In April I spent a long morning in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, almost the entire time in the large room that displays eight or ten of Breugel’s best paintings (The Peasant Wedding,
Saul on the Road to Damascus, Hunters in the Snow, Peasant Dance, and so on). I took lots of notes about the metaphor of standing in several of the paintings and am a little closer to an essay on the subject.
At one point, however, restless and wary of the crowd that had just arrived with a guide, I slipped into a row of interconnected smaller rooms, where I came upon a board standing in a glass case with paintings on either side. They were both works by Hieronymus Bosch, a naked boy walking with the aid of a little stand on the one side and Christ carrying the cross on the other side.
I thought of that magic moment when we take our first steps, of the awkwardness of the early move from four legs to two, from crawling to standing and walking erect. The painting, with its little three-legged device gets at that stage wonderfully.
The other painting, I thought, is of a human being (still like a man even if it is Christ) being brought low. Not only is he heavily weighed down by the cross, his feet are being destroyed by wooden pads with nails protruding through them.
As if to make a viewer think twice about the feet and their role in keeping us upright, one of the thieves is portrayed near the bottom with only one shoe.
These men are going to be killed. Christ’s feet will be nailed to the cross (Gruenewald’s depiction of the ruined feet in his Isenheim Altar is the most graphic). He will be brought low (Holbein’s Dead Christ is the most graphically horizontal and final of this stage).
I have never, however, seen the wood “sandals” with nails before. Does anyone know of other such depictions.
So, in the end, the two paintings that share the same board depict the moments of rising to ones feet and of losing one’s feet. Short of birth and death, these are defining moments for us.
Nerves jangling, uneasy for several days, unable to concentrate on my writing, I turn to the Austrian Adalbert Stifter’s 1867 historical novel, rumored to be the most boring book ever written.
This should slow me down, I thought, this ought to order my jagged thoughts, give them weight the way good sentences and slow stories can.
An armed young man rides through woods on a fine horse:
“Da der Reiter die Schlucht hinaus rit, sah er weder rechts noch links, noch nach der Stadt zurück. Es war eine frühe Stunde eines Tages des Spätsommers, der schon gegen den Herbst neigte. Der Tag war heiter, und die Sonne schien warm hernieder. Das Pferd ging durch die Schlucht in langsamem Schritte. Als es über sie hinausgekommen war, ging es wohl schneller, aber immer nur im Tritte. Es ging einen langen Berg hinan, dann eben, dann einen Berg hinab, eine Lehne empor, eine Lehne hinunter, ein Wäldchen hinein, ein Wäldchen hinaus, bis es beinahe Mittag geworden war.”
It’s a passage of motion, of riding at a slow walk through a gorge, up a hill, along a flat section, down the hill, up a slope and down, into a wood and out of a wood until it is almost midday.
The rider comes to some houses built on uneven ground:
“Die Häuser lagen in Unordnung zerstreut, und der Grund, auf dem sie standen, war ungleich. Es war hier schon kühler als an der Donau; denn da in Passau viele Obstbäume standen, ragte hier nur der Waldkirschbaum empor, er stand vereinzelt, und stand in einer Gestalt, die in manchen Teilen zerstückt war, und bewies, daß viele harte Stürme in den Wintern an ihm vorübergegangen waren. In sehr schöner Bildung dagegen stand die Eberesche umher, sie stand bei vielen Häusern, und mischte das Grün ihres Laubes und das beginnende Rot ihrer Trauben zu dem Grau der Dächer. Die Herberge war ein Steinhaus, stand auch neben Ebereschen. . . . Auf der Gasse standen mehrere steinerne Tischen. . . . Hinter den Schoppen stand Waldwuchs. . . .”
This description, this list of trees and house and stone tables and underbrush, is riddled with things that stand. The many fruit trees standing in the more agreeable climate of Passau are contrasted with the cherry tree of the woods that stands alone and stands blasted by winter storms. In contrast, the mountain ash trees stand beautifully. Because of the uneven mountain ground, the houses stand without order.
The rider stops an an inn, eats, drinks, and gives precise orders for how his horse is to be cared for. The conversation with the innkeeper is precise and courteous. A conversation with another man contrasts the young rider’s knowledgeable self-assurance with the man’s uncertain braggadicio. The care with which the young man performs each action reminds me of the formality of the hunt and meticulous excoriation of the deer in Gottfried’s Tristan.
Then the young man rides on, again up a slope and down and into a wood, repeating the motion of the earlier scene:
“Er ritt in der Richtung zwischen Morgen und Mitternacht fort. Er ritt wieder eine Lehne hinan, eine Lehne hinab, ein Wäldchen aus, ein Wäldchen ein, der Boden wurde immer unwirtlicher und war endlich mit Wald bedeckt.”
What could be more simple? The description moves from verbs of movement to verbs of standing. And then continues the movement.
And my mind has slowed down, is more carefully ordered.
A few pages later Witiko meet a girl and the verb “to stand” sprouts like weeds:
“Sie blieben stehen, sahen auf ihn hin, und er stand gleichfalls, und sah auf sie. . . . das andere blieb stehen. . . . ‘Was stehst du mit deinen Rosen hier da?’ ‘Ich stehe hier in meiner Heimat da’, antwortete das Mädchen; ‘stehst du auch in derselben’?
They stood, looked at him, and he too stood and looked at them the other one stood . . . Why are you standing there with your roses? I’m standing here in my homeland, the girl answered. Are you standing there as well?
. . . and so on. If the novel continues this way, with this emphasis on standing, it will explain why some people find it boring (they just stand there?) and it will give me an additional source for my study of the standing metaphor.
…………….. that’s how I started reading the novel several months ago. Now I’ve come to the end, to page 877 and my intuitions were right. This is a novel about the construction of order in the 12th Century, about loyalties and disloyalties, about establishing law, about constructing order in the face of chaos. There is the forest landscape that under careful husbandry becomes useful. The political uncertainties and wars that arise with the deaths of rulers are forged into a stable system. The single young rider finds his way to a formal arrangement with the family of the girl with the roses and marries with great ceremony. He becomes the leader of the men of the forest and supports the King in Prague with skill and courage. He furthers the cause of Christianity. He builds a castle. He attends, finally, the Reichstag in Mainz in 1184.
