The Music of Failure: |
Variations on an Idea
By Bill Holm
First appeared in the book The Music of Failure in 1985. An Icelandic translation by Ísak Harđarson appeared in Skírnir in 1997.
Prelude, the Theme for the Variations
The ground bass is failure; America is the key signature; Pauline Bardal is the lyrical tune that sings at the center; Minneota, Minnesota is the staff on which the tunes are written; poverty, loneliness, alcoholism, greed, disease, insanity, war, and spiritual and political emptiness are the tempo markings; Walt Whitman and this sentence from the Bhagavad-Gita are the directions for expression:
Die, and you win heaven. Conquer, and you enjoy the earth.
Stand up now . . . and resolve to fight. Realize that pleasure and
pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat, are all one and the same:
then go into battle. Do this and you cannot commit any sin.
This true subject, the melody that counterpoints everything but is never heard, like Elgar's secret theme for the Enigma Variations, is my own life, and yours, and how they flow
together to make the life of a community, and then a country, and then a world.
1. Another idea from Walt Whitman that no one wants to hear.
At fifteen, I could define failure fast: to die in Minneota, Minnesota. Substitute any small town in Pennsylvania, or Nebraska, or Bulgaria, and the definition held. To be an American meant to move, rise out of a mean life, make yourself new. Hadn't my own grandfathers transcended Iceland, learned at least some English, and died with a quarter section free and clear? No, I would die a famous author, a distinguished and respected professor at an old university, surrounded by beautiful women, witty talk, fine whiskey, Mozart. There were times, at fifteen, when I would have settled for central heat and less Jell-O, but I kept my mental eye on the "big picture."
Later, teaching Walt Whitman in school, I noticed that my students did not respond with fervor to the lines,
With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play
marches for conquer'd and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit
in which they are won.
I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest
Vivas to those who have fail'd!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements,
and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal
to the greatest heroes known!
I left Minneota at the beginning of America's only lost war. While I traveled, got educated, married, divorced, and worldly, the national process of losing went on: a president or two shot, an economy collapsed, a man whom every mother in America warned every child against accepting rides or candy from was in the flesh overwhelmingly elected president, and then drummed into luxurious disgrace for doing the very things those mothers warned against. The water underneath America turned out to be poisoned. Cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago were invisible under air that necessitated warning notices in the newspaper. A rumor flourished that the Arabs bought the entire Crazy Mountains in Montana. Oil gurgled onto gulls' backs north of San Francisco. The war finally ended in disgrace, the secretary of state mired as deep in lies as Iago. America, the realized dream of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, seemed to have sunk into playing out a Shakespearean tragedy, or perhaps a black comedy.
Yet as history brought us failure, it brought us no wisdom. The country wanted as little as my students to hear those lines from Leaves of Grass. It was not "good to fall," not good to be "sunk in the sea," not good to be among the "numberless unknown heroes." We elected, in fact, a famous actor to whom failure was incomprehensible as history itself, a man who responded to visible failure around him by ignoring it and cracking hollow jokes.
In the meantime, I aged from twenty to forty, found myself for all practical purposes a failure, and settled almost contentedly back into the same rural town which I tried so fiercely to escape. I could not help noticing that personal and professional failure were not my private bailiwick. I knew almost no one still on their first marriage; friends, too, were short of money and doing work that at twenty they would have thought demeaning or tedious; children were not such an unpremeditated joy as maiden aunts led us to expect, and for the precocious middle aged, health and physical beauty had begun to fail. It looked, as the old cliché had it, as if we were going to die after all, and the procedure would not be quite so character-building as the Reader's Digest and the Lutheran minister implied.
Heard from inside, the music of failure sounded not the loudest, gayest marches for cornets and drums, but a melancholy cello, strings slowly loosening, melody growing flaccid, receding toward silence. The country closed its ears against the tune; citizens denied that they had ever heard it. "Tomorrow," they said, but this was only another way of saying "yesterday," which did not exist quite as they imagined it. This continual denial gave a hollow, whining quality to conversations. Discussions of politics, work, or marriage sounded like a buzz saw speaking English.
The first settlers of America imagined paradise, God's city made visible on earth. Grand rhetoric for a pregnancy, it was, like all births, bloodier and messier than anyone imagined at the moment of conception. English Puritans who came to build a just and godly order began by trying to exterminate Indian tribes. They tried to revise the English class system of rich landowners and poor yeomen by sharing a common bounty, but this lasted only until somebody realized that true profit lay in landowning, here as in England. The same settlers who declared with Proudhon that "property is theft" wound up working as real estate agents. Old European habits of success died hard.
Hypocrisy is not unusual in human history; it is the order of the day What has always been unusual in the United States is the high-toned rhetoric that accompanied our behavior, our fine honing of the art of sweeping contradictions under the rug with our eternal blank optimism. But if we examined without sentimentality, the failures and contradictions of our own history, it would damage beyond repair the power of that public rhetoric, would remove the arch-brick from the structure of the false self we have built for ourselves, in Minneota as elsewhere.
I labored under the weight of that rhetoric as a boy, and when I am tired now, I labor under it still. It is the language of football, a successful high school life, earnest striving and deliberate ignoring, money, false cheerfulness, mumbling about weather. Its music is composed by the radio, commercials for helpful banks and deodorants breathing out at you between stanzas. In cities now, ghetto blasters play it at you in the street; you are serenaded by tiny orchestras hidden in elevators or in rafters above discount stores. It is the music of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It is not what Whitman had in mind by beating and pounding for the dead. True dead, unlike false dead, hear what we sing to them.
2. The music of experience; the noise of failure.
Years ago, I traveled to Waterton, Alberta, the north end of Glacier Park, and spent a whole sunny, windy August afternoon sitting on a slope high in the mountains listening to an Aspen tree. I wrote a small poem about that experience:
Above me, wind does its best
to blow leaves off the Aspen
tree a month too soon. No use,
wind, all you succeed in doing
is making music, the noise
of failure growing beautiful.
