The sign by the elevator leading down to the Maid of the Mist read, “Explore the Roar,” which seemed a bit redundant after the discursive horrors I had just passed through to get there. First was a building called, “Gateway to the Falls,” a combination gift shop and food court that had, unlike most gateways, no way through. So, after circling around the outside of the building and navigating a crosswalk, I had entered a finely manicured area of lawn and regularly planted trees, sort of a Palladian version of nature, dotted with signage explaining the birds and the squirrels. This acted as a funnel into the Visitor’s Center, a two-story collection of geological and cultural exhibits that was impossible to get out of without asking for directions. Down the stairs and out the back door was a restaurant with a chalkboard menu, then more parkland, and, finally, the elevator. Only then had I seen the cloud of mist, and sensed the familiar presence that was on the verge of looking back at me.
I remember the first time I ever saw the face of this thing. I was walking down a city street in rainy weather, and something made me look up. Just above my head—and this is very hard to describe—two pairs of power lines overlapped one another at an angle, looking like a giant number sign, or a tic-tac-toe game in italics, black against the dark gray of the sky. And as I moved under them, the lines slid against, or along, or on top of, each other. The acute angles bit down; the obtuse angles unclenched. There might have been a sound like the opening note of the 6th Movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet #14 in C Sharp Minor, except there wasn’t.
I had no idea what had happened. No words, no linguistic framework, could have prepared me to experience such a moment, much less define or describe it. There was no expression in my mental vocabulary that meant “the musical tension formed by two non-perpendicular sets of lines sliding across each other in the rain.” And there still isn’t, unless I coin one, and create a new part of the universe. In such a case, though, I will then have skewered it, like taking a great, fluttering luna moth, sticking a pin through it, and writing it into the collection as Actius lacuna.
Not all linguistic holes need to be filled, and there are some that would refuse the offer, anyway. In fact, language has so little to do with certain experiences as to seem positively hostile. That’s why, for instance, the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, “man of the worldly mind,” is framed by two moments of silent awe. It begins at the precise moment when Marley’s ghost shakes its chain with “a dismal and appalling noise” in the dead of the night, and Scrooge, unmanned, hits the floor. And it ends with him kneeling before the awful Ghost of Christmas Future, who never uttered a word.
People, of course, don’t kneel any more. Not really. Nor do we drop down, prostrate ourselves, or avert our eyes. Even in church, there’s usually a polite request, followed by a fluttering whisper of clothes, and the muffled clunking of padded benches as they swivel to the floor on well-oiled hinges. A soft politeness reigns. Plus, it’s optional. If, on hearing, “Please kneel,” we reply, “No, thank you, not just now,” neither the heavens nor the congregation will pour anything on our heads.
We’ve come a long way for this. Our current relationship with the universe has been shaped by centuries of change, and these days reason, not myth, tells us why volcanos erupt and meteors die. And language, more lamp than mirror, helps to order everything, with each new cognition a re-cognition, not just described but experienced through a fog of semantic and syntactical rules that direct our eyes to preordained objects and our minds to a miniscule number of concepts and causes. What we can’t name, we don’t see, and thus does language draw the boundaries of our world.
Sometimes, though, something peeks over, or under, or around the word wall. It flashes into view, a vision startling in its strangeness, humbling in its potency, yet transient, and utterly, despairingly, alone. Neither the child nor the sister of language, it feels incommunicable precisely because language, the usual medium of communication, is what has kept it from us in the first place. It is always emerging and novel: not the product of a common conceptual apparatus, but a sly wink from the face of unmediated reality, appealing more to the archetypal synapses within us than to anything we might have learned in the cradle or the school room. If it invites language into its circle at all, it prefers poetry, since only a new linguistic construct can capture its complete subjectivity.
