A Beginning, Not a Decline: Colette on the Splendor of Autumn and the Autumn of Life
In praise of “the gaiety of those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving.”
By Maria Popova
The weather has seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, and even affects the way we think. In our divisive culture, where sharped-edged differences continue to fragment our unity, it is often the sole common ground for people bound by time and place — as we move through the seasons, we weather the whims of the weather together.
Of the four seasons, autumn is by far the most paradoxical. Wedged between an equinox and a solstice, it moors us to cosmic rhythms of deep time and at the same time envelops us in the palpable immediacy of its warm afternoon breeze, its evening chill, its unmistakable scentscape. It is a season considered temperate, but one often tempestuous in its sudden storms and ecstatic echoes of summer heat. We call it “fall” with the wistfulness of loss as we watch leaves and ripe fruit drop to the ground, but it is also the season of abundance, of labor coming to fruition in harvest.
The peculiar pleasures and paradoxes of autumn are what the great French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (January 28, 1873–August 3, 1954), better known as Colette, explores in a portion of Earthly Paradise: An Autobiography of Colette Drawn from Her Lifetime Writings (public library) — the posthumously published, out-of-print treasure that gave us her abiding wisdom on writing, withstanding criticism, and the obsessive-compulsiveness of creative work.
Recounting an essay assignment from her schoolgirl days, Colette writes in the autumn of her life:
It has always remained in my memory, this note written with red ink in the margin of a French composition. I was eleven or twelve years old. In thirty lines I had stated that I could not agree with those who called the autumn a decline, and that I, for my part, referred to it as a beginning. Doubtless my opinion on the matter, which has not changed, had been badly expressed, and what I wanted to say what that this vast autumn, so imperceptibly hatched, issuing from the long days of June, was something I perceived by subtle signs, and especially with the aid of the most animal of my senses, which is my sense of smell. But a young girl of twelve rarely has at her disposal a vocabulary worthy of expressing what she thinks and feels. As the price of not having chosen the dappled spring and its nests, I was given a rather low mark.
She considers how autumn haunts the other seasons and signals its superior splendor:
The rage to grow, the passion to flower begin to fade in nature at the end of June. The universal green has by then grown darker, the brows of the woods take on the color of fields of eel grass in shallow seas. In the garden, the rose alone, governed more by man than by season, together with certain great poppies and some aconites, continues the spring and lends its character to the summer.
Depths of dark greenery, illusion of stability, incautious promise of duration! We gaze at these things and say: “Now this is really summer.” But at that moment, as in a windless dawn there sometimes floats an imperceptible humidity, a circle of vapor betraying by its presence in a field the subterranean stream beneath, just so, predicted by a bird, by a wormy apple with a hectically illuminated skin, by a smell of burning twigs, of mushrooms and of half-dried mud, the autumn at that moment steals unseen through the impassive summer…
Even a child cannot respond to everything. But its antennae quiver at the slightest signal.
After several pages of lyrically recounted late-summer memories from her childhood, Colette contemplates the singular impressionability of early memory — a sort of time-capsule of consciousness that stays with us for life:
The style of things, the kind of things that we shall love in later life are fixed in that moment when the child’s strong gaze selects and molds the figures of fantasy that for it are going to last.
Reflecting on how her mother entered the autumn of her own life — “with such serenity,” with “the gaiety of those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving” — Colette considers the sensorial and symbolic rewards of the season:
Even as I write, it is approaching once again, the season that a schoolgirl celebrated long ago because, precociously, she loved it. It comes back decked in gold, so as to inspire wisdom, or its opposite, so that the chestnut tree may flower a second time, so that the cat, which weaned its last litter in June, may feel the need for further adventures, so that the swallow may be misled and start another nest, so that a ripened woman may glow with sunlight and sigh: “I’m sure there’ll never be another winter…”
And, indeed, how beautiful Colette’s notion is — this notion of autumn as a beginning rather than a decline — as a metaphor for the life-cycle of human existence, in the context of the art of growing older.
Complement this particular portion of Earthly Paradise with Henry Beston on harvest and the human spirit, Willa Cather’s soulful portrait of happiness, painted under the autumn sun, Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s stunning watercolor ode to the seasonality of being, and this unusual vintage children’s books for grownups about life and death, dedicated to autumn.
Published September 22, 2016