The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

[AMENDED MON 19/11/2007]


From "Lost New York", the first essay in The Last Empire. Gore Vidal is reviewing a novel called Many Mansions by Isabel Bolton, published 1952 and set in 1950:
The old lady finished her reading: 'If her book should fall into the hands of others addicted as she was to the habitual reading of novels, what exactly would their feelings be?' One wonders - is there such a thing now as a habitual reader of novels? Even the ambitious, the ravenously literary young Adam seems to have a suspicion that he may have got himself into the stained-glass window trade.
Of course, Vidal has been raising this question for all of his career, and continues to do so today. I think it's certain that there are fewer and fewer literary references in public discourse, and that people in general don't have a literary common ground (other than Harry Potter). When I was at university I met an old fella who told me his father would meet with friends of an evening to read aloud their favourite passages from Thomas Hardy, and that this wasn't at all an unusual pastime. But then I suppose Dickens was the TV of his day, and followed with the kind of unifying, street-emptying attention people would one day give to Z Cars.


In 1876 Vidal kind of provides his own answer, through the mouth of his narrator Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler:
My pen delays...Stops. Why write any of this? Why make a record? Answer: habit. To turn life to words is to make life yours to do with as you please, instead of the other way round. Words translate and transmute raw life, make bearable the unbearable. So at the end, as in the beginning, there is only The Word.
I don't quite agree with this, but it's a good answer. Not quite as pithy as the beginning of his answer to a long, rambling and (to judge by the reaction) irritating question I posed to him when he was on a book tour in 1998: "Writing is basically an extension of thinking."


I posted a little while back that 1876 was much taken up with the buying of American politicians, but despite the massive and widespread corruption which Vidal depicts, I wasn't prepared for the thrilling change of gear in the final section, when the presidential election goes to the wire. Up to this point, grand theft has seemed wrong but still sort of fun, committed by boring or jovial rascals; in any case, everyone does it, fortunes are there to be made in the Gilded Age and only the terminally unlucky or foolish suffer (we are talking here about the elect, the members of the American oligarchy which, of course, did not and does not exist - not the Civil War veterans who occasionally intrude on the narrative with their raggedness and missing limbs.) And then, having jollied and joshed us, Vidal gets serious, and it's like a slap in the face.

-- SPOILER ALERT 1876 --

The candidates are Governor Samuel Tilden (Dem, dry, highly intelligent but somewhat charmless, a reformer) and Rutherford B. Hayes (Rep, a man seemingly without qualities other than being the one candidate his party can unite behind). Tilden will neither take bribes nor buy favours; Hayes is no more corrupt than any of his peers, which is still saying a great deal. Tilden has already won the popular vote by a quarter of a million, has 184 electoral college votes, and one more will secure him the presidency; Hayes is on 165, and needs all of the 20 remaining votes from Oregon, Louisiana, South Carolina and - yes - Florida. The results from all four of these states are in dispute.

Tilden addresses the press:
With altogether too much delicacy Tilden referred to the current "subject of controversy," making the point that in the twenty-two previous presidential elections, the Congress had simply recorded the votes sent them by the Electoral College. But now the Congress must choose between two absolutely conflicting sets of votes sent them by four states.

Tilden reminded the audience that three years ago the Congress had declared illegal the present Government of Louisiana, whose Returning Board has just seen fit to reverse the state's popular vote. Tilden also spelled out the illegality of the South Carolina and Florida boards. But where he ought to have thundered his contempt for the most corrupt and now tyrannous Admininstration in our history and unfurled his banner as our rightful lord, he was throughout his address very much the dry constitutional lawyer and in no way the outraged tribune of a cheated people.
All the way through this final section, Tilden is almost, almost there, but not quite. It should be his, it must be...and yet he seems to be unable to clinch it, despite the egregious nature of Republican attempts to pervert the count. By the time I got to this part, I was already experiencing a serious case of deja vu:
During the week since the electoral commission was given the two (actually, because of a technicality, three) sets of Florida returns, things did not appear to go well for us despite the brilliance of Charles O'Conor.

