Romance in Warren’s Flood

Ok, Ok so this isn’t about “romance” the way you might normally understand it. There’s no Valentine’s Day message, heart shape, or bow-and-arrow carrying babies. I’ll grant you that the title is a little (if not a lot) misleading.

Instead of “romance” as something syrupy sweet I will typically use the word in the Coleridge/Wordsworth sense: the awakening of the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us. In this manner as well, “romance” may take us into the darker places, the “twisted and turned” places, the surreal and the mess. More simply put (you can thank me later), “romance” in this way only points to those things that move us most profoundly and deeply. It creates an environment that opens the doors wide to possibility and opportunity, allowing us to see things–perhaps–for the first time at their rawest. It is pathos. It’s what William Wordsworth himself cited as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion.”

We’re picking up where I left off in the first in this series in a post some time ago called “The Case for  New Romanticism.” All this is sparked by the decision to pick up Flood by Robert Penn Warren to re-read. Bear in mind that, to date, I think I’ve only re-read one book – Faulkner‘s Light in August— so this is BIG! In this novel the town of Fiddlersburg TN is on the brink of being flooded as a part of the Tennessee Valley Authority project. This project ultimately led to the creation of the two largest man-made lakes in the nation, Barkley Lake and Kentucky Lake, and the Land Between the Lakes area we have today. Making this happen, of course, necessitated government buy-up of all the land that would be flooded to make the lakes. It stands to reason that within the scope of the TVA project there would be several actual and legitimate towns.

As Flood begins Hollywood screenwriter Bradwell Tolliver has returned to his ficticious hometown of Fiddersburg on the virtual eve of its flooding. He has returned for the first time in a generation. Maybe everyone isn’t like this, but in my experiences and the experiences of those closest to me, you are unable to be indifferent to the place of your adolescence, eg “your hometown.” You may love returning or you may loathe it, but rarely are you indifferent. The physical location of one’s childhood is irrelevant, right. It’s not about the place. It’s about what the place does to us. It’s about how the physical place opens up wounds, hearts, and minds. It’s about how these places drag the voices of the past into the new vernacular of a different stage in life. But through their sights and smells these places als0 remind us a day that was so pregnant with possibility, inviting us to recollect the days gone by and the journey of a lifetime, where it went, and where it is going. These are all strong moments. Romantic moments, if you will.

It’s no different for Brad Tolliver when he returns to Fiddlersburg TN with producer/director Yasha Jones for a movie project. Interwoven into Warren’s narrative–this is my favorite part–is an attempt to define the south and what it means to be “southern.” For Warren, the southern experience is one predicated on lonesomeness. But this isn’t the kind of lonesomeness that concludes in a trip to the physician and a prescription for anti-depressants. It’s more the kind of disembodied lonesomeness that leads to introspection and the kind of romanticism described by Wordsworth and Coleridge; the sort of lonesomeness that winds down a dusty gravel road to some decaying homestead with its little-used and blue-faded tobacco barns and a yard that’s seen a share of Fourth of July picnics. It’s a romantic lonesomeness. It’s what Tolliver describes as a “high lonesomeness” in Flood right before he makes his way to the bed chamber of his youth:

“Well, in the Deep South, in certain circles, upper-class circles—upper class, that is, by old-fashioned standards and not those of Dun and Bradstreet … It is the nearest even the State of Mississippi comes to Zen. It is the nearest even the State of Tennessee comes to Zen. It is the nearest Bradwell Tolliver comes to Zen, and he is coming there now because, in the flood of moonlight and memory, he is about to retire to the chamber where he, as a boy, lay and, while moonlight strayed across his couch and the mockingbird sang, indulged what the bard has so aptly termed the long, long thoughts of youth.”

And so the “high lonesomeness” works in the same way as the romance: it brings clarity. Melancholy is different from despair in that it can be both cathartic and redemptive. A lament is to be embraced, not avoided. It’s in these raw moments that we are able to see into the reality of things. Another character in Flood puts it this way, “… that moment when some place is just overpassed but still extant and waiting for the flood, that’s the time you can see its virtues and vices most clearly.”

For me this has only served as a reminder to remain in the moment, regardless of what sense of foreboding or euphoria I may detect. Life can be defined in a number of ways, but certainly one of those ways is a series of moments that are strung together like freshwater pearls on a necklace. Regardless of their shape or size, they are all pearls.

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