James Hill’s illustration for The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. From The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde, Heritage Press, 1968.
The Canterville Ghost
When Mr. Hiram B. Otis, the American Minister, bought Canterville Chase, every one told him he was doing a very foolish thing, as there was no doubt at all that the place was haunted. Indeed, Lord Canterville himself, who was a man of the most punctilious honour, had felt it his duty to mention the fact to Mr. Otis when they came to discuss terms.
“We have not cared to live in the place ourselves,” said Lord Canterville, “since my grandaunt, the Dowager Duchess of Bolton, was frightened into a fit, from which she never really recovered, by two skeleton hands being placed on her shoulders as she was dressing for dinner, and I feel bound to tell you, Mr. Otis, that the ghost has been seen by several living members of my family, as well as by the rector of the parish, the Rev. Augustus Dampier, who is a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. After the unfortunate accident to the Duchess, none of our younger servants would stay with us, and Lady Canterville often got very little sleep at night, in consequence of the mysterious noises that came from the corridor and the library.”
“My Lord,” answered the Minister, “I will take the furniture and the ghost at a valuation. I have come from a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy; and with all our spry young fellows painting the Old World red, and carrying off your best actors and prima-donnas, I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in Europe, we’d have it at home in a very short time in one of our public museums, or on the road as a show.”
“I fear that the ghost exists,” said Lord Canterville, smiling, “though it may have resisted the overtures of your enterprising impresarios. It has been well known for three centuries, since 1584 in fact, and always makes its appearance before the death of any member of our family.”
“Well, so does the family doctor for that matter, Lord Canterville. But there is no such thing, sir, as a ghost, and I guess the laws of Nature are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy.”
“You are certainly very natural in America,” answered Lord Canterville, who did not quite understand Mr. Otis’s last observation, “and if you don’t mind a ghost in the house, it is all right. Only you must remember I warned you.”
Toward dusk, the black birds descend, millions 1of them, to sit in the branches of trees nearby. The trees grow heavy with black birds, branches like dendrites of the Nervous System 2 fattening, deep in twittering nerve-dusk, in preparation for some important message… . 3
Later in Berlin, down in the cellar among fever-dreams with shit leaking out of him at gallons per hour, too weak to aim more than token kicks at the rats 4 running by with eyes fixed earnestly noplace, trying to make believe they don’t have a newer and dearer status among the Berliners, at minimum points on his mental health chart, when the sun is gone so totally it might as well be for good, Slothrop’s dumb idling heart 5 sez: The Schwarzgerät is no Grail, Ace, that’s not what the G in Imipolex G stands for. And you are no knightly hero 6. The best you can compare with is Tannhäuser 7, the Singing Nincompoop—you’ve been under one mountain at Nordhausen, been known to sing a song or two with uke accompaniment, and don’tcha feel you’re in a sucking marshland of sin out here, Slothrop? maybe not the same thing William Slothrop, vomiting a good part of 1630 away over the side of that Arbella8, meant when he said “sin.” . . . But what you’ve done is put yourself on somebody else’s voyage 9—some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain—playing her, its, game… you know that in some irreducible way it’s an evil game. You play because you have nothing better to do 10, but that doesn’t make it right. And where is the Pope whose staff’s gonna bloom for you? 11
From page 364 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1A million black birds sounds like a hyperbole of crows, but Berlin 1945, post-V-E Day—which is like, where we are here—I mean, it’s a desperate deathly ghastly place. So maybe buzzards and dreadful crows abound.
3 What’s the important message? Oh wait, we’re still in the marvelous tree-crow-dendrite simile—the “twittering nerve-dusk”—so the “message” the crow-tree-branches awaits is just part of the, uh, metaphor. Or not? I mean, this is a novel in large part about expectation—about waiting for the bomb to fall, waiting for the Sword of Damocles to descend. And also: awaiting a message of Return.
But: What a lovely little simile. Pynchon’s powers as a prose stylist seem under-remarked upon.
4Cf. page 359: “Last week, in the British sector someplace, Slothrop, having been asshole enough to drink out of an ornamental pond in the Tiergarten, took sick.”
The cellar, the diarrhea, the rats….I’ve written it before:Gravity’s Rainbow is a thoroughly abject novel—full of assholes (literal) and shit (literal) and toilets (literal). (And oh, also: metaphorical too, metaphorical too). Slothrop here is sick, literally evacuating—but also figuratively evacuating. A few pages later he’ll evacuate into his next identity, Rocket Man.
Cf. page 553, from Slothrop’s “Partial List of Wishes on Evening Stars for This Period”:
“Let me be able to take a shit soon.”
