On The Unsayable
On the wall of my study at home are two drawings, one hung above the other. The drawing at the top actually is not only a drawing; it’s also a photograph. It’s by the artist Barbara Ess. It is an image of her own face that she made by taking her own picture with a pinhole camera, tracing the photo with pencil on vellum, soaking the paper in water, then taking another pinhole photo of the tracing. The result is a very wiggly image of a face you can’t quite make out in tones of gray, silver, black and a dull white—you can see that it is a woman wearing glasses, you can see the upward spring of her curls that rise toward the upper right hand corner of the frame before fading away—she was wearing her hair up, of course, because she was working in her studio, perhaps it was messily barretted, or in a scrunchy or even in a jawclip—you can see a smudge that is her nose and the darker smudge of her lips, but, because of the technique Ess used, the woman’s face is just on the edge of dissolving, or maybe of coming into being. Hard to say which. Her expression is also hard to read—meditative, I guess I’d say, focused, but there’s an indeterminacy in the emotion there. She appears to be concentrating on something that is either gestating or fading away, and Ess has made an image of that moment that itself might be just about to coalesce, to snap into focus, or to disintegrate altogether. The image looks like smoke.
Hanging below the Ess is a drawing by the artist Sally Tittmann. It’s in pencil as well, on white paper, but its lines are very well-defined. It is a single shape, gray-black, floating in white space, that looks maybe like a big rock with subtle, indeterminate bumps in it. Or is it the back of a head? Or is it a cell before it has divided? Or is it, maybe, an egg? But the shape, though kind of ovoid, is too lumpy and irregular to be a bird’s egg—maybe a reptile egg, with the tiny, unborn reptiles pushing at the membrane. The indeterminate bumps are not on the surface of the rock-cell-head shape; they seem, rather, to be pushing at it from the inside. The overall effect of the image is inchoate, forceful, and weighty. The drawing looks like a representation of geist—that German word we can’t entirely translate into English that means simultaneously spirit, drive, ghost, and mind. It has always seemed to me that geist must be located somewhere so deep in the center of your body that it can’t actually be seen, only felt. Tittmann makes these drawings—there are a series of them—by going over and over the image with her pencil. She never erases. She keeps moving over the shape, adding to the texture, until it seems to her to be done. She says, “As I draw, a slip of the pencil or an irregularity in the surface of the paper sometimes causes an inadvertent darker mark. This aberration can bring about a dramatic change: a smooth surface can become gnarled and rocky, a complex topography can become smooth. The whole image can float ever closer to the edge of the paper, or it can settle tentatively near the center.”
What Tittmann is drawing and that has such gravity on the page does not, of course, exist in nature. Rocks don’t look like this. Neither do cells, eggs of any kind, or the backs of heads. It is a thing, a geist, maybe a soul, but it has no referent. It is a thing that can’t be seen in the world, a thing that has great thinginess, but that can only be reflected in pencil. Like Ess making a picture of her own face by tracing over a photographic image of her face, drowning the image, then re-photographing the remaining watery traces, Tittmann finds the image she seeks not by looking directly at an object—there is nothing to look at—but by tracing and retracing, over and over, something quite dense that she can’t actually see, something that she glimpses, perhaps, out of the corner of her eye.
These images, the Ess and the Tittmann, seem like the positive print and the shadowy negative of the same thing—representations of the edge of visibility, that place where something is about to come into being and/or about to disintegrate, become ungraspable. The Ess image is of a very concrete, real, everyday thing—a face, her own face—but it is practically weightless, nearly invisible. The Tittmann image is of something that doesn’t exist in the world at all, but it feels, when you look at it, like the heaviest object imaginable. I keep them in my study, because they look like pictures of something that it is impossible to take a picture of: the condition of what it is to write, of the constant sense that one is teetering between finally saying it—the thing, the geist, the ghost, that spirit buried impossibly deep within the body—and never being able to say it at all, watching it dissolve like smoke.
They are images, in other words, of the continual, possibly benighted attempt to say the unsayable—the sweaty, precipitous, vertiginous teetering, the continually off-balance ambiguity, the perpetual reaching, like Orpheus, for a Eurydice who is always on the brink, simultaneously, of emerging and slipping away. Ess has said that she is trying “to photograph what cannot be photographed,” and Tittmann says of her own drawings, “The drawings are clearly something; they invite definition. Yet any attempt to establish certainty about the image only reinforces the impossibility of doing so, and the viewer is confronted anew with the elusiveness of the form.” These images illustrate to me not the unsayable thing itself—since that thing, of course, changes from sentence to sentence, scene to scene, and book to book—but the struggle to bring it to the surface, to rescue Eurydice, to not fuck it up for once.
