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A Crack in Everything: part 3

Essay | 20 minute read
In the final part of her essay series, Grace McCleen reflects on accepting the loss of a friend through the prism of Marilynne Robinson's work

3. How the Light Gets In

Being rejected by a significant other is the greatest pain a human can experience. Our identity is formed of reflections from others that we take to be integral parts of ourselves rather than the illusions they are. Being rejected shatters one or more of these mirrors held up to our identity and causes a split in the self. Jane Eyre avers: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself’; ‘If all the world hated you and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved of you and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends’.

But if a person does not have the inner strength and resources to feel this in the absence of positive external reflections, such words will be hollow. These inner resources are usually formed in childhood so it is unlikely that an adult could suddenly muster them if they have not before. In the last novel I want to turn to the protagonist is a child, and she does learn self-reliance, or something like it, but unusually it is through shedding her self – or seeing through the illusion of it – first.

Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, is infused with the sense ‘that something had been lost or forgotten’ and opens with an act of disappearance: a train disappears from a bridge into a lake. No more explanation for this is given except than that the engine noses over the edge of the bridge towards the water. There are ‘no witnesses’. The train vanishes into a ‘darkness … impenetrable to any eye’, a watery opening which soon seals itself over in ice. This disappearance goes on repeating itself and the lake becomes omnipresent in the novel, a consumer and repository of lost things. Periodically it enters the house where the protagonist, Ruth, and her sister Lucille live, invading ‘the dear ordinary’, bumping and fumbling ‘like a blind man’, hissing and trickling ‘like the pressure of water against your eardrums … the sounds you hear before you faint’. ‘It’s the loneliness,’ Sylvie, the girl’s aunt, explains. ‘Loneliness bothers lots of people’.

Ruth and Lucille lose their grandfather, who was a guard on the fated train, to the lake, and their mother, who kills herself by driving her car off a cliff above it. Raised by their grandmother, then two great-aunts and finally by their mother’s sister, the itinerant and eccentric Sylvie, it is not surprising that the girls dread abandonment. When she first comes to take care of them Sylvie never removes her coat. One day, when she does not know they have skipped school, they see her standing on the bridge looking down into the lake that claimed the lives of their grandfather and their mother. Just when they come to trust that she will not leave them, the spectre rises of they themselves being taken away from her by the state.

Marilynne Robinson (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

All these desertions are unexplained. At least in the case of the girls’ mother, the rejection within the act is implicit. In none of the disappearances do the girls have even the slightest control over the outcome. There can be no closure and Robinson realises this. Instead of absence, loss is figured in the novel by ‘a sense of imminent presence, a palpable displacement, the movement in the air before the wind comes’, the departed as integral to the characters’ consciousnesses as if they had merely left the room for a moment. Instead of describing the impact on the girls’ psyches directly, Robinson writes about natural phenomena. The main effect of such repeated desertion seems to be disorientation: ‘We … spent our lives watching and listening with the constant sharp attention of children lost in the dark’, Ruth says. The girls feel they are merely a remainder and reminder of those who have left: ‘small, unnoticed, unvalued clutter that was all that remained when they vanished, that only catastrophe made notable’.

Ruth holds out the hope that these fragments – ‘flotsam’; ‘relics, remnant, margin, residue, memento … thought, track, trace’; including the loved ones who have been lost or who have lost them – will be ‘knit up finally’ in a grand reckoning, just as she assents that ‘everything must finally be made comprehensible’. Always seeking solace, even if she doesn’t realise it, for her multiple losses, Ruth reasons that ‘if appearance is only a trick of the nerves,’ then ‘this sense of presence unperceived … was not particularly illusory as things in this world go’ – so while we think and feel as if loved ones have departed, that too is ultimately an illusion.

Housekeeping does not skirt around the chasm within each of us, around the ‘mourning that will not be comforted’. Instead Robinson intimately explores it. She sits with it. Not as neurotically as Josef K. in The Trial, or as tragically as King Lear, nor through the nightmarish re-enacting that afflicts Stephen Lewis in Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time; and not to the detriment of her characters, unlike Stephen Benatar and Anita Brookner in the novels examined by the first two parts of this essay.

