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This essay originally appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Scholar.
October 2014. A gray-sky day in a cold town that will never feel like home. The temptation to hopelessness is strong. Last night, my girlfriend unknowingly put on the music I used to play to get my infant son to sleep. I would hold him against my shoulder and do side-to-side dance steps. It worked every time. “When he’s grown up,” my then-wife and I would say, “we won’t be able to listen to this album without breaking down.” He died in an accident seven years ago, while we were moving here, to Montana, when he was three years old.
I did not break down last night when I heard the music. Today, as I sit in my dim living room, which is also my office, I am looking at the books on my shelves.
As I approach 40, my memory feels crowded and fluid. Everything that occurs to me in the present has some reference point in the past, though what I remember is as likely to be fictional as actual. When I sense that what presents itself to me as memory didn’t occur in my life, I often can’t recall whether the pseudo memory is from a dream or a book.
Walking with a friend recently along the streets of Paris, talking about the arcades and the 19th century, I was on the verge of telling a story about a salon I remembered, before realizing that I was thinking of Madame Verdurin’s “evenings” in Proust. That those gatherings were fictional and set a century or so before my birth, conducted in a language I barely speak and in a country I have only visited, made no difference to my memory’s sorting machinery, which grants the same status to Odette and my ex-wife, to Professor Cottard and a supposedly smart guy I used to know who once told me he wouldn’t read at all if not for the need to hold forth at cocktail parties. More than once, in moments of feeling like a failure, I have determined that I am blaming myself for failing to finish Swann’s essay on Vermeer. On some level of consciousness, I believe it is I and not Tolstoy’s Nikolai Rostov who hunted that wolf, I and not Prince Bolkonsky who lay unconscious on the battlefield until Napoleon discovered me still breathing.
The feeling need not be connected to anything as concrete as a character, scene, or sentence. Beckett’s gallows slapstick, embedded in the bones and stride of his prose, conjures a family of mental states I couldn’t do without if I tried. I don’t crave Beckett’s companionship the way I did in my twenties, but I still often dream in his world’s terms and wonder if I always have.
I also get a Nietzsche feeling. While reading On the Genealogy of Morality for the first time, a wild uprooted sensation overcame me: how unmade the world is! Recently in a coffee shop on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, staring out the window at the ocean’s silver-green chop and drinking a grandiose dark roast, something began happening in my head, awful but exciting, and for several minutes I couldn’t place it, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything else either. The Nietzsche feeling, I finally realized.
Closer to my actual experience is the decay that falls over the Ramsay house in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse, or the palpable hole in the life of eight-year-old Bunny after his mother dies in William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows. These evocations of loss are inseparable from my memories, such that the real and the fictional operate as one interlocking mechanism. I can consciously sort them out, but like everyone, I spend far less of my life conscious than unconscious. Unlike my exotic “memories” of Madame Verdurin’s drawing room, this mingling of grief is so seamless, and I have lived with it for so long now, that I sometimes wonder whether there is any point in distinguishing the real from the fictional.
I will likely never finish Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, though I found its first 400 pages ravishing. I was at that point in the novel when my son died, and now it lies on the wrong side of an unbridgeable gulf. Joyce’s Ulysses occupies the spot on this side where the abutments would be, if I could build a bridge back. Having put off reading that preposterous book through my twenties and early thirties, I picked it up after my son’s death precisely because of its preposterousness. I wanted a book that was too difficult, that required too much of me, because I didn’t want to think my own thoughts. In this context, and perhaps only in this context, I was able to savor every page of it, but the darkness stained even lively Leopold Bloom to the point that instinct now tells me he is mournful. I am glad that Ulysses is such an unlovable book, easy to resist rereading.
W.G. Sebald occupies a strangely contrary position in my mind. I first read The Emigrants, one of the most sorrowful books there is (and still my favorite of his), on my honeymoon, a month-long European rail trip during which I felt that the world was entirely open to me. In subsequent encounters with his books, I have felt the appropriate gradations of loss and horror, yet his work remains colored for me by that initial glow of possibility. The glow has now survived not just the book’s content but also the feeling of youthful possibility itself.
I was a college teacher, so I had plenty of time with him that first summer. His mother was breastfeeding him, and she was always in need of a break. I would put him in the baby carrier and walk with him dangling in front of me, his arms and legs moving like a sea creature’s until he fell asleep. Sometimes, worried that he would get a crick because of the way his head slumped while sleeping in the carrier, I would press my chin against the warm downy top of his head to hold it upright, and I would walk in a stretched-out cartoonish way, an extra flex to my knees to make sure my lower body absorbed the sidewalks’ unevenness so that he did not get rattled awake.
Our New Orleans neighborhood had two bookstores, and we always visited at least one, sometimes both, on our walks. He reached out to touch the spines as I browsed, and now and then he got one in his grip and dislodged it. What about this one? he seemed to be asking. If he began to make noise, I waved to the salespeople, who always appeared glad to see us, and we went outside to continue walking the leafy, ramshackle streets. Walking and reading: these, I thought, were rhythms of life worth learning at the earliest possible age. As a person who mistrusted all dogma and felt connected to the culture I came from largely by my opposition to it, I had little sense of what values I ought to transmit to him. Skepticism would have to wait until he was older, or maybe that was something a kid could be trusted to soak up.
One midmorning at the coffee shop on the corner of Magazine and Jefferson, he was in the carrier on my chest and I was sitting, reading Lord Jim, a turgid book I never finished and never will. I turned the pages, waiting for it to get good, and each time I did so, he reached his arms out as though to help me turn them, as though he, too, was reading. Just before I finished my coffee, a kindly middle-aged bearded man walked up to us and said, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
I survey the spines, land on some part of my mind that I want to recall more vividly, and I take the book down and read a passage or two. I can’t imagine living without this possibility. The whole point is that the books exist out in front of me, and I can encounter them without premeditation. Seeing them all together makes me feel perhaps more coherent than I really am.
I do not share Walter Benjamin’s enthusiasm for rare or especially beautiful editions of books. My earliest affection for books had more to do, I think, with how little their packaging gave away. Aside from a couple of shirts, a pair of skis, and a mountain bike that I alone find beautiful, no objects I’ve owned as an adult have made strong outward claims for themselves.
Still, the materiality of books matters. When a passage seizes me, I am indefinitely able to remember what side of the page it was on, how far down it was, how long the paragraph and the surrounding ones were, and where in the book, roughly, the page was. I rarely remember a page number. I do not highlight, underline, or write in margins. Doing so turns me into a critic rather than a reader, and it forecloses possible future responses. When I pick up a new book, I always hope that it will end up merging with me, that I will at least skim it again, or better yet, reread it. When this happens, the book—that particular object—takes on special properties.
The placement of the creases in the spine matters. The small rip on the top righthand side of the title page matters. The gradually yellowing pages, reminding me that, yes, this object has traveled with me through time—the yellowing pages matter. Most of my books, in trade paperback editions, are worthless to collectors, widely available on the Internet even when they are out of print, and all but irreplaceable.
We evacuated ahead of Hurricane Katrina with weekend bags. Our son was 15 months old. For a month, we were legally prohibited from returning to secure our possessions or even to verify that they still existed. When we did finally return, it was to pack up the house with help from a friend of mine from Idaho.
We were lucky to be able to do this, of course. The breached levees cost us no possessions of consequence—only our community, our plans for the future, and the life to which we were accustomed. New Orleans was a city of great charm, and we loved it, but it was also a poor and divided and violent city with a government—corrupt and perpetually shot in the knees by those who ruled at the state level—that rarely did any visible good for its people. We did not have near enough confidence in the city’s resilience, let alone the state and federal governments’ commitment to supporting its comeback, to justify making the rebuilding effort the story of our son’s youth. Maybe we chose poorly. I still can’t say. Because he died, every decision I have ever made is in doubt.
The house wasn’t ruined, and many others were. An older couple with a ruined house bought ours with insurance money. We rented an apartment in Brooklyn.
Hiring movers in the chaos of the storm’s aftermath was impossible, and every self-service moving truck within 150 miles had been commandeered by relief workers and entrepreneurs in demolition, the city’s first new growth industry in decades. Online in Brooklyn, I located a rental truck in Jackson, Mississippi, two and a half hours north of New Orleans, but when I arrived to pick it up, the truck I had reserved was not there. Instead, I was given a larger truck (no charge!), one that I later determined had been unofficially retired from the cross-country rental market and was now used only for in-town moves.
The truck was ancient, but again, I felt lucky to have stuff to move and a way to move it. We may have lacked faith in the city’s resilience, but we did not doubt our own, and at that point we felt heroic in our refusal to let the storm choose for us. The logistical challenge of finding a way to get out of town would have been an easy alibi for dithering. I would be driving on my own. My wife and son flew back to New York, and my friend flew back to Idaho.
Everything was loaded, and everyone was gone. I still had a last bit of tidying to do in the house, but in moving the truck from one spot to another, I saw that it had left a trail of liquid on the pavement. I got back in, cranked it, and raised the hood. I am an automotive illiterate, but for once I had what it took to diagnose a mechanical problem. As the engine ran, gas spurted from one of several tiny silver pipe elbows, which had obviously come unattached.
Hours later, when the rental company’s roadside assistance subcontractor showed up, I could see how I looked to him: a spoiled asshole in one of the undamaged upscale neighborhoods, deserting a city that other people would not leave under threat of death. Likely I didn’t know how to crank a truck, or I had done something idiotic, like put beer in the gas tank. I had called him away from legitimate emergencies.
When I told him about the pipe elbow, he seemed to modify his view of me, if only slightly.
“Get in,” he said, “and crank it for me.”
The moment I turned the key, he waved his arms wildly, telling me to stop. He walked over to his vehicle and came back with a big silver wrench. I watched as he leaned into the engine compartment and held the pipe elbow between his thumb and forefinger. He pressed the pipe end to the spot on the engine where it was meant to attach, and then he drew the wrench back and brought it down like a hammer on the elbow, one square pinging blow that knocked the end into its fitting.
I started the truck to verify that the gas was flowing where it was supposed to, and after another trip to his pickup, he returned, presumably to say he didn’t have the tools he needed to seal the pipe properly, that I would have to wait while he went back to the shop to get the tiny screws or a soldering iron. Instead, he gave me a clipboard with a form to sign.
“That’s it?” I said. “You’re not going to reattach it?”
“I did reattach it,” he said. “You’re good to go.”
“Are you sure?” I said. “The pipe’s not going to come loose and start a fire while I’m driving, is it?”
He laughed at me, and I signed the form.
I stopped for a sandwich in Hattiesburg and drank a giant clear plastic cup of sweet iced tea all the way up through Mississippi and the top left corner of Alabama. I drove with the optimistically blank resolve I can muster when I know a mindless task stands between me and the next real thing. I was eight or so hours northeast of New Orleans, in the hilly part of Tennessee, when a small black pickup pulled even with me and a guy in a camouflage shirt waved his arm out the passenger window, mouthing something dramatic. I rolled down the window, and though I couldn’t hear his words in the wind, I understood.
I slowed down and began edging off the interstate onto the shoulder. As I did so, the steering locked up and the brakes lost their hydraulics. I muscled the truck to a stop and saw that flames were coming up through the floorboards, swallowing the brake and gas pedals just as I lifted my feet from them. I opened the door and swung my legs out, and a beat later, when I reached back across the seat to grab my briefcase with my computer in it, the fire was where my thighs had just been. The men from the pickup had reached me now, and they were pulling me away from the truck.
“Get away!” they were shouting. “It might explode!”
The three of us stood about a hundred feet out in front of the truck on the shoulder, watching. Within a minute or two, flames filled the windshield. Then they ate through the top of the cab, and the explosions began, nothing like in the movies but, rather, multiple gunshot-like pops that did not discernibly affect the fire.
By the time the firemen arrived, the flames had advanced halfway back through the cargo area of the truck. The firemen axed holes in the side walls so they could hose everything down, and still the fire chewed through my stuff to within a foot or two of the back bumper before they extinguished it. They opened the rear door and doused everything from that direction, too, for good measure. What wasn’t burned was ruined by smoke and water.
I watched all of this as purely stunned as I have ever been, a state trooper standing alongside me as though it were his job—and maybe it was—to make sure I didn’t go insane and start hurting people. No words were equal to the spectacle, none beyond the rudimentary few that told the story. Not flood but fire. All our possessions. What now?
A fireman came over to talk to me. I thought he was just being nice, but then I could see he had something semiserious to ask me.
“What was all that stuff packed into the top part of the cargo box and the front few rows after that?” he asked, as though in all of his firefighting experience, this was among the most outlandish of cases. “Was it . . . books? ”
Yes, I told him, I had loaded all the books into the truck first, starting with the portion of the cargo area that overhung the cab roof. Once that was full, we stacked the book boxes floor-to-ceiling until they were a solid immovable wall about seven feet high and four feet thick. Then we started piling the more irregular boxes and objects on top of one another.
“Well, the fire sure did like them,” the fireman said. “The books were right there in front where it wanted them. The fire might not have spread much from the engine compartment and the cab if not for the books. They were just the kindling it needed to get going hot enough to burn all the rest of your stuff.”
My son died two years later. It happened during a pause in our next move, while we were staying with family in Colorado as the renovations to our new house in Montana dragged on. He fell from the window of the third-floor living room, a floor-to-ceiling window next to a chair he’d been sitting in. The chair had obscured the opened lower sash such that none of the six adults watching him crawl back there to fetch his stuffed animal knew he was in danger until he’d gone out. The person who had left the window open never confessed.
The move from Brooklyn to Montana had been about him, the life the three of us might be able to create with more space, more nature, less financial pressure. We thought of having a second child. We would read, write, hike, and ski. Without him, the house was now a torture device, the town a sentence to be served.
I had asked a poet friend of mine to read something at the funeral, and he began by saying that we could comb all the books in all the languages of the world and fail to find anything that would help in a situation such as this. He said all we could do was come together and hold each other and say inadequate things.
Then, as though trying to disprove what he’d just said, he read lines of Tennyson:
O yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
Clichéd and Christian, I thought as I sat there, a poisoned husk. I hated everyone living or dead who’d ever tried to make me believe that life was worth living. The idea that his death might be an element of a plan, a pile, that he was a being whose value might be measured relative to worms and moths—Lord Tennyson, go fuck yourself.
But I went back to “In Memoriam” after the funeral, and I saw that some of the sequence’s most famous lines were right there in the same section, immediately following what my friend had read. Understandably, given the context—I had specifically asked him for something with a little hope in it—he had left the section’s concluding lines out:
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
Seeing this, I liked Tennyson better. But then again, the whole sequence moves toward a relinquishing of grief in exchange for unjustifiable faith. The poet is an infant and God an adult. That did nothing for me. That was cowardly.
The obvious answers enraged me, but answers were what I desperately wanted in those early months, and I never considered going anywhere but to literature in search of them. I thought of William Maxwell, an interview or profile I’d seen in which he’d said he didn’t want to get over his mother’s death. I wanted a theology based on a sentiment like that. For a while, I was able to believe in Martin Buber’s notion that divinity resides in relationships, in the moment of connection with another person. After that belief faded, I convinced myself that Kierkegaard had it right, in Fear and Trembling: you could truly love someone only after you’d relinquished him. I would devote myself to the project, now, of loving my dead son in the highest possible way.
I gave up on that idea in its turn, but I kept reading. Emerson is honest about his sadness in “Threnody,” where he mourns his “deep-eyed boy” Waldo, dead at age five, in stilted rhyming lines. But then later, in “Experience,” he writes, “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.” And: “In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate—no more.” Frost accuses himself of a similar coldness in “Home Burial,” in which the man appalls his wife by being able to pause while digging their child’s grave to say,
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Whether that response might not have been a stolid New Englander’s way of expressing grief, the poem leaves unsaid.
Frost captures the difficulty of communicating afterward, the husband becoming alien to the wife. I should have paid more attention to this. My wife and I grieved in different ways. Life was grief in that first year, so in effect we began leaving each other in the days after he died. But I couldn’t be bothered. Relationships, my mental state, daily life—these were details I could attend to once I had assembled a metaphysics, a new mode of understanding, a nonreligious perspective that would allow me to believe that there had been a point to my son’s life, that it had not just been wasted love. There is, of course, no such thing in literature. There aren’t many first-rate post-religious elegies. We don’t yet know what to say about godless death.
Mallarmé tried—and failed—to write a post-Christian elegy for his eight-year-old son. You feel his shattered mind on the page in A Tomb for Anatole, a collection of unfinished fragments, the lineaments of poems he decided it was odious to try and finish. One phrase recurs to me constantly: “The man you would have been.” When your child dies, it is his future that you mourn above all. I knew this without having read the book, but the phrase stabbed me. I fell to my knees in the parlor by the fireplace.
It was at about this time that I decided to lose myself in Ulysses.
I carried a notebook between the time my marriage broke up and the time I started a new relationship, and I wrote down passages that helped me see myself, create a new self. A theology for that moment in my life:
Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for
The “Golden Fleece”
Fourth, no Discovery—
Fifth, no Crew—
Finally, no Golden Fleece—
Dire sight it is to see some silken beast long dally with a golden lizard ere she devour. More terrible, to see how feline Fate will sometimes dally with a human soul, and by a nameless magic make it repulse a sane despair with a hope which is but mad.
Solitude. One knows instinctively it has benefits that must be more deeply satisfying than those of other conditions, but still it is difficult. And besides, how is one to distinguish between conditions which are valuable, which despite their hatefulness give us strength or impel us to great things and others we would be far better free of? Which are precious and which are not? Why is it so hard to be happy alone? Why is it impossible?
Where else but in wide expanses, and in major upheavals in those expanses, could a tiny rivulet of new intensity suddenly start to flow?
–Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari
Fantasy: my whole life is a treasure and I can acquire little bits of it by walking, moving, preparing myself for every little impulse.
In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us:
they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joys, as gently as
outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers. But we, who do need
such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often
the source of our spirit’s growth—: could we exist without them?
–Rainer Maria Rilke
It’s harder to lose the wish to love than the wish to live.
He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
My books are my mind, my attempt at a mind not wholly composed of conventional wisdom. But life has intervened with such force that I have come close to considering the attempt misconceived. I lost my books in a fire, and then I lost half of my books again five years after that, in a divorce. For a while after this second culling, I considered downsizing to a skeleton library, no more than I could quickly pack up in a few boxes and take with me in a car.
I think of the pile of burned books on the yellow-orange gravel of the impound lot in eastern Tennessee. The rental company’s workers had shoveled them out of the truck’s remains, its cab a charcoal stick-drawing of itself, empty air in place of seats and dashboard. There would have been empty air in place of me, I thought as I circled the truck, if I had been a few seconds slower in opening the door. Just adjacent to the driver’s side was the pile of charred, complexly interleaved pages—about ten feet in diameter and waist high, shards of multicolored covers here and there, flashes of white, some smoky yellow, but mostly black.
There was one intact cover on top of the pile. It had been burned or torn loose from the rest of the book, and the glossy slipcover was still in place somehow, singed into the hard front board but otherwise fine, its cover art pristine, a burnished knight’s helmet against a blood-red background. It was—of course—Don Quixote. This is your life, I thought at the time, a fool’s quest with only one prize: destruction.
I had no idea. These days I might say that’s all anyone’s life is. Now when I talk about “my books,” I am thinking not only of the ones I can see here in my living room but also of the ones I have lost. My library contains as many ghost books as actual ones. I used to imagine replacing all the ones that had burned, but now I don’t feel any pressure to do that. I have settled into the metaphor, I guess.
When we say someone’s behavior is “quixotic,” we mean that it is noble and determined yet also, by society’s standards, stupid. The original Quixote fits this description, but it is important that his stupidity—or, if you prefer, his idealism—is the product of books. Fired by the tales of chivalry he has been reading, he tests the proposition that events of the imagination matter as much as external reality. He ends up disillusioned, but it is by no means clear that the proposition has been disproved. No one thinks the sad knight would have been better off without the initiating illusion.