Bleak House

April 11, 2009

calipers11At first it seems like a flouting of the phony. A magician steps on stage, Mysterioso the Magnificent, set to amaze us with prestidigitation and conjugation, so the sign says—he’s even got his black cape on, he twirls an elongated mustache, bows to the audience, speaks with a wicked smile: ‘Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat’…we groan, ‘not that old hat trick’…and instead pulls out ‘flowered curtains thin and frayed’ and ‘a strip of building land,/ Tussocky, littered’ and ‘the same saucer-souvenir’ and ‘the Frinton folk/ Who put him up for summer holidays’. He digs in again: and at his age’…


Is there such a thing as a ‘thrill’ of sorrow, a ‘sad’ frisson? Is there a harrowing melancholy? A despair so ordinary you can wrap it up tight and put it in a poem?

The hat Mysterioso’s opening out is this poem by Philip Larkin:

'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.'Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook
Behind the door, no room for books or bags -
'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try
Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits - what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why
He kept on plugging at the four aways -
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind 
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed

Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,

And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

Names must count for something. Name your protagonist ‘Maurice Conchis’ or ‘Mr. Cogito’—not to mention ‘Everyman’—and you’re suggesting to your reader something universal is going on here, something cosmic: consciousness itself is to be scrutinized, the fate of mankind is being weighted, so pay attention. Name your character ‘Mr. Bleaney’ and it’s not so obvious that you mean anything more than, you know, you opened the phone book and randomly pointed at ‘Harold Bleaney’. You’re going for the ordinary. You don’t know him; it’s just a name; because everyone has to have a name, don’t they?

Google ‘Mr. Cogito’ and you will turn up this poem by Zbigniew Herbert—at least it’s the one I got:

Mr. Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination

the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts for him

he didn’t appreciate labyrinths
the Sphinx filled him with loathing

he lived in a house with no basement
without mirrors of dialectics

jungles of tangled images
were not his home

he would rarely soar
on the wings of metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

he loved
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth

I’m sure it’s better in the original Polish, but it’s a good poem even in translation. Cogito is not ordinary, at least not in the way Bleaney is. He kind of prances out there, prompting a kind of philosophical con brio: slavery means slavery, death stays death—this has got to be the ultimate tautology, right? Death is death. Tautologies empty words of their content. Death empties out death, like mountains empty out gravity, or at least defy that straight line gravity would like if it got its way. So, Mr. Bleaney has emptied out into Mr. Bleak, and one wonders: When did that happen? At what age did young Bleaney, full of hope and promise, become this lonely middle aged old man? Was Mr. Bleaney Mr. Bleaney at age six? Sixteen? Thirty-six? Cogito thinks therefore he is. This is the old bid of consciousness, the old opposition of cogitation to matter, Descartes incarnate. Did Bleaney ever think? And therefore exist? This is the puzzle of the poem.

We are placed in very unsure hands, for the narrator is of course not Philip Larkin, but an unnamed bloke who has, for unnamed reasons taken Mr. Bleaney’s untenanted rented room—and seems not to think that his bleak assessment of Bleaney applies to him—though he’s in the same room stabbing his fags out in the same cheap souvenir ash tray, and he doesn’t even like listening to the wireless blearing—blaring—in the next room.

When do we measure our own nature? At what age do we get out the calipers and take a definitive reading of how we’ve done? And where we live, how we live, the stuff we surround ourselves with…is that the gauge? The narrator of Mr. Bleaney appears to think so, but Philip Larkin when he wrote this poem must have known he was creating an impossibility: a sour, unhappy soul who was capable of deep expression, gifted language, insightful and hyper-conscious. Philip, that’s not realistic. A poet should be able to enter imaginatively into the life of his characters—and this lug ends his little disquisition confessing that he knows nothing about the thoughts of the character he’s writing the poem about. Call him Mr. Mystery. Talk about your ultimate tautologies.

Of course, he’s been ‘moved’ now so Bleaney might incline to the absolute measurements a calipers will make, but suppose Bleaney, sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking a long and elegant cigar, counters our calipers approach to assessment with an understanding, via the Sorites Paradox, of his life as a graduated process, suppose he and Cogito get together over a bottle of expensive port to think about what it is to think about thinking about one’s life, suppose they manage to find a Vaughn-Williams concert on the wireless and spend a convivial evening talking about a brief but difficult passage from the late works of Martian Heidegger, suppose Bleaney has a strong interior life that our narrator friend knows nothing of, perhaps he does listen to the wind on cold nights and perhaps he does think that that wind might ‘tousle’ a cloud like a giant benevolent—suppose he thinks ‘benevolent’—hand on a young boy, what good then is this poem written by Philip Larkin, this emptying out of Bleaney into Bleak, this self-supporting nightmare of a poem?

But of course the portrait being painted in Mr. Bleaney is not of Mr. Bleaney and probably not of the unnamed narrator either—but rather it’s a landscape of the situation of self-fulfilling, self-sustaining assertions about…well…the self, even as we think of the self as someone else. The prison of the self dramatized in 28 lines.

