My wife Laura died in the early morning hours of January 30, 2010. My reflections on the six years since then begin with an incident that occurred in October 2013 just before I began blogging.
Our daughter Anne Mei needed the apartment to work with her math tutor for the SAT. So I went to the Princeton Public Library and parked in an easy chair on the first floor, listening to Angela Hewitt playing Bach’s French Suites on my iPod, a hand-me-down from Anne Mei. After about an hour, a woman whom I hadn’t noticed in a chair nearby stood up to leave. She walked down the long aisle past the checkout desk into the lobby. She was brown-haired, slender, over 40, over 5’2”, wearing a long, dark cloth winter coat with brown boots and a leather brief case slung over her shoulder. She could have been Laura stopping after work, though Laura came here more often on Saturdays to wait while Anne Mei was at a ballet lesson at the Y.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d given up the role of forlorn widower more than a year before this incident. These things happen. We do run into people who look like someone we’ve lost. It brings tears of our eyes, but we go on with what we’re doing.
For that matter, I still talk with Laura at times, particularly about our daughter Anne Mei or our dog Toto. She would want to know good news. She deserves an explanation why I’m letting Anne Mei do something that she probably would not. I know Laura is not there to hear me, but it seems the right thing to do. George Bonanno reports that many widows, even some who do not believe in an afterlife, talk to their deceased spouses. His book The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss came out shortly before Laura died. I bought it while Laura was in hospice because I’d heard that he questioned the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Bonnano gave me scientific license to experience Laura’s dying and death in my own way, not to worry about what I should be feeling or whether I was going to be screwed up if I didn’t react according to some schedule. Now he gives me license to talk with Laura, six years after her death.
At least I didn’t start wearing Superman costumes after Laura died.
Recently This American Life broadcast an archive episode with the story of Mark Wyzenbeek, who started dressing as Superman two years after his wife died in a car accident. Mark didn’t just walk around his house with a Halloween costume on. He bought and made professionally tailored Superman outfits, which he wore around town. He would go into bars, go up to people and talk as if it was perfectly normal to go around dressed as Superman. Because he was so open about what he was doing, people generally enjoyed meeting Superman.
Mark explained to the interviewer why he was doing this.
I had never had anyone real close to me pass away before. Your grandparents, they’ve lived a full life and you’re expecting that. But someone so young and beautiful and with their whole life ahead of them, it just really hit me that she doesn’t have any more tomorrows. And I thought, well, I better start getting as much out of today– each today– as I can.
Luke Burbank the interviewer asked Mark if he was just trying to replace his wife or to fill in the void of her loss by playing Superman and Batman. Mark admitted that what he was doing certainly diverted his attention away from what he had lost, but he also felt connected with his wife.
I don’t know exactly how she would have taken it. I miss her a lot. I think of her every day. But the way I think of her now is that I just have a feeling that she’s out there and that she’s helping with this.
Because her husband John Gregory Dunne died so suddenly and traumatically, Joan Didion felt and behaved as if he was going to return home from the hospital at any moment. She called her memoir of this experience The Year of Magical Thinking. After the book had been out for a while, she enjoyed working with the production of a play. While she was in the theater, she felt as if she was spending time with her daughter Quintana, who had died in the interim.
My own magical thinking about Laura developed in two phrases: first, reflecting on a line in Amichai’s poem “Open Closed Open,” I imagined dying as a process of opening.
One of Laura’s friends Janet Beizer thought that my assertion “death opens” meant that Laura became more open during her illness. She did, as Janet observed during Laura’s last birthday party. But I wasn’t talking about the psychology of dying, nor the science. I meant it more metaphorically. Still I was serious that the poetry expressed a reality. The dying individual we called Laura opened up. When she was done, there would be no more entity called “Laura.” The dam burst, in Amichai’s words.
And every person is a dam between past and future.
When he dies the dam bursts, the past breaks into the future,
and there is no before or after. All time becomes one time
like our God: our Time is One.
Bless be the memory of the dam.
