A typographer’s eye

Anyway, the word from the poor author, who’s writing this because he doesn’t have a ‘real’ job, is that he wants to know what’s going on behind those eyes, why we behave as though we still believe in fairy tales when it’s obvious that the world’s fucked. I’m thirty-something, so you’d think I’d have figured it out already; but that’s just the way it is. I’ve got plenty of time, though, if my heart holds out.

I met an author at a book launch recently and we talked about the painter Francis Bacon. An interview with Bacon called ‘The Brutality of Fact’ begins with the admission that Bacon harboured a sexual desire for his father. The author I was talking to thought this was shocking, impressively honest, very promising; but he was sure that Bacon was concealing something else with this honesty. Well, I’m not so sure about that. I’m mentioning this because I remember now what I was thinking while we were talking about Francis Bacon.

I was thinking that when I was a young boy I was fascinated by my father’s sexuality. I loved his body, his big dick and his hairy chest. For years, for most of my adult life, I have maintained the conviction, and touted it publicly, that I hated my father. At my twenty-first birthday party I called him an “elephant’s arsehole”. (Not very nice; but, then, we hated each other secretly: he ‘hated’ me for leaving him; and I ‘hated’ him for treating me so badly when I left.) When I come to think of it, these were almost the last words he ever heard come out of my mouth. Everybody laughed.

Kids are supposed to hate their fathers because they’re the competition in a boy’s love for his mother. Did you ever hear such a stinking lie? This conviction I have maintained, stylishly elaborating it for my small part of the world to hear, is, of course, a load of crap—a load of crap straight out of the elephant’s arsehole, so to speak. The truth is, I loved my father. When I remember him now, in the moments that he touched me, when, for any reason, his arms wrapped around me, I was in heaven. But, even when I was just eleven years old, I knew the boundaries of this feeling, without knowing how I knew them, knew that there were things that could not be done or said, and knew this prohibition was real without ever having heard it spoken.

The point is—to answer the question before it is asked—that Francis Bacon was not concealing something else with his honesty. No, that’s not it. I know what Francis was trying to conceal. In a little while (when I’ve worked out how to say it) I’ll tell you what it was.

It’s hard to say what the truth of ‘style’ is, or with what ‘style’ the truth can be written. I know that I am impatient. I know that poets cannot be trusted. And you know you cannot trust me. You do not know whether I am lying or telling the truth. If those bastards in their ivory towers have their way, no one will know whether this pronoun I am tossing around is the thing that stands for me or is something else. I’ll tell you honestly: it is something else, something that even people who are writers do not know, and people who are readers know even less.

All the most personal writing I have reserved for poems; an idea, a feeling, a gripe with the world, some angry moment or pleasant surprise hunches in a cool, dark place for years, confident that, because it belongs to a writer, no one will arrive with a ‘Use by’ stamp. In a poem, and in some kinds of prose, these moments can be gathered irrationally, bunched like flowers and achieve, without too much thought—apart from concentrating now and then on ‘music’, the need to avoid cliché, and the necessary test of truth—an aesthetic effect. My first poems were not, in any way, personal, except in the safest and most abstract way; they expressed my feelings, but in a way that safely detached these feelings from my person. Perhaps this is the reason, years later, when I read these poems, I’m surprised and grudgingly recognise myself as their author. A few weeks ago, when a Sydney fiction editor wrote to ask if I had any prose suitable for publication in a gay magazine, I was surprised, again, to discover I responded, apologetically, that I write on gay themes only by accident, as though two aspects of my self might collide at an intersection. There are several stories, I explained in my letter, on appropriate themes, but they are all too long and none of them is finished. But, even as I wrote my excuse, I knew that it was not quite true and that I might, some time in the future, have to recant. There are, indeed, long, unfinished stories. It is no accident that they are unfinished. Something has obstructed their completion. There is the story of a man of letters and his boyhood relationship with one of Australia’s greatest painters; a ‘true story’ of which so little detail is available to me that it must be reconstructed from almost nothing: it is like trying to imagine a body from a pile of bones. There is the story of a relationship between a middle-aged man with HIV and a young, straight, drug-addicted prostitute. This is the story from which my last book takes its name: ‘The Ninth Satire’. It is strange, isn’t it, that a book built on the foundation of a particular story should have been published without the very story that prompted it? I like the irony of it. For hundreds of years Decimus Junius Juvenalis’s ‘Satire IX’ was excluded from collections of his satires because it dealt with subject matter which many editors thought unprintable. The relationship of Juvenal to the interlocutor of his ninth satire, Naevolus, has always disturbed me. I cannot fathom Juvenal’s cruelty. And Naevolus is both crudely attractive and repulsive. It is difficult to write about what you do not understand. There is another story, also unfinished, about a young girl who becomes pregnant when she is fucked by a man she later discovers is bi-sexual. This story is about disillusionment, abortion, and feelings of revulsion. These stories have something in common apart from being unfinished. They are all, in some way, stories about my unfinished self, ideas that are waiting for the completion of the person who could be their author.

People like a story that moves forward briskly, sweeps them up in a whirlwind of plausibility and delivers them, not more than a little bruised, to unexpected, credible conclusions: something with a beginning, middle and end. —But life is not like that; at least, none of the lives I know are like that. A story may be composed entirely of things left unsaid, where one thing is not properly related to anything else; and it may move forward only by changing direction. This is a story of that kind. Its author is a character a little like myself; that is, only in the sense that he is also an author.

You see, that’s the problem—Francis Bacon’s problem, one of them—you start out trying to tell the truth and, as soon as you open your mouth, your relationship to it has changed: it is no longer the truth, but something that obstructs something else.

What does it mean when someone writes ‘I’? Geofroy Tory, the typographer and student of Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, once wrote, “I cannot pass here without pointing out that our said letters were devised through divine inspiration. Homer, King of the Greek poets, states at the beginning of Book VIII of his Iliad that Jupiter once said he could, if he so wished, draw to himself by means of a golden chain all the other gods, and even the earth and the sea as well.” Tory imagines this chain, hanging from heaven to where we stand, “well proportioned in length and breadth, suited to the symmetry of our proportional letter ‘I’.”1 Victor Hugo, on the other hand, believed that “ ‘I’ is a war machine launching its projectile…”2 Can you imagine two more divergent explanations of the same thing? The upright letter. Tory draws his letter over the figure of a naked man. Anything could hide behind such a monument of typography, an ‘I’ that stretches from its author to the supreme god. Hugo’s letter is a cannon. It shoots its meaning into the heart of a reader, and it does not even have to be aimed very carefully to tear him apart.3

Now we understand each other. Now, as the story of this unfinished self goes on, you’ll understand this ‘I’ is both a monument of fiction (the obstruction itself) and the means by which the obstruction is removed. A typographer’s eye is another matter.

Mistake leads to interpretation. A proof-reader’s eye can unleash reverber­ations in a reader’s mind. Hans Gabler’s ‘definitive’ edition of Ulysses repeated the minor error of Clive Driver’s ‘definitive’ edition of Ulysses by deciding that Joyce had meant to write “lumps of coral and copper snow” at the beginning of chapter 15.4 The French translation of Ulysses5 says the phrase is “des couches d’une neige de charbon et de cuivre”—that is, “coal”, not “coral”. Joyce is preparing us for a descent into the underworld, not a sightseeing cruise to a coral reef. While we can imagine that Joyce would have cared greatly to give the correct impression here, the same cannot be said of all writers. It is Proust who interests me; the thousands of pages of digression, one tied to the other, so that a reader becomes lost in purely sensuous wandering, through a garden, along a path, the taste of a little cake dipped in lime-flower tea, the eye stopping for a moment on a young girl’s face. Proust did not seem to care about errors of typesetting. What he cared about was creating yet another digression, and when he received his proofs he added more writing to the galleys instead of reading them.6

“I gazed at her, at first with that gaze which is not merely a messenger from the eyes, in whose window all the senses assemble and lean out, petrified and anxious, that gaze which would fain reach, touch, capture, bear off in triumph the body at which it is aimed, and the soul with the body”, Proust writes, with a typographer’s eye, in the ‘Combray’ chapter of Swann’s Way, “then (so frightened was I lest at any moment my grandfather and father, catching sight of the girl, might tear me away from her, by making me run on in front of them) with another, an unconsciously appealing look, whose object was to force her to pay attention to me, to see, to know me.”7

The eyes are, perhaps, more important than anything—at least, to a person who has the use of them—and there is as much about them in our languages, poetry and morality, as any other part of the body, including the heart. Gray’s Anatomy describes the heart in less than ten pages (leaving aside all the things connected to it) and provides only two illustrations. The eye, however, has at least fourteen pages and five illustrations (not counting the Meibomian glands or the Lachrymal apparatus). The eye is in every aspect of our personality. While we keep the heart and mind separate, all minds have an eye—‘the mind’s eye’—to see things our other eyes cannot. This eye may be green, if we are jealous. And, as we know from the Psalms, having eyes is no guarantee that we will be able to see.8 Understanding is not only a matter for the eyes—‘an eye-opener’—but the speed with which it happens is measured in the eyes: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”9 There is an “inward eye”, according to Wordsworth, “Which is the bliss of solitude.” And, as we wander lonely as a cloud, like William, who knows, we might see Mr Dodgson through the looking-glass with our “dreaming eyes of wonder”. But it is all in the eye of the beholder. Some eyes have apples in them; some are jaundiced, some lack­lustre; others have bags underneath. Many eyes are found in months—“men’s eyes in April / are quicker than their brains”10 —and there are a thousand, at least, in every night. Are there more eyes in Shakespeare than in the sky, than in the night sky, plus one, “the great eye of heaven”? “Alas, how is’t with you / That you do bend your eye on vacancy / And with the in­corporal air do hold discourse?” Why are there so many eyes in Hamlet? “In my mind’s eye, Horatio.” “… Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.” “The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword.” “… Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres …” The eyes are the site of our most intractable prejudices. Black and white. “Appearances contribute to reality”, John F. Kennedy said. We know that there is something else, but our eyes tell us what we believe will be the truth. Our eyes connect us, by their immediate reaction, to what we know is viscer­ally, instinctively beautiful or horrible. Magnetic. Attractive. Insatiable. Repulsive. Ugly. An eye is a key that unlocks pornography. And while it is true that they can be closed, unlike our ears, which are always open (and, so to speak, ‘watchful’), even when closed the imagination keeps them alight. Memories stoke the fire. When we are asleep our eyes follow our dreams. The eyes hardly ever sleep. All of our desire is in them, and all desire’s sad­ness. The eyes are full of themselves and with everything else. It is with our eyes that we measure the world and first recognise ourselves in it. Sight, as Plato wrote in The Republic, stating the obvious, is the eyes’ “proper excellence”.11 —If only it were true. It is through them that we measure the visible world, and imagine the extent of everything that is hidden. First in the catalogue of human fear is the ‘unknown’, whose most compelling sign is dark­ness. The eyes are a list of suffering and joy. All of a person’s character may be in their eyes, as Gustave Flaubert knew.12 —And none of it. The eyes of the paranoiac imagine there is more in the eyes that follow him than there actually is. Why? It is because the content of eyes is very often ambiguous. We hope for love and fear rejection, and never know everything that is behind another’s eyes. A ‘visionary’ is one who saw things we did not, and so is a madman. Visionary and madman are measured by what our own eyes see, or don’t see, as the case may be. (Madness, as the mad will tell you, if you ask them, is mostly in the ears. Thoughts are ‘heard’. The mind is a noisy place. But, after the ears, the eyes are the next to go. Light and dark angels appear where voices were.) And, as Michel Foucault has shown, modern medicine was born in the eyes: “The gaze will be fulfilled in its own truth and will have access to the truth of things if it rests on them in silence, if everything keeps silent around what it sees.”13 Two eyes are needed to appreciate perspectives. A mystic is helpless without the third. A banker may not have a heart but he keeps at least one eye on the bottom line. Some people “only have eyes for you”, which is a somewhat unlikely compliment. To have eyes like these is, in short, to be human. Even Jews have them! “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?”14 And niggers, queers, perverts, socialists, women, Liberals and child-molesters have them, too.

Are you following me? Good. Then let’s go to New York—city of many niggers, Jews, Koreans in self-serve salad bars, and millions of eyes. The con­trasts are surprising. Times Square is said to have more ‘language’ hanging in the air than any other place on earth; a vortex of signs and speech, a typographer’s dream. Wall Street, on the other hand, where language has been replaced by ‘data’, is a cold, almost signless, windy canyon that, I was surprised to find, has a dark and eerily beautiful graveyard, beside Trinity Church, at its entrance. I walked back from Wall Street to my room on West 48th Street by wandering up West Broadway through Soho and Tribeca (in Spring Street there is an old building now dubbed ‘Poet’s House’—it’s in the NY phone book—where a monthly calendar of literary events and readings is published), the Village and, on the other side of Washington Square, Chelsea, up Eighth Avenue past the General Post Office (“NEITHER SNOW NOR RAIN NOR HEAT NOR GLOOM OF NIGHT STAYS THESE COURIERS FROM THE SWIFT COMPLETION OF THEIR APPOINTED ROUNDS”); a walk that, with occasional stops and small detours, can take a couple of hours. The 40s streets on Eighth could be avoided at night, if you are so inclined: they are full of visionaries, madmen, typographers and tourists. A typographer, I kept my eyes open, of course. There is so much to see. I walked into a salad bar where you can fill a small plastic container with whatever you like and pay, according to the weight of what you’ve chosen, only a couple of dollars for dinner. A tall, white red-neck in the queue in front of me was having an argument with the small Korean woman who weighed the meals. I had seen her here several times before, at all times of day, and concluded that she never slept. The red-neck had had enough of something. Maybe there are just too many people with yellow-brown skin in Manhattan these days. He exploded angrily, made some offensive remark, threw coins on the counter, and exited with his plastic container. The Korean woman said something to me that I didn’t understand, and then she laughed. I smiled quizzically. I was becoming accustomed to having conversations in which less than half of what was said could be understood. The previous night a cab driver had stuck his head out of his car and asked a black woman on the street, “Where is two-thoity-sex?” “Two-forty-what?” the black woman had replied in a well-educated tone of voice. I imagined these two people had spent most of their lives growing up together, one from Brooklyn, the other from the Lower East Side and, with only the East River between them, at this one, chance meeting, effective communication seemed impossible. I picked up my plastic container, which the tireless Korean woman had put in a little bag for me, and continued on my way. My eyes were still open. “Hey! Baldy!” I turned around. I realise, now, that this was a mistake. I should have kept my ears closed but, as I’ve already warned you, the ears are ever watchful and cannot be closed. A little Jewish man with long, messy hair, and dressed in a long, dirty, black coat, was hobbling behind me. He looked, in the moment that I saw him, like a mad and visionary Rabbi—not someone to be messed with. “Wha’do you want, baldy?!” Under no circumstances was I going to stop for this man. He had seen something, I don’t know what, leaning out of my eye as I walked along Eighth Avenue toward my room. Desire, perhaps. Whatever it was, he didn’t like it, and he was going to get me. “Hey, baldy! Wha’do you want, eh, baldy? Bald man!! Stop! Wha’da ya looking here for, bald boy?” he cried angrily. This guy was getting on my nerves. I walked a little faster, consoled myself that West 48th Street was only around the next corner and this nightmare would soon be over. But I was also angry. I was, after all, innocent of everything, except having eyes; and in New York there are millions of those. A moment later I realised that this caustic Jew and I had become a spectacle: ‘AVENGING RABBI CHASES GENTILE FROM PIT OF INIQUITY’. —This is what the German tourists have come to New York to see. What business was it of his where I looked, what my eyes saw? And this ‘baldy’ thing—it was very embarrassing. Had my corner not arrived just in time to save me, I would have turned on him and given him the slanging match he so richly deserved. My trump card was 2 Kings 2: 23-24. A Jewish nightmare, I thought, is a Gentile who knows the Old Testament. “And he went up from thence to Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.” I was shocked to look with my ‘inner eye’, in what should have been the “bliss of solitude”, on great reserves of hatred. Visionaries and bigots—the only way to cure them is to pluck their eyes out. This place, I thought, must be Hell in summer.

It is the same everywhere… In Melbourne, at a friendly Fourth of July gathering of expatriate family and lesbian acquaintances, a woman makes the remark, about a young girl who has just left, “She’s a very pretty young woman. And she’ll go far, if she fixes up her teeth.” The discussion bubbles for half an hour and then erupts. What kind of desire, mingled with business-like cruelty, had looked out of those eyes? In the 1930s, in Queensland, a young boy was receiving advice about life from his father. He recalls, nearly sixty years later, “My father told me there is no God. He was a sensible man. He told me I should not waste my time yearning for the Absolute, that I should be careful with money and that I should never feel guilty about sex. But the most important thing of all for a young man, he said, was to be careful not to get a young girl preg­nant. If this happened I would be responsible for the baby before that responsibility was wanted, and it would ruin my life.” Between advice and recollection was a remarkable life, guiltless sex and, I assume, no babies. Once or twice, at the moment when stories haltingly begin, he refers to a self-imposed restraint on how his eyes might wander longingly over a beautiful face because, if it were noticed, some danger that is probably only recognition might present itself. Walk along a busy street, anywhere, behind a beautiful girl or boy, and you can see, in the faces of men and women alike who pass you going the oppo­site way, how their eyes suck light into an abysmal prison of need, with “that gaze which would fain reach, touch, capture, bear off in triumph the body at which it is aimed, and the soul with the body”. “He stared at the snake, and the snake at him”, just at the moment before his painful transformation, one body sucked into the other, and both of them transformed.15 It begins with a stare. Young girls are tarted up so effectively before their images are glued to billboards, you’d think they were old enough to consent. We are in Hell, and all this is perfectly natural here.

My own characters stare out at me like they would stare at the snake. Something prevents me from finishing them off. I slide around them, hissing, for months or, sometimes, years. —An unwillingness to change. That, you see, is how Dante finishes Canto XXV of Inferno: with the change and transmutation of creatures in the eighth circle of Hell, where fraudulent thieves are kept. (So, poets are among them, of course.) Dante’s eyes, he says, are “somewhat confused”, and his mind bewildered.

