“If we had imagined what we were doing in Vietnam it would have had to be stopped. But the images of old women holding shattered babies or of babies screaming ended by passing before our eyes but never penetrating to consciousness where they could be experienced. Are we paying for Vietnam now by seeing our children become monsters?”
Thanks to a book-club meeting I'll be attending tonight — after missing a bunch of monthly sessions, mostly because of serial schedule conflicts, but more recently because of soem book choices I wanted no part of — I've been introduced to an intriguing (and enormously prolific) writer who wasn't previously known to me even by name, but who's gotten my attention to the extent that yesterday I hit the public library and snagged four more of her books. And no sooner had I started reading one than it quickly delivered some thoughts so striking that I needed to throw them out here.
The writer is the Belgian-born American poet-novelist-essayist-memoirist May Sarton (more formally Eleanore Marie Sarton; 1912-1995), and tonight's book-club subject is her Journal of a Solitude (published in 1973), her second volume of personal journaling, this one spanning the year from September 1970 to September 1971, about her life in the small New Hampshire town of Nelson, where she'd then been living for a dozen years. The earlier part of her life in Nelson had been journalized in Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), to which Journal of a Solitude was in fact intended as a corrective. She felt now that in Plant Dreaming Deep she felt she had unintentionally romanticized her solitary life in Nelson (she never married, and was living alone) into something that was being taken by readers as a blissful, even heroic rural idyll, whereas the reality was vastly more complex.
So she set out to provide a more balanced view of an existence that was a constant struggle with physical and mental hardships while she continued to try to discover what would make her life genuinely meaningful and how she might need to change — in the year when she turned 59! By this time she had already published eight volumes of poetry and 13 novels, with another of each coming out during the year covered by Journal of a Solitude. By the end of the book she had also submitted to her publisher, right on schedule, a selection of new poems to make up a new volume of poetry to be published for her 60th birthday, in 1972. And this is still without counting her nonfiction books — not just Plant Dreaming Deep but I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Auobiography (1959).
None of these books, individually or collectively, had made Sarton a commercially big-time writer, a subect she talked about on a number of occasions in Journal of a Solitude. Nevertheless, even without major media support her books had won her a scattered but heavily invested readership, of people who somehow found their way to her writing and found it resonant. She's quite aware that book publishing is changing, in ways that aren't likely to be friendly to a writer of her scale. As publication of the new novel, Kinds of Love, approaches, she's horrified to learn from her publisher that its fate will be known in the first week, based on the number of bookseller reorders.
The fact remains, though, that her publisher continued to publish her; before she finished, there would be more than half a dozen more poetry volumes, six more novels, and ten more nonfiction books — and that's with the debilitating stroke she suffered in 1990. And the further fact remains that between her writing and a schedule of lectures, readings, and other public appearances, she managed to support a hardly luxurious but reasonably tolerable independent lifestyle.
“Despite the quality of some of her many novels and poems,” the author's Wikipedia entry argues,
May Sarton's best and most enduring work probably lies in her journals and memoirs, particularly Plant Dreaming Deep (about her early years at Nelson, ca. 1958-68), Journal of a Solitude (1972-1973, often considered her best), The House by the Sea (1974-1976), Recovering (1978-1979) and At Seventy (1982-1983). In these fragile, rambling and honest accounts of her solitary life, she deals with such issues as aging, isolation, solitude, friendship, love and relationships, lesbianism, self-doubt, success and failure, envy, gratitude for life's simple pleasures, love of nature (particularly of flowers), the changing seasons, spirituality and, importantly, the constant struggles of a creative life.
TO ILLUSTRATE HOW STRONGLY I WAS
GRABBED BY JOURNAL OF A SOLITUDE –
I found myself with a powerful hankering to know, on the simplest “plot” level, what happened next. During the year covered by Journal of a Solitude, for example, Sarton announces a decision to sell her house in New Hampshire to move into a house she would be renting from friends on the coast of Maine, though even as she reports this, she explains that it will take her fully two years to be able to disengage from Nelson. Which left me wondering, did she make this move? And how did it work out? Which is why The House by the Sea was one of the Sarton books I checked out of the library today — it sounded like it might be a sequel of sorts.
Which indeed it turns out to be. Yes, in fact Sarton did make the big move, in May 1976, and in the book's Preface and early entries she gives every indication that she genuinely loves her new House by the Sea. At the same time, she makes it clear that the “how did it work out?” question is wildly complex. For one thing, we learn that those two final years in Nelson, which as noted had always been part of her plan, turned out to be “hell.” Moreover, it turned out that in Maine she was easily enough found by spirit-challenging troubles of all sizes and shapes, not least the deaths or slippings-away of a slew of people who had played major roles in her life.
While it took Sarton a year and a half of her new life in Maine to be ready even to begin the new journal, once she did, there on the page, as ever, are her relentless powers of observation and her unyielding commitment to the adequately examined life. Deer-hunting season, for example, is for her “the season of dread.” In the entry for November 18, she reports encountering, on the property owned by the friends who are her landlords, “a sinister-looking man with a shotgun,” who seems undeterred when he's told that this land is posted, declaring that he'll go far enough into the woods that it isn't posted.
I know that people need their deer for meat this autumn of soaring prices, but it is hard to describe the fear and horror I felt seeing that shotgun. Anything that moves is in danger. More than the immediate dread, I felt fierce revolt against guns in general and so many people every day who become murderers as if by accident because they have this tremendous power to kill in their hands — a man loses his temper and “bang! bang!” his wife falls dead or his child. How can we accept such a state of affairs? How have we allowed the gun manufacturers to hold us at bay? After all the assassinations and daily “incidents” there is still no gun law. It is almost unbelievable. [This, remember, is in November 1974. -- Ed.]
In the perfect silence this morning, not a wave breaking and the ocean absolutely flat and blue, at any moment peace will be shattered by a terrifying explosion. . . .
“Yet,” Sarton writes, “this deer hunting is legitimate.”
What is far more sinister is the number of children in New York City, fourteen and fiftenn, who hunt down old women, exactly as though they were animals, following the human track to its lair, then killing for a few dollars or a TV set. What have we done to our children that such indifference is possible? A total disconnection between the act and the human terror and despair involved? . . .
How to make these boys, so detached from and beyond humanity, come into their humanness? Do they have bad dreams afterward? In their sleep do they become human again? It is anomie carried to its farthest limit, the moment when lawlessness has crept into the inmost person and that person is totally detached.
IS WHAT WE HAVE HERE A FAILURE OF IMAGINATION?
Now Sarton comes to what seems to me her most striking idea, one I've spent a fair amount of energy groping toward: that the true deficiency here is one of imagination.
War does it. My Lai does it. [Can we assume that all DWT readers know what "My Lai" was? -- Ed.] But we are in a period where torture is taken for granted almost everywhere [remember: November 1974 -- Ed.], and where the so-called civilized peoples must go on eating candy and drinking whiskey while millions die of hunger [ditto -- Ed.]. So one has to extrapolate the morally indifferent boys to the whole ethos in which they live. And at the root of it all is the lack of imagination. If we had imagined what we were doing in Vietnam it would have had to be stopped. But the images of old women holding shattered babies or of babies screaming ended by passing before our eyes but never penetrating to consciousness where they could be experienced. Are we paying for Vietnam now by seeing our children become monsters? [Emphasis added. -- Ed.]
I am more and more convinced that in the life of civilizations as in the lives of individuals too much matter that cannot be digested, too much experience that has not been imagined and probed and understood, ends in total rejection of everything — ends in anomie. The structures break down and there is nothing to “hold onto.”
It is understandable that at such times religious fanatics arise and the fundamentalists rise up in fury. [Yikes! Again: November 1974! -- Ed.] Hatred rather than love dominates.
Just one more point here, one that relates to a phenomenon Sarton has already reported, in the first entry in this new journal, dated November 13, where she notes her inability to begin the new journal at any point during the first year and a half she has been living in Maine.
Perhaps sometihng cracked open in Europe (I went over for a month in mid-October); for the first time I can play records, and poems are shooting up. For two years I have not been able to listen to music because opening that door had become too painful after the hell of the last two years in Nelson.
Back now to November 18 and the breakdown of society she has been writing about.
How does one handle it? The greatest danger, as I see it in myself, is the danger of withdrawal into private worlds. We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. At the same time it is essential that true joys be experienced, that the sunrise not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys, all those that have nothing to do with money or affluence — nature, the arts, human love. Maybe that is why the pandas in the London zoo brought me back to poetry for the first time in two years.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis