… for the way in which the meaning we’re deriving from reading any one particular text – a poem, a short story – has as much to do with the somehow related texts we’ve already read as it does with the text we’re right now taking in… We bring to the reading of any “new” work a lifetime of encounters with precursor works, and this readerly past is always in play in any readerly present. Literary experience, from this point of view, is personal pastiche, consciousness-patchwork, the piling up of language then onto language now, a remembrance of written things past.

And this is a marvelous thing, if you ask UD, because it’s not merely about the pleasure of feeling one’s reading become enriched over … well, over years of reading. (A similar sort of operation occurs with the act of re-reading.) It’s also – more intimately – about discovering one’s personal truths through intuiting one’s literary recurrences. By this I mean that if you live long enough and read long enough you notice yourself circling certain poems, novels, pieces of music (this doesn’t have to be just literary, obviously); and that if you think about your own recurrences you can sort of intuit important things about yourself.

UD‘s using weasel words (sort of intuit…) for the knowledge literature yields because she believes, along with James Merrill, that art is as much about a sort of saving oblivion, a tactical and beautiful evasion of life’s stark truths, as it is a vehicle of those truths. Iris Murdoch calls art “close dangerous play with unconscious forces.” Play, you see. We all know there’s something childish about the pretend business of stories and, well, plays… They aren’t reality; they’re fable and metaphor and wild and crazy imaginings… And yet of course as cultures and individuals we tend to derive our most serious understandings of reality from these unreal entertainments; and this is arguably because they give us these truths in the only form most of us can accept them. Make them too stark and we look away; aestheticize them and we’ll give them a look. We’ll maybe even (this is Aristotle, on catharsis) allow ourselves – vicariously – to undergo the ultimate emotions relative to human fate while we’re engrossed in a dramatic tragedy on stage…

It’s all push and pull, I mean to say. Art – our experience of art – enacts at once our embrace and our evasion of difficult truths. And indeed our personal intertextual history, our particular eccentric reading life, can tell us a great deal about what we’re personally up against, what we’re resisting by way of existential instruction. Our reading history can tell us about our peculiar internal cost/benefit economy, about the complicated ways in which each of us works to sustain energy and happiness throughout our lives.

So for instance whenever I’m at the beach I think about my peculiar defensive relationship to a particular poem – Berck-Plage, by Sylvia Plath. It’s been important to me over many years not to understand this poem, to find it an impervious verbal surface. Yet I keep circling it – or it keeps circling me… When I was writing, a few years ago, about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I suddenly realized that its author, Jean-Dominique Bauby, encased in locked-in syndrome at a hospital on the French Atlantic coast, is gazing from its balconies at Berck-Plage. And then – odd coincidence – my friend and colleague Tom Mallon not only reviewed this book for the New York Times, but began by noticing the same Plath/Bauby intertextuality:

“This is the tongue of the dead man,” Sylvia Plath wrote in “Berck-Plage,” her poem set in a French hospital complex by the Channel coast. “How far he is now, his actions / Around him like livingroom furniture, like a decor.” A year and a half ago, following a catastrophic stroke and weeks of deep coma in that same hospital, Jean-Dominique Bauby gradually “surfaced” into a new existence as a victim of “locked-in syndrome,” mentally alert but deprived of movement and speech.

So… the poem insinuates itself, erodes my resistance, especially of course when I’m at the beach. It pressed itself upon me, an obscure intertext, when I read Bauby (I read him here, years ago, at Rehoboth Beach); and now it’s back again on a beautiful day on the Atlantic shore, and I’m listening to the YouTube I linked you to earlier in this post, of Plath, with her flat angry voice, reciting it.

The core problem, I suppose, is that this particular poem (I adore almost all of Plath’s poems) is insufficiently evasive; it is out there in the way of reality itself, and, really, who wants that? In “Berck-Plage” there’s nothing tempering Plath’s disgust and horror at our painful lives and our dreadful deaths; she simply contrasts the happy-making aspect of vacation beaches, the fully sunlit life, the smooth-limbed physical joy of children at the supreme play of beach play (On my morning beach walk today, I paused as a young boy streaked across the boardwalk in front of me on his way to the sand. BEACH! he shouted. BEACH!), with the disfigurement and debility that await us.

These children are after something, with hooks and cries,
And my heart too small to bandage their terrible faults.

We can do nothing for one another as our weak fallible selves devolve toward the end; we are all too small-hearted and afraid.

The scene shifts, in the poem, from the beach to a man’s deathbed. The poet looks at the dead man:

This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible.
Is he wearing pyjamas or an evening suit

Under the glued sheet from which his powdery beak
Rises so whitely unbuffeted?

They propped his jaw with a book until it stiffened
And folded his hands, that were shaking: goodbye, goodbye.

Now the washed sheets fly in the sun,
The pillow cases are sweetening.

He’ll be unstuck from the bed just as the lovers she’s seen at the beach “unstick themselves” after “obscene,” hidden sex. Once he’s gone he’s gone and it’s just a matter of resweetening his pillow cases for the next case.

They are flying off into nothing: remember us.
The empty benches of memory look over stones,

Marble facades with blue veins, and jelly-glassfuls of daffodils.
It is so beautiful up here: it is a stopping place.

“Berck-Plage” is a beautiful stopping place. Only one doesn’t want to stop.

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