28 June 2012


Like most of us, I learned to read with the help of pictures.  Comic books remained favorite reading late into childhood, and there are panels from the "Classics Illustrated" editions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, The House of the Seven Gables, and Men Against the Sea which I still remember quite clearly after forty years.  Having graduated from books with pictures, my imagination was taught to make its own movies by the development of what one might call "headlong narrative lust": possessed by that same lust, my children become quite deaf while they're reading, just as I once did.  To me, reading is still driven by the engine of narrative, and my interest in considering other aspects of a text would have no real motive without it.  

When a narrative suddenly interpolates a list or catalogue into the text, interrupting that passionate onwardness of reading, it's usually about as welcome as a knot of half-cooked spaghetti in my carbonara.  It seems to promise nothing but boredom and anticlimax: I'm tempted to skip it, much as I skip wanton descriptions of landscape (which, come to think of it, are a kind of catalogue too).  Catalogues aren't supposed to be prose, they're archives for reference, and who wants to read a thesaurus in the midst of a thriller?  Having yanked us rudely out of the stream of time a narrative is happening in, a list reminds us that we're just ourselves, reading.  The story stops while the list is being read, just like when movie screens used to go blank for intermissions: when my daughter was three, the shock of such stopping would make her burst into tears when a movie ended, because she was so disappointed not to be still in it.

Reading a catalogue all the way through sacrifices living in the tale to a kind of contemplative quiescence.  It's a completely different mode of reading, comprising two distinct aims: the registration of each element in the catalogue piecemeal--my wife, speaking of flea markets, calls this "micro-hiking"--and the simultaneous effort to derive or imagine the relationship between elements without the guidance of plot or syntax.  Imagine Kipling's Kim, during his job interview for the Great Game, looking at Lurgan Sahib's tray of miscellaneous objects and trying to figure out what properties unite them into a collection.  However captivating such a puzzle might seem abstractly, when an actual list first looms up in the middle of a story, I anticipate the same tedium as any five-year-old contemplating a page without pictures.


Of course, I wouldn't be writing all this if that expectation of tedium were the whole story.  There's genuine pleasure in submitting to a well-crafted list--once that first impatient repulsion is overcome--a pleasure evoked by the sensory interest of each word or phrase in the list, the play of different elements' rhythms against one another, and the engineering by which a seeming hodgepodge of distinct particles aspires to (or even enacts) a sequence.  Some narrative lists manifest the mind of the writer or narrator in the act of composing them, others pretend to allude to taxonomies already formed.  Just as a long look at the night sky begins to hint at the underlying structure behind an appearance of random distribution--a lacy skein of stars surrounding bubbles of void--so a well-composed list hints at an implicate order in the universe it purports to describe, even while it may be subverting the idea of order.  An excellent example is this well-known list, from Borges's essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," collected in Other Inquisitions:

"These ambiguities, redundances (sic), and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies at a distance.

Each successive element as it appears casts doubt on the criteria by which the catalogue has been devised.  They are alternately over-inclusive and over-specific; sublime, ridiculous, and indefinable.  Eventually the entire catalogue collapses, from something which pretends to be a comprehensive classification into nothing more than a manifestation of the apparent state of mind of the person devising it--who is of course an invention.  (Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that the actual Franz Kuhn played no part in this brilliant piece of whimsy.)  And yet (some inner metaphysician asks), might not there exist some meta-level on which these wildly different levels of abstraction--stray dogs, embalmed, fabulous, included in this classification, resembling flies at a distance--intersect seamlessly to parcel out the world?  After all, as Borges might have reminded us, certain modern cosmogonies postulate seven or nine dimensions, whose mathematics would allow objects galaxies apart--in the universe we think we know--to interact with and influence one another instantly, unpredictably, unimaginably. 

My next exhibit, from Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, starts out irresistibly, 'dervishes of the Tower of the Winds' and all... and keeps on getting better:

"This was the road to Anavryti [in the southern Peloponnese], the approach march to our private invasion of the Mani. ...the bank manager of sleepy Sparta was waiting with his jeep as he had promised... I repeated my questions about the inhabitants of Anavryti... 'Yes,' he said, hooting his way through a clinking herd of goats; their twisted horns surrounded us for a moment in a tangled spinney: 'they all say they are Jews, but nobody knows why, or where they are from.  It's probably rubbish.'
     It was very puzzling.  Perhaps he was right.  And yet the Greek world, with all its absorptions and dispersals and its Odyssean ramifications, is an inexhaustible Pandora's box of eccentricities and exceptions to all possible rule.  I thought of the abundance of strange communities: the scattered Bektashi and the Rufayan, the Mevlevi dervishes of the Tower of the Winds, the Liaps of Souli, the Pomaks of the Rhodope, the Kizilbashi near Kechro, the Fire-Walkers of Mavrolevki, the Lazi from the Pontic shores, the Linovamvaki--crypto-Christian Moslems of Cyprus--the Dönmehs--crypto-Jewish Moslems of Salonika and Smyrna--the Slavophones of Northern Macedonia, the Koutzo-Vlachs of Samarina and Metzovo, the Chams of Thesprotia, the scattered Souliots of Roumeli and the Heptanese, the Albanians of Argolis and Attica, the Kravarite mendicants of Aetolia, the wandering quacks of Eurytania, the phallus-wielding Boumariots of Tyrnavos, the Karamanlides of Cappadocia, the Tzakones of the Argolic gulf... the Turks of Thrace, the Thessalonican Sephardim, the sponge-fishers of Calymnos and the Caribbean reefs, the Maniots of Corsica, Tuscany, Algeria and Florida, the dying Grecophones of Calabria and Otranto, the Greek-speaking Turks near Trebizond on the banks of the Of, the omnipresent Gypsies... the Bavarians of Attic Herakleion, the Cypriots of Islington and Soho, the Sahibs and Boxwallahs of Nicosia, the English remittance men of Kyrenia, the Basilian Monks, both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic, the anchorites of Mt. Athos, the Chiots of Bayswater and the Guards' Club... the Pontics of the Sea of Azov, the Caucasus and the Don, the Turcophone and Armenophone Lazi of southern Russia, the Greeks of the Danube Delta, Odessa and Taganrog... the exaggerators and the ghosts of Mykonos... the Franks of the Morea, the Byzantines of Mistra, the Venetians and Genoese and Pisans of the archipelago... the Anglo-Saxons of the Varangian Guard, ye olde Englisshe of the Levant company, the Klephts and the Armatoles... the Phanariots of the Sublime Porte, the princes and boyars of Moldowallachia, the Ralli Brothers of India, the Whittals of Constantinople, the lepers of Spinalonga... a wandering Arab I saw years ago in Domoko, the Chinese tea-pedlar of Kolonaki, killed in Piraeus during the war by a bomb--if all these, to name a few, why not the crypto-Jews of the Taygetus?"

"Both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic"--who could ask for anything more?  And here, to demonstrate the virtues of that Græcophile Leigh Fermor's talent even more plainly, is one of the original models for his list and for many others, (translated by Ian Johnston):

 "... But I shall list the leaders,
commanders of the ships, and all the ships in full.                            

Penelaus, Leitus, and Arcesilaus
led the Boeotians, with Clonius and Prothoenor.
Their men came from Hyria, rocky Aulis,
Schoenus, Scolus, mountainous Eteonus,
Thespeia, Graia, spacious Mycalassus,
men holding Harma, Eilesium, Erythrae;
men holding Eleon, Hyle, Peteon,
Ocalea, the well-built fortress Medeon,
Copae, Eutresis, Thisbe, city full of doves;
men from Coronea, grassy Haliartus;
men from Plataea, Glisas, those who held
fortified lower Thebe and sacred Onchestus,
with Poseidon's splendid grove; men from Arne,
land rich in grapes, Midea, sacred Nisa,
and distant Anthedon.  Fifty ships came with these men,
each with one hundred and twenty young Boeotians...

The Locrians were led by swift Ajax, son of Oileus,
the lesser Ajax, not the greater Ajax,
son of Telamon, but a much smaller man.
Though he was short and wore cloth armor,
among all Hellenes and Achaeans he excelled
in fighting with his spear.  Locrians came from Cynus,
Opous, Calliarus, Bessa, Scarphe,
lovely Aegeiae, Tarphe, Thronion,
and from around the river Boagrius.
Ajax brought forty black ships of Locrians
living across from sacred Euboea...

Warriors from Argos, fortified Tiryns, Hermione,
Asine, both with deep bays, Troezene, Eionae,
vine-rich Epidaurus, Achaean youth from Aegina, Mases--
all these were led by mighty fighter Diomedes,
skilled in war cries, and by Sthenelus, dear son
of famous Capaneus..."

