We're coming to the end of lilactime here in The Cities. For the last few weeks, the lilacs have been a burst of purple on every corner, on the border of my garden, on the quad at school. There's one yard in particular that I pass walking from my car to my office that is rank with overgrown lilacs, its scent wafting far up the street, especially in the evening.
The lilacs that emerge everywhere along with the first signs of the full, mature green of summer, after the early, impressionistic dusting of chartreuse on every branch, are for me the image of late spring. It is easy to believe in the love, the eros, that draws the sun and the other stars, when there are lilacs out. This time of Spring is, as everyone knows, the time of attraction. The German phenomenologist Max Scheler describes how many in the early twentieth century held that all life forms a single substance, driven by a single interior vital force, which we, who as Spirits rise above the pulsing stream of life, can apprehend in sympathy and in the experience of vital drives.
My dissertation dealt in part with phenomenological accounts of bodily feelings. At my defense, in presenting why I chose to write the dissertation I had written, I talked about how ever since high school I had taken deep feeling to be of deep metaphysical significance, to reveal something about the nature of things that could not be revealed in any other way. "That was a mistake," said one of my committee members. "That's just called puberty."
I thought he was wrong then, and I still do. To feel the stirrings of lilactime (and of puberty) is, I contend, to feel something genuine about the world, a value that manifests itself only in the sympathetic vitality and desire awakened by warmth and fragrance. It is, for me, to reawaken when first I really fell in love with my wife. Lilactime is, for me (and for her too I expect), mediated to me by that splendid memoir of romance, A Severe Mercy by Sheldon VanAuken, whose depiction of his own lasting romance provided for us a pattern for preserving our own romance.
But when spring's glory goes
The lilacs of our love shall stay,
For ever Maytime sweet and gay,--
Until the lilacs close
Beneath the deathly snows. (p. 31)
It is good for there to be lilacs, for there to be these infinite stirrings that wrap together body and soul, life and spirit, world and self, heaven and earth. There is a time for things to be rococo, soft and sweet, under dappling light. Recently, my wife and I watched Andrei Tarkovsky's remarkable film Solaris, which teaches us that, confronted by the infinite strangeness of others, we can come to know them frequently not by analysis and experimentation, but by unguarded, vulnerable, sense-mediated romance.
But it is also well that the lilacs die. There is something enervating about too much spring vitality. One longs at moments, even as summer swells its glorious fruit, for the hard angles of Winter. To be ever soft and rococo, to turn the good sentiments of love to the banalities of tenderness and sentimentality--this is intolerable. One longs for the strictness of rational order, for the calmness with which one thing rationally follows another. There is not only the erotic, but even more fundamental (even--nay, especially--in marriage), friendship, the civic or political relation, the ethical relation, the hard joy of the fraternal relationship. The lilacs must close beneath the deathly snows.
Yet it is also absurd that lilacs die. I mean 'absurd' philosophically: meaningless, giving the appearance and promise of meaning without the fulfillment. The lilac seems to say so much, each cluster seems to present an eternal value--yet, of course, the lilac really says nothing at all. It is ridiculous that a thing of beauty should cease to be, nay it is a horror that a thing of beauty should cease to be--and yet, of course, it is a mere matter of course. I long to peel off the appearance and get at the meaning underneath, but of course there is nothing to a lilac (I mean the phenomenon of the lilac, what awakens such love and longing in me, what wafts in the fragrant night, not its causal, biological insides) but an appearance, a beauty. The world is absurd and lovely. ("To be in love", VanAuken says, "as to see beauty, is a kind of adoring that turns the lover away from self." (p.43)) "A poem should not mean", Archibald MacLeish said, "but be." If this is true of a poem, a fortiori it is true of the lilac. Beauty is more than can be said, more than saying itself.
Let this time now suffice for lilactime. I give the eternal Yes and Amen to the death of the lilac.