Wednesday, 16 September 2020

The Presentment of Folly as a Ruin . . .

              Death bides alone, Accursed, the Unbesought,
              Within the Crawl-Space of Life’s Edifice 

              A Folly by your own Vainglory wrought,

              Condemned, a heartbeat from Time’s Precipice.

Catherine Eisner 2020                           

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
and Listen Close to Me (2011)

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

A Panegyric on a Junoesque Colossus : Finishing School for Versifiers (Part 6)

                           Are you not weary of ardent ways,
                           Lure of the fallen seraphim?
                           Tell no more of enchanted days.

                           Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
                           And you have had your will of him.
                           Are you not weary of ardent ways?

                           Above the flame the smoke of praise
                           Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
                           Tell no more of enchanted days.

                           Our broken cries and mournful lays
                           Rise in one eucharistic hymn.
                           Are you not weary of ardent ways?

                           While sacrificial hands upraise
                           The chalice flowing to the brim,
                           Tell no more of enchanted days.

                           And still you hold our longing gaze
                           With languorous grace, divine of limb.
                           Are you not weary of ardent ways?
                           Tell no more of enchanted days.

‘With languorous look and lavish limb!’ (?)

Yes, you’re right, of course, the antepenultimate line that James Joyce wrote (aged 18 years?), in his Villanelle of the Temptress, was, indeed, ‘With languorous look and lavish limb!’; an infelicity that jars, especially with calorie-counting readers expecting his aesthetic to match a more archetypal Hellenic ideal of beauty.

In other words, the Muse that young Joyce intended to invoke was, we must believe, surely not a divinity in the image of a prehistoric earth-mother-goddess with bloated hips whose over-burdened flesh of loose corpulence resembles layers of molten candle wax. Or did he mean by ‘lavish limb’ to advert to a certain ‘largeness of gesture’, which for some is held to be a defining characteristic of Irishness?

Brazen tweaks.
Whatever the case, the liberties I have taken with the verse to mitigate my own obsessive-compulsive neuroses are not excessively brazen when you consider the immaturity of the celebrated versifier and, perhaps, Joyce’s conscious intention to mock his own nascent counter-cultural revaluation since his villanelle appears in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published more than a decade later (1915), following the passage where Stephen Dedalus (James Joyce’s literary alter ego) propounds his modernist aesthetic philosophy.

His mature revisionism we must assume would have shunned such classic prosodic forms as the villanelle, as indeed such swooning fin de siècle Swinburnian accentual tics as Alliteration and the Parallel Syntax to be found in the echoes of contiguous phrases (ardent ways/enchanted days), which I have attempted to replicate in longing gaze/languorous grace.

Repeat offender.

One further transgression recorded in this Discipline Report from my Bowdler Correctional Facility should be mentioned: the reduplication of the adjectival participle -ing (sacrificing hands upraise/The chalice flowing) within the span of one sentence. For the perpetration of this ill-advised inelegance the perp has received counselling under new measures for improvement (i.e. the change from sacrificing to sacrificial is deservedly an advance towards reformation). 

It is true that Joyce’s fellow countryman, Yeats (whom he venerated), regarded the younger poet’s lyrics as somewhat clichéd and a ‘little thin’ though undoubtedly worthy in their command of poetic form.

As I have commented elsewhere, Aldous Huxley remarks in an iconoclastic vein: ‘There are slightly reckless good poets, and there are good poets who, at times, are extremely reckless . . .’ He then cites the conclusion of Yeats’s Byzantium to illustrate the ‘recklessness’ of his proposition: ‘That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.’

It follows, then, that the callow verses of Yeats’s disciple should be similarly held to account as, even, a species of kitsch. ‘And still you hold our longing gaze/With languorous look and lavish limb!’

Is this, we wonder, the moment when the gong-tormented tin-eared versifier is called out for an audacious musical effect that does not quite ‘come off’, as our idiom bluntly has it. I welcome your views . . . Oh! Is that the bell?

Well, never mind. Class dismissed.

See also:

All that apart.

Joseph Conrad’s Amazonian Warrioresses

Henry James and Conrad’s Junoesque Women

See also Re-evaluated Elizabeth Bishop (a Villanelle):
Finishing School for Versifiers (part 1)
Finishing School for Versifiers (part 2)

Friday, 7 August 2020

Letter of Intent

Akadé, esteemed scribe of his village, seated cross-legged at his customary station in the square beneath its remaining shade-tree, considered with a pang of regret the approaching hour when he would retire to his couch for his afternoon repose.
        He had received no more than two supplicants since sunrise: a childless young wife entreating him to draft a letter to a celebrated soothsayer in the provincial capital whose prognostications were sought for signs of the longed-for birth; and a weeping mother with a plea to a kinsman in the deeper hinterland to release her bonded daughter from seven years of servitude. Yet despite their tearful gratitude, the reward for each painstakingly inscribed petition had been a barren purse.

        He shrugged. 
        The forethought of the women to bring sweetmeats for the young boy who ground his inks and trimmed his writing-sticks was maybe payment enough. Sated, the boy swung in his hammock beneath the tree, drifting into slumber.
        A wind from the east gusted through the village compound, driving little whirling columns of red sand into the surrounding scrublands until they fled from view.
        His own thoughts, Akadé mused, were no less scattered. Since the Chief had decamped to the provincial city, the sense of a natural order once strong in the villagers had receded with him, and now the old customs were challenged by the young.
        Only his caste – the Keepers-of-Tongues – remained the custodians of the old beliefs; and of that caste he could name only a handful of adherents to his vocation, and those but three surviving cousins and two ancient uncles whose lives as adepts were in decline.     
        Akadé sighed in dejection and closed his eyes. He felt his own worth had fallen in a heap, like an empty wheat sack that could no longer stand upright. 
A figure approached his dusty patch of shade and the sun was suddenly eclipsed by the sinewy form of young Matasa, the goatherd from the fertile uplands, a half-day’s journey distant, and heir to four hundred head of livestock. 
        ‘The Spirits have answered,’ Akadé whispered.

He saw at once the promise of deliverance; a Highborn-Illiterate sought his services but, unlike the earlier petitioners, here was a youth of rare good fortune. 
        They made their salaams after their own fashion, then Matasa spoke.
        ‘Master,’ he confided in a low and laboured voice, ‘a matter of some delicacy brings me here.’ He glanced at the boy in the hammock. 
        (A nod from Akadé and the boy willingly departed, grateful for this providential release.)
        As Matasa knelt before him, Akadé noted for the first time the goatherd’s skull was painted white in a helmet-shaped design of oil and ashes. There were ritual stigmata, too; half-healed funerary scars pricked above each eyebrow that told of emblemed orbits, The-Seeing-Beyond-the-Living, in tribute to the death of a patriarch.
        Matasa’s eyes gleamed with a powerful emotion; his chest heaved; he had evidently tramped to the village from a great way off.  He touched lightly the lobe of his right ear. In their own tribal lore the right ear was a conduit of good news.
        ‘The girl Ònwanwé,’ he continued huskily. ‘Today I bring my secrets to tell her I am now of age and nothing can stand between us. From this hour the herd is mine. And with this ring I pledge my newfound wealth. Please set down at once my true words to bring her to me from the city.’
        The great sparkling stone set in the copper ring was of no colour known to Akadé. ‘A nameless colour, he murmured, ‘so therefore, we may be sure, a gift from the Priests-of-the-Man-on-the-Killing-Tree.’ (Akadé had observed, a week earlier, the missionary fathers returning from their crusade into the hinterland. Their ox-wagon had borne a raised pole from which hung the ritual carved effigies of the hinterland-dwellers, a timeless communion with the Spirits now relinquished to the majesty of the Outlanders’ rival god . . . an entire creed exchanged for a pitcher of blue glass beads.)

A Letter of Verymost Offerings.

Akadé loaded his rudimentary pen. The customary difficulty of transcribing his own tribal speech into the Naming-of-Things decreed by the missionaries presented itself. For some words, indeed, meaning-for-meaning, there were no known equivalents. 
        The letter began:
Mercy, most perfect Ònwanwé [the black-robed fathers had baptised the girl ‘Mercy’]cherished Daughter-of-the-Moon [the girl’s tribal given name honoured the moon], let it be known that I, Matasa, Firstborn-of-Nkamau, hereby commits his life to stand as Blood-Shield [husband] by your side, Knife-and-Spear-to-Death [lifetime protector], our Yoking hallowed by the Priesthood-of the-Pierced-Man [missionaries] with rarest Tributes, your Betrothal-Ring-and-Amulet set with Stones-of-Nameless-Colour [the usage of ‘nameless’ was calculated to entice the maiden by its very exoticism], Verymost Offerings to your Bridal Dance. I thirst for dusk and prepare for your return.
                                                                 Under my hand [his mark]     Witnessed this day by Scribe Akadé.    
        ‘I must return now.’ Matasa covered his mouth to adjure the scribe to silence. ‘My herdboy believes I am in search of fresh grazing. He cares for the herd in my absence.’ The young herdsman loped off towards the hills, cloak flowing. His shoulders rippled and shone in the harsh sunlight. As weightless as the wind, exultant and resolute of pace, he seemed to outrun his own shadow.
        Akadé shivered in the heat with a premonition. ‘Coming events seem to cast their shadow before them,he brooded. With a bitter smile he shook his head at the burning sky, which was his way of chiding Providence. ‘And I, the Lame One, seem destined to sit here always in idle silence.’
Later, as the vast yellow equatorial moon rose above the verandah of the Chief’s abandoned Courthouse, Akadé stretched at his ease there, within his bower overhung by creepers, and smiled as he reflected once more on the curious indeterminateness of his status for, in the absence of the Chief, his rank was practically that of a vicegerency.
        The silence was broken by a boy’s cry.  Beneath a lean-to fashioned from collapsed shutters, the little ink-grinder, his labours done, stirred in his narrow wicker cot and muttered another curse.
        ‘Asmodeus!’ the boy had cried out. ‘So, already a boy of seven,Akadé mused, ‘has his head filled with haunting fears of the missionaries’ chosen night-devils!’
        As in a vision, Akadé saw his tribe’s great pantheon of potent spirits dwindling into extinction, as might an exodus of noble animals consumed by wildfire on the plains. 
        ‘The priests sow bad seed,the scribe muttered indistinctly, ‘and promise us a harvest of riches, yet the crops fail and they cannot change sunshine into rain.’ 
        So the drought still held off the rainy season with long punishing days of white sun.
        Unchanging days until word had reached Akadé of the burial mass of Nkamau, a tragic outcome that saw the Presbyter priest ignore the pleas of the son, Matasa, and refuse to bury the corpse because the native traditionalists had poured a ritual libation into the open grave after the Christian holy water. As a consequence, Matasa together with the congregation had abandoned the graveside and the dead man was buried redeemed by the conjurations of the tribe’s own ordained wizard, to the sound of attendant drummers.
        Even so, though the exequies that attended the burying of the patriarch were all-powerful, and the incantations to propitiate the spirits were without flaw, the drought endured with no signs of reprieve. 
        ‘The old order changes yet these are unchanging days.’ Akadé’s consoling smile was unchanging, too, until news was brought to him of the second tragedy.

The Keeper-of-Knives.

