How to Catch a Minnow

Emily Ogden asks how to love in conditions of uncertainty.

Part of Out of Focusseries exploring ways to traverse the fog of unknowingness and indeterminacy.




how to catch a minnow

The world burns, yet the fire is not bright enough to read a map by. Nor am I mostly reading. I am still sweeping the dirt out of the corners and intercepting my children’s arms halfway through the act of smashing a glass on the stone ground. I am still trying to use fruit before it rots. The light flickers.

           Revelation is no common thing. When it comes, it rarely lasts. It is not necessarily present at the end of the world. How to love, what to do, in the dim times? These are the questions of On Not Knowing.

           From the Book of Revelation in the Bible, most people remember the apocalyptic prophecy. But the book begins with ordinary failures. A sword-mouthed being dictates John the Revelator’s letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. The angel scolds Pergamum for worshipping false idols. He tells Sardis, “Wake up.”1 In the letter to Ephesus, he complains: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”2 

           Before the end of the world, even while the world is ending, the Book of Revelation concerns itself with dailiness, as though there were a close relationship between the lightning strike and the dimness into which it subsides. The world has mundanity, duration, bullshit. Many nonsense tasks must be completed; false spirits must be tried and rejected; long periods pass in which nothing illuminating happens. Write to Sardis and tell them it can never add up. Write to Pergamum and tell them, you still have to hold your children, fetch them tissues, and find boxes for their caterpillars.

           Leviathan threatens. Mostly I see minnows.

           “Looking for the fossilized, for something—persons and places thick and encrusted with final shape,” writes Elizabeth Hardwick; “instead there are many, many minnows, wildly swimming, trembling, vigilant to escape the net.”3 A person can want a clear view and not get it; a person can believe decisive action is required and yet not know how to begin. “I would up heart, were it not like lead. But my whole clock’s run down; my heart the all-controlling weight, I have no key to lift again.”4 So says Starbuck, the first mate of the Pequod, in Moby-Dick, overmatched by the tyranny of Ahab. Unfitness to pursue our research in the unfathomable waters; unfitness to act too. To see the encrusted form might be best, but to attend to the minnows as they present themselves is better than to feign a monumental vision and live by it. In this book, I try to resist the temptation to turn away from things as I find them—blurry, quicksilver, unhandsome.

           At the edge of a midsummer river, a handful of minnows hangs in the bright brown light. Their silver noses point toward the branch that shelters them from the current. They hover with the busy motionlessness of bees. Minnows call the hand. Without decision, my arm darts out. The fish sense my intention propagating itself toward them. They have lateral line organs that permit them to feel, as a kind of matrix, the motions of others in the water. They are gone so fast it is as if their leaving caused my fingers to touch the river, and not the other way around.

           It is troublesome enough to catch a single minnow in a stream; now imagine a whole school of herring, radiating silver from every point. Massive schools may improve the odds of survival for any individual fish, although it is not clear why. It might be the case that marine predators struggle to focalize upon a single fish among many. It is not that they are bad at focusing, but that they are too good at it. Their targeting capacity is too easily triggered; the impulse to fix every fish in their sights prevents them from sighting a single one completely. They start to fix their eyes on one. Before they have even begun, they get distracted by another one and try to focus on it instead. The process is never complete.5

           A human being, also a predator, will find it impossible to keep an eye on one starling in a flock of thousands. Conceptual efforts stumble in the face of the world’s vast calamitous tides. Nonetheless, it is human beings who, in the aggregate, have set those tides on foot. No act, no failure to act, no use or squandering of resources that does not mark me as the author of another’s destruction. Orca-like, I can’t focus; minnow-like, I respond unthinkingly to the fact of others’ turning. In the execution of my acts, I entail action on others in my turn. As difficult as it is for me to think one thought among a proliferation of thoughts, I would appear to be, at the same time, effortlessly prolific in my complicity. My school has destroyed a planet.

           Unknowing is on every side of the predicament. Unknowing is there in the terminal flight into frozen innocence with which some of us try to protect ourselves from knowledge of our culpability. Unknowing is there, too, in the uncertainty one may feel when confronted with the problem of how to repair the damage. And unknowing will still be there if one finds a way to live that one can live with. For the few fish captured, many more will escape the net.

           If there is a kind of unknowing that could serve now, it is not the defensiveness of willful ignorance but the defenselessness of not knowing yet. Can a person go back to the unpruned adjectives of immediate experience? Before one summed up this moment in history, what, exactly, was it? What, lying under the summary—what, swimming chaotically beneath any pretense of certainty—what, before the predator’s eye confounded itself—what was it, what does it continue to be? When I talk about unknowing, I am not talking about the refusal to know what can be known, or about the simple accident of not having found something out yet, nor even, although this is warmer, about the fact that we will each absorb only a finite amount of knowledge in the course of our finite lives. Instead, I am talking about a capacity to hold the position of not knowing yet— possibly of not knowing ever. I’m talking about living with the dimness that I will mostly inhabit.

           A person might object, but what is so difficult about that? Surely my daily labors, my uncertainties, and my limitations will all be more than sufficiently forced upon me, without my going in search of them. But I am not sure this is true. It seems to me that instead, the moments of angelic clarity tend to overrepresent themselves in my mind. It seems to me that a person might be tempted to live by these moments too much; one might hold too hard to them, wanting to have scales forever falling from one’s eyes and lightning forever striking. It seems to me that counterfeiting final shapes and holding to them is a temptation.

           I do not think I am unduly skeptical about moments of heightened experience. Like most people, I can point to a handful of them in my life. There was the rocketing of an owl; the surfacing of a whale; eye contact with a bluegill or a poet, across a line; good sex; the wish for sex with one particular person; and forced sex too; and the advent of danger, such as a copperhead on the asphalt path, or my three-year-old child slipping, with the small obscene splash of Breughel’s Icarus, from the dock into the pond, his father following quicker than my sluggish thought to surface him, coughing, sobbing; the child aware despite our studied nonchalance that something he had not known that he possessed had been at stake: his life.

           It is true that our lives can be at stake in moments of breakthrough. These moments often change us, sometimes against our will. Other times they change us with our will; perhaps we even will the change too hard. Our problem as we see it is how to get bound securely enough. How, we ask ourselves, can we constrain ourselves so tightly that we will never abandon the love we had at first? How can we wake up, and stay that way?

           It can be good to attend to moments of passion, clarity, revelation, ecstasy, discovery. It can be good to listen to warnings. But it is in the nature of these moments to slip away. Lightning flashes are brief. In any attempt to bind these moments, there is a risk. These attempts can leave us living by and bound by something, yes, but not by the surprise that broke over us once; by, instead, an impoverished version of that surprise: less threatening, but also less nourishing. As the psychoanalyst and philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle writes, “this is perhaps the danger of ‘eventness’; the temptation would perhaps be to outsource the process, to posit the most perfect horizon possible, to recreate the whole protocol, the conditions of the happening of the event, and thereby, in fact, essentially to repress it.”6 In my very attempt to be durably changed by something, to incorporate it into my life in a lasting way, to routinize it, I abandon the love I had at first. And worse, I proof myself against the breaking of a new love—or against the resurgence of the old one. Bathed in klieg lights, I am underwhelmed by lightning; I do not notice lightning bugs at all.

           In this book, I look for my cure in my blurriest, fleetest experiences; the ones, like childbirth and the care of small children, that most constrain me to admit I am living an unilluminated and unmonumental life. I want to look at these trembling things and not only at the monumentalities soliciting my attention. I want to capture something of the experience of dread, guilt, and an almost erotic lassitude that besets me. On one side the ghastly spectacles of sin and sovereignty; on the other the child heroes and the saints; at my feet the dailiness and the mediocrity and the quicksilver evasiveness of the minnows, swimming straight out from my body through the middle of things, as I time loads of laundry, manage wounded feelings, check whether it will rain, read some book. These insignificant little fish are what it falls to me to describe. There is no special merit in it. But it may be better to say the things that are indefensible, than to cast around for a defensible thing to say.

           It is not impossible that these minnows will trace the outlines of a whale. Schools of herring viewed from above will appear to split around a troubling object, such as a predator orca, revealing, by their combined undirected movements, the shape of the threat. As if, although I never could see the massive submerged body of the whale, I might see his negative image in the pressure lines of the herring school splitting and swimming around him, a chance configuration over in seconds. Ten thousand sprats to apprehend a whale. In the trembling of the minnows, in the busy chaos of our unknowing, the Leviathan that is hunting us and that we are might become visible.



Emily Ogden is the author of On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays (2022) and Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (2018). Her writing has appeared in The Yale Review, Critical Inquiry, The New York Times, American Literature, the LA Review of Books Quarterly Journal, The Point, and Berfrois, among other publications. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.




1. Revelation 3.2 (NRSV).

2. Revelation 2.4 (NRSV).

3. Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (New York: New York Review Books, 2001), 5.

4. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 169.

5. Tony J. Pitcher and Julia K. Parrish, “Functions of Shoaling Behaviour in Teleosts,” in Behaviour of Teleost Fishes, 2nd ed., ed. Tony J. Pitcher (London: Chapman & Hall, 1993), 380.

6. Anne Dufourmantelle, In Praise of Risk, trans. Steven Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 120–21.


Banner image: Cover from Emily Ogden's On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays. Copyright 2022, University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder.




Fri, 13 Oct 2023

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