For our purposes of understanding the dilemmas of the present day,
perspective can be a wonderful study tool, can it not?
Our only problem to date with perspective seems to be its Dopplerian
nature because we seldom know where we stand in our own time whenever it is that
we have chosen to revisit history. When
we do travel back in time, we examine the written record which invariably
includes interpretations of literature as well as the catalogue of historic
In the last two decades, T. S. Eliot has been both praised and vilified
for his commentary on human behavior. CATS
was brought to the Broadway stage as Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical interpretation
of Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical
since the show's premiere, there has been a tussle of criticism (in literary
circles) over Eliot's perceived anti-Semitic writings.
And therein may lie our dualistic problem with perspective--perception.
I enjoyed the verse as well as the musical.
I've also read some of Eliot's other works while in college though well
before academia construed them to be anti-Semitic.
Thus, I recently concluded that I must be living in some out-of-sync era
because I have not been able to understand this modern criticism of Mr. Eliot.
If turnabout is indeed fair play, then it seems that the literary critics
should pay heed to my perspective as well.
Some would say that our notion of April was forever changed when Eliot
pronounced it the "cruelest month" in The
Waste Land. How many times
since have we seen this line quoted in the print media whenever there's so much
as a cloudy day in April? And yet,
it's hard for one to believe that this stern passage was penned by the same man
who poked fun at us and the perceived importance of our own names in The Naming of Cats:
...of the thought of his name, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
Well, any hint of freshness in April was wrung out in 1922 with the
publication of The Waste Land and we
didn't have to wait much longer until the critics sought quotable modifiers for
each of the remaining months. This eyeshaded brassiness led to the maligning of October
after the stock market crash in 1929. Even
"Bloody Friday" took it on the chin!
And it was all as if something dire had never happened on an October
So whatever happened to the kinder, gentler times when our children could
make jest of the months when playing in the schoolyard?
If April showers bring May flowers, then what do Mayflower's
cruel about April here! Only a
kid's attempt to humor his chums at the expense of the Puritans.
Fortunately, for those of us living in West Virginia, April is anything
but cruel. Our forested Appalachian
hills muffle the echoes of even neighborly criticism--mine included.
April is considered our good friend, teasing us
like schoolchildren with her green wisps and flowery swatches of Nature's new
fashion collection. April has her
flair for being, too. For us, an
Appalachian April is the month of re-birth.
Well there! I've had my go at naming months!
Perhaps we all do because it came as a surprise to me that no less a
student of the Appalachian hills and
of T. S. Eliot, the venerable Dorothy Davis, had figured mightily during her
teaching career that September, if not altogether cruel, was at least the
"dreaded month". Why
September? 'Twas the month when school went into session for most of her
career. Oh, to be sure, you could
understand a charmless, hot and humid August as being a teacher's nightmare.
That's when we march to the bus stops nowadays.
But for bygone generations, Labor Day was the bellwether that signaled
when summer was done and school days began.
She first told me of this prejudice one winter's day while she stoked the
fireplace. There, at the end of
South Dale Street in Salem, sits the house built by her father-in-law, the
town's physician, and it, probably as did he, surveys the goings-on in Salem
with a professional's detachment. Often,
when I'd stop by in winter, Dorothy and I would talk on and on about the
nonsensical and inconclusive state of world and national affairs.
I suppose there were times when we took ourselves seriously but, surely,
that was at the beginning of the hour and not near the end.
Because at the end of our chats, we'd usually arrive at the same
conclusion: namely, that life in
general really hasn't changed in all these years even though we're quick to say
that it has.
In retirement, her perception of September had changed.
There can be no doubt that September's harvest is a reminder of why we
toil all spring and summer. It's
that time of final ripening that allows us to reflect on the amount of rain and
sun and weeds and bugs that the growing season brought us.
All at once, bushels of vegetables tell us the numbers in the latest
inning of the game between man and Nature.
And no matter what the score or the sum total of our errors, we usually
conclude that victory was ours for the taking.
That wintry day when she first expounded on September wasn't a
particularly cold one. But the
fireplace was lit and the hearth stocked with Osage-orange logs, a hearty,
crackling wood seeming just right for inviting two armchair philosophers to
discuss the merits of life and living. And
the crackling nature of that wood, while never quite as predictable as our
conversations, nevertheless seemed to accentuate our remarks.
In the years following her retirement, when dictated schedules began to
disappear, Dorothy became appreciative of all the months.
