Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation
Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler
This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.
“Mind Is the Cabin”: Substance and Success in Post-Thoreauvian Second Homes (Randall Roorda)
Abstract: This essay explores how the core story of solitary retreat – an instance of what Kenneth Burke terms “the paradox of substance” – is enacted in cabin books from three historical junctures, books that are ‘post-Thoreauvian’ in how they adhere to or thwart expectations as to the framing and success of the endeavor.
1. A Portent
Into a container of takeout Kung Pao tofu the slip from a fortune cookie has dropped. I pull it out oily and orange and read: “Now is a good time for a bit of solitude.”
This is fortune indeed. It’s always now when you read this “now,” isn’t it? And “now” is always a “bit,” succeeded by further bits when what is here is taken as now: we champ at such bits. As for “solitude”: isn’t that the essence of “now”? “Now is a good time for a bit of company”: is that even a fortune? What among others would seem incidental – this wayward paper slip – figures as a portent since I happen to be alone. Now is a good time to begin that piece about solitude.
Longing for solitude is a fortune-cookie nostrum: What is it that makes the urge to be alone the stuff of mass production? Chinese takeout means dishes to pass, but a fortune cookie is yours alone. You might look around you at family or associates in half-spoken pecking order, read your fortune and say, yes, a bit, now is a good time. And if not now (I’m busy now) then soon.
When you say this, what do you imagine? Perhaps your home, your quarters (you’re drawn in quarters) but with others evacuated. But don’t they still impinge? Your home is a midden-heap mob scene rolled into a ball that like a scarab you roll about. Sisyphus in a circus ring. It’s what Henry David Thoreau said you drag down the road. Your home won’t do. Neither will a walk, if your route is a yoyo’s ambit from home, from that kitchen where takeout awaits, those containers. Granted a taste, you want to feed. A bit makes you greedy for a bite, a helping, the whole dish. You may feel you could go into solitude and never come back, never, except to say, see? It was a good time! I was fine alone. Then tell the others just how fine you were.
2. Second Homes
The cabin scenario is perennial in appeal – perennial, not eternal, like a plant that speciates, propagates, and eventually goes extinct. From its taproot in Thoreau’s Walden (1854), it swells and insinuates. These days, it’s flourishing. We could say it’s a big moment for cabins: note the tiny house movement, the Cabin Porn group with its web presence and picture book (Klein, Lessart, and Kalina), popular solo cabin books in the US (Axelrod) and Europe (Tesson) alike. Yet when since William Wordsworth has it not been a big moment for cabins? Their past shadows their present, their solo valence shades into social formations.
Post-Thoreau and through the turn of the nineteenth century, a rash of instantiations of the urge to retreat took shape, second-home cabins prominent among them. The flush subsided before World War I but never ebbed altogether: “the myth remained as a significant part of American culture” (Schmitt 188). “Besides a second bathroom, a second telephone, and a second car, many American families either own or are planning to acquire a second home away from home” (Walton 13). So opens a book on cabins I have, a how-to guide from the Sixties. It was the time of the A-frame, which this guide contains plans for. This stripped-down structure was all the rage, the most basic imaginable. Fortune indeed: first letter and first structure coinciding, such that making this frame spells going back to Go.
The cabin is Go, what you look back to – Thoreau, Arcadia, last weekend – back to point A. Back to a second presence felt in the second home, if you follow your fortune, go alone, and return to tell. Post-Thoreau, that’s in the plans.
3. Post-Thoreauvian Cabins
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. (Thoreau, Walden 323)
What might ‘post-Thoreauvian’ mean? Not that the Walden script, the second home in nature, is obsolete: it’s going strong. It could mean that since Walden, cabin tales are self-evidently post-Thoreauvian, just because they come afterward. For genre, this ramifies. Each member of a genre is a study of conditions that give rise to it, yet Thoreau’s account does not just study genre conditions, it doubles back to comprise them, part and parcel thereof. Walden sets terms for how we read these books, acknowledged or not. By post-Thoreauvian, in part I mean just this.
But if conditions shift, so genres do, by adaptation as it were, as finch beaks get selected for stoutness given nuts tough to crack. Some cabin books turn post-Thoreauvian in that the retreat scenario gets tougher to crack. Recipes for success ← 188 | 189 → can’t be followed, ingredients can’t be found, the dish doesn’t turn out like it did. What are these post-Thoreauvian concoctions, these latter-day tales of solo second homes? How are they made? What successes, unexpected or not, do they portend?
This essay will take up solo cabin books from three junctures over the twentieth century. First, there’s Henry Beston’s The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (1928). From the post-WWI trough of the fin-de-siècle nature wave, it stands for that era in nature writing canons: post-Thoreauvian in adherence to type. Then there’s The Clam Lake Papers: A Winter in the North Woods (1977) by Edward Lueders, coincident with the post-Earth Day back-to-nature movement, from which issued canonical nature-solitude books by Annie Dillard and Edward Abbey. Once touted for its Thoreauvian temper, the book has left print and turned obscure for reasons (I’d say) concerning its turns from Thoreauvian protocol. Finally, Charles Siebert’s Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral (1996) postdates the ozone hole and anticipates the ‘anthropocene’ – dents in prospects for human-free nature retreat. All three depict solo figures in second homes, vacation places turned to other than leisure use – not unlike Walden, since the pondside cabin was effectually a time-share, a hiatus from family home.
4. Substance and Retreat
In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line. (Thoreau, Walden 17)
Here are premises I want to develop through these books – a bare scheme, like an A-frame.
“[T]o front only the essential facts of life” (90): this is Walden’s statement of intent. “Front” is outside, “essential” is within. The core story of retreat in nature is this: “fronting the essential facts” of what’s not you will expose what includes you and so disclose what is you. The story is perennial as an instance of what Kenneth Burke calls the “paradox of substance.” Says Burke, “the word ‘substance,’ used to designate what a thing is, derives from a word designating something that a thing is not.” What’s “intrinsic” to something – its “substance” – is defined by what is “extrinsic”: its sub-stance, what it stands upon. Burke deems this “an inevitable paradox of definition, an antinomy that must endow the concept of substance with unresolvable ambiguity.” Trafficking across antinomies produces “a strategic moment, an alchemic moment, wherein momentous miracles of transformation can take place” (23–24). It is especially telling in discourse on ‘nature,’ senses of which encompass both ends of this antinomy: nature as great outdoors, nature as innate disposition.1 ← 189 | 190 →
Transformation attending a strategic moment: “the nick of time,” followed by “notch.” This suggests plot, if only of one moment succeeding another. Like fractals, nick-to-notch micro-plots play out at macro-levels as well. Thoreau’s core plot is what I have called a “narrative of retreat,” its logic consonant with the paradox of substance. John Muir encapsulates it: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in” (qtd. in Wolfe 439). Go out as far as you can, and transformation ensues, a “going in”: a recognition of such, something found. This recognition constitutes “success unexpected in common hours.” Thoreauvian retreat is a success story: you find what you left for.
The cabin scenario is key to narratives of retreat. Materially, the cabin enables solitude requisite to ‘fronting’: shelter and sustenance. Rhetorically, the cabin is synecdoche for the heightened interior, the ‘finding’ sought in retreat. Narratively, the cabin is the site of its staging, its performance. You follow the plot, the outcome. You see how you might do it yourself: make time for a bit of solitude.
The cabin is in practice rarely and in principle never a primary residence. It’s a second home, in fact and as synecdoche. Practically, the cabin orbits the family home: A-frames proliferate once the frontier closes and cabins are something to look back on. In principle, the cabin drama is necessarily punctuated, for it depends on the break from solitude – recognition, not cognition – enacted in verbal performance. The cabin as first home implies hermits, and hermits are bores. Those who don’t emerge don’t report. The second home is a scene of writing, its subject a second presence not found in common hours. The punctuated character, the secondness of solitude is crucial to the cabin scenario – permutation of a doubleness that Thoreau, in Walden’s chapter “Solitude,” remarks. How success at this works out in post-Thoreauvian cabins, we shall see.
5. Beston’s Success
Beston constructs his dream house, advances confidently in the direction of a builder, and has it made to his specifications. It’s the utmost, the outermost house, like Walden as Thoreau imagines it: “Solitary and elemental, unsullied and remote, … the end or the beginning of a world” (1–2). It’s understood these qualities are ones this writer would acquire, this nick of time (end or beginning) one he’d stand on and notch with his pen.
His specifications bespeak his desire. He’s nuts about windows, crams ten into a two-room place. He gives the place a name: “the Fo’castle” (6). The name (which means site of a ship’s pilothouse) is suggestive: this cabin is trig like a yacht’s; the dune is a craft steered through trackless seas. The house tropes the occupant’s ← 190 | 191 → presence, a head with windows as compound eyes. The cabin is synecdoche for heightened interior, ‘substantiated’ through outside prospects. For this, “fo’castle” is exact.
