Too many elegies elevating sadness
to a kind of sad religion:
one wants in the end just once to befriend
one’s own loneliness,
to make of the ache of inwardness—
or even just believing in it,
and the long room alone
where the child
chances on a bee
banging against the glass
like an attack of happiness.
Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us. That peace could only be amazement, too.
You can say to yourself, I’m just a body that thinks and talks and seems to want its life, one more day of it. You don’t have to know why. Well, nothing could ever change if your body didn’t keep you there not even knowing what it is you’re waiting for. Not even knowing that you’re waiting at all. Just there on the stoop in the moonlight licking up tears.
If you think about a human face, it can be something you don’t want to look at, so sad or so hard or so kind. It can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you can expect. And anybody at all can see it, but you can’t. It just floats there in front of you. It might as well be your soul, for all you can do to protect it. What isn’t strange, when you think about it.
People say to me “I’m religious, I’d like to write about religion but … everybody would hate it, nobody would read it.” You’re a coward, is what you feel like saying… . Faith is one of the great structuring elements in civilization. It has fascinated the best minds of many centuries. If it happens to fascinate yours also, there is no reason to be afraid. Of what? A bad review?
Find your beach. The construction is odd. A faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. On the one hand it means, simply, “Go out and discover what makes you happy.” Pursue happiness actively, as Americans believe it their right to do. And it’s an ad for beer, which makes you happy in the special way of all intoxicants, by reshaping reality around a sensation you alone are having. So, even more precisely, the ad means: “Go have a beer and let it make you happy.” Nothing strange there. Except beer used to be sold on the dream of communal fun: have a beer with a buddy, or lots of buddies. People crowded the frame, laughing and smiling. It was a lie about alcohol—as this ad is a lie about alcohol—but it was a different kind of lie, a wide-framed lie, including other people.
Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive. Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if—as in the case of this wall painting—it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.
Yet history is never a simple chronological narration of “facts.” “History is above all else an argument,” writes John Arnold, in one of my favourite definitions of the field. “It is an argument between different historians… . Arguments are important; they create the possibility of changing things.” Even when it claims to be “unbiased,” history always has a thesis statement at its centre: a basic assertion about how and why human events unfold as they do.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
T.S. Eliot, Gerontion
Read the whole thing.
The eternal world also shows up as a reminder of mortality itself: “the sorrow of his happiness” whenever an aging Ames takes pleasure in his newborn son. So perhaps his sermon isn’t entirely true. Sorrow casts its shadow, and joy lives under it, surviving in its shade. This bleed between joy and sorrow doesn’t mean happiness is impossible, or inevitably contaminated; instead it reveals a more capacious vision of happiness than we might have imagined—not grace will never deliver you from this mess, but grace is this mess. Or at least, grace is in the mess with you.
Robinson’s grace is all the things we don’t have names for: the immortal souls we may or may not have, a doll with rag limbs loved to tatters. It’s sweet wild berries eaten in a field after a man baptizes the woman he will someday marry. Grace is money for a boy who may have killed his father; it’s one wife restoring the roses on the grave of another. Grace here isn’t a refutation of loss but a way of granting sorrow and joy their respective deeds of title. It offers itself to the doomed and the blessed among us, which is to say all of us. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave,” Lila realizes, “and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us.”
“Wycliffe was the founding figure of Lollardy,” she said, “an amazing attempt to spread literacy and scriptural understanding into the common world. Little Oxford students creeping out at night to take a page of Matthew to a hovel somewhere and tell someone what it actually said… . The Wycliffe Bibles and Tyndale Bibles, which you could be killed for owning, were circulated widely. It was a very subversive thing, the Bible.”
And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves.
“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things, ” Robinson said. “Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world… . It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’ ”
This whole profile is just wonderful.