Monday, August 26, 2013

The humiliations of Widmerpool

Recently while flipping through Anthony Powell's A Writer's Notebook, I happened across an entry that can't believe I hadn't noticed before:
Someone pees on Widmerpool and Fettiplace-Jones, during an army exercise. ?Sunny Farebrother
There are a lot of Dance-related snippets in the notebook, many of them kernels of characters or episodes found in the books, others eventually discarded. But this one seems to me easily the most interesting of the leftovers.

If you know A Dance to the Music of Time, then as soon as you read that entry you can instantly picture how Powell would handle it, and how it would work into the unfolding of Widmerpool's character. The scenes in training camp do a great job of revealing character anyway, as Jenkins encounters both new people and a number of familiar figures from his life who are now thrust into new positions and new relationships. And the training exercises in particular, their complexity and pointlessness guaranteeing they'll be cock-ups, push characters beyond their usual limits. It's during a training exercise that we see Nick, quietly and subtly, come as close to losing it as at any other time in the series. So to imagine a series of mistakes that would lead Sunny Farebrother to pee on Widmerpool isn't difficult. And it would surely have appealed to Powell's love of echo, calling to mind the night that Jimmy Stripling attempted to play a trick on Farebrother with a full chamber pot.

More important, such an incident would also fit with the pattern, observed as early as school, of Widmerpool being physically assaulted in a humiliating fashion . . . and seeming to take masochistic pleasure from it. At school, it's a banana thrown by the cricket captain, an "over-ripe" banana, Stringham says, that "burst all over his face, knocking his spectacles sideways." Stringham continues:
Do you know an absolutely slavish look came into Widmerpool's face. "I don't mind," he said. "I don't mind, Budd. I don't mind in the least." . . . It was as if Widmerpool had experienced some secret and awful pleasure.
A few years later, a similar occurrence at a formal dinner--involving a girl Widmerpool likes pouring a caster of sugar on his head--results in Widmerpool looking
beyond words grotesque. The sugar sparkled on him like hoar-frost, and, when he moved, there was a faint rustle as of snow falling gently from the leaves of a tree in some wintry forest.
Instantly, Nick recalls what Stringham called Widmerpool's "slavish" look:
There could have been no better description of his countenance as he shook off the sugar on to the carpet beneath him. Once again the same situation had arisen; parallel acceptance of public humiliation; almost the identically explicit satisfaction derived from grovelling before someone he admired; for this element seemed to show itself unmistakably--though only for a flash--when he glanced reproachfully towards Barbara: and then looked away. This self-immolation, if, indeed, to be recorded as such, was displayed for so curtailed a second that any substance possessed by that almost immediately shifting mood was to be appreciated only by someone, like myself, cognisant already of the banana incident; so that when Widmerpool pushed his way between the chairs, disappearing a minute later between the doors of the supper-room, he appeared to the world at large, perhaps correctly, to be merely a man in a towering rage.
An additional scene of Widmerpool's physical humiliation--and, presumably, his largely concealed pleasure in it, would seem to fit with Powell's aims. As described in the notebook, it would have the added benefit of enabling us to see Widmerpool's reaction in contrast to that of a minor character. Surely Fettiplace-Jones would have responded with anger, unleavened by any more secret feelings.

But then there's the simple fact that the scene involves urine--and the inextricability of that from sex. Oh, urophiliacs may be few and far between, but nonetheless it would be hard to write a scene in which Widmerpool adopted a "slavish" look in the wake of being peed on without putting the reader in the mind of unusual sexual preferences. I suspect that Powell decided, therefore, that the scene (whose comic potential can't be denied) was a step too far: for while he did eventually want us to realize that Widmerpool's love of humiliation extended to matters sexual (remember Pamela's taunting him about voyeurism in the presence of a painting of Candaules and Gyges), to have made it explicit that early would have risked altering our perception of the arc of Widmerpool's life. Instead we learn of his sexual humiliation at the very moment that his life is crumbling around him, his power revealed to be to some extent a mirage.

So in the end, Powell left the scene out, and in fact kept Widmerpool out of the training camp section entirely. It isn't until later that Nick is assigned to his staff, where he discovers that Widmerpool's ruthlessness and eye for power are perfectly suited to the military structure, with its need to deny men their individuality even as it needs some of them to retain enough of it to facilitate the denial of the rest. (As Powell wrote in his notebook, "The Army is at once the best and the worst place in the world of egotism," and elsewhere, "The Army is of necessity the world of the will; if the will is weak, the Army is weak.") Sunny Farebrother is there, too, and it turns out that he's Widmerpool's bureaucratic foe--but while there is pissing, it's metaphorical, and the person who gets the worse soaking is, sadly, Sunny.

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