The Power of Sentences

Sometimes I think Pilgrimage changed my way of reading. Or maybe my way of thinking. Perhaps both. I’ve always read slowly, meditatively, but this tendency has intensified of late. Maybe it’s age, or the coming of autumn.

This week I’ve been reading Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire and dwelling on its sentences, allowing their meaning to flow, layers of meaning emerging from her sentences on a first reading, and differently on the second, when the drum beat of newness is decreased. Her book already feels like a friend that I don’t wish to leave anytime soon. What strikes me most about Panthers and the Museum of Fire is the way Jen Craig uses sinuous, snakelike sentences to slow down and complicate the reading experience.

I like to think that Dorothy Richardson taught me how to read her prose, and in doing so made me a participant in the creation of prospect and meaning, with a satisfying double awareness, of not only the places her writing can take me, but also of the extraordinary artistry and integrity of the language that takes me there.

Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space of Writing

In 2015, a selection of Stephen Mitchelmore’s writing on This Space was released in book form, making available his critiques of modernist literature as contemporary classics of the form. The irony, of course, is that Mitchelmore’s inimitable blog posts have long offered more depth and perspicacity than much of book reviewing that appears in print, rebuttal to the somewhat hysterical argument that book blogging will “be to the detriment of literature”.

Book blogging however is an easy target for mockery. Amongst the thousands of sites that are merely shills for publishers, This Space stands out, not only for a prose that is shorn of needless surface effect, but that provides essayistic posts about literature that deal with the ongoing challenge of modernism. Analysis is Mitchelmore’s strength, sifting narrative material with a playful alertness for the nuggets that pinpoint its weight.

I can no longer recall whether I discovered This Space before or after I started writing on this blog, but I’ve since read it twice end to end. That many of my favourite posts now exist in printed form is a revelation for it underscores how difficult I find linear in-depth reading on screen. I’m thrilled to be able to devote more sustained attention to Mitchelmore’s blog in the form of This Space of Writing.

The forty or so essays, read one after the other, form a heterogeneous whole, revealing the underlying unity of Mitchelmore’s concerns: reading, and writing what we read, is not about uncovering the meaning(s) of a work, but allowing a text to assert its own existence as a fracture of being.

That Retiring Figure

It is the richness of character development that is the genius of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. I know of no other fictional character than Miriam Henderson where a reader participates so fully in their psychological development. The expansiveness of the narrative allows room for Richardson to enrich her character but it is more than the length of the work that allows this exceptional amount of character development.

It isn’t unusual in modern fiction for a writer to elevate deep character development over plot, nor for narrative complexity to be used to advance development of character, but by constraining a reader’s viewpoint so narrowly through Miriam Henderson’s interior, a reader is compelled to frequently alter one’s narrative expectations as they see her character reflected and shaped by and through her complex social network. As Miriam Henderson’s character arc unfolds slowly before our eyes it is impossible not to think of how the certainties of our twenties become the uncertainties of middle age.

‘The old life and death struggle between conflicting ideas had died down. She could see the self who had lived so long upon that battle ground, far off; annoying, when thought of as suffered by others. But it was not without a pang that she looked back at that retiring figure. It had been, at least, with all its blindness, desperately sincere. She was growing worldly now, capable of concealments in the interest in social joys, worse, capable of assumed cynicism for the sake of advertising her readiness for larks she was not quite sure of wishing to share. And thought was still there, a guilty secret, quiet as a rule. Sometimes inconveniently obtrusive at moments when she wished to approximate to the approved pattern of charming femininity.’

I’ve finished The Trap, after taking a little time to read Gloria G. Fromm’s decent Dorothy Richardson biography, and so begin the final volume in the Dent|Cresset edition of Pilgrimage.

The gradual socialisation of the male

“But the blaze of light [Mrs Stetson] brings is by showing that women were social from the first and that all history has been the gradual socialisation of the male. It is partly complete. But the male world is still savage.”

Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (Revolving Lights)

“But not until this giant force could ally itself with others and work cooperatively, overcoming the destructive action of male energy in its blind competition, could our human life enter upon its full course of racial evolution. This is what was accomplished through the suppression of the free action of maternal energy in the female and its irresistible expression through the male. The two forces were combined, and he was the active factor in their manifestation. It was one of nature’s calm, unsmiling miracles, no more wonderful than where she makes the guileless, greedy bee, who thinks he is merely getting his dinner, serve as an agent of reproduction to countless flowers. The bee might resent it if he knew what office he performed, and that his dinner was only there that he might fulfil that office. The subjection of woman has involved to an enormous degree the maternalising of man. Under its bonds he has been forced into new functions, impossible to male energy alone. He has had to learn to love and care for some one besides himself. He has had to learn to work, to serve, to be human. Through the sex-passion, mightily overgrown, the human race has been led and driven up the long, steep path of progress, over all obstacles, through all the dangers, carrying its accompanying conditions of disease and sin (and surmounting them), up and up in spite of it all, until at last a degree of evolution is reached in which the extension of human service and human love makes possible a better way.”