I did not understand my own poem at the time.
As a small boy, I sang loudly, clearly, and as elderly ladies told me, wonderfully. I knew better, but knowledge didn't interfere with love, as it so often doesn't, and music remained the true channel to the deepest part of my feeling life. Happiness, or at least emotion, could be described by notes with stems, and the noises of the inner life made audible by reading and sounding those marks. Though never so skilled a musician as to have made a genuine living from it, I was skilled enough to know precisely the deficiencies of every performance I ever gave. Perfection was not a gift given to many in music. Mozart may have had it. I did not.
In an odd way, this melancholy knowledge of my own musical imperfection goes on teaching me something about the wholesomeness of failure every day of my adult life. I have sometimes, like the United States, been too obtuse to remember it, but then I hear again the noise of aspen leaves.
3. Pauline Bardal at the piano.
I first heard a piano in the backroom of Peterson's farmhouse, three miles east of my father's place. An only child, too young and disinterested to do any real work, I was left indoors while my father was out giving Wilbur a hand with some chore, probably splitting a half-pint to make the job more pleasant. Wilbur was a bachelor, but kept his aged father, Steve, and a sort of combination housekeeper and nurse, Pauline Bardal, to look after both of them. Pauline was born in 1895 to the first generation of Icelandic immigrants in western Minnesota. When I knew her in the late forties or early fifties, she must have been nearing sixty. Age is relative to children, so I did not think of her as being particularly old. She was simply Pauline, and would remain that way until she died thirty years later.
She was almost six feet tall, without a bit of fat on her, and this made her bones visible, particularly in the hands, joints moving with large gestures as if each finger had reasoning power of its own. Her leanness was partly genetic, but partly also the result of continual work. In the cities she would have been called a domestic, though her duties at Peterson's and elsewhere always involved nursing the infirm and dying. In Minneota's more informal class labeling, she was simply Pauline.
After finishing her duties with bread, chickens, or tending to old Steve, Pauline retired to the den for a half hour of music. I was invited to listen and always delighted by the prospect. She sat herself on the bench, arranging her bones with great dignity and formality. Music was not a trifling matter even if your hands were fresh from flour bin or hen house. Pauline did not play light music; though she was conventionally religious in a Lutheran sort of way, I knew, even as a child, that music was her true spiritual exercise. She always played slowly, and I suppose, badly, but it made no difference. She transported both herself and me by the simple act of playing. Her favorite pieces were Handel's "Largo" from Xerxes, and a piano arrangement of the finale of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion: "In Deepest Grief." She had never learned true fingering, and got most of her musical experience at an old pump organ that she played for church services. She did not so much strike the keys as slide with painstaking slowness from one to the next, leaving sufficient time for the manual rearrangement of the bones in her hands. This gave all her performances a certain halting dignity, even if sometimes questionable accuracy. It was always said around Minneota that her most moving performances were at funerals, where enormously slow tempos seemed appropriate. She played the sad Bach as a postlude while mourners filed past the open coffin for the last time.
But Pauline at the keyboard was not a lugubrious spirit. Watching that joy on her bony face as her fingers slid over the yellowed keyboard of the old upright, it became clear to me even as a child that neither her nor my true life came from kneading bread or candling eggs or fluffing pillows in a sickbed, but happened in the presence of those noises, badly as they might be made by your own hands. They lived in the inner lines of that Bach, so difficult to manage cleanly with work-stiffened fingers. You felt Bach's grandeur moving under you at whatever speed. The Handel "Largo," though it has become something of a joke for sophisticated listeners through its endless bad piano transcriptions is, in fact, a glorious piece, one of the great gifts from Europe. Even on farms in rural Minnesota, you deserve the extraordinary joy of hearing it for the first time, as if composed in your presence, only for you. I heard it that way, under Pauline's hands. The Minneapolis Symphony playing Beethoven's Ninth in the living room could not have been so moving or wonderful as that "Largo" in Peterson's back room.
Pauline, in American terms, was a great failure: always poor, never married, lived in a shabby, small house when not installed in others' backrooms, worked as a domestic servant, formally uneducated, spoke English with the odd inflections of those who learn it as a second language, gawky and not physically beautiful, a badly trained musician whose performances would have caused laughter in the cities. She owned nothing valuable, traveled little, and died alone, the last of her family. If there were love affairs, no one will now know anything about them, and everyone involved is surely dead. Probably she died a virgin, the second most terrible fate, after dying broke, that can befall an American.
But, as the scripture bids, "Let us now praise famous men; and I mean to praise not merely Pauline, but her whole failed family, and through them the music of failure in America.
4. The history of a failed immigrant.
Minneota is a community that was born out of failure in the 1870s. By that I mean that no one ever arrived in Minneota after being a success elsewhere. It is an immigrant town, settled by European refuse, first those starved out of Ireland, then Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Holland, Belgium. Given the harshness of western Minnesota's climate and landscape, people did not come to retire or loaf. They came to farm, and had they been successful at it in the old world, would not have uprooted their families, thrown away culture and language, and braved mosquitoes and blizzards for mere pleasure. Minneota is, of course, a paradigm for the settling of the whole country. We are a nation of failures who have done all right and been lucky. Perhaps it is some ancient dark fear of repeating our own grandfathers' lives that makes us reluctant to acknowledge failure in national or private life.
Pauline's father, Frithgeir, came in 1880 in the third wave of nationalities to Minneota: the Icelanders. He likely read one of the pamphlets circulated by the American government in all Scandinavian countries, describing free and fertile land available on the Great Plains for farmers of sturdy, sufficiently Caucasian stock. The United States was always particular about the race of its failures. The pamphlet probably mentioned glowingly the bountiful harvests, rich topsoil, good drainage and pasturage, cheap rail transport, and healthful bracing climate. Frithgeir Joakimsson, who took his new last name, Bardal, from his home valley in north Iceland, arrived in 1880, found most of the best land gone, and picked perhaps the hilliest, stoniest, barest though loveliest farm acreage in that part of western Minnesota.
He was thirty-seven years old, single, and, in all likelihood, knew not a word of English when he came. Pauline, when she was old, disposed of some of her family's books to good homes, and gave me her father's first English grammar and phrase book that she said he used on the boat. It was in Danish, English, and Icelandic, well-worn though intact. Pauline clearly treasured it. Leafing through it now, I imagine rough farmer's hands, something like Pauline's, holding the book on an open deck in mid-Atlantic, sea wind rustling the pages under his thumb: "Hvar er vegurinn vestur till Minneota?"
For the first five years, Frithgeir farmed alone. Probably he raised sheep and hay, the only things an Icelandic farmer knew. In 1886, at age forty-three, he married Guthlaug Jonsdóttir, a new immigrant whose family came from the wildest, most remote fjord in east Iceland, Borgarfjörđur, ringed with bloodred liparite mountains and precipitous scree slopes. Already thirty-five then, she was pregnant five times between 1887 and 1895 when Pauline, the last daughter, was born. One son, Pall, died an infant in 1889. Four out of five children alive was a lucky percentage then. But Frithgeir's luck did not hold for long in the new world. I give his obituary in its entirety, as I found it on a yellow, brittle page of the Minneota Mascot for Friday, September 8, 1899:
Last Saturday, while F. J. Bardal was mowing hay on his farm in Lincoln Co., the horses made a sudden start, jerking the mower which happened at that time to be on the slope of a hill, so that Mr. Bardal fell from his machine. His leg was caught in a wheel and he was dragged that way for a while until the horses stopped. The leg was broken above the knee and other injuries were sustained. Mr. Bardal managed to get on the mower and drive home. Dr. Thordason was sent for. He hurried out, set the bone and did all that could be done for the unfortunate man. But the injuries proved to be so serious that Mr. Bardal died last Monday morning. The funeral took place last Wednesday from the new Icelandic church in Lincoln County, Rev B.B. Jonsson officiating.
F. Bardal was born January 13, 1843 in Bardardal Thingeyarsysla, Iceland and came to this country in 1880 and settled on his farm in Lincoln County. He leaves a wife, three children, and a stepdaughter.
Mr. Bardal was a much-liked man in the community, an active member in his church, and a general favorite among his neighbors.
Done in by his own farm. He had found the only lovely hills in a flat country, but they killed him; his widow (who knew at best minimal English) was left with four children
between nine and twelve years old, and the poorest farm in the county. Nineteen years in the new world.
5. The further history of three children, all failed.
Perhaps a few genealogical books in Icelandic libraries, or some distant relatives might provide a bit more history of the Bardals, but not much . . . and this is after a single century in the most information-rich country on earth! It is amazing to me sometimes how little basis we have as humans on which to remember Pericles, Augustine, Charlemagne, or for that matter, Abraham Lincoln.
Four children reached adulthood. One married and left Minneota. Guthlaug, the widow, remained on the farm till she lost it in 1937, another victim of the Great Depression. She was then a very old lady and, as local report had it, not entirely in her right mind. She died in 1943, bedridden in her little house, ninety-two years old, fifty-seven years in America.
There were three Bardals left when I was a boy: Gunnar, the oldest brother, gaunt, melancholy, silent; Rose, the middle sister, not quite right in the head, with a sideways cast to her eye, as if she saw the world from a different angle than normal people, mouth half smiling, but the unsmiling half colored by something dark and unknown; finally, Pauline, their custodian, housekeeper, surrogate mother and father. The three trooped every Sunday morning to the old wood-frame Icelandic church a block from their small house, and ascended the creaky choir loft stairs. Pauline played for services every other Sunday, and sang when she did not play.
The choir at Saint Paul's Lutheran consisted of perhaps ten to fifteen elderly Icelandic ladies, mostly unmarried and immensely dignified. They formed the foundation of singing. Only three men joined them: Gunnar, a thin cavernous bass, another equally thin but raspier baritone, and me, a small fat boy of eleven or twelve who sang soprano or tenor, depending on his semi-changed voice. I was generally the single member of Saint Paul's choir under seventy.
I sat by Gunnar who seemed always contemplating some indefinable sadness about which nothing could be done. His voice sounded octaves below everyday life, as if it came from a well bottom. He wore a brown, itchy, wool suit, decades out of style.
Crazy Rose sat close to Pauline. After Rose's death, when I was a teenager, I heard stories of her madness, her religious mania, wandering off to preach in Icelandic in the cornfields, but as a little boy, she seemed only Rose to me, and within the range of possible normality for adults. Children judge each other harshly, but don't make nice distinctions among the grown. Sane or mad, pillar or rake, drunk or sober, adults seem merely themselves, distinguished more by age than by variations of habit, character, or physiognomy.
Rose looked like a bird ordered to continue eating despite an interesting ruckus going on in the next nest. She pecked toward the floor a few times, not paying much attention to the kernels at her feet, then raised her beak to glance furtively around, the half smile breaking on her lips, as if what she saw was almost funny. Her face was small and thin, eyes pale and watery, almost without irises.
Rose died in I956, in her sixties, of an embolism. Whatever was frail in the architecture of her cerebral arteries collapsed at last. Gunnar died in 1961 at seventy-four. I sang at both their funerals, and though I have no recollection of what the hymns might have been, they were surely sad and heavy-footed, perhaps "Come Ye Disconsolate; " or the Icelandic hymn "Just as the Flower Withers;" or "Abide With Me." Hymn singing seemed one kind of preparation for the last great mysterious failure-the funeral, when the saddest and noblest of church tunes could be done with their proper gravity.
Pauline, now alone in her little house with all the family bric-a-brac piled around her, had no one to attend to, and a social security check to keep her from having to attend others for money. Yet her habits were too strong, and having worked for fifty or sixty years, she could not stop. Now she dispensed munificence like a queen. She cared for the dying and the horribly ill with no fuss, as if she were born to it. She was a one-woman hospice movement.
She once fried steaks in a farmers' night club out in the country, an odd job for a teetotaler, and for this she was probably paid a pittance. My mother tended the bar and the two of them often drove out together. I saw them at work once; in the middle of loud country music and boisterous drinking they tended these rough farmers, not like hired help, but like indulgent great aunts looking benevolently after children having a good time. Pauline owned an old Ford which she drove with enthusiasm. Well into her eighties she took friends on vacation and shopping trips and made lunch runs for the senior citizens. Speaking of people sometimes ten or twenty years her junior, she said, "They're getting old, you know, and it's hard for them to get around." Pauline's gifts to me included more than music. She tended both my parents at their deathbeds; and when my mother, a week before she died, lost her second language, English, and spoke to me only in her first, Icelandic, which I did not understand, Pauline translated. The gifts of the unschooled are often those we did not know we would need-the right words, the right music.
Eternal though she seemed to me, age caught her. The end began with the trembling hands of Parkinson's disease, a cruel irony for a woman who took her delight in playing music, however badly. After Gunnar and Rose died, she had a bit more money, and made room in the old house by turning the spare bedrooms into storerooms. She bought a used church organ, a monster from the forties that crowded her tiny living room with speakers, pedal boards, and a gigantic brown console. The organ seemed larger and heavier than the house itself, as if even a tornado couldn't have budged it off the worn carpet. I once asked what she was playing; she looked at me sadly: "See these hands, how shaky? I can't even keep them on the keys anymore. They just shake off . . ." Soon after this she went into the nursing home, and died not long after, still peeved with the universe, I think, for taking music away from her at the end. I don't even know who was there to tend her bedside at the last. Probably she had had enough of that, and wanted to be alone. Indeed, the solitariness of her whole life prepared her for it. This was 1981, 101 years after her father left Thingeyarsysla for a new life. She had lived in America eighty-six years.
6. Music for an old pump organ.
Pauline was buried among the Bardals in the graveyard next to the Icelandic country church in Lincoln County. In 1922, Pauline picked out the congregation's new reed organ, and played it for services there for almost forty years, until the church, a victim of rural urbanization and of Icelanders who refused to reproduce or stay on the farm, closed its door for lack of business. While a few miles to the west, the Poles sensibly planted their Catholic Church in a hollow protected from the wind, the Icelanders defied Minnesota by building on a rise in the only ridge of hills on that flat prairie. On even a calm day at that wind-swept knoll, the church windows rattled, shingles flapped, and the black granite gravestones seemed to wobble.
Pauline and I drove out to that church a few years before her death. She carried a shopping bag full of flowers and rat poison. She had a key for the back door of the church and we went up through the minister's dressing room into the sanctuary. The room, carpentered in good oak, was furnished only with chairs, pews, organ, pulpit, and the simple altar crowned by a wood cross; no statues, paintings, bric-a-brac-nothing but that wood, goldened by afternoon light from the pale yellow windows. Wind seemed to come up from inside the church, whooshing over the fine dust that covered everything. "Nobody's cleaned it since last year. It's a shame." Pauline muttered, then went to work. First, she arranged her long legs on the organ bench, carefully folding them between two wooden knee guards below the keyboard. Thus constricted, she pumped, and while checking the stops with one hand, slid over the keys with the other, playing the chords from Handel's "Largo." "The mice have not eaten the bellows," she announced with satisfaction, then launched into an old hymn with both hands. We played for each other for a while, Pauline marveling at my clean fingering. She knew, I think, that she had some responsibility for my love of playing, and was proud of herself, and of me, but this was not the sort of thing Icelanders discussed openly with each other. Skill could be remarked on, but the heart was private and disliked language.
When we finished, she swept up the old poison in a newspaper, opened her yellow skull-and-crossboned boxes, and laid down a fresh lunch for any rodents who might presume to make a meal of God's own organ bellows. Even though the church would never likely be opened, nor the organ publicly played there again, such things ought to be attended to for their own sake. Who knew? Perhaps the dead a few feet away liked an occasional sad tune and didn't fancy the idea of rats interfering with their music.
Pauline locked the church carefully, looking back at it with a sort of melancholy nostalgia. She proceeded to the graveyard with the rest of the contents of her shopping bag, and there performed her next errand. She swept off the graves, then put a flower or two on all of them. The row read:
|7/25 - 8/2 1889||1843 - 1899||1851 - 1943|
|Rose|| || Gunnar|
|1890 - 1956||1887 - 1961|
"And I will be between Rose and Gunnar;" she said, "in not too long"
Indeed, within a few years the row was full; six dead in the graveyard of a dead church, no progeny, no empire following them, only the dry wind of a new world that promised them and all of us so much.
7. Pack-rat houses, and what they tell.
The opening of the Bardal house was not greeted with amazement and that is, in itself, amazing. Traditionally in Minneota, as in villages all across the world, pack rats, generally unmarried, die in houses stuffed to the ceiling with moldy newspapers, rusted coffee cans full of money, and an overpopulation of bored cats.
The first astonishing fact about the house was the sheer amount inside it. Though tiny, it held the combined goods for a family of six who threw nothing away. It was neither dirty nor disorderly. The piles had been dusted and the narrow crevices between them vacuumed and scrubbed, but within some mounds, nothing had moved for forty years. Papers were stacked neatly in order, probably put there the week they arrived, from 1937 onward. The Bardals were schooled historically and genetically by a thousand years of Icelandic poverty of the meanest, most abject variety. They moved to a poor farm in the poorest county of Minnesota, and when the Depression reduced penury to catastrophe, moved into a poor, small house in Minneota. While their storage space shrank, their goods expanded, and the double beds became single beds after the floor space filled up to the bedsprings. They were a family on whom nothing was lost, not even the useless doodads that arrived from answering every "free special offer" ad for over a half-century.