Such images, writes philosopher Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, “blot out the world,” and live only in “dazzling splendor.” They are a “transcending of all the premises of sensibility.” Furthermore—and here’s the tragedy—“They give us a lesson in solitude. For a brief instant we must take them for ourselves alone. If we take them in their suddenness, we realize that we think of nothing else, that we are entirely in the being of this expression.” Philosophers call this “phenomenology” and poets call it “home.” And, since discursive language doesn’t live there, a conflict is born: “How—with no preparation—can this singular, short-lived event, constituted by the appearance of an unusual poetic image, react on other minds and in other hearts, despite all the barriers of common sense, all the disciplined schools of thought?”
In other words, what does one do with this thing? How can the image, at once nonreasonable and painfully real, possibly be made to answer an almost frenzied need to share it? How can the recipient of such a gift unburden himself of it, in the language of men, and avoid either the burn unit or the hermitage? Or, conversely, what happens to the soul which takes the image completely unto itself, and drowns its own historical and social being in an eternal, silent, communion?
Francis Abbott came to Niagara Falls in 1829, lured, no doubt, by the published narratives that even then had spread around the globe. According to an 1831 story in The Public Ledger and Newfoundland General Advertiser, Abbott only planned to stay a day or two, and one of his first visits was to the library, where he conversed with a librarian “on various subjects, and his language was delivered with great ease and ability.” He also “expatiated largely upon the beautiful scenery of the Falls—the grand views of the cascade and cataracts, and of the most sublime spectacle, the Falls themselves. In all his travels, he said, he had never met with anything that would compare with it, for sublimity, except Mount Aetna during an eruption.”
Well, days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, during which time Abbott moved into a shack on Goat Island. He grew increasingly isolated from the town. Sometimes he was seen walking alone, or bathing in a certain part of the rapids, just above the Falls. He would also walk to the end of a plank bridge that in those days stuck out over the lip of the great chasm, and just hang there in the spray, a veritable Ophelia of the Niagara, imbued unto that element. Tourists liked to tell themselves that he was performing stunts for them, and he became part of the local scenery. But long it could not be: one day, two full years after coming to Niagara Falls, he was seen bathing in his rapids. He went under twice, and then, during the third dunking, Francis Abbott vanished.
The body was eventually found downstream, and the search for an explanation to the strange case of The Hermit of Niagara began. As The Public Ledger asked, “What could have broken up and destroyed such a mind as Francis Abbott’s? What could have driven him from the society he was so well qualified to adorn—and what transformed him, noble in person and intellect, into an isolated anchorite, shunning the association of his fellow men?” The article is subtitled, The Romance of Truth, and indeed all the furies of Romantic turbidity—nature, God, science, morals, women—were unleashed to find the answer to Abbott’s life and death. One person even suggested it was a cramp. The speculation culminated in 1846, with a 100-page fictional potboiler, Francis Abbott; or the Hermit of Niagara, written by Osgood Bradbury (“the Author of Mettalak, &c.”), which gave the world the heaving bosom and quivering Protestantism of Emeline Clarendon, whom Abbott, supposedly, never got over until he went over.
Abbott himself left no clues to his own mystery. No written ones, anyway. When his hut was opened after his death, searchers found a couple of animals, a few musical instruments, and, according to The Public Ledger, “a portfolio, and the leaves of a large book; but not a word, not even his name was written in any of them.” But, surely, this was a kind of answer, this presence of music and absence of words. Abott may have seen something in the Falls, something big, and although he was hardly unique in this, he alone gave himself to it, gave his whole existence, rather than simply adding to the growing pile of encomia surrounding it. As Thomas Huxley once said of St. Thomas Aquinas, “He had earned the right, in those last months of his mortality, to turn away from merely symbolic straw and chaff to the bread of actual and substantial Fact.”
Straw and chaff blow thickly through the chronicles of Niagara, a vast cloud of interpretation that envelops the Falls as surely as its own cloud of mist, so that the history of the Falls as a perceived spectacle becomes a story of language: a kind of meta-linguistics that is aware of the futility of describing Niagara’s power and immediacy while, at the same time, attempting to create a grammar that will do just that.
