“A Long and Happy Life”: E. Reynolds Price, In Memoriam

… [A]ll Rhodes Scholars didn’t have to fulfill—as I surely didn’t—Cecil Rhodes’s specific stipulation that his Scholars must demonstrate “a fondness for and success in manly sports.”  Once at Oxford, my own sport would become—very quickly—vigorous walking.  On average, even in heavy rain, I’d circumnavigate the perimeter of Christ Church Meadow at least once daily, well over a mile’s walk. [1]

Reading that in the opening pages of Reynolds Price’s 2009 memoir Ardent Spirits—chronicling the three years he spent in Oxford, and then his return to his native North Carolina, in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s—instantly produced in me a great affection for the author, who died this week at the age of 77.  Way back when, when like everyone else I was filling out an unhealthily large number of college applications, I invariably wrote “aggressive non-competitive walking” in the section on sport.  And a few years later, when I found myself, truly unexpectedly, in Oxford, I quickly developed the same habit which Price recounts in his memoir, since Christ Church Meadow is just across the street from my college, Pembroke.  The habit was fortunately contracted, too.  As a consequence of it I made the brief acquaintance of one of Oxford’s most curious recent inhabitants, an elderly and very likely perturbed Arab refugee woman, who refers to herself only as “Zoe,” and who spends an awful lot of time at Christ Church Meadow.  Her knowledge of Oxford’s many trees—which she sketches and re-sketches obsessively—and their individual personalities, is absolutely comprehensive.  It will, I suspect, get her into heaven.  For Christmas 2004 she gave me a small red laminated booklet of her poetry, which I still have, and keep in my icon corner.

My copy of Price’s memoir, which Edmund White reviewed here, also came to me as a gift.  The memoir’s real subject is happiness.

(“What is happiness?” I ask my students.  Glasses are placed in front of each, and two bottles of wine.  Mouths unhinge.)

In a partial answer to the question, Price tells the following anecdote concerning the death of Nevill Coghill’s mother.  Coghill taught English literature at Price’s Merton College and served him in the capacity of a thesis examiner:

Lady Coghill had chosen an inconvenient time to die since Nevill was, I believe, serving as a Schools examiner—whatever, he had urgent duties in Oxford.  He hired a small airplane to fly him from a tiny field in Oxfordshire to the family estate in rural Ireland; but when he arrived, his mother was in a final deep sleep or coma.  He waited with his other muted kin as long as he possibly could before having to return to his professional duties; then he went to in to kiss her sleeping head goodbye.  She showed no response and he turned to leave quietly.  As he touched the latch of her door, though, there came the sudden sound of her voice: “Nevill.”  He turned to see her behind him, half-risen in bed.  She lifted a frail hand and pointed toward him strongly.  “Nevill, remember—I only regret my economies.”

As he finished his story in the dimming room, I could see that his bright eyes had filled.  I stood to leave, knowing that I’d heard a crucial sentence—wisdom indeed, from a dying woman, brought forward by her son who was way past old enough to be my father.  Few things I’ve heard have ever been wiser or of greater use in my own long life; and I pass the story on, every chance I get, to my younger friends and students—the story and the words it embodies (with a pronoun change): You’ll only regret your economies[2]

If taken literally, such a statement would of course be absurd: there are many occasions on which we must be sparing.  Nor is this statement a sentimental example of “cheap grace”: Nevill Coghill was once in the trenches of the First World War, and so can be safely assumed to have known whereof he spoke.  But still the captured thought remains, ancient, possibly antiquated, yet absolutely universal, and the point at which the natural law draws closest to touching the supernatural.  If you would be happy, you must first be generous with your self to others.  In happiness there is no economizing.  If you would be happy, you must first lose your self in something larger than your self.  And if happiness eventually comes in a certain sense involuntarily, it nevertheless requires an initial, voluntary decision, one which is surprisingly difficult to make, not to get in its way (in which doctrine both the Desert Fathers and the Jesuits quite marvelously concur).

For most people, I believe, the “something which is larger than their own selves” is their children.  For Price, that something was the backwoods North Carolina and Carolinians about whom he wrote and whom he taught in the course of his whole life.  For Clifford Stoll, that something is making Klein bottles and catching KGB spies.  For Nico Muhly and Jónsi, that something is musical composition and performance, punctuated by properly ecstatic moments—“Boy Lilikoi” is Francis of Assisi.  For the monk, chanting “his interminable, tinny, nasal, gabbled Kyrie eleisons,” or the sutras of Far-Eastern religion, that something is, in a relatively direct and unmediated way, divinity itself.

Reading about Price’s “ardent spirits”—that is, moonshine—helped to impress on my own mind a plain, minimally adorned, and uniquely New-World sort of nobility.  Price has the Oxford love, but without the pretension.  He talks about the spinal cancer which rendered him quasi-paraplegic with as much humorous good cheer as with genuine pain.  The impression of nobility is, moreover and of necessity, not invulnerable.  Throughout the book Price returns again and again, in such a way as to leave the reader not quite convinced that he really had attained the emotional peace he claimed, to the fact that the first and great love of his life was straight, and thus never was able to reciprocate Price’s feelings for him with perfect equality.

Recounting their travels in Italy during the Easter vac of 1956, Price makes this comment:

We invested more hours in the Uffizi, the Baptistery, the Duomo, the Accademia, the Medici Chapel and palace, and the Piazza della Signoria; and I was further reminded of my satisfaction in accompanying Michael to galleries and other sites—he enjoyed beauty in the way I most admire and find it easiest to travel with, which is to say that he loved it rather silently; it affected his actions, not his chatter. [3]

Happiness does require generosity with our selves, but it does not require us to be loud.  Price, significantly, did not wear his sexual orientation on his sleeve, not because he was afraid or maladjusted—he got out of military service because he told the military exactly who and what he was—but because he understood that “chatter” does not make for a sound theo-/anthropology.

Whereas the “gay community” so-called is deafened by so much chatter—also this week, on a dark note, I learned of the existence of Grindr—can we not rather imitate all the good in this man’s long and happy life?

"Portrait of Reynolds Price," Will Wilson, 1998

Grant rest, O Lord …


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] E. Reynolds Price, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back (New York: Scribner, 2009), pp. 23-24.

[2] Ibid., pp. 286-87.

[3] Ibid., p. 120.

Published in: on January 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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