Desirae Matherly

Overheard or read, the word feels like a dropped gauntlet. Even when wrapped in the self-effacement widely considered “objective,” the most objective thinker can be accused of contemplating her navel, or thinking too deeply about the academically arcane. Only utterly superficial thinkers are entirely immune from the charge, and those who write functionally, upon request, for pay. Aside from appointed tasks derivative of my academic context, I write for leisure, in idleness. I guiltily acknowledge my pleasure in writing essays.

Perhaps the navel is evidence of our original sin, male nipples and navel-free angels notwithstanding. My father compares useless things (and sometimes people) to “tits on a boar.” But we do not say that the navel is useless, though it becomes somewhat so after birth. We are born of a woman and suffer for it, and our mothers suffer for us, in the design of the first, best curse. Human difficulty is hypnotic, and this ubiquitous sign of our private origins has been a focus of mediation long before Buddha or Christ showed us better ways to be human. Born of women, both men undoubtedly had navels.

Navel-gazing as a criticism is most often applied to works that focus merely on the self and do not look out from it. There are many splendid writers through the centuries who have been able to write about the self without a charge of navel-gazing. My own guess is that this word has become a catchall term for any bad writing about the self, even indirectly, as when an academic falls too deeply into scholarly obsession. When people apply the term to their own writing, it has the cast of an embarrassed admission for writing about the self at all. Perhaps the problem that navel-gazing describes is more closely linked to questions about chronology in memoir, and the unfortunate predominance of linear narrative in places where it simply isn’t interesting. We all figure ourselves to have separate beginnings from that first obvious one charted as “birth,” and much bad writing is a catalog of those serial realizations—our awakenings, separations, losses, and humiliations.

As a way of establishing my own investment here, I admit to having been born mortal. My own navel is a bit squinched like an “s” turned on its side, owing to the roly-poly layers of my post-childbirth belly. But it is an “innie” which is said to be more common, a deep bowl like my mother’s when I’m reclined, though she has a dark line that runs between her navel and pubic bone that she confidingly called the “trail of passion” when we shared girl-talk years ago. I admired her markings, but being somewhat averse to belly buttons in general, I am grateful when I do not have to think about them much. Boyfriends and my former husband enjoyed poking their fingers into the perimeter of my navel, just to watch me squeal. As a result of my sensitivity, talking about the navel itself feels prohibitive to me, as if I’m giving it too much attention though it is in fact the life source of fetal-me, and at one time connected me to my mother’s body; the navel is properly considered the outer evidence for a former umbilical relationship. As Freud and others after him insisted, we are on a continual quest to move out of the “oceanic oneness” of the infant-mother relationship, and to eventually define ourselves as separate entities.

Once the physical cord is cut, the severance of many other cords will come. We say colloquially, “I cut the cord” with someone or something to denote leaving it all behind. But we might gaze at something or someone as we move away. The gesture is not unlike keeping relics of a past affair; in gazing, we may long to remain, just so. When we cannot cease staring into the absence, we run the risk of neurosis. We say of the gazer that he is listless, or that she stares too long at nothing.

Gazing isn’t all doom and gloom. The enchantment of a rare gem, the body of a beautiful human being, or a painting that arrests the viewer—all these are acceptable visual anchors. But if we gaze too long, to the point that we distract or annoy others, the word turns churlish and crude. Theorists write essays on “the Gaze” as an objectifying activity that the Imperial or Patriarchal eye undertakes on the unwilling subject, who, through the magic of gazing, is transformed into an object who cannot exhibit rationality corresponding to the gazer, the subject who merely looks. But we might argue that academic theorists represent a type of gazer, considering that they look so hard and so intently at an idea or a string of ideas, and are able to spend countless hours undertaking analysis.

The first time I watched The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, I was a teenager. My best friend’s father, a molecular biochemist and former hippie, directed my attention to the little brown character known as “Jeremy Hillary Boob, Phud.” He is the Nowhere Man that the Fab Four sing about, and until seeing the film I had always thought that “nowhere” meant “not successful” or “addicted to drugs and living in a basement.” There seemed to be nothing ironic about “sitting in his nowhere land/ making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” But my friend’s sometimes pedantic father indicated otherwise, pointing to the screen and muttering, “That’s us.” Though not the first time he’d recognized my sincere, fervent desire to be an intellectual, it was the first time he’d criticized it. At sixteen I was hardly ready to admit that serious reflection could take someone nowhere. But over the years I’ve watched the film in successive states of mind, increasingly convinced of his prophetic diagnosis.

