“I LOVE to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an O Altitudo,” writes Sir Thomas Browne in his 17th-century spiritual-philosophical apologia, Religio Medici. “I learned of Tertullian, Certum est quia impossibile est.” This is certain because it is impossible. Religio Medici was much beloved of the Romantic poets, in whose writings one hears echoes of Browne’s belief in the edifying nature of mystery and scepticism, in profound and active faith as a state of suspension and perpetual seeking. Think of Coleridge’s Literary Biographia and “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”; and Keats’s “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Or Thomas De Quincey who, in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, wrote of the sublimity of Browne’s evocative description of music, which “has also a philosophic value, inasmuch as it points to the true theory of musical effect.” These amount to secular intuitions that in creative forms — the prose of poetry and the poetry of prose — there is something beyond the surface facts and details that animates and takes hold, possesses, gives life, transports.
This is certain because it is impossible. Certainty in impossibility; possibility in uncertainty. Enigmatic narratives in which lives do not emerge or elapse with biographical regularity, but instead emanate and hover, swing like ballasts, and collide in the margins and gutters. This is the space of Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives, three spare and telegraphic essays about Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob, in which each account is self-contained and exquisitely precise, capturing the arc of a whole life with filigreed economy. As children Jaeggy’s subjects are precocious visionaries on whom old age seems to descend rapidly, who take leave of youth “like a caliph takes leave of his rosebush.” As though seized by a transformative force, they become writers possessed by their craft, which flickers and smolders intensely as life seems to pass and circle around them in timeless eddies, until they are all of a sudden aware of impending death, and almost as suddenly, even in protracted illness, die.
Figures — peers, foes, lovers, family members — come and go with indeterminate immediacy, lingering in brief and vivid portraits haunted by peculiar details. De Quincey’s two sisters die; Jane, aged three, he believes will “come back, like a crocus,” while around the head of Elizabeth, who is to die of Hydrocephalus, he sees “a ‘tiara of light or a gleaming aureola,’ a sign of her ‘premature intellectual grandeur.’” Keats, who has “the look in his eyes of a Delphic priestess on the hunt for visions,” walks on the heath and comes across “a being with a strange light in its eyes, a rumpled archangel” whom he recognizes as Coleridge. Schwob falls in love with a working girl names Louise who “is skinny, consumed by tuberculosis, just a wretch with brown hair, her almond eyes dazed and scornful,” who writes notes to her lover in colored pencil: “Pookie, my hair is falling out, don’t forget how your nails grow and the scales from your skin fall. My tummy hurts. I sewed up my doll’s nose and now it’s much shorter and fatter. But I forgot to leave nostrils.” Entire literary worlds are summoned in a catalog of trivia:
Henry Fuseli ate a diet of raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams; Lamb spoke of “Lilliputian rabbits” when eating frog fricassee; and his sister Mary, wielding a knife, chased a little girl who was helping her in the kitchen and then stabbed her own mother through the heart; Hazlitt was perceptive about musculature and boxers; Wordsworth used a buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke. Coleridge, his head shrouded in a fog, read poetry badly and moaned gloomily. The dreams of Jean Paul, the crow that loved the storm, reverberated across the Lake District. This was TDQ’s Western Passage.
Here is a cast of characters whose practices are ruled by idiosyncrasy, dreams, and superstition. Everything hints at the dominance of another, alternate order of thought, which informs both these authors’ “possible lives” and the manner in which Jaeggy writes them:
There were others who helped themselves to dreams. Robert Southey experimented with laughing gas. Ann Radcliffe sought out huge quantities of indigestible food to reinforce her terrible night visions. Mrs. Leigh Hunt was proud to have produced an apocalyptic dream, which then appeared in a poem by Shelley. Coleridge, distracted by the scratching of his pen over the paper while transcribing a dream, forgot part of it. Lamb complained about the derelict state of his impoverished dreams.
Jaeggy is best known for her novels and short stories, whose astute compression of narrative detail is at once serene and startling. Characters bristle tersely with lucid and energetic voices, expand and contract within scenes and stories that are strikingly clear and simple, yet somehow obscured or partial — somnambulatory. Beneath a placid, opalescent surface lurks a threat or violence that may or may not be realized, but which contributes to the profound impression that people and their lives are unpredictable, coursing with icy, barren wildness. Every human trajectory, be it brief or enduring, is filled with riddling misfortune and ineluctable emptiness. Children are resolutely parentless, having been abandoned at an early age; they fall into deep sleep as a mode of escape; wayward girls and boys light fires, burn down houses, leap from windows, know they will die, wish it and will it with all their might while clinging fiercely to the humid, verdant underbelly of life. And at the margins are strangers, only half present, who stare beyond, with unearthly yearning, to some other place.
There is a family resemblance that unfurls in tendrils from Jaeggy’s fiction into These Possible Lives, and that has as much to do with the lives in question as with the author’s manner of telling of them. The essay itself becomes a form of possibility, in which a fiction writer’s thematic and stylistic preoccupations can twist and twine with factual subject matter as strands of equal significance. “Maybe the butterfly and the leaf have the same moment of Übersprung. Like the cat. They distract themselves from agony, abstract themselves from their own death. From the idea of death,” Jaeggy writes in “Cat,” collected in I Am the Brother of XX, which is also published this month by New Directions.
We don’t know why it is that the cat turns his gaze away. He knows why. Who knows, maybe this Übersprung is a delectatio morosa. A melancholic doing away with any connection to the victim. Übersprung: a word that involves us, too. It is a turning away, a going on to something else, manifesting a gesture of detachment, like a goodbye. Wandering from the theme, escaping from a word — at once hunting for words and doing away with them: these are all a mind’s modes of writing. Some write according to delectatio morosa. Thomas de Quincey, for instance, once hinted at the “dark frenzy of horror.”
“Delectatio morosa,” in Catholic theology, is the delight taken in idling in imagination and/or sinful thoughts. In These Possible Lives, it claws its way into the De Quincey nursery, where “the children took on the peculiar appearance, malevolent and lucid, of those who frolic with nightmares — those who are touched with pensiveness — which Baudelaire then translated marqué par la rêverie fatale.” In the essay on De Quincey from which this quotation is drawn, Baudelaire considers the effects of opium on the mind of one who is intellectually and temperamentally susceptible — “marked by fatal reverie.” And in her own essays about these three writers — who are all marked by aloneness, illness, or melancholy — Jaeggy ponders what the marking makes possible: does it give one access to the O Altitudo, conjure strange seeking verses, slough the “blue devils,” populate stories with the exhumed fictional changelings of lovers lost, harness darkling details from which emerge entire worlds?
The question of writing through the mark, wading in delectatio morosa, is raised not only in the Jaeggy’s essays, but also by the essays themselves. Jaeggy, too, writes through the mark, not merely chronicling but accessing, conjuring, harnessing. She gleans rich interior narratives from the primary sources of these writers’ lives, condensing swaths of time and experience into lapidary details rich and strange, which evoke a universe all their own. The possibility of These Possible Lives resides partially in the imagination of the reader who — like De Quincey, Keats, and Schwob — dreams and hallucinates between the lines.
Which is not to say that These Possible Lives is lacking in biographical fact: Jaeggy includes many details of the lives in question that would be familiar to most readers — from childhood beginnings, to furiously productive interior lives, and, finally, to haunting scenes of death. “It will be easy,” Keats tells his friend Joseph Severn. “Thank you,” De Quincey says to whomever is around him, before gradually drifting away: “They said that he had been a ‘good sick man,’ and a gracious corpse; he hadn’t wanted to trouble anyone.” Schwob dies alone in Paris, after returning from a fruitless voyage to Australia where he “did not get to Stevenson’s tomb under the flowers on top of Mount Vaea.” The man who had imagined the lives of so many others, Jaeggy tells us, “didn’t find what he was looking for.”
The titles of books he would never write: Océanide, Vaililoa, Captain Crabbe. He would never again want to leave. He felt like a “dog cut open alive.” Won’t the dead come to talk for just half an hour with this sick man? His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold. His eyes stayed open imperiously. No one could close his eyelids. The room smoked of grief.
Jaeggy’s essays possess the cool, inevitable horror of fairy tales in absence of any moral, save the overwhelming sense that someone or something will burn and smolder, and that someone (something?) furious, somewhere, does the burning. Here, life is a force that works upon us, with or without our consent — animates, depletes, buoys, and aborts.
In These Possible Lives, each writer seems marked by yearning itinerancy, by a predilection for tragic vagrants, altered states of mind, secrecy, and an inclination to the metaphysical. Are De Quincey, Keats, and Schwob linked in reality, or only in Jaeggy’s essays? In his introduction to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, the poet Geoffrey O’Brien writes, “We thought we were exploring a single life, and are brought to see that no life can be single, that anyone’s solitude is dense with the imagined solitude of others.” In our minds, and on the page, lives — their writerly preoccupations and possibilities — seep into each other and permute.
Jaeggy has translated both De Quincey (The Last Days of Immanuel Kant) and Schwob (Imaginary Lives) into Italian, and there is an intimacy to her ascetic prose, rendered beautifully by Minna Proctor. Jaeggy takes a similar formal approach to all three essays, but shifts tonally in order to reflect both the life and the work of each of her writers. The act of writing or telling a life is itself a form of translation — not only in terms of finding the right words, but also of bridging divides and of bringing one substance into another. In writing another writer’s life, the writer makes it, to some extent, her own. In biography, as in translation, grows an affinity. And, indeed, it is hard not to sense the affinities between Jaeggy and the writers she evokes in These Possible Lives.
“An Encounter in the Bronx,” another of the stories collected in I Am the Brother of XX, contains what could be read as a portrait of Jaeggy as writer, as observer. In a restaurant with Oliver (Sacks) and Roberto (Calasso, Jaeggy’s husband), who are absorbed in conversation, she seems detached from the scene, as if watching from without, zeroing in on details that ricochet metaphorically into more profound reflections. She looks at the aquarium, from which diners may select their meal:
I look at one fish, I don’t know which, but he is already a friend. Quite large, large eyes, always the same route, half the aquarium. He seems to respond to my gaze. I had the very precise impression that he understood. I was talking to him. In silence. With affection. He knows he must die. He knows he’ll have nothing more from life. And he observes the clients at the restaurant. For a moment I think that his fate is not different from mine. We are both observing. I may have an advantage, some future, a little bit of time ahead of me. Before being killed. The fish is so intelligent. His eyes express love, I am not exaggerating.
One needn’t read Jaeggy’s short stories directly into the essays of These Possible Lives, but there are undoubtedly rich echoes and correspondences. We are drawn to and assemble around us those writers to whom we are innately linked in temperament and expression, and whose work shapes our understanding of how to make a life in, and out of, words. The conditions of our possibility lie in writing that involves others in our world, and allows us into theirs.