The Faraway Nearby / Rebecca Solnit
Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.
We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller. Those ex-virgins who died were inside the sultan’s story; Scheherazade, like a working-class hero, seized control of the means of production and talked her way out.
These brothers did a lot for her in other ways; they stepped up, and the burden was shared, but all her emergency calls still came to me. One day I asked her why she always called me and not them. “Well, you’re the girl,” she said, then added, “and you’re just sitting around the house all day doing nothing anyway.” That was one way to describe the life of a writer.
They say that Alzheimer’s mimics childhood run in reverse, but children’s voracious minds are seizing on the knowledge that’s disintegrating at the other end of life, and the conditions are as dissimilar as gaining and losing. I thought of my mother as a book coming apart, pages drifting away, phrases blurring, letters falling off, the paper returning to pure white, a book disappearing from the back because the newest memories faded first, and nothing was being added. The words were beginning to vanish.
Memory, even in the rest of us, is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.
Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into it and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route of becoming. All the magic and glass mountains and pearls the size of houses and princesses beautiful as the day and talking birds and part-time serpents are distractions from the tough core of most of the stories, the struggle to survive against adversaries, to find your place in your world, and to come into your own. Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.
Fairy tales are children’s stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one.
Long afterward I got asked over and over the most common and annoying question about Alzheimer’s, whether she still recognized me. Recognition can mean so many things, and in some sense she had never known who I was. Much later, when she couldn’t come up with my name or explain our relationship, I didn’t care, since being recognized hadn’t exactly been a boon. In that era, I think my voice and other things registered as familiar and set her at ease, and perhaps she knew me more truly. And perhaps I her, as so much that was superfluous was pared away and the central fact of her humanity and her vulnerability was laid bare.
Who was I all those years before? I was not. Mirrors show everything but themselves, and to be a mirror is like being Echo in the myth of Echo and Narcissus: nothing of your own will be heard. The fact usually proffered about Narcissus is that he was in love with his own image in the mountain pool, but the more important one is that in his absorption in his reflection he lost contact with others and starved to death.
You freeze up in childhood, you go numb, because you cannot change your circumstances and to recognize, name, and feel the emotions and their cruel causes would be unbearable, and so you wait.
When my friends began to have babies and I came to comprehend the heroic labor it takes to keep one alive, the constant exhausting tending of a being who can do nothing and demands everything, I realized that my mother had done all these things for me before I remembered. I was fed; I was washed; I was clothed; I was taught to speak and given a thousand other things, over and over again, hourly, daily, for years. She gave me everything before she gave me nothing.
We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them.
The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest. Being able to travel both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond.
Most Frankenstein movies have run away with the idea of a mad scientist and a vengeful, lurching monster, far from the more sober, psychological novel, and few remember that the book begins and ends in the arctic, where Victor Frankenstein in pursuit of his creature and near death himself comes across a stranded ship, locked up in the ice.
Mountaineers who die at the highest levels remain there in perpetuity, stopped at the moment of their death, blanching and desiccating a little but not decaying. Robert Macfarlane tells the story of a European woman whose mountaineer father died high in the Himalayas when she was an infant. At twenty she came to see where he died and found that he had shifted out of his grave, so that she was able to look into his frozen, preserved face and cut a lock of his hair.
Just as Walton imagines himself as a benefactor of mankind even while he endangers the lives of the actual men with him, so Frankenstein imagines himself as a savior. But when he brings his creature to life and then flees it, he is both a parent abandoning a child and a citizen walking away from a calamity in the making.
Shelley seems to have fallen in love a little with what she signified before he grasped who she was. She was a brilliant, strong-willed young woman who would be a fit intellectual companion to him, as well as an ardent, devoted partner, but to him she was first the daughter of the anarchist William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
Wollstonecraft’s letters show her to be ardent, devoted, badgering, self-pitying, and incapable of giving up on a romance that had been sour longer than it had been sweet, even when Imlay established himself in London with an actress mistress and otherwise spurned her.
But despite the exotic settings, much of Frankenstein seems to be made direct out of the material of Mary’s own life, even as Frankenstein’s creature is made out of human remains. Her father had once advocated free love but cut off Mary when she ran off with Shelley. This parent who disowns a child is one version of the irresponsible, distancing inventor that is her Victor Frankenstein.
It is the progenitor of a whole genre of books and movies with mad scientists and has inspired the occasional masterpiece, such as the exquisitely melancholy Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive.
Not to know yourself is dangerous, to that self and to others. Those who destroy, who cause great suffering, kill off some portion of themselves first, or hide from the knowledge of their acts and from their own emotion, and their internal landscape fills with partitions, caves, minefields, blank spots, pit traps, and more, a landscape turned against itself, a landscape that does not know itself, a landscape through which they may not travel. You see the not-knowing in wars in which the reality of death, the warm, messy, excruciating dismemberment of bodies, the blood and the screams, and the unbearable bereavement of survivors, is abstracted into collateral damage or statistics or overlooked altogether, or in which the enemy is recategorized as nonhuman.
The suffering before you, in your own home or bed or life, can be harder to see, sometimes, as is the self who is implicated.
This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.
They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens onto another world, which might be the magic that all those children’s books were alluding to, and a library is a Milky Way of worlds. All readers are Wu Daozi; all imaginative, engrossing books are landscapes into which readers vanish.
Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers.