As a way of proof, my linguistic navel being sometimes the Oxford English Dictionary, I find that the word “navel” is present in the language before the Normans, in our Old English word nafela, as in the sentence offered by the OED,

He genedde under ænne elpent þæt he hiene on þone nafelan ofstang.

(“He ventured under an elephant so that he stabbed it on the navel,” or something like that.) In this case, the “he” is a Roman, Minutius, rendered here in King Alfred’s translation of Orosius’s history. Joseph Bosworth wrote in his 1859 preface to King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of the Compendious History of the World by Orosius that St. Augustine convinced his friend Orosius to write a history which showed how much better the world was since Christianity had come along. But all of this history is considerably less important than the word nafela, which is the ostensible point of this digression. The “navel” of the elephant was an error on the part of our Anglo-Saxon translator, as argued by Stanley B. Greenfield in his 1986 text, A New Critical History of Old English Literature. The original Latin history states that Minutius hacked the “trunk” (Lat. manus) off of the elephant, effecting a different death than a “stab” in the navel might provide. But since Old English may not have had a word, nor a concept to include the elephant’s exotic proboscis (17th century, from Latin, “means of obtaining food”), nafela was close enough. In a manner that is now obsolete, navel also used to mean “umbilical cord,” so it is no great linguistic leap between these similarly shaped tubes. It has likewise not escaped my noticing that Minutius sounds a great deal like “minutiae.”

While pondering the word nafela, and realizing that there was in Greek a different word, omphalos, and in Latin umbilicus, I am pleasantly startled to see that our tongue has preferred to keep and not simply borrow the word-form that describes the “center” or “middle point” of who we are.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, drawn five years before the ominous year 1492, is an emblem of our proportionate relationship to the cosmos, with the navel as our middle point (Fig. 1).

Vitruvian Man

Vitruvian Man

Even then, his image was idealized and cannot correspond to me, nor to anyone else whose limbs gather up more variation than classical consistency permits. We see his image more correctly then as a symbol, as a map of the world with us at the center, and at the center of us, our mortality. All the more striking, then, that English maintains navel from its own hoard of words. Old Irish would have us say imbliu or imliu of our center point, which shares more in common with the Latin umbilicus when tumbled over the tongue softly. I’m more interested in the Germanic spectrum offered by Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, Middle Low German, Old High German, Middle High German, Old Icelandic, Swedish, and Danish . . . navla, naula, nauel, navele . . . naffel, naffele, nawel, nabalo . . . nabulo, napalo, nabel, nabele . . . Nabel, nafli, or navle.

In the early 19th century, historian Sharon Turner wrote extensively on what he considered a strong case for believing the Saxons to be descended from the Scythians. At the end of his 1827 essay titled “On the Asiatic Origin of the Anglo-Saxons,” he offers two hundred and sixty-two words taken from Persian, Zend, and Pehlvi (Indo-Iranian languages) that bear strong similarities to words of the same meaning in Anglo Saxon (Old English). Whether these provide evidence for what he calls “a primeval oneness of language among mankind” is speculative, though the best dictionaries include appendices of Proto-Indo-European words that are based on these same retrospective principles. On Turner’s list of words, nafel appears as a Persian cognate to the Anglo Saxon.

Though Sharon Turner’s histories are considered controversial, even a cursory study of what Marija Gimbutas termed “Old Europe” will show the migration of people from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe (classically part of Scythia) up into the reaches of Western and Northern Europe. Combining archaeology with linguistics, the “Kurgan Hypothesis” describes a mass, modulated migration ca. 4,000-1,000 BCE in four stages and three waves of expansion. Though there remains a great deal of skepticism surrounding what we can know about past languages and cultures (short of material artifacts)—based on what we observe about later languages, the fact of a general correspondence remains. Daniel Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary, which I have checked against other Indo-European language sites, offers the following linguistic map: Proto-Indo-European *(o)nobh-, which can be cross referenced with Sanskrit nabhila “navel, nave, relationship” as well as Avestan nafa, and Persian naf. Persian (known by speakers as Farsi), the official language of Iran and Afghanistan, among other countries in the Persian States. Having come so close to Babel, I have apparently arrived at the very end of what anyone can know about our linguistic beginnings.

