The Letter of Marshall de Montfort to Sir John Maxwell

Dear and esteemed Sir,

It is on Marshall’s behalf that I write. You will have received from his wife Sophie, former member of the boards and judge, a letter dated the 808th dies non juridicus – marking the passage into infinity of Ms. Costello, your honoured emissary. Her warm solicitude came to Marshall – embodied in a gaze, his words – while reading a copy of Sophie’s letter. How that letter came to him, I cannot say. Though this I know: To her words, indeed to her pleading voice, he wishes to add his.

Perforce I transcribe that voice here. Dare I say, his words are mere scares – traces of broken symbols – truncated formulations etched upon a cavern wall; from the damp they emerge, partial and fragmentary, pressed up to his mouth, cipher by cipher, whence they trickle over wooden lips, now inert, now moving mechanically like those of a ventriloquist’s plaything. This, Sir, is what he has come to resemble: a man abridged of something unspeakable – pliant, tractable – a glove-puppet under the agency of another’s hand. It is I, his secretary, to whom the charge befalls to convey what somehow issues from his belly; it is I too who must translate, though inadequately, the intentions of these utterances, notwithstanding the incompleteness of their form. This is a duty I accept. A duty whereby an expression of the man, I repeat, a single expression of Marshall may perchance be brought for consideration under your sight, whence but one of the many tarnished mysteries of his muted inner-life may be revealed. If confusion were thus to discolour his words and becloud your gracious mind, then I would beg your indulgence, for it is my hand that has set them down here one by one.

Composing from an unheralded frontier, upon the cusp of something yet formulated, he wishes to converse without artifice. I shall speak plainly, but believe me when I say this: my eyes have witnessed his state. Long have I known him, never have I seen him thus. Ignominy swathes his senses – his mind, that feeble organ of persuasion – with doubt. All nascent thought is clipped and caulked, driven together into a mass of subdued inaction. Ineffectual and dull, caught in the grip of inoperancy, his reflection no longer refracts; and in the cooling embers of his mind, what flickers there still, flickers but dimly from afar. I ask myself what respite, if any, quickened fire would impart to his spirit – who can say?

(From the trickling stream of his reminiscence comes the souvenir of a night-crossing in the Dutch mountains, his left hand gestures at the mappa mundi laid out beside him, a fingertip hovering above the region of the Austrian Tyrol. Again his index lingers there, hesitating at first, then oddly gesticulating toward the German border north of Steinplatte – or so it would appear. Located atop the slopes above the small village of Waidring, there is a blind precipice, now more or less completely concealed by the lining of his cuff. For having trodden the heights of its craggy precinct under leaden cloud, he says that you, Sir, should be acquainted with the vision of its vertiginous fall. If the precise latitude of the rock face escapes him, the allusion wholly escapes me. On the matter he would appear to have nothing further to add. Of geography and gesture, both – despite his insistence – all meaning of the reference evades my comprehension.)

For many nights he has stalled the dispatch of this letter, reproving a locution here, regretful of a transcription there. And although his feebleness of spirit is too grave for him to muster the charge required to duly harness his attention to the enterprise of correction and amelioration, his refined disparagement of my transcription remains alas manifest. At my finest I let him down, fail him. Not even the sum of my best efforts is contingent indemnity – or inner reparation – against the singular and undistinguished victory – of failure.

Sophie wrote last year a letter to you composed under the spell of allegory. It is not allegory’s enchantment that has engulfed Marshall’s mind in guilt and plunged him into doubt, leaving him wretched for sight. Allegory’s tissue is not to blame. No. If I were to say that what brought on his affliction was a bout of misguided curiosity, this would no more present the cause, than would it unhide reason. In a word, what he did was trade Sophie’s hand under a hex of curiosity, and this, despite grave misgivings. More explicitly, it was the act of exposing her hand to his eyes that laid bare the affliction which has long been his; an affliction doubtless made worse fetched beneath his sight, hedged there via the expedient of his own hand. I fear you may think I inflate the gravity of the matter. It is not so. Sophie’s hand did with such vividness of representation trace his picture that once drawn in there his gaze was forced to contemplate the hollow depths of an irrefutable likeness – mirrored in her words. Prone, he came to contemplate the figure of their shared malady. (In his suffering I do wish to console him. For if his act was that of an interloper, then unfair gain has he obtained for his intrusion. He respects her so, Sir.)

