Thursday, November 22, 2012

`There Always Seems So Much to Guard Against'

“To Holy Communion—with B.—where I think of how we obscure our self-knowledge with anxiety; that it is not what we desire but what we fear and dread we may desire that impedes us—a look at the poor quality of my devoutness and at the desirability of the posture of prayer, the attitude of solemn thanksgiving.”

No, not Dr. Johnson. That’s John Cheever in yet another self-flagellating fit of alcoholic remorse in his Journals, a passage from December 1959. Everything is tainted, everything blessed, in Cheever, which makes him, problematically, a religious writer. Guy Davenport said Cheever possessed “a fine, forgiving sense that grace can emerge out of the most wayward darkness of the heart.” In the previous journal entry, set on Christmas morning, Cheever writes:
“There is something like a nightmare in this excess of presents—crystal glasses, velvet robes, a shrimp dish, trucks and cars—but somehow, not soberly. I grope from some other, less bewildering, meaning in this nightmare and I think that with these foolish excesses we struggle, intuitively, to express our convictions about the abundance of life.”

How self-satisfying it is, and has always been, to scorn the profligacy of American bounty and "commercialism." I, too, start thinking like a prig when I pass stacks of artificial Christmas trees in August, forgetting to cherish what Tom Wolfe called “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours.” I like Cheever’s effort to find something admirable, something good, in shameless consumption. In Daily Horoscope (Graywolf Press, 1986), Dana Gioia includes a fourteen-stanza meditation, “In Cheever Country,” in which the speaker rides north out of New York City through Westchester County, home to Cheever’s fictional places:
“The town names stenciled on the platform signs—
Clear Haven, Bullet Park, and Shady Hill—
Show that developers at least believe in poetry
If only as a talisman against the commonplace.
There always seems so much to guard against.”

1 comment:

George said...

In David Lodge's Souls and Bodies, there is a fine set piece in which an English nun traveling the US (ca. 1970, I think) expresses her sense of the alienation of the visitors to Disneyland to some Catholics in southern California. One asks whether she is not expressing her own alienation. She concludes that she is, and telegraphs back to her convent "By the rivers of Disneyland I sat and wept. Returning."

(All from memory, and likely somewhat inaccurate.)