Monday, March 18, 2013

More Weal, More Woe

I had the pleasure on Sunday to meet with a couple people to discuss poetry--and this was on top of the pleasure of having my son home for the weekend! There was plenty of family wamily conversation at meals, cuddle time, giggle time, serious planning. It all connects, because there is what can be said and what can't be said. With family, it, the ineffable, is conveyed through love and hope and small services we perform for one another. With poets, we know we are engaged in the activity of expressing the inexpressible.

Or, as Marilynne Robinson would say, about all kinds of serious reading and writing, we are engaged in "demonstrations of the extraordinary power of language to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said." Yes, I am still reading and loving her book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. A little later in her essay called "Imagination and Community," she says, "We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself." That seems so often and so clearly true to me.

It's like that picture of the iceberg, used to illustrate what goes on in the theatre, just to articulate a play to an audience.

Here's something she says to which I powerfully, viscerally, connect: "I seem to know by intuition a great deal that I cannot find words for, and to enlarge the field of my intuition every time I fail again to find these words. That is to say, the unnamed is overwhelmingly present and real for me."

I feel this way all the time now--overwhelmed and thus tremulous and fragile in the world--but also floating on a sea of awe, my natural home. Since there is so much I sense but cannot articulate to others, I sometimes feel adrift (see iceberg), disconnected from the major land mass, endangered, and, perhaps, perceived as dangerous (again, see iceberg), but I am not intending to wreck any ships, and, by the way, I am in the process of melting.

It is reassuring to read Robinson's provisional definition of community: "I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of--who knows it better than I?--people who do not exist...I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification." Robinson is a fiction writer, in addition to being an essayist, professor, and great reader, steeped in all kinds of knowledge. She knows that her community includes characters she has created in books, met in books, and, of course, all the authors of those books, most of them now dead.

I, too, belong in her community. "I love the writers of my thousand books," says Robinson:

"It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent. I love the large minority of writers of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle. All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millennia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility."

In the context of the essay, "interest and utility" cover the day-to-day practicalities, commerce, self interest, and such small-group interests of politics and business as usual that have contributed to "[t]he cultural disaster called 'dumbing down,' which swept through every significant American institution and grossly impoverished civic and religious life, [and which] was and is the result of the obsessive devaluing of the lives that happen to pass on this swath of continent." If, for example, education is seen only as the creation of workers, we have devalued education and also ourselves. It makes me sad. I feel, in my gut, the woe.

But then I read, I laugh, and I am inspired again. (I'd like to show you an image of Homer Simpson here, saying, "D'oh!" but I don't own the copyright.)


Collagemama said...

Kathleen--Always love your posts. Don't always understand them, but keep evoking a sense of what cannot be said, girl!

Kathleen said...

Thanks. I will.

Until I can't.

seana graham said...

As my beloved professor always tried to make us understand, it is the difference between what is happening and what is going on. What is happening being merely news and what is going on being, I think what you call the ineffable. This way of looking at things has come in handy a few times in the intervening years.

I need to read more of Robinson's essays. I'm not sure I'm as big a fan of her fiction as many people are, but I think I would groove to her essays.

sarah kain gutowski said...

Thanks for the thoughtful commentary on Robinson's work ... This is a lovely introduction to an author, and now I look forward to reading these essays, too.

Kathleen said...

thanks, Seana and Sarah! I love that "happening" vs "going on" things, and it will actually help me play the role of the Librarian in the play Middletown, by Will Eno, which I am working on now!

Sarah, she's a lovely, deep, clear, dense writer. She knows her stuff, and her stuff is wide reaching!

I like her fiction, too, but not everybody wants to read that slowly and patiently, learning about the depths of being human, and how to love and forgive one another, the main thing. I am amazed, though, at how many people DO want to read about that! There's a yearning for it.

I first encountered her via the film Housekeeping. I was blown away. Sought out the book later. Christine Lahti. (Not to be confused with a comedy starring Shelley Long....)

seana graham said...

Glad to hear you're doing some acting!

Kathleen said...

Thanks, Seana. It's such an amazing play.

Cathy said...

If Homer Simpson saying "D'oh!" isn't public domain, I don't know what is.

I love "little island of the articulable." Your essayist has a way with words.

Kathleen said...

"D'oh!" probably passes the common knowledge test, but images of Homer are not free for sharing.

Collagemama said...

Ooh, thanks to Seana for the happening vs going on! My professor described it as "rendering visible" vs "rendering the visible".

Kathleen said...

I love this conversation.