Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
February 2020 Issue [Memoir]

The Cancer Chair

Is suffering meaningless?
Photograph by Jessica Bruah from the series The Course © The artist

Photograph by Jessica Bruah from the series The Course © The artist


The Cancer Chair

Is suffering meaningless?

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

In the cancer chair there is always a pillow and a blanket. I’ve never used either, though on two occasions (2007, 2013) my spastic reactions to my cure led nurses to hurriedly pile blankets on my feverish form in the way I pile blankets on my twin girls when they are cold. Now why did I have to think of that. The comparison, I mean. It is wildly inapt: the nurses’ ministrations are efficient and mirthless, and not once have they concluded with a good tickle. Why must the mind—my mind—make these errant excavations into pure pain? I was just digging along like a dog, chats and chairs, a pillow and a blanket.

My children have never seen a cancer chair. They’ve visited me during extended hospital stays, but that’s different, and the last one is just far back enough in their consciousnesses to be, for now, benign. They remember the brightly colored fish in the tank downstairs, the nice view from my “hotel room,” and that every night I ordered an extra pudding and let them have both. All in all, great fun.

Often I see a dire child between the elevators and the blood-cancer corner. The children’s hospital is on the same floor. They are not all the same, these children. Not that I have ever spoken to one of them, or learned one detail of their lives, or even, for one instant, met their or their parents’ eyes. Yet each sighting shocks the soul like a moment of negative grace, a kind of anti-inspiration, a little shard in the mind that there is no way to absorb or dislodge. There is nothing to remember, except the nothing I’m unable to forget.

Today it was a bald boy of five or so poised at the door to the outdoor garden, one hand attached by tubes to his towering cancer tree, the other held by his young mother, who was in a kind of distress that seemed incomprehensible by its very banality. The boy couldn’t decide whether to go out to the garden or not, and the moment had escalated to a crisis. Nietzsche says that not only is there no point to pity but that it is actively malign. To feel your heart breaking at the sight of a tiny gray-faced boy whimpering in front of a door—what does this do but secrete a little more misery into the atmosphere? I had my parking validated and my wrist banded and took a seat where I could not see them, the young mother and the old child. They went back into the children’s hospital. (Are there miniature cancer chairs?) Or they stood outside staring at the red cliffs of East Rock. I looked at my phone. I got a drink of water I did not want. Then the next name called was mine.

A group of cancer chairs is called a pod. There are four pods in this corner of my floor (which is one of fifteen), and all of them, near as I can tell, are occupied every hour of every day. Sperm whales, nineteenth-century accounts say, were once so numerous a ship could sail all day along a line of them and never reach the end. They are intelligent, musical, perhaps moral. In 2011, a pod adopted a deformed bottlenose dolphin, which had been spurned. Moby Dick was a sperm whale. “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate,” says Ahab, “and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” Whaling was a dangerous trade. Voyages could last years, and hunts often took place in bad weather, at night, or both. A whaler could lean to forty-five degrees in the chase, and sometimes, racing a fierce wind and with its upper rigging shining ice, the scales tilted and the whole crystal ship—and all the bright lives aboard—went dark.

Whales evolved from land mammals. In essence, evolution reversed itself, and the creature that had once crawled out of the sea to survive finally, and for the same reason, flopped back in. This is the sort of information that passes through the brain without leaving a trace, like the fact that there are forty-six billion light-years between the edge of my cancer chair and the edge of the universe, or that a newborn infant contains more information than all of cyberspace, or that in the time it takes you to read this sentence, there will have been seventeen million successful cell divisions within your beloved body. Or not. I’ve known two apparently healthy people who died within a month of their diagnoses. One minute they were planning dinner, tending children, stalking holidays. Then the crystal ship.

Each cancer chair has two folding trays, one for the nurse’s paraphernalia and one for the patient’s. Today I need both sides to accommodate the materials I’ve accumulated for my lecture on Job in a class I’m teaching called “Suffering.” Have a hammer, use a hammer. Not that this rote, monthly infusion for my immune system constitutes suffering, unless you count the weak coffee, and the noise seeping into my noise-canceling earphones, and the fact that I don’t know how to talk about suffering without talking about God, and I am tired of talking about God. “Is it a how-to course?” a gently skewering wit asked me when I described the reading list. I laughed, but when I told the story to my teaching partner, the theologian Miroslav Volf, he said soberly, “Damn right it is.” Recently I compiled an anthology of poems about joy, and in thinking about suffering it has occurred to me the two abstractions are alike in at least four ways:

1. They are never abstract.
2. They are inevitable. (I don’t believe any life is entirely devoid of joy.)
3. They cannot be willed or instrumentalized. (Thus I am excluding any pain that is initiated to serve an end.)
4. There is something sacred in them, or at least there can be.

