Watching neo-Westerns; an Introduction

(Note: my understandings of Westerns are largely colored by my reading of Lee Clark Mitchell’s Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film, a book I do not have accessible currently, and have not read in several years. If I say things here that overlap with arguments of Mitchell’s, it’s because of the influence his work had on my understanding of these movies)

I have, for many years, been a great fan of Westerns, something that goes back to me watching episodes of Gunsmoke and The Rifleman with my grandma as a boy. I’ve thought about Westerns some as well, but never in an exactly formal way. I’ve watched many Westerns in my life, though I’ve recently fallen away from the genre, inasmuch as I generally watch less movies than I used to, and those I do watch tend to be of other genres–our interests wax and wane, after all.

A week or so ago, my interest in watching and thinking about Westerns was rekindled after watching the 2016 David MacKenzie film Hell or High Water, a movie I enjoyed very much and found to be very intriguing on a number of levels. The Wikipedia entry for the film describes it as a “neo-Western,” a subgenre that, in most interpretations, simply translates the thematic concerns of the genre’s Old West-based sources into contemporary times and settings. That’s a fair assessment, of course, but I nevertheless feel that it’s lacking; it seems to me that a neo-Western need not simply be an Old Western in a new setting (though that may certainly be, and often is, an aspect), but a film that takes the tropes of the traditional Western and adds to them something else, something that traditional Westerns do not explore, that is beyond their purview. Before discussing what this “something else” may be, it will be useful to rehearse what the characteristics of Westerns, generally, are.

First, a Western takes place in the West. “West” here does not imply a particular geographic location, being west of the Mississippi River (one of the finest Westerns of recent years is 2005’s The Proposition, set in the Australian Outback rather than Kansas or west Texas or the Dakota Territory, for instance). To understand what is meant by “West,” it is helpful to remember the predecessors of the genre in 18th and 19th century literature.

The Western develops out of the border romance. “Romance” here does not imply love and sex (though this is often a part of the border romance). I’ll avoid the temptation to rehearse the origins of the word “romance” and its connections to the fall of Western Roman Empire and the many courts and marriages of Eleanor of Aquitaine; suffice it to say that “romance” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was a term used for a prose work of sweeping and grand scale, that explored themes–like war, violence, struggle, death, and heroism–that were traditionally the purview of long-form narrative poetry. The term “novel” was often associated with long prose works concerned with domestic affairs, normally with questions of love and marriage. In America at least, “novel” was often seen as a “feminine,” and thus suspect, sort of intellectual labour. “Romances,” on the other hand, were manly works concerned with sweeping, manly themes. The distinction between novel and romance faded over the course of the 19th century, and “novel” eventually won out as a generic term for any long-form prose fiction.

The development of the Western out of the border romance helps us understand the genre’s broader conceits. The border romance (its chief American practitioners are James Fenimore Cooper and William Gilmore Simms) is concerned with civilization’s edge, and with a man’s engagement with this edge. The border, the frontier, is a liminal space that is always just beyond the edge of civilization, but which is being ever-encroached on by civilization. It is thus caught between unbounded wildness and civilized domesticity, and in this in-between space a man–and in these works, it is always a man–must either conquer wildness for civilization or liberate it (or at least liberate himself) from ever-encroaching civilization.

Thus, as the Western evolves out of the border romance, “the West” becomes identified a place set between unbounded wildness and civilization, the site of contention between two countervailing forces. For historical reasons, a particular geographic area became this site in the second half of the 19th-century in America; thus, we may understand Huck Finn as both the last border romance and the first Western, with its ending of Huck declaring he’ll avoid being “sivilized” by his “light[ing] out for the territories”–for the broad expanses of the West as a geographic region. But for the Western as a genre, “the West” as a location is not a geographic region, but rather this place between civilization and wilderness, a place that is also expansive enough to test ones mettle within the dance of these two countervailing forces. It is wide and open, while also at the same time being precariously positioned between the boundless chaos of the wild and the overly-bounded order of civilization; the West thus has hard boundaries around it–wild on one side, civilization on the other–while also being broad, open, and empty. In this, the West-as-a-place combines the essential characteristics of both countervailing forces within itself, creating a third space, the very existence of which is always and necessarily precarious, inasmuch as one of the two countervailing forces might eventually subsume the other.

