Friday, June 3, 2011

Posture and memory

For BL, posture interrupted,
and a young first-baseman, uprooted

There are people who say they like waltzing, and I believe them, but I do not think this is what they mean. I think they were happy when waltzing sometime, and wish to reproduce that state, which they associate with myriad conditions that probably were not relevant. I also do not think they were happy on that definitive occasion for more than an instant, an insightful one to be sure; but now, their happiness in waltzing is anticipatory, contingent, as fleeting as it was then, and sometimes rather pale. I may say this, because one did marry a young lady who was passionate about the waltz.

What I wish to propose is that the sense of happiness in waltzing can be revisited by the accident of adopting the posture one occupied at that defining moment. (I fear this posting will have to achieve its expected Offense of Taste by mere hypothesis). I give you James Agee on this proposition, without whose writings many, many of us would not know what we already know. We leave - by way of illustration but not of contradiction - the waltz, together with the experience of happiness, and visit the 6-year-old boy as he went to the movies with his father, not long ago.

We encounter that inevitable placing of a stone in the shoe of memory, which is simply a natural consequence of family life, if by no means the only one. It has to do with one's posture, and it is Mr Agee's genius not to tell us this happens, but to show it happening, and to astound, by the perspective of the narrative voice, with the unstated implication that the stone will be revisited as that posture is, and can be either smoothed, or cherished for the wrong reason. Or possibly one is simply reading too slowly; Agee's time signature is not that of the waltz. He is vulgar, in the truest sense. Who wouldn't be, if he could?

"Well," his father said, "reckon I'll hoist me a couple."
They turned through the swinging doors into a blast of odor and sound. There was no music: only the density of bodies and of the smell of market bar, of beer, whiskey and country bodies, salt and leather; no clamor, only the thick quietude of crumpled talk. Rufus stood looking at the light on a damp spittoon and he heard his father ask for whiskey, and he knew he was looking up and down the bar for men he might know .. He looked up his father's length and watched him bend backwards tossing one off in one jolt in a lordly manner, 

and a moment later heard him 
say to the man next to him, 
"That's my boy"; and felt 
a warmth of love.

Next moment he felt his father's hands under his armpits, and he was lifted, high, and seated on the bar, looking into a long row of huge bristling and bearded red faces. The eyes of the men nearest him were interested, and kind; some of them smiled; further away, the eyes were impersonal and questioning, but now even some of these began to smile.

Somewhat timidly, but feeling assured that his father was proud of him and that he was liked, and liked these men, he smiled back; and suddenly many of the men laughed. He was disconcerted by their laughter and lost his smile a moment; then, realizing it was friendly, smiled again; and again they laughed. His father smiled at him. "That's my boy," he said warmly. "Six years old, and he can already read like I couldn't read when I was twice his age."

Rufus felt a sudden hollowness in his voice, and all along the bar, and in his own heart. But how does he fight, he thought. You don't brag about smartness if your son is brave. He felt the anguish of shame, but his father did not seem to notice, except that as suddenly as he had lifted him up to the bar, he gently lifted him down again. "Reckon I'll have another," he said, and drank it more slowly; then, with a few good nights, they went out.

If I could fight, thought Rufus. If I were brave; he would never brag how I could read: Brag. Of course, "Don't you brag." That was it. What it meant. Don't brag you're smart if you're not brave. You've got nothing to brag about. Don't you brag."
.. There were no words, or even ideas, or formed emotions, of the kind that have been suggested here, no more in the man than in the boy child. These realizations moved clearly through the senses, the memory, the feelings, the mere feeling of the place they paused at, about a quarter of a mile from home, on a rock under a stray tree .. and above them, the trembling lanterns of the universe ..

James Agee
A Death in the Family
op. cit.

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