Day 218: a capacity for withdrawal

I was reading a book recently (Helen Thompson’s Fictional Matter (2016)) that cited a line from John Locke I couldn’t stop thinking about: “What sort of outside is the certain sign that there is, or is not such an inhabitant within?”

The line is from Chapter 4 of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), “Of the Reality of Knowledge.” Locke poses this question in the context of considering whether the shape of a body necessarily reflects its essence. Locke does not think that shape is a reliable index of a substance’s essence; but he notes that, in general, we are apt to conflate shape with essence: “people do lay the whole stress on the figure, and resolve the whole essence of the species of man (as they make it) into the outward shape,” he observes. Locke notes that this tendency is particularly pronounced when it comes to making distinctions between species. We assume, falsely, Locke believes, that “these two names, man and beast, stand for distinct species so set out by real essences, that there can come no other species between them.”

The duck-rabbit would seem to perfectly illustrate Locke’s point about the fallacy of such an assumption. The fact that it can switch between two distinct species shows that shape does not determine essence. Moreover, the duck-rabbit’s identity as neither duck nor rabbit but as duck-rabbit vividly illustrates Locke’s point that the range of species concepts available to us does not determine that there might not “be a species of an animal between, or distinct from both.”

Let me now rephrase Locke’s question: if a duck-rabbit is your outward sign, what does that tell you about the inhabitant within?

I don’t know the answer to that question; but I have reflected recently that my insides and outsides feel much more closely aligned than ever before. For much of my life I felt that my insides were just too much—too soft (which, come to think of it, they are, not to mention gooey and bloody), too desirous, too fearful, too selfish, too scattered, too lazy, too sentimental—and that, lest anybody suspect such a frightful mess lurked just beneath the surface it was important to project an outside sign—serene, thoughtful, happy, competent, disciplined, altruistic, hard-working—that might plausibly suggest—and might even conjure?—those traits within.

My midlife crisis (my first midlife crisis?), I realize in retrospect, consisted of the revelation that this exercise wasn’t working out terribly well. I was arranging my life in ways to fulfill the desires I attributed to the person I wanted to be, not the person I was. I began cautiously experimenting with voicing thoughts outside my own head that chipped away at the exterior persona I had built. I remember how truly terrifying it felt to say, haltingly, ashamedly, in my first appointment with the referring psychiatrist I saw, “I’m … not … happy.”

In the past five years, this blog has been one way I’ve experimented with exteriorizing my insides, an experiment that has mostly been deeply rewarding. But lately I’ve also had the nagging feeling that my insides and outsides have become too closely aligned. I feel like a Momus glass, as if everyone can peer in and see the maggots within. I look good stark naked, but still. The line between feeling seen and feeling exposed is a fine one.

One of my favorite essays by Winnicott is “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites.” (If you would like to read it, let me know, I can send you a pdf.)

Winnicott tells a story in that essay about a patient:

The patient said that in childhood (nine years) she had a stolen school book in which she collected poems and sayings, and she wrote in it ‘My private book’. On the front page she wrote: ‘What a man thinketh in his heart, so is he’. In fact her mother had asked her: ‘Where did you get this saying from?’ This was bad because it meant that the mother must have read her book. It would have been all right if the mother had read the book but had said nothing. Here is a picture of a child establishing a private self that is not communicating, and at the same time wanting to communicate and to be found. It is a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek in which it is joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.

Sometimes this blog has felt like the perfect version of this vision: I write “my private book” and you—a you that includes sometimes my actual mother and other people I know intimately but also those I know less well or not at all—read it but generally don’t ask me about it; and so I can feel seen and hidden at once.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hide and seek lately. I remember how, when I was very young, I believed that if I covered my eyes, whoever was seeking me wouldn’t be able to find me. (I believe this is a common belief among preschool age children). Sometimes I think the same illusion has sustained my writing in this blog; I can’t see you, dear readers, so I have a hard time believing that you can see me.