This brings us to our second characteristic of the Western–violence. Violence is necessary and endemic to the Western precisely because of the precarious nature of its setting. The Western takes place in a site of conflict–natural, physical, societal, and/or existential–and the hero’s existence within this location necessarily depends on his ability to use violence of some sort. Violence must either be controlled and regulated or, in other cases, forcibly and skillfully utilized. Without utilizing violence, the hero will be destroyed (either directly, or via the desecration of the thing he holds sacred: family, civilization, wilderness, love, greed, etc.) by forces outside of himself, and without utilizing violence properly, the hero (or again, whatever he holds sacred) will be destroyed by his own self.

Violence, in turn, brings us to our third characteristic of the Western–its morality. The Western is certainly the most moral of our genres of film, inasmuch as it is deeply invested in making sense of questions of virtue and vice, distinguishing between these, and wrestling with the consequences of each. The morality of the Western is connected to its violence which is, in turn, connected to its setting in “the West” as a site of conflict. This is not to say that the Western is a Manichean genre, neatly distinguishing between virtue and vice (horror films are the most flatly black-and-white movies in their morals, to my mind). To the contrary, it is almost unique in its willful and active muddying of the lines between the two, a profoundly Aristotelian genre that shows the great difficulty of rightly hitting on the via media. In the Nicomachean Ethics, the Philosopher argues that all virtues are rightly-ordered versions of what would otherwise be vices; too little courage makes one a vicious coward, too much courage makes one a vicious fool with either a deathwish or vain illusions about one’s own strength, but just enough courage makes one properly virtuous, and thus actually possessing the virtue of courage, not some vicious, deformed shadow thereof. Virtue is thus also liminally-situated–just as “the West” is–and the Western, as a genre, neatly fits into an Aristotelian virtue-ethic framework. However, the Western also clearly, and often, articulates just how incredibly difficult it is to arrive at the proper constitution of virtue. Vice in the Western is normally a nihilistic expression of the extremes of wilderness (think Anton Chigruh in No Country For Old Men) or of civilization (think another of Cormac McCarthy’s villians, Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, who keeps a book so that–paraphrasing–“nothing can exist without his mastery over it”). Expressions of virtue in Westerns must thus contend with such vicious extremes that the service of virtue often necessitates extreme actions, which themselves undermine the ability to arrive properly at virtue. Thus the Western hero is often an anti-hero; and even when he is a traditional hero, he often must compromise some part of his code–however briefly–to be able to arrive at something at least approaching a virtuous mean. In many cases, such a virtuous mean is impossible. The complexity of these issues point to why the Western is perhaps the most significantly moral of our narrative genres.

Finally, the Western, in its morality and concomitant (anti-)heroism, is concerned with manhood, and masculinity–its shortcomings, its possibilities, its uses in the pursuit of virtue (through proper use of violence), and its predilections towards vice (through an improper use of violence). The Western is a genre primarily concerned with what manhood means, and how it works; this is true even in a film like the “feminist Western” Meek’s Cutoff, in which masculinity fails, and where the work of manhood has to be taken up by women.

Thus, the characteristics of a Western: a narrative of struggle and existence in a liminal space between civilization and wildness (“the West”), marked by violence necessitated by the demands of engaging morality within the West. In this violent, moral, and vexed landscape, the primary question is the meaning of masculinity, and how manhood helps, limits, or otherwise affects navigation of this violent, moral, and vexed place.

If these are the characteristics of a Western, then what is a neo-Western? Is it simply these same characteristics in a contemporary setting? As stated earlier, I think this is an incomplete assessment. While a contemporary setting may, in fact, be a part of the neo-Western, this subgenre adds an additional thematic layer: in the neo-Western, we are faced with (anti-)heroes who are profoundly aware of their own superfluity. That is, these movies show individuals who recognize that they do not belong in the setting in which they find themselves, but who are unable to exist anywhere else. These are not characters like Huck Finn, who will create for himself a place of stable existence in the territories (or who at least has the belief that such a thing is possible). Nor are they characters like the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s masterful trilogy, who possesses a comfortable existential stability, physically peripatetic as it may be. And while Gary Cooper’s character in the great High Noon may be pulled out of town by his pacifist, Quaker wife and driven out of town by the outlaws, he stands strong in the town because he knows this is where he belongs (the ending of that wonderful movie would take more unpacking than I have time to do here; suffice it to say, I do not think his leaving the town in the end invalidates my previous point, but actually supports it).

