What is Gay Literature? The Case of Colm Tóibín’s [The Blackwater Lightship]

Jeanette Winterson, author of the celebrated novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruittakes a rather defensive stance when asked if she considers Oranges to be a lesbian novel. She explicitly addresses this question in her personal website by answering it in the negative:

No. [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is] for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common-sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers. That said, I’m really glad the book has made a difference to so many young women.

Winterson’s answer strikes into the heart of a question that has perplexed me for some time: what is, and more importantly, what is not gay literature? Part of the difficulties of answering this question stem from the fact that the term gay literature can either allude to a work’s readership (as Winterson implies in her answer), its themes, its characters, or perhaps a combination of these elements. Whereas some works tend to unanimously be approached as prime examples of LGBTQ literature–as in the case of novels such as Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and E.M. Forster’s Maurice–other works complicate the ease of categorizing a text as such.

Good examples of this complication are most of the works of David Sedaris–particularly his collections of autobiographical essays such as Me Talk Pretty One Day and NakedThese essay collections usually discuss gay themes quite prominently: Sedaris depicts the hardships of growing up gay, he talks about his partner constantly, and he openly discusses how he is perceived as effeminate by his teachers and friends. Despite the presence of these themes and characters, Sedaris’ works are typically not approached as gay literature. Sedaris’ works are also read by a massive mainstream audience–people will literary pay to attend a Sedaris reading. Does the genre define the audience, or does the audience define the genre?  Is LGBTQ literature completely audience-based, or is there more at stake when approaching a group of literary texts under the guise of this category?

The questions that surface when approaching this genre do not stop here. Does the presence of a queer character in a literary work automatically make it a gay literature? If a work is approached as a gay one, does this pose any restrictions on the novel’s readership or audience? While I completely understand the cultural and marketing reasons why Winterson denies approaching Oranges as a lesbian novel–this novel is almost always alluded to when speaking of well-known LGBTQ fiction. Trying to pin down parameters used to classify a work as gay literature is no easy task–we are dealing with a very queer genre here.

The difficulties of pinning down the genre of LGBTQ fiction and of creating a queer canon can also be attributed to two other factors: the relative novelty of gay fiction within the entire scope of literary history, and furthermore, the queerness of the genre itself. In terms of its novelty, literature with explicitly queer themes or characters was not produced in Western culture until the twentieth century, with the advent of works written by Forster, James Baldwin, and Christopher Isherwood, among others. Keep in mind that queerness and queer sexualities were definitely encoded in texts before the gay literary boom, however, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that we began to see the emergence of a group of texts that could be explicitly categorized as LGBTQ literary works.

This questioning of the factors that shape the genre of LGBTQ literature was recently sparked after I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s 1999 novel entitled The Blackwater Lightship–mostly because I’ve had difficulties assessing whether it is a gay novel. The novel has a central queer character, which at first seems to be a good enough reason to approach it as a gay novel. However, the main themes and tensions present in this work are triggered through the queer character’s presence, but they are not exactly centered on this queer character per se. 

Front cover of Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

Front cover of Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

This novel focuses mostly on the strenuous relationship between Helen and her mother Lily, and their efforts to repair their relationship after Helen’s brother, Declan, reveals that he is dying of AIDS. Declan’s impending death serves at the catalyst that forces Helen to reunite with her mother after a nearly ten-year hiatus–and it also forces Declan’s family to come into contact with his rather private queer life. After his revelation, Declan’s family and his close gay friends spend a week living together in the house that belongs to Helen’s grandmother. During this time, the characters come face-to-face with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily struggle to repair their relationship, and Lily tries to comprehend why Declan shares an intense connection with his friends and not with his family.

The novel, although told in the third person, is distilled through Helen’s thoughts and perspectives. The novel opens in Helen’s home, where she interacts with her husband and her two children; the novel concludes in this same location, albeit centered on Helen’s first interaction with her mother in her house. Not only has Lily never visited Helen’s home, but she has also not met Helen’s husband or her own grandchildren due to the estranged relationship that she and her daughter share. The novel weaves a narrative focused on the past and the present–Helen’s interactions with her mother and her dying brother force her to think about and retell the reasons why their family is so estranged to begin with.

Among the past events that Helen recalls, significant attention is placed on the death of her father. While her father was being treated for cancer, Helen and Declan lived with their grandmother. Lily stays with her husband at the hospital, never bothering to visit her children or to abandon her husband’s side. The distance between Helen and her mother widens after her father dies–pushing a teenage Helen to interpret her mother’s absence as abandonment. In their efforts to cope with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily reach a degree of closeness that they haven’t experienced in years. The novel culminates with the mother and daughter expressing a desire to spend more time with each other.

