24 December 2014

from The Child that Books Built, chapter three, The Island (Francis Spufford)

At the same time, I couldn't read quite a lot of the words in The Hobbit.  I had accelerated into reading faster than my understanding had grown.  If I press my memory for the sensation of reading the second half of the book, when I was flying through the story, I remember, simultaneous with the new liquid smoothness, a constant flicker of incomprehensibility.  There were holes in the text corresponding to the parts I couldn't understand.  Words like prophesying, rekindled and adornment had never been spoken in my hearing.  No one had ever told me aloud to behold something, and I didn't know that vessels could be cups and bowls as well as ships.  I could say these words over, and shape my mouth around their big sounds.  I could enjoy their heft in the sentences.  They were obviously the special vocabulary that was apt for the slaying of dragons and the fighting of armies: words that conjured the sound of trumpets.  But for all the meaning I obtained from them, they might as well not have been printed.  When I speeded up, and up, and my reading became fluent, it was partly because I had learned how to ignore such words efficiently.  I methodically left out chunks.  I marked them to be sorted out later, by slower and more patient mental processes; I allowed each one to brace a blank space of greater or lesser size in its sentence; I grabbed the gist, which seemed to survive even in sentences that were mostly hole; and I sped on.

from Skellig, chapter twenty-five (David Almond)

The wires and the tubes were in her again.  The glass case was shut.  She didn't move.  She was wrapped in white.  Her hair was fluffy, dead straight and dark.  I wanted to touch it, and to touch her skin, feel it soft against my fingertips.  Her little hands were clenched tight on either side of her head.  We said nothing.  I listened to the drone of the city outside, to the clatter of the hospital.  I heard my own breathing, the scared quick breathing of my parents at my side.  I heard them sniffing back their tears.  I went on listening.  I listened through all these noises, until I heard the baby, the gentle squeaking of her breath, tiny and distant as if it came from a different world.  I closed my eyes and went on listening and listening.  I listened deeper, until I believed I heard her beating heart.  I told myself that if I listened hard enough her breathing and the beating of her heart would never be able to stop.

from Miracles, chapter IX (C.S. Lewis)

I spoke just now about the Latinity of Latin.  It is more evident to us than it can have been to the Romans.  The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well.  In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature.  You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back.  Then at last the true landscape will become visible.  You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature's current.  To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her.  Come out, look back, and then you will see ... this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads.  How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality?  How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women?  She is herself.  Offer her neither worship nor contempt.  Meet her and know her.  If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch.  But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed.  The 'vanity' to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence.  She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised.  We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more herself.  And that will be a merry meeting.

18 December 2014

from In Search of Lost Time III: The Guermantes Way, part 1 (Marcel Proust, trans. Scott Moncrieff and Kilmartin)

If I had been tempted while asleep to let myself be swept back into my usual current of remembrance, the bed to which I was not accustomed, the careful attention which I was obliged to apy to the position of my limbs when I turned over, were sufficient to adjust or maintain the new thread of my dreams.  It is the same with sleep as with our perception of the external world.  It needs only a modification in our habits to make it poetic, it is enough that while undressing we should have dozed off involuntarily on top of the bed for the dimensions of sleep to be altered and its beauty felt.  We wake up, look at our watch and see 'four o'clock'; it is only four o'clock in the morning, but we imagine that the whole day has gone by, so vividly does this unsolicited nap of a few minutes appear to have come down to us from heaven, by virtue of some divine right, huge and solid as an Emperor's orb of gold.  In the morning, worried by the thought that my grandfather was ready and they were waiting for me to set out for our walk along the Méséglise way, I was awakened by the blare of a regimental band which passed every day beneath my windows.  But two or three times - and I say this because one cannot properly describe human life unless one bathes it in the sleep into which it plunges night after night and which sweeps round it as a promontory is encircled by the sea - the intervening layer of sleep was resistant enough to withstand the impact of the music and I heard nothing.  On other mornings it gave way for a moment; but my consciousness, still muffled from sleep (like those organs by which, after a preliminary anaesthetic, a cauterisation, not perceived at first, is felt only at the very end and then as a faint smarting), was touched only gently by the shrill points of the fifes which caressed it with a vague, cool, matutinal warbling; and after this fragile interruption in which the silence had turned to music it relapsed into my slumber before even the dragoons had finished passing, depriving me of the last blossoming sheafs of the surging bouquet of sound.  And the zone of my consciousness which its springing stems had brushed was so narrow, so circumscribed with sleep that later on, when Saint-Loup asked me whether I had heard the band, I was not certain that the sound of its brasses had not been as imaginary as that which I heard during the day echoing, after the slightest noise, from the paved streets of the town.  Perhaps I had heard it only in my dreams, prompted by my fear of being awakened, or else of not being awakened and so not seeing the regiment march past.  For often when I remained asleep at the moment when on the contrary I had supposed that the noise would awaken me, for the next hour I imagined that I was awake, while still dozing, and I enacted to myself with tenuous shadow-shapes on the screen of my slumber the various scenes of which it deprived me but at which I had the illusion of looking on.

