The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Last of the first impressions: “The Tramp”

Posted on: June 20, 2007

First taken on stories here

“The Tramp” pulled me in immediately, its first long, rhythmic lines carrying me along like a song. Quite a contrast to the opening of “Look Where You’re Going” which started with short sentences, of sometimes four or five words; you could feel Mais forcing you to slow down, stand up, and pay attention. To compare:

He walked down the street slowly. His hands in his pockets. A very serious young man. It takes a lot of courage to face the future without security of any sort. And sometimes his courage failed him.

from “Look Where You’re Going”

Tramp, tramp, tramp the city over, sweat and sun, sun and the dust of highways taking all directions, going everywhere at once and getting you nowhere. The meaning of life, the meaning of direction, of process, lost in the ceaseless procession, the endless burden of footsteps.”

from “The Tramp”

This story, the last of “Part I” as arranged in this book, acts as a conclusion to this section. The man walks to nowhere, aimless it seems, the idea of wide open if dusty spaces blocked by the lines of “rotting walls, barbed wire, and the unsightliness of corrugated iron sheets” that hedge him in. So again we have someone living a half-hearted, deadening existence except that the despair hangs more thickly around him. Mais deals more completely with the stagnant, superficial state of human relationships. A common theme of his, explored best in Black Lightning, is the incapability of humans to truly express their thoughts and emotions with one another, always mired in misunderstandings or locked in their internal worlds unable to empathize with one another, to find common ground, to truly communicate. Sometimes they are too hardened, too ill-used to bother.

So here the protagonist ruminates on the emptiness of his relationships, platonic and romantic, of the emptiness of his life, the fleeting pleasures grasped at social occasions that are lost again, the knot inside him that does not come loose. He yearns for ‘process’, development, change, but is lost in a ‘ceasesless procession’.

The party at Jake’s last week. The gramophone music and the shuffling hips. There was richness in that and freedom in that. People letting go of their inhibitions and laughing and coming alive. But you couldn’t take anything of that away with you. Because that was only an escape. A means to an end. And he could hardly blame the people who had come to regard the means as an end in itself. The unrest everywhere. The world busying itself with all the known antidotes to boredom. People asking to be made happy. To find happiness ready made for them.

He understands and sympathises with these aims but by taking a direct, honest look at that lifestyle he recognises its ultimate insubstantiality.

You couldn’t take any part of Jake’s party under your vest home. You couldn’t take away anything but a headache and a bad taste in your mouth the morning after. And that was the hell of it. That was life saying to every man and woman of them, you didn’t come here to appropriate to yourself large helpings of happiness but to learn about process, and through pain, and to make death a splendid thing, beautiful with giving, which is the whole purpose of life.

Of course, it has to be found within himself, the change must first start with him, he cannot find it in others, in parties, in the rotting buildings. He needs to find it because the stagnation, the emptiness, the unassuaged hunger, this inability to take at give was eating at him, “eating at your own flesh in secret”.

He does find it, or the beginnings of it, he attains a revelation, a path through which he can rise above the meaningless tramping and find beauty and humanity within himself in others. He finds it in art. At least, I think he does. Mais describes a scene in which the man stops walking, lets go of concrete ideas of specific, short-term destinations, even the idea of setting and time as typically understood. He observes the process of a leaf growing on a twig, being created, taking in the sun and he connects this with aesthetic creation, with music, rooted in the human experience, the process of going through joy and pain into something bigger, something eternal. So for him its art that will make him whole, and it will do the same for “Jane” and for countless others. I mean, I guess it’s art. I’m sort of holding on to the fact that Mais used the word “aesthetic”.

He saw the first peep of the bud on a green twig, saw it taking light from the source the sun and weaving it into a patter. Uttering out of the joy at the core of it, the centre of creation, the pure aesthetic substance of its being, and understood it for all it was, song and process, and the embodiment of joy and pain. But always proceeding from joy, the song the eternal and through pain the process, on to joy again, and each moment of the way, endlessly even to death and beyond…

I’m sure Mr. Kenneth Ramchand, who wrote the introduction, has a neat little explanation that would make it clearer to me (and therefore you, blog reader, if anyone’s actually reading this) but I’m going to work through mine for now. Anyway it reminded me of nothing so much as Woolf’s tendency to bring the reader out of an actual scene and, through the character’s thoughts to something higher, particularly when Peter Walsh is walking out of Regent Park and hears ‘a frail quivering sound…the voice of no age, or sex, the voice of an ancient spring spouting, from the earth’. Mais’ starting point is less concrete that Woolf’s because, from each story to the next, the fact that each character is walking becomes more overtly symbolic, especially when one notices the changing time of day for each — the first takes place in night, perhaps early evening as others are still about; the second after midnight; the third in the sunlight.

Now that I’ve written all of this out it reminds me of Wilson Harris and his ideas about the “collective unconscious” but I’ll have to actually read his books before I can say much about that. I do find it pleasing that, close to reading all of Roger Mais’ published works, I’ve never been bored. Some are better executed others but all give something worth considering, worth enjoying.

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1 Response to "Last of the first impressions: “The Tramp”"

[…] This got long. I’ll write up on the third story in the next post. […]

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