:: Article

Index, fingered

By Richard Marshall.


Bridget Penney, Index, Book Works Semina Series (No.1), 2008

There’s a fierce moment in an interview with Gustav Metzger when he talks about how his interest in destruction is not an interest in ruins. Ruins are picturesque. The Sorrows of Werther trespassing the Saxon Stutzenwechsel onto blank atom bomb annihilation. A photograph of Nagasaki is in this full moral sense a travesty and abomination, an immoral appropriation of a destructive presence totally fulfilled by the absence of picturesque representation. The reason for this is that the picturesque draws upon an already appropriated perspective, an assimilated atmosphere and knowledge that can offer nothing but a returning to source, the comfort of an assured redemption telegraphed home to mammy’s dugs.

For Metzger it is the auto-destructiveness of an acid painting, for example, which burns through canvas and space in unbelievable complexities of movement, time and space, that such modern realities require. It would take years to analyse just the event of such a painting. In this way it is possible to understand Metzger’s fascination with the extreme outsider painter Vermeer who produced only thirty-odd paintings in a lifetime that ended badly. The strange extreme singularity of Vermeer is produced by an excessive turn that punches holes in the familiar so that something only explicable through the unknown technique and presented absences of his strange, keyhole, Duchampian paintings is begotten.

The technique of Vermeer remains unknown to modern art historians. They guess he may well have had some sort of kamera but this is speculation. The acid painting burns a hole that is a dynamic signal (not sign) of the silence of Beckett’s swallowed calmative, a mouthy ‘o’ that crushes in ‘ a mighty systole’ then scatters all ‘to the uttermost confines of hell.’ What that absence evicts is the sky, sea, mountains and islands … the props and accidents of story, picture, the already pictured. It’s the hole in the bottom of the boat that, now unplugged, lets in the undamned flood.

The early sly location of Duchamp within Vermeer above is part of this unsteady, drowning argument. Duchamp’s ‘The Brawl at Austerlitz’ of 1921 whores up the bricks of Vermeer’s ‘A Little Street’ of 1657-1661 like a modern anti-faith anti-papal Ripa rip-off but his ‘Etant Donnes’ finds the uncanny atmosphere of Vermeer’s mysterious 1671-74 ‘Allegory of Faith’ in the long grassy knoll that holds the pale leather hide that looks like the revealed hiddenness of Woman. It was a work that Duchamp secretly worked on between 1946 until 1966 whilst playing chess with naked beauties and Sam Beckett, a reversal, in time only, of Metzger’s assertion that the auto-destructive artifact should exist for no more than twenty years.

Penney has been accumulating her Index for fifteen years and when discussing this with Semina’s commissioning editor Stewart Home she half-remarks semi-ruefully at how advances of technology had disrupted some of its immediate force. The fragmentation of found information is of course a feature of the exponentially populating Internet which was something not available fifteen years ago. The complexity and volatility of the originally conceived project is threatened by the commonplace of information noise that technologically driven random overload drives ad nauseam as, shockingly, mere habit.

The pressure to find the rip code to violate the given perspectives and activate a critical structure capable of punching holes through to the other side of the given remains, however. But the techniques of old are, as Metzger recognises, obsolete as the modern continues to redefine itself. Cut-up techniques tend to shatter norms only if random surfeit of noise is not itself the norm. Google has changed the landscape. Cut-up techniques are now as ineffective as Gilpin’s smooth picturesque, the Devil’s Bridge on the St Gotthard Pass and Frank Clarks’ ‘scandalous legends of lawlessness,’ mere frisson-mechanicals launching a thousand garden centres themed around the sub-Rosa sublime of a well-rooted rhododendron.

Just as Warholian superstardom has become a commonplace familiar of the Big Brother tv culture these days, which disconnects the Warholian strategy from any attempt to make a contemporary alternative sensibility, there is a similar pressure to find the detonating power of a writing strategy capable of carrying forward the complications and crisis of what both Chaplin (earlier) & Dylan (more or less now), nimbly and nobly, calls ‘Modern Times’. As always, there’s a requirement that the artist remains agile and nimble and with nobility show no fear.

Penney presents her work as a kind of Hamlet in distrusted, distributed prose, a fractured, motionless piece where there is no attempt to force an interest: everything is left for time and circumstances to unfold as if a mind spanning years, decades, centuries. The attention is excited without effort, the incidents succeed each other as matters of course, the characters think and speak and act just as they might do if left entirely to themselves yet there is always an awareness that, as in Hamlet, no character is left like that, to think nor do as they please. Yet there is no set purpose, no straining at a point. The observations are suggested by the passing scene – the gusts of passion come and go like sounds of music borne on the wind.

Her John Franklin is not fleshed out by any Googled facts and so is amenable only to the tribunal of her, Penney’s, own thoughts, the order in which she chooses to arrange the events for us, and is too much taken up with the airy world of contemplation to lay as much stress as (maybe) she ought on the practical consequences of things. The habitual principles of action are unhinged and out of joint with the time, the snow scenes wrap up her reflections, and everything works as a sort of exaggerated thinking aloud. There is therefore no attempt to impress what she says upon others by a studied exaggeration of emphasis or manner; no talking at her readers. There is as much of the scholar as possible infused into the part, and as little of the actor, despite the fact that Penney recites sections of the book from memory when in performance. A pensive air of sadness should sit reluctantly upon her reader’s brow, but no appearance of fixed and sullen gloom. There is a full vessel of weakness and melancholy here, but no harshness in its nature. She then is the most amiable of misanthropes.

Bacon had it that ‘some minds are proportioned to that which may be dispatched at once, or within a short return of time: others to that which begins afar off, and is to be won with length of pursuit’. Penney is definitely one of the long run guys: our great Hazlitt would have had her as someone who isn’t required to have a habit of shallow suddenness characteristic of the talker, the commentator, the stand up comic. Index is history as grave study: its materials lie deep, and are spread wide. History treats, for the most part, the cumbrous and unwieldy masses of things, the empty cases in which the affairs of the world are packed, under the heads of intrigue or war, in different states, and from century to century: but there is no thought or feeling that can have entered into this, which she would be eager to communicate to others, or which they would listen to with delight, that is not a fit subject here. It is not a branch of authorship: it is ‘the stuff of heretical heritage.’ It’s materials are ‘mere oblivion’, a dead letter caught in the snow, caught in a time of revolutionary possibility. Hazlitt called such things ‘poetry’, saying that ‘for all that is worth remembering in life, is the poetry of it. Fear is poetry, hope is poetry, love is poetry, hatred is poetry; contempt, jealousy, remorse, admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness, are all poetry.’

A couple of hundred years have made this at first seem a somewhat clichéd observation, yet coloured by the backwash of Gustaf Metzger and the auto-destructive Black Atlantic Celt pranksterism of Stewart Home, and situated in the present political context, Penney’s book is attempting to invoke that fine particle within us, that expands, rarefies, refines, raises our whole being into the technological endgame of 2008 through a refining reflection on 1798 (and other dates eg 1792, 1777, 1773, 1764, 1786 etc etc). Historical figures are wedged into a slick of advertent greased palms. The language of such oils sharply hits our less unguent time. Nature is allowed its young head as if the book is singing…

“Oh, how can’st thou renounce the boundless store

Of charms which Nature to her votary yields!

The warbling woodland, the resounding shore,

The pomp of groves, and garniture of fields;

All that the genial ray of morning gilds,

And all the echoes to the song of even,

All that the mountain’s sheltering bosom shields,

And all the dread magnificence of heaven,

Oh how cans’t thou renounce, the hope to be


But the book knows Nature is timing us out and the vantage of the eighteenth century is not ours. Ice locks our memory. Ice corresponds to human history. ‘The ice is a mirror. You do not see what you want, but what is in your mind’ she writes. And throughout there is the nagging question which wants to ask,’ At whose cost are these stories told?’ Fragments invite the obvious issue of omission and inclusion, the principles feeding the choices being made. Fragments make such questions seem more urgent when the conventional narrative flow is no longer available to cover the tracks of such principles. The reader asks why this date and why this stub of fact, why not another, why not this for example? And reads on. And waits.

But then the inner momentum and logic of the text begins to force a reading, force answers that, though contingent, seem fulfilling, suggestive enough in the face of helplessness, the purged obligation to express more than a diminishing repertoire. In her interview with Home she says that she resisted the temptation of throwing in even more found fragments from a Google search and that suggests a becoming dignity in the face of her times.

This throws us back to the anachronistic element of nobility that emerged above, stripped of some of its agrarian frisson, a kind of Rhett Butler with snake oiled pencil tash a propos a deep Southern gent ethic stripped of Zanzinger connotations. What Penney’s nobility consists of is the rhetorical devices of a fine write. Her voice in the novel is weird, neither actual nor under done. It is a style that winks towards authority whilst at the same time has a stab at the phenomenological oceanic. It is a little too rounded, occasionally sounds like it has swallowed the Elgin marbles, is as purple as a monarch’s snail, kind of posh.

Along with the historical references we are in a cabinet of wonders where the voice traps each perplexing detail in a laquered prose more befitting of a British Museum homily to the nomenclature of aesthetic lapse in HVS and MS Ogden’s English Taste in Landscape in the Seventeenth Century than an avant garde engagement with the degenerate race politics of Richard Allen’s skinhead pulp oevre, which might have been something deranged enough to be expected from this Semina series. Instead, nimbly, it avoids that clichéd net that lay in waiting at the bottom of the pool, so to speak. As proposed, it reaches towards an anti-picturesesque in a way remarkable for its hesitant and perhaps coy aesthetic purity, a feature her commissioning editor, Home, can’t have been but proud of.

In this, then, is the apotheosis of the book’s final line, ‘She lies.’ The book lies down and lies, tells fibs, messes about with what is standing and what is left standing afterwards too. The French Revolution, a key moment for the book, which marked the exchange of the agrarian nobility for the bureaucratic absolute, an Absolutist project begun, ironically, by Louis XIV and which serves as great a piece of magic as that planned by Penney’s Balsamo, Count of Cagliostro and his iron box of six handkerchiefs, is played with, laid out, lied with and about, and finds just proportion and enough resonance not to be lost, without ever insisting on what it actually, really, is going to mean.

It is autodestructive in the Metzger manner, complex and resisting the picturesque by building an uncanny atmosphere redolent of the Duchamp and the Vermeer pieces quoted earlier. It is able to think a little but not expound on the Modern Times through a personal voice that is just a suggestion of personal, along with its inclusions and omissions. By remaining less than definite about what it’s doing it can face down the questions of who pays for these stories by knowing that actually, no one is paying for anything here, or if they are, its more like rent rather than full-on purchase.

Modern Times places Penney in the conundrum of the impossible act, where writing with the purpose of avoiding the picturesque obliges a writer to not so much write as bear writing in mind. And that is all.

Richard Marshall (centre) is former editor of 3:AM and his essay on Stewart Home appeared in its fifth anniversary anthology The Edgier Waters (2006). He lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 24th, 2008.