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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR MAY 2005

May 31,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

He lay back in the soiled sheets, thinking what a slut Madame la Botte was, to let Lotte change them so seldom. Dante should have had a region, above the gluttons, perhaps, but below the lechers, for the physically unclean; or a worse one for the la Bottes, who, spotless themselves, forced uncleanliness upon others. He despised Dante, a little, for his lack of enterprise in leaving so many of the less-advertised sins unaccounted for. He saw his landlady in Malebolge, lying for eternity on mattresses of foul straw, with pillows of dung, her nails too sealed with filth to pick from the fat creases of her body the undying louse: yet, somehow, the pictured did not give him the satisfaction he had expected . . . .

--The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson

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May 30,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Querini, still excited by the success of his recital, got along with her splendidly. It was surprising how many acquaintances they had in common. She marked her acceptance of him as a person within her own social ambience by indulging in genial abuse of people they both knew, an exercise at which he also, gentle as he seemed, was by no means inept. Daniel repressed a hot twinge of anger at the great truth this suggested to him: which was that his own acceptance had not bee complete. The Mrs Joneses of this world, he thought, were polite only to their inferiors, and impolite about persons on their own level only to other persons on their own level.

--The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson

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May 26,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘I am alien to you,’ said Daniel, ‘utterly so. I do not sing in chorus. I do not rattle out, in a half-baked fashion, the Freudian claptrap which has been so successful because any dirty-minded dunce can understand it. Not that I am accusing you, Miss Merlin, of being dirty-minded. Where no mind exists, it is impossible for there to be either dirt or cleaniness.’

--The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson

 

The Frustrated Artiste

Usually, the sign of an author’s ineluctable declension into maudlin sentimentality presaging a limitless wandering in the barren wastes of banality without a drop of imaginative sustenance to be had from any of the dried-up wells of once-famed creativity (in other words, when one becomes like John Updike) occurs when the latest novel features a frustrated writer. Think of Chip, the frustrated ex-college professor cum screen writer, in Jonathan Franzen’s painful tour-de-farce The Corrections (if only his editors had taken the title literally, not just literarily). Or course, there are exceptions that prove the rule, the most notable appearing in Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro (well, perhaps that’s not a fair counter-example since the protagonist there isn’t frustrated, just dying—close enough for blog-work). And then we have Daniel Skipton from Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Unspeakable Skipton.

Skipton is a frustrated writer whose intellectual gifts are unappreciated by the worldly philistines. This prolonged bout of obscurity has turned Skipton into a hater. Indeed, he lovingly crafts elaborate fantasies dwelling on the purported roots of his anomie (if one can have rooted anomie, similar to a turnip, I believe):

He had a tiny vision of himself, no larger than a playing card painted on a finger nail, of himself walking across the playing-fields of his public school (not, perhaps, a great one, a snob one, but coming nevertheless within the comfortable embrace of the Headmaster’s Conference), a proud, Byronic boy labelled clever by the staff and on two occasions defenestrated by his schoolmates. Not a popular boy, not with oafs: but he had left his mark. The school, one day, would be among the great schools because it had nurtured him, if one could call it nurturing. He saw the football field curving over on the western side towards the willows and the stream, his breath making angels on the frosty air. He saw Puggy Boyle and his mob approaching to remove his trousers, which was for them an entertainment in times when nothing better offered itself: and he ran, clumping in the mud, clutching himself in anticipation, horribly winded with the hate that had not yet turned to despair, he ran and he ran.

I know Ms. Johnson had not intended this parallel, but I, at least, have the sense from reading her book that Skipton has an ominous predecessor in the form of that most destructive frustrated artist in history: Adolph Hitler. Skipton illuminates the road that Hitler should have followed from the sprawling metropolis of hate to the outer reaches of the hamlet of despair. Hitler should have given lectures on landscape painting similar to Skipton’s disastrous debut in Bruges:

He looked around. Such audience as there was had huddled itself instinctively, as if against the cold, in a little clot starting five rows from the front. There were some under-graduates of Liège and Brussels whom he knew by sight, earnest lads who would swallow down any intellectual pigswill in their frenzy for marks, and one or two elderly women. Sitting right at the back were three derelicts from the quais, who picked up some sort of living out of begging from tourists. One had sensibly prepared for the entertainment by falling already into a deep sleep.

