Wednesday, August 20, 2008

`To Point a Moral, or Adorn a Tale'

Often one hears echoes in a text, real or imaginary, intentional or unconscious. Even writers who tout their originality are nothing without the past. The mind moves along grooves prepared long ago by forbears, and the best writers embrace their grooviness, so to speak. While rereading the first of Stevie Smith’s three novels, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), I came across this paragraph on page 39 of the New Directions edition (printed, alarmingly, on yellow paper):

“For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.”

Do you hear it, the echo? Smith’s narrator, the office secretary Pompey Casmilus, weaves into her monologue an allusion to Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1748), his transformation of Juvenal’s 10th Satire, lines 219-222:

“His Fall was destin'd to a barren Strand,
A petty Fortress, and a dubious Hand;
He left the Name, at which the World grew pale,
To point a Moral, or adorn a Tale.”

The “he” is Charles XII of Sweden, whose vanity and megalomania led to military defeat, the end of the Swedish Empire and his death. Johnson reduces his name to a moralistic platitude, a punchline. W. Jackson Bate devotes a chapter to “The Vanity of Human Wishes” in his life of Johnson, and says :

“…Johnson makes clear the inevitable self-deception by which human beings are led astray. We see objects through the fog of our own passions, and chase or fly distorted images that lack reality -- `fancied ills’ or `airy good.’ We substitute a hot pursuit of fame or wealth as unconscious proxies for what, without knowing it, we really seek.”

This comes close to one of Smith’s themes, if not her style or tone. Hitler’s Germany casts a shadow across Novel on Yellow Paper, while Pompey’s friends and co-workers pursue their “unconscious proxies.” Death, Smith’s ultimate theme, hovers in a mist of high-spirited language. She hints, never hammers. Novel on Yellow Paper is a late-Modernist caprice, a celebration of Pompey’s voice. When Smith published her first novel, Samuel Beckett was working on Murphy:

“She felt, as she felt so often with Murphy, spattered with words that went dead as soon as they sounded; each word obliterated, before it had time to make sense, by the word that came next; so that in the end she did not know what had been said. It was like difficult music heard for the first time.”

At the time, Beckett was also researching a play about the relationship between Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Thrale. Only fragments of the abandoned work have been published, under the title “Human Wishes.”

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