31 January, 2011

At the Fishhouses

A fantastic poem by Elizabeth Bishop. I just want to refer people to it for now, not comment. Definitely my favorite of hers, with the possible exception of "The Moose".

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.

Down at the water's edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

30 January, 2011

Some Initial Thoughts Regarding "Mrs. Dalloway"

Katherine Hilbery of Woolf's Night and Day is introduced to the reader as a covert rebel against convention, preferring mathematics to hostessing, and dreading marriage as incompatible with her desire to think independently. Yet by the end of the novel, she has come to find marriage and independence to be quite compatible when love, not attention to social position, is at the root of the relationship. Lily Briscoe of To the Lighthouse similarly moves from frustration with those who have succumbed to the expectations of society, to accept Mrs. Ramsay's legacy: like Mrs. Ramsay, she eventually learns to give Mr. Ramsay, overbearing and unsympathetic as he is, the compassion he needs, enabling him to make the oft-deferred journey to the lighthouse. It may hardly surprise an attentive reader, then, to realize that the eponymous heroine of Mrs. Dalloway also comes to synthesize an independent, even idiosyncratic, interior life with the role society expects her to play. Clarissa Dalloway is a woman who can question her long-standing decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh. But she can as easily consider her conventional role as an integral part of her identity: her “passion for gloves,” for instance, she justifies by remembering old Uncle William's saying that “a lady is known by her shoes and her gloves” (172). She allows socially incorrect questions about death, loss of religion, and her past love for Sally Seton to mix in equal measure in her mind with her plans for a meticulously respectable evening party.

Given these divergent characteristics, Clarissa Dalloway, critics have a fiendishly difficult time explaining her apparent inconsistencies. Seeing Woolf solely in the role of the political deviant pushing a subversive feminism on her readers, most critics categorize her characters either as feminist “failures” or subversively successful in one way or another. Is her skepticism about such traditional standbys as religion or the intrinsic superiority of her class a sign of a liberated mind, or has she betrayed her individuality by accepting certain aspects of her upper-middle class existence as normal? In fact, I would argue that both these alternatives are senselessly reductive. In the final analysis, Clarissa Dalloway seems to be most simply put a lover of life: “what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab;. . .the ebb and flow” of London streets (170). Ethical implications arise from her various reactions to her social position, and I can hardly argue with these critics that an important tension exists between liberation and compromise. Yet for Woolf's characters, this tension is itself the solution to the problem of a reductive existence: her independent social workers and unthinking aristocrats come off as equally one-dimensional, and this hardly makes them attractive as characters. Her most compelling characters, rather, are those who are capable of balancing the social and independent, carried on in a series of moments that build upon one another but never define the person.

29 January, 2011

Speech and Silence in Decalogue One

In class the other day we watched the first of a series of ten one-hour films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. Called the "Decalogue," the series deals, unsurprisingly, with the Ten Commandments. Which could be a set-up for disaster of the most stupendous "Christian moralizing" sort. But Kieślowski doesn't approach his subject from a moralizing perspective at all. The first Decalogue is profoundly elegiac, sensitively negotiating questions of love, the nature of belief, and death in its recounting of the apparently senseless death of an eleven-year-old boy. So it comes as something of a tonal non sequitur when about halfway through the film the private world of the father, son, and aunt is interrupted by a lecture on linguistics at the public university. We have not left behind the central characters: the father is simply appearing in his public role as a university professor, his son, Pawel, accompanying him. But this temporary shift away from personal interaction gives Kieslowski a chance to simultaneously articulate one of the central concerns of the film in theoretical terms inappropriate to ordinary conversation and to increase the tragic irony of the father's preoccupation with science.

The film is attentive to questions of communication, both verbal and non-verbal, and this lecture takes up the same topic. Yet the father restricts the lecture’s focus to linguistic communication. Building an argument for the possibility of intelligent volition in computers, he reconfirms his fascination with technology through his choice of subject matter. But a certain tension—parallel to that existing between his non-reductive love for his family and his obsession with scientific logic—exists between the beginning and ending of his analysis of language here.

He begins affirming a holistic view of language, seeing it as an organic entity, specific to a culture and expressive of that culture’s individuality. Transmitting the “metasemantics”—that is, the controlling vocabulary—of one culture to another is almost impossible, he says, even in the best of translations: language is too deeply rooted, too tied to a distinct locality and common cultural experience. His approach hints at elements of transcendence contained in language when he suggests that this metasemantic is in essence that culture's metaphysic, the meaning hidden behind the delimiting effects of words. Yet somehow, though he argues so seriously for the value of “what is hidden behind the words,” he concludes by questioning Eliot's idea that “poetry is untranslatable.” Poetry is untranslatable in some respects, according to his initial observations: it is an expression of beauty and love that must by its nature be particularized within a culture that can comprehend its premises and value what it values. But he does not seem to follow these implications through to their logical conclusion. Rather than be satisfied with the existence of the inexpressible, he prefers (at least according to his own words), to essentially deny its existence. Translation is difficult, he suddenly begins to claim, not impossible. And it is difficult only because human linguists are finite, incapable of comprehending a sufficient number of variations of culture and temporality: surely a computer, with its potential for a near-infinite permutations of 0 and 1 can do what the limited human cannot. It is, after all, a translator “capable of accumulating all knowledge of words and language.”

