March 14, 2013

CHAN: Seasons of Literature

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It’s a clear and frigid day. The trees are still barren and the bitter wind rushes over the torpid yellow grass. We’re in a transitional phase between winter and spring, a difficult, adolescent time when the weather fluctuates between warm and cold like a temperamental teenager. Soon enough it’ll be true spring. The cherry blossoms on Ho Plaza will bloom, the air will fill with ephemeral fragrance and life will continue on.

Literature is about life, and life is defined by phases. So what better way is there to express the phasic nature of life than with the metaphor of seasons? The idea that seasons are analogues to the cycle of life is as old as literature and deeply rooted in the Jungian meta-consciousness. However, why this idea is so ingrained in all of us requires some introspection. After all, the effects of seasonal changes are a peculiar artifact of those civilizations that developed above the tropic of cancer. With Western civilization spreading around the globe in recent centuries, notions of seasonal changes spread like some brain virus or meme, influencing the minds and habits of the peoples that fell under the sway of Western cultural influence. Educated in the grand tradition of English literature, as most of us are, I’m familiar with the works of such seasonally-influenced literary works as the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the poems of Robert Frost, Disney classics and even concertos like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” These works rely on powerful seasonal images to instill different moods in their audiences. The assumption of their creators was, perhaps, that they were writing for an audience that had knowledge of the visceral effects of seasons.

In my own case, however, coming from Southeast Asia, a place that never experienced  the four traditional seasons, I’m not sure how these images came to resonate so deeply within my own literary consciousness. As I read, the deep, dark black, snow-covered forests of deep winter became synonymous with the brooding presence of faeries  unseen and magical things underfoot and out of sight. My vision of spring became a lush mountain valley scene with the sun’s rays glinting over perfect crystalline shards of melting ice; Morgenstimmung resonating softly in the background. I knew summer as that wild time of searing heat and torrential rain. A time when the explosive vitality of children’s play in typical bildungsroman fashion came alive. And finally, fall became known to me as that magical time of changing leaves and ripening fruit that called to mind Robert Frost’s apple picking shenanigans from his poem “After Apple Picking,” but with the suggestion that with maturity and ripeness comes the inevitable descent into decay and senescence. All of these impressions were nuggets of cultural information that I absorbed without truly knowing what they meant in visceral terms. That is, of course, until I came to a place where they are immediately apparent. By which I mean Ithaca, with its blistering summers, New England fall colors, and frigid winters. Only then did that crucial component click. Only since then have I come to better understand the authorial drive to use seasons as metaphors.

Writing about seasonal changes is a powerful tool to convey the idea of cycles and to help a narrative progress through time. What is understood intuitively by most people is that spring connotes adolescence and freshness, summer vitality and autumn maturity. Winter is a more double-edged sword: A time of simultaneous threat and magic, doubtlessly reinforced by the common child’s belief that winter’s deep heralds a special visitation by one S. Claus. In Richard Adams’ Watership Down, seasons are used to denote a beginning and end to the travails of a warren of intrepid rabbits. With the coming of spring, humans threaten to exterminate the warren to make way for new construction, prompting a small group of rabbits to flee their doomed home and embark on a journey across the fields of rural England on a quest for a new home. At the books end, spring comes again, ending what it started.

Seasons can be cross-cultural, too. To the Japanese, for example, seasons are powerful reminders of the ephemerality of beautiful things. For a few precious weeks in April, the country’s countless cherry blossoms bloom and the land is coated in pink. Then, like the golden blossoms of Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” they lose their brilliance, fade and shrivel, giving way to the torrential rains of May and June and the oppressive heat of high summer, when the land begins to heave in exhaustion. When autumn rolls along, paradise returns for a brief moment – the skies clear and swathes of forests turn a deep red hue, which, when seen together with their carefully sculpted gardens, induces an otherworldly feeling. Finally, with the coming of winter, the Japanese retreat into their homes and hot springs and wait months for the advent of spring, when their ephemeral paradise returns for two fleeting weeks. The transitory nature of seasons seems to inform the Japanese national consciousness a lot more than in other cultures, and naturally, their literature, art and popular culture teem with references to this ephemerality as well.

Seasons are powerful literary devices that derive their potency from the very aptness of their applicability to the human condition. With the coming of spring here in Ithaca, let the literary and cultural connotations of spring tide you by in your own travails.

Original Author: Colin Chan