This relationship between blog-writer and blog-reader is a version of “parasocial interaction,” a term and concept I learned about from Elaine Auyoung’s wonderful book, When Fiction Feels Real: Representation and the Reading Mind (2018). Sociologists coined the term “parasocial” in the 1950s to describe the kinds of non-reciprocal social relationships audiences have with radio or television performers—or, as Auyoung explores (in an application of the concept I find very suggestive), the relationships readers have with fictional characters. I’m interested, in my scholarly work, in thinking more about the parasocial aspect of readers’ relationship with literary characters. But I invoke the concept here for a different reason: because writing this blog can feel parasocial in the opposite way—like I’ve been having a five-year correspondence with an implied reader. I’m teaching A.S. Byatt’s Possession at the moment, and I was struck today by the observation the Browning-like Randolph Ash makes in his correspondence with the Rossetti-like Christabel LaMotte: Browning refers to himself as “an author of Monologues—trying clumsily to construct a Dialogue—and encroaching on both halves of it.” That’s me, that is.

Later in his essay on “Communicating and Not Communicating,” Winnicott observes that, “in the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the coexistence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.” For Winnicott, what is important is that both needs are acknowledged as healthy—which means valuing not only the ability to communicate but also “the acquisition of a capacity for withdrawal.”

What is it, exactly, that I’m trying to communicate in the post? Search me. I’m honestly not sure where I’m going; but I do feel as though I am at a threshold.

I am not sure if I will continue to write this blog or not, but, for the present, at least, I’m going to make Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole private, which means you’ll only be able to read it if I add you individually as a “reader.” If you are already subscribed to Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole in some fashion, I will go ahead and add you, unless you tell me not to do so. If you are not subscribed, but you are reading this and would like to be able to read any future posts, please let me know, and I will add you before I allow the Notes to sink back into the hole from whence they came.

I thought of concluding this post with a drawing of a duck-rabbit leaping back into its hole, cotton tail stuck in the air, webbed feet akimbo. I’ve been drawing and erasing, re-drawing and erasing. The back end of a duck-rabbit is surprisingly tricky to render. I thought I could make it silly and charming but instead, in my sketch, it’s trite and graceless: I see now that it’s best left unseen.



Day 192: on feeling stuck

I sat in my office last Tuesday looking out the window and feeling stuck. I was reading an article about the field known as medical or health humanities. The article portrayed the humanities as an expiring body in need of saving but also as an inoculation against “the influence of medicine.” The humanities, the article argued, needed medicine to save it from itself; in its new, invigorated form, it could then be made useful as a prophylactic to vaccinate subjects with judicious doses of “empathy” and “critical thinking” that would serve to “inoculate students against the influence of medicine.” [1]

The author’s vision is of an instrumentalized humanities writ large. But the question of what “outcomes” can be derived from humanistic learning is one I’d encountered earlier in the week in less grandiose terms—specifically, in a proposal that faculty develop “curriculum maps” showing the learning objectives and outcomes produced by particular courses.

Examples of such maps show a grid in which a class is analyzed according to whether particular “learning outcomes,” (like “critical thinking”) are “introduced,” “developed,” or “mastered.” You can learn more about these tools here.

I understand how such maps might be useful in giving a bird’s eye view of what a course is about. For example, one of the courses I regularly teach, “Literature in English 1700-1850,” could be mapped as “introducing” “outcomes” ranging from skills like “close reading” to particular bodies of knowledge pertaining to literary history, genre, modes and techniques. (I confess I rather like the idea of having one “outcome” for that class simply being: zeugma: mastered, bitch).

I would be less sure of how to map the class I’m teaching next quarter on attachment and detachment. Maybe, yes, it could be said to “introduce” attachment theory, and perhaps to “develop” students’ acquaintance with the novel form. But what would “mastery” look like?

In the presentation I saw about curriculum maps, the examples shown were all maps created for fake classes. The one that was clearly meant as a proxy for a literature course was one about “epistolary romance”; it received “D”s across the board for “Developing” particular outcomes (knowledge in field, writing effectively, etc.), and I thought, “yeah, developed sounds about right.” Because what would it mean to have mastered “epistolary romance”? What kind of evidence would you need to prove your mastery? An annotated copy of Clarissa? Written proof that you had successfully seduced your correspondent? Tear-stained pages? Has Valmont, in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses mastered epistolary romance? Hasn’t it, arguably, mastered him?

I found myself asking myself these questions as I imagined what it would mean to assess my class next quarter on attachment via the rubric of “mastery.” This will be a class in which I expect the students not only to read works that theorize and dramatize attachment but also to experience and reflect upon their own experiences of aesthetic attachment.

Isn’t attachment something like the opposite of mastery? To be attached, after all, is to find oneself bound to an object, sometimes against one’s preference. As Elizabeth Bennet exclaims in Pride and Prejudice, upon her friend Charlotte predicting that she will find Mr. Darcy to be very agreeable, “Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”


I had turned my office chair that afternoon so that I faced the window, because otherwise the sun’s glare made my laptop screen too difficult to see. Facing the window, my gaze shifted between screen and window. The view from my second-floor office window is of course familiar to me, but I saw it differently that afternoon. My south facing window looks out onto a pedestrian bridge that joins my building to the physics and astronomy building across the road. A set of glass double doors connects the bridge on the physics and astronomy side; on our side, the bridge appears to terminate below the window of the office two down from mine. The bridge is not accessible from either end. Trust me, I’ve tried, over the years. I call it the “bridge to nowhere” in my head but that’s not exactly right. It’s a bridge between the humanities building and the physics and astronomy building; it’s just not a bridge that you can access from either end. Is a bridge that cannot be accessed still a bridge, I wondered, idly?

bridge to nowhere

A view of the bridge

For some reason, that afternoon, the sight of this inaccessible bridge, so near and yet so far, started to piss me off. I felt gaslighted. An entity shouldn’t look like a bridge and act like a bridge if it isn’t, in fact, a bridge. I tried, fruitlessly, once again, to see if I could access it from a nearby balcony. I asked around in the department office. Did anyone know why it wasn’t accessible? Someone mentioned a rumor that it had been closed off after someone had jumped off it a long time ago. Myself, I’d considered how it might be accessed in the past for the opposite reason: as a means of evading death. (Such things tend to cross your mind once you’ve experienced an active shooter campus lockdown.)

The reason, I think, that the bridge irked me that day, and irks me still, is because its inaccessibility creates a kind of ontological confusion. A locked door is still a door. A dirty window is still a window. But a bridge that doesn’t afford passage has reneged, it seems to me, on one of the essential conditions of bridgeness.

What if there were a way to redefine the space, somehow, so that it was not a non-functional bridge but a functional something else …. or a space in which its non-functionality could be a feature rather than a bug? What if the space were reconfigured so that its most important axis was not horizontal but vertical? What if it were filled with earth and plants, no longer a bridge but a hanging garden, tendrils falling down in a curtain through which pedestrians below would pass, ensnared by succulents, caught up in trailing honeysuckle?

I’ve become taken with this idea recently: not the idea of literally making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, but the idea more generally of how and when passages become enclosures or enclosures passages. The forms of the vignette and the arabesque interest me because they share a quality of movement without progress. Like hanging gardens, vignettes and arabesques encroach into surrounding spaces but not in service of any particular end. A vignette, so named because it is “A running or trailing ornament or design in imitation of the branches, leaves, or tendrils of the vine,” is any embellishment, illustration, or picture uninclosed in a border, or having the edges shading off into the surrounding paper …” (OED).

Hogarth's shop card

Hogarth’s shop card!

Arabesque is a close cousin, a decorative pattern characterized by flowing, interlacing lines “typically of branches, leaves, and flowers” (OED).

anonymous Italian

anonymous, Italian, 18th century

In lieu of a straight line from A to B, an arabesque or vignette is all forking paths and detours with no discernible end. Such a form, William Hogarth suggests, is most engaging to the eye, if it “hath every turn in it that lines are capable of moving into, and at the same time no way applied, nor of any manner of use” (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, my emphasis).

