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 Loser's Guide to Life

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Cheerful Moment 


Darkness had fallen, I opened the door:
And lo, a stranger in the empty room --
A marvel of moonlight upon wall and floor ...
The quiet of mercy? Or the hush of doom?

—Walter de la Mare.

I wondered about the moonlight. It's clear exactly what he means by “marvel”: moonlight in a familiar room tranforms it into an odd version of itself. Known things that are made to look different and unfamiliar threaten, for a moment, to be different. For a moment there, all bets are off, and you have to retrace every connection you have to the thing to see if anything has broken down.

And how does he know it's a stranger if it's dark? Because a normal person would have lit the lamp, or, at the very least, would say something like “Hey, Walter” as he came in. So no greeting, just sitting there in the dark. And probably waiting for the speaker. Most likely the stranger is himself unacquainted with the speaker, and is looking at him curiously, because he is there for the very purpose of confronting him.

And why “empty”? Because most rooms are empty unless there's somebody in them. A few bits of furniture and some magazines don't really count. The speaker was expecting to go back to his space, the room meant for his own occupancy, but there's somebody there! “Darkness had fallen” might mean simply “at the end of the day”, when people quit working or hanging around and decide to go home, but it could also be the quiet moment of reckoning in a person's mind, in the evening, perhaps, but any time someone disengages from the business of the day and has to consider his individual life as a singular project which will come to an end soon. In that case, the empty room is the mental space for this thought.

So why the moonlight? I think it emphasizes the intrusion of the stranger and the fact that he is unknowable. The speaker gets no clue from looking at him; he's just a dark shape. Nobody he knows makes a habit of popping into people's rooms and just sitting there mutely. He tries to explain the situation by looking at the rest of the room. It is his room, even if it's temporarily transformed. So there's no mistake: this is his stranger, too, come to deal mercy or doom, for him alone.

As for mercy and doom, they both have an unforeseen quality, and are therefore equally unsettling. “Doom” is usually not so good. But even an unforeseen mercy strikes us as irrational, and causes us to doubt our ability to steer our own way through the world. Imagine, for example, that you owe tens of thousands of dollars and you view every day exclusively as “X days until payday”, with payday minus ten heralding a kind of ten-day black hole in which you can't do anything. And then you get a note, saying that your debts have been paid in full. You rush to the bank and confirm it. You get receipts from everywhere. “Who did this?” you ask. Nobody knows. But the immediate source of the payments appears to be an organization known as “The Thirty-Nine Steps”. You should be relieved, but ...

It's also disturbing that the two things are equally plausible to the speaker. It could be life. It could be death. Who knows? I think you can find more of this quiet terror in de la Mare. For him, it seems, the lack of drama hides big events, and that itself is troubling. “The ghost where your face was”, he writes in “Autumn”. How did that happen? Too easily, unnoticeably.

Imagine you are on a distant planet, teaching English or something. You live in a specially constructed biosphere. Inside it's lovely. It's always room temperature, the air is fragrant with the citrus trees that are grown in well-regulated mini-orchards, the light is filtered to be harmless and is therefore always soft yet bright—“magic hour”, your cinéaste friends call it—and as for the amoenities, who could find fault with the small park, the row of boutiques, the used bookstores, or the jazz café, said to be the home of the best jazz in the known universe? Famous bluesmen like Standing Rib Roast McCarthy play there all the time, and they also appreciate the excellent school system.

Outside the biosphere, of course, the temperature is a searing 6000 F, and the atmosphere, should you be unlucky enough to inhale some of it, is an unpleasant mixture of vapourized mercury and sulphuric acid. Suffice it to say, nothing lives out there except a bizarre flesh-eating microbe (and they're just all over the place).

But that's okay, because you're in the biosphere. But one evening you're at a barbecue at your friend's house, and you happen to notice, right behind the gazebo, that the protective covering of the biosphere, which you can reach out and touch, is nothing more than a thin, transparent material not unlike Saran wrap.

I think that's something like de la Mare's sense of life and death. People talk about Saran wrap, but there's nothing much there.



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