It's never been a persistent, feverish hunt, but on occasion, when the thought has pricked at the back of my mind, I've sought for a significant literary passage that best encapsulates Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. It's a rather pretentious endeavor, I know: this idea that heavy, stiff parallels can be drawn between a music album and a bit of weighty prose. Nonetheless, when I recently read a passage that I considered worthy of summarizing's Astral Weeks' themes of "going away and coming back" I ignored the urge to summarily dismiss it.
(Those are Morrison's words; the exact quote, jotted down by Sean O'Hagan of The Guardian: "Basically, Irish writers, and I include myself here, are writing about the same things. Often it's about when things felt better. Either that, or sadness ... It's the story about going back and rediscovering that going back answers the question, or going back and discovering it doesn't answer the question. Going away and coming back, those are the themes of all Irish writing.")
The passage was from James Agee's A Death in the Family:
Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn't what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.I've read this passage two dozen times now and with each reading it becomes more superb in how it draws four sharp lines around what Morrison was communicating on Astral Weeks. It's so shockingly perfect, really, to the point where I've begun to imagine Morrison read A Death in the Family during adolescence and never quite parted with the passage. He saw the words on chipped East Belfast walls. They floated over to him during commercial breaks on the family radio. During afternoons of misty, Irish rain, Agee's sentences materialized out of droplets of water gathered on Hyndford Street pavement. And when Morrison was a schoolboy and practicing cursive and penning words in the air, he wrote out the extract in large, loopy gestures.