We came to know air indirectly, by its visible signs. The stuff itself is as elusive as the atmosphere of a gothic novel
On a weirdly muggy night in southern California, I sink into Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Although the Dickensian fog rises from a field of printed characters, it envelops and penetrates me as if it had passed through a medium more sensuous than written words.
The modern imagination longs to be in the grip of that nebulous, peripheral quality of writing that we call ‘atmosphere’. And yet, at least in its literary form, we know very little about it. ‘Atmosphere’ hovers about — indeed seems to rise from — such features of the narrative terrain as character, plot, even setting. Descriptions of the weather signal its presence (It was a dark and stormy night), as do such staples of Gothic fiction as the creaking hinge, the clicking latch, the disembodied melody (provenance unknown). It has something to do with mood and voice, with induced states the specific causes of which are diffuse, neither known nor shown. Because ‘atmosphere’ tends to dissolve the borders between the ordinary senses, depriving them of specific objects that can be located, critics of poetry have identified it with pre-verbal, synaesthetic patterns of flow between mother and infant. Otherwise? ‘Atmosphere’ eludes. ‘Analysis cannot hope to do anything but ignore it,’ the poet-critic William Empson concluded in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). ‘And criticism can only state that it is there.’
There is also atmosphere in the natural world, of course, and we ignore it at our peril. It is not enough simply to ‘state that it is there’. Why is it muggy now in the California desert? What is happening to our amnion of air? How much have we contributed to the atmospheric changes that permeate our bodily, mental, social, even moral lives? It might seem frivolous to turn to the effects of language, let alone to those of fiction, for some traction on these questions. But for the sake of experiment, why not?