Saturday, 11 January 2014

Literature and the botany of desire

Like the laws of physics or the atomic weight of nitrogen written language forms part of the commons we all rely on to exist. There's something miraculous in the way that we all agree that a certain arbitrary symbol has a specific connotation, and that sequences of such symbols have specific meanings. It's an act of faith. Since the Renaissance when printed books arrived in Europe people have been participating in the marketplace for ideas - compelled by whatever reason to write and publish - at a rate unprecedented for earlier ages and the incidence of publications continues to increase as time goes on. Digital media also mean more is written and consumed.

Publication is an act that furthermore has consequences that cannot be anticipated. A book appears and three generations later someone in another country reads it, and the thing that they are writing - or planning to write - changes in some unaccountable way. We talk of "influences". These random points of cultural miscegenation are illicit, contrary, and uncontrollable. With literature the thing becomes even more dangerous; it's like molecules of oxygen from a poisonous plant that suddenly enter your nostrils and feed your organism so that it can continue to live. I live in a forest of carnivorous shrubs and the exhalations from their leaves sustain and nurture me. Take, for example, this little book - it measures 10cm wide by 15cm high - by the dead Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It's just the right size to fit in my back pocket - or, more likely, in a handbag - and it is coloured a dull pink. It blushes. Neruda's poems were mentioned to me by my poetry mentor because I was writing love poetry, and I guess she thought I might find this man's poems interesting.

I did. But I also found something else: a reticence, and indirectness, a disinclination to use words in the most direct and unmistakable senses available. These are poems addressed to a lover by a man, they are intimate and passionate. But there is little of the actual sex act, not in the way we have become used to since the works of Henry Miller and James Joyce first appeared back in the 20s. But this is a book of a later generation, from the 50s. In the book Neruda has his own way, and employs certain tonic words, words that recur such as "mouth", "fruit", "flower", "leaf", "island", and these words in the aggregate form a certain poetics of desire. But 60 years or two generations down the track they seem slightly arch and distant, with the other words used somehow chosen to mask something that might otherwise have been more direct and explicit. It's like the use of metaphors in Renaissance poetry: distancing devices. Or like the use of irony and conceptualness in contemporary poetry: poetry where we are led to assign more importance to the head, rather than the heart.

Turning from Neruda to Proust, I can enter into the long, complex sentences the dead French novelist used in his effort to try to say things that had never been said before. Where you might find a link between Neruda and Donne or Herrick, for example, there doesn't seem to be much that anticipates the kinds of poetics Proust employs to describe, for example in the first book of his sequence of novels, the childhood of the protagonist. This is lyrical prose of a kind that enables the communication of feelings that occur so close to the region of the brain and so close to the senses of perception that we struggle to make sense of them, and let our eyes run on regardless to the next flare of insight that comes up in the text.

Proust's method is highly explicit whereas Neruda's is highly suggestive, but these books can functionally be translated into any language in the world, and read by practically any person alive with the means to visit a library or make a small purchase. Both Proust and Neruda have turned into carnivorous plants. Their books consume us as we venture past the irresistible fragrance of their traps, and the effulgence emanating from their leaves - fed by our desire - serves a secondary purpose, and helps to sustain us via the trachea and the lungs, the arteries and corpuscles. We are individuals but we have a crucial share in the commons - in language, and in written language especially - just as we all depend on oxygen to survive. 

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