It begins with the first description ever written about the Falls: Father Louis Hennepin’s A New Discovery of a Large Country in America, published in 1678. Hennepin has a reputation as a self-promoter and a bit of a scoundrel, and certainly New Discovery contains gross exaggerations of both the landscape and his place in it. (Fortunately for him, it worked: the book was popular in Europe, and turned out to be the first Niagara Falls tourist tract.) Yet Hennepin is genuinely shocked by Niagara. The water, he writes, cascades in a “surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford its Parallel.” The Falls are “horrible,” “hideous,” “dreadful,” even “outrageous,” and the river flings itself along with “inexpressible” violence. And, “When one stands near the Fall and looks down…one is seized with Horror, and the Head turns round, so that one cannot look long or steadfastly upon it.” What’s a 17th Century Franciscan priest to do? Well, according to the stories (and a painting in the Niagara Falls Visitor’s Center), Hennepin fell on his knees.
Hennepin’s experience of delicious terror became the sublime to the 19th Century visitors who furnished most of the writing about Niagara, and who went to great lengths to talk about its capacity to destroy language. Clearly, the extralinguistic qualities of lyrical poetry made it the medium of choice. In 1844, for instance, the popular writer Lydia H. Sigourney wrote,
But there thou art, sublime
In noon-day splendor, gathering all thy rays
Unto their climax, green, and fleecy white,
And changeful tinture, for which words of man
Have neither sign nor sound, until to breathe
Farewell is agony. For we have roamed
Beside thee, at our will, and drawn thy voice
Into our secret soul…
And, in 1848, came this apparent one-off from Maria del Occidente:
Terrific, but O! beautiful abyss!
If I should trust my fascinated eye,
Or listen to thy maddening melody,
Sense, form, would spring to meet thy white foam’s kiss—
Be lapped in thy soft rainbow once, and die.
And again, in 1891, from Susan Frances Harrison’s Niagara in Winter:
Nor similes nor metaphors avail!
All imagery vanishes, device
Dies in thy presence, wondrous dream of ice!
Ice-bound I stand, my face is pinched and pale,
Before such awful majesty I fail,
Sink low on this snow-lichened slab of gneiss,
Shut out the gleaming mass that can entice,
Enchain, enchant, but in whose light I quail.
Even as each “thee” and “thou” can be seen as a tentative hand stretched toward a numinous face, the sheer number of these poems suggests that the hands would only venture to go so far—verse versus the prospect of solitary meditation. Few were those who would dare to say, like one anonymous hero,
I have been to “Termination Rock,”
Where many have been before;
But as I can’t describe the scene,
I won’t say any more.
Some visitors courted the silence, in an almost desperate plea for grace. In 1825, the exiled Cuban poet, José María Heredia, stood beside Niagara and composed his famous Ode:
Torrente prodigioso, calma, acalla
tu trueno aterrador: disipa un tanto
las tinieblas que en torno te circundan,
y déjame mirar tu faz serena,
y de entusiasmo ardiente mi alma llena.
Unlike Abbott, Heredia actually was pining for a woman, to alleviate the terrible loneliness of a life “sin patria, sin amores,” and he sought, like a New World Prince Hamlet, a consolation in the Niagric promise of the end of all things.
Por eso siempre te buscó mi mente
en la sublime soledad: ahora
entera se abre a ti; tu mano siente
en esta inmensidad que me circunda,
y tu profunda voz baja a mi seno
de este raudal en el eterno trueno.
Another troubled writer, Caroline Howard Gilman, described Niagara in her book, The Poetry of Traveling in the United States, published in 1838. Gilman was duly impressed by the natural sights (while showing a large amount of scorn for the works of man, and for her fellow tourists), and in many ways The Poetry of Traveling is rather prosaic in its descriptions. But, as her days at Niagara went by, it becomes clear that she was in pain, which, in her religious zeal, she attributed to a kind of spiritual Purgatory. At any rate, she was restless and vaguely terrified. From her room in the famous Cataract House Hotel, Gilman wrote:
It is now midnight; the roar of the waters agitates me. I have just raised the window, and the white foam looks like a troubled spirit in the darkness. I can not sooth down my heart—it is kindled by deep workings of the Invisible…My dreams are very wild here. I am not calm. A great voice seems calling on me, which I am too feeble to answer.
