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

Recent critical approaches to the open secret have generally echoed...popular skeptical diagnoses in their tendency to read the figure as one of disavowal—a denial that does not so much abandon as put its object in reserve—or as an ideological trick ensuring the neutralization, containment, and uneven distribution of the power supposed to come with knowledge. In post-Marxist, psychoanalytically informed ideology theory, the "open secret" becomes a trope for the implicit workings of ideology itself—for the way in which the ideological not only gains assent without show of force and polices imagination without explicit censorship, but occupies the space of the blank page from which it can produce a consensus that no actually written document could ever yield.

Anne-Lise François, Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience, 2008.

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.

[T]he phenomenon of the ‘open secret’ does not, as one might think, bring about the collapse of ... binarisms [such as private/public, inside/outside, subject/object] and their ideological effects, but rather attests to their fantasmatic recovery.

D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police, 1988. Quoted in Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet, 1990.

1. The spinster's shell

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

“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

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.

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

I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.

Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother's children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.

Song of Solomon 1:5–6 (King James Version).

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

William Blake, "The Little Black Boy."

What signals this experience? His black skin. Or so his mother tells him. He has experienced, intensely on his skin, the burning rays of God’s own love. He’s burned black. And so his blackened skin is the sign of “bearing” God, which of course requires (and also fashions) strength.

Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, 2009.

I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father’s knee.

William Blake, "The Little Black Boy."

Cottolene trade card depicting a happy black girl in a cotton field

Cottolene trade card, 1890s. This image is one of Robin Bernstein's key examples in Racial Innocence (2011): the girl, bareheaded in the cotton field, is depicted as happy, at home, and impervious to the sun's heat.

If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process:

     — primarily, economic;
     — subsequently, the internalization—or, better, the epidermalization—of this inferiority.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, trans. Markmann, 1952/1967.


How do you plan the shape of your stanzas? I am thinking of the poems, usually syllabic, which employ a repeated stanza form. Do you ever experiment with shapes before you write, by drawing lines on a page?


Never, I never “plan” a stanza. Words cluster like chromosomes, determining the procedure.

Donald Hall, “Marianne Moore, The Art of Poetry No. 4,” Paris Review, Summer-Fall 1961.

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

Marianne Moore, “Marriage,” 1924.

Reacting against the constitutionalist tendency of the late nineteenth century, Freud insisted that the individual factor be taken into account through psychoanalysis. He substituted for a phylogenetic theory the ontogenetic perspective. It will be seen that the black man's alienation is not an individual question. Beside phylogeny and ontogeny stands sociogeny.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, trans. Markmann, 1952/1967.

If external action is effete
      and rhyme is outmoded,
          I shall revert to you,
     Habakkuk, as on a recent occasion I was goaded
               into doing by XY, who was speaking of unrhymed
This man said—I think that I repeat
     his identical words:
          'Hebrew poetry is
prose with a sort of heightened consciousness.' Ecstasy
               the occasion and expediency determines the form.

Marianne Moore, "The Past is the Present," 1915.

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