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A Burst of Light: Audre Lorde on Turning Fear Into Fire

“I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.”

A Burst of Light: Audre Lorde on Turning Fear Into Fire

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” Toni Morrison exhorted in considering the artist’s task in troubled times. In our interior experience as individuals, as in the public forum of our shared experience as a culture, our courage lives in the same room as our fear — it is in troubled times, in despairing times, that we find out who we are and what we are capable of.

That is what the great poet, essayist, feminist, and civil rights champion Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores with exquisite self-possession and might of character in a series of diary entries included in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library).

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

Seventeen days before she turned fifty, and six years after she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, Lorde was told she had liver cancer. She declined surgery and even a biopsy, choosing instead to go on living her life and her purpose, exploring alternative treatments as she proceeded with her planned teaching trip to Europe. In a diary entry penned on her fiftieth birthday, Lorde reckons with the sudden call to confront the ultimate fear:

I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.

“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” the poet Mark Strand, born within weeks of Lorde, wrote in his stunning ode to mortality. Exactly a month after her diagnosis, with the medical establishment providing more confusion than clarity as she confronts her mortality, Lorde resolves in her journal:

Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun.

By the spring, she had lost nearly fifty pounds. But she was brimming with a crystalline determination to do the work of visibility and kinship across difference. She taught in Germany, immersed herself in the international communities of the African Diaspora, and traveled to the world’s first Feminist Book Fair in London. “I may be too thin, but I can still dance!” she exults in her diary on the first day of June. She dances with her fear in an entry penned six days later:

I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.

Echoing Dr. King’s abiding observation that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” she adds:

I am saving my life by using my life in the service of what must be done. Tonight as I listened to the ANC speakers from South Africa at the Third World People’s Center here, I was filled with a sense of self-answering necessity, of commitment as a survival weapon. Our battles are inseparable. Every person I have ever been must be actively enlisted in those battles, as well as in the battle to save my life.

Audre Lorde from Literary Witches, an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers.

Two days later, as the opaqueness of her prospects thrusts her once again into maddening uncertainty, she redoubles her resolve to let fear be her teacher of courage:

Survival isn’t some theory operating in a vacuum. It’s a matter of my everyday living and making decisions.

How do I hold faith with sun in a sunless place? It is so hard not to counter this despair with a refusal to see. But I have to stay open and filtering no matter what’s coming at me, because that arms me in a particularly Black woman’s way.

In a sentiment that parallels Rosanne Cash’s courageous navigation of uncertainty in the wake of her brain tumor diagnosis, Lorde adds:

When I’m open, I’m also less despairing. The more clearly I see what I’m up against, the more able I am to fight this process going on in my body that they’re calling liver cancer. And I am determined to fight it even when I am not sure of the terms of the battle nor the face of victory. I just know I must not surrender my body to others unless I completely understand and agree with what they think should be done to it. I’ve got to look at all of my options carefully, even the ones I find distasteful. I know I can broaden the definition of winning to the point where I can’t lose.

Echoing French philosopher Simone Weil’s bold ideas on how to make use of our suffering, Lorde writes three days later:

We all have to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboys’ world. I want desperately to live, and I’m ready to fight for that living even if I die shortly. Just writing those words down snaps every thing I want to do into a neon clarity… For the first time I really feel that my writing has a substance and stature that will survive me.

Signature from Audre Lorde’s correspondence with the Academy of American Poets

Beholding the overwhelming response to her just-released nonfiction collection, Sister Outsider — the source of her now-iconic indictment against silence — Lorde reflects:

I have done good work. I see it in the letters that come to me about Sister Outsider, I see it in the use the women here give the poetry and the prose. But first and last I am a poet. I’ve worked very hard for that approach to living inside myself, and everything I do, I hope, reflects that view of life, even the ways I must move now in order to save my life.

I have done good work. There is a hell of a lot more I have to do. And sitting here tonight in this lovely green park in Berlin, dusk approaching and the walking willows leaning over the edge of the pool caressing each other’s fingers, birds birds birds singing under and over the frogs, and the smell of new-mown grass enveloping my sad pen, I feel I still have enough moxie to do it all, on whatever terms I’m dealt, timely or not. Enough moxie to chew the whole world up and spit it out in bite-sized pieces, useful and warm and wet and delectable because they came out of my mouth.

Over the following year, Lorde continued asking herself the difficult, beautiful questions that allowed her to concentrate the laser beam of her determination and her purpose as an artist and cultural leader into a focal point of absolute clarity. In a diary entry from October of 1985, several months after her daughter’s hard-earned graduation from Harvard, she wonders:

Where does our power lie and how do we school ourselves to use it in the service of what we believe?

[…]

How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future? All of our children are prey. How do we raise them not to prey upon themselves and each other? And this is why we cannot be silent, because our silences will come to testify against us out of the mouths of our children.

In early December, she resolves with magmatic determination:

No matter how sick I feel, I’m still afire with a need to do something for my living.

[…]

I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my noseholes — everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!

Lorde lived nearly another decade after her diagnosis, during which she was elected Poet Laureate of New York State. In an African naming ceremony performed in the Virgin Islands shortly before her death at the age of fifty-eight, she took the name Gamda Adisa — “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.”

Complement this particular portion of A Burst of Light, an explosive read in its totality, with Alice James on how to live fully while dying, Descartes on the vital relationship between fear and hope, and Seneca on overcoming fear, then revisit Lorde on the indivisibility of identity and the courage to break silence.

BP

A Burst of Delight and Recognition: E.E. Cummings, the Art of Noticing, and the Spirit of Rebellion

“Cummings despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.”

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras memorably wrote. Half a century earlier, a young poet began teaching the world this art, and teaching us to question what is seen, then made another art of that questioning. In E. E. Cummings: A Life (public library), memoirist, biographer, and journalist Susan Cheever chronicles the celebrated poet’s “wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.”

Cheever considers the three ways in which modernists like Cummings and his coterie — which included such icons as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp — reshaped culture:

Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.

One can’t help but feel the particular timeliness, today, of the third — how often are we offered “a burst of delight and recognition” in our culture of monotonously shrill linkbait as we struggle to glean any semblance of wisdom in the age of information? Cummings knew that equally essential was the capacity to notice the invitation to experience that burst — a capacity ever-shrinking, ever-urgently longed for in our age of compulsive flight from stillness — and he made an art of that noticing. Cheever writes:

[The modernists] were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.

(Cummings’s name itself provides tragicomic evidence of our modern hubris in flaunting half-understood, partially correct “facts” — while many people believe, and some would adamantly insist, that the only acceptable spelling of the poet’s name is lowercase, he himself used both lowercase and capitalized versions in signing his work; in fact, he capitalized more frequently than not.)

Cummings cultivated this art of noticing one’s own life with emboldening tenacity. Despite being one of the most popular poets of the 1950s and 1960s, Cheever writes, Cummings lived in a tiny, dilapidated Greenwich Village apartment and often struggled to make rent. And yet, “this bothered Cummings not at all”:

He was delighted by almost everything in life except for the institutions and formal rules that he believed sought to deaden feelings.

Indeed, the spirit of rebellion against institutions was central to Cummings’s character and permeated his art. Cheever met Cummings in 1958, toward the end of “his brilliant and controversial forty-year career as this country’s only true modernist poet,” when he did a reading at the “uptight girls’ school” where she was an unhappy teenager “with failing grades.” Cummings was a friend of her father’s — the famed novelist John Cheever — so the evening of the reading ended with the trio sharing a car ride together, during which Cummings delighted himself and his companions by making fun of young Susan’s teachers:

He said the place was more like a prison than a school. It was a hatchery whose goal was to produce uniformity. I was unhappy there? No wonder! I was a spirited and wise young woman. Only a mindless moron (Cummings loved alliteration) could excel in a place like that. What living soul could even survive a week in that assembly line for obedient girls, that pedagogical factory whose only purpose was to turn out so-called educated wives for upper-class blowhards with red faces and swollen bank balances?

When the small party stopped to grab a bite at a burger joint, the two men proudly shared a flask to spike their coffee, but Cheever recalls being “already drunk on a different kind of substance — inspiration” as she fathomed for the first time the idea that authority is to be questioned, that “being right was a petty goal,” and that “being free was the thing to aim for.” Noting that “history has given us very few heretics who have not been burned at the stake,” she anoints Cummings her generation’s “beloved heretic, a Henry David Thoreau for the twentieth century.” (Thoreau, of course, was the grand master of the art of noticing.) Cheever writes of Cummings’s ennobling heretical sensibility:

In his almost three thousand poems he sometimes furiously, sometimes lovingly debunked anything or anyone in power — even death, in his famous poem about Buffalo Bill, with its spangled alliterations and intimate last lines: “and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death.”

Cummings despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.

Illustration from the little-known fairy tales Cummings wrote for his only daughter, whom he almost lost. Click image for story.

Both the great irony and the great affirmation of Cummings’s spirit of rebellion against culture’s soul-deadening institutions is that he grew up with parents who were “Harvard royalty,” was educated at the iconic institution himself, and even stayed an extra year after graduation to earn a master’s degree in Classics. But he also — and perhaps precisely because of that brush with privilege — exiled himself from the Cambridge community and only returned, reluctantly, shortly before his death thirty years later. Cheever writes of the formative act of rebellion that was his self-expulsion:

His self-imposed exile from Cambridge — a town he had come to hate for its intellectualism, Puritan uptightness, racism, and self-righteous xenophobia — had seemed necessary for him as a man and as a poet. Soon after his 1915 class lecture and after serving in World War I, Cummings had permanently fled to sexy, law-breaking Greenwich Village, where he could hang out with other modernist poets like Marianne Moore, talk with writers like Hart Crane, be admired by Dylan Thomas and Edna St. Vincent Millay, have an affair with another man’s wife, go to burlesque performances at the National Winter Garden, and ask William Carlos Williams for medical advice.

Even though he wrote in one early poem that “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls / are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds,” the reason for his eventual return was that he was offered the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard — the same prestigious yearlong lectureship that produced Calvino’s unforgettable final legacy and over the years featured such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges, T.S. Eliot, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and Umberto Eco. But while Cummings took the gig, he brought to it his own rules and co-opted its conventions for his mission of rebellion.

When 58-year-old Cummings arrived at Harvard that fall, wearing a neck-to-hip corset prescribed by his doctor that he called “the Iron Maiden,” he left no doubts as to his irreverence. He titled what he was about to deliver “nonlectures” and lived up to the promise by delivering them with the same galvanizing, acrobatic, highly performative technique he had developed for his poetry readings. Cheever captures the mesmeric mischief of Cummings’s presence at Harvard by quoting one woman, then a Radcliffe student dragged to the lecture by her mother:

There was a hush when he walked out onto the stage. He was enchanting, captivating, and magnetic. He was very virile and sexual on the stage. I think he made some of the men uncomfortable.

Despite having anguished over whether or not to accept the lectureship, and having almost cancelled it on several occasions, Cummings, according to his wife Marion, never worked harder on anything. Perhaps he saw them as a way to solidify what he stood for, to claim position as a generation’s “beloved heretic” and claim it from within the walls of the institution that stood for the very authority he had made an art of defying and deriding. Cheever writes:

Everything he stood for— a puncturing of pretension, an openness to adventure, a deliciously uncensored attitude when it came to sex, a sly sense of humor fueled by a powerful defiance — is in his opening phrases. He stood at the lectern under the fifty-foot carved ceilings and won the hearts of the audience in a few words. “Let me cordially warn you, at the opening of these so called lectures, that I haven’t the remotest intention of posing as a lecturer.”

Exactly ten years later, he died in the same defiant spirit. Cheever recounts the bittersweet story her father so loved telling:

Marion had called him in to dinner as day faded and the glorious sky lit up with the fires of sunset. “I’ll be there in a moment,” Cummings said. “I’m just going to sharpen the axe.” A few minutes later he crumpled to the ground, felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. He was sixty-seven. That, my father let us all know, was the way to die— still manly and useful, still beloved, still strong. “‘how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death,’ ” my father growled, his eyes wet with tears.

In the remainder of the altogether entrancing E. E. Cummings: A Life, Cheever goes on to explore the beliefs, irreverences, and experiences that coalesced into the character of this extraordinary man who rebelled through the art of noticing and who continues to bewitch us with his undying “burst of delight and recognition.”

