It's a simple story of physics, the reason icebergs float the way they do: Nine-tenths beneath the surface of the water. But it's an irresistible metaphor for beings like us who love to anthropomorphize nature.
Maybe we're all imperialists in that way, wanting to conquer the world with names and metaphors, to ostensibly define everything we see and then tame all that is in our path. Or maybe we simply can't understand something without projecting thoughts and feelings onto it. Or it could be that naming, relating helps us stop being scared by things that can hurt us.
Of course nature is really indifferent to what we do and why we do it. And even that statement anthropomorphizes it. Because it is not even indifferent. And maybe that's what we find so hard to wrap our heads around—its lack of care for us, for itself, for anything at all. Dynamic and vital and beautiful it might be, but feeling or loving, reflective or cruel, nature is not.
But, still, we persist in seeing nature as a child to protect, sometimes, a vicious adversary at others. And where nature in art was once a reflection of God or The Divine, in our own, post-expressionistic, psychological times we're more apt to see it as a reflection of ourselves, of consciousness. That nine-tenths beneath the water is, of course, seen as our subconscious. (As if the tenth above water isn't plenty to contend with and troubling enough of its own accord.)
But Elizabeth Bishop wrote about icebergs (albeit imaginary ones) in a way that neither excessively sublimates or anthropomorphizes them. And I'd like you to think for a moment how hard that is to do. To write about nature without making it into something it's not, to admire it without reference to yourself. And think how hard that is to do for the maker of pictures too. To look and capture without projecting feelings, agendas, politics or romance.
The Imaginary Iceberg
We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.
We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship;
we'd rather own this breathing plain of snow
though the ship's sails were laid upon the sea
as the snow lies undissolved upon the water.
O solemn, floating field,
are you aware an iceberg takes repose
with you, and when it wakes may pasture on your snows?
This is a scene a sailor'd give his eyes for.
The ship's ignored. The iceberg rises
and sinks again; its glassy pinnacles
correct elliptics in the sky.
This is a scene where he who treads the boards
is artlessly rhetorical. The curtain
is light enough to rise on finest ropes
that airy twists of snow provide.
The wits of these white peaks
spar with the sun. Its weight the iceberg dares
upon a shifting stage and stands and stares.
The iceberg cuts its facets from within.
Like jewelry from a grave
it saves itself perpetually and adorns
only itself, perhaps the snows
which so surprise us lying on the sea.
Good-bye, we say, good-bye, the ship steers off
where waves give in to one another's waves
and clouds run in a warmer sky.
Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible)
to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.
And of course, there's nothing wrong with relating to nature or to wanting to name things. But I wonder how it effects our actions and our permanent sense of ourselves as beings-in-the-world if that world is always relating back to us. And I wonder what art looks like, what words are used when it tries to make no such connection, but simply lets be. Maybe that's just the art of silent looking, of accepting the unutterable.
(Note: In many ways, this post is in large part a response to / inspired by certain sections of Gopnik's Winter, which you can from all these mentions, is a book I completely recommend).
1. Sealers Crushed by Icebergs by William Bradford (1866), via
2. The Last Iceberg Series II/Floating Icebergs in Drift Ice II, Ross Sea (2006) by Camille Seaman, via
3. The Iceberg by Frederic Edwin Church (1891), via
4. The Last Iceberg/Stranded Iceberg I, Cape Bird (2006) by Camille Seaman, via
5. Iceberg at Night by Jeremy Miranda from Etsy