Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Calendar of Feelings

We attended a funeral last week, for my step-father's sister. I didn't know her well, but I knew her and liked her. Her best friend gave the eulogy. As I listened to her moving stories, I experienced a diffuse pain in my arm. And I was reminded of another time, just a few months ago, when I'd felt a similar pain. We'd been visiting my mother and my step-father, and my grandmother had been there. We'd talked some about games. My mother and step-father are both retired and play competitive bridge, which is a topic of much hilarity to some of us. For some reason, it occurred to me that my father's parents played numerous games, though I said that I didn't remember whether they'd played bridge. My grandmother said, "Oh, they were wonderful bridge players!", and she told me that she and her second husband had played bridge with them all the time. I thought about this conversation as I drove us home that night. I considered this fact of my grandparents all gathered together, separate from us or my parents. As if they had lives of their own that didn't depend on us being around. My grandmother's comment had opened up a window, and for that brief moment, they were alive again. And I felt a painful pressure behind my eyes as I tried to resist tears, and it was here that I felt that pain in my arm. It was then that I missed them, for the first time really, and became acutely conscious of the fact of their absence.

Why was I trying to resist crying? I don't know; unfortunate habit, I imagine. Though it's true that I was driving, and I felt that there would be no stopping it if I tried to explain to Aimée what was going on, though explain I finally did. Funny how the emotion goes almost unfelt until we try to utter it, when it overtakes the moment. In "Singing a New Song", one of his remarkable essays on the Bible collected in The Singer on the Shore, Gabriel Josipovici writes, "It is as if simply opening your mouth, giving utterance to your voice, releases something in you..." I have encountered this phenomenon many times in my life, yet have tended, I think, to ignore it, in favor of the preferred idea that I knew myself better by what went on inside my head.

These grandparents have been dead for years: my grandmother died eleven years ago, and my grandfather ten years before that. At times I wondered at the general lack of sadness when I thought of them. But they were old, and I was young when they'd died. They'd lived long lives, and perhaps that’s all there was to say about it. And yet, here, now, I thought of them as living people, now gone. And I felt sadness as I realized I could not simply talk to them and expect any reply, that they could not answer my questions, which were surely better questions than the ones that occurred to me in my youth. My sadness became stronger as I tried to articulate my knowledge that they had not been able to know Aimée, that they would not know our child. And it was this sense of them as living, as beings with lives, along with the awareness of the finality of their deaths, that brought them back for me with this physical response.

This is one of Proust's great themes. In Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, the Narrator, "suffering from cardiac fatigue", bends down to carefully remove his boots, and he is overwhelmed by a sense of "a divine presence", that of his beloved grandmother, who had so often come to his aid in such moments:
I had just perceived, in my memory, stooping over my fatigue, the tender, preoccupied, disappointed face of my grandmother, as she had been on that first evening of our arrival, the face not of that grandmother whom I had been astonished and remorseful at having so little missed, and who had nothing in common with her save her name, but of my real grandmother, of whom, for the first time since that afternoon of her stroke in the Champs-Elysées, I now recaptured the living reality in a complete and involuntary recollection. This reality does not exist for us so long as it has not been re-created by our thought [...]; and thus, in my wild desire to fling myself into her arms, it was only at that moment--more than a year after her burial, because of the anachronism which so often prevents the calendar of facts from corresponding to the calendar of feelings--that I became conscious that she was dead. I had often spoken about her since then, and thought of her also, but behind my words and thoughts, those of an ungrateful, selfish, cruel young man, there had never been anything that resembled my grandmother, because, in my frivolity, my love of pleasure, my familiarity with the spectacle of her ill health, I retained within me only in a potential state the memory of what she had been. [...] For with the perturbations of memory are linked the intermittencies of the heart. It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession. [...] In any case if they remain within us, for most of the time it is in an unknown region where they are of no use to us, and where even the most ordinary are crowded out by memories of a different kind, which preclude any simultaneous occurrence of them in our consciousness. But if the context of sensations in which they are preserved is recaptured, they acquire in turn the same power of expelling everything that is incompatible with them, of installing alone in us the self that originally lived them.


Anonymous said...

These thoughts and reflections come through quite stunningly in your own writing about them, and it seems (to this reader) like attaching them to Proust (though I see the association of course) actually weighs them down. Like they are a subset of a universal that Proust described already. In an odd way it sort of robs them of their truth-value, as if in your life you only glimpse what Proust experienced more profoundly--which not only can't be the case, but is demonstrated by your own writing to NOT be the case.

By contrast, the quote from Josipovici does not get in the way of your evocation.

Richard said...

Thanks for the comment, Lloyd. I appreciate what you're saying. I think I originally thought I would have something else to say along with the Proust association, but then when I included the passage, that something else fell away, and I was left with what I had. In retrospect, I probably would have been better served holding the Proust observation to another post, when I actually did have something else to say about it, and it could be held separate from my own experience.

(I know I often feel the impossible need to ram in everything related to an idea, not unlike the novelist who doesn't want to waste all that research...)