Who Am I? An Autobiography of Emotion, Mind, and Spirit

The other night I finished reading Yi-Fu Tuan's autobiography. Such an extraordinary book. Though English is not Yi-Fu's mother tongue, he writes like an angel: at times soaring on the beauty of thought and language; at other times rendering loneliness and desolation as acutely as John Gardner's angel trapped in hell.

I will be writing further about the book, but for now I want to quote this passage from John Cheever's journals:

How far I have come, I think, but I do not seem to have come far at all. I am haunted by some morbid conception of beauty cum death for which I am prepared to destroy myself. And so I think that life is a contest, that the forces of good and evil are strenuous and apparent, and that while my self-doubt is profound, nearly absolute, the only thing I have to proceed on is an invisible thread. So I proceed on this. Quincy [his birthplace] only deepens my depression. Why should I, a grown man, be thrown back so wildly into the unhappiness of the past? Where are those eruptive and clear springs of feeling that I claim to be able to count on? So back once more on the train, abjectly miserable. The sweet water of inlets, salt inlets and fresh brooks, coming down to the sea. An Italian family waiting on a platform for a passenger who does not seem to have arrived. Wild high-school children travelling between Providence and Mystic. Thick speech, animal noises. Seeing the lights of the city, my heart begins to rise. I seem to have over-scrutinized my dilemma. And as I am about to give it its seventy-first formulation (violence in my formative years cum uxoriousness cum anxiety) I stop.…I resent it that there should be parts of the world that have the power to do me so much harm.

For a while I was reading quite a lot of Cheever: a collection of short stories; Home before Dark, the biography written by his daughter, Susan; and his letters, edited by his son Benjamin. That near the end of Who Am I? Yi-Fu should bring up Cheever greatly surprised me. I am reminded of the words of a poet friend: the endings of poems should be both surprising and inevitable. Given Cheever's indulgences and Yi-Fu's abstentions—especially the latter's decision to refrain from denying or compromising the truth—it was perhaps inevitable that the two men should meet in the final pages.

Certainly Cheever would have been a wiser man if he had had the chance to read this book.