with a virtual wifeful of corrections
[A riff from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which can be read elsewhere on this ethereal site.]
I wrote this a few years ago: ‘He was a virtual husband of cute imperfections and she a veritable wife of helpful corrections. When first they met and fell in love, they lived together happily enough, until married, and only then found the weight of the actual contract too heavy a burden for either of them to bear; his endearing defects became unbearable to live with and the scorn of her complaints left him weary. She was not so very virtuous, and he most nearly imperfectible. He wanted verity, and she needed variety. Their divorce was inevitable.’
There was no need, I suppose, to hide behind a third person, but later I even changed the wording to make the writing more comfortable to read. I was, of course, the veritable husband of imperfections and Margaret a wifeful of corrections. I was a husband of too many faults and Margaret too fond of pointing them out. That much could not be argued. Had the marriage survived, that much would still be true. On a social scale, she is very much the superior woman: smart, witty, generally kind and generous, reasonably ambitious, matter of fact, capable, rational, and not least, very good looking. And I was never happy with her.
True, I was in love and blind to my unhappiness for some time. I still love her. And I care that she is happier now than she was. She is the mother of my children and I want her to be happy for their sake if for nothing else. And I suppose she should be forgiven for the mistake of marrying me. I might have cut a romantic figure in those days. At least at first, I think. The struggling author and idealistic bookseller could have touched some chord. Remember, she did want to be a poet in those days. She wrote poetry in the style of the time: staccato, oblique, repetitious, redundant. It was self-consciously Objectivist, as in Randian, taking care to follow her religion of choice and never admitting to ignorance through ambiguity. I tried not to be critical, but likely my very silence was worse. Then again, she never had a great deal to say about my stories either, after those first years of being together. Why did she marry me? She had to know by then that I was the fellow I am. And it’s just the sort of puzzle that has driven the plot of several books, I’ll admit.
To my knowledge, she was never unfaithful during our marriage. More, it was a matter of being faithless—as in always skeptical, always doubting.
I was not allowed to fail. Her father didn’t want it. She didn’t want it—meaning the bookshop of course. My writing was assumed to be a failure from the first, and a mere foolishness of youth, until I was a youth no longer and that excuse was tired and retired.
“Why can’t you write something more marketable,” her Dad asked once. But Margaret never did. She just didn’t talk about it. . . . No. That isn’t true either. She did make remarks. Usually in the manner of a sniper from a thousand yards away. “We can take the vacation in June. You won’t be busy then,” while knowing I was in the middle of a novel that wouldn’t be close to finished until the fall.
Had the bookshop gone under, as it might have done a dozen times, we could have moved to—take your pick—a dozen possibilities come to mind from the places we had visited over those years: Bloomington, Indiana; Taos, New Mexico; Charlottesville, Virginia; Bellingham, Washington; Grove City, Pennsylvania; Brunswick, Maine; Missoula, Montana; Davidson, North Carolina; Hillsdale, Michigan; Laramie, Wyoming; Sewanee, Tennessee. Maybe only eleven that we actually knew from our travels. But I might have opened another bookshop in any one of them and made a living—a more modest living perhaps, but sufficient. The financial demands of Boston or New York were always prohibitive of the sort of non-bestseller bookselling I was willing to do.
In the end, I was either unwilling to run away from myself, or like Thoreau, too willing to forgive myself for my own faults. And too, it has long been my argument that marriage is the basic template of society. It is the smallest fractal of the larger whole. If my marriage was unhappy, so must the world be. And given our common human heritage, that success or failure is determined by two elements alone: imagination and empathy.
This then turns out to be something of a philosophy. At least a philosophastry. A sort of aspiration to reason. Flailing about for some solid footing in those days after my divorce, I turned to that, I suppose, rather than something else, because too much booze gives me a terrible headache.
And there are not so many philosophers I will read more than ounce. One or two. I think, because the most of them give me a headache as well. Most of them had peons to peel them a grape when need be and, like Plato and Marcus Aurelius, were inexhaustible founts of advice for the upper classes. They didn’t have much truck for the slaves. That is true both East and West. Buddha certainly seems fat and happy—but where did his food come from? I have already killed too many flies to want a part in the great Hindu cycle of life. And besides, much of that credence is too fierce for my timid soul.
I have long consoled myself with the hypocrisy of Thoreau, however, even though he was a bachelor. So I turn to him again.
Published criticism of Henry David Thoreau would fill many many shelves. I have always had a few of those in the shop, and after another bout with Walden (I even have the annotated copy of the Norton Critical Edition I first used forty years ago, next to me now) I began to write one of my own pans of the philosopher some years ago before I realized I was only wanting to swim in a pond already warmed by the pee of others. After the fact, what is the point? So, he was a hypocrite. Immodest. Incompetent. At least he was brilliant. So, he was often wrong, at least he ventured to be right. So he lied—frequently—don’t we all. This was mostly by omission. And he seldom lied in order to hurt others, though he often wrote his hurtful thoughts out with the innocence of a child observing the size of a fat man’s belly or a hag’s nose. At least I don’t know of him purposely damaging anyone. After the fact, his sin was putting his lies on paper where they could be held up to the light. (Did he not guess this would happen?) So he was a braggart, he did in fact do so many extraordinary things—things that few men of his time would ever imagine, much less accomplish: walking the length of Cape Cod, hiking the eastern wilderness to Katahdin, rowing the Concord and Merrimack rivers to the sea—but still, a hell of a lot of walking. He was a wonderful writer—one of the best of his age. He said of Katahdin, “This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandeled globe.” And most importantly, he was an original thinker. Too impatient to throughly study the wisdom of the ages or yet be content with the Hebraic study alone, as so many are, and quite apart from the milky maundering of his dear friend Emerson, he jumpt to his own conclusions and was often right or at least in the right direction. (That is, ‘jumpt’ as in leapt.)
I say hypocrite.
“The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoos, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich inward. We know not much bout them. It is remarkable that we know so much as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty . . .” said by a man who was never truly poor, ever willing to live off the fruits of others, but had admitted his ignorance of the lives of other philosophers while adjudging them to be poor—I suppose in the same way as he saw himself.
I say immodest.
“I should not talk about myself if there were any body else whom I knew so well. Unfortunately I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” ‘Nough said.
I said incompetent. Read his own testimony about the living conditions in his immortal cabin. Drafty, cold, leaky, pest ridden—but wouldn’t you give a great tooth to spend one night with him there! He was an indifferent carpenter, or worse. He was an unwilling farmer, an unreliable pencil maker, and a poor friend. Perhaps that is the poor he had meant to admit of himself. Though he always lived from the generosity of others, he never managed a sufficient wealth to help anyone other than himself. Except, of course, with words.
“In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe the line.”
What better admission to purpose in life is there?
“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” There! All those heavy volumes on economics reduced to a single sentence!
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Art in one lesson.
“As a single footstep will not make a path of the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we must walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” Is this what might be missing from education in our time.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Isn’t this the essence of my own libertarian nature?
And, “Truths and roses have thorns about them.”
You cannot read Thoreau quickly, lest you miss his greatest virtues as well his faults. In both instances, it changes your own mind.
Thoreau did not command crowds. He was an indifferent speaker, at best. He had no family other than his friends. And most of his work was not published in his own life time. Still, this did not dissuade him.
I suppose I could aspire to worse. But he never had a wife. So there is a half of life that he never knew at all.