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JANE EYRE’S GOTHIC SHADOW AND WUTHERING HEIGHTS’ GOTHIC STONE

Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights are two of the most popular, most enduring and most influential novels in literary history. Both were published in 1847 and though some modern readers, used to simpler, less evocative language, find them a little difficult to get into initially, they are undeniably major milestones in the maturation of long-form works of fiction.

Back in the early Victorian period, the novel was still a relatively young literary form and despite it evolving year on year, poetry and drama monopolized the criteria for artistic greatness. The 19th-century looked down on prose, the ‘reality show’ of the 19th century. The publication of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – as complete novels, rather than penny dreadfuls or as weekly serials made popular by the prolific Charles Dickens – was a giant leap forward in the maturation of prose. The two monumental works of the Brontë sisters tower over the literary timeline for the rest of the 19th century.

The influence of Brontë genius and the impact of their gothic masterpieces on literature across the world is even more remarkable given they had little to no contact with the wealthy high society cliques whose influence defined popular fashions in art and literature of the mid-19th-century. The Brontës had no interest in conforming to the butterfly ideals of Victorian femininity. Their art could only emerge from the remote family vicarage, isolated on the North Yorkshire moors. There the sisters could live free, spinning the golden threads of supernatural make-believe from their childhood into the luminous literary force of adult creativity, redefining both the form and the substance of gothic prose across the world.


Gothic is an oft-misunderstood idea and the word, much overused, was a catch-all for tales of the dark supernatural in everyday life. Nowadays it’s synonymous with “horror”, a distinct but often juvenile genre, more form than substance. Gothic includes but isn’t limited to “horror”. Brontë handling of a deeper gothic juxtaposition of folk mythologies and supernatural anthropomorphic is de rigueur.

If you give the word “gothic” a moment’s consideration, what does it mean to you, what sense-pictures does “gothic” evoke? Perhaps it conjures up images of veiled power and dread, like dark shadowy statues of gargoyles looming over cathedral doors, or windowless crypts underground lit by recessed candles shedding a frail light on ancient coffins as unseen supernatural breath clings heavy to the musty air.

These common examples of what has become the cliche and though not wholly misleading, the sensual gothic is an overemphasis on the “horror” and misses the subtle, far more profound metaphysics of the true gothic paradigm.

Gothic is elemental and fundamental. It’s not merely superficial form packaging a binary life-or-death substance. Gothic is the spectrum of shadow and stone.

Gothic looms and creeps. Gothic is in the crepuscular half-light silence of the late gloaming and the primal howl of the storm tormenting a looming colossal crouching form big as the horizon, lit by staccato lightning flashes, a granite cliff-side, sheer and brutal and obdurate.

Far in the distance, through a lull in the storm preternaturally calm in the pitch black night, a distant corpse-light is a lantern in the upstairs window of a tumbledown cottage. Behind it looms the silhouette of a church-tower and a bell is tolling misericordia.

At sea, the storm is at frenzy pitch and the darkness is broken only by the white-foam crash of waves against the lurching ship’s deck, its crew deafened by the boom and the bell tolling its unheard summons. But let all that pause for a moment as a solitary fulgent beam shines out from a faraway lighthouse. Hope and torment bound in the simple human act of ingenious care. These are some essential shades of living colour in the Gothic spectrum.

Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are not only exemplars of the written word, but their evocation and innovation of the living gothic ideal is the maturation of two genuinely original forces of imagination. They drive the entire literary paradigm forward. No longer poor cousin to poetry and drama, the latter half of the 19th-century completes the elevation of the long-form novel from by-the-word periodical to uniquely pure, intimate human expressionism.

The Brontë sisters’ gothic masterpieces are part of that leading edge ablation, securing the sisters their place in the illustrious literary canon. Without Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, the novel may not have developed fast enough, by the 20th-century, to give voice to Woolf, Joyce, Kerouac and Lowry.

The two great gothic novels stand out, in their own time, as works by two individuals expressing their creative genius. Gothic masterpiece, romantic literary fiction, proto-feminist liberation, two adult sisters carrying on their games; Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have much in common but, under the cover, there is a devil in the detail. The novels are as different and as diverse, each in its own right, as the eponymous Gothic spectrum of shadow and stone.


COMING IN FROM THE SHADOW – BREAKING OUT FROM THE STONE

The concept of Gothic insists on many great novels of this period and while Jane Eyre has as much right as any to be included in the “Gothic” canon, it is in the profound evolution of elemental gothic archetypes that its originality makes an indelible mark on the fast proliferating timeline of English literature and the novel as its own distinct literary form.

Look at it this way: Charlotte and Emily Brontë are precocious young girls, given freedom by their forward-thinking parents to roam the gardens and the local moorland around their isolated vicarage home. The sisters would play intense games of imagination at the foot of the garden and, far from the madding crowd, the children would people these game-worlds with many entities from myth and legend.

In the hands of the creative Brontë sisters, the trees, flowers, wood-creatures and hedgerows were imbued with supernatural wonder. Faeries were a naturally popular presence in the Brontë creativity ensemble and the girls would play for hours, across days and weeks, epic drama from sunrise to gloaming. It was from these games the sisters took inspiration for their great gothic novels.

Emily looked out, beyond the garden, to the moorland purple shadows. She might have framed Wuthering Heights in terms of a question she asked as a child: “what if we stole away two faerie children who loved each other, save them from the horridly unpredictable faerie life at the bottom of the garden; and raised them in the big house as humans?“. Then “what if their love got broken because one of them died ever so young?

Charlotte looked back from the garden to the homely vicarage. She may have framed Jane Eyre in terms of a question she asked, also as a child: “what if, instead of living hidden at the bottom of our garden, one of the lonely fairies younglings yearned to be with us humans; and swapped souls with a baby and somehow got brought into the big house?

These deceptively innocent questions have many layers. Both are essentially a reaction against the conventions and rituals of “society” as it contrasted with the unshackled uncivilised wildness of the Brontë family’s moors. It roots both novels in a mischievous subversion of traditional and contemporary wisdom. The Brontë sisters embrace the unknown supernatural shadows. The girls have no fear of Baba Yaga Bony Legs. Brontë imagination, repulsed by genteel society, is drawn instead to the ancient pagan spiritualism of the folk myth.

