In a manner somewhat similar to that by which sages present themselves as the masters and true possessors of language, some also present themselves as masters of experience. John Ruskin, D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and other authors who purport to offer their readers the true experience of some event or phenomenon essentially lend them their own sensibilities, and by doing so such writers imply that they can provide information otherwise unavailable. Since the sage argues that his audience has fallen away from the true path, he occasionally demonstrates the cost to them of their fall by showing what they have failed to see or feel. In fact, he reveals to them that they have become deadened to the truth or beauty of reality, that they need someone to remove their blinders or educate their vision.
Ruskin and other sages who present themselves as masters of visual and other experience also offer their own intense experiences of reality as a standard for their audiences and teach them the correct way to see, think, and feel. The sage teaches, in other words, how to approach reality correctly. Of course, in testing relevant experience upon his own pulse, as it were, the sage obviously presents himself as the one in charge, as the single source of knowledge and wisdom. This manner of proceeding has several possible effects. First, it can thus simply offer readers some information they cannot otherwise obtain, but it can also emphasize that only the sage can provide it at all. Furthermore, the sage's self-presentation as master of experience can, like his particularly aggressive acts of definition, make clear that the audience has fallen away from the truth and desperately needs him to help them return. Thus, although this stance also serves to create credibility for the writer, it may have as well the far more polemical effect of attacking his opponents, audience, or both.
These emphases upon authentic experience and the writer's superior ability to obtain it point to the romantic roots of the genre. In the first place, unlike the wisdom statements of Joseph Addison or Samuel Johnson, such work not only avoids generalization, but also takes as its most obvious program the communication of specific facts. Second, not only does it side with romantic specificity in opposition to neoclassical generalization, but it also obviously takes the romantic position that truths of physical and mental experience, rather than the ideas we may generalize from them, are the proper way into understanding whatever subject may be under investigation.
G. Robert Stange is almost certainly correct when he argues that such attempts to communicate the feeling of a particular experience in nonfictional prose first appeared in nineteenth-century art criticism. According to him, whereas eighteenth-century prose had been primarily "cognitive, by the middle of the nineteenth century it had become expressionist," and in the work of what he terms "conscious prose stylists" from Lamb to Pater "logical organization and a conceptual framework are more and more often abandoned in favor of emotive effects and a perceptual scheme." In particular, as Stange points out, the writer "tends to avoid the abstract in favor of the immediate: he will try to imitate a speaking voice, or express the rhythm of the mind as it responds to or perceives concrete experience. Special value is attached to image sequences, to discrete data of precise observation," and to representing "particular aesthetic as well as emotional experiences."
Word-painting, or the creation of visually composed passages of description, constitutes one of the sage's chief means of portraying a mind in the process of experiencing something. Such word-painting, particularly as employed by Ruskin and his followers, matches all Stange's descriptions of a new form of prose: Emphasizing a perceptual scheme, generally that of the moving eye, it conveys the immediate experience of discrete phenomena by means of image sequences, precise observation, and dramatized acts of perception.
A major source of such Ruskinian word painting, perhaps the only one of any significance, is Ann Radcliffe, whose novels first fully developed the technique of creating visually patterned prose. Thus, although art criticism may have been the first form of nonfiction to attempt a phenomenology of experience, the novels of Ann Radcliffe had managed to create one decades earlier. The poetry of Wordsworth, which had a great influence upon Ruskin, also helped advance the development of experiential prose. Ruskin, who developed several forms of visually oriented prose, relied upon word-painting from the beginning to the end of his career, and he almost always employed it within the sage's characteristic rhythm of satire and vision or positive example.
The simplest kind of Ruskinian and other word-painting takes the form of following one set or series of visual details by others in no particular order, whereas a second kind establishes a seeing or camera eye before which move various elements of a scene.
