“Fishing in the swamp”

This post, at The Living Notebook gave me the title and the impetus to write on this subject here.

The line comes from Hemingway and TLN – I’m sorry, but the blog appears to be anonymous and I don’t have the writer’s name… – uses it to weave a connection between two approaches to writing.

We tend to either write while “fishing in the river,” a line from a Nick Adams story in Hemingway’s collection: Big, Two-Hearted River. Or we come around and finally “fish in the swamp.”

The first occurs, and I suggest you read TLN’s own words that I am only crudely summarizing here, when we “write what we know.” Such writing stays within expectations, ours as writers and also those of the reading public. It is a path for the young, at least that is what TLN sees Hemingway suggesting. This leaves the other option, “fishing in the swamp” as a more dangerous path best left for more desperate times. This is writing that does not stay within any accepted boundaries of expectation. Such writing is dangerous, risky; but also, it does open us to the potential of hooking one of the “big ones” hiding in those murky waters.

There is more than a coincidence that I would be reminded of Melville here! He told “fishing stories” too….

It is hard for us to grasp the risk involved in Moby Dick. Melville was a popular author when it first saw print. He had “fished the river” well, and his novels made him a household name and gave him a seemingly secure position and a comfortable living.

That’s not how it turned out. Moby Dick sank like a stone and he died forgotten and impoverished. He had paid the price of “fishing in the swamp!”

Focusing on two of the most archetypical “dead white males” of American Literature is not a savvy career move today either! It is so easy to find one’s self dismissed as a crank, a reactionary, looking to find justification for his – ain’t they always a he? – inclusion in a moribund pantheon.

I suspect I do it, and find both Hemingway and Melville as seminal influences – there’s another possible “patriarchal” allusion! – because I’ve been drawn to the same swamp.

In fact, it seems that today the swamp is the only place available to me. The river is too polluted. Expectations, anyone’s expectations, everyone’s expectations now tend to lead us away from being able to confront, or even merely witness what is going on around us. The depth and breadth of this realization and its implications has been the subject of my writing over at Horizons of Significance for these last few years. In a way, this path appeared to me when I reached the limits of expectations while writing Shoal Hope as I came up against an utter lack of context for it. Not only were my readers perplexed and confused as to what this thing was, but I also was unable to see where it might fit in, where it might be leading.

One of the dangers in “fishing in the swamp” is in the way in which it is impossible to prepare one’s self for it.

He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them…. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.

Hemingway quoted in, Hemingway’s Elegant Metaphor

It is in the essence of the swamp that we can only come to terms with it while we are in it. It is a “tragic adventure.” We tend to shy away from tragedy, it doesn’t “pay.” At least not when it is real, and personal, and not just a pose, a projection of an image intended to bolster one’s authority.

It is a dirty business! The swamp mires us in confusion and frustrates us with its resistance to any clarity we wish to impose on it. I’m aware that this entire enterprise, my writing, my art, all that I do could be seen as an attempt to do exactly what I’m “arguing” against here! A bid for authority couched in anti-authoritarian language!

Authority is a human drive, both to find it in others and to establish it for one’s self.

While this is true, it is also beginning to appear to me that this drive grows out of an incoherence that is at the center of our common understanding of what thought is and does, and of who “we” are.

This is where my recent exposure to Peter Kajtar’s work, building on the grand insights of Krishnamurti and Bohm, has been such a boon! He is writing, and discovering through the act of writing, ways to extend our understanding of the limitations of thought and to learn to recognize and take into account the errors compounding around our misunderstanding of thought and the dangers of accepting as real the illusion of an “I.”

Now, there are various ways to confront this central predicament underlying all the predicaments and problems we are plagued with today. There are personal practices that help us heal from the worst symptoms of the violence in which we are immersed. There is a conceptual journey to carve out context. There is also creativity.

