Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Sea is a Conveyance-Machine

Not NYC, but oceanic conveyance all the same
by J J Cohen

[scroll down, good reader, and realize that the Paxson Memorial Travel Grant is open for application, and there is some good posting from Karl and Mary Kate and Irina]

Today is dark, with cold rain. I should be out taking a run. I should be doing all kinds of things. But it's also a quiet day, with the youngest one sick and watching movies, the oldest practicing for the SAT, the spouse at a political event of great import. So I have taken the morning to write about transport and the sea.

Last September Steve Mentz (whom I would describe with two adjectives: "incomparable" and "briny") organized a sea-drenched event at St Johns, Oceanic New York. For reasons unclear to me now, I never blogged about the symposium, and that strikes me as strange because the gathering had quite the profound impress upon my thinking about ecomateriality and expression. It was an energizing gathering of scholars and artists that will, I know, leave a long wake -- including a volume of essays and creative flourishings. I'm hard at work on a final version of my piece, an experiment in marine troping, elemental conveyance, and archive discernment. I'm also collaborating with Allan Mitchell on a second piece for the volume -- and he has been quite an inspirational partner in lunatic composition.

Below, the opening section of my individual contribution to Oceanic New York. The piece operates as what I am calling a marine poetic meditation device, and is entitled "The Sea is a Conveyance-Machine." It is nothing like a scholarly essay.

I. Convoys
“There came over them the hosts of Portugal to destroy and to exterminate all that is called Israel, children and women in one day.”[i] So recorded Isaac Aboab in the first Hebrew poem composed in the Americas, around 1649. Aboab wrote this text in Recife, the capital of a fleeting entity called Nieuw-Holland. The port was under siege by the Portuguese, intent on destroying the Jewish community sheltered there. Born to Marranos who had fled religious persecution, Isaac Aboab and his family dwelled for a while in France, practicing their reclaimed Judaism. To avoid forced conversion back to Christianity their community migrated to Amsterdam, and from that city to South America, and to peril.
To destroy and to exterminate all that is called Israel. In naval convoy the Inquisition reaches the port of Recife, intent on obliteration. Isaac Aboab makes a poem of perilous transit, then must sail with his family back across the Atlantic to refuge in Amsterdam. Excavating the fragmentary details of Aboab’s biography in 1897, M. Kayserling deploys a marine trope to capture this difficult conveyance, edged by liquidation: “The terrors of war overwhelmed him and his followers, who had been cast upon a strange land as by waves of the ocean.”[ii] The sea is precarious transport, gathering Portugal, France, Brazil, the Netherlands into an intimacy of recurrent crossings. The North Atlantic Gyre: ships traverse the same pelagic conveyor belt that carries Saharan storms to the coasts of the Americas as obliterating hurricanes. They return (if they return) through another compulsion of currents, a Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift that press tropic waters to Europe’s chill. A whirl of flows for convoys, the Atlantic is a vortex machine, ceaseless marine transport.
Isaac Aboab lived a long life in Amsterdam. Other members of his shattered Brazilian community, however, boarded a French ship out of Recife and sailed for the small village of New Amsterdam. Twenty-three arrived on the island of Manhattan in 1654. Peter Stuyvesant, Director-General of the Colony of New Netherland, attempted their immediate eviction, but the Dutch West India Company countermanded. Most of these Jews departed across the water before a new surge of immigrants could rechristen the area New York. Yet by the end of the century Manhattan had its first synagogue, Shearith Israel (“Remnant of Israel”), a Sephardic congregation that remained intimately connected to Europe and the Caribbean. New members arrived in successive ships. To this day New York City contains the largest Jewish population in the United States, about a third of the country’s total.[iii] No one thinks of the Jews as a sea-going people, but long Diaspora is proof of their maritime intimacy, their littoral transports. Esē diaspora en pasais basileias tēs gēs, “thou shalt be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth.”[iv]
He did not name himself. Isaac Aboab, first to write enduring Hebrew along a shore that did not become a home, bears a surname in which is evident linguistic whorls. “Aboab" is a name found only among the Jews of Spain and Portugal, and is Arabic in origin (perhaps from abdelwahab, “father benefactor”). “Aboab” intersects – sonorously, etymologically, obliquely -- with Hebrew "Ahab" (אַחְאָב, “father’s brother”). A famously wayward king of Israel, Ahab worshipped Baal, spurned the prophets, died in battle, had his blood licked by dogs. A famously errant seafarer, Ahab captained a ship that was a hard trope. Christened for an exterminated people, bearing in its name a story of engulfment, the Pequod was a polyglot vessel, a transport device of multiple genres that in its foundering showed the truth of travel in travail. Words disperse along spirals of etymology, convoys of narrative transport bound for new shores or for catastrophe. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it …
            Oceanic New York is a confluence of transatlantic, translinguistic, transmaterial currents, a space of crossings touched obliquely by the fits and starts of a literature of many tongues, a waterlogged archive for marine poetic conveyance. Because at times the ocean transports and at times swallows, because the sea is trope and itself a turning [trepein] -- inward, downward or towards obliteration -- it is difficult to say what stories will last, what soundings will resound. Current-crossed, relentless, the waves of the ocean bring shipwreck and effacement, a bare record of receding wakes.
Convoy, convey, convoke: the way together, or together voiced.

