“Look! Look! If you look really hard at things, you’ll forget you’re going to die,” an American actor is supposed to have once said. In a writing class I occasionally teach, this injunction to just look—out of the window or down the street—is sometimes met with boredom, not a seasoned ennui necessarily, just impatience with what one presumably already knows. We are prone to treat the outer world as a source of information, new and old, when it is actually a font of emotion. We describe things not because they are there but because our life depends on it.
Take Raymond Carver’s story “The Cabin.” A man called Mr. Harrold drives to a lodge in winter for a couple of days of river fishing. His wife has recently left him and he is suffering her absence, but this we know only through the occasional flashback. Most of Mr. Harrold’s feelings are expressed subliminally, through the delineation of things—furniture and furnishings in a room, the interplay of clouds and hills on the horizon, what people wear and how they look. Mr. Harrold is intent on enjoying himself, but it’s somewhat hard going, and he tries to keep himself together through acts of exact naming and deliberate doing. He takes a pint of Scotch out from the glove compartment, spreads out his weights and hooks on a table, smokes a cigarette with his tackle box open.
Eventually his grip on this material universe collapses. “He shook his head. Then he went up the steps to his cabin. He stopped on the porch. He didn’t want to go inside. But he understood he had to open the door and enter the room. He didn’t know if he could do that.”
Carver once said that “a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.” Everything is grasped with a fine precision in his stories—the ordinary but distinctive texture of the world. Often it is as if things have a life that people draw from, rather than they endowing things with meaning. “Ideally, perhaps, the animate and the inanimate should swap places,” said Joseph Brodsky. Michael Hofmann, who quoted that remark in an essay on the poet, pointed out that this is exactly what happens in Brodsky’s poems. “The person, the poet, is atomized, centrifuged, dispersed, while his inanimate surroundings are spun into an increasingly concrete aura, a genie, that comes to stand in for him.” Read More