Ruskin's third characteristic technique, which produces what we may anachronistically term a cinematic prose, proceeds by first establishing a center of consciousness that organizes the scene like a camera lens. Having established his narrative center or fictive eye, he then moves it either through or across his described scene — that is, he either turns this camera eye upon its axis, in effect panning across the scene, or else he changes the perceiving eye's distance to the scene, moving it closer (or into) the scene, or farther away to provide a distant view. Such literary strategies provide verbal art with a means of composing and ordering a linguistic description, thereby endowing it with some of the elements and capacities of the visual arts. This inevitably kinetic description possesses an energy that merely additive and accumulatory forms do not. Examples of this third, or protocinematic, form of word-painting in Ruskin's works include his elaborate description of La Riccia (3.278-80) in the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), his satiric look at Claude's Il Mulino and the Roman scenery it purports to depict in the 1844 preface to-that same volume (3.41-43), and many passages in The Stones of Venice ( 1851-53), particularly his tour of St. Mark's (10.17-19), his narrative of the approach to Torcello (10.79-90), and his aerial view of the Mediterranean Sea (10.18-87).
All three forms of word-painting match Ruskin's own description of truly imaginative landscape representation. Several passages in Modern Painters explain that both the novice and the painter without imagination must content themselves with a merely topographical art of visual fact. According to the fourth volume of Modern Painters, "The aim of the great inventive landscape painter," in contrast, "must be to give the far higher and deeper truth of mental vision, rather than that of the physical facts, and to reach a representation which ... shall yet be capable of producing on the far-away beholder's mind precisely the impression which the reality would have produced" (6.35). In this higher form of art, Ruskin says, "the artist not only places the spectator, but . . . makes him a sharer in his own strong feelings and quick thoughts" (3.134). In other words, the great imaginative artist, whether he works in words or in paint, grants us the privilege of momentarily seeing with his eyes and imaginative vision: We experience his phenomenological relation to the world.
For Ruskin, as for other sages who employ such word-painting, these passages of highly wrought prose function within a larger structure of argument. In particular, they serve as a major part of that complex rhythm of satire and romantic vision that characterizes the proceedings of the sage. In the earlier volumes of Modern Painters, for example, where Ruskin employs it to defend Turner against the claims of older art, this structure first presents a satirical word-painting of a work by an old master and then follows it by one either of a relevant work by Turner or of a scene the older work was supposed to represent. The chapter "Of the Truth of Colour," in the first volume, begins by looking at Gaspar Poussin's La Riccia in the National Gallery, after which Ruskin presents his own impressions of the original scene. Writing with heavy sarcasm, he easily conveys the impression that Poussin's painting reveals little concern with presenting the facts of a particular place.
It is a town on a hill, wooded with two-and-thirty bushes, of very uniform size, and possessing about the same number of leaves each. These bushes are all painted in with one dull opaque brown, becoming very slightly greenish towards the lights, and discover in one place a bit of rock, which of course would in nature have been cool and grey beside the lustrous hues of foliage, and which, therefore, being moreover completely in shade, is consistently and scientifically painted of a very clear, pretty, and positive brick red, the only thing like colour in the picture. The foreground is a piece of road which, in order to make allowance for its greater nearness, for its being completely in light, and, it may be presumed, for the quantity of vegetation usually present on carriage-roads, is given in a very cool green grey; and the truth of the picture is completed by a number of dots in the sky on the right, with a stalk to them of a sober and similar brown. (3.277-78)
Immediately after this harshly sarcastic rendering, Ruskin employs his familiar strategy of drawing upon his own experience of a scene that a work of art has presented. He begins by citing autobiography in order to certify the authenticity of the experience he is about to narrate: "Not long ago," he tells us, "I was slowly descending this very bit of carriage-road, the first turn after you leave Albano." Ruskin, who always emphasizes the change, variety, and energy of nature, then provides metereological fact that conveys the effect of a scene suffused with such energy and motion: "It had been wild weather when I left Rome, and all across the Campagna the clouds were sweeping in sulphurous blue, with a clap of thunder or two, and breaking gleams of sun along the Claudian aqueduct lighting up the infinity of its arches like the bridge of chaos." Having thus sketched in the background of his word picture, he presents himself