AN ODE TO READING Of Words & Grief

Le Journal du Dimanche has an excellent series running in its literary pages. It is hosted after Pivot’s handpicked scenes from classics and takes the form of an interview where a known figure converses on his passion for reading and how it has influenced him.  In one of the exchanges, Edouard Philippe, current Prime Minister of France gives an interesting insight on the liberating influence of reading:
‘La lecture est l'un des vecteurs les plus puissants de la réflexion. Lire rend libre car lire permet de réfléchir, d'accumuler de l'expérience, de s'évader. […] La lecture est l'outil de la pensée. La transmission et l'enrichissement de la pensée passent par la lecture, et c'est par la pensée qu'advient la liberté. Je lis donc je pense, je pense donc je suis.’
Anyone who has been elevated through literature can relate to his words. As readers, whenever academic or professional boredom creep upon us, do we not find solace in pages? Do we not relate to the plight of the black woman when Morrison‘s Sethe would rather forsake her daughter than let her bear the humiliation of slavery? Does Roth’s flawless writing in The Human Stain not evoke within many of us the pain of the unjustly ostracised? Are we not impressed with McEwan’s savant alchemy of Hamlet and Mahabharata in The Nutshell? Are we not imparted the gist of Noah Webster’s philosophy when going through Sitaraman’s work:
“An equality of property, with a necessity of alienation, constantly operating to destroy combinations of powerful families, is the very soul of a republic —While this continues, the people will inevitably possess both power and freedom; when this is lost, power departs, liberty expires, and a commonwealth will inevitably assume some other form. Let the people have property […] and they will have power.”
'Every love story is a potential grief story.'
Good writing takes us to realms otherwise unknown to us. The Loss of Depth, the third and final part of Julian Barnes’s essay Levels of Life has that rare quality. He confides in us the pain of losing his wife. Beautifully written, this is as much about love and as it is about sorrow.
“You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there.”
The Man Booker Prize winning author takes us through the mental phases he has undergone: the feeling of helplessness prior to losing the loved one, the unpreparedness for the loss, the anger at the world for not mourning the demised, contemplating suicide as an exit route and eventually the surmounting of grief.
“We may say we are fighting cancer, but cancer is merely fighting us; we may think we have beaten it, when it has only gone away to regroup. It is all just the universe doing its stuff, and we are the stuff it is being done to. And so, perhaps, with grief. We imagine we have battled against it, been purposeful, overcome sorrow, scrubbed the rust from our soul, when all that has happened is that grief has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest. We did not make the clouds come in the first place, and have no power to disperse them.”
Barnes’s own loss is expressed with dignity in an elegiac style that will move those initiated to grief as well as those that have yet to know its devastating lows.
Inspiration for the Article:
Barnes, J. 2013, Levels of Life. Jonathan Cape.
Morrison,T. 1987.  Beloved. Knopf.
Roth, P. 2000 The Human Stain, Houghton Mifflin
Ganesh Sitaraman, 2017. The crisis of the middle-class constitution : why economic inequality threatens our Republic, Alfred A. Knopf
McEwan, I. 2016. Nutshell, Jonathan Cape.
Philippe, E. 2017.  "J’assume le fait d’apprendre", Interviewed by Marie-Laure Delorme, Le JDD, 16 July 2017.