And so on for another 232 lines.  Despite the Classical importance of this 'Catalogue of Ships,' I find it much more difficult to keep on reading through it--not to mention copying it out--than I find most of the other catalogues here.  I suspect that actually hearing it in Homer's incantatory voice--if I'd been born in Akhaia--might have supplied it with an interest otherwise missing.  What I mean is, I guess you had to be there.


By contrast, this next passage is a delicious primer in the art of pacing and grouping a catalogue--salting it with jokes and gossip, peppering it with names from the animal and vegetable kingdoms--so as to convert it into satirical drama:

     "From East Egg then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine.  And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whoever came near.  And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie's wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.
      Clarence Endive was from East Egg, as I remember.  He came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden.  From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O. R. P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells.  Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett's automobile ran over his right hand.  The Dancies came, too, and S. B. Whitebait, who was well over sixty, and Maurice A. Flink, and the Hammerheads, and Beluga the tobacco importer, and Beluga's girls.
     From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the State senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another.  And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife.  Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. ("Rot-Gut") Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly--they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day.
     A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so long that he became known as "the Boarder"--I doubt if he had any other home.  Of theatrical people there were Gus Waize and Horace O'Donavan and Lester Myer and George Duckweed and Francis Bull.  Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the Scullys and S. W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square...
     In addition to all these I can remember that Faustina O'Brien came there at least once and the Baedeker girls and young Brewer, who had his nose shot off in the war, and Mr. Albrucksburger and Miss Haag, his fiancée, and Ardita Fitz-Peters and Mr. P. Jewett, once head of the American Legion, and Miss Claudia Hip, with a man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something, whom we called Duke, and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.
     All these people came to Gatsby's house in the summer."


When an entire text resists the kind of headlong narrative pace I mentioned earlier, when reading it is a word-by-phrase experience similar to that of reading through a list, there's a special pleasure in encountering a list in a recognizable form, especially one that's been dramatized by a writer even more skillful than Fitzgerald.  Some of you will not be surprised to learn that I'm speaking of James Joyce (who was very fond of lists, as Ulysses shows) and of Finnegans Wake.  This is an excerpt from a catalogue of gifts, following the style of joke bequests or Christmas presents, brought by Anna Livia Plurabelle--the personification of Dublin's river--to all her children.  Reading it aloud enhances its pleasure: the rhythm of the text seems to follow the twists and turns--the 'baltering' and 'soodling,' as Auden has it--of a river making its way to the sea:

"she'd neb in her culdee sacco of wabbash she raabed and reach out her maundy meerschaundize, poor souvenir as per ricorder and all for sore aringarung, stinkers and heelers, laggards and primelads, her furzeborn sons and dribblederry daughters, a thousand and one of them, and wickerpotluck for each of them.  For evil and ever.  And kiks the buch.  A tinker's bann and a barrow to boil his billy for Gipsy Lee; a cartridge of cockaleekie soup for Chummy the Guardsman; for sulky Pender's acid nephew deltoïd drops, curiously strong; a cough and a rattle and wildrose cheeks for poor Piccolina Petite Macfarlane; a jigsaw puzzle of needles and pins and blankets and shins between them for Isabel, Jezebel and LLewellyn MMarriage... a drowned doll to face downwards for modest Sister Anne Mortimer... Wildairs' breechettes for Magpeg Woppington; to Sue Dot a black eye; to Sam Dash a false step; snakes in clover, picked and scotched, and a vaticanned viper catcher's visa for Patsy Presbys; a reiz every morning for Standfast Dick and a drop every minute for Stumblestone Davy... a whippingtop for Eddy Lawless; for Kitty Coleraine of Buttermans' Lane a penny wise for her foolish pitcher... for Seumas, thought little, a crown he feels big; a tibertine's pile with a Congoswood cross on the back for Sunny Twimjim... penteplenty of pity with lubilashings of lust for Olona Lena Magdalena; for Camilla, Dromilla, Ludmilla, Mamilla, a bucket, a packet, a book and a pillow... a Missa pro Messa for Taff de Taff; Jill, the spoon of a girl, for Jack, the broth of a boy... 
     My colonial, wardha bagful!  A bakereen dusind with tithe tillies to boot.  That's what you may call the tale of a tub!"


