If, for some reason, Simeon Zahl’s talk at the 2010 Mockingbird Conference in NYC wasn’t enough to convince you to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Thornton Wilder’s Theophilus North, then maybe this will entice you. The following comes from Wilder’s unfinished preface to the book and gives an insight into the overriding themes which dominate this intuitive account of life in “old” New England. (Spaces are left blank where words are missing). Wilder mutually affirms both a pessimistic realism and an idealistic optimism, taking into account a low anthropology and the intermittent spark of creativity. He writes:

“All men aspire to excellence. All men strive to incorporate elements of the Absolute into their lives. These efforts are doomed to failure. Every man is an archer whose arrow is aimed to the center of the target; but our arrows are leaden, their feathers are ill {____} our eyesight is imperfect; our education has failed to distinguish the true from the false targets; the strength in our arm is insufficiently developed. All men aspire to incorporate elements of the Absolute into their lives.

“To the impassioned will all things be possible. The founder of the Christian faith is reported to have said, “if you have faith {_____} mustard seed, you shall say unto the mountain, be removed, and it will {_____} and {_____} and it shall be open to you. And all things are possible to those who love God.” That is of course, absurd. Something must be the matter with all the ‘terms of reference.’ As I have often amused myself by saying, “Hope never changed tomorrow’s weather.” Yet… yet… history abounds with achievements that fill us with wonder.”

Wilder is then left with the question of how to attain this intermittent spark of creativity and “wonder.” Paradoxically, wonder is not found through the effort gain it. For Wilder, this project often results in its opposite. Wilder does not condemn the desire to attain “wonder”- he calls it “noble.” But this project for Wilder is misguided and ultimately destructive. He writes:

“All men aspire to excellence. The very crimes against the human race are derived from the “dream” of establishing an orderly existence. War itself is the “dream” of eliminating bad men and bad societies. All energy is the corruption of an aspiration to excellence. Gold is exhausted radium and lead is exhausted gold.

It is a basic condition of the human mind to wish to be free. The desire is noble and wreaks a large part of the harm in public and private life.”

This leads Wilder to the question which dominates the book:

“What does man do with his despair, his rage, his frustration? There is a wide variety of things he does with it.

“One or other of them is pictured in each of the chapters of this book…”

For Wilder, Despair is likened to the reality of impending death and its implicit condemnation. Despair is unavoidable, yet is it the final word? Is there a solution to the inevitability of failure? It seems, for Wilder, that either the solution is to be found through the “freezing realization of the repetitions in her life (49).” Or like Perseus viewing Medusa in the reflection of his shield, if one is to deal with despair one must see the terrible thing (life) as it actually is through an external aid: to give up the quest to find an illusory future “wonder” and to honestly see oneself and one’s life in the present.