She welcomes the loss in and embraces it. In fact, so closely are the multiple losses inhabited, it is as if the characters of Housekeeping dwell not just with loss but inside it, just as they reside in various real and metaphorical house structures that they and a long line of women ‘keep’, with varying degrees of success, until finally there is ‘an end to housekeeping’. The loss passes through Ruth and frees her, rather than becoming lodged inside her, keeping her stuck. In Robinson’s hands, loss becomes a teacher and thing of quiet beauty, as becomes clear in the image she deploys in the penultimate chapter: that of the murdered Cain (the first person to die in the Bible), the memory of which, ironically and ineluctably ‘pulls us forward’, hand over hand, to re-enact and re-engage with the act all over again.

Robinson suggests that in unexplained loss, the loved one becomes transfigured, extraordinary, and that the processes of loss and return are two sides of the same coin, unable to be separated, completing one another in what is ultimately a movement of perfection; two halves of an equation that works itself out continually.

This is embodied in various ways in the novel. For one thing, loss makes those left behind aware of those they still have: of the girls’ dead grandfather, Robinson writes that ‘his sudden vanishing’ made his daughters aware of their mother, who was still with them. In another passage the girls’ dead mother is transfigured (the word is Robinson’s), so that her loss makes those left behind aware of her as they would never have been had they not lost her. A little further on, ‘love’ is ‘half a longing of a kind that possession did nothing to mitigate.’ So even with the person we love right by our side, we can never quite possess them or get close enough.

In love there is an inbuilt fear of loss, and in loss of love. We cannot know what either means without knowledge of its opposite. In the most transcendent passage of the book, Robinson writes of a ‘Carthage sown with salt’, of light forcing ‘each salt calyx to open [and] fruit heavily with bright globes of water’, noting that ‘where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow.’

I am afraid that I do not believe this, though this is possibly the most beautiful passage I have ever read. Craving and having do not feel the same, though it is true that in the sensation of craving we know the thing we crave intimately and possibly more vividly than having it. And having a thing can render it invisible, intangible, unknowable. ‘Here again is a foreshadowing,’ Robinson writes, ‘the world will be made whole’. And however beautiful the thought, it is not enough for the protagonist Ruth, either, until she realises this experientially for herself.

Robinson suggests there are essentially two responses to loss. The seminal act of abandonment that strands the girls with a series of relatives has very different effects on each of them: Lucille, after witnessing the indeterminacy, open-endedness and utter lack of control that comes when we embrace loss, becomes determined to eschew loss and transience for good (she comes to hate everything that fades and wears out, choosing objects with the greatest permanence possible) and make something of herself (to prove those who rejected her wrong), integrating into the small community of Fingerbone and conforming to their narrow and fearful ways of living.

Ruth, initially invested in resisting loss at all costs, ultimately sees the futility of this and recognises mutability as an inextricable part of herself, so formed as she is by it. She therefore embraces herself and her own pain, and so gains herself again in the cycle that Robinson hints will always complete itself if we let it, loss pointing to replacement, replacement to loss. (This cycle is engraved, unbeknown to Lucille, on the table grace she copies into the diary she keeps in an attempt to be civilised, printed ineluctably in large letters: ‘PASS TO THE LEFT. REMOVE FROM THE RIGHT’).

Ruth comes to this state of acceptance after passing through two formative trials with Sylvie, but there was a much earlier foreshadowing of her receptivity, her permeability to ‘darkness’ and loss. Midway through the book the girls spend a day and night in the woods. It becomes a disturbing experience. They make a house, which continually crumbles. When it becomes dark Lucille sits down ‘in our ruined stronghold,’ Ruth reports, ‘never still, never accepting that all human boundaries were overrun’. But Ruth ‘simply let[s] the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in [her] skull and bowels and bones.’ In this darkness, she realises that

‘[e]verything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these spectres [people we care about] loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they would be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable … Darkness is the only solvent.’

What the darkness dissolves here, if only temporarily, is Ruth’s identity, and because of its momentary dissolution she is able to see the spectral and true nature of human relations, which, like ‘human boundaries’, like the house the girls try to build, by their nature ebb and flow, are dismantled and rebuilt, cannot be retained.

In perhaps her most complex analogy, Robinson writes: ‘When one looks from inside at a lighted window, or loss from above at the lake, one sees the image of oneself in a lighted room, the image of oneself among trees and sky – the deception is obvious, but flattering all the same’. When we are inside the element we are attempting to observe, we see only ourselves. We cannot know or see the thing itself clearly. The world gives back to us only a reassuring image of ourselves. But if we are outside the element we observe, Robinson is saying, outside a lighted window or looking up from within a body of water (as the dead whom the lake have swallowed do in this novel), ‘one sees all the difference between here and there, this and that.’ And sees the truth. An outsider can see truth more clearly.

