Why I'm a Student of Thich Nhat Hanh
published in Spirituality and Health Magazine
I know of no spiritual teacher or person who more fully embodies peace and compassionate understanding than Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, as he is lovingly known by his students.
“All religions and spiritual traditions,” William James famously wrote, “begin with the cry ‘Help!’” Like so many, I began my spiritual quest in earnest when I began to heal consciously from an instance of violence
When I tell people that I’m a writer, the most common response I get is: Oh, that is so great! I’d love to be a writer. I used to write, but I don’t have the time now. I’ve heard that response so often that it got me wondering: Why is it that so many people feel they don’t have the creative lives they would like to have? What does it mean that people don’t have time?
From Despair to Gratitude: How Yoga Transformed One Mother's Life
published in Anchor Magazine
Several years ago, I set out to interview people who had undergone major challenges in their lives. In particular, I wanted to know if there were people who had been able to create a deep and lasting shift towards the positive not only in their external lives but also in their internal happiness levels.
Interview with food and living democracy activist France Moore Lappe
published in Anchor Magazine
We talk about Frances Moore Lappe's own path, and how to stay hopeful and socially engaged and active in our present world.
The Convergence of Personal, Political, and Spiritual Poetry
published in LA Review of Books
A friend recently called me, dismayed: her book of poems had been called “confessional” in a review; she was polling her friends. The consensus was that the term was pejorative; the implication that the poetry was overly personal, not really important, perhaps self-indulgent.
Two Tools for Processing Trauma and Grief
published in Elephant Journal
I’m a writer, but each time a new story of violence takes over my media stream, I instinctively react, not with words—but with silence.I get a bit quieter and send out love for the victims and healing for everyone and for the world.
I believe that much of the violence in our world comes from people who don’t have the tools to sit still, to quiet the pain and the confusion of their bodies and minds and to unlearn the violence they have been taught.
published in Yes! Magazine
Could the roots of our religions hold the key to creating a more peaceful and fair world? Religious scholar and historian Karen Armstrong believes that may be the case.
9 Steps to Overcome the Paradox of the Unhappy Writer
published in Elephant Journal
So many people want to write and so many people have this idea that if they could just write and get published they’d feel fulfilled and happy.
So why is it that so many published writers are unhappy? On the one hand, there is more and more scientific evidence that writing makes people emotionally and physically healthy. Researchers like James Pennebaker and Lewis Mehl-Madrona have done great work in this area. And yet, the cliché of the tormented, struggling writer points to a different truth.
published in Brown Alumni Magazine
During night shifts as a janitor at a Baltimore Procter & Gamble plant in the 1980s, Afaa Michael Weaver ’87 AM wrote poetry, but no one took him seriously.
The Search for Meaning
published in Brown Alumni Magazine
Krista Tippett ’83 got a cryptic message from her speaking agent late one afternoon in June: call the National Endowment for the Humanities office. Tippett, host of the public-radio show On Being and author of Speaking of Faith and Einstein’s God, assumed the endowment wanted to speak to her about a problem with a grant application.
On talking to our kids about the future
published in grist.org
Now that the first month of the new year in the new decade has come to an end, a first month that has brought much to mourn and not much to celebrate, I’ve been thinking again about hope.
The Beauty of the Husband Review
published in Jacket Magazine
One of the most innovative and interesting writers in North America today, Anne Carson has, since her first work, Eros the Bittersweet: an essay, reimagined and reinvigorated traditional genres of writing.
On Linda Gregg's All of It Singing
published in The Kenyon Review
All of It Singing is a beautiful book that displays not only the development of a writer but also the continuities and consistencies in this remarkable poet’s career. Unlike poets such as Keats, Auden, or Rich, Gregg seems to be writing both in a similar style, and, more importantly, from a similar source throughout these poems that span seven volumes and nearly three decades.
“Chardin: Love, Painting, Power and Powerlessness”
excerpt from a memoir-in-progress, New Life, a memoir of Pregnancy and Early Motherhood
first published in The Southwest Review
When Gabriel was three months old, we went to a vast retrospective exhibit of the early eighteenth century French painter, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. We had just come back from spending the summer in a small house in the country, and as we walked to themuseum, it felt strange to be around all the human activity of the city, the signs of people's incessant desire to do something, to make something, to change something, to see and to be seen. On Broadway alone we must have seen more people than we had seen all summer, people hurrying down the street, walking slowly next to friends, pushing strollers, entering and exiting stores, buses, subway stations, residential buildings, taxis, cars, coming and going, standing still waiting to cross the street or dodging the cars; there was no place without people. The park was crowded with people jogging and biking, pushing carriages, sitting on a bench or on a blanket laid out on the grass or directly on the lawn basking in the already cloying sun, everyone in his own world, with his own intentions and activities, together but anonymous, cut off, seen but not known.
