Two weeks ago, we were just Getting Back on the Road....
Last week we found ourselves Approaching the Coastline....
Today We Head Back to Land,
climb on shore, climb a lighthouse, and look out...
What do we see? How do we understand what we are seeing?
With credit/apologies to Dan Gottlieb:
Two waves are running up to the shore. One says, "I'm so sad. We're going to die."
The other says, "I'm not sad. You think of yourself as a wave. I am the ocean."
Hearing echoes of the transcendent/mystical "oceanic feeling" and
of Freud's misinterpretation of it/rejection of the mystical...
Today, with thanks again to Dan, who wrote a piece in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer about
"Seeing Life in its Proper Perspective": to acknowledge our smallness is to acknowledge our vulnerability....to acknowledge our smallness not only takes pressure off, it also acknowledges our relationship with the larger world.
--and with thanks to Orah, who identified "the aerial view of reality,"
we're going to consider today what life looks like when one, like Una, goes aloft and looks back down
--or, as Elizabeth D said (re: multiple readings of The Tempest:
"what about Ariel's view?")
What is the relationship is between the aerial view and an awareness of shadows?
(Within the self, in others, in the world at large?)
As one takes a perspective that is far away, does the picture simplify and flatten?
Do the shadows shorten or lengthen?
Does one see oneself as a wave in the ocean...a grain of sand...
And/or does one's "subterranean miner" dig deeper, one's unknown self extend further...?
One possible effect:
What do we know (from Melville) of Ahab's Wife?
What are her qualities/her characteristics?
I have fed upon dry salted fare - fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul - when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world's fresh bread to my mouldy crusts - away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow - wife? wife? - rather a widow with her husband alive! Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her...(Ahab to Starbuck, Ch. 132, p. 405)
There is a
common (more recently more common/particularly fertile?) phenomenon in the evolution of literary texts,
in which minor characters from old texts are brought to center stage in new ones. For example:
Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)
Chinua Achebe, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness,"
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847),
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" (1988)
(The Bible, Shakespeare...)
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: If then to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities...then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality...thou great democratic God!....Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings,ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God! (Ch. 26, pp. 103-104).
Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab's Wife...
These "twice-told tales" are all wonderful examples of
Bethany's (by now archetypal) description of the contraction-expansion of the word ...
At the very beginning of Naslund's novel, Ahab's wife declares herself something other than what Melville knew/imagined.
What do we know of her, from the opening page of Ahab's Wife?
In what ways do her opening lines differ from Ishmael's?
Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last. Yet, looking up--into the clouds--I conjure him there: his gray-white hair; his gathered brow; and the zaggy mark (I saw it when lying with him....) And I see a zaggy shadow now in the rifting clouds. That mark started like lightning at Ahab's temple and ran not all the way to his heel (as some thought) but ended at Ahab's heart...But I will not see him all dismembered and scattered in heaven's blue--that would be no kind, reconstructive vision; no, intact, lofty and sailing, though his shape is changeable....What weather is in Ahab's face? For me, now as it ever was in life, at least when he was looking at me alone and had no other person in view, his visage is mild--with a brightness in it, even be it a wild, white, blown-about brightness...(Ch. 1, p. 1)
After that, I looked skyward. (13)
Observations (and Further Questions!):
....many a life journey starts out in the opposite direction to its destiny....(23)
I wondered for the first time where I myself would go next, and, if I went there, if that path might branch as elm trees do and as rivers do and go elsewhere. Would I ever come back to the place where I started? What portion of my lot would be choice and what part accident? (56)
What a strange moment...when possibility changes to certainty. I realized that my life itself was then all a matter of possibility....all seemed free and open to me...yet suppose one...was not chosen back? A deep shame....To be unworthy! Not to be chosen! Perhaps one should not hope or want to plan at all....I could not return to a moment...when two ideas were equally possible. (83-84)
Strong echoes here of our talk about the evolutionary "tree...."
Cf. also Doug Blank and Jim Marshall, "A Bit about Bits," in Brown Bag on "Information, Meaning and Noise":
a bit is defined ...as how uncertain one is before one receives a message. Information...is a formula for the reduction of uncertainty.
