I’ve just finished Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, the National Book Award recipient for fiction in 1977. Its narrator, the sixty-nine year old Joe Allston, is so curmudgeony that he makes Ebenezer Scrooge and Miss Havisham seem like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Allston, whose one attribute is his penchant for erudite allusions, has taken Dylan Thomas’s advice about raging, raging, against the dying of the light. Obsessed with his arthritis and a deteriorating dental situation, he has become an insufferably angry old man.
Petty occurrences like newscasters’ eliding syllables bring his “blood pressure up to about 250/200,” and when he discovers that “the mailbox [is] empty, that the postman [is] late again,” he “announces a loud God damn.” His “internal grumblings [go] on, the way a high-compression engine running on low-octane gas will go on galloping and coughing and smoking after the ignition is shut off.”
Lacking both the supernatural solace of religion and the philosophical consolation of stoicism, he focuses only on himself, which makes him miserable. His long suffering wife Ruth tries to push him in a more positive direction but to no avail.
Years ago, I attempted to be a Buddhist because I realized that I squander most of my time among cluttered bric-a-brac in the attic of my mind, blind to the wonders of nature that Wordsworth extolls in his poetry, glories like “the sportive wood run wild,” or less majestic miracles, like the sway of sunlight and shadow on the bookcase to my right, what my friend Leopold Bloom of Ulysses would call “a phenomena.”
The fellow in the daguerreotype is one of my late wife Judy’s ancestors. In those days, posing for a photo was serious business. You had to be very still. Very few people sit still nowadays. I don’t know his name, but I can see a resemblance between him and Judy’s sister Becky around their eyes. Judy knew who he was, I think.
No one thinks about this man anymore, except for me, and now, for a second, you.
* * *
Close to forty years ago, a newlywed living in Rantowles, I ran across a poem by Robert Penn Warren, still alive at the time, a poem about old age in which he mused that when he would die so would all living memory of his grandfather.
I sat in the same room with Robert Penn Warren once in the early ‘70s when he met with about 20 or so students to answer our questions. David Tillinghast, the TA who taught me fiction writing, asked Mr. Warren the first question, if he thought a formal education would have “ruined” Ernest Hemingway.
“How in the hell should I know,” was Warren’s rude answer, barked loudly, in a tone bordering on exasperation.
* * *
Although I was only five or so, I remember when my great grandfather Luther Moore died. There was an article about him in an upstate paper because he had been some minor elected official and ridden a bicycle all over Bishopville in his 90s. I met him once at my other great grandfather’s house in North Charleston.
When he arrived, Grandfather Luther, croaked, “I’m blind and deaf so there’s no need for any of you to come and try to talk to me.”
After their opening salvos, I didn’t engage with either Robert Penn Warren, a fellow redhead, or Grandfather Luther, who may have had a thick head of white hair or been as bald as an emu egg – I don’t remember, and there’s no one alive to ask. Both old men were scary, angry about something, probably, like Joe Allston, about being old.
* * *
What shall I do with this absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
If Yeats had been a Buddhist, he wouldn’t have written these lines. Sure, he would have been happier, but his poetry less profound. I’ll take The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick over Walden Pond any day.
Which is ultimately more important? Happiness or poetic profundity? Does it even matter?
Here’s how Yeats’s poem ends:
Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come—
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath—
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades,
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.
Oh. Yes. Om. Amen.