THE MAN WHOSE MOODS TENSIFY THE WORLD OF THIS STORY
Assignment: Write your earliest memory. Begin “In my earliest memory . . . “
In my earliest memory I am making good on an intention. For a long time—what feels like a long time—I have watched the grown-ups glide to a stop. Left foot falls with forward-falling pedal. Left knee locks. Weight shifts forward. Bottom lifts. Right knee rises. The clipped cuff tugs. Right foot lifts free of the backward-rising pedal. Right leg drops straight in front of the pedal and to the side of the frame. Right toe points, poised to graze the wet asphalt. Slow. Lean. Until—soft—right toe touches down to catch the bicycle in a wondrously still, and still-upright tilt.
I have thought about these movements. The movements of the left and right foot especially. I think I have even practiced them. Straddling the arm of the couch perhaps. Or in bed at night, lying on my tummy, my head turned sharply as I press my knees in to the bed. Taken together, these movement seem to me the one practical obstacle to my otherwise-accomplished adulthood.
It’s raining. Or: It has just rained. In the world of my earliest memory it has always just rained or is raining. The sidewalks are leaf-stamped and studded with cork berries which have been crushed yellow on the uneven sidewalk panels, but gather whole and black in the cracks. The gutters are choked with leaves like chewed paper. There’s a long foamy puddle that runs alongside the bike path. The bike path itself is clear, save for the sticky bits of asphalt that break off the potholes and collect there.
My seat is made out of shiny lacquered wood. My dad made it for me. It sits above his back wheel, behind his seat. My dad’s seat is made of leather which is tight across the top but puckers at the base where the two springs bounce like horses and where the bright metal shaft goes all the way down into the black metal tube. I can reach forward to wrap my hands around the shaft, and to feel the rough edge where the tube swallows it up. I can also run my fingers over where the bumpy leather is gathered and held by a series of tacks. I am careful not to put my fingers in the springs, but sometimes I rest my fingertips on their outsides while we bounce which makes my fingertips fuzzy. Mostly I hold on to the ribbed rubber grips that cushion the tines of the metal T that comes up from between my thighs where the gusset of my wool tights forms tight little burs. On the back of my seat is a wooden lip and when I wiggle it makes a xylophone feeling through my cloth diaper against my tailbone. (I have thought about it and decided I don’t want to be potty-trained. To my mind this in no way compromises my impending adulthood.) My feet go wherever I want.
In my earliest memory we’re riding. My dad and me. I notice the light change. Yellow. I hadn’t been thinking about it ‘til just now, had been thinking about something else entirely—what I don’t know. Everything before yellow is lost to me. But after yellow comes red. And red means stop. It’s coming. It’s happening. I jam my left foot down. My bottom lifts . . .
I’m in the wet street. With the sticky bits of asphalt from the broken edges of the potholes. My long hair is loose under my helmet. My hair will be dirty. Somebody’s shaking the bike. It’s shaking me. Christ’s sake! Careful! Someone jumps over me. Right over my head. Cars shuffle and stall. Far away cars are honking.
My dad is there. He’s on his knees. The knees of his pants are dark with puddle water and smudged. He’s gripping my left leg with his right hand while somebody else lifts the frame. My left foot is deep in the spokes and hard against the metal frame. He jiggles my leg while prying the spokes apart. My left foot comes loose. With his left arm he pins me against his chest. We rise. He’s still gripping my left leg, but now with his left hand. Together like that we rush into the street. With his right hand he opens a car door. Not our car door. A stranger’s car door. Take us to the hospital?
I did it. I stopped us. We’re on our way.
I used to think that this was a memory about my father’s irresponsibility. Insisting on doing everything his way, designing and building everything himself. Safety standards be damned. But now it occurs to me that is perhaps, rather, a memory about my father’s ingenuity, and my impetuousness, my pride, and then about what injuries, but also what intimacies, would grow up between us by way of consequence.
Having written this much, it occurs to me to call my father. “Dad, do you remember the bike accident when I was little? I put my foot in the wheel as it was still turning and we fell.”
“Of course I remember, sweetie. That was terrible. I felt awful. I was sure your ankle was broken. The way the front wheel was bent around it.”
“You mean back wheel.”
“No you were up in front, between my arms, on a little seat I got off a kids bike and bolted to the cross piece. You could reach the handlebars from there and I had little foot rests for you on the steering column. I still have no idea how you got your foot all the way down into the wheel.”
I pause. I am not loving this conversation. “Well, I remember. I had studied the way you and other grown-ups moved on your bikes when you came to a stop. I was copying you, putting my foot down to catch the bike.”
“No. It wasn’t like that. It was like you just got mesmerized by the wheel and the spokes. It was compulsive.”
“No, Dad. I’m not asking you about this part. I’m telling you. That’s what I was doing. I did it on purpose. It wasn’t compulsive. It was intentional. I remember.”
“Well, honey, what do we really remember? We remember remembering.”
I have heard this formulation before. His favorite example of how remembering remembering works is “All these women who get swept up in feminism and decide they need to go into therapy to find themselves and then sure enough they get to thinking about it and it’s like, yeah, I think I was raped, way back, by my dad or my uncle or my family friend. And then men’s lives—I’m talking hundreds if not thousands of men—well their lives are ruined because all of a sudden they’re being accused of something from way back that never happened, but these women, together with their therapists are just totally sure that whatever it was really happened because they remember it.”
I do not have the energy to hear about the women and their therapists this phone call around. I shift gears: “When exactly was that, Dad? Like how old was I? I was still in diapers, I remember. But had Emory been born yet?”
“Oh yeah, Emory had been born. You were probably two or three. But you weren’t in diapers.”
“But mom says I was in diapers ’til I was four.”
“No. That’s not true. She’s confused.”
In my chest cars shuffle and stall. Behind my eyes, lights are flashing. I let the emergency vehicle pass. “Mom always says I could read chapter books before I was potty trained, and that Emory was potty trained before I was.”
“No. She’s making that up. Emory was an infant still. She and your mom were riding ahead of us. Emory was in that white plastic bike seat we had. That one was mounted over mom’s back wheel. Maybe that’s what you’re thinking of”
“Mom was there?” I’m trying to think how old Emory would have have been to sit upright in the plastic bike seat with her neck unsupported.
He laughs, “Yeah. Your mom was there with Emory. I ran out into the street with you, asked a complete stranger to drive us to the hospital. Left your mom with the baby and two bikes, no way to get home.”
Some time prior, my dad had left my mom for another woman. My mom was pregnant with Emory then. I would have been between one and two years old. My mom had no way of getting home then either. Her mother wouldn’t take her. Her sisters didn’t offer. The head pastor of their church came by the house. He wasn’t really a pastor, and it wasn’t really a church, was rather ‘a nondenominational study center;’ “cult,” quips Emory now. Anyways, he came by the house to say, “You don’t have to forgive him. But if you can. If you can forgive him and take him back. Well, you should. It would be good of you to take him back.” But to take him back he had to come back. He did come back. But it’s not clear when. That is, it’s not clear how much he was around for when I was or wasn’t being potty trained, when Emory was an infant learning how to support her own neck. “So what did Mom do, Dad? How did she get home?” “Oh some guy had a van and offered to take them and the bikes.” I let the silence set in between us. Finally I say, “You were always really tender with us when we were hurt, Dad. Like when we were physically hurt.” “Yeah, well. It really broke my heart to see you in pain.”
A friend writes, “I saw you started blogging again. Is that a good sign or a mixed sign?”
“Oh a good sign, I think! The blog is . . . sheer joy. Is that insane? It makes me so happy.” I go on chirping for a bit.
Sheer joy, so happy: Is that insane? Bitterness crowds the scrolling page! Such squirm-worthy stuff here! “Sad stories on the internet.” Picking. (Don’t pick!)
And I take pleasure . . . Why?
“Rage— Sing the rage of . . . ” Our whole literature begins in rage. “Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” Why are you full of grief?
Because everything you love is going or gone.
Because you want to go where the gone things are.
That everything is going we inherit from Adam (the body, sin, and with it, death). But its from Achilles that we inherit our longing to go there too: Our rage, and behind it, our grief, and out ahead of it, the task of our literature.
The task of our literature: Which is just: To discover the means by which one might stop circling, let go the maimed body, find one’s way to the gates.
The task of our literature: Which is also: To make these discoveries while the gathered mourners watch, to let them watch, to know and accept that only their witness will render one fit for entry into the city at last.
So: The task of literature is the task of inheriting what Jesus supposedly bequeathed to us a long time ago. (Still stuck in legal; we’ll have to get back to you; hard to authenticate the signature; not at all clear which testament was the last): Freedom, forgiveness, a photo ID card—a place in the kingdom, life after death.
The task of inheriting. Because unlike the Adam and Achilles estates, the Jesus estate remains deferred. While the joy is not. (That’s the mystery.) The joy is present. And that joy, that pleasure . . . Comes from where?