Although there are difficulties to be overcome, the steady progress of the good man is never in doubt. He rides. He stands. He rides. He stands. The house he builds, the political system he helps to establish, and the family he begins are marked, like the cherry tree and also like the ash trees by the forces of the forest. The steady progress is marked by the standing metaphor. Again and again and again.
A couple of examples will have to suffice, although I could cite hundreds.
An early meeting in Prague to decide who will be the next ruler features a long discussion in which each man, named and described in detail, in strict order, stands and speaks. A decision is finally made as the men stand to signal their agreement: “Zdik blieb bei der Glocke stehen, und blickte auf the Versammlung. Der Bischof Silvester erhob sich, und blieb aufrecht stehen. Der Abt von Kladrau erhob sich” [as do 17 more named men and many more with them] (114).
Much later in the novel, the ruler chosen at that early meeting who has proven himself wise and courageous and has been named King, faces strong disagreement among his followers about a decision to support the Kaiser in a war against the city of Milan. The discussion tends toward chaos and even potential violence until he finally rises to speak: “Jetzt erhob sich der Koenig Wladislaw langsam von seimem Stuhle, und stand aufrecht da. . . . So stand er da” (810). His standing erect and standing there signal his resolve. His words convince the men quieted by his standing. Witiko speaks after the King about how their deeds in Milan will help to reestablish “order and law” and will finally be celebrated in stories ages hence (816).
Witiko’s deeds lead to his being named a ruler himself, and the word isStandeserhoehung (653). He has been raised in status, given a higher place in the social and political order.
The standing meeting between Witiko and the girl with the roses (Bertha) is repeated a few years later, and although there is carefully negotiated kiss, the formality of their conversation is proof of their steadfast uprightness and not till a third meeting later in the novel will Witiko ask her parents for her hand in marriage. At this second meeting, however, the standing metaphor again signals the ordered nature of the meeting. Witiko comes through the forest to a great granite stone “der aus dem weichen Graseemporstand. . . . Vor dem Stein war eine Bank aus Holz, und neben der Bank standBertha. . . . Sie stand, und sah auf Witiko, Witiko sah auf sie. Dann sagte sie: ‘Bist du gekommen, Witiko?’ ‘Ich bin gekommen’, sagte er, ‘und du stehst wieder wie meine Weissagung am Rande des Waldes, aber ohne rosen’ (410). Here, as in many, many places in the novel, order and righteousness and goods are indicated by the standing metaphor. The marriage is established, the castle is built, the peace is ensured, justice comes into being. And we have nothing to fear because of Witiko’s and Bertha’s and the King’s uprightness.
Finally, there are the songs written about the deeds of the brave men who establish the new Reich, the epic poems by Heinrich von Oftering that “entstanden” or, literally, “stood into being.” Like Stifter’s novel, which itself stands as a monument to the bold and loyal and careful creation of the German Reich in the 12th Century.
Never have I read a book so utterly consoling, so deeply certain, so steadfast. And, yes, so conservative. The Reich established in these pages will have its crises, will exert its power unjustly. Will have tragic consequences especially in its third iteration. But at this time and with these fundamentally good people it stands a reminder of what can be done, what can be built, what can be ordered, what can be given beautiful form.
Who would, who could write such a novel? A man with severe liver problems. A man whose eyes are failing. A man suffering from psychological breakdowns. Adalbert Stifter must retire early, must seek relief where he can. The year after part three of Witiko is published he attempts suicide with a razor and lives for two days before dying.
That man wrote a novel so precise, so detailed, so rich with description (I thought while reading that were one to cut out all descriptions of what people wear, the novel would be a pamphlet), so replete with nouns, so packed with long lists of names of people and places, so firmly established on the foundation of the standing metaphor that it stands as a monument to discipline and hope.
A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven
Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson
London: Portobello Books, 2008.
The zone between life and death (Abel’s explorations with Jared’s dying body, his reaching inside the body cavity, his cutting out the eye—79; the narrator’s cutting himself—end).
The zone between past and future, that present moment outside of time, the nunc stans.
The question about angels: are they and God immutable beings or changeable beings? Bellori’s answer, after having seen the angels, is that they are mutable.
To exist between = to stand
When Antinous Bellori, age 11 and lost in the forest, thinks he has found his father searching for him but finds angels fishing in a river instead, they are creatures of interstices / places of standing between (angels = fathers, as the coda suggests):
Gingerly he raises his head and looks over the edge. The sight that meets his eyes petrifies him. Two cloaked men are standing motionless on the river bank staring up at him. . . . The two figures stand as immobile as before. But now they’re looking at the water in front of them. One holds a torch in his hand, the other a spear. Both wear chain mail under their cloaks and each has a sword hanging at his side. . . . All he wants is to be in their presence. Without giving a thought to what he’s doing, he gets up and begins to walk slowly down, all the time concealed by the trees and with his eyes fixed on the two figures, who display no sign of having heard him, but stand there still as ever. Halfway down he notices their wings and thinks what has until then been just a vague inkling: there are two angels standing in the river. The rush of fear and happiness which this sends coursing through him is almost unendurable. (10-11)
And so, standing close together, the light flickering across their faces and the bottom of their cloaks trailing in the water, they stand eating the fish. Antinous stares at them spellbound. The teeth that sink into the fish’s flesh, the scales that cling to their chins, the eyeballs that now and then turn up and make them look white and blind. Then they look like statues standing there, for without the life of the eyes the deadness of their faces is emphasised. Each time he sees it, Antinous recoils in fear. They’re dead, he thinks. They’re dead. But then the eyeballs correct themselves, the faces again fill with life, and what a moment before was loathsome in them is now beautiful again. (12)
My brother is a tree, Abel thinks, and begins to sing to himself:
My brother is a tree
And that’s a certainty
If he could have his will
He’d stand completely still
And let his two big boots
Grow down just like roots
So deep into the soil
Oh, so deep into the soil
(49, repeated 94)
Abel, who burns to see the Cherubim who guard the tree of knowledge, approaches the extreme state they represent between life and death in an attempted suicide:
They smiled at one another. Then Abel went to the bank, climbed up the tree, balanced on the branch, stood erect and dived in.
Able doesn’t come up.
‘That’s enough now, Abel!’ he called, although he knew that his brother couldn’t hear him. ‘Come on up!’
