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The Catharctic Half-Light -- Norman Maclean, Part Two
November 16, 2008 - 5:17pm



Norman Maclean, an Aristotelian, learned deeply what Aristotle taught: tragic art is cathartic. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a small American tragedy, A River Runs Through It, and in writing it released himself from decades of grief and confusion over his murdered brother.

UD finds it strange and moving that Maclean's creative life, at the end of his long teaching life, turned into an embodiment of theories he'd spent years conveying rather than embodying. Few literary scholars have the luck to accomplish their own aesthetic expression of the aesthetics they've studied and taught -- an aesthetic expression, in Maclean's case, that became a powerful story and film.

Those who can't do, teach. In the case of Maclean, he taught and got it done, for himself and for the readers of his story.

He did what people who've elaborated on Aristotle's argument -- Edmund Wilson, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes -- say artists do: He took a wound and lent it symbolic dignity and in this way healed himself.

Here's how Hughes puts it, in a letter:

[All art] is an attempt by someone unusually badly hit (but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some sort of modus vivendi… In other words, all art is trying to become an anaesthetic and at the same time a healing session. [Poetry is] nothing more than a facility… for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction… [T]he physical body, so to speak, of poetry is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.

Aristotle says we emerge from our catharsis at the spectacle of tragic drama reconciled anew to the conditions of our existence; the drama offers an aestheticized but true and tolerable (few can take this knowledge on directly) engagement in the suffering realities of human lives. Ted Hughes, carrying his own notorious wound, also talks of reconciliation. The creation and reception of art is a way to go on living.


Start at the very end of River, the passage in which an elderly Maclean goes fishing in the Blackfoot by himself:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Maclean the poet has, in the prose that precedes this, already played each of these figurative lines out skillfully, so that by the time the reader arrives at this conclusion, she feels consciousness as a force electrically charged with meaning: Not until the cool of the evening -- the end of life -- can we begin to sense what our life has been; even then, our understanding is always partial, half-light. We can put ourselves in the way of cathartic insight only when we reduce ourselves, when we subdue our egotism and become receptive to a reality that transcends us. "All existence fades to a being with my soul and memories..."

It sounds, at first blush, madly narcissistic - to imagine that all existence is nothing but oneself. But in fact this is a merging with the world that - in language that also sounds narcissistic - allows one, as Kierkegaard wrote, to "become important with [one's] despair."

The whole age can be divided into those who write and those who do not write. Those who write represent despair, and those who read disapprove of it and believe that they have a superior wisdom - and yet if they were able to write, they would write the same thing. Basically they are all equally despairing, but when one does not have the opportunity to become important with his despair, then it is hardly worth the trouble to despair and show it.

Writing your life, finding a way to evince and aestheticize your despair, doesn't rid you of despair the way a pill rids you of a headache, but it does free you from the pain of its seeming contingency -- the possibility that it's all been meaningless suffering and loss. To become important with your despair means both to give it the specific shape it has by virtue of having emerged out of your life and no other, and to sense the way your despair flows naturally out of the history of human despair -- how it is finally indistinguishable from Aristotle's tragic plot.

So again - "the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River" - are the soundings from the depth of existence, from the antediluvian world, that the artist's hyperattentive ear receives. (Clever Charles Wright calls this, in his poem Disjecta Membra, "a music my ear would be heir to.") A "four-count rhythm" -- the way Maclean's father said you should cast for fish -- assumes this late in the story a meaning having to do with the life well-lived, lived in accordance with the rhythms of nature. The "hope that a fish will rise" is the definitive, profoundest hope of A River Runs Through It -- that we will have the power not merely to catch the underlying truths of our lives, but that we will be subtle and persistent enough to wrestle them free of their murkiness and consider them in evening's half-light.

More details from River in my next post.


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