- Significant Other
I sometimes wonder why the best literature so often has an element of unlikelihood: why one of the great novels of the twentieth century is an 800-page description of an ad salesman and a student walking around one day in Dublin; or why one of the defining American classics is about living in a shack on a lake for a couple of years; or why one of the finest English lyric poems is a depiction of an antique urn in a museum. Why is the most memorable stuff so often the miraculous transformation of a seemingly limited subject?
A recent article by Burkhard Bilger in the New Yorker describes the work of neuroscientist David Eagleman. Eagleman is interested in the way the human brain assesses and handles time, from the briefest to the longest periods. His depiction of our temporal mechanisms turns out to be just one example of the currently evolving portrait of the human brain as a hodgepodge of overlapping and layered systems, a “Victorian attic” of devices that handle slightly different but related processes. A person with a neural illness or damage may be extremely limited in some ways while becoming acutely capable in related areas. For Eagleman and other contemporary neuroscientists, the human brain is less a perfectly tuned and fragile mechanism than a robust and hearty organ capable of surprising adjustments.
The best writing reflects a similar capacity because its medium is language, one of the mind’s most flexible and extraordinary tools. Literary writing at times can seem demanding and awkward—the clumsy novel, so [End Page 5] seldom perfectly unified or consistent in quality and so often hard to conclude, or the short story, with its delicate needs—yet all literary genres run on the power and unique plasticity of language. A story or a poem can move through time by milliseconds or by centuries because a sentence can without strain unite Napoleon with our neighbor, our greatest hope with our greatest fear. Any given literary form may be something of a hacksaw wonder, but what’s under the hood—the constructions of language itself and the significances they convey—can be amazing.
The pieces in this issue are replete with that supple power of language. The subjects of many of them concern significant others, both in the usual sense of loved ones and in the broader sense of persons who, despite an unlikely connection, play a major role in one’s life. John W. Evans’s essay “Elegy and Narrative” is about the intersection of grief and craft. Evans writes about his attempt to document through poetry his grieving and recovery after the violent death of his first wife from a bear attack. He defines the difference between a narrative of death, a poem about loss and an elegy. In almost the same breath he chronicles his own pain: “I was a young widower writing poems. I was a poet writing about grief. It was a balance I could never quite zero out. The questions were of authenticity and scale, invocation rather than imitation.”
Daniel Anderson’s “Cruising through the Necropolis” is both a memoir of growing up in the ’80s and ’90s and a meditation on mortality and memory. He describes a friendship, from kindergarten into his teens, with David Claymon. Anderson’s family was less affluent than his friend’s, especially after his parents’ divorce. His friend’s more comfortable circumstances and attractive, younger parents appealed to the essayist, though he also was aware of David’s volatility, which escalated in their teens and repeatedly got him into trouble. By the time they were in high school they no longer had much to do with each other, and one day David, in a rage over being grounded, hanged himself, naming Anderson in his suicide note (“Danny gets what he wants”). The essay is partly a description of David’s descent into depression and consuming anger; more than that, though, it is an homage to their friendship.
Amin Ahmad’s “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes” is the story of a troubled relationship between a young Indian American man, Ali, and his American graduate-student...