Curtains, Pasteboard Masks

May 16, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ahab’s “pasteboard masks.” In chapter 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” Ahab describes to Starbuck why he must kill the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.”

(Moby-Dick 140, Norton Critical Edition)

The physical world is a pasteboard mask put up over the spiritual world, the world of meaning, and what tortures Ahab is that he cannot know what is in that world, because all his knowledge comes from this one. It’s a question of epistemology, really. It’s like Saussure’s “sign=signifier/signified” equation – Ahab continually senses the signifier, the physical world, slipping over and covering up the signified, the spiritual dimension of reality, leaving him unable to perceive it directly.

And Ahab’s solution is to punch through – to find what lies beyond. But what really fascinates me about this is that finding out what lies beyond is the same thing as fixing what lies beyond. The relationship between signifier and signified is, after all, arbitrary, and forever shifting. I like to think of it (and I believe I read I came across this metaphor in Derrida, but I can’t find a quotation; in any case, Derrida certainly talks constantly about slipping and covering over) as a piece of paper lying on top of a desk. The paper is the physical world and the desk the spiritual. At one moment, a given point on the page may be over a given point on the desk, but trying to actually look at that part of the desk will require moving the piece of paper, at which point the two points are no longer lined up; that point on the page is now over a different point on the desk. There is no fixed relationship between the two. Ahab doesn’t just want to see what lies beyond, then, for what lies beyond is always changing. He want to find a way to fix what lies beyond in place – even if he fixes it at nothingness. He would rather have nothing than not know what he has.

And this lines up nicely with the constant mention of Ahab as self-crucified. Because the image of crucifixion, specifically of using nails to pierce the victim’s hands and feet, involves both striking through the physical body, that is, the pasteboard mask, and fixing the physical body in place using the very holes struck through it. In crucifying himself, Ahab attempts to transcend his physical body and to fix his own meaning (a rather gnostic quest, it seems to me). But in doing so he is destroyed.

So I’ve been thinking along these lines for the last several weeks, and wondering how it applies to the Christian understanding of Christ. Is Ahab, the exemplar protagonist-villain-as-anti-Christ in literature, actually like Christ in the nature of his crucifixion? Does that nailing involve a similar fixing of signifier to signified? Is the crucifixion like God taking a hammer and nail and pound his son into the physical world and out the other side, fixing it to – what, himself?

I wasn’t really sure how orthodox this explanation of the image of crucifixion was, but then in one of the readings for Mass today, I came across this:

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, ‘ by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, ‘ and since we have a great priest over the house of God, ‘ let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

(Hebrews 10:19-22, RSV)

That was good timing, I think. In this passage, St. Paul says that Christ has through his death and resurrection opened up a path through his flesh – the curtain, the pasteboard mask – which we must follow if we are to enter the sanctuary – the area of fixed meaning.

So that’s interesting. But this all leaves me slightly confused; because if God needed to nail signifier and signified together through the crucifixion in order to fix meaning, doesn’t that mean the Crucifixion (and the Incarnation as well – but, in this understanding, they seem roughly equivalent, since God entering the world is the same as God nailing through it) was necessary from the beginning of creation? In what sense, then, was it caused by the Fall?

I have three thoughts on the matter. The first, is that the Fall can be considered akin to the first sliding of the piece of paper across the table. Before it, the world was perfect, but fragile; aligned correctly, but unfixed. After it, God “realized” that he needed to nail it down. It doesn’t fit, of course, to say that God “realized” it; but the basic idea is that Creation occurred in two steps, the first, the laying down of the piece of paper, the second, the nailing in. And the nailing in occurred immediately after the laying down, but because the nail was placed in time, we perceive it as occurring billions of years after the creation of the universe.

My second thought is that I need to re-read what Gerard Manley Hopkins had to say about the matter. Because, as I recall, he talked a lot about the connection between creation and the Incarnation, and his idea of “instress” and “inscape” seems somehow related to all of this, though I’m not quite sure how, honestly. I don’t have an amazing conceptual grasp of GMH’s theology, though what I know of it, I find quite fascinating.

My third thought is that perhaps the reason the image doesn’t really fit with the gap between Creation and Fall – and in fact seems to imply that they were the same thing (which sounds like heresy) – is that any imagistic way of understanding theology is inherently flawed, and only useful in a limited context. This may well be the case. But then again, it may not.

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!”

Mental Types

November 24, 2009

Yesterday afternoon/evening I was hanging out with a few friends and we had a really long conversation (~5 hours) about philosophy, theology, literature, psychology… just about everything, really. It was one of the more productive such sessions I’ve had in a while, in terms of bringing together disparate ideas and synthesizing them, as well as coming up with new ways of looking at things; one of the easiest to explain results (though not at all the most important) was this idea of “mental types.”

