Spent a month working my way through Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. And it was a slog at times. A posthumous novel published in 1940, after the author’s untimely death, the book is both sprawling and intimate, packed with these extended poetic asides, like the one that follows. Was going to just quote the uplifting part at the end, but somehow this felt like I was short-changing Wolfe. The delayed arrival of his point about our capacity for love, our love of life itself, is made more poignant having been made to endure his bleak, unsparing assessment of the human condition. One more thing: Wolfe was writing in a time where the experience of “man” was presumed to be synonymous with that of “human.” Which is to say, Wolfe was a man of his time, just as we are men, women, and non-gender-conforming peoples of our time. But perhaps his portrait can be read more generously than it was written. It is not a flattering portrait to be sure, but maybe it is still recognizably human. At the least, it gave me a lot to think about.
In the infinite variety of such common, accidental, oft-unheeded things one can see the web of life as it is spun. Whether we wake at morning in the city, or lie at night in darkness in the country towns, or walk the streets of furious noon in all the dusty, homely, and enduring lights of present time, the universe around us is the same. Evil lives forever—so does good. Man alone has knowledge of these two, and he is such a little thing.
For what is man?
First, a child, soft-boned, unable to support itself on its rubbery legs, befouled with its excrement, that howls and laughs by turns, cries for the moon but hushes when it gets it’s mother’s teat, a sleeper, eater, guzzler, howler, laugher, idiot, and a chewer of its toe; a little tender thing all blubbered with its spit, a reacher into fires, a beloved fool.
After that, a boy, hoarse and loud before companions, but afraid of the dark; will beat the weaker and avoid the stronger; worships strength and savagery, loves tales or war and murder, and violence done to others; joins gangs and hates to be alone; makes heroes out of soldiers, sailors, prize fighters, football players, cowboys, gunmen, and detectives; would rather die than not out-try and out-dare his companions, wants to beat them and always to win, shows his muscle and demands that it be felt, boasts of his victories and will never own defeat.
Then the youth: goes after girls, is foul behind their backs among the drugstore boys, hints at a hundred seductions, but gets pimples on his face; begins to think about his clothes, becomes a fop, greases his hair, smokes cigarettes with a dissipated air, reads novels, and writes poetry on the sly. He sees the world now as a part of legs and breasts; he knows hate, love, and jealousy; he is cowardly and foolish, he cannot endure to be alone; he lives in a crowd, thinks with the crowd, is afraid to be marked off from his fellows by an eccentricity. He joins clubs and is afraid of ridicule; he is bored and unhappy and wretched most of the time. There is a great cavity in him, he is dull.
Then the man: he is busy, he is full of plans and reasons, he has work. He gets children, buys and sells small packets of everlasting earth, intrigues against his rivals, is exultant when he cheats them. He wastes his little three score years and ten in spendthrift and inglorious living; from his cradle to his grave he scarcely sees the sun or moon or stars; he is unconscious of the immortal sea and earth; he talks of the future and he wastes it as it comes. If he is lucky, he saves money. At the end his fat purse buys him flunkeys to carry him where his shanks no longer can; he consumes rich food and golden wine that his wretched stomach has no hunger for; his weary and lifeless eyes look out upon the scenery of strange lands for which in youth his heart was panting. Then the slow death, prolonged by costly doctors, and finally the graduate undertakers, the perfumed carrions, the suave ushers with palms outspread to leftwards, the fast motor hearses, and the earth again.
This is man: a writer of books, a putter-down of words, a painter of pictures, a maker of ten thousand philosophies. He grows passionate over ideas, he hurls scorn and mockery at another’s work, he finds the one way, the true way, for himself, and calls all others false—yet in the billion books upon the shelves there is not one that can tell him how to draw a single fleeting breath in peace and comfort. He makes histories of the universe, he directs the destiny of nations, but he does not know his own history, and he cannot direct his own destiny with dignity or wisdom for ten consecutive minutes.
This is man: for the most part a foul, wretched, abominable creature…
He goes on like this for several brutal paragraphs more. Let me quote but a few more sentences, and then we will arrive at a sort of redemption.
This is man, who will… bow down to worship before charlatans, and let his poets die. This is man, who swears he will live only for beauty, for art, for the spirit, but will live only for fashion, and will change his faith and his convictions as soon as fashion changes…
His life is also full of toil, tumult, and suffering. His days are mainly composed of a million idiot repetitions… in the senseless accumulation of fruitless tasks…
This is man… A third of his life is lost and deadened under sleep; another third is given to a sterile labor; a sixth is spent in all his goings and his comings, in the moil and shuffle of the streets, in thrusting, shoving, pawing. How much of him is left…
For there is one belief, one faith, that is man’s glory, his triumph, his immortality—and that is his belief in life. Man loves life, and, loving life, hates death, and because of this he is great, he is glorious, he is beautiful, and his beauty is everlasting. He lives below the senseless stars and writes his meanings in them. He lives in fear, in toil, in agony, and in unending tumult, but if the blood foamed bubbling from his wounded lungs at every breath he drew, he would still love life more dearly than an end of breathing. Dying, his eyes burn beautifully, and the old hunger shies more fiercely in them—he has endured all the hard and purposeless suffering, and still he wants to live.
Thus it is impossible to scorn this creature. For out of his strong belief in life, this puny man made love. At his best, he is love. Without him there can be no love, no hunger, no desire.
So this is man—the worst and best of him—this frail and petty thing who lives his day and dies like all the other animals, and is forgotten. And yet, he is immortal, too, for both the good and evil that he does live after him. Why, then, should any living man ally himself with death, and, in his greed and blindness, batten on his brother’s blood?