28 March, 2006

O'Neill and the nothing new

As mentioned earlier, on Saturday I met an interesting pair of friends; one of these is an earnest young man named Felipe, obviously very bright, well-educated, and engagé. He asked me if I studied at the university. I said no, I preferred to read. He nodded: yes, he said, he liked to read too. And write. Oh, I replied: what do you write? Poetry? Or more scholarly work? Felipe was diffident. Well, he murmured, what I write, it's. . . well. . . I don't make such a distinction between the. . . you might call it, a sort of philosophical treatise. In verse. (I waited eagerly to hear more.) It's an old tradition, he was anxious to assure me. Lucretius, he added earnestly. I raised a metaphorical eyebrow: Lucretius? How about Parmenides? Thus I won. He mumbled something about Orphism, but he knew I'd won. This is how men work; it's a terrible habit really, and hopelessly superficial, but it gives us pleasure. I liked Felipe, maybe a lot.

How soon the tritest of triumphs gives way to the most oppressive trituration. Tonight, reading E. R. Curtius on mediaeval literature, I experience the terrifying unheimlich of the nothing new. I contemplate suicide. I wake up my wife from her sonorous slumber, but the feeling is impossible to convey. I realise my own total insignificance. Curtius is the Total Perspective Vortex of the academic world. I end up thinking, Perhaps I could be a decent teacher?
When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.

Long Day's Journey Into Night (1941).
My confidence has been sufficiently shaken that when I flick over to PBS in the Seinfeld commercial-break, only to have Eugene O'Neill's embarrassing drivel rammed down my ears, for a moment I am swayed by the commentator's praise of its great beauty. Just for a moment, mind. It really is a steaming heap of shit.

No comments: