The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
MY MOTHER was well acquainted with suffering, its substance and accidents, its intimations, efflorescence, and rupturing forth. She’d had tuberculosis and cancer; two botched surgeries (during one of which the anesthesia failed and she learned what an incision through the abdominal wall felt like) and one septic abortion; major and minor depressions, two divorces, betrayal and contempt, deaths random and ungrievable, including that of a child; sleepless nights without number.
Against the last, she had, if not a remedy, a palliative. Sometimes in the afternoon when she was at her job in the intensive care unit at Saint Luke’s Hospital I’d rifle through her dresser and there, among the skeins of nylon stockings and hanks of pearls, were her barbiturates: chalky tablets of phenobarbital, daffodil-bright Nembutals, and Seconals, scarlet capsules inscribed “Lilly” in florid dance-card cursive; more whose names I didn’t know, turquoise, sea blue, pink; a bouquet of rest, her garden of oblivion.
There were dozens, not to say hundreds of them. She’d seen things in the intensive care unit that didn’t bear seeing, pain that no painkiller could lay a glove on. So against such eventualities, she cached her refills and armed herself with a weapon of last resort: suicide by lethal overdose. She feared and respected suffering. She knew she couldn’t best it, but perhaps she could outrun it.
You will want to know if she ever deployed them, and, no, she didn’t, but she kept them—long, doubtless, after they’d lost potency—until the end. After her cremation, I threw them away along with the other things she’d clung to—photos and letters from people I’d never heard of; hairspray, Kleenex, and antacids in bulk; cancelled checks and drawings I’d made when I was younger that now embarrassed me—her hoards and reserves against doubt and necessity.
She had a second line of defense as well: analgesics and pain pills, which, like the barbiturates, were liberally dispensed in those days. She did not stockpile these or even avail herself of them very often. In fact, she was adept at taking pain in stride; when her body hurt, she did not much complain. It was this other thing, which I am calling suffering, that she dreaded and feared. Perhaps the common phrase “pain and suffering” says something about this; that pain and suffering are not the same thing; pain hurts, but suffering is something more, and altogether deeper and broader. It is a dark analog of the distinction Kant made between beauty and the sublime: the latter seizes us in the same way as the former, but adds to it awe, vastation, even terror. It is more than we can bear. For my mother, pain belonged, however disconcertingly, to life, to its dailiness and normal amplitudes, but suffering was hell; and there she would not go.
She was not much of a believer, so it was lost on her that, were she to employ her last resort, it was precisely to hell that Christian dogma would send her. Unlike Buddhism, the church tells us that there is not only suffering in this world, but, for those who bend the rules too intently, in the next. We might say that the faith assures us of two things: that there is indeed salvation and that there is indeed no way out.
In the end, she died in her sleep. Her great fear was that she would be kept alive against her will, pointlessly, demonically, by doctors, moralists, and priests. She would suffer and moulder—dumb, drooling, and altogether humiliated—embalmed in a state just shy of death by means of tubes, respirators, and IVs. She was part of the existentialist generation and her death scenario was a vision of the existential knife edge, poised between life and death, each absurd.
She did develop Alzheimer’s disease, one of the outcomes she most feared; she had watched any number of relatives become addled, freakish, and bestial under its influence. But her dementia mellowed her, mollified her lifelong anxieties and resentments. In her final months, she thought Franklin Roosevelt (who’d benignly presided over her childhood and youth) was president, and that in itself must have given her happiness, and hope as well—whatever hope consists of in such a life as hers then was. I’d come to visit and we’d listen to Sinatra together as she smiled and dozed off now and again. And we might well have asked ourselves if this inscrutable world—all shadowed yet all graced—could be any sweeter, any more kind and tender?
There were no agonies, although she did lie on her back for hours at a time, eyes to the ceiling, and for all I know this was a kind of hell; a void of gray, of a continuous florescent hum that leached her soul until it was well and truly emptied out. Then, when the hour came, she went painlessly, or so the nurses and orderlies told me. They found her in the morning in her bed, not quite warm. She had had what people call a good death, a merciful release.
By “a good death” I am pretty sure most people mean a death without much suffering, neither drawn out nor with conscious pain. But this is confusing to me since Christians often seem to maintain that a death in the opposite circumstances—with intense and extended suffering—is also “a good death.” Think of Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, whose long going forth is a benediction upon all those who witness it; or the more quotidian deaths we’ve all heard of (and perhaps witnessed) in which, conscious and surrounded by loved ones, the deceased has faced his demise bravely and patiently. This last word is perhaps the crucial one, in that the meaning at the root of “patience” is “suffering” (from the Latin patior). And so (in English at least) there is a paradox at the heart of our pain and dying: we are exhorted to respond to suffering with patience in the sense of forbearance, but also, in the depths of semantics, of ancient meaning and intention, to meet suffering with suffering.
Here for me the troubles begin, because here also seems to reside the notion among Christians that suffering is a blessing; that implacable grief, despair, and devastation—the midnight of the soul and its like—can be spiritual gifts; that in agony we are given a chance to reenact and share Christ’s passion (again, the same root as “patience”) and thereby be that much closer to him.
I used to believe this ten or fifteen years ago when I was freshly converted to Catholicism, rosy in my smug assent to every jot and tittle of the magisterium, few of which I was in any danger of having touch my life directly. Since then it is not so much that I have suffered, but I have seen others suffer and I have gotten better at imagining my way into their suffering, which is perhaps what we mean by the moral imagination, a gift of a different sort. And what I see frightens and angers me. The notion—at least implicitly tossed around rather freely by Christian writers—that suffering ennobles the sufferer and edifies the onlooker seems to me callous, at best a therapeutic evasion. Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it more intelligently but no less firmly: “All explanation of suffering is an attempt to forget it as suffering, and so a quest for untruthfulness.”
What sort of gift is manifest in, say, torture, child rape, schizophrenia, or mere injury or ordinary death by crushing, suffocation, drowning, flaying, or burning I cannot begin to conjure or picture; and as an artist and writer, conjuring and picturing—acts of imagination—are all I possess. But if I could, here is where I fear the moral imagination must end and its Sadeian counterpart begin. Or, as Williams adds, where it becomes no imagination at all: our desire to explain “the sheer resistant particularity of suffering, past and present, is bound to blunt the edge of particularity, and so to lie; and this lying resolution contains that kind of failure in attention that is itself a moral deficiency, a fearful self-protection.”
I don’t make any claims for my own wisdom on any of this. Mainly, I am squeamish, not to say cowardly. Few of us, I can’t help but think, will be called to martyrdom or the more robust genres of sainthood, or at least not me. We will suffer in self-pity and despair; in death we will shit ourselves and curse, until we are overcome, until the pain saturates us; until—despite what we have been told and claim to believe about redemption—the old gods that haunt our deathbeds are satisfied.
I am not the person who should be writing this. I am incapable of being dispassionate (that multivalent root patior again). I am a sentimentalist. I want things to be the way I wished they had been but never were. Let us be frank: regarding suffering, what I mostly am is afraid, and afraid not so much of others’ suffering—it’s not compassion (co-suffering, from that same cognate) that I feel—but of my own.
I am only, thank God, meant to write about the word “suffering” here, not explain the fact of it. But about suffering, I have no words beyond the word itself—only dread. Contemplating its infinite forms, its serpentine ambushes, and brute ironies, there are times I wish my mother were near; she who could vanquish it or promise it would go away in just a minute, that it would not come any closer. But she is gone, not into her garden of barbiturates, but simply gone; but for all that, gone into her good death, into His mercy. Had she done the other thing, I know I could not call to her now, for how would I know where she might be?
I am not saying you shouldn’t speak of suffering, only that you should speak of it quietly, respectfully, and with, yes, awe; open to its intimation of the dark sublime; of agony, of the contest (wherein lies agony’s root, agon, in Greek) between life and death which we fight and lose again and again, infinitely; which has been won for us once and forever.
With such words, whose etymology and resonances are so vast, so rooted and entangled, be careful that what you mean and what you intend (two more overlapping words) do not come to loggerheads. Do not tell me suffering is a blessing, for I will despair; do not tell me it is a curse, for I will despair again. Do not tell me either—since both imply God’s deliberation—for I will not know what to make of such a God at all.
Let us perhaps pretend it is a mystery of which the less said the better. Speak of it however much you like among your other acquaintances, but I do not want to be reminded; to have my mind bent back upon itself so as to mull it over once more. I lack the gumption, the backbone, and most of all the patience. I can’t look it in the face. Let me, however foolishly and childishly, picture life and, if I must, death otherwise: I want Franklin Roosevelt to be president, to hear “Nancy with the Laughing Face,” and—clinging to the faces I know to be real, the small and manifold things I know to be true—to hoard my blind imagining of a mercy that will frighten what I fear away.
Suffer this fool. Suffer this child.
Robert Clark is the author of ten books, most recently the novel Heaven and Bayham Street: Essays on Longing.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.