Monday, July 7, 2014

Until We’re Ransacked for Parts: On Dismemberment, Backward Motion, and the Book-Length Essay

“’Effete’ seawater is taken in to purify the blood of the creature, but it’s not merely got rid of, but utilized, so as to be subservient to the movements of the animal—ejection by force to speed up.  The backward motion is that which is most graceful and natural in the squid.”
-Moses Harvey, The Devilfish in Newfoundland Waters (1874)

When 19th century Newfoundland reverend and amateur naturalist Moses Harvey secured and photographed, for the first time, an intact specimen of the giant squid (which he draped over his bathtub’s curtain rod in order to spread it out to full-size), he finally rescued the beast from the realm of mythology and proved its existence, forever changing the ways in which we engage (in literature, art, science, religion, the amalgam of all four with various pinches of ancillary and obsessive salt thrown in) the construct of the sea monster. 

A fascinating connection exists between the obsessions of clergymen and the giant squid.  Not only were Newfoundland Reverends Moses Harvey and M. Gabriel (not to mention Olaus Magnus, the 16th century Archbishop of Uppsala who coined today’s use of the term, Kraken) obsessed with the animal, but so was Norwegian Protestant Bishop Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan, who, 200 years after Magnus’ death, stole the late Swede’s thunder and claimed that he himself “invented” the Kraken, and claimed that it was the “size of a floating island” with horns “as long as a ship’s mast.”  As Magnus was born in 1490, and Pierre Denys de Montfort, considered the first scientist to engage the giant squid, began his inquiries only in 1783, it can be said that the mythological giant squid belonged to the church for nearly 300 years before science began to interrogate. 

And then there’s this: In 1735, Carolus Linnaeus, godfather of binomial nomenclature, published the first edition of his masterwork, Systema Naturae, which set about classifying and naming all things in nature. The first edition included, amazingly, the Kraken, under the moniker Sepia microcosmos.  (This was about 120 years before the Danish zoologist and spectacularly-named Johannes Japetus Smith Steenstrup dared make a similar assertion, and lent the mythological Kraken the language of science, claiming it existed and was a cephalopod). Linnaeus’ entry was removed by the time the second edition went to press, and Linnaeus was mercilessly ridiculed by his colleagues as gullible for having included it in the first place, for being seduced by “the mere fabrications of a distorted mind.” The giant squid, having been given its brief and small entry into reality in 1735, once again retreated to the realm of myth.

Of course, I knew little of such facts and even less about many, many others when I first saw Moses Harvey’s squid pic in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (in a room adjacent to the profoundly boring Hope Diamond), but I knew that I was immediately obsessed with the black-and-white matte of those dangling tentacles and set out to write what I believed would be a 5-page essay on the photo, and turned out to be a 250-page one (after I cut it down from 450, that is).  Navigating personal obsession with the photo, and all of the odd, digressive burrs that attached themselves to the pant cuffs of that primary thread as I wandered through the (forgive me for this) meadow of the book-length essay proved confounding, to say the least.  I had to turn to other books for help, and not just books about cephalopods.  The one that proved most helpful in thinking about the construct of the book-length essay—the whole and the various parts—was probably poet-playwright-theatre critic Dennis Silk’s, “William the Wonder-Kid.”  Here’s what the book taught me about my own subject, and about the construction of a book-length digressive segmented essay:

It’s easiest to contain our myths (and our essays) when we objectify them.  Squid=tentacle, Sun god=wing, Judeo-Christian God=big beard.  And though some of these associative objects can certainly be, or once were, animate, it’s best to imagine them otherwise in order to continue our dominion over that which we decide to mythologize or, at least, girdle.  The smaller and more numerous the parts into which we can divide a “single” myth, subject, or its manifestation, the more we establish our illusion of control over said myth (which, it must be said, may argue with our singularizing of it).  If God has a beard, God can be shaved. 

In the book-length essay, much depends on how we define the hierarchy of accumulated objects, animate or otherwise, within the (mis)perceived homogeneity of a community.  Within the community that is the body of the giant squid, certainly, to us, tentacle lords over beak, which lords over eye which lords over suction cup which lords over brain, which lords over heart.  Certainly, it won’t escape us that the squid organ into which we fashion a serf, about which we least think or associate with our definition of squid, is the very same organ with which we most identify ourselves as human.  And though there is an obvious hideousness to this act, it is also beautiful in its ability to define us, lucidly, as predatory. 

How soon until we’re cut up, ransacked for parts?
What is the hierarchy of parts within a single human being, and how many of us get to define this?  What lorded over what within the perceived singularity that was Moses Harvey?  How much of him was made up of the things that bore witness to his life?  How much of the Harvey entity was comprised of squid?  If he was made up of so many things, as I am, was he just one thing?  Or is it that collection of things that comprise us like a constellation, each with a mind of its own, with a series of personalities it communicates to the others, and a series of personalities it keeps private, that stresses that if our hearts can’t even speak the same language as our brains, our toes the same as our earwax, then we can never, ever, ever really foster any kind of interior or exterior empathy.  Unless, of course, as we do with the squid, we strip empathy of animation and objectify it.  The same can be said, I think, for the process of cobbling together the book-length essay. 

We render the giant squid inanimate by cutting off its arms, or by suspending it over our bathtub.  In this way, tentacle becomes noodle, and the squid entire becomes shower curtain—perhaps that really nice emerald and brown one embroidered with the butterflies—the butterflies also rendered inanimate by thread, the thread once animate, but only if manipulated by human hands or an unexpected breeze along the Household Goods aisle. 

Is it mere self-centeredness that has caused us to speculate that, as Dennis Silk speculates, “Maybe our flight from animism is our flight from madness.  We’re afraid of the life we’re meagre enough to term inanimate.  Meagre because we can’t cope with those witnesses.”  Meager, perhaps, because those witnesses, once having infiltrated our imaginations, our memories, as well as our external lives, become parts of us.  We are, of course, scrutinized by dismembered tentacles, and pictures of wings, and imagined beards; we are part noodle and part shower curtain and part dead squid and part knife and part fork and part soap and part shoe and part pat of butter. 

The giant squid as pet rock.

Are we afraid that we’ll become that which we choose to animate; are we afraid that we’ll be compelled to try?  Are we afraid that we’ll then have to animate other things, like our expressions of pain, our mouths forever contorting?  How then, will we be able to pin these expressions down, define them, make them small parts of us, instead of their own hierarchical communities?  How then to convince ourselves that we are more than just blobs of cholesterol who should be analyzed for their parts?  How then to evoke the nobility of self, the non-twitchy essay? 

Silk states that, for the puppeteer, “Bones on his plate remind him of his come-apart marionettes,” and ourselves, as we’re reminded of ourselves via the parts of another—tentacles, beak, gaping eye—without having to commit our own parts to the cause of reassurance, to the act of reminding.  In this way, we delude ourselves into thinking that we can exhibit self-interest, and engage in self-interrogation without the attendant pain, except in afterthought.  In this way, can we ever be anything but ever-affected, over-refined, and as ineffectual as drinking seawater to stave off our thirst? 

And so, in our scrutinizing the parts of others, we inevitably provoke our imaginations to turn on us, but, we allow this inevitability—within this voyeuristic context—the possibility of becoming erotic—something else to stoke our imaginations, memories, dreams; something that confuses evolution with devolution; forward movement with backward; the “focused” essay with the digressive one; something else to underline the danger of turning something naturally soft into something hard: like tentacle into bone, memory into fact. 

Matthew Gavin Frank’s latest book is Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (W.W. Norton: Liveright).  He teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North.  This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish liver ice cream.  It paired well with onion bagels.

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