Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tanning While Rome Burns

My family and I recently went on a beach vacation at a spot we’ve been going for several years, having started this yearly sojourn when we still lived in New York.  In fact, it’s not a particularly arduous place to get to from New York, but from where we live now the trip seems counterintuitive at best. It’s full of Italians from the Bronx, so it’s an easy place to slip back into, even for my non-Italian-American husband, who has nevertheless lived among Italian-Americans for a good part of his life. I suppose we keep going back because not only the place, but also its ethos, are so familiar to us, but we can’t help viewing it, now, from something of a critical distance. Or maybe I should say, in my case, from something of a heightened critical distance, because I’ve never been a great one for the beach, and I’m starting to realize that I’m not a great one either for that elusive pursuit of that intangible essence that people know as having fun.

The truth is, I go to the beach, and I see the crowds evidently enjoying themselves as they tan or read or drink or body-surf, and it unsettles me.  I always want to leave before everyone else, because I hate the feeling of having stayed too long, and having to leave as the sun is setting, and you’re hungry and a little dazed from the sunshine and covered with sand, and you have to schlep your chairs, umbrella, and cooler back to where you’re staying. Anyone, I’m sure, would want to collapse under these circumstances, but I also want to cry.  There’s something so brittle about it – all the forced merriment in the bright sun, the making the most of the last days of summer – and it makes me sad. I had the same feeling recently at one of the big events I’m occasionally constrained to attend with my husband for his work.  Having to wear a cocktail dress and attempt something sophisticated with my still-graduate-student-looking hair, to drink and dine with prominent citizens of my new town, and to dance to the same band that plays the same music at every single one of these events (and I actually happen to think this band is very good) sent me halfway toward despair and rushing to the confessional the next day. I told the priest, who knows me, and who had, incidentally, also been in attendance the previous night, that I felt as though I'd been watching everyone dancing before a yawning chasm into which Death was pushing them unawares, and was this normal, or did he think that maybe I needed some antidepressants?

He didn’t address this last question directly, but I sometimes wonder if my relationship with God is just not meant to be one of those joyful ones that I’ve heard about all my life.  I truly believe that not everyone is meant to know that kind of joy in a place that is, after all, known officially in some quarters as “this vale of tears,” and so sometimes I wonder why everyone is trying so hard; after all, the "ego" in "et in Arcadia ego" is commonly understood to be death. But some people are surely meant to struggle more, to swim more arduously upstream, than others, and I am either one of them or else am hopelessly neurotic.  Nonetheless, I pray St. Ignatius’s Suscipe each morning upon waking, because I can’t help but feel that I am so steeped in my difficult past that its color has seeped into my very bones and tinted them the darkest of blues.

Here is a mélodie by Debussy, “Chevaux de bois,” number 4 of his song-cycle Ariettes Oubliées, a setting of a poem by Paul Verlaine about a fairground carousel which in some ways echoes my feelings about the beach and summer vacation in general.

Turn, turn, good little wooden horses,
turn a hundred times, turn a thousand times,
turn often and turn always,
turn, turn to the sound of the oboes.

The child in red and his mother in white,
the boy in black and the girl in pink,
One in pursuit, and the other striking a pose,
each of them pays his Sunday penny.

Turn, turn, horses of their hearts,
while all around your turning
the sly pickpocket is watching --
turn to the sound of the victorious cornet.

It is astonishing the way it intoxicates you
to keep turning around in this stupid circle,
empty stomach, aching head,
feeling sick and yet having loads of fun.

Turn, wooden horses, with no need
of spurs
to command you to gallop;
turn, turn, without any hope of hay.

And hurry, horses of their souls--
Already night is falling, calling to supper
the troops of jolly drinkers, made hungry by their thirst.

Turn, turn! The velvet sky slowly begins
to clothe itself in golden stars.
The church bell tolls sadly.
Turn to the happy sound of the drums.

(Above: Detail from Guyhot Marchant’s Danse Macabre des Femmes, 1491.)


ex-new yorker said...

I'm bad at having fun too! "Forced merriment," yes. It sounds like these can at least be opportunities to offer up some suffering, if you are participating because of the good you hope will come to your family.

Rodak said...

I understand you so perfectly, and feel almost exactly as you describe, most of the time. It has cost me, big-time, being this way. But it seems to be the way I am made. As I noted on a FB comment thread just yesterday, "the world is too much with me."

ex-new yorker said...

Funny, I just had the phrase "the world is too much with us" in my head the other day for reasons I don't remember. I do remember putting it in Google but not managing to read anything as a result. But probably it suggested itself to me for similar reasons to Rodak's for citing it and to Pentimento's for writing this post.

P.S. Pentimento, you have the most challenging captcha-thing ever. But I guess it fits your lack of interest in running your blog as some kind of hot spot for everybody to stop by and vent his opinion on the issues of the day.

Pentimento said...

Heh. Believe it or not, I didn't intentionally make it so hard. I probably would've if I could've, though . . .