Who was it said the artist holds a mirror up to nature? Or was it society, not nature, reflected there? I guess I can’t remember the mirror.
In the middle ages monks performed feats of great emotion in front of mirrors to study the physiology of the face in moments of ecstasy, awe, horror, happiness, surprise, despair. I’m sure the list goes on. One of the questions about the nature of the will that has long fascinated me regards the limits of its force. I can move my arm on purpose while saying inside my head, “Now I’ll move my arm.” But I can also say inside my head, “Now I’ll move my arm,” and let my arm keep resting on the arm of the chair. I can stand in front of mirror and tell myself to feel an emotion strongly, for example, guilt. I imagine I’d need to imagine what in my life I feel most guilty about, and then wait for the moment my face registers what I feel inside myself. But I can also imagine making a face that looks like guilt, and feeling nothing at all.
Not long ago after a scandal at the writer’s conference I overheard a student of mine say to his friend, “You feel like being a man means you shouldn’t write.” By “you” he meant “I.”
During a more recent scandal a student sat in my office crying. She’d read post after post on the internet written in ALL CAPS. She said to me, “They say being white means I shouldn’t write poems, and I see their point, but it feels awful.” I could see in her face that the sentence was true. She felt awful. “What should I do?”
Sometimes what brings most comfort is to mirror back to the person in pain his or her pain. To show in your face their face. So I mentioned Emerson. In his essay “Fate,” Emerson asks: “How shall I live?” Then she looked at me and I looked at her and some time passed in which what was yet unsaid remained unsaid.
Thinking about the difference between those two questions—what should I do? how shall I live?—so nearly the same, so vastly separate, I found myself walking over the green hills carrying a mirror in both arms. I was living the life of the artist—showing nature to herself, showing to any person who came before me her own nature. But as hard as I tried to turn the mirror around I couldn’t. I kept saying in my head, “Now I’ll turn the mirror around,” but I couldn’t. It was hard to walk that way up the gentle slope, staring at myself so long that all emotion left my face, and all that was left was the labor of carrying the image of my own face in front of me, expressing nothing, just blank, not blank, I mean it was just a white face, a white man’s face, a face built around whiteness.
Fell asleep again in a chair, reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: “. . . all the things of the body are as a river, and the things of the soul as a dream and a vapor . . .”
In the morning the girls play a game I’ve never seen before. Hana tells Iris: “Now you lie face down on the ground, and don’t struggle, or I’ll have to sit on your back.” Iris struggles. She says she doesn’t want to be arrested. “I’m arresting you and I’m going to have to put you in jail if you struggle.” “But I didn’t do anything,” Iris says. “Yes, you did,” says Hana. “What did I do?” “You know,” Hana says. Iris stops struggling. “Get up.” Iris gets up. “I’m taking you to your cell.” “What’s a cell?,” Iris asks. Hana puts her in the shower and closes the door. “This is a cell.” I guess she got solitary. “Let me out! Let me out!” Iris yells. “Only if you say sorry.” “But I didn’t do anything.” “Yes, you did.” “I’m sorry,” Iris says. “No, you’re not.”
I don’t know to play along. I mean, I don’t know if I should play along, or if it’s a game that should be played. I say, “You’ll have to be let out for work duty.”
Iris and I bundle up to shovel snow. Whiteness over everything. We work in silence, just the noise of the shovel edge scraping the whiteness away, leaving a different whiteness underneath. A broken whiteness. Then I hear a song. Very quiet, then louder. It’s Iris, singing the ABCs.
That song of all labor.
Robert Frost writes: “The bird would cease and be as other birds / Save in singing he knows not to sing.”
In singing not to sing.
The poem is “Oven Bird.” In guidebooks the song of the oven bird is transliterated as teacher, teacher, teacher.
Teacher, teach me how in song not to sing.
Those once sung about long forgotten. Not a vestige remains of ways of life that seemed, when lived, endless. Powers dispersed into air—of souls, of nations. Subtleties and beauties, of poem and of face, affection most tender and passion most violent, no whisper even remains. Whole nations leave no trace. The languages they spoke that held on their tongues whole citadels of philosophy, entire edifices of truth, crumbled into less than ruin. Not even rumors remain. Not even a word on a potsherd. The stone becomes less than the air.
