Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Complaisant Fog Wakes Me From My Slumber

One would think goodness matters, but it doesn't seem to, in the end. Perhaps because we're all about equally good, both with each other and with ourselves. The world has its saints—heaven help them—and its demons, but we shouldn't model our lives after aberrations. We should be true to what we require.

I've discovered that I don't require goodness but strangeness—strangeness and beauty.

By strangeness I don't mean eccentricity, which, like Montaigne, I find irritating. I mean unexpectedness in the movement of a mind, as when Zachary said: "I like fish because they are interesting." Zachary is not eccentric but he is strange, to my unending delight.

I also mean formal strangeness: the way a poem, for example, or a face is assembled. Beyond all other qualities strangeness is what we look for in art, and in love. It's what the French call je ne sais quoi—that certain I-don't-know-what that escapes, in both French and English, the scope of a single word.

As with beauty, we recognize strangeness immediately—so we always fall in love at at first sight.

I remember that discovery: I was seven years old and sitting in Sunday School in Lafayette, Indiana. Just in front of me: a girl's long brown hair, its streams of curls, its luxurious resplendence. At a particular moment she glanced toward the back of the room—her name, I soon learned, was Denise—and her eyes caught mine, and I was finished.

Even now, remembering that moment, I can feel her strangeness, her difference from anything else, anyone else I'd ever encountered. To my new mind she was indecipherable.

She proved to be a girl who took pleasure in kicking my shins, not unlike most girls at that time, but she was also possessed of a strange quietness, so long ago. She still had that quietness when I saw her twelve years later, in college. But our time, I knew immediately, had passed.

Great artists are like great loves: Homer, the swift-footed poet of friendship, grief, and life's on-goingness; Shakespeare, who is so strangely all-encompassing as to make everyone else seem narrow-minded; Dickinson and her dashes; Kafka; Billie Holliday; Radiohead. Borges, Bolaño, Cézanne, and Chagall. Ravenous Petronius. Cartier-Bresson, Vallejo, Gombrowicz, Bjork. The list is, thank goodness, long enough for a lifetime.

Occasionally the world itself summons us from our slumber. The fog this morning, butting up against a radiant sky to the east, enshrouds Half Moon Bay in strangeness. I'm a small animal pulsing inside the sky. And for the first time in a long time—these things can't be explained—anything seems possible.

That's the gift of strangeness: like beauty, it opens the world, transforming everything, if only for a moment, into real—not fantastical—mystery.

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