The Bravest Grope a Little

LISTENING FOR THE UNCONSCIOUS III
October 2012

Not knowing where I’m going, I make another list. This one has five items, or points, like a star.

(1)
There is an elderly woman who, while or although suffering from Alzheimer’s, spends her days walking around the town in which she lives (Cambridge, Massachusetts). Apparently, every evening she is able to find her way home, and I would like to think that she takes breaks for hot chocolate, lunch and so forth.

I quote again from an Emily Dickinson poem to which my mind often returns:

And so of larger — Darkness —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree . . .

[But] Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —

Decades ago, when I was around 20, I visited with my grandmother who had something like Alzheimer’s before that word had entered our language. Now she might be diagnosed as having entered the sixth of the disease’s seven recognized stages: severe cognitive decline. (I quote from alz.org: “Lose awareness of recent experiences as well as of their surroundings. Remember their own name but have difficulty with their personal history. . . . Experience major personality and behavioral changes, including suspiciousness and delusions (such as believing that their caregiver is an impostor) or compulsive, repetitive behavior like hand-wringing or tissue shredding. Tend to wander or become lost.”)

At the end of the visit my grandmother said to me, “So nice to meet a new person.” This has led me to imagine a science-fiction writer telling of this Cambridge resident’s experience of streets and houses she had seen 100 or 1,000 times, but each time for the first time. This might only be frightening if you imagined that life or perceptions should be any other way.

I would rather not be weighing in on political candidates and only a few weeks before an election, but I have been struck by a similarity between the elderly walker and the Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Things he has said in the past seem to have little bearing on things he might now be saying or might say in the future. Instead of his perceptions not registering in his memory, it is as if his statements do not register in his memory. Of course he has opponents to say that this is willed ignorance and entirely opportunistic; Romney can remember what he has said in the past, he just finds it more useful to pretend that these things were not said. It is not impossible, however, that what might otherwise be thought of as a mental or psychological limitation has given him a leg up in his chosen line of work. And does he ever feel frightened, mad witness to a mad world, numbers not adding up and seemingly not needing to add up, the connections between past and present—between paragraphs—so tenuous or readily broken?

(2)
Around the time I heard the story of the elderly Cambridge walker, a colleague’s e-mails contained as a postscript a quotation from a translation of a few lines from Alphonse de Lamartine: “No man’s education and views can be enlarged unless he has travelled much. Let us live, see, and travel! The world is a book of which we turn a page at every step. How little must he know who has turned but one page!” This had led me to fire back, as it were, with a line from another great walker, Thoreau: “I have travelled a good deal in Concord.”

The line appears in Walden in the following context:

I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or . . . [E]ven these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness. The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor.

Thoreau is speaking of what Weber later termed the Protestant work ethic which, we may say, Thoreau viewed as a form of insanity or mindlessness.

The other day, however, I came across the “I have travelled” line in a volume of recollections, interviews and memoirs of Thoreau: Thoreau in His Own Time. The volume includes an excerpt from a book by Mabel Loomis Todd in which she writes, “Henry was wont to say that he had travelled a great deal—‘in Concord,’ he would add with a whimsical expression. Of genuine journeys he had taken few.” (And yet so many more than the rest of us?)

Todd tells a family story, of a day before she was born, when her father and mother, friends of Henry’s, went rowing on the Concord River with him.

As they were approaching a fine old oak on the river bank, Henry ceased rowing, stood up suddenly in the tiny skiff, looked up into the huge tree with something akin to adoration and said, as one inspired, “Why, there is enough in that tree alone to keep one man happily busy all his life!” His face was alight with fervour as he went on to tell of the rich reward awaiting him who would take the oak-tree for his lifework. “The whole story of creation and all of natural history is in that one tree! Why does one want to take long journeys to study anything? It is all here.”

Now we might return to our elderly walker, who might come to a tree like this daily, and be as impressed by the sight as Thoreau was, and find similar rich rewards in studying the bark and branches, and yet go away with her pockets empty, her mind as fresh as always. She would not find herself, as she continued her walk, burdened by information or knowledge. She would not have imposed on experience the limitations of her mental apparatus. Or, we might say, the limitations of her mental apparatus would free her from imposing on experience the limitations of the human mental apparatus more generally speaking. She would be free of science, of the human desperation to grasp the unknowable (and to reap “rich rewards” along the way).

(3)
Just in the past month or so I have heard several experts commenting on how much information human beings are now creating and storing. At one point I heard that in the past two years we have created more bits of information than had been created previously in human history. At a talk at my son’s school, a high-school principal held up his cellphone and stated that it contained more information than I forget what, and so it was up to us to teach our children how to make use of this information.

Note that information is now measured in bytes. So, for example, on my hard drive I have stored a newspaper photograph of letters that French citizens sent to the Vichy government denouncing their neighbors as Jews, communists or otherwise unpatriotic and worthy of being sent to the Nazi camps. That’s 2,383 kilobytes of information. And I have a copy of a photo of one of the lions in front of the New York Public Library. That’s 19 kilobytes. It is interesting in any case that at such a moment we have a Presidential candidate— Perhaps in a few weeks he will be President of the world’s only “superpower,” and for him it seems that information is a species of fiction, or like a dream, which may enthrall us one moment and vanish the next. I do not have any Hollywood movies stored on my hard drive, but if I did, they would count for many, many more bytes of information.

