By John Cotter
They are clichés we’ve heard so often we wonder if they’re credible: If You Have A Book, You’ll Always Have A Friend. You’re Never Lonely With A Book. The sort of thing we tack up in the children’s section of the library. They’re feel-good eye candy for the bullied and isolated and those – like so many people of intellect – who are easily bored.
Grief, like any kind of pain, makes us lonely. My wife and I didn’t want to watch the election returns with friends; even together on the couch we had no comfort to offer one another. Neither friends nor familiar surroundings nor students were able to touch my grief the following day. I own thousands of books, but on November 9th, they made me no less alone.
Before the election I’d been reading Transit, a WWII-era novel by the German émigré Anna Seghers. In the portion I’d read so far, a nameless German narrator wanders through occupied France without official paperwork and without destination. He finds a suitcase that had belonged to another refugee, a suicide, and inside the suitcase he finds the opening pages of a novel that the dead man had written:
I forgot my deadly boredom. And if I’d had fatal wounds I would have forgotten them too while I was absorbed in reading. And as I read line after line, I also felt that this was my own language, my mother tongue, and it flowed into me like milk into a baby. It didn’t rasp and grate like the language that came from the throats of the Nazis, their murderous commands and objectionable insistence on obedience, their disgusting boasts. –This was serious, calm, and still.
But the manuscript is unfinished and the narrator realizes he will never know its end. Why, he wonders, did the author kill himself? “I would have pleaded with him to go on living” but now “I was left all alone! As miserable as before!”
This is not entirely unlike how I find myself feeling these days about a progressive, inclusive country. Such a place used to make more sense to me than anything, but now the intolerant reality I grew up in and that I fled from has slapped me awake.
I’m disabled, so I’m on the list of people who have been cruelly mocked by Trump and potentially endangered by his policies, such as they are, but there are people much further up the list than I am and we all have to ensure that acts of bigotry or violence remain shameful, and that those who commit them are abashed, ostracized, and de-fanged.
What has helped to keep me facing forward is the inevitable rediscovery, only a couple of days after November 8th, of the power of that “serious, calm, and still” voice of literature. I again read, now to remind myself of the things I love about the world, the things we must protect:
scholarship, wit, beauty, and a psychic connection across time and space. Books are more than just friends to me again, they’re allies.
As a freshman in college, when I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there were passages I didn’t understand. In particular I couldn’t catch the scene that follows the death of Irish nationalist Charles Parnell. Mr. Casey, a friend of Stephen’s father, is filled with grief at the news and it drives him close to madness. He rages at his own wife, who found Parnell immoral, shouting “We have had too much God in Ireland. Away with God!” A row follows, recriminations, threats. Finally:
Mr. Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.
—Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king!
He sobbed loudly and bitterly.
Stephen, raising his terror-stricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.
I didn’t understand the passage because at age 17 I couldn’t credit that magnitude of political grief. It seemed to me impossible.
But on Wednesday morning, the words came back to me, 20 years since I had read them, 100 since they’d been written, and 125 since Parnell died in his bed; as I wept that morning, disconsolate, I knew precisely what it was that Casey and Stephen’s father had felt, what wracked them. I felt them, over the stretch of time, reach out and take my hands in theirs. I took their hands in mine.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
John Cotter is a Lighthouse instructor and author of Under the Small Lights. His work has appeared in Puerto Del Sol, Volt, The Lifted Brow, New Genre, and Redivider.