver, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 17; and ‘Appendix: The Earliest Sources’, 971-979.

[3] Paul Lyons, introduction to Owen Chase, Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex (London: Pimlico, 2000), xxvii.

[4] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 283, 307.

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton University Press: Princeton and London, 1974), 326.

[6] Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (New York: Library of America, 1985), 80.

[7] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63.

Kidneys out of mind

AB-rear-7-Feb-1965

(Anthony Burgess at the rear of 7 Eccles Street, 7 February 1965. From The Listener via James Joyce online notes: http://www.jjon.org/joyce-s-environs/no-7-eccles-street )

‘Cut to ECCLES STREET. Number 7, Bloom’s Ithaca, was being demolished to make way for office blocks, but the destroyers were persuaded to hold off for a day while we filmed in what would have been the Blooms’ bedroom. Much speech was slurred by the need to down much whisky in freezing pubs. Some of my monologues were unacceptable in London, They had to be redone as voice over.’[1]

‘Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray.’ This is our first sight of Mr Leopold Bloom in his house at 7 Eccles Street, in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I still find ‘Kidneys were in his mind’ funny when I revisit: it was certainly a point of contention among the translators of Joyce’s novel into French and one of the examples that Valery Larbaud sent to Joyce, suggesting that, in the version by Auguste Morel and Stuart Gilbert, ‘The humourous side of the phrase in the text is lost.’[2]

valery larbaud

(Valery Larbaud)

Crossing the bedroom to the bathroom, I hear Melvyn Bragg signing off from his radio programme, ‘In Our Time’, by mentioning that next week they’ll be discussing the evolution of teeth. Damn, really? I think that’s what he said but could have been unduly influenced by the fact that teeth are in my mind again just lately, biting into it, in fact, with increasing force. Yes, I’ve been to the dentist: and have another appointment for Friday. Can I hang on that long? No. I make a phone call and plead my case. The appointment lurches a little closer to me.

Eyes slammed shut while the drill gets into its stride, I pass the time in the dentist’s chair running through the seventy-nine titles Ford Madox Ford published in his lifetime, going backwards on this occasion, in tune with the current national mood. I’ve barely reached A Little Less Than Gods (1928) before I experience a fierce spasm that lifts me a little out of the chair. It happens twice more. ‘Yes’, my dentist explains later, ‘where you were feeling the most sensitivity in the gums on the far side of that tooth, I had to inject anaesthetic directly into the nerve.’

ALLTG

http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/first-editions-gallery.html

In Anne Carson’s compelling ‘The Glass Essay’, the narrator writes of her visit to her father, in company with her mother, in the hospital where he is cared for, having suffered from dementia for several years:

I notice his front teeth are getting black.
I wonder how you clean the teeth of mad people.

He always took good care of his teeth. My mother looks up.
She and I often think two halves of one thought.
Do you remember the gold-plated toothpick

you sent him from Harrod’s the summer you were in London? she asks.
Yes I wonder what happened to it.
Must be in the bathroom somewhere.[3]

With teeth no longer in my mind—nor kidneys, for sure—I can again eat normally, rather than biting down on precisely the same point with every mouthful. Even better, I can once more take liquids into my mouth without gripping the edge of my seat convulsively or tipping my head tipped steeply sideways as though going fast around a sharp corner in a motorcycle sidecar. Water, tea, coffee, yes. And wine. Red wine. Santé.

 
References

[1] You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (London: Heinemann, 1990), 100.

[2] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 65; Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 602fn.

[3] Anne Carson, Glass, Irony & God, introduction by Guy Davenport (New York: New Directions, 1995), 26.

 

Radical calendar, pronouns, rats’ alley

March-poster

It’s a Radical Calendar for us this year, each page headed by a stirring quotation to put fire into the bellies of those fighting for justice, equality and other unfashionable things. (I have an exhortatory poster on the wall behind me, come to think of it: that particular ‘March’ is not the name of a month.)

https://www.radicalteatowel.co.uk/

January’s legend was from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, written in 1819, after the massacre at Peterloo:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

That last line is now more widely familiar because of its adoption as a Labour Party slogan. It’s also one that I’ve tended to misremember as ‘We are many – they are few’. A little risky for the eldest – legitimate – ­ son of the MP Sir Timothy Shelley to designate himself one of the many, you might think. But of course he doesn’t, distancing himself from both the ‘Ye’ and the ‘they’, reasonably enough given his belief that poets, as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, can’t easily be positioned within any conventional constituency.

But then – who can? ‘The others’, no doubt. The deployment of such pronouns – ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘they’, ‘us’ – has probably never been a simple matter. It sure as hell isn’t now. Ironically, as this country becomes more conformist and more tribal and more wedded to willed simplicities, the issue is becoming thornier by the day.

February boasted a mention of Benjamin Lay (1682-1759), the four feet tall Anglo-American Quaker humanitarian and abolitionist, vegetarian and author of around two hundred pamphlets. And that chimed in nicely with the book I was reading at the time, Madge Dresser’s Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port, the port in question being Bristol, of course.

Calendar

March offers a sliver of John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel:

Nor is the people’s judgment always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few.

Indeed. Then under 29 March is printed the notice: ‘Brexit Day’. The news has now come through about how well it all went this afternoon. It was diverting to learn that, before that particular piece of parliamentary business, Liam Fox, urging his Westminster colleagues to vote the prime minister’s deal through, was warning that they would undermine faith in mainstream politics by creating a ‘chasm of distrust’ if they failed to do so. Yes, really: that Liam Fox; and ‘would undermine faith in mainstream politics’ and would create distrust. There’s a man with his finger on the pulse of current attitudes towards ‘mainstream politics’.

So where are we (them, us)? One speaker in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land remarked:

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones

That’s definitely a possibility. Or is our whole planet a speck of dust beneath the fingernail of a trickster god unimaginably vast? There’s another one.

Will we ever come back from this, whatever happens now? Probably not. Still, I do enjoy having people with mad eyes explain to journalists that if X, Y or Z doesn’t happen, there’s ‘a risk of no Brexit at all’.

I think that’s a risk we’re—me, us, some of them—prepared to take. So why not just revoke Article 50? That, by the way, is called ‘a clean non-Brexit’.