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, Women and Economics

Memory is not in us . . .

“The past is not to be confused with the mental existence of recollection-images which actualise within us. It is preserved in time: it is the virtual element into which we penetrate to look for the ‘pure recollection’ which will become actual in a ‘recollection-image’. The latter would have no trace of the past if we had not been to look for its seed in the past. It is the same with perception, just as we perceive things where they are present, in space, we remember where they have passed, in time, and we go out of ourselves just as much in each case. Memory is not in us; it is we who move in a Being-memory, a world memory.”

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Richardson’s In-Between Spaces

It isn’t so easy to find words for a concentrated sort of illumination that comes from reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, a sense as one progresses through the book that one is learning to read her work, and, in turn, understanding something new about others and oneself.

That Kübler-Ross model, much criticised today, the notion of stage theories of grief, superseded by this idea that we live in a state of middle knowledge, not really truly living but unable to acknowledge the reality of death. An absence of certainty: is reality socially constructed, or objective? Richardson teaches us that it is both, that women intuit these in-between spaces more readily than men.

In a fascinating essay Tim Parks writes that novels may “open our eyes to different worlds of feeling from our own”. Richardson, more than any other writer I’ve read, articulates a part of life that escapes and exists unnamed. For obvious reasons, it isn’t always clear but she is writing of in-between spaces, a world where science and language are incomplete. In Pilgrimage, she is mapping a shadowy geography of interstices that defy our certainties and that shelter life left out from a more open and sunlit terrain.

Lovers of Light

“Be profound with clear terms and not with obscure terms. What is difficult will at last become easy; but as one goes deep into things, one must still keep a charm, and one must carry into these dark depths of thought, into which speculation has only recently penetrated, the pure and antique clearness of centuries less learned than ours, but with more light in them.”

“Often, after overwork in thinking, reading, or talking, he remained for days together in a state of utter prostration, — condemned to absolute silence and inaction; too happy if the agitation of his mind would become quiet also, and let him have the repose of which he stood in so much need. With this weakness of health, these repeated suspension of energy, he was incapable of the prolonged contention of spirit necessary for the creation of great works. But he read and thought immensely; he was an unwearied note-taker, a charming letter-writing; above all, an excellent and delightful talker. The gaiety and amenity of his natural disposition were inexhaustible; and his spirit, too was of astonishing elasticity; he seemed to hold on to life by a single thread only, but that single thread was very tenacious.”

“Both of them passionately devoted to reading in a class of books, and to thinking on a class of subjects, out of the beaten line of the reading and thought of their day; both of them ardent students and critics of old literature, poetry, and the metaphysics of religion; both of them curious explorers of words, and of the latent significance hidden under the popular use of them; both of them, in a certain sense, conservative in religion and politics, by antipathy to the narrow and shallow foolishness of vulgar modern liberalism; — here they had their inward and real likeness.”

From Joubert: An Essay by Matthew Arnold.

Hat tip to flowerville for adding both Arnold and Joubert to my reading list: her wonderful blog has shaped my reading more than any other.

Conning over the store of ideas . . .

“The surrounding golden glow through which she would always escape into the recovery of certainty, warned her not to return upon the lecture. But she could not let all she had heard disappear unnoted, and postponed her onward rush, apologising for the moments about to be in spent in conning over the store of ideas. In an instant the glow had gone, miscarried like her private impressions of the evening. The objects about her grew clear; full of current associations; and she wondered as her mind moved back across the linked statements of the lecture, whether these were her proper concern, or yet another step upon a long pathway of transgression. She was grasping at incompatible things, sacrificing the bliss of her own uninfluenced life to the temptation of gathering things that had been offered by another mind. Things to which she had no right?”

Another rich passage from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, from the Revolving Lights chapter. I could quite easily spend a day contemplating, gathering associations and making notes on this paragraph alone.

Richardson uses language exquisitely, writing clear, poised sentences. Her use of language appears quite modern, but occasionally her word usage reminds that she was writing almost a hundred years ago. Who today would write that she was “conning over the store of ideas”? Almost lost is this use of con as to know or commit to memory. We are poorer without it, limited only to its slang: to swindle.

