Many readers have probably experienced a feeling of communion when engaging closely with a work of literature, even if they're not apt to put it that way. Interviewed in the current issue of the Paris Review, Vivian Gornick speaks briefly but movingly about the time her elderly mother was nearing the end of an autobiography by a relatively unknown British writer. It was though the author were “right in the room with me," Gornick recalls her mother saying; "I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book.” What more, Gornick concludes, could any writer want from a reader, than to be part of such a connection?
“Who is the third who always walks beside you?" begins the "third man" section of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” "When I walk there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you.” In an essay recently featured in the Boston College alumni magazine, Alice McDermott borrows another line from Eliot in expanding the connection to include not just author and reader but the narrator (or voice) of the work itself. "We had the experience but missed the meaning," she says she sometimes tells her students when discussing a piece of writing, but in fact, she writes, that singular search for meaning can also get in the way of a truer experiencing of the work. “The wonder of the literary arts,” she writes, “of the way a novel ‘happens,’ lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there. …"
McDermott's essay is written with characteristic humility and acknowledgment of uncertainty, which has a way, as can be the case with her fiction, of making it all the more persuasive. Its title ("Astonished by Love") and stated topic (“storytelling and the sacramental imagination”) might not have initially drawn me to it; I'd probably head first for a Mary Karr essay with the title “How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” But McDermott is straightforward about where she's coming from.
“I set out to prove nothing,” she writes, while separating herself from Flannery O’Connor’s declaration--"said with all the conviction of her great faith"--about the visible universe being a reflection of the invisible universe:
Personally, I am in no way certain that the Divine Light shines through the things of this world… The Jesuit notion of God in all things is marvelous, but it takes a faith I don’t have to keep another notion—one we call wishful thinking—from snapping at its heels. I approach my faith with none of O’Connor’s breathtaking certainty.
Meaninglessness may at times be as good an explanation as meaning for the things of this world, she contends. But that doesn’t mitigate against the opportunity or ability to see in literature “the validity of the conjured world … a universe made visible by the magic of art.” “Look,” McDermott writes: “It is there.”
Which doesn't sound all that different from something Karr writes in the essay whose title was mentioned above, and which also appeared as an introduction to the 2002 Modern Library edition of The Waste Land and Other Writings: “The mere exercise of attention—eyes wide, ears pricked, heart open—is not a bad way to move through the world.” Though she presents it as an approach specifically for navigating "The Waste Land" without succumbing to “the despair and the angst rendered,” the imperative to read it with the “alertness the poem demands” strikes me as akin to McDermott’s more general admonition. Reading Eliot, Karr says, "can work like the miracle of communion—you take the Eucharist of the writer’s words into the rough meat of your body in order to be transformed by someone else’s mysterious passion. It brings you into a community of like sufferers."
For what it's worth, I didn't specifically seek out the Gornick interview or the essays from McDermott and Karr; each came my way separately over the course of several days when I also happened to be reading and re-reading those lines from Eliot ("stimulated," he claimed, "by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions," but drawn too from a certain Gospel account). Just as much a coincidence is that each of the three writers in her reflection happens to mention the same experience in engaging with literature, and in doing so summons--intentionally, or not so--the image of "another one walking beside you." Unnerving if read one way, but not as much when read another. It may not be the imposition of meaning on such unplanned encounters that matters, though, if we accept, as McDermott writes, that "the experience of being a part of that trinity [writer/narrator/reader] is an end in itself for all three.”