Joseph Conrad: “Heart of Darkness”

1899/1902

Whenever I pick up Heart of Darkness (and I think this is about the tenth time), I find I can recall the beginning and the end, but the painstakingly slow ‘progress’ between those points – the order in which the almost monotonous series of ‘events’ takes place – falls away from my memory within a few months of each reading.

Part of this, to be sure, is Marlow’s notoriously ambiguous and repetitive narrative voice. The flatness and silence of the landscape to him, the synecdochic swarm of body parts behind the curtains of branches, the nameless character ‘types’ who populate the points of his journey, all contribute to this. But this is also a way in which we are reminded that this is a narrated story, carefully curated in print to appear as orality.

Indeed, the tension in the novel between textual and narrative authority is constant. It is as if Marlow’s wandering “yarn,” full of assertions of the illegible and inscrutable nature of the land and people he encounters in the Congo, is itself striving to have in it something of the unutterable cry. Marlow strains against the fixedness of Kurtz’s report, with its terrible scrawled addendum, “Exterminate all the brutes!” Marlow himself, both here and in Lord Jim, seems to be an outsider as well, one the frame narrator of this tale regards disinterestedly.

I am perhaps most interested in tracing a lineage from this text through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. When teaching this text to students in a discussion section, I also broke them into groups of 5 and gave them a list of page numbers on three major themes: Race, Gender, Empire. They took about 20 minutes to develop a thesis statement of 1-2 sentences. We then reviewed and edited the theses for about 10 minutes and used those ideas to drive the rest of class discussion (20 minutes).

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D.A. Miller, “Anal Rope”

1990

Criticism of Hitchcock’s Rope, D.A. Miller points out, always strives to make Hitchcock’s irregular approach (shots ranging from 3 to 9 minutes) into a string of identical 10 minute shots – the fantasy of the film done in one take, as it were 145. Nevertheless, this is also often considered a gimmick, even by Truffaut and Hitchcock himself, who said it was a “stunt” that violated his own interest in montage. At the same time, Hitchcock insisted later that he “maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance within a given episode” 146. All of his explanations, however, continue to circle around the film’s technique.

In Truffaut’s short plot summary, Miller argues, the word “homosexual” stands out – it is not “furnished on the direct evidence of what we hear or see in the film,” unlike the other facts, so that “in an account that is attempting to reduce the story to its most abbreviated articulation, their homosexuality must seem at once a remarkable and a remarkably pointless piece of information” 147. Truffaut “constructs it into a homosexuality of no importance” 148. But in this culture, “a truly offhand reference to male homosexuality must hardly be credible… The heavy silence surrounding homosezuality requires explanation no less than the featherweight fussing over technique” 148.

“The reason that both questions have been unconsciously but definitively crossed with one another, so that technique acquires all the transgressive fascination of homosexuality, while homosexuality is consigned to the status of a dry technical detail…” 148.

“How do we think we know?” 149. It could not be named or shown because of the code, but the “post-coital nuances of the dialogue between Brandon and Philip after the murder” would be a place to start 149. “How did you feel – during it?” “I don’t remember feeling much of anything – until his body went limp, and I knew it was over, then I felt tremendously exhilarated,” etc. 149. “Connotation will always manifest a certain semiotic insufficiency,” Miller continues 150. “Connotation enjoys, or suffers from, an abiding deniability” 150. In this way, “Rope  exploits the particular aptitude of connotation for allowing homosexual meaning to be elided even as it is also being elaborated” 150.

“Until recently, homosexuality offered not just the most prominent – it offered the only subject matter whose representation in American mass culture appertained exclusively to the shadow kingdom of connotation, where insinuations could be at once developed and denied, where… one couldn’t be sure whether [it] was being meant at all… the silence necessary to keep about [the codes] deploy[ing it]” 151.

This engages an accumulative hunt for verification – “a redundancy of notations” 151. If Philip and Brandon are gay, why not the Michaelangelesque David, his friend Kenneth who is often mistaken for him, or their teacher Rupert as well? Hysterical and frigid Janet is there to “grant all three men an ostensible homosexuality” (everyone but Philip has dated her), “it does so by making suspiciously intense the homosocial bond between boyfriends” 152. Rupert’s excuse at the end, that the boys had no right to twist his words into action, restores the male heterosexual subject, and his gunshot is a sort of cathartic ejaculation 153. But the tension never clears in the film.

As the camera holds on them sitting in a triangle to await the police, “the moment… is eerie not just in the sense that one doesn’t know what to make of it, but also in the sense that one rather does… homosexuality provides the marking term, whose presence or absence is wholly determining for what lies on both sides of the virgule” 154.

“At Rope’s end… it is precisely the developed heterosexual subject who is most definitively implicated in a structure of homosexual fixation, a notion that accordingly proves to have perhaps as little to do with gay men as penis envy does with women” 155.

“Connotation, we said, excites the desire for proof, a desire that, so long as it develops within the connotative register, tends to draft every signifier into what nonetheless remains a hopeless task… the dream (impossible to realize, but impossible not to entertain) that connotation would quit its dusky existence for fluorescent literality, would become denotation” 155.

Thus a gay subtext always gives on to the imagined or desired spectacle of gay sex. It is less on the level of language than the image that this occurs in Rope: “able to suggest that Brandon and Philip are actually touching, holding, or leaning against one another, when they are only occupying parallel spatial planes’ 156. They are often “too close,” and their arguments and wrestlings involve hand-holding and visual tropes of the Hollywood embrace 156. Part of the suspense of the film, then, is the almost-painfully prolonged desire for the gay spectacle 157.

As the straight [male] viewer looks to see if the looks of the two men are too lingering, he himself becomes involved in a potentially homosexual gaze. “How might a desire to see what one is afraid to look at ever be gratified?” In the closet, Miller answers. We never see the body in the trunk – we are not forced to look in. (Isn’t it also interesting that the clue is the hat in the closet?) Of the 5 blackouts that do link rolls of film, 4 are of men’s backsides and one is of the trunk lid. “The blackouts come as proof positive that there is nothing to see, unless of course what is laid bare, through the imperfections of the joins, is the structure of the join itself, hence the very operation of the closet” 159.

But what is the gay sex the viewer anticipates? “The cavital darkness” of the anus, and “the cut,” both and one represented by the man’s backside, as Miller has it 160. One “hides the cut” because “it is imagined to be a penetrable hole in the celluloid film body,” but the anus is “hidden here as what remains and reminds of a cut” 160. The binarism of the male body fears castration because the anus reminds the man of the fear projected onto the vagina – the fear of being on the bottom 161. Straight men “need” gay men, Miller argues, to “imagine [themselves] covered front and back” 161. Hence Hitchcock’s relegation of the techniques to normality, rather than perversity. In fact, we see the cuts at Janet, Mrs. Wilson, and Rupert, we see them as blacked-out backsides with the “gay” characters: “Only to the extent that they are seen can the cuts at a man’s backside promote a heterosexualizing castration anxiety” 163.

The fifth and final blackout on the trunk, then, focuses on David’s body as somehow “obscene – and so to be kept offscreen” (literally, re: on/scene and obscene, Linda Williams says) 163. Perhaps the stiff has a stiff or has been abused, Miller suggests: “Far more disconcerting than the evidence of a penetrated anus or an erect penis is the prospect of their copresence on the same male body” 164.  The rope itself “now dangles and tautens like a penis and now encircles and tightens like a sphincter” 164. Ultimately, the film is both afraid of castration and its negation, Miller contends. Rupert’s last moment is to look behind him and sit down – to cover his ass, literally 164.

dir. Lars von Trier, “Antichrist”

2009

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, divided into literary “chapters,” is a horror/art film that meditates on violence, misogyny, sexuality, and the family. In the prologue, the child, Nick, falls through the window and dies in the snow as the parents make love. In Chapter 1, “Grief,” the man, a therapist, begins to treat his own wife, who has been in psychiatric treatment but remains incapacitated by grief. He takes her to the cabin where the family spent time the previous summer and she worked on a dissertation on Gynocide. Here he isolates her “greatest fear,” which seems to be the cabin and the surrounding forest and vegetation. (He sees the dear with the dead fawn hanging out of it.) In Chapter 2, “Pain” (Chaos Reigns), the couple arrive at the cabin. She runs across the bridge fearfully. The husband is covered in ticks one morning and acorns seem to attack the house in the night. (He sees the fox eating its own innards who says, “Chaos reigns”). In Chapter 3, “Despair” (Gynocide), the husband discovers her increasingly frantic notes for her thesis, which reveal that the woman came to “drink the Kool Aid” during her research and buy into misogynist idea that all women are inherently evil. He confronts her about this and she asks him to hit her during sex. He initially refuses, but complies when he finds her masturbating under a tree in the mud of the forest. They make love as eerie hands proliferate and emerge from the tree. He finds the photos of Nick with his shoes on the wrong feet and recalls that the boy’s feet were noted as ‘deformed’ in the autopsy report. The woman attacks him, crushing his testicles and then giving him a hand job until he comes blood. She drills a hole in his leg when he is passed out, attaches a grindstone to it, and throws the wrench under the house. The man drags himself into a foxhole, but a crow, buried alive there, caws and gives him away; it will not die no matter his efforts. He too remains partially buried alive as she goes to get a shovel to beat him. In Chapter 4, “The Three Beggars,” the woman apologizes and weeps when she cannot find the wrench to free the man. She says she does not want to kill him “yet,” but that “someone must die” when “the three beggars” arrive. In what seems like a flashback, we realize she may have seen Nick at the window before he fell and not done anything to prevent it. She begins to masturbate and cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. The deer, fox, and crow appear as a hailstorm arrives (perhaps her doing, as misogynistic texts suggested earlier. The man digs the crow up through the floor and finds the wrench as well. She stabs him with the scissors, but he strangles her and burns her body. The three beggars look on as hundreds of female figures with blurred faces climb the hill on which he stands.

What’s interesting about this film is the way it operates on the viewer as the woman does on the man’s body – it buys into its own needless violence, traps us, and throws away the wrench. Though the husband finds it and escapes, I am not sure the viewer is so lucky. One wonders what the affordances of this violence are, apart from the oddity of watching a woman be a bad mother and torture a man and child. The fact that she does this out of self-hatred makes it significantly less interesting to me, though I suppose you could read it as a comment on hysteria as a socially-produced phenomenon engendered by ideology. However, I think the film wants to frustrate all of our attempts to decode its images – the very symbolism we are handed in the form of “The Three Beggars” is meant to be in the world of her insanity, but it affects him as well, and is our only hope for making sense as viewers. What then? If the only patterns in the film are delusions, what are the payoffs of its violence?   The truth of the film is indeed that “chaos reigns,” but since that’s uttered to us by a CGI fox, it’s more than a little hard to swallow.

Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

1981

The stories of Raymond Carver (1938-1988) kind of make you wonder if Silvan Tomkins was thinking about him when he wrote about shame as the most vital and pronounced affect (along with its counterparts humiliation, contempt, and disgust). Shame is a sort of engine driving Carver’s work, which has also been called “dirty realism” (like that of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Anne Beattie). He pursues the problems of ordinary working-class and middle-class Americans, as well as social outcasts and misfits (he’d be interesting to compare with Flannery O’Connor in this sense).  I’ll just be writing on the eponymous story of the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, of which there are two versions – one more prolix, the other significantly cut down (by editor Gordon Lish) to something more muscular and streamlined (in other words, Carver:Lish :: Eliot:Pound).

It seems like Carver’s first version of the story, “Beginners” is concerned with the consciousness of the “real” vs. the “unreal,” in terms of both affection and phenomenological experience (“You’ve seen it in the movies even if you haven’t seen the real thing,” Herb says of the bloody accident). The flattening edits remove this consciousness from the prose, taking away, in turn, the characters’ consciousness of real and mediated experience – at least insofar as it is available for the reader to decipher. The depths are obscured, so that the edited story almost invites us to project (we can say this of Hemingway, Nabokov, Ellis, and a number of other “flat” writers as well). The main character loses, too, his cathartic moment of crying at the window, which is also the loss, to the second story, of the American pastoral. The tension between Terri and Herb is stronger than the original Laura and Nick.

Carver even talked about Lish’s edits in cardiologist’s terms – as a “surgery” Lish performed on his work, and worried that “my heart can’t take it.” Lish, for his part, seems to have wielded his higher class and more “literary” background over Carver and promised him that his edits would protect the writer from exposing too much, or appearing to lack craft. It is debatable which version is better; the original is more psychically complex, while the edited one has a sharper finish.

“BEGINNERS”

21 pages in length, the story begins in medias res in an odd tone that is both familiar and unspecific: “My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 927. Herb and Terri are the friends, Nick and Laura are the narrator and his wife. Terri claims her ex loved her so much he tried to kill her and ended up killing himself. Herb insists, “you know that’s not love,” and later “if you call that love, you can have it.” Herb’s example of true love, which he delivers as he gets drunker and tells Terri “Now just shut up for a minute. Okay?” is of an old couple badly injured in a car accident, which he invites the others to imagine based on the movies they’ve seen. They looked like “phony actors,” but this was “the real thing,” a parallel to the anxiety of performance surrounding love in the story as well 938. The old man says the last thought before the accident was the sadness of never seeing Anna again, and he is missing her in his recovery as well: “he pined for her. I nver knew what that word meant before” 940. As the couple are reunited, both Laura and Terri beg that the story end happily. They are both fine, Herb confirms as “The light seemed to be draining out of the room” 943. Herb’s desire to “carry off” Laura and his interest in vassals and knights demonstrates his confusion between chivalry and control, or perhaps the very fine line by which they are separated. Herb leaves to call his kids and Terri lets on that she’s worried about him because he’s suicidal. This reminds her of Carl, and she reveals that was once secretly pregnant with Carl’s baby, and that Herb himself performed the abortion. As Laura begins to comfort Terri, Nick pulls away to look out at the window, and we get an almost cinematic slow zoom outward: “I looked out… I looked past… I looked past… gate open… beyond… field of wild grass… another field… interstate connecting Albuquerque.” He sees the changed light and the blue sky like “the blue you see in tropical postcards.” His heart rate increases, then slows at Laura’s “penetrating” gaze when he turns around, which says to him “Don’t worry, we’ll get past this… That’s the way I chose to interpret the look anyway”. He looks back out, wishing there were horses to fix on: “I had to keep still a while longer, keep my eyes out there, outside the house as long as there was something left to see.”

“WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE”

Cut down to just 12 pages, the edit of Carver’s original story switches to Mel (not Herb) McGinnis, and Terri’s ex is now Ed (not Carl). It begins: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 310. It’s interesting that the story is subtler about both women’s weight, but somehow Terri is vulnerable to abuse at least partly because she is “bone-thin,” it seems. Nick treats the question of whether he loves Laura much more plainly and flatly here, which actually makes it seem faker, paradoxically. When he begins the story of the old couple, Mel whispers, “Just shut up for once in your life,” which again seems harsher than the original. The story is shorter, and Mel is rougher with it:
He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? … the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife” 320. Mel’s thoughts about killing his wife here are also more equated to the violence of Ed – a stronger endorsement of the suspicion that he beats Terri. Mel doesn’t call his kids and the narrator’s heartbeat gets fast, but without resolution: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” This ending almost makes it feel like a stage play – we look at all of them as the lights dim, no resolution.

T. S. Eliot: Poems

T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis Missouri. He moved to London in and became an Anglican and a British citizen.

“THE LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK,” 1915

“If I thought that my response were/ to a person that would ever return to the world/ This flame would never flicker more./ But because no one who leaves this depth/ has ever yet returned alive, if what I hear is true,/ Then without fear of infamy I answer you.”

This epigraph, from Dante’s Inferno, is a conversation between Guido de Montefeltro and Dante in the 8th circle of hell – the penultimate one. It is interesting that although the first stanza invites the reader to consider the speaker as Virgil, giving the reader a tour of hell, here we consider Prufrock instead as near the bottom of hell, trapped there, believing even if he tells his tale that it will never escape the bounds of his delimited world – perhaps even the limits of his lonely self.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                               10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The rambling, long, slow, and sapping first stanza of this poem reflects the mood of exhaustion, resignation, and uncertainty. The speaker leads us through a neighborhood of cheap restaurants and brothels which mimic the linguistic inefficacy of argument and conversation (reinforced by the first refrain of the women’s superficial conversation). Though we are led to “an overwhelming question,” Prufrock begs that we not ask it, but go and see for ourselves in “our visit.”

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,                               20
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

The repetition of the catlike, material body of the oppressive smog of London is both sluggish and quick here, both fearful and tranquilizing.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;                                30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The speaker feels that time is almost endless, that it is layered into phases of preparation and performance – the time “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” The insignificance of the repetition of his decisions makes time seem endless, almost painfully so, even as we know that time is of course not endless at all, but limited.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—                               40
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Here we see Prufrock angsting about how others will see him – worrying whether he dares to effect any real interaction, or whether his endless concatenations of decisions and revisions will reverse his will.

For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,                       50
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?                    60
And how should I presume?

Here we have the exhausted tone of “having known them all,” touching in its ability to capture the repetition of routine, but also patently ironic, coming from a man who has “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons,” and who is so anxious in each interaction that he cannot have “known” much of anything, or anyone, nor does he feel himself understood.

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Here Prufrock disassembles the women into synecdoche – the braceleted arms, the swish of a dress – he looks at them alienated and seems to long for touch, but has no idea where to begin.
 .     .     .     .     .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets              70
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Prufrock can only think of things to say that would alienate him further. He transforms himself into synecdoche here – claws rather than arms – making of himself an alien being, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” He imagines the sea as a peaceful, redemptive place – the imagery of water here seems connected to the strong suicidal/peaceful/lonely ideas of water for Clarissa and Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway. 
 .     .     .     .     .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?                  80
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet–and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Prufrock envies time itself for its peaceful slumbering, even as he recognizes Death laughing and showing him that life is passing him by.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,                                             90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say, “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,                                           100
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”                                          110

Prufrock wonders if it would have been worth the effort to love, given that it would inevitably end in some kind of miscommunication; nevertheless, he likens his imagined attempt to throwing “the nerves in patterns on a screen” – here language is a poor copy of meaning, like the Platonic shadows on the wall in a cave, but updated technologically for the modern moment.
 .     .     .     .     .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Prufrock recognizes himself as a Shakespearean character – a Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, a small player who might serve the drama of another’s life, but never truly his own. Sometimes his language breaks the bounds of such tact and sounds more like “the Fool,” an injunction to us, perhaps, to read the more hysterical portions of the poem (about the sea, etc.) as some kind of sensical prophecy in the line of Shakespeare’s “mad” but truth-uttering Fools.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .                                              120
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think they will sing to me.

Prufrock considers that there is not actually as much time as one might think. He imagines himself as an old man, adjusting his appearance again in the eyes of others. The line “Do I dare to eat a peach?” is often interpreted as his hesitation to seize the opportunity to love and sensually experience women.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown               130
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

In the penultimate stanza, we see the image of the ragged claws connect to a larger vision of the world of the sea, in which the mermaid-sirens, though they may not sing to Prufrock himself, represent a kind of wild freedom and abandon, a separate watery world of redemption from the banality of his life. He shifts to “we” in the final stanza, insisting that somehow our dream-world is one in which we “linger” in “the chambers” of the sea, reminiscent of the chambers of the heart, bringing us back to the etherized patient on the surgery table, perhaps. The poem also “surfaces” at the end, when it “submerges” us at the start.  It is when human voices wake us that we drown – thus, Prufrock is a sort of amphibious creature (like the crab), moving between water and land, but more ‘drowned’ by waking life than by his visions of death and water. These images are interesting in comparison with the drowned Phoenician sailor of The Waste Land. Unlike the Victorian dramatic monologue on which it is based, the siren call to suicide seems almost a viable option here – to be able to survive or handle the modern world unscathed is perhaps already to condemn oneself in a way.

“HYSTERIA”

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden …” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

In this short prose poem, Eliot becomes obsessed with the absorptive (yonic) power of the hysterical woman, who makes the speaker “involved,” “drawn in,” “inhaled,” “lost,” and “bruised.” The social awkwardness of the waiter recall the Edwardian manners of Prufrock, and the fragments to be collected somehow foreshadow the “fragments I have shored against my ruin” in The Waste Land. 

