The Romantic ParticularistÂ
Â I have always thought that the perfect person to be married to would be an astronomer. Every day at work he would sit beneath the massive dome of an observatory and peer out into the cosmos, the distant constellations, the galaxies far far away. Then, heâ€™d come home and see the baby throwing applesauce everywhere, one kid painting on the walls, and the other having a meaningless, unfettered tantrum. The astronomer would walk past Legos spilled all over the floor, past the unwashed dishes, unfolded laundry, wave to the wife who is on the phone while the rice overcooks and bubbles on the stove. The astronomer would know that in the great plan of the universe, these particulars simply do not matter. (Full disclosure: I was once married to a theoretical physicist, an oceanographer who spent his days making mathematical models of the way the wind and the sea made love, but it wasnâ€™t like the above.)
Â Nonetheless, I cling to my notion of the ideal-astronomer-spouse, the Universalist whose approach to life is cosmic. As a writer, I am a confirmed Particularist. The writer canâ€™t be anything else. Others might be able to choose: either you look for, take your cue from the universal in the world, like the astronomer. Or you are fascinated, transfixed by the particular. Writers belong in the latter camp. Poets belong in the former.
Great poetry might emerge from the Universalist instinct, as in Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, Matthew Arnold, or further back, (to my mind, boring) Mr. Milton and boring Mr. Pope. But narrative prose emerges from Particulars. Stories might eventually approach the Universal, but they do not begin there.
No writer, including Shakespeare, ever said: I am going to write a narrative prose about universal themes. (Remember that hilarious scene in Shakespeare in Love where Will is flailing away trying to write Ethel, the Pirateâ€™s Daughter?) Every writer, including Will the Bard begins with scraps of particulars, What If?
Hmm, what if you have a king, a powerful king, whose judgment is failing, who decides to test his childrenâ€™s love (Note in margin: which he doubts anyway) by making them slaver after his inheritance. Thus you have King Lear, or with a tweak, tug and pull, Death of a Salesman. Hundreds of years apart, these plays are thematically linked under the Universalist canopy. Perhaps for those universal reasons, we return to these works to cry our eyes out at the particulars: the delusions of these men, the loyalty or treachery of the family, the friends, the last grasp at dignity.
Remember William Faulknerâ€™s well-known anecdote about how he came by the idea for The Sound and the Fury? True, he took his epigram and his title from Macbeth, and true the book is divided into three sections (only one of which is actually readable), and true the central character, the sister, Caddy, only shows up in her brothersâ€™ narratives indirectly, and true The Sound and the Fury is a challenging read of epic proportions. But Faulkner got the idea watching a bunch of kids climb a tree, and the little girl at very top had muddy drawers. That Great American Novel emerged from a particular pair of dirty knickers.
As a writer the Romantic Particularist is constantly nudged, nettled, fascinated, kept awake by the great What If. The writer gets the equivalent of imaginative poison ivy mulling over a shard of story overheard, a conversation on the bus, a scrap of incident, a friendâ€™s dilemma, a cranky barista. These are particulars that irritate, stay with the writer till she actually does something about it. She can forget about it; thatâ€™s one possibility, or she can write about it.
The best and most succinct description of task of the Romantic Particularist, ironically comes from a writer who was a confirmed Universalist. I speak of that eccentric, poet, printer, painter and illustrator, a taker of tea while naked in his garden, the dreamer and death-haunted, William Blake. From his Auguries of Experience it goes something like this:
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour.
Thatâ€™s your task, my ink-stained friends. Have at it. You are responsible for the particulars. The universals will take care of themselves.