Friday, 10 February 2012

A Sea-Grape Tree

The Swan in the Evening is a curiously divided book.  Its first half is a highly sensitive account of childhood; which captures it evocatively.  Rosamond Lehmann’s acute sensibility recreating the texture of a child’s egocentric life; its absorption in their immediate surroundings, capturing her intense sensitivity; her almost supernatural awareness; it is a time of ripe vividness where everything has significance; and when particular things, pieces of furniture and the odd plant, are full of portent.  It is a world where so much is seen for the first time; new things creating explosions of new excitement; and there is much we misunderstand – our ignorance is our mystery.  It is a time when every day is a new day (and is made just for us!); and yet always there is the fear of getting lost – in strange woods or amongst the incomprehensible sentences of our parents.[i]  

Lehmann’s description of that world closes with one incident, which at first seems out of place, but later proves to be prophetic: she has a vision.  It is an odd experience for the reader, and initially very confusing, for it appears in an excellent, but nevertheless conventional, autobiographical fragment.  It is as if we came across George Eliot in the parlour suddenly speaking like William Blake…

Once upon a time, but when, in actual time, I have no idea, a sudden searching convulsion of my whole ground of being overtakes me in the garden.  I am mooching alone along the gravel path that runs between the lawn and Lover’s Walk.  It is autumn, and the sun has dropped.  I am not Amaranth Aurora or Beryl Diamond, or that obsessive spell-maker, murmuring as I stroll or crawl around OM MANI PADME HUM.  I am almost no one, kicking up amber drifts of chestnut leaves, aware of the dark green thickets of laurel on my left, and on my right of the hoary expanse of lawn, ringed by blue deodars and cedars and already crisping with frost and sparkling in the opalescent haze of dusk.  I look up and see the moon quite high in the sky, a moon nearly at the full, singular in its lucence.  I stop to stare at it.  Then something extraordinary happens….  A flash… as if an invisible finger had pressed a master switch and floodlit my whole field of vision.  At the same time the world starts spinning, and I am caught up in the spin, lifted, whirled.  A voice splits the sky, splits my head….  And yet there is absolutely not a sound in the garden, not a barking dog, not a shunting train, not even a late robin; and although the detonation is within me it is also immeasurably distant, as far beyond the moon as I in the spinning garden am immeasurably below it.  It is the Voice of God, of this I am certain.  He has addressed me, he has pierced me with a word, an arrow with my name on it, imperative…

All over in a second.  I am put down again; dropped out.  I hurry back into the house, hoping not to be seen because I must look different.  I dash upstairs and seek the mirror in my bedroom; scrutinize my poorly lit reflection….  Not changed.

God has pointed at me.  He has not touched me.

The second half of the book is dominated by the sudden lost of the author’s daughter; and her own absorption in spiritualism, as she seeks to commune with her.  She believes absolutely, as we later read in the afterword to A Sea-Grape Tree, where she writes as if telepathy is as natural as the telephone – they are simply different lines connecting to different realms.  This is what confuses the reader: the extraordinary is placed amongst the ordinary, and treated as if there are no differences between them.  So talking with her dead daughter in the bedroom is as natural as conversing with the lollypop man on a zebra crossing.  Both occupy the natural world, she believes, although a slight oddity sets her views apart from their surroundings; a source of ridicule, blamed on others’ ignorance. The sceptic thus finds herself sitting in the first row of a fundamentalist sermon; and listens to what she assumes is either nonsense or symbol spoken as if they were matters of plain fact.  Nor is it just the eccentric content of the belief that puzzles us; even more disorientating is the believer’s reactions to that belief.  There is nothing fragile or doubtful about it.  So certain are they! behaving as if there is nothing unusual about what they think; the ideas simple and tangible as a cup of tea.  They do not recognise how bizarre they appear, to us, the liberal and sophisticated, who read their views as a sign of mental decline; and which frustrates us, and which we find hard to accept, as for years they have seemed just like you and me; though better and more profound - Rosamond Lehmann the great novelist, with unusual insight into our emotions…  Yet now we know she converses with dead bodies.  It is the moment when an illusion is punctured; and we lose that homely faith that we can fully understand another person; even our friends or colleagues who we believe differ little from ourselves, even when dyeing their hair in a melange of pink, orange and purple.[ii]

