Category: literature

Epic Quotes XI

lobster, writing, genius

“Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that the questions of whether and how different kinds of animals feel pain, and of whether and why it might be justifiable to inflict pain on them in order to eat them, turn out to be extremely complex and difficult. And comparative neuroanatomy is only part of the problem. Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that others experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hard-core philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. The fact that even the most highly evolved nonhuman mammals can’t use language to communicate with us about their subjective mental experience is only the first layer of additional complication in trying to extend our reasoning about pain and morality to animals. And everything gets progressively more abstract and convolved as we move farther and farther out from the higher-type mammals into cattle and swine and dogs and cats and rodents, and then birds and fish, and finally invertebrates like lobsters.

The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing.”

David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster, first published August, 2004

The essay from which this quote is taken is particularly fascinating to me because my Uncle Bob, my father’s sister’s husband, is a lobsterman living in the exact same harbor that this article references. I know many of the towns, I know many of the industrial terms, and I am familiar with my own set of ambivalent emotions regarding the consumption of lobster because I’ve spent lots of time on or around lobster boats. My uncle doesn’t even eat lobster, he doesn’t like the taste. I’ve never asked him about his opinions regarding the consumption of animals or the relativistic notion of pain.

A Postcard to the New York Times

postcard, Thomas Wolfe, letter

Oh Sea, I am lonely like you, I am strange and far like you, I am sorrowful like you, my brain, my heart, my life, like yours have touched strange shores. 

 

Amateur Poetry

wind is lovely,
with all its personalities.
But mostly it sounds like a whistling neighbor,
thinking about something
remembering something
or just singing
Down empty lanes
And happy, long forgotten
avenues.

Lyrics

In the shadows of tall buildings
Of fallen angels on the ceilings
Oily feathers in bronze and concrete
Faded colors, pieces left incomplete
The line moves slowly past the electric fence
Across the borders between continents

In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

In the shadows of tall buildings
The architecture is slowly peeling
Marble statues and glass dividers
Someone is watching all of the outsiders
The line moves slowly through the numbered gate
Past the mosaic of the head of state

In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

In the shadows of tall buildings
Of open arches endlessly kneeling
Sonic landscapes echoing vistas
Someone is listening from a safe distance
The line moves slowly into a fading light
A final moment in the dead of night

In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

– Jump, Little Children

Epic Quotes IV

The world has too many cold-hearted people. If sterilization of the unfit should be carried out as state policy, it should begin with sterilizing the morally insensible, the artistically stale, the heavy of heart, the ruthlessly successful, the cold-heartedly determined and all those people who have lost the sense of fun in life – rather than the insane and the victims of tuberculosis. For it seems to me that while a man with passion and sentiment may do many foolish and precipitate things, a man without passion or sentiment is a joke and a caricature. Compared with Daudet’s Sappho, he is a worm, a machine, an automaton, a blot upon this earth. Many a prostitute lives a nobler life than a successful businessman.

– Lin Yutang

Artifacts VII : The Dash

A paper written for English 344, turned into one Dr. Thrailkill on November 13, 2006, the day after my 21st birthday. The essay is about punctuation, the Dash specifically, and how the dash was used in works of 19th century literature to explore the psychological contours of characters.

The dash, formed in printing by two hyphens lacking separation, is a piece of punctuation, “stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses” (Strunk and White, 9). Traditionally a dash indicated an abrupt change of thought, informal in nature, and often acted as a parenthetical device to provide emphasis. It is this element of punctuation, the dash – myriad in function and application that so often appeared within the works of literary realists and naturalists. The dash is utilized to highlight mental infirmities, to accurately represent disjointed or faltering thought and speech, and to reveal the emotional condition of characters.

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw features a staggering number of dashes that, as the story wends its way through intricate ambiguities and veiled horrors, serve to underline and accentuate the mental instability of the young governess. Acting not only as a device to enhance the clipped and hasty atmosphere, James’s use of the dash creates a scene of miscommunication, faulty judgment, and over zealous suspicion. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short work The Yellow Wallpaper echoes James’s method of using the dash as a tool to unveil mental instability, in Gilman’s case the latent insanity of John’s wife. Gilman’s work however, makes use of the dash to retaliate against a society that stifled its women under a shroud of domesticity. The dashes of Gilman’s story often elicit a sarcastic or rebellious tone; it is from these small statements that the main character communicates her dissatisfaction and beliefs without fear of reprisal from her caretakers.

The appearance of the dash in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is often representative of a strained or agitated mental state. The agitation is resultant of intense combat and the attendant mortal danger of armed conflict. The dashes of Crane’s novel create abrupt and often discontinuous thought and conversation imitating, realistically, the curtailed ability to think and speak on a battle field. The dashes of Crane’s work also capture and emphasize the emotions of its characters through the repetition of speech. Henry’s repeated entreaties to Jim, the musings of untested soldiers, and several other instances make use of repetition to depict emotionally charged scenes.

The Turn of the Screw employs the dash to weave a story rich with ambiguity and to cultivate an atmosphere of suspicion and dread. When speaking together the governess and Mrs. Grose perpetually finish the other’s sentences. “Did she see anything in the boy—” begins the governess whose sentence is finished “That wasn’t right? She never told me” by Mrs. Grose (James, 12). The dash denotes the governess’s fear of immorality or impropriety. She is seeking to discover if Miles is capable of misbehavior but avoids stepping outside her bounds by leaving the question incomplete. The fact that Mrs. Grose has to finish the statement also contributes to the ambiguous nature of the story. The reader is not truly witness to the governess’s question because her thought has been completed by another individual. These lines represent the ideas of not one, but two different people. The young governess herself gets interrupted when asking Miles “and these things came round—” who completes her sentence “To the masters? Oh yes!” (James 86). Again the interruption stands in the way of communication. The governess has not yet expressed herself fully meaning that Miles must speak with a measure of supposition to complete her thought.

The propensity to finish each other’s sentences gives insight into the mental insecurities of the governess. Assuring the governess that miles “couldn’t prevent— (James, 35)” her from learning of an inappropriate relationship between he and Quint, Mrs. Grose is cut off derisively. “Your learning the truth? I daresay! (James, 36),” interrupts the governess. Although the young woman has only recently arrived and knows little of the history of the children and manor she quickly scoffs at Miles’ innocence. The interruption of Mrs. Gross, represented by the dash, and the willingness of the governess to readily believe suppositions emphasizes her mental instability. In quickly interrupting Mrs. Grose the governess has arrived at a conclusion in a hurried manner, relying on scanty evidence to cast Miles into doubt. The musings of the governess also contain dashes that give insight into her character. She had “plunged afresh into Flora’s special society and there become aware – it was almost a luxury! – that she could put her little conscious hand straight upon the spot that ached” (James, 33). This exclamation, set off by dashes, within the middle of a thought illustrates the instability of the governess. Describing Flora as a very discerning individual who uses her ability in a devious way, the governess reverts within the dashes to praising her ‘society’ with Flora. Here the dashes indicate a single thought oscillating between praise and disapproval. This also adds to the ambiguous nature of the novel by clouding the true thoughts of the Governess. By going back and forth with her sentiments it is difficult to establish a concrete idea of the governess’s true motivation and character.

Reminiscent of Henry James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her short story The Yellow Wallpaper makes use of the dash as a means to emphasize mental breakdown. The dash is also employed in Gilman’s story to criticize the treatments prescribed to the main character by her husband – in effect critiquing the contemporary methods of psychological treatment during the author’s time. On arriving at the mansion the main character claims that, “I am afraid, but I don’t care – there is something strange about the house – I can feel it” (Short stories, 75). The dashes both foreshadow further investigation of the house and that the woman is poised to deteriorate mentally. A connection has been made between the woman and the mansion; she can sense the nature of the house. With curiosity aroused the main character describes the nursery in which she and her husband stay. In this nursery is wall paper possessing flamboyant patterns that “when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (Short Stories, 76). The elaboration of the patterns following the dash is creating a personality or being from wallpaper, the protagonist has begun to assign the wallpaper qualities that give it far more complex presence than paper. The active qualities with which the paper is described, plunging and destroying, begin to give life to the paper. This in turn demonstrates that the woman’s mental condition is worsening. Her mental breakdown is vividly portrayed by delivering her wild stories in a matter of fact tone. The supernatural details of the nursery are explained as if they were completely real highlights how deranged the woman has become.

Written in part as a rebuttal to the rest cure and the idea of domesticity, Gilman’s story utilizes dashes to express the main character’s resistance to the treatment her husband has prescribed. For her treatment the main character “takes phosphates or phosphates – whichever it is…and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again” (Short Stories, 74). The sarcastic tone of this statement, intensified by the flippant attitude generated by the insertion of a dash, exemplifies the unhappiness of the main character with her treatment. It is as if she neither knows nor cares what treatment is being administered; she has complete disinterest. She is undergoing the treatment to satisfy her husband, not because she thinks the methods are helping. Saying that, “I take great pains to control myself – before him at least, and that makes me very tired” (Short Stories, 75), the woman makes clear that she is merely going through the motions. The dash highlights the contrast between the behavior she presents to her husband and those around her and the true nature of her attitudes. At first she claims to take great pains when monitoring her behavior and subscribing to her treatment but that is quickly modified after the dash to show that she only adheres to her husband’s dictation when he is around. The dash serves as a device by which her statement is made conditional.

Similar to both Henry James and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen Crane in his short novel The Red Badge of Courage relies on dashes to tailor the presentation of his characters’ mental processes and to take measure of their emotional status. The dashes in Crane’s novel often separate short staccato series of words emblematic of battlefield commands and yells. The captain yells orders to his men, “Reserve your fire boys – don’t shoot till I tell you – save your fire – wait till they get close up – don’t be damned fools” (Crane, 24). Here the dashes group the words into small bursts, representative of military orders. The repetition coupled with the dash also serves to emphasize the captain’s desires; it makes clear through concise and repetitious language, what the men need to do. The emotional condition of individuals within Crane’s book is made clear by the use of the dash. When meeting up with Jim, Henry poignantly assures him that, “Yes – yes – I tell yeh – I’ll take care of yeh Jim” (Crane, 41). As Henry struggles to deal with his wounded companion the dashes can be seen almost as gasps for air. Henry’s words come in between gulping for breath and are staggered, faltering. The anguish prevalent in Henry’s character at this moment is rendered easily recognizable by the construction of the sentence. The dash also symbolizes the abrupt termination of thought within the novel. In the midst of battle Henry realizes, “We’ve on’y got t’ go across that lot. An’ then—the remainder of his idea disappeared in a blue haze of curses” (Crane, 80). In the midst of a seething battle a thought could be lost very easily. The dash, which illustrates the disconnection of Henry from his thought process, quickly ends the thought and effects its replacement with a litany of curses.

Used for a variety of purposes the dash is essentially a tool of emphasis. While dashes may connect, interrupt, indicate a change, create uncertainty, and other things, it is within all these capacities that a dash calls attention to a part of a story or novel. Charlotte Perkins Gilman used dashes to criticize elements of her society and generate pity for a woman sinking deeper and deeper into insanity. Henry James used dashes to weave an intricate portrait of confusion and ambiguity and imbue the entire work with a feeling of dread. Stephen Crane used the dash to create a life like representation of battlefield frenzy and to capture the emotions of soldiers fighting on that battlefield. Many authors have utilized the dash as a central piece of punctuation. Its very utility, its appeal, comes from its ability to serve such a broad array of functions.

paper. This in turn demonstrates that the woman’s mental condition is worsening. Her mental breakdown is vividly portrayed by delivering her wild stories in a matter of fact tone. The supernatural details of the nursery are explained as if they were completely real highlights how deranged the woman has become.

Written in part as a rebuttal to the rest cure and the idea of domesticity, Gilman’s story utilizes dashes to express the main character’s resistance to the treatment her husband has prescribed. For her treatment the main character “takes phosphates or phosphates – whichever it is…and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again” (Short Stories, 74). The sarcastic tone of this statement, intensified by the flippant attitude generated by the insertion of a dash, exemplifies the unhappiness of the main character with her treatment. It is as if she neither knows nor cares what treatment is being administered; she has complete disinterest. She is undergoing the treatment to satisfy her husband, not because she thinks the methods are helping. Saying that, “I take great pains to control myself – before him at least, and that makes me very tired” (Short Stories, 75), the woman makes clear that she is merely going through the motions. The dash highlights the contrast between the behavior she presents to her husband and those around her and the true nature of her attitudes. At first she claims to take great pains when monitoring her behavior and subscribing to her treatment but that is quickly modified after the dash to show that she only adheres to her husband’s dictation when he is around. The dash serves as a device by which her statement is made conditional.

Similar to both Henry James and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen Crane in his short novel The Red Badge of Courage relies on dashes to tailor the presentation of his characters’ mental processes and to take measure of their emotional status. The dashes in Crane’s novel often separate short staccato series of words emblematic of battlefield commands and yells. The captain yells orders to his men, “Reserve your fire boys – don’t shoot till I tell you – save your fire – wait till they get close up – don’t be damned fools” (Crane, 24). Here the dashes group the words into small bursts, representative of military orders. The repetition coupled with the dash also serves to emphasize the captain’s desires; it makes clear through concise and repetitious language, what the men need to do. The emotional condition of individuals within Crane’s book is made clear by the use of the dash. When meeting up with Jim, Henry poignantly assures him that, “Yes – yes – I tell yeh – I’ll take care of yeh Jim” (Crane, 41). As Henry struggles to deal with his wounded companion the dashes can be seen almost as gasps for air. Henry’s words come in between gulping for breath and are staggered, faltering. The anguish prevalent in Henry’s character at this moment is rendered easily recognizable by the construction of the sentence. The dash also symbolizes the abrupt termination of thought within the novel. In the midst of battle Henry realizes, “We’ve on’y got t’ go across that lot. An’ then—the remainder of his idea disappeared in a blue haze of curses” (Crane, 80). In the midst of a seething battle a thought could be lost very easily. The dash, which illustrates the disconnection of Henry from his thought process, quickly ends the thought and effects its replacement with a litany of curses.

Used for a variety of purposes the dash is essentially a tool of emphasis. While dashes may connect, interrupt, indicate a change, create uncertainty, and other things, it is within all these capacities that a dash calls attention to a part of a story or novel. Charlotte Perkins Gilman used dashes to criticize elements of her society and generate pity for a woman sinking deeper and deeper into insanity. Henry James used dashes to weave an intricate portrait of confusion and ambiguity and imbue the entire work with a feeling of dread. Stephen Crane used the dash to create a life like representation of battlefield frenzy and to capture the emotions of soldiers fighting on that battlefield. Many authors have utilized the dash as a central piece of punctuation. Its very utility, its appeal, comes from its ability to serve such a broad array of functions.

Artifacts VI: The Sierra Nevadas

A short book review written for a geographical journal called Terrae Incognitae: The Journal for the Society of the History of the Discoveries. It is important to note that I have no idea if they ever actually published this review. The email account used for communicating with the editor is defunct and the edition of the journal in which my review would probably be included cannot be accessed electronically without a subscription. But I did write it, thats something at least.

Browning, Peter, ed. Splendid Mountains: Early Exploration in the Sierra Nevada. Lafayette, CA: Great West Books, 2007. 272 pp., ISBN0-944220-22-3

“It is a lovely and terrible wilderness,” wrote Wallace Stegner of Wayne County, Utah, “such as wilderness Christ and the profits went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed…and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs.”[1] Taken from Stegner’s Wilderness Letter, published in 1960, this line was penned nearly a century after George Perkins Marsh, a pioneer in the study of natural systems, finished his remarkably prescient book, Man and Nature, which explored the consequences of environmental degradation. Yet, despite Marsh’s fondness for cultivated landscapes and the gulf of time and national development spread between their lives, both authors adopt the vocabulary of a romantic, theistic discursive tradition in their writing. Adapted from the religious imagery and idealized primitivism of Enlightenment thought, this tradition has become a hallmark of American environmentalist and naturalist writing, not just for pioneers like Marsh or modern-day advocates like Stegner, but from Henry David Thoreau, to John Muir and Aldo Leopold, to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and Edward Abbey. While these luminaries have enjoyed a broad readership, authors outside the traditional canon have received less attention from historians or the general public; but, as the twin pressures of growing enthusiasm for wilderness activities and escalating concern over global climate change during recent decades continue, the writings of less prominent explorers are being liberated from obscurity.

Splendid Mountains: Early Exploration in the Sierra Nevada, compiled and edited by Peter Browning, gives voice to early adventurers whose names adorn many of the peaks, streams, valleys, and passes of a mountain range associated by most with men like John Muir, Kit Carson, Josiah Whitney, John C. Fremont, or  Joseph N. LeConte. Browning draws from the historical archives of the Sierra Club, bringing together accounts from nineteen different excursions published between 1872 and 1921. The edited collection will make a valuable addition to shelves of those interested in the history of exploration in the Sierra Nevadas, mountains referred to by Muir as the ‘Range of Light’. Outdoor enthusiasts will likewise enjoy the vivid, and sometimes harrowing, tales of backcountry exploration that pioneered many of the routes taken by modern day hikers and climbers. In an ironic twist, Browning’s ensemble of persona obscura wilderness travelers, confined as their exploits have been to the margins of popular thought, are immortalized by the mountains, lakes, passes, and creeks now bearing their names. Each year thousands of visitors trek past Dusy Creek, LeConte Point, and Mount Bradley, all named for adventurers seldom known to throngs of contemporary visitors. Splendid Mountains restores to the national and regional past narratives of discovery written when the Frontier, a complex synthesis of idyllic national mythology, legislative jargon, and statistical geography, would be deemed officially closed, when American attention began shifting from the wounds of a destructive civil war to an expanding overseas empire.

Although the book offers no analysis, operating primarily as an exhibition of unsung exploration accounts, the reverence for undisturbed natural beauty proclaimed it captures create a feeling that these pioneers were the vestige of an era halted by settlement and exploitation, but also the vanguard of an emerging culture steeped in environmental consciousness and a love for all things wild. It may well be that the recantations of first summits and trail blazing expeditions unearthed by Brown have lost their popular appeal as the decades passed, but these stories helped lay the foundations of modern conservationism by sharing with a wider audience the thrills and rugged splendor of an American wilderness few had seen.

To an audience unfamiliar with the region and backcountry recreation more generally, the book may seem repetitious and at times burdensome with detailed supply inventories, meticulous observations, and trail jargon; and its limited geographic scope, engaging primarily a region just northeast of Paradise Valley, may frustrate some readers as the frequent reoccurrence of prominent locations can produce a sense of spatial and temporal dislocation. Many of the landmarks described have been renamed, necessitating the collaborative use of historical and current USGS topographical maps to accurately retrace the routes. Of note is the near total absence of American Indians from the book. While most natives had been forced onto reservations and, under the Dawes Act of 1887, onto individually owned parcels of land, their absence from the Sierra Nevada range is essential to the history of exploration in the area and deserves commentary. The compilation would benefit from an expanded introduction as well as the inclusion of modern topographical maps juxtaposed against their historical predecessors.

Weaknesses like these are most likely a product of the book’s nature; it is not an analytical history of the political atmosphere or underlying cultural structures in America at the turn of the century. It is, instead, an exhumation of discoveries long forgotten by a society still, arguably, enthralled with the idea of venturing into uncharted territory. Scholars and enthusiasts of California’s past, those interested in the legacies of discovery, and wilderness advocates will all find great value in Browning’s collection. For those who have languished under the eaves of tents while escaping rain or trudged determinedly up the unapologetic switchbacks of alpine trails, emerged with startled exhilaration onto a sun soaked promontory or, faced with a long hike out, stared forlornly at bags once full of granola and dried fruit Splendid Mountains will resonate most deeply. A familiar pull begins, a compulsion to be out among pine stands and ash thickets, scree and haphazard boulders, to climb and hike and ponder on a twenty-first century pilgrimage to monuments of natural beauty named in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the discoverers on whose paths people continue exploring.

Devin Howard

The University of North Carolina, Greensboro


[1]“Wilderness Letter,” Wallace Stegner to David E. Pesonen, December 3, 1960

Poetry Corner

Expostulation and Reply

“Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?

“Where are your books?–that light bequeath’d
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breath’d
From dead men to their kind.

“You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you!

One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet, I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply:

“The eye–it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.

“Nor less I deem that there are powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.

“Think you, ‘mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

“–Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away.”

William Wordsworth, 1888

Poetry Corner

To Their Lonely Betters

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

WH Auden, 1950