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Now available from Penguin Books: Absentia by William Stobb. Find it in traditional book form on amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. Also available for mobile devices at iTunes bookstore and google books.

Monday, August 19, 2013

"An Ethos of the Blueness of the Sky": Re-connecting with De Daumier Smith

This week in America, a 19-year-old college quarterback is in the news.  He's a big star, and he's acting irreverently--partying and unabashedly enjoying the spotlight. I laugh, thinking about my own 19-year-old self: a socially awkward college sophomore spending inordinate amounts of time in the library basement, reading all the uncollected Salinger stories in Collier's and Saturday Evening Post on microfiche.

It was not a glamorous time.  I felt like Salinger's witty, vulnerable young characters had leapt directly from my own adolescent loneliness onto the page.  When I look back at them now, which I tend to do about once every summer, I sometimes find them a little hyperbolic, or idealized.  But I still feel how much those characters--not so much Holden Caulfield, but more the Glass family, and the characters in the short stories--meant to me as a young adult, and the gratitude I feel toward them quiets my inner pedant.

One of the highlights of my 2013 summer was a morning spent sitting in a booth at a Perkins, reading "De Daumier Smith's Blue Period" while my minivan incurred a thousand dollars worth of repairs at a nearby auto shop.  I had just re-read Raise High the Roofbeams (which I love for its straightforward storytelling, whereas it's partner, Seymour: An Introduction is more difficult for me to enjoy), and I wasn't ready to let Salinger go, so on my way out the door that morning, I grabbed Nine Stories off the shelf.  I have extremely fond memories of many of those stories--"Laughing Man," "For Esme with Love and Squalor," "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," and "Teddy."  But my memory of "De Daumier Smith..." was a little vague, so I decided to read that one.  I got coffee, and some pancakes.  People came in and out--a lot of elderly people, mainly, leading me to wonder if Perkins will have to close when the post-WWII generation has passed.  Maybe corporate headquarters can commission some franchises on the other side of the veil.

Anyway, for those of you who don't remember, "De Daumier Smith" is the pseudonym of the story's narrator and main character.  We never learn his real name.  His story takes place just after his mother has died, and, during what is a period of serious existential uncertainty for him, he applies for a job teaching at a new art school, and invents for himself the persona of "De Daumier Smith," a French painter with ties to, among other European notables, the great Pablo Picasso himself.  He gets the job, and goes off to teach, and as the story plays out, any reader with half a heart is charmed out of his or her wits by the pluck and sensitivity the young man displays.

My main reason for writing this blog post is to record a pair of passages from the story that I simply love, so that if I ever go back and read this blog (which mainly is the place I put interesting things that I don't know what else to do with), I will encounter these passages again and feel buoyed by their perceptiveness and over-arching calm.

1.  The administrator and head instructor at the art school is a capable water-colorist, and De Daumier Smith admires one of his paintings:

"Occasionally, I still dream of a certain white goose flying through an extremely pale-blue sky, with--and it was one of the most daring and accomplished feats of craftsmanship I've ever seen--the blueness of the sky, or an ethos of the blueness of the sky, reflected in the birds feathers."

The image stands like a figure for the idealism of all of Salinger's young characters.  Not just the image--a physical representation of the transcendent beauty that's available to us in this world, but De Daumier Smith's ability to appreciate the image.  Those two things together make me want to hold on to some facet of innocence as I continue to live my life.

2.  And this one might not translate as well, but.... after viewing a student painting that he admires a great deal, Smith is struck by a recognition of his own limitations, his mortality, his... perspective, maybe:

"Then something altogether hideous happened.  The thought was forced on me that no matter how coolly or sensibly or gracefully I might one day learn to live my life, I would always at best be a visitor in a garden of enamel urinals and bedpans, with a sightless, wooden dummy-deity standing in a marked down rupture truss."

The busy image that the end of that passage constructs isn't entirely interpretable by me.  The picture he's admiring was religious, and painted by a nun, and so the imagery Smith is describing seems to come out of some kind of a religious hospital environment.  What I like about the passage, though, is the recognition of position.  We're in this world, but it's not our world.  We don't even understand, really, what it is that's happening to us and even in us.  I just love that Salinger's characters have the humility to recognize their limitation, rather than proceeding through the world as if acquisition was the end that justified all means.

Salinger, of course, famously retired from publishing and receded from the public eye.  He died in 2010 or 11 or 09 or....  If I allow myself to get into a certain mindset, I can share the frustration and sense of public loss that resulted from his decision to vanish.  As a nation, we lost an opportunity to revere a creator that we loved.  But mostly I can let it go.  I love the works that he did publish, and he had every right to live however he wanted to.  I hope he got what he wanted from his life.  Mainly, I hope that he had an opportunity to know that his work mattered deeply to a lot of young people, who wanted to believe there was something more in this world than the gerbil wheel of career, career, career.  I have to believe he did know: even while he lived his life away from us, we were out here feeling nothing more than gratitude for what he created.  I hope that gave him some peace and satisfaction.

1 comment:

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