Eileen A. Joy
Weather. Weather. How’s the weather?
When I speak of the weather is it because I cannot speak of my days spent in the nuthouse?
--Spencer Reece, “Florida Ghazals”
With my non-dominant hand
I want to give
in a minor key
the broadest sense
--Ben Lerner, “Doppler Elegies”
This essay is an attempt, and perhaps a failed one, to think about depression as a shared creative endeavor, as a trans-corporeal blue (and blues) ecology that would bind humans, nonhumans, and stormy weather together in what Tim Ingold has called a meshwork, where “beings do not propel themselves across a ready-made world but rather issue forth through a world-in-formation, along the lines of their relationships.” In this enmeshment of the “strange strangers” of Timothy Morton’s dark ecology, “[t]he only way out is down” and art’s “ambiguous, vague qualities will help us to think things that remain difficult to put into words.” It may be, as Morton has also argued, that while “personhood” is real, nevertheless, “[b]oth the surface and the depth of our being are ambiguous and illusory.” And “still weirder, this illusion might have actual effects.” I want to see if it might be possible to cultivate this paradoxical interface (literally, “between faces”) between illusion and effects, especially with regard to feeling blue, a condition I believe is a form of a deeply empathic enmeshment with a world that suffers its own “sea changes” and which can never be seen as separate from the so-called individuals who supposedly only populate (“people”) it.
Is depression, sadness, melancholy -- feeling blue -- always only taking place within the interior spaces of individually-bounded forms of sentience and physiology, or is it in the world somehow, a type of weather or atmosphere, with the becoming-mad of the human mind only one of its many effects (a form of attunement to the world’s melancholy)? Could a more heightened and consciously attuned sense of the emanations and radio signals of “blue” sensations, feelings, and climates enable constructive interpersonal, social, and other blue collaborations that might lead to valuable modes of better advancing “into / the sense of the weather, the lesson of / the weather”? Here, there is no environment, only fluid space (from tears to rain to oceans and everything in between) and in Ingold’s formulation (following Andy Clark), everything leaks. Themes of exile, and of moving through and inhabiting furnished and unfurnished worlds (where life is played out upon the either hostile or hospitable surfaces of the crust of the earth), although powerfully attractive in Western cultural narratives, break down under the pressure of the fact that everything is always already an “intimate register of wind and weather.” As Phreddy Wischusen writes, in a letter to his estranged mother, who when he was a child loved him with such a desperate and frightening neediness that he felt almost destroyed by it,
I hope even if you can’t feel it, even if it tastes too different, even if you can’t live in it, you will enjoy knowing that far from your shores your love is falling like rain on empty streets, on forests and green fields, on friends of mine with silly hair-dos and filthy skirts. And though I sometimes fear the waves, I will always look for myself and all that is good beyond my terrestrial frontiers.
As Ingold argues, and Wischusen intuits in a more poetic register, wherever “there is life and habitation, the interfacial separation of substance and medium is disrupted to give way to mutual permeability and binding.” We must risk drowning ourselves in these watery temperaments of the world, and as Steve Mentz urges, when we resurface “back to air and light, we [will] sing what we can and sell the rest, remembering what we can’t salvage.”
The weather I concern myself with here will be stormy, post-apocalyptic, riven with the rime of hail and frost, cold and frozen, but also sun-bleached and lit by fires along the shoreline . . . and the persons, fictional, lost at sea, shipwrecked, cast adrift, drowning, beached, going mad with melancholy and grief, all enmeshed together on a blue planet that is itself adrift in space which is also always drifting, always expanding. Through a brief reading of two Old English elegies, Seafarer and Wanderer, and the novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, this essay attempts to trace the affectiverelations between the “strange strangers” of post-apocalyptic, oceanic landscapes in order to think (and write) my way towards a blue ecological aesthetic that might take better account of our world as both empty (void) and full (intimately crowded), and more bearably sad. This will also be to take seriously Lisa Robertson’s plea for poetics as a “delusional space” par excellence, where the weather becomes our “wild fantasy. It seizes us. Together our faces tilt upwards.” And if “each forecast is a fiction,” then we “prefer to add to that fiction alternate delusions -- a delusionary politics that describes current conditions as it poses futurities.”