I don’t know what, if anything, I expected of the Chardin show; I knew little about Chardin as a painter, only that he painted still lifes of fruit and the spoils of the hunt, and genre scenes of ordinary life. But almost as soon as I stepped inside the exhibition hall, I was enchanted. The paintings seemed to show up close the stark reality of life, in its beauty and brutality. What struck me most were the dead animals: a dead rabbit next to a hunting pouch; a partridge hung up by its feet. Unlike the lavish superabundance of many eighteenth century still lifes with their opulent displays and bright colors in which the exotic fruits, silver and gold eating vessels, or the abundant spoils of the hunt that were painted as symbols of wealth, these still lifes were tender, attentive, and intimate; these animals were not on display but instead seemed to inhabit their own space. The backgrounds were almost entirely contextless, painted in rich browns and grays, shadowy, textured, painterly, indeterminate.
It seemed as if the subject of the paintings, these once alive and now dead creatures, had been given complete and total attention, were the sole subject of a loving look, as Gabriel so often felt like the complete center of my attention. And they were painted so finely—those whiskers, that touch of red around the feathers’ edge-- that I almost imagined I could put out my hand and stroke the fur and burrow my face in its softness; that if I acted quickly I could take the bird down from the wall and rescue it, protect and love it, hold it to myself and stroke its warm and gentle body, feel its heart beating beneath those feathers, my strokes as much to comfort me as to calm it down. Several times in my childhood I had found wounded birds, birds that had stunned themselves flying into plate glass windows or fallen from their trees, and my father had picked them up in his large warm hands and given them to me, to my own, more tentative, smaller hands, and I had felt the little beating heart underneath the soft feathers.
As I looked at Chardin’s animals, I could not help feeling for them a kind of maternal love. They seemed so vulnerable, hung up by their feet, the rabbit’s and partridge’s soft and tender undersides exposed. That part of them that is naturally hidden was now in full view as if we were all put in the position of mothers of infants, allowed to see everything, as if nothing anymore could be private. I bent my head over and kissed the top of Gabriel’s soft little head several times. His warmth felt miraculous. I felt as if Chardin had painted these allegories of desire just for me, had painted these elegies on behalf of innocent life, these pleas for attention for the rabbits and birds, for the peaches and even for the about-to-pounce cat, as if he were commanding, with his brush, pay attention to everything around you: look at the world that you desire in all its suppleness, in all its meaning.
It seemed that Chardin was showing what the eyes of a truly compassionate being would see: all the beauty, all the inexpressible meaning, in what we normally think of as dispensable, disposable, unimportant. Over and over Chardin painted those rabbits as if to say each one is important, every single one, with its whiskers, its fur, its paws and face. I realized that all that summer I had strangely been imagining myself in the position of God, that idea that I did not believe in but that haunted my imagination anyway; that I had imagined, as I looked at Gabriel, that from my eyes themselves could emanate a kind of love, a kind of all-compassionate comfort and embrace. It seemed to me, looking at my child, that there were no limits to my love, no conditions, that this, indeed, was what Godly love must be.
I understood why people imagine God as a parent and like to imagine his eyes on them, because it seemed to me that my eyes themselves could protect Gabriel, could give him a home of love in this world. And it seemed to me that as in Chardin’s gaze, my love for Gabriel could multiply; for what made my relationship with Gabriel so special was not so much that I had made him, that he came out of me, but that he was given to me as my responsibility, that there was no part of him, his little hands and feet, his belly and penis and testicles, his little butt, his eyes and nose and the inside of his toothless mouth, that it was not my job to watch over. To love fully, I thought, following Chardin, would simply be to give something one’s full attention, to get up very close and to look at it, from all sides, each hair, each whisker, even the parts that are normally not exposed, to see someone or something entirely on its own terms, without any external extraneous context.
