Thursday, May 30, 2013

`I'm a Case of Reaction Against the Mistake'

In A Trick of Sunlight (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2006), Dick Davis collectively titles a sequence of twelve short poems “Small Talk.” One of them carries a quoted phrase for its title: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” If you recognize the source of that sentence, this is a poem custom-written by Davis for you, and me and our English-major confrères: 

“Of course, to recognize
This quote, and more, its truth
Means your myopic youth
Was spent quite otherwise.” 

That hurts. And it’s true. I read The Ambassadors for the first time in the summer of 1970, on the cusp of my freshman year at the state university, while managing a municipally owned miniature golf course on the West Side of Cleveland. I did that for three summers and prided myself on never once playing the game. Business was slow in the afternoons and I could sit in the shade of the clubhouse and read. In that same little hut I read Proust, Philip Roth’s Our Gang and The Breast, Anthony Burgess’ M/F, Tom McHale’s and Thomas McGuane’s early novels, Graham Greene’s A Sort of Life, Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles and The Optimist’s Daughter, B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo, the best of Willa Cather and much of Henry James. In my arrogance, I found Lambert Strether a stick-in-the-mud and Chad Newsome a very lucky guy. My youth was myopic in the literal and figurative senses, and I was blind to the wisdom of Strether’s exhortations to Little Bilham: 

“All the same don't forget that you're young—blessedly young; be glad of it on the contrary and live up to it. Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what HAVE you had?” 

Read the whole thing in Book Fifth, Chapter II, of the novel. For years I’ve meditated on Strether’s words and more recently on Davis’, and have concluded that I haven’t missed all that much. Books are a part of living all you can. Books and life are bonded at the molecular level. To remove one is to fatally wound the other. We learn about life from books, especially novels and Shakespeare, and life teaches us how to read them with growing discernment. Try to imagine your capacity for moral understanding and your at-homeness in the world if you had never read George Eliot, Tolstoy, James or Bellow. Strether goes on to say, in words I could not have understood at age seventeen: 

“Still, one has the illusion of freedom; therefore don't be, like me, without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it; I don't quite know which. Of course at present I'm a case of reaction against the mistake; and the voice of reaction should, no doubt, always be taken with an allowance. But that doesn't affect the point that the right time is now yours. The right time is ANY time that one is still so lucky as to have. You've plenty; that's the great thing; you're, as I say, damn you, so happily and hatefully young. Don't at any rate miss things out of stupidity.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's also the classic James story 'The Beast in the Jungle'. i read it when i was about 22 and became convinced i would grow up to be a melancholy old man full of regret at not having anything to regret.