Sunday, July 17, 2011


And so we're in North Carolina.

These are the days that i really relish being unable not to wake up early. A novel awaits and all is quiet. Water that is not the ocean (a sound?) is beyond those trees and in a few hours, an enormous group of us will go to the beach. Last night gathered everyone and two of my cousins brought a Southern feast (yes, crab quiche is delicious). The Cleveland crowd (my brother's in-laws) were happy. There is a very particular rush of gladness in the realization that your brother, whom you love dearly, is dearly loved. And so vacation begins, our 7th here in 8 years - what now we might well consider a tradition that began with that first wild trip in 2004, when we brought my dad, thinking that being here, where he grew up, would bring him back to us. It didn't, of course, but it's brought us back here, and now the children take us to their favorite places, and the air is sweet with the promise of the sea.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone (first time!)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Having Kippled

Just a short post in some vain attempt to exorcise Kipling from my mind. I know that there are good reasons why this author has a hold on me (memorable phrases, vivid diction, intense narrative, and oh yes, all that time in India and all of that other time wondering about Afghanistan), but I don't know why I can't shake him. (I think that this is related to my fascination with Jean de Meun: language whose meaning relies upon the reader's tone and setting (subjectivity) as much as upon its own words, and therefore language that provokes wildly opposing interpretations). I was up at 4:30 this morning thinking about his short story "The Man Who Would be King" which I'd read before seeing the (incredible, wonderful) film by John Huston from 1975 with friends last night - the story is from 1888, shortly before the people in the Hindu Kush of which he writes about were "explored" by George Scott Robertson in 1890-91 and converted to Islam by the Emir of Afghanistan in 1896, and writhes within the recollections of Peachey Carnehan as he tells of his and Daniel Dravot's adventures in Kafiristan to a stunned narrator, a journalist who must have walked in Kipling's shoes. Kipling is so difficult because interpretations (and emotions, people tend to feel strongly about Kipling) oscillate wildly between a triumphalist strain of colonialism (in which the colonized's wildness brings on the colonizer's own) and an unnerving critique of colonialism's operations on the mind (Kipling's characters tend to unravel when they start believing the ideology of the colonialism that, in saner situations, is but a pretense for the exploitation of the colonized - which is itself nuts, of course). When Orwell dubbed him the "prophet of imperialism" was that to spell out its triumph or its doom? I sit uncomfortably in the latter camp, unable to read anything but dripping, sometimes caustic but then world-weary, irony in Kipling's slightest phrase. Tone is everything with Kipling: how do you read "The White Man's Burden" from 1899? Does knowing that it was written in response to / as a critique of the American invasion of the Phillipines help determine the tone? Read it earnestly, with the fervor of hope and change. Read it ironically, with the world-weariness of fundamental misconceptions and wrongs. Try reading "The Young British Soldier" and see how you feel about wars far away. My position (or what I think I understand about Kipling) is best taken up by a line from his poem "If-": "If you can dream, and not make dreams your master." Dravot's dreams of being a king, indeed the descendant of Alexander the Great himself, master him and all falls away into madness and it's poor Peachey who is cruelly left to live to tell the tale. But it was actually Billy Fish who had me up this morning. He is full of Homi Bhabha's "sly civility" (which I understand best through Jeffrey Cohen's use of the term in considering the grass-eating Welshman in his Postcolonial Middle Ages essay), a Kafiristani who had served in the British Army and translates for Danny and Peachey throughout their exploits to become king. But then his end is so unnerving: he refuses to mount a horse to escape, as Danny and Peachey are attempting to do, because, you see, he was a foot soldier in her Majesty's army - and rushes into the crowd of vengeful Kafiristanis with the joy, almost glee, of someone fulfilling a lifelong promise: that he would be true to the impossible identity put upon him by the British Army, thereby somehow making it true and not impossible after all? The mind reels.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Peacocks on Power Lines

Wonder is relative.  It's prized as a universal human value, but it's really quite relative. It can form groups, identities even (those who wonder, those who wonder at). It self-propagates linguistically (how would you define the fine line between wonder and wonderment?) which is, of course, wonderful.  Mac's return was filled with wonder: the kids' glee, the (it's all true!) wondrous textiles of the Orient, the pictures (which are emerging slowly, each one its own incredible universe), the stories the stories the stories. We heard most of them around a campfire and in the woods, as we gathered in a state park for two nights of camping with Chicago friends. There, all of the ecocritical readings I've been doing were treated to delicious (and sometimes deliciously ironic) applications (let us just say that whatever the hell was sniffing around our tent that first night fulfilled every fear of every medieval monster ever).  Camping is its own strange co-existence with nature, and camping with kids blurs even more boundaries. Oliver's instant happy bond with one of (it turned out) multiple frogs hopping all around was deep, and the frog's final leap into the void out of his hands was heartbreaking to him.  The other, many other, frogs that would experience his joyous possession over the course of the two days were never quite the same - but they were plentiful.  When Tiny took leave of Oliver for good, Oliver spoke of the event as Tiny's "return" to nature - even though we were all in the same forest-y midst, all absolutely surrounded by the same green and sounds and breezes, Tiny was returning somewhere, I think to Oliver's unknowing of him.  Whereas, when Oliver held him, and felt him breathing and wriggling, knowledge (deeply satisfying knowledge, the knowledge of possession) was there.  We discount children (and children's books and children's movies and children's imagination) because they make the mute world speak, they give it intention and agency. But, to quote Graham Harman's prescient line from his review of Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, "anthropomorphism may be needed to in order to counter anthropocentrism."  Oliver's wonder of frogs was complicated and all-consuming, actually: thrill, possession, focus, understanding, emotion, loss.  Since coming home, he has stopped speaking of frogs. Iris, on the other hand, doggedly typed in "frog" and (to my consternation) "pet" at the library yesterday and wouldn't you know it, there's a book on the topic. I don't yet know what we're in for, but we've been promised a "convincing presentation."  The boundaries between human and non-human that I seek to critique in my classroom may yet break down in my home.

Peacock from a Medieval Bestiary
Of all the images that Mac has given us to wonder at, consider, turn over in our minds and ask each other about, the one of a peacock flying up to sit on power lines on the highway between New Delhi and Agra has gripped me completely. It's the incongruity at first, and makes me realize that much of wonder is embedded in the incongruous, and that much of the relativity of wonder is caught up in the relativity of incongruity (what doesn't fit for me, may have always fit for you).  A peacock on a power line may well be mundane, if not downright annoying, to the inhabitants of New Delhi. It elicited little wonder within medieval bestiaries, where it is cited for its tough meat and horrific and disconcerting shriek. But, God, is it ever wondrous to me.  A jewel of a bird, whose magical sighting is prized and kept in zoos in my experience, perching atop what I have to realize is actually another kind of wonder: a power line that feeds an electrical grid that services the nearly 20 million people living in New Delhi (that's half the population of France if you want a relative scale). That kind of population creates some very slow traffic and it took them about two hours to get out of the city - plenty of time for Mac to see the peacock's wanderings, its graceful swoops and moves in establishing its bird's eye view of the traffic river below. Is it wondrous because it shouldn't be possible but it is? Because the two parts don't fit yet co-exist? There are opportunities for (big? political? symbolic?) statements to be made within wonder sparked by incongruity. Is that peacock on a power line wondrous because it's unexpected yet absolute? Because it provides that veristic detail (think of the uses of animals in Alexander's letter to Aristotle) that reminds me with renewed wonder each time that my dear Mac was really, truly in India? Because it defies expectation? I can't discount the possibility that it's the alliteration, too.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Diamond power. Livre des Merveilles. BN ms. fr. 2810, f. 182
I've been thinking about the multiplicity and double-edged sword of wonder.  It is, like so many words that hold my fascination these days, not Latinate in origin, but rather from the Old English, etymollgically dubbed "of unknown origin."  I love how it works: even saying the word - you purse your lips for the "w" (which gives your face that look of surprise that, yes, wonder first brings), and your lips part to end the word with the full syllable of "er" (leaving you, as wonder so often does, open-mouthed).  The word "wonder" is a close cousin to "marvel," a word which, aside from being thoroughly, beautifully, and, sure, wondrously explored by Stephen Greenblatt, comes from the Latin mirabilia, and so will not hold us here. (But isn't it interesting that already here, at the etymological level, there are two families for this sensation?) It is a sensation (an event? an emotion? an experience?) that at once propels intimacy and distance.  When I read of a land of Ind so fecund that its diamonds are male and female and procreate to have little diamond babies in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, I am completely captivated: I stop at this idea, I think on it, I am there in this fantasy: I turn it over in my mind, my hand can imagine this land.