Complement it with the little-known story of Cummings’s only children’s book, which he wrote for the daughter he almost lost, this enchanting album of seventeen songs based on his poems, and the poet’s magnificent reading of “anyone lived in a pretty how town.”

BP

The Light of the World: Elizabeth Alexander on Love, Loss, and the Boundaries of the Soul

“Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.”

The Light of the World: Elizabeth Alexander on Love, Loss, and the Boundaries of the Soul

“I am not saying that we should love death,” urged Rilke in his clarion call for befriending our mortality, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” Nearly a century later, Elizabeth Alexander — one of the greatest poets of our time, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” welcomed Barack Obama into his presidency and made her only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, joining such legendary dyads as Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy — invigorates Rilke’s proclamation as she bears witness to the vertiginous tango of these odd companions, death and love.

This she chronicles with uncommon elegance in The Light of the World (public library) — her soul-stretching memoir of how Ficre, the love of her life and her husband of fifteen Christmases, an artist and a chef, a blueberries-and-oatmeal-eating yogi and proud self-proclaimed “African ox,” collapsed while running on the treadmill in their basement. He was dead before his body hit the ground, four days after his fiftieth birthday — a death that Alexander and her two young sons had to somehow comprehend and fold into their suddenly disorienting aliveness. What emerges is a remarkable atlas of loss — a violent remapping of inner life, which Alexander ultimately transmutes into a cartography of love.

Art from The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, an illustrated fable about love and loss

From the very opening lines, her writing flows with the undramatic weight and piercing precision of emotional truth:

The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.

Indeed, embedded in her remembrance is a meditation on love itself:

Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.

What more beautiful a definition of love is there — in all of humanity’s centuries of seeking to capture its essence — than the gift of making life possible for one another? One of the most poignant aspects of the book, in fact, deals with the forcible disentwining of their two possibilities as the impossibility of death wedges itself between them.

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf memorably admonished. “Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet under Alexander’s lucid and luminous sidewise gaze, the soul is summoned to reveal itself rather than vaporizing. She writes:

Henry Ford believed the soul of a person is located in their last breath and so captured the last breath of his best friend Thomas Edison in a test tube and kept it evermore. It is on display at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, like Galileo’s finger in the church of Santa Croce, but Edison’s last breath is an invisible relic.

Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there. And then in the ambulance, riding the long ride down to the hospital, even as they worked and worked, the first icy-wind blew into me: he was going, or gone.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll marveled at this mystery, Alexander considers the boundary between the body and the soul:

When I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre.

When I held him in the hospital as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself.

When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us.

His body was colder than it had been, though not ice-cold, nor stiff and hard. His spirit had clearly left as it had not left when we found him on the basement floor and I knew that he could hear us.

Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.

She speaks to this evanescence beautifully, addressing Ficre directly and in the same breath addressing everything that ever was and ever will be, the interconnectedness of all things, which is the very essence of the thing we call a soul:

Where are you? You are part of this storm, this wind, this rain, these leaves. Plants will one day grow from your bones in the Grove Street Cemetery, my empty dirt bed next to you.

I imagine your grave one day spontaneously covered with peonies, my favorite flower, the one you planted for me and which bloomed reliably on my birthday, May 30, every year.

[…]

Ficre in the bright leaves that have been falling from the trees in the afternoon light.

Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from ‘Jane, the Fox, and Me’ by Fanny Britt. Click image for more.

The subject of the everywhere-and-nowhere soul reappears as Alexander recounts how Ficre’s mother exited her own life:

My mother-in-law’s last night on earth, a fox crossed our path in Branford, Connecticut, as we left the hospice. We knew somehow that it was her… Do I believe that? Yes, I do. Poetic logic is my logic. I do not believe she was a fox. But I believe the fox was a harbinger. I believe that it was a strange enough occurrence that it should be heeded.

Between the lines of a favorite poem — Lucille Clifton’s lyrical meditation on her own husband’s death, which includes the lines “rising and turning / through my skin, / there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things / themselves” — Alexander rediscovers this transmutation of energies as life and death waltz across the expanse of existence:

Death itself is like a snake shedding its skin… A new self reveals itself when the old carapace has shed and died, as though we live in exoskeletons with something truer underneath… What we see with our eyes is different from what we know: “The things / themselves.”

The mirrored mutuality of love and loss reveals itself again as Alexander returns to this notion of invisible essences in reflecting on the calling that most animated Ficre:

To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.

Among the most mesmerizing of these invisibilia is the irremediable enigma of nonexistence:

What a profound mystery it is to me, the vibrancy of presence, the realness of it, and then, gone. Ficre not at the kitchen table seems impossible.

It is in the silent solace of the peonies that Alexander finds the promise of reconciliation between this vibrancy of presence and the incomprehensible dullness of nonexistence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Thomas Mann’s assertion that “the perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life,” she writes:

This year, the peonies are magenta and white, and they blow open as big as toddlers’ heads, and soon they are spent and rotten, their petals brown and withered in the ground. Over and done until next year.

[…]

Flowers live, they are perfect and they affect us; they are God’s glory, they make us know why we are alive and human, that we behold. They are beautiful, and then they die and rot and go back to the earth that gave birth to them.

[…]

What is left of Ficre has a different form now. It is less sharp, more permeating, more essence, more distilled. It is less his body here, his body there, and more, he is the ground beneath us and the air we breathe.

This dance between the difference and sameness of forms comes alive in another aspect of the book: Sprinkled throughout it are recipes for Ficre’s favorite meals from his chef days, emanating a beautiful resonance with Alexander’s own craft — for the recipe form and the poetic form both effect something miraculously beautiful and nourishing with a great economy of language and proportion.

‘Man as Industrial Palace,’ a 1926 diagram by Fritz Kahn. Click image for more.

Embedded in Alexander’s memoir is also a subtle but unshakable reminder that we know almost as little about the machinery of the body as we do about the mystery of the soul. She cites one cardiologist who explained Ficre’s death by asserting that “the stress of growing up in war and being a refugee affected his heart.” (The Eritrean War of Independence broke out in Ficre’s homeland shortly before his birth.) How jarring to consider that this much spiritual speculation goes into the supposed exact science of Western medicine — speculation that not only exposes how little we know but borders on superstition, invoking Wole Soyinka’s memorable meditation on Western medicine and African mysticism. With an eye to this vast expanse of unknowns, Alexander writes:

The earth that looks solid is, in fact, a sinkhole, or could be. Half of things are as they seem. The other half, who knows.

Perhaps Western medicine’s pathological reliance on euphemism, particularly in the face of death, is one symptom of our troubled relationship with the unknown and the unknowable — a tenuous hedge against the mystery of it all. Alexander speaks to this with aching elegance:

He was probably dead before he hit the ground, the emergency room doctor and the coroner and a cardiologist I later speak with tell me. That is why there was no blood on the floor, despite his head wound and the scalp’s vascularity. He might have felt strange, the doctors told me, before what they call “the cardiac event,” but not for more than a flash. One tells me he is certain Ficre saw my face as he died. We are meant to take comfort in this knowledge, if knowledge it is.

The knowledge of truth, Alexander suggests, comes in many forms and if there is a membrane between the practical and the poetic at all, between the scientific and the spiritual, it is porous and permeable. Although neither she nor her husband had religion present in their adult lives, she finds herself unexpectedly corralled into the spiritual path by the squeeze of sorrow:

Sorrow like vapor, sorrow like smoke, sorrow like quicksand, sorrow like an ocean, sorrow louder and fuller than the church songs, sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go.

[…]

I did not grow up in the black church, nor with the Negro spirituals. Now I understand them as never before. Their poetry feels pure and profound. I been in sorrow’s kitchen and done licked out all the pots. Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.

Art by William Blake for Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’ Click image for more.

Half a century after Flannery O’Connor discerned the difference between religion and faith, Alexander considers the other role of religion — religion not as a public institution in the service of dogma but as a private institution in the service of the human quest for meaning:

What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? … Art is certainly my religion. I believe in the chosen family, especially as I get older. I believe in some kind of encompassing black culture that I am part of — “syncretic,” to use the word Ficre liked — but I am also aware of the romance behind that sense of belonging. I am feeling very Jewish, I keep hearing in my head, thinking not of my actual Jewish Jamaican great-grandfather but rather about a wish for a religious culture that reveres the word and tells you what to do: Rosh Hashanah. Days of Awe. Invite the dead to Sukkot. There seems to be a poetic ritual for everything… I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.

