May 6, 2006

Small Fundamental Essay

by Hayden Carruth

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Poem: "Small Fundamental Essay" by Hayden Carruth from Toward the Distant Islands: New & Selected Poems. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Small Fundamental Essay

What many people fail to understand
about the art and science of mechanics
is that you may know perfectly what happens
under the hood of your car when you turn on
the ignition, and you may comprehend
to a nicety how the combination of pump
and pressure tank and heating coils produces
hot water when you turn the tap, and yet
the wonder never ceases. That this can be
—and is—is what bestirs the mind and heart.
Ours is a faith that never starts a war
nor rips a living child from its warm womb,
a faith that needs no ghastly hierophant
hung dead upon a cross to speak for us.
It is faith in the miracle of the possible,
faith in the peaceful knowledge of what is true.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1937 that the Hindenburg, the largest aircraft ever to take flight, caught fire as it was landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing thirty-five people. The disaster effectively ended the burgeoning business of passenger flight in hydrogen-filled airships.

The Hindenburg was about as big as the Titanic. It traveled at eighty miles per hour, so the trip between Frankfurt, Germany, and Lakehurst, New Jersey, took two and a half days, half the time needed by the fastest ocean liner of the era. Passengers on the Hindenburg paid $400 for a one-way trip. They had sleeping compartments, sitting and dining areas, as well as a 200-foot promenade deck with a spectacular view of the ocean passing below. Passengers were free to roam about, to eat meals at a table on the best china, and to sample the best wines from France and Germany. The passengers could even dance to the music of a lightweight, aluminum grand piano, probably the only grand piano ever to provide entertainment for people in a flying machine.

The Hindenburg wasn't the first airship to crash. There had been more than five crashes already. But the Hindenburg was the highest-profile crash, in part because the destruction was caught on camera.

A photographer Sam Shere saw the ship come into view and drop its heavy mooring lines from the bow. Suddenly there was the sound of an explosion. Sam Shere saw a flash of light, and just at that moment took a picture with his camera, without even looking through the viewfinder. A moment later, the explosion knocked him to the ground, and the camera flew out of his hand. But the photo that he developed became the defining image of the disaster, showing flames erupting out of the top of the ship.

The disaster was also covered live on the radio. Correspondent Herb Morrison described his own horror as he watched the Hindenburg catch fire.

The result of the Hindenburg disaster was that the public soured on traveling by airship. People assumed that the hydrogen gas was too dangerous. It would be two more decades before a Pan American Airways DC-7 made the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight by a commercial airplane.

It's the birthday of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, (books by this author) born in the small town of Freiberg in what was then the Austrian Empire (1856). He started out a medical doctor and scientist in Vienna, then decided instead to go into the less crowded field of psychology where he thought he might be able to break new ground. He became interested in the use of hypnosis to treat hysteria. Eventually he developed the idea that all the symptoms of the hysterics he was treating were the result of stories patients hadn't ever been able to tell anyone about their lives.

He knew it would be difficult for a self-respecting woman to talk to her doctor about her darkest thoughts and desires. So he took a couch that had belonged to his wife, covered it with a Persian rug, and asked his patients to lie down on it. Instead of looking at him, he asked them to stare at an empty wall, and he sat behind them as they talked.

Over the next few years, he developed the idea that his patients were not conscious of all their desires and fears, that many of their own thoughts were hidden from them in their unconscious mind. He believed that their unconscious mind would reveal itself in various ways, through slips of the tongue, jokes, and especially dreams.

Freud's ideas are no longer part of modern psychology. But Freud had a tremendous impact on literature. It was after Freud's writings became widespread that novelists began to write fiction that took place entirely inside their characters' minds. His work also gave writers permission to start describing more frankly their characters' sexual desires.

It's the birthday of poet and critic Randall Jarrell, (books by this author) born in Nashville, Tennessee (1914). In his critical essays, collected and published as Poetry and the Age (1953), he revitalized the reputations of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.

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