Eudora Welty, Peter Schjeldahl + Bill Plotkin
In The Optimist’s Daughter, the dark forces in the novel are Fay and her family, people “who never know the meaning of what has happened to them.”
This reminds me of Stephen Forrest’s belief that the people who miss the elder track, becoming merely older, are people who have not digested their life experiences into meaning.
Peter Schjeldahl*, in his magnificent essay, The Art of Dying, says of his mother, “she was, and remains, a constant reader without a trace of intellectual curiosity.”
I’ve reread Schjeldahl’s essay several times and what I’m loving most this time is the way he catalogs meaningful visual experiences. They become spots of time, as Wordsworth might say. Like the time Schjeldahl threw up after drinking too much as a teenager: “The vomit was bright orange. It puddled on bright-green grass.The summer sky was bright blue. I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful.” Or when “a spotlighted Willem de Kooning painting stunned me: wild but somehow purposeful, clinching an unstated argument.”
These moments make me think of what Bill Plotkin calls “pscyhe-animating alignments,” arranged by the Mystery as an invitation to the doorway to Soul. Plotkin says these moments might be “a dream, a vision, a landscape… an omen, an inner image received while awake, a close encounter with a nonhuman creature, a disembodied voice, a ceremony, a line of poetry, a storm or rainbow or meteor, a prophecy, a wound, a somatic awakening, or a sacred object such as a knife or a chalice.” Plotkin adds, “We’re all guided by Mystery. When the time is right and if we offer our attention, we’ll find the door and it will open.”
In The Optimist’s Daughter, Fay misses these moments and is unable to recognize the sacred in everyday objects. Seeing the breadboard Laurel’s husband made, Fay asks, “Made it? What for?”
Hearing about the bread Laurel’s mother baked, Fay says, “It all tastes alike, don’t it?”
She’s impervious to beauty and meaning-making: “life had not taught her how to feel.”
Schjedahl writes that “If you can’t put a mental frame around, and relish, the accidental aspect of a street or a person, or really of anything, you will respond to art only sluggishly.”
Eudora Welty would probably add that you will respond to life and to human connection sluggishly as well. “Fay was without any power of passion or imagination in herself and had no way to see it or reach it in the other person. Other people, inside their lives, might as well be invisible to her.”
Laurel is an artist and she responds to life as an artist might, “vulnerable to the living moment.” Laurel knows how to “stalk the aesthetic,” as Schjeldahl suggests, and to put a mental frame around what she sees: “It was a clear, bright seven o’clock, with morning shadows dappling the shine of the floors and the dining room table. And there was Missouri, standing in her hat and coat in the middle of the kitchen.”
This susceptibility is what distinguishes Laurel from Fay. Fay is unmoved by the living moment: “Fay had never dreamed that in that shattering moment in the hospital she had not been just as she always saw herself—in the right.” Laurel, on the other hand, knows she’s in the right, but doesn’t strike out at Fay in righteous anger because she’s open to impressions. Other people are not invisible to her: “She had been ready to hurt Fay. She had wanted to hurt her, and had known herself capable of doing it. But such is the strangeness of the mind, it had been the memory of the child Wendell that had prevented her.”
In Plotkin’s words, Fay would likely consider herself “a would-be survivor (or winner) on a dog-eat-dog planet,” while Laurel is “a visionary partner in an ever-unfolding and evolving story,” participating in memory and metaphor and letting it shape her understanding. To be most fully alive is to be vulnerable and receptive.
* In high school I wrote a paper on Hawthorne's Dr. Heidegger's Experiment that received a good grade and this comment from the teacher: "Ms. Hinton, It is customary to spell the protagonist's name correctly in academic papers." So if I've misspelled Schjeldahl's name in this post, it's not Ms. Taylor's fault.