Tuesday, June 29, 2010

`By Paradox, Alone'

Another passage from Sir Thomas Browne’s Christian Morals (Part 3, Section IX) swarming with metaphors, learning, humor and life:

“Unthinking Heads, who have not learn'd to be alone, are in a Prison to themselves, if they be not also with others: Whereas on the contrary, they whose thoughts are in a fair, and hurry within, are sometimes fain to retire into Company, to be out of the crowd of themselves. He who must needs have Company, must needs have sometimes bad Company. Be able to be alone. Loose not the advantage of Solitude, and the Society of thy self, nor be only content, but delight to be alone and single with Omnipresency. He who is thus prepared, the Day is not uneasy nor the Night black unto him…”

Obvious but wise and practical advice: “Be able to be alone.” I enjoy good company, including my own. We all know unfortunates unable to savor solitude. For them, the crowd, noise and distraction – essential features of my vision of hell. Equanimity in solitude feels like part of one’s preparation for death, the ultimate and inevitable solitude. In Part 3, Section XX, of Christian Morals, Browne writes:

“Though the World be Histrionical, & most Men live Ironically, yet be thou what thou singly art, and personate only thy self. Swim smoothly in the stream of thy Nature, and live but one Man. To single Hearts doubling is discruciating: such tempers must sweat to dissemble, and prove but hypocritical Hypocrites. Simulation must be short: Men do not easily continue a counterfeiting Life, or dissemble unto Death.”

A man comfortable in solitude, even in pleasant company, is likelier prepared for life and death. Reading Browne, who I’ve come to think of as a trusted, dotty uncle, reminds me of L.E. Sissman’s final poem, “Tras Os Montes” (Hello, Darkness: Collected Poems, 1978). Sissman died at age forty-eight of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1976. His best, final poems concern illness, hospitals and death, and are witty, exuberant, playful and brave – not a self-pitying whine in the bunch. “Tras Os Montes” memorializes the deaths of his mother (1892-1973) and father (1895-1974) and the imminence of his own – “(197-).” The mountains of the title refer to three ascents he makes in the poem – first with friends, then his wife, then “Alone.” This Brownean passage is from that final section:

“The long march up the fulvous ridgebacks to
The marches, the frontiers of difference –
Where flesh marches with bone, day marches with
His wife the night, and country marches with
Another country -- is accomplished best,
By paradox, alone. A world of twos,
Of yangs and yins, of lives and objects, of
Sound grasses and deaf stones, is best essayed
By sole infiltrators who have cast off
Their ties to living moorings, and stand out
Into the roads of noon approaching night
Casting a single shadow, earnest of
Their honorable intention to lay down
Their lives for their old country, humankind,
In the same selfish spirit that inspired
Their lifelong journey, largely and at last

The poem, like Browne’s book, ends with a jaunty desolate “FINIS.”

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