One morning in the bathtub I reached for the soap and saw this printed on my son’s shampoo bottle: “Did you know? The Komodo Dragon is the largest living lizard and can grow to be over 10 feet long!” I was suddenly overwhelmed by how scientific and unambiguous the world had become around me. Once, when I was five, I was permitted to believe in dragons, of the sort that breathed fire and taunted castled moors. Now, there is only the slowing catalogue of new creatures we have discovered, and the escalating reality of their eventual, likely extinction. Daily the planet becomes more knowable, yet simultaneously, that knowledge less integrated with daily life, reduced to trivia and “fun facts.” The paradox—that objective information about the world can diminish the subjective knowledge each individual develops over the course of a lifetime about how one fits into the world—is terrifyingly insurmountable. My son faces an existence of stark fact without promise that he’ll be prepared to contemplate any of it. What’s worse, such contemplation is easily demeaned, so long as we have a word in our language that characterizes knowledge about the self as ineffectual, limited, and valueless to not only other people, but ourselves as well. As if there are not entire continents within us, new species of our interior selves that we had hitherto not recognized. As if these discoveries cannot entertain and inform other people who may not have the leisure to follow out the mind’s rambling course.

Why does anyone read personal essays at all if not to track an idea over varied and difficult terrain? Granted, when an essay seems to cover ground that I myself have already been over, and only manages to notice the same aspects of what appears to be my old path, I leave it quickly. Even then, if the essayist can charm me with her unique way of seeing and remarking, no matter if I’ve done the same myself, I can be won.

Those personal essays that come closest to the criticism raised by the term “navel-gazing” fail to venture far from the mundane and the trivial stories of private life. Certainly they fail to digress from talking about the self into what is infinitely more treasured: thoughts occasioned by the associative movement of the mind kept fitfully open. Digression is the primary method the personal essayist employs to push a narrative past mere linear reiteration. Digression opens an apparently closed room to the outside, or to other, more interesting rooms adjoining it. Here we find another paradox of human epistemology. Digression can be mistaken for spiraling absorption into a subject that on the surface appears to be the sort of navel-gazing that heavily intellectualized discourse is often accused of. Still, digression is criticized as anti-objective in scholarly writing. In literary pieces, digression can also fail, taking a reader too far from the central guiding aesthetic of an essay. And yet digression is utterly crucial for the vitality of a properly considered attempt.

Another aspect of the digression is quite active. The process is not a passive meander off and away from the original subject (in my specific case here, my subject of navel-gazing) but rather a constructed idea of such complexity that it bravely risks total collapse through a feat of style and skill. Following out a natural digression is rather like designing a social science survey, I’d imagine, or beginning to bind tones into keys and intervals having heard them first in a dream. Perhaps the sculptor feels similar pangs of orbit when she begins to circle the stone, and gauge its rough potential, as the engineer eyes the gorge and feels within him the will to calculate ratios and tensions of bridges.

I cannot know exactly what the feeling is like for people outside of my art, but I can attempt to bring us closer together. Perhaps this is why I feel so pained by words like “navel-gaze” and “tangent.” The latter is something used to describe something like a digression, but manages a connotation not nearly close enough. My students say that I “go on tangents” which means I talk about things not directly related to what they perceive as the subject matter. But how much can an eighteen-year-old college freshman grasp of subject matter, of associative breadth, in the context of a humanities course? I ask too, if I were a teacher of music, introducing what is assumed to be the most “intimate” of keyboard instruments, the clavichord, would my discussion of tangents not include the way this instrument holds the sound past its own strike? The tangent is a technical term, in music and in math. Up until now, I had known only about the latter. If you imagine a wave, and a geometric tangent line drawn against a point on the curve heading the same direction for a moment only, you have a visual text for what I mean (Fig. 2).

Descartes’s Tangent from On the Nature of Curved Lines in La Géométrie, excerpted here from The National Curve Bank

Descartes’s Tangent from On the Nature of Curved Lines
in La Géométrie, excerpted here from The National Curve Bank

Actually, I’m rather certain that I don’t know what I see here, so I call my mother and ask to speak to my younger sister, the almost-math major: “A tangent in mathematics is a differential to the original equation. It’s just an exercise.” Still, I’m not sure if I get it. “Look,” she says patiently, “a differential is just a variation. The tangent is the line drawn according to that differential.” When I press her further, she says “in geometry the tangent is used to describe different relationships” and “this is why calculus is important,” and then I’m lost, but also sure that I understand how my students feel when I say that the essay was properly conceived of as an attempt by the Renaissance master Montaigne. My sister has to go to work and cannot continue to walk my limited brain through the subtleties of understanding the value of a tangent to higher mathematics.

