Friday, September 9, 2016

Stevens Textplication #30: The Doctor of Geneva

I adored as a young boy a short-lived 1960’s ITC British secret agent TV drama called The Champions. It involved three young Interpol agents (a la The Mod Squad or Lady Antebellum depending on your frame of reference), although what they actually did escapes me, and the twist was they had some kind of super powers from crashing their plane in the Himalayas, although what those were is also unrecoverable. All I really remember – the reason I liked the show so much in the first place – is that each week they stood in front of this immense fountain looking suave and British. It was in Geneva, you see, home of Interpol, so the landmark Jet D’Eau graced every episode.

There are two reasons I recall this in relation to “The Doctor of Geneva,” published in 1921. One is that, contrary to the superficial sense of the poem, Geneva is no slouch when it comes to the power and beauty of water. The second lies in the sheer power of imaginative transport such a detail provided me, and that feeling, I think, is what this poem is really about. Don’t be fooled by all the interpretations of it as the results of a conservative burgher being para-consciously moved by his first exposure to the Pacific Ocean. The poem is actually much more beautiful than that. Here it is:

The doctor of Geneva stamped the sand
That lay impounding the Pacific swell,
Patted his stove-pipe hat and tugged his shawl.

Lacustrine man had never been assailed
By such long-rolling opulent cataracts,
Unless Racine or Bossuet held the like.

He did not quail. A man so used to plumb
The multifarious heavens felt no awe
Before these visible, voluble delugings,

Which yet found means to set his simmering mind
Spinning and hissing with oracular
Notations of the wild, the ruinous waste,

Until the steeples of his city clanked and sprang
In an unburgherly apocalypse.
The doctor used his handkerchief and sighed.

Most readings recognize this doctor as one of Stevens’ many imagined tropes (he often uses doctors, rabbis and professors to evoke studious, serious and noteworthy people), and view his dimly conveyed Geneva as something lifted from books not actual experience. What they don’t similarly acknowledge is that it was highly unlikely at this time for Stevens to have had any actual experience of the Pacific Ocean either.

The fact he is making up both the European and American poles of this vignette is highly significant to the meaning of the poem. Imagine for a moment that this doctor is actually Stevens himself – not too much of a stretch if you think of it. What does it do to the meaning of the poem to know that this “doctor” is not only not a doctor, but has never been to Geneva or the Pacific Ocean? It allows us to read the strange phrasings of the poem so that it finally makes sense!

In the first stanza, he “stamps” the sand and “impounds” the ocean. These are not accurate descriptions of tasks a doctor would do, or what anyone for that matter would do at a beach. They are, however, what an attorney would do, quite frequently and drearily one might add. Who can blame a man for dreaming a little while marking legal documents for future disposition? Oh to be walking the sand by the mysterious Pacific Ocean. Or, better yet, as a distinguished gentleman from an equally strange and mysterious place, Geneva. Or both! He “pats” his stove-pipe hat in approval (with no fear of looking queer on the streets or having it blown from his head by the unforgiving ocean gusts), and he “tugs” his shawl, as if to literarily embellish the story his imagination is unreeling.

A Genevan, as representative of one of the most important lacustrine (lake) cities, would have to contend with the unfamiliar nature of ocean. Staying in character, “long-rolling opulent cataracts” are a great way for him to describe this in the terms of a lake or river, cataracts being waterfalls or white-water rapids that are inexact similes for rushing waves. Inside Switzerland he would not be “assailed” by the ocean “unless Racine or Bossuet held the like.” In other words, he could not appreciate the ocean’s powerful reality unless he had read about it somewhere, which makes sense since he isn’t actually standing in front of the ocean. 

Fortunately, our well-read protagonist could go back to the 17th century and consult the major dramatist Jean Racine (1639 – 1699) and the court theologian to Louis XIV Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627 –1704), both of whom wrote elegantly and fluently (one might say volubly) in the French language of Geneva, and often did so in praise of the power of the ocean.

Here’s Racine from his sea-set tragedy Phèdre, where characters jump or are tossed into the ocean:

“Un effroyable cri sorti du fond des flots
Des airs en ce moment a troublé le repos;
Et du sein de la terre une voix formidable
Répond en gémissant à ce cri redoubtable.” (1507-1510)
[Suddenly, from the depths of waves arose a frightful cry, which shattered the repose, and from the earth’s bosom there came in reply a thunderous groan, as frightening as the cry]*

And here’s Bossuet, to whom “water was the manifestation of God in the world”:**

“Un océan immense où se trouve la plénitude de la vérité” [An immense ocean where one finds the fullness of truth]

“He did not quail” (cower, tremble or flinch) before this imagined scene: “A man so used to plumb / The multifarious heavens felt no awe.” “A man so used to” carries an interesting double meaning: a man accustomed to, and a man in service to. “Plumb” means “measure”, often with a connotation of downward (“plumb the depths”). Here, the plumbing goes upward, which perhaps explains why the water coming down again in a deluge doesn’t concern him. The sense is interesting regardless of context: that one measures the circumference of heaven by viewing real or imagined things. That one is in the service of heaven by observing is even keener. And what he observes, “visible, voluble delugings,” is also striking. Deluge, from the Latin diluere (“to wash away”) most commonly means “flood,” and the sense is of an apocalypse seen and heard, a chatty apocalypse at that. He isn’t afraid of the end of the world as he knows it. That’s because it’s a world he has created in order to comprehend heaven, or something resembling a plan for all that lies below.

Or so he believes. These delugings “yet found means to set his simmering mind / Spinning and hissing.” Since neither an ocean nor a dream would find means in any literal sense, one has to view the deluge more closely, even more metaphorically. It may very well be the workings, the floodings, the articulations, of his mind, not imagined water. Spinning is a particularly interesting word here, implying the Fibonacci spiral, the basic path of life on its growth trajectory, as from imaginings are created ideas, even actual things (if only solid as gossamer things like poems). Spinning also invokes a downward maelstrom, as in water to the abyss. And hissing mimics both the ocean and the snake-like noise taken by so many cultures to be the sound evil makes. Creation may be achieved in these fantasies, but perhaps more so destruction, “oracular / Notations of the wild, the ruinous waste.” The problem is that it is not real. The dream (and the mind that created it) has become unmoored from the senses, from the earth, much like a heavenly day turns suddenly dangerous. It becomes bigger than its maker.

Until, finally, “the steeples of his city” (representing spiritual belief and community) “clanked and sprang,” as if the churches in watchmaking Switzerland were no different than clocks. The apocalypse of a failure of imagination is indeed “unburgherly.” He cannot really be the doctor he pretends to be. The real has intervened, like an alarm clock waking one from sleep.

“The doctor used his handkerchief and sighed,” the poem concludes. All one can do when confronted with the dominance of the real over the imagined is a prosaic act. This quality is far less apparent today than when the poem was written. Today we think of men with handkerchiefs as a distinct kind of rare breed not unlike this doctor: officious, stodgy, old-fashioned, conservative, even burgherly. In 1921 everyone had, and used, handkerchiefs. And the usages were varied: to wash one's face (my preferred sense here, as it would represent the miserliness of real water vs. the torrents just imagined), wipe sweat off (from all the conjuring work), to signal for attention (the narrator could be waving the white flag of surrender to the real), to bandage a wound (to pride or sense of proportion), to clean one’s glasses (and wipe away the rose color perhaps), as a blindfold (to hide the real), and, of course, to blow one’s nose (to move on from the explosion of fantasy). He became, in other words, a normal man again, in some enigmatic way. But he still held on to the doctor title, as if to show us this battle wasn’t over, it was simply marked “to be continued.”

As indeed it would be throughout Stevens’ poetic career.

* And let us not forget Racine Wisconsin, conveniently located near Lake Geneva Wisconsin, an area Stevens did undoubtedly visit. Such a fortuitous combination of historically and culturally redolent names can inspire quite extraordinary fancies.
** Smoot, Jean Johannessen, “Variations In Water Imagery In James Joyce And Bossuet," Romance Notes, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring, 1968), p. 252 

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