Possibility

In preparing for the Honors class I teach today, I was rereading Mark Browning’s Haunted by Waters: Fly Fishing in North American Literature (Ohio University Press, 1998). Reading a work for a second or third time almost always reveals new passages of significance.  Today, I came across the following:

Ultimately, it seems, the best answer to the question why humans feel compelled to fish is that they fish in order to ask the question. Fishing is, by its nature, an uncertain and interrogatory endeavor, By engaging in this endeavor–or in writing, composing, painting, or any of a hundred other pursuits–the angler moves out of the realm of the known an into a creative realm of questions. (131).

This passage has significance to my class because we are exploring the reasons why there is such a large body of English-language literature devoted to angling and why so much of that literature has a religious theme.

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Some rods I shared with my students today.

Many authors of angling literature fished for food. Yet, even Dame Juliana Berners, the ostensive nun and author of the 15th c. A treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle, suggests there is much more to angling than catching fish. For the angler who fails to procure her or his dinner with an artificial fly, Berners identifies several other benefits to trying:

And yet as the least he hath his holsome walke and mery at his ease, sweet ayre of the sweet sauour of the medow floures that maketh him hungry. He heareth the melodious armony of foules. He seeth the yonge swans, herons, duckes, cootes, and many other foules with their broodes, whyche me semeth better then all the noyse of houndes, the blastes of hornes, & the scry of foules, that hu[n]ters, faukeners, & foulers ca[n] make. And if the angler take fyshe: surely then is there no ma[n] meryer then he is in his spirite.

Browning, and other authors too, imply that a primary benefit of fishing is the sense of possibility that is part of each angling trip. This is the same sense of possibility that every reader feels when she or he begins a new book or rereads an old one. This is the sense of possibility that is represented by every blank page before the writer, every blank canvas before the artist, and so on. Most important, it the sense of possibility–of mystery even–that every religious person confronts through ritual and that some of us find in fly fishing.[1]

[1] Here I am thinking of Rudolf Otto’s concept of Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

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