Can one trust a sonata? Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace, pt 2

[Of the Professor v. Felix:] The difference between them, after all, was that the Professor truly believed he was the first mortal to set foot in the mind, and like every true colonial assumed that mere priority allowed him to name it and submit it to his laws.

 Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s (Iulus) talks endlessly about his father, Felix (Protestant ‘Marxisant’ and advocate of ‘hands-on mysticism’, who ‘liked it out there on the edge…where one could write in order to stop thinking, and lose the shame of being an author’); here’s some of his advice to the boy:

1. Neither marry nor wander, you are not strong enough for either. 2. Never believe any confession, voluntary or otherwise. And most importantly, 3. [In Latin first, then in English:] Everyone has a cleverer dog than their neighbor; that is the only undisputed fact.

Psalmanazar's Formosa

An illustration from Psalmanazar’s phoney account of the people of Formosa – as fantastic a fake memoir as those of Felix and Iulus. Picture via Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the Pynchonian names of the central characters: Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, the ‘Hauptzuchtwart [dog-breeder] Supreme’ and ‘historian of the Astingi’ – a fictitious tribe of the central European plains, in the country of Cannonia (where at dusk ‘everything is the colour of a runaway dog’!), loosely equivalent to Hungary – alludes to the French impostor or con-man, Georges Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who became a brief sensation in Augustan England with his exotic traveller’s tales of ‘Formosa’ and his fake memoirs – a prototype Felix (or Newman).

Much of the novel consists of long, Socratic ‘savage debates’, a ‘battle of the polymaths’, a ‘rhetorical onslaught’, between the sceptic-stoic Felix (who claims, in a typical paradox, that ‘Dialectics do not interest me, though like ballsports, I am good at them’) and his soulmate-antagonist, the Professor, ‘the master speculator’ as Felix provocatively calls him, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud, who brings a series of disturbed dogs to be analysed and trained by the renowned dog-trainer/breeder – a clear dig at the failings of psychoanalysis, for the Professor can’t cure (or even understand) his own neurotic dogs (see the quotation at the head of this post, which sums up the philosophical difference between them):

“You’re no Jew, Berganza,” he often giggled, “just a Calvinist with a sense of irony.”

Another of those literary allusions with multiple levels of significance is Felix and the Professor being likened for these endless Socratic disputes by Felix’s wife, Ainoha (possibly a name derived from a Basque place-name known for its image of the Virgin Mary, and girl’s name, Ainhoa; or is it just a pun on ‘I know her’?) to Scipio and Berganza: these are the two dogs whose satiric colloquy, with its rhetorical-polemical format based on Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, forms one of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes (1613).

I could say so much more about this novel, with its multiple layers and highly charged prose, and wide-ranging, esoteric-comic material, such as the Astingi people’s culture and religion – ‘savage and disconcerted’, Felix calls them), or aphorisms like ‘You can get away with murder in America, but only in Europe can you be really bad’. But it’s more than just a clever puzzle or palindrome of wordplay (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – there’s some interesting insight into Newman’s views on the writing (and reading) process, with which I’ll end (having touched on it briefly in my previous post).

Newman In P Disgrace coverIn a chapter called ‘Ex Libris’ Newman gives Felix’s son Iulus’ account of Felix’s huge literary project: to write a history of the Astingi disguised as a Traveler’s Guide ‘in order to make a market for it’ – which sounds like a dig at American publishers. His description could serve as a heartfelt insight into Newman’s own obsessive, meticulous, never-ending collector’s writing methods and technique:

Working at top speed, he usually produced about one hundred and twenty sentences of impossible terseness per night.

He goes on with what looks like a self-portrait, and a grim discussion of what In Partial Disgrace cost to write:

Writers are people who have exhausted themselves; only the dregs of them still exist. Writing is so real it makes the writer unreal; a nothing. And if one resists being a nothing, one will have the greatest difficulty in finishing anything.

Nor did I know that in his hyperfastidious, shamelessly private mind, he was envisioning a nonexistent genre. For no one ever writes the book he imagines; the book becomes the death mask of creation, it has its own future and survives like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. And the spy knows this better than anyone; to write anything down is to take colossal risk. In life you can mask your actions, but once on paper, nothing can hide your mediocrity.

Ouch.

Later, when shadowy CIA spook Rufus is reflecting on his (triple) agent Iulus’ reports, this is his conclusion:

Of course, there will be those who will ask how far can we trust such a narrator? This is rather like asking the question: can one trust a sonata?

Perhaps Rufus has come to see, after his time in the ‘inchoate’, counterintuitive province of Cannonia, that the usual modes of perception, representation and philosophy don’t apply. And that goes for the ways we interpret written texts: genre and verisimilitude are irrelevant, delusions. Here he considers how the Cannonians and ‘their Astingi comrades’ love ‘puzzles and the darkest riddling’:

…for thinking in their view is not real thinking unless it simultaneously arouses and misleads one’s expectations of symmetry. But their love of riddles has a moral dimension which is easily missed; games for them are also always ethical tests.

When Iulus hears the final colloquy of the Professor and Felix, in which his father, whose life’s literary work has blown away on the wind, fiercely denounces conventional historians (and warrior-thinkers like Marcus Aurelius), he (Iulus) is deeply impressed:

Thus ended my aristocratic education. I had learned everything I needed to know for my career. For life with friends and lovers is essentially this: that we assist each other in recovering and rewriting the book which is always blowing away, when the words don’t mean what you say.

An equally apt summary of the novel and novelist is given with Rufus’ verdict on Iulus and his writings, who he knows to be more than just ‘turncoat, nor a cipher, cryptographer…dissembler, or counterfeit’; he’s reflecting, as most of this novel does, on the nature of narrative:

How I would miss his profound but smiling pessimism, his nacreous intelligence, this fideist to the school of gliding. He was one of those strange people who, having rectitude, didn’t need freedom. Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.

Disiecta Membra

Something of a ‘disiecta membra’ about today’s post.  The expression, in case you’re not familiar with it, is from Horace’s Satire 1.4, in which he appears to be praising the poet Ennius; he says that even if the words in Ennius’s poems were rearranged it would still be possible to discern ‘the scattered limbs of a poet’ – ‘disjecti membra poetae’.  Nowadays the phrase tends to be used for any collection of scattered literary or artistic fragments.

While mulling over several blog projects (Renata Adler’s Speedboat review; Adalbert Stifter and Elizabeth von Arnim, among others) I thought I’d fill the hiatus while those pieces marinate with a few ‘fragments’ of linguistic or literary origin.  I’ll embolden the relevant words in the quotations that follow; all definitions and etymologies are from the OED, unless stated otherwise.

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Early in Laurence Sterne’s magnificently dotty shaggy dog story The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy the narrator refers to ‘literary histories’ of the past, and their ‘terrible battles, yclept logomachies’.  I rather like that cluster of nouns with the –omachy suffix (which signifies ‘fighting’ in Greek; logos of course is ‘word’).  The OED defines it as ‘a contention about words’, with the earliest instance of its use dated 1569.  I hope to write about the Centauromachy – the battle of the centaurs with the Lapiths at a wedding feast – another time.

On the following page Sterne writes of Tristram’s  Uncle Toby’s wound in the groin, sustained when he was in the army, and how he was eventually able to talk about this embarrassing badge of honour:

He was enabled, by the help of some marginal documents…together with Gobesius’ military architecture and pyroballogy, translated from the Flemish, to form his discourse.

The note in my Penguin edition glosses this as ‘the study of the art of casting fire’ – presumably in the military sense, as in artillery.  OED says this is from the Greek ballein, ‘to throw’, from which the word ‘ballistic’ derives, and defines the term as ‘The study of artillery; the art of using explosives to launch missiles’.  Only two citations are given, one from Sterne’s usage here (1760), the other from  1738 (although the earlier form, ‘pyrobology’ is dated 1728).

Another cluster of words I pondered a while ago started with looking up sarcoma: ‘A tumour composed of embryonic connective tissue. Now applied to almost any malignant tumour not derived from epithelial tissue…  Other classifications of cancers are the carcinomas, which arise in the epithelia; the leukemias and lymphomas arise in the blood-forming cells’. So naturally one then has to look up epithelium: ‘A non-vascular tissue forming the outer layer of the mucous membrane in animals.’

Sarcoma derives from Greek sarx or sark, ‘flesh’.   Cognates include sarcophagus, which originally signified ‘A kind of stone reputed among the Greeks to have the property of consuming the flesh of dead bodies deposited in it, and consequently used for coffins (attested from 1601-1750), and then  (from 1705) ‘A stone coffin, esp. one embellished with sculptures or bearing inscriptions, etc.’   Then there’s sarcophagy, ‘the practice of eating flesh’, first cited in Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1658); the only other OED citation is from HG Wells in 1901.

Pseudodoxia epidemica (image from Amazon website)

Pseudodoxia epidemica (image from Amazon website)

The –phagy element derives from the Greek phagein, ‘eat’.

Amazonomachy marble sarcophagus from Salonica, Archaeological Museum of Thessalonki (photo: Wikipedia)

Amazonomachy marble sarcophagus from Salonica, Archaeological Museum of Thessalonki (photo: Wikipedia)

And there we are: another -omachy: this one relates to the battles between the Amazons and the ancient Greeks.

I find these things lead me deeper into linguistic labyrinths, as happens when following hyperlinks on the internet.  So then I turned to sarcosaprophagous creatures (usually insects like the parasitoid wasps Hymenoptera) which feed on dead or decaying flesh.

The best known are Flesh Flies (Diptera – ie Flies: Sarcophagidae),  which are ‘ovoviviparous, which means that eggs are not deposited upon full development. Instead, the larvae hatch inside of their mother’s “uterus” and are held until a proper host is found. The term used to describe the release of the larvae onto the host is

larviposition… Female flesh flies deposit their 1st instar larvae directly on the host and the larvae commence feeding immediately. These larvae eat and develop rapidly. Approximately five days after larviposition, the larvae are already in their 3rd instar and are almost ready to pupate. When the larvae are ready to pupate, they leave the host and wander until they find a suitable location.  (University of Florida website)

I rather admire the notion of ‘wandering’ larvae, seeking a suitable place to pupate.

Dorsal view of adult male Sarcophaga crassipalpis Macquart, a flesh fly. Photograph by Lazaro A. Diaz, University of Florida.

Dorsal view of adult male Sarcophaga crassipalpis Macquart, a flesh fly. Photograph by Lazaro A. Diaz, University of Florida.

The word sarcosaprophagous comes from Greek sapros, rotten – compare ‘saprobe’: ‘Any organism that derives its nourishment from decaying organic matter’.

Maybe next time I’ll be able to return to more salubrious, literary matters.