Archive for January, 2011

A Jigsaw: Libraries, Archives, and Wolf-Haunted Hills

I sat in the Mississippi Archives this week.  I felt completely lost.  Several hours were spent hoping that being with some close proximity to vast amounts of information would result in some mystical, osmotic appropriation of those elusive tidbits of knowledge that I desperately require.  Hours went by, and I found a few crumbs.  Certainly they reassure me that there is a feast somewhere, but I have yet to find it.  I think the amusing and irrelevant information that I gleaned made it all worthwhile, but it helped only a small amount in my journey of surviving this Bibliography and Research class.  It is an infuriating, terrifying, and spectacular journey.

While I sat in that spacious room, enjoying the atmosphere of elusive knowledge and the imagined smell of dusty tomes, inchoate thoughts slipped through my concentration and took flight.  I refused to acknowledge it at the time; now, however, safely beyond those walls, I will let my mostly-forgotten memories tease me with hints of might-have-been grandeur.  This research I am pursuing is nothing new to me.  In fact, I believe I have been doing this all my life.  My formative years have been spent scouring every bit of knowledge I could find, searching for some nebulous iota that would lead me on to another iota, and another iota, until I finally stumbled across some effulgent pearl that would make sense of all my foolish questions and incoherent answers.  I looked everywhere, hopelessly hoping that something would be relevant.  Somewhere within my piles of dictionaries, encyclopedias, books by Barrie, Hugo, Tolkien, Tolstoy, Milton, Twain, Wodehouse, and every other writer my paper-cut fingers could touch—from the grand and genius to the most obscure novelist I could find, even delving into the most forgotten corners of the Tyler Public Library’s fantasy and science fiction section—there had to be vital minutiae of Truth.

I was charmingly naïve in my understanding of my own pursuits.  I never thought I found much of anything.  There were quotable little axioms that illuminated my development and steered me in some direction or another, but I was never struck with any epiphany.  Only of late have I begun to realize what I had was exactly what I had been looking for.  These authors and so many more were tiny and unbelievably important moments in a story that followed my clumsy, knock-kneed stumbling towards maturity.

However, at the same time there are two images whispering from some crevice of my mind in an odd contrast with the previous few comments.  The first image is of a man named Silas Marner, the second is of a boy named Eustace.  It would be pernicious to these two to reduce them to specious extensions of myself, so I will attempt not to do so by saying that they exemplify a part of me, or anything of that sort.  They are so formed (varying in degree depending on the skill of the author) that they are far more than merely a personified flaw.  No, I believe that we three share something however, and in seeing them, I see myself all the better.  The first, Silas Marner, is from the George Eliot novel of that same name which I began reading over the break (and, unfortunately, have yet to finish; however, I don’t think anything I intend to say shortly will be too wounded for my failure).  To grossly generalize: Silas Marner is a miserly old fool.  He is a wounded, disillusioned man who has little in his life but constant weaving and counting his otiose coins.  It is a simple stereotype, but it is taken by Eliot and portrayed with such dignity and respect for Marner, such tender love and forgiveness, such understanding and care, that it is startling.  The second image is of Eustace from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, after they have come to (if I remember correctly) the second island where Eustace stumbles upon the dragon’s cave.  It is not so much the adventure of Eustace’s greed leading to his transformation into a dragon that piques my interest at the moment; instead, it is the other dragon who crawls away from his hoard to die that strikes me presently.

These two images are merely floating there, hinting at something.  I have spent my life collecting things: I have a few hundred books to my name, countless stories in my head that I do not own, countless stories  I have created, countless experiences I have lived, and so forth.  And, yet, it strikes me that I am merely collecting them.  They have pushed me forward into a different person, certainly, but that happened along the way.  In hindsight, these jewels of experience in this world are merely ornamental to me much of the time.  I sit on my collection, squirming this way and that atop it to find the most comfortable spot, and, perhaps, occasionally pull out one of the prettier pieces to polish and admire, perhaps show a friend to incite their jealousy.  But I am a miser, a collector.  There is a story-teller far greater than me, and I am his character (and somewhere in the distance, a Hubelaic voice says, “Yes, you are quite a character”).  I must hold onto the knowledge that these things are not happenstance, they are not merely chance memories that can cheer me in the future’s darker days.  I have a sense that they must have some meaning, that they must be more than simply steps along my way, and I am desperate to discover what this meaning is.  I have been collecting for so very long, and it has yet to bear any fruit (at least any fruit that satisfies my perhaps foolhardy and mistaken expectations).