But what is unsayable? And why does it matter? There are several meanings of the word, and we might begin with where we each draw the outer limits in our own work. I’ve asked this question in several workshops—what is unsayable for you? What would you, I ask, never write about? What scene, event, relationship, philosophical or political quandary, moral dilemma, action would you never attempt to explore on the page? It is, let me tell you, a sure-fire way to grind the conversation to a dead halt. Students—young and old, undergrads and grad students, more and less sophisticated, all ethnicities, all sexual orientations, of a postmodern bent or deeply committed to realism, bored and sneaking peeks at their cell phones or wildly engaged—look at me, not blankly, but usually with a great deal of thoughtful bewilderment. Sometimes, after a minute, the white ones aver that writing from the point of view of someone of another race is ill-advised, invasive, irresponsible. One of my undergraduates, a lesbian, quite out, very modern, with piercings and punky hair, who wrote extremely short stories of interactions between couples to whom she assigned no legible gender whatsoever, admitted that she would never write a story where both people in a couple were clearly female. The reason, she said as she thought about it, was that then it would become “a lesbian story” and she wanted to get at something else, something more complicated about what goes on between lovers, any lovers, all lovers.
When I ask this question of my peers, many of them tend to say what a Danish novelist, Lis Vibeke Kristensen, wrote me: “One answer is: Nothing is unwritable. The other is: Everything is.” She, and other writers, told me that while, in concept, everything is sayable, there are no limits, in practice there are many. For Kristensen and many others, that limit, interestingly, is autobiography. The writer Ernesto Mestre said, “The more nakedly autobiographical the source material is, the harder it is for me to approach it. I create huge constructs to disguise or distance it when I sit down to write—a consciously baroque style, anti-chronological structures, the fantastical, the esoteric—anything to disguise the source.” Like Barbara Ess making art from a three-times removed image of her own face, there is the sense for many writers that we cannot tell the truth of things by looking at them directly; moreover, looking directly may actually be a barrier. And we often look hardest at those topics which simultaneously engage us deeply and nearly make it impossible for us to write at all. Maud Casey, who has written about mental illness in both fiction and essays, answered that “craziness” is still barely write-able for her—as she put it, “I’m trying to figure out that line, how to make mental illness vivid and alive without romanticizing it. But then when I’m writing about it, it makes me feel crazy and I get writers block for 5 years.”
Nothing is unwritable; everything is unwritable. We want to get closer, but we seriously doubt that we can do that by reciting our life stories. We want to write about our obsessions, but our obsessions potentially capsize us, overtake us. It’s a hard question to answer, for many reasons, but it’s interesting to note where some of the lines actually seem to be here in the 21st century. When I’ve asked this question, no one, for instance, has ever said that they wouldn’t write about sex—everybody pretty much wants to write about sex or at least read about it; no one has said they wouldn’t write about child abuse in all its forms—that topic is highly sayable today; no one has said that gayness was unsayable, or racism, or foul language, or criticizing the government, or telling the sorts of twisted family secrets so beloved by afternoon talk shows.
For the modern writer, the unsayable, in other words, seems to be not much to do with topics or language that might be considered taboo, or that were taboo fifty years ago. In 2007, quite a lot has been said, written, drawn, photographed, video’d, downloaded, sampled, and posted on YouTube. Some topics and dramatic situations are still more popular than others, of course, but that doesn’t mean that the less popular ones aren’t addressed. They might just have a smaller audience. Instead of talking about taboos, we might say that many facts are no longer unsayable. We seem to be able to see everything, anything, at any moment of the day or night, in any size or format. Facts are not at stake in the way they once were. We are not scandalized by what Madame Bovary was up to in that closed carriage with Leon as it drove around Rouen all day.
