As reader-writers, life is punctuated by discoveries. The “things” we encounter are perplexing. The ancient idea that the beginning of thinking is wonder has implications at every turn. This implication grounds our sense of identity in something we share with every being. It is the mystery that there is anything at all.
In our time among reader-writers Seamus Heaney has been particularly clear about this mysterious ground. His sense of light-heartedness has grown over time. Saturated in the tragic circumstances of the Troubles he did not allow the mindset of “tragedy” to harden his heart against implications of the equivocity of the universal impermanence. Here’s “The Errand.”
‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil
And tell your mother to try
To find me a bubble for the spirit level
And a new knot for this tie.’
But still he was glad, I know, when I stood my ground,
Putting it up to him
With a smile that trumped his smile and his fool’s errand,
Waiting for the next move in the game.’
This little poem is full of discoveries and a faithful representation of how we get on in the world. We stand our ground, aware of the plurivocity of things, unresentful and even eager to play our part.
This forward motion may involve us in many projects that formalists —- specialists —- can help us with. Lu Chi: “A body of writing may take any / of a thousand forms, / and there is no one right way to measure.” When my life left the academic path onto the highway, I was asked to write many things. I was not asked to perform within my specialty. I had become an editor at a national daily. I gradually learned the ropes.
There was continuity in the multiplicity. Each piece had to deal with several aspects of every conversation without losing sight of my reader’s personal, spontaneous commitment to the truth. I had to remain faithful to that while moving through several stages of belief: the objective, given sense of the problem at hand, its inseparability from the language that comes with our awareness of its singularity, the complications for us (we do not know everything) of the drift of the conversation, and finally our recognition that every issue, including this one, belongs to a greater, ever-changing whole. To give up is not in the cards. Like the boy in “The Errand,” we are mindful that our next assignment may take us deeper into the mystery of our being here.
Most reader-writers, regardless of how low they begin, suffer the dream of someday writing a novel. Stendahl’s definition of the genre—-a mirror that strolls along the highway—-has all the excitement of the open road. The genius of the metaphor is to combine purposeful movement and reflexive awareness. That irreducible combination sums up the lure of being fully alive. No job description should make you take your eye off the prize.