moving upward through the scene until he catches sight of another vision of beauty in movement. "As I climbed the long slope of the Alban Mount, the storm swept finally to the north, and the noble outline of the domes of Albano, and the graceful darkness of its ilex grove, rose against pure streaks of alternate blue and amber; the upper sky gradually flushing through the last fragments of rain-cloud in deep palpitating azure, half aether and half dew." At this point, Ruskin, as he so often does, follows the path of light irradiating a landscape: "The noonday sun came slanting down the rocky slopes of La Riccia, and their masses of entangled and tall foliage, whose autumnal tints were mixed with the wet verdure of a thousand evergreens, were penetrated with it as with rain." Having thus led us to a Ruskinian epiphany, a Ruskinian vision of the earthly paradise, he sets before us a scene that combines all the beauty and sublimity of earth, sea, and heavens:
I cannot call it colour, it was conflagration. Purple, and crimson, and scarlet, like the curtains of God's tabernacle, the rejoicing trees sank into the valley in showers of light, every separate leaf quivering with buoyant and burning life; each, as it turned to reflect or to transmit the sunbeam, first a torch and then an emerald. Far up into the recesses of the valley, the green vistas arched like the hollows of mighty waves of some crystalline sea, with the arbutus flowers dashed along their flanks for foam, and silver flakes of orange spray tossed into the air around them, breaking over the grey walls of rock into a thousand separate stars, fading and kindling alternately as the weak wind lifted and let them fall. Every glade of grass burned like the golden floor of heaven, opening in sudden gleams as the foliage broke and closed above it, as sheetlightning opens in a cloud at sunset. (3.27~79)
Here as elsewhere, Ruskin convinces us of his position by means of a superbly controlled alternation of vision and satire, preparing us for his polemic at each step of the way by allowing us to borrow his eyes and see. His skill at presenting us with his experience of landscape and landscape art continually makes us believe that his critical opponents and the painters he attacks both work from theory, from recipes, rather than from vision. In thus demonstrating his superiority to the critics of Turner, Ruskin proves himself a master of experience several times over. At the very least, he has described to us an Italian scene that we cannot otherwise experience without traveling to that location. Second, he has shared with us his own deeply felt experience of a particularly beautiful landscape. But as we read his narration of that experience — and Ruskin's presentations of such landscapes take the form, we remember, of narrations and not static descriptions — we realize that few, if any, of us could have perceived this scene so intensely. Ruskin, following his own prescriptions for imaginative art, has made us "a sharer in his own strong feelings and quick thoughts," and we also realize that the astonishing energy and movement of his mind, which appear in his lightningfast associations, metaphors, and other analogies, match those of the scene he presents. In other words, unlike us, he is adequate to the experience.
Finally, his presentation of landscape experience, which makes clear that he has true vision and the opposing critics are blinded by convention and insensitivity, also goes beyond beautiful description and presents a spiritual promise, an authentic visionary moment. In thus making us see and feel — in a word, experience — a divine presence in nature, Ruskin demonstrates that visual imperceptiveness, such as that which afflicts the critics of Turner, does society more harm than merely destroying taste. It prevents us from authentically experiencing the natural world, thereby robbing us of pleasure and solace, and furthermore, it contributes to spiritual blindness or insensitivity as well, since it keeps us from experiencing God in nature.
D. H. Lawrence as Master of Experience
D. H. Lawrence learned from the author of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice various modes of visually oriented prose, just as he also learned to transform Ruskinian word-painting into symbolic or mythological set pieces. But, as we shall observe, although many passages of Lawrence's writing, both in the travel books and in the fiction, clearly bear the impress of Ruskin the word-painter, many also extend these techniques into a new way of seeing, thinking, and feeling in prose.
In Twilight in Italy Lawrence uses the kind of word-painting that produces the effect of moving elements within a scene to describe his experience upon leaving the darkened, sensual interior of San Tommaso and coming out suddenly into bright day:
Across, the heavy mountain crouched, along the side of the lake, the upper half brilliantly white, belonging to the sky, the lower half dark and grim. So, then, that is where heaven and earth are divided. From behind me, on the left, the headland swept down out of a great, pale-grey, arid height, through a rush of russet and crimson, to the olive smoke and the water of the level earth. And between, like a blade of the sky cleaving the earth asunder, went the pale-blue lake, cleaving mountain from mountain with the triumph of the sky.
As this passage demonstrates, Lawrence, like Ruskin, creates his powerful descriptions by transforming description into narrative. In this instance he first implicitly places himself as viewer with the word Across, which informs the reader where the scene takes place in relation to the perceiving eye. Then Lawrence presents the outlines of mountain form, not as static boundaries between material masses but rather as paths of movement. Thus, the mountain "crouched" before him alongside the lake, while on his left hand the headland "swept down" from the arid heights. Since Lessing it has been a critical commonplace that the verbal arts are essentially temporal and the visual ones static. Ruskinian — and Laurentian — word-painting uses this inevitable sequentiality of verbal art both to order and to energize its attempts to create a visualizable pictorial image
Another way that Lawrence metamorphoses description into narrative appears in the magnificent opening pages of "San Gaudenzio" in Twilight in Italy:
The days go by, through the brief silence of winter, when the sunshine is so still and pure, like iced wine, and the dead leaves gleam brown, and water sounds hoarse in the ravines. It is so still and transcendent, the cypress trees poise like flames of forgotten darkness, that should have been blown out at the end of summer. For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine.
Meanwhile, the Christmas roses become many. They rise from their budded, intact humbleness near the ground, they rise up, they throw up their crystal, they become handsome, they are heaps of confident, mysterious whiteness in the shadow of a rocky stream. It is almost uncanny to see them. They are the flowers of darkness, white and wonderful beyond belief.
Then their radiance becomes soiled and brown, they thaw, break, and scatter and vanish away. Already the primroses are coming out, and the almond is in bud. The winter is passing away. On the mountains the fierce snow gleams apricot gold as evening approaches, golden, apricot, but so bright that it is almost frightening. What can be so fiercely gleaming when all is shadowy? It is something inhuman and unmitigated between heaven and earth. (81-82)
In this passage Lawrence neither includes a natural element, such as a stream, which moves through the scene to create movement, nor does he, as in the San Tommaso prospect vision, transform static visual elements into kinetic ones to produce the same effect. Rather he presents the transformation of scene in the course of the seasons almost purely in terms of a narrative of change.
Compare his description of Cagliari in the closing pages of the section entitled "The Sea" in Sea and Sardinia. Like Ruskin's many descriptions of mountain scenery both in his autobiographical and in his art critical writings, this passage takes the form of a sudden sight, a moment of visual perception felt as a moment of spiritual or imaginative vision as well.
And suddenly there is Cagliari: a naked town rising steep, steep, golden-looking, piled naked to the sky from the plain at the head of the formless hollow bay. It is strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy. The city piles up lofty and almost miniature, and makes me think of Jerusalem: without trees, without cover, rising rather bare and proud, remote as if back in history, like a town in a monkish, illuminated missal ... rather jewel-like: like a sudden rose-cut amber jewel naked at the depth of the vast indenture. The air is cold, blowing bleak and bitter, the sky is all curd. And that is Cagliari. It has that curious look, as if it could be seen, but not entered. It is like some vision, some memory, something that has passed away. (52; emphasis added)
In one sense, Lawrence relates the experience of first seeing Cagliari much in the manner of a nineteenth-century traveler in search of the picturesque, for he proceeds by interspersing facts encountered with thoughts prompted by them. This passage's presentation of a prospect vision and its comparison of that view to both a medieval missal and the New Jerusalem also resemble many parts of Modern Painters and Praeterita. This Ruskinian prospect vision, one immediately recognizes, derives its energy from its active verbs, but it is not composed in visual terms as is the description of the mountain view from San Tommaso, for Lawrence presents the viewer looking at a scene rather than place him within it.
Lawrence's natural development of Ruskinian word-painting takes the form of using such techniques learned from his Victorian master to convey precisely those experiential and imaginative truths that most concerned him — and in so doing he advanced both nonfiction and the novel into new areas. Lawrence's own brilliant additions to the tradition of Ruskinian word-painting — the sensuous and semi-conscious feelings one experiences within a scene appear with particular clarity in Twilight in Italy when he relates his experience of San Tommaso. This passage, which appears in "The Spinner and the Monks," owes a great deal to Ruskin's many presentations of prospect visions, Pisgah Sights, and distant views of mountains throughout his works (but particularly in Modern Painters and Praeterita), and that section which tells of Lawrence's entrance into the church itself seems based upon Ruskin's elaborate narrative presentation of St. Mark's in The Stones of Venice. After explaining that the "tiny chaotic back-ways" and "tortuous, tiny, deep passages of the village" (Twilight in Italy, 20) obamed him, Lawrence relates how, one day, he at last manages to ascend to the church that surmounts the village. Finding a broken stairway, he runs up it, "and came out suddenly, as by a miracle, clean on the platform of my San Tommaso, in the tremendous sunshine," and he discovers himself in "another world, the world of the eagle, the world of fierce abstraction.... I was in the skies now" (21). After describing his setting, first in terms of the details surrounding him and then by filling in the distant sights far below on the lake, Lawrence next ruminates upon the church he has come to investigate, after which he enters its sheltering darkness.
It always remains to me that San Tommaso and its terrace hang suspended above the village, like the lowest step of heaven, of Jacob's ladder. Behind, the land rises in a high sweep. But the terrace of San Tommaso is let down from heaven, and does not touch the earth.
I went into the Church. It was very dark, and impregnated with centuries of incense. It affected me like the lair of some enormous creature. My senses were roused, they sprang awake in the hot, spiced darkness. My skin was expectant, as if it expected some contact, some embrace, as if it were aware of the contiguity of the physical world, the physical contact with the darkness and the heavy, suggestive substance of the enclosure. It was a thick, fierce darkness of the senses. But my soul shrank.
I went out again. The pavemented threshold was clear as a jewel, the marvellous clarity of sunshine that becomes blue in the height seemed to distill me into it. (21-22)
This passage well exemplifies Lawrence's version of what Richard L. Stein has taught us to recognize as a Ruskinian "fable of perception." Brilliantly as this scene departs from Ruskin's own methods by emphasizing the physical and subconscious reactions of the viewer, it nonetheless represents Lawrence adding to instead of denying his Ruskinian heritage.
In fact, Lawrence here stands in relation to Ruskin as Ruskin himself stands in relation to Sir Joshua Reynolds; each incorporates and builds upon the ideas of his predecessor. When Reynolds attempted to win prestige for the art of painting, he found himself forced to use the only available terminology, and he therefore employed the traditional opposition between mechanical (or physical) and intellectual arts. Thus he claimed that painting, like literature, was an intellectual art. In contrast, Ruskin inherited the resources of the romantic tradition, and when he came to formulate his romantic theory of the sister arts — he takes literature and painting as equivalent forms of the poetic and urges us to receive his remarks on one subject as applying to the other — he added a third term, the imaginative, to the two that Reynolds had used. Therefore, he can urge that in contrast to works produced by physical and intellectual means, poetry is produced by the higher faculty of imagination. Lawrence, who comfortably takes his place in this progression, demonstrates by his descriptive passages and narrative that he adds the unconscious and sexual drives to those faculties Ruskin had described. For Lawrence, therefore, imaginative description had to include those sensations that hover around and beneath consciousness. By including and even emphasizing elements that Ruskin had himself not included, Lawrence extends this kind of imaginative description in his own way. Such a history of the evolution of word-painting and its theoretical roots sounds suspiciously like one of those purely progressive histories of style or other phenomena that always present what comes later as superior to what preceded it. Of course, from the point of view of one who considers Lawrence's kinds of additions to descriptive prose to be the finest things such prose can produce, this conclusion would be valid. Others have to point out, however, that Laurentian description sacrifices one kind of strength for another. Therefore, the only kind of progressive history his contributions to word-painting support is one that holds that styles or modes must continually develop different capacities.
Norman Mailer as master of the Experience of the Technological Sublime
Like Lawrence, Mailer makes use of elaborate set pieces of this literature of experience in (Of a Fire on the Moon both to advance his argument and to create credibility for his interpretations of what he takes to be a major event of our times. In fact, his main concerns demand that he demonstrate his ability both to think and to feel, in order to demonstrate to himself and to his audience that he has a message, that his interpretations have authenticity in this age of the pervasively inauthentic.
Of a Fire on the Moon narrates his attempt to use the first voyage to the moon to answer his own questions about the true relations of technology to the possibilities of heroism, the existence of powerful experience in a mechanical, dehumanizing age, and the simple adequacy of language and experience to each other in the seventh decade of the twentieth century. Therefore to authenticate his own project he must first encounter — and prove to us that he has encountered — powerful, soul-stirring events, and to do so he writes in the guise of the master of experience.
His presentation of the moment of liftoff, which takes the form of a narrative meditation upon it, well exemplifies Mailer's masterful use of his own feelings and imagination as a guide to the reader. He begins with the moment of expectant seeing and immediately places that moment within the prophetic context: "He had his binoculars to his eyes. A tiny part of him was like a penitent who had prayed in the wilderness for sixteen days and was now expecting a sign. Would the sign reveal much or little?" (98). Would the sign in fact come at all, and if it came would it reveal the entire enterprise of the expedition to the moon as a crucial event, a worthy happening, or would it turn out to be just another banal nonevent of the narcotized twentieth century? At this point he includes a transcript of the words spoken by Apollo-Saturn Launch Control during the last few minutes before the launch, including the final seconds of countdown, and then begins the narration of his own experience of viewing it.
But nobody watching the launch from the Press Site ever listened to the last few words. For at 8.9 seconds before lift-off, the motors of the Apollo-Saturn leaped into ignition, and two horns of orange fire burst like genies from the base of the rocket. Aquarius never had to worry again about whether the experience would be appropriate to his measure. Because of the distance, no one at the Press Site was to hear the sound of the motors until fifteen seconds after they had started. Although the rocket was restrained on its pad for nine seconds in order for the motors to multiply up to full thrust, the result was still that the rocket began to rise a full six seconds before its motors could be heard. Therefore the lift-off itself seemed to partake more of a miracle than a mechanical phenomenon, as if all of huge Saturn itself had begun silently to levitate, and was then pursued by flames. (99)
Mailer in the guise of Aquarius here presents what he saw during the first seconds of liftoff, and he makes clear that it has answered his first, basic question — a question that he has made ours as well — and that this phenomenon, this Sign of the Times, is an event of true power. He then employs intellectual, rational explanation to show why the viewers at first experience liftoff only in terms of the sense of sight, after which he relates his first impressions, that in its silent levitation the slowly rising rocket "seemed to partake more of a miracle than a mechanical phenomenon" and that it appeared "pursued by flames," instead of jetting them forth. Immediately after having thus introduced these fanciful descriptions and impressions, he then turns his back upon them: "No, it was more dramatic than that. For the flames were enormous. No one could be prepared for that. Flames flew in cataract against the cusp of the flame shield, and then sluiced along the paved ground down two opposite channels in the concrete, two underground rivers of flame which poured into the air on either side a hundred feet away, then flew a hundred feet further" (99-100). Mailer here employs the ancient literary device of denied comparison. After presenting his first descriptions and analogies, he denies their validity and replaces them by others. Centuries earlier Shakespeare began one of his sonnets, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" after which he answered his own query with a similar denial that obviously implied that conventional language and expression were inadequate to his subject. By showing the reader of his sonnet all the ways that the young man to whom he addressed his poem surpasses a summer's day, he could enjoy all the power provided by conventional descriptions and stock analogies, including instant comprehension, without having to accept responsibility for them. At the same time the poet effortlessly demonstrated that conventionalities failed to capture the beauty of his subject, which lay far beyond them and demanded a new, more accurate language. Mailer achieves precisely the same effect when he suddenly changes direction in the midst of his experiential fable.
His use of denied comparison also achieves another effect vital to creating credibility, for such a pattern of suggestion and denial produces the effect (rather, the illusion) of the authorial mind groping toward the comprehension and expression of a difficult truth. Mailer wants readers to receive the impression of a Mailer so committed to communicating exactly what he has experienced, so committed to truth, that he willingly permits them inside his consciousness and allows them to observe him making mistakes and energetically correcting them. He wants them to receive the impression, in other words, of a powerful, honest, mind in action. Like Ruskin and Lawrence, Mailer employs this pattern in dramatizing the experience of perception as a crucial stage in his argument. Since the experience of interpretation plays as crucial a role in our lives as the sheer isolated physical experience itself, Mailer appropriately continues his dramatization by relating how he first gropingly tried to embrace the meaning of the event he was observing. He thereupon continues one of the dominant patterns of his narrative, which is first to communicate an experience and then to offer an interpretation of it, by making elaborate comparisons between the huge white rocket and Moby Dick, another American incarnation of awesome power pervaded by moral and spiritual ambiguity.
At this point in the narration Mailer replaces the experience of sight by that of sound, replaces the data provided by the more intellectualizable, distancing sense of sight by the more basic, more physically stirring senses of sound and motion.
Then it came, like a crackling of wood twigs over the ridge, came with the sharp and furious bark of a million drops of oil crackling suddenly into combustion, a cacophony of barks louder and louder as Apollo-Saturn fifteen seconds ahead of its own sound cleared the lift tower to a cheer which could have been a cry of anguish from that near-audience watching; then came the earsplitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once, and Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of this combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivably louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet standing on the wood of the bleachers, an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death in the roar of a drowning hour, a nightmare of sound, and he heard himself saying, "Oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God!" but not his voice ... and the sound of the rocket beat with the true blood of fear in his ears. (100)
This dramatization of Mailer's experience of the liftoff, which so effectively combines a narrative of sense perception with his first tentative gropings at understanding that experience, perfectly suits his strategy in (~f a Fire on the Moon. Mailer, we recall, goes through most of the crucial events of the moon voyage and landing twice, first imaginatively outside and then inside the events; that is, he first presents the awesome power and size of the machines, after which he interprets the importance and meaning of the events in which these machines played so prominent a role.
But even before he arrives at that final interpretation, he returns to the moment of liftoff and explains the extraordinary complexity of that event itself. In essence, his narrative presentation of what occurs during the first seconds of launch provides the reader with an intellectual experience, as opposed to the earlier purely physical one, of the liftoff:
It was the life experience of such rocket engineers as Von Braun, rather than the laws of physics, which decreed that Apollo-Saturn be chained to its base until the thrust upward was a million two hundred thousand pounds greater than its weight. For that reason, it was manacled by four giant metal hold-down arms. You can be certain there had been cracks in the early forgings of test metals of the hold-down arms for they were not easy to design, being massive in size yet required to let go their million-pound grip on the split part of an instant. The unlatching interval for the four arms had to be all but simultaneous — the separation was geared not to exceed one-twentieth of a second for its duration: in fact if any of the four arms had failed to complete their operation in more than a fifth of a second, the liberation would have been effected by properly placed explosives.... even with all four holddown arms sprung at once, the rocket ship was still restrained for the first few inches of travel. Something exactly so simple as eight tapered pins had each to be drawn through its own die — as the vehicle rose through the first six inches of flight, each die was obliged to straighten the taper in its own iron pin — the eight dies to travel up with the ship, the eight shucked pins to be left in their fastenings on the hold-down brackets. If not for such a simple mechanism, Apollo-Saturn might have leaped off its pad fast enough to set up a resonance, then a vibration strong enough to shake the ship and some thousands of its instruments too critically. For consider: if when empty, the space vessel weighed less than half a million pounds, it was now carrying a weight of fuel twelve times greater than itself. But there were no bones or muscles in this fuel, nothing in the fuel to hold the ship together, just liquids to slosh and shake and seek to distort the rigidity of the structure.... One would look to reduce every quiver in so delicate a structure — the restraining pins performed just such a function for the first half-foot of ascent.
In the course of this act, at an instant when the spaceship was not yet three-quarters of an inch off the ground, specific switches on the hold-down arms tripped loose a pneumatic system which gave power to surges of compressed gas which ran in pipes up the great height of the launching tower: the gas tripped the couplings of the five service bridges still connected to the rocket. Their umbilicals now detached, these arms pulled away as the ship began to rise. Six inches up, and loose from the pins, the stages of Apollo-Saturn climbed up the stories of the Mobile Launcher, climbed up on its self-created base of flame, up past the flying withdrawal of its bridges and umbilicals. To clear the tower, to be free of any sudden gust of wind which might lash it sideways, a yaw maneuver, programmed into the rocket, was initiated one second after lift-off, and turned the nose a few degrees from the vertical farther way from the tower. For the onlookers three and one-half miles away, the rocket appeared to waver, then stagger. In fact, it did. There was wind blowing, and the rocket had been designed not to fight wind (it was not stressed for that) but to give way to wind, to relinquish the trajectory it was on, and compute a new trajectory from the slightly different position where the gust had left it. So separate commands kept issuing from the Instrument Unit at the top of Saturn, sometimes every half-second, and the motors kept responding with little spurts and sags of speed.... The rocket cleared the tower] after eight seconds. At close to twelve seconds, the four outboard engines were swiveled through a few degrees, a pitch maneuver was initiated, and a roll. The roll would end in twenty seconds, the shift in pitch would continue for two minutes and twenty-five seconds by which time the rocket would be climbing no longer straight up. (211-13)
Mailer's superb technical writing here functions to enhance his credibility in several ways. First, it obviously demonstrates that he understands the often astonishing complexities of the technology involved in the moon program — and hence, whatever conclusions he draws upon its final meaning and value, the reader will not be likely to attribute his conclusions to that hostility that arises in ignorance and inability to comprehend. Second, the sheer virtuosity of the writing, particularly its combination of clear narrative with an ongoing explanatory commentary, produces another form of his dramatization of experience. Here Mailer does not use his descriptive powers to communicate an experience of awesome sublimity and power. Rather he presents the experience of understanding, placing the reader within an ideal intellectual vantage point where the time that obtains is that of science and technology and not that of the pulses.
Tom Wolfe: The Sage as Master of Experience
Tom Wolfe uses his skill at this kind of writing to convey the experience of another version of the technological sublime in "The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie," an essay he drew upon for The Right Stuff. Tom Wolfe's presentation of this kind of experiential prose differs markedly from that of Mailer, who follows Ruskin and Lawrence in relying upon an idealized author as the focus of narrated experience. Mailer, however, forces himself upon the reader far more than do his predecessors. Of course, Ruskin's quotations of his own diaries and citations of his own experience make clear that he expects the reader to take this idealized presence as Ruskin himself, but in most passages he places his chief emphasis upon the scene and not upon himself. Mailer, in contrast, thrusts himself (in the guise of Aquarius) to the fore and insists that the reader perceive every scene with him in the foreground.
Wolfe, who creates a very different effect by avoiding such an authorial persona or voice, instead divides his fables of experience among a range of voices, some of which can be taken for the author himself while others represent fictionalized surrogates for our experience. The specific occasion for creating a fable of experience is Wolfe's desire to convey the difficulty, terror, and heroism of flying a jet fighter from the pitching, heaving deck of an aircraft carrier. He begins by presenting the experience from the viewpoint of an old hand, and then, as he so frequently does, he shifts this viewpoint and presents the scene from that of the newcomer, moving closer in several stages. In the first of these he presents the neophyte's reactions with third-person narration, after which he uses the first person as if he were the neophyte himself speaking. According to Wolfe's narrator, when the neophyte first steps onto the catwalk that leads to the flight deck, "right away the burglar alarm sounds in his central nervous system. Listen, Skipper! — the integrity of the circuit has been violated somewhere." Looking over the railing of the catwalk he sees that it is a six-story drop to water that looks like steel, and meanwhile the horizon is heaving up and down. Clambering finally to the flight deck itself, the neophyte, whom Wolfe clearly intends to function as our surrogate for this terrifying experience, discovers that it has little resemblance to the enormous piece of gray geometry it had in the training film: "Geometry — by God, man, this is a ... skillet! It heaves, it moves up and down underneath his feet, it pitches up, it pitches down." As the wind sweeps across this deck sixty feet above the sea, we realize that it has no railings to keep us from being swept overboard and that there is also "no way whatsoever to cry out to another living soul for a helping hand, because on top of everything else the newcomer realizes that his sense of hearing has been amputated entirely." The deck itself, on which people run about in odd costumes, strikes us with such a sensory overload that we can barely take it in, much less imagine performing some appointed function on it.
This is a skillet! — a frying pan! — a short-order grill! — not gray but black, smeared with skid marks from one end to the other and glistening with pools of hydraulic fluid and the occasional jet-fuel slick, all of it still hot, sticky, greasy, runny, virulent from God knows what traumas — still ablaze! — consumed in detonations, explosions, flames, combustion, roars, shrieks, whines, blasts, cyclones, dust storms, horrible shudders, fracturing impacts, all of it taking place out on the very edge of control, if in fact it can be contained at all, which seems extremely doubtful, because the whole scorched skillet is still heaving up and down the horizon and little men ... are skittering about on the surface as if for their very lives (you've said it now!), clustering about twin-engine F-4 fighter planes likes bees about the queen, . . . and then running for cover as the two jet engines go into their shriek and a huge deflection plate rises up behind the plane because it is about to go into its explosion and quite enough gets blown . . . off this heaving grill as it is, and then they explode into full afterburner, 31,000 pounds of force, and a very storm of flames, heat, crazed winds,
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Last modified 14 July 2008