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A seachange this

I. Thalatta! Thalatta! (5)

Seawater lingers in the mind of Stephen Dedalus. With him it is a sort of death, bringer of death and home of death.

Stephen begins his day trapped, as ever, between England and the Roman Catholic Church—appearing first in their homely guises of Haines and Buck Mulligan. It is Mulligan who first invokes the sea:

God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtighening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look. (5, Modern Library hardcover)

These words of Mulligan’s persist, as when Stephen, walking on Sandymount Strand, cannot but see the sea as “snotgreen.” (37) This sea is associated with Stephen’s exile. Buck Mulligan becomes the usurper who evicts (in Stephen’s mind) Stephen from his home, by taking his key. This after a long string of explicit and subtle torment, as for instance (a minor instance) when Mulligan refers to England as a “country full of rotten teeth and rotten guts. (14, cf. 50) When, at the end of Telemachus, Stephen sees Mulligan’s “sleek brown head, a seal’s, far out on the water, round,” it is a sign that the sea is a hostile place for Stephen.

Later, for instance, as he walks by the water, he begins to be sucked into the muck of sand. As his feet are slowly engulfed, his thoughts return home: “He has the key. I will not sleep there when this night comes. A shut door of a silent tower entombing their blind bodies, the panthersahib and his pointer.” (44) The sand embodies physically what his mind is imposing mentally, the sense of being trapped.

The sea is the home of corpses. Quite literally it is the new home of the drowned man who is fished up a short time later, a “bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine.” (50) But even more it is the home of Stephen’s corpse. Mulligan calls Stephen a “poor dogsbody” (6)—one who does odd jobs. But—lest anyone think that when Stephen “lifted his feet up from the suck,” he was escaping the trap of Mulligan and Haines (44)—Stephen immediately comes across an actual dog’s body, “a bloated carcass of a dog.” Stephen makes the connection explicit, in his thoughts: “Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.” (46)

All of this is established by the operations of Stephen’s mind: the connections he makes between the sea and his own sense of exile make the sea itself the harbinger of that exile, or the locus of it. It is death to him.

II. The dead sea (61, 72)

Putting myself at risk of placing the predicate before the middle term, and so ruining the syllogism, I turn next to Poldy, who also lingers, mentally and physically, by the seaside. Bloom is of a much more even keel than Stephen.

It does not seem so at first. Bloom first thinks of the sea in what is one of his darkest moments of the day. A cloud covers the sun, and the world is, for a moment, gray. Bloom’s thoughts:

No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea: no first, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. no wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy’s clutching a noggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world. (61)

Characteristically of Bloom, however, this does not last. Of course, as I looked at earlier today, Bloom’s mood recovers with the thought of returning to his wife. But even beyond that, the image of the dead sea is made innocuous. As Bloom goes to the chemist’s to pick up a concoction for his wife’s skin, Bloom recalls a picture he saw:

Where was the chap I saw in that picture somewhere? Ah, in the dead sea, floating on his back, reading a book with a parasol open. Couldn’t sink if you tried: so thick with salt. Because the weight of the water, no, the weight of the body in the water is equal to the weight of the. Or is it the volume is equal of the weight? It’s a law something like that. (72)

Here the dead sea is a curiosity, a strange region of the earth that offers a certain amusement to tourists: the sea where you cannot sink. It provides as well an opportunity for Bloom to stretch his brain on a math/science problem, though he does not fair well. No hint remains of the apocalyptic vision of before. It is characteristic of Bloom’s relative tranquility of mind that he quickly stabilizes after disturbances, and here is no exception. Perhaps there is a causal connection between the two events—perhaps the apocalyptic vision prompted, in some fashion, the later recollection of the curiosity—but all the as it were spiritual overtones are vanished and replaced. Bloom’s constitution is robust.

