Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Dec 19: Melissa Matthewson's On Disruption: Notes on Evening Over Sussex, Self, and Nature as Disorder

1. She’s thinking of disruption, of a particular kind: as force of change. For example, when she clips down the hyssop in the garden—it’s November, nearly to the last month, and she’s just returned from the ocean, a few days only (where signs warned her of toxic razor clams and auklets shored on the sand)—as a storm will arrive soon and in her own defense, she’s “putting the garden to bed,” which as her husband urges, “Do it now or the spring garden becomes unruly in a tangle of weeds.” As she takes apart the garden, she thinks disruption occurs as an interruption, as breaking asunder, like selves or rocks or mountains, as trouble and disorder. Also, she likes the essayist who is disruptive, both in temperament and content.

2. Say, she’s assigned Virginia Woolf’s essay “Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car” to her first year seminar students—theater kids and digital media artists, some poets, a few of whom she calls “the hair crew” for the curls that cover their eyes, they like their video games—and she hoped they would recognize the extraordinary nature of the essay, in particular, the details proffered of the setting (“The cliffs stand out to sea, one behind another…The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air…the fields are mottled, marbled…red feathered skies; all that”), and the recording of an experience through the construct and breaking of the many selves we inhabit as we encounter a particular event (disruption), in this case as witness to the evening. She reads aloud to the students standing in the corner of the room—(the night was black out the window, the students had wanted to photograph the deciduous trees, alder or elm, she didn’t know, but they’d been waiting for the right light. She looked out the window with them, and said, “Better soon, the storm is coming,” and so they did)—with emphasis in tone, “…nature has given you six little pocket knives with which to cut up the body of a whale.” They stared at her in their fishbowl circles weighing the metaphor against their hungry stomachs and pulsing hormones. “I’ve never been able to identify here and not here, in terms of self,” or “This is not an original idea,” they posit, “It’s like the Marvel character Jamie Madrox, who splits into halves when traumatized.” You never know what you’re going to get.

3. Evening is fine here in Applegate, not Sussex, with the ridge banded with second growth firs, her view here—marbled fields—as in Woolf’s Sussex, though what is a marbled field? Colors as a suggestion, perhaps patterned with structure and swellings. There is no urban street where she looks out across this narrow sweep: no bank or mercantile, the towns nearby—Jacksonville, Ruch, and Williams—their consignment shops and beer gardens are all shut and distanced from here, miles in either direction. What remains is this remaining light and just a shadow of what the first people might have encountered: larger trees and bear, salmon, thimbleberry—this landscape disrupted from its original, so she has no occasion to pretend it’s anything but changed. As Woolf has written at this time of day: “It was still too early for lamps; and too early for stars.” Woolf chose to write of irritation in response to one of her selves witnessing beauty—“when all seems blown to its fullest and tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses.” She wonders, how to record or witness the experience of beauty? Another type of disruption occurs in this moment for Woolf: the pin upsets the awareness of aesthetics. Of beauty and beauty and beauty. She admits, “I cannot hold this—I cannot express this—I am overcome by it—I am mastered.” (Notice interference of em dash).

4. This narrator, not Woolf, the other one writing this essay, is also reading at the same time, Carolyn Merchant, academic essayist, scholar, and environmental historian who theorizes many ideas, but one is of the history of colonization of nature and the resultant patriarchy and oppression of women, the alignment of the two. She wanted to have a conversation with Carolyn Merchant, so she reads the essay “Nature as Disorder: Women and Witches.” Merchant writes, “The disorder symbolized in the macrocosm by the dissolution of the frame of nature and the uncivilized wilderness of the new world, in society by the witch who controlled the forces of nature and the women who overturned its order, and in the self…the sexual lust of the female, and the animal passions of all humans heralded the death of the old order of nature.” She supposes that she wants to embrace the alignment between the chaos of woman and self, the disruption of the essay form, and the wildness of nature—all functioning as subversion. Can she make the claims? Yes, maybe, to try. She thinks the wild woman, at the time of the 16th century, became a disrupter: passion and tempest created the disturbance that brought in a new command of nature. What of the woman now as upsetting the natural order—or perhaps, the erasure of gender as new disturbance and relationship to nature, one as sinuous and graceful.

5. In Sussex, Woolf creates first, a self of eagerness and dissatisfaction, a second as stern and philosophical, both “noticing everything: a hay stack; a rust red roof; a pond; an old man coming home with his sack on his back; there they sat, matching every colour in the sky and earth from their colour box, rigging up little models of Sussex barns and farmhouses in the red light that would serve in the January gloom,” as then a third “I”, emerges, aloof and melancholy, expressing lament over forgetting and loss: “Gone, gone; over, over; past and done with, past and done with.” A fourth self becomes aware as an ambush, abrupt, “Look at that” and here is the totality of disruption. Woolf, in her fourth “erratic and impulsive self,” reflects that the star is a future and begins her suppositions of Sussex in five centuries to come.

6. She’s thinking of multiple selves when she finds a rat in the cupboard. On the same day, her son is suspended from school for being disruptive. She also converses with students on the following subjects: human rights and suffering; Madagascar and starving children, drought; moral responsibility and ethics; the erasure of gender; and the use of color in landscape painting. The husband kills the rat with a large trap. What happened to the self in this moment? Did she split in twos, or fours, or sixes? What did each part think: of the rat, of the ethics, of the trap? One self: disgusted by the rat. Second self: simultaneously proud of her son for breaking rules, but also interested in adolescence. Third self: empathetic and curious. Fourth: relieved at death of rat.

