This, from Robinson Crusoe:
It happen'd one Day about Noon going towards my Boat, I was
exceedingly surpriz'd with the Print of a Man's naked Foot on the Shore,
which was very plain to be seen in the Sand: I stood like one
Thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an Apparition . . .
I like the suddenness with which the author introduced that momentous scene:
Robinson Crusoe had, by that time in the story, spent a long time on his lonely island. With commendable thoughtfulness and energy he had already adapted himself to his circumstances; he had taken the tools that were at hand, and with ingenuity he had created a very serviceable shelter, and he had developed his own adequate, private economy. He had truly made, we may say, a home for himself in this interesting wilderness. Generally speaking, things were happening to Crusoe, and in his small-bounded world, pretty much as he thought they should. And now, quite suddenly and unexpectedly . . .
Robinson Crusoe, as Daniel Defoe tells it, reacts:
I listen'd, I look'd
round me, I could hear nothing, nor see any Thing, I went up to a rising
Ground to look farther, I went up the Shore and down the Shore, but it
was all one, I could see no other Impression but that one, I went to it
again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be
my Fancy; but there was no Room for that, for there was exactly the very
Print of a Foot, Toes, Heel, and every Part of a Foot; how it came
thither, I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after
innumerable fluttering Thoughts, like a Man perfectly confus'd and out
of my self, I came Home to my Fortification, not feeling, as we say, the
Ground I went on, but terrify'd to the last Degree, looking behind me
at every two or three Steps, mistaking every Bush and Tree, and fancying
every Stump at a Distance to be a Man . . .
This has all the makings of a Myth. It begins with a fact -- a footprint in the mud -- that under ordinary circumstances would be common and unremarkable; but this fact is observed, it is remarkable, and thus passes into the intelligent mind of a man.
He looks around, goes to the "rising Ground." He looks farther, "up the Shore and down the Shore." He sees nothing out of the ordinary, no supplementary facts or information. He doubts himself.
He returns to the footprint -- the fact. There is only one there.
But the meaning -- ah! "Innumerable fluttering Thoughts." He has come face to face with the Other. Well, except that he has precisely not come face to face with anything. Except a footprint -- a significant Fact as he knows, although he cannot yet determine its full meaning.
I used the word "myth" a moment ago, because I think that this little scene does contain a real myth, and reveals the power and truth that can be found in some myths. We might even name it: "The Myth Of Solitary Discovery." Would you agree?
First of all, we would all acknowledge that this story is pure fiction. The whole story, and Robinson Crusoe himself, are products of the imagination of an author, Daniel Defoe.
But, we can argue, it is not mere fiction: it could be true.
But better: it is true, and we know it to be true: as myth. It speaks of something true of reality, perhaps even universal. Not that we have ever been on Robinson Crusoe's island, or seen the footprint. But we know that some people -- possibly ourselves -- have in their solitary experience stumbled across Facts, or a Fact, that has very deep significance, very deep meaning, even if they, or we, are not sure what all that meaning is.
And that changes things. First of all, perhaps, only in our own minds. But suddenly Mundus -- the world -- is no longer merely mundane to us. And it never will be, again, no matter what the doctrinaire skeptics, or the merely unenlightened, may say.
In this way, myth can, at least, help us understand that the world is not merely mundane. It may also help us to begin to appreciate its possible meaning.
The Mind is a powerful thing. So, too, is a Foot.
* * *
So, too, may be one sparrow guarding its injured fellow. So, too may be a well-placed comment! (By the way, both of these links were accessed from somewhere around the world just today, according to my blog-statistics report.)
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Friday, November 9, 2012
A book review
Here is great news for all those people who love the "Port William membership": Wendell Berry has just published a new book of twenty short stories called A Place In Time.
The stories continue the beautiful weaving-together of people-and-place that began over fifty years ago with the publication of Nathan Coulter and A Place On Earth, and has continued through the years in many more books and short stories. Those who have read the earlier stories and have come to love characters such as Wheeler Catlett, Jayber Crow, Mary Penn, Burley Coulter, and the rest, will be delighted to re-enter their lives in the stories in this volume.
There is the very funny story of Big Ellis and his romance with Annie May Cordle, in which Burley Coulter becomes, shall we say, the match-maker.
There is "A Desirable Woman," which includes something about Tom Coulter and his time, just before the war, in the little community of Sycamore.
There is the story of Uncle Peach, far gone in alcohol, recounting his glory days with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War:
"Yeees sahhh," Uncle Peach said, drawing out the words as if to make them as long as his stick, "them was rough times, which was why we was called the Rough Riders. Hair, shit, blood, and corruption up to the horses' bits, and you needed a high-headed horse to get through it atall. When it was all over and we was heroes, Teddy says to me, 'Leonidas, looks like one of us is pret' near bound to be the presi-dent of our great country, and if it's all the same to you, I'd just as soon it would be me.' And I says, 'Why, Teddy, by all means! Go to it!'"
And there is the opening story in the book, told by "The Girl In The Window," set in the 1860s. It is the best, most authentic commentary on the Civil War I can think of right now, and I am including Matthew Brady's photographs when I say this.
I was going to say, that if you haven't read Wendell Berry's fiction, you should start at the beginning, with his earliest work. But on second thought, why? His stories are like the Kentucky River -- there are lots of great places where you can jump right in.
And after all, my own introduction to "Port William" occurred all unexpectedly one afternoon at Barnes & Noble a few years ago. I pulled a copy of Hannah Coulter off the shelf, opened it to the middle, and literally couldn't put it down until I had finished it. So I bought the book, went home, and read the first half. No joke.
Enjoy A Place In Time. Wendell Berry remains in full possession of his many literary gifts -- and generously shares them.