Human Rights Day here, a public holiday commemorating the horrible massacre at Sharpeville in 1960, in which police opened fire on unarmed protestors and shot many of them in the back as they fled. One of those old bitter memories that haunts us even today in another kind of nation. And it has been a grim and gritty week so far, a subdued, distressing funeral, rioting in neighbouring towns and major highways closed because of cars being stoned. Never mind, this too will pass.
In the evenings I have begun to reread Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James, curling up on the couch with a mug of tea, a good lamp on the side table and a thick book on my lap. I will never tire of the company of Henry James, a magnificent novelist who somehow managed to write thinly masked fiction about all his social acquaintances and family without having the pants sued off him. They were more flattered than outraged, quite an achievement.
Henry James: “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
He may have been kind, but very little escaped his attention. When we studied Portrait of a Lady in literature seminars years ago, the character of Isabel Archer was so sharp and true that each of us could think of somebody we knew who was this character, a beautiful, passionate and ambitious young woman eager to choose her destiny and make a life for herself, unaware that her naivety and trusting innocence might be her downfall.
Because the man Isabel Archer will fall in love with and choose for a husband is the charming entrepreneur Gilbert Osmond who will destroy her, quite casually and without remorse. We were all Isabel Archer once.
And on my writers’ forums and mailing lists we go on debating the question of how we self-censor, how we respect the privacy of those of live with us, those who would be outraged to find themselves in published works, those who might come across their misbehaviours in a family member’s blog and feel cut to the quick. What we dare not write, what we should not write, what is forbidden or unwritable.
And how we find ways to tell our secrets, betray our nearest and dearest, defy those who would stop us; how we tell the truth more fully, disrespectfully and provocatively. No easy answers. How I would like to write about that funeral! So uncomfortable an occasion with the mourners crowded into the old worn pews, the intrigues, dissensions and genuine grief, the revelations when the will was read, the eulogy stuffed with diplomatic lies, the startling gossip outside the church — all the tricky, impossible, rich material bound up with human relationships. But, no, I cannot write a word.
Some day perhaps I may be able to tell a little of the story. And grasp something of what lies behind the drama and secrecy, the facts and rumours, to touch on that core mystery of how we live and die, how we choose this and not that, how we recover or relapse, fight on in vain or surrender and win. How we approach the deeper things, the paradoxes, the hidden realities and motivations. This, from Marilynne Robinson:
“The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading at all…. In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that.”