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Lightness in Childhood

Italo Calvino writes in his Lightness lecture in Six Memos for the Next Millennium of literature’s existential function as being “the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living.” Childhood most often depicted in fiction is one that was abruptly terminated by a difficult, or heavy, event. But, autobiographical material related to traumatic childhood events poses a challenge to handle in a way that best serves the artist and his vision. While many authors have used their childhood experiences in their work, if we examine these works using Calvino’s Lightness lecture, can we find evidence of lightness?

Calvino looks for several elements to be present in a work that exemplifies lightness. In the fictional depictions of childhood that I read, few authors managed to have all of the elements within the work but nearly all used at least one. I was most attracted to the works that were filled with lightness – Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and James Agee’s A Death in the Family.

What I also found throughout the childhood literature was an attempt at capturing the essence of childhood prior to its abrupt termination by the traumatic event. For some authors, such as Woolf, what happens prior to the trauma comprises a great deal of the work. The time prior is often depicted as filled with the usually pleasant wonders of childhood. It is as if the writer is examining the childhood prior to test if the impressions remain associated with the lightness he feels about that time or is the lightness a delusion created by the counter-weight of the trauma?

Virginia Woolf’s mother died in 1895 when Woolf was only thirteen years old. In her essay “Reminiscences” Woolf writes, “…her death was the greatest disaster that could happen; it was as though some brilliant day of spring the racing clouds of a sudden stood still, grew dark, and massed themselves; the wind flagged, and all creatures on the earth moaned or wandered aimlessly.”

The family was profoundly affected by the mother’s death. To make matters worse, Woolf’s oldest sister Stella Duckworth, who had taken on the caregiver role, died just two years later. Woolf’s father died when Woolf was twenty-two and her brother Thoby died two years after. In her essay “A Sketch of the Past” Woolf writes of her novel To the Lighthouse: “But I wrote the book very quickly, and when it was written I ceased to be obsessed by my mother.”

In his Lightness lecture, Calvino recounts the story of Perseus and Medusa. Perseus cuts off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone. He puts it in a bag and takes it with him. Calvino states, “Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.” The refusal to look directly at a childhood monster is one of the keys to imparting lightness to the work.

Woolf casts an indirect gaze upon the tragedies of her childhood in her novel To the Lighthouse. She creates the Ramsay family, based upon her own family, in fine detail. Yet, there are no scenes of the family member’s deaths; rather she tells us of the tragedies in short passages marked by brackets.  And she does this in the second section of the novel in which she writes primarily about the Ramsay’s deserted seaside home.

“ Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.”

“Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything they said, had promised so well.”

“A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.”

Calvino states, “The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future.” Lightness “goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard.” One of the ways to prevent the “weight of matter from crushing us” is to “allow atoms to make unpredictable deviations from the straight line.” He calls this the “atomistic concept of the universe” or life down to its fine particles.

Woolf brings her eye for acute detail grounded in sensory impressions to her writing in To the Lighthouse. What surrounds the brief bracketed passages of the characters’ deaths is a narrative engaged in the description of setting – the holiday house by the sea. A wind of darkness, or “nothingness” as she calls it, moves through the house, exemplifying Calvino’s concept of the atomizing of things or “the poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities” – showing what is “infinitely minute, light and mobile.”

So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed around bedroom doors.

So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room…

Woolf, in my opinion, was a master of, as Calvino puts it, the “lightening of language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarified consistency.”  This lightening of language is one of the three senses of lightness Calvino looks for in a work.

I must confess that understanding this sense of lightness has been difficult and so I asked several writers for their take. Their responses varied. Calvino is looking for ethereal prose that carries a weighty subject and/or uses language to shape time. Rather than use heavy language, such as subject-verb-direct object, which thuds on the page, use indeterminate clauses and figurative language. In this way, subject matters are implied, rather than being photographed exactly. We can also use sentences that start with a solid noun, which are weight-neutral, and move to lighter words and images, using a light verb so that a sentence moves from darkness and weight to light and lightness. We must also remember that letter sounds have physical connotations, some move against gravity such as the high frequency vowels (ee, ay, long i). These high frequency vowels are associated with exhilaration and energy, or movement, and movement implies lightness.

Woolf writes:

When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again.

Calvino writes, “As soon as the moon appears in poetry, it brings with it a sensation of lightness, suspension, a silent calm enchantment.”

He also tells us that another sense of lightness is imparted by the “narration of a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle and imperceptible elements are at work, or any kind of description that involves a high degree of abstraction.”

Woolf travels freely throughout the novel into her character’s minds, using a stream of consciousness narrative. In the second section, titled “Time Passes”, Woolf captures the emotions surrounding the deaths using subtle and imperceptible elements as revealed to us by  – the nothingness in the deserted house, the stray airs that creep through it, the divine goodness, loveliness and stillness residing there, and even weary, old Mrs. McNab, the reluctant housekeeper.

Woolf writes:

Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers.

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain-pipes and scatter damp paths.

Calvino describes the third sense as “a visual image of lightness that acquires an emblematic value.” He quotes Paul Valery, “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather.” A bird implies willful movement, the ability to carry oneself into the sky. Woolf uses at least two visual images of movement and transformation that imply lightness in the novel. One being: the decay of the empty holiday house. She even writes that rats carry off bits of the house to gnaw on. The house had anchored the family together in their happiest moments and now it is disintegrating. “If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion.”

Yet transformation can bring beauty. Woolf writes, “Tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the windowpane.” Much as we love our parents, there can be a sense of freedom felt when they pass on.

The other image is that of the long-awaited boat trip to visit the lighthouse. After many years, the family returns to the seaside house and Mr. Ramsay finally takes his children to see the lighthouse. Something he refused to do while their mother was alive.

Lily Briscoe also returns to the holiday house, as Woolf did in her mind, and “Through the open window the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring…” Just as Perseus made the ground soft for Medusa’s head to lie upon and the beautiful coral then grows there, and the nymphs desire this coral and feed the decapitated head in exchange for it, Woolf was able to lay her tragedies down and create something wholly beautiful and enchanting.

In 1916, James Agee’s father was killed in an automobile accident when Agee was six. But Agee didn’t want to write a memoir. Rather he sought to treat his painful autobiographical material one-step removed. He writes, “I must decide between a completely detached and a deeply subjective treatment. I doubt if in complete detachment there is a story there. Rather, do the subjective, as detachedly as possible.”  The result is the novel A Death in the Family. The story of six-year-old Rufus and the death of his father, Jay Follett, in an automobile accident in Knoxville, Tennessee (where Agee grew up). Unfortunately, Agee died before the completion of the novel.

And just as Woolf did not create scenes in which her personal tragedies are shown directly, neither does Agee. Though Agee wrote sections of the novel from the father’s point of view, he did not compose a scene in which the accident occurs. We read about what happened to Jay Follett as is told by a character who came upon the wrecked vehicle and the dead father. And this is not told directly by the character but by another character, the Uncle of little Rufus, as Andrew heard it from the eyewitness. The revelation of the tragic details feels removed through this use of second-hand accounts. In fact, no one witnessed the actual accident. Follett was alone.

Agee also focuses in on three particular details of the accident. Andrew recounts, “‘Something caught in his lights and it was one of the wheels of the automobile… it was still turning.’” Andrew repeats this statement. So Jay’s car must’ve been upside down for a wheel to be turning in the light of some headlights and for the wheel to still be turning, it was a bad accident. Andrew goes on to tell Jay’s wife, Mary, the vehicle was upside down, but we have deduced this already. Mary must’ve also and the conversation proceeds in this gentle, caring manner with information being revealed indirectly.

Then we learn that the first responder couldn’t find “anything wrong except a little cut, exactly on the point of his chin.” And this image of the little wound on Jay’s chin is carried through to the funeral when Rufus sees his father’s corpse resting in its coffin. “At the exact point of the chin, there was another small blue mark, as straight and neat as might be drawn with a pencil, and scarcely wider.” The disfigurement is so inconsequential and benign that we feel the senselessness of the tragedy even deeper. How shocking the accident must’ve felt to Agee and his family is captured precisely with this non-disturbing image of a wound that didn’t even bleed.

Then we get the image of the cotter pin from Jay’s car. “They found that a cotter pin had worked loose – that is, had fallen all the way out – this cotter pin had fallen out, that held the steering mechanism together.” Andrew describes the cotter pin as “like a very heavy hairpin.” Hairpins are small. So something very small, something easily lost, caused this enormous and shocking tragedy.

And while we learn that the car must’ve hit a rock and Follett lost control because of the fallen-out cotter pin and hit his chin on the steering wheel, which killed him instantly, the images we hold of this horrific event are: the spinning auto wheel, the small chin wound, and the cotter pin. I think Agee was trying to express something he’d learned about life with the use of these images. Something along the lines of how life can change in a very small amount of time and that the catapulting event can derive from what are often almost unnoticeable details. Details we can be obsessed with after the event in our human quest for understanding. Cancer starts as a single cell, deadly viruses must be viewed with a microscope, the destroyed Space Shuttle Columbia lost some re-entry tiles, and Jay Follett was killed by a fallen-out cotter pin.

Calvino speaks in his Lightness lecture about the necessity of an “atomistic concept of the universe.” Despite our intellectual capacity to think in the abstract, man remains a sensuous creature. We experience our existence and all its attendant emotions through the five senses, and what is striking about this, is that most of the information our senses gather comes to us in minute and often unseen particles. The small atoms that comprise matter are not all visible, some are gaseous. Odors can be sensed but remain unseen. Sounds are a sequence of pressure waves. Calvino says, “the knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile.” He goes on to say that only a poet who has no doubts about the “physical reality of the world” can issue poetry of the “invisible, infinite unexpected possibilities.”

Agee seems compelled to permeate the tragedy of his childhood with lightness, in as many senses of lightness as he can muster. He wants us to hear his childhood, “They (the locusts) are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell of heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums … the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain.” Agee draws our attention to not only a sound but its individual notes.

When Jay leaves his family for the last time, Agee provides a two page treatment of the sounds his automobile makes, the vehicle that kills Jay. He attempts to replicate the sound through the usage of the letters of the alphabet. Calvino talks about the alphabet as a model for combinations of minimal units and that we can view letters as atoms in continual motion. The teaching of phonics is comprised of the learning of the singular sounds each letter represents. Alphabet sounds carry their own weights, with some sounds being light such as the vowel teams ‘ee’ and ‘ay’ and the long vowel ‘i’, and other sounds being heavy. These are the low frequency vowels which bring energy down, such as the diphthongs ‘ar, ‘ow’, ‘oi, ‘aw’, ‘oo’ and the long vowel ‘o’. Consonants carry differing weights also, whether they are made mostly by using air (r, p, h, f, sh, w) or by using the tongue and lips (b, d, k, g).

Agee draws our attention to minute particles: “The moistures of May drowned all save the most ardent stars, and gave back to the earth the sublimated light of the prostrate city.” Here not only are we looking at both natural and artificial light but how light can be reflected by droplets of moisture so that it casts itself back upon the city. He writes of Jay’s wife, “She was never to realize his intention of holding the warmth in for her; for that had sometime departed from the bed.” Our loved ones do hold warmth within them and just as that impression of their warmth remains only briefly in the beds they rise from, the warmth of their physical presence in our lives departs instantly when they are taken from us.

When Jay is driving away from his family, on his way to eternity, “the auto bored through the center of the darkness of the universe; its poring shafts of light, like an insect’s antennae, feeling into distinctness every relevant small obstacle and ease of passage…” Particles of light are indeed minute and an insect’s antennae make sense of the smallest atoms. Even time can be thought of in very small units; seconds can be broken down into milliseconds and life can change in what seems to be an instant. During Jay’s accident, Agee writes, “At the most there must have been just the tiniest fraction of a second when he felt the jolt and the wheel was twisted out of his hand, and he was thrown forward.”

There is also energy, which can be measured and sometimes manifests itself visibly, such as lightning. It largely remains unseen to us, but rather is felt.  It can be said that energy is made up of atoms. Andrew reflects that when he saw Jay’s corpse he was aware of “a prodigious kind of energy in the air.”

The lightness of the atoms which make up our universe that Agee constantly brings to the forefront of our attention contrasts starkly with the feeling his characters have when faced with the tragedy. Over and over Agee writes of the weight his characters feel when they learn of Jay’s death.

Calvino states that there are two tendencies in literature: to “make language into a weightless element that hovers above things, like a field of magnetic impulses” or to “give language the weight, density and concreteness of things, bodies and sensations.” He explores the ways in which writers “remove weight from the structure of stories and from language” as he himself tried to do in his writing.

Agee seems to have been conscious of trying to lighten the language he uses throughout the novel, especially when dealing with the most difficult aspects of death. And in certain instances, the manner in which the language is used, leads to a lightening of the character’s thoughts. Just before Mary thinks Jay is in the house in the form of a ghost, she has an unbearable, what she calls “terrifying”, thought that the accident was due to Jay driving drunk. To counter this she begins thinking “with such exactness and with such love of her husband’s face, and of his voice, and of his hands, and of his way of smiling so warmly even though his eyes almost never lost their sadness, that she succeeded in driving the other thought from her mind.” The repetition of and of and with such provides an uplifting rhythm and the phrases begun in this manner carry us lightly through the time in which Mary is dealing with her “terrifying” thought.

Agee imparts beauty and lightness to many moments that would be considered heavy in subject from the scene in which Jay’s coffin leaves the house on its way to the cemetery to the moment when Rufus sees his father’s coffin for the first time: “Rufus had never known such stillness. Their little sounds, as they approached his father, vanished upon it like the infinitesimal whisperings of snow, falling on open water.”

As for the second sense of lightness, Agee uses the train of thought technique throughout his novel and with nearly all of his characters. There is an entire 28 page stream of consciousness section in the novel that reveals the thoughts of Rufus, modeled on Agee himself, and immediately follows the realization by Mary of the deep loss the family has suffered.  We have this heavy infusion of sorrow followed by the lightness of hearing how the boy tries to fit in with the neighborhood children. I believe that a train of thought narrative imparts lightness by forcing the reader to view the character with empathy rather than sympathy. It is a different feeling to view the world from another’s vantage point than it is to take on their burden.

Agee also takes us into Mary’s thinking process as she gets ready to attend her husband’s funeral. “I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it.” Agee begins this section drawing attention to the heaviness of sorrow. “She thought: this is simply what living is; I never realized before what it is. She thought: now I am more nearly a grown member of the human race… She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the strength that human beings have, to endure; she loved and revered all those who had ever suffered, even those who had failed to endure. She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the might, grimness and tenderness of God.” Agee goes on with this train, beginning nearly every sentence with She thought, creating a soothing rhythm until Mary finds the courage to leave her bedroom and go to the funeral.

The blood of Medusa gives birth to the winged horse, Pegasus. Calvino writes, “the heaviness of stone is transformed into its opposite.” Agee creates at least two visual images of lightness that directly deal with his father’s death and both involve transformation. The first visual image is that of Jay’s ghost. While the family is discussing the recent news of Jay Follet’s fatal car accident, they begin to experience an unusual sensation. Mary thinks someone is in the house “… and whoever or whatever it might be, she became sure that it was no child, for she felt in it a terrible forcefulness, and concern, and restiveness…” Mary claims that it is Jay and she begins speaking to him. She follows his ghost into her children’s bedroom, and “she could feel his presence as strongly throughout the room as if she had opened a furnace door.” Our presence is lightest when we have shed our physical bodies. Agee balances this thought of Jay as a spirit devoid of weight by following the ghostly experience with the discussion Andrew and Mary must have about the funeral arrangements. He writes, “Earth, stone, a coffin. The ugly craft of undertakers became real and tangible…”

The weight of the dead upon the living is carried through to the funeral scene, when the coffin must be put inside the funeral carriage. The movement continues when Agee creates a second visual image, that of a butterfly. Andrew tells Rufus:

Right when they began to lower your father into the ground, into his grave, a cloud came over and there was a shadow just like iron, and a perfectly magnificent butterfly settled on the – coffin, just rested there, right over the breast, and stayed there, just barely making his wings breathe, like a heart…until it (the coffin) grated against the bottom like a – rowboat.  And just when it did the sun came out just dazzling bright and he flew up out of that – hole in the ground, straight up into the sky, so high I couldn’t see him any more.

The novel ends with this image of transformation forefront in the reader’s mind. Calvino points out in his lecture that Ovid shows lightness in his work by displaying the “continuity of the passage from one form to another” or that “everything can be transformed into something else.”

Is literature written only for the benefit of the reader or does a quest for lightness as a counterbalance to the unbearable weight of life drive an author to explore difficult autobiographical material in a certain way? And can we as writers, benefit from re-visiting our childhood traumas when we imbue them with lightness? Perseus indirectly gazes at his monster Medusa, conquers her yet keeps her with him; her blood births Pegasus and with his hoof, Pegasus creates the spring the Muses drink from. Calvino states, “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.”

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