Sir Thomas Browne: ‘Religio Medici’ and ‘Urne-Buriall’.

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff. NYRB Classics. New York, NY, 2012

In their detailed and entertaining Introduction the editors describe the ‘idiosyncratic and often surprising ways of thinking’ of Sir Thomas Browne. Coleridge praised him for his ‘brain with a twist’. The eclectic and somewhat eccentric list of topics covered in his works includes a study of the quincunx in gardening, and an encyclopaedic exploration and refutation of ‘credulity and supinity’ and ‘false opinions’ (the Pseudodoxia Epedemica, or Enquiry into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths, first published in 1646, and subsequently much revised and augmented): here he considers such beliefs as ‘Glasse is poyson’ (in a chapter on Minerals and ‘vegetable bodies’); ‘Of the pissing of Toads, of the stone in their head, and of the generation of Frogs’ (in a marvellous chapter on animals, which includes the notion ‘That all Animals in the land are in their kinde in the Sea’, which I cited in a recent post on Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’), or that children, without instruction, would naturally grow up speaking Hebrew.

Born in London in 1605 and educated at Oxford and then in the field of medicine in Italy, France and Holland, he was a typically polymathic, Baconian enquirer into all phenomena and esoterica in the natural and metaphysical worlds. His erudition was profound and extensive, but untrammeled by the scientific methods of his contemporaries: he was, as the editors put it so admirably, a ‘connoisseur of uncertainty’ who ‘delighted in circuitous methods and ambiguous conclusions’.

He settled in Norwich to practise medicine in 1637 and lived there until his death in 1682.

Like Shakespeare he was an aficionado of neologisms: the OED ranks him at no. 70 of the most prolifically cited sources (above Shelley, George Eliot and Ruskin [about whom I posted several times recently ]), and in the list of sources responsible for the first evidence of a word he ranks among the great, at an impressive no. 25, with 788, including the nouns ‘electricity’, ‘hallucination’ and ‘suicide’, and adjectives such as ‘medical’, ‘ferocious’ and ‘ascetic’. He was particularly fond of Latinate vocabulary, so for example snails are not ‘boneless’, they are exosseous; he writes not of birds’ flight but of their volitation; earwigs aren’t wingless but impennious; there’s a highly entertaining article on his contribution to English vocabulary on the Oxford Words blog here.

Title page of 'Religio Medici', 1642 edition

Title page of ‘Religio Medici’, 1642 edition; Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons

The title of his first published work, Religio Medici, is intentionally paradoxical and controversial. It alludes to a contemporary proverb that two out of three doctors are atheists and sceptics, as the opening sentence shows:

For my religion, though there be severall circumstances that might perswade the world I have none at all, as the generall scandal of my profession, the naturall course of my studies, the indifferency of my behaviour, and discourse in matters of Religion, neither violently defending one, nor with the common ardour of contention opposing another; yet in despight hereof I dare, without usurpation, assume the honourable stile of a Christian…

Here he’s also referring to his medical education at three famously free-thinking European universities, where the pursuit of science was demarcated from the usual theological approach, and where the practice of anatomical dissection, which was considered a blasphemous transgression in other institutions, was an essential part of the curriculum. In this same sentence he alludes also to his refusal to be caught up in the doctrinal disputes that had grown increasingly virulent in the 1620s and 1630s, and which were threatening to ‘tear England apart’, and led to the Civil War of 1642-51 (Greenblatt and Targoff). His unorthodox examination of his religious faith in the light of his medical profession proved highly controversial, and like many Protestant works it was (in 1645, three years after its first unauthorised publication, to which Browne responded by bringing out an expurgated edition a year later) placed on the Vatican’s Index expurgartorius – the notorious Index of prohibited books.

Browne’s self-exposure in the Religio was unusual but not unprecedented: Montaigne’s Essays, first published in 1580 (and translated into English by John Florio in 1603) were a similar attempt to explore the questing motions of its author’s mind, and of his learning and beliefs.

Like Montaigne, Browne is addicted to digressions in his labyrinthine pursuit of his mind’s movements, and the text lacks discernible method. As you will have seen in my quotation of his opening sentence, his style is ornate, eloquent and sonorous, full of literary and theological allusions, subordinate clauses and rhetorical flourishes, with parallelisms and mellifluous symmetries; it also has an elegance, ruggedness and verbosity that verges on the obscure and pedantic. His writings were gruffly praised by Samuel Johnson, and admired by the Romantics. More recently WG Sebald wrote with fascination (in The Rings of Saturn, first published in German in 1995 and in English in 1998) about Browne’s ‘Musaeum Clausum or Bibliotheca Abscondita’ –  a playfully imaginative catalogue of his imaginary collection of rarities ‘never seen by any man now living’ (it’s discussed in my blog post here).

The craze for such cabinets of curiosities and wonders in the seventeenth century became the basis for some of the great scientific museums that were founded about this time, like the Ashmolean in Oxford, or the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, parts of which were bequeathed to the nation and formed the heart of the British Museum. But unlike the rational spirit of classification and organisation that underpinned these Baconian enterprises, Browne’s was a mind that delighted in paradox and contradiction, and occult mysteries, and he wasn’t averse to the dangerous voicing of doubts about accepted religious tenets and implausible Bible stories. He sums up his thinking as being dominated by ‘an unhappy curiosity’.

Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, first published in 1658, was Browne’s prose meditation on the discovery in a field near the village of Great Walsingham in Norfolk of between forty and fifty urns containing human ashes, bone fragments and funerary objects. He reflects upon the different funeral practices of people from earlier cultures, and how they thought about the afterlife. He mistakenly believed the urns contained the remains of Romanised Britons; subsequent scholarship has shown they were probably Anglo-Saxon, dating from around the year 500. But he was far more disposed to link them with the sophisticated Romans, and not the pagan savages (as he saw them) of their successors in Britain’s history.

 

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons

He speculates on the practice of funerary cremation, but is effectively conducting a ‘diagnosis of the human condition’ – principally our hopes and fears about the afterlife:

To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials./Urnall enterrments, and burnt Reliques lye not in fear of worms, or to be an heritage for Serpents.

In a typically elegant but uncharacteristically emotional section he ponders the apparent evidence that some of the urns contained the remains of more than one person, which leads him to consider the origins of the impulse for couples to indulge in the practice of joint burial:

The ashes of Domitian were mingled with those of Julia, of Achilles with those of Patroclus: All Urnes contained not single Ashes; Without confused burnings they affectionately compounded their bones; passionately endeavouring to continue their living Unions. And when distance of death denied such conjunctions, unsatisfied affections conceived some satisfaction to be neighbours in the grave, to lye Urne by Urne, and touch but in their names.

