From “You Can’t Go Home Again” by Thomas Wolfe
“Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time under the hoof of the beast above broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life like April.”
An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
A year after the last presidential election we can hardly be blamed for feeling a bit like Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber at the start of his famous novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Arriving in the early 1920s in “Libya Hill,” the home of his boyhood (a thinly veiled reference to a place you know well), Webber discovers a boom going on.
Real estate speculation is making many people rich but not compassionate; in fact, the opposite. Everyone seems to be out for the main chance, corporate chieftains are martinets who seek to create needs, not satisfy them, and, as one reviewer put it, “salesmanship is the enemy of truth.”
What’s more, Webber discovers himself to be persona non grata for an earlier novel he wrote that exposed embarrassing secrets of his family and friends. Eventually, circumstances lead him to high-tail it out of town.
Soon afterward, the town finds its comeuppance with the arrival of the Great Depression, which wipes out much of the elusive wealth accumulated in previous years. And Webber takes off to Europe to sulk and brood. //
With the stock market last week soaring to new heights while tax legislation is moving through Congress that promises to enrich the wealthy, multiply the nation’s ballooning debt and punish lower-income Americans, the picture Wolfe drew nearly a century ago is beginning to feel eerily familiar.
Add to that the culture of lying and deceit that is settling in in the halls of power in this country, and the perfidy and flagrant violation of trust of powerful men who blithely dismiss, diminish or deny well-documented allegations of assault and abuse, and we can hardly be blamed for, like George Webber, wanting to check out.
All the more reason, then, that we attend to the message that Wolfe offers to close his novel. Webber later discovers in Europe the same ills that led him to leave his home town, and on returning finds cause for hope. As the nation began to emerge from the Depression, its leaders wanted to cling to the past, Wolfe writes, “but they were wrong. They did not know that you can’t go home again. America had come to the end of something and to the beginning of something else.”
As he put it in the excerpt you heard earlier, “pain and death will always be the same,” and still there is a force within us “growing like a flower . . . coming into life like April.”
We are well aware of all the forces of division at work now, centered as they are in fear and the scape-goating of vulnerable people, and we can see them fueling movements toward separatism here and abroad.
All this is alarming and also nothing new. As historians point out, the last century offers chapter and verse on how easy it is for separatism to take root and how it can lead to monstrous evil. But here’s the caveat: can, but needn’t. There is nothing inevitable about any of this, and there are lessons for us in how we might nudge history in a different direction by digging back in and recommitting to values of compassion and hope.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote about some of these learnings in a slim book entitled Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century. Here are a few:
Do not obey in advance. We want to be good people and give our leaders the benefit of the doubt. But, Snyder says, we need to be wary of he calls “anticipatory obedience,” where we compromise our principles at a new leader’s bidding. What feels like a gesture of respect can end up being interpreted as a greenlight for leaders to do whatever they want.
Defend institutions. It is easy to criticize our fallible institutions, Snyder says, but it’s worth remembering that they were created to preserve our freedom and dignity, and if they are to do that they need our help. They do not protect themselves.
“The mistake,” he says, “is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy institutions – even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” They can, and they do.
Take responsibility for the face of the world. “The symbols of today,” he says, “enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swasticas and other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.”
Stand out. As Snyder puts it, “Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom.” And that doesn’t necessarily means standing alone. Part of what we here exist to do is to help you find in community the hope, the faith, the courage to live into and proclaim your values.
Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Steer clear of rhetoric. Demand facts. As Snyder puts it, “it is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.”
Make eye contact and small talk, and not just with your buddies. “This is not just polite,” he says. “It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand who you should and should not trust.”
Be as courageous as you can. We each have our own limits to what we can do, yet even a little courage offered at the right time can have a stronger influence on events than we expect.
Learning the lessons of history is good practice. It teaches us the danger behind what Dictionary.Com declared as the word of year for 2017 – complicit: “choosing to be involved in an illegal or wrongful act.” Perhaps it’s a sign of a turning at work now that the Web site reported that there had been multiple spikes in the number of people looking up that word this year. Dictionary.com speculated that this may be, “Because of noteworthy stories of those who have refused to be complicit in the face of oppression and wrongdoing.”
In the face of this, some of us will find our way to brave public acts. Others of us will be involved in what Matthew Fox called “the small work in the Great Work.”
It is rising each day and putting our hearts and the little bit of genius that we are blessed with to work for what my colleague Victoria Safford calls “the larger Life and larger Love that some call holy, some call God, some call History, and others call simply larger than themselves.”
In her essay, “The Small Work and The Great Work,” Safford tells of a conversation she had with a woman who is a psychiatrist at a college health clinic. “We were sitting once not long after a student she had known, and counseled, committed suicide in a dormitory,” she wrote. “My friend the doctor, the healer, held the loss very closely in those first few days, not unprofessionally but deeply, fully – as you or I would have, had this been someone in our care.”
“At one point (with tears streaming down her face), she looked up in defiance (this is the only word for it) and spoke explicitly of her vocation, as if out of the ashes of that day she were renewing a vow, or making a new covenant. She spoke of her vocation, and of yours and mine.
“She said, ‘You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do – what I am called to do – is plant myself at the gates of Hope.
“Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them in toward beautiful life and love.’”
In one way or another, we all stand at those gates, bringing what gifts we have, beckoning and urging. It is, says Victoria Safford, “a sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle.”
It is the place in Seamus Heaney’s poem where “hope and history rhyme,” where we give up the denial that leaves us saying, “Oh, I’m sure everything will be all right,” as well as the frantic despair that tells us that the world is going to hell so we might as well let it implode.
Thomas Wolfe was right: we can’t go home again. The 0ld scripts that gave us comfort are outdated and need to be rethought, but the principles, the values that underlie them do not. They are soil from which something new must struggle to be reborn.
Meanwhile, those of us called to a larger life, a larger love, don’t have the luxury of waiting for that birth. We must be its midwives. There is no manual for how we’re going to do this. We’re all amateurs here. But we have the tools we need. Staying in touch. Listening, Learning. Honing the tools of democracy. Honoring the worth and integrity of every human being. Marshalling the power of our collective trust in common knowledge. Standing at the gates of hope. Being as courageous as we can. And when the time comes, when the moment is right: to push!
It is said that Philip Larkin was uncomfortable with the fuss that was made of his poem, “An Arundel Tomb,” especially its famous final line – “What will survive of us is love.” He felt that readers who pulled the words out of the context of the poem mistook his intent. If you recall, Larkin’s poem finds irony in those words being the lasting legacy of this couple, since he suspects that they didn’t choose them, in fact probably never saw them, that they were likely added by the sculptor to fill out a phrase of Latin on the base.
“Time,” he says, “has transfigured them into untruth. The stone finality they hardly meant has come to be their final blazon, and to prove our almost-instinct almost true.”
His words – “almost-instinct, almost true” – tip the reader off to Larkin’s wariness that we take the sentimentality of that phrase too seriously.
And it’s true. Sugary sweet sentiment can so easily distract us from complicated truths that are harder to hear and yet crucial to our understanding. When the music swells and the happy talk starts, we need to be careful of how far we are carried along.
Still, it’s interesting to reflect that when a gravestone marking Larkin’s death was added to Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in 2016 the final words of “An Arundel Tomb” were inscribed there.
I wonder what Larkin would have thought of that. Was this a “stone finality that he hardly meant?” I don’t think so. I think it’s a fitting epitaph, for I think he was referring not to some mawkish sentimentality but to the deepest, strongest, most hopeful part of each of us, the love that casts out fear, the love that awakens us to the meaning of our lives.
In the end, I think he was right: when we add up the successes, the failures, the joys, the foibles of our brief lives, all that will have mattered is how we gave ourselves to love. When we look for a source of hope, we will find it in love. When we are called to rise from defeat or to find a way forward after loss, we will find it in the embrace of love. When we look for the strength finally to push, we will discover it in love.
Our task, then, is not to check out, not to let ourselves be discouraged, but to dig back in, to reaffirm the truths our hearts proclaim and find in them the hope that carries us on. Let us make of that our epitaph.