Friday, August 26, 2011
Douglas Messerli | "Murdering to Create" (on Lewis' The Roaring Queen)
MURDERING TO CREATE
by Douglas Messerli
Wyndham Lewis The Roaring Queen (New York: Liveright, 1973)
Even within Wyndham Lewis’ eccentric oeuvres, The Roaring Queen is a curiosity. Episodic in plot, flat in characterization, and seemingly without structure, the novel—which might be more properly described as a Mennipean satire—appears to deserve and even invite attack. Robert T. Chapman (in his book Wyndham Lewis: Fictions and Satires, 1973), for example, has called it “a loose baggy monster which comes to life but rarely”; even Hugh Kenner (in Wyndham Lewis, 1954), one of Lewis’ most ardent and brilliant spokesmen, described the novel as a failure:
Force of nature, for the first time fails; and reading Lewis chapters un-
quickened by Lewis prose one is aware as never before that he has in
this book no characters, no plot, and no theme but the ubiquity of
Timothy Materer, in the most recent book-length study of Lewis (Wyndham Lewis the Novelist, 1963) describes it in a dependent clause as “the triviality of his satire on book-reviewing.” It hardly seems surprising, accordingly, that the book—withheld from publication in 1936 by Lewis’ publisher, Jonathan Cape—seems doomed to be forgotten.
Finally published in 1973, The Roaring Queen remains a puzzle for Lewis admirers, who, while recognizing the work’s obvious faults, might be dissatisfied with dismissals that seem too pat. For one thing, the book stands awkwardly in Lewis’ canon, six years after his masterful satire The Apes of God and only one year before The Revenge for Love, the work which Lewis himself described as “probably the best complete work of fiction I have written.” That is not to say that at this time in his life Lewis could not have penned an inferior work; yet Lewis was clearly at a point in his career of full literary powers during The Roaring Queen’s creation, and one cannot help, accordingly, but wonder what Lewis had in mind in this work, and why, having created this strange mix of satire, farce, and polemic, he attempted to publish it.
Some of these questions can be answered by recognizing the book as a satiric attack aimed at one man—the powerful book critic, Arnold Bennett, whom Lewis was determined to denigrate. The animosity between Lewis and Bennett was deep and had been years in the making. According to Lewis it began in 1928 when Bennett took a disliking to Lewis’ Tarr, which, in turn—if one is to believe Lewis—led to a “boycott” of his work. Just four years before The Roaring Queen Lewis had bitterly complained in Time and Tide of Bennett’s “critical dictatorship of the Anglo-Saxon World,” a complaint which was not without some justification. Bennett’s influence upon readers on both sides of the Atlantic was enormous. And, as Lewis was later to admit in his Blasting and Bombardiering, Bennett’s response to Tarr and others of his novels indeed hurt Lewis’ reputation:
This John Keats would have had much more porridge if this particular
Hitler had not taken a dislike to the cut of his hair.
The Roaring Queen, then, is a direct attack on Bennett as “book dictator,” as a man of “blurb and puff.” Strangely enough, however, although the novel begins strongly with the Bennett figure, Samuel Shodbutt, it is soon weakened by presentations of seemingly unrelated caricatures. A few of these figures have connections with Shodbutt and the literary world, and are easily recognizable as members of the “Bennett circle.” In Rhoda Hyman, for example, we are presented with a caricature of the “highbrow” novelist of the “Jane Austen-Virginia Woolf type” (Walter Allen, in his introduction to the 1973 volume of The Roaring Queen, argues that Rhoda is, in fact, based on Virginia Woolf). And characters such as Lilli O’Stein, Marcel Taxi, “old” Mrs. Boniface, and “little” Nancy Cozens are equally at home in this literary scene. But other major characters such as Mrs. Wellesley-Crook, Baby Bucktrout, and Osorio Potter seem to belong to another book, are almost of another realm, so to speak. Their relationships to this literary context of the book are tenuous to say the least.
These tenuous connections, however slight, are nonetheless important. If Mrs. Wellesley Crook, for example, seems primarily to be a caricature of a wealthy social-climber of an earlier generation, we must remember that she also plays the roles of “patroness” and “promoter” of the literati. The book focuses on her role as a nouveau riche American who has learned how to use literature and its creators for personal gain.
Similarly, Baby and Ossie have also learned to use literature: Baby (a character based, apparently, on Lewis’s former lover Nancy Cunard) reads for titillation, Ossie for pseudo-anarchistic theories and self-justification. These last two may use literature, but are also compulsive products of the literary world around them. Having read Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley, Baby is compelled to seduce the Tool House gardener, without success, again and again.** Ossie, in turn, suffers from what his friend Charlie Dolphin calls “advanced Bovarysme"; and, as an admirer of Detective stories, Ossie romantically attempts to take on the roles of murderer and detective.
Between these two extremes of using literature and being used by it lies Donald Butterboy, the author of It Takes Two to Make a Bedroom Scene. Butterboy is perhaps the most stereotyped figure of Lewis’s book, but he is also, oddly enough, at the novel’s center, his existence acting as a centripetal force—one is tempted to say “vortex”—which brings all of the users of literature and the products of this literary world together. Butterboy’s centrality to the book is suggested by the book’s very title, for he is gay, a roaring queen whom Lewis sees as symbolizing the devitalized effeminacy lying at the heart of Shodbutt’s-Bennett’s literary scene. The Roaring Queen is primarily an attack on a sham literary world that Lewis felt persisted in 1936, the year of the book’s creation, a world which Lewis’ friend Ezra Pound had described as a “general floppiness” (Pound’s term was applied to describe the poetry of the American Edgar Lee Masters). If this is the case, however, I might go no further, simply agreeing with Kenner’s conclusion that the failures are not “technical shortcomings,” but “issue with Euclidean exactness from an attempt to multiply by zero—the nullified outcome of a pure conviction that the artist has to deal with a null world.” In other words, if this is Lewis’s major theme, one must conclude that Lewis failed due to the fallacy that to write about boredom an author must write boringly, or, in this case, to write about a literature of “devitalized effeminacy” the writer must evoke a devitalized art.
Lewis, however, does not stop here. He was not satisfied, evidently, to merely create types. It is almost as if for Lewis even these types retained too many human characteristics, as if he were interested in draining his creations of all human features. For he converts even his caricatures into things and/or gives them additional roles, processes are more telling than the primary stereotyping.
Examples of this savage eradication of human features are numerous; a single passage must suffice:
…There was a great crowd gathered about Lilli O’Stein, the great Austro-
Tcheck lady novelist and international log-rolling champion of Middle Europe.
Lilly was more rolled than rolling, but she was universally admitted in England
to be the best Good Champion and Jolly Sport of the lot, who would never leave
a fellow-roller in the lurch….
Here one witnesses the first appearance of this particular caricature. As with almost all the stereotyped figures presented in this book, Lewis gives a name that itself typifies the figure and which informs the reader of the satiric basis of the type. In this case, by naming her Lilli O’Stein, Lewis parodies her Irish-Jewish heritage and, perhaps, by extension satirizes a literary character such as James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and the whole Gertrude Stein “circle.” But Lewis extends that type by calling Lilli “the great Austro-Tcheck lady novelist,” which obviously reinforces his bi-cultural literary dig, but also, in extending it, displaces it, a process which he takes even further by describing her as the “international log-rolling champion of Middle Europe” (a “log-roller” is one who praises others in order to receive praise in return), which so overladens the figure with satiric intent that it utterly removes the possibility of this being a flesh-and-blood character, a possibility which always remains in successful satire. Lewis, in short, has converted an absurd literary type into a linguistic figure which no longer sustains any mimetic dimension. Accordingly, we are hardly surprised when in the very next sentence Lilli is “more rolled than rolling,” or, in the next paragraph, that she is “rolled up and down by all the crowd of penmen and pengirls.” What has begun as a stereotype of a human being has become an abstract series of nouns which are set into verbal action. The fact that behind these new actions lie other puns sustains the linguistic confusion, permitting her/it to become, in the next sentence, another noun which is interchangeable with nearly any other epithet such as Good Champion or Jolly Sport. By paragraph’s end not only have we lost sight of the possibility of Lilli O’Stein existing as a satiric character, but we have lost the potentiality of her existing as a particular type, as she has been transformed into a complex of “things” interchangeable with other things. Time and again in The Roaring Queen Lewis works in patterns similar to this, eradicating not only character but stereotype.
