Pointing at shadows

For no, if the therapist really wanted the truth, the actual “gut”-level truth underneath all her childishly defensive anger and shame, the depressed person had shared from a hunched and near-fetal position beneath the sunburst clock, sobbing but making a conscious choice not to bother wiping her eyes or even her nose, the depressed person really felt that what was really unfair was that she felt able — even here in therapy with the trusted and compassionate therapist — that she felt able to share only painful circumstances and historical insights about her depression and its etiology and texture and numerous symptoms instead of feeling truly able to communicate and articulate and express the depression’s terrible unceasing agony itself, an agony that was the overriding and unendurable reality of her every black minute on earth — i.e., not being able to share the way it truly felt, what the depression made her feel like inside on a daily basis, she had wailed hysterically, striking repeatedly at her recliner’s suede armrests — or to reach out and communicate and express it to someone who could not only listen and understand and care but could or would actually feel it with her (i.e., feel what the depressed person felt). The depressed person confessed to the therapist that what she felt truly starved for and really truly fantasized about was having the ability to somehow really truly literally “share” it (i.e., the chronic depression’s ceaseless torment). She said that the depression felt as if it was so central and inescapable to her identity and who she was as a person that not being able to share the depression’s inner feeling or even really describe what it felt like felt to her for example like feeling a desperate, life-or-death need to describe the sun in the sky and yet being able or permitted only to point to shadows on the ground. She was so very tired of pointing at shadows, she had sobbed. She (i.e., the depressed person) had then immediately broken off and laughed hollowly at herself and apologized to the therapist for employing such a floridly melodramatic and self-pitying analogy.

— David Foster Wallace, “The Depressed Person”

Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes (V)

Eurydice was no longer the fair beauty
celebrated in Orpheus’ singing,
no longer the fragrance and landscape of the bed,
no more the property of any man.

She was already unbound, like loosened hair,
surrendered like falling rain,
and generously offered to all creation.
She was already root.

And when, suddenly,
the god held her back and with anguish
spoke the words: he has turned around,
she was puzzled and softly answered, Who?

Up ahead, dark against the brightness of a gateway,
stood someone whose features she did not recognize.
He stood and saw how on the pale ribbon of the meadow path
the messenger god had silently turned
to watch the form of one retracing her steps,
constricted by the winding sheets,
uncertain, meek, without impatience.

— Rilke, New Poems

Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes (IV)

Now Eurydice walked at the hand of a god,
her steps, constricted by the winding sheets,
uncertain, meek, without impatience.
She was deep within herself like a woman full with child,
and gave no thought now to the man who walked ahead
or the path that rose toward life.
She was deep within herself, and her having died
was a fullness she carried.
Like a fruit, she was filled with the sweetness
and darkness of her huge death,
still so new she could hardly grasp it.

She had entered a new virginity,
had become untouchable; her sex had closed
like a wildflower toward evening,
and her hands were so estranged from marriage
that even the god’s touch, infinitely light,
disturbed her as too familiar.

— Rilke, New Poems

Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes (III)

He told himself they must be coming.
He said the words aloud and heard them fade away.
They must be coming, it was just
that they were moving so quietly.
If he might turn a single time
(if to look back were not the ruin
of his whole venture now near completion),
surely he would see those two
following him so noiselessly.
The little god of journeys and messages,
winged cap above observant eyes,
wings at the ankles too, slender staff held out before him,
and entrusted to his left hand: her.

The one so loved, that from a single lyre
more lament came forth than from centuries of sorrows.
So loved that a world took form from that lament
where everything came to be once more:
path and village, forest and valley, field, river, animal.

And round this lamenting world, as if
it were a second earth, moved a sun and star-strewn heavens,
a grieving heaven with grief-stricken stars.
That’s how loved she was.

— Rilke, New Poems

Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes (II)

On this single path they came.

First, the slender figure cloaked in blue,
looking straight ahead, tense and unspeaking.
Propelled by relentless haste,
his stride devoured the path. Under the folds
of the mantel, his hands were clenched,
and barely felt the weight of the lyre he carried with him always.
His senses were as though divided:
for his sight, like a dog, raced ahead,
turned around, came back only to run off again
and wait at the next bend.
But his hearing lingered behind.
Sometimes it seemed to be trying to reach back
to the steps of the two
who should follow him all the way uphill.
At times there was nothing but the echo of his own footfall
and the flutter of his cloak behind him.