5I counted 75 words in the dependent clause that precedes Pynchon’s finally introducing the independent clause—which is to say subject and verb—
“Slothrop’s dumb idling heart sez”
(My count is likely off; I counted once and I’ve had some bourbon. I counted “fever-dreams” as two words, although I think you’re not supposed to do that).
Anyway: That’s a lot of dependent-clauseauge before, like, the main idea—which I guess, from a prose/aesthetic analysis, is the, uh, main idea—ascent, suspension—and then an immediate divergence (and note how Pynchon simultaneously deflates and invigorates his predicate verb “sez” with colloquial zeal).
6Many of Gravity’s Rainbow’s motifs almost cohere here. Pynchon highlights two of Slothrop’s ostensible “quests” — the Schwarzgerät (the mysterious “black device” that will be installed in rocket 00000 (present), and the sexy sinister plastic Imipolex G (past). (But also both, obviously: Future).
Slothrop’s dumb heart denies any knightly virtue, rejects Romanticism—and, perhaps, Modernism’s ironic obsessions with Romanticism.
(I think the passage above, what with its ravens and Venus-denial and grail-refusal, is a tidy antonym to Rossetti’s depiction of the Grail…and yet I’d argue Pynchon’s writing bears a Pre-Raphaelite streak)—
The episode strikes me as utterly true, a moment of honest self-speech. As Emily Dickinson put it: “I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true.” (One of Slothrop’s ancestor’s plagiarized Ms. Dickinson on his gravestone). And yet and yet and yet…Perhaps Tyrone S. is being a bit too harsh on himself (who among us hasn’t cast a harsh gaze into the mirror?).
Slothrop expels the old identity here, the old dreams, the old, evacuating space for the arrival of “Raketemensch,” — Rocketman!
Rocketman points to an emerging postmodern hero—a comic bookish hero, perhaps—totemic, sure, but also Pop, cartoonish, textual—framed (literally) in the conventions of previous centuries’ conceptions of “heroism.”
8Cf. pages 203-04 (annotations here), wherein Slothrop’s vomiting ancestor William Slothrop, in a remarkable passage of hysteron proteron, travels backwards from the New World to the Old.
9One of the central paranoias of Gravity’s Rainbow is that you might be on their voyage. How much agency do you have in your own life? And what’s the cost of asserting that agency? How many identities do you have to evacuate? And in the end—what’s left?
10Boredom strikes me as one of (if not the) central theme connecting Modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism.
Or: Simply note the motif of bloom, of fruition, of phallic life, of promise. In fuller context though—it’s a bloom too late. The question blooms from Slothrop’s self-speech, but also extends to you and me, reader.
Or: Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the sixth paragraph:
“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”
I filled 45 minutes that I had to wait for something at my favorite used bookstore. I spent most of the time perusing the section of German books—I’d never looked at them before. I was kinda sorta browsing for a copy of Arno Schmidt’s Zettels Traum. I picked up the English translation of Zettels Traum (Bottom’s Dream) not quite two weeks ago, and I was curious to see what the original looks like. It may or may not (I’m guessing probably not) have been there—I got a bit lost. (There are almost three million books in this store; at least 1000 or so in the German section, and not particularly well-organized).
I did pick up Schmidt’s sci-fi novel The Egghead Republic, which is much much shorter (and much much more accessible) than Bottom’s Dream. Here’s the blurb:
I couldn’t help but snap some pic of some of the German-language, German-published books I perused:
Arno Schmidt’s 1970 novel Bottom’s Dream is finally available in English translation by John E. Woods. The book has been published by the Dalkey Archive.
It is enormous.
As you can see in the picture above: Enormous.
But what’s Bottom’s Dream about? (This is the wrong question).
“I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was,” says Bottom. “I have had a dream, and I wrote a Big Book about it,” Arno Schmidt might have said. Schmidt’s rare vision is a journey into many literary worlds. First and foremost it is about Edgar Allan Poe, or perhaps it is language itself that plays that lead role; and it is certainly about sex in its many Freudian disguises, but about love as well, whether fragile and unfulfilled or crude and wedded. As befits a dream upon a heath populated by elemental spirits, the shapes and figures are protean, its protagonists suddenly transformed into trees, horses, and demigods. In a single day, from one midsummer dawn to a fiery second, Dan and Franzisca, Wilma and Paul explore the labyrinths of literary creation and of their own dreams and desires.
The novel begins around 4 AM on Midsummer’s Day 1968 in the Lüneburg Heath in northeastern Lower Saxony in northern Germany, and concludes twenty-five hours later. It follows the lives of 54-year-old Daniel Pagenstecher, visiting translators Paul Jacobi and his wife Wilma, and their 16-year-old daughter Franziska. The story is concerned with the problems of translating Edgar Allan Poe into German and with exploring the themes he conveys, especially regarding sexuality.
Did I mention that it’s enormous?
Look, I know that dwelling on a book’s size probably has nothing to do with literary criticism, but Bottom’s Dream poses something of a special case. As an article on Bottom’s Dream at The Wall Street Journal points out,Schmidt’s opus is 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds.
It’s a physical challenge as well as a mental challenge.
And, Oh that mental challenge!
Here’s the first page of Bottom’s Dream (the pic links to a much larger image):
Hmmm…? What do you think?
The obvious easy reference point here is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which indeed Schmidt was actively following, both in form and style: competing columns, a fragmentary and elusive/allusive style, collage-like metacommentary, an etymological explosion—words as paint, text as meaning. Etc.
(Did I mention it’s a lot longer than Finnegans Wake? Did I mention it’s enormous?)
Here’s a glimpse at two random pages (don’t be afraid to click on that image and get the full, y’know, effect):
I’ll never forget one of my graduate school professors warning us not to “peer too long into Finnegans Wake.” He called it an abyss. (The man loved Joyce’s work, by the way, and had studied under Hugh Kenner. I’m not sure if he meant abyss pejoratively. It was, like I say, a warning).
Bottom’s Dream seems like an abyss. As its title (a reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) suggests, “it hath no bottom.”
After nine days, I’m “on” page 21 of Schmidt’s novel now, and I have no idea what’s going on. And not just because it’s a primal gobbledygook wordmass. No, part of my incomprehension results from a very strong physical reaction to “reading” Bottom’s Dream. This physical reaction goes beyond the size of the volume—although there’s certainly something to the size. I more or less have to read the thing on my dining room table; it’s dreadfully uncomfortable on a couch, and probably impossible on my hammock or in the bathtub. I can’t really hold it while I read it. I think this matters, although I can’t really say how right now. The multiple columns, marginalia, images, etc. are engaging but also fragment my attention—and I generally find myself flicking through Bottom’s Dream, rather than sustaining the will to follow the “plot.” Right now, anyway, I find myself wrapped up in the aesthetics of reading Bottom’s Dream. It’s a tactile read. I enjoy it most when I smooth my hands over it, jump out of the stream, 20, 30, 100 pages forward, backwards. Relax a little.
Otherwise, Bottom’s Dream becomes a bit of a nightmare for me: I get all dizzy, thirsty, my eyes seem to thrum. Something going on in the inner-ear. It’s like a slow-motion panic attack. When that abyss-stress comes on, I jump ahead.
Which is how I found this bit of marginalia (I wish I’d recorded the page when I photographed it; but, also: the iPhone camera is a better recorder of Bottom’s Dream’s aesthetic textuality than any word-processing program. Even a scanner might straighten some of its bends and arcs, its voluminous volume):
Yes! Poe’s >swirlpools<! >intoxication o’r dizziness<! — there’s a description for me of my own reaction to reading Bottom’s Dream.
Poe might be something of a guide for me if I do try to stick out wandering through Bottom’s Dream, and his story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” referenced above, seems a particularly nice parallel to Schmidt’s bigass book.
“Descent” relates the tale of a sailor (a voyager!–a, like, metaphoricalreader, y’know) transformed by his encounter with the “Moskoestrom” —a swirling abyss from which no one returns. This vortex, “absurd and unintelligible,” breaks the sailor, “body and soul.” He can’t comprehend the storm. It’s unknowable, un-nameable. At best, he is able to make a sidelong glance at it, but can never plumb its depths. And not only is his glance broken, but all of his senses are fragmented. He escapes the maelstrom, but is unrecognizable to the sailors who rescue him. He becomes the voice of the vortex, the metonymy of a force he can perceive but can’t comprehend.
The maelstrom—the vortex, the abyss—this, for Poe, was language.
I’m not sure how deep I’ll travel into Schmidt’s maelstrom. I managed large sections of Finnegans Wake—but I had a guide in Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key. Someone to map out the terrain, show me the ropes, etc.
“This story,” commenced MacShaugnassy, “comes from Furtwangen, a small town in the Black Forest. There lived there a very wonderful old fellow named Nicholaus Geibel. His business was the making of mechanical toys, at which work he had acquired an almost European reputation. He made rabbits that would emerge from the heart of a cabbage, flop their ears, smooth their whiskers, and disappear again; cats that would wash their faces, and mew so naturally that dogs would mistake them for real cats and fly at them; dolls with phonographs concealed within them, that would raise their hats and say, ‘Good morning; how do you do?’ and some that would even sing a song.
