(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four brand new illustrations by Susanne Rempt).
All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realised that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence. It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All that was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.
Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples)
are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’
In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) byVivant Denonthe artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.
One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’
However, for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922
It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichadoand the Upanishads.
Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).
As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.
In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.
In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.
A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith. I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.
This strange and disturbing Surrealist text, with its frenzied sexual connotations and violent imagery was written by Georges Bataille in 1927 and published in 1931 with illustrations by longtime collaborator Andre Masson (alas I have been unable to find the drawings so I have chosen a colour lithograph by the same artist instead).
L’Anus solaire is a riot of analogy and allusion, and as it mentions both a sewing machine and an umbrella would seem to be clearly indebted to the Black Bible of Surrealism, Les Chants de Maldoror by the mysterious Uruguayan Comte de Lautréamont. Other touchstones are the Marquis De Sade, William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche.
A quick word about the Jesuve mentioned in the text. Bataille elsewhere notes that “The Jésuve is not only Jesus, which in France is both a saviour and a sausage, but also sève, the sap of Dionysos; the Jesuve is both the volcano, Vésuve, and the goddess, Vénus; it is the je suis of Descartes …”
It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.
Ever since sentences started to circulate in brains devoted to reflection, an effort at total identification has been made, because with the aid of a copula each sentence ties one thing to another; all things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth.
But the copula of terms is no less irritating than the copulation of bodies. And when I scream I AM THE SUN an integral erection results, because the verb to be is the vehicle of amorous frenzy.
Everyone is aware that life is parodic and that it lacks an interpretation. Thus lead is the parody of gold. Air is the parody of water. The brain is the parody of the equator. Coitus is the parody of crime.
Gold, water, the equator, or crime can each be put forward as the principle of things.
And if the origin of things is not like the ground of the planet that seems to be the base, but like the circular movement that the planet describes around a mobile center, then a car, a clock, or a sewing machine could equally be accepted as the generative principle.
The two primary motions are rotation and sexual movement, whose combination is expressed by the locomotive’s wheels and pistons.
These two motions are reciprocally transformed, the one into the other.
Thus one notes that the earth, by turning, makes animals and men have coitus, and (because the result is as much the cause as that which provokes it) that animals and men make the earth turn by having coitus.
It is the mechanical combination or transformation of these movements that the alchemists sought as the philosopher’s stone.
It is through the use of this magically valued combination that one can determine the present position of men in the midst of the elements.
An abandoned shoe, a rotten tooth, a snub nose, the cook spitting in the soup of his masters are to love what a battle flag is to nationality.
An umbrella, a sexagenarian, a seminarian, the smell of rotten eggs, the hollow eyes of judges are the roots that nourish love.
A dog devouring the stomach of a goose, a drunken vomiting woman, a slobbering accountant, a jar of mustard represent the confusion that serves as the vehicle of love.
A man who finds himself among others is irritated because he does not know why he is not one of the others.
In bed next to a girl he loves, he forgets that he does not know why he is himself instead of the body he touches.
Without knowing it, he suffers from the mental darkness that keeps him from screaming that he himself is the girl who forgets his presence while shuddering in his arms.
Love or infantile rage, or a provincial dowager’s vanity, or clerical pornography, or the diamond of a soprano bewilder individuals forgotten in dusty apartments.
They can very well try to find each other; they will never find anything but parodic images, and they will fall asleep as empty as mirrors.
The absent and inert girl hanging dreamless from my arms is no more foreign to me than the door or window through which I can look or pass.
I rediscover indifference (allowing her to leave me) when I fall asleep, through an inability to love what happens.
It is impossible for her to know whom she will discover when I hold her, because she obstinately attains a complete forgetting.
The planetary systems that turn in space like rapid disks, and whose centers also move, describing an infinitely larger circle, only move away continuously from their own position in order to return it, completing their rotation.
Movement is a figure of love, incapable of stopping at a particular being, and rapidly passing from one to another.
But the forgetting that determines it in this way is only a subterfuge of memory.
A man gets up as brusquely as a specter in a coffin and falls in the same way.
He gets up a few hours later and then he falls again, and the same thing happens every day; this great coitus with the celestial atmosphere is regulated by the terrestrial rotation around the sun.
Thus even though terrestrial life moves to the rhythm of this rotation, the image of this movement is not turning earth, but the male shaft penetrating the female and almost entirely emerging, in order to reenter.
Love and life appear to be separate only because everything on earth is broken apart by vibrations of various amplitudes and durations.
However, there are no vibrations that are not conjugated with a continuous circular movement; in the same way, a locomotive rolling on the surface of the earth is the image of continuous metamorphosis.
Beings only die to be born, in the manner of phalluses that leave bodies in order to enter them.
Plants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.
Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.
The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form.
But their polymorphous coitus is a function of uniform terrestrial rotation.
The simplest image of organic life united with rotation is the tide. From the movement of the sea, uniform coitus of the earth with the moon, comes the polymorphous and organic coitus of the earth with the sun.
But the first form of solar love is a cloud raised up over the liquid element. The erotic cloud sometimes becomes a storm and falls back to earth in the form of rain, while lightning staves in the layers of the atmosphere.
The rain is soon raised up again in the form of an immobile plant.
Animal life comes entirely from the movement of the seas and, inside bodies, life continues to come from salt water.
The sea, then, has played the role of the female organ that liquefies under the excitation of the penis.
The sea continuously jerks off.
Solid elements, contained and brewed in water animated by erotic movement, shoot out in the form of flying fish.
The erection and the sun scandalize, in the same way as the cadaver and the darkness of cellars.
Vegetation is uniformly directed towards the sun; human beings, on the other hand, even though phalloid like trees, in opposition to other animals, necessarily avert their eyes.
Human eyes tolerate neither sun, coitus, cadavers, nor obscurity, but with different reactions.
When my face is flushed with blood, it becomes red and obscene.
It betrays at the same time, through morbid reflexes, a bloody erection and a demanding thirst for indecency and criminal debauchery.
For that reason I am not afraid to affirm that my face is a scandal and that my passions are expressed only by the JESUVE.
The terrestrial globe is covered with volcanoes, which serve as its anus.
Although this globe eats nothing, it often violently ejects the contents of its entrails.
Those contents shoot out with a racket and fall back, streaming down the sides of the Jesuve, spreading death and terror everywhere.
In fact, the erotic movements of the ground are not fertile like those of the water, but they are far more rapid.
The earth sometimes jerks off in a frenzy, and everything collapses on its surface.
The Jesuve is thus the image of an erotic movement that burglarizes the ideas contained in the mind, giving them the force a scandalous eruption.
This eruptive force accumulates in those who are necessarily situated below.
Communist workers appear to the bourgeois to be as ugly and dirty as hairy sexual organs, or lower parts; sooner or later there will be a scandalous eruption in the course of which the asexual noble heads of the bourgeois will be chopped off.
Disasters, revolutions, and volcanoes do not make love with the stars.
The erotic revolutionary and volcanic deflagrations antagonize the heavens.
As in the case of violent love, they take place beyond the constraints of fecundity.
In opposition to celestial fertility there are terrestrial disasters, the image of terrestrial love without condition, erection without escape and without rule, scandal, and terror.
Love then screams in my own throat; I am the Jesuve, the filthy parody of the torrid and blinding sun.
I want to have my throat slashed while violating the girl to whom I will have been able to say: you are the night.
The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.
The solar annulus is the intact anus of her body at eighteen years to which nothing sufficiently blinding can be compared except the sun, even though the anus is night.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the leading figures of the first generation of English Romantics writers, along with Wordsworth and William Blake. An influential critic he was first to advance the idea of ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ as a necessary component for the aesthetic enjoyment of certain types of art and literature. He was also injected the heady idealism of German Romanticism to British literature. However his best remembered for two extraordinary poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the fragmentary Kubla Khan.
Subtitled A Vision in a Dream: Kubla Khan is perhaps as well known for the manner of its composition as the actual poem. Coleridge relates in the introductory preface that after falling into an opium induced sleep while reading a book about Kubla Khan he experienced a astonishingly vivid dream that formed into a entire poem of about two or three hundred lines. Upon awaking the poem he retained the lines and set about writing them down exactly as is. After he completed 54 lines he was interrupted ‘by a person from Porlock’ (a nearby village in Somerset) who wished to discuss some unspecified business. Upon his return to his desk Coleridge discovered that the vision and the poem had disappeared, never to be recaptured.
Given the manner of composition, it is hard not to see Kubla Khan with its lushly sensual and opiated imagery as a proto-surrealist work. It certainly seems to prestige the darker strains of romanticism that would dominate as the 19th Century progressed.
Kenneth Anger’s cult movie Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (full movie with the original score below) is obviously inspired by Coleridge, and one version that was screened on German TV in fact included a recitation of the poem at the start of the movie. This baroque psychedelic (and very camp) movie is a re-creation of Crowleyite ceremony that involves Anger, The Scarlet Woman herself Marjorie Cameron, Curtis Harrington and other members of the LA occult scene getting off their tits whilst on acid. Oh and for some inexplicable reason Anais Nin sports a birdcage as headgear.
Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
The British directorial team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers had spent WWII producing odd, idiosyncratic propaganda movies for the British war effort, mainly in black and white (a notable exception was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp of 1942, which Winston Churchill hated for its civilised, sympathetic portrayal of the German best friend of the Colonel).
With the end of the war The Archers changed direction and produced a series of sensuous fantasies filmed in the most glorious Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, intuiting that the British public, still in the midst of wartime rationing and austerity, longed for something more than the standard dourly realistic fare then be served. This led to the hallucinatory Black Narcissus in 1947, a melodrama full of simmering tension and repressed eroticism, followed by their most famous film a year later, the ballet movie The Red Shoes. As Michael Powell noted , ‘For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. “The Red Shoes” told us to go out and die for art.’
As the above quote illustrates this is a movie about the primacy of art over life. Indeed it could be argued that The Red Shoes is a Symbolist movie, though it is a rather late arrival to the party. Drenched in aestheticism, with a curiously timeless fairy-tale ambience and the rarefied, hothouse ballet setting, TheRed Shoes is valiant attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art, an important concept in Symbolist aesthetics). However it also owes as much to Hollywood, especially the extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley, as it does to the various European avant-gardes.
The story is simplicity itself. Aspiring, ambitious ballet dancer Victoria Page, (unforgettably played by ballerina Moira Shearer, surely the most gorgeous red-head to ever grace the silver screen), comes under the auspices of Boris Lermontov, (an outstanding performance by Anton Walbrook) the impresario of the Ballet Lermontov who is clearly modelled on the legendary Sergei Diaghliev of the Ballet Russes. At the party where they first meet Lermontov asks Vicky, ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which Vicky replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ Quite.
At the same time Lermontov, who has an eye for talent, employs the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). The scene is set for a particularly bizarre love triangle. For Lermontov isn’t just a Svengali, the demands he places upon his company shade into the Mephistophelian. When his current prima ballerina Irina (another ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina) decides to marry he remarks, ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.’
Irina’s leaving opens the way for Vicky to become prima ballerina in a new ballet that the company is producing, The Red Shoes:
Boris Lermontov: The Ballet of The Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired. In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on. Julian Craster: What happens in the end? Boris Lermontov: Oh, in the end, she dies.
Craster is the composer of the score and The Red Shoes premieres in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Daringly The Archers interrupt the narrative to present the centrepiece of the movie, a stunning seventeen minute ballet sequence exactly half-way through the movie. Both expressionistic and surrealistic, with scenery (designed by Hein Heckroth) and effects that could be never replicated in any theatre anywhere at anytime, the ballet is a phantasmagorical tour-de-force.
Vicky and Craster fall in love while working on the ballet, with dramatic and indeed tragic consequences as life grimly mimics art. During the delirious final scenes Lermontov says to the sobbing Vicky:
Vicky…Little Vicky…There, there. Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.
The ending is entirely appropriate for this lush fever dream of a film. For The Red Shoes isn’t just a movie you watch, it is a film to be surrendered too, and once you have surrendered, to luxuriate in.
After the scandal and subsequent prosecution that attended the publication of Les Fleurs Du Mal (see The Flowers of Evil: Litanies Of Satan), the decadent writer and theorist of Dandyism, Barbey D’Aurevilly told his friend Charles Baudelaire that after such a book it only remains for him to choose between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the cross.
It was nicely put and neatly summarized the dilemma facing the true decadent. D’Aurevilly, like many other decadents, including J.K Huysmans, Leon Bloy (see The Captives of Longjumeau) and Villers de l’isle Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders) opted for the cross. However the Catholicism re-adopted by the decadents retained more than a whiff of sulphur about it. Often it seems as if they decided to pledge their devotion to God just in order to celebrate Satan and all his works, revelling all the more in the sins of the flesh. Sin gives sensuality an additional flavour. It is no exaggeration to say that the French Symbolists invented themodern conception of Satanism.
D’Aurevilly’s masterpiece is the short story collection Les Diaboliques, a celebration of crime and immorality. No matter how much the bored gentleman dandies try to excel in evil in Les Diaboliques they are no match for the Devil’s representatives on earth, all of whom wear petticoats. Containing such bon-mots as “The Devil teaches women what they are – or they would teach it to the Devil if he did not know” and “Next to the wound, what a woman makes best is the bandage”, D’Aurevilly encapsulated the misogyny of the decadents in glittering, cynical one-liners. The book was illustrated by the Decadent artist par excellence Felicien Rops who also illustrated Les Fleurs Du Mal and whose entire artistic production was dedicated to an expose of the grip that Sin, Death and The Devil holds over the world.
If you aren’t already aware, my collection of 69 inter-related poems and short fictions Motion No. 69is available for purchase in both e-book and paperback. Below is the penultimate sample, (one more tease then you are just have to buy it) read by myself.
Just close your eyes,
and open your legs.
of your soft, inner thigh,
leading to the downy, raw hollow
seems to me like a promise—
that the door to paradise will open up
wide enough to swallow whole
my entire being.
Do I dare to enter the void
into which I spent my life staring longingly?
Maybe if I bury myself deep enough inside you,
then a curvature will result
in the seemingly,
inexorable, forward flow of time.
And I can return again
to that place
I never wanted to leave anyway.
Floating in the protective bubble,
in the gloved darkness,
nurtured by your essence.
The curvature of my posture
recapitulates the evolution of every species
as they lose the innocence
of a blessed total symmetry—
the result of a fall of some fashion—
and all the time,
as I forget and remember,
remember and forget,
the curvature of your belly
mirrors the earth
and further still of worlds, galaxies and universes,
until you burst open with the creation
that can no longer be contained.
And I scream my discontent
at my expulsion from Eden,
until I find succour
at the curvature of your breast.
Henry Green’s novel are remarkable because every one is notably different in style and thematically (with the possible exception of Nothing and Doting) yet they couldn’t have possibly been written by anyone else other than Henry Green. Green’s seventh novel Concluding, published in 1948 is no exception.
Set in the near future, the events are confided to a single day at an institute (a former country house) for the training of young girls, whose names all alliterate, Mary, Merode, Marion, Maisy, Moira, Muriel, Melissa etc, to become functionaries and official in a bureaucratic and mildly totalitarian state. One of the girls, Mary, has gone missing. Has she ran away from the repressive spinster teachers? Or gone to visit her sick sister? Or is she at the bottom of the lake?
Despite this mystery and its potential for tragedy, Concluding is in fact Green at his most whimsical. Most of the book takes place outdoors and is literally flooded with light:
At this instant, like a woman letting down her mass of hair from a white towel in which she had bound it, the sun came through for a moment, and lit the azaleas on either side before fog, re-descending, blanketted these off again…
It was Green’s own favourite, and he toyed with the idea of turning it into a ballet.
The last two of Green’s novels Nothing and Doting, published in 1950 and 1952 respectively, are both sharp comedy of manners dealing with the romantic entanglements of two generations of upper class Londoners. They are among the most technically accomplished of Green’s novels, composed mainly in dialogue with prolonged, stunning set pieces. Critics have often questioned whether there is anything going besides the pointed, barbed wit, however as L.P Hartley commented on Nothing, “is ‘nothing’ a trifle, a bagatelle, or is it the void, le neant?…I for one found it all too easy to slip through the glittering surface of the comedy into icy and terrifying depths.”
As Doting was his last published novel it is particularly tempting to look for clues to the enigma that was Henry Green/Henry Yorke, and how he viewed writing. At the beginning there is a scene that certainly seems to have a symbolic significance outside of the context of the novel:
The man started with three billiard balls. He flung one up and caught it. He flung it up again then sent a second ball to chase the first. In no time he had three, fountaining from out his hands. And he did not stop at that. He introduced, he insinuated one at a time, one more after another and threw the exact inches higher each time to give six, seven balls room until, to no applause he had a dozen chasing themselves up then down into his two lazy-seeming hands, each ball so precisely placed that it could be thought to follow grooves in violet air.
The next quote could apply to everything Green ever wrote:
“D’you sometimes believe that nothing in the whole wide world matters?”
“Oh Ann, but surely simply everything has supreme importance, if it happens.”
After the publication of Doting Green attempted to write, after he was only 47, but it was beyond him. His last great affair with the much younger Kitty Freud, the estranged wife of the artist Lucian Freud, had ended up as they all did, with the woman marrying another man and becoming friends with both Henry and Dig. His drinking had become a major problem and was affecting his job as Managing Director of Pontifex and Sons. He had always been a diligent industrialist, though he lacked financial acumen. However when it was discovered at a board meeting that, instead of water in his glass it was neat gin, Henry Yorke was sent on holiday and removed as managing director. His older, very eccentric brother Gerald Yorke (a fascinating character in his own right, incredibly academically gifted, a keen sportsman who had done the hippy trail 40 years before the 1960’s, army major and occultist who spent part of every year living in a cave in Wales) was put in charge for an interim period, however as he had no interest in the business, control was passed down to Henry’s 25 year old son, Sebastian.
In Jeremy Treglown’s excellent Romancing, the only biography of Henry Green, the last chapter is entitled Degringolade (Rapid Deterioration) and covers in the last 15 years of his life in 10 pages. Henry Green became increasingly reclusive and eccentric. He also drank a lot, every day from waking at 10 or 11 (if he woke up) until he went to bed or passed out. Perhaps the best indication of his state of mind can be found in his last piece to be published, a short letter in The Spectator in 1963.
…Green tells me he doesn’t believe in anything at all. And perhaps that is not a bad thing. Love your wife, love your cat and stay perfectly quiet, if possible not to leave the house. Because on the street if you are sixty danger threatens.
…So the whole thing is really not to go out. If one can afford it, the best thing is to stay in one place, which might be bed. Not sex, for sleep.
Almost immediately after the publication of Party Going at the onset of WWII, Henry Green handed over to his publisher the manuscript to Pack My Bag, his ‘interim’ autobiography (at 35), that he had written at top speed in a matter of weeks. After the slow process and completion of Party Going, the gates must have opened. Other contributing factors was Green’s fear of imminent death in the war, hence the title which were the last words of the philosopher F.H Bradley, and the fact that Green was reportedly completely drunk the entire time of the writing process.
In Pack My Bag we find a passage that is as close as Green ever got to stating an artistic credo:
Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone …
Green volunteered for the London Fire Service during the Blitz, the experience of which formed the basis of his next novel Caught. His wife Dig had moved away from London to the countryside and as the time was one of general ‘unmarriedness’, Green indulged in numerous extra-martial affairs. Dig would tolerant these liaisons, even befriending the women involved.
His next novel Loving was published in 1943 and is Green’s most well know and popular novel. In The Paris Review interview with Terry Southern he describes the genesis of the novel:
I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.
Curiously enough Loving was published at the same time as his friend Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, which is also set in a large country house. But whereas Brideshead Revisited is a nostalgic paean to a rapidly vanishing way of life, wistfully conveying a time where everyone knew their place and was grateful for it, from the loyal servants to the obliging lords of the manor, Green was too clear-eyed to be having any of this self-serving sentimentality. His portrayal of down-stairs life resembles Jonathan Swift’s masterful satire Directions To Servants much more than the obsequious, incidental characters offered by Brideshead Revisited or indeed its present day variation that peddles the same insidious fantasy, DowntonAbbey.
In a master stroke, Green’s country estate is set in neutral Ireland, a country he knew well and had great fondness for, owned by Anglo-Irish gentry and staffed entirely with English staff with the important exception of the symbolically incomprehensible Irish lamp-man Paddy O’Conor . This immediately places the narrative in the realm of absurdity. The owners of Kinalty are, appropriately enough, the Tennants. However the novel is much more concerned with life down-stairs, in particularly the over-promoted and unscrupulous butler Charley Raunce and his much younger girlfriend, the housemaid Edith In his usual oblique, off-hand way Green introduces an ambiguous apocalyptic note regarding the future of Kinalty: The Blue Drawing Room is, we are told, ‘the most celebrated eighteenth-century folly in Eire that had still to be burned down.’ However this fear is only vaguely in the background, all the characters, whether up-stairs or down-stairs are too busy pursuing their respective love-interests or lining their pockets and stomachs to spare much thought to all that imperils their precarious paradise, whether it be the war raging back home, the IRA or indeed the intrinsic absurdity of Kinalty, where even the dovecotes are modelled on the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
In 1946 Green published Back, which concerns a wounded war veteran returning to civilian life. It is certainly his most sombre novel, however it contains one of his most sustained passages of lyricism:
…climbing around and up these trees of mourning, was rose after rose after rose, while, here and there, the spray overburdened by the mass of flowers, a live wreath lay fallen on a wreath of stone, or on a box in marble colder than this day, or onto frosted blooms which, under glass, marked each bed of earth wherein the dear departed encouraged life above in the green grass, the cypresses and in those roses gay and bright which, as still as this dark afternoon, stared at whosoever looked, or hung their heads to droop, to grow strained, to die when their turn came.
I will be concluding this series on Henry Green in part three with brief reviews of his last three novels and his later life.
Henry Green remains the most elusive and neglected of modernist writers, even though he was among the top rank of prose stylists in English in the 20th century. However when you are not just a writer’s writer, but a writer’s-writer’s writer, as his friend the Beat novelist and screen-writer Terry Southern noted in his interview of Green for The Paris Review, then maybe a degree of obscurity and anonymity is to be expected.
Henry Green was the pseudonym of Henry Yorke, an aristocrat and industrialist, for most of his life he was managing director of the family firm of Pontifex. After a childhood spent in large and imposing country houses he attended Eton (at the same time as fellow novelists and friends Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell) and Oxford, though he dropped out of Oxford to work in the company’s Birmingham factory. By the time of his departure from Oxford he was already a published novelist, his astoundingly assured debut Blindness coming out when he was only 19. His time on the factory floor was the inspiration for his second novel Living, which is thoroughly modernist with its cinematic dissolves and dropped articles and displays a Chekhovian sympathy and understanding of his mainly working class characters. His friend Christopher Isherwood called it, “the best Proletarian novel ever written,” however as Green drily noted, Isherwood had never worked in a factory.
The thirties saw a hiatus in his literary career, after a glittering society wedding he was too busy being a Bright Young Thing and socializing with the Aga Khan in the South of France, (though he complained about travel being an inconvenience, as it interfered with his masturbation), and the Guinnesses (which included Diana nee Mitford and soon to be Mosley) at fancy dress balls, and there was a ten-year gap before his third novel Party Going, which is perhaps my favourite of all is works (though it is a hard choice), was published in September 1939, just before the onset of WWII.
In 1937 a somewhat depressed Green had written, “what pleasure or interest I ever took in anything, or what potential there was to take pleasure or interest, malicious or otherwise, is leaving me so that I have started writing again to try to make a world of my own.” The world he constructed in Party Going is one only Green could have created. On the surface Party Going is concerned with the anxieties and amorous manoeuvres of a group of privileged and incredibly vapid young people waiting for a train to take them to the Continent. The station is fog-bound and no trains are either arriving or leaving, so to while away the time they sequester themselves in the station’s hotel. Alliances form and dissolve, the characters get entangled in a muddle and confusion of their own-making. And that is basically it, yet it is hard not to conclude that there is a lot more going on underneath this deceptive surface. It has been remarked that the fog represents “a paradigm of life, life surrounded by a fog of death and threatened Departures,”. Maybe because of the long gestation of Party Going, the tone and style itself shifts, at the beginning the dropped articles recall his previous novel Living, however the novel becomes more expansive around a third of the way in, this change further disorients the reader, adding an extra dimension of uncertainty and unease. The novel, which had seemed to be merely a comedy of manners takes on a Kafkaesque turn while also anticipating Beckett.
The war was to prove to be a fruitful period for Henry Green, which will be the subject of Part Two. To end this post here is a short example from Party Going of Green’s effortlessly stylish prose:
“So now at last all of this party is in one place, and, even if they have not yet all of them come across each other, their baggage is collected in the Registration Hall. Where, earlier, hundreds had made their way to this station thousands were coming in now, it was the end of a day for them, the beginning of a time for our party.”