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Angle of Repose: Wallace Stegner, Thomas Aquinas, and the Dimensions of Happiness

“As Grandmother’s biographer, I’d have to guess she was never really happy after, say, her thirty-seventh year, the last year when she lived an idyll in Boise Canyon.”

“But she lived a long time after that,” Ellen said.

“She lived to be ninety-one.”

“But she wasn’t happy.”

“She wasn’t unhappy, either. Do you have to be one or the other?”

A few days ago we reached the end of the six-hundred-thirty-two page novel that has been my husband’s and my read-aloud since July, and its ending has stuck in my mind like a bur on a shoelace. I find myself echoing the narrator’s hanging question: Does a person have to be happy or unhappy? What of a story, or the story of a life? And can—should—how do we find resolution in all the people and stories and lives we encounter each day, perhaps even including our own, that are neither one nor the other?

We picked up Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, in a bookstore-coffee shop tucked an hour’s drive out of the awesome “fourteeners” of Leadville, Colorado, where we were vacationing, and where part of the novel takes place. We knew that Stegner was Wendell Berry’s teacher and mentor; we knew that he is considered a great novelist of the American West; and we knew from the book jacket that it is a Pulitzer-winner and Stegner’s masterpiece. So, as Southerners steeped in Faulkner and Flannery, we thought it behooved us to “get at” the place in a less dislocated way than the airplane ride by which we’d “gotten to” it, and we thought this novel a reliable route.

Six hundred thirty-two pages later, we’ve seen the West from the eyes of Susan Burling Ward, the protagonist, and her grandson Lyman Ward, who narrates her story. And though both characters sketch Western landscapes and mythologies with attentive perception, it’s they themselves that trouble my thoughts: not as Westerners with Western problems, but as people whose particular tragedies rouse universal forebodings.

Lyman, a retired history professor recently scarred by bone disease, amputation, and (most deeply) his wife’s abandonment, returns with double-edged purpose to the home of the grandparents who raised him: he intends to keep a grip on the dignity of his profession by writing his grandmother’s biography, and he dallies with the hope of digging some sort of wisdom for his circumstances from her experiences. For not only was she a Victorian lady, a pioneer, and the foremost female illustrator of her day, but she was also a wife who learned how to rest in her husband’s love only after she had lost it.

The story of how this happens unfolds with a slow minuteness of detail that struck me initially as clumsy, but finally as epiphanic. True to its literary realist mode, the novel compels readers not just to hear of Susan’s life, but very nearly to live it with her, even as her grandson is doing by studying every letter, journal, newspaper clipping, and magazine article in which she marked her lifelong journey: from her home in New England; through mining camps in California, Colorado, and Mexico; to an irrigation project in Idaho; and finally back to another mining town in California. But amidst all this precise reconstruction of setting and dialogue, commentary that would disclose meaning or even plot is kept to a minimum. For the first two hundred pages, we doubted this tome would rise to anything above mere narrative.

But as the story is patiently, painstakingly unfolded, meaning and plot almost imperceptibly begin to coalesce around setting and characters (and once illuminated by the ending, a rereading of the whole book is electrified by sparks of foreshadowing and reflection on every page). Tensions, faint at first, intensify between Susan’s worship of Eastern culture and stability and her husband Oliver’s confidence in Western opportunity and promise; successive failures in their Western endeavors corrode their trust for each other; new characters in their story complicate the closeness and confidence of their marriage. And, gradually, meanings of fidelity, forgiveness, home, man and woman, arise from this mode of storytelling like mist from a lake.

Both meaning and mode are captured in the title, Angle of Repose. As if to gain the reader’s confidence that his sustained efforts will be worthwhile, that titular engineering term is explained on page thirteen. It describes the angle at which debris from the digging of a mine or ditch stops tumbling—but, as Lyman and Susan agree, it’s “too good for mere dirt,” and could be “descriptive of human as well as detrital rest.” If the mode of Stegner’s story is to spill all the details of a long life, like rubble rolling down a cliff, its overarching meaning is to ponder the question Lyman poses: “Did you ever come down out of that into some restful 30 degree angle and live happily ever after? . . . Was the quiet I always felt in you really repose?”

By the book’s end, Lyman has only a new question to answer this first one. Having “broken” something inside her husband, and consequently living to the end of her life in a marriage that shields, with outward form of fidelity, an inner depletion of love, his grandmother, he concludes, did not find happiness. But, he wonders, could she still have found repose? Could acceptance of her past and resignation to her future grant subdued significance to her present? Could that be a middle way between the stark happiness or unhappiness we petulantly demand of stories and lives?

This ambivalent, open ending has oddly troubled me. I find myself, first, sincerely grieving over the finale of Oliver and Susan’s marriage—a readerly response probably intensified by the slow pace at which we read the book, the four months of daily companionship and deepening sympathy with these characters whom I initially did not like. Then, also, I find an emotion of disorientation, that panicky feeling I remember from falling off the swing set as a little girl and having the wind knocked out of my chest. This, I think, comes from a mistaken assumption I carried all the way from the title page, only to lose it in the denouement: the assumption that repose implies resolution, contentment, fulfillment, rest, while in Stegner’s novel, it apparently can mean mere cessation, the halt of debris, the repose of the dead. And finally, I find myself feeling rebuked: why does this ambivalent understanding of “repose” bother me more than complete tragedy would have? Is the either/or demand for happiness or unhappiness truly, as Lyman queries, an emotional fallacy of the excluded middle?