January, she said, allowed her to be "cloistered" and tend to
the work delayed by the holidays. From
then on, each month had its purpose. Christmas
at South Dale Street began with the first blooms of May because she was eager to
dry the flowers. Throughout summer
and fall, she'd glue the petals to hand-made Christmas cards. Though it was never mentioned, I always supposed that the
haiku she wrote for the greeting was actually composed in June or July.
The potatoes she dug in October were husbanded in the cellar for
year-round use as starter for the salt-rising bread which she baked and shared,
seven loaves to the batch. Deadlines
for newspaper columns and demands for her thoroughly-researched historical
sketches made for timely interruptions. (A
Doctor of Letters shouldn't be too
consumed by the seasonal chores!) And
so went the progressions of the seasons at the two-storied Victorian house on
South Dale Street--a virtual symphony of sowing, tending, harvesting, and using
all mixed together with research, writing, and an all-too-brief cloistered
respite between years.
She hired a workman to install a gas heater in the fireplace when the
drudgery and mess of the log fire caught up with her a few years ago.
Made to look like logs ablaze, this new contraption gave the Gas Company
its due but little warmth to the homesteader, the heat going up the flue rather
than into the room. This
blue-flamed fire was no substitute for the occasions when the Osage-orange
popped and crackled. In fact, based
on this one example of technology gone awry, I think our conversations turned to
deriding all of the modern substitutes that pretend to capture the warmth of
their predecessors. And once, while
I roundly cursed modernity and its pretense at personality, she stopped me in
mid-breath to offer this famous quotation:
"May you live in interesting times!"
Then she was the one heard
cursing as she couldn't recall who had said it!
"Oh damn!", she roared, "I've lost my nouns!"
(With "nouns" being pronounced, "nownz".)
That may seem odd to you. After
all, our English teachers, retired or otherwise, aren't supposed to mock the
language. But the drawl with which she so richly tarnished
"nouns" was so deft as to lend the word only a valued patina.
Ever since, I've often brought to mind that quote, "May you live in
interesting times!", and it makes me come to think that its author wanted
us to seize on the interesting moments in our own lives rather than dwell on a
disinterested historian's retelling of events.
It may be read either way, though. I'm
sure that the Roaring Twenties had at least one saloon full of boors. And I'm certain that our Civil War had regiments of the
disinterested as well as non-combatants. Alas,
in history, both eras qualify as interesting times.
Isn't our present day as interesting as life has ever been?
With access to multimedia, we know so much gossip!
We simultaneously complain that we know too
much while brazenly asking for more. Whether
our taste for scandal is comparable to an addiction or chewing gum losing its
flavor is academic--we do live in interesting times.
From time to time, Dorothy and I concluded that the skunks in office
today probably didn't smell any worse than yesteryear's.
We recalled Warren Harding (whose own father told him that if he'd been
born a girl then he'd always be in the family way) as being a standard of
comparison. Indeed, unless the
people of the future elect Ben Dover to the presidency, then Harding's currency
will remain intact. And while lack
of personal integrity seemed to be the
one thing that we concluded had deteriorated, we then paused to reconsider our
argument. If past generations had
had the lack of censure as we do today, would they have cheated any less?
Most likely they would have done the same, which is: Obey the standards
that your era demands.
Philosophy or no, these discussions sometimes left us with a hint of sadness. We weren't trying to judge our peers as being inferior but were regretful to see that today's youngsters would likely not be exposed to the ideals that make men and women reach for the stars. In the present era, we have sought the common denominator, the Lake Woebegone children, whose creator, Garrison Keillor, said were "all above-average". It should not be. But we have made it so and we've proved the results statistically.
In time, people will tire of the blissful mirage of Lake Woebegone.
The pursuit of ideals eventually springs forth even in a desert.
This same phenomenon caused our forbears to leave home and seek new
shores and will, no doubt, do so again.
Since the beginning of civilization, hope has been marred by sadness,
only to revive itself. Adam and
Eve, upon learning of the escalating feud between their sons, most likely warmed
to the crackle of their campfire and asked of each other, "How could this
happen?" As nouns did not
exist prior to them, can we even begin to imagine their bewilderment?
So then, was that the moment of our genesis--this living in what we call
Perhaps someday, a young person puzzled by the mystery of life will warm
to my hearth and ask of me for a philosophy that he or she can recognize as
being true. When that day arrives,
then I too shall recall that wonderfully puzzling quotation, "May you live
in interesting times!" And
when asked for attribution, I'll be able to answer forthrightly that a
credentialed scholar, published historian, and esteemed friend named Dorothy
Davis coined that blessing.
That is to say, until the time comes when I've lost my
Copyright 1997, David G. Allen