vase Against Nature

scroll An essay by

Joyce Carol Oates

 

"I am concerned with only one thing, the moral and social conditions of my generation."

Interview with the Chicago Tribune, book world editor.

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Opening | Text | Interpretation | Word use | Organizing our approach | Her view | Her question | Argument | Structure | Use of other authors

Oates uses Thoreau's passage here to argue her point:

"She excites an expectation that she cannot satisfy."

Henry David Thoreau, 1854


"It eludes us even as it prepares to swallow us up, books and all."

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The entire article is here.

 

 

See http://2010yeagleyenglish.pbworks.com/f/Against Nature by Oates019.pdf

 

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Title | her point | discovering motives | basic format | uses of evidence | authority | structure | means | argument

book

 

Interpretation

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In Against Nature, author Joyce Carol Oates takes us on an inward journey to encounter the exterior quality of all our lives and as she moves us through the grotesque and smarmy[1] imagery of nature writing –even in references to excellent literature [2] – to challenge our prejudices.

 

“Nothing is accidental in the universe -- this is one of my Laws of Physics -- except the entire universe itself, which is Pure Accident, pure divinity.”

Joyce Carol Oates 

 

 


J. M. W. Turner's "Frosty Morning," oil on canvass, 1813. [3]

 

What does she say?

 

She allows us to take nothing for granted, as she examines our biases so that we are stripped of any reasonable emotional defense when she turns the argument upside down; leaving us with little in the way to rationally challenge her conclusion.

 

   

lines 33-34, ¶ 22- p. 843.

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Title | her point | discovering motives | basic format | uses of evidence | authority | structure | means | argument | source

Discovering the complexity of motive when writing:

Joyce Carol Oates,

"The subject is there only by the grace of the author's language,"

Oates, Against Nature; Anthology. page 843, line 31-32.

If that is true, then the structure of the essay reveals a deliberate attempt to frame and then reveal in the frames a set of opposites, though starting in a deeply personal and ending an a personal manner of expressing a complex story.

Format

What

She suggests eight to ten absent characteristics we all overlook due to our prejudices when considering "nature" and nature writing in a double format.

A POEM & AN ESSAY

The Writer’s resistance to Nature.
                    BY JOYCE CAROL OATES

It has no sense of humor: in its beauty, as its ugliness, or its neutrality, there is no
laughter.
It lacks a moral purpose.
It lacks a satiric dimension, registers no irony.
Its pleasures lack resonance, being accidental; its horrors, even when premeditated, are
equally perfunctory, “red in tooth and claw,” et cetera.
It lacks a symbolic subtext- excepting that provided by man.
It has no (verbal) language.
It has no interest in ours.
It inspires a painfully limited set of responses in “nature writers”- REVERENCE, AWE,
PIETY, MYSTICAL ONENESS.

Her essay

TEXT

"It eludes us even as it prepares to swallow us up [3], books and all.

I was lying on my back in the dirt gravel of the towpath beside the Delaware and Raritan Canal, Titusville, New Jersey, staring up at the sky and trying, with no success, to overcome a sudden attack of tachycardia that had come upon me out of nowhere- such attacks are always “out of nowhere,” that’s their charm – and all around me Nature thrummed with life, the air smelling of moisture and sunlight, the canal reflecting the sky, red-winged blackbirds testing their spring calls; the usual. I’d become the jar in Tennessee,b a fictitious center, or parenthesis, aware beyond my erratic heartbeat of the numberless heartbeats of the earth, its pulsing, pumping life, sheer life, incalculable.

Struck down in the midst of motion –I’d been jogging a minute before– I was “out of  time” like a fallen, stunned boxer, privileged (in an abstract manner of speaking) to be an involuntary witness to the random, wayward, nameless motion on all sides of me. Paroxysmal tachycardia can be fatal, but rarely; if the heartbeat accelerates to 250-270 beats a minute you’re in trouble, but the average attack is about 100-150 beats and mine seemed about average; the trick now was who prevent it from getting worse. Brainy people try brainy strategies, such as thinking calming thoughts, pseudo-mystic thoughts,  If I die now it’s a good death, that sort of thing, if I die this is a good place and  good time; the idea is to deceive the frenzied heartbeat that, really, you don’t care: you hadn't any other plans for the afternoon. The important thing with tachycardia is to prevent panic! you must prevent panic! otherwise you'll have to be taken by ambulance to the closest emergency room, which is not so very nice a way to spend the afternoon, really. So I contemplated the blue sky overhead. The earth beneath my head Nature surrounding me on all sides; I couldn't quite see it, but I could hear it, smell it, sense it, there is something there, no mistake about it."