At a loss, orphaned by my one resource for understanding the tangent, some Internet searching leads me to the “National Curve Bank,” maintained by Professors Shirley B. Gray, Stewart Venit, and Russ Abbott. There I find a beautiful image of a tangent with an even more compelling description (Fig. 3).


The Logarithmic Spiral or the Equiangular Spiral, discovered by Rene Descartes in 1638. Excerpted here from The National Curve Bank

The Logarithmic Spiral or the Equiangular Spiral,
discovered by Rene Descartes in 1638. Excerpted here from The National Curve Bank


Certainly, I have never considered myself a mathematician, not even a student of the science, though in my recent years I have begun to see great artistry, of a divine sort, in the way mathematics can explain the contours of reality, and specifically, nature. The spiral has always been one of my favorite patterns, and I’ve written about it in other essays, in different contexts. But here my interest travels to what the authors of this website reveal about this image in Figure 3:

The investigation of spirals is known to date from the ancient Greeks.  The Spiral of Archimedes is the quintessential example.  Descartes discovered the Logarithmic Spiral, also know as the Equiangular Spiral in 1638 while studying dynamics.  Its special feature is that the curve cuts all radii vectors at a constant angle. Any radius drawn from the center O to any point of tangency P on the spiral will form the same angle between the radius and the tangent line. Thus, this curve features a property of self-reproduction. Jacob Bernoulli (1654 – 1705) was so fascinated by the Equiangular Spiral that he requested it be carved on his tombstone with the phrase “Eadem mutata resurgo” (“I shall arise the same, though changed”).

Truly, the spiral appears to travel in a circle, and such motion is considered to be little better than stationary in a world addicted to advancements and progress. Interestingly, the umbilical cord, the origin of our navels, is also rendered in most medical illustrations as a spiraling cord. The one vein carrying oxygenated blood is concentrically, spirally wrapped by the two arteries which return the deoxygenated blood back to the mother.

Below, in Figure 4, you can see our spiral source. Needless to say, I doubt that we accuse medical students of navel-gazing when they study the body so intently. Neither do we criticize the geometer or mathematician for lingering too long on tangents. Such attention, composed in stillness, transports us to places where we are indeed altered.


Fig. 4. The interior of the human womb, taken from Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body, published in 1918. This is his Figure 38, titled “Fetus in utero, between fifth and sixth months.”

Fig. 4. The interior of the human womb, taken from Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body, published in 1918. This is his Figure 38, titled “Fetus in utero, between fifth and sixth months.”

Returning to music, I discover something called the “tangent piano” which was an instrument very much like the clavichord except the tangent piano included an “escapement,” that is, the key is released from the string after having struck it. This is the type of sound that we are accustomed to from the piano nowadays, but 18th century listeners would have enjoyed something more variant; sharp tones whose pitches are clipped, but also those left sustained, or dampened. Still, it’s very difficult to grasp what is “tangential” about the tangent piano.

Research produces a simple explanation. The tangent is the vertical hammer that strikes the string when the key is depressed. In a clavichord, “the tangent remains in contact with the strings so long as the key in which it is imbedded is depressed” but in a piano, the “hammer is separate from its key and rebounds immediately after striking.” I read this in the section titled “The Piano” in the early part of Robert L. Marshall’s Eighteenth Century Keyboard Music, which indirectly explains why the clavichord is considered such an intimate instrument: “Unlike a clavichordist, a pianist cannot inflect pitch by varying finger pressure, but the piano mechanism’s greater leverage multiplies hammer velocity, vastly increasing maximum loudness.” In other words, the clavichord was capable of dynamic pitch, but at a very low volume. Further, I find an explanation of the difficulty associated with playing the tangent piano. Hit the keys too hard and “the shaft will jangle against the strings.” A touch too soft will make no sound. What at first seemed to explain the use of the word “tangent” here makes little sense. Clavichords have tangents and so do pianos. What makes the tangent piano so different? Later I run across a reference that uses Tangentenflügel interchangeably with “tangent piano.” In Edward L. Kottick’s A History of the Harpsichord, I’m told that “The tangent piano, or Tangentenflügel” was “probably invented by Franz Späth” and “perhaps as early as 1751.” Knowing that flügel means “piano” I’m suddenly driven to find out what tangenten means. In a dictionary of musical terms, I find that the German, French, and Italian languages derive this word tangente (sing.)/tangenten (plur.) from the Latin tangere, which means “to touch.” Now I see how music, math, and language can come together, through so many languages, converging on this most basic concept of contact.