For one thing, the commission has never seriously tried to examine any of the initial voting frauds in Florida. The Republican case is based on the fact that the Hayes returns are the only valid ones because they have been signed by the carpetbag Republican governor of the state, while those favouring Tilden were only signed by the state's attorney general. For a whole week the number of angels able to dance on that pin's head have been counted and re-counted.
The entry for Tilden on Wikipedia notes:
While the Republicans boldly claimed the election, Tilden mystified and disappointed his supporters by not fighting for the prize or giving any leadership to his advocates. Instead he devoted more than a month to the preparation of a complete history of the electoral counts over the previous century to show it was the unbroken usage of Congress, not of the President of the Senate, to count the electoral votes. [Bigelow v 2:60]
The italics are mine.


I came to 1876 totally cold (apart from recognising the name of Rutherford B. Hayes), began it with mild trepidation, continued with pleasure, raced through the end, and put it down with real satisfaction. A thirty year-old novel about a one hundred and thirty year-old scandal, which shines a powerful light on America today. Yup, I'd say that's a vindication of the stained-glass trade.

It's accepted that the presidential election in 2000 was 'troubled', 'controversial' - that's to say, stolen. But no-one describes the 2004 election in those terms, which is astonishing given the number of complaints of irregularities. Gore Vidal wrote the introduction to Rep. John Conyers' report What Went Wrong in Ohio, which goes into these concerns in depth and is available as a PDF.

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What it's all about - Death

What it's all about - Life

I did, by the way, clean some of the smeg off it before leaving it in a shady corner.

Friday, November 09, 2007


In one of Alan Garner's essays, he writes about the deep attachment he has to his particular corner of Cheshire, his - and here he has to reach for foreign words for which, he says, there is no English equivalent: from Russian, rodina; from German, heimat. I'd always thought that heimat translated roughly as homeland, but a native German speaker recently put me right: it's not just your home town but the area around it, the woods, the fields, the paths, and the bond that one feels with them.

I experienced this myself in August, not for the first time and not unexpectedly. Doctor Jon-avec-le-Lotus was shortly to get married and had decided that he didn't want to go down the beer and strippers route; in fact he preferred that the two of us should head north and tackle a hill and camp out, something we hadn't done for years. I was content with this and so off we went. Stag day was celebrated in the pissing rain with steak cooked on a primus and champagne drunk out of unbreakable children's mugs, within sight of the cloudbase covering Lochnagar. I believe we were both quite happy. Happier still that the weather was so rotten come the evening it made a hotel the only sensible option.

The following day we drove north from Ballater - at speed, a Lotus being constitutionally incapable of doing anything else - up the A939, over the Lecht summit and down again towards Tomintoul. Fourteen twisty miles after Tomintoul you come to Grantown-on-Spey, a fair-sized town which sits in the Strathspey running SW to Boat of Garten and Aviemore, NE towards a thousand distilleries. Due north lies Dava Moor and Lochindorb. I've driven in to Grantown-on-Spey a few times, knew the strath at this point to be arrestingly beautiful and was looking forward to seeing it again. The effect as you drop off the bleak high ground and into sight of greenery and fields is like a balm.

But more than this, I know that north of the town is the beginning of what I continue to think of as my own country, the edges or boundaries of it, at any rate. Even a Mark II Elise makes a hell of a racket, but as we turned a bend and got a first sniff of the valley I realised I was becoming insensible to the engine, and to any conversation, which I was scarcely able to carry on with. It wasn't unlike being mildly stoned, the same feeling of detachment, calm and lightness, of being in some way carried. As I say, it wasn't unexpected though it was unsought.

Sadly we were not heading north, but turned west along the A95, a surprisingly broad and good-quality road for the Highlands, to my mind. Mechanically efficient.