A sentence by the Marquis de Sade I read when I was young sometimes returns to me: “Ah, what does it matter to her hand, which is always at work creating, that this or that mass of flesh which today constitutes an individual biped may be reproduced tomorrow in the form of a thousand insects?” It matters to the individual biped, but the exclamation in the form of a question points out that what is ordinarily imagined as disintegration is also, or instead, metamorphosis.
The earth in the form of bacteria, fungi, insects, and the other minute hordes within the soil undoubtedly devoured him, and maybe his corpse metamorphosed into oaks, though de Sade’s books continued to devour trees as they kept memory of his furious, destructive, productive life from disappearing.
Time itself is our tragedy and most of us are fighting some kind of war against it.
She was worn out from the political conference, but still lively enough to tell us about her adventures in Cuba forty years earlier, where she had met Che Guevara. That a figure so legendary had crossed paths with the tired woman with the creased cheeks and dyed black hair in the front passenger seat was a little astonishing, as it always is when what seems like the remote and mythic past turns out to be within reach of someone present.
We’re close, we say, to mean that we’re emotionally connected, that we are not separate; or, we’ve become distant, to describe the opposite. After years in New York City, Georgia O’Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.” It was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together. Emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby, within the boundaries of the self.
Paul Brand wrote, “I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.” To injure, to kill, to cause suffering in others, requires first that withdrawal of empathy that would have made such action painful or impossible, and to intentionally cause pain in others requires you to kill yourself off a little in the process. Some undertake that process willingly, if unwittingly, while soldiers are often forced to undergo some version of it as training and as wartime. Surviving the horrific is likewise often done by shutting down sensation, by becoming numb to one’s own pain.
During that strange strained phase, I was fascinated by the surgeons. They seemed like gods, since they were going to exert such power over my life, going to see me as I would never see myself, take me in hand as raw material and promise to improve my odds by doing so. I propitiated the knife-wielding deities with presents of books. The gifts to them and the head of nursing were also meant to acknowledge that although people get paid to do their jobs, you cannot pay someone to do their job passionately and wholeheartedly. Those qualities are not for sale; they are themselves gifts that can only be given freely, and are in many, many fields.
Sometimes to accept is also a gift. The anthropologist David Graeber points out that the explanation that we invented money because barter was too clumsy is false. It wasn’t that I was trying to trade sixty sweaters for the violin you’d made when you didn’t really need all that wooliness. Before money, Graeber wrote, people didn’t barter but gave and received as needs and goods ebbed and flowed. They thereby incurred the indebtedness that bound them together, and reciprocated slowly, incompletely, in the ongoing transaction that is a community. Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by completing the transactions that never needed to be completed in the older system, but existed like a circulatory system in a body. Money makes us separate bodies, and maybe it teaches us that we should be separate.
Others’ woes can be used as reproaches and sometimes are: how dare you think about your own private suffering when wars are raging and children are being bombed? There is always someone whose suffering is greater than yours. The reproaches are often framed as though there is an economy of suffering, and of compassion, and you should measure yourself, price yourself, with the same sense of scarcity and finite resources that govern monetary economies, but there is no measure of either.
When you are well, your own body is a sealed country into which you need not explore far, but when you are unwell, there is no denying that you are made up of organs and fluids and chemistry and that the mechanisms by which your body operates are not invincible.
The familiar fairy tales map only limited possibilities in the end. After all, they’re mostly about getting—getting affluence, security, a spouse, offspring, the usual trappings. Even nowadays people who lack the full complement of these particular goods are reminded, subtly and not, that they should have them or that they have failed. The idea of a life lived by another pattern and measured by another standard remains out of reach in these versions. What’s your story? The goals matter.
Siddhartha Gautama’s mother’s dream of a white elephant, his miraculous birth as his standing mother supported herself with a bough laden with flowers, his seven steps as he walked straight from his mother’s womb and proclaimed, “I am born for supreme knowledge, for the welfare of the world—this is my last birth.” That it’s a story a little like that of the Christ child is a reminder that both belong in the fairy-tale category of the remarkable birth, from Peach Boy to Thumbelina.
The first is an old man, and the sheltered prince’s response is one of shocked dismay. He turns to his charioteer and friend for an explanation. This is old age, “the murderer of beauty, the ruin of vigor, the birthplace of sorrow, the grave of pleasure, the destroyer of memory,” replies the charioteer, and adds that it is the fate of all who live long enough.
For the reader of fairy tales and Genesis, the startling thing is that he walks out of paradise of his own accord. Adam and Eve are driven out of paradise as punishment.
When he arrived at the university in Las Cruces, he encountered a vast desert with few people. It gave him “the shock of space,” he told me. “Because in Calcutta—you’re lucky to have a square foot of space. But here I was in the middle of all this space and I didn’t know what to do about that.”
What’s disturbing about Subhankar’s image is how much the two bears look alike, except for their expressions. It’s an image not just of cannibalism but of a kind of narcissism, of devouring the self. You devour yourself because there is no one else you can reach. Though male bears kill others of their species and bears will feed on anything dead, there is an apparent rise in polar-bear cannibalism tied to the bears starving because the summer ice is failing.
Early on in their encampment, they saw a mother bear and her cubs play near their den, and he took photographs of the yellow-white creatures on snow so white that its shadows are pure blue. They look as though they are the only creatures in the world, one mother, two cubs, in the white world under a white sky, as though time has not been invented, as though the world has just begun, as though nothing can go wrong.
A long time ago on an active volcano in Central America, an old campesino called me over, showed me a small horizontal orifice in the earth like an open mouth, and urged me to put my hand in it. Steamy warmth was flowing out of it into the cool evening air. He told me, “The earth breathes.”