To further the analogy, at one point, that being the penultimate act before Skipton’s wished for apotheosis is cruelly transformed into his immolation, Skipton gives vent to thoughts one could see eerily illuminating the fecal-splattered mind of Herr Hitler:

It was good to be among them for the last time, and not to need them. He was strong again, secure, pride burning high in his head like the wick of a lamp newly filled. The days of humiliation were over; and it sickened him to look back upon them. There were times, disgusting times, when he had been compelled to unleash submerged and horrible delights by thinking of humility; to frame images of himself standing cap in hand, trailing the mantle of his genius in the muck so that swine might safely cross to the other side of the way without soiling their trotters. He had seen himself lying in the gutters of the night, being kicked in the face, the buttocks, the groin, by those who at this moment were smiling upon him, assiduously refilling his glass. He had seen himself upon his knees polishing Pryar’s toe-caps with his tongue, tying Duncan’s laces with his teeth, while they patted him, and called him Good Dog, and put a lump of sugar on his nose. Beastly delights; and it was not long since he had been reduced to them as the only ones within a pauper’s reach.

But that was all over now. He was Nebuchadnezzar, the mud washed away, his hair clean and barbered again, the last shreds of grass scrubbed away from his teeth; back on the golden throne among the kings of the earth.

I know Ms. Johnson intended this passage to be slyly humorous in a bitter, Skipton-like manner. But I find it much more than that—it is a chilling illumination into perhaps the most twisted, frustrated artist’s mind who was ever granted this wish: to become Nebuchadnezzar and have the Pryars and Duncans grovel at his throne before being frog-marched off into oblivion. Yes, yes, The Unspeakable Skipton is very, very funny. But, unintentionally, I think it is also very, very disturbing.

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May 25,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘I do think people ought to be punctual,’ Dorothy whined. ‘I do loathe bad manners, especially in people who claim to be so grand.’ She might have picked out the word with forceps and dropped it into a jar for sterilisation.

--The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson

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May 24,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

So, at these words recalled to him after so many years, he felt a dreadful writhe of desire, destructive of his resolve, of all the strength he had lived by. It was not the beauté, the calme, the luxe, the volupté: it was L’ORDRE. That was the word, terrible in its capacity to ruin the soul with hopeless longing. To be offered the rest—that was nothing: a man could resist them. But to be offered them plus l’ordre: that was the thing, that was the torment, that was the deepest point of the heart’s sick longing. For we live in a mess, Daniel thought, in a sickening, formless mess; we have beauty in a mess, we are luxurious in a mess, we are calm in a mess, voluptuous in a mess. And so we are vulgar: men or beasts: never gods. But l’ordre—that was the difference between man and God! Man is for ever miserable because he is set in competition with God, and God wins; God, in His order, inevitably, callously, in His cold calculation, wins.

--The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson

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May 23,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Duncan broke in, ‘Perhaps Skip would dine with us as well. He-’

‘We have imposed on Mr. Skipton quite enough!’ Clytemnestra could not have looked more blackly upon Agamemnon than she upon Duncan. If I were he, Daniel thought, I would ram her head down into that disgusting cake and hold it there till she choked in cream. ‘We are not going to take up any more of his time than is strictly necessary,’ she added, with an assumption of gracious firmness, as if working together with him for his own good. ‘Au revoir, and thank you so much. So kind of you.’

