It is March 2008, and I’m in the cockpit of a yawl being sailed through the Chilean fjords by an American couple. Or so this essay would like to begin — as if the past were taking place in the present. In reality, it’s mid-July 2016, it’s hot, and I’m at home trying to remember a feeling I thought I’d never forget.
We were moving up a fjord toward a glacier. There was everything to look at — bald, scraped ridges high above, a dwarf nothofagus forest along the shore, the blue-white line of the glacier in the gray distance. But our passing had opened a seam in those viscous waters, and that was what I was watching. On our wake bloomed a network of tiny disturbances in the surface tension, tiny swirls propagating outward like the eddy that follows the oar’s stroke. Perhaps you’ve seen a cat’s-paw — a puff of breeze — rushing across a glassy harbor. Imagine a cat’s-paw on the surface of a ripple and you’ll have some idea of what I was seeing, a fractal set of whirlpools and foam lines riding upon the waves.
I realized that a constantly shifting array of minute patterns — an ephemeral mosaic — is always riding on the massive forms of the oceans. And suddenly — this is the moment I’ve been trying to feel again — that mosaic of tiny patterns shuddering outward from the rudder felt as substantial, as necessary, as the swells that lifted and lowered our craft. I could feel their planetary scale. It was an instant when everything seemed to connect to everything.
There was another layer to that moment, as there always is. Everything connected to everything, and yet at the same time nothing stood for anything else. I kept noticing — being surprised by — the actuality of those watery traces (I can think of no other way to put it), including the traces they left in my mind, as though thought flowed like water and attention itself was an eddy of sorts. It was exhilarating. What mattered, emotionally, was the impenetrable specificity of what I was seeing and its refusal to become metaphor or symbol. Looking at the endless oscillations on those glacial waters was like looking at the eclipse of everything I’d ever learned.
I say this because I came at my education with a plan, and the plan involved learning the ways that one thing can stand for another, which is a basic task of poetry. Metaphor, simile, analogy, allegory, metonymy — these are all ways of standing for something else.
As a graduate student at Princeton I came across a phrase — “the general analogy of things” — written by Samuel Johnson in mid-July 1750. It appears in number 32 of his essay series called “The Rambler,” and he meant by it something like “the usual circumstances” or “the way things are.” To judge the degree of your own suffering, Johnson says, don’t assume that God has singled you out for punishment. Consider instead the general analogy of things — the more or less regular amount of suffering you see all around you. Even for Samuel Johnson, Rambler 32 is a stern piece of work.
What mattered, emotionally, was the impenetrable specificity of what I was seeing and its refusal to become metaphor or symbol.
I lifted those words out of context. To me, “the general analogy of things” suggests the tendency of the imagination to discover resemblances wherever it looks, like the “big peony” Elizabeth Bishop finds inside her fish or the “concupiscent curds” of Wallace Stevens. You might begin comparing one thing to another (the hedgehog and the sea urchin, the jellyfish and the nebula) and go on doing so until you had sorted through the contents of the universe, until it was all connected, one thing with another, analogy by analogy. The resemblances you found might be trivial or they might be grand. But the act of comparing and analogizing and renaming — the act of associating — seems as fundamental to the mind as it is to the writing of poetry, which suggests how fundamental to the mind poetry really is.
For years, it never occurred to me that all this analogizing is a purely human activity. The brainspace in which the writer works is obviously a human brainspace — something we simply take for granted. We take for granted, too, the power of words, forgetting that they are merely human as well. I honored the claim that poets traditionally make for the grandeur of the poetic enterprise, the power to conjure the world around you and within you by means of language. But then I already lived in a world of words and the meanings derived from words and the meanings derived from meanings. That was the education I’d been seeking, one way or another, ever since I first learned to read.
Then something happened, of course. I became a writer, not just a student of writing, and suddenly words became more like three-dimensional objects, with precise shapes (and usefully imprecise ones), harder to fit together, more resistant. I went back to the Midwest and wrote a book about the farmers in my family, who knew everything about irony without having to use its name. Twenty years later, to my surprise, I wrote a book in the voice of a tortoise, a real tortoise that lived while Samuel Johnson was still living. I discovered that somehow, at some point, I had begun looking for a different kind of education, one that brushes up now and then against the rest of existence, against the part of the universe that isn’t human at all.
It comes only in glimpses, this curious, un-textual learning I seem to stumble upon. What it often amounts to is noticing silence, or at least the temporary uselessness of language. I caught an early glimpse of it out West inside a horse-trainer’s round-pen, a place where you can tell all the stories you want about what you think is happening but where the horse’s silence is finally what matters. I had another glimpse of it when I was scuba diving near a reef-break off the coast of Mozambique and found myself rising and falling in place, revolving with the passing swell before it broke. I was trying to breathe very slowly, as novice divers have to remember to do, and the amniotic sea seemed to be showing me how.
And in Chile, another glimpse. Out on that glacial fjord, it seemed for a moment as though I could feel the Earth whole. It wasn’t like seeing the astronauts’ big blue ball hanging in space in the photographs. It was as if the wrinkled skin of the seas was suddenly my skin. I think now, trying to remember, that it was like looking around the edge of human consciousness with an awareness beyond the limits of awareness. This is manifestly impossible since consciousness is what delivers the news of beyond-consciousness, but it seems to make no difference. I would sum up the shortfall between what is there and the limits of what humans can experience with a sentence I wrote while sailing in Nova Scotia this summer: “I am practicing the ways of tying a bowline in case of an afterlife where a bowline would be useful.”
At Princeton, I used to wonder what it would be like to fly Samuel Johnson to the 20th century and land with him at Newark on a hot, hazy summer day. I don’t know why I picked on Johnson, except that very few people have ever been so moved and outraged by the nature of being human. For a time I thought about Johnson a lot. He shadowed me around Manhattan for a year or two while I was working on my dissertation. (Perhaps a version of this happens to every scholar.) He was good company — irascible, out of scale with his surroundings, yet excited by the strangest things. I never baited him the way poor Boswell did. I just watched and listened and tried to explain how things worked or had happened, a task that always reminded me how little I really know.
Eventually, though, he faded away, just as I began escaping to the farm, to the West, to the water. I wasn’t sad to see him go. One doesn’t supersede Samuel Johnson, but I felt that the terms of our bargain — my bargain with literature itself — had altered. I realize now that in studying literature my purpose was never to learn more fully what it means to be human. It was to learn how words do what they do, and to figure out whether my words could do those things, too. One reason for becoming a writer — one of my reasons, at least — is to see if you can make language say more than it’s able to say. It’s a little like trying to look past the boundaries of human consciousness with only the tools of consciousness itself.
I spend a lot of time noticing the way one thing resembles another and trying to capture the resemblance, if only to let it go in the end. I keep hoping I’ll come across another of those moments when everything seems connected to everything and nothing stands for anything. I suppose it’s a matter of remaining receptive, never knowing when the next glimpse will come. I write and teach and try to help my students pay attention to the act of noticing and the way words work when you use them as a writer. If I could add one thing to my syllabus now, it wouldn’t be another text. It would be the fleeting experience of not being human.