“LA FIGLIA CHE PIANGE”

O quam te memorem virgo

“O how should I call/remember you, virgin?” – Virgil

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—	
Lean on a garden urn—	
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—	
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—	
Fling them to the ground and turn	     
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:	
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.	

So I would have had him leave,	
So I would have had her stand and grieve,	
So he would have left	        
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,	
As the mind deserts the body it has used.	
I should find	
Some way incomparably light and deft,	
Some way we both should understand,	        
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.	

She turned away, but with the autumn weather	
Compelled my imagination many days,	
Many days and many hours:	
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!	
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.	
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze	
The troubled midnight and the noon's repose.

This poem demonstrates a slow turning inwards to the self. It begins with the speaker commanding the girl to “stand, ” “lean,” “weave,” “clasp,” “fling,” and again “weave.” It moves to his own acknowledgment of the subjunctive fantasy of what he “would have had her” do – the woman as an aesthetic object gives way to the idea of her as a former lover. The poet then determines he would find a form of communication with her somehow – a parallel, perhaps, to aesthetic communion. In the final stanza, the girl becomes what the daffodils become for Wordsworth – memories that “still amaze/ The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.” It also suggests a split within the speaker’s self.

POEMS (1920)

“GERONTION”

Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both. (Measure for Measure)

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
                                              I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.
Signs are taken for wonders.  ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness.  In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fräulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door.
      Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind.  I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.  Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.  Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion.  Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear.  Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us.  Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism.  Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
The tiger springs in the new year.  Us he devours.  Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house.  Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils.
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use it for your closer contact?
These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors.  What will the spider do
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay?  De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.
                            Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
The speaker of the poem is an old man describing the new century and WWI – his eyes are those of a Victorian estranged from the modern world.  Eliot considered using it as a prologue to The Waste Land (note the reference to the “dry month… waiting for rain”), but kept it separate instead. He was not in the war, his house is “decayed” (presumably metaphorically/aristocratically speaking as well), he does not recognize the foreign Jews inhabiting England. “The word within a word, unable to speak a word,” reminds me of both Yeats and Thomas in its play of the double meaning but also meaninglessness of linguistic signs, another commonality with The Waste Land. The man himself sees signs everywhere – Christ the tiger, flowering judas. As opposed to the haunted Victorian monologue, the eerie thing here is “I have no ghosts,” as if to suggest no history, no sacred connection with the dead. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” seems relevant to “The Second Coming,” published just one year earlier. The tiger who devours us and who is time reminds me of James’ “Beast in the Jungle,” too – the fear of something all along that was the loss of life and time itself. Like Prufrock (some think this is an older version), “These with a thousand small deliberations/ Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,/ Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled… in a wilderness of mirrors… fractured atoms.” The poem ends with the slow fading of the mind: “Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.”

THE WASTE LAND,” 1922 

“THE HOLLOW MEN,” 1925

Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy

The first epigraph is a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The second is the phrase English children call out when asking for money for fireworks on November 5, Guy Fawkes day. The fireworks are used in part to burn the straw effigies of the traitor (this is how the word “guy” entered English parlance – as something in disguise, or a fright…)

I

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

II

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer-

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

III

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

IV

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

V

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Most famous for its last section – and in fact, last stanza – this poem stages action as but a “shadow” intervening between an idea and an outcome. It seems to sap the world of motion and change, enacting a fatidic tone. It reminds me a lot of Hughes “Crow” at the beginning (so much for Hughes not raising dead voices), and of Yeats in its repetition and prophetic tone. The genius of the last stanza is to sound a development from childhood nursery rhyme to mad death knell. Kurtz is also called “hollow sham” and “hollow at the core” in Heart of Darkness. 

“JOURNEY OF THE MAGI,” 1927

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

A dramatic monologue that once again thwarts Victorian traditions of the genre, “Journey of the Magi” saps the Nativitiy story of collectivity and joy and makes it a journey of one perspective. Like Yeats, Eliot’s vision of history  marks Christ’s birth (unsurprisingly) as a new era, but here the end of an era of magic and pure symbolism is also tellingly lost. The first stanza tells of the cold and difficult journey, and gives visceral details to the world that gives way to the Christian one – a life they “regretted” as they left it. They see a scope of Christ’s life foreshadowed in reverse: “three trees on the low sky” signify the crucifixion, the “hands at the door dicing for pieces of silver” the Roman soldiers casting lots for his clothes, and the “feet kicking the empty wine-skins” the Marriage at Cana. The illegibility of these signs to the men – “but there was no information” – details the impossible task of imagining backwards into history for Eliot – we cannot but see it from where we are now. The speaker says he “would do it again,” but wants to “set down” that the Birth was like a Death – not only in the moment of agony, but the way it returned him to his former world – “an alien people clutching their gods.” The last line, “I should be glad of another death,” is ambiguous in meaning. Does the speaker hold to pagan reincarnation here? Does he look already to the next spiritual age?

“FOUR QUARTETS,” 1943

Eliot conceived of this poem as being structured similarly to The Waste Land and wrote it in four parts (The Waste Land has 5 parts) between 1935 and 1942. The poem’s epigraphs are from Heraclitus: “Though wisdom is common, the many live as if they have wisdom of their own”; “the way upward and the way downward is one and the same.” Each of the four sections has 5 sections within it, which may correspond to the parts of The Waste Land. According to C.K. Stead, these 5 parts are:

1.The movement of time, catching brief moments of eternity.
2. Worldly experience, leading to dissatisfaction.
3. Purgation in the world, divesting the soul of the love of created things.
4. A lyric prayer for, or affirmation of the need of, Intercession.
5. The problems of attaining artistic wholeness  – this becomes analogue for (and merges into) the problems of achieving spiritual health.

By this point, Eliot was an avowed Anglican, and many take issue with the far more religious tone of the poem than his earlier work. As in “Tradition & the Individual Talent,” we see Eliot here as the poet who looks back and forward at the same time, and as in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” we see him “rendering” or “alchemizing,” boiling down and removing the self out of the ideas, as through a crucible. The poem seems to attempt to re-mystify Christianity and to restore its incantatory language. Eliot expresses the inconceivable state of grace or oneness with God through a series of paradoxes and double negatives. It is possible to think about each part as corresponding to an element, a region of England, and to a gospel (the first three are synoptic):

1. BURNT NORTON: Matthew (drawn from Mark, focused on law and history) = air (speculation, poetry, imagination, connections between life and death). All times are the same (past, present, future – like the Trinity.) “The still point of the turning world” is repeated. “To be conscious is not to be in time.” “Only by the form, the pattern/ Can words or music reach/ The stillness.” “The Word in the desert/ Is most attacked by voices of temptation,/ The crying shadow in the funeral dance,/ The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.” (This seems Yeatsian – recall “the dancer from the dance” and the “lion body with the head of a man.”) “The detail of the pattern is movement.”

