Jakob von Uexküll epigraph

Jakob von Uexküll’s epigraph at the beginning of Xanther’s second chapter “Dr. Potts” (pg 178) is: “We must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles…” This quote is from Von Uexkull’s article “A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men”. The excerpt is relating to his theory of Umwelt, which is the idea that every human and animal exists in its own environment and even though those environments are often shared each creature experiences its own individualistically; the term translates to something like “self-centered world”. The rest of the quote (which is not included in the epigraph in the book) continues “…the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being. Through the bubble we see the world of the burrowing worm, of the butterfly, or of the field mouse; the world as it appears to the animals themselves, not as it appears to us. This we may call the phenomenal world or the self-world of the animal.” First off, Danielewski cuts the quote off right before the words “The Familiar” which is just his own playfulness. More than that though, the concept that von Uexkull is talking about applies in a really interesting way to this chapter and to Xanther as a whole. This is the chapter that Xanther is talking to her psychologist and we get to see the larger impact that her disability has on her life. We get to see how Xanther experiences the world. In other words, we experience Xanther’s Umwelt. We step into her bubble (orb?) and see the world through it (like the worm/butterfly/mouse in von Uexkull’s quote). This is our foundation for empathy for her and her family’s life, which is the reason the Xanther/Anwar/Astair chapters were so captivating; this is the story we’re invested in. Again, Danielewski is challenging how we read novels. Despite the very little plot or action, we become totally engaged in Xanther’s life because he allowed us into her bubble (orb) and we can see the struggle for this precious little 12 year old girl who gets trapped in her own mind. The book doesn’t allow you just to read it as an observer – it forces you to become a participant, and that’s the literary genius of it.

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One response to “Jakob von Uexküll epigraph”

  1. trinalazzara says :

    You’ve made a very interesting connection here, especially considering Uexküll’s implication that the “self-world of the animal” is inherently unfamiliar to us. The layout of The Familiar embodies the umwelt theory; its many vernaculars and cultural references force us to adapt to understand each character, and even then we can only understand them from the outside. Yes, we are invited to participate in the novel to make sense of Xanther’s struggle, and to a certain point we *can*, but there is still a degree of separation in that we cannot *be* her. We must look up words; we must make associations; we must imagine.

    I also love the idea of the bubble as an orb (I discussed this in my essay for our class at UCSB). As Bobby says, the Orb allows only a “quasi-confirmation” of events (654). Despite VEM’s capacity for almost supernatural recording/imaging, every visual Cas sees is still like a surveillance video; VEM cannot record from inside its subjects’ heads, at least not as far as we know. This inability to convey true experience is manifested in the page layout as well; the Orb is both a hole in the page and a convex sphere of words whose interior, like the interior “self-worlds” of the characters, remains hidden.

    The ideal step into a soap bubble, in my opinion, would be to find a way to record and translate neural activity into some kind of virtual reality game that lets us replay memories in our own brains and *feel* them from another point of view. To a very, very small extent we have started this mind-reading process (e.g. http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/09/22/brain-movies/), but since memory is so quick to deteriorate–and so grounded in rewriting and reimagining–accurate data might forever be impossible. Even if it was, I doubt many people would have access to that kind of footage, considering how expensive it would likely be.

    With that in mind, stories, films, etc. seem to be our best shot at mediating experience. As much as it is an apparatus, language is all we have. Books might be biased, or “risky” as Kle says, but “maybe some risks are worth the taking” (257)–and maybe we don’t have a choice.

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