Thursday, March 18, 2010

Self-reliance and Catharsis

I once liked this quote from Paul Metcalf so much, I used it twice in my dissertation:

Integration and disintegration are not equally interesting. Pathology is not as interesting as health, the journey to chaos is not as interesting as the journey to order. The poet may—in fact must—plunge into disintegration, pathology, chaos, maintaining as best he can his own freeboard, his balance—but it is the return to the surface, the return to sanity, where the experience may be recorded, that confirms our interest. Ishmael survived the sinking of the Pequod.

Because, if you drown, who cares? And if you don’t plunge, who cares?

- Paul Metcalf, Where Do You Put the Horse?

To return to the surface. To start again. To reinvent oneself. To be anything. This is frontier logic, Frederick Jackson Turner’s pioneer time: “perennial rebirth..”

Metcalf wrote his way through that frontier logic. In Genoa: A Telling of Wonders, he travels the New World as a body in pain, bearing all the scars and glyphs of imperial method allegorized by Melville, his great-grandfather. But Genoa turns method inward. Post-whale, we see a body in pursuit of understanding its own compulsion to document, its neurasthenic labor…a nervous book of "feminine" interiority, where the protagonist, a non-practicing physician, a house husband who literally sits in the attic, can follow the prescription to "go west" only as a reader investigating American nervousness (see Silas Weir Mitchell, see Tom Lutz’s great book on the subject.)

If redemption is to come in making a book out of wounded flesh, how can that be separable from the commodification of laboring bodies, from blubber or oil?

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