The beach here in southern California brings many thoughts to my mind, some of them more melancholy than I would wish: how lost I feel, at times, l without the panoply of nineteenth century quotations that enfolded me as a child, when memorizing poetry was my punishment, rather gladly endured, for various forms of misbehavior. The alternative was my mother’s high-heeled satin mule, a surprisingly effective weapon on my bare bottom.
There’s a great risk in waxing nostalgic for the good old days which were not good and are not even old, as Faulkner was quoted as saying about the past in the south: rampant discrimination, racism in all ifs most virulent forms (my parents’ generation freely used the term nigger), focused and powerful distrust of women generally and of powerful woman particularly, which will be one of the themes of my next book, a biography of Doris Duke.
But what has been lost is valuable, too, since it includes a shared heritage of literature, especially poetry, even though it was entirely the poetry of nineteenth century men.
I thought of this walking the beach early this morning, in the chill just after sunrise, watching a group of intrepid people plunge into the icy water without the benefit of wet suits and swim out further than I could see.
I wonder to what degree the faith we privileged people place in our physical wellbeing—while we have it—has replaced a perhaps less fragile faith in a benign power governing the world—a faith that only those people who attend AA meetings seem able to profess. Or those, perhaps even fewer, who go to church. No one in my extended family has access to either version.
The sea also in its nonhuman scale and its apparent invulnerability—apparent, only, since we are damaging it everywhere and all the time—provokes a solemnity that few other aspects of nature, other than high mountains, can evoke: that we are tiny, and lost, on these vast shores, where perhaps faith offered a glimpse of rescue.
One of the poems I memorized, as a child was Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us.” What I made of this poem at eleven or twelve I don’t remember, but the cadence, if not the substance, lodged in my imagination.
Now, decades later, standing on the chilly beach, I remembered the lines near the end of the poem: “Then might I standing on this pleasant lea/Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn/Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea/Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
That particular faith in the old Greek gods is so long gone we can’t take it seriously, but we can catch the longing for some belief, some sort of force, that might govern even the sea. Perhaps the bobbing heads of the dauntless swimmers steadily moving forward through the freezing water is an apt version for these times—the physical well-being and even more the daring that sends us to the tops of mountains, down icy slopes, into the path of avalanches, may be the faith that moves us moderns, but it’s a faith with severe limitations (we all grow old after all) and does not seem to have the melancholy reassurance of Wordsworth’s lines.
But how many remember them now?