To Autumn

I noted on Twitter earlier today that today felt like fall. The weather isn’t particularly different — lows in the 30s and 40s at night, highs in the 70s — but today something — the quality of the light, the chill behind the air, something — made me think autumn. Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness and all that.

I also said that such days make me wish desperately to be back in college, but that’s not quite accurate either. I don’t really want to be back in college. I’m happier now in ways that I wasn’t then. What I mean is something closer to the original meaning of nostalgia — aching for home, for one’s own kind, for something that going back to school has always held for me, for something I’m convinced I could get back to if only I could read books and learn things and watch the leaves turn.

I love Wyoming, but the leaves here don’t turn. Well, they turn yellow, and then they fall to the ground and turn brown. It is not quite the same.

I first became seriously depressed in the fall of my junior year of college. That October I drove up to Vermont, where the leaves were almost all gone, and went to visit my father’s grave, which is not the sort of activity I can really recommend if you are feeling full of despair. Autumn is the season of fading light, of the days that grow shorter, of seriousness, of tragedy. My Dante professor in college said that he only taught the Inferno in the spring: it was too much to descend lower and lower into hell as winter and its attendant death came closer and closer.

I was born a faculty brat. We live a block from the campus of Cornell College. I remember my father strolling up there to teach his classes, pipe in hand. I remember sitting on the stone retaining wall at the edge of campus closest to our street and “fishing” for leaves in the fall.

The fall for me represents both familiarity and newness: old friends, new notebooks; old texts, new readings. One of my favorite professors in college said of the room where we met, in the library, that it was “full of wood and transcendent light.” That’s what I mean about fall.

Or this, from a novel called Iodine by Haven Kimmel. One of the main characters, an English professor, is addressing his class on the first day, and I quote at length because I was able to copy all of this from a Google Book Search query (the book itself is at one of our other libraries at the moment):

“I’ve been at this school a long time,” he said, giving up on ordering the papers on his desk, “twenty-two years. Longer than many of you have been alive. You wouldn’t believe the people I’ve watched come and go from my classrooms, the university, and I won’t bore you by telling you, but I will say that the human drama that plays out in our lives, often right in front of me, is enough to convince me that all these thinkers I love, Jung and Hillman and Campbell and Frazer and Frye, are dead right. They’re right about literature and art and the collective unconscious and the archetypes, and even how the spring is comedic and autumn is tragic. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about what the archetypes are, or if they are, although I subscribe to the idea that they are autonomous–inborn forms of intuition–a way of describing experiences that come upon us with the power of fate.

Everybody knows that all literature can be mined by Freudians. But Freud was a physician; he believed in analysis, a code, a key. The archetypes are something else, the way they come visiting and won’t be denied, how they show up in dreams and in the way–once you’ve learned to read a text in this fashion–you’ll see the color silver in a story and you’ll know Mercury has been there, and so you’ll also know there is a trick somewhere, even if you can’t figure it out. Colors and numbers, and you will ask yourself, ‘Why seven?’ You’ll see how each archetype is associated with so many specific attributes that each work of literature just gets deeper and deeper as you recognize them. Oh, there is Hephaestus, you’ll say, and you’ll wonder if you dare see a soul at the white heat.”

I have not (somewhat to my chagrin) actually read Jung or most of the other people he mentions, and I know very little about archetypes, but the passage rings true to me nonetheless for what it says about reading: that the more you do it, the more you think about it, the more it becomes. Richer, deeper, more full of that mellow fruitfulness.

There was a thing going around Twitter earlier today about what were you doing on 9/9/99. I am not sure precisely, because I wasn’t keeping a regular journal then. It was the year after I graduated from college, but I was back in school, taking three education classes with the thought that I might get a teaching certificate and one writing class because I wanted to apply to a writing program. I wasn’t keeping a journal then, but in the course of looking for something else, I came across a notebook from that era, full of notes unrelated in any way to the classes I was taking but full nonetheless of thinking, looking, searching, and trying to understand. It is that yearning that I feel in the autumn air. It is that I wish I could get back.

2 comments

  1. Autumn comes in like a slow moving tide I wrote one year in the Bill’s Coffeeshop Newsletter. Actually, the birds start packing up and leaving before we human even notice what’s happening. But then there is a September morning when one notices that it is still dark when you get up (though this day shortening has been going on since late June.) And then the leave start to fall. I saw my first two leaves fall yesterday in Aberdeen. I was loading up a van for a weekend trip to teach in Sioux Falls. One, and then a second, fell to the ground right in front of me. Sigh.

  2. Thank you for that lovely, bittersweet post. Jung is very interesting–I’m reading “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” now and recommend it, even if he was kind of a misogynist (ah, but who wasn’t).