On to a bigger picture
Living in the late twentieth century is no simple matter, or so I've concluded from my rather humble attempt. In all fairness, I would guess that life in the early 1900s was no piece of cake; the industrial revolution undoubtedly upturned more lives than we'd care to know; and as much as I dream of living in Elizabethan England, I have no desire to come face to face with its dark underbelly. Ultimately our age is probably no more difficult than any other, except that they've already lived theirs. They've muddled through their cosmic problems, and in retrospect (no doubt only in retrospect) it looks like they did a pretty neat job of it, while we're still in the middle of ours. I find this perspective lightens the burden a little. And so, too, does the sense that we are not battling merely with personalm problems, but also with challenges that have been "assigned" our age, so that the next age can come into being. Our century was given birth because the late Victorians, or some of them, were willing to wrestle out the issues of Darwinism, collapsing imperialism, etc. And taking heart from their efforts, we too can proceed with the issues that will give birth to the next century.
Probably the most perplexing problem our age is up against, and most all-pervasive, is that of feeling small, experiencing those pangs of significance that come from confronting knowledge, wave after wave of knowledge, on a scale never before imagined. The comparisons of size are not easy, but when we finally adopt a little humility, a much more essential problem emerges: how do we extablish our relationship to the whole, which has never loomed so large? Where do we fit in? Once it was enough to say, "I was born on this farm , so I'll work this farm, and when I can't do much more than pump a rocking chair, I'll sit on this farm." There was little need to consider the whole, to leaf the through the endless possibilities in order to say, "In all of the immensity, this is where I belong." Now we are no longer handed our relationship to the whole, rather it is somethihg we must explore and develop with all of its comlexities.
One of the baffling things about knowledge is that it breeds more knowledge so that life invariably becomes larger and less graspable. With our growing ability to catalog and consume ideas -- udoubtedly the result of affluence -- we've become more aware of the past and our indebtedness to it, more aware of untold voices from the future reminding us of our accountability. The role of renegade isolated on a chunk of the present, once a pleasant prospect, is no longer acceptable. We are undeniably part of something larger than ourselves, and if our lives aren't to be consumed in triteness, then we must understand our relationship to the whole -- and act from that understanding.
While climbing in the Wind River Range, I stumbled, quite literally, on some sense of howm we might be able to know life in its entirety. The summit didn't come easily: it required a bivouac, sleeping between boulders, so that we might be on top by sunrise; cutting of steps with an ice ax; a slow climbing movement with rhythmic breathing -- inhale, kick left foot into step, exhale, straighten leg, inhale, and so on. When we finally reached the summit, about as high as one can climb in the continental United States, our lives were thoroughly synchronized with the demands of the peak. Then for the first time in four weeks, we could see, off in the distance, the dusty plains of Wyoming sprinkled with glints of light, the early morning sun bouncing off the roofs, bouncing off home as we knew it and occasionally longed for it, bouncing off our origins which seemed so far from the harsh world of the mountains. And for a moment I was doing something that I had never done before: in my mind I was juggling two realities, giving them equal weight, an equal right to exist, a chance to intermingle and feed each other. The realities of the moment -- snowy, wind-bitten, tinged with risks -- and the realities of home which were secure and reassuring.
For me that moment has since become a metaphor of the reconciliation, the balancing, of disparate elements, that must take place if we're to comprehend the wholeness of existence, if we're to avoid a dangerous isolation in a one time frame without any access beyond it. And I came off the mountain convinced that we must find ways of embracing in our heart, in our consciousness, much more than we do.
It happened again -- that moment of considering two realities without one absorbing the other, while driving across the Salisbury Plains enroute to Stonehenge, a place I had visited before and seen in countless pictures. Pondering the lush hills and other 20th-century matters, I came up over a rise, and there it was. Stonehenge. Not a monument that had been analyzed, explained , and assimilated into our consciousness as a relic in the 20th-century. But raw, anachronistic rock, as if primitive man had suddenly stuck a fistful of fingers up through the green, thoroughly modern plain. That and the steering wheel in my hands I considered in the same moment and saw how interwoven they were.
What will it take for us to acquire a broader vision, capable of reconciliation, of dissolving polarities? Not in order to have these brief flashes of fuller sight, after all they are only a symbol of what must go on at a much deeper level, but in order to have a large enough heart to meet the demands of our age. James Joyce suggests in "The Dead," the final short story of Dubliners,m that this kind of vision will come about only through an intense transformation of our identity. We see Gabriel Conroy in the space of an evening evolve from a gentleman, continually tending to the minutiae of his own life, into a man with an enormous heart that is conscious of both those alive and those who lived before. The change does not come easily; he does not plan on it, but when it begins he doesn't resist. We see Gabriel at the peak of emotional intensity topple into a broader, more all-embracing love. And in one of the most poetic descriptions to grace a short story, Gabriel watches the snow drifting into the grave yard, "falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead." The snow that doesn't fragment; that doesn't discriminate, that doesn't isolate; a perfect symbol for Gabriel's expanded vision. It's as though Joyce wanted to know whether whole sight, one that embraces much, were possible in the 20 th-century, and through Gabriel he determines that it is, but only when we're willing to let our identity take on a largess of heart.
"A poet has no identity," Keats wrote, "he is continually . . . filling some other Body." Perhaps that is the ism the poet's identity, to know himself by continually empathizing with a whole range of life; it seems to be Gabriel's Maybe that is the sort of identity we'll have to adopt if we're to perceive the wholeness of existence, if we're to contribute to the opening up of the next century.