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Look at Your Fish
Jason Crawford

I

Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) was a Swiss naturalist who made a career for many years at Harvard and whose name still pops up all over the place: on various structures and streets around Cambridge, MA; on natural formations in Arizona, California, outer space, and the deep geological past; in the given name of at least one eminent scientist, the American ornithologist Louis Agassiz Fuentes; and in the scientific classifications of various species, such as Gopherus agassizii, the desert tortoise. Agassiz was a pioneering investigator of the fossil record, the ice age, and the taxonomy of animal life. He wrote herculean works of scientific inquiry, such as the five-volume Recherches sur les poissons fossiles. He founded and presided over Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. And he inspired some strange and bodacious doggerel verse, including Longfellow’s “The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz”—“It was fifty years ago / In the pleasant month of May, / In the beautiful Pays de Vaud, / A child in its cradle lay”—and these rousing measures from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

How will her realm be darkened, losing thee,
Her darling, whom we call our AGASSIZ!1

One of Agassiz’s most accomplished students, the paleontologist and geologist Nathaniel Shaler, writes about the first days of his apprenticeship in Agassiz’s laboratory. On his arrival at the laboratory, Shaler was assigned to his post, a pine table with a rusty tin pan on it. When he had situated himself there, Agassiz brought a small fish, placed it in the pan, and gave Shaler his orders. They were: look at the specimen; do not damage the specimen; do not talk with anyone about the specimen; do not read anything about the specimen. “When I think that you have done the work,” Agassiz said, “I will question you.”

After about an hour, Shaler was done with the fish: weary of its alcohol smell, and satisfied that he had learned what there was to learn about it. But Agassiz, though he was never far off, said nothing at the end of that hour, and indeed nothing, aside from a daily “good morning!” until Shaler had been at the fish for seven long days. Shaler, in the course of those days, astonished himself with what he saw and learned: “a hundred times as much as seemed possible at the start,” he says, detail after detail about scales, teeth, order, structure. Finally, on the seventh day, Agassiz spoke—“well?”—and for an hour Shaler disgorged his findings as Agassiz sat on the edge of the table and puffed his cigar. At the end of the hour, Agassiz replied, “that’s not right” and swooped away, and Shaler understood that his teacher was testing him. He spent another full week at the fish and astonished himself again with the results. This time Agassiz approved, and he expressed his approval by presenting Shaler with a new task, a pile of fish bones and an enigmatic “see what you can make of them.” Shaler set out—again with no help from Agassiz but the occasional “that’s not right”—to reconstruct the bones into the different skeletons from which they had come. The task took two months of determined labor.

It is no surprise that Nathaniel Shaler dates his life as a scientist from these first encounters with the man who went on to become his close friend and mentor. Nor is he alone. The landscape of zoology and natural history at the turn of the twentieth century is thick with distinguished students of Louis Agassiz, several of whom wrote about their time under his tutelage. One of them, Samuel Hubbard Scudder, sums up the teaching of his master in a single, simple, indispensable injunction: “look, look, look.” When Scudder, in his account of his own first days at the laboratory, finally describes the first fish precisely enough to earn Agassiz’s approval, he counts the task done and asks what he should do next. The teacher responds, “Oh, look at your fish” (The narratives of Shaler and Scudder appear in Cooper 1917, 21–25, 40–46.)

 

II

I have my own “look at your fish” story, minus the eccentric naturalist and the fish. In a course I took my first year of graduate school, we were required to visit Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and to spend an extended time looking at one painting, Nicolas Poussin’s The Birth of Bacchus. I looked at the painting in four sessions of about an hour each. After each session, I went home and recorded in as much detail as I could what I had seen and experienced. I brought no companions, no writing implements, and no other distractions into these sessions. I did not look at reproductions of the painting between sessions. I did not read anything about the painting or its artist. I allowed my perceptions only what they could gather from the canvas itself. I was sufficiently astonished and perplexed by this experiment that, after I had done with Poussin, I tried the experiment again, this time with a Jackson Pollock drip painting that hung on the Fogg’s second floor. Five hours in four sessions, again with nothing to guide my looking but the paint on the canvas.