Thus we must go weathering and also de-territorialize ourselves, seeing each other and the world as an atmospheric multiplicity, just as Rhoda does in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, looking “far away” over the heads of her friends “to a hollow where the many-backed steep hills come down like the birds’ wings folded. There on the short, firm turf, are bushes, dark leaved, and against their darkness . . . a shape, white, but not of stone, moving, perhaps alive. But it is not you, it is not you, it is not you; not Perceval, Susan, Jinny, Neville or Louis,” and yet, “these pilgrimages, these moments of departure, start always in your presence.” Here we also see the “lines” of which Ingold has become such a sensitive cartographer: “life will not be confined within bounded forms but rather threads its way through the world along the myriad lines of its relations. . . . Thus wherever anything lives the infrastructure of the occupied world is taking up or wearing away, ceaselessly eroded by the disorderly groping of inhabitants, both human and non-human, as they reincorporate and rearrange its crumbling fragments into their own ways of life.” It is to crumbling, especially -- crumbling persons, crumbling worlds -- that I want to attend to here.
But first, a caution: I do not approach the subject of depression blithely or without a deep understanding of the ravages that depression has wrought in individual persons (and families), who will possibly gain no hope nor remedy from the poetry and other art of catastrophe, nor from the idea of a creative collective endeavor to share in their oceanic sorrows. I am not a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist, nor even a skilled practitioner of psychoanalytic critique. I also grew up in a family ravaged by mental illness, which was a source of deep shame, strife, general anxieties that went on for years, and ultimately, a willful forgetting and disavowal of our shared suffering. There is a sense (or a reality) in which the person who is depressed, manic, and suicidal is in a place beyond affection and beyond assistance -- everyone gropes around in the dark, and in the case of my family, where those who were ill ultimately refused to stick with the professional (and pharmaceutical) help they needed, there are ongoing events of encroaching blackness, breakdowns and rescue attempts, and then everyone drifts away from each other and enters, by months and years, into long distance telephonic relationships that devolve into empty, detached politeness with occasional bursts of rampant, spontaneous affection. There is still love and co-implication, but the reality of the persons, once intimate and close, fades into the remote distance. It all feels like a failure of love wrought by an inscrutable family chemistry. But all ecology commences from family and home, or the oikos.
This is not to be maudlin or confessional for confession’s sake, but to say, again, that I do not offer in this essay either a diagnosis or a remedy for clinical depression in human subjects; rather, as a literary scholar, I want to thinks about certain sites in literary texts that are saturated or charged with lonely, watery, and blue affects that also, paradoxically, offer openings toward more capacious modes of interlinear ecological entanglements (reading and writing, with salt in our eyes, between the lines of our enmeshment with everything), where we might allow ourselves to be traversed by others’ emotions, by the weather, which traversal might then become a valuable form of aesthetic (if sad) solidarity. And our shared uncertainty will figure, “not as terror, but as erotic collective being.” I consider this thought (and feeling) experiment important because I am increasingly appalled by the political discourses so predominant today, especially on the conservative Right, where everyone is made to feel as if everything that happens to them is simply their, and not our, predicament, not our concern, and where becoming an individual, as Zygmunt Bauman has argued, is not a choice, nor even a communal endeavor, but a fate. Here, we might turn premodernist-etymologist and remind ourselves that the word plight, from the Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, and Middle Low German plicht, means ‘care’ or ‘responsibility,’ also ‘community’ and ‘obligation,’ and is also related to the Old English pleoh (‘danger,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘risk’) and pleon (‘to risk the loss of,’ ‘expose to danger’), which is also related to the Latin pliter (from which we get ‘plait’): ‘to fold,’ ‘to pleat,’ which is to say, again, that everyone else’s plight, which is to say their ‘danger,’ is also our danger.
The world can be insane sometimes, places can be insane, and some people are more sensitive to that fact -- think of the heroine of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, Giuliana (played by Monica Vitti), who wanders aimlessly through the polluted landscapes of Ravenna, Italy, where her husband manages the petrochemical plant, and where only she, suffering from feelings of anxiety and dreams of drowning in quicksand, seems to understand how sick the landscape is, and wants to flee from it, saying at one point, “I can’t look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what’s happening on land.” Although Antonioni claimed that he was not necessarily making a film about one woman’s neurosis induced by an inhuman industrial landscape -- indeed, he claimed that “the line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees” and there are some people who just “can’t manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are now out of date” -- nevertheless, similar to Carol White (played by Julianne Moore), the protagonist of Todd Haynes’s enviro-horror film Safe (2002), who is hypersensitive to the chemicals that are rampant throughout the suburbs of Los Angeles and who feels as if she is going insane when no one will believe that she is really sick, we might say Giuliana is allergic to the twentieth century.
