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‘This ideal, which can turn into an idée fixe, will grip especially those who are at home in the giant cities and the web of their numberless interconnecting relationships’ – Charles Baudelaire.
Speaking of the ideal of a poetic prose, Baudelaire sketched out a notion that would underpin the desires of many later artists and theorists: who can read Barthes’ S/Z without sensing, in his vision of the text as a ‘galaxy’, the yearning for that spider-web of Baudelaire’s ‘interconnecting relationships’? Kerouac’s kinetic, ecstatic prose; Borges’ ‘Garden Of Forking Paths’; Queneau’s nigh-endless combinations of poetic fragments: as the 20th century rolled on and cities began their slow metastasizing, literature seemed to reach ever further into that ‘web’, to explore the combination of possibilities opened up by the city. It is perhaps strange, therefore, that one of the most remarkable, elegantly-crafted works of this literary current was published in 1922, and that it was set in, and written by a woman from rural New Zealand.
Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘At the Bay’ begins with the rising sun that slowly brings into relief the manifold features of the New Zealand coast – streams and puddles and rocks and bushes and telegraph poles – alongside the movement of a shepherd and his flock from ‘Crescent Bay and towards Daylight Cove’. With that simple conflation – a movement in space becoming a movement in time; the shepherd moves from the ‘Crescent’ of the moon to the ‘Daylight’ of the sun as the landscape does the same – Mansfield begins an understated portrait of the world as determined by Baudelaire’s ‘idée fixe’.
This opening sequence, with its singing ‘myriad of birds’ and a goldfinch ruffling its feathers in the sun and the baaing of the sheep and – finally – the whistling of the shepherd, is little short of euphoric. That euphoria animates the rest of Mansfield’s story: it is the joy of the natural cycle, of living within its ineluctable rhythm. As Jonathan Trout, a happy morning swimmer, thinks: ‘To take things easy, not to fight against the ebb and flow of life, but to give way to it – that was what was needed’.
If this is indeed the joy of being ‘gripped’ by that ‘web’ of ‘numberless interconnecting relationships’, as Baudelaire put it, then Mansfield portrays it in a way that is something of a conundrum for the literature that conflates this ideal with the urbanization of the Western world: for her, these connections find articulation in rhythms, in vibrations, in cycles; that is, in nature. Throughout the story, it is people in their solitude that misunderstand and try to break these connections, be it a mother that cannot love her children, or a stern husband with no sense of humor, or an unloved girl consumed by shame. Stanley Trout, the one figure that leaves the rural idyll every day to go to work, is the most despised figure of fun in the story: it is only when he leaves that we hear a chorus of people proclaiming that he is ‘Gone!’, allowing everyone to empty out of their homes and move to the bay. As soon as Stanley disappears, people are drawn to and fro with the tides. He is that corrupting element of the urban in the rural; if there is anyone that might be at home in the ‘giant cities’, it is him.
The tension between these two competing networks – that of nature, which hums with vibrancy and continues serenely in its perfect rhythm, and that of people, which is broken, bitter, and leads inevitably towards death – is a challenge to the Baudelairean ideal. It is the rural and the urban competing in a microcosm; it is a form of combat that is by and large not found in those other works that are concerned with the combinatorial ideal. Mansfield is toying with the notion that Baudelaire’s ‘web’ is a product of modernity, juxtaposing the fractured, distorted form of urban relationships with the calm solidity of nature.
It is perhaps inevitable, then, that the story’s one moment of synthesis between the human and the natural centers around a group of children, whose innocence insulates them from the bitterness of their elders. Exasperation, expressed at the foolishness of one of the girls, cannot break their rhythm: playing a game, they become in turn both children and animals, and the narration follows their imagination, with Mansfield calling them ‘rooster’ and ‘bull’ and ‘donkey’ and so on. As the daylight fades, their forms change, and the children are now indistinguishable from the natural world that they are imitating; as the combination of animal relationships round their card table change, the game that they play races along, forming the ‘web’ of ‘connections’ between them, demanding the performance of the bull, the donkey, the rooster or the dog. This is the perfection of combinatorial playfulness, where all relationships become infinitely labile as they cross the barrier between the natural and the man-made world.
Baudelaire had hoped that his longed-for poetic prose would contain the ‘shocks of consciousness’: that it would transmit the almost electric energy of the urban landscape, the proliferation of possibilities opened up by this mass of people. Mansfield, however, turned this on its head: it is impossible to deny that ‘At the Bay’ does indeed contain the ‘shocks of consciousness’, but the effect is entirely different. Those ‘shocks’, rather than being galvanizing and energetic, are destabilizing, dangerous, even. At the end of the story, the lonely Beryl, acting outside of the day-night cycle that patterns the behavior of everyone else, walks out into the moonlight and is nearly raped. A voice speaks to her in the darkness: ‘Why in God’s name did you come?’ It is a particularly horrific moment, in which the blame is to be placed on the frightened woman for having trespassed upon a nocturnal realm that nature has set aside as being not hers. In this, we see the primary difference between the Baudelairean web and Mansfield’s clashing worlds: whereas the French poet saw something remarkable, alive and wonderful in that tangle of relationships, Mansfield saw only danger, darkness and bitterness.