[i] "Zekher Asiti le-Nifle'ot El," in M. Kayserling, “Isaac Aboab, the First Jewish Author in America,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1897): 125-36, accessed
[ii] M. Kayserling, “Isaac Aboab, the First Jewish Author in America,” 127. Further on Aboab’s life and works see Alexander Altmann, Von der mittelalterlichen zur modernen Aufklärung: Studien zur jüdischen Geistesgeschichte (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1987) 206-7.
[iii] For a brief history of Jewish New York, see Lance J. Sussman, “New York Jewish History”
[iv] Septuagint version of Deuteronomy, 28:25.


Steve Mentz said...

Great reading on a snowy afternoon in CT, after a different snowstorm prevented me from joining Karl for operatic Melville a few days ago. The snow is an anti-conveyance machine...

I love the tension here between exchange and loss, the North Atlantic Gyre as transport machine and also a whirlpool that swallows. I'm thinking of the Pequod's end in relation to Nieuw-Holland, and Melville's inverted Calvinism, and other Dutch things.

I also think about verticality, of Tashtego nailing the bird to the topmast, and the coffin life-buoy shooting up from the depths. I wonder about the relationship between the whirl of conveyance and the verticality of drowning.

Great stuff!

Sebastian Sobecki said...

Lovely piece, Jeffrey. If you don't know it already, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell's The Corrupting Sea makes a very eloquent argument about maritime connectivity. Matthew Boyd Goldie and I will consider connectivity in the British archipelago for postmedieval in 2016 (with essays by Horden and Steve Mentz, by the way).

Sebastian Sobecki said...

Lovely piece, Jeffrey. If you don't know it already, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell's The Corrupting Sea makes a very eloquent argument about maritime connectivity. Matthew Boyd Goldie and I will consider connectivity in the British archipelago for postmedieval in 2016 (with essays by Horden and Steve Mentz, by the way).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Steve and Sebastian!

Steve, I need to think more about verticality. So far most of the drowning is about the narratives that don't stay afloat.

The Corrupting Sea is a great book, Sebastian. I think in retrospect it helped spur the conceptualization of Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages
Archipelago, Island, England
, a project I'd make more oceanic if I could do again (it speaks so much of flows, but ends up being mostly about islands; still, it is kind of a watery project). I am really looking forward to your postmedieval issue!!

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Jeffrey: This is great, thanks for sharing! Love what you are doing with language and etymology here (no surprise, huh?). @Steve and @Sebastian: I'm completing a follow-up blog posting to this one that touches some of these issues (maritime connectivity and verticality) so stay tuned! And I do look forward to the Sobecki/Goldie 2016 postmedieval issue as well.