Why the Doily?

Aristotle, Elizabeth Bishop & the Work of Preservation

Human virtue, according to Aristotle, is found somewhere in the middle ground between two extremes. For the virtue of courage in particular—which Aristotle defines as the possession of the right amount of fear at the right time—the extremes to avoid are cowardice (too much fear) and rashness (too little). There are some things it behooves one to be afraid of: loss of reputation, harm to one’s family. There are other things worth conquering one’s fear to face. Exactly where on the spectrum between cowardice and rashness the courageous person should fall will vary from instance to instance, and from person to person. Some days bring more legitimate reasons to be fearful than others; some challenges are more easily surmounted by you than by me, depending on temperament, strength, health, and other factors. The virtuous person must constantly weigh his or her own ability against the needs of the present moment. Thus, virtue for Aristotle requires both firm character and a keen sense of perception.

For obvious reasons, Aristotle does not address the effects of mass media on our ability to calibrate our individual courage-barometers in The Nicomachean Ethics. But if I had to take a guess, I’d say that cable news and the internet are skewing our sense of when to be afraid, and of what. It sometimes feels as if everywhere one looks these days, one sees disaster and disruption. The former is decried, the latter lauded; neither seems stoppable.

One healthy corrective to an age of constant disruption might be to celebrate—and before that, to acknowledge—the mostly non-telegenic work of preservation. The word “innovate” comes from the Latin prefix in- (meaning “into”) and verb novare (“to make new”). Its exact opposite is not “conserve”—which is just as well, given the political weight that “conserve” has been made to carry—but rather “preserve,” from the Latin prae- (“before, in advance”) and servare (“to keep”). Not making something new, but keeping safe what came before. The work of preservation is often harder to see than the work of innovation and disruption, and therefore less likely to receive praise. There are many jobs—perhaps most—in which only mistakes stand out. If all goes well, no one ever realizes just how much effort went into keeping things running smoothly. Consequently, it takes more than a quick glance to see the work of preservation, although the effort of looking is amply rewarded in the end.

Perhaps no poem captures this phenomenon—of preservation, and what it takes to see it—better than Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station,” which chronicles a quick stop at a small, family-run gas station. “Oh, but it is dirty!” the speaker exclaims in the first line, as she takes in the black sheen of oil that seems to cover all surfaces, from the walls and windows to the ill-fitting coveralls of the owner and his sons and even a “dirty dog, quite comfy,” asleep on a “grease-impregnated” wicker sofa. As the speaker’s eyes continue to move across the station, stanza by stanza, two things happen.

First, the perspective changes. At the United States Military Academy, where I teach, there is a venerable tradition of asking cadets to stand during class—in part, I’m sure, because there is also a venerable tradition of cadets never managing to get enough sleep—and do work at the blackboards that cover all four walls of a West Point classroom. When first-year cadets and I read “Filling Station” this past spring, I asked them to “take boards” and draw the gas station. They did, some quite well. In the process, they couldn’t help but notice how the poem progressively zooms in. The first stanza describes the station as a whole; the second focuses on people; the third on the sofa; and by the fourth, we can see individual hairs standing out on the stem of “a big hirsute begonia” sitting on top of a doily, which is itself atop a low drum-shaped table called a taboret. 

Second, the speaker begins to ask questions. Both her eagle-eyed gaze and this pattern of questioning can be seen in the last two stanzas:

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

“Why, oh why, the doily?” is one of my favorite lines in all of English literature, not least because once it is rattling around in one’s brain, one is free to spot other doilies in the wild. There’s actually one in the main classroom building at West Point, which female cadets at least can appreciate: a vase of fake flowers in the fourth-floor women’s room, gratuitously brightening an otherwise gray and windowless space. The best I’ve come across so far was a fanciful soap bottle—at least I think that’s what it was—shaped like a high heel, with red silk roses suspended in amber liquid, prominently displayed on a shelf in, of course, a gas-station bathroom in Indiana.

“Why, oh why, the doily?” is one of my favorite lines in all of English literature

“Why, oh why, the doily?” is also a line that might serve one well if one were, say, asked to apprehend a military-aged male in Afghanistan, or wherever we will be when the cadets I taught last semester are commissioned in three years. As I understand it, the places in which we fight our current conflicts are filled with dust and subject to the smells that arise from the breakdown of order, when water doesn’t flow, garbage isn’t collected, and refrigeration systems go down with the power grid. But surely there are plants, and crafts, and signs of love to be found there too.

Given the number of cadets who wrote about “Filling Station” on their final exams, I am hopeful that the image is still rattling around in their minds, too, at least for now. The speaker’s “noticing of details,” a cadet named Jackson observed, is also a noticing of “the care and effort the family living at the filling station are putting into making their home neat and organized.” Things like the doily and the plant “take time to set up and maintain,” another cadet, Nathan, pointed out. (The succulents currently dying in my office would agree.) The noticing of details becomes, almost involuntarily, an exploration of motive. The feminine touches point to an unseen mother, but the wonderful multivalency of literature allows the last line to mean, with equal plausibility and simultaneously, both “Everyone has a mother” and “Everyone is loved by God.”

The reminder proves contagious. As the speaker’s view shifts from surface to depth—the men are greasy, she sees, but loved; the dog is dirty, but loved; the doily is gray with the mist of falling oil, but like the cosmos itself it is made and sustained out of love—her tone softens. She shifts from being an impatient, dismissive observer of the scene before her to a curious, compassionate interlocutor. The wry joke about oiling the plants stops the poem from shifting too far in the other direction, into the realm of the saccharine. I see it as directed more at the speaker’s own hasty initial judgment than at the family’s inability to keep the house perfectly clean.

Another cadet, Amira, agreed: “The poem illustrates the human tendency to judge someone or something before really knowing it on a deeper level.” Luckily, Denali added, it also illustrates the solution to this problem, by showing us how “not to look so judgmentally at the things we see from a distance.” “Too often we overlook the little things people do for others to make their lives better,” wrote Malik, when a closer look reveals the work of preservation to be unceasing. “No matter how hopeless or unlovable someone or something may seem, there’s always someone who loves it,” wrote Jordan. Nicole channeled the Psalms: “Even in darkness, there is light.” Lauren’s response also made sense of the poem in religious terms: “‘Filling Station’ is such a wonderful, encouraging, and redeeming poem because it communicates to the reader that someone, somewhere cares. We all matter to someone.”

Finally, two cadets pointed out something that I’d never really noticed before—the way the cans seem to sing, and to soothe. As Davis pointed out, every object has a “backstory.” The clothes you’re wearing, the chair you’re sitting on as you read this, and much else around you were made by human hands. Machines were likely involved, too, but even so, somewhere there were people.

Noticing the work of preservation, like virtue, demands that you pay close attention to the details of your surroundings. But any effort this requires is more than repaid in the resulting feeling of being grounded, connected, and upheld. Nearly every time I’ve asked cadets to draw “Filling Station” on the board, at least one group completes their picture by drawing a heart around the whole gas station and everyone in it. Even the reader is somehow included in Bishop’s consoling message.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Latin word for “heart,” cor, is at the center of our English word “courage.” The poem reminds us not just to look closely, but to have heart.

Published in the November 10, 2017 issue: 

Cassandra Nelson is a visiting professor of English at the United States Military Academy, where she teaches courses on composition, literature, drama, and the novel. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Also by this author
The Liar's Wife

Please email comments to editors@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads