by Michael D. Snediker
Those who do not know that to say so is this. Please pay pray and relieve which is might and butter with it ordered as before near a station a station can be known as a depot it can be known as a fruit and a fruiterer it can be known as for and before and before and for before. I can and can and can be known as known as before.
That there exists a moment before dementia in which one engages another’s uncertainty with uncertainty simplifies the phenomena of persons who are supposed to be certain—who love, have been loved by, persons perhaps on the verge of certainty.
This is reader and text. This is less pleasure of a text than inexorable personification of readerly event as inevitable response to our textualizing of the interpersonal. Is there or is there not something there? Is one supplying significance where there is none, and does this not itself illuminate the ways a reader always only can supply? If there is no outside of the text, there likewise is no outside of a reader. Omni-textuality may effect so ruthless a dematerialization that it feels like the only thing left is one’s readerly self alongside an increasingly self-incredulous hermeneutic repertoire. These conditions, again, are interpersonal, all the more acutely in the context of dementia.
Supplying supplicant, the reader finds recognition that may or may not be a hall of mirrors—another way of describing the specular, distorting repetitions for which Gertrude Stein is known [sic]. The near-amorous collision of narcissistic misprision and echoic supplication might be heard in the epigraph Stein gives to Lucy Church Amiably:
And with a nod she turned her head toward the falling water. Amiably.
Were he to turn his head toward falling water, we might think Narcissus finding his own head falling, turning, as the water turns and falls. In turning her head toward Narcissus’s reflection— Narcissus, like many figures in the Metamorphoses, might well be diagnosed, in the intractability of a logic unmoored from the world [sic], an absorption acutely indistinguishable or inseparable from withdrawal, as a person with early onset dementia— Echo may be nodding in agreement, or nodding off, nodding in a knowing way the contours of which, in Stein’s austerity, we can only imagine.
Is the water falling as a disruption of Narcissistic (which is to say readerly, demented) reflection, or is the water (narcissistically, readerly, dementedly) falling for itself, falling in love (again), falling into a trap? We do not know [sic], in the context of Stein’s epigraph, the consequences of her turning head—the fungibility of gendered pronouns suggesting the myth of Echo & Narcissus as recalibration of Orpheus & Eurydice: no one can turn one’s head in myth without consequence—beyond adverbial qualification.
She nods (as contractual closure, acquiescence, and all of the above), and does so amiably. Is amiability ascribed as external observation or internal addition? Does it seem amiable, as someone in a nursing home smiling for a reason, for no reason? Do we need a reason, do we need to have the reason, do we need a particular reason at the exclusion of an entire weather of smiles that resonate with logics so idiosyncratically lost (which is to say bound) to themselves that they seem, as in Stein’s epigraph, like an adverb in need of further lexical landscape?
Is this health? Are there forms of reading less attached to treatment (when treatment is foregone) than to patience, a version of being beside oneself (Narcissus/Echo redux) that cultivates patience instead of losing it. Are there patient forms of losing it, of watching something lost, falling (water), without the anger of being beside oneself, as usually understood [sic]. Narcissus and Echo, catechizing us in the fictions of selfhood, leading us into a readerly practice of proximity, besideness.
False etymology: that we are adjacent to a certain sidereality, that we are seeing, being stars, themselves reminding us that what we see is itself a mirror-trick, the blaze of something that existed millions of years before us, and yet—
The dementia of Lucy Church Amiably arises in advance of itself, in advance of the epigraph, in Stein’s taxonomizing description of it (a taxonomy which my edition, from Something Else Press, Inc., places above the text’s title, just below the author’s name) as “A Novel of Romantic beauty and nature and which Looks Like an Engraving.” Does it aid our reading of Lucy Church Amiably to think about it as a novel? What does it mean for a novel to look like an engraving? In looking like an engraving, a novel might look as though it has no plot, may look like a play of surfaces, convexities and concavities. What is the scale of the engraving? Are we to treat this text as a cameo or a wall? Of what is the engraving made? Are these helpful questions in the first place?
We thus begin Lucy Church Amiably forewarned that the text might require different forms of reading. That this reading has personal stakes, that the persons at stake might well suffer a form of dementia (even as we feel our own impairment in the face of the text’s impairments), is suggested in the first paragraph of the “Advertisement” that itself precedes “Begins the Middle of May: Introduction,” itself preceding “Chapter II.” An Introduction is not equivalent to a first chapter, technically speaking, even as Lucy’s “introduction” is asked to stand in for “Chapter I.” Something from the beginning is missing, even as Lucy is remarkable for its proliferation of beginnings—taxonomy, epigraph, advertisement: as though we needed to prepare, even as each of these preparatory meditations seems less orienting than distancing.
Something like a novel (which, we are told, looks like an engraving) is in our hands, and it looks like a novel (it has a cover, it has numbered pages seed-clouded with paragraphs, it has chapters, if not a first chapter), and yet it doesn’t feel like a novel. We hold it and it feels like a novel and yet it doesn’t respond to our feeling as a novel ought. Are you there? What’s happening in this shared silence that begins with your gracile opacities and like Narcissus or Echo, becomes my own silence. False etymology of impairment—in this duress, we are in a pair, we are in this together. Reading (as) a poetics of dementia asks us to reconsider impairment and besidedness as bedfellows.
To return to the first paragraph of Lucy’s “Advertisement” (a genre that promises something that may or may not deliver, which, in the spirit of Austin, may or may not be felicitous), we find an absorption (a disappearing) of exteriority into interiority, which only further equivocates its relation to significance. How are we to sit patiently with such writing, how are we to learn to love this writing? If poetic stanzas can feel like rooms, Stein’s paragraphs can feel like the rooms of a nursing home:
Lucy Church Amiably. There is a church and it is in Lucey and it has a steeple and the steeple is a pagoda and there is no reason for it and it looks like something else. Besides this there is amiably and this comes from the paragraph.
There is a church that is both part of Lucy’s name, and between Lucy and Amiably, sandwiched between Lucy’s name. In this sense that there is a church that is in Lucy makes sense on a level of surfaciality at odds with the claim of anything being inside Lucy. Is this church part of a psychical landscape, is there a reason for its being there as part of an interiority beyond the nominal?
To sort out our expectations of interiority as relates to Gertrude Stein may not illuminate (or honoring the name of our heroine, elucidate) that interiority, but at least we realize we are thinking about interiority rather than taking it for granted. Wondering not only what has happened to interiority, but the terms by which it is intelligible as such. We are thinking about reading and dementia—and the affective constellations in which both are embedded—as correspondent, adjacent phenomena. Impaired. Beside.
We are constantly allowing for the possibility of characterological interiority, even as characterology, taken seriously, would call us on our wish to read characters as though they were people: whatever this, in the context of dementia, means: are persons on the verge of their own uncertainty more or less like characters than other persons? We supply interiority where they may be none, we imagine motivation and logic for a character who exists as a person for us as an act of magic.
And so if for the time being we allow the possibility of Lucy’s interiority, there is a church, although we do not know which religion, we do not know the faith so much as the fact of faith, the architecture that could house both faith and faith’s floundering. The nursing home is a particular church, and this church itself is a vertiginous moebius of insides and outs. That the church has a steeple means one can see it from a distance, but that the steeple is a pagoda means of a sudden we see this steeple less clearly, regardless of vantage. There is no reason for it might pertain to the aleatory pagoda, or it might speak to the entire passage.
Somewhere there is reason, and somewhere, quite constatively, there is not. But locating “no reason” can be as frustrating as locating reason. What lacks reasons, where, and on top of which what does it look like if it doesn’t look like itself. And yes, something related to this might be our novel which looks like an engraving, but being engraved is only slightly more particularizing than the initial “something else.” We are beside ourselves before we’ve begun. As Stein herself writes, “Besides this there is amiably.” Stein is a practitioner of beside in advance of our own practice. To cultivate prepositions is to practice relationality, to make arrangements (an exhausting, euphemistic idiom for anyone who has cared for someone with an impairment like dementia: some arrangements are easier to make than others).
There may be reason for the pagoda, if we recall (to what extent can we recall, to what extent are we impaired readers unaware of what we might need to remember for the sake of making sense) one of the most ravishing literary antecedents to Lucy’s pagoda, that which we find in Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Maggie Verver’s pagoda, like Lucy’s, is in her, and yet its contributing to an interior landscape doesn’t lessen our conventional impulse for further interiority. If there is architecture in a psyche, then this means interiority itself has an outside, and some further psyche (or fiction of one) to which only sometimes we have access. Here is Maggie’s pagoda, which I quote in full:
It was not till many days had passed that the Princess began to accept the idea of having done, a little, something she was not always doing, or indeed that of having listened to any inward voice that spoke in a new tone. Yet these instinctive postponements of reflection were the fruit, positively, of recognitions and perceptions already active; of the sense, above all, that she had made, at a particular hour, made by the mere touch of her hand, a difference in the situation so long present to her as practically unattackable. This situation had been occupying, for months and months, the very centre of the garden of her life, but it had reared itself there like some strange, tall tower of ivory, or perhaps rather some wonderful, beautiful, but outlandish pagoda, a structure plated with hard, bright porcelain, coloured and figured and adorned, at the overhanging eaves, with silver bells that tinkled, ever so charmingly, when stirred by chance airs. She had walked round and round it—that was what she felt; she had carried on her existence in the space left her for circulation, a space that sometimes seemed ample and sometimes narrow: looking up, all the while, at the fair structure that spread itself so amply and rose so high, but never quite making out, as yet, where she might have entered had she wished. She had not wished till now—such was the odd case; and what was doubtless equally odd, besides, was that, though her raised eyes seemed to distinguish places that must serve, from within, and especially far aloft, as apertures and outlooks, no door appeared to give access from her convenient garden level. The great decorated surface had remained consistently impenetrable and inscrutable. At present, however, to her considering mind, it was as if she had ceased merely to circle and to scan the elevation, ceased so vaguely, so quite helplessly to stare and wonder: she had caught herself distinctly in the act of pausing, then in that of lingering, and finally in that of stepping unprecedentedly near. The thing might have been, by the distance at which it kept her, a Mahometan mosque, with which no base heretic could take a liberty; there so hung about it the vision of one’s putting off one’s shoes to enter, and even, verily, of one’s paying with one’s life if found there as an interloper. She had not, certainly, arrived at the conception of paying with her life for anything she might do; but it was nevertheless quite as if she had sounded with a tap or two one of the rare porcelain plates. She had knocked, in short—though she could scarce have said whether for admission or for what; she had applied her hand to a cool smooth spot and had waited to see what would happen. Something had happened; it was as if a sound, at her touch, after a little, had come back to her from within; a sound sufficiently suggesting that her approach had been noted.
I’ve elsewhere discussed Maggie’s epistemological revelation that surfaciality can be as remunerative, if differently so, than knowledge predicated on our pre-attachments to interior. To place one’s hands on it, to wait and see if a sound returns. We return here to Echo, a return that can’t conceal nor doesn’t mind nor hardly is aware of its own redundancy. Knowledge can be relational, just as relationality can serve as the possibility of knowledge, even if not the knowledge we were hoping. Echo and Narcissus teach us the impossibility of an easy chiasmus. But we can be besides, in this opening up of dementia-reading in which these phenomena less learn from each other than patiently wait with each other, to see what would happen. And try as readers to be as patient as possible, because in this room, this ill- named “facility,” we are all patients.
Michael D Snediker is an Associate Professor of American Literature and Poetry at Queen’s University (Kingston, ON). He’s the author of Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions, and of two poetry chapbooks, Nervous Pastoral and Bourdon.