The sisters’ rejection of orthodoxy runs throughout the novels but to take two standout examples: Charlotte Brontë uses Jane Eyre to turn marriage convention on its head with our heroine, Rochester, Bertha Mason and grasping St John playing out a mockery of the dewy-eyed hypocrisy of wedded bliss.

It may be less startling in the 21st-century but in the 19th-century it subverted the ubiquitous plot template. Victorian novels answered “how does the downtrodden saint heroine escape bondage, overcome the big scary cosmopolitan society world and find a perfect husband?” time and time again. Jane Eyre’s plot would have been a heresy.

Not to be outdone in Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë puts the whole notion of the family into the gothic crucible, treating that most sacred of institutions to her merciless, surgical exposure.

Both novels embrace, expose and marginalise traditional gothic. Not by deconstructing the mystery of supernatural spiritualism but instead, quite the opposite.

Charlotte Brontë declines to submit her heroine to ‘happily ever after’ i.e. subservience (by wedding oath) to an “ideal” husband – think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – and Emily Brontë kills her heroine early in the novel, turning the hero into an antihero, taking the plot as far from ‘happily ever after’ as it is possible to go!

The Brontë sisters, like all artists combining skill and genius, create, destroy and redefine convention in their wake. Wuthering Heights marks out more traditional territory, albeit with virtuoso boldness. It is landscape, architecture and environment sensually dominated by shadowy passions trapped by an entrenched society of civilised structure, insisting on and eventually overwhelming the unfolding drama. The wild passions unleashed by the tragic love of Heathcliff and Catherine are separated, one loosed on the moors, the other imprisoned by the stone, against its will. This has violent, fatal consequences.

Wuthering Heights is the gothic of the angry shadow and imprisoning stone. It is enclosed, claustrophobic, characters huddling together against the hostile virulent passions of the moors. Nothing of the light or the gentle civilised remain unbroken by the time the central story has played out. Jane Eyre, conversely, is a novel on a more expansive canvas. It’s the gothic of the light shadow and sanctuary stone. Though there are glimpses of the destructive forces of the darker passions, these occur only when Jane is absent.


JANE EYRE

LIGHT IN SHADOW, SANCTUARY IN STONE

To engage fully with Jane Eyre – that is to say, to get close to Charlotte Brontë’s own world – one needs to appreciate that Jane herself is not entirely human but instead of the most well-developed faerie characters in all literary fiction. While the novel presents itself as a biography of the life and maturation of Jane Eyre, girl to governess to an independent woman, there’s more to the strange plain-faced orphan than meets the eye. We mark Jane as an outsider – an intruder – often unwelcome – from the start. She is not as others are. This begins in early childhood and continues throughout the novel. It’s Jane herself, imposing the standard by the second half of the novel.

It would be crude to dismiss Jane’s outsider status as a mere by-product of her adoption by a wealthy family. Charlotte Brontë is clear from the outset Jane is a deeper, more complex personality than her boorish counterparts in the adopted Reed household. She’s small and physically weak, but it is the faerie within – crudely put, her essential soul, the intangible but inviolate substance – that differentiates; and inevitably alienates as she refuses to ‘know her place’.

This conflict between Jane’s faerie-shadow otherness and its relation to the practicalities and circumstances of her path through human society is the key to Charlotte Brontë’s heroine. The plot twists and turns but throughout the book, Jane Eyre stands out in her otherness, uncompromising in her quest to domesticate the faerie-shadow without sullying her spirit along the way.

The powers at work in Jane Eyre play out behind the veil. It is more imaginatively sensual than tactile, defying darkness and refusing the glare, expressing a determination almost other-worldly; enough to infatuate and then restore love to the dominant archetype – Rochester, master of the house and its enclosed dark gothic stone. Rochester’s stone is the proud, masculine strength of Victorian society. Jane Eyre’s shadow is the gentle, feminine strength of freeborn womanhood.

Jane’s independence is absolute, though she has no wealth or position in the upper social order. She is wholly self-contained because of her character, born and nurtured to prefer solitary introspection – her shadowland, peopled by the intangibles of her imagination – patient and self-reliant enough to know her strengths and weaknesses. From childhood, Jane Eyre had been naturally drawing her to the unseen, twilight gothic of the secret shadow places. She knew them but was not entirely of them, and though the stolid common-folk were frightened by these faerie superstitions, Jane Eyre had no fear and never brought darkness into the stone houses of civilised society.

Jane Eyre is perfectly at home in the faerie half-world but chooses, by preference, to live and be happy in the society of her fellow gentlefolk. The novel is punctuated by established gothic tradition but each time made more subtle: gothic of the shadow unseen or in the twilight. Walk-on parts may have been given to the expected loom of the architecture or to a supporting cast of macabre individuals, all the solid dark tropes of popular gothic paradigm, but in Jane Eyre it’s the faerie shadows that pervade, unfettered by the constraints of brute form, more potent ultimately than the stone certainty of Rochester’s reserve and St John’s missionary manliness.

As if to remind us of the power of the shadow, Grace Poole’s patient, Bertha Mason – Rochester’s imprisoned first wife, possessed in her madness and jealously – releases the shadow’s most destructive force – the flame – to burn down Thornfield Hall while Jane Eyre is away. The contrast is clear. Jane Eyre is not of the violent devouring shadow but the faerie light fortitude. Her return and the acceptance of her terms is an exorcism and a compact between the shadow and the stone.

To leave us in no doubt where the greater strength lies, Jane Eyre finds her own place in the world – a permanent move from the faerie shadowlands into society’s four stone walls – by the end of the novel and this is achieved not, as is the norm in Victorian literature, by marrying the hero and living happily ever after. Instead, Jane Eyre will not marry Rochester but is only content to choose freely each day to affirm her loving choice to be with him. These are the terms on which Jane Eyre the faerie comes in from the secret shadow places permanently, at last.


WUTHERING HEIGHTS

DARKNESS IN SHADOW, PRISON OF STONE

In contrast to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights’s plot focuses on the interplay of characters in the microcosm of society created by two austere mansions: Thrushcross Grange and the titular Wuthering Heights. Between these two and surrounding both is the brutal, elemental landscape of remote North Yorkshire. Hard facts and society is the stone; in the grand inhabited houses and the local villages. Dreams and passions are the shadow; in the winds and the great open moors.

The shadow invades the stone – the ghosts and the blighted love brought in from the moorland, into society, to wreak havoc. Heathcliff’s tortured soul fights to escape the obdurate burden of his place in society, perverting it and making it grotesque while he remains trapped (by life).

