Sentences — January 14, 2009, 12:47 pm

Perfectly Different

enormousroom_001

“With the reader’s permission I beg, at this point of my narrative, to indulge in one or two extrinsic observations.” I find that request irresistible–not because I’ve come to know through repeated readings what E.E. Cummings is about to offer in exchange for my time, but because I like the strategy of asking. It’s a rhetorical tactic of apparent guilelessness that is actually all guile. Cummings is no more asking our permission than he was waiting to receive it; rather, the tone of chummy subservience is, functionally, its opposite: a tone of potentially grating Olympian assurance lubricated by a pose of politeness.

The book from which this false indulgence falls is Cummings’s The Enormous Room, about which I’m posting this week. Appearing in 1922 (as the notice in the 11 February 1922 issue of The Publisher’s Weekly confirms), the book isn’t read enough, however prized it is by some of our better younger writers. Consider one of the allegedly “extrinsic observations” that unfolds in Cummings’s narrative, a portrait of a person with whom the author was held in confinement in France, and to whom Cummings refers as the little Machine-Fixer:

The little Machine-Fixer (le petit bonhomme avec le bras cassé as he
styled himself, referring to his little paralysed left arm) was so
perfectly different that I must let you see him next. He was slightly
taller than Garibaldi, about of a size with Monsieur Auguste. He and
Monsieur Auguste together were a fine sight, a sight which made me feel
that I came of a race of giants. I am afraid it was more or less as
giants that B. and I pitied the Machine-Fixer–still this was not really
our fault, since the Machine-Fixer came to us with his troubles much as a
very minute and helpless child comes to a very large and omnipotent one.
And God knows we did not only pity him, we liked him–and if we could in
some often ridiculous manner assist the Machine-Fixer I think we nearly
always did. The assistance to which I refer was wholly spiritual; since
the minute Machine-Fixer’s colossal self-pride eliminated any possibility
of material assistance. What we did, about every other night, was to
entertain him (as we entertained our other friends) chez nous; that is
to say, he would come up late every evening or every other evening, after
his day’s toil–for he worked as co-sweeper with Garibaldi and he was a
tremendous worker; never have I seen a man who took his work so seriously
and made so much of it–to sit, with great care and very respectfully,
upon one or the other of our beds at the upper end of The Enormous Room,
and smoke a black small pipe, talking excitedly and strenuously and
fiercely about La Misère and himself and ourselves, often crying a
little but very bitterly, and from time to time striking matches with a
short angry gesture on the sole of his big, almost square boot. His
little, abrupt, conscientious, relentless, difficult self lived always in
a single dimension–the somewhat beautiful dimension of Sorrow. He was a
Belgian, and one of two Belgians in whom I have ever felt the least or
slightest interest; for the Machine-Fixer might have been a Polak or an
Idol or an Esquimo so far as his nationality affected his soul. By and
large, that was the trouble–the Machine-Fixer had a soul.

Cummings produces portrait after portrait of his fellow confinees in the titular enormous room where all of them are, at length, detained. Elaboration builds on elaboration. It’s not unlike, in structure, how Saul Bellow would build a description of a person piece upon piece, although Bellow was more specific in his vision than Cummings could or would be. Cummings’s shadings skitter from random externals (a boot, a pipe) back to statements less about the little Machine-Fixer than about Cummings himself–the portraiture is most often self-portraiture, as befits a book that is, ultimately, about presumption. I always finish The Enormous Room thinking I would have liked to detain Cummings, too.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today