Posts Tagged ‘Mr. Cogito’

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?

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