Sunday, January 29, 2012

Azita – ‘Disturbing the Air’

Listing William Hazlitt’s ‘brilliant passages’ last time, he seemed to emerge as a more forthright, and a far cooler presence than he does from the essays themselves. His acute critical sense does tend to lay waste to his subject, and he doesn’t spare himself. ‘On the Ignorance of the Learned’ is one of the most vicious essays in Table Talk, and there is a thread running through the book suggesting that if you say, or ‘fix’ something, you kill it: ‘The ideas we cherish most exist best in a kind of shadowy abstraction’. That he fixes so many of his shadowy abstractions is to our benefit, rather than his own. Elsewhere he draws a line between actor and celebrity:
An actor, after having performed his part well, instead of courting further distinction, should affect obscurity, and ‘steal most guilty-like away,’ conscious of admiration that he can support nowhere but in his proper sphere.
This is one of my favourite ideas, one which always makes me think of Kristin Hersh’s sleeve notes to the In a Doghouse compilation, in which she says:
the idea was always to leave a big, fancy present on the table and tiptoe out of the room
And now it crops up again, in a fractured song thrust through the fabric of this record in three places, at the beginning, middle and end:
Disturbing the air
Every time you move
Always on a slightly lower, more minor piano chord than you had remembered. It’s insane modesty in one sense (‘do I dare disturb the universe?’); in another an exaggerated, paranoid sense of contingency; in another a description of depression, when to move a limb through the heavy air seems all but impossible.

The thing I most want to say about Disturbing the Air is, it’s a different type of record to anything else I came across last year. There’s a risk of making it sound precious and self-absorbed, in comparison to those other albums which, when they are sad, want consolation, knowing that things will get better; when they are tender, it is with hope; when they are dark, it is with glee. Like Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career in 2009, Disturbing the Air casts aside these crutches. All it wants to do is document, with wit but without laughter, the shadowy abstractions of an attachment which mustn’t fail, but which has failed:
Sweep these ashes from my soul, I need my rest
You had to cut me down once you knew you were the one I loved the best

I have staked my soul more than I could afford
It struck me, how rare it is for anyone to remind me of Mark Eitzel, whose command of this kind of situation is more recursive than most – it’s not just that you see that I love you, and therefore hold me in contempt; it’s also that I see your pathetic reasons for rejecting me, and spurn them. Compassion is saved from smugness by abjection. There are hints of this kind of thing from Azita: beyond the initial anger (‘see you in hell’, she snarls, in ‘Parrots’) is compassion for ‘my love’’s unfulfilled promise in life, which is anything but bitchy:
Say you’re the finest up why don’t you rise high and shining
Everyone waited for you
(‘Say You’re the Finest’)
Jon mentions, in his fine review which I’m trying not to be too influenced by, that there is a shift about a third of the way into the record, when despair gives way to impressionistic metaphor, and the tone lightens somewhat. Emotionally, the shift is from anger to reminiscence, from reaction to review, and here are circumstances which can’t be killed by fixing, because they are already dead. Fixing them is an attempt to preserve them, but once done, the relationship, twice killed now, begins to erode the singer’s identity in a second shift:
When I step into that silence I too will disappear
(‘Ghost (When I Are You)’)

Should I be other
Or not at all
All of those years piled up
Bundled and burned

Should I be lost to you
That can’t be me

Who could be there but not there?
(all from ‘Should I Be?’)
When did a ghost ever disturb the air?

In closing, the peaceful ‘Keep Hymn’ piles up more of the religious references (‘Close your eyes with holy dread / And pray for peace’) which are scattered through the other songs too. They appear as an extension of unreality, the loneliest, most impersonal crutch. This record is remarkable for its beauty, ‘acoustic chamber music’, another review calls it, which is about right – despite the nature imagery, it never takes you outside, unless it’s to an unlit ocean at night (in ‘Stars or Fish’). And that beauty comes from its control and its singularity of purpose – despite the agonies on show, it never occurs to the listener to feel sorry for Azita. Disturbing the Air is a deep dark well from which to draw strength.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

William Hazlitt – ‘Table Talk’

got side-tracked a few times whilst reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries. Her own book of essays, The Common Reader, which I thoroughly recommend, lists all the great things which were going on a hundred years prior to its publication:
Waverley, The Excursion, Kubla Khan, Don Juan, Hazlitt’s Essays, Pride and Prejudice, Hyperion and Prometheus Unbound were all published between 1800 and 1821.
A hundred years further on, it would not be difficult to compile a list of great things published between 1900 and... well, 1922, let’s stretch it to, to take in ‘The Waste Land’, Ulysses and Cops, but it needs that distance, I suppose. Woolf (whose Hogarth Press published ‘The Waste Land’, and turned down Ulysses) thinks her age has nothing comparable. She writes, too, about the decline of the essay form, and it would be hard to disagree with that. Nineteenth century literature has survived into the twenty first century as a clutch of classic novels, and there is much to be said for time’s pruning of the canon, but it doesn’t hurt to go off into the undergrowth once in a while.