The two trials Ruth goes through with Sylvie later in the book include another night spent in the woods during which she believes Sylvie has deserted her, and the night she and Sylvie leave Fingerbone at the end of the novel, crossing the bridge. In both she becomes once more intimate with darkness, ‘the only solvent’, or loss. Tellingly, there is once more talk of spectres and ghosts. In her terrifying hours left alone in the forest while Sylvie is elsewhere, Ruth encounters the ‘teasing’ child ghosts that both she and Sylvie feel inhabit the woods, but that only appear when she is alone there.

And there is once more talk of houses and house building: waiting for Sylvie to reappear, Ruth waits in the remains of an ‘[a]bandoned homestead’. Ruth feels so alone she feels ‘it is better to have nothing, for at last even our bones will fall.’ Thinking of the ghostly children that populate the woods, she sits down on the grass. ‘I thought, Let them come and unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart. It was no shelter now, it only kept me here alone, and I would rather be with them.’ The partial surrender prepares Ruth for the final loosening of bounds that occurs when she follows Sylvie out of Fingerbone and out of her life as she knows it. In submitting to the vastness of her loss, Ruth has stepped out of the mirror of her identity, no longer merely a reflection, and so is free of it. And free of ‘housekeeping’, a freedom she embraces initially through her despair.

Not long after, she and Sylvie will set fire to their house and leave Fingerbone and their identities behind (not that Sylvie, it is suggested, ever really had an identity; Sylvie does not possess things, or permit things to possess her) for a life of wandering, which while not blissful or without pain is, Robinson suggests, an honest one, free of the delusion and denial that Lucille embraces, deciding to stay in Fingerbone for the rest of her life, shoring scraps against her ruin, continually attempting to eliminate the smell and the sound and the sight of the lake that laps at the village, and always will, from her mind.

Whatever we identify with can kill us. Whatever we claim to be ‘us’ or ‘our own’ has the ability to rive us apart and open the chasm within. Identity balances at any moment on a knife-edge, and that same knife, as the Bible says of God’s word, is ‘sharper than any two-edged sword and pierces even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of joints from the marrow, and is able to discern thoughts and intentions of the heart.’

Whatever we identify with we will place above other things, sometimes even above our lives. But it is paradoxically (or perhaps it is not paradoxical; perhaps life has a logic of its own) that very thing from which we derive the strongest sense of surety that at some point will be threatened, if not completely taken from us.

In ‘Anthem’, Leonard Cohen sings: ‘There’s a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in’. It is a Robinsonian sentiment, for her novels embrace and give weight and attention to the shameful, the wretched and the imperfect – ‘the crack’ – that most of us would run from identifying with, as much as the beautiful and effulgent. In fact the often-commented-upon sublimity of her prose is attained precisely by graciously encompassing all states, by an attitude of inclusion rather than exclusion, connection rather than division and grateful attention rather than hasty distraction.

Leonard Cohen (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

The only other text I can think of that holds its arms so wide to loss in a way that gestures towards healing rather than stasis, is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Written nearly seventy years before Robinson wrote Housekeeping but possessed of a similarly mystical consciousness, the Duino Elegies, which Rilke began in 1912, took ten years to write due to his incapacitating periods of paralysing ontological desolation and involuntary conscription into the army during the First World War.

Yet in the creation of the Elegies, Rilke confided in a 1923 letter to Nanny von Escher, he made a conscious decision to hold life open to death. He felt he had a spiritual commission to present the transformative power of love that was impossible in a world where death was ‘other’ and opposed to life. The Elegies begin with the famous line: ‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?’ It is redolent of Christ’s last reported words on the torture stake: ‘My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?’ Despite the fact that, at the time Rilke was writing, ‘God’ now seemed for many to be non-existent, over the course of the ten elegies, as well as undiluted anguish, the poet suggests transcendent communion with a higher order of being.

