Glass

 Lee Miller,  Exploding Hand  (1930)

Lee Miller, Exploding Hand (1930)

There’s a not-quite golfball-sized crack in the upper left corner of my windshield that I’ve looked at, around, or through virtually every day since leaving Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to join the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. A constant travel companion from when a rock spun out from beneath the wheel of the truck in front of me, just outside Regina, SK, this spider-shaped (or is it sun-shaped?) chip is an unwanted souvenir from home and the part of my day-to-day life I’ve most successfully displaced from conscious experience. I don’t notice it’s there, most of the time. 

Maybe I’ve sublimated my anxieties over this cracked windshield, which I’ll eventually have to pay to get fixed, into my teaching and research. Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with glass. 

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A few weeks ago, I featured James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” in my class on The Art of the Essay. Its opening paragraph is justifiably famous and worth quoting in full:

Baldwin’s commitment to documenting reality might preclude reading this image of broken glass as a symbol of something other than what it is: the result of anger that erupted after a white policeman shot a young, unarmed black man. But the shards of glass that blanket the streets of Harlem on the date of his father’s funeral also look forward in the essay, and backward in time, to when Baldwin, after having been denied service at a whites-only diner in Trenton, New Jersey, a year before his father’s death, threw a glass, “half full of water,” at the waitress. “It missed her,” Baldwin recalls, “and shattered against the mirror behind the bar.”

In “Notes of a Native Son,” shattered glass isn’t a metaphor so much as a metonym of systemic racism and black rage. It’s part of a landscape of State-sanctioned violence against black people that Baldwin, anticipating today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement, inhabits, observes, and records. 

 1943 Harlem Riot (Credit: www.newyorknatives.com)

1943 Harlem Riot (Credit: www.newyorknatives.com)

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Baldwin’s recollection of driving through a “wilderness” of broken glass on the date of his father’s funeral echoes Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime story “The Demon Lover,” at the end of which the protagonist finds herself in the back of a cab—driven, presumably, by the titular figure—left to “beat with her gloved hands on the glass all round the taxi, accelerating without mercy [. . .] into the hinterland of deserted streets.”

Glass, in Bowen’s writings of the Second World World War, is likely to be broken not by the fists of heroines in distress, but by the detonations of Luftwaffe explosives. Oxford Street, in Bowen’s essay “London, 1940,” resembles the streets of Baldwin’s Harlem: it “glitters with smashed glass.” And in her novel about the Blitz, The Heat of the Day, the narrator remarks “the tinkle of broken glass being swept among the crisping leaves.” For Bowen, as for Baldwin, glass evinces State violence. Whether foreign or domestic, governments that identify innocent people as targets seem always to leave behind them fragments of smashed glass. 

 "Business As Usual" (Credit: Associated Press)

"Business As Usual" (Credit: Associated Press)

Bowen associates glass with personal violence, too. In “The Inherited Clock,” Clara comes to grips with a traumatic memory she’d repressed from childhood, when her cousin, Paul, had her insert her finger into the gears of a “skeleton clock” that she winds up inheriting as an adult. Clara accepted Paul’s dare; subsequently, her finger was “wedged,” “bruised,” “bitten into and eaten up by the cogs” of the mechanism.

The visceral quality of Bowen’s description notwithstanding, it’s a later event that left the greatest psychological imprint upon Clara: in an effort to dissuade her from using their shared secret as leverage to solicit kisses from him, Paul encased her inside the glass dome that normally covers the clock. Toward the end of the story, Clara asks him: “did you, for instance, once put the clock-glass over my head, and did I get stuck inside it?” Paul replies in the affirmative, and adds an additional detail: “But what a thing to forget! We damn nearly chipped your face off.”

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In a talk I gave at New Paltz last week, I tried to connect this image of Clara’s head stuck inside a glass dome with Lee Miller’s photograph Tania Ramm in Bell Jar—which Katherine Conley examines in a terrific book, Surrealist Ghostliness. Conley attributes the Surrealist fascination with glass in part to its unique receptivity to light, matter, and vibration. Of Miller’s photograph, she notes that “the glass of the bell jar separating the head from the viewer symbolizes and concretizes the glass lens through which the photographer sees the head. The viewer is thus put in the place of the photographer and becomes conscious of seeing a head through glass.”

Conley’s argument provides a conceptual framework for thinking about Clara, stuck inside a bell jar, in ghostly terms—as one who inhabits the worlds of the living and the dead simultaneously. It also helps to put into focus Bowen’s claim, in the “Preface” to The Demon Lover, that the stories are “disjected snapshots—snapshots taken from close up, too close up, in the middle of the mêlée of a battle.” I’ve long been fascinated with this adjective of Bowen's: disjected (shattered, broken up, dispersed). If her language is photographic, it’s no less a language of shards. The lens of her writerly camera is cracked. 

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In one of the many instances in which George Orwell is right and wrong at the same time, he proclaims: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” When is language ever as transparent as glass?

Then again, we might equally ask: when is glass ever fully transparent? Between Saskatoon and Regina, anyway, I had the clearness of view that Orwell describes.