The eyes have always been the most sexual of organs. Legislators, moral guardians and civil libertarians argue more about what we may and may not see than anything else. The freedom to speak is, just as often as not, the free­dom to write and, by implication, the freedom to read; and we live with elab­orate administrative systems regulating what may be seen and, every now and then, the rules change. But some things never change and cannot be regulated. At the very beginning of (the first) Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, the author was careful to note that in his own mind he represented the King “not with an inquisitive eye of presumption … but with the observant eye of duty and admiration”.16 The seventeenth century version of “you were always on my mind”, this was, of course, a lie, and it is clear he was attempting to cover up his ‘original sin’. Eyes are not like that. For both God and man, creation, knowledge and everything begins in the eyes: “God saw the light, that it was good … the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … and the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked …”17

So, when Francis Bacon—the painter—said he harboured a sexual desire for his father, was he concealing something else with this giant truth?

The National Gallery of Victoria has an early Bacon painting, Study from the Human Body (1949). Many of Bacon’s paintings depict bodies of this type. The naked male figure moves through a veil or curtain, steps into a dark space behind the painting, from the visible world into the invisible world, from con­sciousness into the unconscious, from life into death. His right leg and right arm quietly push the veil aside. His head bends forward into the dark. Two falls of curtain divide the painting—left and right—and the figure is in the centre. The man’s calves have been chopped off at the bottom edge of the frame. We cannot see his feet. The left fall of curtain hangs straight. The more central folds of the right fall of curtain slope gently toward the right. Above the man’s head, between the falls of curtain, is solid grey. The whole picture is composed of sandy-yellows, greys and white paint. The back, right shoulder and right arm of the figure are mostly bare, white paint. We cannot see his eyes, which must be looking down to where a little yellow-grey light is slipping along the floor from where we are to where he is going. Unlike many of Francis Bacon’s paintings, the figure is not distorted or deformed. He is a lover leaving the bedroom. A father disappearing into the past. You can stare into the painting a long time without noticing something else, a small detail that may not be very important: there is a safety pin fastened to the right fall of curtain, helping to hold the veil open. If the figure were absent, if no one had decided to pass through here, or if he had already gone, the gap in the veil would remain open, the safety pin holding it there so we could peer into the dark. In a moment he will be gone. The figure in this painting looks like my father. We want to call him back, tell him not to go in there. We would only need to say something, anything. We would only need to say something else. We do not know what this something else is. No one knows.

This story comes to you courtesy of the Great World between Fact and Fiction, Inc., the eighth circle of Hell, pit of thieves and poets; where everything is changed into everything else; where, Dante reports, thank God for small mercies, smoking is not only permitted but absolutely essential; where poor Mr Bacon and I stare at the snake and wait, with terror, to be changed. Later, in the eighth circle, you will meet fraudulent counsellors and all kinds of falsifiers (generally speaking, the post-modernists). —Have a nice day.

This short story was originally published in Going Down Swinging Number 15, 1995.

  1. Champ-Fleury, 1529. View at http://www.rarebookroom.org/Control/trychf/index.html  
  2. Travel Notebooks, 1839. 
  3. Tory and Hugo do not always disagree. To Tory, for example, ‘H’ is “the body of a house” and to Hugo it is “the façade of a building with its two towers”. 
  4. The 1960 Bodley Head edition of Ulysses prints it correctly as “They grab wafers between which are wedged lumps of coal and copper snow”, p. 562. 
  5. By Auguste Morel and Stuart Gilbert, in collaboration with James Joyce, 1929. 
  6. Guy Davenport discusses the examples in this paragraph at length in his book Every Force Evolves a Form, Secker and Warburg, London, 1989. 
  7. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1, Swann’s Way Part One [1913], trans. by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Chatto & Windus, London, 1976, pp. 192-193. 
  8. Psalms, 115:5. 
  9. 1 Corinthians 15:52. 
  10. John Drinkwater (1882-1937), the playwright (Abraham Lincoln and Bird in the Hand), biographer and poet. 
  11. The Republic, Book I, 353. 
  12. Julian Barnes has written much about Emma Bovary’s eyes in Flaubert’s Parrot, Picador, London, 1985, pp. 74–81. 
  13. Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, Vintage Books, New York, 1975, p. 108. 
  14. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice III, i, 62. 
  15. Dante, Inferno Canto XXV. 
  16. Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Humane (1605), First Book, ‘To the King’, paragraph 2. 
  17. Genesis 1:4, 3:6 and 3:7 (King James Version, 1611).