I have recently dug up the notes I took in the course of these two experiments. These notes reflect the perplexity of a mind trying to find a place to land, trying to converse with an object that slowly, very slowly, unfolds itself even as it remains stubbornly and suggestively mute. Here I am in the second, the third, the fourth hour with Poussin, discovering details and designs I cannot believe I did not see before. Here I am in my first hour with Pollock, coming to recognize that I have brought to this painting the ways of looking I learned from Poussin. Here I am struggling for hours more to unlearn that foreign way of looking, to submit to Pollock’s own visual language. Here I am contending with the pictorial forms that implacably rise up from Pollock’s splotches and swirls: a long, thin, creaky man, a powerful swooping crawfish of beige, the looming hulk of a tree, a bottomless black congregation of nerves. Here I am—again and again, in the record of these notes—exhausted and restless, contriving every way I can of teasing the canvas before me into a fresh disclosure of its secrets. I look from the right, from the left (Poussin’s painting, I conclude, particularly invites a look from the left), from down below, from very far off, from very close up. I cut out little paintings within the paintings and wonder whether they have visual coherence. In my last session with Pollock, weary with my meditations, I decide to establish exactly how many paints he has applied, in what order, and in how many sessions. After much labor and many discoveries, I answer with assurance: seven paints, in ten applications over seven sessions, in such and such an order. I astonish myself, later, with the discovery of an eighth paint, a blue-gray drizzle that has eluded my notice for hours and that now seems crucial to the success of the whole painting. In my second session with Pollock, I find lodged in the paint a tiny pebble, which I often return to and which I come to regard as mine and Jackson Pollock’s little secret. I long ardently for more Pollocks to look at, for visual conversation partners, anything to force his inarticulate swirls into a grammar, into a kind of differentiation or speaking. I find myself, in the midst of Pollock’s beiges, grays, and blacks, craving vivid reds and greens. In a moment of weakness toward the end of my third hour with Poussin, I sneak a look at the descriptive placard on the museum wall, with the dispiriting result that the painting remains silent as ever. In both paintings, I fall in love with little details and passages that I visit again and again. Above all, I struggle to negotiate with these paintings, to coax them into conversation, to calm my own restlessness, to come to terms with the limitations of my critical vocabularies and efforts. I struggle, in other words, toward some truthful apprehension of the thing itself.

 

III

Since I have become a teacher (of literature, not painting), I have been surprised by how often I talk with my students about the importance of quotation. What I say to them is something like this: you will not write good critical prose unless you quote a lot—and I mean a lot—from the text about which you are writing. If you write a critical essay without packing it full of quotations and detailed observations, you will write badly. Perhaps coherently, perhaps even eloquently, but badly: badly because you will end up thinking not with and through the text at hand, but rather about the text at hand, or, more precisely, about a remembered summary of the text at hand. I find myself saying this not just to my literature students as they set out to write about Shakespeare or Dante or the West African epic, but also to my composition students as they set out to write about places, people, and cultural trends, the stuff of the world in which they live. My word to them is: pack in the details! Look, look, look, and quote, quote, quote. “Load every rift with ore,” as Keats said to Shelley. Or, as Wallace Stevens might say: “not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.”2

The principle at work here is not that an argument needs to be supported by colorful illustrations and evidence. To speak of concrete observations as “illustration” or “evidence” or “support” is to suppose, rather unhelpfully, that an argument exists without or prior to those observations, that the observations are secondary. What if the principle at work here is rather that, unless an argument inheres in and emerges from observed details, it will be able to say nothing beyond what the writer already knows? I have seen plenty of essays about worthy topics—about, let’s say, the father-daughter relationship, or the role of the supernatural, in King Lear—that do their work without quoting much from the play (or that sprinkle a few quotations across the essay’s surface in service of a plot summary, another form of Not Quoting Much From The Play). Here is what these essays tend to have in common: they learn very little from King Lear. They are, ultimately, about what the student could have said about father-daughter relationships, or about the roles of the supernatural, without having read Shakespeare’s play at all.

