I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here—Johnny Cash, “Hurt”
What might surprise is that the run-ins pierce and balm in so many ways. The neighborhood does this to some bodies and not others, I guess. But if you have a body that feels like the skin does not hold things in or keep them out, if you are made partly of memories of cuts and sutures, it might do this to you.–Julie Bryne (emphasis mine).
Nights ago in a rush of class preparation, I finished Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day (originally published in 1980, the year I was born) for Hinduism unit of my Gender in Global Religions course. The book is as starkly beautiful as it is wrenching. The prose matches the blunt social realism. Desai writes about adult siblings in Old Delhi both before and after the partition of India into India and Pakistan. Unflinchingly, she details the wounds of childhood that each siblings carry with them, which haunt as well as taunt them as they grow old and gray. The wounds remain, even in the lightness of forgiveness, and Desai creates ambivalent characters who the reader can admire in a moment and despise the next. In her study of family life, Desai communicates the miscommunications, the snubs, the love, and the pain of the ordinary. She documents the ways in which gender, class, and religion mark the siblings differently and set them in opposition.
The headstrong, and sometimes cruel Bimla, sacrifices herself upon the altar of family, even as she dreams of something more than marriage and domesticity. Her dreamer of a brother, Raja, pines to be a hero or a poet as he abandons his family in the pursuit of higher status and position. And the youngest, Tara, imagines that she will be a mother, and a mother she becomes as well as the wife of a civil servant. Yet she is not the ideal, and she wants more for her daughters than traditional domestic roles. The novel springs forward and back to show how the characters were formed by early experiences, some traumatic and others mundane, and Desai conjures the joy as well as the pain and disappointment of family. The yearning of childhood dreams thwarted by realities of adulthood. But, the wounds she catalogs carefully and lovingly. The siblings harm often without intention, and the pain lingers. Tara feels guilt at running away while Bim was attacked by bees, and she imagines it as a prime accounting of her character, her lack of heroism. Tara carries this wound, until finally, her courage rushes forth from her in confession and apology. Bim shakes off the apology and anguish by pointing out that something that so defined Tara did not even exist firmly in her own memory.
In Desai’s characterization of Bim, the sense of frustration is palpable. Bim wanted more than nursing her sick family members, and she achieves a career as a teacher. Yet, she remains in the painful home of her youth, haunted by dead parents, a dead aunt, and memories of youth. Even in a world she made bend to her will, her wounds are starkly present for reader’s view. Desai writes:
Bim could see as well as by the clear light of day that she felt only love and yearning for them all, and if there were hurts, these gashes and wounds in her side that bled, then it was only because her love was imperfect and did not encompass them thoroughly enough, and because it had flaws and inadequacies and did not extend to all equally….All these would have to be mended, these rents and tears, she would have to mend and make her net whole so that it would suffice her in her passage through the ocean….These were great rents torn in the net that the knife of love had made. Stains of blood that the arrow of love had left. Stains that darkened the light that afternoon. She laid her hands across her eyes again (165-166, emphasis mine).
While reflecting on how to discuss Desai and wounding with my students, a colleague passed along a link to freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, curated by the fabulous Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern. The project seeks to find out what happens when one asks artists, writers, and academics to describe, inscribe, and define spirituality. I like many others have eagerly waited to the launch of this genealogy, and Julie Bryne’s “Saint February” is a piece, an invocation really, which should not be missed. Byrne’s personal experience of an inexplicable illness, a wound, serves as her place to mediate both her physicality and spirituality. “Saint February” is a spiritual meandering from the neighborhood and personal interaction to a sore throat to Catholicism and the sensory to past trauma to the academy. We wander with Byrne as she evokes the complexity of everyday life, the place of memory, and importantly, the purported place of the scholar. Her wounded body, her throat, is blessed by Saint Blaise alongside medical treatment as an art more than a science. She writes:
So, as you see, were it not for St. Blaise, I would not be here to tell you this story. I would not have returned to my classes that semester, would not be chewing over the meaning of spirituality for an online collection, would not be remembering waiting in lines, would not be walking home from Tony’s in Bed-Stuy with good broth for a sore throat.
The blessing matters, and the existence of blessing complicates Byrne’s position as a scholar. She continues:
But wait … this is no way to end the story. Don’t mess with people, people in the guild, my guild, my people. Don’t mess with my head. Leave out suggesting that St. Blaise was actually involved. Leave out hinting that without St. Blaise I would be dead. It was doctors who operated and sewed me whole. If St. Blaise supposedly saved my life, then why didn’t all those blessings years earlier work? If I am having a fit of wanting to thank a saint, I can do it on my own time. Would I say this stuff in the classroom? Do I really believe … ? (Emphasis mine).
Her queries, her positioning, conjures again the difficulty of religious studies, the ephemeral, the ineffable, and the (un)believable. How do we manage the rents, the cuts, and the wounds? How do we explain to our peers and our students not only the embeddness of religion in history and culture but also its deep embeddness in human bodies and lives? We make our bodies, Byrne notes. She alludes to the longer chains of history too. Our bodies bear memories and cuts of a longer history too. We can walk around the religious, but how do particular traditions, rituals, beliefs become parts of these bodies? Do I really believe is complicated by scars and sutures rather than explained away. By including St. Blaise in her invocation, Byrne highlights the complex place of religion in one individual’s life and documents strongly that belief is always about bodies. While Bim’s love wrenches her both emotionally and physically, Bryne’s throat causes the queries of belief. Emotion to body. Body to belief. Belief back to body. Memories remain.
Johnny Cash sings, “I hurt myself today,” in a gravelly voice, and his invocation of pain lingers. His video for his Nine Inch Nails cover of “Hurt” includes images of a crucified Christ with images of younger Cash, the empty museum dedicated to him, and his aged body. This song places me dramatically in a chain of memory: a young widow, a funeral for her husband in which this song echoed and lingered, an altar call, my grandmother’s stacks of haphazard CDs with Cash and Merle Haggard among them, clouds of cigarette smoke, and her t-shirt with Cash on the front. The pain it invokes. My body cannot hear the song without a rush of something ineffable and uncomfortable, a rent to the gut and the mind. A reminiscing I don’t want to make. Cash’s hurt becomes my own, and I cannot shake it from my skin, my own body. It lingers. It doesn’t bounce off.
And yet, I listen, and I think. I ponder how our wanderings, bodily, spiritual, religious, emotional, make us the scholars, the people, who we are. Chains of memory and history bind us clearly; they are inescapable. As scholars of religions, we *walk* around religions that bump and shuffle us all the time. What about those that Julie notes “don’t bounce off”? And what would our scholarship look/sound like if we invoke/evoke our positions, our chains, our memories? Would it truly be more art than science? Or would it be more honest and haunting? Would we have to admit Cash’s hurt, Bim’s tortured love, and Julie’s sutures?