He ultimately finds little consolation, however, in this desire to find solace in the hope that death is not the end of life; ‘Vain ashes’, he concludes, ‘which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities.’ Earthly commemoration is as futile as the hope for posthumous life – but we can’t help pursuing this magnificent endeavour.

I’ll finish with perhaps the most famous lines in the text:

What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution.

NYRB Classics has yet again done us a service in publishing this pair of texts in such a handsome edition, and I congratulate them and their editors for retaining the original spellings and orthographical practices: this is not just antiquarian quaintness – it enables the modern reader to appreciate the richness of the prose. The ample notes are learned and helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Anatomy of a Moment: Javier Cercas.

I’ve not posted for a while, having been preoccupied with reading Leon Edel’s brilliant multi-volume Life of Henry James, (I’m intending writing more pieces on The Master’s stories) and rereading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 – another weighty tome –  in order to contribute (fitfully) to the lively discussion about this novel going on over at The Mookse and the Gripes website.

Meantime here’s note about something I read earlier this year, and wanted to recommend. I reviewed Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas here back in February, and found it similar in approach, in some ways, to W.G. Sebald’s, with its factual-documentary approach to real historical events, narrated with all the imaginative brio of a novel. In The Anatomy of a Moment Cercas has produced an extended piece of reportage, but once again it’s an exhilarating reading experience.

'Anatomy of a Moment'In meticulous detail – I must admit I skipped some of the more arcane background detail –  he reconstructs the events in the Chamber of Deputies – the Spanish parliament or Cortes in Madrid – during the investiture vote for Calvo Sotelo, the new prime minister, to replace Adolfo Suárez, on 23 February 1981. Suárez had presided for nearly five years, supervising the transition from the dictatorship of Franco as Spain edged nervously back towards democracy, with a precariously restored king Juan Carlos.

What happened next, at 6:23 pm, was broadcast on television – that ‘fabricator of unreality’ as Cercas calls it – around the world next day: Lieutentant Colonel Antonio Tejero, uniformed, brandishing a gun and wearing his shiny tricorne hat, entered the Chamber accompanied by members of his Civil Guard, armed with automatic weapons. Several volleys were fired into the ceiling. Cercas reconstructs this first dramatic ‘gesture’ with chilling authenticity: democracy seemed about to be still-born. A coup d’état, a ‘golpe de estado’ seemed to be taking place. For the Spaniards who watched the footage this was their Dallas 1963 moment.

Cercas structures the mass of material into five sections, with the focus on the three courageous ‘gestures’ of the three members of the Cortes who refused to comply with the trigger-happy golpistas’ shouted commands to lie down on the floor and do as they were told.

These three were Suárez himself, Gutiérrez Mellado, a former Francoist general who had in recent years changed political direction and served the nascent democracy, and Santiago Carillo, who led the recently legalised Communist Party.

Mellado and Carillo had been bitter enemies, on opposite sides as a consequence of the terrible Civil War forty years earlier. Their gesture of defiance united them.

The future of Spain’s democracy hung in the balance. The golpistas held their victims hostage for eighteen hours before surrendering. The tv footage was released next day. Although it only lasted some thirty minutes, its consequence was extraordinary.

I lived in San Sebastián in the Basque country a decade after these events. (At the time of the golpe the increasingly violent Basque independence struggle led by ETA was causing consternation in the Cortes and internationally; there were accusations of torture of suspected ETA prisoners by the Spanish authorities, and the political situation was close to boiling over.) Friends there told me that many of their families, on seeing the film of Tejero and his Civil Guards’ storming of the Cortes, loaded their cars and fled across the border into France a few kilometres away. The older ones who remembered the Civil War and most of those who’d experienced the loathed dictatorship ‘cuando Franco’ believed fascism was returning – and again the Basque people and its culture would be oppressed.

I found Cercas’ account of the build-up to these events, and the aftermath, fascinating. In his Prologue he relates how he’d tried a fictional approach, but failed. He describes Anatomy as a ‘humble testimony of a failure’, too:

Incapable of inventing what I know about 23 February, illuminating its reality with fiction, I have resigned myself to telling it. The pages that follow aim to endow this failure with a certain dignity.

He succeeds for the most part. It will not, he says, ‘entirely renounce being read as a history book’; it’s ‘not a novel’, but it ‘won’t entirely renounce being read as a novel’. It is delineated with some of the ‘symmetries of fiction’, he says later.

You don’t have to be interested in the baroque intricacies of Spanish politics to enjoy The Anatomy of a Moment; anyone who cares for and believes in the human struggle against the agencies of oppression will find it salutary.

Text used: Bloomsbury hardback edition published London, 2011, 403 pp. Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. First published in Spain 2009.

 

Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’

As it’s National Poetry Day in the UK today, and I don’t have much time to compose a post, I thought I’d just accept the challenge of the NPD website and reproduce here two stanzas (there are nine in total in the poem) from one of my favourite poems by Andrew Marvell (1621-78): ‘The Garden’:

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;

The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine
;

The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach
;

Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find
;

Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas
;

Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I recall studying this poem as a new undergraduate (we started in term 1 with the Metaphysicals at Bristol!) and relishing the interplay of sensuality and cerebral thinking in it. One of my first essays for my tutor was to discuss Eliot’s description of Marvell’s poetry as having  ‘a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace’. I don’t think I knew what I was talking about then.

NPG 554,Andrew Marvell,by Unknown artistNow I’m just happy to savour these lush, surprising couplets.

I wonder if that opening couplet reflects the pronunciation of the period; presumably ‘lead’ and ‘head’ rhymed then (one finds similar things in Shakespeare, as David Crystal points out in his published and forthcoming works on Shakespearean pronunciation).

The natural cornucopia in these stanzas is a poetic commonplace – Jonson used the trope in ‘To Penshurst’ (published 1616). I can’t resist giving a short extract here, for he goes completely overboard in his description of the veritable anxiety of game and edible fish to leap into the maw of the hungry aristocrat:

Each bank doth yield thee conies; and the tops,

Fertile of wood, Ashore and Sidney’s copse,

To crown thy open table, doth provide

The purpled pheasant with the speckled side;

The painted partridge lies in every field,

And for thy mess is willing to be killed…

Then it’s the turn of the exotic and conveniently low-hanging fruit:

Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,

Fresh as the Ayre, and new as are the houres.

The early cherry, with the later plum,

Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come:

The blushing apricot and woolly peach,

Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.

 

 

Marvell can’t resist outdoing Jonson by adding the even more exotic, newly-arrived (in England) ‘nectarine’.

