Tag: illness

Joyce Carol Oates, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” (2019)

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” takes its title from the Jonathan Edwards Great Awakening sermon published in 1741, and that mentions hell about 50 times. It’s only an allusion in the Joyce Carol Oates story, but it’s echoed in the context her characters are contending with, and in the actual wildfire hellfire that demolishes half their neighborhood, but not the house of the protagonist, Luce, who wears a mask to protect herself against pollution. The story is thick with the topicality of global warming and a dying planet, but through the eyes of Luce and her husband, a late middle-aged couple surrounded by late middle-aged men and women, friends, who are dying one by one, or getting terribly diseased, as if the planet’s ills are corroding them: “Their friends and neighbors are collapsing all around them—in mimicry of the collapsing roads of Vedders Hill.”

It’s Andrew’s (half-serious) opinion that, in the twenty-first century, damnation is a matter not of Hell but of inadequate medical insurance.

“We are spiders dangled by fate over the fires of Hell, and the slightest slip will plunge us into an eternity of misery—kept alive by machines, for which we may have to pay ‘out of pocket.’ ”

Andrew’s listeners laugh, uneasily. He may be joking—or half joking—but this is the nightmare that everyone in America dreads.

The couple, who have their own issues–he’s distant, a bit ridiculing of her “catastrophizing”–decide to have a party for their remaining friends, and Luce decides to revive the strong quartet she used to have, and perform Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, the 14th, “Death and the Maiden.” The pages on the performance of the quartet are among those rare performances in themselves of a writer conveying the art of music in words, so much better than Burgess did in his awful Mozart book, all wrapped up in Luce’s contradictory emotions and anguish: “The terror of beauty, Luce thinks. Like the terror of mortality, it is what links us.”

The New Yorker, Oct. 7, 2019

Kafka, “The Metamorphosis” (1915)

The game to play as theorists have been playing it since 1915 is to decide the meaning of George Samsa’s insectile character (as J. Robert Lennon would describe him). I’m partial to that interpretation: it’s an insectile character, which makes the physical look and whether George is “in fact” a n insect or not irrelevant. Kafka didn’t want Samsa illustrated for a reason. He’s imprisoned in a state of mind. Don’t imprison him in a physical depiction. The first line has been translated in many different ways: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” An insect, a vermin, nothing more specific. vermin and insects feed on the dead. This is a story of decomposition before our eyes–the decomposition of an ill and mentally and physically disfigured Samsa, the decomposition of a family, the decomposition of what had once been a loving relationship between Samsa and Grete, who becomes Samsa’s killer: “she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure,” the opposite of her brother’s decomposition. Gregor’s father, as in every Kafka story so far, doesn’t elicit sympathy either. But there’s nothing sentimental about the story. Kafka isn;t pulling at strings to get the reader all in knots over Gregor’s condition. It becomes more uncomfortably familiar than imaginary as the story wears on–as Gregor decomposes. A sick, leprous person has the characteristics of an insect. Doesn;t have to look like one to feel like one. It is a story of illness, decline, of being discarded.

Wharton, “A Journey” (1899)

EDITH WHARTON A JOURNEY

Edith Wharton may have written this story as a way to kill her husband or soften the ground to her extrication by divorce: the man dies on a train “journey” from Colorado back to New York–his journey to oblivion, her journey to emancipation. But in a dozen pages Wharton manages to describe with forensic acuity the psychology of physical decline as witnessed by a spouse (with the disease and the decline again a metaphor for the degradation of a marriage), then to turn the story into a mini-thriller: the narrator’s husband dies many hour before reaching New York. Bad enough that she must deal with that, his cold hand. She doesn’t want to be thrown out of the train, as would be the norm. She must come up with endless subterfuges to deceive conductor and fellow-travelers, and does. In New York she must let on or “discover” that he’s dead. She appears to faint and strike her head on his berth, leaving it unclear whether she too has reached the end of the journey or has merely found a convincing way to spare herself accusations that she’d known all along he was dead.

She was too impenetrably healthy to be touched by the irrelevancies of disease. Her self-reproachful tenderness was tinged with the sense of his irrationality: she had a vague feeling that there was a purpose in his helpless tyrannies. The suddenness of the change had found her so unprepared. A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead of life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.

The lack of privacy, the presumptions of fellow-travelers, the oppressive legalities all add up to an imprisonment for the narrator that has more to do with the unbearable conventions of marriage and a woman’s proper role within it than with the dying or dead man on the train.

No periodical publication. “The Greater Inclination,” 1899