In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to reestablish my connection with a belief that underlies much of the way I live my life: the belief and the knowledge that stories and books have the power to infuse one’s experience of human relationships and difficulties with beauty, love, patience, and grace.
My father was admitted to the hospital ten days ago. The past ten days have been filled with the pain of a loved one, medical and mortal uncertainties, collective sleeplessness, and unexpected shifts and challenges. My father has been doing the difficult work of accepting painful and uncomfortable forms of healing that the body does not want to endure.
Watching a loved one experience pain and hospitalization can have a dissolutive effect on the boundaries of one’s life, one’s time, and one’s understanding of how human beings sit in relation to one another. This is a time when embodying a durable, exhausting but not exhaustible form of care is most pressing and most challenging for my father, and for all of us who love him.
As I reflect on the ways in which the past ten days have reconfigured my life, I feel an urgent need to express gratitude for the chance to read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I began this book two days before my father’s unexpected admission to the hospital, and I have been reading a paperback of it and re-reading it in audiobook format, read by the author. The experience of reading the words of an author and hearing her voice them herself is a particular aesthetic phenomenon that has had a highly fortifying effect on me of late. Morrison’s voice is so full of vibrant, satisfying, devastating texture, and the mythical arc and characters in the narrative brought a vitality to the clinical sterility of hospital rooms and hallways. Song of Solomon has been a crucial companion for me, and although its thematic bearings on my father’s situation are elliptical, the gift of Morrison’s prose has fed my mind and my heart in unexpected ways, during a time when nourishment is scarce.
I added this book to my summer reading list. Each week, I read a piece of literature that engages with classical antiquity, as part of my virtual Classical Reception Summer Book Club. The Book Club exists as a Twitter community, mostly populated by me, but it allows me to broadcast to the world some of the particularly resonant moments I experience in my reading life. The hashtag #crsbc was created for sharing these moments and the place that my summer reading has in my own, and hopefully others’, individual intellectual projects.
Song of Solomon has felt quite different from the rest of what I’ve read this summer, since the classical elements in the novel pulse in the background rather than the center of the story. The instances of engagement with classical myth provide further vocal and imaginative texture to a story that is fully its own, but builds on a wide variety of mythic traditions’ representations of flight.
I began reading with a curiosity about the role of the magical and inventive arts in the novel. I hadn’t read the book before, but I knew it contained a character named Circe and recurring references to human attempts at flight. I looked for Circe and Daedalus, and I found them.
I also found the winged, triple-bodied Geryon, who made his way into my experience the novel in no explicit terms but rather in reference to another author on this summer’s reading list. In Anne Carson’s mythically informed Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, instances of failed and achieved flight recur throughout the story in ways that reference but transcend the mythic narratives that serve as their formal referents. For Carson’s Geryon and for Morrison’s Milkman Dead, flight is accomplished when the hero can unlearn enough that he learns to see beyond his former mythic limitations and to fly away into something that looks like immortality.
I feel a special form of excitement at this kind of thread across texts. I expected to read a text that evoked classical myth and did something different with it, but in reality, what I experienced was one contemporary author’s (Carson’s) thematic project awakening a new way of reading and seeing in Morrison’s novel. Indeed, what informed my intellectual experience of Morrison’s various flyers was less Daedalus and more Carson’s Geryon. A sort of rhizome (am I using that correctly?) seemed to exist between Morrison’s novel and Carson’s work, both of which intersect with classical myth in deep but not structuring ways. The thematic connections are hard to map as anything other than a cluster of twining, pulsing blood vessels. My ancient authors have been dislocated from their usual status in my reading experience, as something bigger, broader, and more lush emerges in the way I can read Geryon’s immortality alongside Milkman’s.
I rarely find the time or opportunity to talk about how reading and thinking makes me feel, but in the last week and a half, I’ve been in an unusual headspace as a result of my father’s health. I’ve seen how reading poetic representations of flight in Carson and Morrison have given me an intellectual flight that is more of a form of delighted, luxurious transcendence than a form of escape. It’s something I feel very grateful for.
In the coming week, I plan to post selections of my favorite passages from Song of Solomon – both the passages which speak strongly to students of classical literature as well as the passages which have electrified my mind and my senses during a grey time. I’m telling everyone I know to read Song of Solomon, and I hope that at least one person reads a passage posted here that inspires them to pick up the book and follow Milkman Dead’s epic journey.
(PS: My brain is pretty fried at the moment, so please forgive typos, syntactical errors, and illegible flights of fancy.)