Pushcart XLI: Monte Reel, “Naming Happiness” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.101

Almost every day during the fall that I turned forty, I walked to a park in Buenos Aires where a C-shaped pond cradled a large flower garden.… On weekdays I visited the park alone, but on Saturday mornings I brought my three-year-old daughter, Sofia. She liked my company because I carried stale bread to feed the coscoroba swans and white-winged coots. I liked her company because she didn’t mock me when I stared at birds and trees and tried to match them with pictures in field guides. I probably should have sagged with shame: I was fast becoming a cliché, the Lover of Nature, one of those guys with the boots and the new field glasses who’d lost the ability to mask his low-grade OCD. But Sofia didn’t judge. Maybe watching someone struggle to attach the correct names to common objects seemed perfectly natural to her, since she spent a lot of her time doing pretty much the same thing.
She stared at the stripe of sunlight that sparkled atop the wind-stirred ripples in the middle of the pond.
“What is that called?” she asked. She must have watched me pin down the name of the leaf. Maybe she wanted to play the same game.
I tracked her squinting gaze. “You mean that stripe on the water?” I asked. “The sparkles?”
“What is that called?”
“Not sure,” I said, to casually. “I think it’s just called sparkles.”
She sighed, theatrically. “No it’s not.” She’d recognized the lazy disregard in my answer, and I recognized her frustration: it was the maddening sense that the world is speaking a language we haven’t fully learned, and no one else seems to realize that this is a serious problem.

One of the many concept I swam around in during the Chinese philosophy moocs I took last year was the differing attitudes toward language and naming. The Confucians, particularly the later Mohists after the Linguistic Turn of the mid-Warring States period, put great stock in names, in precise language, in the concept of “rectifying names” to form the basis of “bian“, distinctions, arguing. The Mencians, and later the Daoists to an extreme degree, were less enthusiastic about language (and eschewed bian entirely) since it represented a social construct and therefore wasn’t natural. The problem they always ran into was how to teach and represent Daoism without language, and that’s where a lot of the fun comes in.

Reel seems to combine both viewpoints: he wants to name the world, but using poetic rather than factual or scientific understanding of his nature guidebooks. The complementary bookend closing the essay reveals his discovery of the term “The Road to Happiness” to describe the glimmering stripe of light over water, found in an English translation of a 1950s Russian physics paper. ” The act of pinning a precise label on that phenomenon filled me with something I’ll call ecstasy.”

There’s a definite beauty to the phrase “The Road to Happiness”, and I’m not about to stand between anyone and his ecstasy. But it doesn’t bring me ecstasy, and I wonder if this naming he seeks is purely subjective, almost solipsistic. When I hear the phrase, I think of someone walking out on that road and sinking beneath the surface of the water, which brings to mind something other than happiness. However, I do appreciate that some phrases grab us in ways we don’t understand. It’s a more personal, spiritual take on the Confucian/Mohist “rectifying names”.

Mine was an age of specialization that actively discouraged the kind of intellectual leapfrogging that drove naturalists like Thoreau to try to unite science and spirit, to reconcile the romantic and the empirical. I always feared overstepping my bounds.… Attempting a generalized grasp of natural phenomena, without dedicating oneself to a tightly focused area of study, betrayed a pitiful naïveté.… This logic had formed an alliance with the fear that hid somewhere in my hindbrain: knowing too much might kill whatever magic remained in the world.

I always get nervous when a writer invokes Thoreau. Nature essays are not my thing. I’ve read some great ones, thanks to Pushcart, but I’m one of those glass-half-empty people when it comes to the wonders of the natural world: Yes, sunsets are beautiful, there’s nothing like snow-capped mountains or a murmuration of starlings, but please, let me enjoy them from an air-conditioned or heated room and for god’s sake those are spiders and here come the bees what are you crazy?

Reel tells a story from his childhood: he collected “Indian beads” and created stories about the people who had made and traded them. Research revealed the objects to be the fossilized remains of creatures known in Linnaean classification as Delocrinus missouriensis, and in common parlance as “sea lilies”. They aren’t lilies at all; they are ocean-dwelling animals related to starfish, and related species are abundant today in Monterrey Bay. In 1989, the fossilized remains from eons past were named the state fossil of Missouri due to their plentiful presence in the state.

This raises the question: how did so many sea creatures end up in Missouri? And the answer is found in earth science: 150 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still plodding around, the Great Plains were part of a large sea. Reel found this information disappointing; I find it exhilarating. I celebrate the imagination of a child, but I also celebrate the amazing processes by which the world exists in the form we see it today. And don’t get me started on what happens when we ignore reality and live in fantasy.

I thought of Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”, which has the speaker leaving a scholarly lecture on stars to stand under the still night sky and look up. In another poem, Whitman acknowledged his enormous respect for science (“Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!… Gentlemen, to you the first honors always!”) before presenting his own orientation: ” Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,/I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.” I think Reel is making a similar point, that science can take him so far, but it is not his dwelling. By the way, one of the University of Iowa professors who runs their Whitman Web mentioned a reading of Whitman’s poem I’d never heard before: given the references to time, he wasn’t escaping science, he was bringing it outside with him, checking out the light that had travelled years to get here. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, though I’m not sure it fits with the science of the time.

I had a strong reaction to another section of the essay:

The Germans, I would learn, had come up with the precise word for what I was doing. Beziehungswahn is the mania for seeing meaningful connections linking almost everything, including oneself, to almost everything else. It’s a clinical term. A form of madness.

German often has wonderful words for concepts that take entire sentences to express in English, so I was delighted to find another. Except… a bit of research tells me that Beziehungswahn is a clinical term captured in the English diagnostic phase “ideas of reference”. This is not some universal oneness better ascribed to Buddhism – or, again, Whitman (“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles”). It is instead the psychotic delusion that the waitress at the coffee shop is talking to her customers about you, or the color of that man’s tie is a message meant only for me. It’s “everyone’s laughing at me” on steroids, and it’s exquisitely painful and disabling, not soul-expanding at all. But I may be misreading Reel’s intent, and I may be misinterpreting the use of the word.

Reel is a well-established journalist and author of The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon.