Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Multiplicity of Suggestions

Lytton Strachey makes an interesting point, here, about the tools needed to convey a sense of strangeness and remoteness in writing, but I think he might have overlooked something:

There is, of course, no doubt that [Thomas] Browne's vocabulary is extraordinarily classical. Why is this? The reason is not far to seek. In his most characteristic moments he was almost entirely occupied with thoughts and emotions which can, owing to their very nature, only be expressed in Latinistic language. The state of mind which he wished to produce in his readers was nearly always a complicated one: they were to be impressed and elevated by a multiplicity of suggestions and a sense of mystery and awe. "Let thy thoughts," he says himself, "be of things which have not entered into the hearts of beasts: think of things long past, and long to come: acquaint thyself with the choragium of the stars, and consider the vast expanse beyond them. Let intellectual tubes give thee a glance of things which visive organs reach not. Have a glimpse of incomprehensibles; and thoughts of things, which thoughts but tenderly touch." Browne had, in fact, as Dr. Johnson puts it, "uncommon sentiments"; and how was he to express them unless by a language of pomp, of allusion, and of elaborate rhythm? Not only is the Saxon form of speech devoid of splendour and suggestiveness; its simplicity is still further emphasised by a spondaic rhythm which seems to produce (by some mysterious rhythmic law) an atmosphere of ordinary life, where, though the pathetic may be present, there is no place for the complex or the remote. To understand how unsuitable such conditions would be for the highly subtle and rarefied art of Sir Thomas Browne, it is only necessary to compare one of his periods with a typical passage of Saxon prose.

"Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Doctor Ridley's feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner: 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.'"

Nothing could be better adapted to the meaning and sentiment of this passage than the limpid, even flow of its rhythm. But who could conceive of such a rhythm being ever applicable to the meaning and sentiment of these sentences from the Hydriotaphia?

"To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to our beliefs. We, whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations; and, being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment."

Here the long, rolling, almost turgid clauses, with their enormous Latin substantives, seem to carry the reader forward through an immense succession of ages, until at last, with a sudden change of the rhythm, the whole of recorded time crumbles and vanishes before his eyes. The entire effect depends upon the employment of a rhythmical complexity and subtlety which is utterly alien to Saxon prose. It would be foolish to claim a superiority for either of the two styles; it would be still more foolish to suppose that the effects of one might be produced by means of the other.

-- From Books and Characters French & English, by Lytton Strachey. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1922.

But is it foolish? I think a similar effect can be achieved through metaphor, through imagery, through the unexpected juxtaposition of everyday things. Some of the passages I want to quote are more "latinate" than others, but they all rely on definite, ordinary details to suggest something beyond the ordinary:

Before getting into bed I drew my curtains wide and opened all the windows to the warm tide of the sea air that flowed softly in. Looking out into the garden I could see in the moonlight the roof of the shelter, in which for three years I had lived, gleaming with dew. That, as much as anything, brought back the old days to which I had now returned, and they seemed of one piece with the present, as if no gap of more than twenty years sundered them. The two flowed into one like globules of mercury uniting into a softly shining globe, of mysterious lights and reflections.
-- E. F. Benson, "Negotium Perambulans."

His brain pounded with hate for the sea. The blue sea! The devouring shapeless sea with its evil swell, its monstrous depth, its wintry breakage of wooden boats, its cruel rocks, its drawing of bodies in such cold and nerveless draught, its vertiginous flatness sparkling and deceiving, its roots of oil and the furred and shelled beasts that preyed slowly on its bed, all of its wrack and wreck and rotting cold embrace and the tides that day after day, age after age, crawled up the beaches and then left them, desiring all but never needing, breaking uselessly and ceaselessly at the earth and at man.
-- William Sansom, "The Cliff."

Leonora Chanel stepped from the limousine and strolled into the desert. Her white-haired figure in its cobra-skin coat wandered among the dunes. Sand-rays lifted around her, disturbed by the random movements of this sauntering phantasm of the burnt afternoon. Ignoring their open stings around her legs, she was gazing up at the aerial bestiary dissolving in the sky, and at the white skull a mile away over Lagoon West that had smeared itself across the sky.
-- J. G. Ballard, "The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D."

It was a singularly sharp night, and clear as the heart of a diamond.  Clear nights have a trick of being keen.  In darkness you may be cold and not know it; when you see, you suffer.  This night was bright enough to bite like a serpent.  The moon was moving mysteriously along behind the giant pines crowning the South Mountain, striking a cold sparkle from the crusted snow, and bringing out against the black west the ghostly outlines of the Coast Range, beyond which lay the invisible Pacific.  The snow had piled itself, in the open spaces along the bottom of the gulch, into long ridges that seemed to heave, and into hills that appeared to toss and scatter spray.  The spray was sunlight, twice reflected: dashed once from the moon, once from the snow.
-- Ambrose Bierce, "The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's'".

Then he straightened himself up, and walked over to the fireplace, and stood there, looking at the burning logs with their frost-like ashes and their throbbing cores of flame. [...] The wind had blown the fog away, and the sky was like a monstrous peacock's tail, starred with myriads of golden eyes. He looked down, and saw the policeman going his rounds and flashing the long beam of his lantern on the doors of the silent houses. The crimson spot of a prowling hansom gleamed at the corner, and then vanished. A woman in a fluttering shawl was creeping slowly by the railings, staggering as she went. Now and then she stopped, and peered back. Once, she began to sing in a hoarse voice. The policeman strolled over and said something to her. She stumbled away, laughing. A bitter blast swept across the Square. The gas-lamps flickered, and became blue, and the leafless trees shook their black iron branches to and fro.
-- Oscar Wilde, The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

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