Cantilena [3]

My slow progress through Cantilena continues. I began on August 12; now, over two and a half months later, I am on the 25th of 300 cantos. They demand slow reading and much effort. Sometimes this effort ends in consternation, but other times it reveals beautiful meaning behind the beautiful language—for Peck’s language in Cantilena is nearly always beautiful (it is this that gives me the energy to put in the effort it demands).

Canto 25 of the book’s first “span” (Cedars of Liban) is about aging. The first lines make this clear:

Contraction—a scoping down toward essence—
accelerates while the wiring vanishes:

I do not see any way to interpret the vanishing of the “wiring” than as the wiring of the brain. Peck appears to be describing a neurodegenerative disorder, or perhaps merely the cognitive decline that generally accompanies aging. But notice the mood of this. It is not despair, though anyone who has seen the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease will know that despair is warranted. Rather, there is something hopeful in it, for this contraction is conceived as “a scoping down toward essence.” A similar lack of resentment for his condition is seen in the following lines, in which he describes his eyes (“the searchers”) in their “side-to-side brooding.”

Where does this realization of his body’s frailty lead? It brings his thoughts to the builders of model railroads: “The scouts of fabled / miniaturization were idolators / of the massive.” He thinks especially of John Whitby Allen’s famous Gorre and Daphetid, apparently one of the most famous and beloved of model railroads. (I, who know nothing of this world, am taking Wikipedia for granted on this matter. The article, by the by, is a charming expression of such love by one of Allen’s admirers, though the Wikipedia staff have left a note expressing the need to bring the article more in line with their standard “tone.” So catch it while you can.) Though the model (“those unleaving groves”) was destroyed in a fire, it nonetheless serves as a marker, a signpost for Peck: “Already pointing down into / the condensed realm, showing the way in the era / of the swollen and spreading.”

Despite the lack of resentment in the canto, the model, and its destruction in a fire, nonetheless does bring Peck back to thoughts of death. Allen, Peck tells us, never answered his guest’s questions about the railroad. In this regard its very existence, and the existence of its particular features, might be called “questionable.” This becomes important in the canto’s majestic final lines:

Already pointing down into
the condensed realm, showing the way in the era
of the swollen and spreading, with Shiva’s light smears of ash
and bone-yard vacancy they went on through, leaving
the questionable for the inconceivable.

The destruction of the model, with its questionable nature still unelucidated, contains a moral lesson: the questionable is to be left “for the inconceivable.” Here the inconceivable can only be death. I take Peck to be referencing the classic thought that one cannot imagine oneself dead, because the very fact that one is imagining conflicts with the absence of all mental process in death. Just as the railroad goes up in flames still unexplained, so too the individual human, so too Peck.


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