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The Story of a Year: Norman Maclean, Part 3
January 1, 2009 - 5:36pm



With the new year, we tell ourselves the story of a year. The story of last year. The story of the year to come.

The storyteller, Doris Lessing says in her Nobel speech, "will [always] be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us – for good and for ill. It is our stories, the storyteller, that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed."

Stories aren't sitting around waiting for us to pick them up. They have to be discovered, shaped, told in some way. As Norman Maclean put it, "I doubt that there are, outside us in X, assortments of ready-made poems and stories and that we just happen along and find roles in them. It takes a poet and a storyteller to make a poem and a story."

One of the ways writers discover stories is through moments of intense aesthetic bliss. A Wordsworthian, Norman Maclean understood moments like these in terms of that poet's "spots of time." Maclean recalled times when life "lifted itself out of its impurities of spasms and routines and became, usually briefly, as if shaped by a poet or storyteller. ... Now, looking back at my life, I see it largely as a sheaf of unarranged poems and stories with a few threads binding them together. I don't remember much of what happened in between. What I remember most about my life is its literature."

In much the same way, the philosopher Richard Rorty recalled in an autobiographical essay "Wordsworthian moments in which, in the woods around Flatbrookville ... I had felt touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance."

So maybe we look at last year the way these writers, toward the end of their lives, looked back at their entire lives, finding in a year or a life moments of literature, moments that seem charged with the entire meaning of things. Maclean wrote his late in life stories because "I thought it would be important for me in old age to look back on my life to see moments when it took on the beauty of art. I also thought it would be important for me in old age to find out how I had felt about life - and to be doubly sure how I felt about it now."

"My brother was murdered," Maclean wrote. "I try to say it the way it was - without premonition, never to be explained and never to be assimilated. It had no past and it never went on and turned into something else. It just was - suddenly, shockingly and forever."
Yet not quite forever. The murder could conclude, in some important sense, for Maclean, if he could assimilate it into a story, if he could tell its story and recreate it: "I slowly came to feel that it would never end for me unless I wrote it."

If, in A River Runs Through It, "the interplay of river and words -- the dialectic of the flow of life and of our attempts to understand and shape it -- are present at every level," as John Cawelti writes, then the essential maneuver for the storyteller is to stop time -- temporarily to halt the flow of the river.

And it's precisely this sudden stop that the aesthetic experience seems to achieve. "Beauty," writes Adorno, "is a curative sickness. It arrests life, and therefore its decay." Mesmerized by beauty, the poet or storyteller studies its disclosures with an intensity that understands the cure these moments might effect. In a review of James Merrill's poetry, August Kleinzahler writes that "Merrill believed, with Marcel Proust, that the only true paradise is a lost paradise. Love is not fully itself until it is lost, until it becomes memory, then becomes art."

So Maclean, looking back on all those years, discovers that the ultimate spot of time, the ultimate experience of beauty, was the moment when his alluring, enigmatic brother, a master fly fisherman, caught with great craft and elegance great numbers of fish, and rushed, water dripping off of him, to show them all to his brother. In that moment was concentrated, for Maclean, the mystery of human beauty, skill, exultation... In search of time lost, he found that moment, made it art, and recaptured it for the living, for himself.

There's no way around the sentimentality of these thoughts, especially as we gather red-eyed around the breakfast table in the morning of a new year. At their core is a vision of life as a chain of human empathies, a generational pulling in of the nets of our dead, a tending to them. At his funeral yesterday, the friends of Harold Pinter read excerpts from his work.

Michael Gambon, sombre and heavy-coated, read no fewer than four pieces. One was a speech he nightly delivers on stage in [Pinter's] No Man's Land, in which Hirst pays tribute to the emotion trapped in photo albums and asks us to "tender the dead, as you would yourself be tendered, now, in what you would describe as your life."

Because the poet and the storyteller show us how to aestheticize and thereby understand - and even love - our lives, we tend to feel a special gratitude toward them. At James Merrill's funeral, "a clutch of friends each sprinkled a handful of dirt over the poet's ashes. When it was his turn, one young poet also dropped into the grave a dimestore playing marble painted to resemble the globe itself."


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