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Archive for September, 2010

Roland Barthes on His Mother

Monday, September 20th, 2010

We usually know what is expected of us. We have absorbed the culture’s notions of the proper response, and are often trapped by them.


I was moved by some “Notes on mourning” by the French writer Roland Barthes, in the September 13th New Yorker. The magazine calls Barthes “postwar France’s greatest prose stylist and most passionate reader.” The notes were made after his mother died in 1977.

I’ve never read Barthes, but I know he explored the idea of a standard sentiment, and how the culture channels our emotions.

I found this moving: “A stupefying, though not distressing notion—that she has not been ‘everything’ for me. If she had, I wouldn’t have written my work. Since I’ve been taking care of her, the last six months, in fact, she was “everything” for me, and I’d completely forgotten that I’d written. I was no longer anything but desperately hers. Before, she had made herself transparent so that I could write.”

After her death he slept in her room. “In the corner of my room [this translation is from Wikipedia] where she had been bedridden, where she had died and where I now sleep, in the wall where her headboard had stood, I hanged an icon—not out of faith. And I always put some flowers on a table. I do not wish to travel anymore so that I may stay here and prevent the flowers from withering away.”

From The New Yorker:

“The desires I had before her death (while she was sick) can no longer be fulfilled, for that would mean it is her death that allows me to fulfill them—her death might be a liberation in some sense with regard to my desires. But her death has changed me. I no longer desire what I used to desire. I must wait—supposing that such a thing could happen—for a new desire to form, a desire following her death.”

And this:

“Around 6 PM: the apartment is warm, clean, well lit, pleasant. I make it that way, energetically, devotedly (enjoying it bitterly): henceforth and forever I am my own mother.”

Barthes died three years later, at the age of 64, when he stepped off a Paris sidewalk and was hit by a laundry van.

I mourn my father, I miss my father—but I’m aware of the “normal” trajectory of grief. I guard against it. I want to have my own reactions, not those I’ve ingrained as the norm. Most days I’m at peace with my father and his death. Five years have passed, after all. (In that after all you can hear a bow to the world’s expectations.) Then some tiny detail overwhelms me: the photo of him in a white shirt, so young, kneeling before the high tide behind him, pulling up crabgrass from the lawn, an eternal battle. His meditation. I weep, or at least choke up. (It would be better if I wept.) There is no explanation, no logic as to when thoughts of him will make me lie down and become him. Henceforth and forever I am my own father.

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A Death in the Family

Monday, September 13th, 2010

You wake up one day in mid-September, and it’s fall. It’s beautiful, the morning is crisp, the sun soon rises and pours down into the valley, lighting up the sycamores and maples and buckeyes, the yellow ragweed and the last of the ironweed. You could not ask for a more perfect day.

But it’s autumn. The tide of hot weather is going out, and like my father, I despair of it. I love the days of early fall but hate the thought of the winter to come. Lhude sing goddamn, as Pound wrote. Already I’m nostalgic for summer!

My father was exactly the same. He put up with winter, but loved the hot days of summer, the life of summer evenings. He died on November 22nd, and I think in part it was because he didn’t want to go through another winter.


My father worked at Time when James Agee wrote for Fortune, and knew him a little. Dad didn’t read much fiction, but had great respect for Agee’s novel, A Death in the Family. I have his copy of the book, a first edition, published in 1957 after Agee’s death, and last night something pulled me across the room to my bookshelf. I had to read again, as I read every year, its prologue, titled Knoxville: Summer 1915. This was not actually part of the novel, but was added by Agee’s editors, who say they “would certainly have urged him to include it in the final draft.” It begins, famously, “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

It’s a slow, evocative piece, and builds to this close:

“It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the tress, of birds’ hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto: people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber…

“Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose…

“On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there…. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine…with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the of hour of their taking away.

“After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her; and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home; but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”

Now is the night one blue dew, my father has coiled, he has drained the hose. What is it in this line, this single perfect line, that makes me weep? I don’t cry easiily. I wish I could, but I don’t. But I come to this line and I break into tears, I cry and cry. Who shall ever tell the sorrow, indeed. Because that boy’s father, or the father like him in the novel, is going to die. The summer will die, our fathers will die, we will no longer sit together on quilts on the rough wet grass of the back yard. Everything will be lost. Our youth, our parents, our lives. My father.

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