13 February, 2006

Amanda Ros: pathological diabetic

Have you ever visited that portion of Erin's plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?
I wish I could say that Amanda Ros needs no introduction. Alas, her hoped-for futurity never really came to fruition, except among a coterie of literary sneerers, Aldous Huxley, D. B. 'Beachcomber' Wyndham Lewis, C. S. Lewis, Anthony Powell and so forth. In a nutshell: she lived around the turn of the 20th century, wrote grand, ridiculous romances, which she regarded as brilliant masterpieces, but which her critical nemesis Barry Pain did not. Like Queen Victoria, her favourite novelist was Marie Corelli, another brilliant literary nutnut, who seemed to have believed that God was electric. You can read all about Amanda at the Oasis of Futurity.

The sentence above is a masterpiece, obviously. The irritating Nick Page, who presumably considers himself a sneerer in the grand tradition, expresses his own stupidity about the sentence, which is the very first in Ros's major novel Delina Delaney (1898): "I first read this sentence nearly three years ago. Since then, I have read it once a week in an increasingly desperate search for meaning. But I still don't understand it. It is magnificent in its impenetrable mystery; it is the riddle of the sphinx, the smile of the Mona Lisa. It sounds wonderful, but remains impervious to comprehension." The period is marvelous enough. Its power comes from its total ambivalence of grammar, which switches and twists as the sense progresses. We can see the effect more clearly in a shorter sentence from the same book:
She quickly rose, undressed, and, burying herself in the manufacture of deft hands, whether to sleep or not she best knew.
At the outset, this sentence appears to be structured as a tricolon of finite verb-clauses: "she x'd, y'd and z'd". We then realise that between y and z Ros has inserted a participial clause, which is perfectly acceptable from a grammatical standpoint, here with the present participle 'burying'. After this clause, however, Ros forgets her original structure: the last clause contains a finite verb ('knew') but it is attached to the separate, idiomatic structure of 'whether or not'. Thus, the whole is completely ungrammatical. But it appears to be a portmanteau of two hypothetical grammatical sentences, something like "She quickly rose, undressed, and, burying herself in the manufacture of deft hands, went to bed" and "She buried herself in the manufacture of deft hands, whether to sleep or not she best knew". We conclude that quite apart from that odd expression "the manufacture of deft hands", and its odd coupling with "burying"—in other words apart from the semantic ambiguity of the sentence—it has also a much rarer grammatical ambiguity.

To return to the original sentence, we can see that this grammatical shift or confusion is also at work here, in a more subtle form. There are the semantic interests, to be sure, those 'kennings' or periphrases which Huxley noted in his tossed-off 1923 sneer, 'Euphues Redivivus'. "Erin's plot", for instance, is given for 'Ireland'. Ros also makes use of the classic 17th-century trick of giving synonymous couplets in simple and Latinate English, here "minute survey and scrutinous examination".

But the grammar is more intriguing, I think. The question-mark follows reassuringly from the initial inversion, "Have you ever". After the noun-phrase "portion of Erin's plot", the remainder of the sentence is relative, the first clause ("that. . . power") clarifying, and the second two ("whose. . . richness") amplifying. The semantic content until "power" is intelligible but not cohesive: Ireland, she says, is open to being surveyed or examined by the government—presumably the English one, as Ireland would not achieve independence until 1922. But the sense and grammar then break down together. The 'decision' of the government is not given an object (ie. 'decision to', 'decision about'), so must mean something like 'decisiveness'. But there are more puzzling absences of referent: we want an object after 'converting' (ie. 'converting to'), and the language becomes so abstract, the pronouns so mysterious, as offer up only an aporia. Who is reaching, and is this entity reaching with or to "the hand of slight aid"? Does the 'its' in "share its strength" refer to the government? The 'its' of "augmenting its agricultural richness" must surely mean Ireland! Who are the "stern and prejudiced", and to what are they to be converted? The following sentences answer none of these questions. We are left only with a semantic aporia made insoluble by a very sophisticated confusion of grammar. The final question mark is almost ironical, reiterating our confusion while acknowledging the logic of a sentence that begins "Have you ever. . ."

Ros is evidently a genius. She was described by Northrop Frye as a writer with a pathological diabetes: one who employs a florid emotional rhetoric without being able to assimilate it. Her elaborate phrasing, and the great bathos of her sentiment, are often noted (by those who note her at all), but the very precise convolutions of her grammar, tending to nonsense, are ignored. She may lack the jingling hilarity of old Bharucha, but like that hoary scholar, her nonsense is indeed 'nonsense as process'. Both writers create an expectation of grammatical structure, which they then subvert, in the same way that a suspense-writer subverts expectations of narrative.

As you can see, one of Ros's sentences would keep me entertained, fascinated, for as long as a book's-worth of ideas from most other authors.


John Cowan said...

Yes, fine, all very well, all very interesting indeed, but the topmost sentence is not ungrammatical. The pronoun referents are vague, but this sentence is not an anaculothon in the sense that the burying-the-manufacture sentence is.

Conrad H. Roth said...

True, but I think the issue of what counts as 'ungrammatical' is not always clear-cut. It is correct, I think, to say that Ros does not break any syntactic rules; and yet, due to the odd phrasing and referential indeterminacy, there is a great deal of grammatical ambiguity.