At thirteen, our youngest son has reached the Age of Reflexive Contrarianism. I remember it well. THEM: “The sky is blue.” ME: “The sky is black.” THEM: “The world is a beautiful place.” ME: “The world is a boring and inescapable hell.” The stage is inevitable and probably even useful, if we remember as adults how unpleasant we could be as proto-adults. It’s a histrionic stance, a way to test ourselves against the world, to experiment with an evolving sense of self. Some of us never outgrow this kneejerk contrary stage, and remain tiresome for life – at least as tiresome as the opposite number, the witlessly agreeable Pollyanna. My generation, the so-called Baby Boomers, has turned a passing adolescent phase into a lifetime creed. To cherish what we inherit and honor the gift of tradition is dismissed as slavish and reactionary, a real cramp on my style.
For readers and writers, the early years of this century were brutal. A rough tally of the writers we lost includes Penelope Fitzgerald, William Maxwell, Edgar Bowers and R.S. Thomas (d. 2000); Eudora Welty, R.K. Narayan, W.G. Sebald (2001); C.H. Sisson (2003); Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Thom Gunn, Czesław Miłosz (2004); Guy Davenport and Saul Bellow (2005). Also among them was D.J. Enright (1920-2002), the English poet, critic, translator and keeper of commonplace books. He epitomizes the literary gentleman, independent, learned, witty, beholden to no ideology but truth as he discerns it. Enright anatomizes the contrary soul in “The Rebel” (Collected Poems: 1948-1998, Oxford University Press, 1998):
“In the company of dog lovers,
The rebel expresses a preference for cats.
“In the company of cat lovers,
The rebel puts in a good word for dogs.”
You know the type. But Enright doesn’t merely mock the rebel. He understands him and even sympathizes:
“It is very good that we have rebels.
You may not find it very good to be one.”
At least after the age of thirteen.