It seemed when his voice died away as if it was the first time he became aware of himself. That he was standing here, on the river bank, right now, and that Abel was down in that black river water, and had been far too long. (97)
Cain dives in after him, although he is an unwilling swimmer:
He fought his way over, and when he saw the head, the open eyes, the hair billowing in the water, he realised that he must have tied one foot to the tree.
Cain gets him out of the river and raises him up and down till he vomits and then leaves him there and weeps.
. . . and turned to see how Abel was getting along.
He was standing in the pale moonlight staring at him. . . . No spark of recognition brightened his eyes. His gaze was as empty as a corpse’s.
Abel begins to dance. Cain awakes in the morning and wonders if it all really happened:
Found Abel tied up, released him and dragged him out on to dry land?
He suddenly imagined it once more, and a shiver went down his spine. He had seemed to be standing in the water. . .
Best not to think about it. (96-101)
A bird of prey hung in the sky above him, and he stared at it until he could say with certainty that it was an eagle. When he walked on he made the mistake of looking across to the far side. There was the tree leaning over the water that Abel had climbed up the night before. In a flash he saw his brother’s body as it stood in the dark water. He saw its arms slowly moving in the current, under there, thrusting themselves blindly forward in his mind, whose train of thought must have spun out from the tree Abel had tied himself to, because the next thing he imagined was the pines on the heath, how the light shone like pillars in amongst their trunks in the middle of the day. But the image was too weak, after only a few moments he felt how the enormity of the night’s events was beginning to tug at him through it, and without raising his eyes from the ground he pushed himself deeper into his enormous store of images and notions about trees, ending up finally before the oak tree in his parents’ farmyard. That he could think about. Ever since he was little, he had talked to it, fortunately even then wise enough to make sure no-one overheard him. The tree was so old, and stood there so alone that his childish heart had been filled with compassion; if no-one else on the farm gave it a thought, he would at least do his best to, even though he suspected that his child’s words and child’s deeds didn’t make much difference. It had stood there before he was born, and would be standing there after he was dead, but perhaps, even so, it was pleased that he stroked its bark every time he passed, and sometimes, when he was sure he wasn’t observed, even pressed his cheek against. (103-104)
‘I’ve seen the cherubim,’ he said. [and has been lying tied to his bed having fits] . . .
That must have been what he meant, thought Cain. That time was almost contracting around them, endowing the present moment with an unknown richness and making it holy.
He looked at his brother. He stood before the heap of animal carcasses with his eyes turned up to the sky in front of him. . . . Suddenly a great flame shot up from the carcasses on the ground before him. At the same moment he opened his mouth and cried out. This time the cry was not one of despair, or of fear, but of pain. Never had Cain heard such pain, never would he hear it again. Petrified he stood staring at his brother, who in the next instant fell and lay motionless on the ground
God was here. He was in the flames that were leaping high into the air, he was in his brother’s horrible scream, he was in his brother’s still body.
But he wasn’t in Cain. (126-127)
Sacrificing the lambs, cutting their throats, they stand and Abel kills them.
When Cain kills Abel (137) God appears to him as well and curses him.
After speaking with God (after the cherubim leave) Noah appears like this:
For some reason Ham was to remember this moment for the rest of his life. The white beehives beneath the green branches, his father standing immobile amongst them with his veiled face turned heavenwards, his hands open to the rain. (154)
When Anna and Javan first have sex there is standing.
Anna “thought that what she heard was the voice of God” (320). It is the water rushing in to kill them, and in this moment there is much standing:
They were now standing on an island and were surrounded by sea on all sides. . . . Was it strange that all they did was stand and stare and stare? . . . (320)
Rachel, Anna’s daughter, is giving birth: “she stood roaring into the forest” (326).
The ark approaches: “. . . they had crawled up to this foothold, and stood here now, only hours away from their ultimate end. . . . Crowded together they stood watching the ship move closer. When the moment they had been waiting for arrived, and the keel nudged at the mountain just below them, all they did at first was to stand and watch. . . . Anna stood in the background” (341).
Ezekiel sees fantastic creatures, cherubim: “In spite of his fear he remained standing. . . .” (365).
And when God talks to him He requires that he stand: “and with head bowed stood listening . . . as he stood there” (366).
The cherubim stand and stand (382-385). “And why are the cherubim so passive in the second revelation? They simpl stand there, in the midst of the inferno, completely motionless, like a sort of eye in God’s storm” (385).
“Bellori says that, as eternal beings, time can have no meaning for the angels” (394).
Almost human angels come to Lot and stand and stand (402-403).
Bellori sees the dead and they stand and stand (445).
Bellori finds angels in the woods in the snow: “The place was empty, but he stood there, nevertheless, positioning himself roughly where he’d stood then. . . . Even so Antinous felt a shiver run down his spine as he stood there. . . . Antinous quickly stepped over to the nearest tree and stood close into its trunk. The engel flew upwards in ever increasing circles, and had soon disappeared completely. He continued to stand motionless for a while longer. . . and stood there unmoving . . . He stood close to a tree . . . and he might have been standing there half an hour. . . . An angel was standing on one of the lowest branches . . . He had no idea how long he stood there. Because nothing moved, there was nothing for time to latch on to and measure it by. He stood there, the bog lay there, the snow fell, the angel stared” (452-454 and ff.).
The narrator’s father knows about seagulls and angels: “Dad got up and took the torch from me. But he made no move to go. Even though he stood in the dark, and I couldn’t see his face properly, I knew he was staring at me. Neither of us spoke. Slowly he turned the torch beam on my face. ‘Are you scared of me?’ he said.” (483).
And it’s a disquieting thought that not even the past is done with, even that continues to change, as if in reality there is only one time, for everything, one time to every purpose under heaven. One single second, one single landscape, in which what happens activates and deactivates what has already happened in endless chain reactions, like the processes that take place in the brain, perhaps, where cells suddenly bloom and die away, all according to the way the winds of consciousness are blowing.
But if it’s true that events in the past open and close and constantly form new associations with what’s happening in the present, where does the notion that the past is fixed and finished come from? Nothing is ever finished, everything just goes on and on, there are no boundaries, not even between the living and the dead, even that zone is quivering and unclear. (483-484)
The narrator’s standing is sometimes a result of his obsessive-compulsiveness (495).
Contemplating suicide: “I wasn’t standing on the edge of an abyss, I was standing before yet another argument: shall I take my own life to prove to myself that my despair is genuine? (506).