His personal history is incidental; this is fronting, not backing up. We don’t learn how the writer finds leisure to frequent Cape Cod: “it came about that I found myself free to visit there, and so I built myself a house upon the beach” (6). “It came about”: that’s like “once upon a time.” He vacations there, then stays put:
I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go. The world to-day is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things … The longer I stayed, the more eager I was to know this coast and to share its mysterious and elemental life; I found myself free to do so, I had no fear of being alone … presently I made up my mind to remain and try living for a year on Eastham Beach. (10–11)
He only went out for vacation, and concluded to stay out all year. He is “possessed”: an “outer sea” holds from within. His motive for staying is to “share” what’s “elemental” with deprived moderns eager for A-frames. This is Thoreauvian, a gentler version of rousing desperate masses.
Like Walden, Beston’s book observes the conceit of a year unfolding by seasons, crossed with topical discussions. It is episodic, not cumulative, and so has no climax as such, rather a concluding anthem in which themes are re-invoked and morals ascribed. Time’s depth, expanse, and suspension are foremost, nick and notch of eternities: “Creation is here and now.” Alchemy of substance pervades retrospection: “And because I had known this outer and secret world … reverence and gratitude greater and deeper than ever possessed me” (220).
It’s a success story, like Thoreauvian retreat in general. Walden is retrospective – an account after the fact – and what’s looked back upon, never in doubt, is the outcome. Success is heralded from the outset, the writer’s purpose to answer neighbors clamoring with questions on his return. Just one episode bespeaks the least uncertainty: the moment from “Solitude” in which a tinge of loneliness is perceived “as a slight insanity in my mood” (131), arising just after he’s missed visitors to his cabin. The crisis passes, and what follows is rapture and communion, “an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me” (132). It is “success unexpected,” in the nick of time: the Thoreauvian script in fine.
Beston adheres to it. His book is introduced as an outcome, a success. He too has undergone a trial associated with visitors – coast guard patrols who drop in most days. He is more forthcoming about both solitude’s difficulty (“It is not easy to live alone”) and its degree (“I made no pretence of acting the conventional hermit”) (95). But he does not dwell on this hardship, and in his account, too, ← 191 | 192 → the mood is succeeded by rapture and communion: “I lived in the midst of an abundance of natural life … and from being thus surrounded … I drew a secret and sustaining energy” (95). The word “sustaining” occurs in both paeans, an image of substance: what’s outside supporting what’s vital within.
If success is predictable, how is it unexpected? For one thing, it comes all of a sudden. The nearest thing to a climax in The Outermost House comes in its best known chapter, “Night on the Great Beach,” with the writer reporting a literally exceptional sensation during a storm viewed through cabin windows:
[T]hat night there came over me, for the first and last time of all my solitary year, a sense of isolation and remoteness from my kind … Under the violences of light the great dunes took on a kind of elemental passivity, the quiet of earth enchanted into stone … I felt, as never before, a sense of the vast time, of the thousands of cyclic and uncounted years which had passed since these giants had risen from the dark ocean at their feet. (187)
If this is a climax, that’s because it’s a onetime event in a round of recognitions that are “cyclic,” habitual. Moreover, it’s climactic in that the logic of retreat attains closure – the expected outcome to a tale of unexpected success. Retreat to nature is a quest to lose the human, and in “remoteness from my kind,” that is fulfilled.
Further, while the script has precedent, the sentences surprise. He couldn’t have seen them coming. They are of a sort liable to happen to a person alone in a shack on a beach – a windowed scene of writing. We know they happened there because the author says so, in his foreword to their twentieth-anniversary reprinting: they are “set down in long hand on the kitchen table overlooking the North Atlantic and the dunes” (xxvii). The book met with success unexpected in hours of its composition. It proved key to preservation of that beach. Built on sand, the house was moved twice before it washed away in a storm. A reconstruction has been made, a tourist site and shrine, like the cabin replica at Walden Pond. Yet like the house, the book The Outermost House is a vulnerable landmark. Its sentences erode in collective estimation. They’re inscribed in what Siebert in Wickerby calls “ledgers of impermanence” (13). In the storm, apprehending deep time, their maker would have felt this coming. We see Walden headed there, too – try teaching it to freshmen. That too is foreseen and accepted by its maker: “One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels” (Thoreau, Walden 11). Like wrecks at Cape Cod.
6. Lueders’s Doubleness
I am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another … When the play – it may be the tragedy of life – is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction. (Thoreau, Journal 146) ← 192 | 193 →
Lueders quotes this passage from Thoreau’s The Journal (a version of one in “Solitude”) as an epigraph to the epilogue of The Clam Lake Papers. Its pertinence depends on knowing how the volume is framed. Epilogue is one support, a prologue another. A narrator, presumably Lueders, claims to be “the editor of this book,” his intent “to blend into the landscape of the work …, to disappear.” A professor, he owns a cabin in Wisconsin which he flees to seasonally for Thoreauvian ends, “a retreat to the self.” Here, he reports, “an author who needed to write got to do so because I provided him the place … in which he could follow his concerns wherever they might lead” (3–4). Where they have led, he alleges, is to this book, written by someone else.
This is the conceit of discovered papers, used in some novels to establish persona – “a kind of fiction.” “Disappear” indeed: this is clearly Lueders’s own book. In this prologue he concocts a story about arriving at the cabin and finding that, like a scribbling Goldilocks, some unknown party has contrived to enter and winter there. Evidence is twofold: exhausted food stores and a table full of papers. A persona, then. But this persona does not declare itself, leaves no trace of personal identity in the papers or the three letters addressed to Lueders likewise deposited, placed at the volume’s start, middle, and end: an A-frame.
The first letter declares the intruder’s motive: “I have some business here or, rather, a need to be apart from business anywhere else – to balance out an account or two. If nothing else, I should have myself to myself for a spell, with insulation” (18). Thoreauvian strains prevail, in the trope of the solitary’s “business” (a running gag in Walden) and in the suggestion of doubleness, a self having itself to itself, with ambiguity as to whether “insulation” envelops or intervenes in this relation. Yet there is also a departure attendant on this framing conceit. In Thoreau (and Beston) the cabin experience, reported in retrospect, is declared a success from the start. Success warrants the reporting: why report if it’s failed? In the scenario of the The Clam Lake Papers, by contrast, there’s suspense. The conceit of the intruder makes this writing a clue. It is remarkable the effect this has: you know this is a set-up by the professor, that it’s his solitude, his sentences the The Clam Lake Papers contain, and still you read them as if they’d been left by a trespasser. As per another epigraph (from Wallace Stevens), we “know that it is a fiction and … believe in it willingly” (2).
The book is composed in sections – most shorter than a page, some just moments or aphorisms – separated by snowflake characters like intricate asterisks. Outdoor incidents, topical observations, abstract inquiries: a scrapbook with through-lines. Sections seem composed consecutively, yet that effect is circumstantial, unbacked by chronology, human encounters, any regime besides writing ← 193 | 194 → alternating with walks. The figure of the cabin as windowed scene of writing is distilled: it is a book not about but made of the moments of its making.
A prevailing through-line concerns metaphor (the metaphorical imperative) in contrast with analogy:
Analogy: My mind is like the cabin I am living in; my thoughts are like its furnishings.
Metaphor: My mind is the cabin I am living in, furnished by my thoughts. (38)
Analogy spells reason and “metrics,” metaphor relatedness and “rhythmics” (40), to speak broadly. In posing resemblances, there is such a thing as false analogy; a metaphor cannot be false, just better or worse, since it is a fiction from inception: “Metaphor trades in belief. In the middle of belief is lie” (47). Intruder is a lie for mind in solitude; mind is the cabin; cabin is locus of transformations of substance, rhythmics between interior and exterior, figured repeatedly in attention to states of awareness, which is acute:
The longer I go through my solitary rounds and days here, the more the focus of my activity blends with what seemed at the outset an inhospitable setting. My isolation in this winter fastness presses my consciousness back upon itself … I become a society of one, but the isolation also turns my attention and sentimental attachments outward in new ways … I am joined to the society of sounds that accompany all my movements … the sharp consonants of the typewriter’s clacking response as I fix these very remarks on the page, alternating the open vowel silences between the words with the strokes of the keys. (52–53)
Under winter’s motive stillness, opposition of interior and exterior (“inhospitable setting”) gives way to relatedness and “society,” through turns at once “outward” and “back upon” self. There is a rhythm of typing sounds with “vowel silences” – outer and inner voice. “Society” is a figure of doubleness, the cabin’s sounds assuming speaking parts, making theater of sensation. Doubleness is solitude’s hallmark, what differentiates it from loneliness, as Thoreau insists: “I never found the companion so companionable as solitude” (Walden 135). It’s a paradox this writer confirms: “In solitude I become sociable and candid. I converse quite successfully” (23). The intruder persona – the second home’s second presence – dramatizes this doubleness.
