Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mother of the Muses

I had the strange and somewhat disconcerting experience recently of reading a memoir about people I know. It was written by a woman who was, at one time, romantically involved with a close friend of mine. Both of them are writers, and her memoir details a time in her life after college when she, a young woman from a privileged background, took a poorly-paid entry-level job at the literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger, and simultaneously moved into a tenement apartment in Brooklyn with my friend (in a building that really should have been condemned; I was there many times). At the end of this time period, according to the memoir, she underwent an awakening that was both literary and spiritual in nature and jettisoned the apartment, the job, and the boyfriend.

The memoir may sound -- and perhaps is -- a trifle slight and self-serving. It's a coming-of-age story very particular to its time and place -- New York City in the 1990s -- but it's written with an appealing clarity and simplicity, and the author gets so many things right, including the changing seasons in the city; my friend (whom she paints in an unflattering, if fairly accurate, light); and, ultimately, the reality of suffering. One of her job duties at the literary agency was answering the voluminous fan mail sent to Salinger with an off-putting standard form letter. After reading some of these letters, however -- many of them from fellow World War II veterans -- and after belatedly reading Salinger's slim oeuvre, she comes to a deeper understanding of the human condition. She notes that Bessie Glass, the mother of Franny and Zooey, of Boo Boo, Buddy, and Seymour (as well as of Walt, lost in the war, and his twin brother Waker, a cloistered Carthusian monk), "is in mourning [for her two dead children]. As is the entire Glass family. A family in mourning, never to recover. A world in mourning, never to recover." The book is worth reading just to get to that moment, which comes near the end.

I didn't know the author that well back in the day, and I don't know whether her heart had always been open to the truth of suffering, or whether that realization was entirely catalyzed by her reading of Salinger. The author's ex-boyfriend has, in private correspondence, cast her compassion somewhat into question, but I suppose it's not really that important. What is important is the truth that art can effectively reveal certain aspects of humanity, including the inescapable fact of its suffering, and can also provide, if not the remedy for that suffering, then at least some assuagement.

This calls into question the purpose of the memoir as a genre. What is it for, really, and who among us has lived in such a way that merits such public retelling? The Salinger memoir appealed to me because I knew what the author meant. She describes with great care the weather, what she wore, and what she ordered at the deli, all of which are things that I like to know about; attention to such details in my own life is something that has always had great, almost talismanic significance for me. And even if she's not telling the truth about everything -- because who, in a memoir, is? -- she is nothing but truthful about the fact that, beneath the surface of things and phenomena, trouble is roiling, suffering exists, and even the best-intentioned of us cause one another unspeakable pain. If the Salinger memoir has merit, it's primarily because it sends out a slim shaft of light into the brokenness of things: the light of shared pain, of recognized suffering. We possess art, as Nietzsche said, lest we perish of the truth, and is not the purpose of art to alleviate suffering? Goethe wrote:

Now, Muses, enough!
You strive in vain to show
how anguish and joy
change places in the loving heart.
You cannot heal the wounds
that love inflicts;
but comfort comes,
kindly ones, only from you.

And Memory, Mnemosyne, is the mother of the muses.

Perhaps all art is an evocation of Memory, Mother of the Muses; as writers and as readers we summon her so that, as good mothers do, she might comfort us.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Love and Bullies

I've mentioned here before the semi-well-known Catholic journalist whom I briefly dated after returning to the sacraments of the Catholic Church. I declined his offer of marriage, but we remained friends in a distant sort of way until he wrote me a vicious email a few years ago, apparently after misunderstanding something I'd written here. Like most of the journalist's work, this email was meticulously crafted, and also like most of his work, it was a demonstration of his bravura literary skills in the service of a cause he believed in. As in most of his work, too, that cause was the exposure and denunciation of a perceived enemy. In this case, the enemy was a woman he seemingly once had loved, and his tactical methods included attacking me as a wife (though not his), a mother, and an artist; insulting my family of origin; and -- the tour de force -- reminding me (in case I might have forgotten) that long before he knew me I had committed an "unspeakable crime" against my unborn child. He finished, in a sort of dénouement, by mentioning that I was "bad for" his spiritual well-being, and so he wanted nothing more to do with me.

Not surprisingly, I don't intentionally read this journalist's work anymore, though sometimes I will click on a link to an article a friend has posted and find something written by him at the end of it. While I spent months crying about his email at the time, by now I have other things to cry about. I was thinking about him the other day, though, and I wondered how I had had the presence of mind to turn down his marriage proposal, especially since I had always been prone to impulsivity, and was at the time a divorced woman in my mid-thirties facing statistically-declining odds of ever getting married again. The truth, however, was that, although the journalist was brilliant, witty, and charming, he had a certain quality that truly scared me. I couldn't describe at the time what it was, but after reading his email, I understood it a bit better. There is something corrupt and cruel -- something unmanly -- about deliberately attacking the weak, and I think that most women are instinctively repelled by it.

I should note here that I am by no means the sole target of this journalist's vituperation. He, along with others of his cohort, in his professional work routinely disparages various people and groups with whom he disagrees, including liberals, immigrants, and Catholics who don't practice their faith the way he thinks they should. And I should note, too, that while most women may be repelled by attacks on the weak, not all are. Many women, in fact, are drawn to bullies -- to men who bolster their sense of self by making a show of strength against individuals or groups who are not their equals, against those who are lesser than they in strength, wits, and power. But, though it would be easy to do so, I can't in good conscience condemn these men, nor the women who love them, because we are all grievously wounded in our capacity to love.

