In Which It Is Proven that you may get the Person out of the English Department, but you cannot get the English Department out of the Person
Warning: The following entry elides (or descends, depending on your point of view) into vaguely philosophical meanderings, touches on autobiographical events of no relevance to gardening, and alludes to several books, including Moby Dick and Winnie the Pooh.
Back in October, I spent approximately half-an-hour one afternoon sitting on my back step in the watery sun, staring at a piece of plastic.
Be specific, said my English teacher’s mind. What kind of plastic? But I couldn’t be specific, because I didn’t know. Polyurethane? Vinyl? Words, just words. It doesn’t matter. Get on with it.
It’s a sheet of “clear” flexible plastic, and I was trying to figure out how to make a door to the greenhouse my husband just built of it. At the moment, I was getting in and out by removing the brick that holds down one “wall” of the structure and sliding between the house wall and the plastic one. It’s not a very neat or elegant means of ingress or egress, but the half hour before the one I spent staring, I spent going in and going out. I went in to check on the tomatoes the structure was protecting (they were doing fine), and out because I was done looking, and in to look again, and out to get a chair, and in with the chair, and out again with the chair, and in to move one of the barrels because there wasn’t room for the chair, and back in with the chair, back out for my coffee, and in with the coffee, and out for my book, and in with the book—you get the idea. There was always a reason to go in or to go out, but really I was going in and going out merely for the pleasure of doing so, like Eeyore, who was so taken by the house built for him by Pooh and Piglet because he had been complaining about how “it’s not so warm in my meadow at two in the morning,” that when it was done, he went in and out, in and out.
Why? Because to do so defines the inness of the inside, to pass between the two places defines their difference, and it is that difference that defines each place, giving each its identity. (Thank you, Ferdinand de Saussure oh father of modern linguistics (who argued that no letter or sound had absolute value; each was defined only by its relationship with, its difference from, other sounds and letters, as the inside of the greenhouse is defined only by it’s difference from the outside) and to Jacques Derrida oh great deconstructionist master (who would spell it "différance," to illustrate the difference between speech and writing, for as every English grad student and most majors these days knows, "différence" and "différance" sound the same in French, despite their graphological divergence))
not to mention Herman Melville
And it was Melville who put it best, I swear, (so betraying a preference for literature over criticism that even grad school couldn’t beat out of me) for, when Queequeg is in bed with his "clean, comely looking cannibal" early in Moby Dick, warm and comfortable despite–indeed because of–his still-chilly nose, Melville says that “truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” How can you be clearer about having a house than by stepping outside of it to experience its absence? How can I better enjoy my new greenhouse, or prove to myself its existence, than by passing through the wall that creates it?
Wow. As Garrison Keillor has proven, once an English major, always an English major, but apparently it’s even more true of English graduate students. I haven’t been one for decades, but as the paragraph above shows, the stuff I absorbed there has a truly insidious grip on my language, my thinking (and what’s the relation between those two, hmm? Does the first in fact shape the second, à la Saussure, or can we think independently of the words we use?) Oh help. I really need that garden. Not to mention the door.