Jan. 23, 2005

The Future

by Wesley McNair

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Poem: "The Future" by Wesley McNair, from Talking in the Dark © David R. Godine: Boston. Reprinted with permission.

The Future

On the afternoon talk shows of America
the guests have suffered life's sorrows
long enough. All they require now
is the opportunity for closure,
to put the whole thing behind them
and get on with their lives. That their lives,
in fact, are getting on with them even
as they announce their requirement
is written on the faces of the younger ones
wrinkling their brows, and the skin
of their elders collecting just under their
set chins. It's not easy to escape the past,
but who wouldn't want to live in a future
where the worst has already happened
and Americans can finally relax after daring
to demand a different way? For the rest of us,
the future, barring variations, turns out
to be not so different from the present
where we have always lived - the same
struggle of wishes and losses, and hope,
that old lieutenant, picking us up
every so often to dust us off and adjust
our helmets. Adjustment, for that matter,
may be the one lesson hope has to give,
serving us best when we begin to find
what we didn't know we wanted in what
the future brings. Nobody would have asked
for the ice storm that takes down trees
and knocks the power out, leaving nothing
but two buckets of snow melting
on the wood stove and candlelight so weak,
the old man sitting at the kitchen table
can hardly see to play cards. Yet how else
but by the old woman's laughter
when he mistakes a jack for a queen
would he look at her face in the half-light as if
for the first time while the kitchen around them
and the very cards he holds in his hands
disappear? In the deep moment of his looking
and her looking back, there is no future,
only right now, all, anyway, each one of us
has ever had, and all the two of them,
sitting together in the dark among the cracked
notes of the snow thawing beside them
on the stove, right now will ever need.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of France's most famous novelists, Stendhal, born Marie Henri Beyle in Grenoble, France (1783). We're not sure exactly why Stendhal chose the pseudonym that he did. Some scholars suggest he chose it because it is an anagram of the word "Shetland." Others think he chose the name because it is also the name of a German city. Whatever the reason, today Stendhal is well known for the dry style of his writing, and for his insightful character analysis.

Stendhal was raised in an oppressive Jesuit home in Grenoble, and he did not get along with his family. He moved to Paris as soon as possible, and he soon became a dragoon in Napoleon's army. He traveled widely throughout Europe, lived in Paris for a time, and in 1812 Stendhal again served in Napoleon's army, accompanying the failed mission to Russia.

Stendhal began his literary career only after Napoleon's fall in 1814. He had developed a fondness for Milan, Italy during his travels in Europe, and he lived there until 1820. During this time, Stendhal began writing in a realistic style quite different from other writing being produced in the Romantic period in which he lived. As a result, Stendhal dedicated his work to "the Happy Few," the term he used for those who recognized his brilliance. Indeed, Stendhal's writing was not fully appreciated until the 20th century.

Stendhal was best known in England during his life, and in 1817 he began writing for British journals. He also became involved in an unhappy love affair, and as a result he wrote De l'amour (1822), a psychological analysis of love.

Stendhal's first novel Armance (1827) was panned by critics, but he responded by writing one of the most important novels in French literary history, The Red and the Black (1831). The story follows an ambitious young man who uses seduction to get what he wants, and who is executed for killing his mistress. Five years later, Stendhal began writing his other great novel The Charterhouse of Parma (1939) while living in Paris or again traveling throughout Europe.

Stendhal also published nonfiction in his lifetime, including a biography of Rossini which is today lauded for its musical criticism more so than its factual accuracy. But his own memoir, Memoirs of an Egotist (1892), was published long after his death.

Stendhal said, "One can acquire everything in solitude except character."

It's the birthday of the poet Derek Walcott, born in Castries on the island of Saint Lucia (1930). The island is one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles. Walcott is known for his epic poem Omeros (1990), which retells The Odyssey and is set in the Caribbean, and for being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.

Walcott published his first collection of poetry, 25 Poems (1948), when he was eighteen. But his breakthrough as a poet came much later, with the publication of In a Green Night (1962). In the meantime, Walcott studied at St. Mary's College and at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, before moving to Trinidad in 1953. He founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, which went on to produce many of his early plays. Walcott also worked as a journalist in Trinidad, before the publication of In a Green Night brought him international attention.

Derek Walcott said, "The English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination."

It's the birthday of the painter Edouard Manet, born in Paris (1832). He is best known as a bridge between realism and impressionism.

Manet's father was a magistrate, and he wanted his son to pursue a career in law also. Manet saw things differently, in part because his uncle often had taken the young Manet to the Louvre, where he would urge his nephew to pursue painting seriously. When Manet failed his naval examinations in 1850, he began to study under the academic painter Thomas Couture, and then he traveled Europe where he was influenced by the painters Frans Hals and Diego Velasquez.

Manet's paintings were considered controversial in his own time. Even his masterpiece Olympia was criticized because it featured a prostitute in a suggestive position. His technical innovations were viewed as heresy by some academics. But today his paintings appear in art museums across the world, and have sold for as much as twenty-six million dollars.

And he said, "There is only one true thing: instantly paint what you see. When you've got it, you've got it. When you haven't, you begin again. All the rest is humbug."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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