Monday, October 8, 2007

Ideas and Ideals - The Role of the Intellectual Dissenter (Books - Faithful are the Wounds by May Sarton)



I've completed my first book on the Outmoded Author's Challenge! Reading Faithful are the Wounds again for the first time in 20 years confirmed my naive impressions of May Sarton as a humanistic writer of passion and clarity. Her books observe human beings intimately from the inside and ask questions about how they become who they are. How are our sense of right and wrong formed? What is our role as a teacher, young man, old woman, writer?

The plot is built around the suicide of Edward Cavan, literature professor at Harvard and Socialist activist. The time is the 1950s. The Civil Liberties chapter of which he is a member is asking for a letter testifying there are no communists in their ranks. There aren't, and some members of the chapter see no harm in saying so, but Cavan feels their most basic freedoms are being challenged by being asked for such a guarantee. An insurmountable conflict arises between those who must live their ideals and those whose practical considerations, desire for moderation, or just plain fear of risk takes priority. What is interesting about the novel isn't simply how the conflict turns out, from the third page Edward is already dead. What is interesting is how the people in the wake of his death must look at what they stand for and see if they can say they are living a life of integrity, one that will have meaning when it is done.

At first I found the language of this 1955 novel old fashioned, a little melodramatic. It the ring of dialogue from a film of the same period has - you don't even have to understand the words, you can hear it from the next room and you know when it was made. But Sarton doesn't waste any time. She either has the characters performing a defining action or she dives immediately inside their heads. Take Edward's sister and her husband:
She walked into a stranger's kitchen; she was, she felt, in a stranger's house. It had never seemed quite real and now she was set way outside it, looking in, looking at the carefully planned shelves, the automatic dishwasher, the little herb cupboard, the red tiled floor, looking at herself Isabel Cavan - no, Isabel Ferrier - and her husband, the distinguished surgeon, pouring milk into a saucepan with all the care with which he might have used a scalpel, as if nothing else for the moment existed.
Isabel Cavan must leave the shelter of her San Francisco area, predictable life of bridge games and evening cocktails and arrange her estranged brother's funeral among the liberal intellectual elite of Harvard. She must, in the course of the novel, not only learn who her estranged brother was, but learn who she is as well.
"I've tried so hard to get away, to be - to be - myself," she said, "but Edward was always there, doing crazy things like campaigning for Wallace, being a Socialist, always digging under everything I believed.

Isabel may come from one kind of privilege, but she is challenged, even threatened by the passion, the rage, with which her brother lived out his love of humanity, and by his intellectual colleagues living in another kind of isolation. That difference poses a threat to her sense of normalcy. But those in Edward's immediate circle are no less unsettled by his final act.

His student, George Hastings is still stuck in the narcissism of young adulthood. Edward's death demands that he ponder how one decides to take a stand. How one can discover meaning in literature that has value to the living of a passionate and full life. For him the challenge is to learn how to love someone other than himself.

Edward's colleague and friend in activism, Damon Phillips, has his credo put to the test:

"The damnable thing is that I envy Edward his conviction...Am I just becoming a doddering old fuddy duddy, Julia? Am I crazy?"

"You know what I think? I think that we are having to grow, to change in fundamental beliefs and it's a painful process - at our age. We took an awful lot of things for granted, Damon, you know?"

"Like what?" he asked suspiciously.

"Well, like that the unions must be fight about everything, that Socialism is the answer..."

...

Damon's saving grace was this, this lightness about what mattered to him, this humility and persistence which had to do with being a scientist, she supposed, but always it moved her. He's a great man, she thought, and most of the time I misjudge him because I have a mean little nature. What was Damon like in that mysterious paradise of his where he sat poring over equations which she could not even read, let alone solve? Was he quiet then? At peace with himself? Centered? She would never know. They had been married twenty-five years and still she would never know.

Sarton creates characters with inevitability, complexity, and clarity. You spend only half a page with someone before you begin to know who they are.
It was really too dark to see, but Julia Phillips stayed on in the dilapidated old garden, cutting down the phlox, trying up the chrysanthemums (why had they grown so very tall and floppy?). She stopped every now and then to look up from the shadowy garden to the extraordinarily luminous lavender sky overhead...

...Still she lingered on, feeling about for her tools in the dark, smelling the bitter sharp smell of the earth and the leaves, not wanting to break this quiet mood. There, working for long hours till her back and legs ached, she felt sane, she recaptured some deep rhythm which these hectic days destroyed. She was a large Junoesque woman who had been a beauty and still had the carriage and air of a beauty, a deceptive surface calm which concealed strong feelings and which had made her the kind of woman people lean on and expect comfort from. She had long ago grown used to giving to life what was expected; the revolt - and there was revolt - was buried very deep. No one guessed what her life with Damon had been, that the other side of his enormous gusto and love of life was an abyss of self distrust. She had lifted him again and again, patiently, quietly, and with what she imaged was love, but it had seemed to her for some time now that she was acting a part, the part of the perfect wife. Lately she had felt a wild desire, to escape, to run away, to find out at long last what she herself was like, to live her own life, though she was very vague as to what this might be.

She felt that this autumn, so outwardly calm, was moving toward some crisis, a crisis which she would not have the power to avert.

In addition to her depth of observation of human nature and her ability to create human beings on the page, Sarton delves into issues of seriousness and value. One of the things Edward is admired for most, by his students as well as his colleagues, is his ability to make his life of passionate conviction and his work writing about and teaching English literature one and the same thing. There is a marvelous scene Sarton writes of a graduate seminar that Edward leads on a student's paper about Willa Cather.

