The Miracle of Miracles


“Is not the sum of your actual experience taken at this moment and added together an utter chaos? The strains of my voice, the lights and shades inside the room and out, the murmur of the wind, the ticking of the clock, the various organic feelings you may happen individually to possess, do these make a whole at all? Is it not the only condition of your mental sanity in the midst of them that most of them should become nonexistent for you, and that a few others–the sounds, I hope, which I am uttering–should evoke from places in your memory, that have nothing to do with this scene, associates fitted to combine with them in what we call a rational train of thought–rational because it leads to a conclusion we have some organ to appreciate. We have no organ or faculty to appreciate the simply given order. The real world as it is given this moment is the sum total of all its beings and events now.
But can we think of such a sum? Can we realise for an instant what a cross-section of all existence at a definite point in time would be? While I talk and the flies buzz, a sea-gull catches a fish at the mouth of the Amazon, a tree falls in the Adirondack wilderness, a man sneezes in Germany, a horse dies in Tartary, and twins are born in France. what does that mean? Does the contemporaneity of these events with each other and with a million more as disjointed as they form a rational bond between them, and unite into anything that means for us a world? Yet just such a collateral contemporaneity, and nothing else, is the real order of the world. It is an order with which we have nothing to do but to get way from it as fast as possible.”

William James, Principles of Psychology, 862-863

Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball

When William James describes consciousness as something that “does not appear to itself chopped up in bits” and uses the metaphor “stream of thought” I assume he refers to multiple parts joined together. Each part is aroused by a situation or event. A simple event arouses a simple feeling. A more complicated event, an 18th century masked ball for instance, arouses abundant feelings. Moments considered in an earlier time can evoke feelings and thoughts in the present.

As we age and move closer to death, events that were stimulating and exciting in youth, grow wearisome. We invest less emotion into them. This is the mood of Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball. Deeply influenced by psychology, Brophy’s novel deals with psychological time, which is subjective and measured not only by the emotional intensity of an event or moment, but also by our half-buried associations and interpretations. The multiple parts come together in ways that sometimes surprise us in their emotional response.

Each of Brophy’s novels that I’ve read so far have tiny temporal frames, yet invest all the life of their characters into the duration of that frame. It is no more possible to imagine the lives of Brophy’s characters beyond the frames of her stories than to imagine Vermeer’s figures stepping out of his paintings.  Each character can exist only within themselves and to the other characters and time frame and setting of the story, recalling Kenneth Clark on Vermeer’s “flawless sense of the interval”.

Events in The Snow Ball are mediated partly through dialogue, and Brophy’s dialogue is especially crackling, an intricate role-playing game with perfect balance between what is said openly and what must be implied or hinted. But events are also mediated through the character’s thoughts and feelings, which expand and snowball (!) growing more intense as they roll upon themselves.

Without discounting Brigid Brophy’s originality and brilliance, she would be a very different writer without the influence of Freud and Mozart, both strongly present in The Snow Ball and to a lesser or greater extent the other of her novels that I’ve read. Brophy’s originality is to respond in fiction to the influence of both imaginations and make something uniquely her own.