The basic idea is, there are certain great writers (philosophers, writers of fiction, poets, etc) with whom each individual identifies more than other. So it is an interesting exercise for a person to identify them and then draw what conclusions may be drawn from that list about himself.

This approach has its dangers, of course. We don’t want to say person X is better than person Y for thinking in a certain way, but also, we don’t want to become relativists, saying all ways of looking at the world are equally valid. But, I think, if we realize this danger we have a good chance of avoiding it.

So what writers do I most identify with?

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, obviously, though perhaps less so than a few years ago.
  • Herman Melville, whose philosophy I disagree with in many ways but whose approach to the world feels very similar to mine.
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry resonates with me in a way few others’ does.
  • Thomas Aquinas, whose dry, Q/A approach to theology I recognize as flawed, but whose systematic nature is very similar to my own.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I have not read much of but who I feel like I understand more than really any other modern philosopher.

What do these people have in common? I have a few theories:

  • They are interested in the self, and how the self relates to the world. Melville’s Moby-Dick is about, among many other things, how man attributes his own symbols and meaning to the world at large, and attempts to make himself omniscient and omnipotent; Hopkins’ most important poems all deal with both the self taking in all of creation and the self isolated, cut off from nature; and Aquinas and Wittgenstein, given their fields of study, are almost forced to address this question.
  • They are interested in the world itself, and do not approach the world purely phenomenologically; they give the world an independent existence, which they examine as interesting in its own right. Tolkien created an entire mythology; Melville spends pages upon pages in Moby-Dick describing whale skeletons and the history of whaling; Hopkins tried to understand the inscape of things by examining them until he almost became them; and Aquinas followed Aristotle in categorizing all of nature.
  • They have a  real sense of the divine in nature; as my German teacher told us  the Romantics said, “Natur ist sichtbare Geist, Geist ist unsichtbare Natur.” Tolkien has the concept of faerie, Melville has the Whale as a symbol for God; Hopkins’ entire worldview was based around the idea of sacramentality, and similarly for Aquinas; and Wittgenstein’s one statement about prayer, as I recall, involved a man walking in the woods pounding his walking stick.
  • They are fascinated by language, and the power of words, rather than passively using language without examining its nature. Tolkien was a linguist; Hopkins made up his own words and cared immensely about how words could carry meaning; and Wittgenstein said that “there is an entire mythology stored within our language.”

There are also a few writers who, although clearly great, I do not really identify with. The two most important, I think, are

  • Plato. Why? Because, I suppose, he is too much an idealist for me; he refuses to deal with the world. He skips straight to the isolated self.
  • And Dostoevsky. Why? Because he also refuses to take on the world, dealing only with people and God; his books are about morality and inter-personal relationships, but never about the larger world.

Well then. What does this tell us? If there is any conclusion to be drawn from it, it is that I am a realist; I refuse to allow people to ignore the world, and I identify most with writers who have the same preoccupation with the world itself, rather than ideas.

Lyric and Emotional Sincerity

November 12, 2009

Everyone, I hope it can be safely assumed, has strong, deeply felt emotions that they occasionally feel an intense desire to share with someone else. They can be feelings of love, hope, anger, despair; which exactly doesn’t really matter. But they must be overpowering. They have to make you want to announce to the world, “I love ___!” or “I believe in God!” or “I have been wronged!” or “I feel so alone!”

The thing about emotions like this is: usually, you can’t tell anyone about them. Unless you’re amazingly good friends with someone, going up to him and saying “I feel so alone” will just result in a moment of extreme awkwardness. This is where poetry comes in.

Poetry (among many other things it does) takes those emotions and captures them in language that by will make the reader feel those emotions, rather than just intellectually realize that the writer felt them at one point. Take an example from the life of (you guessed it) Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1884, he wrote in a letter to his friend Robert Bridges “WHAT DOES ANYTHING AT ALL MATTER?”. So: what is the reaction of the reader to this? Perhaps pity that someone could be so distressed at life, but probably no more than that.

But look at a one of the “Sonnets of Desolation” that he wrote around that time. I’ll pick “No worst”, as that’s one of my favorites.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

For me at least, these lines do not just convey the idea that Hopkins felt great despair at this point in his life; they force my entire consciousness to, for a few moments, try to take on the emotion that Hopkins felt when he wrote them. The last two lines, especially, echo powerfully in my mind; they express the emotion, one that I have had myself occasionally, better than I ever could.

That brings me to something that I find somewhat odd about poetry, and which I haven’t really formulated an opinion on yet. Namely, the emotional power of the poem is based on how well-written the poem is. More broadly, we demand that what a person says be well-crafted before we will believe what they say. Or perhaps “believe” is the wrong word – “care”, maybe. We don’t care about other people unless they can express their feelings in powerful poetic language. Does this not strike anyone else as odd?

Dies Irae

November 3, 2009

Today I went to an All Souls Day Requiem mass. In an interesting coincidence, that mass opens with the Latin hymn “Dies Irae,” and my “exemplary poem” for Junior Poet, “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” draws its title from the hymn’s opening stanza: “Dies iræ! dies illa / Solvet sæclum in favilla / Teste David cum Sibylla!” Thus, I will endeavor to give a reading of it now, while the coincidence is still interesting.

The poem itself, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (full text here), is a fascinating look at three of the four last things: death, judgement, and hell. One of Hopkin’s darkest poems, it does not speak about heaven; the reasons given for this vary, among them that it is a pre-Christian poem in content, that it stemmed from an Ignatian meditation on hell, and that logically it ends by rejecting poetry while it is meant to aesthetically, through the music of the words, redeem poetry.

In any case, whatever caused Hopkins to write the poem, its substance is him confronting the fact that all life boils down to a choice between good and evil. The octave presents the world disintegrating, the image being one of the sun setting, the stars rising, and, while in the heavens the stars are fixed, stable, below on earth, everything succumbs to entropy. Here we find such great lines as “womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night” and “her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ‘ her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height / Waste”; these descriptions blend the distinction between symbol and what is symbolized, and we feel that the nightfall is the Apocalypse.

In the sestet Hopkins turns inward, seeing that now that the world has ended, the dappled and pied beauty of things is irrelevant. It begins with the cryptic but evocative line “Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,” going on to explain the threat implied there as one of morality: now that the world has come to an end, the only distinction that matters is “black, white; ‘ right, wrong.” Aesthetics no longer matter, Hopkins fears; even as he strives to assent to it. In a sense the poem is about poetry, and whether it is worthwhile to write beautiful poetry about the beauty of the world; Hopkins concludes that it is not, unless that beauty serves a moral purpose.

But of course that is what all of Hopkins’ poems are about – his nature sonnets all begin with observing the natural world and move up to God. Some people think “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” is somehow atypical of Hopkins; on the contrary, it perhaps best encapsulates his concerns: nature, the self, sin, and God. It is written in the Baroque style of earlier poems like “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and “The Windhover,” which he returned to with e.g. “That Nature is a Heraclitan Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” (these four poems I would say are Hopkins’ most important), but its darkness ties it in to his later sonnets of desolation, which are written in a more plain style.

What I’ve left out so far from my explanation of the poem are the last two lines – and indeed, those who want to place the poem as an extremity, not an example, of Hopkins’ poetry look to those two lines to make their argument. They’re difficult lines; they’re also what first turned me on to the poem, as I at first grew frustrated with Hopkins for not making any sense and then slowly realized the brilliance of them. They describe the damned souls after the Last Judgment, and their difficult rhythm – it is almost painful to put the stresses where they are marked, rather than where they would naturally fall – makes them sound like a drumbeat out of Hell. They’re not unmusical; it’s just a terrifying sort of music. Nor is it hopeless terror; the poem is a prophecy and a warning. “Teste David cum sibylla.”

So that’s my exemplary poem. With any luck, I’ve convinced you at least that the poem is worth looking at. It’s really amazing, in sound and sense (Hopkins is a master of combining form and content). I get to do a practice presentation of it tomorrow morning, then my panel’s Friday the 13th; I hope writing this out in the last half hour will actually help me with those (and the paper we have to write in a month) rather than prove a hindrance. We’ll see.


October 29, 2009

Today I finished the most important part of the Junior Poet project: an annotated bibliography of the criticism on Gerard Manley Hopkins (for which I read and commented on 6 books and 22 articles). It wasn’t actually that much work – maybe 2000 pages of reading spread across two months, plus writing a paragraph about each work read – and was certainly amusing at times. I do feel sorry, though, for those who are only halfway done, given that it’s due on Monday – that gives them four days to read 1000 pages. Doable, but not fun.

One strange fact: I actually enjoy reading deconstructionist literary criticism. It is often absurd, yes, but also often has fascinating insights; and they often talk about how language can convey meaning, a subject I find fascinating. Wikipedia describes deconstruction as “rigorously pursu[ing] the meaning of a text to the point of undoing the oppositions on which it is apparently founded, and to the point of showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex, unstable or impossible”; what exactly is wrong with that, done well? It can result in absurd theories, but is often more insightful than the other two main types of criticism I saw, those being “just read the poem and closely analyse the metaphor and language used so that we can rephrase the poem in philosophical language” and “look at the philosophical/literary/cultural influences on the poet and then try to find evidence of their having influenced the poet in the poems themselves.”

So, uh, yeah. Anyone else have anything insightful to say about different types of literary criticism? If not, you probably won’t be hearing about JPo from me until I get around to writing a post analyzing “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves.”


October 10, 2009

“Spell” is one of my favorite words. It relates language and magic; to spell a word is to describe what phonemes it is composed of, to cast a spell is to say a word of power and thus control reality. It also just means “word” or “news,” as in “Gospel” = “Good News,” and its German cognate “Spiele” means, in  addition to everything the word means in English, “play” and “game” –  “Ich spiele Cello,” “Die Baseball-Spiel hat Spaß gemacht.”

This is just one of the reasons that the poem I’m almost certainly going to choose for my “exemplary poem” in Junior Poet (we choose one poem by our poet, memorize it, recite it at the beginning of our panel, then give a reading of it; at that point the professors start asking questions and other poems come into the picture) is “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” supposedly the longest sonnet ever written in the English language (there are eight stresses per line).

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ‘ vaulty, voluminous, … stupendous
Evening strains to be tíme’s vást, ‘ womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ‘ her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ‘ stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ‘ her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ‘ self ín self steepèd and páshed—qúite
Disremembering, dísmémbering ‘ áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ‘ whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.

Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ‘ Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined variety ‘ upon, áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds—black, white; ‘ right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ‘ twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ‘ thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

I don’t want to give a detailed reading of this poem right now – perhaps in a month or so. But keep it in mind. It’s one of my favorite poems in the English language, and one of the main reasons for that is its incantatory quality – Hopkins said it was meant to be “almost sung” – and howo the word “spelt” is there in the title. What does it mean? That the prophecy of the Apocalypse (this poem is about the end of the world) is there to be read in the Sibyl’s leaves? Or that the prophecy is spelt out, caused, by the fact of it being prophesied? I think both connotations are meant to be present. And that’s what’s great about the word spell – it takes many distinct but related concepts and gives one word to the entire set, so you can use this one word “spell” and evoke an entire backdrop of meaning – “language,” “magic,” “news,” “game,” etc.

Worlds of Wanwood Leafmeal Lie

October 2, 2009

So, it’s October now. Isn’t it supposed to be… at least cool, rather than warm, outside? Ah well. I suppose this is Texas.

The title of this post is from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called “Spring and Fall.” It runs as follows:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

A beautifully written poem, though not terribly complex in its meaning. It comes to mind for two reasons, both of which are interesting but unrelated: it is now fall, and so (in theory) I should still be seeing “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie”; also, I’m doing Gerard Manley Hopkins for my Junior Poet project.

Regarding JPo; it seems fitting to reference Hopkins this month, of all months, since my annotated bibliography is due November 2nd and thus I will this month finish Paul Mariani’s biography of Hopkins (I have about 70 pages left), read three books of literary criticism (I have two done, and need five), and read sixteen articles (I have four done, need twenty). That is a lot of reading to do over just thirty days; it comes out to about thirty pages a day, actually. So that’s what my life for the next month will be about, for the most part.

And regarding the fact that it is now fall; I find fascinating the question of seasonal preferences. Hopkins’ poem seems implicitly to say that fall is depressing, it being the dying of the natural world, and spring being its rebirth. But I actually prefer fall, as a season; that was the main reason I went to Rome Fall ’08 rather than Spring ’09. I’ve already explored the question of what it means for me to prefer winter to summer; it means I think of myself as being in combat with the world, rather than allied with it. What does it mean to prefer fall to spring?

It’s not that I like the fall holidays better than the spring. I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving, Christmas (technically winter, but a lot of the buildup is in fall) is just OK, and I love Easter. Nor, I think, is it just that I dislike summer so much I want to be as far from it as possible – if that were the case, fall would be my favorite, since it leaves nine whole months until summer comes again, but I prefer winter to fall. But I don’t want to say it is because I hate nature, either, even though that seems a reasonable answer (my favorite season is when nature is dead, my second favorite is when it is dying)…

I think the answer, in the end, is that I prefer mourning to rejoicing. It’s not that I have a problem with nature being reborn, but I am more fascinated with its going away. It has a bittersweet feeling to it; spring is more triumphant, and a triumphant attitude seems out of place in this so fallen world.

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