On the night in question, (I pray you, believe me, for we have conversed mutely on the matter, and at length), when he came upon her letter, her hand afire, her verb aglow, how, I ask, was he to withdraw his dizzy sight? Stumbling upon her petition, drafted unto his cause, imploring him to favour by your grace, a petition composed in tongues so willing to consume the air and enflame the eye, so keen to awaken what shifts behind light’s iridescent surface, to say nothing of what shifts about the soul, how was he, (I repeat my shielding plea, how was he,) her beloved, to withhold himself, inclined as he must have been, as he surely was, to view more than a simple glimpse of what he had inopportunely discovered? (Caution, Sir, would have that I not muddle words here, lest they construe an under shade of judgement; my place is that of scribe, his transport’s secretary, none other.)

Words burnt white with affection. Sophie’s devotion to him is thus: She and her words are of one breath. No part within her is withheld when they come forth; no corner remains guarded when her lips part to breathe freshness into old symbols. She is at one with the vision to which she her self yields. She is one in deed with him to whom she tenders her verse. Under her spirited command, ushered from a pale breast, her passion infuses generously – unembellished, incarnadine – marching through the dying leaves on a cortege of flames, to settle in as many a scarlet print of rhapsodic prose; her veins, he calls them, ma protéologie, she declaims.

So no, whether it is because he holds her council as dearest to him or because, whatsoever the nature of his affliction, he knows too well the author of his bane – whatever the reason – he will not speak of her in the accusative, not here, and never long elsewhere. Long has he celebrated the woman who calls him Marshall. Long too has she, fine lady, been acquainted with his erratic modes of love. (He asks of you to forgive him this deluge of unsolicited sentimentalism, draped in poor verse. He wishes neither to arrogate nor to ransom the eristic cloth of life. Victory is truth, he says, or not victorious. Here, in word, he considers himself bound to give rightful place to reason, to sentiment, and to affect.)

On the matter of Sophie, she being the reason he writes, it seems fair to say this: one does not dismount love like one dismounts a steed after the season’s very last chase; one coaxes to the stable the mare that requires rest, and thereafter, and only then, if one is possessed of strength, does one take leave and bravely affront the night, alone – if able – and barehanded – if apt. The alternative is repetition; the aftermath, inner stagnation.

Transfixed by the figure held in the gaze. In time one becomes absorbed by the reflection of that figure, that all too familiar form of he who looks out, dully, upon he who gazes in, spellbound; transfixed there by the aperture, by the shadowy figure depicted in the mare’s naked eye. That, Sir, is the alternative – to live for her gaze, and for her gaze alone. Thus on the heels of his decision to leave the stable, preferring to enter the forest of his vast estate alone, he has hitherto been confronted nightly with no darker a figure than a shape distilled from the silence, a shimmer drawn from its echo. In sum, a collection of murky phantoms and obscure visions, clipped from the verdant boughs of nature’s dim stillness. This he calls the inscrutable audition of my middle existence.

The Mongolian proverb, from the Liao Dynasty, would have it that to engage the shadow of one’s own figure in the gaze of another living beast – for we are all beasts, says Marshall, all and many, in turn – is to behold the visage of one’s indigent soul. Could the forest ever be as wretched as the figure that he, Marshall, has uncovered, has seen, and, has once too often rediscovered mirrored upon the crystalline surface of her gaze? The forest in comparison is a haven. It screens from sight what the inner-eye would all too eagerly erect, concealing the scene of the unseen, while it conveys to the mind the living revelation of the ear’s innermost vibration. The recall of the echo, he calls it: far less a pattern fielded by the ear, than the spectre of the matter marching in the mind. Nothing more. Nothing less. The figure in her gaze is far darker than he can suffer to look upon any longer – whence his journey to the forest at nightfall, hence this letter; for this, I believe, is the cause of his affliction.