C(arl) P(hilipp) E(manuel) Bach, the second son of J.S. Bach and a composer like his father, is believed to have intended many of his works for the tangent piano (which I now privately refer to as “the piano of touches”). Nevertheless, a friend and former colleague at the University of Chicago, a historian in 18th century musicology, hesitated when I emailed her about the tangent piano. I waited several hours for her response after she appeared baffled by my question. (My students are likewise baffled by my questions, which are often seemingly tangential, but still, I press on.)

Miklos Spanyi, a contemporary soloist of the tangent piano and other early instruments like the harpsichord and clavichord, is the preeminent scholar and revivalist of C.P.E. Bach’s works. C.P.E. Bach was a significant bridge between Baroque and Classical, or so I’ve read. J.S. Bach is now considered the superior (and more memorable) musician, but was becoming out-moded by new developments in music shown through the Rococo style. C.P.E. Bach, as the inheritor of his father’s gift, carried forth this patriarchal legacy. An oft-cited remark of Mozart’s, “He [C.P.E. Bach] is the father, we are the children” communicates much about the way one composer can emerge as central, but then also fall into neglect over the span of a few decades. Fashions come and go, but the innovations remain visible, so long as we permit ourselves this backward glance. But many people may disagree, and ask instead what the point may be of considering such old, antiquated forms of music and the limited instruments of the times.

What is possible of each instrument varies, and like that tangent that my sister attempted to explain, potential is the origin of an exercise, of an experiment. My attempt to hear a tangent piano led me to an obscure jazz artist known as Red Camp, who used the clavichord to record several startling pieces comprising his 1957 album The New Clavichord. In “Slow Slow Blues” the displacement of the hot, drizzling American South by the cold European crispness of the clavichord is reset by the slight, stuccoed drag of the low notes and the brightness of the upper registers. My ear is unexpectedly drawn up or down, and it is no doubt those very tangents, producing the lag between tones, that makes me not want to leave this music at rest. Perhaps this is also what writers mean by “intimacy,” in reference to the clavichord. My musicologist friend writes back with a link to a diagram of the inner workings of a keyboard and adds, “Very arcane. Doesn’t sound very different than a harpsichord.” And I guess she’s right. Perhaps I’ve been lost again, in a concentric spiral going nowhere. The Beatles echo in my background, “Doesn’t have a point of view/ knows not where he’s going to/ isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

Still, I insist that I know where I’m going and have known all along. The word “navel” in the OED is carried over the centuries from the obvious tactile indication (umbilicus) to the first use of the phrase relevant to navel-gazing we find, in Harper’s Magazine. An 1854 piece titled “Editor’s Easy Chair” which appears in the July issue is the first in-print English mention of navel-contemplation according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The editor George William Curtis, who was a public speaker and a political ally of education, discusses the irony of the editor’s life. The easy chair is not so easy, he argues, and of all things to be wishful for, one should not envy the editor’s place. In another segment of the essay he writes forlornly for the loss of his own enjoyment in all things literary and artistic, for instead, he must endure it all “with singular equanimity.” With all of the heaviness of Solomon he asks:

If you could have magic spectacles, which, by merely putting them on your nose, would reveal to you not only what seemed, but what truly was, would you accept them? If, over the cradle of your first-born, two fairies hovered, one with the rosy vail [sic] of doubt, and hope, and wondering human ignorance, and the other with the melancholy magic which, once touching the eyes, stripped all shows from the solemn substance, would you drop over your child’s eyes the vail, or touch them with the magic? Why, under the bloom of youth and beauty, should you wish to see the skeleton? Why in the rose’s heart, long to detect the worm? Why, through the warm ardor of first love, yearn to feel the shuddering forecast of coming coldness, neglect, despair, and death? To know, is the consuming ambition of man. But it is because a beneficent fate has laid him in the lap of mystery.