Next, I offer a certain kind of catalogue in nearly its purest form, a miscellany of words, higgledy-piggledy, from the extraordinary novel Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kiš.  This reading list, in its sublime uselessness, reminds me of Dorothea Casaubon's unfortunate husband (Edward, not Isaac), trying to derive the key to all mythologies:

"Conscious... that I am demystifying the significance and magnitude of my father's undertaking, I nevertheless repeat here that there was nothing extraordinary or grandiose in his intentions at first.  In the beginning... these were [to be] modest tourist baedekers containing notations on landmarks, museums, fountains, and monuments, sometimes including brief commentaries on customs, religions, history, the arts, and culture.  But once my father had started consulting encyclopedias and lexicons for this purpose... he assembled an enormous listing of literature in the most diverse disciplines... and the lexicons came to be replaced by alchemical studies, anthropological studies, anthroposophical studies, archeological studies, studies in the doctrine of art for art's sake, astrological studies, astronomical studies, studies in autobiography, cabalistic studies, Cartesian studies, cartographic, cataleptic, cataplectic, causalistic, causistic (sic), characterological studies, studies in chiromancy, comedic studies... studies in dichotomy, diathetic studies, diluvial, diplomatic, dualistic, dynamic, eclectic, ecliptic, ecological, economic, embolismic, embryological, emotionalistic, empirical studies, studies in empirical criticism, studies in empirical monism, empiricist studies, encyclopedic, entomological, Epicurean, epizootic... paleographic, paleontological, paleophytological, pantheistic, parasitological, particularistic studies, studies of pedigrees, phantasmagoric studies, phantasmic, pharisaical, phenological, phenomenological, philological, philosophical, phylogenetic... toponymic, toxicological studies, studies in unanimism, uranographic studies, studies in urbanism, urological studies, utopistic, venereological studies, studies in versification, voluntaristic studies, vulcanological, Zionist, zoogeographical, zoographic, zoological studies... Abbreviations became subchapters, subchapters became chapters.  The original idea of a combined guidebook-baedeker had become just a tiny, provocatory reproductive cell that was dividing, like a primitive organism, in geometrical progression... the underlying text and marginalia and footnotes had absorbed this delicate, utilitarian, unstable structure that now stood almost invisible and wholly adjunct on the varicolored map of the world of essence..."

It was the question "Why is this particular list so difficult to read?" that prompted me to write this essay.  Even at a quarter the length of the original passage, this excerpt seems interminable.  Its confusion of modes is nearly as wild as that of Borges's catalogue, but Kiš has left us no point of entry for understanding how the terms are associated.  Each term seems interesting at first--diluvial, embolismic, paleophytological, pharisaical, uranographic--but without the occasional word 'studies,' the repetition of which is stultifying in itself, this would just be a bewildering mess of glittery, unconnected adjectives.  No meaning can be derived from the sequence of terms, since it's strictly alphabetical.  Even the narrator's father's ostensible task of compiling a guidebook doesn't guide our understanding.  This catalogue's bizarre but suggestive juxtapositions play against its length and the monotony of its structure to produce moments of fascination quickly swamped by nausea, tedium, and a feeling of overloaded repulsion.

It took me a while to see that this catalogue's resistance to being read, its senselessness, was a performance.  It is not really meant to be read, although it had to produce the same combined effect of flashiness and frustration--seduction and abandonment--wherever the reader entered it.  Kiš meant it to be a tease, but not a pleasant one.  Paradoxically enough--for a piece of writing from which narrative thrust has been actively eliminated--it is meant to serve a definite narrative purpose.  Kiš's point is that this guide for writing a guidebook, so carefully alphabetized, goes nowhere.  It comprises nothing less than a lifetime of false starts: it expresses not only the narrator's attempt to represent his brilliant but manic father's inner quagmire, but also the mixture of fascination, nausea, tedium, and overloaded repulsion he himself feels, in trying hopelessly to come to terms with his father.  To put it more simply, the narrator's effort to reach his crazy father drives him crazy; trying to read his catalogue drives me crazy.  Only a writer of consummate skill could have composed a list so maddeningly boring.


And finally, to demonstrate that alphabetical lists not incorporated into a narrative can offer a very distinct pleasure, here are some random definitions from the glossary to The Poems of Edward Taylor, edited by Donald A. Stanford.  Taylor was a Puritan divine in Westfield, Massachusetts from the 1670's until his death in 1729.

