Yvonne enthusiastically recommended the book to me, knowing that I’d like it. She had picked about ten books included on a New York Times 50 best memoirs list I’d forwarded to her when I’d seen it, knowing that good memoirs are her best reading.
As usual she was right.
Though we’d seen and loved Ang Lee’s wonderful 1997 film, The Ice Storm (Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes, Glenn Fitzgerald, Jamey Sheridan, and Sigourney Weaver) based on Moody’s novel of the same name, we didn’t know Moody or what to expect of his writing and specifically his new memoir, The Long Accomplishment. What did the title mean anyway?
The title comes from a poem by Jack Gilbert called The Abnormal Is Not Courage an edited portion read by Moody’s friend, Amy Hempel, at his marriage to photographer Laurel Nakadate.
Here’s Hempel’s reading of Gilbert:
I say courage is not the abnormal. Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches. Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being. Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality. Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh. Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope. The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo. The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding. Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage, Not the month's rapture. Not the exception. The beauty That is of many days. Steady and clear. It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.
Hempel edited down the poem, which begins, if you read the whole, with the Poles riding out on horses to face the German tanks, and she rightly felt that the Poles were not exactly in the spirit of a wedding, and I have quoted above only from her edit. Let’s say the thing described here is simply constancy, so misunderstood and disregarded in the present, and when compared to the Poles riding out to face the German tanks, it seems likewise heroic, but even in the Hempel edit, constancy and the love of the domestic possibility, these are not less heroic (though not abnormal, as Gilbert would have it, either).
Out on the deck on a round rug, it did not seem hard to be there saying those vows, hearing those songs, hearing Amy Hempel read from Jack Gilbert’s poem. I had no ambivalence, and this was an accomplishment. It was, the lack of ambivalence, something like Gilbert’s “evident conclusion of being,” an ultimate concern. So much language in Hempel’s edit of the Gilbert poem is arresting language: “the thing steady and clear,” in which we imagine we hear Gilbert speaking to his own considerable density of loving relationships, the “amazed understanding” that begins a relationship, a marriage, let’s say, but is changed to something much deeper and more powerful in the later stages of being together, and intimate, with another person. It is “the normal excellence, of long accomplishment,” which does not mean, I don’t think, that Gilbert is extolling the endurance tests of long marriage, but rather that he is rewarding the regular and thorough attention of marriage, the ability to be there, to show up, and to accomplish daily in scale what some people cannot accomplish ever. I wanted to be there, because I could see the isolation within-relationships that I had so well practiced before wearing out, and wearing me out. I could see the long accomplishment as an emerging from isolation, a self-imposed isolation, an isolation of self-protective vanity, an enclosed and wounded isolation.
Moody had not been a good husband to his first wife, something his memoir makes abundantly clear. In some ways the book is a recitation and detailed description of his many inadequacies and faults, along with many apologies. Similarly, The Ice Storm is a story of dysfunctional marriages, alcoholism, and deep unhappiness in New Canaan, Connecticut, reminiscent of John Cheever’s novels. Moody seems to have lived in some way the story he wrote, so his hopes, dedication, and marriage to Nakadate described in The Long Accomplishment is especially poignant. The Long Accomplishment is The Ice Storm redeemed.
He has grown up, at last, in his 50’s, but that’s not enough to guarantee a happy ending and his memoir describes a year of unanticipated and undeserved torment, with death, disintegration, and frustration appearing over and over. Rick and Laurel want to get pregnant but experience one disappointment after another. They’re forced out of their apartment. Their house is vandalized.
Moody is an Episcopalian, a believer with unbelieving friends he loves. Grace does come eventually, in a roundabout way, beauty rising out of chaos, a story with an arc, with beginning, middle, and end.
There’s something about Moody’s writing that is so engaging and clear, so humble and warm, that you immediately feel a kind of friendship with this man who’s been so foolish, so broken, and now, with his wife, so hopeful.
Moody ties the idea of the long accomplishment to marriage; that’s his focus, that’s the theme that carries them through a traumatic first year of marriage. But of course the long accomplishment can apply to anything long, a lifetime, for instance. One way to understand the long accomplishment, Moody says, is to think of it as a kind of constancy, not a single dramatic act, but a habit, small decisions that over time add up to something big.
Maybe another way to think about the long accomplishment is to think about the idea of character, itself a kind of constancy, and like it once an important focus of education, childrearing, evaluation of political candidates, and so on but now mostly ignored.
James Hillman, a student of Jung, wrote two books that seem to me to be especially relevant to the the idea of the long accomplishment: The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling and The Force of Character and the Lasting Life.
In Souls Code, Hillman retells Plato’s story from the Republic about how it is that we come to be born into this world and why we have chosen to be here, accompanied by a daimon a guardian spirit, who calls us back over and over to the destiny we knew at birth but soon forgot.
Wordworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood tells the same story, in a way:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy, But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy; The Youth, who daily farther from the east Must travel, still is Nature's priest, And by the vision splendid Is on his way attended; At length the Man perceives it die away, And fade into the light of common day.
Hillman isn’t claiming literally that we’re somehow incarnated with a life’s purpose, only that thinking this way can be useful in trying to make sense of and find direction and meaning in one’s life. I can only think that the long accomplishment is another way of describing what’s in us that needs to be expressed over a lifetime in order for us to flourish: to flourish with another person, or institution, or calling.
For Moody the spiritual, what is of primary importance, is ultimately indescribable; the experience is real but words are inadequate. He mentions an experience with a James Terrell Light and Space installation he had in Santa Fe that altered his consciousness in an important way but he can’t quite say what it is. His memoir points to what the long accomplishment is but he can’t fully describe.
Heraclitus, precursor to Plato, is thought to be the author of the maxim Character is destiny (or sometimes Character is fate). We don’t like to think that way today. We want to believe that we can be whatever we want to be if we try hard enough or have some luck or education or the right parents or opportunity. But maybe not.
Maybe it’s better to listen to one’s daimon, grow into and fully express one’s character, and be the force in the world we chose before coming here and then forgetting it. Or maybe force is too strong or isn’t the right word. Maybe we need to find a partner whose character complements our own, a partner with whom we can flourish together.
If Moody’s memoir locates the long accomplishment, the ongoing expression of character in a life, in a relationship, in a marriage, Hillman wants to account, metaphorically, for its origin before we live and as we grow (Soul’s Code) as well its completion in old age and persistence after we die. (Force of Character)
Traditional Christian myths about the meaning of life being realized only after death, of life being a precursor to the real thing don’t resonate with me. On the other hand, modern capitalist myths that meaning comes through self-branding, monetizing one’s every act and thought, and getting rich is clearly preposterous and empty. But the long accomplishment? That makes sense. That seems exactly right.
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