Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The River and the Ocean

I think that it is somewhere in Freud’s correspondence that he writes about the “oceanic feeling”, a vague but comforting perception of unity with the universe in which the sense of individual identity, while not quite obliterated, succumbs to an all-encompassing vastness. I believe he theorized that it was a fetal memory of the security of the amniotic pool, but it is frequently experienced in end-of-life scenarios as well. Someone once described it as the religious experience of the non-religious. But why not as well the non-religious feeling of the religious? That is how I am feeling it, only for me it is as much about the river as about the ocean. Coleridge’s greatest poem, or rather maybe his best-known poem, the fragmentary vision called “Xanadu,” begins with a description of the building site chosen by the Great Khan for his fabulous “pleasure dome,” a landscape through which “Alph, the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea.” The river cascades, “And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean ;/ And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war!"  “Sunless” and “lifeless” are hardly upbeat images.

For me the river—with its energy, its vitality, its ceaseless Heraclitean movement--is to be preferred, but I am not in a situation where preference is the decisive factor. This is not an autobiographical blog, but I probably need to be a little less oblique in addressing a kind readership, not all of whom can be familiar with the obsolete medieval Latin of the universities. I refer to “Aegrotat”, which turns out not to have been universally comprehensible. The blunter truth is that I am in the midst of an already extended stay in hospital, to which I was admitted on an emergency basis for a condition arising as one of the dreaded “side effects” of chemotherapy. Having brought under control the presenting problem, they returned last night to the therapy, and that doubtless is why my midnight mind returned to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” one of the great hop head poems in our tongue. As he started writing the poet was powerfully animated by the ingestion of opium, but he was inopportunely interrupted by “a person from Porlock” knocking on his front door. Nobody knows who exactly this unfortunate visitor was, but he has a lot to answer for. He stayed for a full hour, by which time the poet’s buzz was gone, and with it his pizzaz. Hence the fragmentary nature of “Kubla Khan”. 

 The future of “Gladlylerne” naturally depends upon the uncertain future of the writer of “Gladlyteche.” But modern medicine is truly miraculous, and there is at least some hope that I might return to topics of wider interest than my hallucinatory dreams—such topics as those raised by my readings in the Library of America’s Civil War volumes, which have been reflected in a few earlier posts. There is some concrete evidence here. Yesterday my old friend Sean Wilentz visited me, bearing in hand a precious gift. This was a copy—signed and with a flattering inscription-- of his most recent book: No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (Harvard University Press, 2018). I rarely finish reading a book within a day of receiving it, but then again I am rarely confined to a bed. This book is not a page-turner. It requires too much thought and too much attention to its copious detail for that. Nor am I a professional American historian--among whose ranks Wilentz is eminent--qualified to identify with precision every point of the book’s originality and the finesse of its revisionism. But like a lot of gloomy Americans I have long believed that the Founders, adopting a transactional attitude half way between mere expediency and sheer hypocrisy, abandoned our precious founding documents to the censorship of slaveholders. Wilentz shows how far that is from being true, beginning with his incremental exegesis of the phrase “property in man” as an apparent euphemism for chattel slavery. Words matter. They mattered in 1790. And words that recognized the existence of a nearly universal social reality were by no means words that could long approve, propagate, or eventually protect slavery. Guided by Wilentz’s careful tutelage a reader of the papers of the Constitutional Congress may with Kubla Khan very well “hear from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war!”