Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Time, change, and the comfort of some illusions of permanence

The January 13 issue of the Times Literary Supplement included a really nice, brief piece by Will Eaves about his new job teaching English and creative writing at Warwick University and the memories it's called up of his own undergraduate days. These lines in particular caught my eye:
I want to have settled into my new life the way I wanted to be grown up. That's the trouble with second chances and new lives: they are usually only mildly variant copies of first chances and old lives, and it's the mildness of the variation that induces vertigo, the small change heading for the large consequence.
I was struck by this passage not so much because of its actual content, but because of the way it harmonized with thoughts I've had recently about time and change. If I were somehow to encounter my seventeen-year-old self, I think what would surprise him most (aside perhaps from my disdain for the mullet he wore with such pride) is that adulthood doesn't entail some sort of final arrival, a reaching of a point beyond change. I would never have formulated my conception of adulthood that way back then, but looking back it's obvious that's what I thought: you work through high school, and you work through college, then you find something to do and you do it. And on and on.

Which, in a lot of ways, I have. My life is for the most part ridiculously stable: I've had the same employer for thirteen years, the same home for twelve, the same wife for eleven. That stability is what I want and what I like, and I'm extremely fortunate to have it. But--and this is what would have surprised my teenage self--that still leaves a lot of scope for continual challenge and change, at work and in the rest of life. You may be good at your job, but every day presents a new set of problems to be handled if you want to keep the ball rolling smoothly along; the same for marriage, or friendships, or even hobbies or habits. There is a sense in which every day we must make our world anew, coping with the small or large changes that go on in the background--and affect the texture--of even the most stable life. I've encountered religious believers who say that we should give thanks that every day god deigns to continue creating the world; to some extent, adult life feels like that to me--that if we want our lives to keep going and keep being the way we hope they'll be, every day we're challenged to address them as if they're new and need our full, focused attention.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying thank god for Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe. When I was picking books to read over Christmas--the holiday when, in the midst of my family, I most clearly can see and be grateful for the unchanging foundations of my life--I chose some of Stout's many stories of Wolfe and Archie and the gang at West 35th Street. At Christmas you want comfort food, you want to support yourself in that illusion that this happiness will never change, this group of people will never not be around you in the glow of the tree.

Thus Nero Wolfe is perfect, for his world is beautifully static. Oh, there are alterations--by 1958, for example, Wolfe has a TV (with a remote, no less!)--but they are extremely minor. In a larger sense, nothing at all changes: Archie neither ages nor worries about it; Wolfe never mellows; the staff of Wolfe's brownstone never turns over; even the police who curse his interference and meekly accept his collars neither get promoted nor retire. Stout offers the pleasures of permanence and reliability. The fretting and stress in Stout is about cases and criminals and Wolfe's mood, never about planning for the future or coping with the fact that nothing lasts forever.

"Nothing doing," says Archie, on the first page of "Easter Parade."
"If you wanted me to hook something really worth while, like a Mogok ruby, I might consider it. For what you pay me I do your mail, I make myself obnoxious to people, I tail them when necessary, I shoot when I have to and get shot at, I stick around and take every mood you've got, I give you and Theodore a hand in the plant rooms when required, I lie to Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Stebbins whether required or not, I even help Fritz in the kitchen in emergencies, I answer the phone. I could go on and on. But I will not grab an orchid from a female bosom in the Easter parade. There is--"

"I haven't asked you to," Wolfe snapped. He wiggled a finger at me. "You assumed I was headed for that, but you were wrong. I only said I wanted to hire someone for such an errand--someone adroit, discreet, resolute, and reliable."

"Me, then," I insisted.
We wouldn't want it any other way.

Other writers can be similarly comforting in their fashion--ones as different as Barbara Pym and Ross Macdonald come to mind--but no one else other than P. G. Wodehouse (another favorite Christmas author) offers such a complete world, almost medieval in its unchanging perfection and assurance that everything has and always will have its place. It's a comforting illusion for these darkest days of winter.

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