Later, as we reached the Drumochter summit on the A9, Doctor Jon remarked that that was a really striking view as well. Indeed it is, bleak and spectacular; but every time I see it I feel sad, and something closes up inside me, and the defences acquired through years spent living in a foreign country begin to raise. It's the prospect of the south, and the knowledge that the Highlands (for want of a better and less loaded word) are being left behind; and something cries out against that.


Duncan Williamson died at 1am in Kirkcaldy on November 8th. RIP.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007


Edwin Muir's early poem "Horses" (as distinct from "The Horses", much taught in Scottish schools) is a reverie of a childhood encounter. The last three verses run:
But when at dusk with steaming nostrils home
They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam,
And warm and glowing with mysterious fire
That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire.

Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as night
Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light.
Their manes the leaping ire of the wind
Lifted with rage invisible and blind.

Ah, now it fades! it fades! and I must pine
Again for that dread country crystalline,
Where the blank field and the still-standing tree
Were bright and fearful presences to me.
I think it's common in the civilized West to associate this sort of revelation with childhood, as part of a natural inheritance we lose as we grow up. The last stanza makes me think of Housman's land of lost content, yet Muir's poem is clearly suggesting something more than what one might call the everyday magic of a child's perspective. These horses are not simply magical, they're elemental, totemic, numinous. If we take these presences to have been part of the common life of farming in Orkney in the late 19th century, then it should be borne in mind that Muir wasn't cut off from this particular source by time alone, but by place and culture. He said that in moving from Orkney to Glasgow he aged about 150 years, and he was not being jocular.


Fortunately modernity did not overtake Europe's remaining primitive enclaves so quickly that we don't have some record of what the European dreamtime was like. Here is Carlo Levi in Basilicata, from Christ Stopped at Eboli:
There is nothing strange in the fact that there were dragons in these parts during the Middle Ages. (The peasants and Giulia used to say: 'A long time ago, more than a hundred years, long before the brigands...') Nor would it be strange if dragons were to appear again today before the startled eyes of the country people. Anything is possible, where the ancient deities of the shepherds, the ram and the lamb, run every day over the familiar paths, and there is no definite boundary line between the world of human beings and that of animals or even monsters. [...]
To the peasants everything has a double meaning. The cow-woman, the werewolf, the lion-baron, and the goat-devil are only notorious and striking examples. People, trees, animals, even objects and words have a double life. Only reason, religion, and history have clear-cut meanings. But the feeling for life itself, for art, language and love is complex, infinitely so. And in the peasants' world there is no room for reason, religion and history. There is no room for religion because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above, and the beasts of the field below; everything is bound up in natural magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, and the innumerable earthy divinites of the village.
That phrase 'a long time ago, more than a hundred years...' is very interesting because of something Garner says in an essay in The Voice That Thunders about memory within an oral tradition only going back about four generations. All previous history becomes compressed or refined, turns into myth and is associated with the great-grandfather.

A couple of pages later, Levi describes a local feast of the Virgin Mary:
Amid this warlike thundering there was no happiness or religious ecstacy in the people's eyes; instead they seemed prey to a sort of madness, a pagan throwing off of restraint, and a stunned or hypnotized condition; all of them were highly wrought up. The animals ran about wildly, goats leaped, donkeys brayed, dogs barked, children shouted, and women sang. Peasants with baskets of wheat in their hands threw fistfuls of it at the Madonna, so that she might take thought for the harvest and bring them good luck. The grains curved through the air, bounced on the paving-stones and bounced up off them with a light noise like that of hail. The black-faced Madonna, in the shower of wheat, among the animals, the gunfire, and the trumpets, was no sorrowful Mother of God, but rather a subterranean deity black with the shadows of the bowels of the earth, a peasant Persephone or a lower-world goddess of the harvest.
I've posted before on religious ritual performed not as commemoration but invocation - a feature of it being the elimination of time.

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