Revisiting Can’t

In Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, the voice of the earth, revealing a mottled cast of characters, consisting of the inexperienced and the experienced, the unbridled and those who have been bridled by time, confronts George Webber the following:

“Child, child,” it said, “have patience and belief, for life is many days, and each present hour will pass away. Son, son, you have been mad and drunken, furious and wild, filled with hatred and despair, and all the dark confusions of the soul–but so have we. You have found the earth too great for your one life, you found the brain and sinew smaller than the hunger and desire that fed on them–but it has been this way with all men. You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way–but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth. And now, because you have known madness and despair, and because you will grow desperate again before you come to evening, we who have stormed the ramparts of the furious earth and been hurled back, we who have been maddened by the unknowable and bitter mystery of love, we who have hungered after fame and savored all of life, the tumult, pain, and frenzy, and now sit quietly by our windows watching all that henceforth never more shall touch us–we call upon you to take heart, for we can swear to you that theses things pass.

This captures robustly the lust for life–that lasciviousness vitality–that invigorates the young in ways that extravagantly range from inspiring to regrettable. In a life unmoored from tradition and societal religious scruple, left to the individualist impulses that most naturally manifest themselves, we spend our youth (or, at least, as I consumed a good deal of mine) drunkenly, both chemical-wise and appetitive-wise, chasing after experiences, worrying more about the quantity than the quality of those experiences. Though our appetites are, by capacity, infinite, we, as ensouled bodies, can only but labor and strive under the dictatorial vagaries of time and space and limited resources. As mad and drunken, furious and wild, we may have been, provided we live long enough and allow the cool sludge of perspective to muddy our fiery hedonism, we should come to realize that love will always remain an unknowable and bitter mystery that can potentially madden and that the earth is too great for one life, so we must treat love with the dreadful respect that it lays claim to, and we must necessarily make decisions that exclude competing possibilities. For every poetaster who with doggerel verse proclaims that one can have it all, a Robert Herrick is needed to remind that one has only a limited time to gather rosebuds.

In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Captain Charles Ryder ruminates on the inescapable sense of incompleteness that haunts any relationship:

Perhaps, I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke–a thought to fade and vanish like smoke without a trace–perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us. 

One may call this the semiotics of love: any relationship serves as a sign, pointing to a referent–a happiness that is more than symbolic–that elusively lies just around the corner, so we keep searching, often with an ensuing sadness. One cannot take the glimpse for the envisagement. However, one need not be so eager to wake up for the morning that one dismisses the dream.

The thrust of modernity shoves us into believing that we can master nature, against the wisdom of the ancients, and, thus, deny the limits that have been placed upon us. The hunger and desire that animate us are larger than our brain and sinew upon which they feed, and only a life modulated by the reality-denying features of technology allows us to feed continuously that hunger. The pull of self draws us into believing that what we have is never sufficient–any sensation that we have should be amplified for the simple sake that it is our sensation. This absolutist approach neither permits nuance nor allows for the admixture of feelings that accompanies most experiences.

To mature: to learn to love while we still can, admitting that sadness will persist with any relationship until we turn that last corner.


About Bourbon Apocalypse: A Whiskey Son of Sorrow

"If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing." ~ Kingsley Amis
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