To style a new collectivity out of such melancholic allergies, we will need to ”hazard an improvisation” and “venture from home [together] on the thread of a tune,” and this will be a blue song: rising ocean-blue and melting glacier ice-blue, blue like the stones in Virginia Woolf’s overcoat, blue like Nina Simone’s lilac wine that helps us to see what we want to see, blue like valium, because sometimes we need to cultivate historical forgetting, because we want to feel good, even when we feel bad. This will also be the blue-grey-green of the medieval Irish sea -- glas, a word also associated in medieval Irish law with the outcasts and the exiles. And as Ralph Ellison has observed of the American blues, we’ll need to “finger the jagged grain” of the world’s stormy weather, not to transcend it “by the consolation of a philosophy,” but to get deeper into it and to “squeeze” something out of it (part tragic, part comic) that would give us the ability to “really exercise fate with extremely normal things such as our mind(s).” So let’s get fated and outcast together. Not as an experiment in reckless fatalism or as a collective abandonment of our hopes, but as the crafting of a more heightened sense of the co-melancholic implication of pretty much everything, of the world as a “dynamic reservoir of estrangement and enchantment” -- of what, quite literally, has “already been spoken” (Latin fatum). This is a civic project. And it is a hopeful one.
On the Beach / Adrift / Drowning
“Somebody is living on this beach.” So ends the last line of David Markson’s novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, about a middle-aged woman named Kate who may be insane, or once was, and who may or may not be the last living woman on earth (what happened to everyone else is left unexplained). At one point, quite late in the novel, after having painted a rather stark narrative of herself as a “last survivor” for over ten years (or more?), Kate wonders what it might mean if she were to write a novel “about somebody who woke up one Wednesday or Thursday to discover that there was apparently not one other person left in the world,” and also about how the “entire situation” of her novel’s “autobiographical” heroine “might certainly often seem like an illusion on her part,” so that “soon enough she would be quite mad, naturally” (230). And following these musings she realizes “she had paradoxically been practically as alone before all of this had happened as she was now” (230, 231). Whether she is truly alone in the world or only alone in her mind is up for grabs, but what is certain is that Kate more than ably performs the role of the “last survivor,” which may also serve as an aesthetic hedge against her always-encroaching sadness -- over and over again she mentions slipping into depression, especially when thinking of “Long Ago”: an era that includes visiting the grave of a “little boy” she lost (her only child), the death of her parents, and failed love relationships. After a period in which she traveled around the world futilely looking for other persons and visiting various cultural sites, in the current time of the novel she is spending all of her time in an abandoned house on the beach banging out on a typewriter the longest “someone was here” message anyone ever left, in between bouts of feeling too sad to type.
Kate’s message is a manic and associative catalogue-style dumping of every piece of random cultural information from the Western canon she can remember, from the swirls in Van Gogh’s paintings to Nietzsche crying over someone beating a horse to Maria Callas singing as Medea to Leonardo writing from left to right in his notebooks to Spinoza’s excommunication to the name of Helen of Troy’s daughter, Hermione. Her narrative is not just a “someone was here” message but, the world was here. At more than one point, she confuses herself with Helen of Troy, and when she isn’t obsessively recounting the great cultural icons of the Western canon, she’s also burning artifacts in museums and planks from the other houses on the beach to keep herself warm. In the end, there’s only writing, about which we might remind ourselves the real Wittgenstein had his concerns, in terms of language’s ability to describe reality. We might also reflect upon the novel’s title, partly a bleak joke, as the real Wittgenstein was homosexual and given Kate’s confused account of the world and of her own past and present, she’s a terrible mistress to his ideas. In Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the epigrammatic structure of which Markson’s novel imitates, Wittgenstein attempted to craft a theory of a mathematically-precise language that would accurately “picture” the world, but according to Kate, “most of the things I write often seem to become equidistant from themselves, somehow. Whatever in heaven’s name I might mean by that, however” (232; emphasis in original).