The ink-grinding boy came running across the compound, eyes wide and fixed with the look of one pursued by malevolent animal spirits.
        Akadé’s silenced him with a calming hand until the boy steadied to relate in breathless spurts the grim drama.
        The report was the more troubling for confirming Akadé’s unspoken fears. In the foothills some little distance from Matasa’s pasturelands, hunters had discovered the body of the highborn goatherd, robbed and fearfully mutilated. Matasa’s tongue had been cut out. The tongue was pinned to the lobe of the corpse’s left ear with a beaded, highly polished metal hair-pin traded by the missionaries for the souls of converts.
        The boy paused in his narrative to ward off bad spirits from entering his mouth. Finger to lips, he whispered a spell.
        ‘They say an Outcast-from-the-Cursed-People is on the run,’ the ink-grinding boy went on, eyes swivelling, lost in fear, ‘and he means to kill all Unbelievers.’
        It was known that the hostile tribe in the neighbouring settlement – The-Cursed-People – had resisted the blandishments of the missionaries for as long as their elders had decreed it, but in the latter half of the Outlanders’ Mission-of-the-Pierced-Man those few hotheaded young dissenters who remained had been banished. 
        These fanatical outcasts in the shadows had a wholly different creed, striking like venomous snakes.
        As if reading his master’s thoughts, the little ink-grinder burst out: ‘The snake is out there, they hunt him even now and Matasa will be avenged!’
        ‘Have a care,Akadé thought, soothing the boy’s distress with a touch. ‘Often, because we seek only the vicious snake, we do not see the scorpion.’
There had been slaughter. Blood had washed the land, but still there was no rain.
        Meanwhile, above the settlements, the curved moon was sharpened purposefully until – as it was said – the spectral crescent horns could tilt downwards to look into the open graves of the recent dead.
        But it was only when the full moon had returned to cast greater shadows, and the permissible interval of mourning had elapsed, that a not unexpected petitioner was seen to arrive one evening and approach the Keeper-of-Tongues, seated as was his custom beneath the remaining shade-tree in the square. 
        Yes, the emergence of Kumo, the younger brother of Matasa, was not unexpected.
        In fact, Akadé had rehearsed in his mind every word that the new heir of Nkamau was likely to say.
        ‘The girl Ònwanwé,’ Kumo said at once. ‘Today I bring my secrets to tell her I am my brother’s bondsman and bound to honour his marriage pact, in obedience to our ancestral law.’
        Kumo the bondsman, Akadé saw, was marked too by funerary observance; his shaved head painted white like his brother’s in a helmet-shaped design of oil and ashes. The ritual stigmata newly stippled above each eyebrow were also in evidence.
        The mourner’s fists were of enormous strength and the brute grimaced, baring his teeth, as he gripped a ceremonial hunting-knife; for Kumo, as second born, had been assigned honorary warrior status from birth.
        ‘A blade pledged to vengeance,’ Kumo explained with a sly grin, running his thumb along the cutting edge. The ink-grinder boy recoiled, lured despite himself by an uneasy fascination with the warrior caste.
        Akadé considered in a bleak agony the hopelessness that lay ahead of him, caught in the toils of another’s sordid disingenuousness.
        He asked sharply, with a bitter scorn he strove to dissemble, ‘Today, Keeper-of-Knives, did you again attend the Dawn Watch upon the Great Upland?’ 
        (The Great Upland was a stone outcrop on the outskirts of the village and the highest vantage point to survey the plain for the passage of wild beasts and enemy incursions from rival tribes. The duty of the warrior caste was to stand sentinel from dawn. It was true. Even at great distances one could smell the enemy.)
        Kumo flinched at the challenge and there was a shiftiness in his look when he answered: ‘My younger brother, the last born son, as you must know, is charged with my Dawn Watch duties, for I am now gifted the first son’s birthright and fortune-blessed to master the herd.’
        The scribe leaned forward to better examine his petitioner and Kumo turned his head warily as if he shrank from too intense a scrutiny. 
        ‘It is indeed a great misfortune that the Outcast-from-the-Cursed-People escaped unobserved when you stood watch,’ Akadé remarked, ‘at the very hour your brother was cut down.’ 
        Kumo shook off the rebuke. ‘A snake of that colour knows how to hide. But not for long.’ Kumo flourished the knife. ‘I will hunt him like a curse of demons.’
        The ferocity of Kumo’s scowl was directed at Akadé. A penetrating chill of threat and suspicion had entered the square, even as the heat rose from the baked sand of the compound. 
        The ink-grinding boy then broke the awkward silence by commencing with some deliberation to trim the scribe’s writing-sticks lest they should unaccountably forget the subject to hand.
Kumo loosened his drawstring neck-pouch and laid it on the stone tablet where Akadé was charged to set down the tribe’s biddings on sheets of official petition-paper granted him by his absentee Chief for their irregular village mailbag.
        A betrothal ring of nameless colour glinted inside the opening to the pouch.
        ‘The girl Ònwanwé,’ Kumo repeated. His eyes shone with something more than elation; a fever-shot recklessness, perhaps, that burned with desires at the brink of madness. His teeth clenched for a moment before he resumed. ‘Please set down at once my true words to bring her to me from the city.’
        (Akadé inwardly shuddered and sought to hide his revulsion as he dwelt on the imminent violation of the unsuspecting girl.)
        The letter was not completed until – with shrewd promptings from the scribe – the correct form of words was found. Akadé read aloud the simple artless phrases:
Mercy, most perfect Ònwanwé, as I weep for my Brother slain by the Accursed, I weep for his Betrothed. In sorrow, let it be known that, even as the Priests-of-the-Pierced-Man rule your Days-of-Solitude [a maiden’s affianced unweddedness] in a city far from home, so your Protector, Kumo, is duty-bound by Ancestral Law to stand in place of his Brother as your Blood-Shield, Knife-and-Spear-to-Death. Learn, too, that – recognising the great distance that divides us – it is rightful for Us to be Joined now in Our Betrothal apart from each other as it is willed by the Decree of Our Most Excellent Chief whose Word is sure. I bid you accept these Respectful Intentions, which cannot be denied.
                                                     Under my hand [the mark of Kumo].  Witnessed this day by Scribe Akadé. 
        ‘Yes,’ Kumo conceded. ‘You have made no mistake.’
        He extracted two polished coins from his neck-pouch, mere trifles from his undoubted rich patrimony. The dark wild eyes glared into Akadé’s steady regard.
        In some subtle way the composure of Akadé inspired fear in the warrior, who smiled rather constrainedly, watching the scribe for his answer.
        ‘I am tired,’Akadé responded after a moment’s hesitation. The man was repugnant to him. ‘Now you have what you want, you will go.’
        ‘That is so.’ There was something behind Kumo’s smile; the sidelong glance before he departed was suggestive of his having played some cruel trick. 

An Error of Ink-Flecks.

Before sealing, for the mail-carrier, Kumo’s covenant with his presumptive betrothed, Akadé wrote a postscript for the eyes of his counterpart in the city, the scribe who would interpret his words for the Highborn Illiterates.
        His hand was steady. He wrote:
Dear Cousin, the boy who trims my writing-sticks was careless today. In the course of their composition, certain Words were markedly disfigured by ink-flecks; but it is by no means so difficult as some might be led to imagine to penetrate their true meaning and for legible characters to be divined for the attention of Our Most Excellent Chief. 
Without reprimand, he sent the little ink-grinding boy with the mail to the carrier.
Afterwards, as the evening cooled, Akadé could not but review the day’s happenings as a mythic parable of cause and effect not unlike a legend of his forefathers, which told how the intercessions of a magic-man contrived to thwart a rival for the hand of a marriageable highborn beauty, much sought-after. Was not her name, too, Ònwanwé?
        Embowered in his corner of the Chief’s abandoned Courthouse, Akadé mused:
        ‘Had not the boy in his cot shouted “Asmodeus!” at that hour of half-light before dawn, I would not have seen Kumo return from the plain on the East Face of the Great Upland and not the West Face, which by custom is the approach from the village for the Warrior’s Dawn Watch. As the sun rose I saw the red glint of his spearhead and I shuddered at the Omen of a Crime. Fratricide!
        ‘The re-emergence of that distinctive Betrothal-Ring in his hands was surely evidence enough to damn him as the slayer of his brother, robbed and wilfully mutilated to falsely cast guilt on the Outcasts who roam the plain.  The meaning of the ripped tongue pinned to the victim’s left ear did not escape my suspicions: a conduit of unwelcome news had been cut off, the unwelcome announcement of the betrothal of young Matasa and Ònwanwé.
        ‘But how can I, the Lame One, the biddable scribe, the insignificant functionary, set in motion a chain of events that will expose this crime and lead to justice? 
        ‘Now know this. Kept secret from a scribe’s petitioners is a barely perceptible code, masked by an ink-smudge, scratched by the scribe beneath an addressee to alert the Chief to matters of judicial concern.
        ‘By now, I have no doubt, the Chief has annulled the betrothal of Kumo and Ònwanwé. I am indeed thankful our Chief is an Oxford graduate, for I can be certain he’ll “penetrate the true meaning” of Kumo’s audacious covenant to win his intended bride. Simply two words have betrayed the pretender, as I, the biddable scribe, intended all along.  
        ‘Two words, and their contrary meanings served my purpose very well: “Recognising the great distance that divides us – it is rightful for Us to be Joined now in Our Betrothal apart from each other as it is willed by the Decree of Our Most Excellent Chief . . .” True. It was in our own tongue that I wrote those words I read aloud.
        ‘But! But! Consider the transformation in meaning that can be wrought with two calculatedly placed diacritical marks in the guise of ink flecks!  
        ‘Now a new interpretation becomes apparent: “Recognising the great distance that divides us – it is rightful for Us to be cleaved apart from each other as it is willed by the Interdict of Our Most Excellent Chief . . .” Yes, a wise Oxonian Chief is not too proud to be reminded by his Keeper-of-Tongues that “cleave” can, contrarily, mean both “join” and “sever”, just as “sanction” can mean both “permission” and “prohibition”!
        ‘And surely no one can accuse me of gross misconduct in public office and of bringing my service into disrepute, since the public record, endorsed by the Chief, will show Kumo’s document to be a wholly faithful rendering of the wishes of a petitioner.’
        Not wholly consoled by this thought, Akadé stirred uneasily, and closed his eyes to revisit long-stored memories.
        ‘No one truly knows,’ Akadé had been in the habit of telling his Chief, ‘what we endure in the heart of Africa.’
So three troubled nights would pass before Akadé learned of the downfall of Kumo.
        The disgrace was swiftly told.
        Returning to the village from an errand to harvest flakes of acacia gum, the little ink-grinding boy had encountered the distraught erstwhile warrior.
        Akadé looked into the eyes of a boy fresh from a mad run across country. 
         ‘He was sorrowing,’ the boy stated, ‘and wicked intentions were drawn on his face. Many times he cried out: “There is no trust in the world! I will revenge! I would be happier I were a dead person!” Kumo was on his knees. He was shaking his fist at the moon!’
        Then, reported the boy, scarcely believing what he had seen, the jilted suitor took a bottle marked DDT and drank the deadly insecticide in one draught, and in an instant shuddered and lay still. 
        ‘How did you leave him?’ Akadé asked with close attention. 
        ‘As you foretold,’ the boy answered directly; already the diacritic marks of harsh experience were etched on the child’s forehead. ‘In one hand I placed his spear, in the other a blade of grass.’
        Akadé grieved to see the boy so changed, and thought: ‘The innocent has discovered too early that when the veneer disappears you see warriors as they are. No war-paint, no war-whoops, no honour. A shabby episode.’
        ‘A blade of grass, you say? Then it is to be hoped . . .’
         ‘. . . And I saw a column of warrior ants marching to higher ground,’ the boy went on eagerly. ‘And . . . look, they led me to this red feather.’
        The Keeper-of-Tongues smiled – a wise, ancient, truth-searching smile. 
        ‘As with our written language,he reflected, ‘one has to deduce from the context and prior knowledge what is being described to understand exactly the meaning of the colour in question. A “lucky” feather or a “red” feather? It can be all one to the listener unless time, place, intent, gesture and intonation are considered. The ambiguity of inflection is no different from the flecks of my pen. In our spoken language only the upward inflection of a single word when we speak of evening’s dim twilight separates its meaning from intending dawn’s first light.’
         Above the Great Upland, a rain cloud was forming and dawn light made pink the bare crags.
        The future stretched before him, an unending cursive script.
        ‘Yet, even the dung beetle may have a great feast at the lion’s table,’ the Chief’s scribe admonished himself.
        He foresaw the village children playing in the rain-specked dust, and suddenly he had no more appetite for life than for a street child’s mud pie.
        His young neophyte supported him to their customary station beneath the shade-tree in the square.  Soon the boy would learn the wisdom his master had learned.
        ‘It is all one to me,’ his master intoned. 

See also Birth Rites

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Moving Target.

‘It’s all very well, Catherine, putting your head above the parapet,’ my tutor said at that final seminar, ‘yet when it comes to cogent arguments you keep dodging the bullets.’
        Behind me I heard a hateful half-suppressed titter. 
        ‘I agree. But can’t you see?’ I explained desperately. ‘That’s what comes from being chronically parapetetic.’

Esmeralda at the parapet at Notre-
Dame de Paris. Vladimir Bekhteyev’s
illustration for Victor Hugo’s novel 
Notre-Dame de Paris

For more apposite reflections on reading Notre-Dame de Paris, see

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Fustian Sacrifices on the Altar of Love: the Poet Pablo Neruda and the Murderess Mrs Pearcey

I mentioned in an earlier post my attendance at a wedding when we heard from the altar, at the bridegroom’s request, a recitation of Siempre (‘Always’), a characteristic rodomontade by Pablo Neruda.
I am not jealous
of what came before me.

Come with a man
on your shoulders,
come with a hundred men in your hair,

come with a thousand men between your breasts and your feet,

This boast invites a challenge, coming as it does from an arch philanderer and from a husband who in pursuit of other women abandoned an inconvenient wife and their ailing infant daughter, a choice of moral worth little different from that of Rainer Maria Rilke whose daughter was similarly abandoned, before the age of one, to be sacrificed on the altar of art.

That Anglo-Saxons shrink from such declarations as too operetta-ish was borne in on me when I read today the love letters of possibly England’s most notorious murderess Mary Pearcey (hanged 1890).

Novelettish professions of  sacrificial love:
the Kentish Town murderess Mary Pearcey and
the Chilean Nobel-Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda.

Mary killed the wife and baby of her lover in an attack described as a bloodbath after inviting her victim to afternoon tea. The noted English criminologist, Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse, disdains the ‘fustian emotions’ of the killer and suggests they were fired by the romantic novelettes (shades of Madame Bovary) that were such a feature of railway bookstalls of the period. 

Five Percent Fervency.
Indeed, the emotions are ‘fustian’ – in the sense of overblown declarations of love – should we choose to judge Mary by the melodramatic appeals to her lover found in her letters, but whose fervency can be quantified as no more than five percent in intensity when measured on the Latin scale of Neruda’s vulgar overwrought declamatory promises. Mary wrote, aged twenty-four:
I would see you married fifty times over – yes,
I could bear that far better
than parting with you for ever
and that is what it would be
if you went out of England.

Murder following English afternoon tea seems well-mannered and modest when you consider Mary’s actions as commensurate with the sacrifices she was prepared to make in sustaining her affair with her married lover and, certainly, they are decidedly moderate when compared with the satyriatic effusions of the Nobel Prize winning Neruda, who is regarded as a provocative object of controversy by Chilean feminists.

So . . . two somewhat novelettish  professions of undying sacrificial love . . . from a buffo-sonorous Nobel-winning Chilean poet and a sordid murderess from Kentish Town . . . I leave you to judge the precise gamut of their credibility.