Wednesday, May 07, 2014

`A Sufficiency of Human Types'

Nostalgia is a dishonest seduction. Only a cool head or a cold heart can chill the ardor it stirs. Still, we are weak and self-indulgent. The familiar, even the familiarly unpleasant, has its easy attractions, like comfort food and the Godfather movies. My childhood was not Dickensian but neither was it Nabokovian. I think about it often but try not to inflict my memories on others or revisit too often, which seems unhealthy. Through a friend I’ve just learned of the death of a girl I last saw forty-four years ago. For thirteen years, from kindergarten through high-school graduation, we shared an education if not a friendship. She was one of the smart kids, more poised and confident than I, and she was Jewish. That was rare in my suburb on the west side of Cleveland. Growing up, I knew only one other Jewish kid. We were readers, the only students who exhausted the closet-like library in our grade school and moved on, as though graduating, to the public library. 

Six weeks before his death five years ago, John Updike wrote “Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth,” later collected in Endpoint and Other Poems (2009). The names in the title refer to children Updike knew when growing up in Shillington, Pa. Both had already died. Nostalgia is rooted in the Greek nostos, “to return home,” and algia, “a sorrowful or distressing condition or illness.” Updike seems to have known that nostalgia is homesickness: 

“Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types; beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso -- all a writer needs,
all there in Shillington, its trolley cars
and little factories, cornfields and trees,
leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.
To think of you brings tears less caustic
than those the thought of death brings. Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life. Even then were tears
and fear and struggle, but the town itself
draped in plain glory the passing days.” 

That’s a healthy way to think of the past – as a fledgling data base of human knowledge; if not “all a writer needs,” at least the beginning of a lifelong library, a version of “our heaven.” In The Rambler #47, Dr. Johnson distinguishes grief and sorrow from other human passions, which at least in theory carry within them the possibility of their satisfaction: 

“But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it required what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.” 

Johnson reminds us that sorrow deeply felt is a gift, so long as we resist over-indulging. It is, he says, “to a certain point laudable, as the offspring of love, or at least pardonable, as the effect of weakness….it may afterwards be admitted as a decent and affectionate testimony of kindness and esteem.”


Eric Thomson said...

A amalgam of sorrow and nostalgia by proxy is what I experienced yesterday on seeing Nabokov's empty fawn jacket with tie draped over the shoulder and his shoes at the foot of the glass case. The jacket, which pinned its owner like a butterfly, would not have fitted the ephebe that had inhabited that same room a century before. I brought to the apartment my own copy of Speak, Memory, still damp after being baptized in the Neva (a ludicrously sentimental gesture that Nabokov might have ragarded quizzically but perhaps without outright ).

Jonathan Chant said...

Wise words. I think Updike got it right.

Eric Thomson said...