It’s that last assertion that sticks in the modern throat. Suffering is simply something to avoid thinking about for as long as possible, and then, because to avoid it forever is impossible, to expunge from the mind the minute one is beyond the scald. Think of our culture’s almost Talmudic attention to physical health or—adjusting the dial on Oblivion slightly—our national addiction to opiates. Think of the hours we feed our brains to screens, the numb way we move from one month’s mass shooting to the next. Think of the way we separate the very old from society as if they were being culled, the stifled, baffled air of the modern funeral. The proximate causes for these conditions are many, but the ultimate one, I suspect, is the same: evasion.

It wasn’t always thus. “Pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” That’s Aeschylus twenty-five hundred years ago. Jump forward half a century and you have St. Peter: “But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Spin the globe and skip a millennium and there’s Rumi: “Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” Montaigne: “He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.” Still too far back? Proust: “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” Dickinson: “He deposes Doom / Who hath suffered him.” Nietzsche: “The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—know ye not that it is only this discipline that has produced all of the elevations of humanity hitherto?”

But what if circumstances—and humanity—really have changed? This is Yuval Noah Harari’s thesis in Homo Deus, which argues that we are on the verge of eliminating suffering from the existential equation altogether.

Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself. Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.

I hear Satan himself hissing these sentences (“Here grows the Cure of all, this Fruit Divine. . . . ”), but my strenuous revulsion surprised some of my students, who viewed Harari’s argument not as a prediction but as an accurate description of current reality. We are at Yale, I suppose, and not in Syria, Honduras, or some other part of the planet inhabited by the Have-nots. But never mind the substance of the argument. That it is an argument, one taken seriously by people running the world—Barack Obama and Bill Gates are both big fans of Harari—is the salient point. Let’s assume Harari is right. What might that mean for us?

Death, I think. One less literal, but ultimately more fatal, than the one we fear. This is the world of Nietzsche’s “Last Men,” who have triumphed over the traditional agonies of existence and now bask in neutered happiness. For Nietzsche, there can be no creativity without suffering, and there can be no life without creativity. Nor can one winnow out the highs and lows of life like wheat from tares. There is no (true) joy without suffering and there is no (meaningful) suffering without joy. “Joy wants eternity,” Nietzsche says, and eternity is not escape from time but all time redeemed. To say yes to one moment in life is to say yes to all of them. To feel the joy of kissing your child on the cheek at night is to sanction, even to praise, the riot of cells rotting out the gray-faced boy outside the cancer garden.

My lines are obstructed. This happens fairly often, especially if I’m trying to type. First there is a modest beeping from the cancer tree, which grows louder if no nurse comes, finally rising to a shrill alarm that sends a current of articulate irritation around the pod. I fiddle with the controls, but even after all these years I am helpless. Where the hell is she, the prettiest nurse in the cancer pageant? What a stupid thing to say. Some days fury courses through me with the chemicals and all I want to do is desecrate.

In fact, I’m always relieved when I’m assigned to her station. It seems impossible, but at times I’ve felt nothing when she inserted the line into my forearm. I like her placid manner, her Connecticut accent (“mittns”), her ambiguous glitter. (Her standard nurses’ clogs are decorated with polka dots.) I like the impersonal way she calls me “my friend,” and the gentle gibes she’ll sometimes let fall like relics of ordinary life. What’s it like to carry a face like hers (and “pretty” is not the right word) into misery like this? Why does she have no children? I know she has a partner and must be approaching forty. In another environment, I might learn these things, but as I say, that’s not the way of the pod.

She comes in and swiftly charms the alarm (and me) with a curse. And before I can ask what she thinks about the meaning of suffering, she’s off to eliminate another instance of it.

Nietzsche was last week and is still on my mind. Miroslav said if he weren’t a Christian he’d be a Nietzschean. I’m a Christian and may be a Nietzschean. Not the whole overwrought overman stuff, and not the conflation of pity and weakness. But I feel in my bones (literally, alas) the truth of Nietzsche’s insistence upon confronting reality as it is, the iron law of cause and effect that in some instances, as even the most faithful must admit, God either cannot or will not break. Nietzsche believed one could fit oneself to, and thereby conquer, necessity by saying, “Thus I willed it,” as if the only thing not subject to necessity were the will of the one who recognized it. This seems a step too far. But the burn of being I feel in my bones, which makes life seem so joyful, and the burn of unbeing that rages right alongside, which makes that joy so tragic, seem, ultimately, one thing. As does the need to align my will with it.

Perhaps the question, with regard to suffering and what it will mean in your life, comes down to this: What will be the object of your faith, and what will your act of faith look like? Nietzsche placed great faith both in existence and in himself. For forty-four years and thirteen books this worked well enough (though the loneliness of his soul is obvious). Then, as legend goes, one morning he saw a horse being beaten and all his Übermensch armor disintegrated into madness. He became the thing he’d warned against: pitying, and thus pitiful.

There’s no obvious allegory here. Nietzsche changed modern thought because of the way his mind was made. He went mad for the same reason. Being and unbeing shared the same vital, fatal fuse. His life might have been different had he been more focused on fully inhabiting his first faith (life) rather than shoring up his second one (self), but his death, which lasted eleven long years, was a matter of molecules clicking into place like an elegant proof.

It’s that first faith that remains potent, a prod and tonic for the tendency to see human existence and existence itself as at war with each other. In Albert Camus’s The Plague, the main character, Dr. Rieux, tries to explain why he continues battling the disease that has destroyed his city when his efforts have made no difference. He is, he admits, simply “fighting against creation as he found it.” Rieux’s struggle is both heroic and quixotic—heroic because quixotic, I think Camus would say—but it leaves him lonely and somewhat dead at the heart. Rieux is beyond Christianity but still breathing its metaphysical fumes (his use of the word “creation” is a tell), one of the most persistent of which is the idea that we are fundamentally at odds with the world we inhabit. In this he differs from Nietzsche. What they share (along with Camus himself) is the ancient intuition that suffering and soul are mysterious cognates.

“Phases,” by Kellie Klein, from the series Meditations on Water © The artist

“Phases,” by Kellie Klein, from the series Meditations on Water © The artist

The man in the chair next to me is in distress. I noticed this when he hobbled in a while ago, but it has grown worse. There are no secrets in a cancer chair, except the one secret that’s not so much a secret as a silence everyone has agreed not to name. He’s naming it. He doesn’t want to die. He also doesn’t want another cycle of Bendamustine, or to get the transfusion that he obviously needs, or to have one more goddamn appointment with the E.N.T. for his mouth sores. It’s an impasse, but, like all impasses in this place, momentary: one of those things, and probably all of them, will occur. The man knows this, I can tell, just as he knows that to suggest a connection between suffering and soul can be an obscenity to someone in the midst of it. And not simply an obscenity, but a lie.

This is where Job comes in. Do you remember the story? Here’s Wis?awa Szymborska’s helpful prose poem “Summary” (translated by Sharon Olds and Gražyna Drabik):

Job, tested severely in body and property, curses human fate. It is grand poetry. Friends arrive. Tearing their robes, they examine Job’s guilt before the Lord. Job cries that he has been a just man. Job does not want to talk with them. Job wants to talk with the Lord. The Lord appears riding on a gale. In front of this man torn open to the bone, the Lord praises His works: heaven, seas, earth and animals. And especially Behemoth, and in particular Leviathan, beasts which fill one with pride. It is grand poetry. Job listens—the Lord does not speak to the subject, because the Lord does not want to speak to the subject. Promptly then, Job humbles himself before the Lord. Now things happen quickly. Job recovers his donkeys and camels, his mules and sheep, doubled in number. His skin grows back on his bared skull. And Job accepts it. Job is reconciled. Job does not want to spoil the masterpiece.

The irony is typical of modern responses to Job. How else to reckon with this disturbing tale in which God and Satan wager over one man’s life like Mob bosses betting on dogs? Job doesn’t love you for who you are, Satan says, but for what you’ve given him; take away his blessings and he will curse you. God, whose omniscience apparently ends at the edge of Job’s brain, disagrees. Into oblivion goes everything and everyone Job loves. Job is steadfast. Up come the boils all over his body. This all happens in a preface, in prose as practical as a drug pamphlet. Then comes the scream.