With typically Metaphysical panache he subverts the familiar image of Eden as the setting for the Fall by suggesting that any ‘fall’ in this garden leads not to disaster but to enlightenment. The peaceful serenity of the natural garden provides a perfect setting (the paradisal physical or material world – ‘all that’s made’) for transcendence to the superior pleasures of a metaphysical, rational world of ideas (the wonderful ‘green thoughts in a green shade’).

A final note on that puzzling couplet about the mind’s reflection in the ocean: ‘In the history of ideas, the concept that in a perfect, and therefore symmetrical Creation, each creature of the earth found its counterpart in the sea had a long career; it had been firmly dismissed by Sir Thomas Browne, in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) in which one of the “Vulgar errors” is “that all Animals of the Land, are in their Kinde in the Sea”; even exploded philosophy was grist to Marvell’s metaphysical wit.’ (Wikipedia)

Image of Marvell in the public domain at Wikimedia Commons.

 

Ruskin and Effie: Harvey’s ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

In my previous post John Harvey wrote about his recent novel ‘Subject of a Portrait’, and the questions he tried to address in giving fictional life to the tangled love triangle of its central characters: John Ruskin, his wife Effie, and the artist Millais. He speculated how Emma Thompson might address these questions in her forthcoming film, ‘Effie Gray’, released here in the UK on 10 October. My own review of his novel was posted here in June.

Today my guest writer is Michael Flay, author of the novels The Watchers (2009) and The Lord (2012), and The Persian Wedding (forthcoming), all published by Polar Books (Cheltenham). Dr Flay is senior lecturer in SEN (Special Educational Needs) at a Midlands university.

The Subject of a PortraitChild abuse is an important problem in the U.K. and elsewhere. John Harvey’s recent novel ‘The Subject of a Portrait’, well contributes to understanding aspects of abuse. Perpetrators and victims have individual features and here Harvey presents one example of the former. What kind of person abuses a child? A version of Ruskin reveals the art critic as only able to relate to the female in the shape of pre-adolescent girls. His marriage to an adult woman is annulled because it was never consummated. Adult women disgust him except in terms of spiritual interchange. He sees their bodies as deformed. The novel is courageous in approaching such psychological areas with imaginative insight and detailed psychological investigation.

 

However, a scholarly commentator on Ruskin, Christopher Newall, is cited recently in ‘The Times’ (he is commenting on the forthcoming film about Ruskin) as disagreeing with the idea of Ruskin as sexually disordered. Newall’s view is that Ruskin ‘was perfectly easy’ with his wife ‘physically’ and to suggest otherwise is to contribute to a false myth or negative ‘legend’. Ruskin’s character is a subject for controversy, with several versions available. Newall prefers a purified view.

Harvey’s version is valuable in terms of the vivid fictional light cast on complex psychiatric matters that also exist in factual shape outside imaginative narrative. The Ruskin-version character is seen to encourage visits on fabricated pretexts from a young girl, a ’little maid’—‘that is the age where beauty dwells, we spoil as we grow big’. His encouragement could be referred to as ”grooming“, in current vocabulary.

Pre-adolescent girls are his preference, partly because they have no breasts (the novel suggests this) and, in his view, other sexual features are less obvious. The Ruskin figure, in the novel, has a secret collection of pictures, early photographs, of part clothed or naked, breastless young girls and other views of female children. Some of these shots were taken of children in a hotel he stays at by a clandestine, shady photographer he is in collusion with.

A disturbing, revelatory sequence in the novel comes when Ruskin gets out the pictures in order to assist in a masturbatory event. He stimulates himself also via repeated words, ‘Oh little neat dress with petit point lace’ and by pulling ‘a little girl face in the mirror’ as he watches and listens to himself. After his climax he is full of self praise, ‘John, John—was there ever potency like to yours? You are the King of the Golden River.’ His mood then switches to self disgust as he glimpses a remnant of his own semen on his body, a wish for the Lord to ‘scald my weakness’.

In a later attempt to have sex with his wife Ruskin is presented as calling up this past experience in an attempt to gain arousal, repeating words he finds erotic, ‘ Oh little pert nose and tiny waist’, and telling his wife ‘Be like twelve again’. After the failed encounter he lapses into baby language, ‘Don leave me all on my owny’.

A strength of Harvey’s narrative is that these vivid and revealing sexual crises are presented in a context of Ruskin’s other, but related, behaviours. Such behaviours include mood and attitude instabilities, revulsions towards the physical and exalted views on art and beauty. At times he seems spitefully to collude with his wife’s attraction to Millais, combining this with absolute rejection of her physically. When she attempts to have sex with him he tells her she is physically ‘misformed’ and ‘the hand of nature’ has ‘erred’ in her case. He manipulates Millais by referring to Effie as ‘my own clever monkey’, both praising and insulting her at once, possibly to get Millais to react.

An attraction to sexuality with young girls and a recoil from that kind of relation with older women is a Ruskin characteristic. The episode in which Ruskin takes the ‘little maid’ from the hotel for an outing in the wood is disturbing. Ruskin is ‘suave’ and plausible, getting the girl’s mother to give permission. Then, in the wood, come kissing games, incidents in which the girl lies on him in various postures. The episode concludes with the open comment ‘he led her beneath low branches’. It is left non-explicit, speculative, what follows, maybe nothing, more, or worse? Ruskin reflects early on in the jaunt, that such girls are ‘the art of God. He imagined her tiny shoulder blades sliding within her dress’. The later masturbation sequence reveals that Ruskin’s interest in the girls has a physical aspect and is not just a case of visual appreciation. After Ruskin’s wife has obtained her divorce from him, Ruskin continues to look out for such young girls—he notices one near the National Gallery, ‘nearly a woman but slender as string’. He considers she has an eating disorder, but ‘such’…’I could love with a grown man’s love’. His attractions have a repetitive, part obsessional aspect.

Harvey presents Ruskin’s disorder, reveals it as an individualized psychiatric case in the sense that it issues in symptomatic, cumulative ways. Here is a valuable consideration of aspects of child abuse, embedded in the context too of a specific, stressed marriage. Fiction here performs a useful function of contributing to the understanding of a non-fictional condition that exists in ‘fact’, demonstrating an abuse perpetrator in a complex web of contexts and characteristics. Beyond the theme of the abuser the Ruskin character is also representative of a man who is entirely disunified in a psychological sense. He has therefore no creative relation with anyone in the novel and is alone. At the same time he is an eminent art critic and social reformer. A suggestion here is disturbingly implicit in the narrative that an expert in any field may simultaneously be pathological in a psychiatric sense. This theme too is current in actual society. Mental disorder can occur anywhere, in the prominent and obscure alike. However, the prominent may have more options for concealment or for conveying disorder as talent, likewise for decision making or opinion forming that has its basis in defect or neurosis,

For some Ruskin’s characteristics as seen in Harvey’s novel may seem a psychological area they are reluctant to consider. The presentations of sexual behaviours and thoughts may be challenging. This is all to the good. Lawrence has commented that ‘a condition of freedom’ is that ‘in the understanding I fear nothing’. The ‘abhorrent’ and disturbing need their own attention, both fictionally and otherwise. Writing in ‘The Reality of Peace’ he continues to emphasise that the horrific or pathological needs imaginative presentation, an aim being to ‘see what it is’, to admit it  to ‘understanding’ with no elision of consciousness. Harvey’s writing fits this context, enacting Lawrence’s aim , keeping company as he does so with a minority of fiction writers who do the same, such as Pynchon and DeLillo.

 

 

‘The Subject of a Portrait’, ‘Effie Gray’ & the Ruskin Marriage

John Harvey, author of The Subject of a Portrait, a review of which I posted HERE in June, is my guest for this post. He writes about his novel exploring the tangled relationships between Millais, the subject of his portrait, Ruskin, and Mrs Ruskin, Effie, in the light of the forthcoming film about this troubled triangle of characters.

It’s a curious thing to find yourself telling the same story as someone else, and at the same time — like overhearing a person, in the next room, saying the same thing that you’re saying. For my novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the marriage of John Ruskin and ‘Effie’ (Euphemia) Gray, came out this July, and in August there was a screening of Emma Thompson’s new film on this subject, Effie Gray, which is scheduled for release on 10 October. Since I have not yet seen the film I cannot comment directly, but — following my own engagement with the Ruskins — I am interested to see how Emma Thompsons’s script handles some key questions, and I thought I should record these questions before I do see, or read reviews of, Effie Gray. These are questions raised by the original historic events. They matter for anyone retelling this story, and are I believe interesting in themselves.

Both Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portrait, feature the trip to the Highlands which Ruskin and Effie made in 1853 together with the young PreRaphaelite painter John Everett Millais — when Millais was to paint a portrait of Ruskin, and when Millais and Effie fell in love. The Ruskin marriage was still, after five years, unconsummated. But no one knows exactly ‘what happened in the Highlands’. Queen Victoria, when she heard the story, thought that everything had happened there.

One question is: what was happening inside John Ruskin? For the Ruskins did not travel to Scotland with only a handsome young artist for company — that would have looked odd to the Victorians and perhaps to anyone. Millais’ brother William came with them. But once they had settled, Ruskin let William stay in their hotel, and rented a tiny cottage where there was just room for him to sleep on the sofa while Millais and Effie slept in tiny bedrooms to either side of him. Ruskin loved this arrangement though Millais and Effie were not delighted. Effie wondered whether Ruskin wanted to get her ‘in a scrape’.

Ruskin treated his wife both oddly and badly. To a contemporary eye what may be most interesting is the monomania in Ruskin’s passion for the body of a child: he had fallen in love with Effie when she was twelve and it seems he could not bear the fact that by the time they married, she had a woman’s body. Not that Ruskin ever explained exactly why he disliked her ‘person’. He did invite her to believe she was wrongly ‘formed’, so that his sexual failure was in some sense her fault. When she protested he decided she was mad — and wrote to tell her father that his daughter was insane. And he insisted they pretend to live like a normal married couple.

The Subject of a PortraitActually there was nothing wrong with Effie’s body, as the physicians found when they examined her during the annulment of the marriage. The deformity — and deformity of mind — was in Ruskin. But why and how did Ruskin come to be so? Because it was not just a matter of high-Victorian puritanism. The pathology of Ruskin was more particular. Contrary to the verdict of the court of annulment, it does not seem that Ruskin suffered from ‘incurable impotency’. He protested at this suggestion, and let it be known that he practised ‘the vice of Rousseau’ — masturbation — and that he had some vigour in that department. Certainly he did not desire his wife, or any other grown woman, so far as we know. He was attracted to very young girls, and in one letter he advises a friend as to the wiles he might use to win a kiss from a tiny girl. But I don’t think one should think of him as a Victorian Rolf Harris. The case is different. He liked to write letters to some of his friends in baby talk, so one could wonder — is the true ‘tiny girl’ inside Ruskin himself? In our time the performance artist Grayson Perry dresses up and performs a little girl called Claire, who he says is his alter ego. And psychologists say it is possible for a person to suffer arrest, emotionally, at a very early stage where the infant psyche is neither boy nor girl. But it was hard, in the nineteenth century, to face such things openly.

I should not simplify the human mystery of Ruskin’s make-up. He was also capable of playing the authoritarian husband: he told Effie once that he would ‘beat her with a common stick’. Clearly he had his contradictions: he called himself both ‘a Tory of the old school’ and ‘a red-hot Communist’. He also is, and by a large margin, the greatest critic of art this country has produced — and he does write very wonderfully about art. It is obviously not easy to get to the root of such a person, you have to guess and imagine, and that is why I am interested to see how Emma Thompson — and her husband Greg Wise, who plays Ruskin — read his character.

There is again a question about Effie. What did she think about her marital situation? This is a real question, because although it was possible for a young Victorian wife to be extremely innocent and ignorant about intimacy, it is odd if Effie was so totally innocent since her best friend in London was Lady Eastlake — that is, the wife of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, the Director of the National Gallery. Lady Eastlake was an intellectual figure in her own right, a traveller and an author — and she was both the daughter, and the sister, of ladies’ doctors, of obstetric physicians. In The Subject of a Portrait, at one point, Effie asks Lady Eastlake to examine her. And it is the part of Lady Eastlake that Emma Thompson has chosen to play, herself, in Effie Gray, so I am interested to see at what stage Emma Thompson advises Effie about obstetrics.

There are further questions as to Effie. If she and Millais fell in love in the Highlands, why did she go back with Ruskin to London — only to run away later? She did not need to hurry back, because her parents lived in Perth, and she could very well have said, I shall stay with mama and papa and come home later. She visited them easily enough at other times. The fact that she did go home with Ruskin, only to take off later, raises two questions: how much did happen in the Highlands? And what happened later, in London? Was there communication — were there secret meetings — between the lovers? Or were they wholly cut off, knowing nothing of what each other felt, so Effie had to take her decision blind, in the dark? As the story proceeds, Effie does develop a remarkable independence, and an ability to survive, and to grow.

And the PreRaphaelite prodigy, John Everett Millais? For reasons of time, Millais could paint only the background of his portrait in Scotland — for actually, though this now-famous painting is a portrait of Ruskin, Millais painted Ruskin in later, in his studio in Gower Street in London. There were regular sittings. But what on earth did Ruskin and Millais say to each other then? Did Millais give signals, did Ruskin know, that the artist loved his wife? It is clear also that Ruskin liked Millais quite tenderly, but with an ambivalence, so you wonder, was he more attracted to the artist’s brilliant talent or to his youthful glamour? After the annulment he wanted Millais and himself to go on meeting and collaborating, regardless of the fact that his ex-wife was now Mrs Millais. Those sessions in the studio must have been extraordinarily charged, like chapters in Dostoevsky where momentous intensities hang over the quiet talk of two people in a room. I am not Dostoevsky, but still one has space in a novel to imagine such talk, and I have tried to do that. Of course a film must have a different economy, and obviously has many fewer words than a novel. In any event, I am interested to see how Emma Thompson and Greg Wise manage the relation, not only of Effie with Millais, but of Millais with Ruskin, because Ruskin was a hugely important figure for any young painter, whether or not the painter loved Ruskin’s wife. And Millais was, by a large margin, the most talented young artist whom Ruskin, as an art lover and art critic, was ever to meet.

I have said that Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portait, tell the same story. But it cannot be quite the same story. Even if the narrative is based on real life, still the people in it have to come alive, and sound like living people, in a film or in a novel. And if they are to come alive, they have to have some freedom to go their own way. Also, if you have an idea for a character in a film or a novel, then I think you must be free to pursue that idea as far as it can lead you. What’s the use of half-measures, in a work of imagination? But if you do push your idea as far as it will go, your picture may be more extreme than the reality actually was. I don’t know what Emma Thompson does with John Ruskin, but there have been some critical rumblings in Ruskinian circles. And it may be some admirers of Ruskin will also be dismayed by my portrayal of him — though I am an admirer too, and simply think one must try to understand his pathology. Because ‘pathology’ is the word.

The main point is that the relation between a historical figure and the fictional portrayal of a historical figure cannot be ‘identity’. Maybe their relation can be like that of siblings. Emma Thompson’s Ruskin, and my Ruskin, cannot be Ruskin, the real Ruskin, but perhaps they can be as it were like Ruskin’s brother — or like his bad brother. In science fiction people speak of ‘parallel universes’, and a historical film or a historical novel can only at best be a ‘parallel universe’, it cannot be the actual historical universe. Emma Thompson’s Victorian universe, and my Victorian universe, may or may not be quite parallel to history — or to each other. And this is why I am so interested to see how she tells the story in her film. For every retelling of an event that really happened — however fictitious — may still shed light on the original event. In this case, on the history of a famous wife’s unhappiness, and her search for happiness, in one marriage — or another.

John Harvey

The Subject of a Portrait is published by Polar Books, Cheltenham 2014

 

The Humbert Humbert of Kansas City: Mr Bridge, pt 2

Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge was the subject of my previous post; today I intend completing this assessment of his 1969 novel about an emotionally repressed Kansas City lawyer (with his mantra ‘there is nothing to discuss’) and his family, who along with everyone he encounters largely cause him to feel exasperated, angry, bewildered or embarrassed.

I ended last time like with reference to Mr Bridge’s unsettling relationships with his children, especially Ruth, and in his inconsistent – even hypocritical – attitudes to sexuality. This will be the theme of this post.

We see a far more rebellious side to his children in Mr Bridge than we do in the earlier novel. Mrs Bridge showed his son Douglas’s stubbornness, and this reappears in different ways here, causing Mr Bridge to reflect that the boy’s ‘despotic obstinacy’ is a trait they share. Carolyn, the younger daughter, is in many ways similar. Ruth’s insubordination is therefore more shattering for him. When she provokes him in ch. 72 by asking for a loan to help a friend obtain an abortion he slaps her ‘across the mouth’. Afterwards he’s appalled:

He could not believe he had struck her…When she was a baby he had held her in his arms while she was falling asleep. There were nights when nothing more than the knowledge of her existence had been enough to waken him so that he had gotten out of bed and gone to the crib to watch over her.

After such a tender memory, it’s perhaps more shocking and truthful when his barely suppressed illicit sexual impulses are revealed. In ch. 59 the almost effaced narrator that Connell employs presents us with a disconcerting scene when Mr Bridge voyeuristically ‘watched attentively’ as Ruth sunbathed in the back yard in her bathing suit, oiling her skin.

But his behaviour afterwards is even more troubling. Mrs Bridge enters the bedroom from where he’s watching and he kisses her violently; she pulls away, but he forces her towards the bed ‘while she murmured doubtfully’. As usual there is no narrative mediation or comment on this event (almost rape?), which makes it all the more shocking – a technique that I’ve shown to be effective in different ways at other points in both the novels.

When Ruth later defies his anti-swearing rule in the house he’s disturbed by her again: ‘She had never been more beautiful’, the narrative ingenuously informs us:

He was shaken by the sight of her, and he knew he loved her in a way he could not ever love the other children, perhaps because she was the first, or because of the strange darkness in her which he could feel also within himself.

This scene shows yet another example of his failure to confront or reflect on his own feelings; they tend to come refracted through the prism of his family.

But it’s Ruth’s own increasingly defiant sexual activity that causes the most severe crises in Mr Bridge’s psyche. In ch. 84 he catches her having sex in the lounge at four in the morning. She’s unmoved by his outrage, and her defiance takes him aback: he realises ‘he was attempting to cry’ for the first time since he was a child, but can only manage to cough. ‘Things are different now,’ she announces calmly. He disagrees:

‘Love, respect and human decency – these never change. Your mother and I have these things.’

 

‘Good for you’.

Ruth challenges him again when she announces she wants to leave Kansas City:

She wanted more out of life than raising children in the suburbs…while her husband climbed the ladder.

He knows he can’t stop her, and is heartbroken, but the narrator as always refrains from telling us this. We perceive it instead when he shows Mr Bridge’s disappointment when Ruth writes home from New York in letters clearly directed at her mother, not at him. His feeling of elation when she does write to him alone at his office address disappears when it’s apparent that she’s simply to tapping him for money. And he knows, for once, that ‘buying her love’ won’t do.

Another Humbert Humbert moment arises in ch. 98 when he sees an acquaintance’s daughter resembling Ruth:

Desire for his own daughter had surged from the depths where it must be concealed.

This echoes the scene I wrote about last time when he argued with Grace Barron. There too the almost-absent narrator told us ‘He did not like the feeling that swept through him…’ as she challenged his views. In this way Connell presents Mr Bridge as almost a victim of his passions; it’s not that he’s incapable of powerful, even illicit emotions, but that they come unbidden and surge out of control through him. Similar incidents occur when he takes his wife on holiday to Europe.

