Dear The Objective Correlative,

I admit it: I don’t understand you. But it’s not that I haven’t tried. I Google your name to see what you’re up to these days. At faculty parties I have a few too many Two-Hearteds and then beg my colleagues to tell me if they’ve seen you recently. I consider editing your Wikipedia page, and it kills me to know that there are others who are far more qualified. I try to remember those days back in undergrad when we were so bold and carefree. Remember how we used to make fun of Hamlet? And just when I thought I was getting over you, that I could forget you and move on with my life, there you were on the list of terms I was supposed to teach my Creative Writing 201 class. It was like seeing your name on a party guest list after so many years and knowing that I was the same confused, love-sick puppy I’d ever been.

In the past I admit I’ve tried to fit you into a tidy definition: one or more events or objects charged with metaphoric value that create a desired reaction or emotion from the reader and/or character. I’ve used Hemingway’s famous six word story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn.) to render you as a formula: potential baby + cuteness of Baby Jordans + baby didn’t happen + need of money = ☹ But we both know that you’re so much more than that. The problem is that there are other literary terms that seem so similar to you – montage, mimesis, even plain ol’ metaphor – and they’re so much easier to understand!

I’m sorry, the objective correlative. I was upset. I didn’t mean it. I know that you’re unique and that you’re worthy of every brain muscle I strain trying to comprehend your ambiguities. In the days leading up to that moment I’d have to introduce you to my Intro students, I was a nervous wreck. But then – bolt of lightning! – Shoshana Wechsler’s essay, “A Ma(t)ter of Fact and Vision: The Objectivity Question and Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead,” rescued me from a 48-hour web surfing bender:

For the scientific observer as for the poet, what is important is the overriding fact, and fate, of invisibility – the invisibility of occupational disease and its ravages, the social invisibility of a mostly black, marginalized labor force – which led to the laborers’ brutal exploitation and death as well as their erasure from memory. The submerged tunnel neatly lends itself as the perfect objective correlative for Union Carbide’s corporate obfuscation.

I paraded this quote triumphantly to the front of the classroom. Just as the workers’ deaths and even their bodies vanished behind the convenience of the electrical power their labor produced, so did the tunnel that killed them disappear under the river it rerouted. But halfway through my arrogant pontification, I realized that I was still confusing you with simpler phrasings, like “symbol for” or even “example of.”

Perhaps you are the reason why Rukeyser’s poems often have a list-like feel to them. I think that, when poets try to disrupt syntax so that their work doesn’t sound like lineated prose, the result is often something that sounds like the poetic version of a grocery list. And perhaps it is in the way the items in Rukeyser’s lists come together to brew new meaning that I can begin to understand you, the objective correlative. I think back to Rukeyser’s poem “Ann Burlak”:

The neighbor called in to nurse the baby of a spy,
the schoolboy washing off the painted word
“scab” on the front stoop, his mother watering flowers
pouring the milk-bottle of water from the ledge,
who stops in horror, seeing. The grandmother going
down to her cellar with a full clothes-basket,
turns at the shot, sees men running past brick,
smoke-spurt and fallen face.

Are you there behind the words, the objective correlative, whispering that the accumulation of these loaded images create the “field of faces” at Ann Burlak’s feet, the “system of looms in constellations whirred,” the “disasters dancing” that require the heroism of the labor organizer? I sense your presence in John Jay Chapman’s act of sticking his hand into fire in the poem “Chapman” (and in real life), but it’s not so “neat” as the submerged tunnel, and… and I have decided to stay in again tonight. But reminders of you are everywhere, and I wonder if there’s anyone who can mediate between us. Until then, you know where I’ll be; my office hours are on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I’ll be waiting for you.

One Response to Dear The Objective Correlative,

  1. Elisabeth Daumer says:

    I am glad to see you struggle (so publicly) with the objective correlative, which would have been a central aesthetic notion Eliot bequeathed to Rukeyser. Virtually inescapable, I’d say.

    I find that most critics have paid an inordinate amount of attention to the first part of Eliot’s “formula”:

    The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.

    But I find the second part just as, if not more significant:

    [S]uch that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

    In my mind, the concept is all about how a poet or artist manages to communicate “emotion” in a way the audience can experience at a sensory (pre-rational) level. Montage–as the “chain of events” or images–may in fact be one technique that Eliot had in mind. The other may have been movement–as in a kinesthetic chain of gestures. There is after all a relation between emotion and motion. How to create art that moves us–not just to feel, Rukeyser might add–but to action?

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