I read once that the American poet Wallace Stevens had a bouquet of a dozen flowers sent to his house every afternoon. He would arrive home from his day job as an executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and immediately seclude himself for an hour or so of flower arrangement. I do something similar some days. The second I get home I go downstairs to my fly tying bench and tie a few fishing flies. Seems as good a way as any to atone for a day's sins and failures.
And of all the sins and failures I am responsible for yesterday, none bothers me more than failing to teach the Iliad well in Introduction to the Humanities. We were going over Book XXII, the death of Hector, and I was trying to get across what a heavy price humans inevitably pay for the choices they make. Hector knows he is doomed. He knows the gods have screwed him, but he goes out at last to face his destiny aware that he can't win.
"Look," I said, "we are all doomed. We're all going to lose, but we get up each morning and go back out there. Human life is hard. It's filled with painful conflicts, and our success and glory don't really count for much in the end; but humanity endures and there's real heroism there. Ultimately I think this poem is deeply in love with life. It's just not going to lie to us about it and tell us it's easy or painless."
My students weren't buying it. They can't understand why I am making them read this dreadful 3,000 year old poem. And I can't figure out how to bring home all it has to offer.
I had other failures yesterday. I didn't get all of my grading done on time as I promised I would. I was probably uncharitable to a colleague or two, There were any number of things I could have done better, but not teaching the Iliad well is the one that eats at me. So sitting in the basement late yesterday afternoon after tying a fly and letting the day wash away, I reached over to the book shelf and--of all things--happened across this from the fuddy-duddy critic Harold Bloom:
Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind's dialog with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one's own solitude, that solitude whose final form is a confrontation with one's own mortality.I'm sure Stevens' insurance gig also had its crappy days, which no doubt accounts for the flowers.