Saturday, January 3, 2009

Re-Reading The Virgin in the Garden

For Christmas I was given the new PD James mystery novel and also Billy Collins' latest book of poetry and also a number of book store gift cards that I've already exchanged for books. But what am I reading? I'm re-reading A.S.Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden. Why? I'm not sure. I just want to.

I saw a quote from it on a book blog and suddenly thought "I want to re-read that."? So I am. I'm not sure if that means I'm going to end up reading the three other books in the quartet. Maybe. I was thinking about it the other day when Jen blogged (indirectly) about Fibonacci sequences and that made me think of this series. The Fibonacci sequence comes up in the 3d book and runs throughout the 4th book, A Whistling Woman.

I read this book so long ago that I've forgotten all but the basic plot outline. That makes rediscovering the detail more enjoyable. It has also been interesting reading this novel after reading Lewis Hyde's The Gift. One of the things I have consistently liked about Byatt is how she describes the creative process - whether it is literary creativity or scientific creativity. Roland, in Possession, making lists of words, comes to mind. Also, the study of the ants in Angels & Insects.

According to Hyde, there are three gifts of the artist:

First the initial gift - what is bestowed upon the artist by "perception, experience, intuition, imagination, a dream, a vision, or another work of art." The artists tries to transmit this initial gift but rarely can he do it without laboring. The ability to do the labor is the second gift. I would say this is the gift of talent but it is also a gift of perseverance (which perhaps comes from the gratitude for the initial gift). The artist refines the initial gift and as it passes through the artist it increases. The finished work that is offered to the world is the third gift.

In Virgin, I particularly like the way Byatt describes how two of the main characters conceptualize the things that are important to them and it struck me that she was, in a sense, describing the process of that first gift.

Marcus Potter is a mathematical whiz who is, at this point in the novel, suffering from the mathematical equivalent of writer's block. He is trying to explain how he at one time was able to come up with mathematical solutions by visualizing geometry:

"Well -- I used to see -- to imagine -- a place. A kind of garden. And the forms, the mathematical forms, were about in the landscape and you would let the problem loose in the landscape and it would wander amongst the forms -- leaving luminous trails. And then I saw the answer."

But when questioned more closely about the landscape, he cannot answer with any precision and, in fact, when he tried to be more precise he lost the gift.

"You see -- it was important to see only obliquely -- out of the edge of the eye -- in the head -- the kind of thing it was, the area it was in, but never to look directly, to look away on purpose, and wait for it to rise to form. When you'd waited, and it was there in its idea, you could draw the figures or even say words to go with it. But it mustn't be fixed, or held down, or it . . . it was important to wait and they, the people asking, were pressing on me, how could I be patient, how could I, so I tried to fix, to fix, to fix ... and it was no good."

Marcus' idea that you could never look too closely at the garden reminded me of Hyde's admonition to suspend the will in order to let the imagination flow. He wrote:

There are at least two phases in the completion of a work of art, one in which the will is suspended and another in which it is active. The suspension is primary. It is when the will is slack that we feel moved or we are struck by an event, intuition or image. The materia must begin to flow before it can be worked, and not only is the will powerless to initiate that flow, but it actually seems to interfere, for artists have traditionally used devices -- drugs, fasting, trances, sleep deprivation, dancing -- to suspend the will so that something "other" will come forward.

Byatt directly talks about suspending the will in this next passage. Marcus' sister, Stephanie Potter, a former Cambridge star pupil, is now a teacher and in this passage is preparing to teach Ode on a Grecian Urn to a group of students. This passage describes how Stephanie would clear her mind of her conception of the poem in order to focus on the poem.

She required also that her mind at least should be clear of the curious clutter of mnemonics that represented the poem at ordinary times, when the attention was not concentrated upon it. In her case: a partial visual memory of its shape on the page, composed, in fact, from several superimposed patterns from different editions, the gestalt clear, but shifting in size: a sense of the movement of the rhythm of the language which was biological, not verbal or visual, and not to be retrieved without recalling whole strings of words to the mind's eye and ear again: some words, the very abstract ones, form, thought, eternity, beauty, truth, the very concrete ones, unheard, sweeter, green, marble, warm, cold, desolate. A run of grammatical and punctuational pointers: the lift of frozen unanswered questions in the first stanza, the apparently undisciplined rush of repeated epithets in the third. Visual images, neither seen, in the mind's eye, nor unseen. White forms of arrested movement under dark formal boughs. Trouble with how to "see" the trodden weed. John Keats on his death-bed, requesting the removal of books, even of Shakespeare. Herself at Cambridge, looking out through glass library walls, into green boughs, committing to memory, what? Asking what, why?

