Thursday, October 01, 2009

Such music I never dreamed of...

You may remember the wonderful chapter in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In the Willows -- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn -- when Rat and Mole go rowing on the night river in search of the young otter. As first light tints the horizon, Rat hears a delicious piping: "O, Mole!," cries Rat. "The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us." And Mole, greatly wondering, obeys. "I hear nothing myself," he said, "but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers."

If the previous paragraph sounds familiar, it is because I am quoting an earlier post. It comes back to me now because I am reading Annie Gauger's just-published The Annotated Wind in the Willows, a big, beautiful doorstop of a book that will tell you more than you ever wanted to now about the children's classic.

We learn from Gauger that Grahame had a hard time finding a publisher; editors thought the book tedious and silly. If he had not already had a few big publishing successes it seems unlikely that The Wind in the Willows would ever have seen the light of day. So what is the appeal of the book? Why did it succeed lavishly and why does it endure? Perhaps it is nostalgia for a world that has passed away, a world of rivers and wild woods and willow beds and reedy islands -- "the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping." Mole, and Rat and Badger, as anthropomorphized by Grahame, connect us to our childhood innocence, to a romantic landscape that can only exist outside of the time and space of our actual lives.

I wrote yesterday of Humphry Davy, one of the most creative scientists of the early 19th century. Davy associated his love of science with his early fascination with stories. "After reading a few books [as a child]," he wrote, "I was seized with the desire to narrate...I gradually began to invent, and form stories of my own. Perhaps this passion has produced all my originality. I never loved to imitate, but always to invent: this has been the case in all the sciences I have studied" Then he added: "Hence many of my errors."

Albert Einstein said something similar: "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking." The best time -- perhaps the only time -- to acquire the gift of fantasy is childhood.

Remember? Remember the piping that Rat heard on the river? We heard it as children, until the adults closed our ears by filling our heads with useful sense. We heard the piping, which is the unfathomable mystery of the world, beautiful and distant, until our parents and teachers and pastors stopped up our ears with answers. What they did was necessary, I suppose. We can't go through the world in a dreamy reverie, not this world, with its rush and certainty and bother. Soon we were made to understand that the magical music we heard as children is only the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.

Only! The piping that Rat hears on the river is indeed the wind in the reeds, but it is not only. Nothing is only. When we get caught up in the only we cease to wonder. And when we cease to wonder, we might as well not be on the river at all.