In the fourth chapter of Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Eighth Day, the narrator narrates the time when John Ashly, “our uninteresting hero,” meets his future wife, Beata Kellerman. He is attending engineering school in Hoboken, New Jersey. He “saves” Beata from her family and “frees” her. They then decide to move and find a new life together.
Clotilde Kellerman had other passions, too, or tended other altars. She loved her family collectively, while being in a constant state for exasperation with each individual in it. The were hers. She would have walked into a fire for any of them. (p. 295)
Here, in this genealogical chapter, we are introduced to Beata’s mother, and her relationship with her family, which includes Beata herself. This small statement about Clotilde’s love reminds me of another one of Wilder’s character’s. In Wilder’s early novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, he teases out the character of Doña Maria (The Marquesa de Montemayor) and her love for her daughter, Clara:
The knowledge that she would never be loved in return acted upon her ideas as tide acts upon cliffs…And when on the balcony her thoughts reached this turn, her mouth would contract with shame for she knew that she too sinned and that through her love for her daughter was vast enough to include all the colors of love, it was not without a shade of tyranny: she loved her daughter nor her her daughter’s sake, but for her own. (pp. 17-18)
Love is not some tyranny, it is not for possession. Clotilde, like Maria, seems to love for her own sake, as opposed to loving for her family’s sake.
Why do we love for ourselves? Why do we not love for our objects’ sake? It’s easy to condemn Clotilde and Maria, but they are not dissimilar to each and every one of us. We tend to love selfishly. Now, the hope is to turn to love the object for the object. We ought not treat everything as property to be possessed.
As I shall have occasion to say when we consider the early years of Eustacia Lansing: All young people secrete idealism as continuously as the Bombyx mori secretes silk. It is as necessary to them as food that life be filled with wonder–that they contemplate heroes. They must admire. The boy in the reformatory (his third conviction for burglary with assault) secretes idealism as a Bombyx mori secretes silk. The girl of fifteen brutalized into prostitution, secretes idealism–for a while–as a Bombyx mori secretes silk. Life to newcomers presents itself as a brightly lighted stage where they will be called upon to play roles exhibiting courage, fair dealing, magnanimity, wisdom, and helpfulness. Hoping and trembling a little, they feel that they are almost ready for these great demands upon them. (p. 298)
This passage particularly stands out to me. I am interested in the relationship between pragmatism/realism vs. idealism. I usually tend towards idealism. However, as Wilder seems to declare, idealism is not all that rational.
I am not content to leave this conversation at that. Pragmatism, or realism, seems to be without hope. Life without hope is absurd. Why live? What for? For what purpose? (as Dr. Gillies says on that New Years eve when John Ashley and Eustacia Lansing Kiss). So what is the right combination of pragmatic and idealistic thought? I know I need to think of things in realistic terms, but sometimes there is room for imagination, creativity, and hope. I know I need to trust I’ll be healthy and safe, but I also need to be confronted with the reality that its possible that I won’t be. Where is the middle ground? How can I stay away from the two extremes?
Bensonian on Hoboken, New Jersey
- I. “The Elms” 1885-1905
- II. Illinois to Chile 1902-1905
- III. Chicago 1902-1905
- V. “St. Kitts” 1880-1905
- VI. Coaltown, Illinois, Christmas 1905