And they grow together, male and female.  And they be nourished with the dew of heaven.  And they engender commonly and bring forth small children, that multiply and grow all the year. (Chapter 17)

Such vital diamonds have the power to repel wild beasts, and this is the virtue that is illuminated in the wondrous Livre des merveilles manuscript made for the Duc de Berry in the early 15th century and given over and over again until it reached Fran├žois Ier in the early 16th century. Procreating diamonds are easy to imagine (easy to picture), but hard to represent. At the same time, a distance is created - how far away, how far beyond the reach of my mind, can this land be, that it produces such wonder?  The dynamic of wonder (and here it is not that different from the marvelous) is the dynamic of colonialism: objects of wonder, become objects of desire, become objects of possession.  Speed up wonder, and it becomes rapacious taking. I have students agonize about feeling wonder for distant or other cultures; I have seen them try to normalize or demystify the most wondrous things so as to not feel wonder.  And I have not quite known what to tell them. For me, without wonder (without surprise, without open-endedness), there is no change, no expansion (and I mean of the mind, but boy, what a colonizing word!).  At the same time, in taking your breath away, wonder prompts your hand to take. Or so goes much of Western Europe's relationship with the world since the 1770s.

Tourists at the Buddha's Tree
But wonder has something else up its sleeve.  In its multiplicity, it also has the idea of wondering, a more critical mode than marveling.  Marvel and marveling are closely related in experience; but a critical space creates a difference between wonder and wondering.  I sit in Indiana full of wonder for all of the imagined Indias that I have been reading about, while Mac walks in India, wondering in more precise ways, already bringing back scenarios to leave me wondering: the tourist culture that he shared with Hindu travelers at the site of the tree where the Buddha received Enlightenment. This is the more complicated wondering which the bold, broad strokes of wonder seek to efface, but which, when taken apart (examined critically), will start to speak volumes about a contemporary India, perhaps more free of the wondrous mists with which colonialism (and the proto-colonialism of Mandeville?) (and the post-colonialism of globalization?) enshrouds it.  I can think of many wrong ways to approach India, but no right way.  One could talk about the ethics of wonder, and the ethics of wondering, couldn't one?

From the Hindustan Times
In the absence of the time to do so, I can only appreciate the fashion advice provided here for the monsoon season rapidly swooping into India.  Is the difference for me that wonder is more archaic a sensation somehow? That wondering is a more modern, critical mode? This seems self-serving: I can wonder with impunity, as long as I follow it up with a good dose of wondering?  Hmmm.  I am on this edge: I love the sensation of wonder: it's immediate and thus honest. I fear the sensation of wonder: even though it's immediate, it cannot exist without preconceptions (one of the qualifications of the wondrous is the new - thus the worthy phrase "child-like wonder").

But I'm going to end with the possibility of repeated wonder. Of something - my children playing with friends on a summer evening - that though it is very preconceived (it's downright sentimental), and has been experienced many times, never ceases to fill me with wonder.  I wonder (I do!) about Mac coming back to this place, to these sensations, after what he has experienced.  I am wondering how we will all have been changed by this trip. Mac has gone before us into India, and our imaginations have followed: me in Mandeville, Oliver through an obsession with his Oriental Expedition Lego set, Iris through her questions to my student Vishal about the Red Fort, and Eleanor in her inexplicable use of the word "Maharajah" last night (where did she learn it???).   Wonder is wayward: it is here, there, and maybe even everywhere.