As I have written before, it seems the very sensitivity of this writer leaves her open to a faith like spiritualism; the crisis of her daughter’s death shifting her focus away from the natural world to her own inner space.  So although we are confused, and sometimes angry,[iii] frustrated at a person who refuses to recognise what we regard as something obvious – there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden, dear -, we receive an insight into the peculiar workings of a mind whose mental universe predominates over empirical fact: a place where mental images compete on equal terms with mundane reality.  It is a sort of art, but whose source material is within the mind itself; although Rosamond Lehmann would not accept this: for her the spirit world is a real place; jostling somewhere in the interstices of the material universe.

To understand A Sea-Grape Tree properly the earlier autobiography has to be read.  Only then do we pick up its resonances; and properly appreciate a reality we could so easily mistake for metaphor and symbol.  This novel, her last, is soaked in the themes that dominate the latter half of her autobiography; fashioning them into an art that is not altogether successful.  For Lehmann is too much the believer, too enclosed within her own mental space, her mysticism, to adequately evoke a new world for us to see.[iv]  She doesn’t give us enough material; is not prepared to compromise with our own doubts and scepticism, is incapable of clearly seeing her world from outside of herself; and thus we must either accept or reject her vision wholesale.  Inevitably there is a touch of unreality about it; for unless we share the faith we will not believe in all the pictures she creates.[v]  There are moments of her usual brilliance, but too often she appears unable to remove herself from her own life; her own stultifying consciousness.  This book is thus not a success, but it does help us to see her greatness; it helps us clarify why critics have tended to misrepresent, and perhaps diminish, her: she is much much more than a writer who writes about love. 

Although in a narrow sense there is much truth to this view.  Rosamond Lehmann does write about love; and nearly all the time!  In this book Rebecca says she is consumed by it – this West Indian island is a brief retreat from the cataclysmic end of an affair.  And this emotion, in all its variety, is a thick seam that runs through the other main characters; particularly Ellie Cunningham, Johnny, and Sibyl Jardine.  It also appears the animating source for the actions of other personalities we hardly see: Johnny’s wife Jackie, Mr de Pas… Love then is everywhere, although it vibrates at different intensities.

When we first see Rebecca she is in a mental crisis.  Her mind fractured, she lives an inner life that is separated from the island’s population by an almost reflexive surface – so unstable and so unfixed is her sense of self she is reluctant to give out her identity; and keeps her responses to questions and group repartee to a minimum.  Her hosts call her Anonyma when she refuses to give her name.  Already we feel echoes of Lehmann’s own loss, and her own mental crisis over the sudden death of her daughter.  Already the book feels too close to life, and we are uncomfortable with it; uneasy with the confessional elements, which also distract us, directing us to the real life of the author, as we scan the sentences for signs of her own personality, instead of exploring a created world through her characters’ consciousness.  When Mrs Jardine appears it feels as if life has invaded art, and conquered it; Sibyl really Sally, speaking once more from the dead…  It feels too forced, too contrived; too self-conscious; the author lacking the energy to properly turn all this material into art; and so it feels more like a book than a work of life – a strange paradox.  This may be the reason she recapitulates old themes: they are like old, obsessional, memories we try constantly to resolve to one’s present satisfaction; although the only satisfactory solution is forget them; letting them fade out through lack of thought.  One consequence is that love overwhelms this book; whereas the previous ones both evoked and analysed the complex shifts of emotions that underlie it.  Before, when in her prime, Rosamond Lehmann had the detachment to get below the governing ego, to evoke the forces (the Will?)[vi] that gives it texture and often shapes and controls it.  Love, on the other hand, is too entangled with our conscious selves, it includes too much me, and thus is a danger to the most profound art; which requires a touch of impersonality.[vii] Love is much too much, it is the most selfish of the emotions because the most personal.  With a falling off of her talent she cannot get beyond these particular feelings and so conforms to conventional opinion; losing her brilliance she seems to justify what others have written…[viii]

…there is “emotion evident in the situation”, an emotion which attaches itself naturally to the events there described. But it is not this emotion, common to all human begins confronted with like situations, that turns Dante’s account to poetry. The quality which is peculiarly “poetic” is something arriving automatically, independent of the poet’s will, and finding its place in the poem’s “complexity of detail”, in particular “phrases” and “images”. This “detail” is thrust up from below the levels of consciousness. (C.K. Stead discussing and quoting T.S. Eliot. The New Poetic. My emphasis)[ix]

The levels of personality that Eliot is discussing appear below not only our consciousness, but below our emotions too; that is why the great artists can evoke them so clearly and (dare I say) objectively.   Their origin a sense of an inner, pulsating, calm that can push out images and ideas when the mind is properly tuned in to receiving them.  This requires switching off both our self-consciousness and our emotions – at the moment of creation.  Lehmann in this book can only momentarily receive these signals; for the storms of her life had still not settled when she came to write this book.

Her encounters with Mrs Jardine, which occur in dreams, highlight this book’s weakness when compared to the excellent The Ballad and the Source.  In that book Mrs Jardine is an extraordinarily powerful and attractive presence.[x]  Here that forceful character remains in the memories of the inhabitants; and through the life of Johnny, an airman paralysed in a plane crash, who, in her usual way, she idolised and tried to create in her own image: thus the books he reads and the decorated beach hut in which he lives.

… a sort of cottage orné,  set up on stilts, with a high-pitched roof of rosy shingles, its walls stuccoed a deep shade of tawny pink; ornamented with shell encrustations: silvered bronze shells, pearl, honey-coloured, milky flushed with rose and violet; shells of all shapes and sizes in convoluted patterns…

Johnny lives inside yet another myth Sibyl Jardine has created; seeing the hut we remember her house on the hill, and her distinct tastes, highly feminine, and redolent of the aestheticism of the 1890s.  The hut exists under a sea-grape tree…  The symbolism seems obvious, but is nevertheless obscure…  is the tree Sibyl’s shadow?

The island is a sort of exotic hospital for Rebecca; a short stay that heals her devastated love.  Emotionally febrile Rebecca is susceptible to the attractions of another man, and she falls for Johnny’s beauty.  The novel becomes an exemplary study of how a woman partially recovers from an affair by starting a new one: the wilful emotions demand it.  However, the symbolism suggests something else, and gives an odd feel to the book: the affair is also an expurgation; but not of her faithless lover (whose name we are never given) but of Mrs Jardine.  Sex, which always take place in the hut, is not only a moment of ecstatic bliss but a victory over Sibyl’s memory; by clamping the older woman’s protégé between her thighs Rebecca vanquishes her dominating presence.  By competing with Sibyl on her own territory, and winning, she escapes at last from her influence…  Later, we find that Sibyl died shortly after seeing Johnny canoodling with her granddaughter Maisie; her jealousy overcame her – for no matter what the age gap there was always a sexual element to her worship of younger men: she idolised and created them, and desired them too. 

But it is never properly explained why Sibyl should command such a lasting influence; and why this need to conquer it – this is the artistic failing of the book; and stems, I surmise, from the author’s own need to expunge a painful presence; Sybil an analogue for her own daughter.  She thus becomes an alien object in the book; spoiling its artistic integrity.