Angell:  English coin (1470-1634) showing archangel Michael slaying the dragon
Baracadoes:  barricadoes, barriers
Beetle:  heavy mallet use for driving stakes
Bemegerim:  inflict with a severe headache
Buskt:  dressed, attired, adorned
Butter teeth:  buckteeth, large projecting front teeth
Chalybdine:  of steel, steely
Chuffe:  swollen, puffed out with disease
Coursey park:  course-a-park, a country game in which a girl calls out a boy to chase her
Crincht:  cringed
Crouce:  pert, brisk, lively, jolly
Dead head:  the residuum remaining after distillation or sublimation; worthless residue
Delph:  quarry, mine
Emmet:  ant
Empt:  empty, exhaust
Fardells:  bundles, esp. burdens or loads of sin
Fleer:  make a wry face, laugh in a coarse manner; mock, sneer; flare
Foist:  stink, musty smell
Frim:  vigorous, flourishing, luxuriant
Gastard:  astonished; terrified; struck with amazement
Glaver:  flatter
Glout:  frown; sullen look
Grudgens:  gurgeons, coarse meal
Harish:  mad
Hopt:  happed, covered, wrapped
Keck:  retch, reject with loathing
Kit:  small fiddle
Layes:  layers or courses of masonry
Learch:  lurk
Mammocks:  scraps, shreds, broken pieces
Maukin:  scarecrow
Mence:  adorn, grace
Mullipuff:  fuzz-ball (used as a term of contempt)
Neckt:  dialectal pronunciation of 'naked'
Obsignation:  ratification, action of sealing
Officine:  workshop, laboratory
Olivant:  horn of ivory
Paintice:  penthouse, a sloping roof, awning, canopy, shed
Pald:  enclosed with pales, surrounded, fenced in
Panchins:  pancheons, circular pans made generally of earthenware
Peps:  pepse, pelt, throw at
Pickpack:  pick-a-back, on the shoulder or back, like a bundle
Pillard:  one who is peeled or stripped
Pink:  peep, blink, wink
Quorn:  quern, a simple mechanism... for grinding corn
Riggalld:  verb formed from the noun riggal 'ring-like mark' (or 'groove in wood or stone')
Rive:  pierce
Sawceboxes:  persons addicted to making saucy or impertinent remarks
Silverlings:  shekels
Slatch:  lazy idle vagabond
Standish:  inkstand, inkpot
Tazzled:  tangled, fuzzy
Wamble:  feel nausea
Womble-crop:  nauseate, make sick

Had enough?  Feeling a bit wambly and listless?  Sorry.  I'll return you to your story.

09 June 2012


Your name is Hawkins or Starbuck, Selkirk or Hardy, or even Christian; your captain is called Drake or Cabot or Aubrey.  You are in mid-ocean, off the vexed Bermoothes, or on the Spanish Main, or in those straits you will--if God spares you!--name after your lost captain Magellan, a bare cable's length from a lee shore.  Your ship--Unicorn, Surprise, Endeavor, Santa Maria--is enveloped in a lurid, formless, orange light sticky with dew, the sea is "sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould" (Benito Cereno) and the studdingsails hang limp in the dead air while your whole crew whistles for all you're worth.  But your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth, your eyes are fixed on the glass which is dropping like a plumb-weight, and your nerves are taut as a harpoon line, awaiting the order to strike sail, for the hurricanoe's coming on...

And then the gale is upon you--and time stops.  Sails not hauled down in time are instantly replaced by rigidly horizontal tatters, or else the masts are overborne; cannons careen loose over the gun-deck, the cargo breaks free and shifts promiscuously, heaving the vessel towards her beam ends from starboard to port and back again, and the undermanned pumps slowly lose ground to the water that pours in through the strakes as the hull flexes and lurches in mountainous seas.  Surely this is the apotheosis of "messing about in boats"--the grit, the panoply of expertise, the urgent cleverness of a tiny universe of sailors staving off annihilation one improvised inch at a time.

We all know this scene, even--or perhaps I should say especially--those of us with no practical knowledge of sailing.  And of course this is a scene from the age of sail, not from the present; it is from a time when the wall between man and drowning was far thinner and more delicate than a steel triple bulkhead, when right action in concert was all that stood against the long rolling dark.  Writing about Heart of Darkness in an earlier essay (March 2011), I suggested that the combination of humble--almost domestic--skills needed to sail a ship was exemplary of a particular level of civilization.  Margaret Cohen, in her book The Novel and the Sea, describes that combination this way: "To achieve success, [Robinson] Crusoe calls on craft's compleat competences, such as knowledge of geography, arms, shipbuilding, and carpentry.  He also exercises craft's human traits, notably prudence, patience, protocol... resolution, jury-rigging, and the pragmatic imagination.  Maritime craft, which is exemplified in the mariner's skill under conditions of great duress, is an ethical as well as a practical discipline."  That ethic, allying a modest but unshakeable professional devotion to the mastery of a braid of practical skills, is a high achievement of civilization, with generations of refinement behind it.

