Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Boundaries as Zones of Engagement

So in his poem Mending Wall, does Robert Frost really want to tear down our walls?

No, he doesn't. That is too naive a reading, and Frost is doing something far more interesting, I think. Frost is not locked into an either/or choice. As near as I can tell, Frost is defining boundaries neither as a line that separates nor as the point at which we all merge seamlessly into the Cosmos. Rather, Frost (if not the narrator) is defining boundary as a zone of engagement. For me, this is worth thinking about.

Note first that the wall is where the two farmers, the narrator and his neanderthal neighbor, meet and engage each other in "just another kind of out-door game, One on a side" (ll. 21,22). The wall/boundary does not separate the two men into discrete entities; neither does it merge them. Rather, the wall is the zone where each engages the other in a kind of game. Well, where else can we engage another except at the boundary and in some kind of game?

This zone of engagement has some specific features. First, it has thickness. It is not a thin line that sharply demarcates one farm from the other; rather, it is a zone. And this thickness does not suggest impermeability, but permeability as the narrator's farm gradually yields to the neighbor's farm. Indeed, where "He is all pine and I am apple orchard," we might easily see some pine cones dropped on this side and a few apples scattered on that side, and of course, the grass, as a rhizome, has a sneaking habit of spreading over, around, and through the wall to join this side with that. Boundaries are zones, membranes, and they filter—they don't seal. Clearly at some point far enough on either side of the wall is all one farm or the other, but at the boundary, there is slippage, seepage, and oozing. And the wall/boundary is a matter of scale. We know from the benefits of modern science that if we drill down to the molecular level deep within the stone that we will reach a scale where it is impossible to tell any longer whether we are on this side or that. The farms have merged. Or we can scale up to the view of satellites, and again we lose the boundary as both farms merge into the surround.

The wall in the poem is the zone of tension between the narrator and the neighbor. It's where all the exciting stuff happens. It's where all the compromises are made. All far enough on this side, of course, is narrator, and all far enough on that side is neighbor, but here at the wall, it isn't quite narrator or neighbor. It is the included middle: the unresolvable tension of the dialogic engagement. It's where all the games of life happen, the good and the bad, the enjoyable and the miserable. Frost has captured in a quite simple image and event a very rich vision of complexity, I think, but I suspect no one will be convinced if I do not provide details. Tomorrow.

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