"I don't know what to say, Kovarsky," he began, looking down at his clasped hands. "You've put the cart before the horse, you see, and so perhaps put the wrong cart before your horse. You have in fact judged before you have had the experience;you have committed the - to my mind - unpardonable sin of applying preconceived formula to something which you only looked at through this formula, not for itself. You have got to judge a work of art first for what is is; you've got to possess it completely. But how thin your appreciation is, how poverty-stricken because you wore blinders all the time...

I can't overemphasize the danger of this schematic approach. You must learn to read with the whole of yourselves; you must bring love as well as intellect to this kind of analysis - just as in personal relationships. After all, a really fruitful reading of an author of this stature means giving up yourself for a time, mean being able to encompass something wholly by imaginative sympathy. These are not mere intellectual matters." His fist was closed, as if he were restraining himself from bringing it down with a bang on the table. "You're going at a fine piece of pottery with a blacksmith's hammer. Naturally it breaks to pieces...

Isn't that a marvelous passage on reading? I can't help feeling that there is some of Sarton's own feeling about literature in it.

The scene of the funeral is also a tour de force, where all of the characters developed over the novel and who have been re-examining themselves in light of Edward's death come together in an event of pathos without any sense of easy resolution. Sarton does a marvelous job of setting the tone:
It was a cold gray day, leaves and dust skirling about in a dirty wind, bits of old newspaper flapping against the fence. The few leaves still on the trees looked tired, and Grace Kimlock as she walked down Brattle Street thought all this appropriate, a restless disintegration, Cambridge itself where the green lawns were slowly being eaten up by apartment houses and the old frame houses needed paint, having lost all dignity and charm. Not thinking of Edward to whose funeral she was going, she thought of these things, the constant flow of noisy trucks down Brattle Street which used to be an ample thoroughfare, stately and peaceful. It's all gone or going, she thought, and we are old and tired.

There is so much marvelous writing and solid, earthy, moral substance to this book, that the deeply searching questions about the ideals we work for, what role serious intellectual thought plays in our lives, what loving others means, what is left after a life has been lived, are not mortifying to ask. While they have their painful moments, they are a pleasure to contemplate. Reading the last 100 or so pages of this book kept me up until nearly 2 a.m. Sarton's style is not fancy, but it is intellectually deep while also being accessible and loving. She does seem to be out of fashion at present. I'm not sure just how widely read she ever was, but after rereading this novel, I hope more lovers of good books take her up. I remember Shadow of a Man, The Fur Person, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and Kinds of Love all as pleasurable reading.

9 comments:

Eva said...

Yay! I'm reading Sarton's The Small Room this month and your review has made me even more excited for it. :)

Ted said...

I considered reading that one too. I'll be interested to read your thoughts about it. Maybe I'll read some more Sarton, although probably not until the end of the semester.

sheila said...

I wonder: the title is a quote from a letter Abigail Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson ... is it excerpted or referenced in the book at all?? I don't think Abigail was quoting someone else - I think it was her own words. She was telling him, in no uncertain terms, that the wrong Jefferson did her husband, was even more hurtful - because it came from a friend - and such wounds are "faithful". An incredible letter.

sheila said...

Oops - just looked it up. Abigail was quoting the Bible. God, I love that woman!!

Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.

I guess I know my American History better than I know my Bible!!

Ted said...

The quote is on the title page. I guess our dearest friends are worthy of our greatest passion. In a way we owe it to our friends to be unstinting in living from our convictions with each other, as unpopular as that sounds. People now get so caught up in not offending each other that they never really say anything at all. Is that friendship? Undoubtedly we will be wounded deeply sometimes.

Everything I know about the Adams I learned from 1776 (and the letters and the McCullough bio too).

"Ah, Abigail Abigail, I have such a desire to knock heads together....saltpeter, John." "Pins, Abigail."

sheila said...

Well, Jefferson and Adams were political allies turned political enemies - and Jefferson was basically caught trying to destroy Adams' reputation (behind his back - using subterfuge, as per usual). So that's a bit more treacherous than trying to help a friend stay true to their convictions. It was active sabotage. So Abigail did not forgive.

Years passed. No contact!! Until both men were deep in their twilight years - and a reunion was engineered between them by benjamin rush (who said he had had a dream that the two would become friends again and correspond - leaving a legacy of a correspondence that would last generations - this was the dream Rush said he had)

So Adams and Jefferson started corresponding - and wrote the most unfreakin'believable letters back and forth for the last 12 years of their lives.

THANK YOU BENJAMIN RUSH.

They still barely spoke about jefferson's back-stabbing ... Adams kept trying to bring it up, but Jefferson would balk ... so they stayed away from that topic and discussed, among other things - God, science, philosophy, democracy, the French revolution, Shakespeare, women ... \

Until finally - on July 4, 1826 - the 50th anniversary of the declaration of independence ... they both died, within hours of one another.

Jefferson's last words: "Is it the Fourth?"

Adams' last words: "Jefferson survives!"

sniff sniff

Ted said...

That's right - I had forgotten about that feud. One of these days I'll have to read a good biography of Jefferson.

sheila said...

American Sphinx, by Joseph Ellis!!

I think you actually gave me a copy of the letters of John and Abigail Adams for my birthday - years ago. Is that true??? I had read them - my dad actually read us their letters as bedtime stories when we were kids - and in my childlike brain, I thought that they were relatives of ours. hahahahaha Like: Oh, I have no idea why he is reading us these letters ... must be an aunt or uncle of the O'Malleys or something ...

hahaha what?? If I have a kid, ever, I will totally read them the letters of John and Abigail as a bedtime story.

Jefferson. A fascinating individual. Bundle of contradictions. And you just cannot find a better political propaganda writer than jefferson. You just do not!!!

Ted said...

Yup, I did give you the letters - found them in a great little bookshop in Kingston NY. I didn't know your father read them to you guys - of course he did!