Foreword | June 01, 2008

At one time or another, many of us unconsciously assume that we are clever enough to defy not just nature but fate.Perhaps it’s a good thing. Philosophers call such optimistic self-deception the”vital lie” and acknowledge its value. Ibsen dramatizes it obliquely in his play The Wild Duck, in which an obsessive, truth-seeking “idealist” ruins the lives of an entire family by unveiling the deception behind every hope-inspiring memoryand detail of their lives.

Sisyphus is a mythical example of one agile enough to defy fate, at least for a while. He is frequently thought to be an archetype of hopelessness and the futility of life because he was ultimately condemned to an eternity of pushing the rock up the hill and watching it roll down again. Yet Sisyphus was a powerful rogue, the founder of a city, successful in love with mortals and immortals, capable of talking his way out of trouble with angry gods and once even out of Hades. A destiny of ongoing effort for such a resolute heavy hitter seems a natural fate-and also not a bad deal. Albert Camus says at the conclusion of his The Myth of Sisyphus, “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Several of the pieces in this issue convey life’s enigmatic blend of loss, struggle and accomplishment. Bearskin, by James McLaughlin, is about a man with a past who has been hired to conserve a piece of land that the locals regard as belonging to them. The story conveys the intimate strangeness of isolation as well as a sublime and fearful closeness with nature. Mathew Chacko’s “Ivy: A Love Story” is a dark yet beautiful portrait of a man discovering-partly through his own attempted self-destruction-the extraordinary blessing of his life.

The essay “Hydrophobia” tells of a pregnancy that is threatened by medical issues. Author David McGlynn evokes the concentration and focus that can arise from fear, as well as the importance of simply dealing with such dilemmas. In his confessional essay “Lessons in Amateur Stalking,” John Stazinski laysbare his fixation with his mother’s death due to a traffic accident, as well as his presumption that the other driver was a drunken criminal. It is a heartfelt narrative of obsession and learning the truth.

This issue’s fringe art feature outlines the work of Norman Bel Geddes, one of America’s foremost modern designers. He briefly attended the Chicago Art Institute and then quit to serve as a costume and set designer at the Metropolitan Opera. After more than a decade in theater, Bel Geddes became one of the first generation of industrial designers. Powerfully ambitious and prolific, he believed that design was art intended to make the world more beautiful for all people. As with most other designers, only a small percentage of his work ever came to fruition. His company in New York eventually failed, yet his devotion and overall accomplishment rose above his troubles. Fortunately the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas has done an exceptional job of preserving his collection and making it available.

Michael Cohen’s omnibus review covers several recent nonfiction books by writers such as Andre Dubus, Nancy Mairs and Joan Didion, all of which concern pain or personal disaster. These books, like the contents of this issue, bring to life the paradox of life’s agonies. Inevitably the broad lesson of all these works is analogous to that of many of the world’s secular and sacred philosophies, whether of Siddhartha or Sartre, Jesus of Nazareth or Zeno of Citium: struggle is not always merely a curse but can be a focal point around which meaning emerges.

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