When we modern writers talk about unsayability, we are rarely talking about taboos, about hidden facts. Sometimes we mean that we would rather employ language to detonate whatever noxious condition we most wish to see disappear from the world. One writer I know said he’d never write a woman character or a gay character who was laceratingly self-loathing, for example. Another writer said she’d never write from the point of view of a rapist or a murderer. When we talk about unsayability in this sense, we mean that we could say it but we choose not to, as in “I will not say that; I will not add to the mess.” Or as in, “Just don’t go there.” For instance, the poem by Dorianne Laux called “Enough Music,” reads, in its entirely,
Sometimes when we’re on a long drive,
And we’ve talked enough and listened
To enough music and stopped twice,
Once to eat, once to see the view
We fall into this rhythm of silence.
It swings back and forth between us
like a rope over a lake.
Maybe it’s what we don’t say
that saves us.
More often, some of what modern writers find truly unsayable seems to have to do with doubt about the power of language. We mean that we’re not sure if language is up to the job of bringing to the surface some semi-invisible thing that we are trying, with great difficulty, to make appear in the world—the crux, beyond or beneath gender, of what goes on between two human beings in an intimate relationship, for example. What craziness is. What a life is. Like the drawings on my wall, unsayability seems, now, to reside in some cuspy zone between what we want to say but don’t know if we can. Not if we should say it, but if it can be said by human beings stringing words together.
This darker sense of unsayability is keenly aware of negative capability. It asks, “Can we find the words to say it?” “Are we able to say it at all?” Instead of fearing that language will affirm an already pernicious reality or reveal something so shameful that we’ll immediately be banished, or banned, or divorced, we seem to be afraid that language will not be a sufficient instrument to locate, or delineate, or withstand, what we’re trying to get at.
This sense of unsayability is the one that interests me a great deal. It frequently comes up in relation to events of vast scale and to atrocity—we say that it is impossible to write about the Holocaust and other genocides, impossible to write about September 11th, impossible to write about slavery. By this we mean that it is impossible to encompass, or even approach, the truth of horrors so massive and overwhelming; all such attempts become kitsch; language fails. Better the blank page, as in Tristram Shandy.
But in another way, I think we sometimes mean that if one were to attempt to write the deep truth of events such as these, it would be like staring directly into the sun. They are so powerful, so devastating, that one would be blinded if one tried to look straight down into the core of darkness, straight at Medusa. It is, on the one hand, foolish to think that you can write about enormous events such as these without fundamentally cheapening them; but it is also, on the other hand, foolish to think that you can survive writing about them. They will write you, and you will not be able to stand it. The first sort of foolishness means you can’t say it, you’re just not capable of it, but the other sort of foolishness means, “Don’t say it. Don’t open the door to that geist, that poltergeist, as it were. Mere mortals can’t bear it.”
So, today, I want to take a look at two novels that defy both these warnings about the foolishness of attempting to say the unsayable—either that one will cheapen events of unimaginable magnitude or be destroyed by attempting to represent them. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which not only many people here, but also many people in the country have probably read since Oprah picked it for her book club this spring, takes on the most unsayable of events: the end of the world. For its entire 300 pages, it hovers, quite dangerously and consequentially, on the edge between coming into being and disintegrating from it forever. For the people who haven’t read it, The Road is the story of a man and a child, his son, who journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape toward an unnamed southern coast after the world has ended. McCarthy never states directly what has happened to the planet, but the perpetual cold, the ash falling from the sky, and the burnt earth suggest nuclear winter. The mother and wife in this family has long since given up and gone off to die. Most people in the world, in fact, are dead. The few survivors stumble through the endless gloom in a state worse than feral. They roast babies and eat them to survive. There is no government. There is no civilization. There is no time—no seasons, no clocks. And for the reader, there is no out—it’s clear that it’s not going to get any better. It can’t. It’s over. Somebody somewhere pushed that button, the one we all know about and try not to think about. The unthinkable has happened and the worst part of it is that there are a few people left alive who are capable of thinking about it. This, without a doubt, is hell. The book begins,
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.”
It goes downhill from there. McCarthy fully, deeply, and relentlessly imagines something for which we do not think we can have words, something which it feels very risky even to conceive of in such detail. Don’t open that door.
But The Road, surprisingly, is a page-turner. Even though you know that, basically, not much can change and not much does change; even though every wretched gray day is not much different, except for maybe being worse, than the last; one keeps reading—I certainly did—to see what happens next in a world where the concept of “next” is now extinct. Indeed, one of the most horrifying aspects of the topos McCarthy describes is that time—the element most fundamental to the novel, among other things—is over. The man and the boy create time in a timeless world only as long as they keep walking down the road. They literally mark it out by walking, with their feet. It’s almost as if their footsteps are marking the road the way that McCarthy’s spare words are marking the page. All they do is walk. If they stop walking, starved and exhausted as they are, if they give up, the book will stop, their tiny bubble of time will collapse, and no one, anywhere in the universe, will notice or care.
So, in addition to the sheer power of McCarthy’s writing, it may be that one of the reasons one keeps reading it compulsively is because of the deep desire to see that time continues, that the man and the boy will keep walking down that road to nowhere. One of the reviewers said, “it is as if you must keep reading in order for the characters to stay alive,” but I would add that it also feels as if you must keep reading in order for you to stay alive. Reading, writing, and continuing to walk are conflated until they almost seem to be the same thing: one letter, one footstep, one page, after the next. McCarthy makes us feel the weight, the visceral struggle, of what it would be to create time with your body, how you would always be just on the edge of not having the strength to create time ever again. As the reader, you have never felt so keenly the stakes of a human being managing to walk upright.
But McCarthy also creates a reality so overwhelmingly, unremittingly horrendous and bleak that, though the man and the boy basically don’t succumb to despair, by around page fifty even the most optimistic reader cannot help but think what is otherwise an unsayable, an unbearable thought, an unbearable emotion: “It’s not worth it. Just die already. Take that gun, put one bullet in the boy’s brain and use the other on yourself.” With great skill, he moves the reader to experience an emotion that goes contrary to our most basic instinct, the will to survive. It is a black, black place, a place that no one would go willingly and that feels truly dangerous. That is the Medusa’s gaze for sure, that utter hopelessness—we’re more or less okay with eros, we modern folk who listen to NPR, but thanatos is a drive that makes us extremely uncomfortable and to which we are very reluctant to succumb, or to be seen succumbing. One of the most terrible images in the book, to me, is simply the crack of a tree falling. The man tells the boy that all the trees in the world are going to fall now; that sound, that crack, is the sound of the world ending. It becomes the sound of utter despair.
What McCarthy does in envisioning the worst possible thing—the end of the world—is astonishingly brave, but in moving the reader to the worst possible emotional state, in moving us to experience, viscerally, an unbearable emotion and think an unthinkable thought—kill the kid, kill yourself—he is braver still. He burns the earth, and then he lowers us into the underworld of ourselves, our darkest basement, and makes sure we get a good, clear, unimpeded view.
To which one might well say, Why? Why say it? Why imagine such a thing of the world or of oneself? And why read it? The easy answer is political: no nukes. Don’t push that button. Fair enough, though The Road really isn’t a cautionary tale about geopolitics. Another answer might be that the book is a different sort of cautionary tale about mortality and the brevity of human existence. Midway through the book, the man, walking through the charred landscape past corpses and utter destruction, feels that he sees “the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable….Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” [p. 131] We might also wonder if the entire book is not an extended, nearly crushing, test of faith. God, and providence in the form of one or two lucky breaks, makes a muted appearance now and then in The Road, though, actually, the man sees God most strongly in the figure of the boy under his protection. He says of his son, “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” [p. 5] In other words, if you can survive this, reader, and still believe in some sort of larger power, your spirit is secure.
Again, fair enough. The nearly unspeakable condition of this world, this anti-world, that McCarthy creates pushes us, quite hard, to all these moral places: don’t push that button; remember how fleeting and fragile life is; and, if you’re so inclined, believe, even in the face of the worst thing possible, because, even when everything is burnt and dead, you can find God in the faces of your children. All these ways of reading The Road are true.
But I think that in taking us to this terrifying, terrible edge, McCarthy is up to something else as well. Paradoxically, perhaps, by inviting us to the very limit of human existence and civilization, to the place where language seems to thin out and shatter—and yet doesn’t—McCarthy is reaffirming the power of language, and the possibility, in the face of overwhelming odds, that we will keep reading, that we will be able to find meaning in black marks on white paper, footsteps on a road, even when those marks are describing a nearly complete absence, a void planet. Even when they’re small footsteps on a burnt immensity. By turning the pages, we agree that the book is possible, that communication is possible, that civilization is possible. We can speak. Like walking upright, this, too, is one of the most fundamental, defining features of being human: we speak to one another. We use language. McCarthy, perhaps, suggests that the attempt to say the unsayable, however imperfectly, is to continue to walk, to mark the earth, to create time, to be human. I think he is pushing us hardest not toward wordless awe, but toward speech and, in The Road, the stakes of speech are literally whether civilization will continue, or end. If, by moving words around on paper, he can describe the indescribable and induce in us as readers, compel us to articulate, a truly horrible emotion—kill the child, kill yourself—then language continues, it does not shatter under unbearable pressure, and it binds us together. We can see one another, and ourselves, in it. It holds us at our very worst.