From the echo of silence, from the ricochet of what lies beyond, beneath, this is the frontier from which he mutely composes.

Long now have his lips been desiccated, as dry as the gills of a bellied fish, waterless. This parched episode, like many before, has not been without consequence. For the aperture of his senses has slowly begun to close as the light about his eye recedes. Realizing, as he did, (as one does), that there was nothing to do, that there was little else to be done but wait, he came piecemeal to adopt waiting. One weds oneself to waiting, he says, as a hapless participant in an invisible process of adoption; its course entirely strange, its way no less obscureOne adopts the cloak of waiting like one does any unbidden tissue: Much wrestling and unease precede the act of shouldering the cloth, of acceptance, which is in fact an act of perpetual courtship – of giving oneself up to the elusive figure of an eventual “whence”. A figure all the more haunting in that its subtle interplay with the present alludes to a postponed time beyond, one that is outside of now, a time that has yet to unfold, and as such, the present moment protracts and swells, undulating from the deep well of here and now, rising and falling into a vacillating ripple that purls in concentric rings unto when’s distant and unbefriended shores. One cannot hurry what one cannot hasten, says Marshall. And one cannot hasten what lies beyond one’s reach. One’s place, then, is here, which is there and nowhere, marking time in the centre of an ever expanding circle.

Now? Then? When? The interplay of the trio is peculiar, and chiefly disarming. After reflection, it seems fair to state that what one touches on is an innermost quadrant. One feels a pulsation; one catches a glimpse at the edge of vertigo. It is the indomitable passage to the begotten state of unmitigated ignorance – of whenIt is the final precipice whereupon one, unbeknown to oneself, may elect to wait. It is a time of abeyance. 

How does one dispose oneself to this form of waiting? Acceptation of it is a pogrom turned on reason. Reason thus revolts. Inner violence ensues. The hand chases what the eye cannot see and the foot flees, as rats flee from fire, as cats take flight from rising water. Only rats, Sir, are more courageous, of this he is almost certain; and as for cats, well, theirs is an art that few men ever master: the refined husbandry of individual sovereignty. Can they know the inner violence of reason’s siege, of reason’s revolt against that siege?

With fits of panic, then, he gave himself over to the postponed time – of waiting. He gave himself up without any assurance whatsoever of what waiting for in itself, would of itself yield, if anything at all, process excepted. One gives oneself up as a dead leaf yields to fire, says Marshall, its edges coiling as they come in contact with the flame, though aware, intrinsically, if you will, that the constituent parts of the matter are no less represented by the leaf’s form than they are by the ashen pattern there forming, that is to say by the residual pattern of the leaf consumed by fire. Emerged from this image a mere vestige of reason, from which he questioned thus: Will this unsolicited hold on inaction continue; and if so, how long? What new pattern will emerge under my sight? What movement will it take on? To date, this has been yet another question which has failed to gain response. That too, he says, has a pattern; and although its message falls short of my hearing, the pattern’s meaning is hidden somewhere in its repeating form. But can I feel it, he asks?

So it was that he came to reflect on waiting. Engaging it, thus, as one may ordinarily engage abstracts – their agency is not without sentiment, nor their compass void of affect; he came to murmur to himself on occasion that to engage waiting in this manner, as he did, as he does still, seemed to open himself up to a glancing contact between hope and nothingness (a glancing contact, I say, hold the figure in mind, I pray you); so closely are hope and nothingness linked that contact, one with the other, is inevitable. Glancing at each other, shyly, sidelong, if not gazing, for an instant eye-locked. This realisation was stark. Austere. Of an ascetic skein: veins flogged white in eyes aghast. To stamp it with a more formal currency, Marshall puts it thus: to engage waiting is akin to endure the state of not knowing; and more besides, it comes with the unbidden understanding that there is, perhaps, nothing beyond the process itself, that is to say, that there is perhaps nothing beyond waiting, however abstract, however real the endurance of the process may appear to be in time present. Time is always present, says Marshall, and the echo in the silence is a call to a fuller time, one not yet unfolded, a future present beyond, toward which time present protracts, vibrating and resonating, as if beseeching. This, perhaps, is the quivering of hope, says Marshall, a quiver sent forth into the distance; and hope’s vibration, an echo from the farthest shore of Infinity.

His first inclination, at this moment, was to conjecture that nothing, nothing other than the revolt of reason, in addition to that which one would estimate to have taken upon oneself in the course of waiting, that is to say via the endurance of its process, that nothing apart from these bare abstracts would stir the deeper present, nothing, in the hope of… something else emerging. But can this suffice, he asked? Is this a pattern I am still at liberty to feel?

It was this, then, that brought his attention back to the image of his reflection, to his figure thrown upon the surface of her gaze. And to this brute fact he adds: I understand now. It is a meagre apparition, one behind which there is nothing real, nothing possessed of itself; therefore there is no face, neither darker nor lighter, for its projection is a shadow devoid of substance. Rather, it is my fear that animates the form, my fear that breathes into and thus inflates its figure. Dread and fear are the very matters that enliven its existence: my fear of not existing; my fear of a fuller existence; my fear of not resisting against the unnamed nothingness of my present existence. Question: Is my fear somehow an evidence, one that bears out a quality of my earthly existence? (In this inscrutable consideration both terror and comfort become perceptible. Of this he is certain. Ask him not to distinguish between the two. For something unspoken mediates the difference of this from that, of a twin sided leaf slivered in two, of a foregone sound of air on shadow, of an inner knowing that is neither reason nor sensation, that is neither ray of light, nor darkness. Irremediably he asks what husk of meaning this contains, what movement of the pattern in the pattern he may observe, indeed may be observed? This he himself cannot presently say.)

How difficult it is to trust that waiting for holds purpose. Especially since the protracted act of waiting is the singular inaction that defines his existence. Or is it rather the corollary of the latter that holds sway: that one must hold to nothingness with purpose, and then give oneself up to wait, ignorant of when, of whence, holding on to that something which is all uncertain, abiding there upon the cusp of the unformulated, attending a pattern that is still rising, at rest, not yet risen, perhaps emerging? Does it behove one to withstand this process and give licence to endurance? If so, is the process of endurance, brought on via waiting, the parent that engenders the husk of meaning? Is the passage of endurance that which allows one to beget purposely, wittingly? (But beget what?) For the process would appear to be at variance with itself, that is to say as a means of engendering something; it is at variance too with the unknown, by definition, that is to say with the unknown for which it is the agent, for which it is meant to be the fallopian conduit, the transport; for the process of endurance would seem at a loss to prove itself gifted to provide assurance of an eventual begetting, and furthermore, at a loss too to provide an assertion of what may, in time, be birthed. If “waiting for” is what attends us, and waiting for alone, then the words here emerging, those flanking here and now, then and there, are mere symbols that never bridge now to when, ever overarching they stretch with purpose, ever reaching for, never attaining, then. Is this why we continue to reach for what hangs mutely within our gaze, for what dangles beyond our grasp? What if this constitutes the only pattern: a gesture toward something – unknown, unknowable? (Here, Sir, I merely attempt to transcribe his essays at thought; he is fatigued, and my hand, deficient.)

You will understand his surprise, then, when he states that “something”, like a spear, severed the unflinching hold to which I have above made mention. Like a trident, he says, thrust from Botticelli’s own hand. What had been parched, seamed too, caulked like a cloak about my head, came asunder, of a sudden was torn in twoOvercome be immediacy, and for fear of stalling, I quickly heeded the call to the opening and penetrated the breach in the only manner I knew how, which is to say by engaging words; I threw myself naked upon the charity their labour might offer me, I clung to their neat coattails, my eyelids shut tight.

