Both of these collections, in their own ways, explore the past as a means of understanding the present, and while Searcy’s work is compelling but ultimately unmemorable, Sacks has written a credo for the thinking, feeling, and loving human being that challenges all of us to face death not with anger but peace.
Shame and Wonder
New York: Random House, 2016.
New York: Knopf, 2015.
A few years ago, I attended a conference in Houston, TX where the keynote lecture was given by one of the world’s foremost theorists of film studies. As anyone who has attended such conferences knows, these lectures can often be hit or miss. Brilliance in scholarship does not always (of often, for that matter) translate into effective public speaking skills. In this case, our speaker was a bit older, with a sort of frizz of white hair that shone strangely in the bright sheen reflecting off the lectern, more Doc Brown than Doc Einstein. Illuminated against the dark as he was, he seemed as though he were about to tell us a ghost story, rather than give an academic lecture. Amazingly, he did both.
Though most of that lecture doesn’t remain with me now, one particular film clip he showed us has stuck in my mind since then, and I feel it will not come unglued for many years to come. Actually, the clip wasn’t even from what we might properly call a film. It was a cinematic experiment from the 1905 New York City subway system, where an enterprising young director mounted a camera on a subway car and recorded what passengers saw as they passed through the underground passageways.
It is difficult to describe in words what exactly makes the “film” so beautiful to me. Its imagery is undoubtedly striking and at times humorous (especially when we see the people on the platforms scurrying around in their period clothing), but around the five minute mark is where it becomes eerie. At that point, the train moves into the busiest of all the stations, where the platform is covered exclusively with men wearing dark suits and jauntily perched bowler hats; at least one has a boater and a cane, while another struts around impatiently, using his fist to clutch a newspaper at his hip. As one might expect from a film made in 1905, all of these people move and scurry before you in complete silence.
Our theorist then pointed out that everyone we were seeing in that film was now dead, even the smallest of the children. The stretch of time between now and then was such that the fullest extent of the human life cycle had already played out for every single one of those suited figures strutting about on the platforms. This was a strange moment for me, and even now—as I watch the video again—I can’t shake the slightly hair-raising quality of that revelation. Film, more than the physical arts of painting or sculpture, more than the textual arts of literature, can preserve the often mundane essence of what it means to be human, and every time that film is played, that essence is reproduce again and again, like some sort of celluloid resurrection.
At about 5:20 in particular, there is one man who looks back at the camera several times as he wanders into the crowd, and what fascinates me about that man is that he isn’t merely wandering out of the shot—he is wandering out of life itself. In a way that is almost disturbing, as he walks across the platform, while everyone else moves and bustles around him, he is the only one who looks back. By 5:30, he takes on a statuesque pose, and as the rest of the platform’s activity and excitement swirls around him, he stands completely and utterly still, staring back down the way he came. What is it that has so captured his attention? Is it the camera? Does he see someone he knows there, lost in the crowd too? Is he waiting for a lover who will eternally fail to arrive? By this point, women and children have come onto the scene, and just as he is almost obscured behind the lace trimming of a giant hat, he turns; as quickly as he came, he is gone again, having given a good hard stare to the camera, as if asking with his very expression that we remember him. In a manner that seems more otherworldly every time I see it, he turns on his heel and vanishes from sight, only to be roused from his slumber when someone else finds him on YouTube, or at an academic conference, or in the archives of some library. Someone like me, I suppose.
This man and this moment have resonated with me so much as of late because this past week I have been reading two collections of essays that use the passage of time, and of life itself, as a structuring principle for their work: David Searcy’s Shame and Wonder (2016) and Oliver Sacks’s Gratitude (2015). Both of these collections, in their own ways, explore the past as a means of understanding the present, and while Searcy’s work is compelling but ultimately unmemorable, Sacks has written a credo for the thinking, feeling, and loving human being that challenges all of us to face death not with anger but peace.