It feels good to drop the body. Good to look up at the mourners, to meet their gaze. But even before that. It feels good to stop, to feel the weight of the body, to realize what you’re doing. It feels good to know, even though you’re still looking down, that they’re up there watching, that you’re being watched. All this long before freedom, or any hope of forgiveness, before word of the will. It feels good to find yourself doing the things you’ve done. Terrible things. (Another man’s flesh ribboned and breaded in dust.) Feels good to fit your own body’s activities and extensions. And that feeling is—what?—the feeling of reality? It feels good to stop, to ‘come back from there’? To occur to oneself suddenly? To be alive?
And what bit of nonsense is that? Wittgenstein (middling) guessed that there is nothing it is like to be not-alive and concluded the incoherence of wonder expressed over ‘being alive at all.’ But then he grew up and got better and stopped talking like that.
(There is something it is like to be not-alive. It is like rage circling, dragging grief behind, and always, the walls.) But this is to cast it—the pleasure—as purely negative. As though being alive is essentially a negation of being not-alive. Which it’s not. Nothing is. (A joke! See: Pleasure!)
In my creative writing class . . . ((Am taking a creative writing class. Spousal benefit. Courting regression. Learning. Loving it. Save that I see Sarah in the hallway every damn time. Which is or is not like looking up to see Andromache? Not. But would be. If I were writing it. Will have to write it.)) In my creative writing class we go around the room expressing wonder over one thing each. Across the table Lena with the long hair and careful shoulders-thrown-back expresses wonder over time. “Um . . . It’s like I’m taking this class and it’s called English Letters 1620 to 1920. And that’s like 300 years, which is so many years. So we’re talking about what it means to try to cover 300 years in one class. But then I started thinking about how many years its been . . . ever. And, um . . . ”
And, um, time unspools right there on the table. All those years ever. Back and forward. Through our letters, our voices, the shapes of our mouths, to other shapes of other mouths, in other climes, the rocks, the stars, the roiling gasses, until we’re all of lost in the tohu-bohu. An eternity fit for a Judeo-Christian God. Uninhabitable by us.
There’s a cliché about letters and immortality. (The immortality certain letters will win you.) But not any immortality will do. We need a time bigger than us, yes. Bigger than our lives and our deaths. But not eternity with its astroids and atoms. Not that place where God lives. We need a time still fitted to us, in which to fit our rage and our grief. We need an embodied immortality. The time of minor gods and heroes which the body of our literature wins us.
So: It feels good to be alive. And it feels good to live—not forever, but in the three thousand years and counting in which the shapes of our mouths have remained more or less the same. It feels good—again, why?—to wake up in that grief-filled body with which we are making our slow way to the gates of Troy.
I think my parents are the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Mythically proportioned. Outsizing their lives. But then I think everyone must feel that way about their parents.
I test my hypothesis out on two different groups of friends at two different parties. My supposition is roundly falsified as the data streams in. Nobody finds their parents particularly interesting.
Over the phone Kase responds to my report dryly: That’s because parents can either be good parents or interesting; our parents were interesting.
We were cared for, Kase. I leave it at that. She gets a free pass these days. Her friend of nine years and sometimes-love interest is succumbing to schizophrenia. In a dark house. In the Philippines. With his crazy mom for a nurse. And little opportunity for treatment. She’s spending her days home from Asia on the carpeted floor of a Boston friend’s parents’ study unsure what comes next.
I say ‘the most interesting people I’ve ever met,’ but that’s to set up a false comparison. My parents are interesting. Outsizing their lives. And that fact has the effect of throwing the whole show tragedyward. By which I mean just: They bring the world with them.
Our father made us jewelry out of odd ends he found in his shop. Cogs, washers, and bolts served as beads, bent nails as eyehooks, filed nails as pins, small springs rendered bracelets adjustable, thin copper wires housed in colored plastic could be wrapped into rings. He gave us these pieces silently, dropping them on our plastic placemats as we ate lunch at the kitchen counter, or slipping them across the vinyl bench seat of the pickup on our way to the hardware store.
One of us had to accompany him to the hardware store to help him lift whatever he was buying. Help him lift: though we were small. 7, 8, 9 even. And our mother couldn’t go. Who would watch the other girls? My father wouldn’t accept help from an employee, much less a fellow customer. Those easy, affable men we met in parking lots, in baseball caps and smiling, leaning out of their Volvos and Subarus to hail one another, somehow all of them friends. So different than our father with his tight gait and unassuageable embarrassment tending toward aggression.
Help him lift: Is it even possible that we were any help at that age, that size? Perhaps he needed an audience for his strength. Or perhaps he needed to play audience to our weakness, to watch us struggle and fail to “Hold the boards steady, Catlin! What did I say?” so that when he managed it by himself in the last—frustrated and struck by the irony of bringing us in the first place—he could feel something about it, anything at all.
