Friday, April 2, 2010

like, like, like

In Helen Garner's essay, "Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice", she sees her first chunk of Antarctic ice floating in the sea, and writes,

At once I'm seized by an urge to to compare it with something -- with anything: it's the size of a loosely flexed hand, palm up, like a Disney coronet with knobbed points; as hollow as a rotten tooth. For some reason I am irritated by this urge and make an effort to control it.

Other people on the tour ship begin to make comparisons of their own.

Then someone likens the iceberg to a face. "It's got a sad eye. See its nose?" On and on people go: it's like a sphinx, a Peke's face, an Indian head with its mouth open. Again I am secretly enraged by this, and by my own urgent desire to do the same.

The word "like" annoys her.

I strain and fail to see it only in abstract terms. I don't want to keep going 'like, like, like'. But I can't stop myself.

I thought of Gerrit de Veer, ship's carpenter, quoted in John Livingston Lowes' Road to Xanadu, who, in 1597, compared icebergs to swans without being either enraged or irritated.

The fifth, wee saw the first Ice, which we wondered at, at the first, thinking that it had beene white Swannes, for one of our men walking in the Fore-decke, on a sudden began to cry out with a loud voice, and said: that hee saw white Swannes: which wee that were under Hatches hearing, presently came up, and perceived that it was Ice that came driving from the great heape, showing like Swannes

There is grandeur in this, in the idea of these men sailing through freezing seas at the end of the world when without warning comes a flotilla of giant serene swans (this is how I see them, necks curved, still as silhouettes and stylised as plastic toys or novelty soaps, pure white, and the man on deck standing there in the role of a witness, and even though we've been told they're Ice, I still see swans). Lowes is so pleased by descriptions like de Veer's that he gives us pages of examples to prove that the "persistent association of of strange with familiar things" is "one of the voyagers' most alluring traits." (These "voyagers" are the old sailors whose travellers' tales, Lowes believes, rounded out the descriptions in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.)

Garner wishes for "abstract" impressions; Lowes doesn't seem to have considered the idea that an abstract impression might be desirable -- it doesn't occur to him -- he is for the concrete, the shaped, the romantic comparison, the colour at the centre of the iceberg "of a pale green colour like vitriol", and, "as green as an Emerald"* -- or romantic absolutes -- so that the ice was also "the fairest blew that can be," or "of a perfect Azure colour and like to the skies," as de Veer had it, both blue and green -- which Garner, hundreds of years later, saw too.

Each one is fissured, flawed with a wandering seam of unnatural cellophane blue-green, almost dayglo: older ice, someone explains, more densely compressed. A lump of ice needs to be only the size of, say, a small washing machine, for this faery green to be present in it, like a flaw in an opal.

As I read over this I realise that the objects she's comparing the ice to would have been as strange to de Veer as the ice itself, cellophane, a washing machine, and the opal, rare stone, which was assumed, in his day, to be cursed or magical. (And, writing this, I think: if I hadn't read Lowes' book with those quotes in it, would Garner's essay have reminded me of something else, or of nothing at all? Garner wishes a thing could be that thing, self-contained, itself only, otherwise abstract. Lowes wishes that it could be everything, many things, outward-expanding, and seep into the rest of the earth: the Ice as Swanne, as vitriol, as Emerald, everything, onward and outward. As if Garner is saying, "I am a fallible human being, how can I judge? I judge against my will. I resist, I fail," and Lowes' travellers are saying, "We shall judge, it is our duty as writers to judge, in other words, to describe, thereby to value, and the ice has this value, x, the value of a swan." As if suggesting two different mysteries, the unknowable (complete in itself), and the indescribable (partaking of so many other things that it is none of them: if the iceberg is Ice and Swanne then it is neither of them, and falls somewhere between, not an iceberg, not a swan, but a thing-in-between, and also it is both, which leaves it open to be like other things as well: like a Swanne and "a sphinx," and "a Peke's face."

Otherwise you go the Gertrude Stein route, and say, The ice is the ice is the ice. And that is that.))

* Two of Lowes' sources describe the interior colour of the icebergs as "emerald," and so, he points out, in their wake, did Coleridge.

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold :
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

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