After struggling to kill a huge fish: “I read for a couple of hours. Then I stood in the cellar for a while. . . . I stood there for a long time with the phone in my hand. . . . stood looking down into the clear, green water. . . . pulled off my T-shire and stood in front of the mirror. . . . [he cuts himself] For a while I just stood there. . . . Soaking wet I stood there, for the world is beautiful, it’s so beautiful, and I was there in the midst of it.” (514-515).
“Pain has something to do with eternity, I’ve always thought, not the slight, short pain, but the pain that throbs and churns and keeps on. . . . It was as if holes had opened in the surface of time, I sometimes thought, where the drop in pressure was so great that the surrounding time was somehow drawn in to fill the vacuum” (518).
Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file.
The cottonhouse is of rough logs, from between which the chinking has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight. . . . [describes the family as well]
Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he [Jewel] crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down. . . . 1
Tull’s wagon stands beside the spring. . . . When I reach the top he [Cash] has quit sawing. Standing in a litter of chips, he is fitting two of the boards together. 1
She is propped on the pillow, with her head raised so she can see out the window, and we can hear him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. . . . Under the quilt she makes no more of a hump than a rail would, and the only way you can tell she is breathing is by the sound of the mattress shucks. Even the hair at her cheek does not move, even with that girl standing right over her, fanning her with the fan. 4
Pa’s feet are badly splayed, his toes cramped and bent and warped, with no toenail at all on his little toes, from working so hard in the wet in homemade shoes when he was a boy. Beside his chair his brogans sit. They look as though they had been hacked with a blunt axe out of pig-iron. 7
“Come here, sir,” Jewel says. He moves. . . . Save for Jewel’s legs they are like two figures carved for a tableau savage in the sun. When Jewel can almost touch him, the horse stands on his hind legs and slashes down at Jewel. Then Jewel is enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings; among them, beneath the upreared chest, he moves with the flashing limberness of a snake. For an instant before the jerk comes onto his arms he sees his whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-limber, until he finds the horse’s nostrils and touches earth again. . . . They stand in rigid terrific hiatus, the horse trembling and groaning. Then Jewel is on the horse’s back. . . . For another moment the horse stands spraddled with lowered head, before it bursts into motion. . . . The horse enters the stall, Jewel following. 7-8
It was Darl. He come to the door and stood there, looking at his dying mother. . . . “What you want, Darl?” Dewey Dell said, not stopping the fan, speaking up quick, keeping even him from her. He didn’t answer. He just stood and looked at his dying mother, his heart too full for words. 15
“You clean it,” Anse says. He dont look around. Vardaman comes back and picks up the fish. It slides out of his hands, smearing wet dirt onto him, and flops down, dirtying itself again, gapmouthed, goggle-eyed, hiding into the dust like it was ashamed of being dead, like it was in a hurry to get back hid again. Vardaman cusses it. He cusses it like a grown man, standing a-straddle of it. 19
When we go up the hall we can hear them clumping on the floor like they was iron shoes. . . . He stands there, like he dont aim to move again nor nothing else. 21
Durn that road. And it fixing to rain, too. I can stand here and same as see it with second-sight, a-shutting down behind them like a wall, shutting down betwixt them and my given promise. . . . A-laying there, right up to my door, where every bad luck that comes and goes is bound to find it. I told Addie it want any luck living on a road when it come by here, and she said, for the world like a woman, “get up and move, then.” But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord puts roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man. . . . keeping the folks restless and wanting to get up and go somewheres else when He aimed for them to stay put like a tree or a stand of corn. Because if He’d a aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewheres else, wouldn’t He a put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason He would. . . . I says to them, he was all right at first, with his eyes full of the land, because the land laid up-and-down ways then; it wasn’t till that ere road come and switched the around longways and his eyes still full of the land, that they begun to threaten me out of him, trying to short-hand me with the law [talking about Darl] 22-23
“Me, walk up, weighing two hundred and twenty-five pounds?” I say. “Walk up that durn wall?” He stands there beside a tree. Too bad the Lord made the mistake of giving trees roots and giving the Anse Bundrens He makes feet and legs. . . . “What the hell does your wife mean,” I say, “taking sick on top of a durn mountain?” . . . The girl is standing by the bed, fanning her. 26-27
He and Anse are on the porch when I come out, the boy sitting on the steps, Anse standing by a post, not even leaning against it, his arms dangling, the hair pushed and matted up on his head like a dipped rooster. He turns his head, blinking at me. “Why didn’t you send for me sooner?” I say. “Hit was jest one thing and then another,” he says. 28
Pa stands beside the bed. . . . Then she raises herself, who has not moved in ten days. . . . She lies back and turns her head without so much as glancing at pa. . . . [section about the broken wheel] Cash comes to the door, carrying the saw. Pa stands beside the bed, humped, his arms dangling. She will go out where Peabody is, where she can stand in the twilight and look at his back with such an expression. . . . Pa stands over the bed, dangle-armed, humped, motionless. 30-33
I strike at them, striking, they wheeling in a long lunge, the buggy wheeling onto two wheels and motionless like it is nailed to the ground and the horses motionless like they are nailed by the hind feet to the center of a whirling plate. . . . The cow is standing in the barn door, chewing. . . . I stoop my hand to the ground and run at her. She jumps back and whirls away and stops, watching me. She moans. She goes on to the path and standins there looking up the path. It is dark in the barn, warm, smelling, silent. I can cry quietly, watching the top of the hill. Cash comes to the hill, limping where he fell off of the church. 35-36
The cow stands at the foot of the path, lowing. . . . his head bowed a little, his awry hair standing into the lamplight. He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it no longer alive and dont yet know that it is dead. . . . “Ay,” pa says. He rouses up, like a steer that’s been kneeling in a pond and you run at it. “She would not begrudge me it. 38-39
When they get it finished they are going to put her in it and then for a long time I couldn’t say it. I saw the dark stand up and go whirling away and I said “Are you going to nail her up in it, Cash? . . . It was not her because it was laying right yonder in the dirt. And now it’s all chopped up. I chopped it up. It’s laying in the kitchen in the bleeding pan, waiting to be cooked and et. 42-43
It was long a-past midnight when we drove the last nail, and almost dust-dawn when I got back home and taken the team out and got back in bed. . . . and still see Cash going up and down with that saw, and Anse standing there like a scarecrow, like he was a steer standing knee-deep in a pond and somebody come by and set the pond up on edge and he aint missed it yet. 46-47
And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is. How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home. 52
I made it on the bevel.
- There is more surface for the nails to grip.
- There is twice the gripping-surface to each seam.
- The water will have to seep into it on a slant. Water moves easiest up and down or straight across.
- In a house people are upright two thirds of the time. So the seams and joints are made up-and-down. Because the stress is up-and-down.
- In a bed where people lie down all the time, the joints and seams are made sideways, because the stress is sideways.
- Except. . . . 53
I dont mind the folks falling. It’s the cotton and corn I mind. . . . We stop at the steps, clumped, holding our hats between our lax hands in front or behind, standing with one foot advanced and our heads lowered, looking aside. . . . we move, shifting to the other leg, meeting one another’s eye and making like they hadn’t touched. 59
She sets the basket into the wagon and climbs in, her leg coming long from beneath her tightening dress: that lever which moves the world; one of that caliper which measures the length and breadth of life. 67
He comes up the lane fast, yet we are three hundred yards beyond the mouth of it when he turns into the road, the mud flying beneath the flicking drive of the hooves. Then he slows a little, light and erect in the saddle, the horse mincing through the mud. Tull is in his lot. He looks at us, lifts his hand. We go on, the wagon creaking, the mud whispering on the wheels. Vernon still stands there. He watches Jewel as he passes, the horse moving with a light, high-kneed driving gait, three hundred yards back. We go on, with a motion so soporific, so dreamlike as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us and it. . . . He is motionless now, sitting the horse at the junction, upright. . . . A mile further along he passes us, the horse, arch-necked, reined back to a swift singlefoot. He sits lightly, poised, upright, woodenfaced in the saddle, the broken hat raked at a swaggering angle. 69-70
And when I loked back and saw the other bank and saw my mule standing there where I used to be . . . and I could look at him standing there. . . . Then we was over and we stood there, looking at Cash turning the wagon around. . . . “It’s the turning back,” he said. “It aint no luck in turning back.” He was standing there, humped, mournful, looking at the empty road beyond the swagging and swaying bridge. 92
Before us the thick dark current runs. . . . Above the ceaseless surface they stand—trees, cane, vines—rootless, severed from the earth, spectral above a scene of immense yet circumscribed desolation filled with the voice of the waste and mournful water. 95
I felt the current take us and I knew we were on the ford by that reason, since it was only by means of that slipping contact that we could tell that we were in motion at all. What had once been a flat surface was now a succession of troughs and hillocks lifting and falling about us, shoving at us, teasing at us with light lazy touches in the vain instants of solidity underfoot. Cash looked back at me, and then I knew that we were gone. But I did not realise the reason for the rope until I saw the log. It surged up out of the water and stood for an instant upright upon that surging and heaving desolation like Christ. Get out and let the current take you down to the bend, Cash said. 97-98
I see the beared head of the rearing log strike up again, and beyond it Jewel holding the horse upreared, its head wrenched around, hammering its head with his fist. I jump from the wagon on the downstream side. Between two hills I see the mules once more. They roll up out of the water in succession, turning completely over, their legs stiffly extended as when they had lost contact with the earth. 99
Cash lies on his back on the earth, his head raised on a rolled garment. . . . His face appears sunken a little, sagging from the bony ridges of eye sockets, nose, gums, as thought the wetting had slacked the firmness which had held the skin full. . . . “Was there ere a such misfortunate man.” . . . In the wagon bed it lies profoundly, the long pale planks hushed a little. . . . 105
We stand holding the rope. . . . He comes opposite us and stands there. . . . eye to eye they stand in their close wet clothes. . . . they stand there, watching Jewel’s still hands. . . . When we pass the wagon pa is standing beside it, scrubbing at the two mud smears with a handful of leaves. . . . Cash has not moved. We standin above him, holding the plane, the saw, the hammer, the square, the rule, the chalk-line. . . . 108-109
. . . fury in itself quiet with stagnation 110
Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar. . . . And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. Like Cora, who could never even cook. 116-117
Jewel was stopped, halfway back, waiting to go on to the horse. “I give other things,” Anse said. He begun to mumble his mouth again, standing there like he was waiting for womebody to hit him and him with his mind already made up not to do nothing about it. . . . Jewel had come back now, standing there. . . . Anse stood there, mumbling his mouth. . . . Anse stands there, dangle-armed. “For fifteen years I aint had a tooth in my head,” he says. . . . Jewel stands with his hands on his hips, looking at Anse. 129
Cash has a broken let. He has had two broken legs. He lies on the box with a quilt rolled under his head and a piece of wood under his knee. 133
I happened to look up, and saw her outside the window, looking in. Not close to the glass, and not looking at anything in particular; just standing there with her head turned this way and her eyes full on me and kind of blank too, like she was waiting for a sign. . . . So I went around the counter. I saw that she was barefooted, standing with her feet flat and easy on the floor, like she was used to it. . . . She stood there, not looking at me. . . . But she just stood there, not looking at me. 135-137
When Dewey Dell comes back the man comes with her. Then he stops and she comes on and he stands there and after a while he goes back to the house and stands on the porch, watching us. 141
[they put a cement cast on Cash’s broken leg]
We see his shoulders strain as he upends the coffin and slides it singlehanded from the sawhorses. It looms unbelievably tall, hiding him: I would not have believed that Addie Bundren would have needed that much room to lie comfortable in; for another instant it stands upright while the sparks rain on it in scattering bursts as though they engendered other sparks from the contact. Then it topples forward, gaining momentum, revealing Jewel and the sparks raining on him too in engendering gusts, so that he appears to be enclosed in a thin nimbus of fire. Without stopping it overends and rears again, pauses, then crashes slowly forward and through the curtain. This time Jewel is riding upon it, clinging to it, until it crashes down and flings him forward and clear. . . . 152-153
He lifts his head and looks at the sky. High against it they hang in narrowing circles, like the smoke, with an outward semblance of form and purpose, but with no inference of motion, progress or retrograde. . . . Life was created in the valleys. It blew up onto the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That’s why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down. 156
The wagon moves. The man stands watching us. Jewel does not look back. “Jewel would a whipped him,” Vardaman says. We approach the crest, where the street runs, where cars go back and forth; the mules haul the wagon up and onto the crest and the street. Pa stops them. The street runs on ahead, where the square opens and the monument stands before the courthouse. We mount again while the heads turn with that expression which we know; save Jewel. He does not get on, even though the wagon has started again. “Get in, Jewel,” I say. “Come on. Let’s get away from here.” But he does not get in. Instead he sets his foot on the turning hub of the rear wheel, one hand grasping the stanchion, and with the hub turning smoothly under his sole he lifts the other foot and squats there, staring straight ahead, motionless, lean, woodenbacked, as though carved squatting out of the lean wood. 159
Because there justaint nothing justifies the deliberate destruction of what a man has built with his own sweat and stored the fruit of his sweat into. 164
And dont tell me it aint going to bother you to have to limp around on one short leg for the balance of your life—if you walk at all again. Concret,” I said. “God Amighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family. . . .” 165
The wagon stands on the square, hitched, the mules motionless, the reins wrapped about the seat-spring, the back of the wagon toward the courthouse. It looks no different from a hundred other wagons there; Jewel standing beside it and looking up the street like any other man in town that day, yet there is something different, distinctive. There is about it that unmistakable air of definite and imminent departure that trains have. . . . 176
Then we see it wasn’t the grip that made him look different; it was his face, and Jewel says, “He got them teeth.” It was a fact. It made him look a foot taller, kind of holding his head up, hangdog and proud too, and then we see her beghing him, carrying the other grip. . . . 181
They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.