Around us other people, so inelegant compared to those rabbits, stood still or walked slowly or quickly by the paintings, old women out together for lunch, young couples, Midwestern tourists and European tourists, all with their strange bodies strangely dressed, in the room together; and I wondered what they had been like as babies, and what they would be like alone, in the middle of the night, in their rooms, without pretense, without any way to cover themselves. And it seemed, in those galleries with the animals and the fruits, that Chardin was trying to tell us that our true desire was to love, and that this could, in fact, be a proper elegy for all that had been and all that was, all that had been lost and all that would be lost, that in that attention and in that love there was some recompense.
In his still lifes, Chardin seemed to have broken free of the kind of rigidity of perspective of the Renaissance. No longer did he need those interior walls, the lined floors, the many thresholds to show something in three dimensions. He no longer needed to show the individual in relation to another. These animals seemed to get at the radical core of being. In his still lifes, Chardin is a consummate pre-romantic, and was loved for that reason by generations of later painters. He, like painters later, who would look back to him as a model, painted from real life, not from the imagination. He got, as Diderot proclaimed, “back to Nature,” or, as Chardin’s friend, the engraver Cochin, said, to the “truth.”
In contrast to the richness and careful attention of his still lifes, Chardin’s scenes of human life seemed flat. Unlike the exposed nakedness of the animals, the people appeared covered up by their clothes, only their faces and hands exposed. If the rabbits and partridges seemed to be painted, whisker by whisker, feather by feather, for themselves, the people seemed to be painted less for themselves than for what they represented.
It was not until a few weeks later, while Eric watched Gabriel and I sat down to write a poem, that I began to realize what bothered me about those domestic scenes. Somehow the meaning and irony of human life seemed to be hidden there in the juxtaposition between the paintings of the dead animals and the paintings of the people, for if the animals were shown often outside of context, the paintings of people placed them in a social context, and this worried and bothered me, but it also resonated with me in a way that I don’t think it would have done only a few months earlier. For if over the summer I had been able to live for a while in a kind of absolute, superlative intensity, now that I was back in the city, starting to think about integrating myself into my old life again, it seemed that that kind of absolute attention, that kind of adolescent self-absorption, that first-love intensity between the subject and the object of the gaze, was only a partial truth.
As I sat down to write my own poem, it was not the rabbits, not Chardin himself that captured my imagination, but once more the woman, in this case Chardin’s wife, the object of his gaze. My thoughts began to spiral around her and out to things that took me way beyond the painting, beyond what, in fact, the painting could represent.
Compared, paradoxically, to the life-like dead animals, she, the person Chardin had loved, appears hardly exposed at all, wrapped up in great swaddles of material—her dress with its big sleeves and cuffs, her black and blue shawl. Her small face, with its delicate nose and chin, each slightly too pointy to be called beautiful, its small eyes and thin lips, sits perched above her big body. Her hair is cut short and is, perhaps prematurely, grey, and she wears a little cap on her head. She sits at a red table on which is a small pitcher and a china cup of tea from which steam rises in great curly wisps.
The couple by all accounts had been devoted to each other, and had became engaged when Chardin was only twenty-four years old. But they were not able to marry until Chardin established a place for himself, which took eight long years. By the time Chardin painted his wife with her cup of tea, they had been married for four years. And though neither of them presumably knew it at the time, Mme Chardin had only two more months to live.
The cause of her death is unknown; perhaps she, like so many young women, died in childbirth; in the painting she looks particularly wide around the middle and her wrist looks as if it may be swollen. And I wondered whether, she had been happy in her life. What had her life been like? What did she do while her husband painted? And what did it feel like to be the object of her husband’s gaze, to sit at the table and have her husband look at her as he painted?
In the picture she looks down at her cup of tea; and I found myself wondering whether she wanted to rise up in her gaze with the steam, out of embodiment, or whether she wanted to sink into embodiment, into the cup. But in either case, there is no mercy, no release. There is no change, no pardon, no reprieve. There is no turning back. Two months later, she, like the rabbits, would be no more.
For, after all, the gaze has only a very limited power, can rescue no one from the grave. Indeed, in this case, the gaze itself might have been responsible to some extent for death, for even Chardin needed to have someone go out and get those rabbits for him, rabbits which would not be eaten when he was through with them because he had taken so long that they surely must have begun to rot, so that the rabbits lives had been taken only for the value of art—whatever that is. It is important to imagine an absolute, impartial, love-filled gaze, but can it ever really exist? Can it ever see anything or anyone as it really is? None of us can ever fully be seen or understood. There cannever be an appropriate elegy.
