Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Man Could Stand Up being the Third Book of Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

Once I started looking at A Man Could Stand Up when writing this note I found myself been drawn again into the description of life in the trenches during the Great War. We know from the beginning of the book that Tietjens is home again safe on Armistice Day, bewildered yet unharmed in any major way. That takes away the tension of our identification with his survival and we can suffer with him and feel that this is to be part of his consciousness for the rest of his life. We can then so to speak look around us at the horror of the battlefield.

I mentioned that the handling of duration is a feature of the writing, duration in the Bergsonian sense of the infliction of our whole history up to that moment on the immediate consciousness. A writer can only give an impression of this c.f.bergson on presence
Your whole life passing before your eyes in an instant is an experience commonly reported by those who fear immanent death. Is such compression possible given that a stream of images must take a certain amount of time to unfold? This is the materialist answer and a misunderstanding of Bergson's distinction between time and duration. Duration is not representable so we tend to convert that intense experience in which our life is compressed into an instant into temporal terms which are translated into a stream of images. This structural necessity becomes the story of a stream of images.

Ford by an focus on the 30 minutes before an expected major push by the Germans, which never comes, gives the feeling of duration or the intensity of a whole life at the point of death. It is the artistic version of the temporal sleight of hand. There is the flowing from the outer reaches of the 17th. Century to the present.

011 Griffeths is playing a 17th. Century air, on a cornet, over the battlefield. This is a Welch regiment remember so there are many Griffeths, Jones and Morgans and therefore they require individuation by numbers.

(Tietjens)I don't want the men to think they've got to stop a Hun rush without bombs... They're due to begin their barrage in 14 minutes, but they won't really come over without a hell of a lot of preparation.. I don't know how Brigade knows all this!

The name Bemerton suddenly came on to his tongue. Yes, Bemerton, Bemerton. Bemerton was George Herbert's parsonage, Bemerton outside Salisbury. The cradle of our race as far as our race was worth thinking about. He imagined himself standing up on a little hill, a lean contemplative parson, looking at the land sloping down to the Salisbury spire. A large, clumsily bound 17th. century testament, Greek, below his elbow...Imagine standing up on a hill! It was the unthinkable thing there!

As before in the other books the title represents a nucleus round which events aggregate. Standing up also means that Tietjens will have to insist that the Medical Officer removes the C.O. who is dipso and refuses his bromide. McKechnie whom he has replaced as 2nd. is also dotty and dipso and ruinous to the confidence of the men. These are men that have been brought by the C.O. in his better days to a pitch of training that allows them to be as cool under fire as though they were at the butts. Ford displays the truth in an observation that might initially be taken for irony.

It would not be right that a man exactly and scrupulously performing his duty to his sovereign, his native land and those it holds dear, should not be protected by a special Providence. And he is!

It is not only that the engrossed marksman might and very probably did pick off an advancing enemy with every second shot, and thus diminish his personal danger to that extent; it is that the regular and as if mechanical falling of comrades spreads disproportionate dismay in advancing or halted troops. It is no doubt terrible to you to have large number of your comrades instantaneously annihilated by the explosion of some huge engine but huge engines are blind and thus accidental; a slow regular picking off of the man beside you is evidence that human terribleness that is not blind or accidental is cold-bloodedly and unshakably turning its attention to a spot very near you. It may very shortly turn its attention to yourself.

The overlooking of Ford as a war writer is curious when one considers the celebrity of those such as Crane and Hemingway who were non-combatants, one born after the event which he describes and the other a haphazard victim of a mortar for which he won a Hershey medal.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Chapter XII Ashtavakra Samhita - Ancient Dude

An interesting thing about the Asthavakra Gita also known as the Ashtavakra Samhita is that there is no quoting of the scriptures in it. This suggests that it was composed by a realised sage and that it represents his own particular slant on the traditional teachings. One senses in it many of the characteristics of that modern day school which has come to be known as Neo-Advaita. Neo as a suffix nearly always has a pejorative implication. Neo as in new improved formula with special bacteria and added irony. We distrust the magic short cuts to realisation and an earnest satsanghi telling us that 'like man you are already there' seems like ascended Dudespeak.