Indeed, what one has meant to do during the day it turns out, sleep intervening, that one accomplishes only in one's dreams, that is to say after it has been diverted by drowsiness into following a different path from that which one would have chosen when awake.  The same story branches off and has a different ending.  When all is said, the world in whch we live when we are asleep is so different that people who have difficulty in going to sleep seek first of all to escape from the waking world.  After having desperately, for hours on end, with their eyes closed, revolved in their minds thoughts similar to those which they would have had with their eyes open, they take heart again on noticing that the preceding minute has been weighed down by a line of reasoning in strict contradiction to the laws of logic and the reality of the present, this brief 'absence' signifying that the door is now open through which they may perhaps presently be able to escape from the perception of the real, to advance to a resting-place more or less remote from it, which will mean their having a more or less 'good' night.  But already a great stride has been made when we turn our backs on the real, when we reach the outer caves in which 'auto-suggestions' prepare - like witches - the hell-broth of imaginary illnesses or of the recurrence of nervous disorders, and watch for the hour when the spasms which have been building up during the unconsciousness of sleep will be unleashed with sufficient force to make sleep cease.

Not far thence is the secret garden in which the kinds of sleep, so different one from another, induced by datura, by Indian hemp, by the multiple extracts of ether - the sleep of belladonna, of opium, of valerian - grown like unknown flowers whose petals remain closed until the day when the predestined stranger comes to open them with a touch and to liberate for long hours the aroma of their peculiar dreams for the delectation of an amazed and spellbound being.  At the end of the garden stands the convent with open windows through which we hear voices repeating the lessons learned before we went to sleep, which we shall know only at the moment of awakening; while, presaging that moment, our inner alarm-clock ticks away, so well regulated by our preoccupation that when our housekeeper comes in and tells us it is seven o'clock she will find us awake and ready.  The dim walls of that chamber which opens upon our dreams and within which the sorrows of love are wrapped in that oblivion whose incessant toil is interrupted and annulled at times by a nightmare heavy with reminiscences, but quickly resumed, are hung, even after we are awake, with the memories of our dreams, but they are so murky that often we catch sight of them for the first time only in the broad light of the afternoon when the ray of a similar idea happens by chance to strike them; some of them, clear and harmonious while we slept, already so distorted that, having failed to recognise them, we can but hasten to lay them in the earth, like corpses too quickly decomposed or relics so seriously damaged, so nearly crumbling into dust that the most skilful restorer could not give them back a shape or make anything of them.

Near the gate is the quarry to which our heavier slumbers repair in search of substances which coat the brain with so unbreakable a glaze that, to awaken the sleeper, his own will is obliged, even on a golden morning, to smite him with mighty blows, like a young Siegfried.  Beyond this, again, are nightmares, of which the doctors foolishly assert that they tire us more than does insomnia, whereas on the contrary they enable the thinker to escape from the strain of thought - nightmares with their fantastic picture-books in which our relatives who are dead are shown meeting with serious accidents which at the same time do not preclude their speedy recovery.  Until then we keep them in a little rat-cage, in which they are smaller than white mice and, covered with big red spots out of each of which a feather sprouts, regale us with Ciceronian speeches.  Next to this picture-book is the revolving disc of awakening, by virtue of which we submit for a moment to the tedium of having to return presently to a house which was pulled down fifty years ago, the image of which is gradually effaced by a number of others as sleep recedes, until we arrive at the image which appears only when the disc has ceased to revolve and which coincides with the one we shall see with opened eyes.

Sometimes I had heard nothing, being in one of those slumbers into which we fall as into a pit from which we are heartily glad to be drawn up a little later, heavy, overfed, digesting all that has been brought to us (as by the nymphs who fed the infant Hercules) by those agile vegetative powers whose activity is doubled while we sleep.

