Tricksters

February 27, 2010

This started out as a post on my third TBR challenge book, Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey. Since then I’ve read more things, and two of them fit in with what I wanted to say about Wilder.

When I was in school, a poetry professor showed me that maybe Robert Frost’s poetry wasn’t as straightforward as we tend to believe…that maybe he was a bit of a trickster, what with his down-home-y feel but complex ideas. And that sometimes complex ideas might be best articulated through play.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is another seemingly straightforward book. It’s about a priest who’s trying to determine the effects of the will of God in the world, and what it would mean to live a moral life, and so he examines the lives of 5 people who died in a sudden accident (a bridge collapse), thinking that he’ll find some philosophy of life.  And, the book seems to suggest, love is the most important part of life.

Then, however, I got to the afterword, which involved some biographical sketching and quotation from Wilder’s personal writings. He says that sometimes he felt the book “is a barely concealed anatomy of despair”; that “a modern man cannot be happy; he is a conflict, whether he likes it or not”; and that “self-reproach is the first and the continuing state of the soul. And it is the way we go about assuaging that reproach that makes us do anything valuable”.  So maybe the book isn’t as simple as it seems. I’ll have to reread, soon.

I appreciated reading Wilder’s more philosophical ideas; I like reading authors as thinkers. So, as I’ve said, I enjoyed Don McKay’s Vis A Vis immensely. And it concludes with an idea of metaphor, as an idea of earnest play:

“…let’s also take in the pure pizzazz of the metaphorical act releasing another micro-quantum of wild figuration into the body of language – that tiny, shocking, necessary invasion; that saving of language from itself.”

At first, when this post was just about Wilder, and more about Frost, I was going to call it ‘American Tricksters’. But I’ve been reading Canadian for a little while. Lorna Crozier’s recent memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, was another literary endeavor that seemed to me to be the site of some earnest play. At times philosophical prose-poetry (if such a thing exists, or if it’s just poetic prose) and at times more typically memoir-ish, I enjoyed the interplay (there’s that word again) of the various parts, and how each influenced and gave more impact to the other. Literary tricks are serious business.

I’ve finished #3 on my TBR list (The Bridge of San Luis Rey), so I’m taking a brief detour through a book I’ve owned for a few years but haven’t read: Don McKay’s Vis a Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness. McKay is a Canadian environmental poet, to categorize. He writes:

“One word more on post-structural thought: in its problematization of terms like “nature” and “natural” (that is, in their reduction to disguised categories of language and culture) it provides a salutary check on romantic innocence, a positive reminder of the fact of the frame. But – and here I indulge in intuition based on tone and style – its skepticism nurtures its excess, secretly worships a nihilistic impulse as surely as Romanticism worshipped the creative imagination in the guise of nature. It is, no less than Romanticism, an ideology, a politics, and an erotics, despite protestations to the contrary. In the realm of ideas, as in human relations, we do well to suspect any basic drive that presents itself simply as method or a form of rationalism. That is, to be blunt, it is as dangerous to act as though we were not a part of nature as it is to act as though we were not a part of culture; and the intellectual and political distortions produced by these contrary ideologies are greatly to be feared.”       (30-31)