David Searcy is a writer mainly known for two horror-style novels, Ordinary Horror (2001) and Last Things (2002), but his essays in this collection, thankfully, are often characterized by a focus upon the past through personal memory. The twenty-one essays that make up the collection delve into every epoch of his life, from remote childhood adventures to more recent excursions onto baseball fields and across the world. Every line, every image, every thought in Searcy’s work is tinged with shadows of what was, and for the most part, his overall writing is improved by such resonances. Through this method of inspiration, Searcy is able to juxtapose often striking images from both the past and the present. In what is undoubtedly his most memorable piece of the book, “The Hudson River School,” Searcy explores how a man in rural Texas used the recorded crying of his infant daughter to lure a particularly dangerous Coyote from the wild. Searcy’s description of hearing that recording for the first time stands out with particular clarity:
My God. It’s like a shock. I sort of expected a little accidental background noise or something, a little preparatory blankness. But it’s right there. Fully present. Six weeks old, I think they said. A shriek to take your breath away. The way a baby shrieks to end all shrieks—all shrieks contained therein, all forms of misery, the wilderness itself. Elaine has backed away. Of course the coyote came. How could it not? It’s all right there. And it goes on and on. I’m looking at Elaine. Okay. She hears her baby out there in the wilderness, I’m thinking. But it’s not quite that. He shuts it off and looks at her.
Such moments are numerous in Searcy’s essays, and they shine not simply because of the way he expresses these moment, these images, but rather in the nature of the images themselves. His gentle suturing of cosmic telescopes and “The Bottoms” of the Dallas suburbs, for instance—that use of reaching the physical heights from the social depths—is a special skill that I have rarely seen in other essayists, and for that alone, I give him all credit. He clearly has the eye of an artist.
Overall, however, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Searcy’s work. It perhaps didn’t do him any favors that I have lately been on a bit of an essay kick (as you can probably tell from the double review this week), which has led to my reading two of my favorite essayists ever: David Foster Wallace and Michael Dirda. I read Dirda’s most recent collection of essays, Browsings (2015) back in December, and I’m currently reading through DFW’s Both Flesh and Not, published posthumously in 2012. Both of these writers are brilliant in essay format, but for staggeringly different reasons. Dirda is one of those few people who can convince you, without particularly trying, that he has read every book ever printed and that he remembers the details of them all with perfect clarity. His writing is peppered with casual allusions and learned quotations that, if you read too quickly, you can breeze right by. His prose is finely polished to a smooth shine, and reading his style is like letting cool water run between your outstretched fingers. Wallace, on the other hand, though equal as a stylist, has a keen intellect which he uses to perform almost surgical dissections of his subjects. As an essayist, Wallace proves with every word that he is smarter than you, though he never seems condescending or infatuated with himself because of it. I always feel that I have learned something when reading Wallace, even if I’m not particularly interested in his subject matter.
I bring these writers up not to belittle Searcy for being unlike them; since I consider these two writers some of the greatest ever at the craft, it would be an unfair comparison, especially for Searcy’s first attempt at the form. My point is that Searcy lacks what these authors have by instinct: memorability. Without looking things up as I wrote, I would have been hard-pressed to remember the specific details or even general content of any of his essays. Searcy has a light touch, but one that is, unfortunately, often too light. Those same images that he develops with such care and artistic precision are often left open-ended in ways that tend to feel incomplete. Like modernist and postmodernist writers whose references and departures from meaning become a bit too obscure, journey a bit too far afield, Searcy’s failure to occasionally put his foot down often causes his essays to lack any sort of intellectual impact. This is an unfortunate fate for work that is clearly so lovingly crafted. It is true that he who treads lightly leaves no footprints; but when we leave no prints, others may never know we were there at all.
Searcy’s foibles stand in stark contrast to the late Oliver Sacks’s final collection of essays, Gratitude. Published just after his death last year, the whole collection only amounts to four essays that total around fifty pages. On paper, it should be a quick read; but where Searcy uses so many words and says so little, Sacks packs more meaning and emotion in these few pages than one would think possible. These essays were composed between his diagnosis of terminal cancer and his eventual death, and even as short pieces, they chart the mind of one who sees death and, rather than despairing in its presence, faces the inevitable with appreciation for the life he has lived. As pieces of writing, they are pure and poignant, and they reaffirm one’s belief that though death comes for us all, it does not have to take us at our worst.
I remember my first exposure to Oliver Sacks was in my high school health class (circa 2002), in which we learned little more about “health” than could be conveyed by a textbook from the early ’80s and a teacher who was more interested in reading Vogue than explaining the functions of our hormone fueled bodies. We watched a lot of movies in that class—mainly those “blood on the concrete” diver’s ed videos. Did I mention that our health class and drivers ed classes were mashed together, and that we didn’t get to drive? There wasn’t enough funding that year. Anyway, the only film we watched that stood out to me at all was Awakenings (1990), and while I’m pretty sure I was the only student in there who was paying any attention to it, I remember being floored by that movie. I remember shushing my classmates so I could hear the interactions between Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams, and I remember the odd stare I received over the top of a Vogue cover for doing so. Something about the joys of possible redemption, possible freedom from an imprisoning body, was exhilarating, especially when shown in the lives of all those people in the hospital who are temporarily cured by the wonder drug. And the dignity with which Hoffmann and his fellow patients face their inevitable return to that state, even as Williams’s character has a nervous breakdown over it, was overtly compelling to a 16 year old.
(For the record, this way not my only important movie experience in high school. I remember being shown the entirety of the 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings in my freshman history class, and again, I was the only person who paid any attention. It was the beginning of my love affair with Tolkien. As can be surmised here, I had a tendency to learn in spite of my high school experience, rather than because of it.)
Since then, I have read almost all of Sacks’s major works (Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Hallucinations, etc.) and I suppose I could say that, at various times throughout my life, I have been fascinated with Oliver Sacks; this is appropriate, because Oliver Sacks was someone who was clearly fascinated with life. The little book’s epigraph is as succinct as it is moving in it sheer simplicity: “I am now face to face with dying, but I am not finished with living.” And in the final essay, which focuses upon Sacks’s memories of Sabbath observations and how they shaped his life and family, he closes with the following paragraph:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the super-natural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done and one may, in good conscience, rest.
The emotional and existential weight of such pronouncements, of which the small collection of essays is overflowing, still somehow left me expecting more. I always assumed that, should I know death was coming in a matter of months, my life would be dominated by more. More words, more thoughts, more things done that shouldn’t be left undone. It was as if I had assumed life must become gluttonous before it passes, and I expected such a reaction from Sacks’s writing.
Instead, perhaps what Sacks shows us is the unfathomable enormity of the things we cannot say, cannot express, when perched upon the precipice of our own mortality. Any musician can tell you that not all thoughts can be expressed in words; some things must be felt, if they are to be expressed at all. And it is the sparse nature of Sacks’s prose, the lack of imposing imagery or symbolism, that makes these ruminations at the end of his life so powerful and moving.
These essays haunt me, but not in a negative way; like stained glass windows at midnight, they are somehow both achingly material and blissfully sacred. They are musings upon inevitability, focusing upon that which we do not, cannot, gaze upon with any steadiness: mortality. And they do so not in some ideological or religious sense, like so much plastic coating protecting us from our medicine. No, they face morality and the facts of aging with a directness that is at once both refreshing and enviable. Such an attitude is found most clearly in what is now one of my favorite passages in all of nonfiction, which I will copy for you here:
I cannot pretend that I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
It was, in reality, the closing sections of Sacks’s book that reminded me of the film I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. And, in reading his closing words, for both the book and, in a sense, for life itself, I thought again of that man, losing himself in the crowd but turning back one more time for one more look. Every time that film is played, that man gives one more solid look, one more stock still pose amidst the flurry of activity around him, and slowly, as the train moves on without him, he disappears into the crowd. May we all go so purposefully, and so gently, into the beyond.