Heathcliff is the shadow driven to madness and turned against stone, forced to ape the ways of society (which he hates) as he lives out his unhappy painful days, separated from his Catherine by her untimely death. Heathcliff may still be alive – though his dreams are in the shadowlands, calling for his lost mate – but his waking mind is twisted to thoughts of escape and revenge against the world. All must crash against him and break and know the architect of their downfall. He must sacrifice all to propitiate Catherine’s death, in some vain hope it might draw her back from the shadow.

Decades of degraded struggle against fate and the stone, called each night by Catherine from the moorland wind-shadows, Heathcliff finally gains relief and is let out of the imprisoning stone. The surviving characters see the folly of trying to shackle wild things to civilised society against their will.

The dynamics of Wuthering Heights are the very opposite of pragmatic and optimistic Jane Eyre, where the shadow came by choice into the great house – the stone – and endured persecution and found love and discovered society was not strong enough to be a prison except by voluntary submission.

In Wuthering Heights, a far more pessimistic, preternatural, tormented world, the shadow is trapped against its will – tamed briefly by love but driven to madness by its loss – the great house becomes a prison, the local moors are turned into a crime scene as good society is perverted by the will of tortured shadow struggling to escape from the stone.


Gothic is in the weather, gothic is in the dangerous shadows that make people lost never to return. Gothic is in the moan of the winds, gothic is in the face at the casement howling to a stolen love. Gothic is in the fuck-the-elements facades of great manmade mansions, gothic is in the cut of the wood and the stone and the domestication of the moorland. Gothic is in the consecrated church steeple, gothic is in the mythology of the mausoleum. Gothic is in the anger and the violence of loving madness, gothic is in the elemental shadow-play of fire and water and air and earth. Gothic is in the faeries coming in from the cold shadow and the tortured souls let loose from the icy stone. Gothic is exemplified by Dracula and Frankenstein. Gothic comes to maturity in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

[last 2 pages of this old essay plus corrections/edits to the above have been misplaced – out of reach – but I know where they are and they’ll be picked up at the weekend (latest) and appended here to complete this archive work]

APOLOGIES!


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bookclub, words

WHITE HORSE TAVERN – 567 HUDSON STREET, NEW YORK NY 10014

the altar boy appearance long gone,
he ran off from the photo appointment
to stand in the store and watch the
Giants

he stopped writing.
known as a genius to his peers,
his books never sold.
some say because he was too good;
most said the other things.

his criticism was brilliant in its
rancour and decisiveness;
he was more of a bitch than a bard,
his poetry was more fawning and delicate.

as a critic he was a good surgeon,
as a poet he was stalled in a stale,
pale whimsy;
at any rate
he stopped writing each.

Somehow they did get a photo
one of the last photos of him
Sitting on a stone bench in needle park
hewn into an oblong glance of
mortification.

He died at 47
of a heart attack,
face down on the track
having drunk in the same bar as
Dylan Thomas,
the white horse tavern,
where the latest boys
offered in vain
white horses,
seeking that sane
flash of light;
lost to spondees and dactyls
against nature,
insights of the
grievous breath.

I'm glad they were here, all the fuckups: 
Hemingway, Van Gogh, Celine, 
Kerouac, F. Dos, and Rilke, 
Pascal, Artaud, Li Po, Buckley, 
D. H. Lawrence, John, &c. 

It makes getting through a night like this 
So much easier, you know. 
It's like borrowing them to hold you, 
Through to morning, or until, 
You find a footing in this slime pit. 
Those great monsters. who also failed. 

I can feel them in this room now. 
Along with this empty bottle, 
And the smeared silver, 
And the lighter that don't work. 
And the thousand dollar wrist watch 
Turned over to its left side, 
The second hand thin and moving, 
In the lamplight of Jacob's Room.

JACOB’S ROOM INSIDE AND OUTSIDE
ROTOLIGHT JACOB’S ROOM
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A man walks along an empty street in the old town area of Salzburg on April 6, 2020 during the exit restrictions amid the new coronavirus / Covid-19 pandemic.
bookclub, scribble, words

WALKING: MAP LOADS SLOW BUT CACHES AT THE SPEED OF THOUGHT

To walk step by step over a region of the geophysical landscape absorbs detail and scale in unparalleled detail. The act of walking contracts space and time. Miles consumed on foot, though it takes much longer than a car, train, or plane, distill into memory, and the space traversed becomes navigable, not slowly but at the speed of thought; the fastest speed you can imagine. I call this taking possession and none of the ‘faster’ modes of travel take ownership of space in this way.


“Walking between faraway places, arriving with a determination to play, until you must depart – sweet sorrow ! This living the glorious life – la bohème – of the noble Conquistador forging fresh paths along the road less traveled.”

Orson Welles

Nowadays, large geophysical spaces get made by machines that dwarf the dimensions of the little human bag of bones and meat. First glance can be daunting. But should it be? Distilled memory doesn’t waste time dwelling on past efforts. It doesn’t waste time on time, period. It can transcend both the grandest scales of the natural world and the most ambitious mechanical constructions of man.

Take the vast desert plain on the edge of Cairo from which rise the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Necropolis, and the Sphinx. Toil (and time) devoted to the simple physical discovery of these many miles of space contracts to a mere blink of “spent labour” the moment it’s done. By using your feet to make good the exploration, Giza is experienced as a wonder in three dimensions, full of life and sound and smell. Google Earth flyby can’t compete.

Time itself becomes an elastic concept once it’s distilled into memory. Ironically, this may be closer to the reality of our universe, despite our linear intuitions convincingly trying to frame the cause and effect of lived limbic experience as it’s happening. After your walk, space and the time collapse as fixed constants. Recalling past journeys, you can traverse the largest of spaces at whatever speed you like, in whichever order you prefer.

Psychogeography is a transformation of fixed space and linear time, into curved space and relative time. What a piece of work is a man!

Walking is the ultimate expression of freedom. It takes possession of space in the high resolution and lets you move through the experiential timeline with perfect but flexible fidelity.

Imagination can parse humble explorations on foot into a superhero virtual reality. It can leap buildings in a single bound! Points, no matter how far apart, get traversed as if by teleportation!

But there’s something more significant gained by walking. Taking possession means you need to explore the world’s geophysical spaces, not in cold isolation but connected, integrated into the psychogeography of the environment. Walking is the only way to achieve this authentically; one by one, your own footsteps.