III. the sea the sea (783)

Moving on, then, to my final subject. Here I shall be more circumspect—I cannot read quickly enough to finish Ulysses in a single day, at least not if what I am doing is to deserve the epithet ‘reading’—as the passage I wish to discuss comes from the very end of Ulysses, as Molly Bloom recollects both past lovers and her choice to marry Leopold. Amidst these recollections comes a reprise of Buck Mulligan’s cry, with which I began—Thalatta! Thalatta!—only not in the Greek now, rather in the vernacular.

…O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire… (783)

Molly is caught in a torrent of thought, and here is one ecstasy within it. No longer is the sea a morass of turbid gloom, snotgreen, or a bloater of corpses, saltwhite: it flashes red with the sun. It is not musty and old, but vibrant. Nor is the play of light of the sun like the ominous image created much earlier, in Nestor: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.” (36) It is euphoric.

There may be reason to doubt this euphoria. As a good friend and perceptive reader commented on my very first post on this blog, there is something ambiguous about it, perhaps even empty. I may be downplaying these ambiguities. (Having not reread Penelope today, it is hard for me to say.) Nonetheless, I cannot help but see this repetition of Mulligan’s cry, with a total opposition of valence, as a culmination of the move of the book from negation and death to affirmation—however ambiguous that affirmation might turn out to be.

IV. A seachange this (50)

For each character, the sea takes on the shape and color that fits their moods and swings of moods. Joyce looks at the sea, not in itself, but only in relation to those who interact with it, both physically and mentally. The sea is a receptacle for Stephen, for Bloom, for Molly. It is ample enough to contain them all.

Thus ends my Bloomsday.

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Dickinson’s invitation to Dickinson

My recent receipt of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas H. Johnson) of­fers as fine an opportunity as any to plunge once again into her sea, admiring now the individual drops of poetry, now the ocean they compose, now the one may struggle against the other. Here I encounter Dickinson’s own invitation to her poetry in the light of my existing, if meager, knowledge of what is to come.

The volume is arranged more or less in chronological order, though not perfectly so. This yields the placement of two poems—“There is another sky” (1851) and “On this wondrous sea” (1853)—at the beginning of my renewed encounter. There are, in fact, two other poems mixed in, both written for Valentine’s Day, one in 1850, the other in 1852. They are stylistically quite different from her other poems, and I shall ignore them; I accept whatever perils doing so entails. The first of these poems functions as an invitation to the poetry to follow—whether Dickinson intended it as such, I do not know—while the second illustrates a further aspect of the mood permeating the first. What follows is my response to this invitation. If I have a theme, it is of the dangers of writing one’s introduction first, rather than last, writing it with the audacity of hope rather than the maturity of experience. I say “dangers”, but I do not condemn: I find inestimable richness in the result, and, moreover, am myself writing this introduction in ignorance of just what is to follow.

It will be good to begin with the text of “There is another sky”:

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent field –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum;
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

In isolation, I do not think the poem is much—only with eyes trained by reading the later poems does its significance come into view. The surface of the poem is quite straightforward: a distinction between the outer world with its change of seasons, its sunsets, and the more stable inner world. The inner is a model of the outer, only with greater stability, and a positive—so it seems—stability at that: the inner celebrates a perpetual spring, an ever serene sky, ever green leaves, unfading flowers, ever humming bees. It is addressed to her brother, Austin, and she ends by inviting him into her garden. The poem hums with optimism, with confidence.

It also introduces themes and images that persist throughout her career: the inner world as best modeled after the seasons, the bee and the flower, the sunset, the frost. With this knowledge, the poem begins to look like an invitation into her poetry—of course the direct address to her brother remains, but is easy to “forget” by the final lines—since, of course, that poetry is well-described as a faithful record of her inner world. But what this invitation promises is not at all what the explorer of the forest will discover.

This optimism carries over into her poem from 1853—and from 1854, though I will not look at the one—the text of which is:

On this wondrous sea
Sailing silently,
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar –
Where the storm is o’er?

In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest –
The anchors fast –
Thither I pilot thee
Land Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!

More of Dickinson’s themes arrive: first and foremost, life as a sea. The sea is dangerous, violent, unstable—contrasted with the stability of land and Eternity. The character of an introduction emerges more and more when this poem is combined with the last. We get, first, a description of the contents to follow—the exploration of “my garden”—and now a definite sense of direction: a move from turbulence to eternity. Eternity is here situated at the end of life, as what is reached upon death, sunset of the soul in the “peaceful west”.

At first, the poems seem to disagree with one another about the location of stability: the first places it within life, in Dickinson’s inner world; the second, at the end of life, with death and eternity. But the second poem is not espousing the sentiment that life is a burden and death a relief: though the sea is stormy, it is nonetheless “wondrous”. This suggests, to me, the same placidity in the midst of external turbulence that the first poem offers, and thus I see them as consistent.

So we have Dickinson’s introduction and invitation to Dickinson. There is a description of the contents, the task: an exploration of the inner world. And there is the description of the movement, the goal: a movement toward death and eternity. It could not be much clearer. But there is a reason why one is always advised to write the introduction last, after all else is complete. A project never quite ends up the way it is planned from the start—new discoveries lead to new goals, and often contradict initial expectations. So too, inevitably, with Dickinson.

I will bring this out by looking at just two later poems, chosen somewhat arbitrarily. The second, because it has to do with the sea, and because when I first read it it struck me sufficiently that I remembered it upon reading “On this wondrous sea”. The first, because it also has to do with the sea, and because I happened to notice it while looking for the second. So, first, “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –“:

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality –
As I – toward Thee –

She knows herself an incense small –
Yet small – she sighs – if All – is All
How larger – be?

The Ocean – smiles – at her Conceit –
But she­, forgetting Amphitrite –
Pleads – “Me”?

Once again, Dickinson places herself at sea, only now, she does not sail on it, but is part of it. There is no question of a drop finding stability ashore: there is only the sea, endless, perpetual sea. Nor is the sea still wondrous—or, it is, but not in the same way as before. Rather, it is something within which the drop wrestles. The drop is forgetful: she “forgets her own locality”, cannot see her place in the sea, would be larger than she is, “Pleads – ‘Me’?”—gets trapped, in short, in a harmful egoism, a selfish egoism. The rebuke is gentle: the ocean “smiles”—I do not think it mocking, though Dickinson as poet mocks herself, the absurdity of her conceit.

The shift in the metaphor, from being at sea to being in the sea, makes all the difference. Again, a drop cannot seek stability ashore. The goal toward which she first set sail has turned out to be illusory and impossible, and the placidity with which she traveled has become struggle. There is no purposeful movement, only wrestling in place.

But, while the shift in metaphor is central to this poem, it is not the only way in which the promises of her introduction can break down. Keeping with the old metaphor will do just as well, as “The difference between Despair” well shows:

The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck –
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion –
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see –

Here Dickinson explores two emotions or moods that one would not have expected to find inside her garden, given her introduction. Despair is likened to the instant of a wreck, fear to the aftermath. Despair is short but tumultuous: cracking timber, the boat being sucked downward, the knowledge of impending death. But fear is quite different. It is placid: the surface is smooth again, there is contentment. It is almost as if one is not even alive, is a bust. Fear knows it cannot see, and does not despair of the fact. It is a sort of grim determination.

We have returned to the image of being at sea and not in it. But if this is so, then what we are seeing is the outcome of the voyage begun with such hopes of reaching shore. Despair and the wreck are ineluctable, and so too the aftermath of fear. Any such voyage will end this way, sucked into life, and no longer heading toward eternity. And then comes fear. Like in her garden, there is a tranquility, but now it is not the tranquility that comes with an endless spring, rather it is a grim determination and contentment. The optimism has vanished.

These two poems illustrate but part of the overall shift in Dickinson’s work from these two early poems. They illustrate what breaks the optimism of those poems. But I do not mean to suggest that Dickinson’s poetry is a poetry of despair. Her quest for eternity is not halted but changed: eternity shifts from being something at the end of life to something found within life, with all its struggle and horror. The result is not optimism—grim determination may well capture it—but I do not feel anything is lost. What is gained is richer, if more terrible—richer because it is more terrible.

These poems also illustrate the power of metaphors, for Dickinson. Dickinson, in those two early poems, brings in metaphors in a youthful, naïve way. She models the inner world on the outer, with its change of seasons and its sunsets, and she models life as a voyage at sea. She does so in an optimistic spirit, and there is a beauty in that. But once she has set down these metaphors they take on a life of their own, and she is led down paths she did not anticipate. The inner world, modeled against the outer, increasingly ceases to represent a happier version of the outer and a bulwark against its vicissitudes—it comes to mirror it. And the voyage at sea exposes Dickinson to the possibility and ineluctability of wrecks. She, in her optimism, overlooked these possibilities, but now she must confront them.

This illustrates, then, the danger of writing an introduction before the work is completed. Dickinson makes promises she cannot fulfill, raises issues with which she must continually struggle and which continually defy her initial optimism. The advice to write the introduction last is of the highest prudence. But there is something poetic about the introduction written at the beginning, and not simply placed there after the fact.

The difference stems from the difference in perspective that each necessarily takes. The introduction written last is a view from above, the view of a spectator surveying the completed work. That the work is her own is important, but the introduction serves only to state her accomplishments, and hardly to contribute to them. The introduction written first, by contrast, is inherently active, is a view from within. It contributes to the project it attempts to introduce, by setting out—and not just describing—paths that will be followed. Of course, these descriptions end up false, but that does not make the description any less valuable. As the example of Dickinson shows, these naïve, youthful, optimistic introductions raise complications that cannot be foreseen, but the struggle with these complications may yield unforeseen fruit. The falseness of the description arises precisely because it raises issues beyond its control, introduces problems that elude its grasp—the very sources of its value.

But perhaps Dickinson captured the difference best. An introduction written at the end is on firm land, “ashore at last”. An introduction written first is, by contrast, at sea, lost, with no land in sight, excepting what is hallucinated. Introductions from above may yield the eternity of a destination reached, but introductions from within offer the eternity of endless beginning and struggle—a more terrible, but for that very reason richer, eternity.

 

Nietzsche at Sea

2013/11/10 1 comment

Mindful of this situation in which youth finds itself I cry Land! Land! Enough and more than enough of the wild and erring voyage over strange dark seas! At last a coast appears in sight: we must land on it whatever it may be like, and the worst of harbours is better than to go reeling back into a hopeless infinity of skepticism. Let us only make land; later on we shall find good harbours right enough, and make the landfall easier for those who come after us. (UD 116)

What is it that could bring Nietzsche to cry “Land! Land!”? From what skepticism is he running? Above all, what is the mood of this passage, and of the essay that contains it? Might there be a situation in which Nietzsche could celebrate the sea and skepticism? (Citations to On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, designated UD, are from the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale. Citations to On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, designated TL, are to the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.)

In both On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life and On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, Nietzsche attempts to characterize the liberated intellect, which is to be contrasted with the enslaved intellect. To achieve this, he plays with the theme of the human/animal boundary, using it now for one purpose, now another. A brief summary of these uses will then be helpful.

The opening paragraph of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense could not be clearer: humans are animals; we achieve nothing that extends beyond human life, which is just a sort of animal life; all we get from cognition, which supposedly separates us from the animals, is an ungainly and bloated pride. At the same time, Nietzsche does allow our intellect to separate us from the animals: we turn our metaphors into concepts—or, in other words, we let our metaphors die. In all of this, we are characterized by forgetting: we forget how language originates in dissimulation and metaphor, and from this we get our drive to truth; we forget ourselves as artistically creative subjects, and so we become slaves to the facts—facts that amount to little more than conventions we’ve established. Our truths capture little more than the relations of things to humans. The enslaved intellect erects these inventions into a life raft to which we can cling as we move through life. The liberated intellect, by contrast, smashes up concepts, brings unlike things together, and proceeds via intuition rather than concept. The liberated intellect is, in this way, quite animal.

