Geography of the soul

Stephen Vicchio

June 11, 1993|By Stephen Vicchio

Man alone is either a God or a demon.

-- Robert Burton

I WONDER if there is a deep affinity between each of us and some particular landscape.

Some discover it early on. Others search in vain their entire lives. We all would do well to find out, as soon as possible, what kind of landscape is ours. And if we should be lucky enough, we must be equally adept at discovering when the contours of the landscape begin to shift, for that change is usually indicative of a larger metamorphosis within.

I have begun this evening to think of the relationship of geography to the soul, as I sit on a wind-swept porch at the beginning of the summer season.

The wind is ferocious. It could blow the hair off a large dog. The fine-grained dune stretched out before me is dotted with blades of scraggly saw grass that cling to the sand like the last hairs of a bald man's head.

This evening each blade quivers with emotion. Close to the dune's crest, the grass bends against the violent wind. Beyond the sand, but close to shore, the sea churns its steel-gray water into ephemeral whitecaps. The waves come into sudden existence and then are flattened to oblivion by the gale.

Farther out, larger waves come to a roaring clash, as if fighting to the death for two opposed but unknowable sea gods. Above the horizon, enormous clouds, all in varying shades of foreboding gray, drift and mingle, like vapors suspended above a witch's brew. For as long as I can remember, this has been my landscape of choice -- a metaphysical, if not a geographical, home.

A great northeastern storm off the coast of the Atlantic has always stirred in me the deepest kinds of emotion -- something dark and primal, not easily controlled. When I begin to describe these storms, I find myself reverting, in a curious way, to descriptions of past turmoil in my soul: moments at which the wind blew with such force from the inside that I spent all of my energy just standing.

For much of my life I have searched for an eye in these storms. It is only recently, in marriage and in fatherhood, that I have found anything resembling a safe harbor. This evening I have become transfixed by the ferocity of it. But I feel like a voyeur. I am no longer moved by this show of force.

The years before my marriage were mostly lonely ones. I had friends and family but found no one more companionable than what I believed to be solitude. In his "Epistolae Morales," Seneca suggests that the primary sign of a well-ordered mind is a person's ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. But only recently have I understood that one can linger too long with only the mind as a companion, and then loneliness begins to be mistaken for solitude.

In "Death in Venice," Thomas Mann tells us that the solitary life may give birth to the original, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous. But he warns us that being alone might also bring forth the opposite: the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.

Wordsworth, in "The Prelude," talks of being "parted from our better selves" by "the hurrying world."He takes for granted the notion that solitude is needed to find an authentic self. But Wordsworth does not seem to entertain the possibility that one great peril in being too solitary is that we may lose the better self completely, for it may shrivel if never shared, it may atrophy if not tested by another, better self.

This evening, as I stare across the dunes at the sea, my mind is like a kite set off in the wind. In the past, the tether has too often seemed a flimsy string. I have always worried about it breaking, leaving me to drift, and perhaps to plunge, into an angry sea. Now the lines that tie me to the earth, my wife and sons, have bound me in ways my former lonely self could not have imagined.

My inner landscape has shifted. The sea flattens out. My kite happily and irrevocably becomes entangled in the lines of others, and yet it miraculously remains in flight. It bobs and weaves, climbs high and plunges, but it never hits the earth.

In his "Pensees," Pascal offers the opinion that "all misery comes from one thing -- not knowing how to remain alone." But this evening, with the light fading, and my inner landscape too transformed to resemble any longer the ferocity stretched out before me, I know that a good part of my life's misery has come in knowing far too well how to be alone. It has taken me half a lifetime to discover that if there is a dividend in solitude, it is not simply in finding oneself; it is also in discovering a sweet need for the other.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His recent collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," was published by Wakefield Editions.

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