Monday, June 01, 2009
You Can't See the Future/ You Can't Change the Past/
/All you have is just the moment/ and it never, ever lasts ...
In 1938, Thomas Wolfe died. As a writer, he produced a fair body of work, including Look Homeward Angel, and Of Time and the River. He was thirty-seven years old, taken by TB of the brain, so the diagnosis said. William Faulkner, no slouch with a pen and never one to hide his light under a bushel, rated himself the second-best writer of his era -- he allowed that Wolfe was better than he.
By most accounts, however, Wolfe was a major rambler when he wrote, all over the map, and much of his success is attributed to his editors, who reportedly took big collections of paper that sometimes required packing crates to contain, and forced him to whittle them down. The editor Maxwell Perkins, whose biography is fascinating, was said to have shaped Angel at least as much as it would take to turn the Pillsbury Dough Boy into a classical Greek athlete.
Initially grateful for the editing help, Wolfe later began to believe his own press releases about how wonderful an author he was. (Apparently, the original draft of Of Time and the River ran to something like seven volumes, more than six thousand pages. Perkins cut it to one long book. It became a bestseller, but Wolfe got pissed off at Perkins, and moved to a new publishing house.
I can understand the feeling -- cutting a hundred pages from an eight-hundred-page novel would be painful; cutting five thousand pages from a six thousand page novel? Ouch.)
In 1940, You Can't Go Home Again was gleaned from the mound of paper Wolfe left behind and published, becoming another classic. The title -- and the essence of the book -- means simply that you can't recover the past. Time's arrow doesn't fly that way.
You can return to the place where you grew up, of course, assuming nobody has torn it down. On Google Earth, I can find the house where I lived from two until thirteen, it's still there, as are many of those in which I lived since. The house, city, state, country exist -- but what Wolfe means is that you never step twice in the same river, things change, worlds move, and however much it might still look like the home you knew, it isn't, any more than you are what you were.
A stand-up comedian I like, whose name I can never recall, does a routine about what a grandfather's role is -- it's to tell the grandkids about what "used to be." See that mall? Used to be a filbert orchard. That movie theater? Used to be, it was a bowling alley ...
All of which is simply a Wolfe-like wandering prologue to my recent visit to Baton Rouge, where I was born and raised. During the visit, my sister, my mother, and I went on a drive. Ostensibly, we were going to a restaurant, but we wound up doing a big loop around town, including a visit to LSU, where I spent a couple of uninspiring years four decades and some ago. I was an indifferent student, the times, they were a'changin', and I was more interested in Free Speech Alley than I was classes.
I haven't been on the campus for at least twenty-five or thirty years, and, of course, much has changed -- new buildings hither and yon, makeovers for old ones, the normal kind of evolution a living place undergoes. Like seeing a girl you dated in high school when she's sixty -- you can recognize her, but she's not the girl you knew.
You can't go home again, I know that, but having now and again succumbed to nostalgia, I have given it a shot, visiting old haunts and houses in my life. Like the long-ago girlfriend, they are sort of recognizable. They bestir the memories-- but they aren't the same.
Although it was kind of funny. My sister, who married early and stayed home to raise children, had been to the campus, for football games and such, and both her kids had gone to school there, but she didn't really know the territory, so there I was, not having been to the U for nearly half my life, giving her driving directions. The landmarks were altered, but the streets were unchanged, and I had walked them enough to remember that much.
There is something to be gained in visiting a place you used to know and now don't. It offers you a yardstick, a way to measure your life. If, where you live now, you are happy with who you are -- not necessarily your job or current circumstances -- but your nature and outlook on life, then you have to honor the past that delivered you to where you are. However awful your upbringing -- and most of us have our own horror stories, some worse than others -- if you like who you are, then part of how you got to be you is because of those things you really didn't like when they happened. If you went through the fire, were annealed, forged, and then tempered, it hurt, but it gave you your ability to hold whatever edge you have. The hardest lessons are the ones you remember the most.
As I sat next to my father, who was ever a difficult man to love, and impossible for me to like when I lived under his roof, seeing what he has become, shrunken and dwindling, I had a choice -- to let go of some really old anger or hold onto it. I had a come-to-realize moment listening to what my father had to say as his short-term memory short-circuited, and he offered up things from his distant past that meant enough for them to repeat them: They trusted him on the job. He was respected. They sent him all over the world to take care of the company's business, and he did what they paid him to do.
Like many men his age, his focus was work -- home was a place he came to rest before going back to the job. He was a product of his time, and I long ago realized that and shrugged it off. He was like the other fathers on the block -- men who came out of the Great Depression and The War, reaching for the American Dream -- and as introspective as the family dog. Get a job, put food on the table, that was what they were supposed to do -- everything else came after that, if it came at all.
But this visit, I truly let that old page burn. Because I revisited a lesson I also learned long ago: Life is too short. I'm happy with how I turned out. I don't have any trouble looking in the mirror -- well, save for wondering who that wrinkled, gray-haired fellow on the other side of the looking glass where my reflection is supposed to be is. Part of what shaped me was the combative relationship I had with my father. And Neitzsche had that part right: That which does not destroy you can indeed make you stronger ...