I recently finished reading a beautiful, difficult-to-categorize novel that was almost not published. It’s Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, (the title a reference to the Kurosawa film, which features heavily throughout the story), and it was deemed by most of those who could have published it to be too difficult. People wouldn’t get it. I had never heard of it, and then I heard it mentioned twice, with earnest praise, by serious poets I was following, whose work had been sustaining me in profound ways. Serious poets are one group who tends to know especially well the loneliness of creating what no one is asking for. I had to read the book that they found so sustaining, and now I am so grateful I did.
I won’t even try to summarize any of it here. It won’t work, because what happens in this book is not going to lend itself to any sort of succinct overview. Suffice to say, there are parallel plots: a boy looking for his father, and his mother looking for some relief from predictable banality. Her artistic sensibilities are extremely heightened, and she is the sort to be in the handful of about five people left in an audience after a renowned composer tries difficult work, exploring really new territory. The composer, too, suffers from a crisis of faith, no longer wanting to perform or create CDs when there are only about five people who would want to listen to the type of music that he finds interesting now. Each of these characters is wearied by the commodification of the familiar. None have material wealth, and all feel the limitations of not having money, in real ways. And yet. The mother, who had tried to kill herself long ago, before the son was born, is someone for whom the presence of deeply honest art may be a life-saving force.
I won’t get into further details here, except to note something profound that DeWitt writes in the afterword. She is describing the irony of living in a world where “humanities are increasingly dismissed as impractical and whatever counts as STEM is a good thing because practical. But we don’t live in a society where every schoolchild has Korner’s The Pleasures of Counting, or Steiner’s The Chemistry Maths Book, . . . Lang’s Astrophysical Formulae. . .” She goes on to observe that “perhaps we should really be more interested in the unknown capabilities of the reader.” She reflects on the way that her manuscript was summarily dismissed for years, and also on the intensity of the response of those readers who have connected with it. She writes, “It’s not hard to imagine a world where the effect of the book on what has been a coterie of readers is multiplied to the point where general assumptions about what is possible are changed.” Perhaps alluding to the strict ethical code observed by the samurai who feature so prominently in her book, DeWitt observes, of this possible new world, that while it is “by no means unflawed, . . .it looks better than what we have. We should fight for it when and where we can.” I am so deeply grateful to this writer for persisting in her vision when all signs (as they are typically read) pointed to giving up and abandoning her vision for something “more practical.”
These thoughts happened to coincide with some vague awareness I’ve been coming to lately, about connections between honesty, risk, and gratitude. It came to me while I was observing someone who was being celebrated, who seemed rather bored by their own following, even as they had come to depend in certain ways on the attention. When there’s so much of it, the attention itself becomes excessive, perhaps even cheapened. With some people in public places doing things publicly, an offering of appreciation seems to get absorbed into an echo chamber, validating whatever sense of greatness was already felt before the performance began, looping back the grand stature like the canned soundtrack of some preordained manifest destiny, as if someone has taken a carefully prepared, handmade gift and tossed it without looking on the overflowing table behind them.
But with others, when someone approaches with gratitude, reflecting their light back to its source, they cannot help but wonder: who is this here, seeing; really seeing? How is it that some kindred soul in this moment of abject, naked vulnerability, will manage to stop and look? These others return the gaze, inviting the pilgrim to meet them; to rediscover, in the wild, the sort of contact once thought extinct. The attention is precious because it is so rare, and it is meaningful because it speaks to what is rare and endangered within us. This is worth fighting for.