We shouldn’t have been anywhere near that place. . . . The reward was worth the harm grass juice and clouds of gnats did to our eyes, because there right in front of us, about fifty yards off, they stood like men. Their raised hooves crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes. They bit each other like dogs but when they stood, reared up on their hind legs, their forelegs around the withers of the other, we held our breath in wonder. . . . Then it stopped. The rust-colored one dropped his head and pawed the ground while the winner loped off in an arc, nudging the mares before him.
. . . we saw them pull a body from a wheelbarrow and throw it into a hole already waiting. One foot stuck up over the edge and quivered, as though it could get out, as though with a little effort it could break through the dirt being shoveled in. We could not see the faces of the men doing the burying, only their trousers; but we saw the edge of a spade drive the jerking foot down to join the rest of itself. When she saw that black foot with its creamy pink and mud-streaked sole being whacked into the grave, her whole body began to shake. . . .
Since you’re set on telling my story, whatever you think and whatever you write down, know this: I really forgot about the burial. I only remembered the horses. They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men. 3-5
Still, before escape, he would have to get shoes somehow, some way. Walking anywhere in winter without shoes would guarantee his being arrested and back in the ward until he could be sentenced for vagrancy. Interesting law, vagrancy, meaning standing outside or walking without clear purpose anywhere. Carrying a book would help, but being barefoot would contradict “purposefulness” and standing still could prompt a complaint of “loitering.” . . . Twenty years ago, as a four-year-old, he had a pair, though the sole of one flapped with every step.
Although shoes were vital for this escape, the patient had none. . . . 10
He was still standing with his hands behind his back. . . . 13
Jean Locke returned with a basin of cold water. “Put your feet in here, son. It’s cold but you don’t want them to heat up too fast.” 14
He was far too alive to stand before Mike’s folks or Stuff’s. 15
“He needs shoes too, John.” There were none to spare, so they put four pair of socks and some ripped galoshes next to the sofa. 16
Frank stood at the door, while the Reverend retrieved his coat and car keys. 19
Before joining the line at the Greyhound door, Frank noticed a police car cursing by. He knelt as though buckling his galoshes. When the danger passed he stood, then turned to Reverend Locke and held out his hand. 19
Before Lily. Before seeing her stand on a chair, stretch, reach up to a high shelf in her cupboard to get the can of Calumet she needed for the meal she was preparing for him. . . . And for a reason he still did not understand, he began to cry. Love plain, simple, and so fast it shattered. 22
“That there is the husband. He got off at Elko to buy some coffee or something back there.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The owner or customers or both kicked him out. Actually. Put their feet in his butt and knocked him down, kicked some more, and when his lady came to help, she got a rock thrown in her face.” 25
His shoes were white with unnaturally pointed toes. (man in soot suit, apparition) 27
“What you want to be when you grow up?’ Thomas turned the knob with his left hand and opened the door. “A man,” he said and left. 33
“Okay,” said Billy. “Now for some grown man’s shoes. Thom McAn or do you want Florsheim?” “Neither. I ain’t going to a dance. Work shoes.” 36
The sole of my shoe flapped until Pap tied it up with his own shoelace. 40
Suddenly he was behind the tree she was leaning against, swinging his bat twice into the legs of a man she had not even noticed standing behind her. . . . Hours later, Frank explained. The man wasn’t from Lotus, he told her, and had been hiding behind the tree, flashing her. 51
Cee stood up in the zinc tub and took a few dripping steps to the sink. 43 [in the tub and standing up out of it she remembers her childhood and Prince, the cause of her present trouble. . . ]
Standing at the window, wrapped in the scratchy towel, Cee felt her heart breaking. . . . Now she stood, alone. . . . 53
The walk from the bus stop was a long one, hampered by Cee’s new white high-heeled shoes. Without stockings, her feet were chafing. . . . Thank you, ma’am. Can I take off these shoes first?” Sarah chuckled. “Whoever invented high heels won’t be happy till they cripple us.” 59
She had begun to feel annoyance rather than alarm when she came home from work and saw him sitting on the sofa staring at the floor. One sock on, the other in his hand. . . . She regretted the loss of ecstasy but assumed its heights would at some point return. 75
They had been standing at a table, piling seconds of fried chicken on their plates, she a little girl with slangy eyes reached up over the opposite edge of the table to grab a cupcake. Frank leaned over to push the platter closer to her. When she gave him a broad smile of thanks, he dropped his food and ran through the crowd. 76-77
The multiple times when she came home to find him idle again, just sitting on the sofa staring at the rug, were unnerving. 78
The young sun was blazing and there was little standing to cast a shadow or provide shad, only the feed store, the shop, and one shambling broke-down house across the road. A brand-new Caddilac, gilded in sunlight, was parked in front. Frank crossed the road to admire the car. . . . He walked down the side toward the squeals, expecting to see some male aggressor showing off. But there on the ground were two women fighting. Rolling around, punching, kicking the air, they beat each other in the dirt. Their hair and clothes were in disarray. The surprise to Frank was a man standing near them, picking his teeth and watching. He turned when Frank approached. He was a big man with flat, bored eyes.
“What the fuck you looking’ at?” He didn’t remove the toothpick.
Frank froze. The big man came right up to him and shoved his chest. Twice. Frank dropped his Dr Pepper and swung hard at the man, who, lacking agility like so many really big men, fell immediately. Frank leaped on the prone body and began to punch his face, eager to ram that toothpick into his throat. The thrill that came with each blow was wonderfully familiar. Unable to stop and unwilling to, Frank kept going even though the big man was unconscious. The women stopped clawing each other and pulled at Frank’s collar. . . . Then she dropped to her knees and tried to revive her pimp. Her blouse was torn down the back. It was a bright yellow.
Frank stood and, massaging his knuckles, moved quickly, half running, half loping back to the train. . . . This violence was personal in its delight. Good, he thought. He might need that thrill to claim his sister. 100-102 [cf. this with the man kicked down in Elko]
She was the first person I ever took responsibility for. Down deep inside her lived my secret picture of myself—a strong good me tied to the memory of those horses and burial of a stranger. Guarding her, finding a way through tall grass and out of that place, not being afraid of anything—snakes or wild old men. I wonder if succeeding at that was the buried seed of all the rest. In my little-boy heart I felt heroic and I knew that if they found us or touched her I would kill. 104
But his missed it all and two of the five sneaks grabbed his arms from behind. He used his foot to stomp one of theirs and in the space left by the boy’s howling fall, Frank swung around and broke the jaw of the other one with his elbow. That was when one of the final three brought a pipe down on his head. Frank fell and in the blur of pain felt the body search followed by limping and running feet. He crawled toward the street and sat in darkness against a wall until his eyesight cleared. “Need help?” The silhouette of a man framed by a streetlight stood before him. “What? Oh.” “Here.” The man held out his hand to help Frank up. . . . Later, sitting in an all-night diner, Frank remembered the Samaritan’s long ponytail catching the light of a streetlamp. 106-107
“Call the police, woman! Did you let him in here?” Dr. Beau then ran down the hallway, to where another telephone sat on a small table. Standing next to it was Sarah, her hand pressed firmly on the cradle. There was no mistaking her purpose. . . . Sarah and the doctor stood locked in an undecipherable stare. 111-112
Once Frank had fumbled and eased his way through the front door and reached the sidewalk, he turned to glance back at the house and saw Sarah standing in the door, shadowed by the dogwood blossoms. Whe waved. Good-bye—to him and Cee or perhaps to her job. Sarah stood from a moment watching the pair disappear down the walkway.” 112
Cutting into these big thoughts were the little ones. Another kind of medicine for the baby? What to do about an uncle’s foot swollen so large he can’t put it in a shoe? Will the landlord be satisfied with half the rent this time? 119
She was to be sun-smacked, which meant spending at least one hour a day with her legs spread open to the blazing sun. . . . What followed the final sun-smacking hour, when she was allowed to sit modestly in a rocking chair, was the demanding love of Ethel Fordham, which soothed and strengthened her the most. 124-125
Weeks later Cee stood at the stove pressing young cabbage leaves into a pot of simmering water seasoned with two ham hocks. When Frank got off work and opened the door, he noticed again how healthy she looked—glowing skin, back straight, not hunched in discomfort. 126
The sweet bay tree, top blazed, two branches like arms, stands on the bank of the Wretched River and it’s where Frank and Cee find refuge repeatedly, including 132
The buried man at the beginning was the father of the man who was forced to kill him or be killed in a dogfight/manfight.
Quickly they found the sweet bay tree—split down the middle, beheaded, undead—spreading its arms, one to the right, one to the left. There at its base Frank placed the bone-filled quilt that was first a shroud, now a coffin. [Cee sees the zoot-suited man] Brother and sister slid the crayon-colored coffin into the perpendicular grave. Once it was heaped over with soil, Frank took two nails and the sanded piece of wood from his pocket. With a rock he pounded it into the tree trunk. One nail bent uselessly, but the other held well enough to expose the words he had painted on the wooden marker. Here Stands A Man. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but he could have sworn the sweet bay was pleased to agree. Its olive-green leaves went wild in the glow of a fat cherry-red sun. 144-145
…….. to be a man (or woman), to stand like a man, that is the task that begins with the sight of the horses fighting like men, a kind of fighting that decides dominance and then the care for the herd of mares, and with the sight of a man being stuffed into a hole after having been forced to fight like dogs.
……. Cee is weak and thoughtless and must find her way to being a woman, with the help of her brother and then of other women.
……. Frank, after Korea and after having killed the starving child who aroused him sexually, after being beaten down himself, finds his way back up until he beats up the pimp and takes his sister from the doctor and admits his guilt and finally, with Cee, reburies the bones under the tree and announces Here Stands A Man.
In their book that asks this question, Deleuze and Guattari wonder about the work of art, the thing made by the artist that has duration beyond the perceptions and affections that precipitated it; and as they think this thought, they rely on the metaphor of standing:
“The young man will smile on the canvas for as long as the canvas lasts. . . . In a novel or a film, the young man will stop smiling, but he will start to smile again when we turn to this page or that moment. Art preserves, and it is the only thing in the world that is preserved. It preserves and is preserved in itself (quid juris?), although actually it lasts no longer than its support and meterials—stone, canvas, chemical color, and so on (quid facti?). The young girl maintains the pose that she has had for five thousand years, a gesture that no longer depends on whoever made it. . . .
“What is preserved—the thing or the work of art—is a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects. . . . The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself.
“Harmonies are affects. Consonance and dissonance, harmonies of tone or color, are affects of music or painting. . . . The artist creates blocs of percepts and affects, but the only law of creation is that the compound must stand up on its own. The artist’s greatest difficulty is to make it stand up on its own. Sometimes this requires what is, from the viewpoint of an implicit model, from the viewpoint of lived perceptions and affections, great geometrical improbability, physical imperfection, and organic abnormality. But these sublime errors accede to the necessity of art if they are internal means of standing up (or sitting or lying). There is a pictorial possibility that has nothing to do with physical possibility and that endows the most acrobatic postures with the sense of balance. On the other hand, many works that claim to be art do not stand up for an instant. Standing up alone does not mean having a top and a bottom or being upright (for even houses are drunk and askew); it is only the act by which the compound of created sensations is preserved in itself—a monument, but one that may be contained in a few marks or a few lines, like a poem by Emily Dickinson. Of the sketch of an old, worn-out ass, ‘How marvellous! It’s done with two strokes, but set on immutable bases,’ where the sensation bears witness all the more to years of ‘persistent, tenacious, disdainful work.’ In music the minor mode is a test that is especially essential since it sets the musician the challenge of it from its ephemeral combinations in order to make it solid and durable, self-preserving, even in acrobatic positions. The sound must be held no less in its extinction than in its production and development.
“How could the sensation be preserved without a material capable of lasting? And however short the time it lasts, this time is considered as a duration. We will see how the plane of the material ascends irresistibly and invades the plane of composition of the sensations themselves to the point of being part of them or indiscernible from them. . . . Even if the material lasts for only a few seconds it will give sensation the power to exist in itself in the eternity that coexists with this short duration. So long as the material lasts, the sensation enjoys an eternity in those very moments” (163-166).
Constructions by artists of various sorts are, in essence, things that have been raised from a disorganized state to stand as a creation that will last. Their structure is a standing up alone, however short its duration. I recently watched a fine documentary film about the work of the Scottish sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. At one point he pins pieces of bracken together with thorns to make a hanging structure that moves in the air. He says he takes the work to the very edge; and then a breath of air threatens the work. He holds up a hand to steady it, lets it go, and the entire structures falls around him. “Oh dear,” he says, “I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive.” The very ephemerality of this piece highlights the durability of a work that has been made to stand.
You can see the clip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=t53XumMgrQk
In his essay about books about the King James Bible and about its literary influence, Robert Pogue Harrison compares a passage from earlier translations with the King James version:
Tyndale Bible—Faith is the sure confidence of things, which are hoped for, & a certainty of things which are not seen.
Geneva Bible—Now faith is the ground of things, which are hoped for, and the evidence of things which are not seen.
King James Bible—Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
. . . Tyndale’s “sure confidence” is a very loose translation of the Greek hypostasis, which means literally “standing under” (hypo, under + histasthai, stand, middle voice of histanai, cause to stand). The Geneva version’s “ground” is a much closer approximation, yet the King James Bible’s choice of “substance” is brilliant. Not only does “substance” mean literally “standing under,” it also comes with a host of religious associations and connotations—especially in the context of the Reformation’s vexed debates about the “transubstantiation” of the Eucharistic wafer by the priest during the Mass.
from The New York Review of Books, February 9, 2012
Paintings of death and the resurrection (= “standing up”) that is about to occur miraculously and of the other most remarkable mystery of human existence: the annunciation of a coming birth.
In the first the contrast is between the standing, vertical, living figures (human as well as arborous) and the dead and thus horizontal Lazarus. Compare the Holbein Dead Christ at the header of this blog. See also Christian Hart Nibrig’s fine book Ästhetik der letzten Dinge (Aesthetic of Last Things) for a discussion of how artists have depicted that final moment between life and death.
In the second, the angel is a vertical band of light, invoking the human stance while abstracting it (as does Giacometti in his statues).
“The Twelve Stones of Pentre Ifan”
Over my shoulder
Blows from the cold of time.
Shaped the hill,
It has honed the rock outcrops
Granules of its
Rasping. When the old ones
They dropped in dark-
ness, like sheep, and hot animals
I watch the great stones of
Moved in the flickering
Mountains of their nameless
See once more the
Points of adjusted rock, taller
Man who will ever
Stand where I stand, lifting their hope
Huge stone, pointed
To the flying wind. The sea ebbs again
The endless brevity
Of the seasons the old men’s cromlech
Its hard shadows.
The four great stones, elate and springing,
Smaller stones, big
As a man, leaning in, supporting.
Leslie Norris (Walking the White Fields: Poems 1967-1980)
“Pentre Ifan — Dramatic burial site of an important Welsh chieftain dating from 2500 B.C. See the massive 16 ft. capstone supported by three 8 foot legs of stone.” (from a guidebook)
“Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber, 3 m. S. of Nevern, off A487. One of the most striking megalithic monuments in Britain, its capstone, 17 ft. long and weighing about 20 tons, is delicately balanced 7-8 feet above the ground on four massive uprights.” (from another guidebook)
Photos of the Pentre Ifan cromlech show a huge capstone held up by four standing stones and flanked by two more.
It’s a little confusing. Are there three legs or four uprights? Is the capstone 17 or 18 feet long? Are there seven stones or the twelve Norris mentions in the title of his poem? I decide to go see Pentre Ifan myself.
Darkness has fallen and I have been fighting the rain and heavy traffic for hours when I finally pull into Cardigan. I spend the night at a bookless bed-and-breakfast run by a ruddy retired policeman who says he has never heard of Leslie Norris. At breakfast I converse with two men who have ridden their motorcycles all the way from London to have a Cardigan specialty shop equip their bikes with custom exhaust systems. I’m not the only one in Cardigan on a quixotic journey.
The hard morning rain begins to abate as I steer my car cautiously up a twisty, narrow country road flanked on both sides by abrupt stone walls. I make several wrong turns, down private roads, up public lanes before a small sign finally rewards my search:
I leave my car at the roadside and walk along a narrow path between two fields. The stones (and they take my breath away, wild things that they have become) stand awkwardly and commandingly on a high place surrounded by valleys. Green pastures fortified with stone-and-hedge fences share the landscape with stands of trees. An occasional farm house. Below me, in the near distance, the sea curves into the land.
This megalithic monument was raised, in all likelihood, as a burial chamber. The massive stones once shaped and held open a space within a huge mound of earth. The rains and wind of millennia have stripped away the earth mound and have brought down some of the stones. In the process the visual focus has been shifted from the enclosed space to the stones themselves. They are now abstract, free-standing forms. I trace the negative space between the stones. My eyes measure the shape and weight of the huge top wedge. I feel the visceral force of the upthrusting stones. The monument no longer protects the remains of a dead chieftain, but it still represents powerfully the human vision and strength that raised the stones.[i]
What is there about standing stones? Why do we privilege verticality over horizontality?
[i].. Burial cairns to honor dead chieftains, stone circles built for dead priests. There is no such thing as a monument to the quiet virtues.