Tuesday, January 4, 2011

In a Mere Lifetime

          The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

I knew a guy, he said, who told me it’s better to know one big thing than a lot of little things.
Because he believed my identity could be found in the thousand or more books in my house,
where he and his brother, at their mother’s bidding, had been willing
to work at less than scale to uncover our hardwood floor,
I offered without him asking what Archilochus said, adding that he was a Greek in case the by-now several others listening wanted to go beyond Tolstoy
and Dostoyevsky
and Isaiah Berlin,
and apply it to their own endeavors, carpentry and plumbing, drinking and fucking, and
don’t forget fighting and, my lost friend from Fall River
always added, gambling. You could breathe through War and Peace, I said,
it was as easy as horses with saddles.
You had to listen to The Brothers Karamazov, a sound of voices
clashing in conversation overheard in the room of the mind.
Afterward, I went home to look up the saying to be sure I had recalled it accurately.
There were too many journeyman/apprentice Tolstoys, too many greatly sinning Dostoyevskys,
and then the hoodlum-priest Dantes, the versatile-without-measure Shakespeares
. . . how well could anyone know what was worthy of memory in a mere lifetime?

Went to the cages and found Grushenka, or was she Natasha? She was only six weeks old.
She was already looking for a brother or two or three.
My preference was Grushenka, hers Natasha. This matter I did not broach at the gathering
where I mentioned Archilochus. They had children, the children had children,
children whose forebears were dying every day and in their own bewildered presence.
Like Andre on the bridge, looking up at the sky and thinking for the first time he was alive
and the next time would die slowly but knowing that he had truly lived.
Like Pierre on the forced march wherein the old serf told him what he knew that he had learned
not then but had salvaged from his long past, before his captivity, before his dying.
Like Levin who went to scythe with the serfs harvesting his fields
and in the city found one woman whose heart he craved, with whom he shared their family.
Dostoyevsky was Christian,
not John Bunyan’s pilgrim but equally steadfast despite his gambling, his singleminded drama
of the priest Alyosha, the intellectual Ivan, and the wildman Dmitri
who danced with the gypsy Grushenka, as Andre and Pierre danced with the beloved Natasha,
as Levin in marriage learned the dance of solitude in love with life.

Isaiah Berlin, Anna Akhmatova’s loyal friend during the years Stalin made her poetry a crime,
tutored Henry Grosshans at Oxford
and Henry tutored others during extended coffee breaks twice a day seven years
during the sixties. Don’t tell me
the sixties were not magnificent years, when others learned more and learned more quickly
what they needed to begin to know for the years ahead if they survived,
and here I was attempting to tell another
something he would know now
even if he had no need to remember.
And these were years whose innocence would no longer offer consolation.
Thus the Greeks lived in a state of grace all their own, and the Russian masters learned
from them and from Henry, who knew Russian, his mother Czech, his father German,
others learned a language of knowing and transformed it into the feeling
that lay behind the words–what I, for example, may have been unable to convey
to a carpenter, a plumber, a drinker, a lover, a fighter, a gambler
for him to tell his children, and all the children listening could tell theirs,
and no one would know more thoroughly the distance traveled in a mere lifetime,
cartographers whose maps of desire and will could reveal what the years to come might mean.

(18 July 2010)

copyright 2010 by Floyce Alexander

[posted 4 January 2011]

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