Even though the events mentioned above comprise the core narrative of the novel, The Blackwater Lightship also places significant attention on queer themes, issues and characters, particularly in its depiction alternative, non-normative forms of kindship, and in its depiction of queer subversion. Declan’s declining health due to AIDS puts him in a position in which he is forced to come out to his mother and his grandmother. Declan’s deteriorating health is described with much detail, which verges on the point of discomfort. Interestingly, Declan’s gay friends, Paul and Larry, are shown to be better caregivers than his actual family due to the fact that they were present in his life during the advent of the syndrome. Paul and Larry also seem to know more about Declan’s life than his own mother and sister. At one point, Paul and Lily have a heated argument that manifests when Paul interferes in Lily’s attempts to comfort her son–which prompts Lily to kick Paul out of her mother’s home. Paul confronts Lily by stating the following:

I’m here as long as Declan is here and you can take that written in stone, and I’m here because he asked me to be here, and when he asked me to be here he used words and phrases and sentences about you which were not edifying and which I will not repeat. He is also concerned about you and loves you and wants your approval. He is also very sick. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mrs. Breen. Declan stays here, I stay here, Larry stays here. One of us goes, we all go, and if you don’t believe me, ask Declan. (223)

As seen above, Declan, Paul, and Larry can be approached as a family–even though none of them are romantically involved, these three men understand each other, and unlike Declan’s family, they stick together and they do not abandon each other even when things get rough. The novel explores the importance of this alternate form of kinship in the lives of queer subjects–a theme that is present in many texts categorized as LGBTQ literature. This is not the only instance in which the notion of family is queered. A moment  that particularly caught my attention was the instance in which Paul tells Helen how a Catholic priest performed a secret marriage ceremony for him and his partner, François:

He changed into his vestments and said Mass and gave us Communion and then he married us. He used the word “spouse” instead of husband and wife. He had it all prepared. He was very solemn and serious. And we felt the light of the Holy Spirit on us, even though Declan thought this was the maddest thing he’d ever heard… (173)

The novel presents not only alternative forms of kinship, but it even goes as far as to present a queer subversion of normative institutions such as religion and marriage. What we see in the case of The Blackwater Lightship is an instance in which gay themes and characters are implemented within a narrative not only to serve as a foil to other characters in the novel, but to ultimately queer heternomative manifestations like the nuclear family. One cannot help but compare the relationship that Declan has with his friends with the central relationship of the novel between Helen and her mother. The message of the novel is clear: blood is definitely not thicker than water.

Given all the above, can we, and more importantly, should we approach The Blackwater Lightship as an example of gay literature? Although the answer to this question is still somewhat fuzzy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that when we categorize a work as such, we have to look beyond matters of audience, and we also have to take more than just the characters, the plot, or the work’s themes into consideration. When it comes to approaching a literary work as gay (or as any other category within the LGBTQ spectrum), we must keep in mind not only the work’s elements, but even more importantly, the work’s aims, purposes, and its alignment towards non-normativity and queer livability.

What are your thoughts on LGBTQ literature? What makes a literary work gay? What criteria must we keep in mind when categorizing a novel as LGBTQ fiction? Please share your thoughts and opinions below!

Work Cited

Tóibín, Colm. The Blackwater Lightship. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print (Paperback edition).

Research in Progress: Spring 2013

This semester, I am working on a series of very exciting projects relating mostly to gender and queerness as represented within the literary landscape. I just wanted to share my (tentative) goals and expectations for these projects in order to give you  sense of what I’ve been up to these past few months. If you happen to know of any readings or sources that can aid me in any of my projects, feel free to let me know. I will greatly appreciate it!

Project #1 – The Undercover Life of Gay Teen Fiction: Publishing Trends and Paratextual Differences in Hardback and Paperback Books

Many researchers have pointed out that despite the fact that we are constantly advised to not judge a book by its cover, we ultimately succumb to this practice when deciding what books to read or purchase. Publishing houses and firms are well aware of our tendency to be drawn to a book according to the rhetorical features of book covers. Because of this, different covers are deliberately designed for the same book in order to expand its appeal to different marketing segments and niches. Although a lot of research has been done in terms of scrutinizing the repackaging of Young Adult (YA) books in order to tailor them for different audiences, few researchers have delved into the nuances of the material or paratextual demands of particular genres of YA fiction.

My project will focus its attention on the genre of gay YA fiction, which are texts that are targeted to a gay audience, or that contain prominent gay themes, characters, or issues. My interest in this topic stems from the fact that the covers of gay YA texts are sometimes “repackaged” when distributed in paperback form. Whereas it seems that hardback covers of gay YA texts seem to conceal the fact that they discuss gay content, their repackaged paperback counterparts, which are usually released about a year after the hardbacks, display covers that openly embrace the “gay nature” of the text. By drawing from discussions of materiality and paratext, my intention is to develop a better grasp of the market of gay YA fiction and the ideas behind the conceptualization and practice of book cover design. This, in turn, will allow me to develop an understanding of the cultural forces and mechanisms that lead to such stark differences between hardback and paperback versions of popular gay teen novels. Using this as a foundational platform, I will then deconstruct and analyze the hardback and paperback iterations of five popular gay YA texts. Who is the target audience for these books and their repackaged versions? Does gay YA fiction embrace current trends of book design, or do they reject them? Why do paperback versions openly embrace the gay themes of the novels, while the hardback versions tend to avoid this embrace? More importantly, how do the different covers engage viewers into an interpretive exchange, and what does this say about the market’s perceptions of its target audience?

Project #2 – Recognizing and Validating Loss: The Performative Productivity of Queer Grief in Modern Sea Drama

In his discussion of tragedy in J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea, Daniel Davy discusses the paradoxical nature of the sea as a space of both creation and destruction. Despite the supposed impartiality of the sea, it can be argued that it is, in due course, a very human space that reflects immensely on the human condition. This notion holds particularly true when it comes to those whose lives and sustenance depend on the sea itself. The life of a sailor demands certain sacrifices to be made. These sacrifices include a rejection of meaningful relationships outside of the ship, the rejection of a stable home, and possibly, the rejection of progeny; thus, those who venture through the sea are removed from the promises of a land-dwelling life. A life on terra firma is viewed as a normative and productive choice that ensures not only happiness, but also futurity. Sailors are thus “queer” in the sense that they are not fixed on either side of the land/sea duality. Sailors inhabit both spaces, a notion that evidences the weakness of this dichotomy in the first place. The sea’s lack of futurity, the triangular tension between the earth, the sea, and the sailor, and even the massiveness of the sea itself disrupts most attempts at entirely fixing its meaning. These factors ultimately make narratives of the sea very suitable to queer interpretations.

My intent with this discussion, however, is not to queer the sea. The notion of the sea as a queer space is obvious for reasons pointed out above. My intent is to illustrate how the queerness of the sea and the sailor is invoked and channeled in modernist drama in order to increase the overall pathos infused within the plays. More specifically, I will argue that the queer aspects in modernist drama of the sea not only push readers to question what losses can or cannot be mourned, but also that it is through the very queerness of the plays that allows the audience the potential to recognize and reflect upon losses in ways that certain characters could not. In order to evidence this potential, I will focus my discussion on J.M Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1904) and Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff (1914), two plays that focus almost exclusively on the destructive power of the sea and its aftereffects. My hope is that this discussion will lead to a better understanding of how loss is represented and performed within these two plays, while in turn providing readers with an interpretive venue in which the lack of futurity and the lack of definition can be viewed as productive venues of exploration.

(Special thanks to Leanne MacDonald for helping me fine-tune the aims and goals of this essay! You can check out her blog on Medieval literature, saints, and women by clicking here).

Project #3 – Beyond the Heard, Beyond the Seen: Deafness and the Construction of Gender in Brian Sloan’s A Really Nice Prom Mess

Hardback cover for Brian Sloan's "A Really Nice Prom Mess."

Hardback cover for Brian Sloan’s “A Really Nice Prom Mess.”

Covering everything from a disastrous prom, shady drug deals in public restrooms, strippers, police chases through the slums of Washington D.C., and a secret gay relationship between a love-struck “nerd” and a stoic jock, Brian Sloan’s comedy of errors titled A Really Nice Prom Mess (2008) really sticks out from an ever-rising sea of gay young adult novels. Portraying a series of disasters and insurmountable obstacles in a fashion that would put a telenovela to shame, Sloan’s unique characters and impeccable comedic timing ultimately makes this outlandish novel, as Publisher’s Weekly puts it, “easy to swallow.” But in spite of the novel’s eccentric and downright bizarre plot, few readers have recognized Sloan’s work as being one of the few texts that portray queer characters who also happen to be disabled: a gay ex-football player who is half deaf, and a whimsical gay stripper who is entirely deaf. Although these characters are in no way the focus of the novel, they are both crucial to both the downfall and resolution of the novel’s plot. Even more so, the presence of these two characters ultimately serves as a platform that allows one to organically explore the intersection of gender, queerness, and deafness[1] not only as modes of representation, but also as comments upon the cultural and social assumptions prevalent within our postmodern society.

In his groundbreaking discussion on “The Deafened Moment as Critical Modality,” Lennard J. Davis, a pioneer in the area of disability studies as applied to literature, posits that while focusing on the representation and treatment of disabled characters in literary works has indeed been an emancipatory and innovative move in terms of raising awareness, it has also become restrictive as a critical approach. As he points out in his discussion, “there is a limit to what can be said—that disabled characters are usually villains or outcasts, but when they are not they are glorified and held up as testaments to the human spirit” (898). Seeing as Sloan’s novel is distilled through the perspective of a non-disabled protagonist, it can be assumed that indeed, there are definitely issues in terms of how deaf characters are constructed and represented. While many of these approaches are due to the main character’s misunderstandings about the deaf community, the biggest issues of deaf representation arise when the protagonist associates deafness with either stupidity or sexual stubbornness. However, as Davis argues in the conclusion of his discussion, “[A] consideration of deafness (or any disability) in literature can amount to more than a compilation of the ways deaf characters are treated in literary works” (898).

Although this discussion will lightly touch upon the issues of deafness as represented in Sloan’s novel, my chief aim will attune to the spirit of Davis’s discussion. In other words, I will not focus most of my attention on the treatment of deaf characters in the novel, but rather, on how deafness and Deaf culture allow both the characters in the novel, and us as readers, to challenge, and possibly reconfigure, our cultural assumptions of gender and queerness. In other words, rather than focusing solely on how deaf characters are represented, and how the novel obviously raises awareness of the challenges and obstacles that deaf individuals face, I will center my attention on how deafness within the novel becomes a motif that both illuminates and complicates notions of gender. More than being an aim towards inclusiveness  I will posit that the presence of deaf characters in A Really Nice Prom Mess adds richness and complexity to the issues of gender that are central to the work.

[1] By the use of words such as disability or disabled in this discussion, I am not referring to my own personal judgments or perceptions, but rather, I am referring to the constructed category that is imposed upon individuals who are classified or who identify themselves as part of these communities. When writing about sensitive issues such as disability, gender, and sexuality, there is always the fear of either misrepresenting the community or referring to the community in an insensitive fashion (especially if one does not belong to said community). That being said, I hope it is understood that I am trying to approach the issues in this paper as objectively and sensitively as possible.

Land Ho! Navigating the Geospatial Imagination of 19th Century British and American Maritime Fiction

Since the end of October, seven of my colleagues (Douglas E. Duhaime, Ana M. Jimenez-Moreno, Melissa McCoul, Daniel Murphy, Santiago Quintero, Bryan Santin, Suen Wong) and I have been working on a massive project in which we are trying to “anchor” the geographical imagination of 19th Century British and American sea fiction (based on a similar project developed by Dr. Matt Wilkens). Although this project is part of the requirements for a Digital Humanities course that we are currently taking, we are beginning to see a lot of potential in our work, and we are seriously considering some future possibilities with this project.

We are just concluding with the data collection and organization phase, and we are quite ready to study and interpret our results. Although to some extent we are aiming to see what our data yields, we are contemplating on interpreting our data through the lens of Orientalism… for now. In terms of our data, our aim was to create a database of locations mentioned in a large corpus of British and American sea fiction and to chart said locations within geographical maps. In this post, I will share our “methodology” and the technical details of our project. Once we begin interpreting the data, I might just share some of our findings with you as well!

The Corpus

The Literary corpus of our project is based on John Kohnen’s Nautical Fiction List, which contains an annotated bibliography of sea fiction (drama, fiction, and poetry) that currently includes 806 authors and 2,190 titles. Our corpus is also based on another nautical fiction list compiled by the library of the California State University – Maritime (CSUM) campus. All bibliographical entries cited in these sources were distributed evenly among us. Within this distribution, we identified all of the 19th century texts and classified them as either British or American texts. Once this concentrated list was compiled, we searched for digital full-text versions of these works, which were most obtained via Project Gutenberg and The Internet Archive.

Priority was given to texts found within Gutenberg due to their superior textual quality. Most texts found in the Internet Archive are simply physical copies of manuscripts and facsimiles translated into digital formats using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, whereas texts available in Gutenberg are transcribed and revised multiple times by human agents—thus, the margin of error for Project Gutenberg texts is significantly lower. All of the information not available in the original version of the text—such as Project Gutenberg’s legal and copyright disclaimers—was stripped from the document, and each fiction work as saved into separate .TXT files classified by author, title, year of publication, and nationality (British or American).

In total, we were able to create a digital corpus of approximately seventy-four (74) 19th Century British maritime fiction texts, and approximately thirty-five (35) 19th Century American maritime texts. This amounts to a total of one-hundred and nine (109) full-text versions of 19th Century maritime fiction. There are obvious issues that need to be addressed with this corpus. First and foremost, we are unaware of what percentage our data represents in terms of all of the maritime fiction published in the 19th century. Nonetheless, our goals are not to discuss every maritime text, but rather, to take into consideration a larger corpus of this genre of fiction in order to make claims and interpretations that go in accordance with the goals of distance reading. Additionally, it is clear that our British corpus is more than twice the size of the American corpus. This, however, this is completely understandable when taking into account that the publishing industry was way more advanced and developed in the British context, and perhaps due to the prominence of shipping and sea travel in the British empire.

Named Entity Extraction and Database Creation

Locations within the texts were identified using Stanford CoreNLP, a software set of language analysis tools that processes digital English texts. In essence, each word within the text is tagged with meta-linguistic information according to markers established by the user. The software creates an .XML output file that contains all of the tokenized words in the source text tagged with their features, including but not limited to part of speech, dates, locations, times, names, among others. A sample token produced by the Stanford CoreNLP with Part of Speech (POS – the word’s syntactic category) and Named Entity Recognizer (NER – Labels for the name of things) tags would look somewhat similar to this (words written in red are explanations of the token):

<token id=”1″> # ID number assigned to this particular token.

<word>Beaconsfield</word> # Token extracted from the source text.


<POS>NNP</POS> # Part of speech. In this case, the word represents a noun phrase.

<NER>LOCATION</NER> # NER Classification, in this case, the word is tagged as a location.


Using an original code written in the Python programming language, we devised a method to extract and list all tokens with a LOCATION NER marker for every respective text within our corpus. The CoreNLP output for each of these texts was briefly revised and corrected by hand. Tokens that were recognizably not locations (e.g. “esq,” “French,” “John,” “Sandwich King”) or locations that simply cannot be mapped geographically (e.g. “moon,” “Jupiter,” “Neptune”) were eliminated from the data. In total, our current data consists of 37,542 location mentions across all of our texts.

The cleaned-up version of the data was then organized into a spreadsheet. Every instance of a location token was accompanied by the following information: input file, shortened file name, title of the text, author, publication date, and nationality. This spreadsheet was then converted into a .CSV file and imported into an online database server using MySQL Workbench (for Windows), which allows us to perform advanced functions not available through Microsoft Excel, such as keeping a tally of the count of each location mentioned in our corpus. The following query was used in MySQL workbench to generate the counts of each location:

SELECT location, count(*) from Maritime_Fiction WHERE nationality = BR or US GROUP by location ORDER by count(*) DESC

This query, performed for both British and American texts, generated two lists, which mentioned the top 1,000 locations mentioned in the corpus along with their total counts (for both British and American texts). Here are some tables listing the most common locations found within our corpus:

Table 1. Top 15 Locations Mentioned in AMERICAN 19th Century Maritime Fiction:

England 454
America 357
London 282
New York 276
Mardi 223
Israel 191
Samoa 182
Atlantic 160
Pacific 151
Paris 142
France 139
Europe 126
Tahiti 116
Boston 115
Rio 110
Cape Horn 105
Taji 100
Nantucket 96
Wallingford 95

Table 2. Top 15 Locations Mentioned in BRITISH 19th Century Maritime Fiction:

England 1523
London 604
Portsmouth 367
France 360
India 332
Malta 266
Jamaica 251
Europe 234
Africa 234
Spain 232
West Indies 207
Gibraltar 193
Greenwich 179
America 177
Atlantic 169
Plymouth 168
Mediterranean 167
China 159
Ireland 154

Needless to say, there are very interesting results yielded in our data, and I am very anxious to see what findings we’ll discover and what interpretations will be made!

Geospacial Information and Mapping

The complete British and American tables were uploaded to Google Fusion Tables, experimental data management and online visualization software that allows one to process and create maps and charts of large sets of data. Luckily, Google Fusion Tables counts with the integration of Google’s Geocoding API services, which modernizes archaic locations into their contemporary places, standardizes alternate spellings of a location’s name, and translates the written location into a particular coordinate consisting of a latitude and longitude. These coordinates are then used to create stunning visualizations of all the locations present within a data set. Every location mentioned in the corpus is marked by a colored dot. When one hovers the computer’s cursor over one of these dots, the dot’s meta-information (such as location name and count) is displayed. Here are some snapshots of what these visualizations look like from afar:

Generated British Map

Locations mentioned within our British corpus. Places marked in blue are the top locations mentioned in our collection of texts.

Locations mentioned within our American corpus.

Locations mentioned within our American corpus.

Well, that’s all I’m sharing with you for now. Our data seems to have a lot a potential, and theoretically, there are dozens of interesting claims that we can make, and there are definitely other venues that we will explore in terms of creating visualizations for out data.

Wish us luck!

Jacinto's Well (Pozo de Jacinto) in Isabela, Puerto Rico

Finding Meaning in a “Nihilistic” Ocean: A Brief Reflection on Thoreau’s “Cape Cod”

There is something about Thoreau that always pushes me to reflect deeply on my own set of experiences and memories. Reading Walden last semester was one of the highlights of my year, not only because his thoughts and opinions greatly resonate within my being, but also because this encounter with his work greatly highlighted the exciting and noteworthy results of combining empirical observations, philosophy, and the act of creative writing. Thoreau’s Cape Cod, a series of articles published posthumously (which in unison give it a novel-like quality), achieved a very similar effect to Walden despite of its so-called darker tone and seriousness. Although slightly somber and less “optimistic” (I’m not sure if this word is appropriate, but it’s the closest one I could come up with) than Walden, Cape Cod follows a similar format to the former, in which the exploration of a natural space leads to wonderful insights of the world and the human condition.

However, Cape Cod seems to delve deeper into the implications of the relationship between the human and the natural world, depicting it at times as a hybrid association, and other times as a hierarchical, power-driven liaison: humans are indeed powerless when compared to the scope and the sheer force of the natural world. This is perhaps exemplified best with the very opening of the novel, which discusses Thoreau’s encounter with the St. John shipwreck. The man-made vehicle was unable to withstand the power and impartiality of nature, and the humans who gathered around the scene in Cape Cod were helpless witnesses to this frigidity. It is in moments such as these that you truly understand the fragility and the complexities of living and thinking.

Jacinto's Well (Pozo de Jacinto) in Isabela, Puerto Rico

The chapters in Cape Cod that most stood out for me due to their discussion of the relationship between humanity and the natural world were the ones that discussed Thoreau’s experience at the beach. This, of course, is very subjective on my behalf, seeing as I grew up in an island. Beaches were consequently an integral part of my upbringing, and to be quite frank, being away from them for large periods of time while living in Indiana has affected me immensely. Above is a picture that I took of what is arguably my favorite place in the world: Jacinto’s Well, located in the town of Isabela in the island of Puerto Rico. The picture clearly doesn’t do justice to the sheer majesty and enchantment of the area: cliffs meet dunes of warm sand. Brutal waves roar and desperately try to climb the crevices within the mounds of rock. And yes, every once in a while, you may even see a sea turtle leaping from the waves into the vast blue aura of white and cerulean.

I would frequently visit this place during the night, where the majesty and grandeur of this place would increase tenfold… an open sea, an open sky, an open mind. Thoreau’s depictions of the beach vividly awakened my memories of the beach. I could smell the salt in the air. I felt the chill of encountering the blackness of the sea during a stormy night. I could feel the immense loneliness that manifests when confronting the sea one-on-one. And once again, as I recalled this set of experiences, I felt as if Thoreau were sitting right next to me, contemplating the exact same scenario, for his experiences of the beach were amazingly similar to my own. I guess that is indeed what makes good literature, is it not? Is not writing good literature the practice of aesthetically condensing experience and concatenating it with future generations?

I think I instantly connected with Thoreau when he described the opulence of the sea, especially when in contrast to the human body. The experience is almost paradoxical: as you stand in front of a stormy beach, or in front of a sea that is rough and poses the threat of danger, it is quite easy for you to feel lonely, terrified, insignificant, and impotent. Yet strangely, the combination of all of these ultimately makes you feel alive. Indeed, it is quite easy for you to delve into nihilistic thoughts and emotions during this experience, but there is an inevitable sense of connection with nature being fostered.

Indeed, we are nothing when compared to the scope of the sea, as Thoreau very well posits when he illustrates his first encounter with the Cape Cod beaches during stormy and unsettling weather: “A thousand men could not have seriously interrupted it, but would have been lost in the vastness of the scenery, as their footsteps in the sand” (28). How can this notion be comforting? How can we, as humans find comfort by feeling small and powerless? To make matters even more complicated, how about when we think of nature in an even greater scale? Are we nothing but an evanescent force within the grand scale of the universe, and have we all not sat down to contemplate that realistically speaking, we are nothing but a germ in the universal scale?

