Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wisdom Literature, And The Fuck-Ups Who Write It

Wisdom Literature is a genre I've precious little appetite for. I've read the stuff in the Bible, committed some of it to memory — usually to be recited in an ironic context. I don't voluntarily return to it, though.

Some — maybe even most — people seem to find it super-important. Recognizing that, I've taken a stab at reading varieties of Wisdom Lit: the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Koran, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius, Rumi, Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet. Couldn't finish any of 'em.

Back when I worked the bookstore Khalil Gibran's The Prophet also caught my eye. Try as we might, we could not keep enough copies of that homely-looking book in stock. At some point we finally caught up on our back-orders and I took a copy home to see what all the fuss was about. I could have read it in an evening, but didn't. Sleep overtook me, and the book was back on the store's shelf the next morning.

Gibran retains his popular appeal, though, so he's an inviting subject for critic-journalists keen for a peek-behind-the-curtain, like John Dodge, who riffs off Joan Accocella's in turn. Reading those pieces this week put me in a funk, for reasons I've had trouble identifying. I have no investment in Gibran's strain of wisdom, so a writer might reasonably expect a reader like me to indulge in a little schadenfreude. But I find the death of an alcoholic just plain sad, and Gibran's is no exception.

My responsive glumness is also the residual effect of reading Listening For Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L'Engle In Many Voices (A). Leonard S. Marcus does a fine job of pulling together recollections of the woman from friends, writers and book-biz types, and others who naturally had dealings with L'Engle. What emerges is pretty much the expected picture: L'Engle as grand dame who, while fully in touch with her formidable charisma, very pointedly cultivated an air of approachability.

Marcus' conversations contain few surprises, and those are rather gentle. This is chiefly because it is Cynthia Zarin who first encountered and, in this NewYorker piece, exposed all the astonishments. Many of Marcus' interviews feel compelled to comment on Zarin — not on the revelations per se, of course, but on the spirit in which they were presented. Marcus, in turn, concludes by interviewing Zarin, commendably giving her the last word on the matter.

From my first reading to the present, Zarin's piece never struck me as sensationalist or exploitative or vituperative (in fact, I wish it was included in Marcus' book). Nor were her revelations a source of disappointment — sadness on behalf of someone encountered in the printed word, but not disappointment. L'Engle wrote frequently and forcefully on the subject of, for instance, marital fidelity, but there were also frequent (occasionally cloaked) asides that suggested these utterances had some unspoken history behind them. Her marriage to an actor from a popular soap came of age during the 60s and 70s. The marriage ideal might well be a two-part invention, but presuming strict fidelity on the part of two public “superstars” in the environment of that era requires a third party: the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.

Readers gave it, though — and still do. That's some sweet-tasting punch to be had, and no-one appreciates the suggestion it has been in any way tainted. So it is also no surprise if friends and colleagues subtly (or not so) cast aspersions on Zarin's character. Thomas Cahill, however, surprises me when he says,

The profile of Madeleine that appeared in The New Yorker really shocked me. What shocked me was not whether this or that detail was true. What was said about Bion,* for example, sounded more or less accurate. It would have been fine to say those things once she was gone. What shocked me was that Madeleine's family had talked about her in that way while Madeleine was still reading.

Emphasis is mine. Cahill seems to imply he'd be okay with reading this stuff after she'd died, and not a moment before.

I have to say I have considerably greater sympathy for L'Engle's children. The maintenance of a publicly revered parent is also a three-part invention, requiring the often reluctant participation of the children. Consider how, as L'Engle's physical and mental state was deteriorating, her public persona grew increasingly saintly. As the family casualties mounted, and the matriarch required ever more intimate care, receiving adulatory mail from strangers who presumed a deep connection with this person (“Madeleine was the mother I wish I had” is a common sentiment) must have become a staggering burden, especially if it appears that hagiography is nearly inevitable. Before Crosswicks becomes a tourist destination, and busloads of earnest believers spill out to tell you, ad nauseum, what a truly wonderful person your mother was, you might want to preemptively let a little air out of the tires.

You might also, consciously or no, want to prep her for deathbed conversation. It's debatable just how necessary it is to actually have these conversations, but one way or another, before or after death, a kid has to “say” “You fucked up. Not only that, you fucked me up. But I forgive you. I love you. And I will miss you so much more than I can say.”

Our parents, with all their flaws, try to pass on what wisdom they glean during their own lives. Beyond that, any Wisdom Literature we adopt we then endow with parental authority. It only stands to reason that this, then, is a conversation we readers ought to “have” with the writers of our Wisdom Literature.

Writing Wisdom Literature was a gig Madeleine took to, with obvious pleasure. In fact you could argue, as she elliptically did, that it is every writer's gig, whether they acknowledge it or not. Speaking with some personal experience, forgiving an author for his or her personal shortcomings can have a surprisingly freeing effect on the words they wrote. It may be that the only truly Sacred Literature we get in this life is written by people we have learned to forgive.

*If you haven't yet read Zarin's piece, Bion is presented as the golden-haired child who drank himself into an early grave. Sensing a theme, yet?

**This is the last time I link to Larkin's This Be The Verse. Now here's a link to his second most-discussed poem.

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