There are many other aphoristic phrases in this gem of an essay. “The apples of Sodom are grafted from the orchard of Eden” he writes, and by his drear assessment, I am not altogether sure the mantle of an editor is worth the pains of it, or that I will ever know anything much more about the world than I do now.  Curtis at his most acerbic is charming in the funniest portion of the essay before it tapers off into my disinterest. He launches a tirade against anonymous letters he receives from complainers, and I find myself laughing with him. From my own perspective, though anonymous rejection doesn’t sting any more, sometimes personalized typewritten ones do. One editor in particular once wrote to me, “As you say, you tend toward the ‘digressive’ and we tend toward more unified cohesive work.” Later that same editor asked for an extensive revision, and after I painstakingly complied with his specific directions, returned with a curt note: “we can suggest no revision that would make this piece work for us.” I was so disgusted with our interchanges that I ceased sending work to his journal. Curtis describes his sentiment toward angry anonymous letters in a way that satisfactorily communicates my own ire toward this editor: “he simply writes himself down an ass.” I’m uncertain about the image I’m supposed to entertain here, but I’ll take the more unpleasant.

As a matter of finishing what I’ve already begun, it was Curtis who first used contemplation of the navel as a means for describing the toil of his life as an editor. His coinage was not directed at anyone in particular, nor would any man or woman of letters have taken personal offense on behalf of an entire practice, I’m sure. It would have simply been a given that life for some people (who are not editors) includes producing more work for editors to read. By so doing we assume the time-honored designation of writer, somewhat self-serving but vociferous in claiming otherwise, else guilt-laden as I am and beholden to definition in order to set all worry aright. Curtis says it best in his own words:

Every man who has a theory or a plan whereby to benefit mankind, and to damage or not, as it chances, his own purse and reputation; every man who has contemplated his own navel until he is solemnly convinced that he has seen to the bottom of it; every man who, being unable to help himself, is cocksure that he can help the world; every man who is going to lecture, or sing, or act, or preach, or criticise, is sure to beg the good offices of the editor, and to expose himself, his spirit, and the secret of his projects, to carry his point of being announced to the public.

To this I add, every writer since who has referred to navel contemplation has wittingly or unwittingly paid homage to an overtaxed and jaded editor who meant to deride all writers as a group.

Almost one hundred years later, in 1952, Irish poet Louis MacNeice used the specific word “navel-gazer” for the first time in English print that can be tracked, and seven years later, in a book review written for The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Norman W. Bell used the term “navel-gazing.” Bell’s apparent coinage is satisfying to me in a variety of ways. He argues for a difference in the way Europeans and Americans understand social theory, and a larger context for his quote is indulged here for the sake of comprehension and sheer sympathy:

It seems to this reviewer that the main difficulty stems from a difference in orientation of European and New World Scholars. The former are more likely to be gentlemen concerned with the philosophical roots of their life [sic], a life that includes a strong dose of social responsibility. Contemporary Americans are inclined to regard such activities as navel-gazing, and to be more interested in the practical utility of models and specific operational techniques. They leave philosophical reflection to the philosophers, and when the philosophers do not take up the burden it remains undone, or is done by a few émigré Europeans and “deviants.” The gap between the social philosopher and technician is unfortunate for both.

I’m engaged by his remark here because I detect some contempt for what he imagines an American use of the concept (navel-gazing) to denigrate philosophers. As Bell points out, the benefit of an applied philosophy is not to be had as long as self-reflection is considered incompatible with action. His late mid-century assertion assumes that Americans limit themselves to models that have already been thought out for them ahead of time. Perhaps it is a leap to nonfiction prose, but sometimes I wonder if anything other than general or quantitatively composed nonfiction falls into the category of navel-gazing, depending on perspective.

In the Fall 2007 “From the Editor” portion of a literary magazine housed at a university in the American South, the managing editor tightropes across a ravine of insult when she writes:

And yet, we caution ourselves, the writers and readers of creative nonfiction, against navel-gazing, gratuitous attention to unimportant minutae [sic]. Who cares? In these pages we offer you a glimpse of why we care. The stories of [ . . .] exemplify the suppleness of the genre. They show its ability to poetically reflect on the world beyond the navel.

The imprecision of this editor’s complaint indicates to me a lack of understanding. I’m not sure if she’s trying to thin out submissions to the journal, or make a statement about what she thinks is different about the nonfiction that the journal accepts. More deeply, I feel what might be the sting of genre prejudices, which are not that uncommon, though I worry about such a slant in an editor. Her unwillingness to use a term such as “essay” or “vignette” or the always appropriate and satisfying “prose” —and instead to simply call them “stories”—perhaps pushes my criticism of her as an editor too far. I may meet her one day, and I hope she doesn’t punch me in the nose for calling her out.