--The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson

 

A Paean to Invective

I’ve had a chance recently to take another peek into Pamela Hansford Johnson’s little guilty pleasure, The Unspeakable Skipton.  Johnson is yet another of those highly entertaining mid-twentieth-century British writers who are completely unknown on these benighted shores. She wrote a comic trilogy about authors; and The Unspeakable Skipton is probably the best of the three. It concerns the paranoia of the modern writer who may have scribbled off some trifle of passing interest eons ago but now must sponge off of the credulity of others as he forges within the burnt-out smithy of his sterile soul the Great Masterpiece (think William Gass and his gassy, The Tunnel). Of course, in the States, such a person is a tenured English professor (make that, Professor Gass).  So, us Yanks must forego the delicious grottiness of Skipton’s louche life in the Belgian city of Bruges while he enjoys the largess of the once-proud British pound.  But, nonetheless, we can revel in his poison-pen missives to his long-suffering publisher. And here is Skipton’s (and Johnson’s) true forté.

Skipton has been diligently polishing his Great Masterpiece which he is loath to submit to the dingy caresses of his publisher, Utterson:

He knew well enough that the cur Utterson would like to get his hands on it. It was not only a great book, it was the greatest novel in the English language, it would make his reputation all over the world and keep him in comfort, more than comfort, for the rest of his life. It would cause a rustle in the dovecotes, for in it he had pilloried, as Odysseus pilloried the wicked maid-servants on a line, like so many strangling birds, every one who had ever insulted or injured him. Cur Utterson was there: he wouldn’t like it much, but he would put up with it, so long as he made enough money out of it. He would grin and bear it, pretend he was pleased to act as a model to so great an artist. But Utterson would have to wait. He was not going to get this manuscript until it was perfect, until every gem, from the greatest to the least, was gripped in every golden claw.

So let’s move on to the burnishing, where Utterson, in the sheer fictional negligee of Billy Butterman, is being fleshed out—or eviscerated—by Skipton’s sharp pen:

‘Men like Billy Butterman are rarely recognised as parasites, since parasitism is associated with the minuscule; but if triple-visaged Dis gnawing the bloody heads in the bottom of hell were to have a louse in his armpit, that louse would be Butterman, sucking as much nourishment from Dis, in proportion to his size, as Dis from the arteries of Judas, Cassius and Brutus, for ever burrowing for ever gorged, for ever content.’

Such invective is worthy of the mighty Rabelais! Of course, Skipton is describing his own parasitical relationship to the long-suffering Utterson who continues to send him checks in spite of the lack of literary output. But such benevolent acts fail to save Utterson, nee Butterman, from the stone-sharp pendulum pen of Skipton:

‘It was upon the eve of the Feast of Saint Pisca, Blessed Virgin and Martyr, that is to say, the eighteenth day of January in the Year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Fifty, that the hog Butterman, replete from pleasures of the table that he shared with Valentina, his hippophile wife of infinite coarseness and greed, made the acquaintance of Carolie Sterling, woman dramatist, pretentious, pop-eyed, from the purlieus of Purley Downs.’

Let’s leave off with one more venomous blast upon the bulbous butt of Butterman:

‘The effrontery of Butterman was beginning to break all bounds. Even the most patient of his friends felt a longing to kick the great, flabby backside which he swung from left to right as he walked as if under the impression that it had the baroque magnificence of a peacock’s tail. It was sickening to see him bear down with unctuous refulgence upon a great artist, whom he was in process of sucking dry, to smear him with the honey or patronage while picking his pocket.’

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May 22,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

He took out the green pen and looked at the tip of it, reverencing the spring from which the words would tumble in their joy and crystalline freedom, till they reached the discipline of the river. For him, words were not simply sounds, single or in combination: they had forms as visually distinctive as oriental ideographs. Even when he was at his hungriest, as he was now, since he had eaten only bread and butter that day, a word standing in its heavenly shape like a girl with a jar upon her shoulder could make him forget the cruelties of man and nature. Sometimes he would fall in love with one word only, and scheme to use it: today he wrote ‘fritillary’, retracing his pen in delight down the wing-curve at each end, the antennae in the middle. It filled his room with its mothy light, it flickered the paper all over with peacock eyes of gold.

