Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Literature and Everyday Transcendence

Just you
Originally uploaded by mercant

In college I eschewed the humanities, at eighteen having already spent half of my life certain I would be a scientist. However, my life has not gone at all as planned. For instance, by my late twenties, I was playing catch-up, reading Poetry and the NY Times Book Review.

From this period I have carried ever since these isolated paragraphs in my head and heart.
I was thinking of this one just the other Sunday morning, as I pushed my cart through "Your (ie my) Dekalb Farmers Market."

She liked - she loved - to push a cart with nice rubber-tired wheels through a paradise of groceries, vegetables, meats, fish, breads… It’s because our fortresses were meant to be impregnable that the fortresses of the ancient world have outlived the marketplaces of the past, leaving the impression that fear and bellicosity were keystones of our earliest communities, when in fact those crossroads where men met to barter fish for baskets, greens for meat, and gold for brides were the places where we first grew to know and communicate with one another. Some part of Betsy’s excitement at the Buy Brite may have been due to the fact she was participating in one of the earliest rites of our civilization.
John Cheever.

I have this in my head as Betsy Brite at the Buy Rite, but that doesn’t matter. She has stuck with me, because I enjoy the same ritual, the same transcendence in the everyday.

I have also carried these lines of John Barth, being as I am a child of central Illinois. From this I know a flatness that the mind struggles to comprehend: fields silent and black, with the roads running straight through the sections, 440 acres without a tree, where silos are the skyscrapers.

I knew that I would leave. John Barth knew my reason.

[80 percent of] Dorchester County, Maryland is subsea level: estuarine wetlands all but uninhabited by men, but teaming like bayous and everglades with other life: the nursery of Chesapeake Bay… More exactly it will be brackish, turbid, tidal and tepid; about the same salinity and summer temperature, I am persuaded, as the fluid we all first swam in… I used sometimes to stand in those boundless tidal marshes, at the center of a 360 degree horizon, surrounded in the Spring by maybe a quarter million Canadian Geese taking off for home and at least by age nine or ten thinking two clear thoughts: 1) this place speaks to me in ways that I don’t even understand yet; and 2) I’m going to get out of here and become a distinguished something or other.

My wife shakes her head at the apparent vanity of the latter. But in a landscape where nothing and almost nobody was distinguished; whether for better or worse there was no pressure from Nature or culture to stand out; where horizon is so ubiquitous that anything vertical- a day beacon, a dead loblolly pine – is ipso facto interesting, the abstract wish to distinguish one self somehow, anyhow, seems pardonable to me.

Pardonable. Understandable. Yes.
And I think that perhaps we all live a version of this story as we flee the void of Nothingness, dispite of and because we know that it speaks to us in ways we cannot fathom.

Adya calls it “Treading water on the Void.”
So today I chose a picture from the Flickr Pool, “Floating Worlds,” known in the Japanese as Ukiyo- a way of escaping earthly brutality by floating upwards.

(Be sure to click the picture- With Thanks to Antonio Mercurio.)

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