Day 208: the continuation of love

“Grief is the continuation of love.”

(Robert C. Solomon, In Defense of Sentimentality, 2004, p.90)

A couple of sessions ago, Dr. F asked me if I felt angry with my father when he died. After thinking it over I said no, that while I was angry more generally, I didn’t feel anger directed specifically at him.

But later I remembered that, yes, I had actually felt angry about something quite specific; and I had also felt—still feel—embarrassed by this anger; perhaps that’s why I didn’t think of it or didn’t mention it when she asked, because it felt too trivial.

When my mother told me on the phone that my father was dead, the thought that shuddered through my mind like an electric shock was “but he promised me that he wouldn’t die.”

This promise—to perhaps state the obvious—was one he made to me when I was a young child. As a child, I worried a lot about my parents dying—not that they would die in an accident or something; simply the prospect that I would one day have to live in the world without them caused me immense distress. I remember crying in bed and being unable to go to sleep because the idea was so awful to me.

I’m probably conflating a lot of different memories here—but what I have experienced as a distinct memory for a long time is this: I am in bed and both of my parents are in the room near my bed. I am younger than eleven because I’m in the bedroom I shared with my brother until that age. I am crying and begging them to promise me they won’t die. My Mum promises me that she won’t die until she is a “very very old woman,” which doesn’t make me feel better at all. My Dad promises me he won’t die and, while my Mum makes disapproving noises at his making such a promise, I immediately feel better, like a weight has been lifted.

Obviously, even if I believed him at the time, I understood as I grew older that this was not a promise he could keep. And it didn’t bother me; I understood it as something he’d told me at the time to comfort me and make me feel safe, knowing that I wasn’t yet able or ready to live with the truth.

It was therefore surprising to me to find how violently this sense of the promise having being broken coursed through me at the moment I learned of my Dad’s death.

***

I’ve been reading a book by the late philosopher, Peter Goldie, called The Mess Inside (OUP, 2012), which is about the importance of narrative to the way we experience emotions. One of his insights is that, when we reflect upon past experiences, we often inhabit a point-of-view that Goldie views as the “psychological correlate” of free indirect style. What he means by this is that, when we reflect on the past, we encounter “an unelectable ironic gap (epistemic, evaluative, and emotional) between internal and external perspective”; and that when we inhabit this point of view, it performs the same function of free indirect style: that is, “simultaneously closing the ironic gap and drawing attention to its distance” (43, 48).

I’ve been rereading Pride and Prejudice this week for my class on the novel with Goldie’s observations in mind. Austen is famous for her use of free indirect style; but what I now notice is that she also puts her characters in situations where they inhabit the point of view that Goldie suggests is the psychological correlate of free indirect style. So, for example, the following sentence describing Lizzy reflecting on Wickham’s past behavior is not in free indirect style, but it expresses the point of view that concerns Goldie:

“She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before.”

Or consider another example, which is both in free indirect style and represents its psychological correlate in such a way that proliferates the number of viewpoints that the sentence brings together: the free indirect style merges narrator and Lizzy, and the retrospective point of view merges present Lizzy with past Lizzy. Again, here, Lizzy is reflecting on Wickham:

“How differently did every thing now appear in which he was concerned!”

Goldie focuses on grief as a case study of this way of narratively thinking about the past. As he observes, in grief, “you remember the last time you saw the person you loved, not knowing, as you do now, that it was to be the last time. And this irony, through the psychological correlate of free indirect style, will infect the way you remember it” (65).

Goldie describes here exactly how I think about lying with my head on my Dad’s knee while he stroked my hair, the night before he died. He died when I had just turned eighteen, at a time when our relationship was combative. Our conversations always turned into arguments in those days. But his stroking my hair and back, as he always had, still soothed me. That memory took on an aching poignancy after his sudden death because of not knowing at the time, but knowing ever after, that it was the last time.

