Horripilating Certainty

What would she have done? How did people bear it, who had no place to go, when something dreadful had to be done and they weren’t ready yet to do it?
– John Crowley, AEgypt (115)

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What makes people love each other? Why do they bother?…She must have known once. Because love had made her do a lot of things, and go to a lot of trouble…A cold loss of knowledge and dark ignorance were where her heart had been, and were all that these commonplace things, innocent tools and toys, called to; her dog Nothing, the name of the stone in her breast. (335-336)

Here’s one version: Reading Herodotus (Book Two) on Egypt, I came upon a mention of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Apuleius led me to AEgypt. AEgypt, which is the first of a quadrilogy, wraps around these histories and stories several times and takes me back where I started. What is that? That this was exactly the next logical book to read. Some knowing wind that carries me forward? Coincidence?  I can not tell, but I do know that as soon as I opened this book I had a feeling. Like a good first kiss: a lovely feeling of- I’m going to like this. Unlike a kiss, books do not have to enrapture you from the start -but gee, it’s nice.

Although I love a good tangent, Crowley doesn’t go off on random explorations of earthly or heavenly oddities, the depth(s) of his story are seamlessly woven into the tale. The weft and warp make cloth, and yet the questions is, how many cloths?

“There’s more than one History of the World, you know,” he said. “Isn’t there? More than one. One for each of us, maybe. Wouldn’t you say so?” (73)

A wefting mythology slipping under a latent man and woman, a hippie party in a field, a broken down bus, religions and sheep – naturally. The warp of an academic and literary journey, angels whose names begin with A, Shakespeare, divorce, Roses, and lots of books. The fabric shimmers and shakes off loose threads of ancient lore, repeating symbols, and modern angst.

This is fundamentally a book about discovery. The filling in of the vast background of history is a pleasure to read, relieving the pressure of solitude: thoughts I’ve had, words I’ve said, connections I’ve felt, searching meanings I’ve hope for.

There is a sweetness and earnest perplexity in the protagonist Pierce that is enormously appealing. Trying to order the details of his life along the shelves of his history,  if not to make sense then at least an organized catalog of what has shaped him, what he knows, knew, or forgot…I see, I get it.  I suppose we all have our own systems- a personalized Dewey Decimal of the heart.

-he would receive, like a wave that reaches far up a dry shingle and then recedes, a dash of that day’s understanding: and for a moment taste its certainty like salt. (95)

The breadth of knowledge has no circumference and that  I see, I get it moment is a gift that readers like me covet and search for. In AEgypt Crowley has somehow perfected the ordinary voice of Everyman, with the extra-ordinary voice of our potential. If I knew ten thousand more things than I do, I might be on more equal footing:

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love. Sick sick sick. (232)

The fact that Crowley does not announce that the above quote comes from the Song of Solomon makes me at once happy that it happens to be my favorite line from the poem, and also depresses me because there are probably one hundred other allusions that have swam free above my head. But, as one of the women I work for loves to say- we must take what we can get.

Infinite. He felt its infinity tugging at his heart and eyes, and felt an answering infinity within himself: for if it was infinite outside, then it must be infinite inside as well. (366)

Infinite inside as well. That must be it – the ember that refuses to extinguish.

Why must I live in two worlds, Pierce asked, why. Do we all, or is it only some few, living always in two worlds, a world outside of us that is real but strange, a world within that makes sense, and draws tears of assent from us when we enter there. (389)

Why is no longer a question, but a statement. Perhaps the truth is that one history is not enough. The infinite world is too vast, too mysterious to be contained in one. Our own history too large as well. The exertion of stuffing it into one clean narrative is what takes its toll on our souls. As Crowley writes, man is bound in love and sleep (343), but his point is that we are not interpolated on a single line. There is more. We are more. More than our histories told.

With a sudden awful certainty, Pierce knew that he would sob. (389)

All we like sheep
All we like sheep
Have gone astray; have gone astray
Every one to his own way. (32)

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13 responses to “Horripilating Certainty

  1. Your idea of “the exertion of stuffing it” is really great. IS that why I am so tired some days?

  2. Those last four lines are also in Handel’s Messiah.

  3. Aegypt is a book that you can always come back to. I’ve read it several times. I started rereading before the third and fourth books were done. It grows with you, or rather one grows and on returning finds new ways to go. One book worth reading before or after is Góngoras Soledades. The first chapters in the first Aegypt book are based on it, a shipwreck of love taken up by rural folks, a celebration, etc. The Soledades in their turn are based on the Nausicaa episode from the Odyssey. So it’s books leading up to books and so on. If you read Spanish I can point you to an interview I did with Crowley a couple of years ago. We did it in English but I only edited and published it in Spanish

    • I had forgotten that I made a note to look up Soledades. Thank you for reminding me to follow that thread.
      I love the books leading to books aspect of reading.
      Although I do not speak Spanish a passing quasi-fluency of Italian (and the liberal use of online translators) allows me a gist, so point away. I am always interested enough to try!

  4. It’s a bit dumb you have to deal with a re-re-translation but here you go:
    http://letraslibres.com/revista/entrevista/nostalgia-del-futuro-entrevista-con-john-crowley
    I should try and find a venue for an English version.

    • I didn’t do so bad. I had to lean on the translator when it got into theory and philosophy, but it was a wonderful interview. Your questions were excellent. Overall, the translator did a fine job, the occasional slip up in calling (for instance) Little, Big Small, Large was pretty funny (the title reduced to tee-shirt sizes).
      I met John last summer and came to his work without really “knowing” anything about it. It has been a wonderfully enriching discovery for me. Thank you for sharing the interview.

  5. We must take what we can get.
    Maybe it will be like a game of telephone. Who knows what wild misinterpretations I will glean?!

  6. To add to your fun, Edith Grossman recently translated the Gongora poem. She did a good job. It’s a Penguin Classics edition.

    The Aegypt books are wonderful, although for some reason, not possibly a good one, I have not read the fourth book.

    • Oh I read her version of Don Quixote and thought it was wonderful!

      The Gongora has not been easy for me to find. I’ve had to enlist the professionals, I was told today that something in the form of a paper book (I really can not deal with those e-booky things) has been found in another state. I was too abashed to inquire any further as to translator….it’s always fun to see what comes at any rate.
      I’m not sure why I thought AEgypt was a trilogy…I’ll have to update that. Thank you as always for your comments.

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