Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Signifiers Analysis

Call Me Ahab

On August 30th, my mother said to me, “Always remember this as a day when life is completely perfect,” and for a moment, I believed her. We were at the beach, my family and I, enjoying one last day of summer before fall came. That day I came to experience longing and pain for an object I still can’t understand, except that it was profound.

Sometime in the middle of the afternoon I noticed a large black object in the water, about 100 feet from the shore. I took a kayak that I had brought with me to the beach, and decided to go investigate. I pushed out beyond the waves with slow and deliberate strokes, until I finally came upon the item; it was an enormous piece of driftwood. The base, the part I had seen from the shore was a mess of gnarled and tangled roots, slightly larger than a basketball. The trunk attached was about eight feet long, pockmarked and scarred by its voyage from wherever.

I felt as if I had been drawn to this item, and now that I was within touch of it the feeling intensified. I had to have this piece of wood, for what purpose I still don’t know—but I wanted it. I pushed it ashore with my paddle, slowly but effectively. When I finally reached the shallows I realized that this thing was a lot heavier than I expected, it was after all nine feet of wood that had been waterlogged. I dragged it as best I could to the shore and let the waves do the rest. It was secured within my sight, tangible to me.

I had a legitimate dilemma though, there was no way I could drag the piece of wood to the car, and even if I could, no way I could fit it anywhere. I sat on the beach all day, watching my treasure tumble along the shore, spinning through the waves. The only way I could get the driftwood home would be to saw it up into pieces and carry it like that.

But I never did buy a saw, and I never did cut up the driftwood. I let it slip away from me, the last image I have is of it tumbling in the surf as the sun set to the east.

The driftwood was a microcosmic symbol of my entire summer, my entire life. I had given my sweat, blood (yes I sustained many cuts wrestling with the wood in the waves) and even tears to obtain this wood—and I failed. For one of the first times in my life that I can remember I wanted something that was completely free, something that was born of nature and seemed to just come to me, drawing me to it. I had done nearly everything within my power to extract this object and failed, it was out of reach. Just as my perfect summer had slowed down and died, the sun set, quite literally, on my prize. As we left to home, the air cooling and the night waxing, I evaluated myself. Covered in salt, sweating and burned I had sacrificed for something and failed in obtaining it—the nature or value of that item was inconsequential, it was what it stood for.

I believe this feeling is akin to what Albert Wendt refers to as “the enormous sense of loss […] one of the major concerns of literature in the Pacific and in other post-colonial countries” (64). Though my experience is quite trivial in relation to the imperialistic loss suffered by the Pacific Islands, I feel the same sense of loss of the unknown. Later, Wendt speaks of Mt. Taranaki with the same sense of sadness, writing “Somehow the Mountain never left me alone; Its sadness picked at me” (74). It seems as if there are unseen forms, forces in natural objects that evoke genuine emotions within certain people. For Wendt it’s the mountain, for me it’s the driftwood.

In Our Sea of Islands Epeli Hau’ofa describes the way colonial settlers have attempted to disintegrate indigenous culture through a campaign of language and belittlement. He speaks of hopelessness (29) as a tool in coercing natives to give up their traditions. The invocation of despair is both powerful and unsettling; it is among the most profound loss that any human can feel. In The Whale Rider, the ultimate threat of tribal annihilation is at the center of the novel. The characters cannot do anything to change their situation; they are reliant upon an outside force. Kahu serves as a savior, but she has no control over her gift—she is a function of it.

It is nature who becomes a character in these settings. The whales and the sea are entities in The Whale Rider which exert influence over the outcome. Wendt describes this phenomenon as, “the long sad silence of the land and the rainforest, the stark vulnerability and truth of lava, the slow relentless burning of the sun […] all these and more entered the pores of my skin, eyes, heart, moa and would never desert me” (72). I too, understand this language of nature.

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