In “what if a much of a which of a wind,” e.e. cummings uses similar imagery to convey the experience of death in a catastrophe.
what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
bites this universe in two,
peels forever out of his grave
and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?
Blow soon to never and never to twice
(blow life to isn’t:blow death to was)
—all nothing’s only our hugest home,the most who die, the more we live.
Amichai and cummings use violent, explosive metaphors for the process of opening. In a poem often read at funerals, “Do not stand at my grave and weep,” Mary Frye uses softer, more gentle images. The voice in that poem expresses the experience of dying as opening, not closing. “I am a thousand winds that blow,/ … the diamond glints on snow,/ … the sun on ripened grain,/ … the gentle autumn rain,/ … the soft starlight at night.” Therefore, the speaker commands “Do not stand at my grave and cry” because “I am not there.” What was “I” is now open and everywhere and everything.
In early January 2010 when Jane Wood the hospice LPN started giving me two hours respite on weekdays, I made some crazy dashes down to Barnes and Noble in Market Fair to buy Bonnano and Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation and commentary on Master Linji—Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go. In the following months I read Linji mostly at bedtime. During one of Anne Mei’s violin lessons, however, I came across the following passage in Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary, and started to cry.
But the true person without position can’t be located in time and space. This doesn’t mean that the true person isn’t there, it’s just that the true person can’t be grasped. We try using the categories of time and space, coming and going, birth and death to grasp the true person. We can take hold of a rabbit, we can take hold of a cat, but we can’t take hold of the true person. The Buddha can’t be grasped. … Our true person has no position, is not inside or outside, is not tricked by birth and death, by coming and going, by having or not having, by what we do or don’t do. … Our true person is our own miraculous Buddha, present in our wonderful relationship with all things.
Laura may have opened and gone, but she is here in how I relate to Anne Mei, Toto and “all things.”
In a book that I read and re-read during the first year A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis argues against this view.
If [his late wife] H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there.
In other words, if there is no life after death, no immortal soul, then we were empty before death. He believes that since we weren’t empty before death, we aren’t empty afterwards.
C.S. Lewis feints in the direction of what’s called a “third man” argument against this emptiness, which he labels as “materialist vacuity” and “bankruptcy”.
But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms? I will never believe—more strictly I can’t believe—that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets.
Lewis, however, doesn’t follow through with an appeal to Aristotle’s infinite regress to dismiss this “nonsense.” Instead, Lewis just asserts a belief.
This third man argument does raise the question: if death opens, then with respect to whom/what is the deceased open? “With respect to” closes. We are talking about open without reference. “Per se” or “in itself” would be inappropriate terms. There are no footholds, either in the reality of being open or in language or in concept.
To open up without reference to anything, to open time (now) and space (no position), can be scary. In the month after Laura’s death, I also read Elizabeth Mattis Namgyels’ article “Open Stillness” in the Winter 2010 issue of Tricycle. She presents a powerful image from rock climbing: the image of hanging off a rock face, “the experience of being suspended on a rock and not seeing any possibilities for moving up or down.”
Hanging off a rock is an exaggerated experience of facing the unknown. It is exhilarating, scary, and completely vibrant. When we can’t find a foothold, the mind falls into an open stillness— the same brief pause we encounter in any situation where we lose our familiar reference points. If we have the wherewithal to relax, we find our way. If we don’t, we sometimes panic. … No one really knows what will happen from one moment to the next: who will we be, what will we face, and how will we respond to what we encounter? We don’t know, but there’s a good chance we will encounter some rough, unwanted experiences, some surprises beyond our imaginings, and some expected things, too. And we can decide to stay present for all of it.
That’s Elizabeth’s rock climbing advice. Let go of yourself and open to the empty space in which you are hanging. Then you’ll find your next step.
Chan Master Hongren quotes from The Nirvana Scripture to describe opening-without-reference more abstractly: “Space can contain everything, but space does not entertain the thought that it can contain everything.” (Take that C.S. Lewis.) He immediately brings this point into the realm of practice: “This is a metaphor for the disappearance of egoism and possessiveness ….”
We’re not talking about open as the opposite of closed. The opposite is relative. Here opening is not relative to any fixed point. Especially not open to/for us. Egoism and possessiveness disappear.
Another way to look at “death opens” is to consider the difference between exiting a space closed with a boundary and going over a horizon. James Carse writes:
Unlike a bound, a horizon does not have a fixed outer edge. It is not a line drawn by someone else, but the limit of one’s own vision. If we walk to the point where our vision was thought to end, the horizon will only have extended itself. Everything within the boundary has its identity, its definition, its proper place only because there are immovable limits. Nothing within a horizon can have a fixed definition. Every step taken alters the horizon, changes the field of vision, causing us to see what had been thus far circumscribed as something quite different.
I realize that “horizon” is still relative to a viewer, even though it’s not fixed and enclosing. I’m just exploring different angles on how to express this counterintuitive idea that dying opens. Here as in going over a horizon.
If all this poetic imagery bothers your scientific worldview, take “death opens” to mean that entropy wins. I must admit that reducing the process of open-close-open to the Second Law of Thermodynamics still seems to me to miss much of what’s going on.
So where is the consolation in this magical thinking? No consolation. Laura is gone. That’s just that’s the way it is
In the second phase of my magical thinking, I was looking for consolation, the consolation of consoling Laura in her final moments. I imagined that if I could “wake up,” open up into the present moment, I could somehow be with Laura in “now.”
In dying one opens and is no longer the closed, the separate unit. How is that opening different from what one finds while one is still living and becomes awake in the present moment, the now? If we have both opened such that there is no more I and thou, no more my now or your now, both just one in one now, we could be one in the now of dying. Many problems with the logic of this thinking, but it had a strong appeal.
By the time of Laura’s death, I had reached the point of questioning the word “enlightenment” in the translations of all the Buddhist suttas I had been reading. I thought that “awakening in the present moment” conveyed the suttas more clearly. For reasons I’ve described elsewhere I think that the current buzzword “mindfulness” distorts what is going on as we wake up. It’s interesting that English uses “wake” as a verb and “awakening” as a participle or gerund. It’s too bad that we don’t use “aware” as a verb so that it’s awkward to say “to aware” or “awaring” as some contemporary Buddhists have proposed.
Recently, Sarah Sutton’s comment on How fast does time fly? uses music to describe what I’m trying to express about waking presently.
I love that, in music, we have the privilege of making time ‘stand still’. Menuhin had a saying that he was fond of: “when you can play in time….only then can you play WITH time”. And when you are able to become one with sound, then time stops. It is the most magical experience.
I did recognize rather quickly that I was thinking more magically than philosophically. Even after recognizing that these were more magical thinking than philosophical insights, I spent a lot of time over the next two years immersed in the story of Orpheus who went to the underworld to bring back his wife Eurydice. A high point of this process was attending Glück’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice with Laura’s friend Sara Greenblatt.
Elsewhere I’ve also described Laura’s magical thinking in the way she said “I will miss you” to Anne Mei and me. She was grieving in speaking of remembering the future.
In our magical thinking Laura and I were each trying to get around/overcome/defeat time, each wanting to stay with each other after her time was up. The title of this essay comes from the closing monologue of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Tom Wingfield, the narrator in this play, wants to get as far away as possible from his mother and his sister. Simple physical distance won’t suffice.
The moon represents Tom’s dream of leaving home and becoming a great writer. Most evenings Tom goes to the movies to get out of the house. In the final scene, Tom tells his mother Amanda that he’s going to the movies again to escape her wrath over his inviting a “gentleman caller,” who is already engaged to be married, to meet his shy sister . Amanda accuses Tom of being selfish, to which he retorts: “The more you shout about my selfishness to me the quicker I’ll go, and I won’t go to the movies.” Amanda senses that Tom has made arrangements to leave soon. In fact, he told Jim the “gentleman caller” that he would be leaving the next day. So Amanda cries” “Go then! Go to the moon—you selfish dreamer!”
Tom storms out. The scene shifts to Amanda comforting her daughter in the background as Tom steps to the front of the stage. The audience can’t hear mother and daughter as Tom delivers a monologue about his life after leaving home. He picks up where his mother left off:
I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two places.
Tom was trying to put the greatest distance he could between himself and his home. Staying away for the rest of his life put him farther than any physical move could. He followed from then on in his father’s footsteps “attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.”
One of the entries in Strunk and White’s list of “words and expressions commonly misused” is “Farther, Further.” Many people for whom The Elements of Style has been their primary exposure to the art of writing use this list as their ticket to intellectual status or for conversational one-upmanship. I’ve been corrected because I said “This town has less employees than that town.” Strunk and White would have me say “This town has fewer employees that that town.” While I refrain from correcting people, I must admit that I often note when the word “further” is used in reference to extra distance in space, whereas The Elements of Style recommends “farther,” and vice versa.
Farther, Further. The two words are commonly interchanged, but there is a distinction worth observing: farther serves best as a distance word, further as a time or quantity word. You chase a ball farther than the other fellow; you pursue a subject further.
For some reason this recommendation stays with me even in conversation, but their stricture that “less should not be misused for fewer” only occurs to me when editing something I’ve written, and not always then.
To justify Tennessee Williams’ putting “further” into the mouth of his character on the grounds that he wrote as people actually speak might be valid, but it would leave out a key element of what Tom is saying and how Williams plays with time and space in this line and throughout Tom’s closing monologue.
Remembering and its underlying activity, imagining, get us from one spot to another, perhaps not physically, but effectively. In his stage directions for Scene One, Williams seems to describe remembering as almost unrealistic as wishing. When we wish we forget that we are imagining so wishing is less effective than remembering. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,”
The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominately in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.
Tom’s opening monologue to the audience says much the same, adding that “The play is memory. … In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.” In his closing monologue, however, Tom feels the power of remembering.
I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps too it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. … Oh, Laura, Laura I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!
He alludes to Laura’s constantly playing music on old phonograph records and to her collection of pretty glass figures, which her mother called “the glass menagerie.”
In a way Tom uses remembering as a form of wishing, in the same kind of self-indulgent sentimentality that Willie Nelson sings in “You were always on my mind.” Tom’s monologue works on the audience to include him in their sadness about the lives of his sister and mother. At least until they get out of the theater and realize that this unreliable narrator wants to deflect his mother’s charge that he was just selfish.
I did not really focus on the the name of Tom’s sister “Laura” until I was writing these reflections. Laura Wingfield’s character was very, very different from that of Laura Rivkin. There was some similarity in their infirmities, but Laura Rivkin faced them and did not let them hold her back. As far as we know, which is as far as Tom has bothered to find out, Laura Wingfield remains frozen in time and place, alone, listening to her records and playing with her glass menagerie.
Confucian Laura would want to be remembered, but Laura the scholar and critic would not want me to get self-satisfied with just remembering. She would say: “I’m still dead. Remembering doesn’t change that.”
As for imagining what Laura might say, only the living pretend to speak for the dead. One cannot describe one’s own death. One can describe the death of another, but only from the outside. The dying person “lives” her death, but can’t describe it. Not here, after the fact. We see it. We’re still here after the fact. We can describe what we see, but we don’t experience what the dying person experienced.
In his Vietnam war novel The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien is haunted by his childhood friend Linda, who died of a brain tumor at the age of nine. For him being dead is closed,
like being inside a book that nobody’s reading. … An old one. It’s up on a library shelf, so you’re safe and everything, but the book hasn’t been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody’ll pick it up and start reading. … I mean, when you’re dead, you just have to be yourself.
Speaking for the dead is another form of magical thinking. It often does not help either the living or the dead. As moving as it might be when read at graveside, Mary Frye’s poem “Do not stand at my grave and weep” can seem maudlin for this reason. Sometimes the living need not to speak “so not even a single act of remembering will seep in/and disturb memory’s eternal rest.” (Amichai)
Particularly disturbing is the false sentimentality of “You were always on my mind.” Or worse, the novel Atonement. Its narrator Briony deceives the reader until the end when she reveals that she’s been telling us a lie so that her dead sister could spend with the dead lover whom Briony had destroyed with a lie. The “sister” that Briony created meant nothing to the real sister, who didn’t live it, and didn’t even know of it. At the end of this essay I’ve appended my thoughts on Briony the liar, the pseudo-Orpheus.
Remembering and imagining what the dead might say looks back. Levinas tries to look forward into dying as opening.
Dying is agony because in dying a being does not come to an end while coming to an end.
If one wants to find a reason after the fact when everything seems settled, then this line was why I started and kept reading Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity during my mother’s final illness. I hadn’t gotten beyond the introduction in four previous attempts. My mother did not consider her life finished, even though she knew she was dying and even though she said her good-byes. She went peacefully and as she wanted, without futile medical intervention to treat an incurable condition. But after a heart attack a few months before she died, she started observing the dietary restrictions imposed by her cardiologist. Why do that when she was dying of a slow-growing tumor? She accepted the end (goal) of letting the tumor take its course, but she did not want any other condition to bring her to an end (stop) before that.
In Alphonso Lingis’ English translation of Levinas, there seems to be a play on these two meanings of “end.” Is Levinas saying that the dying person suffers because life is stopping without having reached one’s goals? As best I can determine from consulting various dictionaries, that tension is active in the verb se terminer in the original French: Le mourir est angoisse, parce que l’être en mourant ne se termine pas tout en se terminant.
But this is Emmanuel Levinas, Talmudic scholar and phenomenologist, . Nothing is ever that simple. Death is not just about time running out . It is very much about what Levinas calls “interiority,” which refuses to let go and just become part of the past. As tempted as I am, I will refrain from speaking of Levinas’ “interiority” as a self-subsisting entity grasping at its goals. That would probably misrepresent both Levinas and the Buddhist concept of self-subsistence, svabhava. I do want to focus on what he says about the openness of the projects, the goals, the ends in “the mysterious time that yet remains” after death. After death, “what ‘still remains’ is totally different from the future that one welcomes, that one projects forth and in a certain measure draws from oneself.” Levinas sees this opening, this “impossibility of the possible,” as “suffocating.” We mentioned how opening can be terrifying, but I wonder if Levinas feels this fear of opening as “suffocation” because he’s still thinking of a “being” with “interiority” who is attached to its selfhood.
The death agony is precisely in this impossibility of ceasing, in the ambiguity of a time that has run out and of a mysterious time that yet remains; death is consequently not reducible to the end of a being. What ‘still remains’ is totally different from the future that one welcomes, that one projects forth and in a certain measure draws from oneself. For a being to whom everything happens in conformity with projects, death is an absolute event, absolutely a posteriori, open to no power, not even to negation. Dying is agony because in dying a being does not come to an end while coming to an end; he has no more time, that is, can no longer wend his way anywhere, but thus he goes where one cannot go, suffocates—how much longer….
C.S. Lewis also wonders about his wife who has gone “where one cannot go.”
Where is she now? That is, in what place is she at the present time. But if H is not a body—and the body I loved is certainly no longer she—she is in no place at all. And ‘the present time’ is a date or point in our time series. It is as if she were on a journey without me and I said, looking at my watch, ‘I wonder is she at Euston now.’ But unless she is proceeding at sixty seconds a minute along the same timeline that all we living people travel by, what does now mean? If the dead are not in time, or not in our sort of time, is there any clear difference when we speak of them, between was and is and will be?
What C.S. Lewis is pointing towards is not subject to his will. He tries to express this “resistance” through closure, facticity, fixity, as opposed to the malleability of the memory of her, as opposed to the “reality” of her in life, constantly changing and challenging every attempt to fix her in an idea or set of ideas, thoughts. While we’re alive, we can always do something about “it.” Once we’re dead, “it” is done.
While Laura was writing her life, her “reality” put a check on my perceptions, memories, imagination. Her “actual presence” confronted my “mental image.” This is the mirror image of looking at death as opening, life as closing. The past life of the deceased is now fixed, whereas before it was fluid, open. Not “resistant” to my imagining, just constantly escaping my attempts to capture the living Laura.