“But, he was something more than a mere mechanic; he was an artist. His work was with him a hobby, almost a passion. His shop was filled with all manner of strange things that never would, or could, be sold — things he had made for the pure love of making them. He had contrived a mechanical donkey that would trot for two hours by means of stored electricity, and trot, too, much faster than the live article, and with less need for exertion on the part of the driver, a bird that would shoot up into the air, fly round and round in a circle, and drop to earth at the exact spot from where it started; a skeleton that, supported by an upright iron bar, would dance a hornpipe, a life-size lady doll that could play the fiddle, and a gentleman with a hollow inside who could smoke a pipe and drink more lager beer than any three average German students put together, which is saying much.
“Indeed, it was the belief of the town that old Geibel could make a man capable of doing everything that a respectable man need want to do. One day he made a man who did too much, and it came about in this way:
“Young Doctor Follen had a baby, and the baby had a birthday. Its first birthday put Doctor Follen’s household into somewhat of a flurry, but on the occasion of its second birthday, Mrs. Doctor Follen gave a ball in honour of the event. Old Geibel and his daughter Olga were among the guests.
“During the afternoon of the next day some three or four of Olga’s bosom friends, who had also been present at the ball, dropped in to have a chat about it. They naturally fell to discussing the men, and to criticizing their dancing. Old Geibel was in the room, but he appeared to be absorbed in his newspaper, and the girls took no notice of him.
“‘There seem to be fewer men who can dance at every ball you go to,’ said one of the girls.
“‘Yes, and don’t the ones who can give themselves airs,’ said another; ‘they make quite a favor of asking you.’
“‘And how stupidly they talk,’ added a third. ‘They always say exactly the same things: “How charming you are looking to-night.” “Do you often go to Vienna? Oh, you should, it’s delightful.” “What a charming dress you have on.” “What a warm day it has been.” “Do you like Wagner?” I do wish they’d think of something new.’
“‘Oh, I never mind how they talk,’ said a forth. ‘If a man dances well he may be a fool for all I care.’
“‘He generally is,’ slipped in a thin girl, rather spitefully.
“‘I go to a ball to dance,’ continued the previous speaker, not noticing the interruption. ‘All I ask is that he shall hold me firmly, take me round steadily, and not get tired before I do.’
“‘A clockwork figure would be the thing for you,’ said the girl who had interrupted.
“‘Bravo!’ cried one of the others, clapping her hands, ‘what a capital idea!’
October 17th.–Some of the oaks are now a deep brown red; others are changed to a light green, which, at a little distance, especially in the sunshine, looks like the green of early spring. In some trees, different masses of the foliage show each of these hues. Some of the walnut-trees have a yet more delicate green. Others are of a bright sunny yellow.
Mr.—- was married to Miss —- last Wednesday. Yesterday Mr. Brazer, preaching on the comet, observed that not one, probably, of all who heard him, would witness its reappearance. Mrs.—- shed tears. Poor soul! she would be contented to dwell in earthly love to all eternity!
Some treasure or other thing to be buried, and a tree planted directly over the spot, so as to embrace it with its roots.
A tree, tall and venerable, to be said by tradition to have been the staff of some famous man, who happened to thrust it into the ground, where it took root.
A fellow without money, having a hundred and seventy miles to go, fastened a chain and padlock to his legs, and lay down to sleep in a field. He was apprehended, and carried gratis to a jail in the town whither he desired to go.
An old volume in a large library,–every one to be afraid to unclasp and open it, because it was said to be a book of magic.
A ghost seen by moonlight; when the moon was out, it would shine and melt through the airy substance of the ghost, as through a cloud.
Prideaux, Bishop of Worcester, during the sway of the Parliament, was forced to support himself and his family by selling his household goods. A friend asked him, “How doth your lordship?” “Never better in my life,” said the Bishop, “only I have too great a stomach; for I have eaten that little plate which the sequestrators left me. I have eaten a great library of excellent books. I have eaten a great deal of linen, much of my brass, some of my pewter, and now I am come to eat iron; and what will come next I know not.”
A scold and a blockhead,–brimstone and wood,–a good match.
To make one’s own reflection in a mirror the subject of a story.
In a dream to wander to some place where may be heard the complaints of all the miserable on earth.
Some common quality or circumstance that should bring together people the most unlike in all other respects, and make a brotherhood and sisterhood of them,–the rich and the proud finding themselves in the same category with the mean and the despised.
A person to consider himself as the prime mover of certain remarkable events, but to discover that his actions have not contributed in the least thereto. Another person to be the cause, without suspecting it.