The jewelry he made for us was interesting to look at, if un-feminine, un-pretty, and painful to wear. We donned the pieces immediately with feigned enthusiasm and wore them frequently, though they scratched us and ripped at our hair. Our aggressive embarrassment for his.
Some pieces were recurring. For instance the wrapped wire rings. He found the wires stuffed in telephones and gathered them in various color combinations, twisting them until they were far too thick to sit comfortably between a child’s fingers. To finish them, he nosed the plastic housing off the ends and tied the naked copper in little knots that were supposed to sit atop the rings like jewels. These snagged on our clothes, a sharp spray of metal, loosing the wires they were meant to hold tight.
Everything about my father hurt. His hands were rough and paw like, each finger swollen with manual labor. None of us wanted to sit next to him during dinner because he crushed our fingers during grace. But also none of us could bear the thought of him knowing—though he knew and we knew that he knew, though he didn’t know why and we would never have dared tell him, so he imagined the worst—so each of us pretended “No! Let me sit next to Dad!” During dinner he flicked us: any elbow that grazed the table, the upper arm of anyone who slouched. “Flick”—that was our word for it, his middle finger cocked and sprung from his thumb. Unpainful when we did it to one another, but excruciating when it came from him. Later, when we played with him (trying to steal his socks off his feet as he napped on the couch after dinner), he would warn ‘Somebody’s going to get hurt. Somebody’s going to get hurt.’ Somebody always did get hurt, a charlie horse or carpet burn. Biting tears back, unwilling to prove him right. Though he was right. “See, girls! I told you!” I was in my late twenties before it occurred to me to ask why somebody had to get hurt. Why couldn’t he play gentle with us?
Our mother used to inform on us. When I was five and Em’ was three he came home from work. My mother reported that we had been bad. He set his things down on the couch before calling to us, “Girls!” We came. “Go get the wooden spoon.” I obeyed. So far this was nothing new. I would hand over the spoon. We would be spanked in succession. Me first, then Em. Hard. It would hurt. But when I gave him the spoon, instead of making me lie over his knee, he told me to sit down. I sat on the ground. Emory sat too. He was sitting on the couch by his things. “I want to show you girls what Jesus did.” With that he whacked himself on the thigh, far harder than he would have hit us, wincing in the seconds afterwards. We were shocked. Silence. “Did it hurt?” “Yes. It hurt,” he answered tersely. My question was disappointing to him. Crude. Emory whimpered. He rose and left us.
Again, it’s only now, in my early thirties, that it occurs to me to ask why somebody had to get whacked with a kitchen utensil.
I have two recurring dreams. Both from early childhood. One about my mother, one about my father. In the dream about my mother she and I stand several paces apart on an invisible ground. We are bouncing a small rubber ball between us. The ball is marbleized: red, white, blue, and yellow. Behind and below us the same colors swirl. She bounces the ball to me. I bounce it to her. I am small, 3 or 4 maybe. The ball makes a happy d-m-p-! sound as it hits the invisible ground. She bounces to me. I bounce to her. The ball hits the invisible ground funny, bouncing away from us both, into the background where the colors now gather, a tight spinning knot. My mother leaves her post several paces away from me to fetch the ball for us both. Into the dark knot of color she goes, smaller and smaller until I can no longer see her. I am alone on the invisible ground with the vortex all around me. That’s when the whispering starts. It’s her voice whispering, at once afraid and enraged, a fight with my father, her words muffled by my hair. She’s gone. I’m alone. The vortex under and around me. We’re in the bedroom she shares with my father. She’s grasping my head against her breast, my chin caught in crook of her elbow. She’s keening. It hurts. She’s gone. I’m alone. The vortex under and around me. I can hear her whispering. She’s whispering into my hair. I want her to come back from that dark knot of color. She’s gone. I’m alone. That’s all.
In the dream about my father we’re in the pickup, on our way home from the hardware store. He sees a hammer in the road, some yards ahead of the intersection. He slides up to the hammer and without losing speed opens his driver’s side door, reaches down and swipes it up, drops it in my lap, “Hold that.” I am holding the hammer. It looks primitive, handmade, with two nails in the top pinning the iron head to the stout wooden shaft. “Your door’s open,” he says. I am small, 4 or 5 maybe. I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t want to do it. “Open your door and slam it, Cat'” He’s irritated that he has to spell it out for me. I clutch the hammer. I don’t want to. He reaches over me roughly, opens the passenger door, again without slowing. I feel the suck of the air, feel myself loose in my seatbelt, my head whips through the slice of open, dragging my neck and shoulders out too. My head stutters against the exterior of the cab, my neck and shoulders rub against the door well. I am slowly sliding downward toward the racing asphalt. My head cracks against the street. Thin copper wires in colored plastic housing spindle-spray from my skull, from my face, from my neck. My father keeps his foot on the gas, presses his knee against the steering wheel. With his right hand on the passenger side door handle, he reaches across his own body to yank me with his left. But I’m not there. I’m a monster of telephone wires un-whirling. Like so many embarrassed pieces of jewelry caught on our shirts.
She woke to find he had named all the animals.
This line has been haunting me. Hunting me I might say. Circling me in persecutory repetition.
The first line of the story I would be writing if I were not so damningly down to the wire on my dissertation proposal.
And also a succinct expression of what is keeping me from finishing my dissertation proposal.
It’s my line! (My animal!) Nobody else’s. It’s my bird. My fish. The fish he missed!
Do you hear yourself?
So he named all the animals. And you with them. So what? Call them by different names. (They won’t come.) Call yourself by a different name. (Why didn’t you answer me? he asks. I have no way of answering.)
Remain silent then. But it’s an ineffectual protest. You think in his animals.
Your thoughts go by his names.
Into the ark they ark they go. Two by two. Your mammal hopes hitched to his.
Into the ark you go. It’s that or succumb to the deluge. (Meanwhile, the bird. Meanwhile, the fish.) That or back to sleep.
Accounting for Tragedy: A Prefatory Note
Dear Professor F,
You may recognize portions of what follows. This essay represents a wound-and-repair effort. In its first life, it served as one of two writing samples in my application to the department. I’ve held onto it as a touchstone for a certain tidiness of thought that I’ve since struggled to achieve. (A college professor of mine once remarked that the more one reads, the more connections one can’t help but make, until it seems that one couldn’t possibly talk about anything without footnoting everything . . . This was his way of explaining why writing gets harder, not easier, as one progresses through her education.)
There’s a small, singular purpose at work here (appropriately buttressed by a slim Works Cited): namely, to vindicate Stanley Cavell’s reading of King Lear against Harold Bloom’s dismissal, and to do so in such a way that I preserve Cordelia—her tenderness and truth, say—against Lear’s mad accusations, which Bloom, weirdly, would join in (Lear, I, i).
Whatever faults the essay founders on—and I’ll have more to say about these by and by—the essay holds its weight formally and steers steady in a way that I was and continue to be grateful for.
A happy touchstone, then. But touchstones—those schists we would strike our gold against—tell false as well as true. Proving the lie in what we would have authenticated, a touchstone may appear to us a petra skandalou, a stone of offense, a stumbling stone, scandalous. In this second sense I might say that this essay has held onto me.
What is there to be scandalized by in an essay as patly academic (even unambitiously so) as this? I want to begin to address that question by telling a very short story:
For a couple of years, three or four times a week, a friend and I ran the lakeshore trail together. We’ve since become too busy to keep up with it (him dissertating, me preparing for my exams). Of course, running together also meant talking together and our conversations, season by season, storm by storm, were—for me—both rich and challenging. One winter run, rounding the recently-wind-wrecked point at Oakwood Boulevard and deep into a discussion about I don’t-remember-what, I suggested that it might be important for a child to come to recognize that she is unloved, that her parents don’t love her, that what her parents have to offer—whether by choice or constraint or both—isn’t and shouldn’t be confused with love. My friend was aghast. He sputtered something about the erotic bonds that bind parents and children, attachments verging on identification, and finally exclaimed, “You have no right, Catlin! No right to call another’s love into question!”
To say I was startled is an understatement. I had thought I was making a bold, but ultimately uncontroversial point. I was even a little bit proud of myself for daring to say it so plainly. But my friend cast shame on me. And I was duly ashamed. I was ashamed the way children are often ashamed: without understanding why, distressed, dumb-stuck, desperate for rescue. He and I ran home in silence.
* * *
Around that time I was reading through several of Professor N’s essays. N is a historian, a story-teller. The stories he cares to tell take up themes of identification and exclusion. He’s interested in how communities understand themselves, and in how that self-understanding is fed by and feeds into specific forms of violence. If there’s a normative dimension to his work it lies in the critical appraisal of what gestures and tropes these communities employ to authorize their own brutality. He would turn the mirror on political, cultural, and religious rhetoric—most especially rhetoric of righteousness—showing up the pretension and self-deception of their announced moral aspirations. As he once put it to me in an email exchange, he would “shock fantasy into some awareness of itself.”
Implicit in this project is a faith in (a fantasy of?) the emancipatory powers of shock. The relevant metaphors are at once tectonic and pioneering: By ‘destabilizing’ and ‘unsettling’ we ‘break new ground,’ ‘open up new domains,’ ‘draw new boundaries,’ and ‘establish new territories’ of thought. Of course, for all of this shifting about, we find ourselves here on rather old and familiar firmament: this is progressive liberalism where what is needful is just a clearer perspective, a truer view of the world, a more honest look at ourselves, a better map . . .
So be it. (Let someone else make the Nietzschean pitch at this juncture.) It is good and right that the hypocrisy of the ages be called out (polities of love shown to be founded on enmity, our blithe and godless Christendom shown to be a species of Nazism). It is good and right, but is it enough? What I miss in N’s work—what I would seek to develop in my own—is the absent account of how we’re so much as able to recognize hypocrisy as such, others’ and especially our own. This caesura seems to me intimately related to another: namely the absent account of what we’re to do in the wake of such recognitions. The map is great, but how does one read it?
By what lights do we illuminate our histories as histories of obfuscation? And illuminated thus, what shadows do our histories throw on our already-dark future? I take it that to call out enmity-in-the-name-of-love as anything worse than strategic is to engage a concept of love more substantive than—say transcendent of—its immanent strategic expressions. So too, to critically call out the betrayals of the Western Tradition is to make some positive appeal to its promises. My thought is that we can only reprehend false charity, false justice in the apprehension of a truer charity, a truer justice. And furthermore, that apprehending these, there is naught for us to do but labor toward them, though it means risking their failure all over again. Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, has an argument along these lines for the reality of goodness that relies on our very real aversion to evil. (Evil can only evil by virtue of some good . . . ) His reasoning progresses as a variant of Descartes’ discovery of the idea of infinity within himself, an insurance plan against skepticism and relativism. It’s more than a little embarrassing to find myself thinking in step with the stuffy Oxford dogmatist (only marginally less so to be thinking in step with the dreaming Frenchman). Can I preserve myself from the wilfulness of their conclusions, even as I claim their questions as my own? Like them, I would ask after the what and, especially, the whence of our highest ideals.
To so much as pose the question is to tempt metaphysics. In college I studied under the generation of academics who came along after Lewis and his friends. These were true seculars, the Enlightenment’s long-awaited children. To throw your hands skyward in their classes was to invite ridicule. They were this-worldly through and through. Of course, the pendulum has since swung back the other way and theological terms once again find a home in our academic discourse. (In continental philosophy circles fellow students use the word agape with impunity. They are confident that they know what it means, confident they know how to mean by it.)
I might welcome this turn-of-tide. College required a radical realignment of my sightlines, trained as they had been “not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” not on what is “temporary,” but on what is “eternal.” My most native intellectual climate (my Ithaca, say) is utterly other-worldy, and these recent trends in the academy forecast currents that could carry me home. So it’s against myself, against my heart’s longing, that I refuse to get on board. I no longer want part in a heaven that would demote human suffering to so many “light and momentary troubles,” whether or not they are “achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
Is it too bold to call Pauline logic a birthright? But it is mine, and so inescapable. Still, I disclaim it. In this I would usurp myself, though it means a kind of exile (Lear, V, iii).
And where does this exile find me but in those this-worldly histories N relates? None of us can be bothered to fight against what we don’t in some sense believe in, and my attraction to N’s work is patently born of my dissatisfactions.
Through the elisions of his analyses (those very caesuras I complained about), he effectively eschews any explanatory apparatus that might legitimate pain and thereby authorize violence. His is a criticism that keeps its course, a criticism of suffering without consolation.
I mean to own that the question that drives me (regarding the what and the whence of our highest ideals) is, at least in part, a quest for consolation (that insurance plan, Lewis, Descartes, and so many others drew up). I’m brought to the brink of metaphysics, but, loathe to take that step, I fall back. Or: I take that step, but—like everyone still living—find myself duped by the Cliffs of Dover. To fall from them is always and only to fall to back into this world, down upon one’s knees, “a miracle” by some accounts, but no such thing by most (Lear IV, vi).
* * *
In a long (and I fear ever-lengthening) article on Emmanuel Lévinas’ thought, I attempt a more thorough-going discussion of the relationship between our transcendental projections of peace and the permanent war of our political theater (between our highest ideals and their human inversions). Here, now, I’d like to bring these considerations back to King Lear and what was at stake between me and my friend on that long lakeshore run following the storm.
