Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Convergence

Several years ago Lawrence Weschler published a little book called Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, in which he described the strange, unexpected connections he often finds in art, history, literature, and the like across eras and cultures. It's a strange and satisfying book, the product of a restless mind and an accepting, intuitive eye.

I thought of that book recently as I was reading Iris Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil (1983). The moment of recognition I had while reading it isn't strange enough, or clear enough, to rise to the level of Weschler's examples, but it surprised me regardless, as it brought together two writers whom I'd until that point thought of as wholly different.

The passages in question come from early in the novel, when the coy narrator is describing the hot spring–fueled spa that is the central feature of the town in which the book is set:
The spring has been the victim of periodical puritanism, and Ennistonians had, and to some extent still have, oddly mixed feelings about their chief municipal glory. Before the first war a Methodist minister even managed to have the spring closed for a short period on an allegation, never proved, that it had become a secret centre of heathen worship. A vague feeling persists to this day that the spring is in some way a source of a kind of unholy restlessness that attacks the town at intervals like an epidemic. . . . No alcohol is served in the Institute. This rule is maintained in spite of periodic protests by younger citizens. It is held that a bar would radically alter the atmosphere of the place, and no doubt this is true. . . . The Indoor Bath used to be hired out for private parties, but after a gathering which was reported in the national newspapers this custom was discontinued.

On the left of the Promenade a door leads to a large and curious octagonal room known as "the Baptistry." This room enshrines the entrance, complete with pseudo-classical pillars and pediment, to the great "machinery" or "engine room," to use the traditional terms, of the installation. These machines, now modernized of course, were the pride of a well-known nineteenth-century engineer, and the huge subterranean area which they occupy used to be on show to the public. Now, however, for a variety of reasons (thought by those who canvass matter regularly in the Gazette to be sinister) this area is closed and the way into the Baptistry is marked PRIVATE. The Baptistry is used as a store-room, and the great hot bronze doors, studded with pseudo-nails, which guard the access to (as we say and imagine) "the hot spring itself," are locked against all except "authorized personnel." Even to glimpse these doors, through which steam eternally seeps, is a rare treat for citizens peering in from the Promenade. . . .

The Institute occupies a central place in the social life of Ennistone. Its role has been compared to that of the agora in Athens. It is the main rendezvous of the citizenry where people idle, relax, show off, hunt for partners, make assignations, make business deals, make plots. Marriages are made, and broken, beside these steamy pools. It is like what going to church used to be, only it happens every day. This aspect of our lives is of course described by responsible citizens in high-minded terms. Swimming is the very best kind of exercise for old and young, and is undoubtedly also good for the soul. This lofty conception of the spiritual utility of swimming battles constantly with the (also recurrent) notion of many citizens that the Baths is a temple of hedonism. The old thes dansants (with three-piece orchestra) upon the Promenade have long ceased to be. But the danger always remains that innocent and healthy disciplines may degenerate into pure pleasure.
The description of a strange, insular town and its odd central feature; the use of a narrative "we" and quoting of received opinion; the hints that a history recent enough that it ought to be recoverable is nonetheless mist-shrouded and mysterious; a sense that perhaps there are powers at work, making decisions, that are far beyond the ken of the ordinary citizen; the suggestions of sex, and of tacitly approved abandonment of social constraints--it all calls to mind Steven Millhauser. Compare it to the opening of his story "The Barnum Museum":
The Barnum Museum is located in the heart of our city, two blocks north of the financial district. The Romanesque and Gothic entranceways, the paired sphinxes and griffins, the gilded onion domes, the corbeled turrets and mansarded towers, the octagonal cupolas, the crestings and crenellations, all these compose an elusive design that seems calculated to lead the eye restlessly from point to point without permitting it to take in the whole. In fact the structure is so difficult to grasp that we cannot tell whether the Barnum Museum is a single complex building with numerous wings, annexes, additions, and extensions, or whether it is many buildings artfully connected by roofed walkways, stone bridges, flowering arbors, booth-lined arcades, colonnaded passageways.
Or, from a few pages on:
The enemies of the Barnum Museum say that its exhibits are fraudulent; that its deceptions harm our children, who are turned away from the realm of the natural to a false realm of the monstrous and fantastic; that certain displays are provocative, erotic, and immoral; that this temple of so-called wonders draws us out of the sun, tempts us away from healthy pursuits, and renders us dissatisfied with our daily lives; that the presence of the museum in our city encourages those elements which, like confidence men, sharpers, palmists, and astrologers, prey on the gullible; that the very existence of this grotesque eyesore and its repellent collection of monstrosities disturbs our tranquility, undermines our strength, and reveals our secret weakness and confusion.
Anyone who's read Murdoch and Millhauser knows they're not really very much alike--Millhauser's a fabulist and tale-spinner, Murdoch, for all her love of farce and magic, fundamentally a realist--but I'm pleased to discover this tiny point of convergence. It seems to suggest that at a minimum the two would agree that there are strange places in our world, locations that by their very nature loosen strictures and allow eros, and all his attendant powers and mischief, free rein.

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