Walking is also the ultimate babelfish of geography. It moves from unfamiliar terrain to new surroundings in actual time, travelling the void space of transitions connecting distinct ecosystems, nuance intact. Void becomes non-void as it fills the blank spaces with colour. The most profound form of taking possession is the placement of your experience of those living spaces on the robust foundations of completed map-space.

This is not all.

Unlike looking at the map or postcard – enjoying the conceit of ‘being there’ – or listening to anecdotes or even watching Google Street View, the walker gets to own the context too. The walker becomes the flaneur. He or she takes possession of genuine moments in time, the living performances that’s the true content of every passing instance. In short: the PEOPLE.

And these people hidden, frozen faces blurred by exposure of the Google car. Instead, the human and animal cast of characters move about their day (or night) kinetic energy in full flow. You and they exist in the space; living with it, through it, around it, in all the many-splendour’d beauty and banality of “being there”.

They say the journey is more important than the destination. If that’s true, it’s because of the people. Taking possession is book ended by arrival and departure, walking for a time in the life-space of fellow travellers (locals or transients) with whom – for a little while – we shared the road less travelled.


MA BOHEME

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées;
Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal;
J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal;
Oh ! là là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées!

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.
– Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course
Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande Ourse.
– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,
Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes
De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur;

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,
Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques
De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur!

Arthur Rimbaud, 1872

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

BEWARE! NOT ALL TRANSLATIONS ARE THE SAME.

I was going away, fists in my torn pockets;
Even my greatcoat was something imaginary.
I was walking under the sky, my Muse! And I was faithful to you;
Oh! La, la! What splendid loves I was dreaming of!

My only trousers had a terrible tear in them.
Like Petit-Poucet dreaming, I grinned and I rhymed
Along the way. My lodging was under the Great Bear,
My stars in the sky shook their soft, rustling frills.

And I listened to them, seated by the roadside,
Those good September evenings, and I felt the dew
Drops on my forehead like an invigorating wine;

Where, rhyming in among the supernatural shadows,
Like a lyre, I plucked at the strings,
Of my broken down shoes, one foot resting close to my heart!

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THE SOUND OF THUNDER

The sign on the wall seemed to quaver under a film of sliding warm water. Eckels felt his eyelids blink over his stare, and the sign burned in this momentary darkness:

TIME SAFARI, INC.

SAFARIS TO ANY YEAR IN THE PAST.

YOU NAME THE ANIMAL.

WE TAKE YOU THERE.

YOU SHOOT IT.

Warm phlegm gathered in Eckels’ throat; he swallowed and pushed it down. The muscles around his mouth formed a smile as he put his hand slowly out upon the air, and in that hand waved a check for ten thousand dollars to the man behind the desk.

“Does this safari guarantee I come back alive?”

“We guarantee nothing,” said the official, “except the dinosaurs.”

He turned. “This is Mr. Travis, your Safari Guide in the Past. He’ll tell you what and where to shoot. If he says no shooting, no shooting. If you disobey instructions, there’s a stiff penalty of another ten thousand dollars, plus possible government action, on your return.”

Eckels glanced across the vast office at a mass and tangle, a snaking and humming of wires and steel boxes, at an aurora that flickered now orange, now silver, now blue. There was a sound like a gigantic bonfire burning all of Time, all the years and all the parchment calendars, all the hours piled high and set aflame.

A touch of the hand and this burning would, on the instant, beautifully reverse itself. Eckels remembered the wording in the advertisements to the letter. Out of chars and ashes, out of dust and coals, like golden salamanders, the old years, the green years, might leap; roses sweeten the air, white hair turn Irish­black, wrinkles vanish; all, everything fly back to seed, flee death, rush down to their beginnings, suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eatthemselves opposite to the custom, all and everything cupping one in another like Chinese boxes, rabbits into hats, all and everything returning to the fresh death, the seed death, the green death, to the time before the beginning. A touch of a hand might do it, the merest touch of a hand.

“Unbelievable.” Eckels breathed, the light of the Machine on his thin face. “A real Time Machine.” He shook his head. “Makes you think, If the election had gone badly yesterday, I might be here now running away from the results. Thank God Keith won. He’ll make a fine President of the United States.”

“Yes,” said the man behind the desk. “We’re lucky. If Deutscher had gotten in, we’d have the worst kind of dictatorship. There’s an anti everything man for you, a militarist, anti­Christ, anti­human, anti­intellectual. People called us up, you know, joking but not joking. Said if Deutscher became President they wanted to go live in 1492. Of course it’s not our business to conduct Escapes, but to form Safaris. Anyway, Keith’s President now. All you got to worry about is…­”

“Shooting my dinosaur,” Eckels finished it for him.

“A Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Tyrant Lizard, the most incredible monster in history. Sign this release. Anything happens to you, we’re not responsible. Those dinosaurs are hungry.”

Eckels flushed angrily. “Trying to scare me!”

“Frankly, yes. We don’t want anyone going who’ll panic at the first shot. Six Safari leaders were killed last year, and a dozen hunters. We’re here to give you the severest thrill a real hunter ever asked for. Traveling you back sixty million years to bag the biggest game in all of Time. Your personal check’s still there. Tear it up.”Mr. Eckels looked at the check. His fingers twitched.

“Good luck,” said the man behind the desk. “Mr. Travis, he’s all yours.”

They moved silently across the room, taking their guns with them, toward the Machine, toward the silver metal and the roaring light.

First a day and then a night and then a day and then a night, then it was day­night­day­night. A week, a month, a year, a decade! A.D. 2055. A.D. 2019. 1999! 1957! Gone! The Machine roared.

They put on their oxygen helmets and tested the intercoms.

Eckels swayed on the padded seat, his face pale, his jaw stiff. He felt the trembling in his arms and he looked down and found his hands tight on the new rifle. There were four other men in the Machine. Travis, the Safari Leader, his assistant, Lesperance, and two other hunters, Billings and Kramer. They sat looking at each other, and the years blazed around them.

“Can these guns get a dinosaur cold?” Eckels felt his mouth saying.

“If you hit them right,” said Travis on the helmet radio. “Some dinosaurs have two brains, one in the head, another far down the spinal column. We stay away from those. That’s stretching luck. Put your first two shots into the eyes, if you can, blind them, and go back into the brain.”