For wisdom in sorting through these reactions, I turn to Thomas Aquinas, since nearly no query is left without some comment in his summative Summa. And fascinatingly, Aquinas, like Stegner, links the ideas of happiness and repose—but in a different way. For Stegner, happiness and repose are alternatives, both understood through the metaphor of tumbling debris, and thus both largely arbitrary and circumstantial. Seeking happiness, a person sets his desires in motion, after which they roll on unless or until meeting some obstacle that stops or redirects them. Some people might happen to tumble into the fulfillment they long for; others will just tumble to a stop.

But Aquinas reverses this movement. In his metaphor, desire is not arbitrarily tumbling down the cliffs of circumstance, but purposefully ascending, by the effort of the will, towards the “last end”—the good-in-itself, beyond which nothing can be desired: God Himself. For Aquinas, then, happiness and repose are wed: happiness is union with God, and the effect of this union on human emotions is delight, which he describes as “a certain repose of the will” whose effort has carried desire to fulfillment. Any who fail to reach and rest in union with God can only be described as unhappy.

Siding with Aquinas, I cannot fully accept the conclusion Stegner nudges towards: I don’t think that, ultimately, one can find repose apart from happiness. There is no eternal middle ground between happiness or unhappiness, any more than there is between heaven and hell. And yet—Stegner’s novel rings too uncomfortably true to dismiss, nor, by Aquinas’s own account, is he entirely mistaken. Although his analysis can’t be extended into eternal, ultimate destinies, it truly describes our human experience in the temporal middle ground we now occupy.

For in fact, even those reposing in their union with God through Christ and awaiting the Beatific Vision do not claim delight as their daily experience. Rather, we endure harried days ended by nightfall rather than by completion, strained relationships that trail off without reconciliation, chronic temptations we can barely hold at bay, petty sins from which only death delivers, and a fear of dying that obscures the hope we profess. In light of the hope we cherish, we would not call ourselves unhappy, but only mental and moral gymnastics could qualify our entire existence as happy. Instead, these common experiences are all varieties of mere cessation, not fulfillment, and they characterize our life under the sun. As Aquinas explains,

A certain participation of happiness can be had in this life: but perfect and true happiness cannot be had in this life. . . For since happiness is a “perfect and sufficient good,” it excludes every evil, and fulfills every desire. But in this life every evil cannot be excluded. For this present life is subject to many unavoidable evils; to ignorance on the part of the intellect; to inordinate affection on the part of the appetite, and to many penalties on the part of the body . . . Likewise neither can the desire for good be satiated in this life. For man naturally desires the good, which he has, to be abiding. Now the goods of the present life pass away; since life itself passes away, which we naturally desire to have, and would wish to hold abidingly, for man naturally shrinks from death. Wherefore it is impossible to have true happiness in this life.

It is impossible to have true happiness in this life; and so, more often than we care to count, our best consolation, short of our hope of heaven, is to reach Stegner’s angle of repose.

This is not an ebullient epiphany for a six-hundred-thirty-two-page build-up. And yet, it pays a sober homage to nuances of earthly human experience which, in my zeal to be heavenly-minded, I can too glibly gloss over. In looking ahead to a future perfection of happiness, I can demand too much of or too lightly disparage the foreshadowings of happiness we’re granted here. I can refuse the ambivalent ending which is, perhaps, a gift appropriate to its time.

For in this life, happiness is not monolithic; it is not all one color; it is not one-dimensional. It has dimples and divots, hues and tints, shallows and depths. For instance, felicity is a dimension of happiness “something like rational contentment, entailing acceptance, considered compromise, and self-knowledge,” as Marilyn Chandler McEntyre notes in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies; it is rooted by its etymology in the doctrine of Felix Culpa, or fortunate fall—what we have gained in Christ is greater than what we have lost in Adam—and therefore it presents happiness as “an unexpected gift, only recognized as happiness in long retrospect, paradoxical in the way it is linked to pain and loss.” Or again, joy, as C.S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy, is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction,” but which “might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief”; for, as Lewis comes to understand, it is a signpost pointing towards the Eden behind us and the New Jerusalem beyond. In each of these varieties of happiness, it’s the darker pigments of sorrow that give the palette its splendor.

To demand purely happy endings is to deny the worth of these other, mixed resolutions. It is to rush through the moil of human history to the clarity of the Last Judgment; for, as Judge of history and humankind, God will finally distill our mash of partial resolutions to pungent purity, and we will know ourselves to be either happy or unhappy. But by entering our history, assuming our humanity, sharing our sorrows, and becoming acquainted with our grief, He has also consecrated for all time the potent alloyed emotions of the sons of men.

So, then, glory be to God for dappled things, and for hefty novels with ambivalent endings that press us to long for the Beatific Vision and to love the elegies of earth.

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