IN FICTION AND memoir, Wallace Stegner often returned to his childhood, and particularly to the big, violent, unreflective man who was his dad. George Stegner dragged his young family across the West, from logging camp to wheat field, attempting to steal fat from land that, by the early teens of this century, had already been claimed or stripped and discarded. Stegner's 1943 novel Big Rock Candy Mountain found in his father an archetype of American-frontier individual greed; it was Stegner's lifetime aim, as moral writer and active conservationist, to pick apart that machine of heedless destruction and build more responsible habits of being.
The author's success is the ostensible subject of Jackson J. Benson's fawning new Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work (Viking), which also reveals--very much despite itself--how Stegner failed. He failed when, unable to grasp the energies of the '60s, he denounced that decade's spiritual searching as political shirking (especially in All the Little Live Things). He failed too when, writing Angle of Repose, he lifted whole passages from artist Mary Hallock Foote's 19th-century letters without attribution--as if she were merely a coarse mineral to be mined and refined. In both these cases, Stegner displayed an unexamined arrogance, an unwillingness to accede to the veracity of others' stories and their right to tell them, that sits at the center of his father's brutish relationship with the land. I am talking now about the importance of listening, and not only with one's ears.
Just over a month ago, this publication ran, as its cover story, a conversation between renegade psychologist James Hillman and CP editor Steve Perry. The rambling, chummy dialogue had its trenchant moments but veered occasionally into the ridiculous (two professional, well-paid white men dismissing feminism as "irrelevant to the major questions of [our] time"? Hmmmm...). The humble subject of meditation drew one of the more smugly provocative pronouncements: It's "obscene" to "cross your legs and meditate" at this point in our beleaguered planet's history, Hillman declared.
The practice of meditation, or sitting, certainly makes an easy target. There's nothing heroic about it (until you try it, that is). There are doubtless those who sit in a spirit of self-aggrandizement, or escapism. But the reason most sitters sit, I think, has to do with listening. I don't sit, per se, but I do sit down, on my couch usually, and I stare at the wall and breathe and try to still my bustling brain. And try to hear. What comes to me, eventually, is maybe less about rational thought than, say, the quality of light; the music of geese, wind and automobile; the mood of the street; some angry shade from the past. I let these messages in and let them go. They enlarge me--I am aware again of how huge and multifarious this world really is.
In his remarkable essay The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez writes: "We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language." The same could be said, I think, of the people who walk and sleep and fight and love on that land. It may be best to look upon the human story, as Lopez advises regarding the earth, "not as possessor but as a companion." By that, I mean each should be approached with patience and restraint, so that we can hear beyond what we expect to hear, beyond what we can use, beyond even what we can make sense of with words. Art can help us listen to this depth. Meditation also. We need to practice other ways of knowing.
Wallace Stegner laid down on the prairie and took in its songs through his skin. Unlike his father, he learned to ask what the ravaged land needed. But Benson's approving biography shows that Stegner couldn't pledge that same time to the West's shattered peoples, whose testimony he once wrote off as "self-pity." This and other denunciations of America's post-'60s "victim mentality" generally seem to me mean-spirited and shallow. Like Hillman, I believe the pain we feel now is greater than the words we give to it; the language of psychology is like a cup trying to hold a river of grief and anger--all the repressed horror of what the human family has done and continues to do in the name of profit, power, and the Father.
Since the European arrival, America has been constructed primarily by efficient, ill-considered, graceless action. We are haunted today by the cumulative consequences of those acts: as Hillman notes, a poisoned environment, soul-poisoning cinder block architecture--but also the unquiet wraiths of Native Americans, slaves, and each successive immigrant group forced to trade in identity and empathy for tableware at an eat-and-be-eaten banquet. Hillman suggests caring for the land and other people as a way to "work through" this toxic mess; yet service without understanding only compounds our arrogance and our mistakes. America today is a country full of feverish actors, running on motivations purchased on sale at the local Target. Stillness--the work of receptiveness--opens a door to something else. Something tangled and bottomless, something like our history.
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