Grief and Isolation

When I walked my dog in my old neighborhood, I would continually come across a young couple standing in front of a brownstone, good weather and bad, smoking up a storm, one of them doing so even if the other were absent. When together, they were in animated conversation, or looking into one another’s eyes, or just intruding into one another’s space, and so, as anyone else would, I thought them to be lovers who could not for one reason or another go inside, and it is always heartwarming to see young lovers. But I was also tempted to go up to them and say to them that they should stop smoking for one another’s sake so that they did not have to face my fate which was to be made a widower after forty-eight years of marriage because my wife had been a heavy smoker for fifty years even though she and I and all her friends had made the effort to get her to stop smoking. In the early years of our marriage I had even gotten her to try a woman’s pipe, which was a small and pastel colored thing to make it seem feminine, and was something of a fad at the time, but that hadn’t worked, and so by the time she died of lung cancer her only hope had become, as she said, that she would beat the odds. Nobody’s fault that she was dying; only a hope of rescue unfulfilled. But I never did intrude on the couple’s time or space. It was not that I am timid about expressing my opinions. It is rather that you respect the choices people make, however foolish they are, and also so as not to too much blame on the addiction prone for their cravings.

Another reason I did not intrude was that I did not want to be an ancient mariner who bears a tale people might find unsettling and do not want to hear even though it is testimony of a pleasant truth, which is, in the Ancient Mariner’s case, that nature is wonderful, and in my case, that love is also wonderful, even after half a century and so not a moment of it to be wasted. Intruding into people’s lives is always a responsibility because you are altering the way things are, as they are otherwise proceeding, though of course people do that everyday as part of their work or familial duties. You have a right to tell a subordinate what to do or to set a youngster on the right course.

Literature also works like that. It intrudes in your life, whether the book that does so is assigned or just picked up at random, and becomes, because the reader brings so many things to a book, either the subject of a strong or weak misreading of the text, which is the way Harold Bloom put the point. Great texts are the ones that lead to misreadings which are themselves very persuasive, true to life, profound, even if profoundly contrary to what the authors may have wanted to convey and so work to mute the more obvious message of the work. A good example of this is the Book of Job, which its redactors found so problematic that they had to add on an introduction to say that Job’s suffering was part of a plan to test Job rather than leave well enough alone so that his suffering is merely inexplicable. That frame story, however, makes God seem even more cruel than He would have been if He had been merely indifferent to the suffering of Job. God is, in the redacted version, presented as playing with his creatures like fleas, which is how Shakespeare would have put it. And so science may someday tell us how people die and what can be done to alleviate that, but that will not address the question of the meaning, which I claim is nil, to the question of why spouses die. People need to stay alive because the presence of their consciousnesses in the universe is important to other people and not only to themselves. But nature, for its own reasons, does not respect that fact.

Another great text subject to strong misreadings is Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, which is conventionally and not inaccurately understood as an application of Aristotelian morality: every punishment in Hell and Purgatory is an insight into the nature of the crime, not just appropriate but somehow included in the experience of the failure. So the atheists burn in their coffins because they do not believe in an afterlife, and that failure is a matter of will rather than of poor reasoning. They choose to turn their backs on immortality and so suffer in their coffins forever for that. But my misreading of Dante, let the reader decide if it is a strong one, is that moral reasoning is less important in Dante than is the visualization of suffering, making people hurt. Not that Dante did not know that it would occur to readers to feel sorry for the sufferers. Dante’s guide Virgil has to remind him to remain firm and not give in to sentimentality. But that will not wash because some of the punishments have little to do with the sin. Why is Ulysses in a flame for the sin of having grandiose aspirations and so leading his followers into misadventures? Why is the flame a sign of a guilty conscience and why would people consigned to hell feel guilty rather than just sorry that that is where they wound up? If they regret their failures, why wouldn’t they be released from suffering that is inherent in their sin? Moreover, Dante lays on the cruelty i so thick that the reason for it is just an excuse to portray the pain, as if a sadist had to find a crime to justify brutalizing a victim.

What I take away from these literary musings about cruelty is that intruding my story onto a story of young lovers is paradoxical. It would have been an act of cruelty in that I would have been casting a spell upon their love affair, giving it a dark if very long off possible outcome, however much such an activity is sanctioned by literature, whether in Dante or in the fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty. But that perception, to abjure cruelty, is isolating. We avoid comforting or aiding people so as not to offend them with our insights. We each live, therefore, in our existentially created silos and only vicariously peer into one another’s, which makes the fact of love all the more amazing, so preoccupied are we with our own grief and insufficiently attentive to the different forms of grief others experience. Grief is real and yet so privately held. It is a hell of a life.