The Book of Job is usually read as a theodicy. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, as Scripture claims, whence the bald boy? Job never stops insisting that he’s innocent. His first speech is a piece of pure rage cursing his birth, demanding that his entire existence be expunged from the mind of God. I think Satan actually wins the bet. I don’t think it’s possible to love God without loving creation, and I don’t think it’s possible to love creation without loving one’s own created being. Thus a curse of one’s own being is a curse of God’s as well. There’s no “explanation” of human suffering in the Book of Job. I’m not even sure suffering is its real subject, but rather how—and indeed whether—a human being can relate to God at all. Job’s deepest question is not “Why is this happening to me?” No, his deepest question, even in the worst of his curses, is “Where are you, Lord?”

It takes a while, but eventually God does respond. With a blast of beauty.
Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?

These are real questions, in the way the Grand Canyon is a real question, or King Lear. The only medium for an answer is a life. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so exhilarated and appalled by a work of art. I have right here on my cancer chair an essay that praises Job as a work of profound theology adorned with poetry, which is so spectacularly wrong I have not yet been able to finish it. As if the poetry were beside the point. The poetry is the point. When Job needs to scream his being to God, it’s poetry he turns to. When God finally answers, his voice is verse so overwhelming that Job is said to “see” it. The speech is a reprimand, yes, but God also allows that Job has spoken “the thing that is right.” It’s not obvious what God is referring to here. Job has said a lot of things. But the one thing that he’s truly hammered home is that cry of dereliction, destruction, and profane (yet not faithless) rage. Whether Job has torn a rift in the relation of man and God, or simply pointed out one that was always there, it now can never be altogether repaired or ignored. The destruction, though, is also a resurrection. God’s being, which extends from the center of the atom to the burning edge of the universe and beyond beyond, is what Job must accept. But Job’s being, and the rage that now ramifies through the centuries (“I will wreak that hate upon him”), is part of that creation and thus a part of what God must accept. Jack Miles points out that in the Hebrew Bible this speech of God’s is the last word God utters. God hasn’t silenced Job. Job has silenced God.

I stare out the window at East Rock. It has begun to snow. To speak of artistic greatness and suffering in the same breath is another potential obscenity. That’s what Szymborska is saying. Yet no real artist ever made a thing some deep wound didn’t first demand. East Rock was formed two hundred million years ago when the Yale grounds were swamp and a thousand-pound piece of fury called the Dilophosaurus waded down Chapel Street. It’s made of diabase traprock, which contains iron that causes the cliffs to look lumpen and rusty in the wrong light, precise and resplendent in the right one. This is the wrong one. Many buildings in New Haven are made of traprock, including some of the marvelous churches that grow older and emptier every year as God blinks out brain by brain like the species of flora and fauna that go extinct every day as ecosystems implode. Much of that first rock came from a quarry owned by Eli Whitney, who went to Yale and invented the cotton gin, an ambiguous accomplishment both for himself and for humanity. The design was poorly patented, easily replicable, and spread rapidly through the South with little remuneration for Whitney. Slavery, in 1793, was on the wane because of a decrease in the profitability of tobacco farming, but suddenly cotton production was accelerated beyond any capacity to keep up unless there were—in what far-seeing and no doubt God-fearing brain did this inspiration first occur?—more slaves. Many, many more slaves.

I know all this because of Connecticut-in-a-Box, a months-long research project assigned to local third graders. I have dug a bit deeper than my daughters, though. I know, for example, that Eli Whitney died of cancer a mile from the edge of my cancer chair. He was fifty-nine years old and had married for the first time just eight years earlier. The bride was Henrietta Edwards, the granddaughter of Jonathan Edwards, who is famous for viewing suffering as appropriate and necessary punishment for “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But Edwards had a mystical side, and not only preached that Jesus could enter and ease our greatest griefs but actually experienced moments of such ecstatic transport that he wanted only “to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone.”

Twaddle, Whitney would have called this. Whitney was indifferent to religion. He was also indifferent to poetry, slavery, and pretty much anything that didn’t have a wood screw or interlocking teeth, but in that realm he was supremely gifted. One of Whitney’s biographers argues that he anticipated us, who value self-reliance over piety, technology over poetry, know-how over knowledge. He never wavered. Near death and suffering intensely, he ignored the entreaties of friends anxious about his soul and spent his time designing a device that might ease the pain, which he compared to “the rack of the Inquisition.” It’s hard to describe extreme pain, and the pain of cancer has an otherworldly intimacy that makes it almost impervious to words. It feels like existence itself is eating you.

Anyway, Connecticut’s first flexible catheter—for that’s what it probably was, the device Whitney fashioned out of misery and metal. It brought him immense relief and might have brought him and his family abundant money had they patented the device. By that point it didn’t matter: they’d all become wealthy by manufacturing guns. Better to cause, rather than ease, pain. A true Last Man, old Eli.

Whitney left behind three young children. The second of these, Elizabeth Fay, was named after Whitney’s mother, who took to bed when Eli was six and stayed there until her death seven years later. She was worn out “by bearing four children within five years and by the numberless tasks of the eighteenth-century farm household.” Hard not to hear a cry inside that silence. Hard not to think, when Whitney called his daughter’s name, that he wasn’t sounding a sorrow that everything else in his life had been designed to eradicate. Little Elizabeth survived her father by twenty-nine years and died at thirty-four. Of her life I know only (from a church record) that she was admitted to the covenant in her sickroom and “on profession.” Perhaps she inherited her father’s religious indifference but panicked at the end. Or perhaps faith, like a gene that skipped a generation, lay latent within her, and it took pain to turn it on. Or perhaps every single day of her short life was a war of meaning and meaninglessness, and the way the coin landed at the last was pure chance.

One human face is as opaque as the point where time began. And we live in an age of hordes, numberless floods of lives. In 2005, newly diagnosed but not yet ill, I went to Moscow for a literary festival. It was a mistake. I couldn’t focus on a sentence, much less a city. On the last day, numbly wandering the streets, I found myself standing at a memorial for the Soviets killed in World War II. All twenty-six million of them. I felt sickened, not from moral revulsion but from vertigo—the steep meaninglessness of that number. One of those twenty-six million was the newborn daughter of a young female radio operator who went with her unit into a swamp to hide from approaching Germans. The baby began to cry from hunger, but the woman, who was half-starved herself, could produce no milk. The Germans and their dogs came closer. They were not known for their pity, the Germans. Can you see her? Thirtyish, up to her waist in water, her breasts exposed, trying to muffle the child’s cries. Where are you, Lord?

God’s Justice

In the beginning there were days set aside for various tasks.
On the day He was to create justice
God got involved in making a dragonfly

and lost track of time.
It was about two inches long
with turquoise dots all down its back like Lauren Bacall.

God watched it bend its tiny wire elbows
as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head.
The eye globes mounted on the case

rotated this way and that
as it polished every angle.
Inside the case
which was glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank
God could see the machinery humming
and He watched the hum

travel all the way down turquoise dots to the end of the tail
and breathe off as light.
Its black wings vibrated in and out.

This poem by Anne Carson is basically the Book of Job in eighteen lines. On the day that “make justice” appears in God’s planner, he starts doodling in the margin and, God’s being being what it is, raptures into time the world’s first dragonfly. God, like any artist, prefers things to themes, prizes the individual instance over the abstract category. Thus the sun went down on the day of justice, and God, if human history is any indication, never got back to the task. Twenty-six million Soviets in one war, sixty million Africans dead in the slave trade, every single face as replete and obscure as some holy book in a language there’s no one left alive to read.

Yet note how that insect is described. The universe is 13.8 billion years old. The first insects emerged about 412 million years ago, but the biblical language puts that dragonfly—along with Adam and Eve—in the primordial soup. Especially Eve. The comparison with Lauren Bacall suggests a connection between kinds of beauty, or suggests, rather, that there’s always and only one beauty, which is coextensive with the life of God. Bacall, along with the bank windows, brings us into the present too. If all beauty is contained in one instance of it, all time is contained in this (any?) moment of creation. Humans are not separate or different from nature, our existence not fundamentally distinct from existence itself. And what is the “nature” of that existence? God sees the machinery humming. “The beauty of the world,” says Simone Weil, “gives us an intimation of its claim to a place in our heart. In the beauty of the world brute necessity becomes an object of love.”

Of course this means nothing when confronted with the slaughterhouse of history. Of course it means nothing when some pain is tearing your heart in two. Of course, of course, of course. One considers the meaning of suffering only when one is not actually suffering—again, like joy. Frustrated with the line between life and literature, Svetlana Alexievich sought a form that fused the two. From interviews, letters, bits of history that History did not want, she compiled The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, which I once picked off a library cart while my daughters searched for graphic novels. That’s where I learned about the radio operator drowning her own infant. And the “sniper girls” who, as they became more expert at death, found themselves more susceptible to love. And the woman who, among all the atrocities, thought nothing so awful as the neighing of wounded horses (“They’re not guilty of anything, they don’t answer for human deeds”).

One has the fair hair and skin of her mother, the other the olive skin and dark eyes of mine. One absorbs the poems I recite, occasionally saying one back to me suddenly, without ever having seen it. The other, alone among us, can sing, and sometimes in the midst of some banal activity will thoughtlessly tear the top of the house off with a high C. Beauty is not compensatory for the lack of justice in this life. That’s not what “God’s Justice” is saying. It’s saying that God’s justice and the beauty of the world are—to the eye that will rise to the sight, or to the eye that grace gives access—one thing. One day God loses himself designing a dragonfly. The next day, who knows, he might have become equally involved in the design of a cancer cell.

Miroslav says some thinkers believe all existence is intertwined and some believe there’s a crack that runs through creation. For the first group the task is to match one’s mind to that original unity. For the latter the task is one of repair, resistance, and/or rescue.

Predictably, I find myself in both camps. I think all creation is unified; the expression of this feeling is called faith. And I think a crack runs through all creation; that crack is called consciousness. So many ways to say this. I know in my bones there’s no escape from necessity, and know in my bones that God’s love reaches into and redeems every atom that I am. I believe the right response to reality is to bow down, and I believe the right response to reality is to scream. Life is tragic and faith is comic. Life is necessity and love is grace. (Reality’s conjunction is always and.) I have never felt quite at home in this world, and never wanted a home altogether beyond it.

Does that make sense? Of course it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s not all that different from Camus’s sense of the absurd, though it doesn’t leave one (I hope), like Dr. Rieux, alone and dead at heart. But we are alone, someone might argue (Nietzsche: “Our personal and profoundest suffering is incomprehensible and inaccessible to almost everyone”), and eventually every heart does go dead (Weil: “Each second which passes brings some being in the world nearer to something he cannot bear”). The first assertion seems debatable, and not simply for the religious. We are not as atomized as that. Atoms are not as atomized as that. Even trees, scientists have learned, communicate sympathetically through the soil and air. Surely such communions are ours as well. But the second assertion, Weil’s drip drip of the instants, seems ineluctable. The Soviet radio operator slowly lowering her infant under the water, Nietzsche crumbling into insanity at the sight of a suffering animal, Eli Whitney with his burning bowels, the young mother and the old child outside the cancer garden, paralyzed before a door.

God wears himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to captivate it. If it allows a pure and utter consent (though brief as a lightning flash) to be torn from it, then God conquers the soul. And when it has become entirely his he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made towards it. And that is the cross.
—Simone Weil

The cross. Of course I end up here. These are, after all, divinity students I’m preparing to teach, though these days many of them seem to me half atheist. Weil herself was half atheist. Camus seems to me half Christian. Anne Carson describes herself as something like an atheist but can’t stop writing about God and for years attended Catholic mass because “a kind of thinking takes place there that doesn’t take place anywhere else.” Thinking or feeling? Weil believed a mystical experience was the only possible knowledge of God. She herself had such an experience and spent the rest of her life crossing “the infinite thickness of time and space” to find its source. Job’s vision of God is a mystical experience that doesn’t make sense of suffering but renders the question not irrelevant, exactly, but relevant only to one whose entire orientation to reality has been tried and transformed. “Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion?” asks God (not without irony) and “Who provideth for the raven his food?” By which God means to say that this marvel of creation, this infinite flood of love, is steeped in gore; that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together” (St. Paul); that “beauty is but the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear” (Rilke); that “I think of suffering as the highest form of information, having a direct connection with mystery” (Alexievich); that “the soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, or at least go on wanting to love” (Weil); that “there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem—well, like you” (Baldwin); that “to be afraid of this death he was staring at with animal terror meant to be afraid of life” (Camus); and “life was dearer to me than all my wisdom ever was” (Nietzsche).

I’m done. My nurse pulls the I.V. out as if my arm were water. On a cooking show someone is stuffing something. It’s not snowing anymore. It’s not even winter anymore. Suffering is over. Third grade is over. Connecticut is boxed and basemented, and the girls have moved on to Mount Everest and the Mariana Trench in the lavishly illustrated almanac I bought them. They have scoured the sands of the Afar Triangle to find Australopithecus AL 288-1, Lucy, Dinknesh (“the wondrous one”), our only Eve. Soon we will all go to the Galápagos, home of the vampire finch, an affable little bird that nests in cacti, has elaborate and entirely different songs for different islands, and feeds on blood.

| View All Issues |

April 2002

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now