For Stephanie, the ideal was to come to [the poem] with a mind momentarily open and empty, as though for the first time.

But sometimes what she would "see" was unexpected.

She sat there, looking into inner emptiness, waiting for the thing to rise into form and saw nothing, nothing and then involuntarily flying specks and airy clumps of froth or foam on a strongly running grey sea. Foam not pure white, brown and gold-stained here and there, blowing together, centripetal, a form cocooned in crusts and swathes of adhesive matter. Not relevant, her judgment said, the other poem, damn it, the foam of perilous seas. The thing had a remembered look, not pleasant, and she grimaced, as she saw it. Venus de Milo. Venus Anadyomene. The foam born, foam from the castrated genitals of Kronos. Not a bad image, if you wanted one, of the coming to form from shapelessness, but not what she had meant to call up.

In the case of both Marcus and Stephanie, the sorrow is that neither is able to do anything with their gift. Marcus suffers some kind of breakdown caused (or exacerbated) by his relationship with a mad schoolteacher. Stephanie marries a curate and gets pregnant and her busy life precludes time for thought.

The situations that Marcus and Stephanie find themselves in are, to a certain extent, results of their own attempts to escape their father, Bill Potter, who is pushing each of them to "achieve." Ironically it will be the third sibling, Frederica who is the natural achiever in the family; the quartet is, in fact, about her. It isn't that Bill doesn't push Frederica, he just pushes her less and she has a constitution that doesn't respond negatively to the pushing. He pushes her enough so that she has a first rate education but she is, essentially, lost in the attention paid to Stephanie and Marcus by both parents. And perhaps this is the lesson; that no one can force another's gift to fruition.

There is another character in Virgin who I have found more interesting this second time around. He is in the third stage of the gift - offering the finished work to the public. Alexander Wedderburn has written his second play, a production of the life of Elizabeth I written in modern verse. It is to be performed as part of a local festival celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Here, he is thinking about the rehearsal process:

He had forgotten -- it was strange how one could forget -- how he had worked on Elizabeth's metaphors, winding into her verse the iconography of her cult, the phoenix, the rose, the ermine, justice and foison. Alone in this room he had worked and worked, and since he had finished the work, no one had remarked on these things. Crowe and Lodge talked about the dramatic pointing, contemporary relevance, cutting to speed it up overall pace, character. No one mentioned those images he had so lovingly, with such an indescribable mixture of voluntary elaboration and involuntary vision, constructed.

And here we have all three stages of the gift: involuntary vision (the first gift in which the will is suspended), voluntary elaboration (the second gift in which the will works on the first gift) and the letting go of the work into the world, a world that might or might not notice what you wanted them to, or at least thought they would, notice.

Another thing I like about Byatt is how she subtly and sometimes not so subtly makes fun of academia. She seems to understand that sometimes the study of literature can destroy the enjoyment of that same literature. So, while an author may lament that, upon first reading, the public does not notice certain things. the author should not necessarily wish for the opposite. She writes, almost immediately after that last passage:

In the fifties they wrote critical articles on "Blood and Stone Images in Wedderburn's Astraea."

In the early sixties, helpful lists of these images were published in Educational Aids to help weak A-level candidates.

In the seventies, the whole thing was dismissed as a petrified final paroxysm of a decadent individualist modernism, full of irrelevant and damaging cultural nostalgia, cluttered, blown. A cul de sac, the verse drama revival, as should have been seen in the beginning.

I've always found it fascinating that Byatt, on the one hand is committed to the study of literature - she has taught the subject and her novels abound with analysis of the process of creating literature. On the other hand she seems so ambivalent about the processes by which literature is taught. Or perhaps she isn't, and I am projecting my own ambivalence on to her writing.

Although I am a person who likes to analyze and discuss the language and structure of novels, I never had any desire to do it as an organized course of study that I paid for. I'm wondering if what I instinctively felt was that an analysis that arises naturally out of love of a novel is an acceptance and appreciation of the gift; whereas analysis without the love but simply as a requirement is a rejection of the gift.

In any event, I am enjoying this second read. It is a novel dense with ideas and since I already know the plot I can focus almost exclusively on the ideas. Which is always how I love to read.