Monday, October 10, 2011

A port in air

My musing on The Tempest last Friday reminds me of a story by D. H. Lawrence about a man who buys an island in order to escape the pandemonium of city life.

The island has a manor house, cottages, tenants, animals and gardens. Maintenance and improvements begin to deplete the man's fortune. Even so small a society makes emotional demands. At last, the man sells his island and moves to a smaller one with only a modest house and a few servants.

He soon becomes snared in the small pandemoniums of his reduced circumstances. Again, life becomes more complicated than he can bear. Seeking still greater simplicity, he moves to a craggy rock in the sea, with only a hut, a few sheep and a cat.

He sells the sheep. The cat wanders off. Winter comes and snow blankets the tiny island in featureless white. Alone, neither happy nor unhappy, the man at last achieves the perfect simplicity of -- death.

I read this story as a young man, and it resonated with something in my spirit -- a vague longing for monastic simplicity, a hankering for the great silence. It had nothing to do with a death wish -- at that age death never entered my mind. Nor was the hankering intense enough to distract me from sex, love, marriage, parenthood. But it was always there, nibbling away at my socialization into the company of my fellows.

Twice, with my wife, I sought a "smaller island." First, to a remote and wonderfully quiet village in the west of Ireland. Then, later, to an undeveloped island in the central Bahamas that was connected to the world only by an eight-seater plane. Both places were soon enough drawn into the busy embrace of civilization.

It's too late now to go looking again for a yet another island, if such places still exist. That rocky crag to which Lawrence's protagonist at last repaired can only be found in some sort of interior isolation. My good wife, quite reasonably, does not share my retreat; she wants more socialization than is provided by my metaphorical crag.

A death wish? Or is it simply a longing for a final simplicity, a collapsing of all those years of busy experience and study into a few sturdy vessels. A jar, perhaps. Wallace Stevens' jar, placed on a hill in Tennessee, that makes the slovenly wilderness of a life rise up around it, no longer wild.

Sell the sheep. Let the cat wander off. All of a life -- the science, the history, the literature, the art, the millions of words -- what does it amount to? Distilled to its essence? Refined to its essential core? A jar, grey and bare, that does not give of bird or bush like nothing else in Tennessee.