I’m also intrigued by the broad sweep of this passage, of the comparative worth of insight a person arrives at independently, compared to those “offered by another mind”

Onward with Pilgrimage

It was this that—almost—lured me away from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage: “Yourcenar reconstructed his library.” Long-term readers of this blog (both of you) will know of my attraction to libraries in fiction. That Marguerite Yourcenar, as part of her research for her Memoirs of Hadrian, reconstructed Hadrian’s Library persuaded me, nearly, to take a break from Pilgrimage.

Despite my antipathy to historical fiction, the first chapter was strong, promising, but then the jitters set in. All I wanted was to know what was happening in Miriam Henderson’s world, or rather what she was thinking about what was happening. Hadrian can wait. He’s waited long enough. Onward with Pilgrimage.

Melissa is reading Yourcenar, so if of interest, do read her excellent review of Two Lives and a Dream.

Black resigns.

“In the early ’80s, I wrote Samuel Beckett a letter. I explained that I was trying to write, adding that he was probably often sought out by strangers, and so rather than asking him to read my work, suggested instead that we play a game of correspondence chess with, at stake, a play I’d written. If I won, he’d read it and give me his opinion. If he won, I’d read over my own play at my leisure. I closed my letter with these words: “Just in case, 1. e4.” By return post, Samuel Beckett replied, “Black resigns. Send the play. Sincerely, Samuel Beckett.” I sent him my play, and one or two weeks later, I got another handwritten note: he had kept his word, read my play, and advised me to trim certain passages.”

Jean-Phillippe Toussaint, Urgency and Patience

A slight text but what is good is very good, especially the parts on Beckett.

Dorothy Richardson’s Deadlock

This morning I finished Deadlock, the 6th novel of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. Each of the series is better than the ones before. Deadlock feels substantively different, with Richardson going deeper into Miriam Henderson’s contemplation of practical philosophy, feminist metaphysics and theology.

As Richardson’s narrative becomes more abstract, her treatment of time thickens the narrative present; her way of using second-person interior monologue, the term Richardson preferred to stream of consciousness, captures so effectively this sense that one is observing another’s thought.

Although it becomes difficult to establish a chronology of time, Richardson advances her story despite this sense of disorientation, which matches those moments in life when so much is unsettled that time seems to race past, when one yearns for those duller times when time appears to stand still.

Gaps and Omissions

  1. Henry James (only The Turn of the Screw)
  2. George Eliot
  3. Thomas Hardy
  4. D. H. Lawrence
  5. Lawrence Durrell
  6. Michel de Montaigne
  7. Leo Tolstoy (only The Death of Ivan Ilyich)
  8. Augustine of Hippo
  9. Friedrich Schiller
  10. Anthony Trollope
  11. Charlotte Bronte

Gaps in my reading history. As is obvious from this list of omissions, I’m not particularly well-read. Clearly a list of writers one hasn’t read could extend on and on, but I feel that I ought to have read at least one major work of these writers.

The dog is our superior

“A British poet began a verse to a dog: The curate says you have no soul—. I know that he has none. That is good; but it is spiteful. Let us admit the curate. For the dog would. A dog does not care a wag of his tail whether a man is curate or editor of a newspaper. Therein the dog is our superior.”

John Albert Macy, The Critical Game

From Macy’s essay on Maurice Maeterlinck, the latter a writer I know little of beyond his being held in high esteem by Miriam Henderson, Dorothy Richardson’s protagonist in Pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage continues to enchant to the point that I cannot imagine reading another work of fiction with quite the same degree of pleasure and absorption. I’m taking my time with Pilgrimage, feeling no inclination to finish, but also allowing myself to drift into sampling Maeterlinck—whose essays I like very much—Spinoza, and Emerson, writers Richardson alludes to directly or indirectly in Pilgrimage.

Enviable cool clear radiant eyes . . .

“Behind the serenity of her smooth white brow, behind her cold wide clearly-ringed sea-blue eyes, was the dominant intelligence of it all, the secret of the strange atmosphere that enveloped her whole effect; so strong and secure that it infected her words and movements with a faint robust delicate levity. In most women the sum of the tangible items would have produced the eye-wearying, eye-estranging pathos of the spectacle of patience fighting a lost battle, supplied so numerously all over London by women who were no longer young; or at least a consciously resigned cheerfulness. But she sat there with the enviable cool clear radiant eyes of a child that is held still and unsmiling by the deep entrancement of its mirth.”

Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage