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:

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

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author
Article
Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If you short-circuit the bottom, you threaten the entire cycle,” Joye told me. “Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.”
Illustration by John Ritter

Length in days of the sentence Russian blogger Alexei Navalny served for leading an opposition rally last year:

15

Israeli researchers developed software that evaluates the depression of bloggers.

A teenager in Singapore was convicted of obscenity for posts critical of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding father, that included an image of Lee having sex with Margaret Thatcher.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today