You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

47. Ecciesiasticus

Now I have told you [George wrote to Fox] some of the things that have happened to me and the effect they had upon me. But what has all of this to do with you? — you may ask. I am coming to that now.

In the beginning I spoke about my “philosophy of life” when I was a student in college twenty years ago. I didn’t tell you what it was because I don’t think I really had one then. I’m not sure I have one now. But I think it is interesting and important that I should have thought I had one at the age of seventeen, and that people still talk about “a philosophy of life” as though it were a concrete object that you could pick up and handle and take the weight and dimensions of. Just recently I was asked to contribute to a book called Modern–Day Philosophies. I tried to write something for it but gave it up, because I was unwilling and unready to say that I had a “modern-day philosophy”. And the reason that I was unwilling and unready was not that I felt confusion and doubt about what I think and now believe, but that I felt confusion and doubt about saying it in formalistic and final terms.

That was what was wrong with most of us at Pine Rock College twenty years ago. We had a “concept” about Truth and Beauty and Love and Reality — and that hardened our ideas about what all these words stood for. After that, we had no doubt about them — or, at any rate, could not admit that we did. This was wrong, because the essence of belief is doubt, the essence of reality is questioning. The essence of Time is Flow, not Fix. The essence of faith is the knowledge that all flows and that everything must change. The growing man is Man–Alive, and his “philosophy” must grow, must flow, with him. When it does not, we have — do we not? — the Unfixed Man, the Eternal Trifler, the Ape of Fashion — the man too fixed today, unfixed tomorrow — and his body of beliefs is nothing but a series of fixations.

I cannot attempt, therefore, to define for you your own “philosophy”— for to define so is to delimit the “closed” and academic man, and you, thank God, are not of that ilk. And to define so would be to call upon me once again your own and curious scorn, your sudden half-amused contemptuousness. For how could anyone pin down neatly the essence of your New Englandness — so sensitively proud, so shy, so shrinking and alone, but at bottom, as I think, so unafraid?

I shall not define you, then, dear Fox. But I may state, may I not? I may say how “it seems to me”? — how Fox appears? — and what I think of it?

Well, first of all, Fox seems to me to be Ecclesiasticus. I think that this is fair, and, insofar as definition goes, I think you will agree. Do you know of any definition that could possibly go further? I do not. In thirty-seven years of thinking, feeling, dreaming, working, striving, voyaging, and devouring, I have come across no other that could fit you half so well. Perhaps something has been written, painted, sung, or spoken in the world that would define you better: if it has, I have not seen it; and if I did see it, then I should feel like one who came upon a Sistine Chapel greater than the first, which no man living yet has heard about.

So far as I can see from nine years of observing you, yours is the way of life, the way of thought, of feeling, and of acting, of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. I know of no better way. For of all that I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth — and also earth’s highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could only say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.

And I should say that it expresses your own position as perfectly as anything could. I have read it over many times each year, and I do not know of a single word or stanza in it with which you would not instantly agree.

You would agree — to quote just a few precepts which come to mind from that noble book — that a good name is better than precious ointment; and I think you would also agree that the day of death is better than the day of one’s birth. You would agree with the great Preacher that all things are full of labour; that man cannot utter it; that the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. I know you would agree also that the thing that hath been, is that which shall be; and that that which is done, is that which shall be done: and that there is no new thing under the sun. You would agree that it is vexation of spirit to give one’s heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I know you would agree — for you have so admonished me many times — that to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.” You would agree with him in that; but you would also agree with him that the fool foldeth his hands together and eateth his own flesh. You would agree with all your being that “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”

Is this abridgement and this definition just, dear Fox? Yes, for I have seen every syllable of it in you a thousand times. I have learned every accent of it from yourself. You said one time, when I had spoken of you in the dedication of a book, that what I had written would be your epitaph. You were mistaken. Your epitaph was written many centuries ago: Ecclesiastes is your epitaph. Your portrait had been drawn already in the portrait the great Preacher had given of himself. You are he, his words are yours so perfectly that if he had never lived or uttered them, all of him, all of his great and noble Sermon, could have been derived afresh from you.

If I could, therefore, define your own philosophy — and his — I think I should define it as the philosophy of a hopeful fatalism. Both of you are in the essence pessimists, but both of you are also pessimists with hope. From both of you I learned much, many true and hopeful things. I learned, first of all, that one must work, that one must do what work he can, as well and ably as he can, and that it is only the fool who repines and longs for what is vanished, for what might have been but is not. I learned from both of you the stein lesson of acceptance: to acknowledge the tragic underweft of life into which man is born, through which he must live, out of which he must die. I learned from both of you to accept that essential fact without complaint, but, having accepted it, to try to do what was before me, what I could do, with all my might.

And, curiously — for here comes in the strange, hard paradox of our twin polarity — it was just here, I think, where I was so much and so essentially in confirmation with you, that I began to disagree. I think almost that I could say to you: “I believe in everything you say, but I do not agree with you”— and so state the root of our whole trouble, the mystery of our eventual cleavage and our final severance. The little tongues will wag — have wagged, I understand, already — will propose a thousand quick and ready explanations (as they have)— but really, Fox, the root of the whole thing is here.

In one of the few letters that you ever wrote to me — a wonderful and moving one just recently — you said:

“I know that you are going now. I always knew that it would happen. I will not try to stop you, for it had to be. And yet, the strange thing is, the hard thing is, I have never known another man with whom I was so profoundly in agreement on all essential things.”

And that is the strange, hard thing, and wonderful and mysterious; for, in a way the little clacking tongues can never know about, it is completely true. Still, there is our strange paradox: it seems to me that in the orbit of our world you are the North Pole, I the South — so much in balance, in agreement — and yet, dear Fox, the whole world lies between.

’Tis true, our view of life was very much the same. When we looked out together, we saw man burned with the same sun, frozen by the same cold, beat upon by the hardships of the same impervious weathers, duped by the same gullibility, self-betrayed by the same folly, misled and baffled by the same stupidity. Each on the opposing hemisphere of his own pole looked out across the spinning orbit of this vexed, tormented world, and at the other, and what each saw, the picture that each got, was very much the same. We not only saw the stupidity and the folly and the gullibility and the self-deception of man, but we saw his nobility, courage, and aspiration, too. We saw the wolves that preyed upon him and laid him waste — the wild scavangers of greed, of fear, of privilege, of power, of tyranny, of oppression, of poverty and disease, of injustice, cruelty, and wrong — Land in what we saw of this as well, dear Fox, we were agreed.

Why, then, the disagreement? Why, then, the struggle that ensued, the severance that has now occurred? We saw the same things, and we called them by the same names. We abhorred them with the same indignation and disgust — and yet, we disagreed, and I am making my farewell to you. Dear friend, the parent and the guardian of my spirit in its youth, the thing has happened and we know it. Why?

I know the answer, and the thing I have to tell you now is this:

Beyond the limits of my own mortality, the stern acknowledgment that man was born to live, to suffer, and to die — your own and the great Preacher’s creed — I am not, cannot be, confirmed to more fatality. Briefly, you thought the ills which so beset mankind were irremediable: that just as man was born to live, to suffer, and to die, so was he born to be eternally beset and preyed upon by all the monsters of his own creation — by fear and cruelty, by tyranny and power, by poverty and wealth. You felt, with the stern fatality of resignation which is the granite essence of your nature, that these things were doomed to be, and be for ever, because they had always been, and were inherent in the tainted and tormented soul of man.

Dear Fox, dear friend, I heard you and I understood you — but could not agree. You felt — I heard you and I understood — that if old monsters were destroyed, new ones would be created in their place. You felt that if old tyrannies were overthrown, new ones, as sinister and evil, would reign after them. You felt that all the glaring evils in the woad around us — the monstrous and perverse unbalance between power and servitude, between want and plenty, between privilege and burdensome discrimination — were inevitable because they had always been the curse of man and were the prime conditions of his being. The gap between us widened. You stated and affirmed — I heard you, but could not agree.

