Anyone poking about in newspapers or on the Internet lately might have come across a couple of essays expressing a view that seems to pop up seductively in public discourse whenever the weather turns warm. Like a view of cool woods from the window of a stuffy classroom in spring, this idea offers the deeply restful allure of zero intellectual content. It is probably not just a coincidence that both essays were published May 1, when thoughts of summer really begin to stir in the Northern Hemisphere.
The first was by Mr. Lance Morrow, who writes a major weekly essay for Time magazine and also a shorter “Web-only” essay for Time’s online site every other day. (No wonder he succumbs to the temptation to put his mind into neutral once in a while.) Early on May 1, Mr. Morrow was sitting in his study at his farm in upstate New York, doubtless cudgeling his brain for the day’s essay topic, when a cardinal suddenly flew at the window, beating its wings against the pane in an effort to get in, not once but repeatedly, evidently confused by the sunrise reflected in the glass. Mr. Morrow watched, fascinated, for a while and then was struck by a stray literary memory. “I think,” he wrote, “of the wonderful couplet at the beginning of Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’: ‘I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure in the windowpane.’ “
With that, he has his metaphor — and his essay. After a few beautiful little paragraphs describing the agitated bird’s “failure to get through to the other dimension,” he concludes, “I flick on the television set. Suddenly the world comes beating its wings against that windowpane as well: Elian and Hillary and all the rest of the day’s agitation trying to get in, . . . beating its wings against the window of the brain. False azure, indeed.” It is perfectly done, a tiny addition to the great tradition of disengagement, Mr. Morrow’s notion of “the day’s agitation” taking its place beside St. Thomas Aquinas’ deathbed dismissal of the world: “It’s all straw.”
The same day, far to the south, Mr. Bob Greene, who writes an heroic four columns a week for The Chicago Tribune, reported experiencing a similar epiphany. Every year since he was a boy, Mr. Greene has spent part of the spring election season on Longboat Key, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico. But this year, he writes, he was overcome by the contrast between the campaign chatter — and by extension the endless chatter and change of human history — and the majestic silence and constancy of the Gulf: “So many words by so many candidates, over all these years . . . and the only thing that has not . . . been rendered impermanent is the Gulf.” The Gulf rolls in, the Gulf rolls out; against that backdrop, he reflects, everything human beings do to try to alter or control history, starting with politics, appears so “small.” Mr. Greene steers closer to triteness than Mr. Morrow, but the moment of revulsion each man describes is identical.
We expect this kind of thing of poets and mystics and other natural-born recluses; we don’t really expect it of journalists, whose job by definition involves them in the day-to-day doings of the world. But perhaps that is why it is so satisfying when we do encounter it. It is like reading about a man who shoots out his TV during the evening news. Here is another ordinary person, we think, who simply couldn’t take the parade of folly and pretension one second longer. And when it is journalists who temporarily turn their backs on humanity for the more reliable consolations of nature — be it small birds or big oceans — the sensation of empathy and vindication is even stronger.
Of course, it is a passing satisfaction. We know as well as Mr. Morrow and Mr. Greene — who after all write lucidly and, for the most part, responsibly on matters of public concern several times a week — that “Elian and Hillary,” i.e., people and politics, are important (sometimes even interesting) and that it is our job as citizens to figure out the rights and wrongs of current affairs. We even know deep down that politicians do affect history, for both good and ill, and we had better listen to their chatter if we plan to vote the good ones into office. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that there is also a place for what the English philosopher Francis Bacon called “lucid intervals and happy pauses” — the need to shut the window occasionally against the barrage of news and opinions.
Either that, or we end up in a state of inviolable cynicism, minds permanently out of gear, like Jane Austen’s Mr. Palmer: “Lady Middleton . . . exerted herself to ask [him] if there was any news in the paper. ‘No, none at all,’ he replied, and read on.”
From there it is but a small step to ignoring the news entirely. And then where would any of us be?
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