Another insight Goldie makes about grief is that it does not endure but, rather, perdures. Things that perdure tend to be processes as opposed to states. To say that a process perdures is to say that “its identity is not determined at every moment of its existing” (61). This is very abstract; a helpful example of a thing that perdures that Goldie takes from the philosophers Thomas Hofweber and David Velleman, is the process of writing a check. Here are Hofweber and Velleman:

“A process of writing a cheque is a temporally extended process, with temporal parts consisting in the laying down of each successive drop of ink. What there is of this process at a particular moment – the laying down of a particular drop – is not sufficient to determine that a cheque is being written, and so it is not sufficient to determine which particular process is taking place. That particular drop of ink could have been deposited at that moment, just as it actually was, without other drops’ being deposited at other moments in such a way as to constitute the same process. Not only, then, is the process not present in its temporal entirety within the confines of the moment: it is not fully determined by the events of the moment to be the process that it is.” [1]

Goldie’s point, in bringing the concept of perduring to grief, is that grief, like writing a check, is a process with many features, “none of which is essential at any given particular time” (62). This observation might seem obvious or banal but I think it’s actually profound. It is its perduring quality that makes grief so particular, and so painful. Goldie quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961), a passage that captures the way that grief’s capacity to subside for a while is part of its agony:

“It’s not true that I’m always thinking of H. Work and conversation make that impossible. But the times when I’m not are perhaps my worst. For then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss. Like in those dreams where nothing terrible occurs—nothing that would sound even remarkable if you told it at breakfast-time—but the atmosphere, the taste, of the whole thing is deadly. So with this. I see the rowan berries reddening and don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember.”

I remember, after my Dad died, the feeling of awakening, day after day, from the oblivion of sleep into the memory of loss. Every night I would forget, and every morning I would remember.

This is part of grief’s cruelty; if it was enduring rather than perduring, perhaps you could get used to it. But there’s no getting used to it nor getting over it either, not so long as you love the person you have lost; for grief, as Robert Solomon writes, is the continuation of love. As Goldie cites Wittgenstein,“‘grief’ describes a pattern which recurs, with different variations, in the weave of our life” (from the Philosophical Investigations, cited in Goldie, 62).

Like writing a check, grief perdures. The analogy only goes so far. Unlike writing a check, there’s no being done with grief. It’s a check you’re forever writing that never gets deposited. It’s a check that, like a reckless promise, can’t be cashed.

 

Notes

[1] The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 61, Issue 242, January 2011, Pages 37–57, p.50.

 

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Day 206: flapjack

I bit my lip, squared my shoulders, and walked into class, smiling as best as I could. I stood at the podium and started to unpack my stuff. One student wanted to make an announcement about the Writing Center, and as she spoke to the class I set up my PowerPoint presentation on Pride and Prejudice. Then she sat down and the class looked at me expectantly.

“I ….” I hesitated. I tried again. “I … I’ve been having kind of a hard time and so ….” I could feel my face crumpling but I was determined to press on “… and so I decided to bake something … because … because I like baking … and I thought you might like these …. they’re called flapjacks. They’re not pancakes,” I added hastily, “what you call flapjacks—they’re like oatmeal cookies … and they’re really good.

A sound emanated from the assembled students, something half way between a sigh and an awww, and I busied myself getting out the two big tupperwares and passing them around.

I spoke about the Regency against the pleasant background noise of munching and rustling wax paper.

After a while I even felt like eating a flapjack.

It lifted my spirits to find that my students could successfully pick out which parts of a passage from Pride and Prejudice were in free indirect discourse. It cheered me to discover that they could articulate that what makes Elizabeth Bennet feel “relatable” to them is how she finds ways to express resistance and creativity in a world that is so restrictive and codified.

At the end of class the students filed out shyly, thanking me for the cookies. “I’m glad you liked them!” I said, and I walked out of class feeling better than when I walked in.

As I walked to the parking lot I heard myself being hailed, “Sarah!” and pivoted. It was one of my students. She was running and breathing heavily. “First, sorry for calling you Sarah,” she panted.

I laughed.

She bent over, winded, “Oof, I’ve been trying to catch up with you,” she exclaimed.

I wondered what was so urgent.

She caught her breath.

“You mentioned that you were having a hard time and … and it just made me want to tell you,” she paused, panting again, “sorry, I’m still out of breath, and this is also just off the top of my head … It made me want to tell you that I really value everything you put into this class. It’s meant so much to me to be able to work with you. And … I don’t know if this helps to hear this, but I just wanted you to know how much you’re appreciated. Not just by me. All of us in the class—we all love you.”

I have got to figure out a way to stop from crying whenever people are kind to me.

I told her how much it meant to me that she would say that, more than I could say, and especially, I added, because I knew that she had experienced a bereavement, the death of a close friend, the previous quarter, and so she knew keenly what it is like to struggle to keep going when you’re in distress.

“And …” she added, a little sheepishly, “sorry for making you emotional.”

I laughed through my tears, “Oh, that’s OK,” I said, “I’m emotional every other minute at the moment.”

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked.

I accepted it gratefully.