It shouldn’t spoil the ending if I finish with an examination of it here: the novel has no linear plot to speak of, just an accumulation of contiguous, revealing vignettes. In the final chapter, as Mr Bridge detaches himself from a church service, he reflects on the words of the hymn they’re singing, ‘Joy to the World’:

Evidently he had experienced joy. He asked himself if he had ever known it. If so, he could not remember. But he thought he must have known it…but it must have been a long time ago. Satisfaction, yes, and pleasure of several sorts, and pride, and possibly a feeling which might be called ‘rejoicing’ after some serious worry or problem had been resolved. There were many such feelings, but none of them should be called ‘joy’. He remembered enthusiasm, hope, and a kind of jubilation or exultation. Cheerfulness, yes, and joviality, and the brief gratification of sex. Gladness, too, fullness of heart, appreciation, and many other emotions. But not joy. No, that belonged to simpler minds.

With these partly verbless, truncated lines the narrative ends with a final stream of our protagonist’s free indirect thought. As always Connell refrains from commenting on the scene. What makes the two novels so compelling is that we are required to scrutinise what we’re presented with by the narrator, whose reticence resembles Mr Bridge’s own. Mr Bridge’s self-congratulatory sense of superiority is paradoxically blended with intermittent thoughts that he has somehow been cheated by life. Maybe he’s a little like Emma Bovary, too: like his wife, he has fleeting near-epiphanies in which he senses that there must be something else, something more.

 

The Mr Bennett of Kansas City: Evan S. Connell’s ‘Mr Bridge’, pt 1

(There’s so much to say about Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge that I’m going to break this post up into two parts.)

Last month I wrote about Connell’s 1959 novel Mrs Bridge (link here), which relates in 117 short chapters the quietly despondent, unreflecting but unfulfilled life of its bourgeoise protagonist, who I likened to Mme Bovary. Her husband is barely present. Now I turn my attention to Mr Bridge, published a decade later, in which her husband fills every chapter. In a novel that’s at times redolent of bleak existential despair, it’s also shot through with wit and humour.

Walter Bridge is a workaholic, a successful Kansas City lawyer. In her introduction to the 2012 PMC edition Lionel Shriver aptly describes him as a ‘stiff, upright, undemonstrative family man’ who is ‘staid’ and ‘outwardly wholesome’. Beneath this veneer of soap opera stereotypical American fatherhood – the respectable, wise and inspirational paterfamilias – is a complex, layered character as ‘insidiously bleak’ and ultimately lonely as his desperate housewife spouse. He reminds Shriver of her grandfather; I’m reminded of my father, a man of similarly deluded rectitude. And of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice: a wry patriarch with a wife whose silliness he’s largely responsible for (reflecting gender roles of the times), offspring whose behaviour confounds and challenges his complacency, and who has a distorted, inflated opinion of his own superiority.

Like his wife Mr Bridge drifts through life in myopic bafflement, constrained as she is by resolute belief in conventional values (domestic, social, sexual and cultural) of middle-class conformity. Furthermore he has a strong conviction that he’s irrefutably right about such things:

He wished to impress upon his son three things which he felt he had himself achieved: financial security, independence, and self-respect. In his mind these were of supreme importance.

This is a longer novel than Mrs Bridge, and is similar in approach: in 141 vignettes a collage or fragmented narrative is constructed of disparate scenes in Walter’s life which individually are mostly superficially trivial, but which collectively represent a nuanced, tragi-comical portrait of a conflicted, flawed man often seen to be as anxious and unfulfilled as his wife. I found it less successful than the earlier book, and felt that it could have been improved with some editing.

Many chapters revisit scenes and themes from Mrs Bridge: the rapid passage of time, and a commensurate sense of wasted life, for example:

The years were falling over like ducks in a shooting gallery, and it seemed to Mr Bridge that he had scarcely taken aim at one when it disappeared. Now another year was all but gone. However, it had been a good year. He was not dissatisfied. He had worked hard, harder than most men…He was acquiring more than he needed, quite a lot more. And yet most important was the happiness he sensed around him. He believed that his wife was happy and the children also, and because of this he felt their happiness within himself. [ch. 25]

This typifies Connell’s method in both novels. In something approaching free indirect style we seem to hear Mr Bridge’s voice or thoughts here, mediated through an almost effaced narrator. The opening sentence there is perhaps free indirect thought: it’s Mr Bridge’s syntax and idiom, with the clichéd image reflecting his limited cognitive/emotional range. He demonstrates his sadly deluded belief that material comfort equates with emotional fulfilment.  In the final sentence of this extract the narrator’s perspective shifts: no doubt Mr Bridge did complacently believe in his wife’s happiness, but the syntax now reflects his doubts about this conviction, and there’s the ironic gap between his own view and that of the reader that we noted in Mrs Bridge. That closing sentence demonstrates his inability to feel deeply or express the feelings he does have: his happiness is vicarious. This is his problem throughout the novel.

The opening chapter primes us for this paradox. On one level he genuinely loves his wife:

Often he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her. She would like to hear this, he was sure, but he did not know how to tell her…he could think of nothing appropriate.

 

So the years passed…and eventually Mr Bridge decided that his wife should expect nothing more of him. After all, he was an attorney rather than a poet; he could never pretend to be what he was not.

Once again Connell’s narrative focus here is on Mr Bridge’s thoughts, and his reluctance to understand or transcend his emotional torpor. When his wife has one of her periodic, and to him, inexplicable meltdowns, in a chapter called ‘You don’t love me’, she insists out of the blue on a divorce. ‘My life has been spent waiting on you and the children. None of you has been aware of me, but that’s all right. I realize you’ve written me off.’

The chapter closes with another visit inside Mr Bridge’s mind:

She never explained what he had done wrong, and after thinking quite a lot about this incomprehensible fit of hysteria he decided the best procedure was to ignore it.

This is his default response to life’s puzzles. Ironically this scene takes place immediately after an often-quoted chapter in which he contemplates his family chattering in the warm spring evening on the porch:

As he listened to their voices and to the seasonal music of the insects the problems which had troubled him during the day did not seem important, and he reflected that he had practically everything he ever wanted.

His wife’s ‘hysterical’ outburst indicates his failure to empathise with that family. He’s deluded himself that by providing for them materially he’s done his job. This suffices for him, and he’s incapable of comprehending why that isn’t sufficient for them. His birthday presents to them of stocks and dividends is his way of showing his love, and he doesn’t understand that this is perceived by them as unreflecting coldness in him. On the occasions like this when his complacency is challenged, he quietly dismisses the moment and evades emotional commitment. In ch. 60 when his wife demands to know if he loves her, his response is ‘bewildered’, and he finds the conversation ‘embarrassing’.

Numerous chapters indicate his bigotry, racism, homophobia and snobbery, his rigid belief in bourgeois values and conservative politics. So he refuses to give alms to beggars, and hates people who get into debt (he’s often angry about such ‘deadbeats’). ‘He disliked weakness’, is his ‘disgusted’ reaction to the children’s pet rabbit dying of terror when attacked by a dog. He is frequently portrayed as ‘exasperated’ or annoyed by what he perceives as the inability of others to conform to his own strict codes of conduct. He ‘hates’ a ‘bawdy story’ or swearing, but shows barely concealed admiration for Hitler and the rising Nazi powers in Europe. He thinks modern art is ‘junk’, and modern writers peddle filth. He feels ‘provoked’ by such subversions of convention.

He’s full of contradictions, though, and this capacity to show something other than bigotry enables us to find sympathy for his otherwise unattractive nature. Several chapters display his undeniably racist views, yet he scolds his daughter for being high-handed with their black housekeeper. He’s clearly anti-semitic, yet is horrified when his elder daughter Ruth accuses him of being prejudiced (‘you’re so hard and so cold and so humorless’, she complains). Then he writes her a long letter outlining how he’s helped Jewish friends. Her response is the same bafflement he experiences when his family behave unaccountably: ‘Then you do a thing like this. And for a Jew.’ He can’t understand what she means, especially when she goes on to tell him he’s treated his family ‘like strangers’: ‘Dr Sauer said you were a consummate Puritan’, she says, but he doesn’t ‘understand’. Instead we’re told ‘He was embarrassed and puzzled.’ He’s like this too when he contemplates his inability to ‘share’ himself with his family by telling them about his work. There’s ‘nothing to discuss’, he concludes, preferring his hermetically sealed solitude.

And when he writes the letter to try to explain to Ruth that he was shocked that she thought him prejudiced, he’s as incapable of expressing what he really feels to her as he was in the opening chapter about his love for his wife. The nearest he can get to expressing this love is to tell her the ‘good news’ about her stocks increasing in value; he takes his usual position of substituting material wealth for emotional investment:

It was not all he wished to say, but he felt he had clarified his position…He thought she would understand.

I shall round off this first post on Mr Bridge by examining two crucial scenes which could not have featured in Mrs Bridge, but which shed light on Connell’s method and narrative acuity. It’s a counterpart to the chapter in the earlier novel where Mrs Bridge’s unconventional, unhappy friend Grace Barron (‘barren’?) expresses her despair and boredom in ways that Mrs Bridge finds both familiar but also frightening. Both scenes present Mr Bridge’s awkward responses to his wife’s friend and her challenging ways.

In ch. 99 he is unable to avoid Grace and joins her at her coffee-shop table. She shows him the jade pig she’d just bought at auction. He’s pompous and sanctimonious about her being ‘stung’ and can’t understand (yet again!) why anyone would want it. He just hopes it’s worth it.

‘You’re not as cold as you pretend to be,’ she said. ‘I think your doors open in different places, that’s all. Most people just don’t know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock where the door is supposed to be, but it’s a blank wall. But you’re there. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you do some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly. Or does that make sense?’

 

‘I’d have to think about it,’ he smiled, and picked up the menu…

The subject, for him, is thereby closed, for he clearly does not intend thinking about it; we’ve seen how he habitually avoids considering troublesome topics like this. Yet she’s just provided one of the few instances in the novel where we’re told exactly what Mr Bridge is. It’s to Connell’s credit that he always makes his readers work out what could be the significance of each chapter’s vignette; this time he skilfully uses the dialogue of a perceptive but damaged outsider to provide a rare insight.

She goes on to call him ‘a nineteenth-century figure’; she means he’s paralysed by his sense of propriety. As ever, Connell takes us into Mr Bridge’s mind:

This was the sort of remark she made [free indirect thought again], affectionate and yet insulting. He did not like it…She was a lost, unhappy little woman. He thought he should feel a sense of pity, but he did not. She jeered at too many things.

That Mr Bridge should think in this dismissively patronising way is indicative of his usual conflation of sympathy (he recognises her grudging affection for him) and self-righteous indignation. As a jeerer at everything he disapproves of, the irony and hypocrisy he emanates here are palpable.

When Grace goes on to goad him about his political views he’s stung into declaring a preference for Nazism to Communism, then refuses to engage further. She becomes upset, and complains that her banker husband won’t talk to her either:

‘He says I’m a woman and women have no grasp of politics. Nobody wants to talk to me. I feel like I’m living on an island.’

 

‘What sort of talk is that,’ he said with a deprecatory expression, and crooked a finger at the waitress…

She’s beginning to sound like his wife, and his instinctive response is to ignore or dismiss such talk. As the chapter closes she annoys him by suggesting that a Jewish financier he dislikes might become his neighbour; this

enraged him, but he was careful to hide his anger…He did not like the feeling that swept through him, or the urge to say aloud that he approved of the pogrom in Germany.

 

‘You really are, aren’t you,’ she said as though she could read his mind. ‘I always suspected it.’ And she began to cry.

It’s one of the most powerfully enigmatic and moving moments in the novel.

And it’s followed by another near the novel’s end, when Mr Bridge hears Grace has killed herself.

The idea of suicide exasperated him. Now her children must suffer…She had shown her children how little they meant…He knew he had been correct to feel nothing at the news of her death. What she had done was cowardly. What such a woman deserved was scorn and contempt.

This is surely Mr Bridge’s most despicable stream of thought in the novel. But we don’t have to like a character to admire the text, and what Connell is doing here is brilliantly realised. Just as Grace seemed to have briefly penetrated his stalwart emotional defences and his smug sense of superiority, enabling him to release his gentler inner self, she closes the metaphorical door she’d mentioned, leaving him secure in his self-satisfaction. He’s monstrous, but as vulnerable in his own immutable, emotionally stunted way as his wife. In that sense he’s possibly a more tragic figure.

Where Mr Bridge differs most interestingly from Mrs Bridge is in its protagonist’s unsettling relationships with his children, especially Ruth, and in his attitudes to sexuality. I shall focus on these (potentially controversial) aspects of the novel next time.

Spam lit revisited again, chastened

Another departure this time. Usually I draft quite carefully (though this may not be apparent to readers who’ve been here before) what I post. This one is coming out on a Friday night after my first full week back teaching, and a bottle of wine shared over dinner. Undrafted. (The post, not the wine.)

Since posting my last piece about spam lit I’ve realised I recently read this piece in the Paris Review by Dan Piepenbring on the very same topic: the potential for ‘automated comments’ generated by spammers’ algorithms to try to circumvent blogsite spam filters to be transformed into literary texts. I just looked back through my email inbox and saw the link: how can it be that I could write a whole post, having forgotten this article read only a few days before? Worrying.

Dan P calls such texts mostly ‘nauseous goulash’ at worst. He calls what I said previously about intervening with the original spam text to create something new ‘curating’ the spam. I like that.

He likens them also to high modernism: William Gaddis, William Carlos Williams: texts that look somehow…jumbled, incoherent, lacking in the usual semantic connections associated with everyday discourse. They have more in common with the tangential, illogical or contiguous associations of dreams or streams of consciousness. Let’s face it, as we move through our days perceiving the outer world, an inner monologue persists, collaging fragments from all over the place, splicing them with others to create a continuous multifarious, multistranded… this metaphor is becoming too mixed, but I hope the point is being made. We don’t usually move through our days with a single-thread thought-stream. As we talk we think of something else.

As we listen to someone talk, we think of something else: what to have for tea, did I walk the dog, should I grout the bathroom, am I happy…NLP is big on this.

George Eliot said that if we took into account all the data accessible to us at any one moment we’d be deafened by the squirrel’s heartbeat; so we partially filter out incoming data, and censor what comes out of our mouths or pens (or keyboards).

So spam lit can be a way of tapping into the fortuitous and pleasing combinations of language in a manner that isn’t possible through normal discourse channels.

I leave you today then with the chastened realisation that Dan P wrote far more cogently on the topic of spam lit than I did. Cheers.

 

The Literature Machine revisited: spam lit, Calvino, OULIPO and conceptual literature

I posted in August last year about Spam Poetry, and used some examples from my own WordPress spam repository as the basis for some ‘found poetry’. In my previous post I offered another example of my own, ‘Update: an excavated fragment’, based on the dialogue between a computer user and the machine’s interface.

I have become aware, since that post last year, that the phenomenon of ‘spam poetry’ is quite well attested – I didn’t invent it after all, though at the time I misguidedly thought I might have done. The rest of this post will provide more context.

 

In July of this year I posted about VOLVELLES: mechanical devices that might be called early ‘paper computers’, primitive expert systems or thinking machines, usually employed for calculating or generating information or texts. These can be traced back to the ancient east, but in the west to Ramon Lull (the Ars combinatoria), and later, Leibniz, Kircher, and so on.

Swift in Gulliver’s Travels may have been satirising Leibniz in his ‘permutational machine’ at the Academy of Lagado. Centos, bibliomancy and later literary techniques like cutup and permutational poetry can also trace their origins to such ‘literary machines’.

This is the title of the book of essays by Italo Calvino, about which I also posted in July this year, with a focus on ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’. In this essay Calvino considers the difference between the ‘random text generator’ and what might be called the Literary Machine: the procedure which bypasses individual human inspiration by using ‘combinatorial play’ to generate texts through the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions. French avant-garde groups like OULIPO have experimented with such methods for decades now, harking back to the Surrealists with their use of self-imposed constraints in the production of literary texts.

Which brings me back to my own ‘spam poems’ cited earlier. A little judicious searching online will readily take you to more detailed information on the following (Wikipedia, for example, has much more on this, with examples and links):

SPAM POETRY: here the involvement of an author in the production of literature, as Calvino speculated, has become discretionary. It works on similar principles to automatic writing (Yeats was an aficionado of this, with its mystical/supernatural overtones), which was also favoured by Freud and the Surrealists as a means of tapping spontaneously into the unconscious to produce ‘psychography’. Aleatoric writing is a related concept: writing produced on the principle of accidental or chance language choices.

A key concept in such text generation is what OULIPO called ‘clinamen’ (and a near-translation, ‘swerve’): an arcane term for the classical notion of ‘primordial anti-constraint’. Creation (of a text) is rendered possible, in an ordered, logical, rational universe, by the introduction of chance. Harry Mathews’ algorithm applied to Queneau’s cutup sonnet sequence would be an example of ‘coercing’ the potentiality of texts into existence. Language is exploited through the use of matrices, and computers make this process millions times quicker and more productive than old-style cut-and-paste.

Spam is usually created by computer programs which randomly copy extracts from internet texts (Burroughs and his predecessor, Brion Gysin, called this ‘paratext’), reassemble them and use them to try to smuggle marketing or other unsolicited messages through the filters of blogs and other websites. They try to trick the spam filters into thinking that the ‘text’ thus generated has been created by human hands, for the filters usually lack the sophistication to distinguish gibberish from texts which have semantic coherence.

In brief, I’d suggest, if you’re interested in pursuing this ‘mechanical literature’, you research similar ‘genres’:

FLARF: text produced by the anonymised and reshuffled errancies of various machine protocols (Wikipedia)

SPAM LIT: the site called UbuWeb (‘an anthology of conceptual writing’) has a wealth of useful examples, articles and links.

See also:

SPOETRY, WORD SALAD, GOOGLISM, INFORMATIONIST POETRY, THE L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E POETS (most in various ways use the detritus of the internet as a source for material for recombining or regenerating texts).

I’d have to conclude, however, that the literary results are decidedly uneven. There are occasional felicitous juxtapositions created through the use of these techniques (and I’d like to think there were some among the examples I produced myself, in which I intervened and selected from the morass of verbiage to create something rather more…orderly and, I hope, interesting). But much of it is doggerel.

Update: an excavated fragment

Today’s brief post is a departure from the usual literary criticism/book review I’ve found myself writing this year. I realise I had stopped posting the occasional ‘random’ piece, to use a term favoured by my students, and which I’d usually gleaned from old notebooks.

I recently read on Jonathan Gibbs’s excellent Tiny Camels blog a post he called an ‘excavated fragment’. While searching for something among the files on his computer he came across a piece called ‘Sex and Death’, dated 2003. He had no idea what it was intended for. I liked his conclusion:

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.

In a similar spirit, then, here’s a piece – sort of a found poem, I suppose – that I came across in an old notebook that I keep by what I believe is called in the US my nightstand. It’s dated Feb. 2013.

I have no recollection of writing it, but quite like the notion of a dialogue with one’s computer. There’s the strangled syntax and dismaying jargon of the disembodied. It was written before I’d read reviews of a recent Spike Jonze film in which the protagonist falls in love with the Siri-type operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) of his computer. This excavated fragment of mine (maybe I should call it a ‘random gleaning’) appears to represent a more fractious relationship. Here it is.

Update

An update is available to your software.

                Continue?

[What happens if I don’t?]

The update will resolve some contradictions

in the social system

and reduce battery usage.

                [Continue]

Here are 2 pp of T&C.

                [Accept]

Well done. Your social system will update

within 24 hours.

Your software is updating

and will take 3 minutes.

You will need to restart.

Restart now?

[What happens if I don’t? Had I stopped?]

You will be held responsible

for all the contradictions in your system.

                [Restart]

Anything else today?

                [Return]