Do continue to the entire essay.

Title | her point | discovering motives | basic format | uses of evidence | authority | structure | means | argument | source

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Format (continued)

"all around me nature thrummed a with life..."

When

She experienced an attack of Paroxysmal tachycardia.

Where

Along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, amidst a restored section of a "nature path," for joggers.

How

In an almost conversational style to begin the essay she then turns her prose into analyzing other writers and turns into being a literary analyst, an observer, and eventually a poet.

"The earth seems to shift forward as a presence, hard, emphatic, not mere surface but a genuine force."

. . . ."Nothing to be said about it expresses it, nothing touches it, it's an absolute against which nothing human can be measured . . . .Moving through space and time by way of your own volition you inhabit an interior consciousness, a hallucinatory consciousness, it might be said, . . . ."

"The interior is invaded by the exterior."

Paragraph ¶ 23, p. 842.

 

Tie this to:

"Nature" is not a "single coherent noun

paragraph ¶ 21

"Nature as the self's flattering mirror"

paragraph ¶ 28

"And it pleases our senses, in any case, as the physicists' chill universe of numbers certainly does not."

line from ¶ 30

  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche         "We pretend we are more simple-minded than we are.

line from ¶ 35

From William B. Yeats she takes: "No, we cannot escape."

line from ¶ 36

 

Oates creates a paradox out of the alleged inescapable dualism of our human existence:

"My body is a tall column of light & heat  'I' vs. 'it' "

The dualism Identity Conditions of existence
her terms 'I'

'it'

synonymous inside

 

outside

 

her phrases

 

nature as experience running

nature-in-itself tree

interpretations

 

"the 'I' is deluded as to its sovereignty" " . . . as if it were one, not many."

existential

 

 "The 'I' which doesn't exist, is everything." ". . . a dazzling variety of mouths."

 

She quotes Dr. Johnson, "the inexpressible need not be expressed."

See Visual Learning.html - question

 

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Title | her point | discovering motives | basic format | uses of evidence | authority | structure | means | argument

 

Words                                              Evidence

an inward journey                                        "completely oblivious to [her] the predicament"

to encounter the exterior quality of                               "one vast democratic grave"                 

p.59.

all our lives and                                           The color of the sky "a mere optical illusion"              

p. 59.

through the grotesque and smarmy                               

Paragraphs; ¶s, 17-18-19-20,                p. 60.

 

"In this fantastical structure the 'I' is deluded as to its sovereignty."


√       "astonishing secret is that the 'I' doesn't exist – but behaves as if it does, as if it were one, not many."

paragraph ¶ 41.

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She alludes to?

A classical allusion:

Diana and ActaeonDeath of Actaeon

"In any case where is nature? one might (skeptically) inquire. Who has looked upon her / its face and survived?"

paragraph ¶, 21.

Actaeon looks upon the goddess Diana is her classical allusion here.

The hunter Actaeon, or so the poet Ovid tells us, accidentally spied the bare Diana (Artemis) while bathing in her sacred grove amongst her nymphs. Diana was the goddess of the hunt, associated with the moon, and the very embodiment of nature. For such an act of unsanctioned voyeurism Actaeon was punished for his intrusion having looked upon "naked nature."

“Now you are free to tell that you have seen me all unrobed—if you can tell.”
(Artemis to Actaeon. Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.192).

His punishment involves the hunter Actaeon being transformed (presumably by the goddess Diana in anger) into the hunted stag. Seized upon by his own hunting hounds, Actaeon is devoured by these incensed beasts as the ultimate penalty for having looked upon the disrobed goddess as emblematic of "nature's face."

Next

Oates' question:

"Nature is mouths, or maybe a single mouth. Why glamorize it, romanticize it . . . . Nature is more than a mouth–it's a dazzling variety of mouths. And it pleases the senses, in any case, as the physicists' chill universe of numbers certainly does not."

line 30+

 

"An event to rethink all the acceptable cliches that reinforce our narrow perspectives."

 

 

Title | her point | discovering motives | basic format | uses of evidence | authority | structure | means | argument

 

Oates in the essay does the following:

Structure:

  1. Poem "The writer's resistance to Nature"
  2. Personal encounter (near death; hence: out of control) {setting}
  3. A complete brief sketch of the argument: dimensions, illusions, infinity & necessity.
  4. references to authors:
    1. Wallace Stevens - metaphor of the Jar
    2. Emily Dickinson - alludes to the buzzing of a fly
    3. Henry David Thoreau, "yet another, and ingenious form of storytelling"
    4. Shakespeare's King Lear
    5. Robert Frost allusion
    6. Herman Melville
    7. Oscar Wilde
    8. Castigating Thoreau's transcendentalism
    9. Friedrich Neitszche
    10. William Butler Yeats' poem
    11. returns to Wallace Stevens for support "The writer's resistance to Nature"
  5. "Early Nature memories. . . ." Childhood memories, the grotesque
  6. "My resistance to Nature writing" -- her personal perspective revealed
  7. Inference, an attack on Platonism "anything other than . . . is - ness."
  8. A classical allusion to the story of Diana and Actaeon
  9. She questions her own expression, at least rhetorically "isn't this all exaggeration?"
  10. Nature as a layered manuscript
  11. Using Thoreau's duality of seeing Nature as both experience and over soul
  12. Melville's "a blankness ten times blank."
  13. Oscar Wilde is used to reveal her thesis clearly.
  14. Poem Byzantium, by Yeats
  15. Her voice in the revelation (hyper-reality) conveys the climax of the piece.
  16. The personal story (in control) of the ants in search of her poem.

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Oates deliberately uses many other writers to draw on for pushing her argument.                                                 

 

"She is our creation" says Oscar Wilde "It is in our brains that she quickens to life."

p. 62.

The goal is to unmask our pretensions and challenge our biased, hobbling prejudices.  

                             "our fiercely romantic expectations."      

p. 62.

"Why glamorize it, romanticize it..."

She quotes recognized literature whose authors are an easily appreciated literary or critical authority:

Henry David Thoreau

"A palimpsest 4 of sorts you choose to read, layer by layer, always with care, always cautiously, in proportion to your psychological strength."

layers

These layers of sedimentary rock are like pages of a book that we can read and the cover page is rewritten – hence a palimpsest – of overwritten layers by accumulating debris and dust, called loess.

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Opening | Text | Interpretation | Word use | Organizing our approach | Her view | Her question | Argument | Structure | Use of authors

 

She skillfully and specifically refers to other authors as leverage to her point

Oscar Wilde

William B. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium, his poem's last stanza is that portion she quoted.

Wallace Stevens has written and she quotes him:

"In the presence of extraordinary actuality, consciousness takes the place of imagination."

Her voice:

"In any case, without the 'I'. . . the microscopic life-particles would die with it...."

“Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.”

“We inhabit ourselves without valuing ourselves, unable to see that here, now, this very moment is sacred; but once it's gone - its value is incontestable”

Joyce Carol Oates

What are the key points.

Writing, all about

Environmental literature defined

Themes in EL | Why a thesis is not a theme | Writing Thematically

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Title | her point | discovering motives | basic format | uses of evidence | authority | structure | means | argument

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book

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Against Nature.” The Norton Reader An Anthology of Nonfiction. Ed. Linda H. Peterson and John C. Brereton. 11th ed. New York: Norton, 2004. pp. 621-627.

The selection is from Oates' 1988 book: ( Woman ) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities. See http://2010yeagleyenglish.pbworks.com/f/Against Nature by Oates019.pdf


[1] groveling, expressing creepy behavior, ingratiating (seeking to please in an extremely disturbing manner or way), obsequious, flattering, fawning, submissive or timid.

 

[2] She manages to mention implicitly Emily Dickinson,  and explicitly Herman Melville, John Milton, Oscar Wilde, Henry D, Thoreau, among many others.

 

[3] Of the dusk sky She quotes Oscar Wilde saying "it was simply a very second-rate Turner," p. 62.

 

[4] palimpsest – a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.
• something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form persist as clues to what lies beneath that was original.


[a] thrum, thrummed (past participle) a continuous rhythmic humming sound; airplane drone, cicadas in the summer, bees' or flying insects' noise.

[b] The reference is to a short poem by Wallace Stevens (1909) "Anecdote of the Jar"

"I placed a jar in Tennessee . . . .

It took dominion everywhere.   
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,   
Like nothing else in Tennessee."

 


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Opening | Text | Interpretation | Word use | Organizing our approach | Her view | Her question | Argument | Structure | Use of authors

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