They accumulated no coffee cans full of bank notes, no hidden treasure, nothing of any genuine monetary value; the Bardals were in that regard truly poor. But not poor in mind
and spirit! They owned books in three or four languages: Plato, Homer, Bjornson in Norwegian, Snorri Sturlusson in Icelandic, Whitman, Darwin, Dickens, Ingersoll, Elbert Hubbard; piles of scores by Handel, Bach, Mozart, George Beverly Shea, and Björgvin Guđmundsson, old cylinders of Caruso, Galla-Curci, Schumann-Heink, John McCormack; cheap books reproducing paintings and sculpture from great European museums. There was an organ, a piano, violin, and trumpet; manuals for gardening, cooking, and home remedies; the best magazines of political commentary and art criticism next to Capper's Farmer; the Minneota Mascot, and the Plain Truth; dictionaries and grammar books in three or four languages; books of scientific marvels, Richard Burton's travel adventures, old text books for speech and mathematics, Bibles and hymn books in every Scandinavian language; Faust, Reader's Digest, and Sweet Hour of Prayer. That tiny house was a space ship stocked to leave the planet after collecting the best we have done for each other for the last four thousand years of human consciousness. And none of it worth ten cents in the real world of free enterprise! The executors might as well have torched the house, thus saving the labor of sorting it, giving mementos to friends and peddling the rest at a garage sale on a sweltering summer afternoon. What one realized with genuine astonishment was that the Bardals piled this extraordinary junk not only inside their cramped house; that house was a metaphor for their interior life that they stocked with the greatest beauty and intelligence they understood. They read the books, played the instruments, carried the contents of that house in their heads, and took it with them at last into their neat row in the Lincoln County graveyard.
But not entirely. . . . Anyone who carries a whole civilization around inside gives it to everyone they meet in conversations and public acts. Pauline gave me music; Gunnar, the model of a man who read and thought; literally he gave me a first edition of Arthur Waley, an Epictetus, and the Heimskringla; Rose, in her odd way, gave me her crazed longing for God. Not one of them had so much as a high school diploma. They gave what teachers hired for it so often fail to give.
8. The idea of failure noted in literature, both old and new.
Having introduced you to Pauline and the rest of the Bardals, I reiterate the question I posed at the beginning of this essay: What is failure, and what is its use in our lives, either as private humans resident in our own Minneota of the soul, or as Americans, public citizens of the richest, most successful nation in history?
At the beginning of human consciousness, men seem not to have appreciated the virtues of failure either. The Gilgamesh epic, at least a thousand years older than Homer or Genesis, and thus the first record of what troubled us as humans, contains the following scene: Gilgamesh, the king, is unhappy in his willful solitude, satisfying his sexual whims, living a materially splendid life, and thoughtlessly brutalizing his subjects. He feels a part of himself missing. One night he wakes from a disturbing dream, which he tells his mother, Ninsun, a goddess who has power to read dream symbols:
I saw a star
Fall from the sky, and the people
Of Uruk stood around and admired it,
And I was zealous and tried to carry it away
But I was too weak and I failed.
What does it mean? I have not dreamed
Like this before.
She explains that the star symbolizes his equal-something too heavy that he will "try to lift and drive away, and fail." This worries Gilgamesh:
But I have never failed before, he interrupted
Her, surprised himself at his anxiety.
It will be a person, she continued . . .
A companion who is your equal
In strength, a person loyal to a friend
Who will not forsake you and whom you
Will never wish to leave.
Gilgamesh thinks this over quietly, and soon after dreams again, this time of an ax: "When I tried to lift it, I failed." She consoles him:
This ax is a man
Who is your friend and equal.
He will come.
Enkidu comes. Gilgamesh falls from godly solitude into friendship, and when Enkidu dies, falls again through grief into true humanity. The failure that so disturbs his dreams is, in fact, the longing for full consciousness as a human, and this is learned when "A man sees death in things. That is what it is to be a man." Only by failure can Gilgamesh find this wisdom, and before he does, the whole country suffers from his thoughtlessness. There is surely a lesson here, even thousands of years later, for countries that insist on being led by those who have never gone through the failure and grief necessary to see this "death in things."
Forty or fifty centuries after Gilgamesh, E. M. Forster imagined a similar scene in A Passage to India, though now there is no Enkidu to come. Mrs. Moore and her thick-headed boy, Ronny, a British civil servant, are arguing about the behavior of the English in India. Ronny trots out all the clichés about God's work and the white man's burden, but his mother surveys him with an ironic eye:
His words without his voice might have impressed her,
but when she heard the self-satisfied lilt of them, when she saw
the mouth moving so complacently and competently beneath
the little red nose, she felt, quite illogically, that this
was not the last word on India. One touch of regret-not
the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart-
would have made him a different man, and the British
Empire a different institution.
The argument goes on, not a trace of regret penetrating into Ronny. Finally, exasperated, she says:
"The desire to behave pleasantly satisfies God. . . . I think everyone fails, but there are so many kinds of failure. Good will and more good will and more good will."
Forster's point, like that of the Gilgamesh poet, is that human beings learn goodwill by coming to a consciousness of the ''death in things'.' the failure that moves Whitman to praise, and so disgusts and terrifies us as a culture.
9. A fortissimo blast from Walt Whitman, swelled by the author's indignation.
I try, again and again, through literature, music, history, and experience, to get at the point of failure-but I fail. Perhaps that is my point. Clear logical structures, much as I love them myself, are not so germane as the "touch of regret that comes the heart" in understanding what I am trying to penetrate.