I will admit, if it’s not obvious by now, that when it comes to the question whether our mind is a mirror of or a lamp into the world-other-than-the-mind, I lean towards the lamp. Yet, both the mirror and the lamp assume that there is a world-other-than-the-mind that is not just a product of the mind. On the other hand, we are part of that world and involved in its making, not merely shining a light on it. As Francisco Varela says,
biological cognition in general was not to be understood as a representation of the world out there but rather as an ongoing bringing-forth of a world, through the very process of living itself.
Now that Laura is dead, I’m the one writing the composition, the narrative. It’s my performance now. Hers is over, no matter how much I make mine about her. I can’t perform for her. I can’t substitute my performance for hers. Her narrative performance in life was not only hers, it was for her. She was aware of her performance. She remembered it. She critiqued it, edited and improved it, both in her performance and in the recording of that performance in her mind. My widower performance is not for her at all, much less is it hers any more. The challenge, then, is to see how for Laura this closure opens anything.
Implicitly that challenge reverts back to making open relative to close, attempting to close off opening by finding how opening matters to Laura. The opening of death is not relative because there is no person remaining to be opened. Opening in death is not positive or negative, good or bad, true or false, real or imaginary. There is no “or” (you or me) any more, just as there is no “for” (for me, for you). That matters more than no “by” (me) or “in” (you) which are the usual foci when considering death.
For me the project (the end, the limit, the close) is to arrive at this open opening before my body does it for me.
These reflections on the perils of speaking for the dead remind me of Linji’s advice:
My friends, if you wish to have correct insight into the truth, do not allow others to deceive you. Whatever comes to you, either from the outside or within you, you should kill it immediately. If you meet Buddha, kill the Buddha. … Do not allow things to bind you, and you will be free and at ease. … Buddha and master are just verbal expressions, which people bind themselves up in.
More gently, you don’t have to believe everything you think.
In a 2011 Tricycle article, Larry Rosenberg tells the story of a Zen master’s response to a student’s question on how to meditate when it’s too hot or to cold.
[T]he Zen master says, ‘Kill hot, kill cold,’ [meaning] to kill the concept ‘hot,’ kill the concept ‘cold.’ The temperature is just what it is. … ‘When it’s hot, the Buddha just sweats. When it’s cold, the Buddha just shivers.’ ‘Well, how is that wisdom? I sweat and I shiver.’ He answers, ‘You missed the word “just.”‘ What this teaching is saying is, no one denies that you’re hot and that you’re sweating. You just don’t have to turn it into torment by adding anything to it.
The reality in dying? Kill death! Kill life! Laura’s death is in the past. It is just an idea. It is not real. Laura’s absence is present, is real. Her absence is real as the adverb not is real, unlike the reality referred to by the noun nothing. This is what C.S. Lewis doesn’t understand.
More gently. Just die. Just live.
I’m learning the answers to Orfeo’s questions in the aria Che farò senza Euridice? What wilI I do without Eurydice? Just live. Where will I go without her? Just here.
I’ve never “moved on” from Laura, but I haven’t stopped living and loving others. Perhaps by “move on” people mean to stop feeling sad, hurt, or just uncomfortable. That assumes that talking and writing about Laura’s illness and death makes me sad or causes me pain. They are projecting their discomfort with these topics on to someone like me who thought that asking a new acquaintance about how her husband died would make for table talk. Yes, I may have been somewhat blöde thick, but more to the point here, I was and am quite comfortable talking about, hearing about, reading about, and thinking about death and dying. Among many, many other topics. Not all the time. But I don’t avoid death when the subject comes up.
It pleases me to write about painful parts of our lives together, not because I enjoy pain, but because I enjoy working on putting that experience into words. My obsession is in getting the words right, not in trying to hold on to a Laura who is gone.
Another text I studied in the months after Laura died was the Udana, a collection of the Buddha’s “exclamations.” It was there I found one of my favorite images of the effectiveness of opening: rain does not fall on the house with no roof. As the sixth anniversary of Laura’s death approached this week I started reading a newer translation of the Udana by the English monk Geoffrey DeGraff, whose religious name is Thanissaro Bhikkhu. His introduction talks about the “savor” of this work, a concept that helps explain my comfort with writing about dying.
The reader or listener exposed to the presentation of these emotions did not participate in them directly; instead, he/she savored them as an aesthetic experience at one remove from the emotion. Thus, the savor of grief is not grief but compassion. The savor of energy is not energy itself but admiration for heroism. The savor of love is not love but an experience of sensitivity. The savor of astonishment is a sense of the astounding. The proof of the indirectness of the aesthetic experience was that some of the basic emotions were decidedly unpleasant, while the savor of the emotion was to be enjoyed.
The narrator of Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary expresses a similar stance:
One does not get over a loss. One takes it into oneself and lives with it in ever closer familiarity—or it gets stuck as a chicken bone in one’s throat.
With these reflections on the last six years, I’m just getting up close, familiar with Laura’s death. While that event marks the beginning of this phase in my life, it does not define it. One practice that helps me to live openly with and for others is to be open with her suffering and death. By savoring grief we can cultivate the ability to love others.
An afterthought on Briony the pseudo-Orpheus, who creates a phony time and fills it with a phony narrative about her sister and her sister’s love.
Briony is a writer. Briony spins a yarn that rescues her sister and her lover from the underworld, but only for a time in the minds of the ignorant viewers and readers.
The ending of Atonement is a tour de force of saccharine self-justifying, self-deception in which Briony tries to draw the reader into her charade. She claims that we readers would not be persuaded by the “pitiless” previous versions that told the truth about the death of her sister and her lover. There would be no purpose served by the telling us what really happened. She argues:
What sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? … Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?” Poor Briony says, “I couldn’t do it to them.” Why not? The answer is all about Briony, not them. “I’m too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I not longer possess the courage of my pessimism.
When the narrator and the other real criminal co-conspirators “are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions. Briony will be as much a fantasy as the lovers” who were reunited in Briony’s tale. So, what’s the harm with indulging in romantic dreams? As for the reader who asks
what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.
It is interesting that Cocteau, among others, focuses on Orpheus the artist. Eurydice only matters as a creation of the artist, and the artist comes first. Some versions even make Orpheus’ descent about retrieval of his artistic inspiration, or the fleeting thought that he forgot to write down.
Briony poses the problem of how can the artist save the artist. How can the artist who committed the crime “achieve atonement” through her art “when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?”
Since there are no higher powers, no one outside to appeal to, to reconcile with, or to forgive her, no one else to “set the limits and the terms,” there is “[n]o atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”
Describing her sister as “fortuitous” and throwing in “even if they are atheists” are meaningless gratuitous flourishes meant to add to the high-minded tone of this piece of self-serving claptrap. Modern audiences are said to laugh at Admetus’ similarly dense speech about how much he has suffered from Alcestis’ death. Why, then, does Briony on the page and on the screen bring so many to tears, including mine the first time I saw the movie?
She continues, “I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unit them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.” And then she ends by trying to entice the reader with the possibility of the fantasy she could have created with the lovers in attendance at her final birthday party. We should feel sorry for her. She’s too old and tired to carry through. “But now I must sleep.”
Elsewhere I’ve mentioned that Styron and his narrator Stingo were conscious that they were trying to make art out of the horror inflicted on others. Unlike McEwan and Briony, neither Styron nor Stingo were perpetrators of the torments they were transforming into art. The closing scene in Sophie’s Choice evokes some discomfort because the reader and movie viewer know that they are being manipulated by words that are totally fiction and a tableau that is very artfully staged. In the book, Stingo examines the stack of records to which Sophie and Nathan listened as they died. It included Che farò senza Euridice? Still, on critical reflection, the reader/viewer of Sophie’s Choice does not resist, does not pull back, does not feel any shame at the pleasurable tears arising from participating in such poignant sadness. Briony just leaves the self-reflecting reader/viewer feeling slightly ashamed at indulging in “poignography”