To state your rule and conduct plainly, I think I never knew a kinder or a gentler man, but I also never knew a man more fatally resigned. In practice — in life and conduct — I have seen the Sermon of the Preacher work out in you like a miracle. I have seen you grow haggard and grey because you saw a talent wasted, a life misused, work undone that should be done. I have seen you move mountains to save something which, you felt, was worth the effort and could be saved. I have seen you perform prodigies of labour and patience to pull a drowning man of talent out of the swamp of failure into which his life was sinking; and at each successive slipping back, so far from acknowledging defeat with resignation and regret, you made your eyes flash fire and you will toughen to the hardness of forged steel as I saw you strike your hand upon the table and heard you whisper, with an almost savage intensity of passion: “He must not go. He is not lost. I will not, and he must not, let it happen!”

To give this noble virtue of your life the etching of magnificence it deserves, it is your due to have it stated here. For, without it, there can be no proper understanding of your worth, your true dimension. To describe the acquiescence of your stern fatality without first describing the inspired tenacity of your effort would be to give a false and insufficient picture of the strangest and the most familiar, the most devious and the most direct, the simplest and the most complex figure that this nation and this generation have produced.

To say that you looked on at all the suffering and injustice of this vexed, tormented world with the toleration of resigned fatality without telling also of your own devoted and miraculous effort to save what could be saved, would not do justice to you. No man ever better fulfilled the injunction of the Preacher to lay about him and to do the work at hand with all his might. No man ever gave himself more wholly, not only to the fulfilment of that injunction for himself, but to the task of saving others who had failed to do it, and who might be saved. But no man ever accepted the irremediable with more quiet unconcern. I think you would risk your life to save that of a friend who put himself uselessly and wantonly in peril, but I know, too, that you would accept the fact of unavoidable death without regret. I have seen you grow grey-faced and hollow-eyed with worry over the condition of a beloved child who was suffering from a nervous shock or ailment that the doctors could not diagnose. You found the cause eventually and checked it; but I know that if the cause had been fatal and incurable, you would have accepted that fact with a resignation as composed as your own effort was inspired.

All of this makes the paradox of our great difference as bard and strange as the paradox of our polarity. And in this lies the root of trouble and the seed of severance. Your own philosophy has led you to accept the order of things as they are because you have no hope of changing them; and if you could change them, you feel that any other order would be just as bad. In everlasting terms — those of eternity — you and the Preacher may be right: for there is no greater wisdom than the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, no acceptance finally so true as the stern fatalism of the rock. Man was born to live, to suffer, and to die, and what befalls him is a tragic lot. There is no denying this in the final end. But we must, dear Fox, deny it all along the way.

Mankind was fashioned for eternity, but Man–Alive was fashioned for a day. New evils will come after him, but it is with the present evils that he is now concerned. And the essence of all faith, it seems to me, for such a man as I, the essence of religion for people of my belief, is that man’s life can be, and will be, better; that man’s greatest enemies, in the forms in which they now exist — the forms we see on every hand of fear, hatred, slavery, cruelty, poverty, and need — can be conquered and destroyed. But to conquer and destroy them will mean nothing less than the complete revision of the structure of society as we know it. They cannot be conquered by the sorrowful acquiescence of resigned fatality. They cannot be destroyed by the philosophy of acceptance — by the tragic hypothesis that things as they are, evil as they are, are as good and as bad as, under any form-they will ever be. The evils that we hate, you no less than I, cannot be overthrown with shrugs and sighs and shakings of the head how, ever wise. It seems to me that they but mock at us and only become more bold when we retreat before them and take refuge in the affirmation of man’s tragic average. To believe that new monsters will arise as vicious as the old, to believe that the great Pandora’s box of human frailty, once opened, will never show a diminution of its ugly swarm, is to help, by just that much, to make it so for ever.

You and the Preacher may be right for all eternity, but we Men–Alive, dear Fox, are right for Now. And it is for Now, and for us the living, that we must speak, and speak the truth, as much of it as we can see and know. With the courage of the truth within us, we shall meet the enemy as they come to us, and they shall be ours. And if, once having conquered them, new enemies approach, we shall meet them from that point, from there proceed. In the affirmation of that fact, the continuance of that unceasing war, is man’s religion and his living faith.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30