This idea began with an image, a comparison, really. Disgusted with my whole country after the 1984 election, with its bludgeoning rhetoric of business success, military victory, and contempt for the failures and oddballs of America who have tried to ask difficult questions, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in a room with my own leaders, perhaps inviting the current administration over to my house for drinks. Aside from their withering scorn that someone so obviously able and white would choose to live in shabby house in an obscure backwater like Minneota (this would provoke only angry sputtering fulmination from me), I realized that they would bore the bejesus out of not only me, but everyone I valued and a great many of those I didn't.
I would rather have spent an evening with Pauline Bardal, playing music and listening to her Icelandic stories. This poor, presumably ignorant and obscure woman would even have
taken the fun out of the drinks, since she disapproved of them; yet she was more fit to organize society than the most exalted leaders on the planet. She was not empty as a human, and therefore, however ordinary, gave off love, and could not be boring in quite the same way. Since she had a genuine feeling for beauty, though little skill at making it, "good will" and some richness of soul would enter a room with her and grace it. And yet she was one of millions in a culture that had been bamboozled, for reasons no one quite understands, into
accepting a cheap destructive idea of success and publicly worshipping it in the most demeaning and mindless way. That success idea surfaced like a hydra after every American disaster that ought to have taught us something about ourselves, history, and love-the Vietnam War, the Depression, the imperialist fiascoes with Spain and the Philippines at the turn of the century, the Civil War. Here is Whitman, the poet of boisterous optimism, as high schools teach him, describing the spiritual life of America in 1870 in his sad essay, "Democratic Vistas":
I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings), nor is humanity itself believed in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, etc., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north south, and west, to investigate frauds, has talked much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not les than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business (this all-devouring modern word, business), the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician's serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and moneymaking is out magician's serpent, remaining today sole master of the field. The best class we show, is but a mob of fashionably dressed speculators and vulgarians. True, indeed, behind this fantastic farce, enacted on the visible stage of society, solid things and stupendous labors are to be discovered, existing crudely and going on in the background, to advance and tell themselves in time. Yet the truths are none the less terrible. I say that our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and aesthetic results. In vain do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander's, beyond the proudest sway of Rome. In vain have we annexed Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endowed with a vast and more and more thoroughly appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.
It could as well have been written in I985. This is the failure you get if you begin and proceed with a phony notion of success. This failure, which the culture calls "success;" is a true spiritual death, not the "death in things; but hell," as Milton conceived it: death in the midst of life, because the world itself, the universe, is dead from inside out, and we carry the corpse with us into every conversation and act.
10. The poor and the drunk: two more kinds of failure.
Two failures we teach children to fear are poverty and alcoholism. We state them positively: work hard and stay sober. Yet Christianity, to which we give public lip service, praises glad poverty; many alcoholics date the birth of their true humanity from the realization of booze's awful power in their lives.
James Agee, in the course of spending a summer writing about some poor, ignorant Alabama tenant farmers in the thirties, discovered that their small, failed lives could not quite be described by normal American power values. He calls his book about them Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and comes to this conclusion about the poor and failed: they are human in precisely the same manner as ourselves, and therefore bottomless. It takes him hundreds of pages of thundering prose to grab the scruff of the reader's neck, and shake him to the same conclusion. Money earned, suit brand, car model, school degree, powerful army, big bombs, bootstrap rhetoric, make no difference. Everything the success culture takes for granted turns to fog that burns off when you put light on it. At the bottom of everything is skin: under that, blood and bone. This simple fact shocked Agee and gave him a case of ecstasy.
We feel it even more in the simple, direct photographs Walker Evans took as pendant to Agee's prose. Those, for god's sake, he seems to say, are children, real children, and that is a shoe, and that is a table, even though so badly carpentered of rough wood that it stands on a short leg. What should we tell that childr to succeed at, since it is already demonstrably a child? Should we tell it to wash and put on a good shirt? What should we say to the shoe? Make yourself new, close up your cracked sole, polish yourself, grow into a boot?
Like poverty, alcoholism is a failure hard to deny, for denial leads to suicide. The ideas that Alcoholics Anonymous proposes to help alcoholics recover have in them the "true regret from the heart" that Forster speaks about, and staying sober requires "good will and more good will." An alcoholic must confess to his fellows: All greetings begin, "My name is Joe and I'm a drunk. "Substitute your own name in that sentence and the music of failure sounds in earshot. Drunks black out, remember nothing; A.A. requires memory, the acknowledgment of actions' effects on self and others, then apology and atonement. You must make right what you have put wrong with your drinking; pay just debts. Imagine America coming up from one of its blackouts to apologize to Cambodia, Nicaragua, the Sioux, interned Japanese, or the blacklisted. Imagine yourself. . .
The Serenity Prayer, spoken at every A. A. meeting, is the true national anthem of the country of failure Gilgamesh dreamed about when his conscience tired of brutalizing Uruk, and longed for the true failure in humanity:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
No bombs bursting in air in that one.
11. Failure in national life: a little history of Iceland.
What, then, shall we say in praise of the Bardals, all dead in a hundred years in America, and failed miserably by almost every definition our culture offers us? In my judgment, our false language of power and success, and its consequent notion of sweeping genuine failure harmful to other humans and ourselves under the rug, has left us no true language (except perhaps poetry or song) to describe or think about their lives and thus absorb their history into our own. Without that acknowledgment of failure, memory disappears, history ceases to exist accurately and is of no use to us. We drive by the cemetery a thousand times and cannot see or remember the names written on the stones.
The Bardals came out of an immigrant culture that had succeeded at failure. They were Icelanders, and conscious of it, and though none of Frithgeir's children ever saw their ancestral home, they called themselves "western Icelanders;" and could observe by looking at any television set that they were not quite American in the manner conceived in commercials and soap operas.
The Icelandic immigration at the end of the nineteenth century took place, as did so many such movements, largely because of grinding poverty. The Icelanders, historically, showed talent for surviving near-starvation; but, by 1875, an escape opened to them that was like none other in history. Free land was not an offer taken lightly.