To continue pressing the concept of professionalism with regard to how we conceive of or recognize writers of nonfiction, I have another example. (Would I call this an anecdote, or is that nomenclature reserved for oratory?) In a chance encounter with a visiting scholar, I was asked what it was that I “do.” I said “I write essays in a personal, literary style. My degree is in creative nonfiction.” She nodded her head, and with a thick accent assented, “Oh, so you don’t write about anything real,” as if she knew exactly what I meant. My face must have reddened because my colleagues were quiet, and no one laughed or jumped to my defense. It wasn’t that I expected anyone to clarify my profession, especially since perhaps those around me were still figuring out what I did when I wasn’t teaching. Since the scholar was very young, and not in her native language sphere, I tempered my response. Perhaps the “non” was confusing; enough American writers make the same mistake, writing about untruths and calling them memoir. I calmly responded, “if by ‘real’ you mean scholarly, then no, I suppose I don’t write in that direction.” At that moment the microwave beeped, and I grabbed my lunch and left. How could I in a brief moment defend what I knew to be true? That research takes me far away from myself only to bring me closer in?

Perhaps I have an inferiority complex about my discipline, but broadly considered, I am not a historian, a linguist, or a philosopher though I have written as all three. I am likewise no artist, though I paint, and no musician either, though I try to play the tenor recorder and have eclectic tastes from the antique to indie rock, which I write about frequently. Montaigne was a mayor, a nobleman, and had studied the law, but he would have misrepresented his true calling had he described himself in these terms only. What occupied him is what occupies me, though I am, alas, without title, servants, or manor.

Returning for a moment to Louis MacNeice, I hardly believe that he intended to insult anyone with his poetry. Not the man who wrote “Prayer Before Birth”:

I am not yet born, console me.

I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,

with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,

on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

And in the notable line from his poem “Didymus” in Ten Burnt Offerings that the OED records, I see no condemnation of creative writers, nor a tonal precursor to the disdain that naval-gazing has since attracted. He instead contrasts the India that the apostle known as “Doubting” Thomas, and later called “Thomas the Believer,” would have encountered when he began his mission there. What is clearer is what we understand immediately about this spiritual contrast. Thomas went from doubting to believing because he was allowed to “thrust his fingers into the wounds of God,” as described in the last line of MacNeice’s poem. What is philosophically rich is the suitability of Thomas for India. Having once needed direct evidence for his belief, he was sent to a place where spectacle and introspection could be mistaken as simple, blind faith.

Much of the writing in this poem is exquisite:

The bats like microbes stitch their hectic zigzag

Of black on black, of blind on blind, and dot

And carry and dot and carry and sizzle like seaweed

That reeks on the shore of the Infinite.

And then there are the unfortunate homophones in the third section that I wince at as I read, in each stanza these pairs too close to enjoy: sea/see, weight/wait, clime/climb, role/roll, rain/reign, sole/soul, sore/soar. And yes, I catch the “twinning” of these words to echo the title. (Didymus means twin in Greek, and Thomas was alleged to be Jesus’s twin for reasons still being debated. Note too, Tau’ma/T’oma is Aramaic for twin.) But this is not why I stopped at this poem. Instead, I read:

Caparisoned elephants and sacred bulls,

Crystal-gazers, navel-gazers, pedants,

Dazzling and jangling dancers, dazzling lepers,

Begging unfingered hands and mouthing eyes,

I hear the voice of the speaker, describing the India which “jinks and twitters too/Around her granite axis,” despite the work of Thomas. And I also hear the later questioning to which Thomas is put, as to whether he wishes to be elsewhere than under the pressure of saving the souls which are compared to “ants who thrust and haul the crumbs from Shiva’s table/ While Shiva’s foot, as he dances, hangs above them,/ Their life being merely between one step and the next.” But nowhere do I hear the raspy voice of one former journalist who during a smoke break at a nonfiction conference sneered navel-gazing in casual conversation (as if she’d just heard the word for the first time and was angling to use it in a context of her own invention.) My then-boyfriend and I retreated downstairs for coffee, and I listened wide-eyed while he fumed, citing the knotted, netted omphalos stone at Delphi as the Greeks’ first best reason for honoring the gods with self-reflection. The seeker would approach the oracle before venturing forth on any new undertaking, and far from being a practice of passive self-absorption, consideration of the world’s navel was the precursor to all reflective action. To achieve the same end, the Christian prays. The Buddhist stills her thought through meditation. Is God, or the emptiness of no-thing, not a center to consider? A source to consult? How far then have we come, that we dismiss deliberation before acting, and plunge headlong into profitless labor merely because we are averse to thinking?

Given the way I work, beginning in the morning and moving from each idea compulsively to the next, not being able to stop, you can imagine what a relief it is to have my child take me by the hand and say “Mommy? Will you tell me what this word means?” Otherwise there would perhaps be no end to my writing and thinking. I used to think that my navel and its invisible remnant created the same umbilical linkage joining my child to me, as if the cord went into my womb and connected my navel to my child’s. I suppose being pregnant and learning a little anatomy was the end of that grand illusion. Until that moment though, I believed I saw more keenly into what is possible by contemplating the source of one’s self: a pathway to the future along the same road. The mistake I made on the literal level is only matched by that made by true navel-gazers, I suppose, if there is someone who goes inside merely as a way to go, imagining that there is not a need to make the return trip out.

My essay draft nearly complete, written over the course of a single day, I decided to extract myself, take out the trash, and engage in practical utilitarian concerns. My mind still fixed on tangents, I didn’t notice when the screen door closed behind me with a bang louder than previous times. Due to the force, the hook locked itself and I stood in twenty-five degree Chicago winter on my rear porch, hair askew, in a thin short-sleeved shirt though it was February, with no means of getting back inside. My first thought was self-criticism for being too focused on writing, so much so that I had walked outside without a coat or keys and wound up stranded. I recalled the conventional wisdom of my childhood—that intellectuals have no common sense. Feeling chastised, I shivered my way to a neighbor’s back door and asked to use the phone. Returning from a walk, my ex-husband and young son rescued me, but for the rest of the day I felt cheated of an inspiration that had self-terminated. It was nearly a month later that I returned to this essay and began to travel the same course again.

I realize that I could have answered the question, What is navel-gazing?, so much more expediently had I not wandered, had I gone straight for the OED and summarily jettisoned my ancillary concerns. My mother reads my publications and later pleads with me to return to writing fiction; she cannot understand why I bother with true stories. For her, what I do is a wasteful expenditure of imagination. But to me, there is nothing more story-like than the history of a word or an idea, because in such a tale, real people (legendary and not fictional) vie to understand the truth forever and can be put into animated conversation with one another, even after death. In his famous letter to Francesco Vettori dated December 10, 1513, Machiavelli says similarly:

I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains what he has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation.

The Oxford English Dictionary affords me this same pleasure, in a different way. My conversants find themselves linked only in the ways they themselves first used a word in an original way. They set the course for language to happen after them. In part I understand appeals to keep words free, but then I make it a habit to closely monitor the evolution of definitions, priding myself on understanding the mysteries of their generations. For this reason, I urge that the concept of navel-gazing be considered carefully, and not be used too flippantly to criticize the writing of individuals, and certainly not be applied to an entire genre or academic specialty. Likewise navel-gazing should not be used to belittle the work scientists or philosophers undertake, though the phrase “castles in the air” works as a criticism of certain types of philosophizing that is detached from action, and in a way that is less personally offensive, or linguistically irresponsible than the term “navel-gazing.” To criticize all personal writing as navel-gazing is to admit ignorance of the essay as a mode of being; someone equipped with a truly diverse critical vocabulary would not use the term. An editor worth her salt would not resort to such a blanket assessment, but would chisel away at a descriptive rejection. In nearly every context, the word fails as a precise, etymologically grounded, literary term.

Still, there is no sure method for teaching critical intuition. My students ask, How to end? I cannot answer. Always this question. You’ll know, I say. How to break the tether, the sustaining note held past its own meaning . . . The placenta, I read, is gelatinous. Called “Wharton’s Jelly,” the placenta closes itself naturally given roughly five minutes. But we clamp the cord or the father cuts it, arbitrarily beginning our separation from the weightless womb, and creating this stump to remind us of whence we came, impatient to be free of it.


Desirae Matherly teaches writing at Tusculum College, and serves as nonfiction editor for The Tusculum Review. Her most recent work appears in Hotel Amerika, TriQuarterly, and After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays. Four of her published essays have made the Notable list in Best American Essays, and one essay was anthologized in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 2. Desirae earned a Ph.D. in creative nonfiction from Ohio University in 2004 and is a former Harper Fellow at The University of Chicago.