Friday, October 30, 2015

In Praise of Fall

Spring has a lot to recommend it. Aside from warmth and color, its happiest aspect is memory: in April you smell things for the first time in months, which can drag you back in time to springtimes gone by. But for me, at least, the spring is also a bitter and sad season. This is difficult to express in words, though I’ll try anyway.

The world in April and May is convulsed by frantic, sunny energy. People, animals, and even plants are prodded by their inner heat to expand and reproduce, which they do feverishly. This can have sickening effects. All life blooms in the spring, which goes for mosquitoes, maggots and mold as well as frisky lambs. An abundance of life can be disgusting and disquieting: almost any northerner I know who’s been to the tropics has described being slightly disturbed by the lurking thought that the earth is a little too quivering and alive. My own body turns into something slippery in April, when my immune system decides that pollen—trees, that is, in the act of copulation—is alien to it. The world as a whole turns into “a cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in.”

What’s more, even though people tend to be chipper in the long afternoons, spring carries the frightening anxiety of being cut off from the happy throng. Every peasant wedding in May has its gloomy spinsters. But whether the hunt for love and fellowship ends in success or despair, nervous activity precludes almost any tranquility.

But these aren’t damning charges against the spring. This is: the season is false and deceitful. First, because it’s such a passing event. Blossoms are transient, fading quickly into an undifferentiated green. And that’s part of a broader deceit. Youth, life, color, and beauty are all trumpeted by the spring as the essential, irrepressible facts of existence. But any soul with a glimmer of insight sees through this disguise. Death, obviously, is what’s essential and irrepressible, and no one who knows this can take innocent delight in wafting scents and perishing flowers. The spring spatters bright paint onto the underlying stuff of the world, which is dust. The resulting façade is grotesque if you remember to think about what’s underneath it.

The best poets for a thousand years have therefore dwelled on death and decay in the springtime. This goes for Horace, who writes in the warm air that we’re shadow and dust, or Eliot who writes that April is the cruellest month, or Housman, who sees a white cherry tree and remembers that he won’t see too many more. The Christian mind takes this attitude too. Though Easter celebrates a sort of cosmic happiness, the liturgical calendar treats most of the spring as a season of mourning and disquiet. Good Friday takes place in the same balmy weather as Easter Sunday. The word Lent, meanwhile comes from the words “long days;” that is, springtime.

So in short, I find the spring to be mocking and false, making promises that are never kept. Adding to the indignity, everyone around me seems to be gleeful in it. This makes me feel like one of Dante’s souls, condemned to Hell for their morosity, who groan:

...Tristi fummo
nel’aer dolce che dal Sol’ s’allegra
portando dentro accidioso fummo.

We were sad
in the sweet air, which rejoices in the sun,
carrying a gloomy fog within ourselves.

The autumn, though, is genuinely, wholesomely sweet, because it owns its sadness. It covers up nothing. It makes no attempt to disguise the fact that everything is tending towards grayness and death. But it’s beautiful regardless. Sure, the trees are turning into brown husks, but there are apples, which yield to pumpkins. Lakewater is cold and tranquil. You can weep in the autumn without feeling harried: you’re simply sad, which is calm and natural. And whereas loneliness in the spring makes me feel utterly cut off from any comfort, loneliness in the fall makes me strangely peaceful, and puts me in communion with the soul of the world.

The springtime, meanwhile, is a season of of vain hopes; whether for love, Resurrection, or for escape from whatever Egypt we imagine ourselves to be in. It fills me with longings that can’t quite be fulfilled. But an autumn delight is always in your hands. You can eat the apple that you’re holding, and never worry that you’re missing out on some future pleasure. Everything is real and bound to the earth: cool air, golden light, fat cows, smoke from the bonfires.

And death is present in the fall too, but since it's undisguised, it feels far less sinister than in the spring. The most deepest beauties, in fact, are the ones that are flanked on every side by death. The colorful forest is beautiful the way that a funeral pyre is.

Fall’s most important lesson, in fact, is the harmony of happiness with the inevitability of annihilation. Because of that, it is much gentler than any other season: its soul is melancholy, but filled with a tranquillity that’s the foundation of any lasting comfort. Unless you believe in the resurrection of Christ and yourself, the only possible happiness is one that’s filled with this sense of doom. When one is happy in this way, one sighs and doesn’t pant.

Maybe I’m only judging the seasons by the extent to which they embody my own soul. In fact, that’s obviously what I’m doing. Take this essay for what it is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jonathan, definitely read this review if you have time