The Machine howled. Time was a film run backward. Suns fled and ten million moons fled after them. “Think,” said Eckels. “Every hunter that ever lived would envy us today. This makes Africa seem like Illinois.”

The Machine slowed; its scream fell to a murmur. The Machine stopped.

The sun stopped in the sky.

The fog that had enveloped the Machine blew away and they were in an old time, a very old time indeed, three hunters and two Safari Heads with their blue metal guns across their knees.

“Christ isn’t born yet,” said Travis, “Moses has not gone to the mountains to talk with God. The Pyramids are still in the earth, waiting to be cut out and put up. Remember that. Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler­none of them exists.” The man nodded.

“That” ­ Mr. Travis pointed ­ “is the jungle of sixty million two thousand and fifty­five years before President Keith.”

He indicated a metal path that struck off into green wilderness, over streaming swamp, among giant ferns and palms.

“And that,” he said, “is the Path, laid by Time Safari for your use, It floats six inches above the earth. Doesn’t touch so much as one grass blade, flower, or tree. It’s an anti­gravity metal. Its purpose is to keep you from touching this world of the past in any way. Stay on the Path. Don’t go off it. I repeat. Don’t go off. For any reason! If you fall off, there’s a penalty. And don’t shoot any animal we don’t okay.”

“Why?” asked Eckels.

They sat in the ancient wilderness. Far birds’ cries blew on a wind, and the smell of tar and an old salt sea, moist grasses, and flowers the color of blood.

“We don’t want to change the Future. We don’t belong here in the Past. The government doesn’t like us here. We have to pay big graft to keep our franchise. A Time Machine is finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species.”

“That’s not clear,” said Eckels.

“All right,” Travis continued, “say we accidentally kill one mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular mouse are destroyed, right?”

“Right”

“And all the families of the families of the families of that one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one, then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible mice!”

“So they’re dead,” said Eckels. “So what?”

“So what?” Travis snorted quietly. “Well, what about the foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty­nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber­toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life. It is comparable to slaying some of Adam’s grandchildren. The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations. With the death of that one caveman, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest, and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming.

Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!”

“I see,” said Eckels. “Then it wouldn’t pay for us even to touch the grass?”

“Correct. Crushing certain plants could add up infinitesimally. A little error here would multiply in sixty million years, all out of proportion. Of course, maybe our theory is wrong. Maybe Time can’t be changed by us. Or maybe it can be changed only in little subtle ways. A dead mouse here makes an insect imbalance there, a population disproportion later, a bad harvest further on, a depression, mass starvation, and finally, a change in social temperament in far­flung countries.

Something much more subtle, like that. Perhaps only a soft breath, a whisper, a hair, pollen on the air, such a slight, slight change that unless you looked close you wouldn’t see it. Who knows? Who really can say he knows? We don’t know. We’re guessing. But until we do know for certain whether our messing around in Time can make a big roar or a little rustle in history, we’re being careful. This Machine, this Path, your clothing and bodies, were sterilized, as you know, before the journey. We wear these oxygen helmets so we can’t introduce our bacteria into an ancient atmosphere.”

“How do we know which animals to shoot?”

“They’re marked with red paint,” said Travis. “Today, before our journey, we sent Lesperance here back with the Machine. He came to this particular era and followed certain animals.”

“Studying them?”

“Right,” said Lesperance. “I track them through their entire existence, noting which of them lives longest. Very few. How many times they mate. Not often. Life’s short, When I find one that’s going to die when a tree falls on him, or one that drowns in a tar pit, I note the exact hour, minute, and second. I shoot a paint bomb. It leaves a red patch on his side. We can’t miss it. Then I correlate our arrival in the Past so that we meet the Monster not more than two minutes before he would have died anyway. This way, we kill only animals with no future, that are never going to mate again. You see how careful we are?”

“But if you come back this morning in Time,” said Eckels eagerly, you must’ve bumped into us, our Safari! How did it turn out? Was it successful? Did all of us get through­alive?”

Travis and Lesperance gave each other a look.

“That’d be a paradox,” said the latter. “Time doesn’t permit that sort of mess­a man meeting himself. When such occasions threaten, Time steps aside. Like an airplane hitting an air pocket. You felt the Machine jump just before we stopped? That was us passing ourselves on the way back to the Future. We saw nothing. There’s no way of telling if this expedition was a success, if we got our monster, or whether all of us ­ meaning you, Mr. Eckels ­ got out alive.”

Eckels smiled palely.

“Cut that,” said Travis sharply. “Everyone on his feet!”

They were ready to leave the Machine.

The jungle was high and the jungle was broad and the jungle was the entire world forever and forever. Sounds like music and sounds like flying tents filled the sky, and those were pterodactyls soaring with cavernous gray wings, gigantic bats of delirium and night fever.

Eckels, balanced on the narrow Path, aimed his rifle playfully.

“Stop that!” said Travis. “Don’t even aim for fun, blast you! If your guns should go off ­ ­ “

Eckels flushed. “Where’s our Tyrannosaurus?”

Lesperance checked his wristwatch. “Up ahead, We’ll bisect his trail in sixty seconds. Look for the red paint! Don’t shoot till we give the word. Stay on the Path. Stay on the Path!”

They moved forward in the wind of morning.

“Strange,” murmured Eckels. “Up ahead, sixty million years, Election Day over. Keith made President. Everyone celebrating. And here we are, a million years lost, and they don’t exist. The things we worried about for months, a lifetime, not even born or thought of yet.”

“Safety catches off, everyone!” ordered Travis. “You, first shot, Eckels. Second, Billings, Third, Kramer.”

“I’ve hunted tiger, wild boar, buffalo, elephant, but now, this is it,” said Eckels. “I’m shaking like a kid.”

“Ah,” said Travis.

Everyone stopped.

Travis raised his hand. “Ahead,” he whispered. “In the mist. There he is. There’s His Royal Majesty now.”

The jungle was wide and full of twitterings, rustlings, murmurs, and sighs. Suddenly it all ceased, as if someone had shut a door. Silence.

A sound of thunder.

Out of the mist, one hundred yards away, came Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“It,” whispered Eckels. “It……”

“Sh!”

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky.

Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, its pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth, leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight.

It ran with a gliding ballet step, far too poised and balanced for its ten tons. It moved into a sunlit area warily, its beautifully reptilian hands feeling the air.