2. EAST COKER: Mark (plain-spoken, earliest source, heroism and death ) = Earth (wonder of creation, body, science and technology should be forsaken for faith). “In my beginning is my end” is repeated. “There is a time for building/ and a time for living and for generation/… and to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.” “The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,/ For the pattern is enw in every moment.” “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost/ And found and lost again and again.”

3. THE DRY SALVAGES: Luke (longest, evangelical, lyrical, poetic) = Water (redemption, how we sail vs drift – the straight and narrow path, etc.). “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable.” “The sea has many voices,/ Many gods and many voices.” “I have said before/ That the past experience revived in the meaning/ Is not the experience of one life only/ But of many generations – not forgetting/ Something that is probably quite ineffable:/ The backward half-look/ Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.” (This makes the speaker both Lott’s wife and Eurydice – a feminizing gesture.) “O voyagers, O seamen,/ You who come to port, and you whose bodies/ Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea,/ Or whatever event, this is your real destination.” Eliot dismisses “fiddling” with cards, tea leaves, science, the press – “These are only hings and guesses,/… the rest/ Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.”

4. LITTLE GIDDING: John (purgation, vision) = Fire  (the holy spirit incarnate as dove, Pentecostal, redeemed from the fires of hell by the fires of purgation, unification of Western history & culture). “Midwinter spring is its own season” (vs. “April is the cruellest month”). “The brief sun flames the ice… in windless cold that is the heart’s heat,/ Reflecting in a watery mirror/ A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.” “You are not here to verify,/ Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity… You are here to kneel/ Where prayer has been valid.” “Prayer is more/ Than an order of words” – is poetry? “This is the death of air… This is the death of earth… This is the death of water and fire.” “There are three conditions which often look alike/ Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:/ Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment/ From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference/ Which resembles the others as death resembles life,/ Being between two lives… This is the use of memory:/ For liberation… expanding/ Of love beyond desire.” “We only live, only suspire/ Consumed by either fire or fire.” “What we call the beginning is often the end/ And to make an end is to make a beginning./ The end is where we start from.” “Every poem an epitaph.”  “All manner of thing shall be well. When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one.”

 

 

Roland Barthes, “Camera Lucida”

1980

Notes on Roland Barthes with some ruminations ca. 2010 on how the text might relate to Nabokov’s Pale Fire…

In Camera Lucida, Barthes tries to find the noeme, the essence of photography. What he notices first is the distinction between the studium – the ostensible subject or meaning of the photograph – and the punctum – the small detail that pricks through the surface of certain photographs to wound one, and, as he eventually argues, evince pity. This is often an individually chosen detail. The noeme of photography is actually its haunting quality of “that-has-been” – not language, not a story or a described history with a mediator, but the knowledge that the object has been there, and is there no longer – thus, it is a kind of theater of death for Barthes, as it presents as living something that is nonetheless static and dead, even an instant after its capture.

Something of this is captured in the famous Stieglitz photograph that Barthes includes – the steam rising off the horses, ghostlike, is as static and as weighty and as permanent – or, in fact, impermanent – as the horses themselves – there is the certainty that this has been, and also the certainty that it is no more, that it cannot be recreated. This becomes still more haunting for Barthes in the photo of the boy sentenced to die – though I don’t totally understand how that is the punctum and not the studium of the photograph.

The photograph doesn’t recall, like memory, it attests, and the most wounding photograph is ultimately personal for Barthes – the Winter Garden photograph of his mother. It is in spite or perhaps because he did not know her when the photo was taken that he can find her true essence in that photo and his true wound of mourning for her as he cannot in photos where he “remembers” the circumstances in which they were taken.

“Black Mo’nin” picks up on this idea of mourning, echoing the Wittgensteinian idea that “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent,” but expanding it. The photograph, and particularly the photograph of atrocity, for Moten, must be seen and listened to – it rehearses a silent scream, it speaks publicly for private grief, it performs – like the theater of death, a reenactment of a living moment, a this has been,

Pale Fire employs a notably photographic language – There is also a spylike/voyeuristic quality, examination of all through crystal, glass, lenses, etc. Also,There are a few aspects of these texts I want to hold especially close as we move forward:  First, Barthes’ Kafka quote: “ ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.’ ” (53)

If we can consider Pale Fire a highly visual novel, which I think we can, we might also consider it a novel that attempts to employ an almost photographic language. Shade looks out through the ‘picture’ window of his house, and the prisms of his interpretations are filtered through the media of crystal and glass throughout his poem.

Photographs are all over Pale Fire. Shade’s poem is a series of snapshots of the ordinary shot through his picture window of ordinary objects and their hauntings by his dead daughter Hazel. In his poem, he says, line 30, “My eyes were such that literally they/ Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit, /Or, with a silent shiver, order it…” – these trophies and stillicides then appear on his “eyelid’s nether side.” The “pert pictures” of the Goldsworth daughters irritate Kinbote (as so many photos irritate Barthes, and he throws them in a drawer.

On 101, Kinbote shares with Shade that the King (probably Kinbote) was also, like Shade, unable to recall his father’s face, though he could remember the candy in his hand in that last photograph taken on King Alfin’s lap, a phenomenological oddity that provides what seems to be the punctum of the photo and the passage. It is through “ghastly photographs” that the young King Charles sees the gruesome plane accident that killed his father – this evidence makes particular and visceral that which was only alluded to delicately and elliptically before. He looks at Fleur, his ex-wife, in a photo, and says that “one involuntarily lingers over that picture, as one does when standing at a vantage point of time and knowing in retrospect that in a moment one’s life would undergo a complete change.” 105.

The pictures of the king are reproduced and hung all over the kingdom as he tries to escape, and his friends all dress like him to help him escape. They attempt to replicate him in reality as the photo does with technology. It is also through a photograph that Kinbote mourns Shade in the Foreword, before we have even read the poem or the commentary or the index. In the photo, “Shade is seen leaning on a sturdy cane that had belonged to his Aunt Maud (see line 86.) which then leads you to another note in a paper chase. My left hand is half raised – not to pat Shade on the shoulder as seems to be the intention, but to remove my sunglasses, which, however, it never reached in that life, the life of the picture.” This is the punctum – the realization of the incomplete gesture that inspires tenderness.

Kinbote, too, is haunted by the what has been. In one scene, Kinbote tells us that a visiting professor strains to make Shade see the similarity between the Zemblan king and Kinbote, and Shade refuses, saying ‘Resemblances are the shadows of difference. Different people see different similarities and similar differences.” 265 In this discussion, an “eerie note throbbed by” – the haunting of Kinbote on the photograph. “What a pity I cannot prove my point,” says the German. “If only there was a picture here. Couldn’t there be somewhere” – 267. They find him in an encyclopedia and a comparison ensues, problematic because he is young in the photo – the photo has preserved him as a what has been. This is also paradoxical, however, because the king has been missing, and no one knows what he looks like now, or whether he is alive or dead, as he has been in hiding. Thus the photograph in Pale Fire points to the issue of deictic thinking. However, because it is a novel, or a poem, or neither, but in any case fiction, the photograph in Pale Fire cannot function as it does for Barthes. For the reader, the photograph is evidence, but only within a fictional world, rather than clearly evidential.