If Chardin had painted not ten or twenty or thirty or forty dead rabbits, but ten thousand or twenty thousand or three hundred thousand or four or forty million dead rabbits, would we have the attention to look at them all? And even if we did, what, still, would that do? The mind revolts. Comes back to the one rabbit.
But what if it were not a rabbit but a person who had just been shot? What about all the people who are even now about to be shot? It cannot be enough to transform, as Chardin does with his paint, the body, limb by limb, into the object of our attention, of our love. The attention, the gaze, with all its love, can never be enough. Nothing can ever be enough.
In my love for Gabriel, in my attention, my gaze, I feel godlike, but if something goes wrong, where then, I wondered, is my belief in God, a God who allows not only rabbits to be shot but humans as well, a God who may look, but will not answer, will not respond.
I felt like a child, vulnerable to the world. I remembered the opening pages of the nineteenth century author, Octave Mirbeau’s first, autobiographical novel, Le Calvaire, in which the father, the kind hearted, unimaginative typical provincial notary, with his small time pomp and pride, delights in hunting. Anything small that moves—game birds, mice, rabbits and particularly the neighborhood cats—provides for the father the simple pleasure of the hunt. But the son is traumatized, especially by the death of his beloved cats, whom he has touched with his own hands, into whose eyes he has looked and whose suffering he feels in those pitiable torturous meows.
When later in the book, then, the narrator signs up for the army and fights in the completely pointless 1870 Franco-Prussian war, we as readers have already been prepared for the needless waste of human destruction. We read of the French destroying their own villages to prevent the Germans from doing it; we hear of the women taken from their homes, the children, but perhaps we should not be surprised by this action from a species so inane as to find joy and sport in the pointless killing of a cat.
Like the killing of cats, the brutalities and pointless suffering of that largely forgotten war have been whitewashed or forgotten. And since then, war has followed upon war.
The horror of the world seemed to rise up before me. Chardin is considered by many to be comfortably bourgeois, the son of a cabinetmaker, a person born under the reign of the Sun King who did not question overmuch the social order. But it seemed to me, as I thought about his work, that on the canvas he was performing a kind of peaceful revolution. While the “major” painters of his age painted great history scenes, or portraits of members of the court, Chardin took as his subject the individual forms of what is usually overlooked. Indeed, he was considered a minor painter because he painted in only minor genres, such unimportant things as dead rabbits and birds, as scullery maids and children and bourgeois wives. But if the still lives suggest that one can be seen for oneself, outside of background or context, in a kind of utopian belief in the existential existence of the individual as such, the genre paintings suggest something else, something more difficult, and ultimately, perhaps, more mature. They suggest that there is no escaping context, that everything, all identity is framed, at least in part, by its setting, by its cultural contours. A generation before the French Revolution, Chardin redirects our gaze.
But in redirecting the gaze, he shows not just what can be seen, but also, by implication, what cannot be seen. Mme Chardin sits at a red table, steam rising from her cup. But what was she thinking? What as she hoping? Was she waiting for something? Two months later, she would need to leave behind her child as she died, her husband, her own self. Can the painting, which survives express this loss?
Would Mme Chardin have led a fuller life if she herself had painted? I tried to think of women painters that I admired and could think of almost none. And then I thought of myself sitting there trying to write, in this moment of history when woman are allowed new freedoms, new possibilities. And yet at the same time, I felt that the most important work I could do, even more important than anything I wrote, was taking care of my son. “Here lies,” Ben Jonson wrote thirteen years after the death of his first son at the age of seven, “Ben Jonson[‘s] best piece of poetry.” All writing, all painting, I suddenly felt, is secondary to the primary act of being alive, to our own embodiment, for men as for women. Art is wonderful and important, but an act of translation, not the lived life, the life lived to the full.
And Chardin himself? What was it like for him to lose his wife, his children? In his wonderful late self-portraits, created when he was in his seventies, in the final decade of his life, when his eyesight was too impaired for him to paint and he took up working with pastels, Chardin again seems to direct our own gaze to what cannot be seen as much as to what can. In the portraits, Chardin looks out from behind his spectacles, an old man now, his head covered in a kind of white scarf: this is where life has brought me, he seems to want to say: you can look at me, but my own story remains unsung, untold, unheard, ununderstood, even, perhaps, by the self. Is that, I wondered, the condition of all of us? That question would haunt me for a long time.