This last puzzle piece is far distant compared the those preceding, but I will let it rest here regardless.  I am reading Beowulf.  It has been a magnificent struggle attempting to fit myself into this world.  It is a dark world.  It is a world at the edge of Faery, bordered by misty mountains inhabited by dragons, traversed by giants and dwarves, spangled with Fairy Queens and witches and wights.  It is a world of inescapable and impenetrable darkness.  We see that “darkening night deepened over all, / and black, shadowy shapes swept forward / under clouds.”  Beowulf, as he seeks out the cave of Grendel’s mother, finds that Grendel lives “in land unknown, / on wolf-haunted hills, windy headlands, / perilous fen-paths where the mountain stream / plunges down into the headlands’ mists, / flows beneath the earth.”  It seemed at such odds with my metropolitan world of streetlights and orange Jackson skies.  It took some time and too many nightmares to realize that this dichotomy did not exist at all.  I realized that this world of “wolf-haunted hills” was the self-same world I grew up in.  That same shiver in my spine as Grendel draws ever closer to the somnolent Beowulf in Heorot is that which I felt as I wandered in the night along a piney wood near my church, imagining and feeling the wild beasts just beyond the impenetrable shadows and intertwined fingers of the trees.  It was the same terror of being lost in a twilit fog when only a small boy.  In all of these were the utter surrender to fear, and complete refusal to simply flee; the overwhelming pressure of helplessness and the resurgent palpitations of my heart that infused me with foolish bravado stubbornly opposed to escape.  These are the fears that the iron gates and pale, septic streetlights attempt to fend off.

There is a line running from each of these pieces to the next—from research to Beowulf, and beyond: to a piece (fully painted and complete its own right, but merely a piece) with my dad, hurting me for something my brother had done; to a piece with questions and doubts of God; to a piece with myself, lying in my little cave as a child, an unhappy knife in my hands, and an uncontrollable fear in my heart.  I suspect I have already spewed forth enough incoherence for one evening.  There are stories to be read and to be written.  I should move on, and leave this for you few readers.

An addendum:  I just stumbled across this passage from Beowulf:

“Then under his guard his heart is hit

with sharp-filled arrows he cannot fend,

with the devil’s dark crooked promptings;

what he’s held long seems all too little:

greedy he hoards, without honor gives

no golden rings, forgets and neglects

what is to come…. (Greenfield 1745-51).

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The Piercing Eye Dims and Darkens

Today I ran through sere grass and over felled oak trees far older than me.  It was a comfortably cool day, and the overcast sky sealed in the world above me, granting the world that comfortably claustrophobic air.  I trespassed through thirty acres of East Texas former woods that had been mutilated terribly.  I leapt from fallen trunk to fallen trunk, stepping quickly from one dead giant to the next.  There was a repetitive grumble from a half-mile-distant water treatment plant which, along with the scene before and beneath me, brought to mind the fallen Isengard.

I visit graveyards in the East Texas area.  This is one of the dearest activities to my heart.  I will occasionally go with a friend, but in truth I think it is always best when alone.  These winter months are far the best times to visit, though more melancholy.  The hidden cemeteries that are spangled through East Texas resonate with me in a way that no other places have.  I have often wondered what draws me back to the resting places of the long dead and often forgotten.  There is something in the removed antiquity that many of the more remote cemeteries have which fascinates me.  The century old sepulchers, washed out and dilapidated, often with barely legible names and epitaphs upon their surfaces, appeal to me in an odd way.  This attraction I am able to grasp easily.  But there is something that even more recent cemeteries also have which takes hold of my heart, and I have yet to be able to name it. Part of this attraction is certainly a hint of morbidity which lingers with me.  This does not seem quite all, though.  Standing in thick grass beneath a few scattered oaks with all around me tombstones as grey as the winter sky, or standing on a small hill with pastures that stretch towards the horizons for miles inhabited by curious cows, with graves of dead soldiers from wars long passed lying all around me is…I don’t know what.  I could glue on awkward adjectives I suppose—beautiful, thrilling, aesthetic, invigorating, melancholy, or poignant—but these do not make sense of it to me.  There is a wonderful glimpse which permeates these cemeteries—only the most insufficient of glimpses—of stories untold or forgotten.  In the withered flowers lying before one, in the cracked headstone here, in the bleached picture there,or in the names of the long dead, I can see scattered sentences of novels, and, though I shall never read them in whole, I know these stories intimately.

There is a grey tendril and a melancholy that connect these two things: the acres of fallen oaks and the cemeteries.  They are both terribly good.  For all the sadness and mortality that is subsumed beneath these things, they are good, somehow.

My head and my chest ache, and it is time to end.  These experiences are all tied to questions that have plagued me for a long while.  Questions of a Christian’s purpose in life, and of a Christian’s manner of living have been floating around my mind as I wrote this.  There are little filaments that flicker briefly between these various things but have yet to glow brightly.  I suppose I shall wait until they lighten to consider such things.

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