Throughout the lecture, however, images of Pawel, smiling, watching his father, and experimenting with perspectives from which he can see him, contrast with this theoretical conclusion. Pawel hardly seems attentive to the words being said, but he is highly attentive to his father. This attention to the whole person, rather than to what is only verbally expressed, reminds the viewer of the aunt’s earlier conversation with the boy. As the he talks to her about his father and the existence of God, she is able to anticipate and respond to the unspoken questions behind his words. She eventually realizes that the best response is one that is not essentially verbal, hugging him to explain that God is love; we see that real human communication in this case is an expression of love as well.

Given his rejection of the unspoken for the language of the computer, one may, out of context, suspect that this father fills the role of the unimaginative counter to the aunt’s unquestioning love; that between the two exists a divide between reductive rationality and non-reductive love. But for Kieslowski to have moved in this direction would have been for him to make the characters into symbols rather than human beings. The father’s love for his son contradicts his argument for the computer’s ability to assume any crucial human function. The pleasure with which he announces that “in [his] opinion” a computer may have its own aesthetic preferences, personality, individuality, is particularly ironic in the context of the film’s conclusion. He has intellectually (though I emphasize again, not emotionally) set up the computer as a god of sorts, or at least as an entity capable of comprehending and surpassing all human capacities. But if this god even has a personality and volition, what are we to make of the fact that it fails him at the end? When the boy dies, is this a proof that technology does not have the power the father attributes to it in this scene? Or will unpredicted breaking of the ice appear the act of a malevolent deity, à la Hardy's “Hap, to this university professor and father whose theory is haunted by the possibility of such volition and whose practice is nonetheless in constant contrast to his ideas? The movie answers these questions neither in absolute terms, nor with respect to the father himself, forcing the viewer, like the central family here, to remain content with the “meaning behind the words” or images. We can understand the film’s “message” only by empathizing with the father and making his unanswered questions imaginatively our own.

Notes toward a Literary Analysis of Beatrix Potter's "A Fierce, Bad Rabbit"

Intended to amuse, and to mildly satirize those literary critics who actually do bother with such things.

Beatrix Potter's brief tale of A Fierce, Bad Rabbit may come off as a simplistic moralizing story, in which the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the good guy is vindicated. And certainly that comic-book morality is at least superficially present in this war of two rabbits. Their differing ethical statuses seem to lead inevitably to their respective ends: the unjustifiably rude “Bad Rabbit” is paid back in deus ex machina fashion by a wandering hunter to the benefit of the good rabbit. But take a closer look at the story and several serious issues begin to raise their metaphorical heads. Firstly, why such a strident condemnation for what is merely a breach of manners (if an inexcusably unprovoked one)? Given her propensity for depicting villains of truly sinister dimensions (the Fox in Jemima Puddle-Duck plans to eat Jemima; Mr. Samuel Whiskers even more horrifyingly makes Tom Kitten into a pie before the unlucky chap is rescued), one may wonder why Potter designates only this schoolyard-bully-esque carrot thief as “fierce” and “bad.” It seems, oddly enough, that this deplorable character's only offense is being unmannerly: in Potter's own words, the height of his offense is that “he doesn't say 'Please.' He takes it!” In sharp contrast to the visceral dangers of her other books, the threat posed by this villain seems perfectly suited to a Jane Austen novel. The second issue one can hardly help noticing upon careful reading is the disjoint between cause and effect involved in the Bad Rabbit's punishment. In the narrative framework most pleasing to authors who intend to moralize, the bad guy is ultimately brought down either by his own evil actions (see Dante's Commedia or Edward Lear's children's verses) or by an adversarial reaction against his dastardly deeds. Yet the cleverly-aimed shot that manages to take off both the tail and whiskers of the Bad Rabbit without harming him is not fired by some good rabbit rising in rebellion against the tyranny of carrot-thieves, nor does the Bad Rabbit try to steal an incendiary device in an excess of cupidity and harm himself in the process. These would be two fine examples of poetic justice, to which parents could point, as they might to the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and say “see children: if you do X then Y will happen to you.” Where in fact is Potter's ethical subtext in this story? Could it be—but it is!—that the Bad Rabbit is worsted by mere happenstance? By the mere fact that this hunter is apparently more than a little near-sighted despite his uncanny skill in aiming and so thinks the Bad Rabbit “a very funny bird”? The good rabbit witnesses his humiliated foe fleeing the field, yet no retribution, properly speaking, has been meted out. Potter seems, I would argue, to be pushing young children to doubt the most basic elements of the moralizing tale, if only subconsciously, in this fascinatingly subversive tale of bad manners and random acts of an indifferent higher power.