As Featured In
The American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, Anchor Magazine, The Boston Globe, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Elephant Journal, Grist, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Literary Imagination, The New Yorker, Slate, Southwest Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, Yale Review, Yes! Magazine and many other places.
excerpt from a memoir-in-progress New Life: A Memoir of Pregnancy and Early Motherhood
published in Denver Quarterly
Soon after Gabriel’s first birthday, I finished re-readingMoby Dick, which I had started again that winter, deep in my depression. No other novel I could think of was as big and powerful in its scope, as sweeping in its presentation of human destructiveness, and that winter as I read, I had been caught up in its vision. But as I came to the book’s end, one bright spring day, I felt that I was suddenly aware of all the novel left out. As I read the book’s last pages, when the men are all pulled under in the sunk ship’s downward whirlpool, it occurred to me that Melville leaves out from his book almost entirely women, the domestic, children and the life of the land. With Gabriel playing at my feet, I felt aware of all the novel did not touch upon.
I had been very much seduced by Moby Dick. I appreciated its vastness, its almost existential angst. But now I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if the greatest American novel were about the mysterious, alluring, tedious, exasperating, strange and wonderful work of mothers, of pregnancy, of the human body giving birth to another, of that other coming into its own. If Moby-Dick drives outward towards mystery, which comes at its climaxing destructive end, pregnancy and motherhood seemed to have pulled me inward and back.
I had spent my life reading great literature, and I had been most often attracted to the intricate and complex work of men, to the very authority with which they seemed to write. Why had so few women written with the same authority, with the same extraordinary talent and soul and intricacy, that sense of writing out of their very centers? Was it because, for women, those centers were fulfilled by motherhood? Or was it because those very centers, in women, were closed off, in a realm without a real vocabulary or tradition of which to be a part?
Melville of course could write about men on ships because this was what his imagination could illuminate, but what could my own imagination illuminate? In its very largeness, in what it seemed to move away from––the domestic, the life of families, of men and women and children together–– Moby Dick seemed to signal what I wanted.
I remembered that Arrowhead, the house where Melville wrote Moby Dick, was close to my parents’ house in the Berkshires and close to the house where we had spent Gabriel’s first summer the year before. I thought that seeing the home of this writer who so decidedly seemed to run away from the domestic in his writing might help me. How did Melville in his own life integrate his own largeness of vision, his ambition and despair, with his life and responsibilities as a husband and father? On the one hand Melville seems to run away from the everyday––Melville himself, one might argue, was running his whole life from the fact of his father’s death and the break-up of his first domestic home when he was only thirteen, at the cusp of maturity. Yet the attention to detail, the compassion, the humanity of Melville’s vision seemed also particularly well suited to documenting the strange and ordinary extraordinariness of the everyday, and of parenting itself.
We arranged to go upstate for the weekend. As a little mini-vacation, a kind of celebration of our first year of parenthood, Eric and I dropped Gabriel off with my parents and spent the night at an inn. When we first dropped Gabriel off, Eric and I felt slightly strange, like backpackers who for the first time all day put down their heavy pack; we felt almost weightless, not sure of the shape of our own bodies. Back at the inn, we lounged around in our room, flipped through the leisure magazines, talked, and finally made love, as if reacquainting ourselves with ourselves.
In the late afternoon, we drove to the house we had rented the summer before. The lawn looked almost as lush as it had when we had first arrived the previous summer, though the bed of flowers around the border had not been replanted. There was a car in the driveway, so we didn’t walk in farther to look at the patio or to stand over the stream. Instead we walked once more down the road, through the small town by the junk house, over the bridge, stopping for a while to watch the water flow beneath us, and then down by the farm. Everything looked the same as it had the year before, and I felt as I was walking that I, too, was the same, and that in fact I was the same I as I had always been, as if, even as a young girl, I had contained within me this mother-self I now was.
We turned around at the fork in the road, and didn’t make it to the top of the hill where we had so often seen the sun set. Instead we walked back to our car and drove into town to eat dinner. That evening, back at the inn, we made love again and fell asleep early.
When we woke the next morning it was drizzling outside. After breakfast we drove to Arrowhead. As we traveled through the landscape, I tried to imagine what it had looked like a hundred and fifty years earlier. I tried to imagine farmland and a world without cars, but the contrast made the country roads feel suburban and destroyed, and put me in a bad mood. I tried to stop my imagination and enjoy things as they were.
