I think my whole life I’ve been looking for subjects worth studying. Whether it’s the poetry of John Ashbery, or 20th century American poetry more broadly, I am constantly on the lookout for literature that makes me amazed, that fills me to the brim with an astonishment that I cannot find outside the walls or spacious confines of literature. I’m saying all this because lately, after reading Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, starting Hardy’s biography, and reading two articles on Hardy (one that speculates upon Hardy’s notion, augmented by Hardy’s deep reading in the Bible, of what it means to interpret; the second an intelligent and persuasive romp through the relationship between Hardy’s figuration and his obsession with various notions of archaeological ruin), as well as cursorily starting on the poetry, and beginning Far From the Madding Crowd tonight, that I feel I am standing in the presence of a figure whose capacities for imagination and verbal music is unprecedented. In the second article, mentioned above, which is called “Among the Ruins: Narrative Archaeology in The Mayor of Casterbridge, the author, Bharat Tandon, speaks of Hardy’s novel-writing in terms of prose poetry. I think that is exactly right. There is a leanness, a hardness, a Biblical severity in Hardy, that coexists in shocking ways with a lyricism, a suppleness, a spontaneity, a flexibility. It’s as if his vision were capable of containing the richness and ambiguity of the Bible without forsaking a modern outlook. Listen to this paragraph, from the beginning of Far from the Madding Crowd:
“The thin grasses, more or less coating the hill, were touched by the wind in breezes of differing powers, and almost of differing natures – one rubbing the blades heavily, another taking them piercingly, another brushing them like a soft broom. The instinctive act of humankind was to stand and listen, and learn how the trees on the right and the trees on the left wailed or chaunted to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir; how hedges and other shapes to leeward then caught the note, lowering it to the tenderest sob; and how the hurrying gust then plunged into the south, to be heard no more.”
Hardy is describing, in achingly beautiful ways, not only the sound of wind soughing through grass, but different kinds of sounds that the wind makes on its way through the blades. I chose this passage because it feels infinitely subtle and supple, natural, and almost uncannily self-effacing and self-enlarging – I mean that Hardy is both completely with us, imbuing our imaginations with an absolutely heartrendingly beautiful scene, while at the same time he is not there, and the scene presents itself in its gorgeous cloak of language as if we ourselves were standing on the hill, without Hardy, without anyone, hearing only the wind “in breezes of differing powers” sweeping through the green grass.
Why do I bring this up? 1.) it’s fun to share enthusiasms; 2.) I think studying Hardy has opened me up to realizing how worthwhile a thing it is just to study something that leaves one in wonder, whatever that may be, wherever that may lead. My life right now isn’t where I want it to be – I’m looking for new jobs, contemplating graduate school, not to mention typing alone on New Year’s; but I’ve found this Hardy obsession to be, well, hardy for me, i.e. grounding, full of consolation, invigorating. I think studying something we do not understand completely, but are in awe of, is a great way to focus the mind, to provide some stable bearing in this very unstable world. I think this is what Alisdair Macintyre means when he talks about the importance of learning to practice something, whether it’s an instrument, a sport, chess, an academic discipline, an un-academic discipline, whatever. It’s simply this returning and returning again to a subject (for me, as of now, Hardy and, more broadly, literature, the novel, and poetry) that is inexhaustible; and because it’s inexhaustible, it affords certain kinds of delight that, while difficult and different, make life worth living.