It’s been hard to see a bright side to alienation / estrangement / detachment as I write my way through theoretical issues mired in them: a slough of despond, indeed. When I passed through Littleton, NH in 2017, it was by choice. It had a bit of the character of a pilgrimage, for multiple reasons. I had no idea, however, that it was the birthplace of Eleanor Porter, creator of Pollyanna.
Pollyanna was the instigator of “the glad game,” a game in which the player is tasked with finding the bright side of any situation. In the novel, it’s origin was a particular Christmas where Pollyanna had wished for a doll, but instead received a pair of crutches.
“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—’EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly. “You see it’s just as easy—when you know how!” (5)
I went to Littleton, NH, largely because it was the home of Benjamin W. Kilburn, one of the largest stereograph manufacturers of the late 19th century. There’s not really a trace of him there, that I saw– they are much more proud of Pollyanna. It’s just as well, at this stage I really wasn’t looking for anything.
But there was another reason: it was around ten years after Victoria Mikelonis, one of my favorite teachers at the University of Minnesota had passed away. I only took one class from her on theories of metaphor, and it was the most intense and rewarding experience that I had in grad school. On of my last memories of her was stopping by her office and talking, excitedly, about Kilburn and stereographs. She told me she had recently visited a granddaughter who lived in Littleton, and raved about what a nice place it was. Vicki was one of the few people who was always cheerful, always looking on the bright side, and above all always engaged with the world and the ideas around her.
Dr. Mikelonis was primarily engaged with working with women in Poland and the Ukraine, training them to be technical communicators using a wide variety of pedagogical strategies– cross cultural communication would be another way of labeling it. That’s where her research interest in metaphor, schemas and ontologies came from. How do we know things? How do we learn things? These are the questions that animated her.
She was living with cancer, and like Ian Dury, the man who gave us reasons to be cheerful, she also died from it. The class is burned on my memory; it was dense and rewarding. We began with short papers by Max Black and others in philosophy of language, and worked our way through Paul Ricoeur’s Rule of Metaphor. The basic plan began with a word level examination of metaphor, through sentences into larger schema in Hesse & Arbib’s The Construction of Reality. The capstone essay was Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies, with its oft quoted maxim regarding truth:
A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
Pollyanna is a metonym for someone with irrepressible optimism, and as the 1913 novel and its Disney movie treatment fade, the word substitutes for an idea, a moment of illusion celebrated in a statue. In the mountains above Littleton, in Franconia another anthropomorphic image drew great excitement.
B.W. Kilburn and others did a brisk trade in stereographs of the old man of the mountain. The White Mountains are one of America’s oldest tourist destinations, and where there are tourists there is a market for souvenirs. A shared experience of a rock, a unique bit of sublime America, drew most of the great writers and statesmen to the the small towns scattered along the edge of wildness, to gather and be glad.
Philosopher Patrick Maynard built a strong case that photographs are props in a game of make-believe, and like metaphors they allow for a form of transport to places we have or haven’t been. Thomas Southall’s essay “White Mountain Stereographs and the Development of a Collective Vision” further suggests that what was developing during Kilburn’s time was set of practices that contributed to a particular truth of shared experience. Photographers were encouraged to alter the landscape to reinforce the “glad game” of seeing awesome nature in a collective way. Southall cites Kentucky photographer James Mullen at the 1873 meeting of the National Photographic Association:
And let me advise you here to always have with you on your photographic trips a spade and a good axe, the latter particularly will often be found a ‘friend in need’ when it is desirable to cut a small tree or remove a branch that would otherwise obscure some important point of your view. (101-102)
Human intervention to stabilize an agreed upon truth operates in predictable ways. We chip away at the rough edges of truth, shaping it to fit what we need at the time. There’s a selective, arbitrary, and culturally driven need to reshape the world for our purposes. In the 1920s chains were brought in to hold the face of the old man of the mountain together, and later cement and other prosthetics.
The old man’s face collapsed in 2003: nature injects its own arbitrary elements. People still make the pilgrimage to the White Mountains above Littleton, NH, and the souvenir vendors still do a brisk business.
The truth is out there.