Kate continuously confuses details of her own narrative and will say things like she feels too tired to type and maybe she should stop typing and in fact she stopped typing three hours ago; her dead son’s name is Adam, no, it is Simon, or was it her husband who was named Simon, or Terry, or Adam? Many of her recollections of so-called cultural “facts” are useless because they are bit-sized and lacking ample context: she knows Heidegger said something important about Dasein, but nothing else, for example, but “[w]hat do any of us ever truly know, however?” (227). She frequently hallucinates: that she saw a cat perched on the Roman Coliseum, that another cat is scratching at her windowpane, that a piece of ash falling on the beach is a seagull, and so on. Nevertheless, Kate emphatically writes her way through the catastrophe, imagined or real or both. “Boneyard of names, heads never empty,” as Blanchot once remarked in The Writing of Disaster.
Regardless of whether or not Kate’s words signify properly or even accurately describe her or the larger world’s history and reality, and even though there may be absolutely no one who will ever read her manuscript or “novel,” she emphatically invests herself in the project of writing her way into the wreck and detritus of the world’s memory; instead of insisting on a narrative that would “make sense,” she engages in what Tim Ingold calls a “tissue of lines” -- not so much inventing a text as a texture of loose ends, all radiating from the multiple center(s) of Kate’s itinerant and stuttering syntax. This is not to say that, in all of Kate’s narrative waywardness that there are not some threads tying things together: there are continual returns to certain subjects: her dead son, for example, the imaginary cats, her previous (or is it her present?) “madness,” and her former life as a painter, but perhaps the one subject she returns to most often is Helen of Troy, someone who shares her status as a woman left stranded on a beach after her world has ended.
When the world ends in Markson’s novel, one of the first trips Kate takes is to Turkey to see the site of ancient Troy (now Hisarlik), and “it was Helen I mostly thought about, when I was at Troy” (1). And at the end of the novel, when she recounts the fires she likes to build on the beach after sunsets, she shares that,
Now and again, too, looking at them from a distance, what I have done is to make believe for a little while that I am back at Hisarlik.
By which I mean when Hisarlik was Troy, of course, and all of those years and years ago.
So that what I am more truthfully making believe is that the fires are Greek watchfires, where they have been lighted along the shore. (239)
At many points throughout her narrative, Kate identifies with Helen and defends her against the charges that she caused the Trojan War, and she also recalls that she once wished to paint Helen standing at “one of the burned-out boats along the strand, when the siege was finally ended, being kept prisoner. But with that splendid dignity, even so” (25). In an act of co-melancholic identification, Kate interleaves herself with Helen and stands beside (and inside of) her on the shoreline, watch- and house-fires burning beside them, thus losing the battle against the “bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language” that Wittgenstein worried about so much, but at the same time demonstrating the important permeability of the self-as-atmosphere in a gesture, not of canceling her loneliness by merging with, or binding herself to, Helen, but actually doubling and thereby thickening that loneliness, making it ample and sensual and more liveable, and the very “temperament” (in Ingold’s formulation) that gives rise to this atmospheric multiplicity (Helen-Kate) is the beach itself where both women are intimate with, and registers of, the winds and storm clouds of post-apocalypse.
There’s a lot of sea and beach in Markson’s novel, which are also intimate registers of the weather. At the end of the world, it’s always about the weather, it turns out, and the sea and the beach, the shoreline you’re stuck on -- like in Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, where the end of the world by atomic disaster leaves only the Florida Keys intact, with its “sand . . . like shattered ivory” and its “fields of cane popping in the wind” -- or the shoreline that’s always receding from you as the ocean swallows you whole, like Shakespeare’s Alonso, with pearls where his eyes used to be, who in Ariel’s Song “suffer[s] a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”
“The world is repeating itself. The story of the world is happening again,” one of the characters in Johnson’s novel says, foreshadowing the novel’s end, when Grandmother Wright, the oldest woman alive, is trapped in a state of non-verbal catatonia, retreating into the memory of herself as a young Vietnamese girl escaping from Saigon during the Vietnam War, when the overloaded helicopter she had bribed her way onto crashes into the sea, where she spends two days bobbing among the waves, drifting in and out of consciousness:
By sunset she was only a baby, thinking nothing, absolutely adrift, waking to cough and begin crying, drifting and weeping, sleeping and sinking, waking up to choke the water from her mouth and whimper, indistinguishable from what she saw, which was the grey sky that held no interest, identity, or thought. This was the point when she reached the bottom of everything, when she had no idea either what she’d reached or who had reached it, or even that it had been reached.
She is eventually saved by a passing boat and she lives to see another “end of the world,” and as another character, her grandson Mr. Cheung, puts it at the end of the novel, when everyone has gathered on the shoreline expecting the arrival of some sort of rescue operation, and Mr. Cheung is looking out over the ocean, upon which a haze has settled, making it “seem the beach led down to the end of all thought”:
Everything we have, all we are, will meet its end, will be overcome, taken up, washed away. But everything came to an end before. Now it will happen again. Many times. Again and again. Something is coming and something is going -- but that isn’t the issue. The issue is that I failed to recognize myself in these seagulls.
Both Grandmother Wright and Mr. Cheung touch “bottom” and sense the end of identity and thought in the ocean, which is also always the “coming” of something else, but the larger issue in Mr. Cheung’s case is that he laments a life in which he has neglected to connect his plight, his own end(s), with the strange strangers of his life-world -- the seagulls -- and as Timothy Morton has written, “[i]ntimacy is never so obvious as when we’re depressed,” and yet the seagulls will always be beyond Mr. Cheung’s ontology, flowing underneath his materialism, which is why the beach also represents the end of all thought: the seagulls, and whatever might be looming on the horizon (the future?), are beyond thought, but they are not beyond feeling.
Consider the nameless Wanderer [“eardstapa,” or “earth-stepper,” and also “anhaga,” or “lone shield-bearer,” ll. 1, 6a] of the Old English elegy who likewise fails to recognize himself in the seagulls, bathing and “spreading [their] feathers” [“brædan feþra,” l. 47b] and seemingly indifferent to him, rowing his boat, alone, over the ice-cold sea after various catastrophes, especially war [“wælsleahta” and “wig,” ll. 7a, 80b], have laid waste to the once-noisy dwellings of men [“Yþde swa þisne eargeard ælda Scyppend / oþþæt, burgwara breahtma lease,” ll. 85–86] . The Wanderer is a soldier-turned-rower, temporarily bereft of his comitatus (band of warriors), and wending his way over the waves as a “last survivor.” His song is suffused with desolate thoughts at the “daily failing and falling of this middle-earth” [“swa þes middangeard / ealra dogra gewham dreoseð ond fealleþ,” ll. 62b–63) and his melancholic memories of having buried his lord and lost his native country, which event has set him on his current course of exile (ll. 19–29a). The Wanderer simultaneously mourns and dreams of his former life, when he embraced and kissed his lord and laid his head and hands on his lord’s knees (ll. 39–43a), and when he awakens from this dream he sees before himself “the dark waves” [“fealwe wægas,” l. 46b] and “the fall of snow and frost mingled with hail” [“hreosan hrim ond snaw hagle gemenged,” l. 48], causing the wounds of his heart to feel heavier and his sorrows to be renewed (ll. 49–50). Consider also the “frost-bound” and “cold-clasped” [“forste gebunden / caldum clommum,” ll. 9b-10a] Seafarer of Old English elegy, who likewise “dwells in winter, care-scarred, on the ice-cold sea along the exile-track, bereft of his kinsmen” [“hu ic earmcearig iscealdne sæ /winter wunade wræccan lastum / winemægum bidroren,” ll. 14–16], and who claims that the joys of the Lord are “hotter” to him than this “dead life / loaned on the land” [“deade lif, / læne on londe,” ll. 65b–66a]. He endures in his boat the terrible welling of the waves [“atol yþa gewealc,” l. 6a] and claims to hear nothing but the roaring sea [“hlimman sæ,” l. 18b].
It is a commonplace of scholarship on these two poems to liken their two lonely (and at times, terrifyingly inhuman) sea voyages to Christian pilgrimages and eremitic spiritual quests, and to also identify in the poems themes of cultural dislocation and isolation, as well as poetic registers appositionally split between a so-called “heroic age” fatalism and a Christian homiletic “wisdom” that looks more hopefully beyond and also has contempt for the always fallen world. The poems, both included in the tenth-century compilatio of Old English works known as the Exeter Book, are seen as bound to the belief systems of an Anglo-Saxon England that admired heroic stoicism as well as absorbed and accepted Christian consolation. The Wanderer and the Seafarer are also often assumed to be figures of extreme oblivion and alienation, wherein both the narrators and the poets who gave voice to them are ultimately, as Roy Liuzza has written in the case of the Wanderer poem, “beacon[s]” of “the lost oral world the Anglo-Saxons had left behind, glimpsed from the textual world to which they had journeyed; . . . [they are] ungeþeode [un-languaged, un-voiced, un-peopled], alienated from speech, nation, and history.”
The Wanderer and Seafarer are depressed, and maybe even lost, but they are also poets who sing while sinking, and while they may, indeed, be alienated from a very particular human history (and human-built environments), they are tightly bound nevertheless to a watery world and its strange strangers within the lines of the verses which “speak” the fluid scenes of their conjoined movement and “weathering.” Someone, very human someones (Anglo-Saxons), sang, spoke, and wrote these elegies -- actual seafarers, or poets hacking into the consciousness of seafarers, appropriating and adapting their songs. Nevertheless, for all of their teary-eyed and frost-covered remonstrations of remorse at the loss of human comradeship and an all-too-human world (while also, perhaps reluctantly, bidding that human world good riddance), the song-lines of these two poems bind together men, boats, oceans, salt-waves, grains of ice, cawing sea birds, sea cliffs, eagles, hail showers, and winter affects into a meshwork, where everything is literally “swept up together in the generative currents of the world.” The poetry itself indicates this co-generation, which at times is even tender and affective, if also terrifying.
At the outset of his lament, the Wanderer indicates he is rowing over the ice-cold sea (which is how the opening is usually translated: rowing . . . over the sea), but the exact words that the poet uses give us an image of the Wanderer using his own hands to stir the ocean to move his boat forward [“hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,” l. 4], thereby offering a picture (even while intended as a metaphor for “rowing”) of a man who is not moving in impersonal fashion over the waves (and thus, the world), but rather is always immersed in and part of the waves’ waving, their weathering; in this sense, he is not just a boater, but a swimmer. Further, whereas the lines 23b–24, “ond ic hean þonan /wod wintercearig ofer waþema gebind,” are typically translated as, “and I then went, abject [or, wretched], winter-weary [or, winter-oppressed], bound over the waves [or, over the bound of the waves],” indicating a man skimming across (or just above) a watery surface or mass, we might instead render the lines, “and then I went, depressed, winter-worried, through the binding of the waves.” In this translation, we can glimpse a more active co-implicate (lit. enfolded) life-form (a rower? a rower-boat-ocean assemblage?) that moves and comes into being as a binding-with (and not bound-against) the world. This world is a cold and lethal and sad one, but it is not one in which our two rowers are ever really alone or apart from the sea and its creatures that texturize the “sound” (the “hlimman”) of their verses.
Indeed, in the case of the Seaferer, we have the admission that, at times, the swan’s song serves him for “pleasure” [“gomene,” l. 20] and the crying of a gannet reminds him of the laughter of men [ll. 20–21]. He also notes that he has heard the icy-feathered sea-swallows “answer” [“oncwæð”] to the storms that pound the sea-cliffs [ll. 23–24a], and therefore, his song actually calls to and materializes that event by “ringing” the strange strangers of this ocean-scape, thus making the swallows and cliffs and storms intimate with him in a vocative circuit of speech. Although the Seafarer will conclude his song by urging his listeners to forget the world and hasten over it quickly, as he plans to do (at one point, he imagines his soul twisting out of his breast and soaring high above the water-ways, ll. 58–61), while at the same time “hanging” and weighing down everything in this ocean-world with a deadly ice and frost, he, too, is “bound by frost” [“forste gebunden,” l. 9] and “behung with icicles” [“bihongen hrimgicelum,” l. 17]; he, too, like the Wanderer, is intimate with and bound to the weather of which he is one of many “registers.”
A Minor Key
We might reflect that in the writing of these two Old English elegies, as well as in Markson’s novel, we have acts of making (of poesis) that advance into the wreck and weather of supposedly “fallen” worlds in order to engage a romance of melancholic inter-subjectivities that emerge within, and not over, that world, from which no flight is really possible, or even desirable. In the case of the Old English poems, no matter how much the Anglo-Saxon rowers’ souls may strive to be loosened from their bodies, those bodies inhere nevertheless in the blue oceanic lines and inky materiality of the poet’s “rustling tenses,” which, similar to Lisa Robertson’s poetry, “write through spaces that are utterly delusional,” and the reader is invited to share in that delusion, which nevertheless thickens the world’s very real enfolded spatiality and web-like lines of relations, performing a civic erotics, because being blue together -- engaging in acts of feeling weighted down, collectively, whether under the frost and hail of an oceanic winter or the sun-bleached shoreline at the end of human time -- means leaving our caves and becoming more intimate with our worlding, advancing into the sense of the weather and its sea changes, which is to say, our sea changes, which, if felt more deeply, might make us more rich even as we grow more strange.
As Aranye Fradenburg has argued, “It is difficult to understand other minds; but if it is difficult to understand the meanings of their transmissions, it is also a species of arrogance to think we could stop them from changing us.” As Fradenburg has also argued, art and its mobile signifiers enable an inter-subjective shared attention, a form of companionship across time, and even a type of therapeutic care, all of which are critical for important psychic transformations that might help us to undo the isolation and detachment that has become such a defining feature of modernity and to also become more permeable to each other. This will entail a willingness to draw close to the sadnesses of others, to seek out shipwrecks as well as gardens.
Like the Wanderer we might “awaken again” [“onwæcneð eft,” l. 45] from our dreams and also see before ourselves the dark waves and the frost and snow mingled with hail, but instead of seeing this as the site of one’s ultimate alienation from one’s only ever human comrades, who endlessly “float away” from us [“swimmað eft onweg,” l. 53], we might bind ourselves to these waves as the only way down together. And like Kate in Markson’s novel, we might renew our energies, even while drowning, to leave messages in the streets in “huge block letters, at intersections, where anybody coming or going would see” (10). This is how we experience the sadnesses of a blue world: as an ongoing project, as poetry, as temporary acts of co-poesis, as “brief discontinuous remarks / designed to fall apart / When read aloud.” I end then, via these lines of the poet Ben Lerner’s “Doppler Elegies” for a deceased friend, on the receding sound waves of a minor key.
This essay is dedicated to Steve Mentz and to his book At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (London: Continuum, 2009), which deeply inspired all of my thinking here, especially his call for a “blue cultural studies” that would look “at our world through the deathly, inhuman, magical lens of the sea,” so that we can begin “rebuilding narrative and interpretive practices to respond to an uncertain future” (xii–xiii).
1. My thinking on a transcorporeal blue ecology is indebted to the thinking of Stacy Alaimo, who has argued that human corporeality is always a “trans-corporeality, in which “the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment’”: Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 2.
3. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 59, 60. In Morton’s dark ecology, “strange strangers” refers to the ways in which we are both separate and inter-dependently enmeshed with all life forms for which we also are infinitely and melancholically responsible: see Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” COLLAPSE VI (2010): 265–93.
5. Following Jane Bennett, I am willing to risk some anthropomorphism in my thinking about relations between human and nonhuman agents and forces, as it might be “worth running the risks associated with anthropomorphizing (superstition, the divination of nature, romanticism) because it, oddly enough, works against anthropocentrism: a chord is struck between person and thing, and I am no longer above or outside a ‘nonhuman’ environment” (Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 120.
6. Lisa Robertson, The Weather (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001), 24. Robertson, an experimental avant-garde poet and essayist, is an apt partner in my project here, as she has long been concerned with setting aside the “puppets” of pronouns and self-referentiality in favor of a more civic and communal style of writing and what she calls “rhetorical sincerity,” where the “truly utopian act is to manifest current conditions and dialects” and to “practice description” (Lisa Robertson, “Soft Architecture: A Manifesto,” in Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, 3rd edn. [Toronto: Coach House Books, 2011], 20 [10–21]).
7. See Tim Ingold, “Point, Line, Counterpoint: From Environment to Fluid Space,” in Being Alive, 86 [76–88], and Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and the World Together Again (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 53.
16. I would like to note here that we do have a long critical tradition that calls into question the supposed aetiology of mental illness as inhering only in individual minds and bodies, such as the entire ouevre of psychiatrist Thomas Szaz (see, for example, The Manufacture of Madness [New York: Dell, 1970]), the work of Michel Foucault (especially in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard [New York: Random House, 1965]), and other more recent studies, such as Ian Hacking, Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (London: Free Association Books, 1999).
18. See Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 34. It has not been uncommon to hear discussions on the political Right, for example, of healthcare as a personal and not a national responsibility. Here, I also agree with Mark Fisher that, in the face of a capitalist “realism” that seemingly swallows up all possible alternatives, we might “convert widespread mental health problems from medicalized conditions into effective anatgonisms” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? [Winchester: Zero Books, 2009], 80).
23. Ralph Ellison, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” in Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, ed. Robert G. O’Meally (New York: Random House, 2011), 101. I want to thank Jennifer James for directing me to this essay of Ellison’s.
27. Beaches are prominent in end of the world narratives, whether medieval or modern: think of the classic of the contemporary genre, Neville Shute’s 1957 novel On The Beach, which derived its title from these lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”: “In this last of meeting places / We grope together / And avoid speech / Gathered on this beach of the tumid river” (T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” in T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963], 81).
29. As David Foster Wallace has written about Kate, “She, no less than Wittgenstein, or Kant, or Descartes, or Herodotus, is writing a world” (David Foster Wallace, “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” in Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, 273 [243–75]).
30. In his Tractatus, Wittgenstein argued that, “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent”: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922), 27.
32. Tim Ingold, “Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials,” unpublished paper (2008), 19. See also Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
41. Citations of the Old English poem Seafarer are from George Philip Krapp and Elliott V.K. Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), by line number. Translations are mine, although I note here that “lone shield-bearer” for “anhaga” (typically translated as “lonely one,” “recluse,” “exile,” “solitary man,” and “wanderer”) was first brought to my attention by Karma DeGruy and Jeff Massey, “Ic eom anhaga, saga hwæt ic hata: Riddling Meaning from Old English -haga Compounds” (unpublished paper).
42. See, to cite just some examples of these approaches, R.C. Boer, “Wanderer and Seafarer,” Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 35 (1903): 1–28; Thomas D. Hill, “The Unchanging Hero: A Stoic Maxim in The Wanderer and Its Contexts,” Studies in Philology 101.3 (2004): 233–49; Bernard F. Huppé, “The Wanderer: Theme and Structure,” Journal of Germanic and English Philology 42 (1943): 516–38; Clair McPherson, “The Sea a Desert: Early English Spirituality and The Seafarer,” The American Benedictine Review 38.2 (1987): 115–26; and John C. Pope, “Second Thoughts on the Interpretation of The Seafarer,” in Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings, ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe (New York: Garland, 1994), 213–29.
45. Tim Ingold, “The Textuality of Making,” in Ingold, Being Alive, 214 [201–19]. I would also point out here that Carol Braun Pasternack’s study of the poem, which takes into account the “polyphony” of this “disjunctive, authorless text,” sets an important critical framework for my reading (see Carol Braun Pasternack, “The Polyphony of The Wanderer,” in Carol Braun Pasternack, The Textuality of Old English Poetry [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995], 33–59).
46. To cite just a few examples, Robert E. Diamond translates the lines, “I, abject, winter-grieving (i.e. in a mood as dreary as winter? oppressed by advancing years?) went from there over the surface (lit. binding) of the waves” (Robert E. Diamond, Old English Grammar and Reader [Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970], 153). Burton Raffel’s more modern poetic translation gives us, “Weary with winter I wandered out / On the frozen waves” (in Poems and Prose from the Old English, eds. Burton Raffel and Alexandra H. Olsen [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998], 8). In one of the first translations, Benjamin Thorpe offers, “I abject thence / went, stricken with years, / over the billowy mass” (Benjamin Thorpe, Codex Exoniensis: A Collection of Anglo-Saxon Poetry [London: William Pickering, 1842], 287–88). In most cases, the sea is a mass, or a “bound” (a well-demarcated extension in space) to be prepositionally traveled over, although Diamond’s parenthetical note hints at the more active co-implication I argue for here.
47. On the subject of the poet’s very close attention to the rich variety of birds that populate the winter seaside in early medieval northern landscapes, see Margaret E. Goldsmith, “The Seafarer and the Birds,” Review of English Studies n.s. 5 (1954): 225–35.
50. On the idea, propounded by some physicists, that the entire universe is enfolded, see David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge, 1980) and “The Enfolding-Unfolding Universe and Consciousness (1980),” in The Essential David Bohm, ed. Lee Nichol (London: Routledge, 2003), 78–138.