Let it be said, it is not with Botticelli’s palette that he composes, nor with Sophie’s unbound affection that he seeks to write. He somehow understands that between himself and the outer boundary of nothingness, exist but scares and symbols; he somehow understands that twixt nothingness and he – for who is he if not one who stands astride that frontier? – exist but words. They exist, he says, like causewayslike the old dikes of middle Europe, which, whilst suffering the sea of erosion raise their backs and resist – opposing, forbearing, withstanding – to hold back the waters that threaten to flood the hinterland, and with their surge, menace to wash away a vital soil. How meagre the tableau! How fragile indeed the frontier we occupy! Is it more than an abstract hinge for fantasy, for allegory; it is more than a pale diptych, than a broken anagram traced on a palimpsest, thin as skin, frail as care? I must ask this: Is its cusp the summun bonum? If so, is this what existing finally whittles down to: resisting against that which would wash away our innermost quadrant? Is the feat of existing no more and no less than an unceasing struggle against the erosion of one’s inner country, however cultivated, however destitute, however petite? Were I to respond: “How essential this paltry existence we inhabit! How minimally essential our habitation!” would my words adjoin to that same habitation more than a vain refrain? For can one evince waiting through the sheer tenancy of the process, via waiting itself, by the act of attending to one’s dike, by the passage across a causeway no broader than the quiet length of dearth and skin, turf and trowel in hand? I would answer this: if my words are not trained like hoplites, what resistance will their ranks offer?

How scant is the meagre something to which I gesture; yet upon it, through it, I shall essay another portrait, says Marshall. I shall attempt to salvage another leaf, extort another fistful of earth and again make an incursion into the beyond, thrust a foray into something – insignificant, unnoticed – regardless. From the cusp, onward to something more, more or less engaging, something which the floorboards would not trample underfoot too swiftly; something which the menacing waters of doubt will not lavish with brine and cast away into the vast outer large of the boundless unknown. With broken symbols and an abstract hinge I will resist on the only frontier I have come to inhabit, and barely know.  

Emerging, engaging, without conjuring up the loftier concerns that so tempt; the tense is clearly formed under the present participle, where chariots burn while waiting for the mare to rise from the stable, and for the bridle – headstall, bit and rein – to dress the gaze, restrain the gait, and give cadence to the canter. Wedded to waiting while chariots blaze; that is his manor and allotted estate; and his to consume in the hue of night, unbedecked.

Under night’s vault, below the darkness of the empyrean, Manfred fuels a steady fire. (Believe me, Sir, for my eyes have borne witness to its warm ashes.) Whilst its flames are not those of a blazing furnace, would it be untrue to say that the brushwood fire that burns there burns to actuate his purpose?

Unnamed, and perhaps an irregular form of fiction, his graduates toward the minor genre, certainly, to the kind which, by its chosen agency, would appear more ready to consume than disposed to transport.

But what if transport were fire? If I were to feel the inner friction, he would say, then would I not, by agency of that consuming affection, find myself transported via the very intensity of that feeling, however transient its searing passage; if but for a moment the burning ashes would dance, however fleetingly in the gaze; if but for an instant my sight would uncover a shift in the face of nothingness, then perhaps would emerge a parcel of hidden life, mysterious, and in the residue of the ashes of the smouldering leaf I would there discern a new pattern, one coming into form as its figure mingles with the flame, a blueprint burning, outlined by the heat of the fire that would leisurely consume it?

That, then, shall be my courtship: to a fiction of residue; and I, an artisan of residue, of ashes waiting to be consumed, says Marshall.

I confess, he adds, mine is hardly enough to form even a minor ecology of phraseology, of verb; it is a wraithlike fiction, perhaps nothing more than an ascetic prose for an abstemious soul, though something, perhaps even something still emerging: an adumbration; a faint echo of fuller silence. Though will it, I ask, be enough to invoke kairos? Will it be sufficient to provoke the passage of an auspicious hand?

What voice rises from the palimpsest, asks Marshall: is it the voice of a singing bird, or that of a dilettante, boasting a cry from the vast quagmire of contrition? That, Sir, is his question.

His instructions were precise. He said to send his warmest respects, coupled with his heartfelt regard for your spaciousness.

Come to us; join us on the cusp of waiting, write, for we are of humble conduct, and faithful.


Marshall de Montfort ©2011-2012. All rights reserved.

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