Friday, March 18, 2011

Balloons, drowning, iridescence, and pastoral

The Germans must have a word for the pleasure one gets from this kind of thing:

There is a very famous Heaney poem on precisely this conceit:

Lightenings viii

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'

The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
One should distinguish this effect from the subtly different one in Auden's line about an island being "a lake turned inside out" or Thom Gunn's image of a gas poker as a "backwards flute." There is nothing odd about the pleasure one gets from negatives that look like something quite different from the original photograph; this is just "wit" of the usual kind. There is a lot of local wit in the New Yorker cartoon (one is reminded, e.g., of the Piranha brothers, though these fish are evidently not piranhas) and the Heaney poem leans very heavily on its last line, but I think there's something intrinsically appealing about the situation. I'm reminded of Empson's reading of Donne as a Copernican:
if you take the world not as the universe but as this planet it becomes something one might conceivably get outside but which it would be absurd to try to get outside; there are more than one of them, but each creature is right in giving an absurd importance to his own.

This is from the Pastoral book, and the "move" of creating a set of precise set of correspondences between the everyday world and some entirely foreign world is like pastoral (the chapter on "Marvell's Garden" goes on about this, "the mind, that ocean where each kind / doth straight its own resemblance find" etc.) -- but the suffocation motif is important, I think, and emphasizes the sense that people are limited, trapped in some particular element... Anthropomorphizing the fish (or alien) serves a double purpose as it allows the reader to see the situation from both points of view at once; it's an acceptance of one's limitations from a point of view that evades the limitations by not being fixed, and this is satisfying for the same obscure reason that the verbal ambiguities are. 

Like the ambiguities, this doubleness of perspective is necessary because perception, like language, is not polyphonic, and can only achieve polyphony through instability. I've always felt that a better term than "ambiguity" for what Empson meant is iridescence. (D.H. Lawrence was here first: "how boring, how small Shakespeare's characters are! / But the language so lovely, like the dyes from gas-tar.") Why one finds this appealing is a little obscure to me, but at least it's a familiar mystery rather than a new one.

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