A hundred billion bottles

Since writing the previous post, I've had occasion to think again about the message and its meaning. I've remembered that I wasn't in fact schooled by the New Critics, though my sensibility might suggest otherwise, but in post-modernism, in multiplicities of meaning, and in the sway of cultural materialism. Here, then, in deference to my schooling, are some alternative readings.

1. The message as evidence of a late twentieth-century crisis of masculinity. Jonathan, incapable of relationship and even of conversation, has recourse to a wild gesture of evasion. Like so many women of her generation, Mary waits in vain for the fulfilment of his promise. But he is in the end a child and not a man.

2. The message as modern tragedy - this is the reading Beth and Brad seem to advocate. In classical tragedy, pathos arises from the hero's innate greatness and nobility, whereas in modern tragedy, the hero is precisely unheroic, ordinary, even ignoble. He is frail and contemptible, neurotic, unreliable, self-absorbed and self-destructive. In a film version, Jonathan might be played by Paul Giamatti. Or, if it were a Wes Anderson film, by Jason Schwartzman.

3. The message as psychoanalytic biography. We know that the wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985 off the coast of Newfoundland, not far from Nova Scotia, so it's highly likely the note is connected to that episode in some way, certainly symbolically if not actually. Perhaps our protagonists worked together on the discovery. A tendre develops, but Mary's feelings are not reciprocated. In fact, Jonathan is gay, but the rigid cultural mores of rural Canada in the mid-1980s make it impossible for him to confess this to Mary. Instead, he promises friendship and corresondence, then returns to Nova Scotia, leaving her on Newfoundland. He writes as promised, but sending the letter feels like the final act of deception. Instead he encloses it in a bottle, thus 'bottling up' his emotional authenticity, and hurls it into the North Atlantic, in the general direction of both Mary and the shipwreck that brought them together, that now symbolizes both the 'wreckage' of Mary's hopes and the repression or 'burial' of Jonathan's true self.

4. The message as literary artifact. There are a number of internal contradictions in the structure of the message which give clues to its provenance. There's a shift between the first two lines and the second: "I hope we can keep in correspondence" carries a very different connotation from "I said I would write"; a prospective hope followed by a statement of past undertakings minimally fulfilled. This suggests the message was begun in one frame of mind, and finished in another. "Your friend always" has a note of finality, as though he didn't expect a continuance of the correspondence; which, indeed, his method of correspondence would seem to confirm. Finally the date, written diagonally across the bottom left corner: only a year, no day or month, which suggests that the message was destined to be a relic, consigned to the deep waters of history, rather than one of a series anchored in particularity.

5. The message as hoax. The name and date attached to the message are intended to deflect inquiry from its real author, Francis Bacon.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair

My eye was caught by the story of a message in a bottle, washing up on a Croatian beach after spending 28 years crossing the Atlantic. What could be more romantic than this unlooked for redemption of a human voice, a human appeal, from the unregarding years, the oblivious depths? Unfortunately, the message was a deep disappointment for anyone of a romantic turn of mind. Here's what it said:


You are a really great person.
I hope we can keep in correspondence.
I said I would write.
Your friend always,


Nova Scotia ’85

Against this inconsequential blather, so miraculously preserved, the soul cries out: How utterly banal! How bland! How jejune! And, the soul might add, how '80s. I'm sure it was not Jonathan's intention to offend; quite the reverse. His subtext is patently "Hey, let's just be friends. But I'm too chicken to tell you that in person so I'll just throw this into the sea." There is an insult to Mary in that, but there's also an insult to language and its innate poetic possibility. There's an insult to mystery and the mind's imaginings; an insult flung out against the great romance of the turning world. It's as if we translated the Rosetta Stone and it revealed itself as mere doggerel or drivel. Or as if we saw from afar some writing on the moon, and when we looked more closely it said "Buzz woz here '69".

Humans, it seems, have more capacity for inconsequence, as well as for consequence, than any other creature. If the '80s bore witness to this, how much more our present moment, when texts you wouldn't cross the street to read, let alone an ocean, are preserved still more carefully and irrevocably than by the crude method of an ocean-going vase? Seeing our words and works are likely to last, perhaps unto immortality, we should take care that they should be worth the lasting.