Later, she went alone to the the same plank bridge that Francis Abbott hung from, and there, “lying down with my head over the Fall, I ceased to pray or even to think. I gave myself up to the overpowering greatness of the scene, and my soul was still.” In 1839, one year after raising her window to Niagara Falls, Gilman gave up writing, calling it a “disease.”
With all of this written mediation, it was inevitable that people would come to Niagara Falls carrying ideas as if they were part of the luggage. For some, this mediation became a stain on the phenomenological purity of the Niagara experience. In 1838, feminist and poet Anna Jameson lamented, “O I could beat myself! and now there is no help—the first moment, the first impression is over—is lost; though I should live a thousand years, long as Niagara itself shall roll, I can never see it again for the first time. Something is gone that cannot be restored.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, for whom suffering was a kind of religion, actually threw himself down on the ground:
Oh, that I had never heard of Niagara till I beheld it! Blessed were the wanderers of old, who heard its deep roar, sounding through the woods, as the summons to an unknown wonder, and approached its awful brink, in all the freshness of native feeling. Had its own mysterious voice been the first to warn me of its existence, then, indeed, I might have knelt down and worshipped.
Hawthorne eventually came to think he had achieved the genuine Niagara experience, but he was really impressed, not by the phenomenon itself, but by his own reaction to it, not by the dreadful actuality of the image, but by what he called “the consciousness of a growing capacity to enjoy it.” The linguistic contradictions that grace his fiction stood in his way, and even as he said the visitor must “cast aside all pre-conceived notions, and preparation to be dire-struck,” he also claimed that “time and thought must be employed in comprehending it.” Ultimately, in the presence of such a dread vision, Hawthorne could only attempt a translation. He was more prophet than saint, and although he felt a warm spot for Niagara’s strength, he could not, simply, burn.
Thus had these writers—apostrophizing only to themselves, in grief because the forms of thought had, like a veil, obscured the flickering visage of the god—failed to realize that this particular experience will be neither announced nor conjured. And as long as the consciousness of the experience continued, the grief would remain. As Gaston Bachelard says in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, “To be aware that one is burning is to grow cold; to feel an intensity is to diminish it; it is necessary to be an intensity without realizing it.”
One can also be an intensity before realizing it, as shown in the writings of Anthony Trollope, who saw Niagara in 1862. On the one hand, Trollope wrote what might be one of the most gorgeous descriptions of the Falls, one which Francis Abbott himself may have condoned:
To realize Niagara you must sit there till you see nothing else than that which you have come to see. You will hear nothing else and see nothing else. At length you will be at one with the tumbling river before you. You will find yourself among the waters as though you belonged to them. The cool liquid green will run through your veins and the voice of the cataract will be the expression of your own heart. You will fall as the bright waters fall, rushing down into your new world with no hesitation and with no dismay: and you will rise again as the spray rises, bright, beautiful and pure. Then you will flow away in your course to the uncompassed, distant and eternal ocean.
And a descent into the gorge evokes a response that is positively mythic: “Strange colors will show themselves through the mist; the shades of grey will become green or blue, with ever and anon a flash of white; and then, when some gust of wind blows in with greater violence, the sea-girt cavern will become all dark and black.” Here, surely, Trollope is near to Wordsworth’s vision of Proteus and Triton, or Prufrock’s sea-girls, “wreathed with seaweed red and brown.” At such a moment, language is deadly: “Oh, my friend,” says Trollope, “let there be no one there to speak to thee then; no, not even a brother. As you stand there speak only to the waters.”
But then human voices wake him, and Trollope becomes coy. He suggests that, when viewing the Falls, one should do so strategically, situating oneself in such a way that part of them is always slightly out of the picture. “In looking at the grandest works of nature,” he writes, “and of art too, I fancy,” there should always be “something left to the imagination.” Thus, instead of being allowed to assert its own ontological power, Niagara is tamed and subsumed, becoming only one color in a larger but milder canvas of aesthetic awareness.