--The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson

Stupidest Literary Contest in the Last 25 Years

Click here to see what it is.  How stupid is it?  Well, the scribbler who came up with this one shamefacedly admits that David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest did not get one vote.

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May 17,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The world’s going to hell in a taco.

--Zita Wright

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May 16,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

In 1911 the Copyright Act got rewritten, and the date of first publication became irrelevant. After 1 July 1912, the reprinter’s magic year would be the year the author had been dead fifty years. That meant 1930 for George Eliot, 1939 for Browning, 1942 for Tennyson. Decades away! In effect, a mere Act of Parliament had rendered the stride of the series [Everyman] impossible to maintain. So the Second World War was being fought by the time Everyman’s could issue a selection from the later Browning, and by then Browning was a period piece.

--A Sinking Island by Hugh Kenner

[N.B.: Kenner is describing the state of copyright in Great Britain. Here in the States, the situation is much worse:  Generally, 70 years after the author’s death, but with the added glitch that works copyrighted in 1923 would not enter the public domain until 2019.  In other words, almost all of modernism is off limits, not only to reproduce, but to incorporate into later works.  There are no giants for a new Milton or Newton to stand upon because they are not dead yet.  I think this development, more than a mere dearth of talent, explains the sorry state of American letters.]

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May 15,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

By five o’clock the sky had lost its color, not through a gathering of could but of that leaden mist which is the precursor of greater hear. Even by the sea it was uncomfortably warm and sticky. The great ugly hotels and cafes jammed along the wide promenade as far as the eye could reach were locked in the torpor of an off-season. Nothing stirred upon the miles of sand, which unlike the sands further south were not yellow, but the mud-grey of shores in a dream. Far out, a Channel steamer caught upon its funnel, out of nowhere, a tip of light.

--The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson

 

The New New Kitsch: A Sack of Phlegm

I have written before about how the relaxation of standards with respect to poetry has opened wide the gates to a motley crew of thieves, thugs and vagabonds.  I neglected, however, to describe one particularly seedy sort of poseur: the Man of Letters Manque.  This is the prolific—one might say, profligate—author, who writes on anything and everything in exchange for a bit of lucre.  Of course, the monumental modern exemplar par excellence is my favorite bête noire, John Updike. He can write about art. He can write about terrorism.   He can write about terrorizing art.  And now, he’s terrorizing poetry.  Here’s his latest drippings from the current issue of the New York Review of Books:

Lucian Freud

(An exhibit in Venice, September 2005)

Yes, the body is a hideous thing,

the feet and genitals especially,

the human face not far behind. Blue veins

make snakes on the backs of hands, and mar

the marbled glassy massiveness of thighs.

Such clotted weight’s worth seeing after centuries

(Pygmalion to Canova) of the nude

as spirit’s outer form, a white flame: Psyche.

 

How wonderfully St. Gaudens’ slim Diana

stands balanced on one foot, in air, moon-cool,

forever! But no, flesh drags us down,

its mottled earth the painter’s avid ground,

earth innocently ugly, sound asleep,

poor nakedness, sunk angel, sack of phlegm.

 

First, I don’t object to this cri de coeur for brutality, this paean to ugliness.  I, too, am an ardent admirer of Lucian Freud—I’d be willing to hear an argument that he’s the greatest living painter.  No, the subject matter I do not object to.  It’s the tin ear for rhythm or any form of musicality.  And, no, Updike can’t escape censure by arguing that since the subject matter concerns ugliness, the form must be ugly, too. What gives the game away?  That horrid bit: "mars the marbled glassy massiveness of thighs."  One can almost see Updikes brain, like The Little Engine That Couldn’t Quite, chugging up this sludge—"Ah, it has alliteration, assonance, internal rhyming, how delicious!"  No, how hideous.  Read the poem aloud and try not to slit one’s tongue on the jagged splinters of clotted consonants.  But this little dilly smack in the middle gives the lie to any argument of poetic competence.  It reeks of the new, new kitsch: An offensive excess of emotion.  Updike is a second-rate show off that doth praise ugliness too much.

