The More Things Change, and Remain, in a Maine Education
One of the great things to be gotten from reading literature is the sense — which may be either vexing or comforting, depending, I suspect, on the age of the reader — that nothing changes very much or very quickly.
My English classes at Watershed School are reading, respectively, The Canterbury Tales and The Great Gatsby. It's no stretch even for a ninth-grader to look at the gaudy debauchery of West Egg in the Roaring Twenties and see a gilded reflection of Wall Street at the dawn of the twenty-first century. But to revisit Chaucer today is, in some ways, even more startling. Among the twenty-nine souls bound for Canterbury are half a dozen men and women of the cloth — only one of whom can be said to practice what he preaches, living a life of chastity, devotion, and service to the poor. The others have succumbed (quite happily, for the most part) to worldly temptations like greed, vanity, and the pleasures of the flesh. It's easy to imagine Chaucer's Monk embroiled in a fourteenth-century child-sex-abuse scandal — with a blustering bishop right behind him, eager to sweep the sordid affair under the carpet.
Things do change in literature, of course. But the change happens slowly, by degrees. The past is always present, wrapped in new cloth. Joyce's latter-day Ulysses — a meticulous, self-effecting Jew named Leopold Bloom — ranges widely through the streets of Dublin but returns in the end to his waiting Penelope: same as it ever was.
Or consider this, as a working proposition: Paul Bunyan chopping down the North Woods equals (roughly) Sir Gawain defeating the Green Knight, champion of the heathen forests of Old Europe, equals the Ur-hero Gilgamesh slaying the monster Humbaba, protector of the Cedar Forest that once covered modern Iraq. Characters like these appear in modern fiction, too, and will no doubt continue to do so as long as there are any trees left. So there's a depressing sort of continuity, but finally there is change as well. By the mid-twentieth century, tree-killing no longer seemed quite so heroic. Despoiling country estates by cutting down rows of grandfatherly oaks was, for Evelyn Waugh, the height of modern vulgarity. And for Tolkein it was worse. His Saruman, leveling Fanhorn Forest to fuel his diabolical engines, is just plain evil.
What's different here is not the act itself nor even the people who perform it. Cutting down a tree is still, you know, cutting down a tree. The guy who does it for a living may have traded his noble steed for a Dodge Ramcharger, but he still commands respect at the village campfire. For that matter, Gatsby's mansion on Long Island is surely less sumptuous than the Athenian palace in "The Knight's Tale." What has changed is the way we feel about such things. Or to put it another way, the difference is not the story; it's the audience. "The spectacle of Nature is always changing," as Goethe wrote, "because Nature is always changing the spectators."
In discovering this principle of continuity within change, of the old always embedded within the new, poets and novelists might be said to have stumbled upon the basic truth of evolution — ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny — centuries before Darwin embarked on H.M.S. Beagle. Mapping the human genome is a worthy enterprise, no doubt. It's always interesting to discover what we're made of. But storytellers have been engaged in this kind of activity for at least a few millennia now. It's all right there in literature: the history of the human soul, neatly mapped out.
I was planning to type out this blog post on my new iPad, which, as you probably know, is being hyped as a revolutionary device. Generally speaking, I don't believe in revolution anymore. Nothing is all that new. The iPad is immensely cool, but it's also a direct descendent of the smooth white paper on which I once played with finger paint, or the clay tablets into which the Epic of Gilgamesh was, after a long period of oral transmission, finally etched out in finished form. The more I play around with it, the more familiar it feels. I'm just still getting the hang of the damn keyboard, is all.
No sudden moves: that's what I say. That's what Barack Obama says. That's what my favorite books seem to say as well. I'm of an age to take comfort in that.