Lewis and Clark as “peculiarly American” writers

I’ve been gearing up to get some writing done now that the semester has ended, and while reviewing work on Cabeza de Vaca I’d written back in the summer, I found myself recalling some writing and thinking I’d done about the journals of Lewis and Clark from a long time ago.  Specifically, I have found myself thinking how the Journals participate in a kind of writing produced in this hemisphere from the very earliest days of the Encounter, writing initially resulting from Europeans’ completely-unanticipated encounter with the material fact of the land, flora, fauna, and peoples (not only indigenous peoples but also, within a few generations, the bewildering variety of peoples of mixed race) of this hemisphere–a manner of writing, by the way, that persists into our own times.  This is an idea I keep returning to in my work; no doubt that will continue to be the case.

lewis-and-clark-journal-feb-24-1806-euchalon-candlefish

A page from Meriwether Lewis’s journal for February 24, 1806.  The fish is a eulachon, or candlefish.

Way back when I was still at the University of Mobile, I once tried to teach an abridged version of the Journals as part of a course on the themes of nature and wilderness in 19th-century American writing.  At the time, I was struck by a dramatic shift in the rhetorical style of the entries: while the expedition is moving across the Plains (which, relatively speaking, was familiar territory for the expedition, even if only indirectly via the French), the entries have a staccato, just-the-facts-ma’am style to them.  However, almost immediately upon entering the Rockies–land which no white man had yet seen–the language switches to a much more narrative style: the prose becomes, in effect, another map of the journey, another record of the expedition’s movement through space and time that had not been so necessary while they were still on the already-mapped Great Plains.  In addition, the Journals have several pages like the one you see here: drawings of animals and plants and topographical features compete for space on the page with language describing it.  It is as though Lewis and Clark felt that even the material reality of the various specimens the expedition collected and sent back to Thomas Jefferson, along with language used to describe them, did not suffice to convey the experience of these items.  Frank Bergon, in his introduction to the edition I taught that class from, captures the style of the Journals well when it makes that stylistic shift:

Conventional rhetoric and cultural assumptions also break down as the facts of the actual country, animals, and native peoples of the West give shape to new forms of perception.  Language itself has to be altered to describe a new country and its native inhabitants; words coined and twisted and adapted to the occasion in the journals produced the addition of more than one thousand new words to the American language.  In gradually abandoning attempts to present their experience through conventional aesthetic forms and expressions, the explorers seem to let the wonder of the country and its incredible wildlife speak more and more through plain fact and events.  (xviii)

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A Post-election Anecdote

(Note to Facebook friends: below the fold is something I posted on FB yesterday that you may or may not have already seen.)

When I started this blog, I’d hoped to keep its content strictly academic and pedagogical in nature.  As everyone who teaches knows, however, events in the world outside often make themselves become the stuff of what goes on inside.  Our recent elections have become just such an event in my classes, and I’m certain in yours as well.  I thought I’d share with you something that happened between me and a student as we talked about her final paper for the semester, and how the usual spaces between class work and the world outside, between teacher and student, became blurred in a completely unanticipated way.  What I describe below is a version of precisely the set of ideas I want this blog’s title, Domestic Issue, to evoke in the reader.

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O Brave New Semester . . .

Johann Schoner Globe 1520

Johann Schöner, Globe, 1520.  At times, we all may feel that the semester will resemble this image: some parts known and familiar, some unknown, some speculative or just plain made up.  We should give ourselves permission to feel those things.  Via Cartographic Images.

To my students this fall:

Welcome to the new semester, to Butler Community College, and to college more generally.  Not that you are required to be reading these words (and before I forget, welcome to this blog, too), but the fact that you are bodes well for you.  It shows you to be curious and to be willing to go above and beyond what will be expected of you as students, both of which are attributes that will stand you in good stead in college . . . and beyond.

If you are entering freshmen, much of what you’ll be encountering this fall will be brand new to you.  You are probably excited and nervous, and perhaps even apprehensive about all of this newness.  You may also be thinking, “All this new-semester stuff is old hat to the guy who is writing these words.”  That’s not an unfair assumption on your part.  After all, this marks my 17th year at Butler, and at my prior university I taught for seven years before coming here.  So, I’ve been in this business for a while now.  But this year will be very different for me as well, though mostly in ways that will be invisible to you, and those differences are such that, in many ways, I will be feeling very much like you probably do about this semester.

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Columbus, Foucault, and the New World as Keplerian Baroque Space

Mid-summer progress report:

I’ve been engaged in some reading and rereading in anticipation of getting started on the third chapter of the book project, which will chiefly consist of readings of Cabeza de Vaca as he presents himself in Castaways and Cooper’s Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie.  I have also been editing the preface, the Columbus chapter, and the Faulkner and Amado chapter with the goals of trying to tighten up the writing.  Finally and most significantly, in the Columbus chapter I’ve incorporated an argument about the Baroque that you’ll see in this post.

A while back, I wrote in this post about Foucault’s reticence as to the causes of the shifts in ideas about language and space that are his subjects in, respectively, The Order of Things and “Of Other Spaces.”  For Foucault, the Baroque is the aesthetic of those shifts, but he seems deeply suspicious of it, if not actively dismissive of it: in it, “[s]imilitude is no longer the form of knowledge but rather the occasion of error, the danger to which one exposes oneself when one does not examine the obscure region of confusions” (The Order of Things, 51).  Anyway, while in that earlier post I name the Encounter as the cause of those shifts Foucault describes, in the excerpt below I develop that more fully with an assist from Cuban novelist and theorist Severo Sarduy’s essay “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler” (found in Baroque New Worlds, one of the titles I mentioned here).  I think this excerpt is pretty self-contained; just in case, though, “Carpentier” refers to Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s essay “Problemática de la actual novela latinoamericana, and “Benítez-Rojo” refers to Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s book The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective.

I am hopeful that someone out there in the Interwebs who knows more than I do about Foucault and/or Sarduy will bump into this and leave a comment.  Thanks in advance.

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Mappamonde, Gerard Mercator, 1587.  Via.

[The] dynamism inherent in this New World Baroque as described by Carpentier gives us some insight into his response to his argument that this hemisphere’s lack of a style conveys well the truths of this region.  Moreover, other writers and critics likewise, in their own ways, either name the dilemma(s) New World writers encounter, or name it/them and then propose ways of framing New World experience similar to Carpentier’s own solution and his rationale for it.  That solution lies not so much in postmodernism’s lack of a center and distrust of Grand Narratives but, rather, in the Baroque’s honoring of dynamism, its lack of fixedness, which creates a space within which the interactions of cultures and the land provide a common ground for this hemisphere’s writers.

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Proving What the Books Say Is True: Don Quixote as Columbus in Foucault’s The Order of Things

Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things is at least as remarkable, to me, for what it does not say in its opening chapters as for what it does say.  As its readers know, its second and third chapters (“The Prose of the World” and “Representing”) describe the dramatic shift in Europeans’ understanding of language’s relationship to the world that occurred between the 16th and 17th centuries: a shift from a time when “[t]he truth of all these marks–whether they are woven into nature itself or whether they exist in lines on parchment and in libraries–is everywhere the same: coeval with the institution of God” (34) to a time when, with the important exception of literary language, “the arrangement of signs was to become binary, since it was to be defined, with Port-Royal, as the connection of a significant and a signified” (42).  However, Foucault offers no explanation for why this shift occurred.  He does indirectly give a name to the time during which it occurred–the Baroque (he devotes a single, rather dismissive paragraph on p. 51 to a description of its attributes)–and identifies Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the Baroque’s avatar, but he has nothing more to say on the matter.

In his early speech (which later became an article) “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” Foucault names Galileo’s confirmation of Copernicus’s heliocentric model for what we now call the solar system as the cause for the intellectual shift from medieval to Renaissance understandings of space.  Thus, we know that Foucault is more than capable of identifying significant events whose consequences reverberate through time and culture.  Yet in The Order of Things, he does not.

I do not pretend to know why Foucault is silent on the cause for this profound shift in Western thought, but I can tell you what I think he should have said that cause was: Columbus’s arrivals in the Americas. There’s nothing like a culture’s encountering two enormous landmasses completely unaccounted for by the Bible to thoroughly shake that culture’s previously-unquestioned assumption that language is “coeval with the institution of God.”  However, perhaps Foucault does mention the Americas-as-cause indirectly, through a bit of projection.  In the preface to The Order of Things, he mentions the ficciones of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as an inspiration for his idea of heterotopias, and several of the examples of heterotopias he provides in “Of Other Spaces” are from the Americas.  To some extent, then, Foucault thinks of the Americas and at least some of its cultural products as disruptive in comparison to European conceptions of space and language.  Meanwhile, in the sub-chapter on Don Quixote in “Representing,” Foucault could not have provides us, through his discussion of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, a better description both of how Columbus understood the space through which he sailed and how his understanding looks to us today.

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Early-summer reading

Baroque New Worlds

The cover for Baroque New Worlds.

Despite the radio silence here at the blog since my last post (apologies for the mixed (technologies) metaphor there), I have been doing some final editing and emendation of already-written chapters, soliciting colleagues to have a look at said chapters, and (as this post’s title indicates) getting some reading done.  Now that the semester is done and I am done with doctors’ appointments and have returned from a visit with my daughters and my mother, I am about ready to settle into working on the next chapter, which uses as its starting point Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his eight-year (1528-1536) journey across Texas and northern Mexico and will lead to a discussion of texts that, in various ways, use, modify, and otherwise play with language so as to better convey the experience of living in this hemisphere.  Before I get to that, though, I have some minor additions to make to the earlier chapters, for which I have two books to blame (and be grateful).

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“His normal sensitivity to negro behavior”: Looking for black and heterotopic spaces in Go Down, Moses

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Eudora Welty, Home by Dark/Yalobusha County.  1936.  Via.  This is also the cover image for the 1990 Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses.

What follows is some thinking-out-loud that will be part of the chapter on Go Down, Moses and Tent of Miracles–specifically, an attempt to tie together land and cultural expression in the two novels.  (Progress report: It’s coming along, but it has felt at times like I am a vulture circling high in the sky over an animal to make sure it is dead before I will alight on it.  I’m pretty sure it’s dead now.)

It’s below the fold to spare those who won’t be interested; here, though, is the tl;dr version: 1) At the time he wrote it, Go Down, Moses was Faulkner’s most intimate exploration of not just black-white relations but of black lives and black interiority.  Still, though, it is a novel that is ultimately more concerned with white attempts to come to terms with the post-bellum South.  Thus, those glimpses of black lives we have are (mis)read by whites, but some of them resist any attempt to read them.  This brings me to: 2) You can learn a heck of a lot about how to read Faulkner from Minrose Gwin.

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