While still taking its toll, literal death in “Reality as Port Huntlady” seems to have become both more important (more useful) and less serious. The “No Hurry” tea shop, located by the cemetery, is “a sort of afternoon suicide club where it was taken for granted that people would sooner or later kill themselves, although on this or this afternoon there was no particular hurry.” Mabick, who has supplied the proprietor with this notion, “himself always promised himself every night on going to bed to open a vein the next morning after shaving; but after shaving he looked so smooth and fresh that it seemed a pity, while before shaving he could never think in an organized way.” And then there is the extravagant Miss Man, who is not impressed by Port Huntlady—it is she who dies twice. (Perhaps.) Death is no longer literal.
Next to go is Miss Banquett: in the world she creates for herself on Cosmania, she suffers various interesting forms of extermination, all of which she exuberantly survives. But it is in “The Story-Pig” that we are first provided with direct insight into the nature of this other, original death. As Rose and Hans enter their magical night world, attendants follow them: these are ordinary objects that have been brought to life, as by enchantment. The attendants call this enchantment death (“Death had rapped them on the head….”); and by death they mean a relinquishing of separateness and independence, a surrendering of themselves to the Queen—who then gives them life. A little later, Hans gives a fuller indication of what such death may be. He is walking with the Queen.
The moon was singing—singing the death of passions and numbers: it was all one here…. Walking beside the Queen was like a large loss of strength by which all was achieved that strength could not achieve…. By the death of this strength in long self-combat—the death of the troublesome memory of self—he made himself Hans, and Hans made him a king.
In “A Fairy Tale,” Frances Cat elaborates one of Hans’s reflections. Now reduced to absolute poverty, she is wondering where she really belongs:
The question was, which was the original world, her original world, the right world, the real world? She had certainly lived in that world ever since she could remember, but was she any the less alive now, and what was memory? Memory was fear. Yes, it was quite true: in that world she had been afraid of something—death. That is why she had lived. Was she dead now? In a way she was. What was death? It was being what one really was. What was life? It was running away from oneself. It was being not quite oneself—merely humouring certain whims.
When, in “A Last Lesson in Geography,” Tooth and his fellows acquire a sixth sense, which is the sense of speech, they acquire death with it: the source of their words is the all-embracing Word of the ineffable She, the guiding spirit of their journey, and it is only by abandoning their identities—by “dying”—that they can participate in her speech. And in the final meditation, “A Crown for Hans Andersen,” addressing us perhaps herself, Laura writes:
For the true worry is not what you shall be in the end; you can be nothing different from what you have been, what you are. The true worry is to learn to die, to make child’s play of your immortal souls, to enter gracefully into death in spite of being unalterably what you are.
Laura might remind us that, quoted in such a way, this is only “prattle”—the attendants in “The Story-Pig” observe that “the moment a thing was said, no matter how true, it becomes prattle.” But, coming at the end of Progress, Laura’s words here reflect a meaning of the word “death” that she has revealed little by little in the course of the book.
Death is only one of many topics in Progress of Stories, and not the main one. What then is the animating theme that makes sense of the whole? One answer—not clever, not false—would be: What is the animating theme that makes sense of the whole? For the characters in Progress, certainly, asking such questions seems essential to their progress. Tooth and Co. prove their strength by questioning. When Frances Cat, “impatient to learn,” turns to the book the Witch has given her, she is “surprised to find that instead of having a lot to learn she had a lot of questions to answer…questions about herself.” In fact, from Lotus in “Three Times Round” to the pioneers of “Geography,” everyone asks questions—even, at the end of “A Fairy Tale,” the reader. And the question the reader gets to ask is a very relevant one (especially as Frances, the Witch, and the Witch’s cat have just been bewilderingly confounded with one another): What happens in the end? The author replies: “You can’t get it into your heads that in the end nothing happens—nothing more.”
This answer is not, as it might seem, an evasion. Nothing is not merely an absence of things, but a useful void: where knowledge is concerned, it is a state of complete ignorance—a state in which we have to ask questions. The answer “Nothing” doesn’t mean that everything is pointless but that we can now ask: What is nothing? What is a something? What is reality—is it somethingness or nothingness (or something, or nothing, else)? What is meaning? What do we mean?
“Reality” can mean a number of things; but most of us, most of the time, take reality to be what we think about it. We are content to accept our version of the thing for the thing itself. Sometimes we feel our thoughts could stand a little improvement, and we then rent a house in Port Huntlady and have tea with Lady Port-Huntlady, that virginal soul—the Goddess of Ideas. Put otherwise: next week I will read Wittgenstein…. Perhaps we should first read “Miss Banquett” and follow her example: for she finds out what thinking can be. After escaping from the enterprising polar bear, she comes to feel that her new life in Cosmania is like a book she has written to please herself.
We might say that she had read her previous life out of a book. But that was a book written by everybody, not by herself…. She might read of [her beauty] there in her own familiar name; but she had to guess that her name meant herself, since it was only a name in that book, not herself. Here all was different. For, although she read out of a book, it was a book of her own making. She knew that her name meant herself. Or, we might say, in the one book her beauty was factual—that is, of others’ making, and therefore false; while in the other it was fictional—that is, of her own making, and therefore true.
It may seem boorish to gloss a statement so precise, but it feels worthwhile to point to a particular precision: the word “guess” in the seventh line. If facts are what other people agree on—can we all agree on that fact?—the individual relying on them commits himself to guesswork, for what is more uncertain than what others will agree on? The individual is a victim of their view—even when it is right. Miss Banquett, after all, was beautiful and was thought beautiful. But being thought beautiful gave her no self-satisfaction. It meant that she was what others said she was. So one day she declared, “I am beautiful,” and made up her own story in consequence. This of course didn’t make her right; but it left her free to take responsibility for what she was. She makes it all look very easy, but it should be remembered that her story is only one of ideas (a story about thinking). Later, Frances Cat, who also “makes up her story as it goes along,” will show us how scary, how death-inviting such a choice can be.
But to return from these enticing figures to the less visible question of reality in Progress: the book can be read as a demonstration of the consequences of thinking about reality in different ways. It reveals what happens when we choose to believe what we hear, when we concoct schematic versions of reality that are at least safely manageable, or, finally, when we go for broke by claiming the very truth of reality for ourselves.
Progress of Stories shows how these various options work, starting with that of accepting what we hear and ending with that of going for broke. This is perhaps the central progress of the book. In substance, it produces a shift that becomes explicit halfway through—it has already been described in connection with Miss Banquett as a shift from fact to fiction. But the shift is also inscribed in the actual narrative method of the successive stories, and it is there that it can perhaps most easily be grasped.
In Stories of Lives, the narrator describes people in the terms they use to define themselves: and these are terms supplied by others. Lotus, in “Three Times Round,” for instance, agrees to be exactly what is expected of her, and this is how she is presented to us: in turn, as an “Unseen Presence,” a case history, a “symbolic statue,” and finally, not realizing it, as her dying self. The world of the first stories is one of facts, of what everyone can agree on. It’s as if Laura had thought, “If you respect facts, here is nothing else.” The stories tell what is seen to happen, no more, no less. The procedure isn’t cold-blooded or satirical; it isn’t a stylistic device to elicit pathos through under-statement: it is merely factual. Of course it soon becomes blindingly clear that facts are the most absolute of illusions. We emerge from these stories fascinated, but with part of our minds murmuring, “Naturally there’s more to it than that.” In fact, there is “every-thing” more.
We next come to Port Huntlady. That town of glamorous phantasms is where the bright people go—the ones who won’t settle for the terms ordinarily supplied by others. They are the ones who know better, who want the best terms for themselves, the best views—the best ideas. They have tea with Lady Port-Huntlady, so perfect and all-knowing that she seems “their other self.” And that other self is what she remains. Her visitors all eventually leave town because they realize that, while they may glean ideas from her, they can never be what she is. Even if otherness in her seems exceptionally significant, they depend on it no less than the characters in Stories of Lives. Lady Port-Huntlady suggests the lure of the mediating intellect, of life turned into a justification of life—another illusion.