For Rilke, loss and absence are the sources of a blessed progress. If unresisted they become an opening into a space beyond, a way of being we could not have imagined, contained as we are in the divisive reflections of our ever-needy selves: ‘what we endlessly separate,’ Rilke writes, ‘merely by being, comes together.’ Robinson would concur. The importance of going through a crucible, of bearing with terror is stressed: ‘[f]or beauty is nothing but/the beginning of terror,’ Rilke writes, ‘that we are still able to bear…’ ‘Could you handle it?’ he asks,

‘Should not these ancient sufferings be finally

fruitful for us? Isn’t it time that, loving,

we freed ourselves from the beloved, and, trembling, endured

as the arrow endures the bow, so as to be, in its flight,

something more than itself? For staying is nowhere.’

Sylvie and Ruth and Marilynne would surely agree.

A relationship fades, a person disappears. You try to find out why and fail. You cannot get closure. You live without knowing what you have done; if you have done anything at all. You wonder why you mean so little to them. Why they can’t even take the time to explain why they dropped you. But they don’t. You wonder what is wrong with you. You tell yourself they liked me at one time; I know because of this and this and this.

You remember things other people have told you: that you are beautiful. You are brilliant. You are lovely. You are kind. You are patient. You are gentle. You are interesting. You are funny. You are endearing. You are extraordinary. These are all words that people have used to describe me and none of them mean a thing; words, like thoughts, form a barrier between us and a thing rather than help us know it. Besides, if you were to ask other people, I am many other things, which in an hour of need I do not want to remind myself.

What I can say I am, is a thirty-eight-year-old woman, whose health is kept in a stable, not good condition, by a drug that moderates the auto-immune system. Whose mental state is precarious. Whose relations with other people are frequently troubled. Who sometimes lives in fear, grief and often rage. Who has worked herself to a kind of stupor; who has realised the futility of work. Who is now half real, half doped-up. Who often feels it has taken a lifetime of crawling out from beneath mountains of rubble, crawling out over and over; to kneel, then to stand, then to walk forwards; to hold out her hand, and say something. Only for the world to glance at her, raise its eyebrows, then look away again. The worst pain is to be ignored. To be ignored is the last deprivation. The extinguishing of all air and all light.

It feels like I see all this clearly, but although in one sense it is true, in a deeper respect it is not; what I am in fact observing, catching sight of the ghost of the nun, is a spectre from my past, some pain that was buried alive and will keep appearing until it’s laid to rest.

Ultimately we will all be left alone, and we should, I suppose, be grateful for that. How else to discover what constitutes our self? How else even to encounter it? If we are dependent upon others and externalities – if we are never without them – we come to believe that they are us; we fear if they are taken away nothing will remain. The fact is that if no other human existed and we lived on this planet alone, we would be just as much ourselves as we always were.

Ultimately no matter what we do, the world will not love us for it. Love is given, not earned. The most undeserving can be loved the most deeply. Even if they were not, being loved is not something we can set out to accomplish. And if we did, it would not be love. Ultimately we will all keep hurting and being hurt by one another as long as we do not know who we are. To begin to know ourselves, we must first realise who we are not.

Thus the need for compassion, for ourselves, as well as the other. Compassion may be easier to come by than respect, if self-respect is new to us (as it probably is if rejection cuts very deeply).

Humans will tear the heart out of you. They will make you love them then rip the love away. The wrong people will get the approval and you will be wrongly accused. You will be misunderstood – if you are lucky. And the endless stratagems to win their attention and recognition will fall flat sooner or later. Or become exhausting. If neither happens we will never be disabused of the illusion that we are living for ourselves, when all along we are living in slavery, for everyone else. Ultimately you cannot account for other people. All you can do is tend to yourself. For as long as it takes. Tending to yourself is tending to the other in any case, because your self and the other are the same.

Does any of this speak to you? If it does then I have something more, though at what I am about to say every academic and critic and a good many readers (and writers) will throw up their hands in horror or start violently retching or bang shut their laptops or throw away their phones and immediately write to my editor and ask why she ever published this piffle.

I will just ask that you remember who is talking now: the know-it-all, cosily encamped, can’t-do-that, not-in-here, over-there, no-a-bit-further, yes-that’s-right, out-the-door, right-and-wrong, would-rather-die, death-of-us mind. I will remind you that you don’t always have to listen. You can take a break. Just for a moment. I dare you to…

What I was about to say, for those who are still reading, is: A Course in Miracles, The Presence Process, The Power of Now. But here we are moving beyond the remit of literature and into the ether. There remain books. And of course, there will always be the outer Hebrides. At the rate I am going I may see some of you there.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay here.