(4)
Mabel Loomis Todd, author of the anecdote about Thoreau retailed above, is most famous for having co-edited the first volumes of Dickinson’s poems. Apparently (if Lyndall Gordon’s biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns, is to be believed) Mabel also, for thirteen years, carried on an affair with Emily’s married brother, Austin. The biographer writes that Emily never actually met Mabel, but that she routinely had to give up her workspace to make room for her brother and Mabel’s trysts, the excitements of which could, I gather, be heard throughout the house. After Austin died, Mabel is said to have kissed “the dear body, every inch of which I know and love so utterly.” It has also been said that Austin and Mabel’s affair destroyed the Dickinson family. (And gave the English language some of its greatest poetry?)

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs; . . .

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought, . . .

(5)
“With the exception of Shakespeare,” Emily once wrote her sister in law Susan, Austin’s wife, “you have told me of more knowledge than any one living.” (A Dickensenian touch, for Emily Shakespeare was among the living?) Susan and Emily shared books and ideas, and it has also been said that many of Emily’s poems were written for, and as expressions of love for her sister in law, who, at best, did not fully understand what the poems were about. After Emily’s death, Susan was at first assigned the task of editing the poems for publication, but she was, apparently, too slow, and the task was reassigned to Mabel.

My Cambridge walker no longer bothers to listen, but she can hear. And I suppose we must imagine that some of the sounds—the screeching of a bus, a child bereft—are painful, even if only for an unremembered instant. Some sounds would be thrilling, too. We may marvel that she finds her way home, or knows when she is there, or that again in the morning, every morning, she makes her way outside again. I know the building she lives in, apparently with a grandson or nephew. It is the building my elderly mother lives in, when she is not in the hospital or in “assisted living” quarters. The apartments’ front rooms and balconies offer beautiful views of the Charles.

Could she wish to see new things? Everything and everybody would seem to be new, unceasingly new, to her. Can a person disconnected from the past have desires, hopes for a future near or far? Or could it be habit, muscle memory, that moves her feet? (And runs his campaign?) There are more of us than are willing to admit it who daily leave home with a certain bounce in our step, pleased to get out in the fresher air, away from our memories, and our families, to a world where information is only so many bytes, easily forgotten, trashed, replaced.

We—essay writers included—are wanderers in a world we cannot make sense of, or whose all-too-clear meanings set us to wandering. I can imagine Emily on her own particular short walk, again and again abandoning her workroom to Mabel and her brother.

 

Links

Verses from Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Back Bay Books, 1976). As for the specific poems, the Poetry Foundation makes available the poem beginning After great pain, a formal feeling comes – . Poemhunter.com has We grow accustomed to the Dark —  (and it also offers that, at least among poem-hunters, Dickinson is the fifth most hunted, trailing only Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda and Robert Frost, while ahead of so many others—Wordsworth, Whitman, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash . . . The line from Dickinson’s letter to her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson may be found, among other places, on the website of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Lines from a translation of Alphonse de Lamartine, A pilgrimage to the Holy Land; comprising recollections, sketches, and reflections made during a tour in the East Volume 2 (Nabu Press, 2010). A reproduction of a book published before 1923.

The excerpt from Mabel Loomis Todd may be found in Thoreau in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates, edited by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis (University of Iowa Press, 2012). The story about Mabel and Emily’s brother Austin comes from Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (Viking, 2010).



Categories: Listening for the Unconscious

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7 replies

  1. Thanks Kelly. One thing that interests me is how we impose sense and science on life which may otherwise be lacking in both, and the way to write about this may need to be a bit “sense-less,” disorderly, like a radio or cellphone signal that is breaking up. This might touch tangentially on your explorations of the Emerson-Montaigne connections, or it might not, but I am looking forward to exploring more of those explorations in any case. Best, Wm.

  2. Your report of your grandmother’s Alzheimer’s memory loss and Mitt Romney’s Tea Party memory loss reminds me of a video we used to show students in one of our core courses. An Englishman, a director of a choral group, suffered a brain infection that destroyed his short-term memory. He tried to fight the loss by writing down events of the day in a notebook but was unable to accept what he had written as having happened, denying that he had been to one to record it. His wife visited several times during the day, but each time he greeted her as if he hadn’t seen her in weeks, having no memory that it was just an hour before. A disturbing film. He looked so healthy. So we travel in our imaginations but require some concrete grounding to provide perspective for the trips.

    • This — “He tried to fight the loss by writing down events of the day in a notebook but was unable to accept what he had written as having happened, denying that he had been to one to record it” — is just wonderful, and certainly connects to my smoldering impression that there is at least a bit of Alzheimer’s (would this be a failure to make and retain connections?) in all of us.

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