When I fantasize about making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, I think that Hogarth is onto something: that is, I imagine the appeal of the hanging garden would reside in the play of its lines, not in its instrumentality.

And yet.

If you’re me, to imagine those hanging tendrils is also to imagine eagerly scaling them, as if they were Rapunzel’s locks; or swinging vine to vine, like Tarzan. As much as I chafe at the word instrumentality it’s also hard for me to let go of the desire to vault myself from A to B … of the desire to get. across. the bloody. bridge. To admit this feels like a failure of imagination on my part, a kind of constitutional basicness, a primitive need for sequence, plot, telos.


So maybe the curriculums maps are right after all. Maybe the desire for passage, the desire to get somewhere is too strong for us—or at least for me—to imagine mapping learning experiences other than in terms of where they can take us; that is, in terms of their application. But does that mean “mastery” is really the only valid metric? Aren’t encounters with aesthetic objects useful precisely because they acquaint us with mastery’s limits, with how, in the desire to know an object fully, to discern all its contours, what we run up against are not its edges but the limits of our own reach?

If I were devising a curriculum map, I’d expand the range of possible learning outcomes a given course could be expected to produce. I’d be happy to keep the first three stages: Introduced; Developed; Mastered. But then, a twist! After “Mastered” would come the following: Discomfited; Perplexed; Thwarted; Undone; Stuck and Boggled and Knowing Not Which Way To Turn. [2]

In the meantime, I’m still feeling stuck. And I’m still plotting how to get onto that bridge.



[1] (Craig M. Klugman, “How Health Humanities Will Save the Life of the Humanities,” Journal of Medical Humanities 38(4): 419-430, 425, 420)

[2] Cf. John Locke’s remarks on understanding in his Miscellaneous Papers, 1677: “our understanding sticks and boggles and knows not which way to turn.” (From Lord Peter King, The Life of John Locke: With Extracts from his Correspondence, Journals, and Common-place Books, 322).


Day 135: The Enlightment

A couple of weeks ago an email popped up in my inbox with the subject line: The Enlightment. I didn’t recognize the sender’s name. The body of the email was empty but there was an attachment titled “EmailtoProfessor.” I’ll be honest, I was a bit anxious about opening it but after consulting with HWMBP, I did.

This was the content of the attachment (I’ve X’d out their last names and the name of the school):

Dear Professor Duck-Rabbit,

Hello, our names are Paige Xxxxxx, Destiny Xxxxx, Matti Xxxxxx, and Emma Xxxxx and we’re 7th graders at Xxxx Middle School in Xxxx, California. We have been assigned a project based on the Enlightenment and we have some unanswered questions that we’d appreciate you answering:

1) What were the key concepts and beliefs during the Enlightenment Period?

2) How did Jean Jacques Rousseau contribute to the Enlightenment?

3) How is the Enlightenment the beginning of U.S. History?

Thank you for your time and input on one of our final projects of the school year.


Paige Xxxxxx

Destiny Xxxxxx

Emma Xxxxxx

Matti Xxxxxx

Finally, yesterday, I replied. This is what I wrote:

Dear Paige, Destiny, Matti, and Emma,

Thank you so much for your email and sorry to take so long to reply to you! I realize this reply may be arriving too late to be of help for your project, but I nevertheless still wanted to answer your questions.

1) The Enlightenment valued reason, meaning the ability of rational thinking to solve problems–whether philosophical, scientific,  social, or moral. Thinkers in the Enlightenment were breaking away from earlier ways of thinking that valued traditional ideas as the source of all wisdom. So, instead of thinking that, for example, inherited religious ideas, or ideas derived from ancient Greek or Roman philosophy were necessarily right, Enlightenment thinkers thought that individuals should use their own problem-solving abilities to think for themselves. You can think of Benjamin Franklin as being a quintessential Enlightenment figure. He was a scientist (the embrace of the scientific method is a big part of the Enlightenment– it’s the age of Newton) and a social reformer; but he also brought the same problem-solving perspective even to questions of individual morality. “Honesty is the best policy” is a pragmatic principle: you shouldn’t be honest just because people tell you to be honest; it’s also, says Franklin [yes, yes, my pedantic reader, I know he doesn’t literally say this in any of his major works, but it’s a useful shorthand for the Protestant work ethic] the best way of getting along, and experience will show you that. The Enlightenment’s faith in human reason also leads it to be very optimistic about the possibility of progress. If we can solve problems simply by applying our reason to them, then it seems that nothing can hold us back–not ideas of innate original sin, nor longstanding customs and traditions. Consider Mary Wollstonecraft, another Enlightenment thinker who writes an essay called _A Vindication of the Rights of Woman_. At the time when she is writing (this is in the eighteenth century) women receive very little education compared to men. As a result a lot people think that women are simply naturally less intelligent than men. Mary Wollstonecraft says that we should try educating women in the same way as we educate men, and then we’ll see if women are really innately inferior or if this apparent inferiority is simply caused by them being poorly educated. This same “progressive” perspective leads to calls more generally for broader human rights. People like Thomas Paine ask: why should people collectively be shackled to decisions made on their behalf by people in the past who were acting in their own narrow interests? Olaudah Equiano asks: if we believe that every human is endowed with the same faculties and deserves the same opportunity to cultivate them, then how can we justify slavery? At the same time, though (and this speaks to your question about beginning of U.S. History), Enlightenment thinking valorized the idea that individuals had the right to maximize their own interests as much as possible. But this created a profound contradiction because cultivating one’s own interest and power to the maximum potentially impinged on the well-being of others. You can see this tension manifest itself in the beginning of the United States in terms of slavery and the right to bear arms. Both the right to bear arms and the right to own a slave elevate an individual’s power at the expense of others who will be the potential victims of the gun-owner or slave-owner.

2) Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a very influential political philosopher and social theorist. He is an interesting figure because he’s very much a product of the Enlightenment, but his ideas also develop in ways that rebel against Enlightenment values: this rebellion against the Enlightenment is sometimes called the counter-Enlightenment.” One field that Rousseau was very influential in is called “conjectural anthropology.” Basically what this means is that he was speculating (conjecturing) about what it would be like in very early human society before the development of civilization. So he’s not being an anthropologist in the sense of going to a particular geographical setting and observing the culture; instead he’s imagining himself traveling back in time and observing early humans. What he argues is that innately, humans are basically good, but that when they join together to form civilization–which people do to safeguard themselves against violence–they become corrupt. This is a lot to do, Rousseau says, with how we start comparing ourselves with other people–who is the prettiest, who has the most resources, etc. This kind of thinking, Rousseau says, makes us selfish and narcissistic–concerned only with ourselves. You can see here the seeds of the counter-Enlightenment: instead of thinking, like other Enlightenment thinkers, that civilization is inherently progressive–a way of cultivating human virtues and improving ourselves–Rousseau says the opposite: in civilization we lose touch with who we really are and become enslaved to superficial values and a sense of competition.

3) Many of the early leaders of the United States were influenced by key Enlightenment ideas and thinkers like John Locke, an English philosopher whose ideas are reflected in some of the United States’ founding documents. For example, the idea that all individuals have a natural right to defend their life and property is an idea of Locke’s. Locke was also influential on the idea of the separation of church and state: he argues that even once humans have entered the “social contract,” i.e. come together to form a civilization in order to collectively protect their individual interests, individuals still should have the freedom to follow their own conscience when it comes to their religious beliefs. Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and others were profoundly influenced by Locke.

If you have any follow-up questions, I’d be more than happy to answer them! Also, if you are going to use any of this information in your school work, be sure to explain that you got this information from me, so that you are not plagiarizing (i.e. presenting what I’ve written here as your own work).

Good luck with the end of the school year and wishing you all a lovely summer!

All best wishes,

Professor Duck-Rabbit