Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Universe Next Door

Those familiar (perhaps more familiar than I) with ee cummings will recognize my title as from one of his many poems. My first encounter with it, however, was in the last line of Carolyn Heilbrun’s final essay, “From Rereading to Reading,” published in the March 2004 issue of PMLA. These thoughts have been brewing for a long time, more so over the past week as I returned to New York and began the preparations for the fall semester that have so depleted my time and energy over the past few days. I return to it, finally, now -- Heilbrun’s article, and the responses it generated. I begin my career in earnest next week – Tuesday, September 5, at 9 AM, I will teach my own class for the very first time. Perhaps Heilbrun’s reflections on what re-reading can and cannot accomplish in old age are an unexpected choice for someone whose career has not yet begun, and someone for whom old age is still a far off thing. However, these ideas have been floating around in my head since the very beginning of this blog, back in April – and I want to think this all through in advance of finishing the planning for my very first course.

What interests me about Heilbrun’s essay is not so much her choice to end her life – rather, the varied reactions of friends and colleagues to her, the ways in which they engaged her own disillusionment with the work to which she had devoted her life, and the ways in which they sought to find for themselves some way to deal, critically, with the final words (and I refer to those of her suicide note) of a figure who had been so important in their own lives. Commenting on her essay seems strangely beyond my capacity – what could I know of her feelings on her life’s work, the sum of what she had done, when at the end of it, she took stock and pronounced that re-reading is at the last something to feared? I do notice, as she writes – double negatives pervade the piece. The multiplicity of these double negatives, mark what Robert Scholes notes as the opening of “a space, it makes us hesitate, reflect, and in a sense, reread, on the spot, changed only by what we have read up to this point” (PMLA 119.2, 337). What hesitation, however, do they open up on the part of the writer who willfully chooses them (as Heilbrun’s comment on them suggests she did)?

I responded, for reasons my friends will find unsurprising, most strongly to the response of Joan Ferrante. Ferrante’s piece -- resonating with an undertone of emotions she herself identifies as ranging from "admiration to distress” – open with the kind of keen questions that I have come to expect from this feminist scholar: “Why should retirement mean “living less and seeking more of life”? Is Strether “urging little Bilham to a future of rereading”? Are words all that matter for literary scholars?” (320)

Although all three questions certainly have their place in Ferrante’s response to Heilbrun, it is this last that seems to most encapsulate her response to it as a whole. Ferrante recounts how, although Heilbrun is “pressing us to face truths most of us do not want to acknowledge” – the gradual loss of usefulness in old age, the inability to say new things usefully as one once did – she is also engaging in an older habit that Ferrante recognizes. “At the same time, she seems to be doing something that she and I argued about frequently in the early decades of our forty-year friendship: treating literature as if it were life. Not only did she want to write and rewrite her own life as a literary work, she also expected the literature she cared about to reflect her life as well as to teach her how to live” (320). Ferrante’s analysis of Heilbrun’s motivation is moving:

“[Heilbrun] calls Strether’s not striving to get anything for himself “the ambition of the not yet old,” as though the old wanted more for themselves than do the young, and that might well be true of some, but why could it not as well be just the opposite? Why can altruism not be easier for the old because they have nothing to lose, because they can offer themselves, take chances, even risks? … If, as Dante suggests in the Convivio, those who led active lives should offer the fruits of their experience and then move to contemplation in very old age, perhaps those who lived mainly contemplative lives of reading, thinking, and writing should move to lives of action before they die” (320). Ferrante moves, in the final paragraph of her short essay, to the role of reading late in life, concluding that “Literature was always Carol’s life; even when she turned to science, “words were still what mattered,” but in the end words failed her.”

A haunting ending. Although certain of my friends have expressed no surprise – of course words fail – it hits me each time I read it (and re-read it) full force. In the end, words failed her. Literature is, finally, not enough – simply reading, perhaps even simply writing, can never be enough, can never fulfill their unspoken promise, the vague, one might even say “Forsterian” call, to come – but for what?