It is no accident that David Bohm wrote On Creativity and On Dialogue. These are the two avenues we need to move along. Their importance grows out of their connections with the Implicate Order of the Universe he discovered at the heart of his work in physics. They are what take his insights into physics and, in conjunction with Krishnamurti’s parallel discoveries, takes physics out of the realm of Devil’s Apprentice and Modernist Metaphysical Playground and brought it firmly to earth as a source for insight that is vital to how we go about our lives.

Writing, of all kinds, fiction or not, is at the conjunction of creativity and dialogue. It manifests these forms and, depending on how well it embodies them in its very nature, it both carries out these imperatives and shows us how to do it ourselves.

Here is the key distinguishing such an enterprise from striving after, seeking out authority.

In this we reach what may be a confusion within the term authority. An author is, at the core of her enterprise, holographic in nature, as is the universe, everything. That is she is, as is a signature, available in every part. This holistic embodiment is a carrier of meaning, an expression of truth.

Authority, as it functions as a currency in life, is a twisting of this strength of embodiment into the realm of power to be wielded in a negotiation with violence to achieve an Ego’s ends by various means. It is a toxic simulacra, to use Derrick Jensen’s useful phrase. It twists something of value into something destructive.

The first kind of authority is a symptom of an achievement of authorship – which, once we enter the swamp and accept its conditions upon us, is not the exercise of one’s will upon a subject to create a certain impression. It is tied, inextricably, to a renouncing – at least in practice if not in proclamation – of Ego and an acceptance of the universality of consciousness, that it is not embodied within an illusory “I,” but that this I is a phantom in the way of any possibility of expression, of meaningful, existence.

It does not seek followers. It seeks peers. It does not wish to lead. It desires companionship, conviviality, to use Ivan Illich’s wonderful term.

When Nick, still a young man, a character flowing out of a still-young writer, turns from the swamp; he recognizes that he will need to go there someday. He leaves a bit sheepishly, with that attitude of inadequacy-felt, so much a part of youth. His integrity shines through his realizations. He does not rationalize his difficulties away. He does not project them on the swamp itself and seek to defeat it in battle.

There is such gentleness in Hemingway!  – In Melville too! – As much as he hid from it and, in the end, was defeated in his struggle to accept it. It is at the core of his writing. It is the heart beating through the rhythm of his short and simple declarative style.

That gentleness grows form an awareness of the swamp; of its dangers; of our need to go there; and of a recognition that to do so is to enter into tragedy.

Caught up in our serial “Wars on Everything!” Furiously striving to increase or maintain our power in face of projected enemies without, and in defiance of any sense of the realities within; we are in great need of such gentle acceptance; both of the tragic nature of life and of the strength we gain through creativity and dialogue to carve out meaning that might gently pull us away from our insistence to strive after an illusory security that cannot be achieved, that only hollows out and empties our lives of any joy, of any place for meaning.

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2 thoughts on ““Fishing in the swamp”

  1. This was a great post, and I’m thrilled that you found some inspiration and benefit from my interpretation of the Hemingway imagery! I haven’t read Moby-Dick but it’s hard to think of myself as a writer without having yet read what is supposedly “the best novel in the English language” … and yes, it was definitely a risk for Melville. In fact, I believe that Melville was inspired by Poe’s “Narrative of Gordon Pym of Nantucket” which was itself a risky undertaking that did not pan out for him and turned him away from novel writing for the remainder of his career.

    1. It’s been a pleasure for me following TLN!

      Please, please, please read Moby Dick! Read it with an open heart and with all the calm attention you can give it.

      Not because it has a huge reputation, but because it’s a work – I believe – that has yet to come into its own. It is seen to be about the 1840s and 50s. It appears to me to be about the 20teens and beyond.

      As is true of the ocean at its center, Moby Dick has many layers, and each reflects what is above and what is below its surfaces. Obscuring some things, it makes others jump out with a supreme clarity.

      Glad to have had a chance to introduce you to these precincts!

      Looking forward to whatever interactions the future brings!

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