And surely it's what we all want most: to be loved not in spite of our woundedness and our egregious faults, but, somehow, because of them.  Everyone wants to feel as though there is someone who sees him as he is, and who loves him anyway. Even the journalist -- who makes a show of deprecating those who have none of his intellect or understanding, including those Catholics who were not fortunate, as he was, to receive a sound teaching of the faith -- would occasionally reveal to me, in private conversation, his innermost fears and doubts. The vulnerability we show to one another can be endearing, certainly; but, as demonstrated by the journalist's gratuitous and deliberately hurtful reference to my long-ago abortion, it can also be used against us by those in whom we've put our trust.

I would like to be able to call a man who deliberately hurts a woman a sadist or a misogynist, but perhaps that's unfair. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Nietzsche, when you gaze into the abyss, it gazes into you. When we make it our life's work, even our identity, to upbraid and revile, how do we keep ourselves from becoming something worthy of revilement?

I suppose that women who are attracted to bullies see their vulnerability and want to protect it, to heal it. Some women no doubt nobly and self-sacrificially live out Longfellow's aphorism: "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." I know that this is true -- that both the journalist and the targets of his writerly contempt have suffered enough misery that we are constrained to love them without exception. Nonetheless, in the absence of severe neurosis, it seems to me that it is not unrealistic for women to expect men to protect them, rather than the other way around, and for men to want to protect women, rather than to harm them.

I pray that we may all learn to forgive one another for the wrongs we so blithely and carelessly commit against each other, and, also, that we may truly learn what it is to love. God knows I pray this for myself every day.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

C'est Son Métier

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go . . .

. . . . Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

-- From "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

There was a man I loved desperately when I was quite young. R. was witty, well-read, and almost impossibly good-looking. He was also louche, something of a hedonist.  He spent a great deal of money on clothes and a lot of time in nightclubs, and he regarded himself as being on the cutting edge of cultural expression. I was a teenager from an unhappy home, and he became the first in a series of men about whom I believed that if I attached myself to them, I could escape and, in some essential way, save my life.

Predictably, this relationship didn’t work out. I became suicidally depressed in the wake of its breakup, but recovered, and some years later R. and I were friends. We didn’t see each other that often, but back in New York, in one of the lovely ways that New York can seem like a small town, we would often run into each other unexpectedly on the street. R. was a freelance journalist and didn't have a nine-to-five, and if I had the day off from whatever my bread gig was at the time – waitressing, or secretarial temping, or working as a cosmetics girl at Bloomingdales (my brother happened into the store one day and said of me and my colleagues, "You look like a bunch of Nazi nurses") – we would walk around the city and drink coffee and have conversations that were shimmering, transcendent, incantatory. I still have dreams sometimes about those walks.

As happens, however, our lives went in different directions, and I had not seen R. for many years when I heard the shocking news last year that he had died -- in his forties, and by his own hand. He had achieved some success, and had even written a best-seller nonfiction book, but some controversy had arisen around it, and I assume, though I can’t know for certain, that the minor scandal that ensued had contributed to the deep depression which apparently led to his suicide. R. was childless, but he left his widow behind.

His death, which I learned about around the time my mother also died, was crazy and unacceptable to me. As a young man, R. had been remarkably handsome, as well as generous, funny, and adventurous; but somehow he had become one of those tragic ones, those few who, as A.E. Housman wrote, would "carry their looks [and] their truth to the grave."  He was not a Catholic; I don’t know what, if anything, he had come to believe, though, on one of the occasions I ran into him on the street, he had recently returned from a trip to Nepal, and on that occasion he urged me to read Andrew Harvey’s book A Journey in Ladakh, a luminous travel memoir about the author’s encounter with Tibetan Buddhism. And during much of the time I had known R., he was something of an obvious sinner. I couldn’t help wondering if, with this checkered history, and lacking both baptism and any formal sort of repentance, it was sensible or even seemly to pray for his soul. But because I profess to believe in the forgiveness of sins, I knew I must pray for him, and do so with great abandon, 

One hears occasionally from Traditionalist types the maxim “extra ecclesia nulla salus” – there is no salvation outside of the (Roman Catholic) Church. This is the teaching of the Church, but what does it really mean? The Catechism of the Catholic Church asks:

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door.

Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation [emphasis added]. 

It seems to me that the main problem with defining “extra ecclesia” is knowing each unbaptized man’s “fault,” which is, of course, impossible. There are all kinds of mysterious baptisms, including that of desire, about which we know little or nothing. "Betwixt the stirrup and the ground/Mercy I asked, mercy I found": there is forgiveness of which we know nothing. 

In fact, God is a fountain of mercy. God is love. God did not create His children in order to damn them. If He did, He would not be God.  As Heinrich Heine, the great poet of German Romanticism and a convert from Judaism, said on his deathbed, “Of course God will forgive me; c’est son métier.”

When we profess to believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are simply acknowledging, with Heine, that forgiving sins is God’s métier, His business. With this statement, we categorically accept that God can forgive all sins, including the ones (always, it seems, committed by others) that we may not entirely want him to forgive. What we talk about when we talk about forgiveness is actually the possibility of redemption for our enemies, of the complete falling away of what made them our enemies in the first place, of what made them hurt us and of what made us hate them -- nothing less than the belief that anyone can become good in the Platonic sense; that anyone can become holy.

Therefore, I'm constrained to believe in the possibility of R.’s radical spiritual transformation, and of his total moral regeneration. In the end, what we profess when we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, is that we believe that God loves everyone else, including those annoying ones in apparent darkness, equally as well as He loves those of us to whom he has given the great and wholly-unmerited gift of faith.

R.'s last book was published after his death. It's a nonfiction work about a morally-suspect character who became a quiet humanitarian, a narrative which parallels the trajectory of R.'s own too-brief life.