Passion doesn’t have to be raving or manic. The British, or in this case, Irish manifestation can be quite calm, even a little reserved. But you recognize it right away. Oxford scholar Catherine Morley cares immensely about a subject most people don’t give a rip about – modern American literature, sees it as full of meaning and, for her, it’s an answer to the existential question, “What’s the point anyway?”
When we met Catherine, she had just delivered a paper titled ‘Willa Cather: American Modernist?’ at the Willa Cather Foundation’s Annual Conference in Red Cloud, and she was staying on a few days to do some research in the Cather archives there for her upcoming book.
Catherine is charming, laughs easily, is wonderfully knowledgeable about modern American “literature”, and she is, as the British say approvingly, “a bit mad”.
How else could she have written a thesis named The Quest for Epic in Contemporary American Fiction: John Updike, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo’? Seems ripe for satire, but we refrain because, when you talk with Catherine, her career choice makes sense. We talked into the evening about English/American literature in general and Willa Cather in particular. I listened and learned. I was taught.
But I didn’t ask her the question that was foremost in my mind: “Shouldn’t a woman of your education and ability really be solving world hunger or something?”
It’s a question that dogs me. When it comes right down to it, I get joy from art that’s pulled off successfully. It’s the solace of my life, and I care about it more than anything else (hyperbole warning). Art museums and libraries don’t bore me, I get stimulated and I make connections and the world gets more understandable.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, watching Laurel and Hardy trying to move that piano across the footbridge over a ravine in Switzerland when, for no reason, a gorilla starts to cross from the other side…that’s also art, comic art of the first order. Just thinking about that silliest predicament of all time makes me laugh. No spotlight can be too bright for those two guys. They pulled it off – just like Willa Cather and Jack Kerouac and Paul Strand and any other dead guys I’ve been writing about lately. I want to say, “Hey, look: joy and character and friends forever, and they made the world laugh its head off.” That’s Art with a capital T, folks.
Or that movie where Charlie Chaplin falls in love with the blind flower girl — I mean – that’s it. The end. Art gets no better. It cannot. That final scene is up there with the end of La Boheme as a defining moment in the western love story.
To get back to Catherine Morley, who I very much admire, I could easily spend the rest of my life pointing at the wonderful artists, both high culture and pop culture, who have been swept into the corner by time, and saying, “Hey, over here, look at this – joy and character and you’ll laugh your head off”. It’s not that different than Catherine’s career plan, although she practices at Oxford, and I practice at McDonald’s in Pismo Beach, California. (where I sit writing and posting this screed)
Yet there’s all this important work to be done. It really can’t wait. Little babies are dying because there are germs in their drinking water. Innocent little girls are being sold into sex slavery at this very moment. And the ice caps are melting, just like Tiny Tim warned us.
You can’t just leave solving these problems to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, God bless ‘em.
One thing I know is I’m a pig. I have a snout and I can’t change my spots. (Take that, clear and coherent metaphor master!) I have shelves full of important social treatises that I fully intend to read someday. Just not right now. Maybe after I finish this wonderful book about Victorian photography and this one about seventeenth century Dutch landscape painting and this one about Cowpunk Mamas and this one about medieval grail quests and then finish my own new work of literary criticism: Charles the Rooster: What Did He Really Have To Crow About? Then I’ll be ready to think strategy and really help solve the world’s problems. If only it didn’t sound so tedious.
I figure God made us who we are and He wants us to BE fully who we are, as long as we’re on the side of light. Let the ranters rant, the lovers love, the thinkers think, the doers do, and the ponderers ponder. Do it with joy and do it as best you can.
But I’m not sure. Maybe I’m fooling myself. I know the Bible experts in my readership can knock holes in that fool’s perspective in a second.
What do you think?