Very early in the fiction one observes, moreover, that the author is not the only one involved in this reductive act. Lewis’ “creations” act out this process upon one another. In one of the very first scenes of the book, Ossie Potter awakens to find his “room-mate,” Charlie Dolphin, still asleep. “Get up, you besotted cop, firebrand and early bird!” Ossie shouts. And in the next paragraphs he continues the assault, calling the sleeper “detective,” “sleeping sleuth,” and “beastly policeman.” At this point these epithets only hint at the type who remains sleeping beneath them—both metaphorically and literally. But when he awakens, Charlie repeats Ossie’s final epithet, “The Sleeping Sleuth”—which Lewis italicizes, suggesting the destructive potential of such epithets, that they can transform human types into objects, that such names can convert a type of being into something else such as the title of a book. This manipulative process is repeated when the two men join one another for breakfast in the coffee-room. Their conversation—centered around a discussion of national, cultural, and religious stereotypes—begins when Ossie calls his friend a “policeman.” But now, awake, Charlie corrects his friend: “…private inquiry agent please.” Ossie, however, persists, and riffs on his own romantic associations of policeman, alternating the discussion with comments on “mystery Crime Club detectives” and the “sawed-off shotguns of Chicago” gunmen types. Charlie plays along, supporting the British police against all of Ossie’s assaults. Near the end of the conversation, however, he once more reasserts his own being-as-type:
“I am a private inquiry agent. I secrete myself in cupboards, and seek
to unloosen by foul means or fair the unholy bonds of matrimony that
eat into the flesh of my deserving clients.”
Momentarily defeated, Ossie recognizes his friend’s true type, and asks Charlie, in his “professional capacity,” to kill someone. Immediately, Charlie comes into his own, so to speak; linguistically he becomes “the private inquiry agent.” Ossie is addressed as “sir” and “Mr. Potter”; the colloquial disappears; the tone, even Charlie’s manner, becomes formal.
“I’m afraid it’s not very much in our line, to be frank, Mr. Potter,” he
said with dignity. “Not much in our line, really, you see. We do, it is true,
for clients of long and honourable standing, occasionally undertake such
matters. But we don’t like it: we don’t really care for it! There it is. As
Englishmen we experience a natural distaste, if you understand me, for
these rather messy transactions. No, sir, I am sorry; I think you would
do well, under the circumstances, to consult someone else.”
One cannot help but to note the shift. Charlie’s language has radically altered; his sentences are more subordinated, his subjects qualified; the pronoun has changed from I to the general we. So one discovers that Charlie is not imprisoned in his type. As he stands, dramatically emphasizing his role for Ossie, Lewis describes him as gazing down upon his “fellow-player,” suggesting that Charlie sees this role from a perspective, that he recognizes it as an “act.” Ossie does not. He hurls another epithet: “You’re a blackguard, Charlie, and you know it!” Charlie bows as if the epithet was reward for the performance, and it is: Ossie has been convinced by the play. Now reassured of his acting skill, Charlie takes on another role: becoming the “professional pater-familias,” he places “a hand upon the shoulder of his ‘young friend.’ ‘You are too romantic, Ossie,’” he exclaims. By the time he utters the next line he has returned to the role of the private inquiry agent—“We do draw the line”—and, by the middle of that page, his language is that of the earlier conversation, as he now communicates as Charlie’s friend: “You are so romantic you will never be happy until you’ve gone to goal!
The transformations we have just observed are crucial to the whole book, for in this scene we have witnessed what we will never encounter again in the fiction: a character has played more than one type. Ossie does not change throughout; he remains scowlingly, seriously true to his type. But Charlie Dolphin has show us that he is able to perceive the existence of something outside of his own being, that he can become someone else, proving that he is a character, not just a type. Ossie obviously cannot cope with the discrepancy. The moment Charlie returns to the earlier linguistic pattern, Ossie betrays his relief and simultaneously tries once again to impose upon Charlie his own vision, his own variations of the type: “Good old policeman!” he calls out. Fearing further confusion, he attempts to escape. Indeed these insights help to explain the sudden paranoia which follows, as Ossie is suddenly convinced that the man next to him is not “old Charlie” but is a “stranger subtly masquerading” as him. This, in turn, gives new meaning to the final epithets Ossie hurls at Charlie: “mad detective,” “Jack the Ripper,” “lunatic,” and the final shout of “Murderer!”—which leads us further into the plot.
In Charlie, in short, one sees perspectives of reality unavailable to Ossie and to those others who leave civilization to visit the Wellesley-Crook house. Once in the country, as in Peacock’s satires, the reader has entered a world inverted from the one in which Charlie exists, for the characters gathered in the country are literary figures in more ways than one. These are not only types who trade in literature, but are figures who, without any insides, have no being other than the reality created through language with words and pen. In that sense, these figures are merely things of language, and the ways in which they interact are entirely linguistic. It is only language that makes these “machines” run.
As in most Mennipean satires, what these machines do is speak. Lewis describes their collective presence, in fact, as a “puffing machine” made up of puffers “quite ready to discourse about puffing at any moment.” Even Shodbutt understands that “the magic [lies] in the puff.” What Shodbutt means by “puff,” however, is “praise”—he is speaking of the critical acclaim he will give Donald Butterboy’s novel. But what Lewis implies is that the “magic” of Shodbutt and his associates lies in the ability of their language to puff up their identities, to enwrap their vacuous selves within something like a pastry shell. All their words, moreover, represent no more than a “puff,” a blast of air; it is meaningless. Finally, at the center of all this “puffery,” this empty language, is Donald Butterboy, a “puff,” a pun on "pouf/poof," which in British slang means a homosexual.
Even those characters not directly involved in this “puffing machine” are dominated by language. I have already suggested that it is language as literature which defines Ossie Potter’s and Baby Bucktrout’s types. Charlie mentions early in the novel that he has seen Ossie “slicing up” a book of poetry, and his desire to kill Butterboy has something to do, one suspects, with his hatred of literature—in particular Butterboy’s novel. And Baby Bucktrout’s physical seduction of Tom is played out not through action—in her actions she is as direct and coarse as an animal, even mounting Tom—but through language, which Lewis parodies through the use of inappropriate and inflated nouns such as “cuirass” and “trapezius.” In short, it is language alone that brings these hollow types to act; and their acts are generally performed in talk.
In The Roaring Queen one has entered a world of dialogue, not of dialogue that might communicate but rather one that wards off others and redefines them. In a world already defined by surfaces, a world where people have created fronts—just like the first and last pages (the only pages Shodbutt ever reads) of a book—the greatest danger is being read, is being seen through or found out. Stella Salt terrorizes Shodbutt, for example, because, having known him from a time “before the flood,” she recalls his other roles before that of “Book Dictator”; she sees through is “tartuffian betrayal,” knows him as a “humbug.” Stella may have beaux veux, but, in her ability to “see through” him, Shodbutt knows she is a dangerous woman. “Well let’s be toddling along, Jolat,” says Shodbutt to escape. “Stella will be scratching my beaux veux out in a minute, I’m afraid.” So is the “stately vessel of God’s literary judgment” escorted off, a type become object, but still intact.
In order to ward off such assaults, the figures of this fiction seek out their own kind, coming together to be with others who also live at the surface, who have no insides. Still, there is danger, and these types, accordingly, become aggressive—just as we have seen Ossie Potter turn on Charlie and the author behave toward Lilli O’Stein, hurling epithets upon one another to displace their types. Baby Bucktrout describes her guardian Corse as “an old wretch,” “old beast,” “old worm,” a “Cossack”; Donald Butterboy is a “quean,” “a roaring quean,” “the world’s quean”; Baby’s mother is a whole epoch, “the Nineties,” the “Naughty Past,” some “thing” to hurl a book at.*
Lady Saltpeter may mildly protest—“I am not a period after all!”—but she, in turn, tosses just such epithets at others; the gardeners in the Tool House are “agricultural robots”; Donald “Butter—Something” is a “genius,” a "Book of the Week Prize-Winner-to-be."
In such a world, where stereotyped characters are so easily transformed into things one almost sympathizes with Lady Saltpeter’s confusion when Baby claims that Donald Butterboy is an American Queen; and we almost believe that she is serious when she asks of her daughter, “But you are not a bee, are you?” Baby’s answer is one of the most perceptive statements in the book—although she has such little character that she cannot comprehend the implications of her answer: “No, that is the trouble—I am not. …It is because I’m human that I am treated in this revolting way!”
To characters without insides, without a soul, these epithets, however, do not really hurt. But other forms of language can be very dangerous. Adjectives, such as “Romantic Ossie” for example, terrify these hollow types. Since they are associative, they require a noun and a reality behind the noun to which the adjective can attach. Puns such as “puff,” in their multi-dimensionality, moreover, can penetrate the outer surface and expose the empty inner self.
Accordingly, these figures must reject multi-dimensionality and all the suggestiveness inherent in language. Lady Saltpeter is unable even to digest the idea of an “American queen.” Later in the novel, to give another example, Lewis presents us with a dialogue between Butterboy and Shodbutt that reveals their literal interpretation of all language:
“I’ve read your stuff, Butterboy!”
“Oh please, Mr. Shodbutt—don’t! Not before all these people!” he hissed in
a horror-stricken sotto-voce.
“I know I shall simply blush and go all to pieces if you do—I do feel I’ve done
something terribly indecent. I’m heartily ashamed of myself, I really am.”
“Indecent!” Shodbutt frowned. He looked at Joan. “Is there anything the censor…?”
“No! I mean a book—just any book!”
“Oh—ah—not yours, Butterboy.”
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Mine!”
“Mine. Yes I think it is the world’s most indecent thing—to write a book.”
Shodbutt looked relieved and Joanie gave a sunny smile.
Were Shodbutt to have understood the meaning of “indecent” to be something other than what the censors might not pass, he would have to apply to himself, to his own actions; it would penetrate. A similar thing happens two pages later:
“Mr. Samuel Shodbutt! How can I ever thank you? I am dumb.
“I mean I cannot speak.”
In the context of his world, Shodbutt is quite right; in a world where all is language it is absurd to expect someone to say that he cannot speak.
For the same reason, words are severed from associations as figures in Shodbutt’s society use meaningless expressions and abstractions, words that so diffuse language they cannot turn back upon their users. “Genius,” “famous,” “great,” are common expressions throughout the book. “Your book, Butterboy?” exclaims Shodbutt, “…is absolutely first-rate!” “Gaboriau was a genius!”; L’Affaire Lerouge is “a work of genius,” a “masterpiece!” Time and again Shodbutt and others punctuate the air with exclamation marks, keeping people, books, and places at a distance.
It’s little wonder, therefore, that the book is without plot. As soon as anything comes near to transforming actions, the figures scurry away in fear and terror. Accordingly, scenes are episodic, relationships between characters often remain unexplained. The reader might well ask what Baby Bucktrout and Ossie Potter are doing at this party? Why do Baby and Ossie meet? What is Ossie’s relationship to Donald? Who kills Donald? These and questions like them underscore the absurdity of attempting to unearth a coherent narrative.
At least three times at the Wellesley-Crook house, however, something does happen. Out of the barrage of words an association, a memory, something from the past, comes forth to reclaim their talk from mere babble. The first occasion occurs during the Baby Bucktrout-Lady Saltpeter dialogue already mentioned. Baby is talking about being a “bee” instead of a human, when suddenly Lady Saltpeter’s mind free associates:
Lady Saltpeter dreamily closed her eyes—the dramatic flight of the Queen
Bee flashed across her mind, as reported by Maeterlinck, and next she was
off to Convent Garden, beside the stage-lagoon with Pelleas and Melisande.
Recalled to a sense of duty, she opened her eyes again, mildly alert.
The second incident is more complex. Ossie and Nancy Cozens have been talking about plot—the Gunpowder plot—which reminds Nancy of Guy Fawkes Day and the firecrackers associated with it. With the word “crackers” Ossie’s mind is diverted from the conversation as he thinks of a previous conversation with Charlie “in which crackers played a prominent part.” The important thing in this scene is his remembrance of Charlie’s description of “creative hatred”:
“What we are talking about is one manifestation, however disguised, of
the theory of ‘creative hatred.’ You are acquainted with the theory? It
does not matter. It is the outcome of the Commune. Haine creatice—what
does it signify but that destruction is creation? You give birth in killing—
the philosophy of the Evolutionary struggle, where all is battle and death,
and the ‘birth’ (the ‘creation’) is a pious hope, no more.