As Barthes says, “Language, by nature, is fictional.” We also find out on the same page (quite near the novel’s end) that Zembla is not just like zemlya – which means land – severnaya zemlya – but of “Semblerland – a land of reflections, of “resemblers”.” 265. Thus the image created by language or the image described in created language is never exactly duplicable like the photograph, but then it is never quite proof, either. Its deictic gesture says something, but proves nothing.

Barthes said in an interview that the reader should consider Camera Lucida as being spoken by a character in a novel, and indeed, in the Winter Garden photograph, he provides us not with the photograph that wounds, but with a description of it. To say, “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden photograph. It exists only for me” is to say, “I am acceding this photograph as evidence and allowing it to become imaginary, even fictional, for my reader.” What Barthes does is leave this as language, rather than as photograph, and therefore open to be filled by the reader’s photograph and feeling.

The photo within the novel shows not the wound but the ellipsis of the wound. Interestingly, Shade, whose poem absolutely turns on the mourning of his daughter Hazel, does not invoke photographs, but his memories of her, though Kinbote describes this descriptions as “his picture of Hazel is quite clear and complete” – maybe too much so, says Kinbote, maybe embellished by memory and loss. It is through Hazel’s toys, through sensations of her ghost, through her handwriting, through their shared memories, indeed, through Shade’s poem, that John and Sybil remember and love their daughter, and not through photos of her. It is a verbal, rather than a photographic memory – it becomes the property of photography to particularize grief, it is the property of poetry to give all its readers access, to allow us all to project onto it. In this way, perhaps Barthes’ exclusion of the Winter Garden photograph creates a hole where we can all fill in the image that we think is TRUE of a beloved, so that we can understand the meaning of his words.

Ultimately, photographs fill us, but it is language that can be filled by us. They both, however, allow for the observance of particular punctum that enlivens and involves. The changing meaning of a photo over time, like a lynching postcard, which was once victory and is now evidence of atrocity and an ironic rehearsal of mourning, or the Winter Garden photograph, which preserves for Barthes something the photographer could never have anticipated. In this way, reading the photograph over time is not so different from reading the details of a text as you finish it – different things stick out.

Ultimately, Nabokov is also more filmic than photographic – even Barthes says on 88 that film is protensive, recalling the Iser-Jauss language of the novel. Pale Fire’s dramatic, moving moments are always given with the language of scenery and theater, and Shade exclaims, “Retake! Retake!” thinking of his daughter’s death, and in Kinbote’s last lines of Commentary, he contrasts his real life with his fantasy one, in which he will make a motion picture with his (the King’s) gay lover, Odon, from his Zemblan childhood – Shade, he says, has only been caught in “the clash between the two figments.”

However, the particularizing quality of the photograph is lauded in art in general – the great sin in Nabokov is to generalize, to confuse individuality, to make an individual the same as another. Indeed, Gradus kills himself for “killing the wrong person when the right one stood before him” – it is a novel about the problem of not seeing carefully enough, and, as I want to argue, in a more political way, about moving to action because of paranoia which is disguised as evidence. This imagination as evidence is delusion, or paranoia in the novel. To imagine evidence, to point to the nonexistent photograph, the elliptical wound as proof, to overread every clue as evidence, is to assemble the fictive evidence of a paranoid.

Kinbote says, “we are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new wolrds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing.” 289. There is also the narrative quality of the “unintentional” details included by delusional narrator? Kinbote, like a bad photographer, cannot edie, cannot “frame” his subject, cannot see the image he is “developing” for us? This actually results in a kind of punctum, as well as an invitation to overread his narrative and become paranoid.

 

W. H. Auden, “Twelve Songs”

1935-38

Much of the poem, namely the most famous song – IX, retitled “Funeral Blues,” – was written for satiric musical performance in Isherwood & Auden’s The Ascent of F6, a 1936 tragic play. It has been reclaimed sincerely in later years.

I. Song of the Beggars
“O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches
With somersaults and fireworks, the roast and the smacking kisses”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And Garbo’s and Cleopatra’s wits to go astraying,
In a feather ocean with me to go fishing and playing,
Still jolly when the cock has burst himself with crowing”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And to stand on green turf among the craning yellow faces
Dependent on the chestnut, the sable, the Arabian horses,
And me with a magic crystal to foresee their places”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And this square to be a deck and these pigeons canvas to rig,
And to follow the delicious breeze like a tantony pig
To the shaded feverless islands where the melons are big”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And these shops to be turned to tulips in a garden bed,
And me with my crutch to thrash each merchant dead
As he pokes from a flower his bald and wicked head”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And a hole in the bottom of heaven, and Peter and Paul
And each smug surprised saint like parachutes to fall,
And every one-legged beggar to have no legs at all”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.

Spring 1935 

II.
O lurcher-loving collier, black as night,
Follow your love across the smokeless hill;
Your lamp is out, the cages are all still;
Course for heart and do not miss,
For Sunday soon is past and, Kate, fly not so fast,
For Monday comes when none may kiss:
Be marble to his soot, and to his black be white.

June 1935

III.
Let a florid music praise,
The flute and the trumpet,
Beauty’s conquest of your face:
In that land of flesh and bone,
Where from citadels on high
Her imperial standards fly,
Let the hot sun
Shine on, shine on.

O but the unloved have had power,
The weeping and striking,
Always: time will bring their hour;
Their secretive children walk
Through your vigilance of breath
To unpardonable Death,
And my vows break
Before his look.

February 1936

IV.
Dear, though the night is gone,
Its dream still haunts today,
That brought us to a room
Cavernous, lofty as
A railway terminus,
And crowded in that gloom
Were beds, and we in one
In a far corner lay.

Our whisper woke no clocks,
We kissed and I was glad
At everything you did,
Indifferent to those
Who sat with hostile eyes
In pairs on every bed,
Arms round each other’s necks
Inert and vaguely sad.

What hidden worm of guilt
Or what malignant doubt
Am I the victim of,
That you then, unabashed,
Did what I never wished,
Confessed another love;
And I, submissive, felt
Unwanted and went out.

March 1936

V.
Fish in the unruffled lakes
Their swarming colors wear,
Swans in the winter air
A white perfection have,
And the great lion walks
Through his innocent grove;
Lion, fish and swan
Act, and are gone
Upon Time’s toppling wave.

