Category Archives: the fallen world

The Pain of Beloved.

“Anything dead coming back to life hurts,” (42).

“Can’t nothing heal without pain, you know,” (92).
These quotes stayed with me throughout reading Beloved by Toni Morrison because at its core, it is a book about existential hurt, impossible choices and living with their ghosts and yet, it is about moving forward–and the story itself feels like a way to let the hauntings go.

I finished the book weeks ago and am still  thinking about what a powerful, important, disturbing read it was.  The plot centers around a former slave named Sethe who escapes to Cincinnati where her children are already living, giving birth to her fourth child along the way.  Less than a year after her and her childrens’ escape , she is in the backyard of the house she shares with her mother in law and sees a man from the plantation where she spent her life ready to call upon the Fugitive Slave Act.  Sethe chooses to gather her four children and attempts to kill them, rather than allowing them to be brought back into slavery.  Three of the four are spared.  The bulk of the story is set over a decade later when her house is haunted by the child’s ghost.  Two people arrive: Paul D, a man who was also a slave on the plantation with Sethe, with whom she begins a relationship.  For a time, he is able to scare the ghost away, but then a girl arrives who Sethe and her daughter Denver believe to be the incarnated ghost, which completely rocks and changes Sethe, forcing her to face her past decisions. The book is about the spiral of Sethe wrestling with her demons and the definition of love, of finding and losing herself.

As a reader, I couldn’t discern if the ghost-girl was literal or figurative–and at different moments I think could be either.  So I’ve been thinking about the questions Beloved poses in terms of healing: on both a personal and corporate level.  It is much too heavy of a story to simply say that it ends with hope–it is a beautiful mess of a narrative that left me a wreck while reading it.

Sethe’s turmoil through Morrison’s writing feels weighty enough to be corporate.  It is not just her story, it is the story of the psychological effects of slavery.  On this level, I felt as though I had no place to judge Sethe for her choices–and how she chose to define the love she had for her children.  Sethe writhes with her choice and it is impossible as a reader not to do so right along with her.  It feels an impossible situation, where I can’t decide if the healing of an entire nation after such an abomination on humanity or the healing of a single heart engulfed it it feels more difficult.

This is when I come back to the quotes I cited at the beginning, that came in the first third of the story and were spoken to Paul D, but shaped what I began to see as the purpose of the whole book: that Sethe had to wrestle with the pain and had to feel it deeply.  There was no way to move forward without it.  Paul D says to Sethe toward at the end, when Sethe is still is the ashes of her life: “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody.  We need some kind of tomorrow.”  This seems so simple and almost trite, but only out of context.  The poetry and pain of this story–individual pain of the characters and the pain of looking at our history of a nation– echo for anyone who has felt the complicated brokenness of tragedy and the reluctance to even try to heal. What Morrison leaves the reader with is the idea that there is still life.  There is still life.

The length of an hour. Or, hope, and finding it even when it feels far away..

(A note:  Reading The Hours after Mrs. Dalloway was incredible.  The research and allusion that went into Cunningham’s book is tremendous, though it is incredibly thought provoking on its own as well.)

The Hours haunted me for days after reading it–mainly two of the ideas that Cunningham explores.  First, each choice a person makes leaves a trail of missed opportunities behind him or her–lives that weren’t lived.   Almost all of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway consider the decisions they made–and what Cunningham does in his book is give those alternate stories life.  It is through the alternate stories that the reader must face some inevitable truths.

For instance, in Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa, feeling dissatisfied, daydreams about what life might have looked like if she had been able to choose her best friend Sally as a life partner instead of her husband Richard.  In The Hours, we see that desire played out as the character of Clarissa is a modern woman in her fifties in New York City living with her partner of 18 years, Sally. Cunningham creates other nuances that continue the conversation Woolf started 77 years before–but there is meaning behind this even to people who haven’t read either book: even when the characters are given the cultural freedom to pursue what they want, no one feels completely satisfied.  In both novels, the characters tell themselves stories and imagine different lives for themselves to cope with the reality they are actually faced with.