I am no psychoanalyst, but perhaps this joy, this contemplation, this awe, and this desire arises from a deep sense of wanting to belong to something bigger, to something grand. Confronting the ocean one-on-one, in this case, is no different to a religious experience or doctrine: we want to know that there is something bigger than us out there, and we want to believe that we ultimately can be part of it in one way or another. And notice that in order to achieve this union in most religious systems of belief, humans are required to die, or in more philosophical terms, the human must cease to exist. It is uncanny that in Cape Cod, Thoreau himself seems to indirectly discuss this aspect of transcendence through death via the encounter of a mangled pile of bones and flesh at the beach:

Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them […]. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my sniveling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore, and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it. (47)

There are two brief comments I want to make of this passage. Note that Thoreau states that the dead body-parts have taken possession of the shore, meaning that these dead remnants were finally able to master or take control over the power of the ocean. However, this body is no longer a living agent, so rather than assuming control over nature through traditional means, the body took an almost Emersonian route of control in which power is obtained through submission. Thus, it is almost as if Thoreau were implying that power is obtained through yielding, a very different idea to what he posited in his discussion on civil disobedience (keep in mind, however, that in “Civil Disobedience” he deals with socio-political forces whereas in Cape Cod, he deals with natural ones). Secondly, note that this encounter with the dead body alludes to an argument that Thoreau posited in the first chapter of Cape Cod titled “The Shipwreck,” in which he posits that “It is the individual and private that demands our sympathy” (8).

Unsurprisingly, Thoreau’s encounter with a single body (or arguably, a bone) affected him more than his encounter with an entire group of people who passed away on the shipwreck. Although I am not entirely clear as to why the individual and the private invokes more sympathy, it can be argued that this sympathy alludes to the value of individualistic experience as a form of transcendence. Seeing as death is perhaps the loneliest of processes, and seeing as the ocean invokes individualistic musings, perhaps Thoreau is intentionally trying to bridge the similarities between a humanistic and a natural experience, therefore continuing to challenge and complicate the circulation of power and control between the human and the natural world.

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Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod (Digireads edition)

On Uncertainty and Fear

When I took a survey of early English literature as an undergrad, I inevitably had to tackle a text that virtually every English major is bound to encounter during their studies: Beowulf. During our discussion of the text, my professor and friend, Dr. Nickolas Haydock, asked us why the text’s infamous creature (Grendel) instilled so much fear to other characters within the text, and presumably, to the reader. After much debate and speculation, Dr. Haydock looked at us with a stern face and said: “Grendel instills fear because so little is known about him.”

Prior to that moment, I never really approached fear as a lack of knowledge. However, something within that idea resonated within me, perhaps because it alludes to a simple and indisputable truth: we all fear the unknown, and when we are forced to confront it, inner chaos and turmoil ensue. When something can be explained or understood, it loses its capacity to frighten and to stir negative emotions.

I think horror movies are a good example of this notion. For instance, John Carpenter’s 1978 movie Halloween scared millions of viewers, not only because it included the obvious thrills and scares, but also because the movie’s villain–the one and only Michael Myers– remains a mystery. Why was he troubled? What was his motive to kill? We are never offered answers to these questions. Michael Myers could ostensibly be anyone. Fast-forward to 2007, a year in which Rob Zombie re-imagined the film and gave Michael Myers a back-story and the motive. The sense of enigma that electrified the fear in the original movie became nothing but an undetectable spark in the remake.

I invoked the notion of fear for a reason. Sure, Halloween is just around the corner and mischief is in the air, but I encountered fear distilled through an unexpected source: Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Sure, we encounter fear that is portrayed in a typical fashion–we are unaware of what is going on throughout the development of the plot, we are unable to explain the strange occurrences happening within the San Dominick, and we encounter a strange, seemingly symbiotic relationship between a white Spanish captain and a “meek” African slave. But the novella as a whole invoked another sense of fear: the fear of uncertainty.

This text was extremely slow, especially when considering that it is in essence a maritime narrative. However, towards the end, I expected a payoff for my efforts–I expected all the pieces to fit together. And  things definitely made more sense with the “grand reveal,” or should I say, with the “removal of the canvas.” But even though the pieces are put together, I am still left in the dark, and I am unable to envision the entire picture. Benito Cereno continues to be bizarre and nonsensical. It refuses to fit itself in a mold, and it refuses to provide direct and concrete answers.

What makes Benito Cereno so fearful is its ambiguity–its refusal to be explained, especially when approaching the issue of race. The more I think I come closer to determining the meaning and the root of the racial tensions in the novella, the less I become certain with my convictions. Race in American 19th Century literature is indeed a provoking ambiguity, especially when focusing on race as an empancipatory dialectic. I think this definitely became clear as I paid attention to a course discussion on Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Do we want to claim that the elimination of the interracial couple from the novel’s equation was an affirmation of Cooper’s racism, or do we want to view it as an emancipatory affirmation? Consider how this notion becomes polemical when we realize that Cooper puts so much effort into infusing exorbitant amounts of pathos into these two doomed characters.

I think a similar issue manifests within Benito Cereno, but the voltage of this issue is increased tenfold. We see a reversal of the white owner – black slave binary, and Melville depicts a “world” in which the white slave succumbs to the wishes of the black master. And indeed, I think it is easy for some readers to find the actions of the slaves questionable, manipulative and revolting. After all, they successfully managed to overthrow the Spanish colonists and turn the remaining survivors into puppets. I can only begin to imagine how one of Melville’s contemporary readers would’ve approached the topic: they either would’ve been shocked or completely disgusted. But is something worthwhile achieved by shocking the audience? Will it lead them to realize that the actions of these slaves are no different to the actions committed by white slave masters?

I think it’s easier for today’s readers to feel much more sympathy for the enslaved Africans (I certainly did). After all, they were taken against their will from their homeland in order to attend to the needs of someone from a different racial and cultural background. Talk about abuses of power! Modern readers would probably view the slaves’ actions as completely justifiable and Karmic.

But, to justify their actions is to justify murder, is it not? Perhaps both the white Spaniards and the slaves should be scrutinized critically, but then again, wasn’t it the Spaniards who ripped out the African natives from their homeland in the first place? What we are observing here is a struggle between power and blame, and it’s interesting to see how power circulates through the members of the San Dominick in an almost Foulcaudian fashion. I know that we now live in the time where the notion of the “death of the author” predominates, and that a once a text is circulated, it no longer belongs to its writer. However, I can’t help but speculate what Melville’s views towards race were, and what conceptions of race he was trying to project in the narrative. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to pin this down.

I think that this difficulty is due mostly to the metamorphosing depiction of both races throughout the progression of the novella. At first, Melville seems to depict both whites and blacks in a very egalitarian fashion:

While left alone with them, he was not long in observing some things tending to heighten his first impressions; but surprise was lost in pity, both for the Spaniards and blacks, alike evidently reduced from scarcity of water and provisions; while long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniard’s authority over them. But under the circumstances, precisely this condition of things was to have been anticipated. In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery. (170)

Notice that the lack of provisions and of material necessities such as food as put both blacks and whites on the same level: misery and suffering provides a bind that makes them equal. On that boat, they are all beings capable of suffering. Misery in this ship leads blacks to increase power while causing whites to lose it. But notice as well that Melville clearly depicts this leveling between the slaves and the Spaniards as a natural disorder–a parody of how things should “naturally” be. Is Melville trying to be satirical? Is he trying to be emancipatory? Is he critical? Or is he simply embracing the attitudes predominant during the time? It’s nearly impossible to tell… it seems to be deliberately ambiguous. This sense of uncertainty is simply frightening.

The ambiguity of race attitudes is manifested in other parts of the novella as well, particularly in the instance in which Captain Delano witnesses one of the oakum-pickers striking a Spanish boy with a knife simply because he did not like a word that this boy used. Once again, the act can indeed be interpreted as transgressive, but is this any different from the way slaves were typically treated by whites? Captain Delano is obviously appalled with this occurrence: “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed” (180). However, we see that Benito Cereno approaches the event with a degree of nonchalance, stating that the action “was merely the sport of the lad” (180). Indeed, I thought at first that Melville was once again peppering the narrative with hints of egalitarianism: whites deserve to be treated equally to how the slaves are treated. But this sense of equality ultimately becomes moot when we figure out that Cereno was making no big deal of the situation because the slaves threatened him. What I first thought was liberation was actually the exertion of power disguised as goodwill.

I fear that there is no solution to how Melville approached the creation of Benito Cereno, and the purpose behind its crafting will forever be unknowable. That is the fallacy of speculation: it’s simply difficult to reach a solid conclusion. Not knowing is indeed uncomfortable… but it is precisely this invocation of fear that leads to critical thinking. What answers or insights are provided by the act of NOT knowing? Even more importantly, are knowing and not knowing binary constructs, or is there something in between these two concepts that we are unable to see? Isn’t that an ultimate manifestation of the fear of the unknown… that the knowledge we use to interpret the world prevents us from finding or even being able to perceive gray areas?

Perhaps Melville didn’t have an exact purpose when it came to race. Perhaps he simply wanted to confuse us. Perhaps he wanted us to struggle in a way that he struggled in his own life. I think it is safe to say that the unknown definitely frightened Melville, and in due course, it made him miserable. With that in mind, it is no wonder that this story relaxes “good order.”


Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales by Herman Melville

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net