Tuesday, July 15, 2008

All the Textures of Sadness

I'm halfway through Janette Turner Hospital's Due Preparations for the Plague, and I'm forever indebted to the person who recommended it to me. Its pieces are all of loss and trauma, terror and obsession, memory and forgetting, absence and presence, gaps and silences. The language of midrash is all over it.

But every time I say that about a book--that is, every time I read midrash into all its cracks and crevices--there is something deeply sorrowful in the narrative. Think of David Grossman's See Under: Love or Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates--two of my favorite midrashic finds. There is sadness all over them.

Somehow, it is always the silences and sadnesses that summon the midrashic impulse from the ruins of atrocity or the apathy of contemporary living.

All day I have turned a passage from this novel over and over in my mind, unable to shake a particular phrase: "all the textures of sadness." The entire passage goes like this:

He remembers all the textures of sadness, his father's sadness, his mother's, and his own, and he remembers the absences, the loneliness, the sound of his mother crying at night. Lowell remembers, remembers...too much, and the silences between his revelations grow long. (97)

All the textures of sadness.

Sadness must be as gray and nuanced as anything else--of this I am certain. How many textures have we forgotten, failed to feel with our hands?

Every once in a while, I feel forgotten textures, misplaced among bright smiles, painful hopes, and feigned optimism. It's been a while, but lately I've felt them again, watched in agony as they materialize in so many new forms. Each texture has the capacity to rock us in a different way. Some are razor sharp, cutting so deeply and precisely that we know we cannot go on. But we do, given the surprising ease with which such clean cuts heal.

Then there are those whose edges are not define-able; they cannot be traversed, their boundaries are both impassable and imperceptable. And it's Emmanuel Levinas's concept of the il y a again. The "there is"--the silences that become rumblings, the emptinesses that are suddenly full of something we cannot touch, yet cannot help but feel.

Turn it and turn it, say the rabbis of Torah, for all is contained within it. What if we might say the same of sadness, that every time we turn it--every time we are turned by it--we find it contains the whole world?


Casey said...

I think trauma and inexpressible sorrow might be the most common causes of the kinds of narrative silences and gaps that, I gather, we can call midrashic.

But if you suggest that every midrashic text you find seems born of sadness, I think it might have more to do with where you look than with the style itself... my interest has been in mystical writing for a while now, and the midrashic style pervades the stories that accompany religious/spiritual/mystical experience.

I'm reminded of the 13th entry in The Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said to his disciples, "Compare me to something and tell me what I am like."

Simon Peter said to him, "You are like a just angel."

Matthew said to him, "You are like a wise philosopher."

Thomas said to him, "Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like."

Jesus said, "I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended."

And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him.

When Thomas came back to his friends, they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?"

Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you."

--The gaps in this narrative seem to me to be born of mystical recognition, and not of any kind of trauma or sadness. So maybe it's not sadness so much as it is the degree of sadness present.

Casey said...

(I should've pointed out: Jesus' "you" in the phrase, "you have drunk" is singular, and in reference to Thomas)

Monica said...

I think you're right, Casey, about it having more to do with the degree of sadness rather than the presence of sadness itself--a certain texture of sadness so to speak. I wonder, too, if there is a more critical connection between sorrow and the mystical (I think so), and where the midrashic impulse fits into all that. It's interesting, given the fact that midrash in its classical incarnations have little to do with the so-called mystical. Unless we need to re-evaluate what we call the mystical...

Joodge said...

All the textures of sadness...

I must read this book.

So glad I just discovered your blog, Monica! I'll keep reading. :-)

Monica said...

Thanks for stopping by, Joodge :)