It is easy to look back on missed opportunities poetically, imagining the happiness that might have been. But such is the illusion of fantasy: we are stuck in the real world with flawed people and to not address this is to not be honest with oneself. Such truth is burdensome to the reader throughout the entire book, whether it be in small, internal conflicts of the characters or tragic ends.

What seems to bridge that concept to any kind of hope at all, is Cunningham’s address of hours themselves–not all hours carry the weight or are even the same symbolical length.

Richard, who is dying of AIDS, says: “But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another. I’m so sick.”  As Clarissa is processing Richard’s illness, remembering their summer-long relationship, perfect in each of their memories, as well as her current anxiety, she finds:  “There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult.  Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”

It is the small moments we wish we could have frozen in time that keep us moving forward–and become long as they are played over and over again in our minds, and the long monotonous hours that make us human…and I think, I think remind us that we are not made for a world with such brokenness because even if we make all the right choices, the longing remains.  And that is when we, when I, must run for my life to hear a pedal steel and a banjo, or chase an urban sunset for good measure and a good reminding that there is abundant life to be had.

Oskar Schell: tiny existentialist and breaker of of my heart. Or, there is no freedom from feeling.

First, a note. I read and wrote about this book in 2007, claimed it as one of my favorites but haven’t read it since.  I’ve been thinking that I want to start rereading all the books I call my favorites this year. Also, as I mentioned in my last post, all of my recent reads are connected by the thread of freedom and I want to spend some time thinking that through.  So.

Nine year old Oskar Schell’s family line includes grandparents who grew up in the same town in Germany and survived the bombing of Dresden during World War Two, but didn’t get married until years later after running into each other in New York City.  Their stories are complex and sorrowful, and their marriage a union of two who completely understand loss, and yet the other’s presence is a constant reminder of their pain.   The grandfather by this time has given up speaking altogether and communicates only though writing.  In an attempt to not be swallowed by the weight of their grief, they literally made rules for how their apartment and their lives would function: “We made safe places in the apartment where you could go and not exist.” 

Interestingly, forty years later, Oskar made rules for his own life to manage his grief over losing his father on September 11th: he finds a key in his father’s things and creates a quest to find what it opens: …until I found it, I didn’t love Dad enough.”  He is seeking both a reason to exist and a closeness with his father.  I originally wrote about the idea of safety when I first read the book–which is ultimately what these characters are all looking for.  The more I thought about it, I realized how fleeting emotional safety actually is–and I think that Oskar somehow knew this .  Though Oskar shares the tendency toward an existential existence with his grandparents, the rules of his journey come with the hope that he will ultimately find catharsis–and that will free him from his current emotional paralysis and take him back to the safety he felt when he was with his father.  Oskar invents when he is upset, often of ways to keep people emotionally safe: 

“I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn’t have to invent a thing.”

“We need enormous pockets, pockets big enough for our families and our friends, and even the people who aren’t on our lists, people we’ve never met but still want to protect. We need pockets for boroughs and for cities, a pocket that could hold the universe.” 

“In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.” 

“[S]o if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!” 

It is incredibly painful to read this happening to a nine year old boy.

 Emotional safety is fleeting–and that is a tragedy of human existence. The last scene of this book (which I won’t tell you because you should really just go read it yourself) pulls my heart in a way that few books can.  And yet, freedom comes from allowing ourselves to hurt–and by that allowance we are not completely swallowed.

in the small and ordinary.

We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.” from Great House by Nicole Krauss
It is the small objects; the ones that look so ordinary but hold the secrets of all that make us human.  The most striking realization I had of this was the first time I walked through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It was impossible to walk around without a weight on my heart, reading about the beasts humans can be to one another.  Most overbearing for me, though, was the small display of personal effects, collected from victims in the camps: hairbrushes, razors, the small kinds of objects that have no meaning, really, in the context of their daily use. But when considered in light of loss, these tiny items haunted me with the humanity that was denied to their owners, so much so that I had no other option but to retreat to the dark, concrete room where you hear stories of survivors piped in through speakers and let the darkness settle. 
This narrator is an antiques dealer, specializing in objects seized by the Nazis.  He searches all over the world to find the objects that hold the weight in the world within them for some.  I love how Krauss’ characters often have a respect for the small details of life that speak volumes of who we are as a people. The fate of this dealer, though, is wrapped in the inability to put the pieces of his broken life back together again–the impossibility to curate a moment that has passed, and he is left standing the burden of unbearable longing, which I think is humanity’s signature. 

An Illusion? A mess? The American Pastoral?

I had a bit of a packing quandary when I was leaving New York for two months.  Determined only to have a carry on, I did not realize the impact this would have on my reading life.  I only had room for three books, which I hoped would last me through my trip to Colorado, 5 weeks later. Fail. This is the only time I found myself wishing I had a Sony Reader (take a look how Sony has been supporting education here, thanks to Kenneth Byers), as the idea of reading books electronically skeeves me out a little bit, but would have been so practical for the summer.  Anyway, I spotted American Pastoral by Philip Roth on a San Diego neighbor’s bookshelf and borrowed it.  I justify buying books all of the time, so this is a pretty big step for me. It is also my first jump off my summer reading list.  Sometimes I type the way I talk and give a lot of background information.  Anyway.

American Pastoral is a book that beyond its intricate narration and literary value, covers a lot of material between its cover: ethnic relations, industrial history, politics, war and family, but most of all it is a book about illusion and coming to grips with reality.  Reading this as I’ve been rewatching Mad Men episodes and watching the premiere, the question that I can’t stop thinking about is how do we cultivate lives filled with meaning? The number of movies and television shows and books dedicated to the emptiness that people feel (Catcher in the Rye, Revolutionary Road, etc.) can make the world feel bleak.

The illusions. 
The book is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a writer who shows up in a number of Roth’s books.  Through a series of events, including his a 45 year high school reunion, he learns the adult story of Seymour “The Swede” Levov, his (and his town’s) adolescent idol, whose athletic victories helped ease the weariness of World War Two.  Zuckerman, well into adulthood, was under the impression that the Swede’s life maintained its childhood perfection.  He learns facts that prove otherwise and begins to ponder about the nature of human relationships: “The pictures we have of one another. Layers and layers of misunderstanding. Completely cocked up.  Only we go ahead and we live by these pictures. “

I started to think about the pictures that our culture has of one another: advertisements that allow us to misunderstand what will add value to life.  Photoshopped pictures in magazines that allow us to misunderstand what beauty is.  Even facebook photos allow us to think that everyone else’s life is anything but lonely.   I can picture these misunderstandings snowballing in our minds–layers and layers–and as we live by them we are only more disillusioned and further from what is actually true.

The messes.
The structure of the book speaks volumes in and of itself.  The first section, “Paradise Remembered” is about the youth of the narrator and the main character, a time when following the local high school sports team is an umbrella from reality, where despite the larger fears that have swallowed the adult population, the narrator remembers the safety of childhood.  Aptly named, the second part is “The Fall,” when the main character, Seymour “Swede” Levov’s daughter commits an act of political terrorism and all of the Swede’s visions of his American pastoral are shattered.  The final section, “Paradise Lost” follows how his life essentially falls apart in the aftermath:

“Initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking…The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its anthithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral–into the indigenous American berserk.”

Is the American berserk a better description for what happens to us? It was jarring for me that the book ends in the midst of the berserk–or, rather, that the world continued to be out of control and the characters are left to choose how to respond.  I watched the characters become paralyzed at the realization that life had not come to what they always thought it would.

This post has remained in draft form for a few days because I have no idea how to wrap it up.  The shattering of illusion and the inability to deal with the mess that is life hits the reader over the head as the story weaves in and out of countless moments in the past that lead up to the disastrous state we find the characters in at the end.  I could think and talk about this book for a long time. But here are a few conclusions.  We cannot control anything.  It is easy to create illusions. It is easy to believe illusions.  We cannot prevent messes.

I think that the book critiques obviously the absurdities of the American culture of privilege and entitlement.  And though I really believe that hope can change our lives, if we are hoping in what is purely material or the idea that it’s possible to cultivate a life on earth insulated from pain and suffering, we will surely find ourselves wandering in the American berserk.  So, I guess rather than going on about ideas on how to cultivate a life of real meaning, I will leave you to think about it.  Or call me to get some coffee.  I will absolutely be thinking about this for some time to come.