7. Of the art in Merchant’s chapter the one this narrator most fascinates over is the woodcut from 1513 of Phyllis (her husband was Alexander the Great) sitting on Aristotle’s back, riding him like a horse, Phyllis holding a rein tight in Aristotle’s mouth. According to Merchant’s caption, Phyllis had sought revenge for Aristotle after he accused Alexander the Great of devoting too much attention to her. In the landscape, Phyllis dominates, as subversive here at the time, becomes a radical self, and while the buildings behind create linear structure for understanding the context of the picture, the wildness of the trees and fruit, grass too, present the interruption of such a symbolic image.

8. Carolyn Merchant says that painters created landscapes with women as passive, as nature as passive, less disruptive in nature, ready for conquer. Is she making a case for disruption? She supposes so. Merchant recalls of history that the “Disorderly woman, like chaotic nature, needed to be controlled.” She’s writing one evening in the common room, when her daughter in pizza pajamas too small for an eight-year-old marches in circles over the bamboo floor—“Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom,” which grows in volume with every moment and the narrator continues to ignore her because she’s writing about her dream of a man and also of a dream in which a student smears her name, and soon, the daughter, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom,” calls out “I want to make a duplicate of my illustration,” of which the mother relents as though this duplicate says something of both disorder and repetition. She copies the illustration, finds scissors, cuts, writes, finishes, tucks into her backpack to take to her teacher the next day.

9. A fox has taken a chicken, maybe a weasel, because the head had been ripped off and a large gash troubled the hen’s side, so she sits outside the coop at the evening hour and waits. She holds a shovel in her hand. She sits there for a long time considering the chicken coop, the rusted buckets and wheelbarrow, the ash tree’s skeleton of branches, the commotion of a fox. In nature, this is what she finds disruptive: wind pressing down on historic trees, road runners on a dirt wash, salvage logging up the road from her farm, the dissolution of leaves from the maple, volcanic rock and eras of earthquakes, some combination of beauty and violence, the disruption of the two.

10. In another woodcut from 1510 in Merchant’s essay, three women brew potions at a sabbath meeting, and a fourth arrives on a goat. They have spears, buckets, hats, skulls, wild hair, naked. What will they do?

11. What’s interesting about disruption, both in essay form and in nature too, should this be an apt comparison, which in her view, it is, is the disruption of the hierarchical order, pushing back against rationality and linear thinking. As disruption makes itself known in essay or literature, a particular rambunctious way of thinking emerges.

12. Back to the beach, where she had been in number #1, she was thinking of a face hanging from a fir tree outside her vacation rental, cut with what you might say “feminine” features though without a body, only a face of clay, molded by hand with high cheekbones in a setting of ferns and azalea. The face, if you were to walk by it, comes to eye level, depending on your height, looking down with some measure of comfort and solitude, but also as spectator, an observer, or witness to some passing beauty.

13. She wants to stop the momentum forward, which is why she’s thinking of disruption, put a stop on the movement of tomorrow, as pause, to linger in a moment, in a record, as Woolf in her deliberation and musing: “None of my selves could see anything beyond the tapering light of our headlamps on the hedge. I summoned them together…What we have made then to-day, I said, is this: that beauty; death of the individual; and the future…we cried out together; ‘Yes, yes,’ as if affirming something, in a moment of recognition.”

14. It is the tension between nature and culture, Merchant claims, that presents a problem in the established hierarchy. Disorder in nature is/was equated with women, which disrupts the functions of power and the established order. Means we must reclaim a certain level of disturbance.

15. Disruptions, as a list of questions, from class, finals week:
     a. Can you access my library assignment?
     b. I can’t register for my classes.
     c. Can you read my thesis about Obama?
     d. How do I put in a hanging indent?
     e. What is ethos?
     f. How do I insert a picture on the site?
     g. Where is my journal?
     h. When is the final?
     i. Do we answer just one prompt?
     j. Why haven’t you graded my reading response?
     k. What is a good hook?
     l. Do you think penguins are anarchists and should they be offered personhood?

It is here that she would like to disrupt the self, and split, as Woolf, into the selves, not to record experience, but to take care of these minor interruptions. The narrator, she sees a replication of her body: it’s moving around the classroom and computer lab—go here, go there, behind the screen, to the back, be this, do this, need what. But instead, she listens politely to a presentation about the splitting of mice brains and mad cow disease (as disruption) and later, she returns home, at evening and shadow, and underneath her floors, in the basement, the men dig out the concrete, uproot the earth to lay a foundation for permanence and settlement (of not disorder), so she pours tea, sits next to the fire, and she recomposes herself, as Woolf, who returns to her body at the end of her reflection on Sussex, puts her four selves back together, ends with “the rest of the journey was performed in the delicious society of my own body.” She’s now, reflecting on what cannot be disrupted as in the time capsule she has composed with her family, pieces of their life crammed into a mason jar, that the men will seal in the walls, for ages, until something unsettles it (human or nature, like earthquake or tool): dried poppy and yarrow, a guitar pick, an illustration of Tina, from “Bob’s Burgers” composed by her daughter, a magic die, an illustration of the barn crafted by a friend with edges burned by a lighter, two class photos of the children, a selfie of the husband and the narrator, a copy of an essay the narrator has written about evening, like Sussex, an “Impeach the Motherfucker” button, and a note that says on 12/4, we are fortifying in this wall of the farm house, a record of the collective of people living in its structure—writers, dreamers, teachers, optimists, musicians—this jar, here, buttressed against some unknown future disruption.


Melissa Matthewson's essays have appeared in Guernica, DIAGRAM, American Literary Review, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, Mid-American Review and elsewhere. She teaches at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm. Her first book of nonfiction, Tracing the Desire Line, is forthcoming in 2019.

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