However, in the neo-Western, social, economic, and cultural changes have altered the very boundaries of wildness and civilization, to the extent that the heroes do not belong in the liminal space between these countervailing forces anymore than they belong in either one. Further, these same social, economic, and cultural changes have produced a situation in which virtue and vice are even more compromised and complicated than before. Masculinity in this changed world becomes a precarious identity, and how to express it becomes fraught and uncertain; the Man with No Name and Gary Cooper’s High Noon-sheriff do not, and cannot, exist as masculine archetypes to adopt. In this world, existential stability and human flourishing are impossibilities, and characters can only fight to survive and win, at best, small victories that delay the realization of their superfluity. Neo-Westerns, then, are not stories of hope, possibility, and potential thriving (however compromised this potential may be), but stories of mere survival and anxiety.

Or so is my working theory right now; more evidence is required. This means, of course, that I must watch more neo-Westerns, and write about these as I go. Shortly, I’ll be writing about the 2016 thriller Blood Father, starring Mel Gibson, which I watched last night. While not considered a Western, nor a neo-Western, it neatly fits the thematic concerns I outlined above. And while it is not a particularly great movie–ultimately, it’s a satisfying testosterone-fueled beat-’em-up more than anything else–it nevertheless reveals a few things that I think are useful entry points into understanding the neo-Western. That will be my first little write-up (much shorter than this piece), in what I think might turn into a small series of writings on this genre I suddenly find myself fascinated by.

Daybook, 16 June 2017

Getting into the weeds with some intellectual/academic work I’m doing, and will be working on the rest of the summer. I took a little time a day or two back and finished up (insomuch as anything of this sort can ever be “finished”) my library of Anglophone traditionalist conservatism/Christian humanism; there’s some really great stuff freely available there for your perusal.

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

Contemporary neo-traditionalist composer Michael Kurek’s tone poem The Sea Knows:

Daybook, Whitmonday (5 June) 2017

Been away for a couple of weeks, traveling and trying to get back settled into home. Things are now settling in, and I’m getting ready for 10 weeks or so of summertime reading, writing, and work before the new semester begins. I’ve got some academic work to do, and I’ve also got a couple of essays with personal significance to write. I also made the decision to kill all my social media accounts, and am reassessing what sort of public online life (other than this journal) I should be keeping; I hope to come to those conclusions, and put them in place, soon.

My various newsfeeds were all aswim with various things about the contemporary university here recently. Today’s readings are three of the more interesting pieces I came across.

Readings:

Something else:

Today is Whitmonday, the day after Pentecost (Whitsunday in the old English reckoning), and we are thus in Whitsuntide, with Trinity Sunday a few days away and then the long, long time of the Church coming up in the ordo kalendar. Whitsuntide was historically treated as the beginning of summer in Britain, with festivals and parades and brass bands and girls processing in white dresses and parishioners getting together to brew “Whitsun Ales.” It was also one of the three vacation weeks a peasant would have from his agricultural labours and service to his manor lord. As such, one would expect there to be a fair amount of art related to the celebration. But for whatever reason, other than Herbert’s magnificent (if distressing, confusing, and strangely dark) poem “Whitsunday,” there seems to be very little “high” art created in reference to Whitsuntide in Britain. It seems that it was more of a folk festival than anything else–which, reflecting on it a bit, makes a lot of sense, considering what I just said about its being a vacation time for the peasantry.

I did, however, find this Victorian-era folk song about Whitsuntide. It’s both profoundly pious, and also has a bit of the Anglo-Saxon pagan still present in it; it seems that in Victorian times, men would cut oak branches and lay them at the steps of all the houses throughout a parish during this time.

The lyrics are as follows:

Now Whitsuntide is come you very well do know,
Come serve the Lord we must before we do go.
Come serve him truly with all your might and heart
And then from heaven your soul shall never depart.

How do you know how long we have to live?
For when we die oh then what would we give?
For being sure of having our resting place
When we have run our simple wretched race.

Down in those gardens where flowers grow in ranks,
Down on your knees and to the Lord give thanks.
Down on your knees and pray both night and day,
Pray unto the Lord that He will lead the way.

Come all those little children all in the streets we meet
All in their pastimes so even and complete
It’s how you may hear them lie, boast, curse and swear
Before that they do know one word of any prayer.

Now we have brought you all this royal branch of oak,
God bless our Queen Victoria and all the royal folk
God bless our Queen and all this world beside
That the Lord may bless you all this merry Whitsuntide.

Brief Commentary–A Savage War

A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil WarA Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray

An exceptional book, marked by the sophistication of its analysis, yet marred by its narrative style. The authors propose that we must understand the American conflict of 1861-65 in terms of a transitional war, where the eternal lessons of Thucydides meet with the sociological changes wrought by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, especially the new conceptions of nation and citizen. However, the authors make clear that even this sociological revolution still carried with it the old notion of a “decisive victory”–something Lee, especially, was constantly seeking, showing his blindness to the new strategic framework presented by other sets of changes caused by the Industrial Revolution. That Revolution, especially as it picked up steam and grew exponentially more complex and the changes it wrought became greater and greater throughout the first half of the 19th century, presented unprecedented logistical contexts. When these logistics were played out against the sheer continental size of the Confederacy, where most of the War took place, the strategic frameworks of the war and its battles became something largely new in modern history. Both armies learned on the fly–and through creating mountains of corpses–producing a conflict that, in 1861 looked like an 18th century war, and by 1864, eerily presaged what the Western Front would look like 50 years later.

The authors draw heavily on Grant and Sherman’s memoirs, and thus there is a heavy focus on both men as perhaps the two most significant military figures of the War, as well the “hard war” of its closing years. As it is presented here, Sherman’s March to the Sea, and even more so his Carolinas Campaign, was the precursor to the RAF’s Dehousing campaign and Hiroshima–ostensibly necessary brutality to achieve victory through destroying all will on the part of the civilian population to continue the fight. This, in their assessment, is simply how wars are fought, especially a war of this sort with the huge distances, new technologies, and strategic contexts; only a “savage war” could have won it.

But to be clear, in their presentation, a “savage war” could have won it for the South, too. Had Jeff Davis left Joe Johnston–whom they regard as one of the great generals of the War, and a defensive genius–in charge of the Western Theatre in 1864, they suggest his defensive tactics could very well have produced a Fabian strategy that would have resulted in Sherman’s inability to accomplish much of anything except for his own soilders’ loss of blood. The authors suggest that this, combined with the tactical genius that allowed Lee to survive in Virginia despite the odds against him at this time, could have destroyed political support for the cause in the North, thus costing Lincoln the election and bringing a President McClellan to the bargaining table with Richmond. Because of the new, and ever evolving, strategic and logistical contexts of this conflict, savage war–whether breaking the will of the Confederate populace through sheer domination or bleeding a Union army stuck in neutral to the point of Northern exasperation and acquiescence–was the only way this war would end.

The authors show Grant is perhaps the only general who understands this early on, and thus they emphasize the early years in the Western theatre. Lee and the Southerners’ brilliant victories in the early years in the East mattered little, as they could never achieve that “decisive” Napoleonic victory; meanwhile, in the West, Grant was systematically using the logistical and industrial might of the North to destroy Southern railroads, communication, river traffic, and food production, ensuring that the Army of Northern Virginia would (eventually) be crippled. Thus, even though the authors resist the classic narrative that the North would necessarily win just from sheer numbers–Shelby Foote’s notion that the North “fought with one hand tied behind its back”–their argument actually shows just that to be the case, with some important caveats. Grant, in their view, isn’t just throwing men into the grinder, knowing that the Confederates will run out of men before he does; rather, they connect the North’s population, industrial, financial, and logistical superiority to the proper strategic and political contexts and decisions, and suggest that Grant was engaging those frameworks through leveraging the numerical superiority of the North.

So yes, this is a Grant-heavy, and to a lesser extent a Sherman-heavy, book. But there is also great praise for Southern generals. Lee is shown to lack a necessary strategic imagination, but to be as tactically brilliant as his legend shows him to be (even if his pride and myopia led him to some tactical blunders, most notoriously Pickett’s Charge). Johnston and Longstreet also come in for praise, as does Jackson–shown as a ferocious, hard man much more than a gallant, pious Christian knight. There is also real praise for N.B. Forrest, whom the authors implicitly regard as having led what amounts to a nigh-invincible special forces/commando team that the Confederates could never quite figure out what to do with. Forrest comes off as a mad genius and perhaps the single-greatest, and certainly most sui generis, military mind of the conflict; the authors mention, though refuse to speculate in any length, what things would have been like had Forrest been given command of a corps, much less an army.