She revisits the allure of the old gospel songs, particularly “How I Got Over” by Mahalia Jackson — one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorites. In fact, it was Jackson who, during a momentary lapse in his iconic speech, famously prompted Dr. King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” (The daughter of politically active parents, Alexander grew up in Washington, D.C., and at the age of one stood at the Mall of Washington alongside her parents as Dr. King heeded Jackson and told the world about his dream.)

As she recounts an exchange with her younger son, Alexander returns once more to the question of the soul, shining her sidewise gleam on yet another dimension of it:

I hope you’re not turning all Christian, Simon says, when he comes home and finds me uncharacteristically blaring gospel music. I am not, but I am listening to Mahalia Jackson in a whole new way. How I got over, My soul looks back in wonder, I hear it for the very first time. The gratitude in that song is what washes over me, the word thank repeated over and over. My soul does indeed look back in wonder; I had Ficre; I have Ficre; I have these extraordinary children; I have a village; I have an art-form; I am black; we are African; we come from survivors and doers; my parents are wise and strong; my body is strong; I was loved without bound or condition; I exist in time and in context, not floating in space; my troubles are small compared to some; my troubles are not eternal; my days are not through.

[…]

Who we are as a people and how we make our way through sorrows that feel so profoundly intimate and personal but in fact exist on larger continuums, is what I hear in the song today.

[…]

In the absence of organized religion, faith abounds, in the form of song and art and food and strong arms.

Perhaps because children are still free from the adult world’s tyranny of labels, it is her young son who best captures this function of faith — a function that transcends the unimaginative designations of fact and fiction, serving instead as sacred communion with the most intimate truths of one’s inner life. Alexander writes:

One night at bedtime, Simon asks if I want to come with him to visit Ficre in heaven.

Yes, I say, and lie down on his bed.

“First you close your eyes,” he says, “and ride the clear glass elevator. Up we go.”

What do you see? I ask.

God is sitting at the gate, he answers.

What does God look like? I ask.

Like God, he says.

Now, we go to where Daddy is. He has two rooms, Simon says, one room with a single bed and his books and another where he paints. The painting room is vast. He can look out any window he wants and paint. That room has four views: our backyard, the dock he painted in Maine, Asmara, and New Mexico.

New Mexico? I ask.

Yes, Simon says, the volcano crater with the magic grass. Ah yes, I say, the caldera, where we saw the gophers and the jackrabbits and the elk running across and Daddy called it the veldt.

Yes. Do you see it?

And I do. The light is perfect for painting. His bed in heaven is a single bed.

Okay, it’s time to go now, Simon says. So down we go.

You can come with me anytime, he says.

Thank you, my darling.

I don’t think you can find it by yourself yet, he says, but one day you will.

Illustration by André François from ‘Little Boy Brown’ by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

The book borrows its beautiful title from a Derek Walcott poem, a line from which — “Oh beauty, you are the light of the world!” — was etched onto the bench by the side of Ficre’s grave, for Ficre was a man animated by “an unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.” But it is another poetic enchanter of the psyche that ultimately lends Alexander the closest thing to an answer in this dance with the unknown. With an eye to Rilke’s famous line — “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror” — she writes:

When we met those many years ago, I let everything happen to me, and it was beauty. Along the road, more beauty, and fear and struggle, and work, and learning, and joy. I could not have kept Ficre’s death from happening, and from happening to us. It happened; it is part of who we are; it is our beauty and our terror. We must be gleaners from what life has set before us.

If no feeling is final, there is more for me to feel.

The Light of the World is an absolutely luminous read, the kind full of incompressible dimension best experienced in its totality. Complement it with Joan Didion on grief and another poet’s moving memoir of love and loss — Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye — then revisit these intelligent and imaginative children’s books that help kids make sense of death.

BP

Carl Jung’s Delightfully Disgruntled Review of Ulysses and His Letter to James Joyce

“You may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.”

“Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!” young Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the pleasures of rereading. One of the literary canon’s least common candidates for rereading is James Joyce’s sprawling 735-page novel Ulysses, serialized in installments between 1918 and 1920, and eventually published in its totality by legendary literary steward Sylvia Beach on Joyce’s fortieth birthday: February 2, 1922. It is a book that few people begin, even fewer finish, and fewer still reread. (Marilyn Monroe did all three — a fact that might surprise the judgmental and those who subscribe to limiting beliefs about the false divide between pop culture and “high” culture.) With its protracted stream-of-consciousness narrative, which stretches a single day across 735 pages, Ulysses can be particularly challenging and frustrating for a mind longing for speed of thought.

This frustration is what led legendary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — founding father of modern analytical psychology, and a great champion of the human spirit — to write a blistering review of Ulysses a decade after the novel’s release, published in the German journal Europäische Revue in September of 1932. Found in the second volume of Robert Deming’s James Joyce: The Critical Heritage (public library), the review is intriguing and even irresistibly delightful — especially for me, as someone who believes that the “critic” better serves the public as a celebrator rather than eviscerator — because Jung’s disgruntlement seems directed at his own exasperation, almost as though he was more upset with his own response to reading the book than with Joyce for writing it. It is the experience that Jung criticizes — well capable of admitting Joyce’s artistic genius, he remains nonetheless amusingly aggravated by the book’s effect on him. But this strange and all too human duality is best exemplified by a curious letter Jung sent to Joyce shortly after the review was published, reproduced below.

Jung writes in his review:

Ulysses is a book which pours along for seven hundred and thirty-five pages, a stream of time of seven hundred and thirty-five days which all consist in one single and senseless every day of Everyman, the completely irrelevant 16th day of June 1904, in Dublin — a day on which, in all truth, nothing happens. The stream beings in the void and ends in the void. Is all of this perhaps one single, immensely long and excessively complicated Strindbergian pronouncement upon the essence of human life, and one which, to the reader’s dismay, is never finished? Perhaps it does touch upon the essence of life; but quite certainly it touches upon life’s ten thousand surfaces and their hundred thousand color gradations. As far as my glance reaches, there are in those seven hundred and thirty-five pages no obvious repetitions and not a single hallowed island where the long-suffering reader may come to rest. There is not a single place where he can seat himself, drunk with memories, and from which he can happily consider the stretch of the road he has covered, be it one hundred pages or even less… But no! The pitiless and uninterrupted stream rolls by, and its velocity or precipitation grows in the last forty pages till it sweeps away even the marks of punctuation. It thus gives cruelest expressions to that emptiness which is both breath taking and stifling, which is under such tension, or is so filled to bursting, as to grow unbearable. This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory.

Of course, this outrage over hopelessness and nothingness is only natural for a man who believed that “man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Jung, indeed, is self-aware enough to separate his deep disappointment in the book’s substance from the genius of Joyce’s style, adding a reluctant recognition of the latter:

If we regard the book from the side of technical artistry, it is a positively brilliant and hellish monster-birth.

And yet this creative merit does nothing in the way of alleviating Jung’s escalating irritation, which he goes on to articulate ever more floridly:

I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer. Then, bit by bit, again to your horror, it dawns upon you that in all truth you have hit the nail on the head. It is actual fact that nothing happens and nothing comes of it, and yet a secret expectation at war with hopeless resignation drags the reader from page to page… You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through an air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way… Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter…

But what lends Jung’s indignation and bitterness great humanity, integrity, and even sweetness is the letter he sent to Joyce on September 27, 1932 — almost immediately after the review was published. A testament to the admirable civility of letter-writing at its best, it was a missive that both irked Joyce and validated him — one of which he was reportedly rather proud.

Jung writes:

Dear Sir,

Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well, I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,
C.G. Jung

For his part, Joyce must have appreciated the integrity of Jung’s gesture and his ability to both criticize the novel and celebrate its capacity to produce fruitful friction in the reader, thus achieving the hallmark of great art — transforming us by unsettling us. Two years later, Joyce sent his daughter, Lucia, to be treated by Jung, who was the first to correctly diagnose the troubled girl’s symptoms as schizophrenia and to get her the proper psychiatric treatment.

Complement James Joyce: The Critical Heritage with Joyce’s most revealing interview, conducted by Djuna Barnes shortly after Ulysses was published, his recently discovered children’s book, and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.

BP

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