Ossie continues his remembrance of this conversation, and ends by wondering about the change that had overcome Charlie:
The more he thought of Charlie and the way he had been taken in by him,
or taken him rather to be other than he was...the more he felt a certain
uneasiness. Were other things as subject to progressive transformation or
These two scenes are central in coming to terms with the structure and meaning of the book. First of all, the scenes are parallel. It is not merely that they both are about linguistic association; what is important is that they are both about the process of association. What Lady Saltpeter is thinking about in recalling Pelleas and Melisande is the highly impressionistic drama in which meaning is conveyed through suggestion, through pieces and fragments which repeat words, phrases, and motifs. It is a play that relies upon something very much akin to the “progressive transformation” about which Ossie wonders. More importantly, however, is the connection between the play and the Queen Bee. Lady Saltpeter’s thoughts concerning “the dramatic flight of the Queen Bee” are quite obviously associated with the chapter in Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bee entitled “the Nuptial Flight,” which describes the impregnation of the Queen Bee. There the major theme is presented in the following passage, which occurs immediately after the description of the male and female bee’s “hostile madness of love” in flight:
Most creatures have a vague belief that a very precarious hazard, a kind
of transparent membrane, divides death from love; and that the profound
idea of nature demands that the giver of life should die at the moment of
giving. Here this idea, whose memory lingers still over the kisses of man, is
realized in its primal simplicity. No sooner has the union been accomplished
than the male’s abdomen opens, the organ detaches itself, dragging with it
the mass of the entrails; the wings relax, and, as though struck by lightning,
the emptied body turns and turns on itself and sinks down into the abyss.
(Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee, trans. by Alfred Sutro, 1908)
This particular passage is probably the connecting link between Lady Saltpeter’s remembrance of the flight of the Queen Bee and Maeterlinck’s drama, for in Pelleas and Melisande, the major theme is that the loss of innocence must end in death so that innocence may be reborn. Once the castle doors are locked, Pelleas and Melisande, having admitted love by the “stage lagoon,” embrace and kiss, thus losing their innocence; accordingly they must die. Pelleas is killed outright; Melisande, already pregnant by her husband, dies soon after giving birth. These two themes are repeated in the philosophical concept of Haine creatice as described by Charlie Dolphin.
Two very different moments in this novel, then, are special because they are dynamic, moments in which characters and the mind of the reader come together and associate with experiences outside the book. These two special moments, moreover, are similar. Lewis is obviously trying to tell us something by that fact. Only one other instance in the fiction can compare, and that is defined by an act: the “roaring queen,” Donald Butterboy, is murdered in his bed. If the novel is to be made meaningful one must discover the pattern which connects the first two dynamic moments with the last, which also entails the discovery of who committed—or perhaps one should say “accomplished”—this act. In short, the reader is being asked to solve the case. For once Charlie Dolphin has entered the country, he is as ineffective as all the others. Like them, he too becomes a type without dimension, acting out episodes that seem to have no inter-logic. His investigation of Ossie and his accusation of Shodbutt are, like everything which precedes them, meaningless; they make no sense. The reader, accordingly, must replace Charlie, become the sleuth, a private inquiry agent who can solve the crime—and simultaneously comprehend the fabric of Lewis’ problematic work.
Before we proceed, however, we should remind ourselves that we are reading about characters of the written word, and if Lewis has made anything clear it is that, within the context of the literary figures gathered at this country house, it is a world in which nothing can be trusted. As Charlie has told Osorio, to get to truth one has to read in reverse, backwards, white for black and black for white; one has to read in between the lines.
With this in mind we can now examine the suspects. Was it Shodbutt? Probably not. Even while being confronted by Charlie he remains a man true to his type: a surface being, an outer shell, vacuous inside; he doesn't have the “guts” to act. “Sir, oblige me by confining yourself to what your functions prescribe,” he warns Charlie. To the very end this “Book-Dictator” demands that people remain true to their types. Besides, he has the perfect alibi. It is almost inevitable that he and Baby should share an evening, for they are both in search of “the goods,” however differently the “goods” may be by each defined. Whether they found “the goods” in each other is questionable. In her testimony Baby implies that Shodbutt’s goods weren’t the right kind:
You must be off your rocker to accuse Mr. Shodbutt—of a crime—
of that sort. He’s as gentle as a lamb! It’s perfectly disgusting!
One may wonder whether it is Charlie’s accusation or Shodbutt’s lamb-like behavior that Baby finds “perfectly disgusting,” but one can be certain that Shodbutt is innocent—of at least the crime of murder.
Ossie Potter is certainly a prime suspect. Not only did he come to the country with the intention of murder, armed with his gat, but, as I have suggested, he is violently affected by literature, slicing pages of poetry from a book. Thus, in a world where people are language, he has, in effect, already committed such a crime. His gat, however, according to Charlie, “couldn’t stop a field mouse.” More importantly, Ossie also remains too true to his type throughout the novel to be able to act, to be able to commit the “real crime.” To be fair Ossie has grown in awareness by fiction’s end; he has begun to think somewhat associatively. Accused by Charlie, he almost seems to be playing different roles—as he has previously seen Charlie play different roles—moving in his dialogue from postures of innocence to anger and then to cool reproach.
But if Ossie has murdered Donald Butterboy, it is Charlie, not Ossie, who has pulled the trigger, who has motivated the act. For it is only through Charlie’s example that Ossie has discovered that one can play roles, can be more than one thing—that a figure, in short, might be a real human being. Charlie is the true murderer, I would argue, for other reasons as well. First, he is the only human being in the book. He is alive; even his face is described throughout as being “red.” In that early scene in London, one recalls, Ossie was disturbed to be with Charlie because the private inquiry agent existed “in the flesh!”
It was…flesh that he found so disturbing. It is one thing to meet a highly
dramatic personage in a book and quite another to have him come rolling up
in the light of common day.
Even in the country house, where Charlie seems to lose his reality, Mrs. Wellesley-Crook reprimands him because he is a “person.” “I must apologize to you for the conduct of this person,” she accusingly says. As a person, as a character in the flesh, Charlie is free to act. It is no wonder he is described as a “murderer” already in London, before he arrives in the country. Ossie, having failed to hire Charlie to commit the murder, still recognizes him as a threat, describing him as “the murderer” even as he questions Ossie in the country house.
Ossie’s epithet is based on Charlie Dolphin’s multidimensionality; he can play all those roles, become a “mad detective,” be something inside and something outside at the same time. The dangers of such a creature let loose in a world of “puffs” is obvious. Like a pun, he can puncture these cut-out figures language shields, can penetrate and prick these puffed-out beings, letting the air inside escape.
We quickly perceive this ability as relating to the themes swirling around the idea of Haine creatice, and we cannot help but comprehend that the murder of Donald is a creative, a salving act. By destroying the vortex to which these empty literary types are attracted, Charlie has diffused this vapid world and permitted the possibility for a new vortex of creation. Just as in the flight of the Queen Bee, and as in Pelleas and Melisande, now life can now enter the world. In killing, Charlie Dolphin (the “dolphin” savior) has brought about a birth.
It little matters that such a murder is impossible, that it doesn’t fit into the fiction’s plot. For, as Ossie has discovered, Charlie is not in the “book.” He lies in the white, not in the black; like Lewis himself, who as the writer has murdered his figures, emptied them of any being—and possibly even diminished the effects of the real “Book Dictator,” Arnold Bennett, who lives outside the book—Charlie has played the role of a creator, murdering to create.
The Roaring Queen, accordingly, should be understood as a fiction of purgation, a work of literature which demands that the reader participate in order to accomplish a transformation of the word from black to white, a transformation of the word from the printed page to life.
College Park, Maryland, 1979
Revised Forio, Ischia, July 6, 2007
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (October 2008).
Copyright (c)1979, 2007 by Douglas Messerli
*It’s interesting to note that in the very process of metamorphosing humans into objects, the objects themselves become animalistic and alive. The book Baby hurls at “the Nineties” is likened to a “goose in flight.”
**It is almost mean-spirited that Lewis portrayed Baby as following the example of Lady Chatterley’s Lover since—although Cunard was sexually voracious—she was also, according to biographer Lois Gordon, almost prudish when it came to sexual matters in literature, refusing to publish Lawrence’s novel through her The Hours Press.