Thursday, April 16, 2009

`The Beautifullest Harmonies'

Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life can be read as a familiar cautionary tale for American writers: how to write, how not to live. We think we know the story, having learned it long ago from the examples of Hart Crane and John Berryman. But Cheever, who wrote some of our best short stories – “The Sorrows of Gin,” “The Country Husband,” “The Swimmer,” “Reunion” – perfected a mode of self-destruction violently at odds with the vision of upper-middle-class propriety he chronicled, idealized, satirized and struggled to live. It’s hard to imagine a more conflicted human being. For Cheever, the simplest things were never simple. Every impulse and value contained its negation -- goodness undone, selfishness occasionally mitigated by grace. Even in his final seven years, sober at last, there was no stillness in Cheever.

With a sense of relief, on the day I finished reading Bailey’s elegant account of an inelegant life, I read a poem by Frank Wilson, “Still Point,” about the very stillness that forever eluded Cheever:

“All of his life he had known how
To keep in touch, but never did
Except by chance: Something would bid
Him glance its way, a drooping bough,
A flitting bird, and he would stand
Entranced, as everything spun round
About the silence that he found
He had become. All seemed so grand.
Sparrow would fly, the oak tree bend,
And he, alive awhile, attend.”

I thought immediately of the title of a book I’ve never read – The Unwobbling Pivot, Ezra Pound’s translations from Confucius. Frank, I know, feels a kinship with Taoism, and “the silence that he found / He had become” reminds me of the Taoist notion of wu wei, or “non-action.” The character described in the poem comes “alive awhile” through the attentiveness he pays the simplest of events – a bird flies from a branch. It’s a scene painted on a Chinese screen.

Next I thought of a passage from the title essay in Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination:

“When Heraclitus said that everything passes steadily along, he was not inciting us to make the best of the moment, an idea unseemly to his placid mind, but to pay attention to the pace of things. Each has its own rhythm: the nap of a dog, the procession of the equinoxes, the dances of Lydia, the majestically slow beat of the drums at Dodona, the swift runners at Olympia.”

“To pay attention to the pace of thing” is to be mindful of natural rhythms, of birds and trees and dogs, of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching is said to date from between the sixth and third centuries B.C., and Heraclitus lived from roughly 540 to 480 B.C. Ideas, like men, have natural lives and rhythms. In his translation of Heraclitus’ fragments, Herakleitos and Diogenes, Davenport articulates a thought that helps us understand Cheever and his stories:

“Opposites cooperate. The beautifullest harmonies come from opposition. All things repel each other.”


Nige said...

Oh yes, that poem of Frank's is very fine - and true.

Anonymous said...

Heraclitus does often read like a variation on the Tao te Ching - or vice versa.

wu-wei is a profound concept - i was just emailing a friend about it a couple of days ago, it's one of those apparently simple things which seems to encompass so much.

i think wizards tend to become a little taoist, over time.

Judith Fitzgerald said...

Well, lookit dat, two of my fave peeps already left comments.

elberry? Bragged about your Viking friend in a comment on the Globlog just this morning . . . under the Anne Carson post . . .

Hi, Yer Royal Nigeness :); I see you've been writing up a veritable virtual storm. Good!

Patrick, your post really knocked me off my spots. Truly lovely. And, sad, even in its loveliness. I like the way your mind works, especially since I agree with you. Dave Lull sent me the link this morning; and, I mentioned it in Frank's comments; but, I just now got a moment to wander over and express my gratitude.

Thank you for making Frank's poem known to your many regs. It's one of the best I've seen by him (or anyone, actually) in many a moonbeam, a genuine bliss blessitude, IOW. Salut!p.s. I think Taoists tend to become a little wizardly, over space :)

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

"Every impulse and value contained its negation..." <-- saddest phrase of the day.

Seems like I'm deferring to Bouillier often these days, but I JUST finished one of his books, in which he says when in pain "we spend our lives... disappearing behind what negates us". Similar sentiments. Both expressed beautifully and both terribly heartbreaking.

The stillness Wilson describes - it's enviable. I'm seeing this theme echoed everywhere lately - of the ephemeral quality of our existence, of the need to slow down and TAKE IT ALL IN.

Advice I could certainly use.