Monday, April 11, 2011

Airing the absolutes is no longer permitted in polite society excerpt from...
The Blood of the Lamb
by Peter de Vries

Airing the absolutes is no longer permitted in polite society, save where a Stein and a Wanderhope [the narrator] meet and knock their heads together, but I do not think this is due to apathy or frivolity, or because such pursuits are vain, though one pant for God as the hart after water-brooks. There is another reason why we chatter of this and that while our hearts burn within us.

We live this life by a kind of conspiracy of grace: the common assumption, or pretense, that human existence is "good" or "matters" or has "meaning," a glaze of charm or humor by which we conceal from one another and perhaps even ourselves the suspicion that it does not, and our conviction in times of trouble that it is overpriced--something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Nowhere does this function more than in precisely such a slice of hell as a Children's Pavilion, where the basic truths would seem to mock any state of mind other than rage and despair. [Wanderhope is the parent of a child with leukemia in the Children's Pavilion of the hospital.] Rage and despair are indeed carried about in the heart, but privately, to be let out on special occasions, like savage dogs for exercise, occasions in solitude when God is cursed, birds stoned from the trees or the pillow hammered in the darkness. In the ward lounge itself, a scene in which a changing collection of characters are waiting for a new medicine that might as well be called Godot, the conversation is indistinguishable from that going on at the moment in the street, a coffee break at the office from which one is absent, or a dinner party to which one could not accept an invitation. Even the exchange of news about their children has often the quality of gossip. An earful of it would be incredible to an uninvolved spectator, not to its principals. Quiet is requested for the benefit of the other parents. One holds his peace in obedience to a tacit law as binding as if it were framed on a corridor wall with a police officer on hand to see that it was enforced: "No fuss." This is all perhaps nothing more than the principle of sportsmanship at its highest, given in return for the next man's. Even Stein [another parent] had it in no small degree, for all his seeming refusal to wish me good hunting in my spiritual quest. Perhaps he was trying to tell me in as nice a way as he could that there was no game in those woods. His grim little jokes on the barricades were in their way part of this call to courage.

But while human abilities to sustain this sportsmanship vary, none is unlimited. Twice I had the uneasy experience of witnessing a crackup in the ranks of those one comes to think of, not too farfetchedly, as one's outfit--that moment when the thin membrane to which our sanity is entrusted splits and breaks asunder, spilling violence in every direction.


She [Mrs. Schwartz, another parent] had on a flannel robe, under which could be seen the legs of a pair of pajamas. Her face was invisible since the lounge was dark, but against the faint glow cast by a corridor light I could see her arms go up and knew that she had her own hands to her face. From her motionless figure now issued a series of broken, muffled sounds very similar--I now sensed, as a chill went up my spine--to those that had a moment ago greeted her own ears. She had mistaken the nature of my hysterics [the narrator had just been laughing at a joke while she was in another room] and been moved to offer their echo in a passionate outburst of her own. She was, in any case, not the solid rock for which we had been accustomed to take her.

As she came forward into the room I rose. She whispered for me not to do so, urging me back down onto the couch with a force that dropped me abruptly once more on the leather cushion. She sank to her knees and began suddenly to beat the arm of the couch with both fists, at the same time babbling incoherently. The words came out in a stream, English, Yiddish, oaths and imprecations, blasphemies and entreaties I could not hope to reproduce. "All they can do is kill mice!" she said in a kind of whispered scream. I grasped her shoulders, and, when this did no good, her wrists. Whereupon she wrenched her arms free and threw them around my neck, in a spasm of emotion that might have been mistaken, by someone glancing into the darkened room, for an amorous clutch. Which in a mad sort of way it probably was. For as suddenly as she had begun she stopped, went to a chair, blew her nose, and said, "It's a funny thing about two people going through something like this. There are things husband and wife just can't tell each other that they can a third person."

"Tell" each other! I thought, what in God's name has she told me? As if sensing this, she immediately continued, "I guess I mean do to each other. You have no wife, but I've got news for you. You think you could have shared this?" She shook her head, and though the illumination from the corridor was too dim for me to make out her face, I could imagine her shrugged mouth and closed eyes. "Two people can't share unhappiness. You think probably if you had her, 'Well, we could go through this together. It would bring us closer together. Leaning on each other.'" Again the headshake, with news for me. "They lean away from each other. Two people can't share grief. In fact--" She broke off, as though momentarily debating the prudence of a revelation on the tip of her tongue, then making it anyway. "In some ways it drives them apart, an explosion between them. No that's not it either." She lowered her head, and for a moment I feared a revival of hysterics. She went on, as though the paradox of what she was elucidating was an aid to objectivity, "When this first came to us, was fresh, the wound, there were times when I resented my husband. Because he, what's the word I want?" She snapped her fingers. "Presumed. Presumed to share what was basically a woman's grief. Horning in on a sorrow the woman is sole proprietor of. Isn't that ridiculous? But there it is, a chapter in what's this man's name who writes about the war between the sexes. Can you beat it?" she softly cried, bringing her fist down ominously now on the arm of the chair, but only once, and that like a public speaker, or actor, well in control of his effects. I sat mesmerized in my own seat, transfixed in perhaps the most amazing midnight I had ever lived through, yet one possessing, in the dreamy dislocations of which it formed a part, a weird, bland naturalness like that of a Chirico landscape, full of shadows infinitely longer than the objects casting them. "And no doubt Schwartz [her husband] has some of the same resentment as mine. Never is this stated between two people, but it's there. Driving this--wedge between them, so that a woman can't break down to her husband but she can very well fling herself for a moment on another man's breast, while Schwartz at this very minute is probably with that...Well, never mind. Does this make sense to you?"

"Why, I think I can see where..."

"Well then make room in your head for the exact opposite explanation. That we keep outbursts from one another because we owe it to the other person. Out of a feeling for the other party. We owe it to them not to wish on them what they keep from us in their own moments. All this you're learning about marriage," she went on, like a chiropractor manipulating his subject's head in a series of violent, though supposedly salubrious, contrasts. "So your wife," she went on in a manner suggesting that she absorbed as much gossip as she dispensed in these watches of the night, "would never have come to you in the way I just did. To somebody else maybe, yes, but to you, no." She brushed at her cheeks and rose. "So now how about a cigarette?" She turned to switch on the light, glancing then at the electric coffee urn always standing on a table there, to see if it was connected. "Let's plug this thing in and heat up what's in it."

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