This excerpt is from Chapter 18 in my book FISH OUT OF WATER: A Search for the Meaning of Life.
“Celery Green Day”
Those I hung out with in the Schroeder Lounge at Yale became such good friends that I tended to accept their views, and through them began to see another way of looking at these things. One of them had even brilliantly invented a holiday that summed up their notions. He called it Celery Green Day.
The idea behind this was that every spring as you looked out over the landscape of trees in your neck of the woods, wherever you were—and especially in New England, where we were—the wash of colors slowly changed from sepulchral gray to green. The dull wintry granite of the bare tree branches stayed unchanged for months, as though the trees really had died and turned to stone. But finally, at some point tiny red buds appeared and the trees from a distance took on the slightest reddish hue amidst the gray. Then, some days or weeks later the faintest suggestion of spring arrived in a hint of yellow green, usually in April. That implicit hint of budding color would become more explicit each day until one day, looking out over the hills or trees, you saw a luminescent optic yellow-tinged green that was the approximate color of a celery stalk. This was Celery Green Day.
That color would deepen, so the celery green color only persisted for the shortest window and only the first day on which it appeared was Celery Green Day. Part of the charm of it was its radical subjectivity. It could fall on any day, so no one could know when it would arrive. It arrived unannounced, so planning a Celery Green Day celebration was nearly impossible. But the subjectivity didn’t stop there. I might say the day was Tuesday, but you might say the trees hadn’t been quite green enough. You believed it wasn’t till Thursday. We all had our own “truths”—our own private Idahos—and Celery Green Day was an homage to that idea.
You could take the subjectivity further still. Even to the same person, Celery Green Day in Danbury where I grew up would probably fall on a different day than in New Haven. You could throw your worldly possessions into a VW bus and like a Deadhead, follow Celery Green Day north from place to place for weeks on end. I thought of it then as a wonderful idea, and still do. But it could also easily fall into a larger narrative that is less wonderful.
If Celery Green Day was an illustration of the new truth that didn’t take itself so seriously, the old idea of Truth was illustrated by a Wallace Stevens poem I read called “Dance of the Macabre Mice.” I loved Stevens, but for his gorgeous words, not for his abstruse ideas. For example I loved the lines:
The turkey-cock’s tail
Spreads to the sun.
The white cock’s tail
Streams to the moon.
Water in the fields.
The wind pours down.
I wasn’t sure what in the world he meant, but who cared? I just loved the words. I felt the same way about:
Bonnie and Josie dressed in calico
danced around a stump.
They cried Oho-ya-hoo! O-hee!
Celebrating the marriage of flesh and air.
There was one poem I encountered in which Stevens’s meaning seemed clearer than usual. In “Dance of the Macabre Mice” he writes about the equestrian statue of a military hero holding an outstretched sword. Just as Celery Green Day was like a verb—whimsical and light and unpredictable and somehow feminine—the equestrian statue was a dead noun, heavy and hostile and threatening, and of course, somehow full of itself, and repressively masculine.
So for Stevens the statue is not heroic and glorious, but aggressively militaristic. He lets us know what he thinks of it by having mice crawl all over the statue and then “dance it out to the tip of Monsieur’s sword.” They do not walk or march, but dance, because they are free and light-footed and alive and therefore victorious over the dead equestrian hero. “What a beautiful tableau,” the poem declares with archness and irony. “The arm of bronze outstretched against all evil!” Stevens is not just scorning military heroism, but is chucking the idea of “good and evil” on the chin, too, as though that medieval binary conceit is precisely what gives us marauding colonials on horses.
Such notions were bruited about ad infinitum by artists early in the century and found increasing purchase in academia. Even the idea that humans were created in the image of God became less an apologetic against racism than one for wicked things, like being able to treat animals cruelly, even with “God’s” blessing. Evoking humanity’s special place in the cosmos suddenly smacked of the arrogance of “Manifest Destiny.” The bumper sticker slogan “Question Authority” brought this idea to the popular level, not only suggesting we should question authority to determine whether it is legitimate, but implying all authority is by definition suspect—and hence, all assertions about the truth.
These ideas flew in the face of the line from Solzhenitsyn’s magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1970, of which I was then ignorant: “One word of truth outweighs the world.” For him truth was the thing that makes evil dictators tremble; the thing that cannot lose and cannot long be suppressed, that according to Shakespeare “will out.” Eventually it must arise and be victorious. But to us at Yale this seemed dated and overly serious, a little like Solzhenitsyn himself, who after his 1978 address at Harvard was principally regarded as a kind of disappointment and bummer, talking about God and truth like some Old Testament prophet.
And what did I make of these things? I didn’t know. The zeitgeist—somehow concentrated at Yale—was blowing me forward with such force that it wasn’t possible to get my bearings and think these things through. You really couldn’t, unless you already believed in the idea of “standing athwart history” and shouting “Stop!” as some rare conservatives on campus did, though it would cost them every last farthing of social standing, and who wanted to be a social outcast? My friends were too valuable to me for me to debate with them about the possible downsides of their ideas. So I drifted along until such time as I would have the leisure and incentive—which usually meant suffering—to consider such things more critically.
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