Nirvana In Our Time
Last summer I stopped in at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, to spend some time with that museum's collection of Hudson River School paintings. These epic paintings offer a pastoral vision of an immense natural world in which humanity is a central, if minute, part. In these paintings, each element of nature is a world unto itself that is painted in such realistic detail that it stops being real and becomes ethereal.
It's great stuff. Last summer these paintings cooled off a hot day with their lush, mythically large trees and cool waterways. I realized then that I was sharing in the same tonic that likely soothed the minds and souls of many 19th century Americans living in a world of rising commercialism and industrialization and recovering from the Civil War.
These paintings come to mind when I read Ernest Hemingway's 1925 collection of short stories and vignettes In Our Time. Hemingway's book is about the exhausting psychological damands and the effects of war. The collection starts and ends with Nick Adams--first as a young boy and last as a soldier who has come home from war. Along the way, though, we lose track of Nick--or do we?--as we move through the war, crime, love relationships, and bits and pieces of a relentlessly real world.
The "Big Two-Hearted River" sequence takes me back to the Wadsworth, though. Hemingway describes that river and the fire-scarred acres around it in such minute detail that the landscape is at once huge and microscopic and pulsing with life.
War-weary Nick makes his way through woods and into waters that mirror his psychic reality--they are intimately familiar to him but changed utterly by fire. Nevertheless, this is a resilient, wild place, and the process of recovery is underway. Nick is alone on this fishing trip. In his silence and solitude he reconnects with a larger, natural world, one in which he quite naturally has a place. In his silence and solitude, he is able to feel the pulse of that landscape and move in time with it. This natural world has a presence, a soul moving through time and space. Nick re-enters that world.
He does not control his world, though. The snapped fishing line is a clear reminder of that. Nevertheless, the things that fail or fall short do so as a result of objective circumstance; there is no underlying malice or meanness at work.
This is a world from which the God of our Fathers is mercifully absent. The convoluted codes of morality--and Manifest Destiny has often been paraded in the clothes of morality (currently in Iraq)--and other tortured thought processes that make the religions that make the societies that make the wars are not to be found in this world that offers a very natural peace, justice, and truth.
"Big Two-Hearted River" never meanders completely from the settled world. Nevertheless, it offers a glimpse of the nirvana Bierstadt and Church painted big in the 19th century. These stories are about Nick's walking meditation through landscapes that are wonderful reminders that we don't know everything, that we don't have to know everything, and, really, that the less we pretend to know the better the chances we might recover our true nature.