Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Wolf

In this review of a new book called The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness, I came across the following passage, which reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing, the second volume in his Border Trilogy:

When Rowlands bought a wolf cub for $500, and lived with it for eleven years, he ended up writing: 'Much of what I learned, about how to live and how to conduct myself, I learned during those eleven years. Much of what I know about life and its meaning I learned from him. What it is to be human: I learned this from a wolf.' A part of Rowlands's life with Brenin was sheer delight: 'The wolf is art of the highest form and you cannot be in its presence without this lifting your spirits.' Beyond its beauty, though, the wolf taught the philosopher something about the meaning of happiness. Humans tend to think of their lives as progressing towards some kind of eventual fulfilment; when this is not forthcoming they seek satisfaction or distraction in anything that is new or different. This human search for happiness is 'regressive and futile', for each valuable moment slips away in the pursuit of others and they are all swallowed up by death. In contrast, living without the sense of time as a line pointing to an end-point, wolves find happiness in the repetition of fulfilling moments, each complete and self-contained. As a result, as Rowlands shows in a moving account of his last year with Brenin, they can flourish in the face of painful illness and encroaching death.

This passage seems to shed some light on what McCarthy is up to in The Crossing. The first section of the novel concerns Billy Parham's dealings with a she-wolf: trapping her after a laborious period of trial and error; leading her into Mexico; trying, and failing, to rescue the wolf from some Mexicans who take it and pit it against other animals; trading his Winchester rifle for the wolf's body, which he takes out to the countryside and cradles in a moment whose mysticism echoes Rowlands' respect for the wolf as a creature:

He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.

This is on page 127. Up till this point, the novel, though already strange, seems to have been "progressing toward some kind of eventual fulfillment"—we think, as we read, that the whole novel is somehow going to be about Billy and this wolf, or about the repercussions of his experiences with the wolf. But no: for the rest of the novel, 300 pages, McCarthy demolishes our expectations of a linear, focused plot (the kind of plot we find in Volumes One and Three of the Border Trilogy). Instead, Billy wanders a dreamlike Mexican landscape, encounters a vatic hermit in an abandoned church, returns to his home only to find his parents slaughtered and the life he knew gone forever, encounters a mysterious theatrical troupe in a small town, tries to join the army but gets rejected because of a heart problem, loses touch with his brother, who becomes a sort of Mexican folk hero, and, ultimately, crosses the border back to America with, seemingly, not much to show for his journey. His "sense of time as a line pointing to an end-point" has been completely shattered, and so has ours. Perhaps the thing to do is to learn to live as a wolf lives, "in the repetition of fulfilling moments, each complete and self-contained." Perhaps the overarching theme of the Border Trilogy itself is the tragedy of humanity's insistently trying to impose order, logic, design, and meaning on an existence that resists such impositions, humanity's quest for happiness in an absurd world.


emiss said...

Thanks for the post and more light on The Crossing. I'm getting ready to teach Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for after the break—your last sentence could also be written about it. The theatrical troupe in the middle of the Mexican desert reminded me of the Players in R & G, I recall; as different in landscape as the two works are, I remember thinking often of R & G while I read the trilogy this summer. Is the wolf a little like Elizabeth Bishop's moose? Wolf, moose, Elizabethan stage—interesting ways to convey the different flavors of encounters with otherness in the radical uncertainty of the world.

framiko said...

Great point about the two troupes, emiss. Does the wolf's life suggest, as Hamlet comes to suspect, that the answer is neither to be or not to be, but to let be?

Does Billy come to realize that? John Grady remains a Hamlet figure to the end, trying valiantly to make the world conform to his vision. Billy, on the other hand, seems to have learned something about the futility of such attempts, though his life passes by in a rather unsatisfying blur of repeated moments, a brief epilogue to a great epic. Which is better, to die like John Grady or live like Billy? Is there some middle way? (I'm thinking of Mac, for instance.)

I mentioned "the tragedy of humanity's insistently trying to impose order, logic, design, and meaning on an existence that resists such impositions, humanity's quest for happiness in an absurd world," but on second thought I think I would say that, for McCarthy, these are not only tragic but also heroic, beautiful, and intrinsic to humanity.