December 2010

Barbara J. King

features

Winterís Diamonds: Perfect Passages from Four More Writers

At the holidays, I am reminded of the way that chimpanzees and bonobos reunite with each other after time apart. These apes live in what we primatologists call ďfission-fusion communities,Ē meaning that the larger social unit is constantly breaking up into small parties, with three apes together now, two leaving to join four more, the one left behind rushing over to join three others.

Itís like that for humans at the holidays, I think. We plane, train, bus, and drive ourselves to reunite with love ones. In honor of the approaching holidaysí glut of human dynamics and dramatics, this month I mine books Iíve recently read for passages that capture something perfectly about our speciesí emotional relating. (See my earlier set of perfect passages here.) †

In The False Friend, Myla Goldberg reunites two lovers, Celia and Huck, after a brief separation. Their relationship in recent months has been tense and unfulfilling, and now Celia waits nervously in the airport for Huck to deplane. Goldberg offers an anthropology of facial expression as she brings the pair together: †

"[Celia] had come, in part, to see what would happen when she stepped into his line of sight, if his face would still trade its public expression for one she thought of as hers alone: the eyes widening, the pupils dilating, the nostrils flaring as if picking up a familiar scent. When Huck spotted her, his eyebrows arched in concert with the corners of his mouth, prelude to the wide, goofy grin that was the purest, most timeless expression of his delight, a circus and ice-cream-cone holdover minted in boyhood and kept in circulation ever since. Huckís face flushed from the uptick in his pulse. His gaze claimed Celia as the person he knew best. Their eyes acknowledged their mutual expertise, no society more elite, a club capped at two. Celia called Huckís name. She grasped his shoulders and pulled herself in. They were the same height, their lips the most natural conjunction. A kiss in an airport is like an orange in the desert."

Sometimes thereís no orange, only the desert. You know that person who coolly talks on, mild and sociable, even though he must realize heís just ripped the heart right out of you? James Salter in A Sport and a Pastime gets just right the darkening grip of such a person. Salterís narrator dines with a betraying man called Phillip Dean heíd once thought of as a friend: †

"Gradually I sink into a fine, a delicate hatred. I no longer hear what he says. I am only conscious of my own thoughts and the sound of his teeth chewing bread. He reeks of assurance. We are all at his mercy. We are subject to his friendship, his love. It is the principles of his world to which we respond, which we seek to find in ourselves. It is his power which I cannot even identify, which is flickering, sometimes present and sometimes not -- without it he is empty, a body without breath, as ordinary as my own reflection in the mirror -- it is this power which guarantees his existence, even afterwards, even when he is gone."

Itís almost as if the narratorís emotional vision narrows as the numbing toxin of Deanís voice syringes into his consciousness. But Salter lets us see that itís not the external voice but instead the narratorís own consuming hatred that constricts his senses. †

This emotional range to which primates are prone, from despising to delighting, makes us exquisitely vulnerable to feeling left out. Weíre social creatures, made to school together. In Barbara Kingsolverís The Lacuna, the boy Harrison Shepherd escapes his unhappiness to venture under the sea, but even there he feels a crushing loneliness:

"Under the ocean is a world without people. The sea-roof rocks overhead as you drift among the purple trees of the coral forest, surrounded by a heavenly body of light made of shining fishes. The sun comes down through the water like flaming arrows, touching the scaly bodies and setting every fin to flame. A thousand fishes make the school, but they always move together: one great, bright, brittle altogetherness.

"Itís a perfect world down there, except for the one of them who canít breathe water. He holds his nose, dangling from the silver ceiling like a great ugly puppet. Little hairs cover his arms like grass. He is pale, lit up by watery light on prickled boy skin, not the scaled slick silver merman he wants to be. The fish dart all around him and he feels lonely. He knows it is stupid to feel lonely because he isnít a fish, but he does. And yet he stays there anyway, trapped in the below-life, wishing he could dwell in their city with that bright, liquid life flowing all around him. The glittering school pulls in at one side and pushes out the other, a crowd of specks moving in and out like one great breathing creature. When a shadow comes along, the mass of fish darts instantly to its own center, imploding into a dense, safe core, and leaving the boy outside."

We primates despair, and hope. On the topic of hope and hoped-for change, John Berger gets the last word. Iím a sucker for the notion that from tiny good actions may emerge tremendous positive consequences. In Here Is Where We Meet, Berger creates a conversation between a son and the dead mother who reappears to him as he stands atop an aqueduct in Lisbon.

The mother says, ďLet a few things be repaired. A few is a lot. One thing repaired changes a thousand others.Ē The son replies, ďSo?Ē And out flows a maternal speech:

"The dog down there is on too short a chain. Change it, lengthen it. Then heíll be able to reach the shade, and heíll lie down and heíll stop barking. And the silence will remind the mother she wanted a canary in a cage in the kitchen. And when the canary sings, sheíll do more ironing. And the fatherís shoulders in a freshly ironed shirt will ache less when he goes to work. And so when he comes home heíll sometimes joke, like he used to, with his teenage daughter. And the daughter will change her mind and decide, just this once, to bring her lover home one evening. And on another evening, the father will propose to the young man that they go fishing togetherÖ Who in the wide world knows? Just lengthen the chain."

In this season of peace, may you lengthen a dogís chain. And then see what happens.

Barbaraís recommendations for holiday animal books can be found here.