Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Shock of Recognition

LOOKING IT UP ON THE INTERNET I find (as I should have known) that the phrase originated, apparently, with Herman Melville (which makes me think my next reading should be Melville: I'm gradually working my way toward Moby-Dick). Hugh Blackmer's website tells me that what Melville actually wrote, in his essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses" was
…genius all over the world stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round
It's worth reproducing the entire paragraph, in fact, because it builds so beautifully to that final observation
And now, my countrymen, as an excellent author, of your own flesh and blood,--an unimitating, and perhaps, in his way, an inimitable man--whom better can I commend to you, in the first place, than Nathaniel Hawthorne. He is one of the new, and far better generation of your writer. The smell of your beeches and hemlocks is upon him; your own broad prairies are in his soul; and if you travel away inland into his deep and noble nature, you will hear the far roar of his Niagara. Give not over to future generations the glad duty of acknowledging him for what he is. Take that joy to yourself, in your own generation; and so shall he feel those grateful impulses in him, that may possibly prompt him to the full flower of some still greater achievement in your eyes. And by confessing him, you thereby confess others, you brace the whole brotherhood. For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.
All this comes to me in the course of writing to a friend, Alvaro Cardona-Hine, in the wake of re-reading his childhood memoirs The Half-Eaten Angel and A History of Light. About the latter I wrote, on a website called Goodreads,
Continuing the lyrical poignancy of The Half-Eaten Angel, this slim collection of prose-poem love-letters by a precocious twelve-year-old boy reads like healthy Colette. Full of the wonder of awakening. An example: "The day you came through my door, my own private door, wearing the furiously white light of your certainty, I had no need for more world, all the world I ever wanted to taste I would taste through you."
(Goodreads seems to be a sort of Facebook for readers; it's my impression so far that it's visited mostly by intelligent and literate women, the sort we used to call "housewives," intent on enlarging their community of books. I'll get in trouble for having written this.)

I THINK ABOUT THAT WORD "shock" and wonder the extent to which Melville thought about it. The word always brings two things immediately to mind: the sensation of a pulse of electricity, as I felt it when, ten years old, I accidentally stuck an index finger into an empty light-bulb socket while scrambling around among the rafters of the communal laundry building in the small Oklahoma town we were spending that year in; and the sight and even more the smell of ricks of hay we'd cut in our pasture the following year, hay we'd mowed with scythes and raked by hand and stacked in sheaves to dry in the California sun.

I think Melville likely knew only the second of these senses in 1850; that and another sense, the disarray (itself really an orderly kind of disarray, for as my grandson likes to point out "nothing can be truly random") of a head of hair, or one's emotions on having been suddenly confronted with something. My Macintosh dictionary tells me the word is from the
mid 16th cent.: from French choc (noun), choquer (verb), of unknown origin. The original senses were [throw (troops) into confusion by charging at them] and [an encounter between charging forces,] giving rise to the notion of [sudden violent blow or impact.]
I'm sure Melville uses the word in all these senses; and they all arose in my consideration this morning of an imaginary conversation among Alvaro, another friend Henry Bridges, and myself, a conversation centering on Alvaro's paintings, which I wrote about here last Saturday. (That's Henry's portrait of me up at the top of this post.)

Henry visited last Saturday, when my mind was full of enthusiasm for Alvaro, and I read some passages from The Half-Eaten Angel to him, and when he was home again, Henry I mean, he looked up Alvaro's work on his website, and then wrote to me his feelings about Alvaro's work, and I forwarded that to Alvaro, who then wrote to me, which set me to thinking further about all this and trying to develop this imaginary conversation, a difficult one to transcribe here as I've not secured permissions from either Henry or Alvaro to reproduce their comments. So I can only repeat a few of my own, as I'd written them to Alvaro:
I am excited; excited by [Henry's] prose, by his re-statement in words of your statements in paint, and by a sudden "shock of recognition," to use Melville's phrase… recognition of my own feeling about your work explained to me as I had never "understood" it before. So your painting, and Henry's description of his reception of it, opens that little creaky door in that not-often-visited corner of my mind. But what does he mean?

I think he writes first of the spaces within your paintings (which are the spaces your paintings themselves enter in order to re-state them), spaces clearly defined by your color fields and their edges ("tiles," he calls them). He then mentions a sort of dialectic that appears between the literal images in your paintings, the animals or birds or what have you, and the quality of the paint-handling that presents those images, which (at least in Henry's mind, and in mine too) produce work in which not only the images are images, but the way those images are limned are also images, images that intensify by transcending the more literal images.

And then, best of all, that dialectic not only emerges clearly itself, but the clarity with which it emerges defines, in pictorial or painterly ways, a vision of clarity, what Henry calls "a heightened sense of clarity". This "opens up ... space to ... the imagining mind", which is your mind, and Henry's, and mine. And then, "to state it differently," he lapses into a kind of poetry… similar to your own poetry as I find it in The Half-Eaten Angel and A History of Light….

All this has to do with what Joan Retallack called continuity and contiguity, as I wrote about that a few days ago; I suppose Retallack's an unknowing participant in this conversation. And, come to think about it, this kind of imaginary conversation, web-based and disjunctive, is the kind of community that I was thinking of in response to Ron Silliman's thoughts on the Community of Poets.

I suppose in a century or two, if we're given them, the human consciousness will become a sort of meta-consciousness, the Jungian concept of racial memory will become a more evident and verifiable species awareness, originally facilitated by this Internet which may one day leave its present technological grounding behind and exist instead, and simply, in a neural network the humans of that day will take for granted, as we take language and gesture for granted.

And then there will be no more Continuity and Contiguity; all will be merged in one splendid Awareness, and with any luck we'll hardly need to talk about it any more, let alone think about it, and we can get back to simple pleasures of daily life.

1 comment:

orel_p said...

This comment comes two years after your post, but I very much enjoyed reading this. You have a very unpretentious, almost relaxing tone.