Arrowhead itself is a medium sized mustard colored clapboard house overlooking a field and a small hill. We drove back behind it and parked, and went inside to buy our tickets. Inside, there were only two other couples on the tour with us.
When the family moved to Arrowhead in 1850, the docent told us, Melville had been married for three years, and had one child, Malcolm (who was to kill himself seventeen years later, though the docent did not tell us this). The Melvilles had summered nearby and enjoyed it so much that Herman bought Arrowhead at the end of the season. Lizzie had been happy to move away from her in-laws, with whom they had been living in Manhattan, but Herman’s mother and three sisters soon moved in with them, and so there were six adults in the house and, over time, four children.
The tour took us first to the dining room, then into the sitting room, where the family spent much of its time. These were the main rooms of the house, and it was hard to imagine how so many people had lived there; it was a chaotic and often noisy place, the docent told us, but I wished I could have known in more specifics what dinner time had been like, what long cold winter afternoons had been like, how they had all arranged themselves in the space, what the women did all day, what they had talked about and what they had quarreled about.
Upstairs there were only two rooms: the master bedroom, and, across from it, Herman’s study, directly above, and as large as, the sitting room below. The size of the room surprised me. Melville gives his protagonist Pierre a study no bigger than a closet, in which the character locks himself and writes. But Melville’s room was spacious and grand, hardly a garret.
Where did everyone else sleep, we asked the docent. He gestured behind the room: there were some closet like spaces back there, he told us. But where did Herman’s mother and sisters sleep, and the children as they grew? Apparently, there were also what the docent called “outbuildings.” Perhaps the other family members had slept in them. The docent wasn’t really sure. . The kitchen, too, must have been out there, and the servants’ quarters.
This lack of information interested, if it did not quite surprise, me, for in even the best biographies that I had looked at quickly, it appeared that relatively little is known about Melville’s domestic life which, like so much else, has been erased from our knowledge of the world.
We went into the study. Outside the rain had stopped, and at a distance we could see Mount Greylock, the humped whale-shaped mountain, through the mist. Melville’s large desk sat facing the window so that he could see the landmass rising as he wrote. I looked around the room: I noted the fireplace, the poker by the fire, the big writing desk, the view out the window. I tried to imagine what it had been like for Melville to sit there writing. But as so often happens to me in those situations, my imagination felt dull. I kept on wanting to know more about the children, about Lizzie, his wife, about what it had been like, day by day, hour by hour, to live in that house. But the docent had no more information for me.
I thought of the five women in the house, and Melville, the one man, with his large study, writing away to support the whole household on his writings that also were to be the personal expression of his genius. Who can blame him for wanting to escape into his study, for locking the door? He wrote fanatically, finishing his six-hundred-page novel in a year. Virginia Woolf, of course, asserted that for a woman to be a writer, she, too, must have a room of her own. But it also seemed to me that as Melville was scribbling away, always trying to get at the heart of the matter, he was also missing the life that was around him all the time.
He would come down to dinner frustrated, his nerves on end, and later, if not then, his domestic life was often unhappy: his moodiness threatened to break up his marriage; his children, who loved their papa, also found him unpredictable and tyrannical.
Stepping into the bedroom before going down again to the first floor, I recalled reading about Lizzie’s second birth, to Stanwix, a month before Moby Dick was published. It was in this bedroom that she had had such high fevers that the people nursing her back to health had needed to hang sheets over the wallpaper to prevent it from constantly dancing in front of her eyes. After the fevers abated, in the months to come, as Herman got to work across the hall on his next novel, Pierre, Lizzie had problems with abscessed nipples which eventually became so painfully infected that she was forced to wean the baby prematurely, a fact that may have contributed to his being rather sickly.
And Pierre, meanwhile, is about trying to escape some of the tediousness and hypocrisy of domestic life. Some male biographers, writing with a tone of sympathy for Herman, and saying not a word about his wife, have speculated that Melville wrote out of a sense of entrapment when his own physical relations in his marriage were strained because of her illnesses. This might be, but mightn’t we approach the situation differently? And if we sympathize with Herman, who does not get what he wants, what about poor Lizzie across the hall, suffering, caught in the female body that no amount of thinking or imagination will jump over, the body whose job it was to keep itself and to keep the new baby alive. Might we approach the domestic with different expectations, with a sense not just of being burdened, but also of being part of something big and important?
