Monday, October 15, 2012

`A Species-Thrill'

In “Grace,” his remembrance collected in A William Maxwell Portrait (2004), Richard Bausch recalls the time in 1995 he told Maxwell of reading his second novel, They Came Like Swallows (1937), based in part on the death of Maxwell’s mother from influenza in 1918. Bausch writes:

“He glanced at me and his eyes had welled, and then he resumed walking, head down. `It was written in tears,’ he said. I thought about how a man could still hurt over something that had happened seventy-five years earlier, and my heart raced. There was something almost exhilarating about it—it was what I’ve come to think of as a species-thrill. This is what it really is, being human.”

Maxwell’s readers know his fiction is suffused with the memory of his mother’s death when he was ten years old. The phrase “obscure hurt,” used by Henry James in a different context, comes to mind. Such is our nature that a loss or disappointment, a slight real or imagined, can remain latent within, as tender as the day it happened. In some, the effect is crippling, lives stunted beyond repair, and this too is what it really is, being human.” In Maxwell’s case, his gift permitted him to draw from the hurt to fuel his art. That’s where I share the sense of Bausch’s lovely phrase, “species-thrill.” That a few of us can turn pain into high art is sufficient reason to take a reasonable measure of pride in our compromised species. Our nature is at once tender and resilient. Dr. Johnson reminds us in The Rambler #99:  

"The necessities of our condition require a thousand offices of tenderness, which mere regard for the species will never dictate."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was interesting to see you reference William Maxwell - I've just finished reading a book of his collected essays, and was astonished over and over by his wonderful, unusual prose style. Those essays (many of them orginally appearing in the New Yorker, Harpers, etc.) are so worth reading more than once.