Foreword | February 12, 2013
The Unnatural World
“I couldn’t tell nothing about voices in a fog, for nothing don’t look natural nor sound natural in a fog.” Huck Finn
The older and more experienced one gets, the closer the zones of the natural and the unnatural become, to the point that one begins to wonder if these categories are of much significance. We could all describe a list of realities that beginning in early childhood struck us as impossible or unnatural, then as we learned about and got used to them, gave way to new impossibilities. In some ways, we remain children throughout our lives, learning and adjusting to an ever-changing understanding of the world. In Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche, James Miller describes Socrates as starting his philosophical quest partly out of sheer irritation with the complacent, false confidence of experts he queried in various fields of knowledge. After going around Athens and talking at length with many of the presumed masters of a range of subjects, he decided that most of what they commonly accepted as true was either wrong or highly questionable. His quest for understanding began with a learned and quite essential mistrust of the accepted.
As much as we recently have gleaned from various fields of thought, we continue to uncover new facts and even new zones of knowledge almost by the year. The latest example, according to science writer Michael Specter (“Germs Are Us,” The New Yorker, 10/27/12), may be our new understandings about bacteria. The century-long, all-out battle against germs is now being called into question, as biologists are learning that the over ten thousand different species of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that most of us carry—and which congregate in various places in our bodies, weighing about the same as our brains (three pounds)—have recently been discovered to have a number of positive roles, including helping us digest food and aiding our immune systems and probably offering many other benefits that we don’t yet know about. Understanding the ecology of bacteria and the existence of the “good germ” is already leading to major medical improvements. Such breakthroughs in knowledge continue to occur in physics, geology, biochemistry, astronomy, climatology, linguistics and other areas at a pace that should turn us all into our own versions of Socrates, doubting the current knowledge, assured only that there is much to learn.
In his story “Vanishing” Joe Davies’s young family man deals with the disappearance of a cyclist friend—the friend’s sudden and utter vanishing. It is a wonderfully written tale about the baffling closeness of nihility to our happy, “normal” lives. Jerry Gabriel’s “The Defense” depicts a youngish successful entrepreneur and prostate-cancer survivor whose illness has changed his attitude in surprising ways, impelling him toward a closer relationship with his grown son and a more involved and protective one with his sister. In part, it is a story about the paradoxically constructive side of our awareness of mortality. Dave Kim’s “The Good Stone” describes a retiree who has found himself in the middle of a strangely empty, lonely retreat from life. He falls into an unlikely and not entirely sensible friendship with a neighborhood kid, which calls to mind and clarifies a great loss in his own life. Matthew Baker’s “A Cruel Gap-Toothed Boy” is about a happy but eccentric couple of parenting uncles, both of whom make their livings in the dustiest corners of linguistics. Their peaceful and altogether moderate lives are suddenly overturned when an outrageous bully starts picking on their niece. It’s a wonderfully well-wrought comic story about the lust for revenge lurking even in our most reasonable linguists.
Susan Detweiler’s essay “Under the Cloud” describes her experience of growing up during the Cold-War years and living as a child with the threat of obliteration. It is about living in a culture where nuclear threat loomed, duck-and-cover drills were common practice and people built bomb shelters and prepared for a holocaust in their hometowns. Detweiler juxtaposes imagery of the bomb and Hiroshima with the natural beauty of the California coastline of her youth. “Stealing Pears” by Cynthia Miller Coffel contrasts the legacy of the Christian intellectual reading passed on to her by her father with a particularly smutty book that she stumbled onto as an adolescent. Miller writes of her admiration, now, for Augustine, who recognized that “our inner worlds are so large and deep, so wild and unknowable, that simple resolve won’t always keep us from sin” and who possessed “a sense of something like the unconscious years before Freud . . . he knew we are much more than simply rational beings.”
R.T. Smith’s triptych of poems in the voice of Mary Todd Lincoln is a study of grief. Her personal, and in a sense, national suffering reaches unnatural proportions. She copes with this through obsessive shopping and, after the death of her husband, the President, turns to the occult to try to communicate with her lost loved ones. Finally, institutionalized on the basis of her son’s testimony, she blasts the “quackery” of a misogynistic culture’s eagerness to see the female as unnatural and to treat her accordingly.
Though his poems are about nature, Justin Gardiner writes about a “grim and inhospitable” Antarctic environment that takes us far from human habitation. The rage for discovery takes humankind to the end of the world. Here, amid dramatic evidence of global warming, the peripatetic poet’s work is indicted alongside the explorer’s. In their striving, both miss out on a home life and on a life “fully lived,” rendering their work in many ways unnatural. Even Gardiner’s affecting vision of romantic love calls into question our received romantic conventions. With his poem as example, he longs for a new version, “a sincerity of joint intention that won’t be lessened by the meddling of the world.”
Peter Cooley’s poems operate out of that most natural yet unnatural of gifts, joy. These revelatory morning meditations seem to fall out of the sky, straight into his lap, and ours. Often beginning as ekphrastic studies of classic art, they shift toward less austere poetic convention, as the boundaries between poet and reader and between life and art break down. With uncommon candor and ease, he crosses over “into that alterity which is beyond literature and music and art but some synthesis of all three.”
British photographer Cecil Beaton is the subject of this issue’s visual feature. Beaton is best known for his photographic portraits of luminaries from the worlds of art, literature and philosophy, but he also worked in both set and costume design for movies and plays. As a photographer, Beaton wanted the camera to somehow convey vision as well as image, causing him to struggle against the medium’s limitations. Much of his work has an intentional air of artifice, reminding us that we are indeed looking at a piece of art, not just a record of reality. Beaton’s career spanned the 1920s through the 1970s, and, partly due to his relentless effort, he never went out of style.
Anthony Aycock’s review essay “The Best-selling Author down the Hall” addresses memoirs by David Rieff, Sigrid Nunez, Margaret Salinger, Erica Heller and Sebastian Matthews about the not always normal or natural experience of being a famous writer’s child. In particular, Erica Heller writes about her family’s discomfort over becoming material for Something Happened, and Salinger writes about her father’s overwhelming eccentricities. Complicated people make complicated and not necessarily very successful parents.
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