A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud by Carson McCullers, 1951

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by Carson McCullers, 1951

Carson McCullers's career in fiction, which she launched in 1940 with her astoundingly precocious masterpiece The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, weakened in later years partly because of serious physical afflictions, including the effects of the rheumatic fever she had had in childhood, two severely damaging strokes during her 20s, repeated bouts of pneumonia, and breast cancer. The best work of her later years therefore tended to occur in the less demanding shorter forms like novellas and short stories, in which she clarified the themes she had originally dramatized in the novel. The theme of loneliness, for example, is masterfully rendered in the novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, and the human propensity to favor illusion over reality dominates the short story "Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland" (she will not acknowledge that Finland is a republic and has no king).

The central achievement of "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud," first published in 1942 and collected in The Ballad of the Sad Café, is to illuminate the most important philosophical underpinning of her first novel, the pantheism of the philosopher Spinoza. This seventeenth-century Dutch Jew was the first Western thinker to resolve the conflict between religion and its apparently deadly adversary of the time, the newly developing natural sciences. Spinoza's contribution was to identify God and nature as one and the same, thereby laying the foundation for the pantheism of the romantic and transcendentalist movements a century and a half later. "The highest good," Spinoza maintained, "is the mind's union with the whole of nature." It is important to note carefully the intellectual character of this construct, which emphasizes the mind's union with nature. A secondary precept of Spinoza, one that greatly enthralled the German romantic poet Goethe, is the notion that those who love God cannot expect to be loved in return. God as nature is not a personal deity who recognizes individual identities.

Because "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" develops these precepts in cogent detail, the story is best understood in light of the Spinozistic presence in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Here four of the main characters are associated with the philosopher. Dr. Copeland religiously studies Spinoza, and he thinks that John Singer, the deaf mute, "resembled somewhat a picture of Spinoza. A Jewish face." The actual Jewish character, Harry Minowitz, who was originally designated the book's main character, "was a Pantheist. Harry believed that after you were dead and buried you changed to plants and fire and dirt and clouds and water. It took thousands of years and then finally you were a part of all the world." Biff Brannon, the novel's spiritual hero, is the truest Spinozist of all. Descended from "a Jew from Amsterdam," the city of Spinoza, he runs his café as a sort of true church where the book's lonely people can commune together. As a reward he is vouchsafed the book's concluding vision of "the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time." It is important to note that he achieves the Spinozistic overview only by relinquishing his focus on a single love object, Mick Kelly.

In "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" the equivalent of Biff Brannon is the stranger who says "I love you" to a paperboy in an all-night café, again a site for community. This is not a homosexual overture on the man's part but rather his way of introducing "the science of love," a phrase that reminds us of "the mind's union with the whole of nature" in Spinoza. Like Biff Brannon the man arrived at his science of love only after giving up his focus on a single love object, in this case his wife, who has run off with another man. "All I had ever felt was gathered together around this woman," he tells the boy; "for the better part of two years I chased around the country trying to lay hold of her." Not until the fifth year of her absence did the Spinozistic vision bring its healing. Its first phase required displacing the false love object:

I meditated on love and reasoned it out. I realized what is wrong with us. Men fall in love for the first time. And what do they fall in love with? … A woman…. They start at the wrong end of love. They begin at the climax…. Son, do you know how love should be begun? … A tree, a rock, a cloud.

The last phrase clearly denotes the Spinozistic principle that those who truly love God cannot expect to be loved in return. "I started very cautious," he goes on to say; "I bought a goldfish and I concentrated on the goldfish and I loved it. I graduated from one thing to another. Day by day I was getting this technique." By staying with it for six years, the man has achieved the full measure of pantheistic consciousness, the mind's union with the whole of reality without the need for reciprocal love:

And now I am a master, Son. I can love anything…. I see a street full of people and a beautiful light comes in me. I watch a bird in the sky. Or I meet a traveler on the road. Everything, Son. And anybody. All stranger and all loved!

As usual in McCullers's work, this state of enlightenment is not widely shared. The newsboy takes the stranger's last words—"Remember, I love you"—as a sign of derangement: "Was he drunk? … a dope fiend?" (Biff Brannon, too, was greatly misunderstood by the beneficiaries of his psychic generosity.) But what matters most in McCullers's fiction is the effect of the Spinozistic insight on its practitioner, an ability to escape the psychological vicious cycle that moves from loneliness to love of the wrong object and back to worse loneliness. By not requiring reciprocal love from a tree, a rock, or a cloud, the pantheistic visionary is freed from the cruel fluctuations of interpersonal emotional dependence. It is, however, a prudent concession to psychological realism on McCullers's part to portray this capacity for cosmic love as the property of only a few spiritually superior characters.

—Victor Strandberg

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A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud by Carson McCullers, 1951

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