23 June 2013

Of One Page of War and Peace

I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace and I have for the most part been enjoying the experience. I am always slightly uncomfortable reading a work in translation: what I read is not what the author wrote, though there are certainly correspondences. And so in translation I do not read for the beauty of the language because the original language is absent. But I do read for the narrative and the perspectives on life and living that an author explores. I guess I have learned as well to read for the questions that the book attempts to answer. In this monumental book I suspect there are many questions raised, and I was struck in Part IV, Chapter IX by a conversation engaged in by the Sonya, Natasha and then joined by Nikolai. Natasha and Nikolai are Rostovs and Sonya is an adopted member of the family (I am only now learning whence she arrive) and they are all under the age of twenty-five.
            Sonya and Natasha sit amongst the older folks after the third day of the Christmas feast. And Natasha, who has been engaged to Prince Andrei Bolkonsky but who, at the request of his father, will not marry her until a year has passed from the betrothal, thinks to herself, “My God, my God, the same faces, the same conversations, papa holding his cup in the same way and blowing in exactly the same way.” And then Natasha turns to her brother and asks, “Does it ever happen to you, does it ever happen to you that you feel there’s nothing morenothing; that everything good has already happened? And its not really boring, but sad.’ And he responds, “It’s happened to me that everything’s fine, everybody’s merry, and it suddenly comes into my head that its all tiresome and we all ought to die . . .” And Nikolai responds, “As if it doesn’t! It’s happened to me that everything’s fine, everybody’s merry, and it suddenly comes into my head that it’s all tiresome and we all ought to die.” Natasha and Nikolai are not suffering some despair or hopelessness; they do not require a prescription for anti-depressants. They are not truly suicidal. Rather, they express an overwhelming sense of tedium or dullness, not unlike the characters in a Sofia Coppola film. They are young and they want their lives to be exciting every single minute and to have what they desire immediately when they have the desire for it.
            I think that this conversation is one particular not exclusively to young people, but certainly particular to young people. In their words Natasha and Nikolai convey what would be called weltzschmerz, a world weariness. There are somewhat several sophisticated definitions of the term, and even some serious references to it in the academic literature linking it to depression, to psychological pain, and to feelings of sadness when considering the evils of the world. I have always thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s cry, “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed!” as a perfect expression of weltzschmerz. I am certain there are others.
            And if the feelings of Natasha and Nikolai express a weltzschmerz they do so in a form I think particular to youth. Because what these young people seem to despair of does not result from any state of the world, but derives instead from a discontent with the somberness and conventionality of the older people with whom they live. The youth’s despair does not stem from some existential angst brought on by some realization of the perilous condition of existence, but reflects a private complaint that the world moves too slowly for them. These youth do not wish to wait“Mama!,” says Natasha, “Give him to me mama, quickly, quickly,” she cries of her fiancé, Andrei. I remember Jim Morrison’s cry, “We want the world and we want it, Now!” Alas, it was not forthcoming, and perhaps his frustration cost him his life.
            The older people, however, are content to measure their lives with coffee spoons; they engage routinely in life, and are content to wait for events to occur and then to respond only when they must do so. Count Rostov “walked bout in his affairs as in an enormous net, trying not to believe that he was entangled and with each step getting more and more entangled, and feeling himself unable either to break the meshes that ensnared him or to begin carefully and patiently to disentangle them.” These older people do not feel the weight of the world so much as they are the weight of the world.” These older people talk about the world but have little to do with it. It wearies them.
            I think that the impatience expressed by Natasha and Nikolai is very much a symptom of youth, thank goodness. I am glad for it but relieved to no longer feel it.
Nor would I be Prufrock afraid to eat the peach!

10 June 2013

Cabin in Utah?

In my mind I hear often these lyrics to the old gospel song:
Where could I go where could I go
            Seeking a refuge for my soul
            Needing a friend to help me in the end
            Where could I go to the Lord
I am not yet convinced of the actuality of souls, but I am confident that we all somehow seek some refuge from the world’s noise. In the words of the spiritual that shelter for the soul rests in faith in the Lord who, it is hoped, will provide some succor and salvation at death’s approach.  But I think that on a daily basis we all seek some haven from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
There is a conventional understanding that cabins and shacks serve as a form of retreat from the daily spaces of the stresses that attend our lives at home and at work. As much as they are physical places, cabins and shacks seem to be psychological spaces as well, locations that exist as much in the mind as in the actual world.  If they did not exist in fact, it would be necessary to invent these edifices in omagination. Such may be said about the function of Yeats’ cabin of clay and wattles made on the Lake Isle of Inisfree. Of it Yeats writes:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
            I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
            While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
            I hear it in the deep heart's core.
Yeats’ cabin of clay and wattles exists only in his imagination: alas, in the present the poet remains yet standing on the macadamized roadway in the midst of civilization, though in his mind that cabin is, nevertheless, the place where he can experience “peace that comes dropping slow.” Bob Dylan, too, speaks of such an imagined place in his composition, “Sign on the Window.” After describing the tensions and displeasures of his life in the city he longs to
Build me a cabin in Utah
            Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
            Have a bunch of kids who call me “Pa”
            That must be what it’s all about
            That must be what it’s all about.
It is the myth of simplicity to which Dylan alludes, one he might have first learned in part sitting in front of the television sets and radios of his youth. Or perhaps it was learned in the romantic literatures read by adolescents: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series Little House on the Prarie, or the tales of Caddie Woodlawn. Not unlike the myth of the little red schoolhousethat was neither red nor pleasant but that continues to live in our romantic image of a past that did not existDylan’s cabin in Utah, like Yeats’ cabin, serves as an imaginary retreat from the real world to which that world does not travel and where children run safe and free. Of course, the possibility of that retreat is as false as the idea of the West to which at the novel’s end Huck Finn flees ahead of the rest to avoid a civilization epitomized in Aunt Polly’s disciplines, but the cabin remains to a great extent in our national mythology as the symbol of physical and psychic escape.
But I have been wondering . . .