Things are less straightforward in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. Nietzsche characterizes animal life as fundamentally unhistorical, characterized by forgetting, whereas human life involves memory and thus history. The contrast between the liberated and enslaved intellect arises again: the enslaved intellect treats history as a science, and overwhelms life with history. The enslaved intellect is chained to memory, and will not allow itself to forget even the slightest detail. The liberated intellect, by contrast, uses history in the service of life. Sometimes, as in the case of critical history, this involves remembering details and faithfulness to the facts, but in the case of monumental history, a great deal of falsification and forgetting is required. When the intellect is in chains, Nietzsche claims, we are permitted Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum, but not vivo, ergo cogito. We do not live. Instead, “the feeling that tells me I exist warrants to me only that I am a thinking creature, not that I am a living one, not that I am an animal but at most a cogital” (UD 119). Here the animal is placed above the cogital. Yet Nietzsche earlier says of the great man that his body does not contain his life, and when his body dies all that is left behind is “the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down” (UD 69) and which was an object of his contempt. Nietzsche here seems caught between two tendencies: the one to lower the human to a place below the animal, the other to suggest something more than animal that the human can achieve. Some sense is made of this by Nietzsche’s later admission of “the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly” (UD 112). Nietzsche thinks the animality of the human is a truth that must be handled delicately, in a way that preserves and engenders rather than destroys life. Nietzsche’s oscillation reflects his attempt to do just that.

The desire to suggest something higher than the animal in Nietzsche’s essay on history is the key to understand his cry of “Land! Land!” In the finest passage of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, there is no such desire for land.

That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions; words are not made for them; man is struck dumb when he sees them, or he will speak only in forbidden metaphors and unheard-of combinations of concepts so that, by at least demolishing and deriding the old conceptual barriers, he may do creative justice to the impression made on him by the mighty, present intuition. (TL 152)

I take the “vast assembly of beams and boards” to be a boat, for Nietzsche earlier describes it as erected on “flowing water” (TL 147). I confess also that I cannot help but reading this passage anachronistically, in light of Neurath’s boat. Neurath’s boat metaphor runs as follows:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. (I took it from here)

Nietzsche’s account of the liberated intellect is that of one who, instead of clinging to this boat, uses it as the springboard for acrobatic leaps—perhaps at the cost of destroying and sinking the boat. What is absent is any sense of reaching land. Neither Neurath’s nor Nietzsche’s boat ever reaches land: there is no indication that it reaches any destination, or even that there are any destinations it could reach. In this way it is like animal life: it serves no purpose, has no end goal. There is simply play, then death.

Nietzsche’s cry for “Land! Land!” is a cry for some solid resting ground after a voyage through the sea of skepticism. How do we end up in this sea? “The madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web…” (UD 108). Nietzsche is clear: this skepticism is the result of the “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal” (UD 120-121). In so robbing us of all foundations, Nietzsche thinks that science may tyrannize over life, and life enslaved to science is weak and fearful. The liberated intellect and life should reverse this relationship and dominate science, using it to its own ends. And what is life? In great individuals, at least, the purpose of life is to “form a kind of bridge across the turbulent stream of becoming” (UD 111) and so to be a foundation for those with whom they live contemporaneously—i.e. the great individuals of other ages.

This is something stable, permanent, and eternal—or at least untimely. The vision of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is a lonesome, animal vision of the individual playing at sea, for no audience, present or future. That of On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life is more social and more human, if not more cogital and not less animal. The historicity of humanity, set against their forgetful animality, leads to the extinguishing of life. But when unified with that animality, when yoked to the service of life, it makes possible something above the animal, something that ignores, perhaps willfully, the dangerous truth that humans are just another sort of animal, no more.