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May 11,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

[H]e had assumed the blue expression peculiar to a certain type of drunkard, tepid with two drinks grudgingly on credit, gazing out of an empty saloon, an expression that pretends he hopes help, any kind of help, may be on its way, friends, any kind of friends, coming to rescue him. For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar. Yet he really wants none of these things. Abandoned by his friends, as they by him, he knows that nothing but the crushing look of a creditor lives round that corner. Neither has he fortified himself sufficiently to borrow more money, nor obtain more credit; nor does he like the liquor next door anyway. Why am I here, says the silence, what have I done, echoes the emptiness, why have I ruined myself in this wilful manner, chuckles the money in the till, why have I been brought so low, wheedles the thoroughfare, to which the only answer was-- The square gave no answer.

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

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May 10,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Cervantes handed Yvonne and Hugh each a menu but they were sharing hers: "Dr. Moise von Schmidthaus’ special soup," Yvonne pronounced the words with gusto.

"I think a pepped petroot would be about my mark," said the Consul, "after those onans."

"Just one," the Consul went on, anxious, since Hugh was laughing so loudly, for Cervantes’ feelings, "but please note the German friends. They even get into the filet."

"What about the tartar?" Hugh inquired.

"Tlaxcala!" Cervantes, smiling, debated between them with trembling pencil. "Si, I am Tlaxcaltecan . . . You like eggs, senora. Stepped-on eggs. Muy sabrosos. Divorced eggs? For fish, sliced of filet with peas. Vol-au-vent à la reine. Somersaults for the queen. Or you like poxy eggs, poxy in toast. Or veal liver tavernman? Pimesan chike chup? Or spectral chicken of the house? Youn’ pigeon. Red snappers with a fried tartar, you like?

"Ha, the ubiquitous tartar," Hugh exclaimed.

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

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May 9,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse?

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

 

A Literary Myth

Once upon a time a little girl, Irène, lived with her family in the capital of the Ukraine, Kiev. Here in the prosperous state of the Ukraine, part of the vast country of Russia, her family prospered thanks to her father, a successful banker. One day, though, revolution swept across the Russian steppes, bringing misery and hardship in its wake. These revolutionaries were called "communists" who felt that the wealthy urban people—whom they called "bourgeois capitalists"—had unfairly oppressed them. These communists particularly sought out bankers to face their wrath. And so, Irène’s family was forced to flee the Ukraine and all of Russia. Eventually, her family found shelter in Paris, France where, again, they prospered. Irène grew up and became a writer. Her books were well received; and one of them was even made into a movie. But, alas, France too was invaded by the "Nazis" who were even more implacable and terrifying than the communists. Unlike the communists, they did not care what profession you had. Rather, they believed in a theory, or, rather, a story, called "race." This thing called race they thought you were born with and could never get rid of. Some races were good but other were very bad and had to be destroyed. Why did the Nazis believe in such a vicious story? Because they were selfish and the story made them feel good about themselves since they were of a "race" that was, of course, the best of all, and must be saved from all contamination from the so-called "bad" races. Now, according to this race story, Irène was "Jewish" and there was nothing she could do to change that even though she no longer practiced the religion associated with being Jewish and had converted her religion to Catholicism. These Nazis hated Jewish people and wanted to kill them because their story told them that Jews were of a particularly bad "race." And so, as the Nazis descended upon Paris, Irène fled. But she could not leave France and, a couple of years later, Irène and many others that the Nazis labeled as "Jews" were deported to horrible death camps, Irène going to the one that was, if possible, more horrible than the rest, Auschwitz, where she soon died. Many years pass. Then, one day, a relative of Irène’s brings a manuscript of hers that had been kept hidden away from all the terrible invaders to a publisher. This manuscript concerned the lives of ordinary people and how they were affected by the invasion of France. It was published all over the world; and people read it from all over the world.  And it was . . . .

Well, the proper ending for this literary fairy tale is that: "And it was the greatest masterpiece that had ever been written." Unfortunately, it isn’t.  Not even close. But that, at least in part, is not the fault of the heroine of our literary fairy tale, Irène Némirovsky, who did suffer deportation and did die in Auschwitz before she had the chance to finish her novel, Suite Francaise.  This work was to consist of five interlocking novella-length parts.  Each novella would stand on its own, although each also shared one or two characters from the work as a whole. Like Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, or, more pertinently, Balzac’s Comedie Humaine, each novella would focus on a few characters who would assume cameo roles in other parts of the work. If completed, it’s possible that Suite Francaise may have been described as a lesser, though still outstanding work, similar in construction to the two described above. Unfortunately, only two of the five interlocking parts were written before Irène was killed. These two parts show much promise—although, particularly with respect to the second part, there exists a historical preoccupation with class which tends to date the work. The translation from the original French has been beautifully rendered by Sandra Smith. So, does this book deserve to be read today?  On balance, I think it is a highly entertaining read which is quite affecting—although I’m not sure that latter quality is due in large part to the work itself or the literary myth I retold above. Who cares, I still recommend it.  And, who knows, the world is certainly a more interesting—and, perhaps, even a better—place with such literary myths.

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May 8,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The consul dropped his eyes at last. How many bottles since then? In how many glasses, how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anís, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses—towering, like the smoke from the train that day—built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill from the Generalife Gardens, the bottles breaking, bottles of Oporto, tinto, blanco, bottles of Pernod, Oxygènée, absinthe, bottles smashing, bottles cast aside, falling with a thud on the ground in parks, under benches, beds, cinema seats, hidden in drawers at Consulates, bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean, bottles floating in the ocean, dead Scotchmen on the Atlantic highlands—and now he saw them, smelt them, all, from the very beginning—bottles, bottles, bottles, and glasses, glasses, glasses, of bitter, of Dubonnet, of Falstaff, Rye, Johnny Walker, Vieux Whiskey blanc Canadien, the apéritifs, the digestifs, the demis, the dobles, the noch ein Herr Obers, the et glas Araks, the tusen taks, the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal . . . The Consul sat very still. His conscience sounded muffled with the roar of the water. It whacked and whined round the wooden frame house with the spasmodic breeze, massed, with the thunderclouds over the trees, seen through the windows, its factions. How indeed could he hope to find himself, to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, forever, the solitary clue to his identity? How could he go back and look now, scrabble among the broken glass, under the eternal bars, under the oceans?

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

[N.B.: Lowry comes the closest to convincing one that there is no boundary between great literature and great poetry; instead, there is just one mighty, everlasting monument to the all-knowing Logos. That first stupendous sentence to the paragraph was crafty by an alcoholic angel. One could observe it, poke it, prod it, dissect it, rearrange it, derange it, deracinate it and still not find the spark of it. Not by faith alone but through craft shall one enter the kingdom of immortality. Learn from Lowry how to journey upon the rocky, straight and narrow path to Parnassus.]

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May 1,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

And there, it had happened. The bull was hopelessly entangled. Now one, two, three, four more lassoes, each launched with a new marked lack of friendliness, caught him. The spectators stamped on the wooden scaffolding, clapping rhythmically, without enthusiasm. –Yes, it struck her now that this whole business of the bull was like a life; the important birth, the fair chance, the tentative, then assured, then half-despairing circulations of the ring, an obstacle negotiated—a feat improperly recognised—boredom, resignation, collapse: then another, more convulsive birth, a new start; the circumspect endeavours to obtain one’s bearings in a world now frankly hostile, the apparent but deceptive encouragement of one’s judges, half of whom were asleep, the swervings into the beginnings of disaster because of that same negligible obstacle one had surely taken before at a stride, the final enmeshment in the toils of enemies one was never quite certain weren’t friends more clumsy than actively ill-disposed, followed by disaster, capitulation, disintegration—

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

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