Una seems ambivalent about the reduction of uncertainty (the turning of "noise" into "information"). We can understand something more of how her mind works by attending also to what she notices of the workings of the minds of others:
Despite the storehouse that must be in [Giles's] mind...he didn't know what to say....Kit...skittered from one topic to another like a land sparrow...with no shyness about landing on whatever idea he liked. (72)
Kit said...."People are always composed of a combination of the real and the abstract...We make each other up"....if it was as Kit said that halfway we make up what we see, then already, through the words of Wordsworth, I was seeing....The line put me in mind of Kit's theory--Wordsworth said that nature was half created, half perceived...but...for Kit, the idea had only his own particular twist to it, and if the twist was not there, he did not recognize it as a kindred thought. Were there many men like Giles with such...wide learning....Or those like Kit, with such a strange originality to their minds that they left mine reeling? (92-94)
For the first time, to me, the contours of my aunt's mind seemed less broad....what I had deemed an unbounded plain was, after all, a road...with narrow places in it. (75)
Perhaps Aunt was wrong in her certainty....Perhaps Vulnerability was a land that...could never be entirely traversed. (103)
Other useful data can be gathered by listening to the way Una talks,
to her increasing ability to give voice to her associative mode of thinking:
None of us seemed to like the bishops...the diagonal cut across their faces..was a sign as to how they moved--always on the slant. But even more than the bishops, I disliked the pawns with their stupid, hobbled conformity each to each....[The white and dark chess pieces] "represent the sea and the land"...."And the board is the beach where they meet." I spoke so quickly. Thoughts never fell from my lips like that at home, before the words were in my brain. (39)
How the mind flies forward and backwards when writing, and forward again to Margaret Fuller's invitation to join her....I had been standing...before the shop of a bookseller...when a strange woman stopped beside me, also to page the books. "You're reading Montaigne's Essays," she noted. I replied, "I like the reality he assigns to thought." The sentence just slipped out; I hadn't known I thought it till I looked into her asking eyes. "Thus epic journeys are made," she answered, "in the mind." I nodded. "But we need to see new things," she went on, "to have new thoughts....I invite you." (106)
She sat still, and yet she traveled. (70)
Naslund's novel is an account of Una's accepting the invitation/herself initiating encounters into a range of new experiences, and a story of how she weaves those experiences into new assemblages of thought. She is impelled with the same intensity as Ahab, but her experience and language is female. For instance, Naslund uses quilts to image the ways in which Una's internal landscapes are altered:
[Presenting a quilt to her sister,] "Log-cabin," my mother said, "light and shadow." It was a very beautiful quilt, pieced with strips, like logs of different lengths... The red square in the center represented the hearth....Because it is the center of the house." (34)
Crossed Cross Quilt, From Bargain John's Antiques
Here Ahab appears as the white whale, the blank slate which the craftswoman both makes and interprets; Una has a very clear sense of his meaning. She often talks about "reading a quilt" in this way:
Under the woven counterpane... my fingers found a quilt. I explored the puckers around the stitches, found the edges of the pieces as they were seamed togther, but I could make no sense by touch alone of the pattern. I could not compose an overview of the design. I watched my thoughts unhinge from logic and reality. So it always is for me, before sleep--if I care to observe the passage. Some part of the mind slips into error and distortion...some higher part of the mind observes the melting away of pattern. (135)
To note here: the stitching on a quilt can diverge wildly from the track of the color pattern; to a quilter, the essential form is that made by the stitching. This, too, will be Margaret Fuller's insight:
Margaret defended the gray engravings as yet allowing the form of those distant masterpieces to be available to us...."perhaps form is the more essential element," she suggested. I thought, though, of the clouds in the sky, and how they moved me, whether or not they assumed form, and I advanced the notion that art had both emotional and intellectual force. "Emotion may be embodied more readily in colors," I said, "while ideas might reside in the relationships of the forms to each other." (377)
Una will find it difficult (impossible?) to accommodate some of her horrific experiences to come, in either form or color. They result in crazy thoughts, crazy quilts, crazing readings, the absence of "sensible" pattern...
Your penance lies in your fingers. The graveyard quilt. That morbid thing stretched from one corner of my mind to all its corners and covered the floor of thinking. All colors are gray or brown or charcoal, burnt wood, blackened fish, glistening coal, octopus ink, the black of the pupil of an eye. All dark fabric, crossed or paisleyed only with like darkness, or darker....Gray squirrels run over the tombstones....squirrel in Sanskirt means "ass-flasher"....I must make a graveyard quilt for penance. (227-228)
Only in such periods of madness does Una's mind (and the minds of her mad friends and acquaintances) take on the form of Melville's pastiche, pick up what John Lardas (in"Specters of Moby-Dick: A Particular History of Cultural Metaphysics in America," Manuscript in Progress) calls the keynote of Moby-Dick. Lardas presents Melville's novel as the origin of the "postmodern cut-up"--that is, of network culture. He includes among Melville's successors Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, Robert Indiana, Bob Dylan, Walter Benjamin, William Burroughs, Laurie Anderson and, most particularly, Don DeLillo's White Noise (1984):
The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic...shoppers...walk in a fragmented trance...trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they'd seen...They see no reason for it, find no sense in it....They turn into the wrong aisle, peer along the shelves, sometimes stop abruptly....There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge. They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal...Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images...they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn't matter what they see or think they see. The terminals...decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living....(326)
Condense the plot....abstract the meaning (42)
....each turn of phrase squeezed for its juice. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze....
so did I milk Giles's letter for meaning. (110)
Or do these questions make no sense?
In our discussion of "A Bit About Bits," we posited that "decoding" presumes a defined, finite input and output and a fixed relation between them, with the task being one of creating fidelity. Information (to a decoder) involves faithful pattern recognition, and an assumption that there are right answers. But this is very different from the ways in which literary language aims to evoke a wide range of meanings, rather than a single, unambiguous decoding.
