A couple of weeks ago, I drove up north to the cabin to get some pre-winter chores done. The sun sets a lot quicker, now, and it was dark by the time I got past Garrison.
I fiddled with the radio knob, trying to find a voice or a discussion to pass the time. There is that well-meaning guy in his fifties who fills the night hours with sound advice for callers. There is the tail end of the highschool football game. And then, as my fingers turned the knob, I heard a voice I hadn’t heard in a long time. I didn’t know there had been a recording.
It was a long time ago, one of those evenings where, at least in the softened hues of our faulty memories, everything went off to good effect, and the whole picture of it seems like a preface for whatever happened later on.
There was this potluck dinner at the Chapel of St. Polycarp the Martyr, over in Pequod Lake. All the Fellows were there (as it later turned out), along with the wives of those who had them. Al Gravesend had brought along a visitor, a man a middle-aged man from out of town. He had curly hair (it was still brown, back then) and huge sideburns — and, what always fixed in everyone’s minds that met him, those heavy-rimmed glasses with lenses as thick as glaciers. If you have read some of my other little pieces, you may recognize that I speak of Mr. Wasserman. Later on we always called him Our Mutual Friend Mr. Wasserman as a joke, because when we first saw him nobody knew him except Al Gravesend.
At some point, while our conversations were rising & ebbing at various ends of the table, this man stood up and began a speech, which none of us were expecting. I think none of us ever could remember how he began it, although we tried to; for we kept on speaking in our own little scattered conversations for a few seconds before we realized that a speech was in progress.
…before I do, I am afraid I must give a line that I think inexcusable in any speech, and that is, ‘When I was asked to speak tonight, I began thinking about what I should say to all of you…’ – well, that is a silly thing to say in any speech. But I say it because I must disclose that I was informed only five minutes ago that I should be speaking here, now, and I mention it to forewarn you. You can expect me to flounder a bit.
I think, the, the general consensus is that things in general are in a very bad state. I know you were hoping to forget about it when you came here. The national leadership is floundering, or nonexistent, or a mythical concept, depending on who you ask. Natural disasters are everywhere. The nihilists are all afoot again, in all the news headlines and (seemingly) at every bus stop.
Worse than this, I think, is this, this atmosphere of…righteous indignation. There is a lot of it. I see some of you are cringing for fear that I should bring up some controversial subject and spoil the evening. Of course, most of the contentious issues seem to divide us so that we are either on the right or the left side of the pie, but then these other issues come along that separate us along other lines. Such as, this issue of public funding for the Vikings’ stadium is a good example; your own position on it, anecdotally, is not likely to come down to conservative “principles” or progressive “principles,” but simply how much you care about football. Ah, I see some of you nodding your heads – only some, of course. I personally think the deepest real divide today is not between progressives and conservatives, but it is the complete disconnect between the city and the rural. Unfortunately issues like these do not, at the end of the day, help people on opposite sides of the, the “canonical” left/right divide to find common ground. Rather, in today’s atmosphere, they only serve to sever us into more and smaller pieces.
So there are not only problems, but there is this atmosphere of division, such that even natural disasters, which cause death and destruction on incredible scales, in the end become simply a new axis along which to draw a line and choose sides.
Now. There is unity in one area, but it is just the unity which we might avoid if we can help it. It might better be called homogeneity: this homogenizing of our art and culture. It is the unity of the lowest common denominator. All of our music, all of our literature, is blending into an undistinguished puddle. The Internet ought to have liberated us from the stifling power structures of the publishers and recording labels. Instead, the rise in the use of the Internet by promising minds means that everyone compares himself to everyone else and adjusts his style accordingly. I dare to say that if the world is ever again to see somone on the scale of a Beethoven or a Yeats, that person will almost have to have been raised in total ignorance of the Internet.
The world is pretty bad, just now, and you will see it that way in the papers every day for quite some time yet.
This can all be seen from another side, however: our own experience. My family went through some difficult times as well, you know. In our finances, in mistrust and bitterness. Some of the worst problems were like a “death by a thousand papercuts”: petty, painful, frustrating, continuous, senseless, and totally preventable. But a funny thing has happened as time has passed. When we dig out one of our photo albums, what do we most easily recall about those years? Or when we get to talking about those years, do we we vividly recall the anger, frustration and anxiety? Amazingly enough, we do not. We actually see them in a warm light. We remember our brother’s amusing mannerisms now outgrown, our dad’s bushy red beard that he only had for a year (why was that?), the enjoyment of our regular rigmarole. Even things that seemed and felt disastrous at the time are now laughed about, as though we had always realized how funny it was and as if we had always known it would turn out fine in the end.
In fact, we now fall to reflecting on these years past as a means (sometimes) of escaping thoughts of our current problems. Some consolation, eh? But this is not to say that however bad things are now they will only get worse. The lesson is that there is much good going right now that you will likely miss until later. They may seem to get worse – but only because (as a whole) they never get any better.
Mr Kirk once said, there is no such thing as a lost cause, because there is no such thing as a won cause. That is a healthy line to chew on, but it is also helpful, at times, to stop thinking about life in terms of causes.
I don’t know what else to say, and I guess I’m proud to have gotten this far on only five minutes’ notice. Thank you.
It was an impromptu speech, and it was the first speech I ever heard him give, and it was of course well-remembered. Maybe you had to be there, but it struck all the right chords with us at the time. Oh Mr. Wasserman, we did remember, even when you didn’t. But you could never have known across how wide and deep a river we would one day look to the memory of those years, and of that evening.
“The only winner in the War of 1812 was Tchaikovsky.”
— Solomon Short