The Eighth Day: IV. Hoboken, New Jersey

Eighth Day“Hoboken, New Jersey” is the fourth chapter of Thornton Wilder’s novel The Eighth Day (1967). In this nonlinear story, the “Prologue” is set in 1902 with the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, the resident manager of a mine in Coaltown, Illinois. John Ashley is the alleged murderer. Chapter 1, “The Elms,” covers 1885-1905, the period marking the arrival of John and Beata Ashley to Coaltown through the survival of the Ashley family after its patriarch mysteriously escapes his execution. Both Chapters 2 and 3, “Illinois to Chile” and “Chicago,” cover 1902-1905, the period marking the separate adventures of father and son in places beyond Coaltown until they return home. Chapter 4, “Hoboken, New Jersey,” turns the clock back to 1883 when boy (John) meets girl (Beata), when romance burgeons, when “all young people secrete idealism as continuously as the Bombyx mori secretes silk” (298). This short chapter investigates John Ashley and Beata Kellerman’s immediate and extended families. A degree of clarity is gained by this genealogical excavation but “the Ashley ‘abstraction’ or ‘disattachment'” remains largely inscrutable, a reminder that some familial mysteries can never be unearthed, as Friedrich Nietzsche implies in this aphorism from Human, All Too Human: “Continuance of the parents. — The unresolved dissonances between the characters and dispositions of the parents continue to resound in the nature of the child and constitute the history of his inner sufferings” (305).

QUESTION

John and Beata, then, were sitting on the bench watching the play of the sunlight on the waters of New York Harbor. A breeze spang up. The ruffles on Beata’s bertha fluttered in the air.

“Are you cold, Beata?”

“No. No, John.”

He looked at her. Smiling, she glanced into his eyes, then lowered her own. Slowly she raised them and looked steadily into his. We remember his grandmother’s warning against looking long into the eyes of a child or an animal. Hitherto these young persons had stolen quick glances at one another — blue eyes into the blue — of an almost painful sweetness and confusion. In daily life the reciprocal glance is brief; a little prolonged it is the confirmation of mature confidence or the mark of resolute antagonism. Boys play a game of outstaring one another; it soon breaks up in semihysterical laughter and a release of coltish energy. They tell us of actors experiencing a mounting panic when they are required to prolong the pose on the stage or before the camera. It is — as the photographers say — an “exposure.” In love it is the dissolution of pride and separateness; it is surrender.

John and Beata gazed into one another’s eyes. A force they had not foreseen took possession of them. It lifted their hands; it joined their lips; it drew them along the walk into the town.

He had not planned it. She did not distrust it. Without words they found their way to his empty house. Two months later they left Hoboken together; thereafter, for nineteen years, they were seldom separated for longer than twenty-four hours — until he was taken to jail. (299)

Without a doubt, this passage marks the most romantic moment in the novel and much of its pleasure resides with the tender but powerful feeling evoked what a Christian might regard as the sensation of one-fleshness (Gen. 2:24-25). Wilder writes this scene as if the reader is either John or Beata on that “bench watching the play of the sunlight on the waters of New York Harbor.” You cannot help but reminisce about a life-changing “reciprocal glance” or achingly long after one. The narrator rightly observes, “In everyday life the reciprocal glance is brief.” We tacitly insist upon “quick glances” in our relationships because the “reciprocal glance” is disarming, leaving us vulnerable, even afraid before the gaze of the other. Whether loving or antagonistic, the reciprocal glance induces a kind of vertigo, where we lose our balance, accustomed as we are to having people see themselves in us rather than being seen for ourselves.

I acknowledge that the reciprocal glance can occur with family and friends, but let us focus on the example in the novel. Is the reciprocal glance between lovers sustainable beyond a moment, let alone for the duration of a marriage? Obviously, the physical gaze will be interrupted. But might there be a metaphysical gaze between husband and wife? When a couple is together “for nineteen years” and “seldom separated for longer than twenty-four hours,” we can safely assume that the gaze is dropped with more frequency over time. Through familiar association, the other loses something of his or her otherness, which is why Nietzsche comically says, “If married couples did not live together good marriages would be more common.” He offers a test: “A marriage proves itself a good marriage by being able to endure an occasional ‘exception.'” A jailed husband who then disappears for several years surely qualifies as an “exception.” If this couple, once decoupled, can endure the exception, they may be able to renew their reciprocal glance after becoming farsighted, unable to really see each other as they did on that breezy day in Hoboken, New Jersey.

COMMENTARY

Why was Beata an unhappy misfit in her own family? Because she had been formed by her parents’ best principles and insights and her parents did not recognize them when they saw them. Parents grow old. What we have called their creativity (there is a home-building, child-rearing “creativity”) loses its keenness. They are “feather-plucked” in the commerce of life. Family life is like a hall endowed with the finest acoustical properties. Growing children hear not only their parents’ words (and in most cases gradually ignore them), they hear the intentions, the attitudes behind the words. Above all they learn what their parents really admire, really despise. John Ashley was quite right in wishing to be under forty when his children were passing through their teens. His parents were both forty when he was ten — that is to say they were beginning to be resigned to the knowledge that life was disappointing and basically meaningless; they were busily clutching at its secondary compensations: esteem and (hopefully) the envy of the community in so far as they can be purchased by money and acquired by circumspect behavior, by an unremitting air of perfect contentment, and by that tone of moral superiority that bores themselves and others but which is as important as wearing clothes. (297-298)

I have selected this passage for special attention because of its profound understanding of family life. The answer to the question “Why was Beata an unhappy misfit in her own family?” raises an important question of its own: Are parents capable of recognizing how their children have been formed by their “best principles and insights,” not to mention their worst principles and insights? When a child, of whatever age, is too close to the visual field of her parents, she becomes blurry. A cure for paternal farsightedness is to permit the child to recede into the distance, where she becomes clear again clear in her own sameness and otherness. But this “letting go” chafes against the deepest instinct of parents to tether the child, as if she is property rather than “a heritage from the Lord” (Ps. 127:3). The writer of Proverbs speaks about an intentional boomerang effect: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6). If you have raised a child well, you can release that child into the world with a confidence that she will return with the best of her training. But if you clutch at the child, you will make of her an idol that forever disappoints expectations. Nietzsche uses a different metaphor to address this danger of proximity:

If we live together with another person too closely, what happens is similar to when we repeatedly handle a good engraving with our bare hands: one day all we have left is a piece of dirty paper. The soul of a human being too can finally become tattered by being handled continually; and that is how it finally appears to us — we never see the beauty of its original design again.

The lesson here is that parents ought to adjust their handling of children, more when they are young, less when they are older, otherwise they shall efface the precious design that the Father has carved upon his children, who are given to earthly custodians for careful care.

Finally, my imagination is provoked by the comparison of family life to “a hall with the finest acoustical properties. Growing children hear not only their parents’ words (and in most cases gradually ignore them), they hear the intentions, the attitudes behind the words. Above all they learn what their parents really admire, really despise.” The narrator is onto something. Indeed, I hear the text of my parents’ words but also the subtext. A cautionary note is needed. Children often mishear their parents’ intentions and attitudes, owing to the rebellious spirit that needfully separates offspring from progenitors. Therefore, the challenge is “making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding” (Prov. 2:2). For Christian children, the priority is learning what the heavenly Father really admires (to love what he loves) and really despises (to hate what he hates). Once they attune their ears to the acoustics of Heaven, they can compare those notes with the ones sounded by their earthly parents.

Cross Reference

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