Like Woolf’s diaries, Table Talk is endlessly quotable (it’s not bad at quoting, either). From a novel-reader’s point of view, it often seems very compressed, piling high the kind of truths which would be scattered amongst dramatised scenes in, say, a George Eliot novel. He pre-empts this in ‘On Genius and Common Sense’:
it is rather an odd objection to a work that it is made up entirely of ‘brilliant passages’ (p. 68)
Once again, I don’t think I can do better than to pick out some highlights.
The ideas we cherish most exist best in a kind of shadowy abstraction, and derive neither force nor interest from being exposed to public view. (pp. 7-8, ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’)
A topic of this sort of which the person himself may be considered as almost sole proprietor and patentee is an estate for life, free from all encumbrance of wit, thought, or study, you live upon it as a settled income; and others might as well think to eject you out of a capital freehold house and estate as think to desire you out of it into the wide world of common sense and argument. (pp. 87-8, ‘On People with One Idea’)
If we wish to know the force of human genius we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning we may study his commentators. (p. 110, ‘On the Ignorance of the Learned’)
A great chess player is not a great man, for he leaves the world as he found it. No act terminating in itself constitutes greatness. (p. 122, from ‘The Indian Jugglers’)
The idea of what the public will think prevents the public from ever thinking at all, and acts as a spell on the exercise of private judgement, so that, in short, the public ear is at the mercy of the first impudent pretender who chooses to fill it with noisy assertions, or false surprises, or secret whispers. (p. 141, ‘On Living to One’s Self’)
Violent antipathies are always suspicious, and betray a secret affinity. (p. 228, ‘On Vulgarity and Affectation’)
But we may be sure of this, that when we see nothing but grossness and barbarism, or insipidity and verbiage, in a writer that is the god of a nation’s idolatry, it is we and not they who want true taste and feeling. (p. 321, ‘On Criticism’)
I hate anything that occupies more space that it is worth. I hate to see a load of bandboxes go along the street, and I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them. (p. 355, ‘On Familiar Style’)
Such are the qualifications and the apprenticeship necessary to make a man tolerated, to enable him to pass as a cipher, or to be admitted as a mere numerical unit, in any corporate body: to be a leader and dictator he must be diplomatic in impertinence, and officious in every dirty work. He must not merely conform to established prejudices; he must flatter them. He must not merely be insensible to the demands of moderation and equity; he must be loud against them. He must not simply fall in with all sorts of contemptible cabals and intrigues; he must be indefatigable in fomenting them, and setting everybody together about the ears. He must not only repeat but invent lies. (p. 389, ‘On Corporate Bodies’)
An actor, after having performed his part well, instead of courting further distinction, should affect obscurity, and ‘steal most guilty-like away,’ conscious of admiration that he can support nowhere but in his proper sphere. (p. 399, ‘Whether Actors ought to Sit in the Boxes?’)
Why should we prick the bubble that reflects the world, and turn it into a little soap and water? (p. 407, ibid.)
Two from ‘On Patronage and Puffing’, puffing first:
The truth is, we like to have something to admire ourselves, as well as to make other people gape and stare at; but then it must be a discovery of our own, an idol of our own making and setting up:– if others stumble on the discovery before us, or join in crying it to the skies, we then set to work to prove that it is a vulgar delusion, and show our sagacity and freedom from prejudice by pulling it in pieces with all the coolness imaginable. (p. 431)
And patronage, from the point of view of the patronised:
It is a piece of presumption in you to be seen walking on terra firma; you are required, at the risk of their friendship, to be always swimming in troubled waters, that they may have the credit of throwing out ropes, and sending out lifeboats to you, without ever bringing you ashore. (p. 439)
Professions pass for nothing, and actions may be counterfeited; but a man cannot help his looks. (p. 443, ‘On the Knowledge of Character’)
You will say, on the other hand, that there is no judging by appearances, as a general rule. No one, for instance, would take such a person for a very clever man without knowing who he was. Then, ten to one, he is not: he may have got the reputation but it is a mistake. […] The best part of his existence is dull, cloudy, leaden: the flashes of light that proceed from it, or streak it here and there, may dazzle others, but do not deceive himself. (p. 444, ibid.)
In looking back, it sometimes appears to me as if I had in a manner slept out my life in a dream or shadow on the side of the hill of knowledge, where I have fed on books, on thoughts, on pictures, and only heard in half-murmers the trampling of busy feet, or the noises of the throng below. (p. 475, ‘On the Fear of Death’)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Virginia Woolf – ‘Selected Diaries’

To begin the new year with a Friday the 13th. Which does not seem inappropriate, coming to the end of these diaries, which retract when all is not well, like the almost-blank pages in the bleakest section of Paradoxical Undressing. 1936 is not a fun read, as Virginia battles against mood swings to get a handle on writing her novel The Years. Gaps extend to months, indicating the absence of mind, control, awareness, identity, interest. She writes to her future self:
A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down – and Lord knows the truth. (p. 362)
Her attitude towards The Years seems to fluctuate daily between pride and despair, her critical judgement flails, becomes unreliable. Likewise the three months of 1941, before her suicide, are scant of detail, covered in just four pages in this edited version. I knew about the suicide, of course, reading books from my mother’s shelves as a teenager – To The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, Orlando (I liked the first two a lot – the latter hardly at all), but that small clutch of volumes misled me, perhaps, into assuming that she had died young, rather than on the verge of her 60s. The titles of her books after The Waves are all new to me, and so – except for A Room of One’s Own – is Virginia Woolf the writer of non-fiction.

Leaving aside the sad fact which overwhelms the tail end of the diary, they are – perhaps because they fight so hard – life afirming in the main. There are even jokes; here is Virginia getting her hair cut short in 1927:
Mr Cizec has bingled me. I am short haired for life. […] In front there is no change; behind I’m like the rump of a partridge. (p. 226)
In fact, the diary is so incredibly quote-friendly, let’s not waste any more time.
all descriptions of music are quite worthless, and rather unpleasant; they are apt to be hysterical, and to say things that people will be ashamed of having said afterwards. (p. 12, 1915)
Tea at Spikings, with some of the upper classes; who looked like pet dogs threatened with a cold bath. They were talking of the scarcity of motor cars. (p. 22, 1917)
I’ve numbers of old clothes in my dirty clothes basket – scenes, I mean, tumbled pell mell into my receptacle of a mind, and not extracted till form and colour are almost lost. (p. 102, 1920)
In my heart, too, I prefer the nondescript anonymous days of youth. I like youthful minds; and the sense that no one’s yet anybody. (p. 117, 1920)
never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having. (p. 156, 1923)
On T. S. Eliot:
I am a little bored indeed, and could wish that poor dear Tom had more spunk in him, less need to let drop by drop of his agonised perplexities fall ever so finely through pure cambric. (p. 161, 1923)
I love the clutter an excitement of other people’s houses. (p. 161, 1923)
these curious intervals in life – I’ve had many – are the most fruitful artistically – one becomes fertilised – think of my madness at Hogarth – and all the little illnesses – that before I wrote To the Lighthouse for instance. Six weeks in bed now would make a masterpiece of Moths. (p. 266, 1929)
I use my friends rather as giglamps: there’s another field I see; by your light. (p. 284, 1930)
The new electric boiler in and boiling our bath water this morning. The King of Belgium killed mountaineering. (p. 349, 1934)
More on T. S. Eliot, first quoting him:
I begin to see that our generation – yours and mine, Virginia, owed, a great deal to our fathers’ religion. And the young, like Julian, who are brought up without it, will never get so much out of life. We had the best of both worlds. We destroyed Christianity and yet had its benefits. (p. 351, 1934)
Then this:
A story about a party to entertain the [Herbert] Reads. Tom bought fireworks; sugar that dissolved and let out small fish; and chocolates that he thought were full of sawdust. ‘They’re very greedy,’ he said, ‘and by mistake the chocolates were full of soap. They set on me … And it was not a success.’ (p. 377, 1935)
But its odd, how near the guns have got to our private life again. I can quite distinctly see them and hear a roar, even though I go on, like a doomed mouse, nibbling at my daily pages. (p. 395, 1936)
On Gide’s diaries:
An interesting knotted book. Its queer that diaries now pullulate. No one can settle to a work of art. (p. 457, 1939)
And weeded this morning. And was very happy – the moment can be that: only there’s no support in the fabric, there’s no healthy tissue round the moment. Its blown out. But for a moment, on the terrace, no one coming, alone with L., one’s certainly happy. (p. 479, 1940)

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