My friend’s apocalypse, in which [redacted], has real resonance for those of us who decided years ago, not to breed.
One lesson of that is work, with more courage, vision and innovation. The second is, as Virginia Woolf, the queen of modernity and loss, wrote: Never pretend that what you don’t have is not worth having.
I have often compared my life to my friend’s and noted she’s richer. I would like to be richer. But I truly do not believe her life has been better than mine. I don’t like the little sense of told-you-so that comes with this disaster. I need to do some amputation on that.
For the mental hygiene, I am laying in lace weight yarn to crochet a lacey pink scarf for her. And I will work that all through stitch by stitch.
I have gotten out my Riverside Shakespeare and unearthed my old friend King Lear, accompanied in this edition by state-of-the-art (ca..1979) footnotes and a radiant essay by the radiant Frank Kermode:
Bradley began his lectures on King Lear by asking why this work, repeatedly described as Shakespeare’s greatest, was “the least popular of the famous four”; why for a century and a half it was never played in its original form; and why so many readers have shared with Dr. Johnson a kind of distaste for a work whose greatness seems undeniable. In his answer he concurs with what he takes to be the opinion of the common reader, pronouncing Lear “Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but….not his best play.” As a play he finds it inferior to the other three but as “the fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power,” it takes its place in his mind with “the Prometheus Vinctus and the Divine Comedy, and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.” The trouble is that it is too huge for the stage.
That Lear was unactable was the intellectual conundrum I inherited at 19 when he became my lifelong companion. Nearly 50 years later, I am here to tell you it is actable. The age of genocide has rendered it small enough. (Reading on, I see Kermode notes this point was made in 1962.)
The English professor could not bear another honors seminar on all of Shakespeare that semester and so he chose to teach one. What I learned was that Lear was Rashomon. The smartest smarty of every age since its first performance in 1606 has taken a matador’s veronica pass at the big man and never killed him. The literary criticism of Lear, from Johnson through Shelley, Tolstoy and Eliot, is a history of intellectual fashion and of what Quinet calls “the beautiful procession” of the minds which have gone before us, inviting us, without asking for any credentials, to join them in thinking about what matters. One of the thinkers I plan to meet is the 19-year-old me, who adopted Lear and Virginia Woolf as people to think about all my life. A gay acquaintance and I have been talking, apropos childlessness, and the loss of one’s child, and the loss of someone else’s child years after one has decided not to reproduce, about how clear-thinking 14-year-olds are about the wreckage of their future around sex and its losses. But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
I am also thinking about Hupka’s photographs of Michelangelo’s Pieta, Heine/Schumann’s Dichterliebe Op 48/11 as my acquaintance recommends, and what people do when their beloved child dies. Virginia Woolf wrote Three Guineas, in feminism’s finest hour, as an argument with her nephew, who had died, angrily repudiating his parents’ pacifism, in the Spanish Civil War.
I just now quoted Billy Bray; I cannot do better than give his own brief account of his post-conversion feelings: —“I can’t help praising the Lord. As I go along the street, I lift up one foot, and it seems to say ‘Glory’; and I lift up the other, and it seems to say ‘Amen’; and so they keep up like that all the time I am walking.”
Act V. Scene II.