Opinion

“Essay Fifteen: The Bulldozer and the Bridge – On EarthBound, Hart Crane, and Walt Whitman”

Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz

 

 

bookwarm “The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”

Welcome back. Before jumping into the game, a quick announcement about some new opportunities rolling out for fantasy discussions online. Signum University’s “Hobbit Immersion” summer camp for young readers started up a couple of years ago, and last year it was expanded to include camps on A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The full recordings are all available on YouTube. We’re currently working on reconfiguring them to make it easier for groups and individuals to participate. That effort, and The Hobbit discussions, are led by yours truly! Access to all these resources is free, and our plan is to work on future programming in partnership with local libraries, community centers, and non-profits where in-person events will be hosted. The format is, like the Tolkien Professor’s, a live interactive online discussion, highlighting specific passages of text and tracing themes through the story, but we also want to feature ways to connect with the story through games, crafts, and other hands-on activities. Grown-ups can also check out the insightful work Prof. Olsen has done on The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings Online, and other hard-to-find-people-to-talk-to-you-with-about fantasy and sci-fi books you love on Mythgard. Courses for MA credit are available on Signum University (their accreditation is pending, but they’re working on it). For young readers, see more info on Signum Academy here, or ask at your local library!

Now, picking up from our meditations on luck in the desert, where we were fortunate at any rate not to expire like those dry bones.

If we grant that some of the best books come out of the desert, with its temptations and its visions; that great books from The Bible to The Little Prince are set there to convey something of that experience; we also recognize that our distance from such a place and from such experience does not prevent us from continuing to admire it, but draws us towards it all the more. Here we are, listening on our devices, playing our video games and reading our e-books or Bible apps, with our own problems, sure, but nothing compared to fasting in the wilderness. Some of our problems, in fact, tend to begin from this very fact: privileged and comfortable as we are, well, now what do we do? For though we, too, may be out in the desert some of the time, by and large we have made the trek to the cities, done the work or benefited from the work of others to enjoy things like neighborhoods, gardens, parks, farms and their produce, schools, stores. And while desertification goes on in parts of the developing world, afforestation takes over in others, already post-industrial, where we can afford the luxury of national parks. Catastrophe looms on rising sea levels and rising temperatures, say some; a rising tide lifts all boats, prosperity trickles down, say others. Meanwhile, cities grow rapidly everywhere, and with them, literacy, access to technology, and the presence of so many other people. What will come of it all? For one thing, all sorts of great books, art, discoveries, games–all people’s attempts to make sense of this world which is mostly made up of other people. And what do we lose? Well, we can stroll outside the city walls to consider that. Not Plato’s Socrates and Phaedrus just now, but a cohort of poets whose work touches on the link that binds the desert and the city, the bridge, will be the literary interlude this week.

In EarthBound, we have arrived at last through the desert to the big city of Fourside, only to find ourselves at a dead end, with no way to proceed. The last of the numerically-named towns, Fourside is bounded by brick walls and bays and grassy verges. It extends diagonally to accommodate skyscrapers, looming over and in front of your party giving a new sense of scale. There is a plethora of uncertain clues, a congeries of mysteries, so much that it is unclear at first what you need to do, where to begin. There’s Jackie’s Cafe, where the drinkers tell you what you’re supposedly asking them; the museum, where the researcher blocks the door and pines for a starlet’s attention; the department store, closed until further notice, GWARGH! There’s the tower complex of Geldegarde Monotoli, who runs the town, where of all people you find Pokey, ensconced in a loud yellow upholstered office, amused by your shock at finding him–Ooh la la–he forgets your name, calls you Pig’s Butt, then has his bodyguards remove you. Next door you find his father, who laughs in your face until he wheezes, spent by his conspicuous glee. But the man himself, Monotoli, is nowhere to be seen, nor are Pokey’s mom or Picky. Another elevator which would presumably take you up to his penthouse is off limits.

There’s the theater, called Topolla in a reference to New York’s Apollo, where some old friends are again ensnared by a contract… Fourside recapitulates many of the elements of the other towns so far, gathers them together and intensifies them. It’s like what it does with its layout and buildings: things here are made bigger and laid out in a new perspective, by their juxtaposition bringing out something new, by their quantity and density transforming their quality. It is reminiscent of Onett in the cops and corrupt government; of Twoson and Happy Happy Village in the Runaway Five and then the kidnapping of Paula by the Dept Store Spook, which we’ll look at next week; same goes for its recalling Threed in the darkness that comes over everything once the lights go out and you find yourself in Moonside; of Winters in the cool museum with its giant replica; and as it turns out, there’s a glance forward to Summers and its museum as well.

A composition of aggrandized elements from elsewhere–or were they miniature imitations of it?–Fourside is also itself, with its own personality. It represents a kind of greatness, which you can feel walking around any great real-world city: New York, Paris, Istanbul, Beijing. The City: a space within which infinite stories might take place. Its personality is expressed in the strange doppelganger copies of the people in the audience of the theater, in the huge plaster bones whose tops you cannot see. It’s there in the backyard of the department store, glittering,  with the boy peering over the fence–he may be a peeping Tom. And it’s there especially at APE Headquarters, where they’re planning “EarthBound 2″…

From these fragments, which we put a boundary around, putting them into relation with each other with broad streets and alleys, and to things beyond them with the bridge, we relate in the sense of telling, too: in stories and gossip which multiply there and circulate. Fourside becomes a kind of microcosm, large though it is, of the game as a whole. And what does that mean, then, that there’s no way forward from here: are video games like EarthBound ultimately nothing but a cul-de-sac? Having come out of the desert, it seems that to the desert we must return.

Image result for the alchemist

Like the emerald digger in The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, the treasure hunter Gerardo Montague was so close:

The old man related that, the week before, he had been forced to appear before a miner, and had taken the form of a stone. The miner had abandoned everything to go mining for emeralds. For five years he had been working a certain river, and had examined hundreds of thousands of stones looking for an emerald. The miner was about to give it all up, right at the point when, if he were to examine just one more stone — just one more — he would find his emerald. Since the miner had sacrificed everything to his destiny, the old man decided to become involved. He transformed himself into a stone that rolled up to the miner’s foot. The miner, with all the anger and frustration of his five fruitless years, picked up the stone and threw it aside. But he had thrown it with such force that it broke the stone it fell upon, and there, embedded in the broken stone, was the most beautiful emerald in the world.

“People learn, early in their lives, what is their reason for being,” said the old man, with a certain bitterness. “Maybe that’s why they give up on it so early, too. But that’s the way it is.”

(From the text at https://archive.org/stream/TheAlchemist_410/TheAlchemist_djvu.txt)

There you go. So runs The Alchemist, for me a formative, though I don’t know if I’d still argue it’s a truly great book. It made me want to study in Andalusia, and though I never made it to the Pyramids, I did get to take the ferry to Morocco for one bright day, and rambled all over Spain and Portugal, enthralled by traveling and learning languages. So that to this day my chief recommendation as a teacher is for anyone who has the opportunity to study abroad to make the most of it. Even if not everyone has a great experience, it’s the way some of the best books do come out of the desert: some of the soundest and strongest returns to the light come out of the underground of doubt and anxiety. It’s much like the way even mediocre or dull games and books can lead to other, better ones, and each of those on to another and another, until your life is changed, you see life differently, though you can’t remember quite how. Even so, I’m getting to the part of the game where I start to get the chronology mixed up–there’s no more numbered towns, and there’s about to be some teleporting back and forth. I’m looking forward to playing on and figuring that out, but I have no way of recalling now about the books: which lead to which? I think I read The Little Prince after The Alchemist. I could imagine a class like that, just giving kids time in the library, or online, now, to browse and read, and then to read the things that book and its reviews suggest that you read. Perhaps a class like that would take too much trust in kids actually doing the reading. What about a tutorial, then, where the teacher checks in with each student in turn over the course of a couple of weeks? That could allow reading and learning at their own pace, provide accountability without smothering freedom…

Anyhow, when you give him that food, reinvigorating him with simple human kindness, Gerardo presses on until, uncovering a maze full of monsters, he once again can go no further without your help. When you come back out to the desert, impelled by the Foursideans’ hints about a buried treasure, you find his modest mine shaft expanded Foursideanly into a great quarry, with its crowd of onlookers and an enterprising ice cream stand and food cart. A maze awaits where you thought to come to a clear way forward, hiding monsters instead of treasure. Though he’s got an ulcer from worrying, the miner and his team stand in for Itoi’s quixotic treasure hunt, their very exhaustion and pain making fitting markers of success in the rat race, suitable for televising.

When Ness and his friends start to succumb to the same vanity, exit mice, fortunately, like the ones in the house south of Onett, can whisk you out again to rest if you’re lost or about to lose in battle. Noose men underground, like the smilin’ spheres topside that explode when defeated, seem to be the dramatizing of the miner’s despair, concealed for the cameras by a rictus grin, hopefully not coming to actual suicide, whatever the state of his spirit. And those five moles, obsessed with status, yet humorously competing to be, not the best nor the worst, but the most middling and mediocre. You’ve fought the strongest, the second strongest, the fourth strongest, and the weakest: now prepare to face the third strongest! Such are their boasts. Hopefully by the time you do you’ve realized the power of Freeze curlicue for Paula, which can one-shot these bosses. Don’t be discouraged if at Ness’ level 33, in the middle of our life’s way, his HP goes up by just 1. You may yet get a PSI Caramel, amigo, from those spinning Sanchez brothers, and even have room for it in your inventory, having cleared out some item space on Paula, knowing she’s about to get kidnapped.

Defeating the last third-strongest mole, the desert music starts back up. When you exit mouse out, though, there’s no obvious reward yet. So to try and see if something might have changed in Fourside, you walk back across the bridge. The triumphant horns let you know you’re coming into the big time. Is it time for a scrapbook photo yet? Not just yet. The photographer will drop down only after the bulldozer arrives and Gerardo’s brother George hands you a diamond, in lieu of the buried treasure which still eludes them. This whole process of receiving the diamond is something like what you’ve got to do when you’re growing a plant. Though growing things might seem like the furthest thing from a finding diamond, that might be true only in terms of the time-scale which it takes for a diamond to form, or a desert to reforest. When you’re growing a plant, you have to allow things to happen, as Ness and his friends have to allow the diamond to come to them in this case. Isn’t it like that with books, games, and all the rest, too, whether writing them or reading them and writing about them: if they’re truly great, they escape explanation anyhow and they can do without it. So sometimes I worry too much about trying to explain the game when it’s really a matter of just letting people play it.

Anyhow, other great books come out of the city, from that patient or impetuous pursuit of bigger and better and more. The bridge itself, of course, which joins the two, is a product of the city. The bridge is that by which the city stays connected to the desert, through which the newcomers, the visionaries, must come. So to dwell on the image of the bridge: in one of my favorite books, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, a supremely urbane work of aesthetics by Jacques Maritain, these lines among many others have to be savored:

With respect to the work made, it seems to me that that element in beauty which is integrity has principally to do with poetic intuition as objectivizing itself into the action or the theme, whereas that element which is radiance has principally to do with poetic intuition in its native and original state. Hence it is that poetic intuition may happen to appear with striking radiance even in a poem lacking in integrity; and such splintered fragments, transparent to the rays of being, may be enough to reveal the pure essence of poetry. For nothing is more precious than a capture on the high seas of poetry, be it offered in a single line–

 

L’espoir luit comme un brin de paille dans l’etable…

 

O thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits

The agile precincts of the lark’s return…

 

Odor of blood when Christ was slain

Made all Platonic tolerance vain.

 

And I shall always prefer a haikai, if it has this kind of transparency, to a big noisy machine deafening me with ideas. Yet the fact remains that from the very start poetic intuition virtually contains and encompasses the poem as a whole, and demands to pass through it as a whole; when it does not succeed in appearing save in a fragmentary way, it is because it has been betrayed by the art of the poet. (p. 135 under the heading “Poetic Intuition as Creative”)

The line of poetry in French there might be translated literally: “Hope that shines like a curl of straw in the stable,” which comes from Verlaine’s Sagesse. That third one is from not Blake but Yeats, in “Two Songs from a Play” from The Tower. In between is where we get the image of a bridge more clearly, and it comes from the Atlantis section of a long poem by Hart Crane called The Bridge. To give a little more of that, from just before and just after Maritain’s capture:

We left the haven hanging in the night

Sheened harbor lanterns backward fled the keel.

Pacific here at time’s end, bearing corn,—

Eyes stammer through the pangs of dust and steel.

And still the circular, indubitable frieze

Of heaven’s meditation, yoking wave

To kneeling wave, one song devoutly binds—

The vernal strophe chimes from deathless strings!

 

O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits

The agile precincts of the lark’s return;

Within whose lariat sweep encinctured sing

In single chrysalis the many twain,—

Of stars Thou art the stitch and stallion glow

And like an organ, Thou, with sound of doom—

Sight, sound and flesh Thou leadest from time’s realm

As love strikes clear direction for the helm.

 

Swift peal of secular light, intrinsic Myth

Whose fell unshadow is death’s utter wound,—

O River-throated—iridescently upborne

Through the bright drench and fabric of our veins;

With white escarpments swinging into light,

Sustained in tears the cities are endowed

And justified conclamant with ripe fields

Revolving through their harvests in sweet torment.

 

(from the text available at https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-bridge-atlantis/)

That one, then, might make you think of the great city dwelling yearner after nature, the American bard, Walt Whitman. Here are some lines from his poem Brooklyn Ferry, embedded in his lifelong project Leaves of Grass:

1

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!

Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

 

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!

On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,

And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

 

2

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,

The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,

The similitudes of the past and those of the future,

The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,

The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,

The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,

The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.

 

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

3

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,

Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,

Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,

Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

 

I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,

Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,

Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,

Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,

Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,

Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,

Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water,

Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,

Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,

Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the vessels arriving,

Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,

Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,

The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,

The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,

The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,

The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,

The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sunset,

The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,

The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite storehouses by the docks,

On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each side by the barges, the hay-boat, the belated lighter,

On the neighboring shore the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,

Casting their flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow light over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.

 

4

These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,

I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,

The men and women I saw were all near to me,

Others the same—others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,

(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)

 

5

What is it then between us?

What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

 

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,

I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,

I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,

I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,

In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,

In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,

I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,

I too had receiv’d identity by my body,

That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

 

(A generous helping from the text at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45470/crossing-brooklyn-ferry

So we’ll stop there. And, man, I can only hope that I see what he sees. Until at last philosophy, not content with wondering about art and poetry, like the poet himself, Whitman’s grandiose self-narrative the very bridge that he sings, in a sense, dissolves into poetry. Witness the wily Heidegger of Building Dwelling Thinking. Here’s where he arrives in part II in that short essay:

In what way does building belong to dwelling?

The answer to this question will clarify for us what building, understood by way of the nature of dwelling, really is. We limit ourselves to building in the sense of constructing things and inquire: what is a built thing? A bridge may serve as an example for our reflections.

The bridge swings over the stream “with case and power. It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge. Nor do the banks stretch along the stream as indifferent border strips of the dry land. With the banks, the bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape lying behind them. It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighborhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream. Thus it guides and attends the stream through the meadows. Resting upright in the stream’s bed, the bridge-piers bear the swing of the arches that leave the stream’s waters to run their course. The waters may wander on quiet and gay, the sky’s floods from storm or thaw may shoot past the piers in torrential waves-the bridge is ready for the sky’s weather and its fickle nature. Even where the bridge covers the stream, it holds its flow up to the sky by taking it for a moment under the vaulted gateway and then setting it free once more.

The bridge lets the stream run its course and at the same time grants their way to mortals so that they may come and go from shore to shore. Bridges lead in many ways. The city bridge leads from the precincts of the castle to the cathedral square; the river bridge near the country town brings wagons and horse teams to the surrounding villages. The old stone bridge’s humble brook crossing gives to the harvest wagon its passage from the fields into the village and carries the lumber cart from the field path to the road. The highway bridge is tied into the network of long-distance traffic, paced as calculated for maximum yield. Always and ever differently the bridge escorts the lingering and hastening ways of men to and from, so that they may get to other banks and in the end, as mortals, to the other side. Now in a high arch, now in a low, the bridge vaults over glen and stream-whether mortals keep in mind this vaulting of the bridge’s course or forget that they, always themselves on their way to the last bridge, are actually striving to surmount all that is common and unsound in them in order to bring themselves before the haleness of the divinities.

The bridge gathers, as a passage that crosses, before the divinities-whether we explicitly think of, and visibly give thanks for, their presence, as in the figure of the saint of the bridge, or whether that divine presence is obstructed or even pushed wholly aside.

The bridge gathers to itself in its own way earth and sky, divinities and mortals.

(From the text at http://www.wwf.gr/images/pdfs/pe/katoikein/Filosofia_Building%20Dwelling%20Thinking.pdf)

I’ll just stop there, because I don’t really know what Heidegger means by ‘the fourfold’ he’s building up to here, and that’s coming up next. Anyway, next week I’ll try to delve more into this and to tackle a contemporary philosopher, Ian Bogost, and those he leans on, David Foster Wallace and Johan Huizinga, he of the magic circle I mentioned a few weeks ago, to see how they attempt to pose and address some of these matters of art and philosophy.

But I think we should get back to EarthBound. Long story short, you give the diamond to the theater manager, and the Runaway five are free. The cops might say, “‘Hey you guys,’ or something like that,” but something tells Lucky that you’ll need their help. They got you moving once before, after all, so we’ll see what that help will consist in this time. Along those lines, we might note in passing how strange some of the humor gets in sophisticated Fourside–isn’t it strange even by EarthBound standards? Is the drinker’s joke about the five apples, taking one away so that there’s four left, some kind of pun on the name Fourside? He says that number jokes are no good, and let’s try a pun: have we heard that Pokey’s maid Electra is ‘maid’ to order? Then, I guess because Ness and friends again don’t laugh, he says puns are no good either. But maybe it’s just that his jokes are no good. Or is there something I‘m just not getting here?

So much for one of the unassuming local guys in Jackie’s Cafe. Outside there’s someone to all appearances drunk, who lets you know he’s just wallowing in his espresso. That of course has got to be a vestige of the translation team editing out ‘bar’ into ‘cafe’ in the first place. There’s the businessman in the Monotoli building who asks you if you even know what solitaire is when he tells you a story about the solitaire tournament the night before, where he lost his shirt, which could mean any number of things. And then when you go into the elevator you deal with the elevator operator, who tells you over and over “Don’t stare at my hips.”

These slightly off-color jokes sort of blend together with the scene which takes place if you pop back into the theater after the Runaway Five’s release. You can catch a free show by Venus herself. First the announcer proclaims how sexy she is, and how he would die happily just hearing her sing to him. That’s….different. Then there’s her sultry song. While Venus slinks around the stage, tres chanteuse, her stalker-fan, Mr Spoon of the museum, tries to climb onstage and has to get escorted out by what looks like Pokey’s bodyguards.

Each of the game’s three theaters, two of which we’ve seen so far, points out that what you do in your adventure has some interesting consequences on ordinary people’s relationships. Beside Venus’ shine, her song, her fans–no autograph yet for Mr Spoon–there’s the manager who, after making so much money, starts to hear her own heartbeat at last. In Twoson after you free the band there you begin to see the subtext about relationships coming to the fore with the hapless boyfriend in the lobby who missed his date. The same sort of thing happens here, when your letting the Runaway Five out of their scheduled show causes a girlfriend and boyfriend who were looking forward to seeing them decide they might just split up. Or again it’s like in Threed, after the road reopens the cheating boyfriend is caught by his girlfriends from both towns.

Maybe most intriguing to think about, though, of all that plethora of potential stories going on in populous Fourside, is the closed-doors meeting forever taking place at the programmers’ headquarters. One of the last people you get to talk to before the lights go out is the boy playing the arcade on the top floor of the department store, now that it’s reopened, who wants to work for APE. He asks if you have any connections with those guys, then backtracks, as if–or this is one way to read it–to rededicate himself to the work of making something great, rather than trying to jump ahead to the recognition for it.

Just before everything changes, the mouse down on the first floor who’s got a sixth sense the lights are about to go out warns you to be ready. If anything was missing from Fourside as a replica of a big city, it might have been mass transit. For that, we’ll have to wait for the teleportation to come, the strange movements that will take place in Moonside next week. For now, as they say there, hello and… goodbye!

 

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