The Extraordinary Ordinary

Tree-of-Man

In Patrick White’s 1955 novel, The Tree of Man, Stan Parker, suspecting what has taken place between his wife and a commercial traveller, turns his car round and drives along familiar roads towards the city. ‘People who did not know what had happened were continuing to live their lives.’[1]

This called to mind the W. H. Auden poem referred to recently, the fall of Icarus into the sea barely warranting the attention of those others busy with their own concerns. In another Auden poem, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, he writes:

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays

He writes of the poet’s work passing into the minds and bodies of countless readers and listeners, who will adapt and interpret and use his writings in their own way and according to their own needs and urgencies, ‘The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.’

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have their sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And in each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.[2]

w-b-yeats

(W. B. Yeats via The Poetry Foundation)

The ultimate banal observation – that life continues – everywhere, or everywhere else, whatever disturbing or heart-rending or monstrous event is occurring here, or here, is something that must be confronted and withstood and, ultimately, accepted.

I remember the day on which I was waiting for a train to London, on my way to tell my mother that the hospital staff would be turning off my sister’s life support machine the next morning. My sister’s husband and daughter had made that impossible, inevitable decision and had asked me to break the news.

I was watching two young men on a bench across the tracks from me; one seemed to be dancing while still sitting down. His friend laughed, rocking gently to and fro. An elderly couple passed close to me, intent and purposeful; young women out for the evening shimmied and twirled. In touch with death and faced with exuberant or expressive or just ordinary life, you feel indignant but relieved, offended and thankful. You sit with your own arms wrapped around yourself, alive, while blood dances in your veins.

There is also the paradox against which you bruise yourself sooner or later: on the one hand, the life of practically any man or woman can be and generally is, in the end, whittled down to a handful of words, a few sentences. On the other hand, almost any individual life is, if viewed through certain lenses, immense, significant, infinitely varied. White’s novel, about professedly ‘ordinary’ people, embodies the question, over nearly five hundred pages, of whether there is really any such thing. ‘The sky was blurred now. As he stood waiting for the flesh to be loosened on him, he prayed for greater clarity, and it became obvious as a hand. It was clear that One, and no other figure, is the answer to all sums.’[3]

Sky-through-stone

All lives contain astonishments, illuminations, intensities, immeasurable depths – but very few can articulate, verbally, comprehensibly, what they have seen or glimpsed or divined. This is one purpose – or effect – of art: Guy Davenport despaired over the assumption, set in stone for so many, that the sole purpose of poetry is ‘self-expression’, ignoring the possibility that the poet ‘speaks for people who cannot speak’ and ‘makes sentences for people to say’.[4]

Hearing from Ford Madox Ford that he was publishing a fairy tale (three of Ford’s first five books were fairy tales), Peter Kropotkin said that he hoped it was not about princes and princesses (it was), or at least that Ford would write a fairy tale about simple and ordinary people. ‘I have been trying to do so ever since’, Ford commented forty years later. ‘I always want to write about ordinary people. But it seems to be almost impossible to decide who are ordinary people – and then to meet them. All men’s lives and characteristics are so singular.’[5] Elsewhere, he wrote of ‘The extraordinary complications of even the simplest lives! . . .’ and that ‘every case is a special case’.[6]

 The novelist Blanford, in Lawrence Durrell’s Quinx, also had his doubts about ordinariness: ‘Ah, the mind-numbing ineptness of the rational man with his formulations! Defeated always by the flying multiplicity of the real. “Ordinary life” – is there such a thing?’[7] While, perhaps most pertinently, Sarah Bakewell wrote of Michel de Montaigne, ‘From the start, Montaigne had the impression at once of being a peasant among peasants, and of being very special and different. This is the mixture of feelings that would stay with him for life. He felt ordinary, but knew that the very fact of realizing his ordinariness made him extraordinary.’[8]

 

 

References

[1] Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 322.

[2] W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 241, 242.

[3] White, The Tree of Man, 477.

[4] Guy Davenport, ‘Do You Have a Poem Book on E. E. Cummings?’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 132.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 108.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 43; Great Trade Route (London: Allen and Unwin, 1937), 299.

[7] Lawrence Durrell, Quinx, or The Ripper’s Tale, in The Avignon Quintet, one-volume edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), 1260.

[8] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 52.

 

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