OTHER PEOPLE…les autres. So far as philosophy is concerned, they may not even exist. Certainly we’ve all met folks that — for all we know — might well have been automatons. Maybe they all are. Sartre, on the other hand, famously depicted hell as a living room, with other people as its upholstery. (Existentialism may have been a humanism, but it wasn’t particularly sentimental.) Yet as I write these lines, the newspapers are full of stories about the daily struggles of refugees hoping to find shelter in Europe. How much do other people matter, really?
Well, I’m here to tell you that writers, at least the ones we care about, think differently. Last year, during a conference commemorating the hundredth anniversary of World War I, I gave a talk juxtaposing the modernist narratives of Mary Borden, who set up and ran hospitals on the front during that war, with the journalism of James Foley, the UMass MFA graduate who reported for GlobalPost until he was kidnapped and then murdered last year in Syria. Central to both writers, I believe, was an authorial perspective in which questions of morality stayed suspended in negative capability, “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I’d argue that the achievement of any writer is grounded in this perspective. As Keats claimed for Shakespeare, such an attitude opens up a rare and invaluable level of receptivity to the world around us, something that for Borden and Foley, given the unprecedented horror of the events surrounding them, we must imagine all the more important.
So we trust you’ll revere as we do the words of Ben Balthaser as he reflects on the life and death of his friend and classmate. We also suspect that you’ll follow, as we have, the thread of mystery, transformation, and secret life that forms the greater warp and weave of our Winter issue. In Ah@d Ha’ @m’s devastating play “Blue Handed,” the question of empathy with others is cut to the bone, and we cannot miss the connection between foreign shores and our own. Then, with three stories from his collection Autisms, we bring you — for the first time in English — the work of a major Italian writer, Giacomo Sartori. How better to express the ability of narrative to render the experience of others than Sartori’s “temporary, reversible interment”? And we have our Smith College colleague Velma García-Gorena to thank for unveiling the great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral’s love for Doris Dana; the translations of Mistral’s letters here put [End Page 536] to rest forever the “Santa Gabriela” myth of the poet as “a sad, religious spinster whose poetry mirrored her tragic life.”
We also bring you not one feast but two for the eyes in this issue; both show us what we tend to otherwise miss. The photographs of Chuck Close — from his earliest days as an artist a foundation for his portrait painting — are sampled here to commemorate the return of his work this fall to the UMass Museum of Contemporary Art. And we give you a glimpse into a retrospective of second-wave feminist art from the Smith College Museum, entitled “Women’s Work.” As you’ll see, there are advantages to being a woman artist, though they may not be what you’d anticipate.
The theme of other lives, and of hidden selves, has left more breadcrumbs elsewhere: certainly in Robert Hamburger’s tale of those boxed-up lives that exiles are forced to assume; but also where Marianne Colahan cracks us out of our shells; in a salute from Esteban Ismail to the poet doctor of Patterson; where Anzhelina Polonskaya airs her suspicions about widows; or when Emmanuel Merle sees eternity in a single stone. We cannot know all we know, and we may not even know when we know it. What writers do is trace the lineaments, and in these explorations of others at times we find ourselves.
I’ll end with a brief comment about this issue’s cover lines. We at MR have been heartened by the success in recent years...