I can’t breathe.
Trying to find in what is comfortless some comfort, I read Marcus Aurelius, who reminds me by reminding himself to keep a proper perspective, to be gentle in what has no gentleness. The Stoics believe that Nature is all. The word in Greek, Φυσις, means both how the universe works and how a person does, implies a reciprocity that the laws that govern the stars govern us, that the sun, the moon, the invisible spheres, all also exist within, and as absurd as it is to say, it is nonetheless true, that the extant of my arm’s reach is no less than the abysmal distance between galaxies. Who doesn’t contain the universe entire? Law governs us both.
I can’t stand up.
Astronomy sees more now than it did in 2nd century Rome, when those versed in the nature of the universe could only look up at the sky and watch it night-long to learn the mysteries there. Now we know vast order contains vaster violence. Galaxies consume one another, as do suns other suns, as do planets moons. Billions of stars spin around a massive black hole into whose depths lights itself pours. Absence at the center of most things, and the absence repeats. Everywhere is like this. And unlike Marcus Aurelius urging us to think about the isolate point that is the earth, it seems most stars are circled by planets, whole worlds in orbit, lifeless each. Against the light that fills the eye, most of the mass of the universe is dark matter, which scientists know is real, despite the theory being the only proof—that theory that without it, nothing could exist, including the scientists thinking the thought. “One philosopher goes without a shirt, a second without a book, a third yonder half-naked: says he, I am starving for bread, yet cleave I fast to reason.” Now that the universe is less reasonable, nakedness is what the philosopher wears on the inside. Let’s say the principle holds. I’m walking around every day with whole worlds inside me, but not one of them yet has been found on which a creature could breathe a single breath. It is more than our graves we carry within us as our weightless burden. There are the empty reaches, too. And the worlds gathered around stars red and blue.
I can’t breathe.
“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid,” writes Melville, in Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick. “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”
Zeus appears as a spotless white bull. Pearls. Marble. For the Persians who worshipped fire the white-forked flame on the altar was holiest. King and Queens drawn by milk white steeds. Justice’s own robe. Color of redemption. Purity. Wisdom. Innocence. Power. Melville gives many more examples. Then he writes, “yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”
I keep thinking that the violence of my hands is my hands. Blood you can wash off. But not whiteness. It’s underneath the blood.
The sailor can be called from his hammock to come and gaze out upon a “midnight sea of milky whiteness.” He cannot rest easy again until blue water is under him. He says it wasn’t the fear of what hid underneath the surface that so frightened him, but the whiteness itself. The white surface in all directions with no end. “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” Then the invisible sometimes makes itself seen. When I imagine it, it is not the moon lending her light to the ocean that colors it so. The whiteness just rises up from within, hidden somewhere in the depths of all things, threatening always to emerge and become the surface. What scares me is that there is something other than depth underneath that sea of milky whiteness. Something no plumb-line can measure. Not a volume. Not an empty book. Somewhere that isn’t anywhere, a placeless place, where the white whale makes his home.
Sometimes I call it whiteness.
The leg Ahab lost still exists in the whale, so slow is the digestive process of the creature. Maybe it’s embalmed in the gut. I guess I don’t know. When he hunts the whale he also hunts himself. Whiteness larger than the white man. He hunts his own condition. Only the witless survive.
I mean the witness.
Sometimes I imagine I’m caught within the white squall of myself, and then I imagine I’m not imagining it. Then there is an eyeless statue in the soul.
We like to say the old gods are blind. But their blindness is our vision.
I keep trying to see my children. I wonder what it is to see them, how I should learn to do it. How to teach them to be, as I am to myself, a kind of whiteness that is a kind of horror, and how to make the horror kind.
How shall I live is not a question they’ve learned to ask. They just live. They don’t yet ask, What should I do?
Some months ago Hana, before bed, asks us about Affirmative Action. These aren’t the words she used. She says it isn’t fair that someone with different color skin might be given something she’s denied only because she is white. She says the sentence like it is a question. We say it is fair. That makes Hana angry. “How can it be fair?” She gives the examples everyone gives to show how it is unfair. We tell her what gets told. The life you have has given you advantages that you’re not aware of, and others haven’t had those benefits. We say the country is built on a history in which other men, women, and children were kept as property, and that the horror of that time persists in inequalities that must be addressed now. “But I didn’t keep slaves. It’s not my fault that happened.” “Yes, it is,” I say; “It’s your fault.” Now she’s yelling. “I didn’t do anything.” “Yes you did,” I say. “No, I didn’t,” she yells. “You’re doing it now,” I say. “What, what am I doing?” “You know.”
An anxious child, my mother once gave me worry stones. Polished rocks in a fake, white velvet bag, cinched shut by a gold cord. When I felt upset I was supposed to take out a stone and rub it until my worry went way. As an adult I’ve wondered what would have happened if I kept rubbing one stone with my thumb and never stopped, if the stone would wear away to nothing, or if my thumb would disappear first.
In speaking not to speak. In reading not to read. In writing not to write.
Now when I write or read I find myself circling my thumb against my index finger. I don’t even know I’m worried until I think to myself, So this is how the stone felt.
In the Extracts and Etymology that preface Moby-Dick, Melville quotes Richard Hackluyt: “While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true.”
One could make the same argument about the word whiteness. If you pronounce it without the silent letter you misspeak egregiously. The whole significance of the word lies in the letter H which lends no part to the tongue, but which the tongue bears, as the mind bears memory, or the heart affection.
Throughout history grammarians have fought to rid the alphabet of the letter H. Every few centuries a conviction spreads through the rhetoricians that the aspirant has no value, and that the ancient Greeks were right to deny it the honor of a letter, marking it instead by a grammatical notation of rough-breathing that looks like an eyelash turned back into the eye: ‘.
It begins as a kind of irritation, this sense that some silent thing exists inside the word itself, hiding in plain sight, mute even as it’s spoken, descending beneath the surface of sound and there widening, deepening, threatening almost completely the forms of order above it which, though they seem so solid, tremble and shake at every syllable uttered; a whiteness beneath the whiteness of the page, deep below the black letters, not exactly holding up the words far above which float on the surface like a fleet of boats, hunting what they hunt, peering down into the element that could be the medium of their demise, but unaware of the deeper threat, beyond the water, that distance in the atoms, that the letter H, like a spiritual shunt, keeps open. Worse than irritation to feel the same in myself, that beneath the white of this hand, past the links in the loops of blood lacing my life to the lives that made me, there is some whiteness welling up within me, as light over-brims the star as it eats another star, to devour me entire.
But that’s enough about whales.
I keep trying to keep my mind away from the unthinkable things, and then I realize my thoughts run a narrow channel, and my whole life has dig deeper that cut, as a stream does dirt, and now I’ve thought so long, and the channel is so deep, that my thinking is what keeps me away from what I cannot think. In thinking not to think. Somehow I cannot see how to see. I guess I need the letter H to prop my eyes open; or hundreds of Hs to stack one on the other to climb as if on a ladder out of myself—but every time I grasp a rung it turns into breath and disappears.
I keep taking the H out of whiteness but I don’t see a thing.
Marcus Aurelius keeps giving me advice I try to heed: “Cease not to think of the Universe as one living Being, possessed of a single Substance and a single Soul; and how all things trace back to its single sentience; and how it does all things by a single impulse; and how all existing things are joint causes of all things that come into existence; and how intertwined in the fabric is the thread and how closely woven the web.”
But I just keep worrying my hand against myself—that it isn’t true. And my hand keeps getting bigger and bigger, the whiteness of my hand.
I wrote a song composed of a single letter, but it just sounds like breath leaving the mouth.
I haven’t learned how to sing it.
Sometimes I try to see my face then, what it looks like when I feel the weight of the letter H—I mean, I try to see what I look like when I feel it. I hold the mirror up to my face and look as long and hard as I can, but I never see myself. I guess it’s because the mirror is just this page, and the closer I get to it, the more it fills up my field of vision until there is nothing left but nothing. No, not nothing. The mirror that overwhelms reflection. This mirror that fills up with breath, not exactly fog. This whiteness. This witness. This blank beneath the blank of the page. This mirror:
Dan Beachy-Quick is an essayist and poet, author most recently of gentlessness (Tupelo), a chapbook Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs (Omnidawn), and a study of John Keats, A Brighter Word than Bright (Iowa UP, Muse Series). He directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Colorado State University.
Photo by Hannah Klein.