Pierre, written right after Moby Dick, and in the shadow of that book’s disappointing reception, was disastrous for Melville’s literary career. Never again would Melville be able to support the family as a novelist. Eleven years later he needed to sell the beloved Arrowhead, and he spent the last twenty years of his life working six days a week in the New York City customs house, his family life often very unhappy, his marriage often on the verge of collapse, his older son dead by suicide, his younger son wrecked partly as a result, his daughters embittered against their father. If writing novels was to be an escape for Melville, practically, it, too, became a dead-end.
Whatever inspired Pierre, all of Melville’s novels, and most especially Moby Dick, can be seen as attempts at escaping, escaping the anxiety of the self, escaping the hypocrisy and boredom and pettiness of every day life. Written when Melville for the first time settled down in a house of his own, married and with his first child, Moby Dick opens with the idea of escape: when Ishmael finds himself fantasizing about death, he jumps on a ship: “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…. I account it high time to get to sea.” “With a philosophical flourish,” Melville goes on, “Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.” Ahab’s mad quest for Moby Dick can itself be seen as a means of escaping his own existential angst: out and out these men move, ever outward for adventure, revenge, largeness itself. But in the end, Melville’s characters all die except for Ishmael who is saved by a floating coffin and picked up by another ship looking for its Captain’s lost son. The escape that the tale offers, thus, is hardly a very promising one.
In Van Eyck’s and Botticelli’s high renaissance paintings, the order and refinement of the interior world is balanced by the exterior world of escape, a world of twisting rivers and magical landscapes. But in Moby Dick there isonly escape: Melville plunges into the ocean, away from the civilized world, out and out into the unknown until the book itself is consumed by escape itself. There is no alternative space.The very structure of Moby Dick rejects the renaissance ideal of balance. The novel breaks form. It rejects the neat plot of novels; it is huge and shapeless. Already, a hundred and fifty years ago, Melville rejected the belief in human order, in human knowledge, progress, perfection.
In his early book, Redburn, Melville looked to the civilized world and was horrified. In one of the most harrowing scenes I have ever read, the young narrator, an American disembarking for the first time in the old world, full of illusions and hopes about that civilized land of his ancestors, comes upon a mother and her children literally starving to death in Liverpool under a stair; when the narrator goes back to them with a bit of bread, he finds a dead infant at the woman’ shrunken breast. This is Redburn’s first introduction to the old world of high civilization. If Chardin predates the Romantics by a generation, dying ten years before the French Revolution, Melville, a generation after the high Romantics, writing in the new world, replaced the needlessly killed rabbits with the great colossal white sperm whale: the vision of death and destruction has reached a kind of apocalyptic pitch. In Moby Dick there seems no longer any hope for a coherent civilized world, and so Melville tries to escape into nature, into a new order of writing itself. But neither offers him any respite.
Melville had thought that he was starting a new American tradition, but the very terms in which he had tried to define that tradition were ones that he himself rejected—America would have a new world class literature because of its new imperial powers, he wrote in an essay about his friend and mentor Nathaniel Hawthorne, though he deplored the very imperialism of which he spoke, and Moby Dickparticipates in the very largeness of ambition, the rage and all encompassing mania that it itself critiques. Pierre, his darkest novel, written in the wake of the critical failure of his masterpiece, is about a novelist who tries to find some original essence, tries himself to develop a new world writing, but decides that there is nothing authentic, that everything is strata upon strata all the way down, and commits suicide in the end.
There can be, Melville concludes, no escape; escape itself sucks us into itself. Now, it would seem, we know this better than ever. Moby Dick is perhaps the last great book that imagines the infinite largeness of the world. Now we can have no illusions on that scale; the illusion of infinite resources has come up against its own end.
A hundred and fifty years ago, Melville seemed to reach a limit of destructiveness from which one could hardly even imagine escape or an alternate space. But today, the world is even more full of death and despair than it was in Melville’s time. We have moved out and out and out until history has, appallingly, superceded even the horror of the vision of Moby Dick. In Melville’s great novel of human destruction, the whale swims away.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the oceans could still represent the ultimate escape into the unknown. But today, beautiful and powerful as oceans still are, we cannot lose ourselves in them in the same way; humans have cast our filth even into the vast unknown of the ocean; many species of whales are now almost extinct.