Now, Mr. Cogito does not trust tricks of the imagination, never has, so he might be the one to sit and debate with Mr. Bleaney, except that Bleaney has his suspicions that Cogito might be the ultimate author of Mr. Bleaney and he’s not having any of it. Sees him for a fraud, is what he does.

“On the evidence of the poem, we’ve never met. Yet that same evidence is used to create not a presence, but an absence. You know very well the answer one is supposed to draw from the concluding supposition. I don’t know, indeed. You know very well what you intend the reader to conclude. It travesties the truth of my supposed existence.”

Cogito takes a moment, lighting his cigar. He admits to himself he did not know he and Bleaney share a love of Vaughn-Williams.

“My dear Bleaney, poetry by its very nature freezes. In that way it is like consciousness. It’s a moment in time, not a process. I admit, perhaps a longer narrative…the creation of Philip Larkin, you’ll admit, is a larger more complex project. He would not sit still for, ah, what you call the calipers approach.”

“The reference is of course to the Blake engraving. Cogito, insofar as you’re playing God, you’re liable to its limitations.”

“But also to its advances, its objectivity.”

They had a nice evening together, Bleaney and Cogito, talking, penultimately, about Larkin and Herbert, though ultimately about dwelling and thinking: that passage I mentioned before from Heidegger—

To free really means to spare. The sparing itself consists not only in the fact that we do not harm the one whom we spare. Real sparing is something positive and takes place when we leave something beforehand in its own nature, when we return it specifically to its being, when we “free” it in the real sense of the word into a preserve of peace. To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature. The fundamental character of dwelling is this sparing and preserving. It pervades dwelling in its whole range. That range reveals itself to us as soon as we reflect that human being consists in dwelling and, indeed, dwelling in the sense of the stay of mortals on the earth.

is from Building, Dwelling, Thinking.

Bleaney: “I’m going to posit what I will call Sorites Thinking. The original source of the Sorites Paradox is Eubulides. ‘Soros’ means ‘heap’ in Greek, ancient Greek. You take a stone or two and put them together—that does not constitute a heap. You add one—that does not constitute a heap. In fact, it is difficult to specify a point—no, it is impossible—when adding one more stone to the group will turn it into a heap, yet if you keep adding one stone at a time, you will end up with a heap of stones. A serious paradox, yes, Cogito? A process you specify that does not yield a heap, in fact does yield one. This is the trouble with the poem. It doesn’t see poetry as a heap. It doesn’t see life as a heap. It doesn’t see the person as a heap. It doesn’t see the issue is how fast the stones accumulate.”

Cogito of course lives for paradox: “So you see that Larkin is, oh, hung up on the Law of the Excluded Middle…” He frowns. “No perhaps the Law of Noncontradiction.” A deeper frown. “And relate this to our text.”

“Cogito, Cogito, Cogito. Don’t you see? It’s you who has to get past the whole consciousness thing: Consciousness as a locus of experience.”

They both laugh: Cogito get past consciousness?

The wireless has begun to play A Lark Ascending. Cogito is surprised to see Bleaney close to tears as they listen. For a moment, philosophy is far away.

“Reminds me of my mother—” Bleaney smiles. “—and her locus of experience.”

Sorites thinking, huh? This is perhaps an eccentricity of Mr. Bleaney, an understandable venture into something that can seem specious. All ‘sorites thinking’ seems to assert is that there are many shades of grey in our picture. We knew this. But Bleaney is juxtaposing it next to some Heideggerian mysticism. The essay Building, Dwelling, Thinking is an attempt to broaden all three concepts—building becomes a more complex activity when one thinks of it as part of the triad, as do dwelling and thinking. Dwelling is the capstone to the arch. Building is really dwelling, and thinking is made more capacious and complex when it is seen as not being an activity of utilitarian intent only. Dwelling deepens thinking: Thinking needs dwelling to rescue it from thoughts men think with the mind alone: simple economic calculation, for example, the bottom line we base so many of our decisions and hence our thoughts on, and what Philip Larkin in his poem seems to be lording over Bleaney: that he wasn’t rich, that he was living in a rented room, alone, impoverished in both physical circumstances and in mental resources—for the sorites paradox cuts both ways: not only does it build a heap, it can characterize one’s loses as well. The everyday subtraction that is old age, the wearing away from chronic illness, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Learning to think out of a subtitle paradox may not be the worst thing in the world.

Bleaney smiles again. “Of course, Cogito, I too wanted to be a poet, a magician with words. And a poem like Mr. Bleaney, it hurts. Takes us into the mystery, you know. We all come to some end.”

The wireless has begun to play Thelonious Monk. Its late, the cigars have burned down, the port is gone. Cogito is fading. Mr. Bleaney is alone now—talking to whom?

“…for of course we don’t really know if Bleaney was a closet intellectual and poet and philosopher, or if he was a failed chartered accountant, or an alcoholic living out his spare final days, but we think we do, we think the narrator does, we even think that bastard Philip Larkin does—he plays the magician’s role here, doesn’t he, confusing our visual expectations with his sleight of hand…

“You know, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat…”

Yes, it happens fast.


One Response to “Bleak House”

  1. Hi, interesting post. I have been thinking about this topic,so thanks for sharing. I will certainly be subscribing to your site.

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