Dovetail



I have been reading here in Vancouver -- mostly on the bus mostly as I am carted from one district to the next. I found a wonderful edition of Rock Crystal at the SFU library, the one with the 18 images by Josef Scharl. I love that the colors are so consistent -- washed out but still bright, over-exposed like the light of bright mountain-sides. I've also read Bruges-la-Morte by Rodenbach, First Love by Beckett, and the first half of the new edition of Cabinet. I'll probably have something to say about each of those at some point.

About Rock Crystal -- there's a quote in the introduction -- after he re-wrote the story Holy Eve as Rock Crystal, he apparently said:

Were I permitted to polish and reset this tale a third time, by the powers of heaven I believe it might become a diamond.


And yes, it is a diamond -- exact, bright, hard planes and bright, ephemeral flashes -- it is supremely controlled -- it has clarity, brilliance, precision. And yet that halo of flashing light -- the halo formed in the story out of associations, images, touching sentiment and simple portraits.

I read the bulk of this story while sitting on a stuffy, close bus, riding down an asphalt road from one mountain to a valley. To my left I could see the smooth blue planes of mountains that are foreign to me. Do we have a name for mountain-blue? Mountains are so impossible to know – I can see one from far off and span it’s breadth with my eyes and my mind, but when I approach it I don't approach a mountain, I approach foothills, then slope, then insurmountable rock -- I can only see vague gradation, individual trees, my own stumblings as I try to climb. I cannot climb the mountain I saw from far off because I cannot come close to that particular mountain – it recedes even as I approach.

And is it different to these mountain people? They know their mountains, but when familiarity is gone, when snow is tossed up and dark dashed through vision, they too are lost. And then there are clefts and plains of ice -- terrifying.

And of course I thought of Hans -- poor Hans in the snowstorm -- facing the hard, perfect force of the storm -- the snowflakes which threatened to overcome him, first with violence and then with the siren-song of the cold sleep.


Life shuddered at such perfect precision, regarded it as something deadly, as the secret of death itself.

That's the opposition in Magic Mountain -- the living, breathing, seeping life of Hans' homo Dei versus the cold, distant, terrifying force of the snow -- of the mountains.

There are two scenes in Magic Mountain which I still do not feel comfortable with -- the bloody feast in the temple and the final obsession with der Lindenbaum, especially the passage describing life pregnant with death. I'm not comfortable with these scenes for the right reasons -- these scenes are scenes where the mind, in order to deal with what it understands, must 'kick over the traces' -- that's a phrase borrowed from Hans, and which I only just now related to some thoughts on The Waves.

Let me begin again:

We speak some phrases easily -- we speak of eyes being the window to the soul, we speak of everything being relative, we speak of seeing to the bottom -- but how often do we explore what these things mean? Take that final phrase -- to see to the bottom of things, to see things as they really are -- to catch a glimpse, even for a moment, of something as it is really. I think many people have experienced this, but this is one of those experiences that is rewritten by memory, necessarily. You see, we have to kick over the traces. This is something Hans knows in Magic Mountain and this is something Bernard discovers in The Waves -- a lesson, I might add, that Rhoda refused to learn.

Rhoda represents the multitudinous, fractured self. She lives close to the world of reality -- she lives close to the bottom of things, close to the spaces in between. She lives in the present solely and does not participate in identity-making, phrase-making, storytelling. Rhoda is all gaps & space, all non-identity -- she is the foil to Louis' I, I, I. She does not throw a veil over the cracks and fissures in the self -- she does not participate with the rest of us in that voluntary re-telling. Rhoda inhabits the world where no fin breaks that leaden waste of waters.

Of course, she also sees all of our devices for what they are -- she does not refuse identity out of ignorance, but out of -- what, disgust? Authenticity? Will?

Rhoda is the embodiment of seeing to the bottom -- she goes under -- she dwells in the wasteland of nothing and everything -- with no distinguishing feature to grab hold of. And Bernard recognizes this -- he recognizes the desire to see to the bottom -- to throw away the self -- to have done with this world which can disgust and repulse. But -- but -- he kicks over the traces -- Bernard is very much like Hans for me -- both have seen things as they are -- Bernard has seen the darknesses in life -- he has observed people closely, he has observed himself closely -- he has told the stories, rewritten history to make it cohesive, to make it interesting. But he also has seen through it all -- and he sees through his own heroes, his own glories.

Bernard knows that Percival is no hero -- Percival died when his horse stumbled, not while jousting with Death -- and yet Percival is rewritten as a hero because there must be a hero. Bernard knows that the man in the restaurant is not listening to a word he's saying. Bernard also knows that Susan did not want to be comforted by him in the garden. He knows that he fabricated Elvedon and made the woman who was writing into a mythic figure that would watch over the story he worked on. He knows this and he also knows the grime of the knife in the cafe -- he knows the inconsistency of people, he knows his own incapacities and jealousies.

But is life very shifting or very solid?

Virginia asked that question in her diaries and she repeated it all throughout this book. She asks that question every time one of the memories is underwritten with uncertainty. Every "he said" and "she said" proves both the solid and the shifting. We are lucky to pull six little fish from that roiling cauldron -- we are lucky when we can make a phrase about butterfly-powder -- or like Trigorin's widow-scented heliotrope. We are even luckier when the "he said" happens to match the "she said."

But to dwell in the shifting is to dwell in the present is to dwell in the wasteland of nothing and everything -- the leaden waste of waters where no fin breaks the surface. And so we 'kick over the traces' -- we rewrite the experience -- we toss a veil over the cracks and fissures in the self, and we thus continue to press forward, lances couched, driving against Death, against nice, concrete, precise figures.

When Hans wakes from his mountain-spell, after seeing that vision of life born out of death --the bloody feast that is at the center of beautiful arcadia, he has seen what he set out to find -- a satisfactory answer about the meaning and purpose of life. But he can't remain in this knowledge -- he must kick over the traces of his understanding if he is to enjoy his roast beef and Maria Mancinis.

But there is one more element -- the significant object -- the music which appears in both the Waves and Magic Mountain -- and which I am still working out ...