When I said what I said about the unloved child, I had a one-time student of mine in mind. Amy was fifteen when I met her. Her mother was addicted to methamphetamine, angry, and prone to physical violence. She urged Amy to get pregnant so she—Amy’s mother—could collect additional drug money from the state. The school administrators and I suspected her of prostituting Amy—a suspicion we couldn’t quite corroborate, but which we didn’t try too hard to, burnt out as we all were on a corrupt and incompetent system.
Amy would show up at school skinny, bruised, and bugging. We’d pull her aside and query her. She’d begin, “I know my momma loves me . . . ” And I—a barely-twenty-something with a rapidly-changing picture of the world—would want to scream, “Your mother doesn’t love you! This isn’t love!”
If I were still committed to that screaming voice in my head, still committed to what I said to my friend on that run, I might work out a logical defense of my dualism: ‘A mother loves her child’ is a meaningful proposition if and only if the inverse, ‘A mother does not love her child,’ might also in some cases obtain . . . But this is nightmare-speak. Horrors crowd the mind. Euripides’ Medea, Toni Morrison’s Sethe. Joan Didion reports—
. . . I also read, in the papers that came one day late from the mainland, the story of Betty Lansdown Fouquet, a 26-year-old woman with faded blond hair who put her five-year-old daughter out to die on the center divider of Interstate 5 some miles south of the last Bakersfield exit. The child, whose fingers had to be pried loose from the Cyclone fence when she was rescued twelve hours later by the California Highway Patrol, reported that she had run after the car carrying her mother and stepfather and brother and sister for “a long time.” (The White Album)
For want of love? Such stories dement love, oust it from its sense and us from our senses. So it was love, then? “O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; / No more of that” (Lear, III, iv). The questions slip our grasp.
* * *
Let me pull back, try another tack. At the turn of the 20th century, Anglican Bishop, Charles Gore finds ‘God is Love’ to be the most difficult scripture. Several decades later, in her T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, Helen Gardner responds “it is not at all difficult to believe” that God is Love, “if we only mean that the highest and best thing in the world we know is Love . . . ” She explains, ‘Love is God’ “raises no problems, for we are simply divinizing the highest moral value we have found in our experience.” According to Gardner, problems arise only “if by God we mean the Creator of all that is,” for how can we sanely set the seal of divinity on the stupidity, the fury, the pettiness and perversion we find everywhere about and within us? How can we call, all that, all that is, God’s work and the work of Love? Many of us can’t and won’t. Tallying its joys and its sorrows, we hasten to join Ivan in the ticket-return queue. We will affirm the world piecemeal (Gardner’s “highest and best thing”), but not en toto.
But which are its joys, and which are its sorrows? What is that ” highest and best thing” Gardner speaks of so certainly? (Have we all had it? Do we all know it? Would each of us recognize it if it came to us by night? Or would we like Psyche need to inspect it? And if we lit the lamp over its sleeping form would it fly from us, leaving us to wonder if that was Love at all?) I think of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” concluding in remorse: What did I know, What did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices? And of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” the grown-son’s recriminations rhyming with the child-son’s affections: You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt, / Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt. And I think of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—: every word a word of hate, even as the metered breath pants with desire. How, in any of these, are we to parse (are we to parse?) the ‘highest and best’ from the ‘lowest and worst,’ the love from the un-love, the heavenly-ideal from the earthly-real? It seems to me that in these matters, our most meticulous Manichaeism can only re-discover the problem.
* * *
My father and I rarely talk on the phone. We don’t seem to have much to say to one another. When we do talk, we debate, usually in generalities and abstractions, waxing philosophical rather than broaching the personal. The concrete, the particular, are unbearable to him. And I’m my father’s daughter.
He called me recently, asked what I was working on. I told him that I was writing about parents and children and messed up love. My father mused flatly, “Well, every parent wants what’s best for their child.” “You really think so?” I countered. “I know so,” he answered, his voice deepening slightly. “Parenting is an exercise in selflessness.” “Selflessness!?” “You heard me. Don’t parrot me.” He stopped then, checked his anger, continued, “Of course parents may be confused about how to love their children best, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love them. Parents can’t help but love their children. They do everything in their power, give everything they can to ensure their children’s happiness, safety, and well-being.” “But—“ I interrupted. “No ‘but’s. To be a parent is to love your child more than life itself. No parent harms their child on purpose.” “They do! All the time! You—” “No! You’re wrong, Catlin!” And for perhaps the first time in my life it occurred to me stop, to let it go, not out of fear of punishment or retribution, but out of care for him and whatever fantasies he clings to of himself. “Okay, dad. Parents love their kids.” We hung up shortly thereafter.
It’s easy enough to guess at what my father has staked in the purity of parental love. But what do I have staked in proving him wrong? I know my momma loves me. My daddy loves me too . . . In the name of what divine love do I denounce these human loves as broken? And why do I want to recognize myself as unloved? What emancipatory power is that shock supposed to afford me?
* * *
I take it that the news-story Didion cites is so terrible in part because the little girl is not abandoned by her mother alone. The mother drives off with the girl’s stepfather and siblings: Theirs is a car full of love. A villain, a monster, a sociopath (a person with no fellow-feeling) might commit any number of atrocities. But here we have a family, a tiny polity of love, establishing itself as N said it would by designating its its lone five-year-old enemy who doesn’t want to be an enemy, who wants to be a citizen, who runs after that car for “a long time,” until finally clinging to a fence.
One of Shakespeare’s many inventions is the introduction of villainy into tragedy. Iago, Gonereil, Regan and their like are distinctly Christian devils. (Milton learns from him: Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost. / Evil be thou my good.) As such, they are inconceivable on the Athenian stage. Note though that these modern devils do not by themselves make for tragedy. Shakespearean tragedy as much as Ancient Greek requires a hero on whom all good is not lost, whom remorse may still seize, who loves and is loved in return.
You’ll remember I asked what could be scandalous about an essay as patly academic as this. What I am scandalized by (stumbling over, ashamed of even) is its subtle but persistent (seemingly intractable, for all of my edits) claim that what Lear bears Cordelia is not in fact love. (I hear my own desperate voice crying, “That’s not love!”)
Late in the play, in a tent in the French camp at Dover, a suddenly lucid Lear recognizes his banished daughter. At the sound of her name on his lips, she weeps. He imagines her tears are a poison for him, a poison he offers to drink. He rushes to explain, “I know you do not love me,” and goes on, “You have some cause.” But Cordelia’s tears are not poison, and she protests, “No cause, no cause.” At this Lear falls back into madness. He asks, “Am I in France?” (IV, vii)
Lear knows his love for Cordelia to be illicit: unallowed, unallowable, impossible to express save as repression, denial, refusal, banishment. (To quote my friend, his love for Cordelia is an erotic bond, an attachment veering into identification.) Lear is not in France. He is in Britain, and still (though barely) Britain’s King. Asking “Am I in France?” he asks also “Am I – France,” in the King of France’s body as it were. For it’s only from within France’s husband-body that Lear can fantasize the fulfillment of his longing. (Which is why he fantasizes death—the death of his father-body—as a wedding night, and why he longs to die alone with Cordelia in prison (IV, vi).)
Cordelia loves her father according to her bond, “nor more nor less” (I, i) And how much is that exactly? Just like his kingdom, it will be at once too little and too much for Lear: too little to hold on to, and too much bear. I’m disinclined to make a Christ figure of Cordelia. I’d rather have her as a Jesus strung up un-risen, un-rising. We have no reason to believe that her love for her father isn’t colored as his is by longing, but unlike Lear she permits her love—however messed up—positive expression, she allows it a life in this world.
With alarming clarity, Lear declares, “You do not love me,” And to the degree that I respond, “He does not love her,” I participate on the play’s damning logic. I’ve called this logic a dualism, a Manichaeism. Now it seems to me also a form of contempt: contempt for messed-up-ness, and the messed-up-ness of love. With shame, Lear hides from what he has contempt for. And with pride he hides from his shame. He abdicates Cordelia, of course, and his kingdom, and with them his sanity, and these are his way of abdicating his life, this world, and everyone in it.
(Earlier I quoted Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, 4:16-18. These verses are memorable as life so often seems to call for their consolation. But they are terrible in that what consolation they offer can only amount to abdication. Here is Pauline contempt for this world, this world where love is muddled at best, murderous at worst; and here is Pauline praise for the next world, the next world where love is holy, and where for all we know nobody lives.)
What is the opposite of abdication? Etymologically, it’s declaration. But not any declaration will do. Declaring Amy unloved (if only in my head) I thought to preserve her from the burden of taking so much violence, so much suffering—all that, all that is—up into her concept of love. I thought to maintain for her some whole love above the fray of broken loves, that every broken love might be measured and discarded. Be careful. Don’t cut yourself. Here, throw it away.
With Cordelia in mind, I wonder if any of us so much as could believe ourselves to be unloved while also believing ourselves capable of loving. Cordelia is able to love Lear because she knows—in a knowledge beyond certainty, an acknowledgment or faith—that in spite of every violent betrayal he loves her. Here declaration exceeds itself as a ‘saying’ and comes to take on its full meaning as a ‘claiming’—it is an up-take, an in-gathering, an affirmation of what is. It begins to look like a holiness belonging to this world.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. I’m very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts.