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Let No Idyll Be Your Idol –> the Counterforce

September 25, 2013


I remember once getting into an argument with a friend about a critical essay by Leo Marx from his book The Machine in the Garden. The point of that argument doesn’t matter now. It was one of those picayune squabbles that look laughably small in hindsight, but which made you seethe in the moment. One of those cap on the toothpaste arguments you have with a spouse. Or just about any angry exchange you might have with a preteen child.

As with these other kinds of quarrels, it turns out my friend was right. There is a timeless sort of intelligence in the book and its essays. There’s wisdom in it that exceeds its Cold War era. One of the lessons from it came up for me the other day.

In the opening chapter, Leo Marx describes a sketch by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s an unpublished, unfinished description of a perfect idyll. The young Hawthorne observes life in the woods, radiantly aglow with greenery and teeming with nature’s plenty. The verdant descriptions are nearly voluptuous.

This seems to be Marx’s example of popular, uncomplicated pastoralism. But something strange happens. Hawthorne hears the whistle of a distant train, a machine crowing its steely, hulking gears and pistons across the otherwise pristine countryside, and thereby disrupting any pastoral fantasy of nature as an untouched Garden of Eden.

There’s a new tree of knowledge in this garden and there’s nothing natural about it. The noxious smoke and piercing whistle of the train represent an incursion, to be sure, but not simply one of technology or history onto nature. They signal an interruption of the machine already within the garden.

I love observations like these because they alert us to the hybrid complexity lurking beneath many of our most cherished cultural fantasies–our idylls, as it were, which seem to require purging of all complexity in order to become cultural idylls.

We don’t like the peas and the mashed potatoes to touch on our plates when it comes to idylls. We need for them to be fantasies of purity, of separability, of distinctions that don’t meet or bleed or smear. If there’s a garden, how can there be a train whistle?

Ignorant of our anxieties, life taunts us with its complexities all the time.

Life’s most memorable teachers shock us into noticing our tendency to wrongly purify an aesthetic experience. If we are at the idyll of the ocean, glorying in its magnificent waves, ebbing and tiding to eternity, as each lapping contact with the sand recalls that primordial moment when life grew arms to crawl out from the evolutionary sludge, we’re probably not in the mood to notice that empty pack of cigarettes or –dear God–that condom wrapper next to the rusted beer can in the sand. But we should, our mood notwithstanding.

As Leo Marx reminds us, to do so is to allow ourselves to hear the train whistling whilst we wander through the idyll of the garden. Marx even names this epiphany. He calls it a counterforce. The counterforce is the train whistle and all of its pedagogical cognates. The counterforce is a phenomenon that wears a jersey of complexity. It plays quarterback for the team of Life in all its muddled, mishmashed, piebald splendor.

For writers, the use value of counterforce should be self-evident. The next time you find yourself getting lost in the labyrinth of an idyll, prick up your ears. For whom doth the train whistle? It tolls for thee.

From → writing tips

  1. Liana permalink

    “We don’t like the peas and the mashed potatoes to touch on our plates when it comes to idylls.”

  2. Operative word being “fantasy” – our false notion that the garden exists outside of the individual psyche as an objective idyll. Put in the context of writing, we like to believe we are mothers and fathers of invention, when really, we’re building on that which already exists and are ourselves being invented by our genres. At best, writers function as cultural artifacts outside of their real personalities. But those of us humans who eat and poop and fall into funks are all cogs in the big wheel. Not that I’m complaining, I love cogs. Sorry for the ramble. Thought provoking post, as always. I’m going to pull this up some night when my guests are in the mood for a debate on communism as an unattainable utopia.

  3. Michael Andreoni permalink

    There’s a line in Dr. Faustus where he asks Mephistopheles how he comes to be out of hell, and what is hell like? Why, this is hell, nor am I ever out of it, the fiend replies. Among many possible meanings, this could be a comment on the personal nature of idylls. I think we all know people who would find more to like in Hawthorne’s belching train than pristine country-side. Or in other words, why, on a beautiful summer day, amid placid waves, is my wife always miserable on a boat?

    • A prescient response. I want to give you a round of applause and your wife a bucket, but before I do either, I’m reaching for my copy of Marlowe…

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