We call that a leaden sleep, and it seems as though, even for a few moments after such a sleep is ended, one has oneself become a simple figure of lead.  One is no longer a person.  How then, searching for one's thoughts, one's personality, as one searches for a lost object, does one recover one's own self rather than any other?  Why, when one begins again to think, is it not a personality other than the previous one that becomes incarnate in one?  One fails to see what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings one might be, it is on the being one was the day before that unerringly one lays one's hand.  What is it that guides us, when there has been a real interruption - whether it be that our unconsciousness has been complete or our dreams entirely different from ourselves?  There has indeed been death, as when the heart has ceased to beat and a rhythmical traction of the tongue revives us.  No doubt the room, even if we have seen it only once before, awakens memories to which other, older memories cling, or perhaps some were dormant in us, of which we now become conscious.  The resurrection at our awakening - after that beneficent attack of mental alienation which is sleep - must after all be similar to what occurs when we recall a name, a line, a refrain that we had forgotten.  And perhaps the resurrection of the soul after death is to be conceived as a phenomenon of memory.

When I had finished sleeping, tempted by the sunlit sky but held back by the chill of those last autumn mornings, so luminous and so cold, which herald winter, in order to look at the trees on which the leaves were indicated now only byt a few strokes of gold or pink which seemed to have been left in the air, on an invisible web, I raised my head from the pillow and stretched my neck, keeping my body still hidden beneath the bedclothes; like a chrysalis in the process of metamorphosis, I was a dual creature whose different parts were not adapted to the same environment; for my eyes colour was sufficient, without warmth; my chest on the other hand was anxious for warmth and not for colour.  I got up only after my fire had been lighted, and studied the picture, so delicate and transparent, of the pink and golden morning, to which I had now added by artificial means the element of warmth that it lacked, poking my fire which burned and smoked like a good pipe and gave me, as a pipe would have given me, a pleasure at once coarse because it was based upon a material comfort and delicate because behind it were the soft outlines of a pure vision.  The walls of my dressing-room were papered in a violent red, sprinkled with black and white flowers to which it seemed that I should have some difficulty in growing accustomed.  But they succeeded only in striking me as novel, in forcing me to enter not into conflict but into contact with them, in modulating the gaiety and the songs of my morning ablutions; they succeeded only in imprisoning me in the heart of a sort of poppy, out of which to look at a world which I saw quite otherwise than in Paris, from the gay screen which was this new dwelling-place, of a different aspect from the house of my parents, and into which flowed a purer air.

16 July 2014

from Gaudy Night, chapter 7 (Dorothy L. Sayers)

"And what were you doing on our wall, sir?" demanded Harriet. in the moonlight she beheld a fresh, fair and ingenuous face, youthfully rounded and, at the moment, disturbed by an expression of mingled apprehension and amusement. He was a very tall and very large young man; but Harriet had clasped him in a wiry grip that he could scarcely shake off without hurting her, and he showed no disposition to use violence.

"Just having a beano," said the young man, promptly. "A bet, you know, and all that. Hang my cap on the tip-top branch of the Shrewsbury beeches. My friend there was the witness. I seem to have lost, don't I?"

"In that case," said Harriet severely, "where's your cap? And your gown, if it comes to that? And, sir, your name and college?"

"Well," said the young man, impudently, "if it comes to that, where and what are yours?"

When one's thirty-second birthday is no more than a matter of months away, such a question is flattering. Harriet laughed.

"My dear young man, do you take me for an undergraduate?"

"A don - a female don. God help us!" exclaimed the young man, whose spirits appeared to be sustained, though not unduly exalted, by spirituous liquors.

"Well?" said Harriet.

"I don't believe it," said the young man, scanning her face as closely as he could in the feeble light. "Not possible. Too young. Too charming. Too much sense of humour."

"A great deal too much sense of humour to let you get away with that, my lad. And no sense of humour at all about this intrusion."

"I say," said the young man, "I'm really most frightfully sorry. Mere lightheartedness and all that kind of thing. Honestly, we weren't doing any harm. Quite definitely not. I mean, we were just winning the bet and going away quietly. I say, do be a sport. I mean, you're not the Warden or the Dean or anything. I know them. Couldn't you overlook it?"

"It's all very well," said Harriet. "But we can't have this kind of thing. It doesn't do. You must see that it doesn't do."

25 March 2014

from Tinkers, chapter 3 (Paul Harding)

It seemed to me as if my father simply faded away. He became more and more difficult to see. One day, I thought he was sitting in his chair at his desk, writing. To all appearances, he scribbled at a sheet of paper. When I asked him where the bag for apple picking was, he disappeared. I could not tell whether he had been there in the first place or if I had asked my question to some lingering afterimage. He leaked out of the world gradually, though. At first, he seemed merely vague or peripheral. But then he could no longer furnish the proper frame for his clothes. He would ask me a question from behind the box on which I sat shelling peas or peeling potatoes for my mother, and when I answered and received no reply back, I would turn around, to find his hat or belt or a single shoe sitting in the door frame as if placed there by a mischievous child. The end came when we could no longer even see him, but felt him in brief disturbances of shadows or light, or as a slight pressure, as if the space one occupied suddenly had had something more packed into it, or we’d catch some faint scent out of season, such as the snow melting into the wool of his winter coat, but on a blistering August noon, as if the last few times I felt him as another being rather than as a recollection, he had thought to check up on this world at the wrong moment and accidentally stepped from whatever wintry place he was in straight into the dog days. And it seems that doing so only confirmed to him his fate to fade away, his being in the wrong place, so that during these startled visits, although I could not see him, I could feel his surprise, his bafflement, the dismay felt in a dream when you suddenly meet the brother you forgot you had or remember the infant you left on the hillside miles away, hours ago, because somehow you were distracted and somehow you came to believe in a different life and your shock at these terrible recollections, these sudden reunions, comes as much from your sorrow at what you have neglected as it does from dismay at how thoroughly and quickly you came to believe in something else. And that other world that you first dreamed is always better if not real, because in it you have not jilted your lover, forsaken your child, turned your back on your brother. The world fell away from my father the way he fell away from us. We became his dream.

Another time, I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in a window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of the other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father’s, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father’s fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull – no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.

05 March 2014

from Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

I would not have gone so far as to fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to a lie. You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies - which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world - what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I became in an instant as much of a pretense as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see - you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream - making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams ...'

He was silent for a while.

'... No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence - that which makes its truth, its meaning - its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream - alone ...'

He paused again as if reflecting, then added -

'Of course in this you fellows see more than I could then. You see me, whom you know ...'

It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice. There was not a word from anybody. The others might have been asleep, but I was awake. I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clew to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river.

Noble, from Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, trans. Barbara Wright)

At the hour when the rosy fingers of the dawn start to crack, I climbed, rapid as a tongue of flame, onto a bus - mighty of stature and with cowlike eyes - of the S line of a sinuous course.  I noticed, with the precision and acuity of a Red Indian on the warpath, the presence of a young man whose neck was longer than that of the swift-footed giraffe, and whose soft hat was adorned with a plait like the hero of an exercise in style.  Baleful Discord with breasts of soot came with her mouth reeking of a nothingness of toothpaste.  Discord, I say, came to breathe her malignant virus between this young man with the giraffe-like neck and the plait round his hat, and a passenger of irresolute and milk-white mien.  The former addressed himself to the latter in these terms: 'I say, you wicked man, anyone might think you were treading on my toes on purpose!'  Having said these words, the young man with the giraffe-like neck and the plait round his hat quickly went and sat down.

Later, in the Cour de Rome of majestic proportions, I again caught sight of the young man with the giraffe-like neck and the plait round his hat, accompanied by a friend, an arbiter elegantiarum, who was uttering these words of censure which I could hear with my agile ear - censure which was directed to the most exterior garment of the young man with the giraffe-like neck and the plait round his hat: 'You ought to diminish its opening by the addition or elevation of a button to or on its circular periphery.'

22 January 2014

from 'The prophet' (Edward Docx)

The spotlight falls.  And Dylan begins to sing.

I say sing. Imagine an Old Testament prophet come down from the mountains of the desert. Imagine he has 70 years’ worth of visions to impart in rich and vivid verse - visions comprised for the most part of searing and timeless human truth about love and god and man. But imagine that he has neither heard nor spoken a single word during his many decades alone - that his voice is therefore as cracked as the tablets he bears and as croaky as the rocks among which he has lived, and that furthermore he has no sense of the speed, nor the sound, nor the stresses, nor the syntax of conventional speech. Now imagine that an unusually convincing joker selling ecstasy tablets and helium balloons has waylaid him on the way to the amphitheatre. And, finally, imagine that when at last he steps up before you to discourse upon what is undoubtedly the quintessence of existence, he chooses to do so by intoning through a hookah pipe using only the five notes of the pentatonic scale. That’s what I mean by singing.