Doubleness as alchemical, effecting transformation: at a certain level of generality, all narratives of retreat enact such moments. Still, the intensity with which it pursues consciousness “pressing back,” and the conceit of the second presence as metonymy for solitude, make The Clam Lake Papers an outlier: post-Thoreauvian. Dust jacket comparisons to Walden and Dillard mislead. The book has their earmarks but confounds expectations – as strange to readers as to itself.
Back to suspense: the other shoe dropping, another way The Clam Lake Papers is post-Thoreauvian. Its opening – papers on a table – conjures a mystery, inviting ← 194 | 195 → return to (doubling back on) the scene of the crime. It’s a scene of writing – a trespass bent on enacting some private (non)business, no word on what that might be: hence suspense. What transpires is not that riveting: the conceit contrives mystery from what is mainly a stack of papers. Yet there’s suspense as to where, in its accumulation, this writing is headed. The writer feels it: “If I keep it up, where will it go? … Along what paths will my wondering take me?” (23). The entries do not describe but rather constitute those paths, and there is lambent suspense in tracing their motion, their relatedness: what happens next.
Do they lead to success? Toward the book’s end, that’s still unsettled:
Am I really doing anything these days? I largely ignore the place, the shifts of weather, the snow-still woods, and the hidden life in it … The more I move into abstract conjecture … the less I am concerned with what pleased me most when I first arrived … Am I occupied or merely preoccupied? Am I any closer to knowing what I came for, or am I somehow losing ground? (129)
There’s creeping anomie, intellectualized cabin fever. Substance rides herd over sub-stance: he’s losing touch. Are paths trailing into dead ends? Where is the way out?
As the book closes, a way opens – recovery of ground. The writer is “awakened by a mysterious confluence of sounds in the night and words in my mind,” sounds coextensive with the place, its creatures and elements, the words a reverberating phrase: “Common ground.” He rises with alacrity and writes “to follow that unbidden calling, the promise, the peculiar mandate” that roused him. It “is elusive and pulls back,” but he retrieves what he can. Chiefly, he’s possessed by “the compelling echo of wholeness in the phrase that held my mind,” that “revelation” – occupied, not preoccupied thereby (138–39).
After abstraction and preoccupation, there’s conversion after all, one that does not surpass but crystallizes around words – wolf-howl, wind-rise, coalescing about a phrase, like snowflake with dust mote. An apotheosis of ground, sub-stance to substance. An exterior recognition follows the interior, the writer walking outside and finding a bear – or rather, “a faint mist of steam” from the den where one hibernates (141). He’s suspected and sought it all along, so its appearance is both portent and device, a sign of closure.
Success, then: post-Thoreauvian in deferment, arch-Thoreauvian in upshot. In his last letter, the intruder confirms, “I have about finished what I came for, that is I have found it cannot be finished” (143). But the editor claims the last word. Failing to locate the trespasser, who has “returned to his anonymity and oblivion,” he muses that even were he to “meet him face to face,” he could not say: “I should ← 195 | 196 → not know him from Adam” (148). This recalls Walden’s first page, how it’s “always the first person that is speaking” (3) – first person, face to face in a second home.
7. Siebert’s Nature
In adapting to genre conditions, The Clam Lake Papers is not really the stout beak I promised, more a needle-nosed instrument extracting deep seeds. It’s endangered. The tough nut for nature retreat these days is ‘nature’ itself, its celebrated end, whether bemoaned (McKibben) or espoused (Morton). My last book takes a crack at that.
Wickerby’s provocation appears on its dust jacket, a selling point: “There is no such thing as nature … There is just the earth and us, the name-callers, standing upon it, calling those places without us, nature.” A divide is imposed between terms of antinomy: interiorized “name-callers” and exterior earth, what we are “standing upon.” Warrant for nature’s nonexistence is found in identity between human and non-human creations, skyscrapers and trees both “habitable outgrowths of the same skyward longing” (80). This is Wickerby’s prevailing note.
It is skyscrapers inciting Siebert as he writes: that’s what he’s looking at, a view of Manhattan. Like Thoreau, Beston, and Lueders, Siebert frames his book retrospectively. But where the first two look back on entire success and the third contrives suspense before affirming success, Wickerby is different. The book is framed by an encompassing conceit, as if the whole thing were written in a single present-tense stretch: the evening of the writer’s return to Brooklyn after five months alone at Wickerby. In cabin sections there’s not a present-tense episode anywhere, even though all he did there (besides wander and get soused) is write. The device is as much a fiction as is Lueders’s double (no one writes two hundred pages in one evening) yet differently inflected, its effect to announce not success or suspense but essentially failure. Not Walden’s “Solitude” but “Contact!” (71) in The Maine Woods’ “Ktaadn” is tutelary, and the bifurcations in an entry from The Journal from which Siebert draws his epigraph: “We soon get through with Nature. She excites an expectation which she cannot satisfy” (263). From an opening report of terror experienced not from tangible danger but from “too much time alone” (4), to a closing tour of “places where I got so roundly outwaited, so gently rebuked” in solitude (211), success is arrested in Wickerby; alienation and melancholy prevail.
This is one feature that makes Wickerby post-Thoreauvian: its upending of the script of solitude’s solace. Another concerns personal history, not effaced but foregrounded here. The cabin called Wickerby belongs to his fiancée, her family’s second home. Bex left for Africa and has been gone longer than expected. Missing her dreadfully, his Brooklyn street dug up and impassable, Siebert is anxious, resentful, ← 196 | 197 → and desperate. He has no choice; he’ll ditch the ditch and show her. It’s revenge retreat, a Foreign Legion of one. His exterior, the cabin, proves decrepit. His interior, his consciousness, “begins to contract, harden, to form a protective shell around the altogether unnatural condition of loneliness” (5). His mind is the cabin: a carapace around vacancy. It’s a thwarted doubling, consciousness hard-pressed on itself.
He soon gets through with Nature but not with Bex. His account of the cabin is addressed to her. The conceit is that it’s handwritten in “the ledgers of impermanence” (13): the so-called Wickerby diary, found in the cabin and removed to the flat, where his time without her can be recounted to Bex before it evanesces, along with collapsing cabin and other castles in air. His sentences, incidentally, are a glory: though presented as post facto, they show virtues of having been entered on site by an eloquent solitary with time to kill, albeit time he finds trackless and estranging.
Impermanence, castles in air: these are leitmotifs of this book and its moment.2 Thoreau says it’s fine to build castles in air, just put foundations under them: enact them in practice (324). Yet nature’s demise makes theatrical extremity or facile primitivism out of retreat: a tough nut. The cabin’s foundation is crumbling, its ruin portended; it could be gone already as he writes, its phone ringing to an empty field. Interpenetration of country and city is figured in images of structures both built in and founded on air: longed for, imaginary, evanescent. One analog to the collapsing cabin is the man with the house of refuse – a homeless guy who has concocted a dwelling on the sidewalk below Siebert’s flat, with furnishings, jury-rigged perimeters, a floor space he scrupulously sweeps. On rooftops above are pigeon mumblers, who build sheds next to the roosts, cabins of sorts, and spend hours releasing their flocks to points beyond telling, then awaiting their return, waving them in. Such portents abound.
Mumblers are isolates but comprise a community as well. They instantiate what Patrick Murphy takes as moral from Wickerby: that “the experience of retreat” need not be “a solitary discovery,” might rather be “a family experience,” attainable “in Brooklyn as well as anywhere else.” Murphy adduces the book as corrective to Thoreau, whom he faults for neglecting “the fundamental physiological nature of human beings as interdependent social creatures” (21–22). There is something to this, of course. It is true that Siebert hopes to return to Wickerby with Bex, as family. And I have read of scientific research that deems loneliness physical pain, selected through evolution to chase singles back to the fold. Yet talk of what’s “fundamental” should give pause. Thoreau himself is no fundamentalist on this score. Jane Bennett is defter on him, finding Thoreau’s evoking of ‘nature’ to be “mobile, deceptive, and complex,” his unilateral pronouncements (such as Siebert’s epigraph, “We soon get through with Nature”) undercut by insinuation with ethical import (22). “Through ← 197 | 198 → with Nature” comes in the midst of The Journal – a watershed moment, not conclusion. Nature has more lives to live in his work.3
Antinomies of definition, Burke cautions, “will be discovered lurking beneath any vocabulary designed to treat of motivation by the deliberate outlawing of the word for substance” (24). So it is with ‘nature’: if it’s proscribed, equivalents crop up unbidden and circulate, working alchemy. They work as what Bennett calls “crossings,” spun off when plying “pure categories of nature and culture” produces “strange and mobile complexes of the given and the made” (96). Wickerby is rife with such crossings, generated by pure proscription of nature rather than pure Thoreauvian approbation. It is not anti- but post-Thoreauvian this way.