At thirty-six I went off to live in Iceland for a year or two and had a look at the farms the ancestors of Minneota Icelanders left, including my own grandfather's and the Bardals'. In 1875 the houses must have been dark turf-covered hovels, smelling of chamber pots and boiled fish, with ceilings so low that generally tall Icelanders must have developed hunches stooping under their own roofline. In 1875 there were no roads, only horse tracks; no sophisticated machines, only scythes and hand rakes; almost no light, heat, sanitation, or plumbing. Aside from a handful of Christmas raisins or prunes, and daily rutabagas and potatoes, their whole diet consisted of boiled dried cod, boiled salt mutton, rotted shark, and a pudding made out of sour milk. They had never seen an orange, an apple, or corn, much less an avocado. They had little topsoil, a minuscule growing season sufficient for almost no food crops, interminable winters and gray, cold, drizzly summers, frosts in June, snow in August, and icy sea fogs in between. They raised hardy old Viking sheep, a cow or two for milk, and hay that was really only native grass, to feed the animals. They moved around on small sturdy horses who coped with endless frost heaves, bogholes, cliffs, and gravelly, cold, glacial rivers that separated one remote farm from the next. Icelandic farmers lived, for all practical purposes, in the twelfth century until well into the twentieth. It is almost impossible for us to conceive the meanness and isolation of their lives. They occupied the outer edge of an island on the outer edge of Europe in poverty worthy of the most dismal backwater in Africa or Asia.
Iceland also had a history of losing, both geological and political. Settled by ninth-century Vikings who organized the world's first genuine Parliament, they were the only kingless Europeans, but lost that prize through their own quarrelsome squabbling. Birch trees held in their loose but fertile volcanic soil, which they squandered by denuding countryside for firewood. Even the elements conspired against them. They built up new areas into fertile farmland by painstaking labor, only to have a neighborhood volcano blow up and bury the field under burning ash. The climate, temperate when they came, soon returned to its true arctic disposition and froze out their hay. Polar ice hugged the shore, as if trying to finish the poor Icelanders off for being impetuous and foolish enough to try to settle this unlikely island and make a civilization out of it.
And yet they did indeed make a great, though curiously austere, civilization. With no usable building stone, no musical instruments, no minable metals, and a paucity of food and shelter, they built he most substantial European literature of the Middle Ages by using the only equipment left to them on this barren rockpile: language, not Latin, but their own beloved vernacular Icelandic.
What is the heroic subject of the greatest of that literature? Failure. The Sturlunga Saga chronicles with bloody detail the venial civil quarrels that led to the breakdown of political structures and ensuing loss of independence. Snorri's Prose Edda consisted partly of a versification manual for a kind of poetry (a few hundred years obsolete when Snorri wrote it) that no one would ever write again except as a literary exercise, and partly a history of the old Norse mythology that was by that time utterly obliterated by Christianity and forgotten in the rest of Europe. Laxdaela Saga records a willful woman's successive failed marriages and loves that make Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary seem cheerful by comparison. The gods themselves, in Viking mythology, were doomed to perish, and Valhalla is a temple of failure. In Njal's Saga (a worthy companion to Homer) almost all the main characters are swept up in a violent tide that culminates in the deliberate burning to death of Njal's whole family, including aged wife and grandchildren, inside his own house. It is surely a cautionary story, designed to be told to an audience themselves afflicted with a quarrelsome nature and a taste for recrimination and revenge. The book ends in spent vengeance, and a surfeit of charred, beheaded, stabbed, chopped, impaled corpses that exceeds the final scenes of Hamlet or Lear. The human failure in Njal's Saga is of such size it attains majesty, but the gods are not blamed for any of it.
The Icelanders, by facing the drastic failures of their history and nature, created a literature that held the national ego together through six hundred years of colonial domination, black plague, leprosy, volcanic eruption, and famine that by 1750 reduced this already half-starved population to half the size it had been when it was settled. The most wretched Icelandic household had those books and read them; Gunnar, Njal, Gudrun, Egil, and Grettir were the ballast every Icelander carried through the long centuries of failure.
A saga reader visiting Iceland now, expecting bloodthirstiness or violence from the population, is in for disappointment. He finds instead a mild, harmonious, democratic welfare state, just and literate, almost without murder, theft, or any violent crime. Doors are left unlocked and lost billfolds returned to strangers.
Poverty in any sense an American might understand is unknown. It struck me while I lived there, and must equally strike many American tourists, that Iceland is what America says it is and is, in fact, not. Our literature, too, is full of failure-the sunk Pequod and the dead crew in Moby Dick, Hawthorne's vision of failed love in an icy community, Huck Finn on the raft, choosing evil, and Whitman's great poems in praise of death-but we do not carry these books around inside our public life as Icelanders carry theirs.
What distinguishes Icelandic from American failure is the sense of responsibility. It was neither Norwegian, Dane, black plague, nor polar ice who wrecked Iceland's independence, fertility, and prosperity; their literature makes absolutely clear that it was Icelanders themselves who did these things. We make terrible mistakes and we alone are responsible for them, they say to one another in books. Viewing their history generously, you might think they could share blame for their troubles with Norway, Denmark, or at least chalk it up to bad luck, but Icelanders will have none of it. It is a matter of national pride to have behaved so stupidly in the past and survived as a nation to learn something from it. Alteration is possible if you stop in time; this is one of the clear lessons both of A. A. and of history. In addition, there is a certain pleasure that comes from swallowing your own failure. A great deal of Icelandic humor grows out of these indigestible lumps of history.
