Communicable experience: words begin again


Sitting down to write the handful of Christmas cards we sent this year, I found myself oddly inhibited when it came to the notes I’d meant to add—mainly rallying cries or apologies for silences, distances and disappearances. Last year, so much still felt relatively new, baffling, a strangeness that could be conveyed in simple language, with an expectation of a shared response, a reciprocity. To say the same things twelve months later seemed somehow absurd; in fact, any phrase that came to mind appeared wholly banal, quite pointless. Then, too, it required too many assumptions, some quite hazardous, about people’s recent history and present circumstances. So, either a five-page letter or nothing at all – beyond best wishes for next year – hardly, when it came to it, a difficult choice.

I thought of the famous observation of Walter Benjamin, ‘Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World] war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?’ He has been discussing the loss of ‘the ability to exchange experiences’, one reason for this being that ‘experience has fallen in value.’ Our picture of both the external world and the moral world have undergone ‘changes which were never thought possible.’ He goes on:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.[1]

It’s very easy to look at this and think ah, yes, mechanized warfare, dramatic scientific and technological changes, transport and communications revolutions, all very historical, all very back then. Despite the massive volume of commentary—largely because of it, perhaps—we find it harder to grasp the speed and impact of some of the changes occurring in our own historical period, in part because as things develop and change increasingly quickly, we accommodate, allow for and absorb those changes increasingly quickly too. The internet—we fret if it takes more than a few seconds to respond to a search term. And if we should actually draw a complete blank? ‘If it’s not on the internet it doesn’t exist’—I remember an American librarian ascribing this assumption to college students who frequented the library, some ten or fifteen years ago now. We see many programmes, essays, articles devoted to the phenomenon of social media, especially the aggressive and destructive aspects of it. Were there always this many repellent people? Have they been created or merely enabled by the internet, because before it existed they would have had to write a letter, address an envelope and stick a stamp on it? Incredible advances in medicine: why do so many people reject them out of hand? Questions pretty simple, answers less so.


But Benjamin’s ‘communicable experience’? Men returned from the battlefield, even had they wished to, could rarely find the vocabulary to convey the enormity, intensity and sheer unprecedented nature of what some of them had seen, heard and suffered. That surely differs fundamentally from our situation now. These last two years, there has been a good deal of shared, or at least common, experience. Not as common as it was originally represented as being: the—sometimes literally—murderous inequalities that obtain in this country (among others) meant that, while some glided, many others crashed and burned. Still, there were elements of a society under siege which were at least recognised by most of us.

Helen Macdonald recently articulated with her usual lucidity some familiar if often inchoate thoughts, firstly about the dual speed of time, passing ‘far more slowly than it did before’ but also ‘running far too fast’, secondly with the unvarnished statement that: ‘Most of us began this pandemic thinking that life would return to normal. We all now know that this is a fiction; nothing will return to what it was before.’[2] And I nod, yes, though I’d baulk at that ‘all now know’. A lot of New Statesman readers, maybe. More broadly, I suspect the rule of division still holds sway. I see I wrote a little earlier of ‘our situation’. But once more particularised than ‘the human animal’, that ‘our’ is a little shaky.

We’re told, on an almost daily basis, that we live now in a divided country, a fractured society. The nation splits along fault lines of class or age or education or information sources. Brexit showed up the real cracks and some of the reactions to the pandemic, or measures intended to combat that pandemic, have revealed some more, frequently new pressures on earlier, still suppurating wounds—which are often, in fact, the most troubling.

(Cherry-Garrard and pony: https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/biography/cherry-gearrard_apsley.php

The biographer of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of the Terrra Nova expedition, travelling with Scott on that doomed journey to the Antarctic in 1910, and author of The Worst Journey in the World, observes that:

Many of those who had served felt, after the war, that the world had been everlastingly divided into those who had been there, and those who had not. To Cherry that binary vision had been cast before 1914, and the war only served to polarise it further: those who had been south, and those who had not. His psyche never fully engaged with the war. It was still in the Antarctic.[3]

In a way, things were simpler in the ancient world. Herodotus lived in a world divided into Greeks and barbarians, that is to say, ‘hoi barbaroi’, the non-Greeks.[4] In more recent times, Penelope Fitzgerald’s memorable categories occur in The Bookshop: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’[5] And predominate they do, as so much of the twentieth century and, alas, this one too, can testify. Primo Levi, who survived the death camps, later wrote: ‘Those who experienced imprisonment (and, more generally, all persons who have gone through harsh experiences) are divided into two distinct categories, with rare intermediate shadings: those who remain silent and those who speak.’[6]

Personal, temporal. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak, as Ecclesiastes has it. Anne Carson, as ever, has her own take: ‘After a story is told there are some moments of silence. Then words begin again. Because you would always like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis. Just something to go on with. After all, stories end but you have to proceed with the rest of the day. You have to shift your weight, raise your eyes, notice the sound of traffic again, maybe go out for cigarettes.’[7]


In the teeth of it all, we—we?—proceed with the rest of the day, and the words that accompany it. The rain has cleared, the sky has brightened a little. And Fat Santa has not left the building.


Notes


[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ (1936), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 83-84.

[2] Helen Macdonald, ‘The lure of hibernation’, New Statesman (10 December 2021 – 6 January 2022), 44.

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 189.

[4] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 3.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 29.

[6] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1989), 121.

[7] Anne Carson, ‘Afterword’, in  Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (New York: Vintage, 2000), 88.

Scholars and other fungi

(John Wainwright, Still Life with Mushrooms, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council)

Browsing the latest issue of the London Review of Books, I came across this, in Colin Burrow’s notice of the new Christopher Ricks book, Along Heroic Lines: ‘The line between seeing things (in the sense of observing things which are there) and seeing things (in the sense of imagining things which are not there) is a finer one in literary criticism than it is in life in general.’[1]

I was drafting a piece the other day that took off from the word ‘scholar’ (but also the word ‘mushrooms’)’, before realising that I would be straying into areas more thoroughly covered in the next issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society – so desisted. 

Still, that talk of ‘lines’ recalled the toothsome passage from Anne Carson that I’d previously turned up: ‘A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angles or virtue—who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.’[2]

I’m not sure that Dominick Medina, in John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, can be said to do that. ‘“He is a deity of les jeunes and a hardy innovator”, MacGillivray says. “Jolly good, too. The man’s a fine classical scholar.”’ But the matter in hand for Medina—‘an Irish patriot crossed with a modern poet—a modern poet who resembles a cross between A. E. Housman and T. S. Eliot rather more than he resembles W. B. Yeats’—is his role as the villain of the novel, which keeps him pretty busy.[3] Rudyard Kipling—no mean Latinist himself, with a lifelong devotion to Horace—suggested that:  ‘One learns more from a good scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and laborious drudges’.[4]

(A few Buchan books)

Tricky word, ’scholar’ – at one time, it was often understood to mean simply someone who could read and write – which may bring to mind the famous, or infamous, lines from William Butler Yeats:

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

They’ll cough in the ink to the world’s end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way?[5]

Others are more generous or, at least, discriminating. The narrator of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter remembers of her teenage self: ‘I could understand the whole of Middlemarch. The passion for a scholar. It was a bit like Jo marrying Dr Bhaer in Little Women: you felt sick about it, but you understood.’[6]

Now that is certainly recognisable – feeling sick about things but understanding: more or less a basic requirement these days, to be sure. And it occurs to me that there are aspects of the scholarly life which are insufficiently appreciated. Reading the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, I learned that, through her acquaintance with Michel Collinet, whom she met in Rouen, she discovered that André Gide ‘was a highly skilled performer with a yo-yo. This was the current craze and extraordinarily popular. People walked down the streets yo-yo in hand, and Sartre practised from morning to night, with sombre perseverance.’[7] I found this oddly cheering. Between being and nothingness lies – the yo-yo.

(Simone de Beauvoir via the New York Times)

Ford scholars hold at arm’s length the suspicion – the conviction? – that our man would recoil in horror from our activities. They may also, of course, recall Ford’s famous remarks on Impressionism, ‘which exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass—through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you. For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.’[8]

That is, we can see and take note of that – probable – unease, while also looking through it and beyond it, to the greater good, the promised land of complete and annotated Ford Madox Ford. You’ll love it when it’s finished, Fordie! You have our word. . .

In the meantime, scholars on mushrooms (and more)! See Last Post, issue 5 (due soon).

Notes

[1] Colin Burrow, ‘Ti tum ti tum ti tum”, London Review of Books, 43, 19 (7 October 2021), 10.

[2] Anne Carson, ‘The life of towns: Introduction’, in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry New York: Vintage, 2000), 93.

[3] John Buchan, The Three Hostages (1924; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 51; Karl Miller, ‘Introduction’, x. Medina is in the western part of Saudi Arabia; its ‘Prophet’s Mosque’ is a major Islamic pilgrimage site. The word itself is Arabic for ‘town’ and often refers to the ancient native quarter in North African cities, usually a walled area with many narrow streets.

[4] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself (1937; London: Penguin Books, 1987), 51.

[5] W. B. Yeats, ‘The Scholars’ (1915): The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 190, and see notes, 563-564.

[6] Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter (1985; London: Abacus, 2012), 79.

[7] Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 120.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 41.

Listening to Cassandra

Sandys, Frederick, 1829-1904; Cassandra

(Frederick Sandys, Cassandra; Ulster Museum)

Voting ends today in the Conservative leadership contest, ‘a curious spectator sport’, William Davies wrote recently, ‘(save for the 160,000 electors with Conservative Party membership cards) in which the first contestant to accept reality is the loser.’[1]

Neither candidate had many brushes with reality but it was hardly to be expected that they would. Their more febrile supporters are not interested in that kind of thing. For the rest of us, since the depressing facts about the overwhelming favourite—a proven liar who squandered grotesquely large sums of public money, whose views change in accordance with what his audience wishes to hear and whose only loyalty seems to be to himself—are widely known and rarely disputed, the real point of interest is how he can still command so much support and what are the real motives of those supporting him? As for what comes next – there are, there have been, many incisive and compelling pieces but their only audience, I suspect, has been among those already thinking along similar lines, who ‘follow politics’ and know something of the relevant history. And beyond that? The name ‘Cassandra’ comes to mind.

Cassandra was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba. The god Apollo offered her the gift of prophecy in return for her sexual favour, an arrangement which she agreed to – but she evaded him once he had bestowed it. Apollo supposedly then spat in her mouth, rendering the gift useless, since her predictions would never be believed. So she foresaw the fall of Troy, the fatal role of Paris, the disastrous entry of the wooden horse into the city and more – but nobody listened. Abducted by Ajax, she fell as prize to Agamemnon, bore him twins and, when taken back to Mycenae, was murdered by Clytemnestra – along with Agamemnon.

Cassandra

(Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Cassandra in the BBC series Troy: Fall of a City)

So a good many commentators may have read the runes correctly, diagnosed the sickness correctly and, in all probability, predicted the results correctly – but another god has spat in their mouths and termed them part of ‘Project Fear’.

As for the original Cassandra: there are several versions of her too – but try a taste of Anne Carson’s:

‘Bear me witness:
I know that smell. Evils. Evils long ago.
A chorus of singers broods upon this house,
they never leave,
their tune is bad, they drink cocktails of
human blood and party through the rooms.
You will not get them out.’[2]

I think she may be on to something there. Best listen to Cassandra.

 

Notes

[1] See his ‘Short Cuts’, London Review of Books, 41, 14 (18 July 2019), 9-14.
[2] Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in An Oresteia, translated by Anne Carson (New York: Faber and Faber, 2009), 54.

 

Some like it hot; some do not

Overlooking the Bay 1921 by Juan Gris 1887-1927

(Juan Gris, Overlooking the Bay: Tate)

In Anne Carson’s translation of Agamemnon, the messenger says, ‘I could tell you stories of winter so cold it killed the birds in the air.’ By way of seasonal contrast, I remember reading back in 2012 that birds had been falling from the sky in Iraq, where the temperature had breached 50 degrees Celsius.

It was 50 degrees in Basra yesterday; 42 in New Delhi, 40 in Cairo and in Florence too. Temperatures of 45 are predicted in the South of France and parts of Spain in the next few days.

Yesterday marked exactly eighty years since the death of Ford Madox Ford. Scheduled for tomorrow and Saturday, there is a conference taking place on the Mediterranean coast of southern France, ‘Ford and Toulon: Biography, Culture and Environment in the 1920s and 1930s’, under the auspices of the Université de Toulon and the Ford Madox Ford Society. Ford visited Toulon in 1925 with Stella Bowen, and again the following year. According to the dates and places of composition that he gives in the books, he began A Man Could Stand Up— in Toulon, and finished both A Mirror to France and New York Is Not America there. He socialised with the painter Juan Gris and his wife Josette, and Stella Bowen recalled that their group at the café was often joined by the art critic Georges Duthuit and his wife – Duthuit’s dialogues with Samuel Beckett (drawn from their correspondence) would first appear in 1949. Ford later lived with Janice Biala in the Villa Paul on Cap Brun in the last decade of his life. Further details of the conference are on the Ford Society website:
http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/upcoming-events.html

I won’t be in Toulon – which is probably just as well. Even if the temperature doesn’t reach 45, it will be at least 20 degrees above my comfort level these days: I’ll go a couple of degrees higher if there’s a stiff breeze; maybe a few more if I were in Greece, where the heat seemed to bother me less –­ though it’s 33 degrees in Athens today and, given our aversion to flying, will we ever get back?

Harry

So, deep shade for me – some reading, a little wine, a little conversation (two-way with the Librarian, one-way with the cat). And perhaps some material from that conference might find its way, by and by, into Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society. . .

 

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.