— Rilke, New Poems

Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes (I)

It was the mysterious mine of souls.
They threaded their way through its darkness
like veins of silver. Between roots
sprang up the blood that flows to the living
and in the dark it looked as hard as porphyry.
Nothing else was red.

Rocks were there
and forests of shadows. Bridges over chasms
and a vast, depthless lake of grey
that extended above its distant bed
like rain clouds over the land.
On either side of the pale ribbon of that one path
meadows unfolded, endlessly opening.

— Rilke, New Poems

Playmates

There were a few of us, playmates
in the scattered gardens of the city.
Remember how we found each other
and hesitantly liked each other,

and, like the lamb with the talking scroll,
spoke in silences. The good times we had belonged to no one.
Whose could they be? They disappeared amid all the hurrying people
and the worries to come with the long years.

Wagons and trucks rolled by. We didn’t care.
Houses rose around us, solid but unreal, and no on knew us.
What, after all, was real?

Nothing. Only the ball, the beautiful arcs it made.
Not even the children were real, except for the moment
of reaching up and ah! catching the ball.

— Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus II, 8

To array perception across billions of subjectivities

Bertrand Russell says, “Language sometimes conceals the complexity of a belief. We say that a person believes in God, and it might seem as if God formed the whole content of the belief. But what is really believed is that God exists, which is far from being simple. . . . In like manner all cases where the content of a belief seems simple at first sight will be found, on examination, to confirm the view that the content is always complex” (Russell, Analysis of Mind, 236). This good atheist, despite his contempt for religion, proceeds by introspection, by observation of the processes of his mind as a means of understanding the human mind, and with a delight in the workings of language he assumes his audience is bright enough to share. His rejection of religion is real and deep, but he does not justify it at the cost of failing to acknowledge the intrinsic complexity of human subjectivity, whatever its specific content. To acknowledge this is to open the archives of all that humankind has thought and done, to see how the mind describes itself, to weigh the kind of evidence supposed science tacitly disallows.

— Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind

Male pubescence

Happy Birthday. Your thirteenth is important. Maybe your first really public day. Your thirteenth is the chance for people to recognize that important things are happening to you.

Things have been happening to you for the past half year. You have seven hairs in your left armpit now. Twelve in your right. Hard dangerous spirals of brittle black hair. Crunchy, animal hair. There are now more hard curled hairs around your privates than you can count without losing track. Other things. Your voice is rich and scratchy and moves between octaves without any warning. Your face has begun to get shiny when you don’t wash it. And two weeks of a deep and frightening ache this past spring have left you with something dropped down from inside: your sack is now full and vulnerable, a commodity to be protected. Hefted and strapped in tight supporters that stripe your buttocks red. You have grown into a new fragility.

And dreams. For months there have been dreams like nothing before: moist and busy and distant, full of yielding curves, frantic pistons, warmth and a great falling; and you have awakened through fluttering lids to a rush and a gush and a toe-curling scalp-snapping jolt of feeling from an inside deeper than you knew you had, spasms of a deep sweet hurt, the streetlights through your window blinds cracking into sharp stars against the black bedroom ceiling, and on you a dense white jam that lisps between legs, trickles and sticks, cools on you, hardens and clears until there is nothing but gnarled knots of pale solid animal hair in the morning shower, and in the wet tangle a clean sweet smell you can’t believe comes from anything you made inside you.

— David Foster Wallace, “Forever Overhead”

This is my music; this is myself

In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach, and bide his own time, — happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly. . . . For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”

Gilead, Iowa

To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded. I can’t help imagining that you will leave sooner or later, and it’s fine if you have done that, or you mean to do it. This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love — I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.

I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. We participate in Being without remainder. No breath, no thought, no wart or whisker, is not as sunk in Being as it could be. And yet no one can say what Being is. If you describe what a thought and a whisker have in common, and a typhoon and a rise in the stock market, excluding “existence,” which merely restates the fact that they have a place on our list of known and nameable things (and which would yield as insight: being equals existence!), you would have accomplished a wonderful thing, still too partial in an infinite degree to have any meaning, however.

I’ve lost my point. It was to the effect that you can assert the existence of something — Being — having not the slightest notion of what it is. Then God is at a greater remove altogether — if God is the Author of Existence, what can it mean to say God exists? There’s a problem in vocabulary. He would have to have had a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence. That is clearly a source of confusion. Another term would be needed to describe a state or quality of which we can have no experience whatever, to which existence as we know it can bear only the slightest likeness or affinity. So creating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.

So my advice is this — don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead