Some thoughts on lakes (an essay)

Monday, September 14, 2015
M. S. OShaughnessy


A Brief Look at the Literary Lake

To be on a lake is not to vanish but to diminish. In Walden, Thoreau’s narrator associates his view from the middle of the lake with being in an amphitheatre. The section appears in chapter 9, The Ponds, and is part of a commentary on his time spent in the woods, and his time ‘framing a reflection.’ His position centre-stage makes him aware that he’s a focal-point, but he’s also alone. That changes the way he sees, for Thoreau says that a person living in isolation is “looking always at what is to be seen.” His questions on separateness as it is located, not just in nature, but in civilization, reverberate through everything. At the start of Part B he writes:

                        A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive

                        feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder

                        measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees

                        next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it,

                        and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging


            What comes to light for Thoreau floating on a lake is the mysterious connectedness of independent phenomena; the world is background, centre, foreground. Time is perceived with the same multiplicity of layers. Thoreau built a cabin in woodlands owned by his friend, Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “We must not halt while fiercely speed/
The spans of life away,” in his own poem on Walden. Thoreau draws us into the present of his existence and orients us through the intervention of physical and temporal change. He is writing of the historical reality of any moment, “as our skeletons, probably, are not to be distinguished from those of our ancestors.”

            What is seen in a literary lake? Forests belong to stories between the real and the unreal. Mountains sit closest to the gods. Lakes speak of other things. The word lake comes from the Old English lacu ("pond, pool, stream"), the Proto-Indo-European root leǵ- ("to leak, drain"), and the Proto-Germanic lakō ("pond, ditch, slow moving stream"). Lakes become strange, seemingly contradictory and mesmerizing allegories of the source of life and the entrance to the underworld. The idea of the feminine is symbolised in lakes. They are hinges between the seen and unseen.

            The literary world of appearances hides things. For example, Malory tells us in his Le Morte D’Arthur that Merlin and Arthur row out “and in the midst of the lake Arthur was ware of an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in her hand,” and then they vanish on their barge to no-one knows where. When Goethe writes On the Lake, he notes that that his gaze is pulled down into the darkness, “Eye, my eye, what makes it sink?” Rilke says in his Fourth Duino Elegy, “we are not in harmony,” so “force ourselves abruptly onto the wind/ and fall to an indifferent lake,” or perhaps it’s an “impassive” one. 

            Patrick White makes a German explorer the central character in his book Voss. Voss too, is being sent out into a lake, in this case the rarely filled expanse of Australia’s Kati-Thanda Lake Eyre basin. He is a stiff fanatical self-important man who comes out from Germany intending to head an expedition from one side of the Australian coast to the other, (“…map? I will make the map” he remarks) randomly collecting a party made up of a landowner, ornithologist, ex-convict, tribesmen, mules, horses, dogs, cattle and sheep who join him on the trek into the desert, where all but one indigenous boy, and one emigrant (who is found thirty years later) are doomed. From the beginning, the obsession with visions, with landscape and the mystic, are subjects that seems to emerge from the inside of the characters, and from inside the story. Where Thoreau feels he exists as part of the physical world, Voss always seems beyond it. Patrick White has Voss to articulate his idea that in writing “it is possible to weave about freely on different levels at one and the same time…”

            Certainly, there are things that are unstable from one moment to the next. Of the people moving through its pages it’s said they are “rising,” “rippling,” “glittering,” “drifting,” “drowning” or filled with “buoyancy” or “sunk” or “dampened with emotion…” What they inhabit is a landscape of unease. To them, time is marked by the horizontal, and the vertical. We see them moving blindly, it seems, across a shadowy surface, as though being regarded through a kind of crosshair. 

            “To make yourself it also necessary to destroy yourself,” Voss says at the start of his journey. For myths are made from invisibilities and, at bottom, reveal what lie beyond consciousness. If Voss had not vanished he would not, feels his lover Laura Trevelyan, have been well enough positioned to be the stuff of visions. To her, disappearing is not the same as dying. She is sustained by the story’s incompleteness. “His legend will be written down, eventually, by those who have been troubled by it.”

            Writing is trying to make a story out of the story. When one of the members of the expedition, Frank Le Mesurier, writes his long prophetic passages in a notebook (“…We do not meet but in distances…”) Voss – recoiling ­– describes them as poems, the occupation of a sick man lost in the desert. Le Mesurier is a man of dreams. He’s flooded with religious apparitions. He is someone without food or shelter or water anymore, who is on the brink of madness: but there’s no shortage of words! Not much later, however, Voss confesses those passages could have been startling echoes of his own mind. So it would seem that he agrees that words are a clue to insight, even as he is intensely attracted to immaterial boundaries and telepathy. “You are an Apostle of Love,” he says to Laura, “masquerading as an atheist for some inquisitorial purpose of your own. My poor Miss Trevelyan! I shall be followed through the continent of Australia by your prayers, like little pieces of white paper.” Is that image of those pieces of paper a prayer – or perhaps prophesy – to Voss, who will not be there to see the letters he gives Dugald for Laura Trevelyan torn to shreds and thrown to the desert, where they scatter across the landscape like so many cockatoos.

            Voss tells us of a desert that is mostly in the midst of the swampy green of spring. He never names the course in which he’s headed. Instead he wanders.  If Voss is an explorer he seems driven less “to find land for a lot of other Germans,” than by his journal, which, he says, Laura Trevelyan “will read afterwards, and follow step by step.”

            But it is Le Mesurier’s journal that actually speaks for him. Laura reflects that in her attempt to keep a journal the blank page painted a clearer picture of her emptiness than what she wrote. Some images live in the contingent. The painting The Lake The Sleeping Water by Caspar David Friedrich (who witnessed his brother fall though a hole in a frozen lake and drown when he was 13) uses the open window as an eye to the water, the pale blue lightness of the middle of the day set against boats and masts. Other paintings seem primarily an act of imagination – the unshaded pool, for instance, that becomes gradually fuzzier and sandier, hovered over by a couple of dodgy looking winged females in Sydney Nolan’s Religious Lake. Both have a lot to do with vantage points.

            In Walden, Thoreau sets downs the image as a means to reflection. Reflection is to notice what is both intimate and distant: it’s the opposite of itself. But in Voss the language signifies the image and at the same time the metaphor. They put pressure on each other. We see a universe, both elusive and recognizable, where things move apart, come together, move apart again. Time flickers. We see Voss, eaten by vermin and riding with the mirage of his naked shorn “wife.” A scene of Laura Trevelyan’s head being shaved.  We see the discovery of the bones of the mutineering party before they have died. We see their deaths. As his animals are being disemboweled Voss is transported by visions of Laura and lilies, where she is in Sydney mercifully released at last from the terrible brain fever that has kept her bedridden for so long. Thinking about this I am remembering what Hélène Cixous says about writing, “We must save the approach that opens and leaves space for the other.”  Sentences create tableaus. They form patterns. Taken together, they form an image that recalls the shape and habit of absence and place: a passage fills, space refers to a moment of hesitation. I think this may be why Patrick White has Voss call Le Mesurier’s diaries “poems,” and says, “he did not wish to see, but must.”

            Voss ends with an English tourist in Australia “forming opinions of all and sundry,” noting that “the sundry does prevail.” Laura Trevelyan resists, just before she tells him Voss, “did not die.” And that “He is there still… in the country.” Patrick White chose to have his ashes thrown into the little lake across the road from his house. A lake has a sort of negative fullness from which life and death flow into each other. It might be why Thoreau last words were, “Now comes the good sailing.”


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