Tapestry

Months go by and still I feel the reluctance about everything. Strange months when the inner disappears and all is outer, outer, outer, and its infiltration. I think of small changes -- a haircut, a small project, some new shoes, and they seem like cowardice to me -- an attempt to just close my eyes. We're moving soon and that's a change, but I feel it's not enough.

The only fiction I have read since the new year is Greek tragedy (as translated by Anne Carson) and the short fiction of Isak Dinesen. Reading these together is enough to level anyone. The superlative beauty of Dinesen's characters -- never before have I met with such beautiful women, such noble men -- the terse emotion of the tragedies, winedark silk shot through with bright thread-of-gold.

In Sorrowacre, the uncle says:

The most famous tissue ever woven was ravelled out again every night.

And the nephew:

He saw the ways of life, he thought, as a twined and tangled design, complicated and mazy; it was not given to him or any mortal to command or control it. Life and death, happiness and woe, the past and the present, were interlaced within the pattern. Yet to the initiated it might be read as easily as our ciphers -- which to the savage must seem confused and incomprehensible -- will be read by the schoolboy. And out of the contrasting elements concord rose. All must suffer; the old man, whom he had judged hardly, had suffered, as he had watched his son die, and he dreaded the obliteration of his being. He himself would come to know ache, tears and remorse and, even through these, the fullness of life. So might now, to the woman in the rye field, her ordeal be a triumphant procession. For to die for the one you loved was an effort too sweet for words.

As he now thought of it, he knew that all his life he had sought the unity of things, the secret which connects the phenomena of existence. It was this strife, this dim presage, which had sometimes made him stand still and inert in the midst of the games with his playfellows, or which had, at other moments -- on moonlit nights, or in his little boat on the sea -- lifted the boy to ecstatic happiness. [...] As the song is one with the voice that sings it, as the road is one with the goal, as lovers are made one in their embrace, so is man one with his destiny, and he shall love it as himself.

I revel in the metaphor and the language -- ways of speaking I have had to shed -- ways which, to me, must always join clarity in speech. The oblique and the hidden should not be led to the operating room again and again, as if the truths are best found by dissection.

And then there is the tragedy -- in Sorrowacre, the young wife and the nephew sing an air from Alceste, that tale of life, death, and the dusky spaces between. Anne Carson calls Euripides' Alkestis a strange sort of play -- part tragedy, part comedy, part satyr play. She describes the the confused halfling nature of the drama, the language, the characters.

With Euripides, there is confusion -- Bernard Williams wrote of this in Shame & Necessity -- Euripides uses the gods and the fatalism in a hamfisted way -- he designs his plays so that they show their seams -- so that you don't trust the truisms of destiny anymore. But with Dinesen you do -- I trust the beauty of her characters, their supremacy. I trust the lessons they learn about unity and life and art and beauty. I trust her creations the way I trust Aeschylus' creations -- they are noble and they show their convictions. Dinesen is a mythmaker and a wordweaver, but there are also sparks of satire throughout -- sparks I do not find in Aeschylus, sparks that have engulfed Euripides' works -- the conflagration that they are.

I want to write more about how good it is to read these works -- and also about how good it is to read Williams on tragedy, something which has affected me in ways I was not expecting.