Will it surprise you at all to hear that in some few respects (all right, very few) Cancerland is actually a saner place than the one to which I send these dispatches of mine?
I am thinking mostly now of the fact that no Cancerlander subscribes to, or is taken in by, the pathetic fallacy. Surely you remember the pathetic fallacy from some literature class somewhere along the way. It refers to the (usually) hack artist’s habit of making nature mirror a protagonist’s mood, or making it foreshadow some plot development. This is the dark and stormy night business Snoopy had so much fun with for such a long time.
Well, here in Cancerland, no one thinks for a second that nature responds in any way at all to the travails of human beings. We do not, in other words, invest the natural world with pathos, the ability to feel compassion or pity (whence “pathetic fallacy”) for what we are going through.
But then you say, Well, it’s no different really here back home in the States. We don’t do that either. Oh but you do, though. So did I. It’s a staple of all our melodrama, and we buy it at once. Thunderclaps on the heroine’s arrival at the haunted house; the little match girl out in the bitter cold, pressing her nose against a window that shows a warm familial scene; the ravaging nor-’easter outside the house in which a marriage is dissolving.
We are drenched in the pathetic fallacy, wind-blown by it, befogged with it, rendered corpse-cold or lusty hot, depending on the mood of the story we’re being told, or are telling ourselves.
When, in fact, the truth is just the opposite of this silly idea.
If you don’t know W.H.Auden’s Musee des Beaux Art, you should:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along….
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Auden is writing about the absolutely routine way in which we are oblivious to one another’s pain, yes, but also about the way in which nature is oblivious. The sun shines on the falling Icarus, the sea is not storm-tossed but green and calm, calm enough for a nearby plowman distractedly to have heard the splash of whatever it was came plummeting out of the sky, calm enough so that an expensive delicate ship does not have to pitch and yaw and claw its way through a tempest but just sails on.
And that is the reality of it. I have been to many more funerals on glorious days than on dismal ones. Good thing too: God forbid Nature actually could feel for us, actually did have to respond to our tragedies and our triumphs. Hell of a world we’d be living in then.
Were you in New York on September 11th? I was, and cannot forget (among so many other things neither I nor you nor anyone else ever will forget) how very, very beautiful the day was, and continued to be, even after so many hellish things had happened.
I stood outside a few miles from ground zero, after the Towers came down, and I slowly scanned the horizon, turning full circle, with my face aimed as fully heavenward as I could manage. And what I saw was a preposterously still and perfect blue sky: not a cloud, not a wisp, not a stray leaf or bird’s feather or seed or dandelion puff, not a smudge of any kind. It was the most breathtaking sky I had ever seen, though I had no breath left to take, anymore than anyone else did.
This is something all of us know in Cancerland, and I apologize for having taken so long to make what probably is not so newsworthy a point as all that: There can be, indeed often is, terrible pain on beautiful days, and comforting light-heartedness on the dankest dreary night.
That is because God is not a hack writer — and that is an awfully good thing.