Monday, September 3, 2012
Early Fall: Only a Promise of Happiness
In his book Only a Promise of Happiness, art critic Alexander Nehemas suggests that one of the promises beauty makes is that it will repay our attention. We have the sense, he argues, that we can return to something beautiful over and over and never exhaust what it might tell us about the human body, about the natural world, about the expression of an emotion or an idea, about the creation of form or the perfect correspondence between form and content. Perhaps he explains my own watchfulness over the last couple of days as summer draws to its ecstatic, golden ending and as I move from the isolation of writing back into the community and conversation of the classroom.
Mornings are different: there's a relieved, happy tang in the air that is reflected in people's spirits and in the wind. Saturday morning after our weekly breakfast at Tangerine, Bill and I walked from there to the Farmer's Market. The wind laughed and tumbled a piece of newspaper along Thirteenth as if its tattered edges were made of crinoline. People had come with their wagons, their children, their granny carts to the market where we are both more sociable--catching one another's eyes in shared delight in a child's determined march across the park--yet sometimes less aware of one another as we turned inward to recover our shopping lists or simply feel the air on our skin. This is nothing like our decorous shopping in the supermarket where we move down the aisles in straight lines, respecting one another's sense of purpose and avoiding one another's faces and shopping carts. There is simply something about the ripeness in the air--the fragrance of tomatoes and falling leaves--that captures our enlivened attention.
The mid-day heat is also different, Janus-faced. It looks back to summer, but its dryness and its promise of cool evenings face the fall. Even on these warm afternoons, there's no fooling yourself into believing that it's midsummer. Perhaps that's because the trees sound different; they rub their dry edges against one another the way an old woman rubs the dry palms of her hands. Our hot humid summer created a landscape that was boldly, brilliantly green. But gold has crept into the palette. You may look up on a country road to find an entire field swathed onto its side, the grain gone, the straw inert; it no longer cares about the wind or the sun. Golden fields on both sides of the road wrap you in the warmth you will need for the winter ahead. Or you may find a sudden streak of yellow through the small birches in Wascana Park or see a single branch of an elm turned golden. No matter how much water you give your lawn, it won't return to that pure midsummer green.
There's an openness about the house, now that we no longer close the windows and the curtains against heat that won't abate in the night. Yet that openness comes with a strange price: the tapping of the blinds against the window frames sounds like time itself, with its uneven rapping on my knuckles. My first inclination is to rush headlong into time, and I make lists furiously; then I refuse to hurry the moment and nevertheless find that everything on my list is done. Am I getting sensible and realistic in my old age, managing my relationship with time in a way that is both friendlier and more productive? The contradictions won't resolve themselves.
I am intensely here, here right now. Yet at the same time I have a powerful sense of a past that won't return and of a waning future. Perhaps there are simply practical reasons for this. I have finished my last sabbatical and on Thursday I begin my final four years of teaching. I so look forward to conversations with my students, to the adventure of the classroom. Yet I also find myself keeping a list of things I'll read and do once I've retired. Perhaps even more, for my work on Woolf has thoroughly worn me out while it has also filled me with wonder, I look forward to when I'm not juggling contradictory demands on my time.
But these practical changes coming in my life do not explain why the golden light of early evening fills me with quiet delight and deep sadness. I cannot help studying it with the kind of sustained attention Nehemas tells us we need when we are faced with beauty. Yet somehow it manages to stare me down, to confront me with its waning, as if it is reminding me that it is only a "promise of happiness," as Stendhall noted in his book On Love, from which Nehemas borrowed his title. I am indeed in love with life, yet that later afternoon goldness seems to speak of the fact that I will never study it long enough to exhaust my sense of its beauty--which is why I need to pay such careful attention now.
at 10:38 PM