What kindness. What tremendous kindness. I know I’ve been extremely Eeyorish in recent days but … I do also know how lucky I am. I won the bloody lottery in almost every aspect of life. I forget that sometimes, but I remembered it yesterday.

Oh, and here’s the recipe for the flapjack. You should make it.

From the Islington Cookbook

Flapjack

4 oz brown sugar
4 oz butter
4 oz rolled oats
4 oz flour
2 Tbsp golden syrup (or honey)
optional: 1/2 tsp vanilla
optional: pinch of salt

Melt butter; add brown sugar and mix. Add everything else. If you’re using golden syrup, I’d strongly recommend licking the spoon. Spread on a baking tray and bake at 375 F for 10-20 minutes, until lightly browned. It will firm up as it cools. Slice and eat—or give away, if you’re feeling extremely generous. Don’t feel bad if you can’t muster the willpower.

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Day 108: Beetle

Having a four (very nearly five!) year-old and a psychiatrist are similar experiences in at least one (possibly only in one) respect: both of them constantly badger me to tell them stories about my childhood. The younger calls them “childhood stories.” Dr. F calls them “screen memories.” Same difference.

One particular story came up recently, and I honestly can’t remember if I told it first to the younger or to Dr. F.

I do remember, though, the context in which I told the story to the younger. The younger cannot write words other than her name, but she can make many letters fairly easily, and it pleases her to do so. Some letters, however, most notably the letter S, present a considerable challenge to her fine motor skills and cause her immense frustration. The other day she was livid at her inability to make an S, and sobbed with rage. I felt for her. I remember this particular frustration of being old enough to imagine beautiful complex things (for example: the letter S; a unicorn; a family of owls) but also being too young to make anything other than clumsy, misshapen scrawls. I remember envying older children and adults’ ability to effortlessly make letters and draw graceful lines, while all my toil yielded crooked, primitive marks on the page.

Recalling that feeling prompted me to offer help to the younger the other day, imploring her, “here, sweetheart, let me help, see, I’ll just make one and you can copy it.” But the problem was, as I should have realized, the last thing she wanted was sympathy or help from someone who knew how to makes S’s. In fact, the offer of sympathy or help from someone who already knew how to make S’s was the final indignity.

“No!’ she practically spat at me, “no, you cannot help, I don’t want to copy your S. I want to make my own S, but I can’t, all I can do is scribble scrabble,” and then she scribbled violently all over the page of attempted S’s. [1]

Later when she had calmed down I told her the story about boiling over with envy that I also recently told to Dr. F. This is the story. I was four or younger. A friend came over to play. We played the game called “Beetle,” in which you take turns rolling a die and, depending on the number you get, select a particular plastic beetle body part. The person who assembles their beetle first wins. My friend completed her beetle first. I remember looking over at her perfect, complete beetle and then looking at my unfinished headless beetle and this rage just rose with me.

Reader, I smashed and completely destroyed her beetle.

I remember both my friend and my mother being shocked and appalled at my behavior.

I described this story just now as a story about envy, but I think, upon reflection, that it’s about two more minor emotions that have nonetheless been central to my emotional life—perversely so because my life has been so very charmed in so many ways: those two emotions are resentment and indignation.

Resentment and indignation are perhaps the two emotions that I find easiest to identify with in fictional characters. I don’t know what that says about me, but vicarious indignation gives me a real buzz, so much so that I find it … really difficult to let go of. I’m going to provide two examples from two of my all time favorite entertainments: the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (published 1813) and the 1953 musical film Calamity Jane, which stars Doris Day as Calam (we’re on familiar terms, I can call her that) and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok.

I have enormous affection for both of these works. And part of my enjoyment, almost perversely, stems from an obstacle that I find to be built into the arc of both plots.

This is the obstacle: I simply cannot get over my resentment that both Lizzie and Calam are given the brush off by the men with whom they are originally smitten (respectively, George Wickham and Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin—who is essentially a less roguish, blander Wickham) and then, to add insult to injury, reprimanded about their liking for these men by two other frankly, much less likable men with whom they are then expected to (and in fact do) fall in love so grateful are they to have had their moral failings pointed out to them.

In both cases, the heroine comes to realize that their first love interest is shallow and they move on from their respective infatuations by maturing and recognizing the superior value of Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Lizzie’s case, and Wild Bill Hickok, in Calam’s. But in both texts, this transition, for me at least, is far too abrupt.