Susan Friedman responds to Heilbrun’s last work with a meditation, in some ways, on the work of elegy:

“Carolyn’s column relives the chasm between cultures and worlds—men versus women, science versus literature—that had in the first place called her to the utopian dream of androgyny. In her farewell to the profession, she opts for science over literature as “a hell / of a good universe next door”…In so doing, Carolyn seems to forget or perhaps not even to know the woman in the flesh she was to many others—the living doer, a transitive verb, a writer who was always writing. Electrifying before an audience. Intimately warm and humorous tête-à-tête.
The drive of elegy is to find consolation in meaning. Rereading Carolyn Heilbrun becomes a contest of wills—mine to reassert the meaning of her life to (re)reading and doing, her resistance to it.” (323-4)

It is difficult, then, even for those who knew her, to know what to make of Heilbrun’s final statements on life, on age, and on the “hell of a good universe next door.” More than one of the authors reflects on the impossibility of reading this article, or any of Heilbrun’s work, without her final writing – her suicide note -- rewriting the experience of what came before. Susan Kress:

“I fear that now this death will overpower the life; that we will reread Carolyn’s work in the light of her suicide as if this were the magnet to which she was always and inevitably drawn. Everywhere in her books, her letters, her casual conversation, we will seize on the signs, the symbols, the rhetoric of death. Everything, after all, looks different in retrospect. But I hope we won’t forget what it was like to read rather than to reread her work. I already feel this loss, acutely, in the shadow of the greater one.” (332)

Kress’ statement is crucial to what strikes me most about Heilbrun’s article, and the responses of those who wrote about it, and her. Heilbrun says she took comfort in “watching the field of humanities, to which I had devoted my life, dismissed in this outright fashion” (215) by science and scientists. What she was feeling is inaccessible to anyone. Life is, finally, solitary – we reach out, bridge the gap between our own interiority and those around us (each similarly enclosed), but the space isn’t finally one we are able to bridge. Heilbrun’s friends, students, and colleagues could see what it seems at the end she could not – where through her work on literature, on humanities, she could reach out, could touch others and could change things. How she did change things, particularly for women in the humanities.

I don’t know if he actually said this, but in the movie Shadowlands C.S. Lewis tells one of his students that “we read to know we’re not alone.” Long before I’d ever seen the movie, I think I understood that feeling – I fear, on some level, that I’m guilty of what Ferrante calls “treating literature as though it were life.” But I also find that literature allows us to see things differently – to re-read experience, as it were, through someone else’s eyes. Writing, then, becomes all the more important. It has the possibility to change the way we see ourselves, and the way we see ourselves in the world – and I do think that that can come of one’s own writing about oneself as it can in writing about literature. I’ve often said, in moments of intellectual shorthand where I’m more concerned with the poetry of my prose than its content, that in the Old English Wanderer the speaker is trying to write himself into being. I wish to revise that statement now: he’s trying to rewrite his experience of being, to re-envision it as something livable. Something worth living.

I’ve strayed a bit from Heilbrun now, but I’ll return to her briefly as I close this already over-long meditation. I don’t know Heilbrun’s other work. I will never read it without knowing that at the end she seemed to embrace the idea that the humanities, because of their lack of answers, could not really change the world. But I do know that as a feminist and as a woman in the academy, she wrought real changes in the ways we read – that she changed lives of many young scholars by her influence. The charge, it would seem, of those who cannot read or re-read anything without her life and death in their background, is to make the humanities matter. Ferrante’s words ring clear, and signal (to me at least) the great hope – that “those who lived mainly contemplative lives of reading, thinking and writing should move to lives of action before they die.” The tasks of reading and of writing – as well as the tasks of teaching both – seem, at least to one at the outset of those tasks, to offer the proper preparation for such a life. As Robert Hanning reflects on Cicero’s description of “examples proving the benefits of human cooperation,” he suggests that “To these could be added re-reading, mediated by a critic’s smart, lucid mind, as an exercise…of such cooperation, beneficial in the never-ending task of understanding oneself and the world, and thus of possibly improving both” (328). And as I begin my own life’s work, and finally become a teacher (even if it’s only one of Freshman Writing), I can think of no better task to have at hand.