There is a region in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas where the ocean resembles a plastic dump. There is now, according to some estimates, more plastic than plankton in the waters, and even if we were to stop producing all plastic today, which of course we are certainly not doing, the oceans would not be free of plastics for another thousand years.
In the past fifty years, ninety percent of the fish populations—of those populations that remain at all—are down to ten percent of their original numbers. In the past fifty years the area scraped clean by deep sea trawling rivals all the forests ever cut on land-the ancient cedar groves of Lebanon, the great oak forests that once covered Greece, the forests of the Amazon, the forests of Africa, of America, of all the land on earth. Great dead zones take up much of the ocean, dead zones that are ever on the increase.
Can we any longer imagine any alternate space? We have gone out and out on such a vast scale that we have colonized the whole earth. If Melville wrote Moby Dick today, could the great white whale swim away? And if it did not, what does that mean for the imagination, which the whale, the unknowable, the great blank that entices and eludes, represents?
And it was into this world that I had brought new life. All winter that thought had horrified me. But as we walked out of Arrowhead, the mist had cleared and the sky was blue. It was a beautiful early summer day. Grasses danced in the meadow in a slight breeze in the near distance, and farther off, Mount Greylock was rising, as it always is, out from the land into the sky. I was now missing Gabriel, and eager to return to my parents’ house where I would see him. And suddenly it seemed clear to me that I had come to Melville’s house looking for answers neither Melville the writer nor Melville the man could answer; I still expected to find in the books and the art I loved some larger authority. But now, looking up to Mount Greylock humped up into the now mistless sky, I thought I could see through that desire.
In my own life, I had often been seduced by largeness, by anger, by despair. It could be almost intoxicating, itself a form of escape. But I had reached a limit. My despair would do nothing for my son.
And human history, too, seems to have reached a limit. For a long time, the globe seemed almost infinitely large. But for the past five hundred years, it has seemed smaller and smaller to the human imagination. Try as Melville did to create a new beginning, he seemed to run into a dead-end. It is, perhaps, the dead-end of the culture itself, a culture bent on destroying other animals, the earth, even what is best about itself. What was perhaps most striking about the tour of Melville’s house was how few of the people on the tour had ever read anything by Melville, and how accustomed the docent was to this state of affairs. Thus high civilization itself, and the greatest products of it become merely empty signs, stops on a weekend tour for wealthy tourists in their leisure time.
And yet, still, no one writes more movingly of the human soul than Melville, and perhaps what I could learn from Melville was I needed both to participate in the tradition that I loved, but also to stand outside of it.
I thought about Melville’s vision going out beyond the self to the seas, and about how my own experience of pregnancy and early motherhood had seemed to bring me back to myself and turned in, not to something smaller, but to something there, intact, infinitely mysterious and important. I thought about the largeness of the whale in the largeness of the ocean and the drive toward the end, and about the smallness of the fetus in the waters of the womb, and the miracle of beginnings, and about how these different experiences are opposites that almost reach out and touch up. And I thought that as the world goes about its business on an ever larger and larger scale, as it runs ever closer to the risk of dead-ending once and for all, it is for women to say loudly and clearly what women may always have known: that caretaking, attention to the individual, maintenance, pleasure are important and perhaps the most difficult work for us to do, and that it is this kind of work, this kind of attention, this respect for the lives around us that the world now needs, this sustaining work that moves not always outward and outward, but that stays where it is and attends to what is.
The illusion of infinite resources has come up against its own end, but the largeness of the human experience does not go away. There can be no escape. But this does not mean that our reaction need be one of despair, for despair itself is another form of longing for escape, which will not come. We are where we are. We are here. And heroism is not meeting the vast unknown, but remaining where one is, meeting the everyday around us, all the time.
Eric and I walked to the car. We stopped to watch a sparrow fly up to the roof of Melville’s house, a twig in its mouth. Then we drove back to my parents’ house. As soon we opened the door, Gabriel turned toward us and his whole face lit up in a big smile. On his short legs, he came as close to running as he could, one foot in front of the other, until he fell, stumbling in his excitement to see us again. He lifted his face up from the ground, stunned, not sure whether he was hurt or not; for a moment, he looked unsure whether to laugh or to cry, and then started to laugh, a big open-mouthed laugh, showing his four new white teeth. Then, picking himself up from the ground, he ran into my arms. I held him until he held his arms out to Eric, and Eric held him and swung him around until Gabriel squirmed to get free, eager to show us a new game.