When? represents a moment of fear in pain. We started with Aristotle’s insight that fear and shame arise from pain, disturbance, and “bad things.” Now we are at a point where representation of these processes folds back into itself in the same way that we’ve seen pain and disturbance circle like C.S. Lewis’s bomber flying over its target.
In the last post I attributed the metaphor of the loom of time to Ishmael. Moby-Dick scholars actually disagree whether Ahab or Ishmael speaks in this “Oh, grassy glades!” reflection. (Melville 373, fn. 1) If it’s Ishmael, he is still expressing Ahab’s thoughts.
In any case this synergetic interfolding of pain on itself and in its representation pops up not where you might expect it in the image of the loom, but in the way Ishmael-Ahab mixes his metaphor. Instead of continuing with the image of “mingled, mingling threads,” he asks “Where lies the final harbor, when we unmoor no more?” Even trapped in an endless, intolerable now, Ahab wants to know when it will end, but instead of Job’s image of the thread running out, Ahab looks for a “world, of which the weariest will never weary.”
I did read much of Moby-Dick while sitting next to Laura during her Avastin infusions. One powerful image of danger, fear, and when? is Ishmael’s “magical, sometimes horrible whale-line.” The whale-line is the rope attached to the harpoon. When struck with the harpoon the whale flees along the surface or dives, all the while pulling more and more of the line out behind it with great force and speed. The line goes the length of the boat, wrapping around “every man’s oar, so that it jogs against his wrist in rowing.” The line passes between the men as they sit across from each other. In this way “the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction,” snaring each oarsman “in its perilous contortions … [which] at any unknown instant … may … be put in play like ringed lightnings ….” While seated “amid these hempen intricacies,” “any son of mortal woman” must feel “a shudder that makes the very marrow in his bones to quiver in him like a shaken jelly.”
Later, as it advanced, Laura’s visual cut felt to me like that line—wrapping her “in its perilous contortions.” Because day-by-day Laura’s visual cut did not change very much, I felt the same way as Ishmael describing that line:
the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, … perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; … so the gracefull repose of the line … is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. Melville 228-229
As much as it seems unending, the now of pain becomes the question when? During those days in the bedroom, I kept asking myself when would this stop? When would she erupt again? When would the nurse call back and give us a way to make it stop? When should I call the nurse to get that call? There are no fixed boundaries between now! whew! and when?
Another example of the tension of waiting is to be found in Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary. Keilson’s use of metonymy in this scene is masterful. I do not have his artistry, but he conveys so well the feeling in the room I described where Laura, Paul and I met with the “team” of doctors. And I mean in the room, in the bare tile floors, the three institutional chairs pushed against the back wall, the examining chair, the locked cupboards. We felt that all shit was breaking loose, but we didn’t know when. This feeling “filled everything, and each detail” as we waited more than an hour for the radiation oncologist to show up, wanting more than ever to scream, but all Laura could do was cry. Like Keilson’s narrator, this image
remained and still remains deep in my memory. It was not fear, it was something much stronger and more definite than an emerging fear. You could feel it slowly approaching you and pressing upon your shoulders. You could kick out against it, clamp your teeth into it, or push against it. It was as real as the light switch and the fly and the old newspapers in the comer behind the curtain. (Keilson, Death 13)
(We will return to this scene when we discuss the “inescapable affliction” that it is describing)
In my post about the time she had a flat tire going around a jughandle, I noted that this was the only time in the 18 months of her illness that Laura spoke with me in tones of panic and fear. Hans Keilson vividly presents such fear in his other major novel Comedy in a Minor Key. The story revolves around the decision of a Dutch couple, Marie and Wim, to hide a Jewish man (Nico) on the run from the Nazis. In this scene, Marie has just told Nico about the arrest of the man who had brought him to stay with them. She sees
fear: the terrible helpless fear that rises up out of sadness and despair and is no longer attached to anything—the helpless fear that is tied only to nothingness. Not fear or anxiety or despair about a person or a situation, nothing, nothing, only the exposure, the vulnerability, being cast loose from all certainties, from all dignity and all love. (Keilson, Comedy 42-43)
I couldn’t see Laura over the phone, but I heard the “terrible helpless fear” that she had been “cast loose from all certainties.” Laura didn’t cry. She didn’t give up on getting where she was going. She was just there on the phone, in the same way that Nico stood “in the middle of the room, the focal point and bull’s-eye for all the poisoned arrows being shot at him from beyond life.” Like Marie, I realized that the person with whom I was speaking “was afraid, of course, for all of us,” for what worse things might have happened in the car, for what might happen next and when?, for Anne Mei, and for me. “Maybe not in that order exactly, but what’s the difference?”