The most jolting—and prophetic—example of the duality of Niagric writing, though, comes from a schizophrenic little tract with the decidedly un-sublime title, Every stranger his own guide to Niagara Falls: the latest and most comprehensive work yet before the public, containing a table of distances, and the intermediate places on the five principal routes leading from Niagara Falls to Albany, via Montreal, Quebec, and Saratoga Springs. Written by local resident W.E. Hulett in 1844, for those who “may wish to view the Falls, on both sides of the river, to the best advantage, without loss of time,” Every stranger still finds room for “a certain indefinable sensation of fear, mingled with courage—admiration with terror—delight with apprehension,” which “pervades the soul” of the sensitive visitor. Hulett exhorts his readers, “Cast your eyes upward whence this mighty torrent comes, then downward whither it descends into the foaming gulf; and you will be lost in doubt, whether to wonder most at the grandeur above, or the depth of sublimity below. Such scenes are only for silent meditation. Words have no part or lot in them.” And that’s it. Then it’s back to the real world, back on track, back to the hotel in time for lunch.
The type of anonymous visitor for whom Hulett wrote is exemplified in this piece of 1847 doggerel:
I came from Wall Street,
To see this water sheet;
Having seen this water sheet,
I return to Wall Street.
And this response would eventually come to define the Niagara experience; with the coming of a new century, the dominant discourse became the poetry of the abstract. Within its all-pervasive spray—the guidebooks, newspaper articles, web sites, signage, colored lights, manicured gardens, museums, amusement parks, and acrobatic feats—most visitors remain happy to this day. But others, whether from sudden shock or mounting terror, still grope for the plank bridge, for whatever rhyme scheme or semi-colon might best save their souls.
When the elevator doors opened at the base of the gorge, things started to feel more unruly and primeval. The atmosphere was thick. The rocks were wet. A steady pounding came from the earth, like the vibration of some vast, subterranean device. I was handed a light blue poncho to protect me from the spray and boarded the Maid. She felt awfully small, a sliver of flotsam, and, as she pushed off into the opposing current, I started to realize why so many sailors in the olden days believed that learning to swim was not only pointless, but faithless.
Incredibly, even here, a tinny loudspeaker started playing a recorded speech about the boat, the cliffs, the Falls, and the dare-devils who had used them to plunge into worldly fame. Other people on the boat started taking pictures with their cell phones; the whirring click was all around, like locusts landing on the deck. Conversations became shouting matches inside the thrumming of the engine, rising to a crescendo as the mist began to cover the sun and vapor made a slurry of the air. Finally, cell phones were put in pockets, and, as the roar of the water became louder, the talking simply stopped.
“Wow,” started to come from various parts of the boat, just, “Wow,” and again, “Wow,” this brief noise signaling the limits of discourse—the language of language’s end. In the actual teeth of the Horseshoe, even that was gone.
And now you’re in the present tense, so here’s what you do: uncover your head, brace yourself, and look up, straight up. Above and from all around, it fills your small reservoir of awareness, so quickly and so completely that your mind searches for a refuge of reference, like, say, an OmniMax Movie. Take off your glasses and try to focus. It’s all right because the water comes to you. It flings itself over, over, over the drop, and forms tiny but repeated patterns that burst into foam. It alights on your arms, on your hands, on your face, on your eyes, and then it’s inside you, in your head and in your chest, you’re breathing it, and you realize you’re made of the mist, and all the time is the sound, and the boat is exerting itself to the utmost merely to keep its nose pointed into it (though you are dimly aware that the engine must give out in the end, simply has to), and it goes on and on forever, this power and this rushing calamity that yet contains some kind of something inside it, something that you can see if you just wait long enough and it is not inhuman at all not really and it may even feel pity for you and the main thing is that it knows you’re there, and suddenly you’re no longer exploring the roar—it’s exploring you. So open your arms, and remember what it is to kneel, for Something approacheth.
And that might be what took Francis Abbott, although it’s hard to say. The rest, of course, is silence.