This goes for retreat as well: proscribed, solitude resurfaces in crossings, in transitory moments and figures. The ascetic imperative impelling retreat is not foreign but proper to culture. It “raises the issue of culture,” disclosing how “an integral part of cultural experience is a disquiet, an ambivalent yearning” for some extracultural state (Harpham xii), some sub-stance. It structures an opposition of temptation and resistance. When Siebert recoils from solitude – finding no purchase in its blank expanse, no nick to notch on his stick – its temptations surface as portents across the cityscape. They circulate through rhythmics, figurative ingenuities, verbal extravagance. “Extra vagance! It depends on how you are yarded” (Thoreau, Walden 324). What is “extra vagance” if not portent-making? Resistance to how you are yarded, gesturing toward the ulterior. Portents get formulated from happenstance in solitude – what distinguishes solitude from loneliness, that moments come to portend.
For solitude Siebert was ill-prepared, we might say; it wasn’t a good time and it was more than a bit. Yet he succeeds at last, on terms consistent with his premises. Going out, he finds what he went for, only he finds it back in Brooklyn: all there, but “all in the margins” (214). Only among others can he comprehend solitude, only in solitude apprehend the city. It’s a dilemma which alchemical crossings of substance both bear out and belie, in words that do not describe but comprise occasions. To Siebert, language and consciousness are a fall inscribed on our DNA, “that one catch, squiggle, snag” that spurs invention yet ropes us off from the rest of creation (143). He laments this incessantly. Yet snags work two ways: to trip you up or fix you to larger things. Purifying a rift between substance and sub-stance, Siebert spins crossings that belie the divide. Such portents are fortune indeed. “Belie” approaches “believe.” What you take out, you eat in.
8. Words About the House
“We soon get through with Nature.” The contention is echoed, not without irony, in expressions prevailing in environmental criticism these days: ‘post-nature’, ‘ecology ← 198 | 199 → without nature’, ‘post-human’. ‘Post-organism’, we might as well say. For the pas de deux of individuation in context, of container with thing contained, is perennial.
Take “ecology without nature” (Morton). However striking as a slogan and program for environmental action, it amounts to a strategic recasting of the paradox of substance. ‘Ecology’ comes from oikos, the Greek word for ‘house’: ‘words about the house,’ roughly speaking (Worster 192). Put everything into the house, all of creation, and up crops some hors de oikos, an outside-of-house, a sub-stance to reckon with. A second home, as it were, surpassing while turning back upon the first. Something like ‘nature’ is bound to entitle this dynamic, this shuttling between ‘apart’ and ‘a part.’ It’s what stories of cabin solitude, early and late, enact. We don’t soon get through with that.
1. This holds true for ‘wilderness’ as well, see my “Antinomies of Participation in Literacy and Wilderness” (2007). The “narrative of retreat,” in the following paragraph, is elaborated in my Dramas of Solitude: Narratives of Retreat in American Nature Writing (1998). The “cabin as windowed scene of writing,” also below, is discussed there, too. I run a small herd of key terms which I am circling up here.
In language of nature, we crisscross poles of substance, featuring one or another by turns: language on or as exterior or interior:
On exterior = natural history. On interior = phenomenology.
As exterior = amanuensis. As interior = idealism. Airtight.
2. Additionally, its moment – since designated the anthropocene – informs this book. Imperiled biodiversity, climate change, human-machine interrelations, genetics as entelechy and more, all crop up as topics while inflecting its temper.
3. It’s worth noting that what Siebert adduces as epigraph leads, in Thoreau’s entry, to reflection expressly on antinomies of definition with ‘nature,’ traffic between inside and out: “This earth which is spread out like a map around me is but the lining of my inmost soul exposed. In me is the sucker that I see” (Thoreau, Journal 264). ← 199 | 200 →
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