“Why, why,” Eckels twitched his mouth. “It could reach up and grab the moon.”

“Sh!” Travis jerked angrily. “He hasn’t seen us yet.”

“It can’t be killed,” Eckels pronounced this verdict quietly, as if there could be no argument. He had weighed the evidence and this was his considered opinion. The rifle in his hands seemed a cap gun. “We were fools to come. This is impossible.”

“Shut up!” hissed Travis.

“Nightmare.”

“Turn around,” commanded Travis. “Walk quietly to the Machine. We’ll remit half your fee.”

“I didn’t realize it would be this big,” said Eckels. “I miscalculated, that’s all. And now I want out.”

“It sees us!”

“There’s the red paint on its chest!”

The Tyrant Lizard raised itself. Its armored flesh glittered like a thousand green coins. The coins, crusted with slime, steamed. In the slime, tiny insects wriggled, so that the entire body seemed to twitch and undulate, even while the monster itself did not move. It exhaled. The stink of raw flesh blew down the wilderness.

“Get me out of here,” said Eckels. “It was never like this before. I was always sure I’d come through alive. I had good guides, good safaris, and safety. This time, I figured wrong. I’ve met my match and admit it. This is too much for me to get hold of.”

“Don’t run,” said Lesperance. “Turn around. Hide in the Machine.”

“Yes.” Eckels seemed to be numb. He looked at his feet as if trying to make them move. He gave a grunt of helplessness.

“Eckels!”

He took a few steps, blinking, shuffling.

“Not that way!”

The Monster, at the first motion, lunged forward with a terrible scream. It covered one hundred yards in six seconds. The rifles jerked up and blazed fire. A windstorm from the beast’s mouth engulfed them in the stench of slime and old blood. The Monster roared, teeth glittering with sun.

The rifles cracked again, Their sound was lost in shriek and lizard thunder. The great level of the reptile’s tail swung up, lashed sideways. Trees exploded in clouds of leaf and branch. The Monster twitched its jeweler’s hands down to fondle at the men, to twist them in half, to crush them like berries, to cram them into its teeth and its screaming throat. Its boulderstone eyes leveled with the men. They saw themselves mirrored. They fired at the metallic eyelids and the blazing black iris.

Like a stone idol, like a mountain avalanche, Tyrannosaurus fell.

Thundering, it clutched trees, pulled them with it. It wrenched and tore the metal Path. The men flung themselves back and away. The body hit, ten tons of cold flesh and stone. The guns fired.

The Monster lashed its armored tail, twitched its snake jaws, and lay still. A fount of blood spurted from its throat. Somewhere inside, a sac of fluids burst. Sickening gushes drenched the hunters. They stood, red and glistening. The thunder faded.

The jungle was silent. After the avalanche, a green peace. After the nightmare, morning.

Billings and Kramer sat on the pathway and threw up. Travis and Lesperance stood with smoking rifles, cursing steadily. In the Time Machine, on his face, Eckels lay shivering. He had found his way back to the Path, climbed into the Machine. Travis came walking, glanced at Eckels, took cotton gauze from a metal box, and returned to the others, who were sitting on the Path.

“Clean up.”

They wiped the blood from their helmets. They began to curse too. The Monster lay, a hill of solid flesh. Within, you could hear the sighs and murmurs as the furthest chambers of it died, the organs malfunctioning, liquids running a final instant from pocket to sac to spleen, everything shutting off, closing up forever. It was like standing by a wrecked locomotive or a steam shovel at quitting time, all valves being released or levered tight. Bones cracked; the tonnage of its own flesh, off balance, dead weight, snapped the delicate forearms, caught underneath. The meat settled, quivering.

Another cracking sound. Overhead, a gigantic tree branch broke from its heavy mooring, fell. It crashed upon the dead beast with finality.

“There.” Lesperance checked his watch. “Right on time. That’s the giant tree that was scheduled to fall and kill this animal originally.” He glanced at the two hunters. “You want the trophy picture?”

“What?”

“We can’t take a trophy back to the Future. The body has to stay right here where it would have died originally, so the insects, birds, and bacteria can get at it, as they were intended to. Everything in balance. The body stays. But we can take a picture of you standing near it.”

The two men tried to think, but gave up, shaking their heads. They let themselves be led along the metal Path. They sank wearily into the Machine cushions. They gazed back at the ruined Monster, the stagnating mound, where already strange reptilian birds and golden insects were busy at the steaming armor. A sound on the floor of the Time Machine stiffened them. Eckels sat there, shivering.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last.

“Get up!” cried Travis.

Eckels got up.

“Go out on that Path alone,” said Travis. He had his rifle pointed, “You’re not coming back in the Machine. We’re leaving you here!”

Lesperance seized Travis’s arm. “Wait­”

“Stay out of this!” Travis shook his hand away. “This fool nearly killed us. But it isn’t that so much, no. It’s his shoes! Look at them! He ran off the Path. That ruins us! We’ll forfeit! Thousands of dollars of insurance! We guarantee no one leaves the Path. He left it. Oh, the fool! I’ll have to report to the government. They might revoke our license to travel. Who knows what he’s done to Time, to History!”

“Take it easy, all he did was kick up some dirt.”

“How do we know?” cried Travis. “We don’t know anything! It’s all a mystery! Get out of here, Eckels!”

Eckels fumbled his shirt. “I’ll pay anything. A hundred thousand dollars!”

Travis glared at Eckels’ checkbook and spat. “Go out there. The Monster’s next to the Path. Stick your arms up to your elbows in his mouth. Then you can come back with us.”

“That’s unreasonable!”

“The Monster’s dead, you idiot. The bullets! The bullets can’t be left behind. They don’t belong in the Past; they might change anything. Here’s my knife. Dig them out!”

The jungle was alive again, full of the old tremorings and bird cries. Eckels turned slowly to regard the primeval garbage dump, that hill of nightmares and terror. After a long time, like a sleepwalker he shuffled out along the Path.

He returned, shuddering, five minutes later, his arms soaked and red to the elbows. He held out his hands. Each held a number of steel bullets. Then he fell. He lay where he fell, not moving.

“You didn’t have to make him do that,” said Lesperance.

“Didn’t I? It’s too early to tell.” Travis nudged the still body. “He’ll live. Next time he won’t go hunting game like this. Okay.” He jerked his thumb wearily at Lesperance. “Switch on. Let’s go home.”

1492. 1776. 1812.

They cleaned their hands and faces. They changed their caking shirts and pants. Eckels was up and around again, not speaking. Travis glared at him for a full ten minutes.

“Don’t look at me,” cried Eckels. “I haven’t done anything.”

“Who can tell?”

“Just ran off the Path, that’s all, a little mud on my shoes­what do you want me to do­get down and pray?”

“We might need it. I’m warning you, Eckels, I might kill you yet. I’ve got my gun ready.”

“I’m innocent. I’ve done nothing!”

1999. 2000. 2055.

The Machine stopped.

“Get out,” said Travis.

The room was there as they had left it. But not the same as they had left it. The same man sat behind the same desk. But the same man did not quite sit behind the same desk. Travis looked around swiftly. “Everything okay here?” he snapped.

“Fine. Welcome home!”

Travis did not relax. He seemed to be looking through the one high window.

“Okay, Eckels, get out. Don’t ever come back.” Eckels could not move.

“You heard me,” said Travis. “What’re you staring at?”

Eckels stood smelling of the air, and there was a thing to the air, a chemical taint so subtle, so slight, that only a faint cry of his subliminal senses warned him it was there. The colors, white, gray, blue, orange, in the wall, in the furniture, in the sky beyond the window, were . . . were . . .

And there was a feel. His flesh twitched. His hands twitched. He stood drinking the oddness with the pores of his body. Somewhere, someone must have been screaming one of those whistles that only a dog can hear. His body screamed silence in return. Beyond this room,

beyond this wall, beyond this man who was not quite the same man seated at this desk that was not quite the same desk . . . lay an entire world of streets and people. What sort of world it was now, there was no telling. He could feel them moving there, beyond the walls, almost, like so many chess pieces blown in a dry wind…

But the immediate thing was the sign painted on the office wall, the same sign he had read earlier today on first entering. Somehow, the sign had changed:

TYME SEFARI INC.

SEFARIS TU ANY YEER EN THE PAST.

YU NAIM THE ANIMALL.

WEE TAEK YU THAIR.

YU SHOOT ITT.

Eckels felt himself fall into a chair. He fumbled crazily at the thick slime on his boots. He held up a clod of dirt, trembling, “No, it can’t be. Not a little thing like that. No!”

Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.

“Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!” cried Eckels.

It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels’ mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it?

His face was cold. His mouth trembled, asking: “Who ­ who won the presidential election yesterday?”

The man behind the desk laughed. “You joking? You know very well. Deutscher, of course! Who else? Not that fool weakling Keith. We got an iron man now, a man with guts!” The official stopped. “What’s wrong?”

Eckels moaned. He dropped to his knees. He scrabbled at the golden butterfly with shaking fingers. “Can’t we,” he pleaded to the world, to himself, to the officials, to the Machine, “can’t we take it back, can’t we make it alive again? Can’t we start over? Can’t we­?”

He did not move. Eyes shut, he waited, shivering. He heard Travis breathe loud in the room; he heard Travis shift his rifle, click the safety catch, and raise the weapon.

There was a sound of thunder.


BRADBURY 1952

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bookclub, words

GINSBERG’S HOWL AND T. S. ELIOT’S THE WASTELAND

No matter how often I’m told the poem Howl is a profound Beat equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, it isn’t. I’ve heard them paired before, in the smokeless midnight air of alt-coffee urban pop-ups, listening for free as a mumbling hipster reads them aloud, back-to-back, in the same reverent cadence and double bass rhythm and nobody listening to the words. But reading a laundry list to that background would get the same polite applause of approval by the end.

The similarity in both excellent pieces isn’t in the poetry but the authors: T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg punching above their weight, inspired and goaded by recent close contact with greater art. Eliot would have been flying high on French inspiration and accidental carousing excess, drunk on the authentic thing (for once) in company of Modernist scamps and Parisian literati Jean Genet would fuck in and out of prison twenty years later. Ginsberg, young and graduated and full of lust for Catholic Jack Kerouac; mind first, body a close second, the order reversed, no doubt once Benzedrine came out to play.

Connections and circumstances count. The Anglo Saxon Eliot charmed the middle class English fame-makers and found comfort in London society. Ginsberg was a New York Wandering Jew, practical Eastern mysticism his adult beat – light on clothes, heavy on tactility, attractive to youth and boys and the kindly pretentious. Neither were the greatest or most original creative genius of their times. Ironic that their archetypes – the respectable high of average – would come to represent all that remains of the high watermark Anglophone creativity, some fifty years further down the road. Life imitates art indeed!

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bookclub, pushback, words

WORDS MATTER. DEFINITIONS MATTER.

I was just thinking about language changing over time and how, in my gut, I don’t like it when English is treated badly (or lazily) in ways that – for whatever reason – get accepted into normal everyday usage. It’s good when language grows but too often it’s a case of importing one word, at the price of losing others.

There’s a lot of splendid slang that evolves organically into words that strike to the very heart of a thing. This slang deserves to become part of everyone’s vocabulary. Too often, though, bringing slang into the vernacular displaces other words that happen to be associated – wrongly considered as ‘updating’ the living language. Colloquial words often make up for gaps in vocabulary but carry with them a luddite ring-fencing that won’t play nicely with older conventional words.

I don’t like the way the older words get sidelined. Discovering new colloqual turns of phrase should be an enriching of the lexicon but these days vocabulary has been commodified.

The norm is now for slang to displace associated older words then begin a cycle, generations of new slang replacing prior generations of slang that’s become orthodox. This displace-replace wastes time, reinventing the wheel for every new word, and linguistic precision suffers. The universality of both old and new words get degraded. Slang is a mmm cipher and when words of one side are incomprehensible to the other, communication breaks down as both sides become isolated, divided.

I hate the bloviation of people who should know better; educated writers and professional communicators whose vocabulary isn’t small but whose word-use is vague or lazy. Broadsheet newspapers are full of this type of language. It’s synonymous with established, civilised good character but to me it’s pompous and just as bad as luddite colloquialism.

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort.

Here is a well-known Bible verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

As Orwell writes “this is a parody, but not a very gross one.

Two main considerations are worth keeping in mind whenever you’re writing or reading someone else’s written content. These two considerations are how precisely the writer manages to recreate his intentions in the mind of the reader, and how far removed from the writer’s own background can the reader be, before there’s a breakdown between the intention of the writer and what’s recreated in the mind of the reader.