This is quite hopeful, in a post-apocalyptic sort of way. I don’t know exactly what compelled McCarthy to write The Road, but I can say that as a modern reader I find it most compelling for what it enacts through language. We’re living at a time when it often seems as if language really is failing—something has broken down so severely that people only feel that they can communicate by driving planes into buildings or blowing themselves up or torturing people in secret cells. The Road shows, and we make it show by reading it, we participate in its making of meaning, that language bends, but doesn’t break. The Road is a very stubborn book; it insists, short sentence by short sentence, step by step, that there is nothing that is unsayable, nothing that language can’t approach.
Another novel that takes on the unsayable—also an Oprah pick, funnily enough—is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. For those who haven’t read it, Beloved is set in Ohio in 1873. It is the story of Sethe, a former slave, who did a terrible thing when she was still enslaved at a plantation called Sweet Home: she killed her two-year-old daughter by slashing her throat rather than see the child go on to live a life of slavery. Eighteen years later, that daughter, who was never named except for the single word on her tombstone, Beloved, returns in altered form as a strange young woman, and takes up residence with Sethe and her family. What follows is simultaneously reunion and exorcism as Sethe wrestles with her own past and her fractured psyche.
There are several layers of unsayability at play in Beloved. The first, of course, is the institution of slavery itself, an atrocity of such magnitude that it can only, in a way, be seen in Sethe’s terrible act. In other words, we can barely look at it directly; we can only truly, viscerally comprehend its horror in the horrible thing it causes Sethe to do. There are gruesome scenes of life under slavery in the novel, but they pale in comparison to Sethe killing her own small child. Death, her action suggests, is better than that life. We see the facts of slavery in the literal flashbacks to life at Sweet Home, but we feel the atrocity of slavery, we feel its weight, in the unspeakable murder of the child. The second unsayable thing is that very action; to kill one’s own child is unthinkable, unbearable. But there’s a third, subtler, equally disturbing layer of unsayability here, and this layer is where Morrison actually begins her extraordinary book.
As terrible as it is to kill one’s own child, how much more terrible is it when that child returns from the grave, carrying an unimaginably heavy freight of guilt, terror, rage, need, and love? This, in its way, is even more unsayable—that as missed, as mourned, as that child is, to have that child come back after being murdered by her own mother is unbearable. One does not wish to say that, it’s an unsayable thought, particularly addressed to a two-year-old girl: stay dead. But that ambivalence is exactly where Morrison pitches the tent of the novel. The book begins not during the plantation years, not in the time leading up to the terrible crime, but in the relatively peaceful aftermath—post-slavery, post-infanticide. The book begins with something that is not only unsayable, but impossible: the child comes back to haunt her own mother. And, in fact, the first two sentences of the book are somewhat shocking: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” (124 is the number of the house where Sethe and her surviving family live.)
A baby’s venom. What a phrase. What a word choice. Not anger, not rage, not tantrum, not sadness: venom. Like a poisonous snake. Spite. And what this opening page goes on to describe is this ghost, this venomous baby, terrorizing Sethe and her other children so severely that Sethe’s two sons just run away, leaving Sethe and her other daughter, Denver, at its mercy. “As soon as two tiny handprints appeared in the cake,” writes Morrison, the sons flee. That image of the little handprints in the cake—so domestic, so dear, so, even, sentimental—becomes an image of ominousness, terror, and mortal threat.
From here, Morrison ups the ante even further. When Beloved really reappears to begin her haunting in earnest, it is not in the form of handprints in a cake or as a two-year-old in a nightgown wafting transparently around the house at night. Beloved, as if she has grown older in real time along with everyone else, walks out of a stream one day as “a fully dressed woman.” [p. 60] Sethe takes her in, not exactly able to understand at first why she’s so drawn to this peculiar young woman. Beloved is quite thirsty, she has a telltale scar on her neck, and her skin is oddly new and soft. And though her physical form is that of a woman, emotionally she is still two years old. She is passionately attached to Sethe, guileless, sexually curious and omnivorous, constantly hungry, demanding, dear, and prone to terrible jealousy. She is an unhoused, infantile Id, but with all the power and size of a full-grown adult.
Though the events in the past that are being mourned are quite dramatic indeed, the actual dramatic action of the book’s present time is subtle, wayward, and difficult to describe. It’s something closer to a love triangle, or several love triangles as Beloved proceeds basically to seduce everyone in 124, than it is to, say, a murder mystery or even a ghost story. In overt terms, not much happens in Beloved. Sethe, Beloved, Denver, and Sethe’s boyfriend, Paul D, all live in 124 in increasingly strained and emotionally extreme circumstances until Sethe stops being haunted by Beloved.
What Sethe has to do to stop being haunted by Beloved are two things: she has to “remember” who Beloved is, that this is the child she killed; and, even more important, she has to fall in love with her utterly, completely, and unconditionally, in the way that a mother loves her child. Once she does these two things, she can be free. [section pages 235-256] The book reaches its climax when Sethe does this, when she finally claims, “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine.” And for about twenty pages after this point, the text of the book literally breaks down and fragments into prose poetry as Sethe, Beloved, and Denver declare their deep and abiding love for one another, without reservation. They all repeat some variation of “Beloved is mine,” like a refrain. After this point, Beloved finally departs and 124 is no longer troubled.
What I think this suggests is that Morrison is addressing yet another layer of unsayability in Beloved, perhaps the deepest atrocity and wound of slavery, which is that, for the slave, it makes love an unsayable, a forbidden, word. If your children are literally going to be taken from you and sold, if you would rather kill them than see them live the life you’ve led, if human ties are continually broken, severed, and destroyed, then loving without reservation is a very, very dangerous thing to do. Love becomes unsayable as a matter of survival. The novel, like the history of slavery, is filled with stories of lovers pulled apart, mothers giving up their children, fathers never knowing they even have any children, and people being used in monstrous ways that violate every human sense of trust and connection.
When Sethe makes her first, unsuccessful run toward freedom she says, of getting away from Sweet Home, in Kentucky, with her children, “Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here [[i.e., to freedom in Ohio]], when I jumped down off that wagon, there wasn’t nobody in the world that I couldn’t love if I wanted to.” [p. 190-1] It’s significant that it is AFTER this moment, this moment of unabashed love, that Sethe slashes Beloved’s throat. The slavecatchers come to get them and she can’t bear to bring her children back to that life. She loves without reservation for the first time in her life, then has to kill what she loves, then is bound by melancholy until Beloved comes back and Sethe can finally say, again, that she loves her. In the fractured world of Beloved, this is the most forbidden, the most unsayable emotion: this mother-love, one of the most basic emotions we experience. It’s worth noting in this regard that in Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, one of her most stinging critiques of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl revolves around Cather’s racist idea in that novel that black women don’t care about their children, that they are “natally dead,” that they will be complicit in the exploitation of their children. And I think that aspect of racism, its destruction of the ability to speak one’s love, is why Morrison wrote the word love across the front of her book.
The genius of Beloved is that Morrison dives down into terrain that is as emotionally post-apocalyptic as The Road is literally post-apocalyptic. What do you do after the worst thing happens—not only killing your own child, but having, in the process, to bury your love for your own child—and yet the next day you’re still alive? How do you go on, moreover, how do you continue to be a human being and not an empty shell? Why, and how, does one continue to walk? Like McCarthy, she is taking on some of the most fundamental aspects of what it is to be human: we speak, we walk, we love. These are, indeed, the things that infants learn. They are, perhaps, “unsayable,” because the instincts to do them go so deep they feel as if they’re beyond language. What McCarthy and Morrison bring to the surface, astonishingly, is the cusp of almost not being able to do these fundamentally human things. They make visible the forces that are so nearly overwhelming—apocalypse, genocide—that the most primal forces we possess could be snuffed out. And yet, in both books, these forces, barely, and with great struggle, aren’t snuffed out. The man and the boy walk. The woman loves her child.
Which raises the question of what it is, exactly, that each writer is making appear in the world. What are they, with great effort, causing us to see? Is apocalypse the unsayable thing in The Road? Is slavery the unsayable thing in Beloved? You can see, probably, where I’m going. I think that in both cases, the writers are using these nearly unimaginably bad events to get, indirectly, at something else, something that, like the story of one’s own life or a face or geist, can’t be seen directly. We can’t see love, we can’t see language, by looking straight at them; most crucially, we can’t feel their weight. We have to use a mirror. Like Ess using the pinhole camera or Tittmann tracing an image over and over of a form that doesn’t exist in nature, we have to reflect them off of something else. Which is not to say that The Road isn’t about apocalypse, or that Beloved isn’t about slavery. Of course, they are. Though it’s important to note that in both cases, these events, too, are primarily visible in a kind of mirror, which is aftermath. We never know, in The Road, for instance, what has destroyed the world. In Beloved, slavery is mostly represented in its distorting effects on intimate relationships.
But there is a sense in which McCarthy and Morrison are using these cataclysmic circumstances—one that took place over a century ago, another that takes place in an unspecified future—as mirrors to show the magnitude of love, the necessity of language. Apocalypse and slavery embody the forces arrayed against these basic elements; the heroism of the characters in these books is that they manage to love anyway; they manage to speak, to walk, anyway. In these novels, the big event is over, there’s no dramatic punch to it: the world did end, and so did slavery. Anyway is what these writers are trying to get us to see. What does anyway look like?
Does it look like a woman’s face nearly dissolved, watery, mediated by time? Does it look like a treeless black and grey rock?
Nothing is unwritable. Everything is unwritable. It may be the case that, for modern folk who can see anything at any time on YouTube, what feels in greatest danger of being lost is the weight of these facts, the shadows they cast and why they matter. It can be very difficult to see the stakes of anyway in a world where everything seems sayable but none of it matters all that much. Which is not to say that we don’t experience their weight—I think we do. It’s not that easy to love or to speak, to write. But the slipperiness, the profusion, and the weightlessness of the images that surround us on all sides in modern life can make it seem as if the most difficult thing for a writer, or any artist, to do is not to say the facts of this or that—what was Madame Bovary doing in that carriage—but to embody the relevance, the geist.
And speaking of geist, I want to close by gesturing in the direction of a different sort of unsayability, also cuspy and immaterial, or semi-material, but not post-apocalyptic. In Kathryn Davis’s novel Versailles, she tells the story of Marie Antoinette, in the first person, but Marie Antoinette is telling the story of her own soul. The book begins, “My soul is going on a trip. I want to talk about her. I want to talk about her,” and the rest of the novel proceeds to do just that, dipping in and out of the fated Queen’s life in a manner that falls somewhere between autobiography and a sort of double-voicing for which I do not have a term. The narrator is both united with, and set apart from, her own soul; the “I” is continually split, doubled, self-aware, both contained by and free of the history of the body and history itself.
Davis achieves a remarkable effect in the book; one truly feels that if a soul could have a voice, this is what it would sound like. Indeed, here, the person of Marie Antoinette is the black and grey rock, and the novel is the geist, the indeterminate shape moving underneath the surface that we can’t see, but can only feel as it bumps up from the inside of different moments in the Queen’s life. And it’s so odd, in its way, to choose Marie Antoinette for this soul-journey, because in life she seemed not soulless, perhaps, but deeply devoted to surfaces. She’s an unlikely candidate for this sort of narrative.
And yet Davis bounces the soul off this most unlikely of mirrors, and she closes her book with Marie Antoinette narrating her own guillotining. The section is called “Eros,” and in it, she says,
“It cuts through.
Once upon a time, that’s how it was. The chandelier’s facets were unpolished stone. The fountain’s water was sludge in a swamp.
From the ceiling, against the sky. The shining thing cuts through. A light blooms, a current tugs, the human body works to escape its tether.
You can feel it tugging. Not love, not hope. The opposite of hope, really. There’s no future in Eros, only this. Behind pleasure, the body moves backward.
On the palace floor a pattern of light and shadow. On the water in the basin a flicker of sun and shade.
Backward, the body says. You feel it pulling.”
So beautiful. And notice, here, that the soul, that indefinable, unwritable, invisible thing, acquires its thinginess through its ability to sense the body tugging, pulling on it. Whether or not Marie Antoinette’s soul, or anyone’s, actually exists, in this moment we believe that this thing we can’t quite see exists, we feel the weight of it, through the action of something else that we can see, a physical fact—the body of a Queen, a murder, a global catastrophe—acting upon it. And suddenly the invisible, the unsayable, appears, reflected in words. Against all odds, anyway, it is said.