Dante’s 14th century poem, The Divine Comedy, begins with a man “midway” through his life—and he’s walking down the road.
In medieval Italy, in Florence (or, in Dante’s case at the time, just outside Florence), looking out his window, looking up at the stars every night, these hillsides and mountains provide him with just the images he needs to create a confused lost cowardly road-walking man who cannot find his way, who descends into hell, who comes out the other side into purgatory, to climb this mountain (the first-ever image of purgatory as a mountain going up, borrowing from Dionysius, borrowing from Plato), who then leaves the mountain with Beatrice, his great love on earth, to go up, up, up, to find God in the heavens among the stars. Looking around and up, Italy provides Dante with the landscape to render the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love.
T.S. Eliot’s early 20th century, modern poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, begins with a man midway through his life (“with a bald spot in the middle of my head”)—and he’s walking down the road.
Now we are in 20th century London, and instead of a road that leads into hell, a road that goes up a mountain and finally into heaven—there is this confused lost cowardly road-walking man who cannot find his way: who does not, in the end, find his Beatrice, who cannot profess his love to a woman, because, in short, he was afraid. And now, in 20th century London, here is the same journey (with a different ending, yes), and here again the landscape just outside Eliot’s house provides him with the entire range of emotion—or the potential of it—all of suffering, hope, mystery, love.
Paul Simon’s 1986 pop hit, “You Can Call Me Al,” begins with a man midway through his life (“soft in the middle now”)—and he’s walking down the road.
Here now we are in rock n roll, surrounded by saxophones and bass players, and he’s rewriting Dante’s Comedy, rewriting Eliot’s Love Song, asking Beatrice (“Betty”) to be his bodyguard (as she is for Dante in the Comedy), inviting her to call him “Al” (or, as in Eliot’s poem J. “Alfred” Prufrock). Here instead of Dante’s terza rima (the rhyme pattern Dante invented to push the poem forward on its journey), and instead of Eliot’s sometimes-iambic, sometimes-free verse, sometimes-rhyming, sometimes-not-rhyming, stream-of-conscious poetry (participating in the innovations of modern poetry), we have a rock n roll legend using his own landscape—the 1-4-5 chords of the blues—and we have him taking his confused lost cowardly road-walking man up, up, up, like Dante did, finally “spinning in infinity,” saying, “Amen, Hallelujah,” but rendering everything in the stream-of-conscious style that Eliot used, borrowing from both poems and pushing them into the rock n roll landscape. And here again, built into the landscape, here is the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love.
So what of it.
In the novel I am writing—set first in Ecuador where my father grew up, then in Hermosa Beach where I grew up—I believe all the world is there, the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love. I believe that the landscape, that any landscape, provides us with all the metaphors necessary to create full persons who love and hate and worry and want.
In 2007, I traveled to Ecuador to see it, smell it, feel it with my own hands, to eat its food, to touch the low clouds from the mountainsides of Quito, to feel the danger of the night streets in Guayaquil, to see for myself the rows of whorehouses, to climb the giant hill overlooking the bay, so that its landscape—and, by its landscape, all the truths of the universe—could make their way into my chest and belly.
But then the great nature poet, Robert Frost, once said, “I guess I’m not a nature poet. I’ve only written two poems without a human being in them. Only two.” But now I’m thinking, if Frost is not a nature poet, then who can be one?
So then I think: Maybe no one. Maybe we look at nature to get at true stuff, and so does Frost. Nature helps us make the images we need for the metaphors that build up art, that build up persons.
Then there is this. C.S. Lewis points out in his book The Four Loves:
If you take nature as a teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach. The tendency to take her as a teacher is obviously very easily grafted on to the experience we call “love of nature.” But it is only a graft. While we are actually subjected to them, the “moods” and “spirits” of nature point no morals. Overwhelming gaiety, insupportable grandeur, somber desolation are flung at you. Make what you can of them, if you must make at all. The only imperative that nature utters is, “Look. Listen. Attend.”
The fact that this imperative is so often misinterpreted and sets people making theologies and pantheologies and antitheologies—all of which can be debunked—does not really touch the central experience itself. What nature-lovers—whether they are Wordsworthians or people with “dark gods in their blood”—get from nature is an iconography, a language of images. I do not mean simply visual images; it is the “moods” or “spirits” themselves—the powerful expositions of terror, gloom, jocundity, cruelty, lust, innocence, purity—that are the images. In them each man can clothe his own belief. We must learn our theology or philosophy elsewhere (not surprisingly, we often learn them from theologians and philosophers).
But nature cannot—can it?—be neutral! If the Hebrews were right, then the world is a breath from God’s own mouth, and in the world, in any part of this world, we can find God himself. Nature, then, helps us find God.
And yet in our landscapes we find so many different gods.
So, what do I see when I look at a landscape, look at the coast I grew up on, look at the Guayaquil my father grew up in, look at the suburbs where I live now—knowing that here is where all the world’s truths exist while simultaneously knowing that there is such little hope, among so many found gods and truths, to find any kind of truth?
I write stories, and I write stories about persons, and I write stories in language and images that come from the landscape that creates the persons: nature, landscape, any landscape, provides me with the range of experience, all of suffering and hope and mystery and love outside my window waiting to be seen and felt and tasted and heard—and I render it onto the page. All the world’s truths are here in God’s breath, in the world around me. Let us agree that while there is maybe no such thing as the nature poet, nature provides us with the metaphors we’re building persons with. And, even though different poets, from their views of nature and landscapes, build different kinds of persons (nature and persons in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick are much less generous than in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself) Lewis, though he is right, is also wrong. Because nature, God’s own breath, cannot be neutral.
So may I learn to see rightly, to find the world’s truths in the landscape, to render all the emotions we can feel, to get every fingernail and drop of blood, to get them right, and, while these are spoken by me and come from the view I alone have of these landscapes, may they be of God’s own breath.