Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life can be read as a familiar cautionary tale for American writers: how to write, how not to live. We think we know the story, having learned it long ago from the examples of Hart Crane and John Berryman. But Cheever, who wrote some of our best short stories – “The Sorrows of Gin,” “The Country Husband,” “The Swimmer,” “Reunion” – perfected a mode of self-destruction violently at odds with the vision of upper-middle-class propriety he chronicled, idealized, satirized and struggled to live. It’s hard to imagine a more conflicted human being. For Cheever, the simplest things were never simple. Every impulse and value contained its negation -- goodness undone, selfishness occasionally mitigated by grace. Even in his final seven years, sober at last, there was no stillness in Cheever.
With a sense of relief, on the day I finished reading Bailey’s elegant account of an inelegant life, I read a poem by Frank Wilson, “Still Point,” about the very stillness that forever eluded Cheever:
“All of his life he had known how
To keep in touch, but never did
Except by chance: Something would bid
Him glance its way, a drooping bough,
A flitting bird, and he would stand
Entranced, as everything spun round
About the silence that he found
He had become. All seemed so grand.
Sparrow would fly, the oak tree bend,
And he, alive awhile, attend.”
I thought immediately of the title of a book I’ve never read – The Unwobbling Pivot, Ezra Pound’s translations from Confucius. Frank, I know, feels a kinship with Taoism, and “the silence that he found / He had become” reminds me of the Taoist notion of wu wei, or “non-action.” The character described in the poem comes “alive awhile” through the attentiveness he pays the simplest of events – a bird flies from a branch. It’s a scene painted on a Chinese screen.
Next I thought of a passage from the title essay in Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination:
“When Heraclitus said that everything passes steadily along, he was not inciting us to make the best of the moment, an idea unseemly to his placid mind, but to pay attention to the pace of things. Each has its own rhythm: the nap of a dog, the procession of the equinoxes, the dances of Lydia, the majestically slow beat of the drums at Dodona, the swift runners at Olympia.”
“To pay attention to the pace of thing” is to be mindful of natural rhythms, of birds and trees and dogs, of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching is said to date from between the sixth and third centuries B.C., and Heraclitus lived from roughly 540 to 480 B.C. Ideas, like men, have natural lives and rhythms. In his translation of Heraclitus’ fragments, Herakleitos and Diogenes, Davenport articulates a thought that helps us understand Cheever and his stories:
“Opposites cooperate. The beautifullest harmonies come from opposition. All things repel each other.”