I have also seen quite a few essays about the uses of a particular word in King Lear—for instance, about “nature,” a word I have sometimes assigned as an essay topic in my Shakespeare courses. Even leaving its many cognates aside, “nature” in its various grammatical forms appears in Shakespeare’s play more than fifty times. It can, in Shakespeare’s hands, have the senses most readily available to us: nature as the material world untouched by human cultivation, or nature as a set of laws governing that material world. But Shakespeare’s play also charges the word with a host of other meanings. Nature in King Lear is a goddess of generation; is a principle of fate or justice; is the arrangement and influence of the stars; is the power that binds children to fathers and sets kings on their thrones; is the source of creation, procreation, and kinship. In this sense nature is order: the kingdom is nature, the family is nature. But then nature, as revealed in the violence of the storm, is also the destroyer of order, even, paradoxically, the destroyer of nature (Lear rages to the storm, “crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once / That makes ingrateful man”). In the language of the revolted children, “nature” signifies the wild energy of copulation, the strumpet goddess of bastards, the bestial impulse to rend and devour, the stench of flesh in decay. Lear, in some ways the key representative of nature as order, comes in his desolation to see the heart of the natural in the naked filth of Mad Tom: “Is man no more than this?” he asks, with lunatic admiration. “Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.” As Lear progressively strips himself and the world around him falls into chaos, “nature” becomes hard to control, complexly charged with meaning and difficulty. How does one summarize what the word means in the moment when the two ruined fathers—the blinded Gloucester and the mad king—meet in the wilderness?

Gloucester: O, let me kiss that hand!
Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.
Gloucester: O ruined piece of nature! (quoted from Wells and Taylor 2005)

In my experience, the further my students and I dig into the language of King Lear, the more starkly we come to see that we cannot capture in any summarizing language what the play means to say about nature. Which brings me back to the difference of essays that devote their energies to the word itself. The essays I have read about “nature” often in fact become essays about, say, the father-daughter relationships in King Lear. But in these essays the energies and tensions of Lear’s relationships with his daughters—the undercurrents of fear, affection, authority, demand, and desire; the ghostly presence of the mother; the godlike aura of the father; the strong pull of misogyny; the language of imprecation and benediction; the gargantuan power of lust; the restorative surprise of love; the metaphors of blood and flesh, soil and race, kin and kingdom—take on peculiar contours that none of us could quite have imagined in the absence of Shakespeare’s play. The difference of these essays from the plot summary essays isn’t simply that the essays about “nature” have more decoration or “evidence.” The difference is rather that the “nature” essays have ventured beyond what the writer already knew, into whatever wild territory Shakespeare has himself set out to discover or explore. The writer has, in other words, come into a kind of conversation with Shakespeare, has undertaken the difficult experiment of entering into someone else’s imaginative act. Her work of criticism is not just an argument but an ­encounter.

 

IV

Which brings me to a second thing that has sometimes, in my teaching, struck me as surprising. I have on occasion found it odd the amount of time I spend thinking and talking with my students about hospitality. My students find it a little odd, too. Many of the things we first think about when we think about “hospitality”—house guests, dinner guests, hotels, casseroles—don’t have much obviously to do with literature or with academic work. But at the root of hospitality is the discipline of acknowledging and attending to others. I frequently encourage my students to think of our courses together as exercises in conversation, as a chance to welcome the voices both of the other readers in this room and of the writers whose work we have gathered to read. Such an approach arises from my hope that collegial conversation can be, for us, more than just a pleasure or a cultural refinement. To be collegial is to look upon the face of the other and see a person there. Real conversation is an ethical act, because in it I acknowledge that the person in front of me is worthy of my attention, that she has a mind as I have. I become patient with her, submit to her pace, enter into her questions and perceptions. I allow myself to be touched by her suffering, enlightened by her wisdom. I learn to attend to her voice, and not merely to my own synopsis or approximation of her voice. I learn that she cannot be reduced, used, or possessed. I learn, in other words, via the practice of humane conversation, something like the practice of attending to the thing itself.

 

V

Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself. This is the burden of my work in teaching poetry. Every work of poetry is, after all, singular. When Shakespeare writes in King Lear about “nature,” or in Hamlet about “seeming,” or in The Merchant of Venice about “bond,” he hasn’t set out to write about themes which we could have summarized and considered without the help of his plays. In a certain sense, he hasn’t set out to write about anything. By digging at “nature” and “seems” and “bond” in the way he does, Shakespeare means to penetrate to the bedrock of those words and of the beliefs, narratives, conventions, and metaphors those words imply. Those words, in his hands, become wild and whirling, self-contradictory, impossible to control. At certain moments they break down altogether, and Shakespeare’s poetry invites us into an apprehension of what Lear calls “the mystery of things,” the plenitude that language pretends, but always fails, to domesticate and contain. Language, like all human institutions, is always decaying, and is always being attenuated, emptied out, in the interests of political and material gain. Think about the extent to which words like “love,” “natural,” “belief,” “free,” “hope,” “good,” and “life” have become, for us, the language of commercial advertising and political propaganda, promises of fulfillment in an act of consumption or assent. Not easily, and not by any natural process, can these words be fitted out to express other, deeper currents of reality: God, creation, friendship, marriage, hatred, fear, earth, death, resurrection, reconciliation. We need poetry.

And we need criticism, because we need the discipline of attending to the thing itself. I wish I knew better how to invite (or harry) my students deeper into the text at hand, into hours of hard, silent, submissive, resistant, responsive contemplation. I sometimes feel tempted to bring our text into the classroom and simply read it. Does not Lear say Lear, and Hamlet Hamlet, better than we ourselves could? Is not the first task simply to attend? But this is difficult. Real attention seems, after all, to involve necessarily a kind of transformation or translation, as I learned in my hard exchanges with Jackson Pollock and Nicolas Poussin. It isn’t enough to look at the thing. I have to gain some purchase on it, write and rewrite it for myself, find a place to plant my feet. The same must have been true for Shakespeare himself. I imagine him puzzling over Hamlet for years after, trying to make sense of what the play has discovered. No doubt he wrote plays such as Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and The Tempest, not to mention Lear itself, partly for that reason. In a sense, those plays are our first pieces of Hamlet criticism. Their author would perhaps have been glad for the further help of many critics to come.

At the same time, he must also have known that an answer to the riddles of Hamlet is not satisfactorily possible beyond the language of the play itself. Why else would he have written it, especially as the unplayable and outrageous piece of work that it is? The thing is indelible, is simply itself, and we will never quite know how to close the distance between ourselves and the huge opulence of everything the play says and means. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of the best poets of the thing itself and of the incarnate creator who, as Hopkins says in one of his sonnets, “plays in ten thousand places.” Were Hopkins to offer his own summary of what Hamlet or King Lear says, he might find it enough to recall the declaration he hears, in that same sonnet, resounding out from every mortal thing:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came. 3

Here, then, is your summary: myself it speaks and spells. Which is to say, there is no summary. Just look at your fish.

 

Jason Crawford is Assistant Professor of English at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.

 

Works Cited

Louis Agassiz as Teacher. Ithaca: Comstock Publishing, 1917.

Gardner, W. H., ed. Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins. London and New York: Penguin, 1985.

Garraty, John and Mark Carnes, eds. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1910.

Johnson, Allen, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner’s, 1928.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Vol. 3. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Wells, Stanley and Gary Taylor, eds. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.

 

Endnotes

1. For the main outlines of Agassiz’s life, see: Johnson 1928; Garraty and Carnes 1999. Agassiz was also a controversial figure, and his anti-Darwinism and unhappy theories about race have led, more recently, to the disappearance of his name from some public institutions. I quote Longfellow from The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1876), and Holmes’s “At the Saturday Club” from The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes (1910).

2. This being the title of a poem in Stevens’s collection The Rock. See: Stevens 1990.

3. I quote “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” from Gardner 1985. I have omitted Hopkins’s accent marks from the final quoted line.

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