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November 13, 2008 - 7:53pm



UD has stepped in the same river twice, and reread, after twenty years, Norman Maclean's story, A River Runs Through It. She hasn't seen the film again, but she remembers admiring it.

Maclean was an English professor at the University of Chicago when UD was a graduate student there. He must have been retired, or almost retired.

Not that UD would have taken a course with this mountain man from the Big Sky. She was appalled enough when Wayne Booth assigned as the first reading in one of his Chicago seminars the novel Ceremony in Lone Tree, an unceremonial paean to the great western emptiness.

UD had come to the U of C from the urban east; once in Hyde Park, she encountered professors like Booth and Maclean, who'd come from the other direction, places like Utah and Montana, trailing missionary mothers and preacher fathers.

What UD was used to, what UD liked, was a professor like Erich Heller, with whom she'd studied as an undergraduate. A refugee from Prague, Heller specialized in European high modernism and its antecedents: Kafka, Rilke, Goethe, Kleist. She liked Heller's heavy accent. She liked his weltschmerz. Booth and Maclean were slaphappy, with broad vowels.

Snugly - smugly - fitted to the confines of Gregor Samsa's room, UD had no idea what do with the wide open literary spaces of Fenimore Cooper and Wright Morris. Most of American literature embarrassed her.

But university education is supposed to broaden us, and UD gradually stretched her mind to accommodate the value of these men and their worldviews.


Of course once you look with any care at the worldview of a reflective person, someone like Norman Maclean, you discover it's not much different from Heller's. Wading into A River Runs Through It yields the same conviction of the painful enigma of life, a pain lifted from us occasionally through ecstatic moments of clarity that seem, when you look at all of them together late in the day, to disclose our life's otherwise hidden pattern, meaning, and flow.

Not far downstream was a dry channel where the river had run once, and part of the way to come to know a thing is through its death. But years ago I had known the river when it flowed through this now dry channel, so I could enliven its stony remains with the waters of memory. In death it had its pattern, and we can only hope for as much.

Maclean's memoir, written when he was in his seventies, enlivens his murdered brother's remains in this way. He comes to know - or at least to evoke with artistic persuasiveness - this enigmatic, self-destructive man, killed in a fight when he was still young.

Maclean does what writers do: He doesn't just look at epiphanic moments with his brother; he renders them. That's what A River Runs Through It is -- a prose seance, a stirring of dead waters. And in rendering his brother, Maclean renders himself: In death it had its pattern, and we can only hope for as much.

Aristotle (Booth and Maclean were Chicago Aristotelians) writes of the superiority of poetic truth to historical truth: "Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular." At the very end of his story, Maclean quotes his father asking him to "make up a story and the people to go with it," for only with an aesthetic rendering "will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us."

Literary art is an act of meaning-imposition in an enigmatic world. It consists in, as Don DeLillo said of Norman Mailer at Mailer's memorial service, "figuring out the world, sentence by sentence." What we figure out in this way has provisional value; it's not empirical or revealed but poetic truth. But it is our figuring, our own freed-up imaginative and intellectual energies at work. Art concedes the mystery of the world; the artist is someone who listens more carefully than other people to the hints the world drops.
Look at Gary Snyder's poem, Regarding Wave:

The voice of the Dharma
the voice

A shimmering bell
through all.

Every hill, still.
Every tree alive. Every leaf.
All the slopes flow.
old woods, new seedlings,
tall grasses plumes.

Dark hollows; peaks of light.
wind stirs the cool side
Each leaf living.
All the hills.

The Voice
is a wife

him still.

The artist listens with profound receptivity to the voice of the world. The enduring beauty and originality of Maclean's artistry lies in the particular ways in which he records and seeks to understand that voice.

In Part Two of this post, I'll enter Maclean's text and follow the flow of his style and content.


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