We, till shadowed days are done,
We must weep and sing
Duty’s conscious wrong,
The Devil in the clock,
The goodness carefully worn
For atonement or for luck;
We must lose our loves,
On each beast and bird that moves
Turn an envious look.

Sighs for folly done and said
Twist our narrow days,
But I must bless, I must praise
That you, my swan, who have
All the gifts that to the swan
Impulsive Nature gave,
The majesty and pride,
Last night should add
Your voluntary love.

March 1936

VI. Autumn Song
Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last,
Nurses to their graves are gone,
But the prams go rolling on.

Whispering neighbors left and right
Daunt us from our true delight,
Able hands are forced to freeze
Derelict on lonely knees.

Close behind us on our track,
Dead in hundreds cry Alack,
Arms raised stiffly to reprove
In false attitudes of love.

Scrawny through a plundered wood,
Trolls run scolding for their food,
Owl and nightingale are dumb,
And the angel will not come.

Clear, unscalable, ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead,
From whose cold, cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.

March 1936

VII.
Underneath an abject willow,
Lover, sulk no more:
Act from thought should quickly follow.
What is thinking for?
Your unique and moping station
Proves you cold;
Stand up and fold
Your map of desolation.

Bells that toll across the meadows
From the sombre spire
Toll for these unloving shadows
Love does not require.
All that lives may love; why longer
Bow to loss
With arms across?
Strike and you shall conquer.

Geese in flocks above you flying.
Their direction know,
Icy brooks beneath you flowing,
To their ocean go.
Dark and dull is your distraction:
Walk then, come,
No longer numb
Into your satisfaction.

March 1936

VIII.
At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my friend, there’s never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of the migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.

April 1936

IX.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

April 1936

X.
O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; “O Johnny, let’s play”:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O that Friday near Christmas as I well recall
When we went to the Matinee Charity Ball,
The floor was so smooth and the band was so loud
And Johnny so handsome I felt so proud;
“Squeeze me tighter, dear Johnny, let’s dance till it’s day”:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

Shall I ever forget at the Grand Opera
When music poured out of each wonderful star?
Diamonds and pearls they hung dazzling down
Over each silver or golden silk gown;
“O John I’m in heaven,” I whispered to say:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O but he was fair as a garden in flower,
As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower,
When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade
O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart;
“O marry me, Johnny, I’ll love and obey”:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You’d the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

April 1937

XI. Roman Wall Blues
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

October 1937

XII.
Some say that love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world round,
And some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn’t do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It’s quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I’ve found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway-guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like classical stuff?
Does it stop when one wants to quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn’t ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton’s bracing air.
I don’t know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’ in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on the door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

Virginia Woolf: “The Waves”

1931

The Waves unfolds over 9 episodes corresponding to the time of day, from sunrise to night: 1) childhood, 2) adolescence, 3) young adulthood, 4) adulthood (dinner/voices blend), 5) adulthood (Percival falls from his horse and dies, solace in baby for Bernard, art for Rhoda), 6) maturity, 7) midlife (crisis), 8) old age (dinner/common experience) 9) old age (Bernard alone speaks – language as a fight against death, experience moving beyond language to the direct). (One could also think of this as 9 months of gestation, a womanly cycle of reproduction.) It is loosely constructed, much more than by plot, by the voices of the 6 central characters:

Bernardlanguage & loquaciousness, sees personality constructed by others, not snobby (Forster?)
Nevilleorder & beauty, artistic, gay, classics scholar, in love with Percival
Louisinsecurity & ambition, depressive “T. S. Eliot” figure, Australian, becomes seamy, has affair with Rhoda
Jinny physicality & beauty, dancer, free, sexual
Susan – intensity & attachment, in touch with Nature (farm), maternal, classical figure of femininity
Rhoda – dreamlike abstraction, depressive, split from ordinary life, “Woolfian” suicide

There are also 2 main peripheral characters:
Percival – the “popular boy” the others are friends with, representing monolithic, white, paternal, phallic, British, colonial masculinity and power, the book is at once an elegy to him and an exploration of nostalgia for something one never should have loved. Percival speaks only once, to say “No.”
Old /Dr. Crane – the boys’ headmaster. compare to Mr. Keasey in Ulysses? (Also “service for man who was drowned” – 78).  Perceived as a Kantian negative pleasure, like a tooth removed when he leaves the room (50), pontificating on literature (58).

Woolf herself wrote in her diary that the “playpoem” was not meant to be read as a novel with distinct characters so much as pseudocharacters enacting multiplicity or demonstrating collectivity, representing facets of human experience and thought before they are made into types, characters, or performances. Bernard writes,

“I wish then after this somnolence to sparkle, many-faceted under the light of my friends’ faces. I have been traversing the sunless territory of non-identity… With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness… I see Louis, stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet. These are fantastic pictures, these are figments… Yet they drum me alive” 117.

I read this novel as a meditation on language as a surface and a representation that nonetheless orders and constitutes experience.

Bernard: “we are not single, we are one… I have little aptitude for reflection. I require the concrete in everything. It is so only that I lay hands up on the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence” (68).

Woolf begins with the image of the sea,

“indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it… the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually” (7).

She goes on to call it “a thin veil,” “the green surface,” and a “surface” on the same page. When, after the sunrise interlude, the characters speak for the first time, Bernard sees a ring, Susan sees a slab of pale yellow, Rhoda hears a chirp, Neville sees a globe, Jinny sees a crimson tassel, and Louis hears stamping. Interestingly, the two “depressive” characters hear, seemingly a more spiritual connection with their surroundings (Re: Kant on how we hear reason speaking to us), whereas the other four see, and the girls see in color (Re: Kant on how we see the beautiful, and especially the sublime, and how the beautiful is more about the bounded outline, whereas color is merely an accessory – see 85).

Bernard and Susan often mirror/repeat each other as ideal types of British masculinity and femininity? Rhoda and Louis are more antisocial and demonstrate the artist’s tendency. Finally, Jinny and Neville both buck gender stereotypes, queering the possibilities of performance (dance, sex, criticism) that they engage in. Percival, who does not speak, seems to represent a sort of Althusserian ISA – a patriarchy or power never seen, but always present and part of one’s self-awareness or self-policing. At the end of the novel, Bernard thinks,

“And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome… Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan’s tears. I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt” 289.

This picks up on Clarissa’s faceting and her sympathetic experience of Septimus’ death in Mrs. Dalloway. Bernard’s final thoughts of his being are wonderfully feminizing: “Immeasurably receptive, holding everything, trembling with fullness, yet clear, contained – so my being seems, now that desire urges it no more out and away… now that he is dead, the man I called ‘Bernard'” 291. The book ends with Bernard having to confront materiality again and heading out “like Percival,” as a youth against death, to write. The last line is The waves broke on the shore 297. If the other six are one, Percival is the troublesome mirror they all look into: a kind of national ideology, sometimes lovely and leading, sometimes violent and brutish.

The characters emphasize divergent subjectivity but similar diction and expression. Their perceptions unfold as the idea from Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction” of recording atomized experience in the order in which it occurs. I would like to compare their 6 similar but separated voices to the 6 parts of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, all parts or forms of one Anna or the 6 different voices of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (who speak differently, but may all be the same psyche).

Surfaces:
The female body itself as a surface: Jinny after kissing Louis:

“Now I smell geraniums; I smell earth mould. I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you” (13).

Louis on Rhoda: “Her shoulderblades meet across her back like the wings of a small butterfly” (22), like when he thinks “they skim the butterflies from the nodding tops of the flowers. They brush the surface of the world” (12).

Bernard: “rich and heavy sensations form on the roof of my mind; down showers the day” (26)/ “drop that forms on the roof of the soul in the evening is round, many-coloured” (80).

Faceting:

Susan: “I saw her kiss him… She danced in flecked with diamonds light as dust… Jinny’s eyes break into a thousand lights” (15).

Louis: “From discord, from hatred… my shattered mind is pieced together by some sudden perception” (39).

Bernard: “I am not one and simple, but complex and many… I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight. Underneath, and, at the moment when I am most disparate, I am also integrated” (76-7), see also 80.

As in other Woolf, the images around waves and water seem to concern solitude and drowning (often Rhoda). On the flip side, plants, leaves, and trees seem to connote connectedness – rootedness but also striving (see Louis, 11-12).

Language: 

Though the shifting perspectives are represented as things characters have “said,” much is internal, some is aloud. Importance of direct speech, vs. free indirect discourse? Stream of consciousness as a kind of speech (Woolf sees mind processing world, at least consciously, via language?). Bernard’s speech is imagined as a continually unfolding story (69).

Bernard: “we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory” (16).

Susan: Rhoda dreams, Louis regards, Bernard moulds, Neville finished, Jinny spins, I am not afraid (25-6).

“Bernard says there is always a story. I am a story. Louis is a story” (37)/ “Among the tortures and devastations of life is this then – our friends are not able to finish their stories” (39).

Neville: “I shall be a clinger to the outsides of words all my life” (48). His elision of language around homosexuality (51).

Bernard: “My charm and flow of language, unexpected and spontaneous as it is delights me too. I am astonished, as I draw the veil off things with words, how much, how infinitely more I can say I have observed… images and images” (84).

Faces: 

As sources of misreading (30) – faces of people (affect) and clocks (time).

Misc.

Bernard on shopgirls (86)/ Kracauer.

Henry James: “The Turn of the Screw”

1898/1901

In The Turn of the Screw, an unnamed young governess attempts to defend her young wards, Miles and Flora, from the eerie apparitions of two dead staff members at the family’s lonely estate: first the former employee Mr. Quint, and later the previous governess, Miss Jessel.

The governess feels that the children are aware of Jessel and Quint and desire to commune with them, but that they are conniving about it, and wish to conceal their desires from her. Jessel and Quint had an affair, and may also have abused or corrupted the children. The children often contrive ways to be left alone or apart from the governess together – in her mind, so that they can be drawn in to the ghosts. In one scene, the governess wakes to Flora staring out at Miles on the lawn, whom the governess is convinced must be staring at Quint. In the final scene, the governess finally confronts Miles about his expulsion and all of the other ‘secrets,’ when suddenly Quint appears to her in the window behind the boy. As she embraces him and tells him he is free of Quint (the name alarms Miles), the boy dies in her arms.

The frame is that of an unnamed narrator reporting the tale told to him one evening by Douglas, himself reading the manuscript version of a story told him by the governess, which he claims she committed to print before she died.

It seems vital that Douglas have the manuscript mailed to the party so that he can read it from the governess’ written account – also that we are reading the version the narrator claims to have his own manuscript copy of. One might consider the governess herself not just as the writer of her tale, but as a reader, and our interpretation of her as vacillating between surface and paranoid readings of the text’s possible implications.

• the narrator says that Douglas “read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of the author’s hand” (6).

• The uncle actively halts the governess from writing, leaving her to interpret the events where she is largely in solitude – or at least without an ‘equal’ around. When Miles is expelled, the uncle writes the governess, “Read him but don’t report” (10).

• Miles reads the letter illicitly and uses the excuse of finishing his book to derail the governess. Also, his seeming awareness of his fictional position: “the true knights we love to read about never push an advantage too far” (66).

• Flora, too, “appeared to read and accuse and judge me” (71).

• the governess reads books, sometimes to trick other characters (17, 40, 46, 47, 28) and reads letters (78, 85). She calls reading “an unavowed curiosity of my youth,” particularly “last century fiction… of a distinctly deprecated renown” (40).

• the governess wonders about Jane Eyre and The Mysteries of Udolpho (17), as well as Fielding’s Amelia (40). She is in the position of only knowing what Mrs. Grose tells her about Jessel and Quint, and her analeptic/proleptic pasting-together of clues, her proof, “so I saw him as I see the letters on this page” (17) is double-edged: both totally clear (legible) and wholly imagined (since language is not visual and offers no proof).

• Mrs. Grose, unlike the governess, cannot read, which is “dreadful” (11)

• Much of her reading also involves, of course, her interpretive work, which might verge on a paranoid, exploitative interpretation of her surroundings (worth thinking about how that reflects upon us as readers, too). She even admits her own paranoid reading of the situation at times: “I had restlessly read into the facts before us” (27), “I only sat there on my tomb and read into what our young friend had said to me in the fulness of its meaning.” (57), and “I suppose I now read into our situation a clearness it couldn’t have had” (84).

• the word read appears by itself or within in other words 97 times in the text: in readily, ready, already, thread, bread, etc. Read is used in the past tense each time, making it shine through and rhyme with the other words in which it is embedded. Particularly notable is the repetition of dread and dreadful (26 times), which includes both the words dead and read within it.

Especially interesting is the substance the governess tries to give to the purely visual ghosts, especially by explaining her depth perception of these surface apparitions.

Critical interpretations long focused on the mutually exclusive implications of the story (some even suspecting that the governess remains unnamed because she might be based on Henry’s ‘hysterical’ sister Alice). Edmund Wilson was among the first to suggest that the governess was insane and had imagined the ghosts altogether.

Eric Solomon claims in “The Return of the Screw” that Mrs. Grose is the villain or killer based on the line “Someone had taken a liberty rather gross.”

Mark Spilka, in “Turning the Freudian Screw,” addresses the erotic ambiguities of the tower and the lake, embedded in a tale about the Victorian obsession with asexual, childish innocence (and the implication that one or both of the now-ghosts molested the children, ‘infecting’ them, as critic Craig Raine insists).

John J. Enck (“The Turn of the Century”) praises the craft of James’ prose and places the story’s irony and uncertainty in “the reader’s intelligence” and compares his writing to Nabokov.

Shoshanna Felman