A Hundred Bucks

Things have been a little desperate around here lately. Lots going on, so here’s a lengthy post to fill a day—one with which Advanced English veterans should be familiar. In the Nineties, I submitted the following essay to the University of Northern Iowa’s Young Writers Conference (teacher section) and actually won the prize for best educator essay that year, the same year that a student, Tracey (née Cornelius) Till won with her jab at the most self-centered hero-figure in American Lit (yep, she didn’t like A Catcher in the Rye, and I didn’t think the UNI profs would like her attacking such a beloved and treasured “classic” or a character with whom so many of my generation identified too strongly). I actually wrote my essay to complement the students’ reading of the one-page piece of nonfiction it’s written about, and its use in class is why so many will probably remember it, vaguely.

The essay marks a highlight for me in that it represents one time I actually got paid for my writing (let’s hope, so far). The top prize (for both Tracey and me) was a hundred bucks apiece.

Rock Solid Certainty

Naming the Ills in “Tergvinder’s Stone”

Supposedly, literature is important in a school’s curriculum not merely as reading practice but because, as art, real literature somehow profoundly touches or reflects life. However, students don’t always read cleverly or skillfully enough to explore or appreciate the multiplex relationships between what a teacher has assigned and their own existences. Therefore, every summer, like most other English teachers I spend time searching for new (presumably more “relevant”) selections to replace stories that have bombed with my classes. When the fourth edition of the The Norton Reader appeared, I perused a copy from our local public library and was pleasantly surprised to discover about a dozen pieces that appealed to me (at least) immediately and directly. Leading the pack was a very short, provocative so-called parable near the end of the volume–W. S. Merwin’s “Tergvinder’s Stone,” which appeared to allow boundless opportunities for close readings, class discussions, and examinations of the nature of art and life.

Its appeal, although rooted in brevity (five short paragraphs), was nourished by the bizarre, but intensely realistic events narrated. Tergvinder, a friend of the author, has placed a large stone in his living room for no apparent reason except, as Tergvinder repeatedly said, “It belonged there.” The rock was not an ultranaturalist’s coffee table nor a useful addition to the Tergvinder family’s life: the pets urinated on it, and the wife frequently found it an unexpected and exasperating obstruction. However, Tergvinder remained complacent about his stone, confiding to the author that it provided mystical comfort to an aching void in the living room. Tergvinder had noticed the “mournful dissatisfied” hole while walking, naked, at night through his home, “troubled by the ancient, nameless ills of the planet.” He could sense “low sounds like breathing” that indicated pain, an absence, a yearning “for something it had never seen and could not conceive of, but without which it could not rest.” Secretly, Tergvinder resolved to assuage that pain. At length, he noticed the rock at the foot of his driveway, which he recognized suddenly for what it was–the fulfillment for the absence he had felt at night in his living room. And now, when walking at night, Tergvinder can visit the peace he has created by filling the void with the stone, a peace with definite size, weight, and touch (all of which he knows personally). He and the stone commune for hours in silence.

I hoped the story would intrigue my students. They could laugh at the strange situation (especially the dog “peeing” and cat “squirting” the stone) yet would identify easily with Tergvinder’s eerie nocturnal awareness “how some shapes in the darkness emitted low sounds, like breathing, as they never did by day.” Although I felt the strange events recounted had to be fictitious, the piece is clearly presented as an essay–including a thesis statement at the end of the first, introductory paragraph, indicating Tergvinder’s belief that the stone “belonged” in his living room. A constructive section summarizes the public reaction to what others called his stone (and Tergvinder’s denial of a public role for the boulder: “he made no claims at all for it, he said”). A contrary paragraph details the unpleasant side-effects of this adjustment to the order of things. A long supporting argument, Tergvinder’s confidence to his friend, explains the reason for the stone’s replacement; and finally a moving conclusion opens the question of Tergvinder’s problem-solving success and his sanity.

Merwin’s essay neatly moves from a public view of the situation in the living room, expressed in the first three paragraphs, to the private, internal life of the protagonist. The first sentence flatly begins with what any neighbor would have noticed: “. . . Tergvinder brought a large round boulder into his living room.” The second paragraph–continuing in short, literal statements–focuses on the appearance of the stone (an external quality) and how it was not like Plymouth Rock, having no “big shaky promotional campaign to support.” More blunt remarks about the pets’ and wife’s reactions to this new intrusion on “their already strained marriage” allows the third paragraph to turn from the glare of social scrutiny to the darkness of Tergvinder’s secret night walks and his heartfelt awareness of the aching void in the living room.

The narrative develops from the concrete and materialistic details of rolling the rock along two-by-fours to the abstract, emotional, even spiritual statements of Tergvinder’s motivations. The reader is guided from an outsider’s awkward amusement at overturned social propriety (a rock in the living room–that most public place in any home–is hardly decorous) to an appreciation for a sensitive soul’s anguished struggle to reconcile himself with the universe. The internalizing of the action develops subtly. Although the first three paragraphs are ostensibly external, what Tergvinder said is repeated seven times in those fifteen short sentences–quietly emphasizing his point of view, which is the only subject for the last half of the story (told in another fifteen sentences, but these are long and complex webs of figurative syntax).

From the beginning, Tergvinder is not like other people. His stone is jarringly unique, placed where “most people have coffee tables (though he never had one there himself).” He walks his house naked at night. Furthermore, but according to his statements, Tergvinder seems to have some special handle on the secrets of the cosmos: in defending his stone, “he said that was where it belonged.” When his estranged wife tripped over the intrusive object, he declared that “there was nothing to be done about it. It was in the order of things.” I wonder how many of us would confide to any friend (especially one who might write an essay for publication) that we walk in tormented nakedness through darkness breathing to express a wordless pain. And no one acceptably in his or her right mind would believe a rock can silence pain and establish peace.

Obviously what Tergvinder has done is bizarre, not normal, disturbed. However, once we are privileged to share his confidence, we can no longer judge him at face value. Those long, winding sentences lure us into Tergvinder’s thoughts and seduce us to reevaluate our initial, standard, laughing reaction to his strangeness. We are led to doubt that it is possible to judge him wrong in his peculiar actions. However, a more distanced and objective reevaluation determines just that view: Tergvinder is wrong.

First, he says he is awakened at night, “troubled by the ancient nameless ills of the planet.” What are these ills? Apparently we can’t know: they’re unidentifiable–they haven’t any name. These nameless ills are somehow connected the with the breathing in the living room (which touches Tergvinder with “fellow-feeling”), that mournful yearning for still unidentified resolution (“waiting for what belonged to it, for something it had never seen and could not conceive of, but without which it could not rest”). Tergvinder’s internal life seems to be a mushy, vague, Romantic fog. Or is he himself simply keeping the issue unclear?

The story has already told us the real difficulty, the problem which Tergvinder (in whose point of view we are trapped for those final fifteen sentences) cannot admit to himself: his already strained marriage. The poor man has fallen into the most primitive of psychological self-adjustments identified by Jung, projection. Tergvinder has denied his own personal unhappiness and pushed it onto his physical surroundings. Unwilling or unable to admit to himself the depth of his real problems, he cannot sleep, disturbed by an amorphous, impersonal (“of the planet”) angst. He avoids waking his wife and flees to the living room, where the breathing pain (that “fellow-feeling”) arises again, this time displaced to a void in the darkness. According to Jungian psychology, projected feelings typically expand in emotional depth but blur in definition, becoming vague externalized yearnings, just like Tergvinder’s absence in his living room.

Projecting problems does not resolve real issues. The patient may find pseudo-solutions to the perceived projection, but the real problem remains; and the story reveals exactly this psychological truth. According to the final paragraph, now when Tergvinder walks at night, he finds the stone and the peace he believes he has created in his living room. He knows the size, weight and feel of this peace (the stone itself), and he believes “some hint of that peace touches him too.” But the original problem remains.

Often . . . he steps down into the living room and goes and kneels beside the stone and they converse for hours in silence–a silence broken only by the sound of his own breathing.” Breathing, as Tergvinder confided already, is the sound of pain, of yearning. If the fact he still feels compelled to walk at night is not evidence enough, Tergvinder’s own ideas reveal his unsolved problem: he is still breathing; therefore he is still in pain. Such a view may deny the apparent authority of Tergvinder’s own feelings, but the psychological community has long known the dangers of accepting patients’ self-deceiving rationalizations at face value.

Tergvinder is still in trouble. The marriage is more strained than ever, now that a rock sits in the living room (regardless what it may mean to Tergvinder), and the poor man himself is probably the laughing-stock of the neighborhood, of the English-speaking world once Merwin’s essay was published. Such is the price of ignoring or rejecting one’s real problems and misplacing solutions. The story, when read closely and rationally, provides a clear, if indirect moral about facing our lives.

That Jungian reading is neat, psychologically acceptable, objective, and appropriate to the story itself. However, it just doesn’t feel completely satisfying, even to me. Any interpretation involves creating a mental model of the original work, supported by the interpreter’s own observations, organizing of evidence, personal knowledge and experience. The variables of differing skills and styles of close reading and of background knowledge and life experiences account for variations between interpreters’ views. Exchanging interpretations through discussion and scholarly discourse helps to broaden one’s own and others’ limitations, but any interpretation, even developed over centuries (and the passage of time creates its own complications), remains only a model. Any model can only be a simplification of the original; it must be simplified to allow understanding and cannot avoid being distorted by the interpreter’s personality. Effectively, the original will always elude complete interpretation, even if readings were not influenced by oversights and critical fashions, because any reading must always be somehow less, somehow other than the real work.

In the case of “Tergvinder’s Stone,” my psychological reading elucidates a reason for the emphasis on the protagonist’s continued insomnia and breathing/pain. But a psychological perspective is–no matter how sympathetic or generous in spirit–an external judgement, a public case; and the essay seeks valiantly to validate Tergvinder’s private reality. Admittedly his marriage may be bad; certainly his wife should be part of his whole world and not be left out of the nightly journeys. But what if the husband is not simply projecting his marital woes? What if he truly is, as he believes, awakened by profound if unnameable ancient agonies? What if his own personal problems have deepened his awareness to greater issues? In other words, what are those “ancient nameless ills of the planet”?

To answer the question, we need a clue to follow out of the labyrinth of Tergvinder’s emotion. The essay provides many suggestive indications. Tergvinder selects a stone. His nocturnal angst looks to the whole planet. And the silence of peace is broken by breathing, the final comment in the essay. To construct a model, the interpreter seeks a pattern, an arrangement of themes (of ideas and their expression in the actual words of the text). Our three clues form such a pattern.

Merwin says “stone” as opposed to “rock” in the essay, and “stone” carries connotations infinitely more profound than “rock.” Stones have an aura of importance (jewels are stones, only vulgarly, humorously rocks), even of spirituality (consider Stonehenge, other ancient sacred stones worldwide, or New Agers’ crystals). However, alternatively, stones are cold, not alive; and Tergvinder places the stone of peace in the breathing living room. The low sounds of breathing indicate the dissatisfaction, the pain he locates in the darkness, and his own final breathing reveals his own unresolved woe. The room, at peace, no longer breathes. Tergvinder, alive, breathes yet. His only peace will come when he, like the rock, is dead. So the pattern of the essay suggests.

We are ready to identify those planetary ills that trouble his sleep. Ancient peoples raised stones to worship when they were troubled by the same nameless confusions, and those paradoxes haunted them constantly, in particular every time they sat down to eat. A vital problem does trouble the whole Earth as a planet, yet only the problem itself can contemplate the issue: life, conscious life. To live we must eat, and to eat we must kill. Life feeds on death. For me to breathe, other life repeatedly must die. And the paradox is unresolvable.

Vegetarians may personally avoid slaying other animals, but simple logic reveals that vegetarianism still requires plant foods. The plants themselves may suck nourishment from the soil and air alone, but we are not plants and the plants are life like us. When we die, as Hamlet noted, we decay to minerals and feed the soil to feed the plants. Life is parasitic, and that fact is very unhappy.

However, stating “life needs death” flatly, directly, in public, in writing, is distinctly unsatisfying. The bald statement almost instantly raises imaginary science-fictional specters of solution to the paradox (an all-mineral diet, perhaps) which are ridiculous, mundane. Maybe Tergvinder was right not to name the ancient ills he felt, to keep his awareness and resolution secret, private, personal. Something about the paradox reaches beyond a simple statement, which may be why those ancient peoples worshipped, rather than experimented at eating, stones. Whole aspects of the true problem elude words, doubt practical solutions, question the very nature of life.

In the essay, Tergvinder knows the breathing wants more than a name, “something it had never seen and could not conceive of, but without which it could not rest.” Those words are not revealing the nightwalker’s limited intelligence or imagination but the supramundane depths of his understanding. The woe he felt was not accessible to reasonable treatment, so he discovered an unreasonable solution. Yes, putting a sacred stone in his living room appears crazy, but insanity is a public judgement not a private reality. Tergvinder boldly reached beyond our materialistic proprieties and accepted an other value, a spiritual, religious experience.

And that paradox is vital to Merwin’s art. The public/private conflict shapes the whole essay. Publicly, psychologically, rationally we must judge he is disturbed, but our objective judgement is not his reality. The psychologist’s conclusions are at best just a model, an interpretation, of Tergvinder’s original experience–just as this or any formal reading is not Merwin’s creation. Although shaped like an essay (and that nonfictional appearance is vital, raising the question of such a public revelation of the protagonist’s private experience), “Tergvinder’s Stone” is not a flatly literal exposition (such as this composition) but a complex and delicate work of art. It is figurative and imaginative, extending far beyond the objective scope of an ordinary essay. After all, Mr. Merwin said all that I have stretched to express, far more entertainingly and in one-tenth the words.

Shakespeare made Hamlet advise the players (as if they needed his princely guidance) that art holds the mirror up to nature, and modern artists, seeking new ways to express the reflections, have contorted art’s glass into funhouse configurations of sometimes unreadable difficulty. However, in any era art remains completely more wonderful than exposition, like life itself, and figuratively captures more than plodding literalists can comprehend, reaching fingers of understanding into realms best left for Hamlet himself to identify within the moment of his death. “The rest is silence.”

So, finally, should we follow Tergvinder’s example and embrace the spiritual, the agonized Romantic yearning for that unnameable, inexpressibly paradoxically unworldly Otherness? I don’t know. After all, how good a solution to a spiritual quest is a rock?

Work Cited

Merwin, W. S. “Tergvinder’s Stone.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Expository Prose. Fourth Edition. Ed. Arthur M. Eastman and others. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977. 1128.

Many, many thanks to the Advanced English students whose discussion, arguments and insights—which may even appear, varied and changed, here—provided grist for the mill of this essay (and who made teaching such fun for me for all those years).

I don’t know any way in HTML to get that second line of the bibliography entry to indent five spaces or half an inch (my utmost apologies for that, having criticized students on that issue for generations), so I will just point out that it should indent.

I wish I could include the actual Merwin essay, since it is really good, but I just have to refer those interested to The Norton Reader, 3rd edition. I hope it’s still available at the Maquoketa Public Library, which is where I found it and Merwin’s essay. I also wonder if the then-vegetarian student who inspired the second section recognizes herself…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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