Fate awaits us at the crossroads in the form of a drunken driver, a mutant gene, or a cortical flub. Destiny, on the other hand, is visible only up close and is never a surprise.  Fate is your father disappearing into the dictator’s prison. Fate is an appointment in Samarra. Destiny is choosing one path instead of another into the snowy woods. Destiny is an augury made true by action. Here we are guided in our thinking by metaphors, without which we couldn’t make sense of complex visual and auditory impressions, human relations, our emotional responses to the hive, or even our most basic and contradictory needs and desires. Metaphors, the “stuff” of poetry, are also the stuff of our limbic system working in tandem with our neo-cortex. They are the stuff of evolutionary history in which our brains attempt to reason outside a system of scares, alarm-bells, immediate autonomic flight responses, and hormone flooded bloodstreams. By thinking in metaphors, we gain a foothold against our “gut”, and bring some temporary order to threats, allowing us to “take stock”. (For a grand exposition of such thinking, see Lakoff and Johnson, “Philosophy in the Flesh” (1999), New York, Basic Books; and, “Metaphors We Live By” (1980)) With Borges, we can say that a tower of books is the Library of Babel, containing an infinite number of letters, words, paragraphs and stories, turning books themselves into metaphors. With Frost, we can stop by the woods on a snowy evening, “taking stock” of our destiny, another way of savoring how we’ve emerged from our youthful agonies about autonomy, discarding them in favor of adult ideas of agency and responsibility. With the Buddha, we can compare the mind to a wild elephant we must somehow ride; and, of course, in order to “tame” the elephant, Buddha retreated to the forest. “In the middle of the journey of our life,” writes Dante, “I found myself inside a dark forest, for the right way I had completely lost.” Here, Dante employs two common metaphors. He uses them because we know exactly what he means and how he feels and he knows we know.

Dante felt besieged by entropic emotions that he characterized (metaphorically) as three fierce beasts. These beasts are a lion, a lynx and a she-wolf, representing, perhaps, the ferocity of ambition, the stealth of lust, and the rapaciousness of greed. Or, perhaps as in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities”, these entropic metaphors become power, sex and money, the temptations typical on Wall Street. In the words of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (writing in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience”), “To avoid being destroyed by them, Dante tries to escape by climbing a hill. But the beasts keep drawing nearer, and in desperation Dante calls for divine help. His prayer is answered by an apparition: It is the ghost of Virgil, a poet who died more than a thousand years before Dante was born, but whose wise and majestic verse Dante admired so much that he thought of the poet as his mentor. Virgil tries to reassure Dante: The good news is that there is a way out of the dark forest. The bad news is that the way leads through hell. And through hell they slowly wend their way, witnesses as they go to the sufferings of those who had never chosen a goal, and an even worse fate of those whose purpose in life had been to increase entropy—the so-called “sinners”.”   To help him chart a path through the forest of mid-life with its myriad dangers, allures, sophisticated pleasure, compromising dilemmas, unorthodox sexual misadventures, confusing career choices, and the perils of romantic love. Dante’s prayer produces a poet!

Shall we not adopt the challenges of mid-life as a metaphorical forest? Speaking for us is James Salter in his famous novel about marriage and suburban life, “Light Years”:

“Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving. There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.”

Or, with Saul Bellow we can imagine mid-life troubles as a deep wood, as in “Sieze the Day”: “Again Wilhelm cautioned himself. Remember his age. He is no longer the same person. He can’t bear trouble. I’m so choked up and congested anyway. I can’t see straight. Will I ever get out of the woods, and recover my balance? You’re never the same afterward. Trouble rusts out the system.” At twenty we’re “autonomous”. At thirty, we’re beautiful and healthy. At fifty, trouble has rusted out the system.

Pushing hard against this metaphorical thinking, let us imagine further that books are the trees in the forest, each different, though some are genetically related as family and genus. What would Virgil show us were he to come back and take a tour through the forest of Russian literature? Maybe:

Hapless Husbands

Home Abortions

Suicide, or Attempted

Pogroms, Wars and State Sponsored Terrorism


Death by Alcoholism

Passionless or Poisonous Marriages

Family Love Triangles


Grinding Poverty

Inheritance and Property Disputes

Communal Apartments

Mental Illness

Oedipal Jealousies, and

Disappointing Children.

This astounding collection of dangers, scares, ills, problems, mistakes, and general entropic violence, comes from “Unhappy in Their Own Ways: Over 150 Years of Russian Literature” by Julia Livshin and Oliver Monday. (NYTBSR, November 30, 2014). Looked at dispassionately, it constitutes a Sunday stroll through the forest of Russian life in the last century and a half. And, despite a number of revolutions and counter-revolutions, things don’t appear to be getting better. Yet there must be a reason why Russians in the reading life treasure their books so much. One theory would be that they, like every human being on the planet, gossip in order to survive; gossip to assure that hypocrites receive their due; gossip so that reciprocity remains genuine; and gossip to counteract the negative bias of social life. It can’t be helped. These are the things Russians live through. Another theory might be that it is best to know the truth, in order that we stop lying to ourselves.

Standing the metaphor on its head, suppose we examine one man’s American forest:


Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain         Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain

Moby Dick, by Herman MelvilleTo Build a Fire, by Jack London                                                                                              1919, by John Dos Passos     In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway

The Nick Adams Stories, by Ernest Hemingway

The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot           The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler   Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller

The Air Conditioned Nightmare, by Henry Miller

Seize the Day, by Saul Bellow

The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer The Armies of the Night, by Norman Mailer                                                                           Ariel, by Sylvia Plath                                           Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs               On the Road, by Jack Kerouac       The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Howl and Other Poems, by Allan Ginsberg

Across the Wide Missouri, by Bernard de Voto

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, by Wallace Stegner

Dreamsongs, by John Berryman

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Goodbye Columbus, by Philip Roth

Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion

Something Happened, by Joseph Heller

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

Notes From the Century Before, by Edward Hoagland

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver

Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone

A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley

Libra, by Don Delillo

White Noise, by Don Delillo

Sutree, by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

My Other Life, by Paul Theroux                Light Years, by James Salter

American Psycho, by Brett Easton Ellis

Tales of Ordinary Madness, by Charles Bukowski

Post Office, by Charles Bukowski

Love is a Dog From Hell, by Charles Bukowski

Dalva, by Jim Harrison

Songs of Unreason, by Jim Harrison

Actually, these are some of the trees in my personal American forest. These trees are only part of the forest; needless to say, the forest is vast. The path through the forest leads from place to place. It is discovered, feared, acknowledged, and then prowled about. I discovered it myself, explored it, became lost and then found. It was a frightening and comforting environment. It was an ecology that suited me. One is a child, one is young, one is a young adult, one is mature; one is suddenly old. One overhears things in this forest; one learns nothing yet progresses. The forest rustles with voices. One discovers a destiny in the forest. One makes it through. You could, if you wished, create categories characterizing this forest, much as Livshin and Monday did with the Russian forest. Go ahead.

You may dispense with entering any forest at all, living as most people do, day to day at speed on the Interstate. The Interstate does not go through hell; nor do poets travel it.