Friday, October 16, 2009

`Trying to Get Interested in the Trees'

Like any simulation of noble savagery by members of the middle-class, nature mysticism is always an amusing spectacle. I was led to this site by its misguided reference to Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation. The author also refers to that well-known spiritual adept Lord Byron:

“The words of Byron express the oneness with nature, which has, since Rousseau, been the obsession of nature mystics: `I live not in myself, but I became a portion of all around me, and to me high mountains are a feeling...’”

No, high mountains are very large rocks. When poets go slumming in nature they tend to turn into windbags. The phrase “oneness with nature” reminds me of the old joke:

Q: “What did the Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor?”
A: “Make me one with everything.”

Few writers are so densely ironic and deeply funny as the late J.F. Powers. His wit was not a matter of verbal pyrotechnics. His prose is colloquial, precise and highly polished, and he’s often mistaken for a satirist. I’ve asked this question before but never received a satisfactory explanation: Why are so many of the funniest fiction writers – Joyce, Waugh, Flann O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Powers – Roman Catholic?

I’m rereading the first of Powers’ two novels, Morte D’Urban, published in 1962. Father Urban, a sort of Babbitt-as-Roman-Catholic-priest, has been exiled from Chicago to the frozen prairies of Minnesota. Shortly after his arrival he tours the grounds of the former sanitarium occupied by the Order of St. Clement:

“Later that afternoon, he pulled himself together and took a walk around the grounds, keeping an eye out for wildlife (and seeing none), and trying to get interested in the trees, which were numerous. They could be broken down into three main groups, red oaks, evergreens, and trees. Here his investigations ended, on account of the cold.”

Out of boredom and hurt pride, Father Urban, no mystic, briefly seeks solace in nature. What he gets instead is a head cold and a lecture on long underwear.

1 comment:

WAS said...

I love J.F. Powers! To me, the sensibility of Laurence Sterne combined with the writing style of Ernest Hemingway is a recipe for laughter every time. And I love the quote about "three kinds of trees, red oak, evergreen and trees." That's exactly the way I've felt so often in the woods – the way all we can do is imperfectly label the vast alien wilderness. An otherwise fine poet I read regularly posted this on his return from a nature sojourn. But I suppose Whitman did much the same thing – the names of birds are always more beautiful and fitting than our attempts to imitate their sounds.

In this vein, I like the famous quip from Frank O'Hara (another funny Roman Catholic), in 'Meditations in an Emergency':

"...I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No... I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life."

This notion of the Romantics being "one with nature" has always puzzled me, in the same way the idea of Dylan being a protest singer has. I read Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats for how artfully they express the separation between man and nature. I suppose this idea of the Romantics as noble savages, inward and sentimental and embarrassingly effusive is part of that excessive influence of Modernism you pointed at a few days ago. It's easy to grasp the sweeping description of the natural world, harder to attend to the nuance in a poem like 'Mont Blanc':

"…when I gaze on thee [the mountain]
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of the witch Poesy,
Seeking among the shadows that pass by
Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,
Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast
From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!"

That's poignant to me, the basic stuff of human existence, profound separation from the beloved, and the way we cope with it.