Thursday, 7 February 2013

Not being able to see or articulate or be understood -  A T S Eliot connection             

It's interesting how often we've come across characters in Katherine Mansfield's stories who can't quite put their fingers on the significance of something,  or it slips out of their memory, or they can't get others to quite understand, or they themselves don't (don't want to) understand.   This comes in most clearly at the end of The Garden Party where Laura is struggling to see the 'real' significance of her epiphany when she sees the working class man's dead body.   It's there just out of sight in Miss Brill's transference of her jolting experience onto the crying fur in the box.   It's there e of Je ne Parle pas Francais where the arrogant young writer is haunted, for reasons he can't quite grasp, by the memory of Mouse.   It's in the strange structure of An Indiscreet Journey where the significance first of her dangerous journey is left as a blank, as also is the meaning of the drink of Mirabelle in the 'forbidden' cafe.  It comes up obliquely in Bliss where Bertha doesn't understand and isn't understood and falsely 'understands', and clearly again in The Daughters of the Late Colonel where the daughters are almost about to articulate what's next, and where it's all be leading to  when the get entwined in each other and 'forget' what they understand.  You'll see an almost identical 'replay' of this forgetting trope in The Fly.   We should perhaps keep a look out for other examples.   It's also worth relating this lack of definition of a 'point' to KM's stories generally, stories which tend to raise a question to which several 'answers' are left hovering after the story has ended.   

Katherine Mansfield may have been influenced by T S Eliot, whom she knew, but who was not that much of a fan of hers and took some trouble later on to try and rubbish her reputation which he thought had been wrongly inflated by critics.  T S Eliot was an extremely influential poet and representative of modernism in literature.   In an early poem called The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Eliot dealt with this character's sense of unfulfilment.  Midway through the poem he writes:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,        90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—        95
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
  Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
  That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,        100
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:        105
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
  “That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all.”

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