Thursday, August 3, 2017

those fumbling airs that breathe and bend

And through this clear, unstagnant yet unturbulent air there rose the wild yet gentle cry of a multitude of birds. It was not the coarse brave cry of the gull that can breast tempests and dive deep for unfastidious food. It was not the austere cry of the curlew who dwells on moors when they are unvisitable by men. This was the voice of some bird appropriate to the place. It was unhurried. Whatever lived on the plain saw when the sun rose on its edge shadows as long as living things ever see them, and watched them shrink till noon, and lengthen out again till sundown; and time must have seemed the slower for being so visible. It had the sound of water in it. Whatever lived here spent half its life expecting the running of waveless but briny tides up the creeks, through mud-paved culverts into the dykes that fed the wet marshes with fresh wetness; and the other half deploring their slow, sluggish sucking back to the sea. Sorrow or any other intemperance of feeling seemed a discourteous disturbance of an atmosphere filled with this resigned harmony.
Virginia Woolf called the novel "an overstuffed sausage" and stopped reading it halfway through. Certainly the prose threatens to burst at the seams, far more dense writing than Woolf's, who was after all trying for the same psychological effect as West, though Woolf leaned more on the technique of stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative threads writ in that spare pointillist style she had. West was writing out of the Gothic tradition, a tale of an innocent woman trapped in a castle full of spirits and self-destructive secrets. Woolf was doing the same thing, but the castles were all interior to her characters, the ghosts haunting themselves in their own brains.

I think that had Woolf finished The Judge, she'd have possibly admired the structural planning that even looks ahead to that of her own To The Lighthouse, which was published five years later, in 1927. There is a break halfway through The Judge where the narrative ceases to focus on Ellen and turns to the history and interior world of Marion Yaverland, the victim and bearer of destructive societal forces. It becomes a different novel than it was, a strange Gothic novel, similar to the way that To The Lighthouse becomes a different and strange novel in the "Time Passes" middle section, where the prose thickens and becomes symbolic and threatening. Thick for Woolf, that is.
So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostlily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes, and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.
The other thing about The Judge that strikes me right now is the way so much of it is focused on observing, on looking at the behavior of others and judging that behavior, on deliberately matching one's behavior to that of another person, on controlling how one appears, on the duplicity of being aware of and subsequently taking advantage of how we appear to others. It's a book about looking, and being seen, and play-acting and claims of truth. A battle between observer and observed, the battle swallowing its own tail, neither a victory nor an armistice possible.


  1. ironic post heading, considering the smoke invading our space... we've been stuck inside pretty much the whole week, trying to avoid breathing... i can hold my breath for almost a minute now; ms. M has me beat, though... how is it up there?

    1. A lot of dirty brown sky, scratchy throat, headache, watery eyes, the whole city smells like a house fire, thick and hazy air that tastes like burning, etc. It must be terrible up in BC.