Sunday, April 14, 2013

Down The Rabbit Hole Of Language

This week's Sunday Guardian column.


If the novel is indeed dying, someone forgot to inform today’s writers. The amount of new fiction published grows daily: take the recent reports of huge advances being paid to Indian writers for mythological sagas and stories of love in management institutes. For them, it’s always scribble, scribble, scribble, as the Duke of Cumberland once unkindly remarked to Edward Gibbon.

Just over a hundred years ago, however, a well-known writer composed a letter in which he confessed his inability to go on scribbling. The problem wasn’t lack of inspiration or time: it was an inability to connect with words. A chasm had opened between the word and what it referred to, and such was the writer’s eloquence that the letter is, till today, seen as a key text of literary modernism.

The Lord Chandos Letter was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal who, from the time he was a teenager, was the toast of fin-de-siecle Vienna for his lyric poetry.  His letter, composed when he was 28, is fictional on the face of it, but with elements of lived experience -- Hofmannsthal was never again to return to poetry or prose, and worked instead as a librettist with Richard Strauss.

In the letter, one Lord Philipp Chandos apologises to Francis Bacon for his abandonment of literary activity. “I have completely lost the ability to think or speak coherently about anything at all,” he writes. “Abstract words which the tongue must enlist as a matter of course in order to bring out an opinion disintegrated in my mouth like rotten mushrooms…Isolated words swam about me; they turned into eyes that stared at me and into which I had to stare back, dizzying whirlpools which spun around and around and led into the void.” He tries to heal himself by reading Seneca and Cicero, but to no avail. His trance-like, mystical state prevails, “a kind of continuous inebriation” when he sees “all of existence as one great unity”.

Finally, there’s some succour to be found in the aura of the object-as-itself: “A watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse—any of these can become the vessel of my revelation.” (Which reminds one of William Carlos Williams pointing out how much depended on a red wheelbarrow.)

Wittgenstein was an admirer, as was Kafka who, in an earlier letter of his own to Max Brod wrote: “My whole body puts me on guard against each word; each word, even before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands.” Hofmannsthal’s missive resonated with many of the Modernists who were his contemporaries, and still does so with those who struggle to capture reality in the net of man-made words.

In Enrique Vila Matas’s Bartleby & Co, for example, the narrator, a former writer and clerk in a Barcelona office, attempts to compose a work of footnotes to an unwritten, invisible text. He calls this “the literature of the No”, with Hofmannsthal’s letter being an emblem of the enterprise. At one point, he dreams of meeting J.D. Salinger on a New York City bus and asking him his opinion of “the day Lord Chandos perceived that the endless cosmic whole of which we are part could not be described in words.”

Then again, in the last section of J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, there’s a letter written by Lady Elizabeth Chandos, a sequel to the original, which asks Bacon to empathise with her husband’s plight as well as help him snap out of it.  “We are not made for revelation,” she cries. “Nor me nor you, my Philip, revelation that sears the eye like staring into the sun.”

Without revelation, such writers have fallen down a rabbit hole of language to discover – in the words of Beckett – “no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” They can’t go on, they’ll go on.

2 comments:

M.Costello said...

I love Lord Chandos Letter,Sanjay. I found it via Coetzee. It's one of the most profound and moving pieces of literature I've ever read. Absolutely heart-breaking- as is the Lady Elizabeth Chandos letter to Bacon in Coetzee's novel.

Sanjay Sipahimalani said...

Yes, it's certainly something. In one of his novels (I forget which), Banville has a character living on one Chandos Street...