Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/11/2010

On gratitude: Thomas Wolfe, James Battersby, and my narrative of going home

Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again is on a bookshelf at my apartment. It’s one of the thickest novels there: over 700 pages. I started reading it once and gave up. I don’t have the discipline to read a 700-page book written in the dense style of Thomas Wolfe (anyone younger than 50 will probably have to look Wolfe up in Wikipedia, his work has passed so thoroughly out of style).  I’ve often wondered if it’s really about going home again, and if so, what home and why Wolfe wanted to write about it. 

I subscribe to (and once in a great while read) the scholarly journal, Narrative. Exactly why, I am not sure. My attention span for reading incomprehensible academic prose is about as long as it is for watching Olympic Ice Dancing—five minutes. 

A couple of years ago, however, I did (attempt to) read an article in Narrative I thought was interesting although I hadn’t read the article of which it was a critique. I remember reading the article because it seemed to be saying that the other article deserved attention as a refutation of the absolutely iron-clad idea in academia that we construct a “narrative” of our life and that “narrative” becomes our life. I didn’t understand much of the article, but I rejoiced in the idea that a scholar was taking to task an idea that scholars (particularly scholars of rhetoric and language) simply accept as the truth. 

The article is by James Battersby, titled “Narrativity, self, and self-representation.” (How, you might ask, do I remember that being far from home and far removed from the time I read the article? University library data bases come in handy if you can remember even the subject of an article.) 

I don’t have a clue what Wolfe’s novel is about, and I have only the vaguest understanding of the scholarly article, but I think that the idea that we create the narrative of our lives and that somehow becomes what we are all about is bunk. I may find out what the story of my life is by being attentive to what has happened to me and to what is happening in the moment, but I did not—at least not through writing about it—create my life. My choices perhaps did, but not my ability to tell a story (if that’s what created my life, it would be much different, I guarantee it). 

I will admit that I most likely do not understand the concept of “narrative” at all. Graduate seminars in that stuff went right over my head (I couldn’t read a book of dense and indecipherable prose then any more than I can now—get yourself some Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and see if you can). I think all those ideas came from people like Barthes and Lyotard and Derrida (Foucault, too, but I like him because he was a flaming queen). But I couldn’t prove that. 

When I was fresh out of college, I became organist at a funky little Anglo Catholic parish in Ontario, California. Christ Church lives out the liturgy with more style and beauty (still) than any other high-church church I’ve ever attended, from London to New York to San Francisco. That part of my life narrative happened because I had chosen to be an organ major in college, and I had chosen to get married (what a subplot of the narrative that was!). In order to avoid the draft and to avoid failing at graduate school in music, I had chosen to go to seminary. All of those narratives of my life came crashing down soon enough. 

I accepted the position at Christ Church because I love(d) the organ there. It is the strangest little instrument, held together with duct tape, with huge rocks sitting on the wind reservoir to steady the pressure, but with a sound that raises the hair on the back of the neck of anyone who can stand and breathe (physically or spiritually). 

My life’s narrative is bizarre enough by most people’s standards, I suppose, but by the standards of brilliantly successful or out of the ordinary people, it’s pretty bland. (“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Yes, of course I memorized Thoreau in high school.) 

My life has sometimes seemed desperate, but, I think, never quiet. 

Three days ago, I played a program of organ music on that unfathomably glorious instrument, thirty-six years later on from the last time I did so. That previous program was my farewell, and my late ex-wife and I literally had the U-Haul loaded and parked in the church’s parking lot and drove off. My life has perhaps been desperate, but never quiet. 

Here’s what Battersby has to say about my (and your) “grand narrative.” 

We can construct a grand narrative, if we wish. . . .so long as we recognize that many alternative and similarly partial grand-narrative accounts can be devised. There are, then, many truths we can tell. . . . about selves, and many ways of telling them, but there is no way to get at the whole truth in any way of telling.  [It is]. . . .a chaotic mess of stuff belonging to a massive number of incompatible categories that simply cannot be brought under the control of a single discursive taskmaster. (1) 

A couple of years before I took that job at Christ Church, my soon-to-be mother-in-law was in a mental hospital (both her daughter and I each also ended up in such institutions—what is that narrative all about?).  The first letter we received from her after her shock treatments said simply, “We needed one person in charge of another and here we have one person in charge of another.” 

My hiring by Christ Church was a narrative of grace and hope that I could never have written for myself. I didn’t exactly need someone in charge of me, but I certainly needed someone to give my life enough stability so that the narrative did not end right there. The people of that high-church (shall we say “never quiet”) community took me in and allowed me room to make all kinds of mistakes (some unbelievably  grave), but also gave me the internal and spiritual permission learn to be who I am and to let my personal narrative develop as it needed to. 

Now the narrative comes full circle in spite of, not, I believe, because of my attempt to construct it. The personalities at Christ Church have changed, but the essence remains. It’s obvious from the welcome Home they gave me—most of the current members not even knowing me. You can go home if home was the right place in the beginning. 

But the real joy of my narrative is that my return was not to the past. It was very much to the new present of my life—my return to playing programs of organ music. Bach said that if he pleased himself and his neighbor, he pleased God. My playing is, I am told, pleasing to my neighbors. 

The reality of coming home is, of course, more complicated than that. But I have learned a new “mantra” (I suppose some would call it a prayer) that I keep in my mind always as I play, almost singing it to the music. It is simply, “God, keep me here. Keep me present.” I’m not sure who or what the God is I am addressing, but I know that my desire to stay in the present is all the narrative my music (or my life) needs.
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(1) Battersby, James L. “Narrativity, self, and self-representation.” Narrative 14.1 (2006): 27+.

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