Still this is ancient: Chapter XII Abiding in the Self

Janaka said:
I became intolerant first of physical action, then of extensive speech, and then of thought. Thus therefore do I firmly abide.

Having no attachment for sound and other sense objects, and the Self not being an object of perception, my mind is freed from distraction and is one-pointed. Thus therefore do I firmly abide.

An effort has to be made for concentration when there is distraction of mind owing to superimposition etc. Seeing this to be the rule, thus do I firmly abide.

Having nothing to accept and nothing to reject, and having neither joy nor sorrow, thus, sir, do I now firmly abide.

A stage of life or no stage of life, meditation, control of mental functions - finding that these cause distraction to me, thus verily do I firmly abide.

Abstention from action is as much the outcome of ignorance as the performance of action. Knowing this truth fully well, thus do I firmly abide.

Thinking on the Unthinkable One, one only has recourse to a form of thought. Therefore giving up that thought, thus do I firmly abide.

Blessed is the man who has accomplished this. Blessed is he who is such by nature.

The Dude: Yeah, well. The Dude abides.
The Stranger: The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners. Shoosh. I sure hope he makes the finals.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

No More Parades being the Second Book of Parade's End

In former times keeping up a good front involved passive-aggressive behavior as one of the great amenities of an advanced civilisation that perforce required the intermediation of tactful servants. In more reduced circumstances one might be constrained to leave notes - ‘I hate your fitted carpets, a gentleman’s rooms should have varnished boards with fine Persian rugs’ I seem to recollect.

Tietjens had offered her the protection of his home and therefore that should still be the case. He was not obliged to frequent her in any way. Think now of this proud and insolent woman used to making a prey of any man she chose to being left to her own. Her freedom is merely a desire to injure and to frustrate, Ford makes it clear that she does not sexually entertain any of those men that she fascinates, other than the one she initially went off with. The bizarre behavior that this flouting of her powers evokes is at the heart of the tetralogy. Still a man must stay with his commitments and go on parade.

This ‘parade’ is like the strange attractor of the various oscillations within the novel. It is the matter of pulling yourself together and presenting a face to the world. Ones luck has not been good, still:

Tietjens said:
‘Still sir....there are....there used to be... in families of .....position.... a certain.....’ He stopped.

The general said:


Tietjens said:

‘On the part of the man... a certain... Call it parade!’

The general said:

‘There had better be no more parades...

The general talking to him is his O.C. Campion, best friend of his father and his godfather also. Due to a contremps in a hotel behind the lines involving Sylvia’s former lover, a drunken general and Tietjens himself Campion feels that Tietjens must be sent to the thick of the fighting where a big push by the Germans is expected. All in the name of good order and discipline. 

In Some Men Do he has been to the front and been invalided home due to shell shock with his memory impaired. In No More Parades he is back but this time because of his medical classification is in charge of logistics at a large base where men are gathered together for sending to the front by truck and train. Rouen pronounced Ruin by the Sargent is the name of the place. This is not exactly a place of safety either as shells are constantly landing. His regiment is a Welsh one and his strained nerves are shattered by the death in his arms of 09 Morgan whom he has refused permission to return home.

A man, brown, stiff, with a haughty parade step, burst into the light. He said with a high wooden voice:
‘Ere’s another bloomin’ casualty.’ In the shadow he appeared to have draped half his face and the right side of his breast with crape. He gave a high, rattling laugh. He bent, as if in a stiff bow, woodenly at his thighs. He pitched, still bent, on to the iron sheet that covered the brazier, rolled off that and lay on his back across the legs of the other runner, who had been crouched beside the brazier. In the bright light it was as if a whole pail of scarlet paint has been dashed across the man’s face on the left and his chest. It glistened in the firelight - just like fresh paint, moving!

One of the constant reports about men who fought in the Great War, the war to end all wars, was that they never talked about it. There were exceptions of course but few with the literary powers of Ford.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Ashtavakra Gita

There's a cheery sort of breeziness about the Astavakra Samhita (trans. by John Richards)an ancient sanskrit scripture in the Advaita tradition. How old is it? My introduction to the Advaita Ashrama edition says that it belongs to the same era as the Bhagavad Gita and is certainly older than the Karikas of Gaudapada. Looking up the age of the Gita, and having recourse to that frail support Wikipedia I am told that Western scholars place it between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. Followers I am assured adhere to an earlier date of 3102 B.C. Don't you love the precision of that 2. Them's real scholars.

The breeziness of the text comes out in many places e.g.: A.S. II.18

I have neither bondage nor freedom. Having lost its support, the illusion has ceased. Oh, the universe, though existing in me, does not in reality so exist.
(trans. by Swami Nityaswarupananda)

Mind you when you go into this in greater detail the rigours of doing your tapas between the five fires of the senses are revealed. The world is always presented to you under the auspices of perception, nihil in intellectu quod non fuerit prius in sensu, (nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses) as the Scholastics put it. So the fact of the matter is that you can never not be presented with the experience of duality, to be experiencing is to be in a subject-object mode.

The question is then: how do you get from that stage of experience to the realistion that the teacher is talking about. What is it for a start and how are we to orient ourselves towards it if we accept that there is such a thing. Despite the cheerful urging of Ashtavakra and his repetition these basic question do not appear to be answered. Here I dust off the ancient dictum of the Canadian sage McLuhan and say that ‘the medium is the message’. Ashtavakra the instructor is the instruction and the goal of the instruction. He represents the reality of the teaching. When Jesus said ‘ I am the way, the truth and the life’, he was speaking for all teachers.

At this stage of development of the Advaitic teaching the precise teazing out of its ontological justification was yet to be established. That would be the work of Adi Shankara (788-820 A.D.) Here we are presented with summaries of the condition of the sage. Inevitably this will have a strongly illusionistic emphasis. Only later is the concept of illusion broken down into its components of pratibhasika (standard illusion, confusion and delusion) vyavaharika (conventional or relative truth and paramarthika (absolute truth).

However for most people ontological pondering is not the way that they achieve realisation. Philosophy is a limited force compared to darshan which is the vision or the presence of the Master in the flesh or the spirit.

Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford being the First Book of Parade's End

Having read all 4 books of the tetralogy I now know why it is a good idea to keep my head below the parapet. Hun snipers are waiting to send me to Valhalla. Why didn’t Ford keep his head down? He went out to the Western Front in 1915 and saw action there even though he had no obligation to do so being 41 at the time and already doing his bit in the propaganda department. This is the front that we most associate with the slaughter and large parts of Parade’s End are situated there. But before that in the first book Some Do Not we are introduced to Christopher Tietjans, his friend Vincent Macmaster and La Belle Dame Sans Merci (big time) Sylvia the wife of Tietjans, Valentine Wannop the young Suffragette, Mrs. Duchemin the mistress of a salon and wife of the scatological vicar, Breakfast Duchemin who is a disciple of Ruskin and a florid lunatic. The literary breakfast scene during which he quotes and offers a translation of scabrous Latin verses of Ovid is perhaps the most comic event ever to have taken place in a Vicarage. To extract any part of it would be to limit its effect but at its core is the convention observed by English gentles which is that no notice is to be taken of the unacceptable.

Mrs. Duchemin suddenly screamed:


As if checked for a moment in their stride all the others paused - for a breath. Then they continued talking with polite animation and listening with minute attention. To Tietjens that seemed the highest achievement and justification of English manners!

The handling of all the elements of this scene and the placing of all the actors in their conversational clumps withal conscious of each other and trying to control the cumulative appal is pure genius. How is it to be resolved? Magnificently and with that curious sense of peace that comes from the perfect ‘punch line’. You’ll see.

Tietjens is the central character who though he is the youngest son is the father of the next to be Tietjens of Groby, a vast estate with iron and coal deposits in Yorkshire. His other brothers have no issue. But is Tommie/Mark/Michael, in the upper class English way names change according to the prevailing context, really his son. He was a 7 month child and clearly Tietjens was used to give him a name. A certain Captain Drake may have been the father or so Sylvia thought. She wasn’t sure but uses that to taunt her husband before going off with another man for some months before asking to be taken back with stipulations in the most insolent manner. She is a Catholic and he is a gentleman so divorce is out of the question. If a man cannot keep his woman at home he must live with it.

Like Tietjens Ford also affected High Tory, even megatherium views of society and respected the French for their devotion to the 18th.C. The class system and 'other ranks' are fixed poles of a stable universe that is about to be dismantled. There will then be no point in writing a letter to the times.

If they saw policemen misbehave, railway porters lack civility, an insufficiency of street lamps, defects in public services or in foreign countries, they saw to it, either with nonchalant Balliol voices or with letters to The Times, asking in regretful indignation: 'Has the British This or That come to this?

But Lord Port Scatho had entered the room with the stiffness, with the odd high-collared sort of gait that on formal and unpleasant occasions Englishmen use when they approach each other; braced up, a little like strange dogs meeting in the street.

Sylvia at calumny and detraction is nonpareil. Banker Brownlie fascinated by her bounces a check on Tietjens made out to his club. That they should return a gentleman’s check is a savage insult and only possible because she has persuaded everyone that he is a ‘bad hat’. Without going ‘native informant’ on us Ford teazes out all these tribal matters which are as complex as the kinship systems of aboriginies.

The control of straightforward narrative time is excellent, the quick quick slow of the dance seems as natural as only a master can accomplish. In the later books the other Bergsonian aspect of duration is displayed. Here all the hero’s life is being pressed to the point in each moment under fire.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Hemingway and Ford Madox Ford

When you read A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway you realise that while he was a good writer, as a human being he lacked that subtlety of wit which allows one to know when one's leg is being pulled. Perhaps it was the German in him with his "distressing grasp of the obvious". A case in point is the encounter he had with Ford Madox Ford while he was sitting in the Closerie Des Lilas and writing with his inevitable pencil in what we are led to believe were Moleskine notebooks.

i tried hard to think of these things but the heavy, wheezing, ignoble presence of ford himself, only touching-distance away, made it difficult. but i tried. 'tell me why one cuts people,' I asked. until then i had thought it was something only done in novels by
ouida. i had never been able to read a novel by ouida, not even at some skiing place in switzerland where reading matter had run out when the wet south wind had come and there were only the left-behind tauchnitz editions of before the war. but i was sure, by some sixth sense, that people cut one another in her novels. 'a gentleman,' ford explained,'will always cut a cad.'

Fine, for many years I took this at its face value but when recently I read what is regarded as Ford Madox Ford's finest novel The Good Soldier a certain doubt arose. John Dowell the American narrator of the very sad tale has a perfectly clear image of the fatuity of those upper class British character assesments and the sere breeze of his irony is relentless. In my opinion Ernest is being wound up like a long case clock with all the aplomb that the British can bring to such jokes.

If you haven't read The Good Soldier you should. It's a bizarre love quadrangle and has elements that I will not speculate about for fear of spoiling the story.

Here's a picture of the perfect English gentleman of that class who would not personally know a bounder.

that was the sort of thing he thought about. Martingales, Chiffney bits, boots; where you got the best soap, the best brandy, the name of the chap who rode a plater down the Khyber cliffs; the spreading power of number three shot before a charge of number four powder... by heavens,

Ford had a very refined sense of the grotesque:

She had not cared to look round Maisie's rooms at first. Now, as soon as she came in, she perceived, sticking out beyond the bed, a small pair of feet in high-heeled shoes. Maisie had died in the effort to strap up a great portmanteau. She had died so grotesquely
that her little body had fallen forward into the trunk, and it had closed upon her, like the jaws of a gigantic alligator.

Should Hem have been wearing an anklet of bells like an Indian dancer the tintinnabulation would have rung merrily o'er the boulevard.

Addendum: 7/April/2013:

Monday, 5 March 2012

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

I prefer the old livery of the Virago Press which was ivy green with an oil painting on the cover. The present colour is a pea green with a photo. In the case of The Vet's Daughter it is a photo from the Hulton Getty Picture Library of an unidentified woman on a three legged stool milking a cow. It looks suspiciously like a land girl. However this is no bucolic idyll but a tale of a sort of an urban pet prison, near a railway arch in Clapham for all members of the animal kingdom including those classified as rational by Aristotle. Alice's father has his practice there.. Her mother is there with them too, a sad ailing creature whose crooked teeth are the result of rearrangement by Papa's boot. -

so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.

The menagerie theme is carried through the first chapter which is darkly funny and brings into focus the macabre aspect of the British love of All Creatures Great and Small.

Before the fireplace was a rug made from a skinned Great Dane dog, and on the carved mantlepiece there was monkey's skull with a double set of teeth, which seemed to chatter when you looked at them.

As I mentioned before Comyns is quirky, a metaphor drawn from cabinetmaking which designates that part of the moulding like a little ledge which marks a crisp transition to the main curve of the ovolo. On that 'quirk' she often lays an odd observation which marks off the main trend of the description.

While I was looking at it, he came thundering out of his office with a thing like a large private rat under his arm. It turned out to be a mongoose.

(a dream) Across a terrace, an almost square politician walked towards me. He came so near our shoulders touched and sparks flashed from us. From the trees small cries and groans came, as if they were women in pain, and I thought, 'I did not cover the parrot with flannel,' and was awake in my bed.

In fact it her mother that is crying out and this is for her death which is protracted and painful. The doctor comes and pain medicine is given but after a consultation with the vet husband she falls into a deep coma and dies without recovering consciousness perhaps sped on her way with the easeful death that he is supposed to deliver to animals which he instead sells on to a vivisectionist.

Clearly if this were not a minor masterpiece you would throw it across the room. Each moment of your reading deepens and intensifies the sense of a world that is perfectly real.
Her father who goes away for 3 weeks after the death, comes back with a strumpet from the bar, The Trumpet, where he plays billiards. She is both sinister and stupid and after setting Alice up with a nasty man called Cuthbert who tries to rape her is ejected from the house. At this point Alice is sent away as a companion to the mother of the locum who minded the practice while her father was away.

This old lady is living in a semi-burnt out large house with a curious feature; the floors are all cast iron grille work which is covered with lino and carpets. Comyns who renovated old places for sale must have come across an example of such perhaps retrofitted where there was interior fire damage. In any case as a metaphor for the permeation of different spaces by light from above or below it creates the exact psychological parallel for the transformation of Alice.

Her room in this house was once the locum's as a boy:

I noticed that the oilcloth on the floor was embossed with pictures from Struwwelpeter, very worn in places but quite recognisable. There was poor Suck-a-Thumb and the Red-legged Scissor Man and that chubby lad Augustus and the boy with the long hair and nails. Sometimes there were holes in the pictures, and I saw light filtering through and realised my bedroom was floored with openwork iron. I was lying on the floor looking through a hole at the grey-and-white flagged hall below when suddenly the door opened without anyone knocking, and I looked up to see Mrs. Gowley grinning at me.

When as B.C. tells us in her introduction to the novel that it seemed to write itself we may be sure that the inner structure was drawn from some archetypal source and that she had only to colour in between the lines. Calling her protagonist Alice is clue enough and her long hair flowing down. Consider Rosa alternatively frightening and wheedling a Red Queen. Then Henry Peebles , the locum, with "his body somehow looked rather like a tree-trunk" is the opposite number of the evil vet and a benign Tweedledee. There are 4 Queens in the novel, mother,Rosa, Mrs. Churchill the kindly charlady and Mrs. Peebles. There is a beautiful Prince and gallant Hussar in the form of Nicholas the sailor. Moreover there is mentioned the terrifying tales of Strewwelpeter and the evil that befalls those that do forbidden things.

The novel progresses to its end and it has moments of uplift but not quite as you know them.