But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates,it is a two-stranded lesson. ...all thet hings that God would have us do are hard for us to do....And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying god consists....Delight is to him..who against the proud gods and commodors of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self...Delight,--top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven...and eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who...can say...I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world's, or mine own...(Moby-Dick, Ch. 9, p. 49, p. 54)
When, in the sermon, the minister began to generalize on the application of Ruth's words--"Thy people shall be my people and thy God, my God"--the words hit my heart as the sea hits the headland rocks-to be turned away with its own force. I thought, Thy people shall not be my people--I choose my own--and thy God shall certainly not be mine, for I have my own allegiances. I seemed to grow taller...I felt fiercely gigantic, and I knew that I could begin to roar...one gigantic No! in the face of the high minister...really I could say whatever I pleased. (Ahab's Wife, Ch. 12, pp. 53-54)
...our passage seemed significant and momentous, as though it told me important things...I looked aback at the giant paddlewheel... A gray engraving of a rose in a book came to mind...it made me catch my breath--the paddlewheel--a gigantic rose, brilliant, red, perfect, still as eternity. (28)
....when I was a small girl, only freshly equipped with language, when it rained I had said, "Harder," and begged [my mother] to make the rain bigger and more extreme.... "How do you like the Lighthouse?" she asked."I wish that it were taller." She laughed. "Accept the world, Una. It is what it is"....those roses were the first time nature surprised me; for the first time she exceeded not only what I wanted but what I had imagined possible. (29-30)
For Thursday, as you read the next 111 pages (aim for p. 222)...
Consider particularly the "subject of innocent blood" ("because it is never a part of men's narratives, they having little reason to think of it") and its relation to the first whale Una sights, evidently female: "for I saw her calf, who had been hiding under her like a dark chick, grow frightened and swim away" (pp. 182-183).
Consider too, the (in)action of that "too benign father," Captain Fry, his "capitulation of power" (p. 211) in comparison with what C.L.R. James called "Ahab's totalitarian rule."
Consider both these alternatives in light of a more local discussion of
A Biological Metaphor as an Alternative to (Existing) Socio-Political Structures.
Consider, finally (um) the matter of...(um) humor; or
What is the relationship is between the aerial view and an awareness of shadows?
From a perspective that is further away, do the shadows shorten or lengthen?
Does one see oneself as a wave in the ocean/a grain of sand...
And/or does one's "subterranean miner" dig deeper, one's unknown self extend further...?
Cutting to one of Daniel Dennett's "favorite poems" ( Darwin's Dangerous Idea p. 518): W.H. Auden's
| Musee des Beaux Arts |
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
[From "Seeing Life in its Proper Perspective":] to acknowledge our smallness is to acknowledge our vulnerability.... to acknowledge our smallness not only takes pressure off, it also acknowledges our relationship with the larger world.
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Reading/Talking Notes on Margaret Fuller,"The Great Lawsuit":
"it required thought to see what it means, prepared the reader to meet me on my own ground"
lawsuit was not between the sexes, but between the developed individual & accepted group/gender role;
between ideal self and actual one
context: response to Jacksonian populism, ideals of democracy, excesses of mob rule and to Puritan teachings on depravity and original sin
disciple of Emerson, who argues fr. divine law: souls are infinite, minds God-given, energy divine
"self reliance"=reliance on God/live first for God
end of self-culture: development of divine will
character development for sake of divinity at core of identity of each of us
Fuller applies Emerson's apolitical, asocial Idealism to condition of women, and calls for social change:
need social equality to fulfill spiritual potential,
to perfect life of the growing soul/enable free life of the spirit:
eliminate social limits, barriers to opportunities for women's development, expansion
women need increasing range and power
(tiresome: no limits to growth!?)
Fuller describes a necessary period of celibacy, of self-cultivation,
for all thinking women, as preparation for a sibling-like
(equal, meaningful) union w/ a man
the fully developed soul would possess
both sides of the "great radical dualism": be androgynous
Fuller flirts w/ sexual stereotypes
(socially conditioned, the result of social roles?)
women's "especial nature" is spiritual, instinctual, intuitive
--and then Fuller reverses the usual valuation:
those make woman a better Transcendentalist--
for whom the highest mode of knowing, higher than rationality, was intuition:
the final authority is what we know instinctively
(put down by Emerson, et al): "her pen was a nonconductor"/"a mountainous me"
(She told Carlyle:) "I accept the universe."
"I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own."
Adams, Kimberly Vanesveld. "The Madonna and Margaret Fuller." Women's Studies 25, 4 ( June 1996), 385f.
Davis, Cynthia J. "Margaret Fuller, Body and Soul." American Literature 2 (March 1999)
Myerson, Joel. Margaret Fuller: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1983-1995. Bibliographies and Indexes in Women's Studies. 27. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.
Poems by Amy Clampett. New Yorker 62 (Sept 8, 1986): 38. Grace Schulman. The Paris Review 41 (Winter 1999): 110.
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