Is Literature Fundamentally about Grief?

All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking. –fr. “Meditation at Lagunitas,” by Robert Hass

The idea has been percolating in my head for some time now that a serious component of most, if not all, literary fiction–and that may also include poetry–is fundamentally underlaid by grief.

If not the search for lost time, then the attempt to regain it, place some animal moment in amber and crystallize it.
I am only speaking for myself here, but I had one of those moments, not too long ago, where a revelation is visited upon you that makes your head snap back. For me, that revelation came in the form of a short story by my kindergarten best friend, Paul Witcover, that is nominally about the summer of his mother’s death, and then later a conversation with a wise lady who gently pointed out to me–when I protested I was not grieving yet, because my father hadn’t yet died (he has now)–that grief tends to surround us. That every path taken represents a lot of paths not taken, and that those paths left to go fallow can be the genesis of griefs large and small. 

I had never exactly thought of it this way except you get to a certain age and wonder what-if in a much more sort of profound and wide-ranging sort of way than you might have as a younger person who still had his/her life ahead.
There is a moment in that story when the protagonist sort of goes back in time and goes to his parents’ old house. There, he catches a glimpse of his 17-year-old self in the mirror. The image is a blur, as though he is completely unformed then, his visage unannealed yet by the decisions he must inevitably make.

What entered the kitchen to take the phone from my mother wasn’t me. That is, it didn’t look anything like my younger self, or like anyone at all. It was less solid and substantial even than the shadow I’d watched moving back and forth behind the curtain. It was an amorphous grey blur with a vaguely human shape, as if it were composed of many separate, overlapping selves, none of which truly or fully existed, a kind of coalescent cloud of potential mes.

I should also point out that Paul’s mom–and he emailed me when I contact him that this was based on his own experience with his mom–was my English teacher at the Westminster School in Annandale, Va., for several years, and the first person who ever warned me that I’d be able to plaster my walls with rejection slips before I ever got something published. Mrs. Witcover was right.
And so it was in Paul’s literature, in that story of his own grief, which really could have been entirely made up instead of partly, I got the chance to see my old English teacher and mentor a little as he did. My own mother had died by then. She was of the same generation, and she and Mrs. Witcover had been friends, or at least friends in the way that moms of friends are friends.
So it was a weird thing, to read that story. More for the moment quoted above, really, than to know that someone who had a hand in shaping my life was gone.
That kind of connection we make in literature, assuming another skin, drawing out of the amber some moment from some other soul, seems to be as close to stepping out of ourselves as we ever get in this life.
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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

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