The Cell, the Shell, and the Death Drive; or, Marianne Moore and the Open Secrets of the Natural World


We know perfectly well that to inhabit
a shell we must be alone.

— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1958

Ernst Haeckel, aestheticized drawings of various sea shells from Kunstformen der Natur

1. The spinster's shell

“She often told herself it was folly, before she could harden her nerves sufficiently to feel the continual discussion of the Crofts and their business no evil.”

“Anne herself was become hardened to such affronts.”

“Anne found herself by this time growing so much more hardened to being in Captain Wentworth’s company than she had at first imagined could ever be, that the sitting down to the same table with him now, and the interchange of the common civilities attending on it—(they never got beyond) was become a mere nothing.”

Jane Austen, Persuasion, 1819.

This institution,
perhaps one should say enterprise
I wonder what Adam and Eve
think of it by this time,
this fire-gilt steel
alive with goldenness;
how bright it shows—
"of circular traditions and impostures,
committing many spoils,"
requiring all one's criminal ingenuity
to avoid!

Marianne Moore, “Marriage,” 1924.


            spruce-cone regu-

            this ant and
stone swallowing uninjurable

            the Thomas-
of-Leighton-Buzzard Westminster Abbey wrought-iron vine

Marianne Moore, “The Pangolin,” 1936.

            spruce-(cone (regu-

      this (ant and
stone swallowing

                  the (Thomas-
(Westminster Abbey (wrought-iron (vine)))

Marianne Moore, “The Pangolin,” 1936.

[U]nder the name of style a self-sufficient language is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the author’s personal and secret mythology....Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical: it is the writer’s ‘thing,’ his glory and his prison, it is his solitude.

Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, 1953/1967.

To resist marriage, to remain flexible, she had to be...hard as the armored animals that flocked into her poetry as she got older, protecting herself from the surrounding pressures: she would not marry; she would not give up her options. Neither would she, when she could help it, write as a woman any more than as a man; and so one of her forms of courage in Observations is to write virtually without gender. There is nothing wrong with that; after all, it is what many men do all the time. She is merely claiming as her own one of the privileges of the male.

Thom Gunn, "Three Hard Women: H. D., Marianne Moore, and Mina Loy," 1988.

2. Irritation

If yellow betokens infidelity,
     I am an infidel.
          I could not bear a yellow rose ill will
          because books said that yellow boded ill,
     white promised well.

However, your particular possession,
     the sense of privacy,
          indeed might deprecate
          offended ears, and need not tolerate

Marianne Moore, “Injudicious Gardening,” 1915 (originally published as "To Browning").

cover of Benjamin Kahan's monograph Celibacies

Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Duke University Press, 2013.

With Miss Moore a word is a word most when it is separated out by science, treated with acid to remove the smudges, washed, dried and placed right side up on a clean surface.

William Carlos Williams, "Marianne Moore," 1925.

cover of Anne Cheng's monograph Second Skin, depicting a photograph of Josephine Baker overlaid by the image of a brick skyscraper

Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Two modern surfaces: Adolf Loos's Villa Müller (Prague), wrapped in plain cladding, and a photograph of Josephine Baker, styled to shine.

cover of Sianne Ngai's monograph Ugly Feelings, depicting a frog-man and a woman whose skirt is made of tiny, grumpy-looking creatures

Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press, 2005.

3. Further shells

Let us picture a living organism in its most simplified possible form of an undifferentiated vesicle of a substance that is susceptible to stimulation. Then the surface turned toward the external world will from its very situation be differentiated and will serve as an organ for receiving stimuli. Indeed embryology, in its capacity as a recapitulation of developmental history, actually shows us that the central nervous system originates from the ectoderm; the grey matter of the cortex remains a derivative of the primitive superficial layer of the organism, and may have inherited some of its essential properties. It would be easy to suppose, then, that as a result of the ceaseless impact of external stimuli on the surface of the vesicle, its substance to a certain depth may have become permanently modified, so that excitatory processes run a different course in it from what they run in the deeper layers. A crust would thus be formed which would at last have been so thoroughly ‘baked through’ by stimulation that it would present the most favourable possible conditions for the reception of stimuli and become incapable of any further modification.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920.

4. The cell

leaf from Marianne Moore's 1908 lecture notes

Facsimile page from Marianne Moore's biology lecture notebook, 1908. Rosenbach Museum and Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, MM VII: 05: 04, Lecture Notebook 1251/24, l. 37.

Left to right: Edmund Beecher Wilson (PhD Johns Hopkins, 1881), Thomas Hunt Morgan (PhD Johns Hopkins, 1890), Nettie Maria Stevens (PhD Bryn Mawr 1903).

Grace Kellen is in Biology but she doesn’t know me. She is very attractive[,] much more so than [her sister] Ruth.

Marianne Moore to John Warner Moore and Mary Warner Moore, October 1905. Marianne Moore VI: 11b: 09, Rosenbach Museum and Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

5. Open secrets; or, the present

the spiked hand
that has an affection for one
and proves it to the bone.

Marianne Moore, “Marriage,” 1924.

I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren't actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don't already know?

Eve Kosofsky Sedwick (quoting Cindy Patton), "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You," 2003.

Sean Spicer: “I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly, ‘They may have been phony in the past, but it's very real now.’”

Ernst Haeckel, aestheticized drawings of various sea shells from Kunstformen der Natur