Perhaps we would have accepted her presence if the novel could have recaptured the power of the original character.  However, we are given only the voice of Mrs Jardine, and the sentimental memories of those who knew her.  She returns to Rebecca in a dream, and because it is a dream the encounter between them is much more equal than before.  We hear her voice, but she has lost most of her charisma; and the tensions she was able to create are now easily resolved: living now only inside Rebecca’s mind she has been domesticated.  True to life, no doubt; but such matter-of-factness weakens even a realist novel; while this one aspires to the mythic.[xi]  The tensions inherent in this work that aspires to be both real and poetic, empirical fact and metaphysical presence, are compressed to breaking point with the entry of such a weak Sibyl.  She is too mundane for the spirit world.  She needs to be more alive in this one!

The day ended with a gift to Anonyma, the first, from Johnny.  Without warning, Johnny turned, as if – as if acknowledging, or surrendering, and possibly with a touch of irony beneath the look he bent on her: Johnny turned suddenly and gave her the taste of joy.  Pure, piercing, unmistakable, astounding taste of joy.

What happened?  A late swim from Johnny’s boat by starlight and the light of Louis’ lantern, leaving Ellie to prepare supper in the hut.  He swam far out, away from where she circled quietly just beyond the lantern’s soft corona.  Then back he came, she watched him, thrusting through the water with powerful strokes, his great shoulders looming as he came abreast of her and passed her without a word or glance.  Then suddenly he turned, swam back, swept her into his arms, gave her a kiss.  Not smiling.  Saying nothing.  A cold, salt kiss.  Cheek pressed to cheek they remained; then broke apart.  The boat came gliding up on silent oars, she swam away to shore, crossed the white sands, dressed again as usual behind the hut, joined Ellie who, mixing avocado salad, exclaimed with dismay at sight of her wet hair so recently fortified with egg and brandy.

So much happening in such a tiny time capsule.  The sudden recognition of love, and its fall into actuality; captured beautifully with the play of colours and the movement of the boat; with that sudden shift to land.  We see it all as one continuous movement, though each bit is split up into its own bright particularity.  Each moment a distinct atoll that will later appear in all its rich vividness; and on which the obsessive mind will recall again and again and analyse continuously… as here: Rebecca is looking back over what happened earlier in the day; which is reflected in the language; initially analytic and abstract, while vivid and very concrete descriptions then dominate the second paragraph.  The latter is her experienced memory; the former is how she thinks about it; giving the experience a heightened value in words that are overwrought and prophetic.

Is her affair with Johnny a brief interlude?  A tropical island in an otherwise conventional life…  in her afterword the author suggests it is: there was to have been a sequel, in which the affair would not be resumed.  This seems right; the atmosphere of the island, and the strange, intense, nature of the relationship suggests it is too attached to a particular time and place to be repeated in a different context.  Lehmann’s failure to write a sequel and the long gap between this book and her masterpiece, The Echoing Grove, also suggests something else: this island, and the brief ecstasy of the affair, which removed the agony of her abandonment, is a symbol of her own creative life.  After the death of her daughter, she could not return to the mainland; and was left scanning the horizons for a world she could see but not properly describe; for only the initiated could grasp what she envisioned.[xii]

[i] Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory accomplishes simple feats of imaginative reconstruction.
[ii] Gilbert Ryle, who I discuss in another Lehmann piece, also makes this mistake.  Except he doesn’t realise what he is doing – he believes all humans are the same!  It is an error that arises out of his behavourism; the belief that because we are made of matter we must somehow be almost inert: our minds are a substance to be acted upon (by various stimuli) rather than something that acts under its own motivation; and one that creates and thinks independently of the immediate stimulus.  (See the discussion in Bryan Magee’s Modern British Philosophy.) 
A contrary position is Chomsky’s, who argues that language clearly demonstrates the falsity of such a view: its fundamental structure is independent of the immediate environment.  (See in particular his Cartesian Linguistics and On Language.)  Konrad Lorenz, writing just over a decade later than Ryle, wrote that the internal working of the body have their own stimulus, and do not need unconditioned or unconditioned responses. (See his On Aggression).  A discovery that preceded Ryle’s book, but which he would not have been interested in – because, he would have argued, he was not a specialist in these areas!  Philosophy was all he knew.  It is the credo of the specialist taken to absurdity.  A popular view of the time.
[iii] This is reflected in the reviews of The Swan in the Evening, where some reviewers simply could not accept why so an intelligent and respectable a writer should believe such evident nonsense:
 “One critic wrote (privately) with distaste of ‘descriptions of mediumistic séances which you have obviously come deeply to doubt.’”
            Lehmann’s response is characteristic:
            “I cannot spot anything in my text that might give that impression…”
            Other reviewers tended to tip-toe around the book’s paragraphs, uncomfortable with their content, but unwilling to openly criticise; afraid of hurting the author.
[iv] In the earlier book, we read:
            “Now that I know that death considered as extinction is an illusory concept based on the ignorance, or prejudice, or the intellectual arrogance or snobbery, or the natural dread or not unnatural despair, or the built-in death-wish – the goût de cendre – of blind humanity; and that life goes on – relentlessly you might say, whether or no we fancy the idea, and certainly in accordance with cosmic laws which human reason is ill-equipped to understand…  now that I know this for certain…”  (my emphasis).
            At the very least these are highly controversial statements.  And yet the author has no doubts… at all!  This is naturally very threatening; for it suggests something impenetrable about her; something rigid and alien; that will not be moved or changed; and thus opposed to the natural condition for most humans, who are relatively plastic in their interactions with other people.  No doubts! But given the perplexities and confusions of life it is natural to have doubts about it; and we would expect intelligent, cultivated and liberal intellectuals to be particularly acute to the inconsistencies and puzzles the world constantly displays for our bewilderment.  However, for Lehmann the spirit world is more certain than most of what goes on in our mundane world, outside, that is, of direct experience; or at least that is how she must be read.
And this is perhaps the key to this strange puzzle: outside our direct perceptual experience all our knowledge of the world is a mental construct; which by its very nature is uncertain and contains elements of doubt (the external world and our knowledge about it are two different things, and they overlap imperfectly – see the footnotes in my Dropout Boogie for more comment).  With Lehmann the spirit world has ceased to be a faith or a mental construct – it is direct experience; but of a particular kind.  For the author it is direct contact with that world beyond appearances, what Christians call God, Kant the thing-in-itself, and Schopenhauer the Will.  For the more sceptical it is perhaps some direct experience of the workings of the mind itself; whatever that experience may actually be…  The certainty clearly suggests so.
[v] And this comes out in strange ways:
“…As if galvanised by an electric battery her face started to twitch throughout the layers of rouge and powder caking it.  Next, one eye fell open, winked.  Presently she exhaled a long tremolo of beatitude; murmured:
            “‘Ah, what a treat to drop off after the long day’s toil.  A mor-or-ortal treat.  Hark now!’
            “Violently she flung her head up; assumed the look of one intently listening.
            “In truth the throbs, brays, moans of a recorded dance band had began to float from far across the bay.”
            Note that archaic “Hark now!”  Miss Stay here comes across as a piece of high Victoriana; a sort of music hall (or Dickensian) automata – the facial features appear as something that happens to her, of which she is scarcely aware.  The comedy of the scene softens the impact of our first encounter with Miss Stay’s mediumistic power; out scepticism is assuaged when she mistakes a phonograph for the voices of the spirit world.
            One can justify the sort of place that attracts this kind of character: an imperial island where life is cheap and the social conventions more elastic, and where remnants from previous generations and the eccentric collect to soak up the last years of their lives; pickled inside their oddity.  But here there is something just a little too archaic, something too stagy, about such a character as Miss Stay (note the name! and all its implications): not enough life has been put into her, so she remains too mechanical, falling off the edge of caricature.  Too much thought about she is not adequately felt; and with too little feeling in her she is not a fully created being (or at least not created enough to come properly alive).
We accept such a minor character; and in all their eccentricity. But to also accept as quite normal her powers as a medium she needs to be more fully realised; we must grasp a sense of the reality inside her; and it must collide in some way with the scepticism of the other characters (those substitutes for ourselves).  That is, Rosamond Lehmann must see Miss Stay both from the inside and the outside, the latter requiring a double distance: from her own belief and our agnosticism. 
In this scene the strains on the book are beginning to tell…  This is reflected in the author’s afterword, where she describes the novel’s location as a sort of Prospero’s isle; “part poetic, out of time, part realistic…”  This is a hard combination to get right; and odd moments like these expose the novel’s weaknesses; we see the rust on the chain links binding these different elements together.
[vi] See Found You! for more discussion.
[vii] Lyric poetry may be an exception.  But even this is debateable.  Perhaps the greatest lyric poet of last century, Marina Tsvetaeva, who at first glance seems an exception, writes quite differently about the source of her poetry.  Like Rimbaud (I is another) Tsvetaeva writes of the artistic impulse as something other; impersonal and outside her daytime self:
            “Shyness of the artist before the object.  He forgets that it is not himself writing.  Vyacheslav Ivanov said to me… ‘Just make a start!  By the third page you’ll be convinced there is no freedom’ – meaning I shall find myself in the power of things, in the power of the demon, merely a humble servant….
            “Not without reason does each of us say at the end: ‘How marvellously my work has come out!’ and never: ‘How marvellously I’ve done it!’  And not: It’s come out marvellously’, but it’s come out by a marvel, always by a miracle; it’s always a blessing, even if sent not by God.
-        “And the amount of will in all this?
-        “Oh, enormous.  If only not to despair when you wait by the sea for good weather…
“And listening is what my will is, not to tire of listening until something is heard, and not to put down anything that wasn’t heard.  To be afraid not of the rough-work page (criss-crossed in vain searches), nor of the blank page, but of one’s own page: self-willed.
“Creative Will is patience.”  (Eponymous essay in Art in the Light of Conscience)
Love helps to generate the emotions, which provide the energy for creative work.  But art requires more than emotion. Thus in an earlier essay Tsvetaeva writes about the importance of judgement of the artist (weaker in the lyric poet, she believes): that sense of taste, a feeling of just-rightness which indicates when a work is good.  Emotion doesn’t have this particular kind of subtlety; this artistic tact; and to equate art with it is to mistake the locomotive for the train driver, and both for the hidden engine that powers them.  It is one of the reasons why people in love write such bad poetry: the page is just one of the outlets, just one station stop, for all the emotional energy they need to release; but their talent, which is linked to but separate from those emotions, does not exist for them to give it proper shape.  To use the poet’s terminology: the willed self overcomes the listener; and the subterranean currents, that include both the content and form of the art object, are lost in the surface noise, the purely physical expression of a particular emotion.
[viii] Conventional opinion being simply an opinion is merely a simplification of the much richer source material; it is an abstraction from life.  This book is so close to the stereotype because the artist here is less evident than the person, and so the latter’s ideas, their conscious mind, which is often merely reflexive, is too much in the ascendancy.
[x] Was the author influenced by the impact of Hitler when she was writing it?  The book was published in 1944.
[xi] See the author’s comments in the afterword.
[xii] As, perhaps, she herself, acknowledges:
            “A Sea-Grape Tree is generally considered an unsatisfactory work.  It would ill become me to argue for it; but perhaps I might just venture to say that Anonyma’s conversation with Sibyl Jardine was intended to be a telepathic one.  Telepathy between the incarnate and the discarnate is much less uncommon than is generally supposed.  Sibyl is made to speak as she spoke on earth, as in The Ballad and the Source, in a somewhat didactic or mandarin style; but I see the experiment was rash and courted irritation, head-shaking, even mockery from a few critics ever willing and never afraid to wound.”

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