Nothing that is itself can conceivably be termed a failure by the transcendental definition. But things must acknowledge and live up to their selfness. This is fairly effortless for a horse or a cow, more difficult for a human being, and judging by the evidence of history, almost impossible for a community or a country. When it happens occasionally, as I argue that it did in the case of the Icelanders, it creates a rare wonder, a community that has eaten its own failures so completely that it has no need to be other than itself. Iceland has no army, because an army cannot defend anything genuinely worth defending. In my more melancholy utopian moments, I think America would be better defended without one, too.
The Bardals came out of that failure tradition, and it schooled them well for their hundred years in America. Friends of mine meeting Pauline for the first time would remark on her aristocratic bearing. There was no bowing and scraping in her; she met bank presidents and failed farmers with the same straightforward kindness. And why, given the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the rhetoric of American history, should she not? Her soul was not tied to a bank account or elegant clothes, and whatever difficulties life dealt her, she remained Pauline and that was sufficient. No one can steal the self while you are sleeping if it is sufficiently large in you body. A country with a sufficient ego casts off paranoia about plots to steal its factories and merchandise, and behaves with grace and mildness toward its neighbours.
But an alcoholic protects that weak self by filling it with whiskey. A stock speculator in the twenties filled it with Dusenbergs, ermines, Waterford chandeliers, and Newport villas. When these toys disappeared abruptly, the now defenseless self stepped to the window and, taking advantage of the fact that it lived inside a heavy body, dropped out. Some alcoholics drive off cliffs if you take whiskey away. An empty country, then, protects itself at all costs against the idea of its own failure, lest some part of its weak psyche understand that it must commit a sort of suicide whenever it is tempted to feel the "true regret." A hundred years ago, this was serious, but not final. A country more or less blown off the map, even a large one, would still be populated by deer, muskrats, fox, weeds, and grass. Since 1945, self-building has become a matter of life and death for the whole planet. We have now reached the point in human history where some cure is absolutely necessary, some embracing of wholesome failure.
12. A reprise of Walt Whitman: real and transcendental failure.
I return now to Whitman, who had two ideas about failure: the first transcendental, and the second political. The "natural facts" as Emerson defines them in Nature, were not revealing cheerful news about the "spiritual facts" of American life after the Civil War. I argue that the news is no better now, maybe worse, since more time, more evidence, and more material progress have passed our way. Whitman wrote his first joyful hymn to failure in 1855, in the first edition of Leaves of Grass; his attack on "hollowness of heart" came sixteen years later, in 1871. Those years were, prior to our own generation, the most rendingly violent and tempestuous time in American history, but I think we have surpassed them.
Think first of our own conventional notion of failure, and how it differs from either of Whitman's. Success involves the acquisition of power, money, position, sensual gratification, and acquiring the attendant public symbols for these things. Not to acquire them, but to be schooled in a culture that wants you to want them, is our idea of failure.
Think next of "hollowness of heart" as Whitman's language for what we, living in an age of psychology, call the weak ego, or the empty self. How do you fill an ego, make a self strong? The ego requires first the power to sympathetically imagine something outside itself: the lives of other human beings, perhaps enormously different from your own; second, the capacity to love something outside the self in the world of nature, art, or human beings. True symbols of fullness of heart exist only in nature, and cannot be put on credit cards: rocks, weeds, animals, air, water, weather, and other people.
Whitman had experienced profound conventional failure in his own life by the time of his great attack: he saw the horrors of a Civil War hospital as a volunteer nurse for the dying; he lost a government job for writing obscene poetry; he suffered strokes that eventually crippled him; he found no true audience for Leaves of Grass; he endured the most corrupt national administration before Nixon's. Yet still he beats and pounds for the failed generals with his transcendental notion of failure. Something succeeds if it is itself: victor and defeated, living and dead, are not separate states but a continuum; success and failure are only different faces of the same thing.
Music is a good metaphor for this idea, since it also is a tissue, a continuum, a process. How heavy is music's body? Does it own much land? What sound investments can it make? Does Music slice vegetables with a knife or electricity? Does music like sunny climates and lovely cities or is it willing to endure Minneota? Is music bored with the "Largo" from Xerxes? Do old ladies' wrong notes offend music's ears? What hymns should you sing at music's funeral? Would music prefer quiche lorraine or boiled potatoes? What is the gross national product of music? Does music worship Jesus, or the other way around?
When is music ever finally done? Basho (translated by Robert Bly) says:
The temple bell stops
But the sound keeps coming
Out of the floweres
Even Minneota flowers...
13. A coda: the still small voice of Minneota.
This has been a long incoherent journey toward this idea. The reader must perhaps exercise "good will" and remember that the whole culture, perhaps the whole weight of western civilization, is against it. The English language even denies it, as one tries to bulldoze a word from one definition to another. And yet, I know it's true. What proof have I offered? The life of Pauline Bardal and her family, a poor tiny country on the edge of the arctic, a half-dozen books, experience, some music, finally only a feeling… not much. Yet in every artery in my body, and in yours too, that music of failure plays-continually. It sounds like Bach to me, and you must make up your mind what it sounds like to you.
Should you not hear it where you are now, let me remind you that it plays in Minneota, Minnesota daily, under the water tower, or deep inside the grain elevator bins. You do not need the price of a bus ticket to arrive here, since it is where you are now, wherever that is. You must simply decide to be here, and then you will be.
Always remember, though, that it is a real place in both senses of that word, though not much of a place in American terms. It will never make it on television, though it has ground, water, sky, weather, all the ingredients of placeness. It has pianos, clarinets, and songs, though it wants violins, and the wind that blows over it comes from Prague and Nairobi and Auckland and brings part of them to live in it. Its humans are often tedious, but sometimes astonishing, here as elsewhere, and the endless weather talk once had a piece of poetry under it. The Bardals lived here, still do in a way, under stones with their names, but in air, too, that comes into the house when you take off the storm windows in spring. I live here now, and plan to always, wherever I am.
Whatever failure is, Minneota is not it. Nothing can be done about living here. Nor should it be. The heart can be filled anywhere on earth.