Richard Hughes's narrative In Hazard takes place on board the steamship Archimedes in 1929, when sail had largely been supplanted by steam.  This is what he says about sailing: "It is only lately, when the supply of sail-trained officers has begun to run short, that most of the first-class steamship lines have begun to accept officers trained in steam alone: have begun to train such officers themselves.
     This seems an anomaly, to landsmen: that steamship companies should actually require their officers to have been trained in sail: landsmen are inclined to smile, as at a piece of foolish conservatism--as if London bus drivers were required to serve for seven years as stableboys and grooms, before they were allowed to handle motor buses.  With so much technical knowledge to acquire anyhow, why waste the man's time in learning a useless and outmoded technique as well?
     The answer is a matter of virtue, really.  For an inclination towards virtue... is not enough in itself; it must be trained, like any other aptitude.  Now there is a fundamental difference in kind between the everyday work of a sailing vessel and the everyday work of a steamer.  The latter does not essentially differ from a shore job: it is only occasionally, rarely, that emergencies arise in steam.  But every common action in the working of a sailing vessel, all the time, partakes of something of the nature of an emergency.  Everything must be done with your whole heart, and a little more than your whole strength.  Thus is a natural aptitude for virtue increased by everyday practice.  For changing a jib in a stiff breeze is a microcosm, as it were, of saving a ship in a storm.
     So the officer in sail acquires a training in virtue that may later, in steam, mean the saving of some hundred lives, and a million or so of property."

This extraordinary book--which reads like a documentary account containing characters from a novel--tells the story of the Archimedes's four days under a monstrous hurricane.   In a manner typical of Hughes, the narrative moves quite casually from an allusion to the immense strength of the ship's structure to a rapid and seemingly inevitable chain of disasters.  First, in the teeth of the gale, the steering mechanism jams.  As the ship loses its forward thrust, it turns broadside to the wind, the force of which heels it over at a 35° angle.  The gale, producing a relative vacuum over the deck on the leeward side, yanks the hatches off as it would have yanked off roofs on land, and spray begins to fill the hold.  Part of the cargo is old newspapers and tobacco, which begin to absorb water: because they are stowed above the rest of the cargo, the ship becomes topheavy and rolls still closer to the water on the leeward side.  That's just the beginning.  The funnel's guy wires are warranted to withstand a hundred tons of force, but the wind rips it off the ship anyway.  As a result, the draft required to keep the furnaces fired fails.  And so on, and on.  The suspense lies in whether the increasing weight in the hold will founder the ship before the storm subsides.  (I imagine it's no accident that the vessel in this story is named after the man who learned to measure the volumes of solid objects by measuring the volume of water they displace.)  The circumstantial detail in this book is terrific.  Two midshipmen calm the worst of the waves by dribbling lubricating oil onto the sea through the bow and stern latrines, having wrestled full oil-drums across a sloping deck as wind and spray threaten to throw them overboard.  The officers and crew have to keep screaming at each other even in the calm at the eye of the storm because the unrelenting din has temporarily deafened them.  When they finally get steam to the pumps again and empty tobacco-brown water out of the bilges, fish rise belly up through the water, poisoned by nicotine.

The Archimedes does make it in the end, by dint of the same grit, nobility, and desperate cleverness which a sailing vessel calls upon in extreme weather, and--just as in sailing--by dint of luck as well.  There is one conspicuous difference though.  In the pastiche I opened with, the work of luck goes hand in hand with the skillful work of hands.  Sailing ships can be jury-rigged and repaired; pumps are manned by men; and the course of the wind is engineered by the manipulation of sails.  The heroism of seafarers goes hand in hand with a mastery of the component crafts of sailing.  Captain Aubrey travels with a carpenter and his assistants, a full set of tools, and spare wood for repairs.  Even a dismasted ship can sometimes be usefully towed by oared boats.  Hughes, however, takes pains to point out that even the finest of engineers can do nothing to repair or supplement a steamship's means of propulsion while at sea: the propeller shaft of the Archimedes is impossible to shift by hand.  In Conrad's Falk, a steamship is left so helpless when its propeller shaft breaks that the crew has resorted to suicide and cannibalism in the Southern Ocean before they are finally rescued.  Not only were they unable to change their fate, but they could not sustain such fragile esprit de corps as they once had.  As in the trope of the post-apocalyptic survivor surrounded by useless scrap metal, the high civilization of the sailor has given way to a kind of de facto barbarism.  And while sailors are subject to savagery too, when luck and wit fail them, the 3600-mile journey in an open boat undertaken by Captain Bligh and those of his crew who didn't join the mutiny on the Bounty shows us that a Hobbesian state is not inevitable even under extreme privation, so long as the discipline inherent to sailing can still be evoked.  Hughes and Conrad both seem to imply that unless the training in virtue which sailing offers can be acquired elsewhere, barbarism in technical matters risks entraining moral barbarism as well. 

02 June 2012


The year is, say, 1520.  The New World is known to exist; nevertheless, a small flotilla of three ships sets out westward from Europe aiming for the Moluccas.  When they reach land, the captain and crew do not know where they are: 

"Of people we saw not a sign.  No one.  If these were the Indies as was claimed, there was no evidence of any Indian inhabitants, no self-aware beings like ourselves within whom might burn the small flame that gives shape, colour and volume to the space around and lends it its externality.

...We saw nothing but blue sky, smooth golden-brown waters and empty shores as we entered the 'sweet' sea: this was what the captain named it when we landed, invoking the King with his customary mechanical gestures.  From the shore we watched him plunge almost waist-deep into the water, scything the air and skimming the waves with his sword in ceremonial gestures.  My inexperienced eyes followed the captain's precise, complicated gestures with interest but failed to perceive the change my imagination anticipated.  After its baptism and appropriation the dumb earth stubbornly withheld any sign or signal.  From the boat... I remained staring at the spot where we had disembarked; although only a few minutes had passed since we left, I could find no trace of our presence there... We nursed the illusion that by discovering this unknown land we were laying claim to it, as if before us there had been nothing but an immanent void which our presence peopled with a corporeal landscape.  But when we left it... we saw all too clearly that the space we considered ourselves the founders of had always in fact been there and had allowed our passage through it with indifference... Each time we disembarked we were like a fleeting irritation come from nowhere, an ephemeral fever that glimmered for a moment at the edge of the water and then was gone."

Acute and well-rendered as this is, the trope is familiar enough: Europeans encounter the unknown wilderness, whose brute and stubborn indifference to them eventually transforms it into mother and mirror to the Lord of flies.  We might remember Marlowe's steamer randomly shelling the West African bush from offshore, en route to the heart of darkness, or Aguirre's hallucinatory violence, or Cotton Mather's Puritan brethren vexed to nightmare and witch-burning by their "squallid, horrid American Desart" (as recorded by William Carlos Williams).

But this is not one of those books.  This is Juan José Saer's extraordinary novel The Witness, a short work of grave and fearsome irony.  It offers quite the opposite nightmare--or is it the same?--with different actors and a different Devil--or is He the same?  Three pages later, the captain and his entire landing party are abruptly annihilated by a "rain of darts," leaving alive only the unnamed narrator, the ship's cabin-boy.  A group of Indians appears out of the jungle and transports him and his dead shipmates to their village in the interior, where a nightmarish ritual takes place--which I shall leave you to discover.  He lives with the tribe for a long time, as a mysteriously cosseted "def-ghi."  Late every summer another such def-ghi is acquired from the neighboring peoples under similar ritual circumstances, is fêted for some months, and then is sent back home in a canoe full of presents.  When his hosts finally detect some Europeans downriver, ten years later, they send the narrator off to rejoin his own tribe.  What the Europeans learn from him about the ways of the Indians and the fate of the original landing party, in what little he can immediately muster of his mother-tongue, impels them inland to 'exterminate all the brutes' (a return to that familiar trope, on the only basis that might make sense of it--and yes, I'm being mysterious on purpose).  He spends the rest of his years trying to recover himself, and to understand those ten years in the wild.  As an old man, he begins to write down the story--in the form of the novel we are reading--and eventually comes to understand that by writing he is at last fulfilling a function which that now-extinct tribe had initiated him into all those years ago.

This is what he tells us about them: "[Their village was] the centre of the world which they carried within them; the visible horizon around it was made up of concentric rings of problematic reality whose existence became less and less likely the further away one went from that central observation point... [On their expeditions] it was they who gave reality to the other places they visited: by their mere presence they gave physical reality to the uncertain, formless horizon."  The echo of the 'social constructionist' European fantasy--"an immanent void which our presence peopled with a corporeal landscape"--is plain: but this is solipsism, the real thing.  Unlike that world of impervious and mindless solidity which refuses to submit to the Europeans' imagination, their world--the very same--is made solid only by their mindfulness.  And yet, their solipsism is of a peculiarly wavering, diaphanous kind.  The Ancestors of the aboriginal peoples of Australia sang their world into being as they walked along its dream-meridians; these Indians, unlike them, have to go on singing up a world always on the verge of melting away:  "They were the resistant nucleus of the world, whose soft outer covering, thanks to their excursions, acquired every now and then transient islands of solid life.  When they left that provisional solidity would vanish."

Indeed, in their world-view, the situation is even less reliable than that.  "The world of the Indians was the most real there was, but... their own existence was in no way irrefutable... It is true that they and the world were one and the same thing, but the single being they constituted was debilitated by a common uncertainty rather than affirmed by their mutual presence."  For example, "A tree... was always somewhat lacking in reality.  It was present as if by some miracle, which the Indians scornfully allowed.  They did so in exchange for some useful advantage: fruit, wood, shade...  [However, they] could not trust in the existence of the tree because they knew that the tree depended on their existence... At the same time, since the tree contributed by its presence to guaranteeing the existence of the Indians, the latter could not feel entirely sure of their own existence.A vicious circle, this--without any hope of external proof or disproof--which the ritual they were driven to enact every year failed to interrupt in any lasting way.  Even worse, their dilemma is unconscious.  They don't live it, it lives them, leaving in their awareness only a pervasive, sourceless dread. "All these lucubrations were much more painful than they seem written down because they knew nothing of them, despite living them out every day.  They lived them in every action they performed, with each word they uttered, in everything they built and in their dreams... Even when it was unrewarding, they constantly worked at making that one known world real.  They had no choice: it was, after all, that or nothing."

In his first days in the Indians' village, the narrator is inclined to see them as "immune from doubt... they gave me the sense of being the measure which defined the place of everything between earth and sky... they gave the enviable impression of being more present in this world than any other thing."  This is truer than he yet knows, but his envy is as absurdly misplaced as Gulliver's envy of the immortal Struldbrugs.  He attributes "their lack of joy and their moroseness" to being so much at one with the world that pleasure was superfluous.  "Slowly, however, I began to see that the opposite was true, that they felt they had constantly to make real the apparently solid world so that it did not vanish like a thread of smoke into the evening air."  Their moroseness manifests the strain of having to ensure the continuation of the world through constant vigilance and work, in the shadow of an implacable doubt about their own reality.  So much are they constituted by doubt that they lack the verb 'to be:' they can only indicate a tree by 'It seems tree.'  Samuel Johnson's famous refutation of Berkeley--kicking a tree, say--would mean nothing to them.

At the end of his life, the narrator comes to recognize why the Indians spared him when they slaughtered his shipmates.  They addressed him as def-ghi, which can mean many things: 'people absent or asleep, or people who were tactless, or visitors who outstayed their welcome;' a mynah-like bird which could be taught to repeat words; 'things reflected in water; something which lasted a long time;' 'certain objects... put in the place of someone absent;' a spy or scout; and ultimately, 'a witness to and a survivor of [the Indians'] passage through this material mirage.'  Since this novel is written in the Latin alphabet, it may not be coincidental that 'defghi' are the letters following 'abc,' the letters which, so to speak, introduce the idea of writing, beyond the simple naming of the alphabet.  The narrator comes to understand that as def-ghi, along with all the other def-ghi who were sent home laden with gifts, he was meant to stand witness on the tribe's behalf "to the vast formless world that, because they had learned to distinguish between the internal and the external worlds, between what now stood in the luminous air and what was still floundering in the dark, they had become the sole support of that harsh reality, the one true people."  A different light is shed even on the killing of his companions: for the Indians it initiated a desperate maneuver in their ceaseless effort to hold back the dark.  He understands finally that what to him was unprovoked murder was also a version of tragedy.

The richness of this brief text is incomparable, and becomes even richer in contemplation; I could go on quoting until none of it was left unquoted.  Abstract as it may sound, the narrative is carried through with such grace and lightness, and such sinew, that it imparts a Johnsonian reality to this extinct tribe of despairing and unconscious solipsists from the tristes tropiques, as well as to the universe they are no longer alive to maintain--or were they ever?  And that is only one of the many rewards of this grimly beautiful and moving novel.