As a sidebar, these two considerations make up a good working criteria for judging the greatness of a piece of writing.

Whether writing is great (or not) shouldn’t be conflated with effectiveness. It’s possible to write an extremely effective piece of writing that speaks profoundly to a narrow demographic but for it to be impenetrable to anyone else. Read a scientific or esoteric political treatise and you’ll find most fall into this category.

With the caveat that greatness is a somewhat subjective conclusion – though not nearly so subjective, over time, as the popular critics of a particular generation would have us believe – the writer’s ability to precisely recreate his intentions in the mind of as diverse an audience as possible is a criteria as near to approaching objective as it’s possible to be. We may differ on how exactly we weight the importance of precision versus reader diversity but the principle is sound.

It’s accepted wisdom nowadays that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a great work of literature. It’s not necessarily the most popular but anyone familiar with the play will marvel at Shakespeare’s use of language. He renders vividly Hamlet’s struggle against insanity into the mind of the reader (or audience) and, such is the play’s evocative language, many of its simile-rich soliloquy create permanent new metaphor in the English language. At the same time Hamlet is universal enough to have been translated into over a hundred languages. The precision of Shakespeare’s writing is undeniable. The diversity of readership is clear. Hamlet scores extremely high in both criteria; therefore it is great writing.

Greek mythology: Prometheus stealing the fire of knowledge from the Gods of Olympus, to give to human beings so they can be free.

Metaphor is a mainstay of good writing. This is true for authentic metaphor but it’s a dangerous game and very easy to fall into bad habits, mixing or mismatching cliche. Simile usage often stumbles into the same trap. There’s a simple rule of thumb here. “The sole aim of metaphors is to call up a visual image.” The main difference between metaphor and simile isn’t – as is commonly defined by dictionaries – that metaphor is symbolic while simile is literal. Better to think of the difference as metaphor is shared association and simile is freeform comparison.

On the surface a metaphor may seem – as it’s often misleadingly defined – to be a figure of speech referring to things that aren’t literally connected. But this definition mistakes form for substance. The point about a metaphor is it MAY associate things that appear unconnected but the connection exists more profoundly in associations shared by writer and reader. Straightforward example would be the use of Greek mythology as a rich source of metaphor.

“The athlete’s love of danger was to prove her Achilles heel.”

The reader’s understanding of this athlete’s love of danger be enriched by referring to her Achilles heel as a metaphor.

Another sidebar: the loss in the Anglophone world of a working knowledge of the richly textured mythology of the classical world is a loss of shared metaphor that degrades the possibilities for precision (and profundity) in all 21st century descriptive writing. Once the metaphor becomes so esoteric it’s known only to a few, any writing choosing to use it must pay the price in diversity of readership. Those who don’t know the metaphor can’t be reached with the precision it used to provide. Life and reality is complex and language is a tool for communicating it. Blunt the tool and communication suffers; which it has.

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bookclub, people, words

THE “BEAT” ICONS – JACK KEROUAC and ALAN GINSBERG

No matter how often one might repeat Howl as if it’s some beat equivalent of Eliot’s The Wasteland, it isn’t, though the two might cadence simpatico when there’s a double bass rhythm and nobody listening i.e. in many a smoke-free coffee house where admission’s free and everyone wears their uniform outside of work. The main similarity lies in both excellent pieces representing Eliot and Ginsberg punching above their weight, inspired and goaded by greater art – Eliot flying high on French inspiration and accidental carousing, drunk on the real thing in company of modernist tramps Jean Genet would fuck in prison twenty years later; Ginsberg on lust for Catholic Jack, mind first, body a close second, the two reversed once he’d had a few brewskis. But connections count and the Anglo Saxon Eliot charmed the English fame makers while Ginsberg was, after all, a Jew. Ironic these archetypes would come to represent what remained of creative hope fifty years later. Life imitates art indeed!

“The essential difference, then, between the fellow Columbia University alumni was something similar.”

Ginsberg was a “beat” poet whose writing was a literature in the vacuum, elevated by combining acrobatic recycling of last night’s debauchery hearing Protean frat-house speeches, motivating the cum-drained morning type tapping aerobics and receding hangover. Ginsberg, gay with grudging but generous mimic-empathy, eager for approval like most who believe themselves one of life’s ugly people, clever enough to strike audience-accessible chords; always lyrical, trying to seduce (eyes on the cutest boy in the room) but sometimes, invariably by chance and the muse’s pity for the try hard, working out flashes of the truly poetic.

Kerouac by contrast was a sincere and tortured poet of singular brilliance, the brightest luminary of this so-called beat generation he came to symbolise in popular culture but transcended by the time he’d gazed on those big Kansas starscapes huddled sardine close with crackers heading West for the corn harvest. On The Road and Desolation Angels are works of genius and there latter possibly the apex of all American literature, though less accessible and universal than On The Road.

Kerouac is an original, a literary genius, driven by passions childlike in their hopeful ardour. He spent his life in an angst-to-alcoholic exploration at breakneck pace, leaving inspiration and bewildered academics scrambling to either catch up or deride dismiss. Catholic Jack neither knew nor cared. He was like Rimbaud a century earlier, life and art by necessity more than by choice – meeting the demands of authentic self-expression applied to the growing quicksilver mind of America’s only literary virtuoso.

Ginsberg died old and lauded. Kerouac took the other road: no middle age behind a beard, bumbling about with mates and macaroni in tow, stoned and adored and pilfering pennies from mid western culture vultures. Instead death, hypothermia or cirrhosis, fallen face down on the railroad tracks by mother’s homely house, alone, liver soaked in sweet wine and a handwritten Rilke note crumpled up in his hand.

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bookclub, scribble, words

“RASPBERRIES AND A PLASTIC ROSE”

I once thought much on growing old,
Of those last angry steps.
I once shook fists in impotence:
Against mortality.

And yet I find, as wrinkles spread,
And life remains obscure,
It isn't fame or strands of grey,
That move me,
As I age.
Nor is it thought of future naught,
One day,
Myself,
To be.

It's not the world of one,
Of self,
Nor bipolarity.
It’s something better left unsaid,
Left thankless empathy.

It's you!
My love,
My friend,
My foe:
A virus, learning,
Doomed and slow.

It's you!
A face,
Your smile,
You blink:
“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone.”

/Rosary/Sept2001

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