Essentially, I remain hung up on Wickham and the handsome lieutenant Gilmartin past the point in the narrative in which I am meant to have re-centered my narrative desire upon the more appropriate fantasy object.

I can’t help feeling that both Lizzie and Calam were slighted and this sense of injury and indignation is so strong that in both cases it prevents me from enjoying the plot’s resolution. And yet—and here’s the kicker—I enjoy feeling indignant so very much that I don’t mind it one bit! At the end I am seething and it feels fantastic. In my real life, while—believe me—I seize on every opportunity to feel indignant that comes my way, I don’t have all that much, frankly, to be resentful about.

Even at the very last scene of Calamity Jane that shows Calam getting hitched to Bill and Katie to Danny Gilmartin, I really want Lieutenant Gilmartin to come to his senses and realize that Calam is so much more kickass than Katie. And shouldn’t Lizzie at least get to kiss handsome, fickle Wickham before settling down with Fitzwilliam ugh-I-can’t-bear-that-I’m-attracted-to-this-plebeian-woman-but-we-all-have-our-cross-to-bear-Darcy? [2]

I feel that this desire, on my part, runs against the grain, as it were, of each narrative. Wickham and Gilmartin serve a clear narrative purpose, and that purpose is transitory. I guess, if I were more psychoanalytically oriented, I could even call them transitional objects: they are just dummy-love-objects, like a child’s “lovey,” and it is in the recognition of them as such and of Darcy and Bill as, by contrast, real and worthy objects of esteem that the maturing of Lizzie and Calam is supposed to inhere.

Why can’t I move beyond my indignation and resentment? I think it partly comes down to the key moment in both narratives in which the Proper Love Object proves his moral authority by shaming the heroine. Darcy shames Lizzie in the letter where he points out her family’s impropriety and Bill shames Calam in front of all of their friends by rigging a shooting contest so that Katie (who can’t shoot for shit!) appears to be a virtuoso shot.

Both the letter from Darcy and Bill’s shooting the glass are displays of their moral authority and virtuosity. This is the moment where my sympathetic identification with each heroine completely breaks down: instead of feeling ashamed—as both Lizzie and Calam feel, therefore showing their maturation, pshaw,—I feel just enraged with Darcy and Bill. Their actions of censure don’t dampen my indignation; they stoke it. It’s like someone coming over to me to offer me help making my S’s when I’m already mad.

Instead of thinking, “Oh, I am grateful for your guidance! I could not make my own S! How lucky I am to have your S to copy!” I think “fuck off I’d rather do scribble scrabble than copy your stupid S.”

My favorite moment in Calamity Jane is possibly the moment when Katie kisses Danny and Calam shoots the punch cup right out of Katie’s hand. It’s a total beetle-crushing moment.

I’m not endorsing beetle-crushing or punch-glass shooting (although I will confess a continuing fondness for scribble scrabble). Obviously, such behavior is immature and destructive. I haven’t crushed any beetles lately. I am not a sociopath. If you and I were to engage in a friendly game of Beetle these days and I lost, I would be able to refrain from crushing your beetle. I might even say, “well done!” I might even mean it!

My point is simply that one of the pleasures of fiction is not only the vicarious experience of feelings that the protagonists feel; sometimes it’s also the vicarious experience of feelings – in the case of sentimental fiction, often, more brutish feelings – that the protagonists resist. Those unrepresented feelings might be thought of as lurking in the narrative’s negative space, just waiting for bad readers to come along and give them life.

 

Notes

[1] Do other children use the term “scribble scrabble”? Both of my children use the phrase “scribble scrabble” as though it were an accepted general term—a technical term, even—used to denote the non-representational art made by toddlers.

[2] I guess that is part of the point of Helen Fielding’s re-writing of P&P in Bridget Jones’s Diary: at least Bridget gets to sleep with Daniel Cleaver before meeting Mark Darcy. As an aside, the other problem with the conclusion with Pride and Prejudice for me as a reader is that I am unmoved by real estate and furnishings. This is true in real life and it is true in fiction. I don’t get people who look through real estate listings for fun, or who read Better Homes and Gardens, or who want to browse in furniture stores, or tour old houses and ooh and ahh. All of those activities fill me with mental pain. As several of you know, I am the worst person to ask for advice about furniture or housing. It’s a failure of imagination, really. I can never imagine myself in the house or enjoying the furniture. So I just cannot relate to Lizzie’s property-gasm when she sees Pemberley. I’m just like, meh, it’s a big house, whatever, there isn’t even a gift shop or a café.

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