This turned the conversation to visualising. ‘How’, he asked, ‘do you visualise “knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering”? Is he mounted or on foot? And do you feel yourself Keats – five foot nothing? How do you see Wordsworth’s daffodils? Is it possible to translate the experiences of one sense into those of another? Surely not, for words cannot convey the essence of a sense.’
Tea with Walter de la Mare by Russell Brain
Reading this quote today brought to mind Rudyard Kipling’s astonishing short story Wireless. Kipling arranges a setting in which a tubercular pharmacist, without any knowledge of Keats, is inspired to intense poetric reverie by an accumulation of circumstantial detail – the freezing weather, the pharmceutical surroundings, tuberculosis, an infatuation with a woman called Fanny –
and writes an almost exact copy of The Eve of St Agnes [actually exact fragments of Keats more generally, the starting point is The Eve of St Agnes] (You can see why Borges loved Kipling – it’s a little like Pierre Menard). All this while an early experiment in wireless communication is being prepared in an adjoining room.
The narrator attempts to comfort himself with reason:
Like causes must beget like effects
But the effort to explain away what he’s seeing causes his soul briefly to bifurcate:
Still, the other half of my soul refused to be comforted. It was cowering in some minute and inadequate corner – at an immense distance.
Certainly the supernatural is not excluded, but it is not simply a ghost story, it is a technological ghost story, the experiment with wireless communication is clearly not incidental. (I’ve written before about Kipling’s reconfiguring of the supernatural for the machine age)
The engagement with the detail of new technology is a distinctive part of late Kipling. The impossibility of translation of experiences, of encoded replication, that Walter de la Mare suggests, is challenged by the processes of mechanical representation (the repeating obsession with a fragment of film in Mrs Bathhurst – something developed memorably in The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.) Challenged, not destroyed. To put it in the terms of the original quotation – the essence of a sense can convey words, specifically the same words; it can be replicated exactly.
Tom McCarthy is an obvious contemporary writer interested in these ideas. His C seemed to me to be heavily influenced by Kipling generally, and Wireless specifically. (An odd book C, the first third is among the best things I’ve read in recent years, but it only intermittently fires after that). The dancing silent children at the beginning is evocative of They, as is the wild motorcar ride. (Kipling, I believe, was one of the first writers to feature a motorcar in his writing). More generally, both explore the indeterminate boundaries between man and invented mechanism (see .007 amongst others). And of course, the conditions required for the exact replication of experience is one of the main obsessions of that wonderful book, Remainder.
There is another, perhaps somewhat incompatible interpretation: that Kipling’s story emphasises by the supernaturally unusual nature of the incident the uniqueness of all experience, and the manifestation if that emotional uniqueness in all works of art: it is the cohering of specific encoded detail into a picture of generally comprehensible meaning and significance. In a sense it supports de la Mare’s teatime musings.
It’s natural to cap this loose set of thoughts with a quotation from Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which has application to the move in intellectual perception from non-translatable experience, to the age of the replication of experience:
During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstance as well.
(btw I can exclusively reveal that the knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering was wheeling a pushbike – I replicated it more or less exactly earlier this week)
(oh, and Walter de la Mare comes across as a bit of a silly old bore in these tea-time chats, expert in the non-falsifiable –
‘I believe telepathy is almost continuous: if you and I were not in telepathic communication now, we couldn’t carry on our conversation’
Although they do occasion the sentence ‘He kept Moses in a Viennese cake-box’, the provenance of which I’ll leave you to speculate upon until I do something more general on him. All I will say for the moment is that his short story Lispet, Lispett and Vaine is a stone-cold masterpiece.)
(And, sorry about this, there’s an addition to the list of literary drinks in Wireless:
I refilled the stove, and, after reckless expenditure of Mr. Cashell’s coal, drove some warmth into the shop. I explored many of the glass-knobbed drawers that lined the walls, tasted some disconcerting drugs, and, by the aid of a few cardamoms, ground ginger, chloric-ether, and dilute alcohol, manufactured a new and wildish drink…
Anyone? Sounds rather pleasant. To be taken warm, with one of the asthma cigarettes that the chemist smokes. Don’t think it would have me writing Keats tho. Not if past form is anything to go by.)