Saturday, 02 December 2006

A Gruesome Reminder: Part I Exhausted from a week of writing nonstop, I decided to spend the day—wait for it, wait for it—reading for fun. I know, I don't believe me either. But like the fellow whose "autobiography" looms large in my current chapter, I cannot tell a lie: I whittled away the day reading books and magazines irrelevant to my dissertation. Or so I thought: [Seymour] Hicks wrote, "There is no doubt that as the years rolled on, the home life of this little peddler of patent medicines must have been anything but a rest cure..." (130) I've written about this phenomenon before, but the experience of reading Erik Larson's Thunderstruck doesn't fit the "Strawberries Under Ice" paradigm. As I wrote the April before last, David Quammen's essay "demonstrates how a scholar's research colors all aspects of his or her life, creating meaningful but ultimately irrelevant juxtapositions of research and lived experience." How? He writes: Ablation is the scientists' fancy word for loss. Down here the mass balance is negative. Ice is supplied to this zone mainly by flow from above, little or not at all by direct precipitation, and whatever does come as direct precipitation is less than the amount annually lost. The loss results from several different processes: wind erosion, surface melting, evaporation (ice does evaporate), underside melting of an ice shelf where it rests on the warmer seawater. Calving off of icebergs. Calving is the scientists' quaint word for that event when a great hunk of ice—as big as a house, or in some cases, as big as a country—tears away from the leading edge of the sheet or glacier and falls thunderously into the sea. (200) The diction of that first sentence seems to signal the coming of something metaphorical. Instead, Quammen describes how ablation whittles away at everything from ice cubes to Antarctica. He demands readers not interpret ablation metaphorically; his tone and diction demand otherwise. For example: Possibly this talk about calving reflects an unspoken sense that the larger ice mass, moving, pulsing, constantly changing its shape, is almost alive. If so the analogy doesn't go far. Icebergs don't suckle or grow. They float away on the sea, melt, break apart, disappear. Wind erosion and evaporation and most of those other ablative processes work on the ice slowly, incrementally. Calving on the other hand is abrupt. A large piece of the whole is there, and then gone. The strange asyndetons—the rhetorical term for omitting conjunctions—in the second and fourth sentences aside, this paragraph's plain-spoken science entices readers to relate these glaciological facts to Quammen, his life or that much-maligned abstraction, "the human condition." Calving is a fact of glaciation, not an analogy by which humans can come to understand the processes governing their lives. "The analogy," Quammen insists, "doesn't go far." But how then to explain the next paragraph? I came home to find a note in my door. The note said that a young woman I knew, the great love of a friend of mine, was dead...

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