"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Aphrodite, Vardaman Bundren, And Ivan Ilyich

“Aphrodite…??”, said Henry Clint.

“Well, not Aphrodite perhaps.  Maybe Diana, but certainly not purple velvet Venus”, Travis replied. “It was not a love affair.  We talked about fish”.

“How cold, scaly, and unromantic”

“Remember Vardaman in Faulkner? He thought his mother was a fish and none of his brothers or his sister ever asked him why.  He had no way of dealing with death, so he thought of his mother as a fish, one of the catfish he had pulled out of the Yazoo and carried to his family.”

Travis Call was not dealing well with getting older, and passing 70 was particularly difficult. “The last milestone on the road”, he said, and the way is only getting rougher. What was most worrying to his wife was his preoccupation.  “We all die alone”, he said to her one evening over dinner; and began to become more reclusive.  Always an extrovert, his jettisoning of old friends was unsettling.  He spent more and more time by himself reading. Except for his once a year visits to Blaine, Arkansas, a small town and the home of Harold Blum, a former professor of his who had retired there and had asked him to visit.  One visit became another and after a few years Travis was as much a fixture in the town as his mentor.

“On those trips I threw my line over the side and was happy with whatever I caught. The fish were interesting all right – spackled, lean, red, purple stripes, mullet, bream, bass and trout – but fish nonetheless.  I found new acquaintances and cursory friendships as disappointing as Kant and Heidegger.  What was the point?”

Dostoyevsky understood the point, and in the last lines of The Death of Ivan Ilyich he wrote of Ivan’s final reconciliation with death:

"And death...where is it?"

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

"It is finished!" said someone near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Dostoyevsky gave some perspective, and so did Shakespeare and the Buddhists.  We are either all revolving on a Wheel of Becoming or cogs in the The Grand Mechanism. 

Soon, however he gave literature and philosophy a pass; and since he had pulled in his lines, was no longer trolling for fish, and had even given up his old friends, his life was becoming more circumscribed and narrower than ever.

Trolling was great fun while it lasted. He met hillbillies, crackers, shit-kickers, preppers, conspiracy theorists, down-to-the river Baptists, good ol’ boys, and plain folk who drove trucks and hauled cotton seed.  It was an eye-opener, a privileged look behind the scenes, in the back of tool sheds, barns, and garages.  In closets, under carpets, and on porch swings. Lives which should have been kept under wraps were revealed to him, the outlier, the interloper, the outsider, trustworthy and mum because he was from elsewhere, patient, curious, and never critical.

As soon as the trolling began, it was over.

His wife could not understand, for she was centered, practical, and positive. “Your vital signs are good, your actuarial tables even better.  What on earth are you so worried about?, she asked.

Marta Evans did not change all that.  She and Travis were travelling companions, not lovers.  She knew about Vardaman Bundren and the fish. Their friendship did not lesson the anxiety about death, but was as absolute and final. 

“We make quite a pair”, she said one day. “Two people without the gumption to jump into the Mississippi, get drunk and lie on the floor, or just float away.”

Yet they were a pair, spent more and more time together, and everyone thought that they were in love; except that because of the connection between them – an objective, appraising, but critical look at death – there was no passion, expectation, jealousy, or longing.  They had long ago given up trying to figure out what death and dying were all about.  They were unlike Tolstoy’s Levin who struggled to understand what life was all about - why were we put on earth in the first place?  What perverse God could have given them intelligence and soul and then consigned them to the cold clay of the Russian steppes after but a few decades?

For Marta and Travis, it was not only too late to be worriers like Levin or Ivan Ilyich.  Their companionship did not solve any puzzle nor did it give them hope or respite.  It especially did not expand or double their understanding or multiply their serenity.  It was far more basic.  They both understood a profound thing profoundly.

The relationship between Travis and Marta did not upset or damage his marriage.  It was not a love affair after all, and his wife never begrudged him his friendships or probed his reasons.  She was not jealous of his time away nor of his deepening connection with Marta.  She was glad that he was less obsessed and preoccupied, more accessible and available.  It was his peculiar, rewarding, and satisfying ménage à trois that hurt no one, and his wife did not mind that it did not benefit her. 

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