Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Apes of God Notes

A Wall (Crib and Valerian)

Curious bibliographical stumbles. Reading Hugh Kenner’s Wyndham Lewis wherein he quotes a few lines out of Tarr wherein Frederick Tarr (the Lewis character) is haranguing (that is, brainbox’dly defying) one Hobson, a crowd-man:
Hobson, he considered, was a crowd.=You could not say he was an individual.=He was a set. He sat there, a cultivated audience.=He had the aplomb and absence of self-consciousness of numbers—of those who know they are not alone.=Tarr was shy and the reverse by turns. He was alone . . .
      Tarr gazed on this impersonality, of crowd origin, with autocratic scorn.
And, in a footnote, Kenner identifies the lines ’s coming out of “the first edition (1918), not the revised one of ten years later.” And: “The idiosyncratic punctuation is yet another device for preventing the prose from flowing. The revised version is more conventional in this as in most other respects.” Which, naturally—being a tiny monster betoken’d, aye, befated to flourish in the era of the equals sign (beyond the obvious L=A=N=G=I feel silly using this code-rumpus, there is, too, heaven help Hepsibah, Alice Fulton’s “Dickinsonian” double equals sign (= =), perhaps the most hideous punctuation mark since the semi-colon)—I figured I’d better examine. Peut-être, I french’d, I’d located the lost precedent, a mysterious Ur-New Sentence, right here in rabid Wyndham. “Syllogistic movement is (a) limited (b) controlled . . . The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language.” (To recall edicts of the limit’d—and controlling—scribbler Silliman himself.) The trouble is, fetching down the 1918 Egoist Press Ltd. (London) printing of Tarr, one finds no equals signs. Em-dashes serve thereat. (Too, one notes the minuscule addition, three words: “He had the aplomb and absence of self-consciousness of numbers, of the herd—of those who know they are not alone.”) Baffling, aye, discountenancing. (Oh, I’ll never make tenure now.) So what’s up? Either, there’s another 1918 edition (unlikely), or Kenner’s working too quickly.

Elsewhere Kenner calls Lewis’s early style “one of the most impressive inventions in the history of English literature,” and notes how it “may owe its origin in part to the impact on Lewis’s sensibility of the compound nouns and participialized verbs peculiar to the German prose in which he has steeped himself.” Which makes oddly chime Lewis’s first sentence in the “Prologue” to the 1918 Tarr (wherein he first attempts to pre-dodge any accusings of Kraut-baiting war-hysteria—“This book was begun eight years ago; so I have not produced this disagreeable German for the gratification of primitive partisanship aroused by the war”—before seemingly succumbing to those “primitive” aggressions: “The myriads of Prussian germs, gases, and gangrenes released into the air and for the past year obsessing everything, revived my quiescent creation. I was moved to vomit Kreisler [a dominant character, or (Kenner) “a sort of eyeless misshapen fish, at home in the prose and moving murkily through it”] forth. It is one big germ more.”) Of course, primed by Kenner, I read Lewis’s line about “this disagreeable German” and think he’s referring to the synthetic, high-pitch’d prose of the thing.

What Lewis aim’d for in Tarr: for something simultaneously “a novel” and “a piece of writing worthy of the hand of the abstractist innovator.” He adds, writing in retrospect, “(which was an impossible combination).” “Anyhow it was my object to eliminate anything less essential than a noun or a verb. Prepositions, pronouns, articles—the small fry—as far as might be, I would abolish.” Which somehow, that purity of noun-verb splicing, that stripping away of the inessential, points oddly toward Allen Ginsberg: isn’t “storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light” a kind of Vorticist writing? Or even “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”? Lewis (in pre-echo): “Throats iron eternities, drinking heavy radiance, limbs towers of blatant light, the stars poised, immnensely distant, with their metal sides, pantheistic machines.” Result, surely of recognizing that the primal gesture of art lies less in seeing (and “imitating” in “small fry” descriptive acts), and more in becoming. Lewis: “The first reason for not imitating Nature is that you cannot convey the emotion you receive at the contact of Nature by imitating her, but only by becoming her.”

Plenitude and barrage of the half-form’d and jostling. Result of “going at” too many books. A mirey of legibles. When I self-obfuscate myself (who else?) irremediably, I turn (lately) to Emmanuel Hocquard’s lovely Conditions de lumière (P.O.L., 2007). I see it’s subtitled Élégies. Series of identical pieces—tiny square ideograms I like to stare into as if I were Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths. Soothing my ramp’d up idiocy, seeing a fire on a mountain:
Le mot définit un usage   J’ai
vu  mon  premier  cardinal  à
Brooklyn        C’était  comme
compter par couleurs
      Ou régler sa montre
Au      bord      les      grenouilles
chantent la nuit dans les arbres
Rien  qu’un  arrangement  sans
      Une idée du cuivre
Reluctant to nail up even the scaffolding of a translation. I like mouthing the hesitances, little quiets burr’d up here and there.

Roughly, imprecisely: “The word defines its usage     I / saw my first cardinal in / Brooklyn     Something like / counting by colors // Or setting one’s watch”

And: “Out there tree frogs / chorus at night / Nothing but arrangement without / order // An idea of copper”

Wyndham Lewis