The book is also provides strong analysis of the politics of the war–everything from the incompetence of the various political-appointee generals who hampered the Northern war effort, to the noxious, petty command cultures of the Armies of the Potomac and Tennessee, to Jeff Davis’s petty favoritism and myopic micro-management of the Western Theatre that doomed the Confederacy well before the fall of Atlanta, to the aforementioned need for Lincoln’s reelection, and the way both his leadership in Washington and the battlefield performances of Sherman and Grant ensured that happened. Thus, the authors provide us with a sweeping and comprehensive analysis of the War from multiple perspectives. From an analytical standpoint, the book is dynamite.

However, the book suffers in its narrative passages and in certain verbal tics by the authors. For one, having two authors does in places reveal itself, as it sometimes moves from rather sober language to strange attempts at black humor and snark; this is jarring and makes for strange reading. And while the book does have an obvious rah-rah-Union quality (unsurprising for a host of reasons, not least of which being the authors’ employment at the Naval Academy, and thus an almost-certain interest in defending a particular vision of America one can trace forward from Lincoln to the Global War on Terror), one of the narrative voices often slips into something close to vitriol directed at the South, a sort of implied “the bastards got what was coming to them, and should have had it worse, and it would have been fine and dandy.” This may fit your politics (or not), but it tends to take away from the sober, scholarly detachment the book cultivates throughout. A scholarly assessment briefly becoming a political screed, only to see a quick return to a scholarly assessment, is just fundamentally odd and distracting.

Finally, and most egregiously, the book’s one-volume treatment of the entirety of the War leads to narrations of battles and campaigns that often feel quite leaden. In attempting to fit so much information into so (relatively) few pages, the narrative and descriptive passages become very often inelegant, confusing, and hard-to-read, like the small, compressed comments under maps one would find in a history textbook. As so much of the book is narrative, this becomes a real liability for its overall success.

Nevertheless, despite the problems with narrative and the linguistic oddities, this book is a masterpiece of historical analysis that situates the War into the overall history of the evolution of human conflict in ways I had not encountered before. Its insistence on the significance of the Western theatre, especially early on, and the ways in which industrialism, new modes of nationalism and patriotism post-1789, and the emergence of new transportation and communication technologies made for novel logistical challenges combine to make clear there was only one winning strategy: that of savage war. For perhaps the first time in modern military history, tactical brilliance and decisive victories wouldn’t cut it. Rather, what would win this war would be something akin to what we saw centuries before, and had come to forget: something like the rapacious destruction of the Huns, the grinding exhaustion of the Fabian strategy of the Second Punic War, or the totalizing violence of the Pelopennesian War. We might thus see this as the last of the Ancient wars rather than the first “modern” war; Lincoln came to understand this, Jeff Davis never did, and their respective managements of their armies followed suit. And in so many words, that, in the authors’ analysis, is why the North won.

Brief Commentary–Clay’s Quilt

Clay's QuiltClay’s Quilt by Silas House

A warm and deeply enjoyable first novel that makes me want to read more of House’s fiction. This novel evokes place (Appalachian Kentucky), time (the mid-1990s), people (working-class whites), and all of their associated tendencies and complications with nuance, power, and effective emotion. It’s not some nostalgic paean to the good ol’ days, but rather a serious, sober look at the hows and whys of a people in a time-and-place that unflinchingly presents this people, warts and all. Inasmuch as this is “Southern” fiction, we’d expect expressions of time and place to be paramount, and they are here. However, House’s emphasis here is on the people, and the people’s connection to one another, and how it is the people who shape place. The hollers House shows us are places his characters cannot quit not because of anything about the places themselves, but rather because these are the places where an individual finds others who have similarly survived and lived and endured those joys, pains, and feelings of the inscrutability of existence. And that last notion–the inscrutability of existence–is written across and throughout the novel, especially in how House pairs hard-drinking honky-tonking with Pentecostal religiosity. In his presentation, both of these seemingly inimical experiences and ways of life are both equally prescient means of wrestling with how little control we have over existence, with how strange and mysterious being alive is, and means of living these tensions and ambiguities in community. And it is community–people, shared life–that this novel is about, and the things that attempt to undermine and destroy it, but how resilient it is, at least in this particular time and place.

Daybook, 19 May 2017

Today is my tenth wedding anniversary. I don’t know anything to say that would sufficiently express how deeply happy and in love I am, and how greatly I appreciate my wife; suffice it only to say that I love her and am eagerly awaiting the next ten years.

Today’s readings are totally unrelated to marriage.

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

This being my wedding anniversary, I thought a few artistic representations of marriage might be appropriate here today:

First, Lajos Deák-Ébner’s 1888 Marriage Procession:

David Teniers de Jonge’s Peasant Wedding from 1650 (I love the detail here of the church so far removed from the center of the action–the ceremony may have taken place there, but the wedding is itself about the life of all of these people in connection with one another):

And then, this–not a painting of a wedding, but of a moment from a marriage itself. Peder Severin Krøyer’s 1899 Summer Evening at the Skagen Beach. The Artist and His Wife:

Daybook, 17 May 2017

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

A detail from the altar of the Lutheran parish church in Krems in Kärnten, Austria.

Daybook, 16 May 2017

Been away for a long time. Let’s just get back to the joys of publishing a Daybook somewhat regularly.

Readings:

I mentioned the library a moment ago. I’m working on finally finishing it. I’ll also be doing some expansions of it, especially the Christianity side of it. My hope is that by midsummer I will have a collection of resources up here that will make this site (finally!) live up to its name–Ex Libris Humanitas.

Something Beautiful:

Being the sucker I am for pretty much everything Ralph Vaughn Williams ever wrote, I’ve been quite excited to find his Piano Concerto in C Major here recently:

Quote and Commentary, Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time

From near the end of this slow-burning, painful-yet-lovely novel:

…but when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore really nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, that very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember. (pg 231 of the 2010 Graywolf Press Edition)

I Curse the River of Time is a bit of a sequel to Petterson’s earlier novel, To Siberia. That book concerns the maturation of a young provincial Danish girl from her childhood in the early 1930s to her young womanhood in the aftermath of World War II, and the overwhelming, larger-than-life presence of her older brother, Jesper, an adventurous spirit and person with no feeling of satisfaction in life, always looking to be great, to do great things. And that novel ends with the nameless young woman–the narrator–pregnant by a Norwegian man some years her elder, finding herself rejected of her family, and realizing that her life was over, except all the rest of it. This novel is the story of her son–not the one she’s pregnant with earlier, but the next one born to her of the same man–Arvid, 37 and going through a divorce, reliving his life on a day with his mother, dying of cancer, in her little Danish seaside hometown.

Well, Arvid does not relive his own life in toto, though there are a few glimpses of moments from childhood, adolescence, and recent years. The majority of the novel splits itself between his living in this particular day and remembering his life at 20, 21, a college dropout idealist, with a girlfriend of 17 or 18 and a factory job he’s taken as a way of feeling as if he’s doing something important, as a way of living out his ideals–in this, he’s like his Uncle Jesper, who was never satisfied. And while we do not know the causes of his divorce, or much about his life in his 30s generally, we are lead to find Arvid’s time in that factory and with that young girlfriend as a moment of turning, of transition, of his idealism (specifically his Communism) defining his life away from something mundane to something he desires and wants to be great and significant. But such is foolishness. Arvid will never be satisfied; he only plays at his ideals. He is simply a man for whom life, mere life will never be good enough. He is not a man who, as his mother said all those years before, claim that life can be over, except for the rest of it.

And thus is what Arvid faces here, making these ruminations on the day after the Berlin Wall has fallen, his ideals–and his essential, hyper-idealistic pettiness–symbolically crashing around him, knowing his mother will be dead, and being filled with regret.

We must not be afraid to live. We must not let the perfect vision of life intrude upon and destroy a version of a good life. And we must learn this before 37, lest we stand, like Arvid, thinking only of death fearfully, regretfully, with no life left to us, with all the life allotted us wasted on chasing impossibilities.

Daybook, 9 February 2017

April in February continues, though today is cooler (with blustery winds blowing) than it has been in several days. Nevertheless, it is a positively lovely day, and I’m sitting here listening to Haydn’s The Seasons oratorio, preparing to teach Henry Timrod’s long, complex poem “The Cotton Boll” in a couple of hours, and generally thinking about all of the good work there is to do today.

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

I hesitate to call this something truly “beautiful,” as I know I am not a very talented photographer, and this shot is, in obvious ways, quite pedestrian, but I was quite taken by this tableau as I was walking through campus the other day: