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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, July 06, 2007

the goddess is dead

Another lunch at my mother's place, and five more novel openers to look at. Again, yesterday, Mom chose five books from her living-room shelves, more or less at random, and we looked at how they opened. Yesterday's crop included The Diviners by Margaret Laurence and A Passage to India by E. M. Forster. But we agreed that the strongest opening was that of The Outsider by Albert Camus:

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deepest sympathy. That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

(That's the best translation that I have been able to find online; I don't have a copy of the book here at my house.)

The opening sentence itself is a factual statement of one of the most powerful moments in a person's life--when his or her mother dies. The immediacy of today makes the event very present, rather than something that happened in the more distant past. The narrator is writing in his journal, perhaps, or talking to us directly in the evening. Three powerful words, each one of which tells.

But if the first sentence provides a shock, the second provides a stronger one: that the narrator is not sure whether his mother died today or yesterday. It raises sharp questions: Why doesn't he know? Was her death mysterious in some way? Is he just indifferent? The cold factualness of his admission strikes a chilling tone.

The next sentence tells us that he learned of the death by telegram. It tells him, the son, there will be a funeral tomorrow. Who's arranging this funeral? Why wasn't he on hand for his mother's death? Didn't he know she was dying? Didn't he care? His pondering of the factual question of when his mother actually died, along with his seeming indifference to the event, suggest a disconnection from life that is both cognitive and emotional.

At the same time, "Mother" is not merely a person, but an archetype, the Goddess--the giver of life and of feeling. So there is a deeper chill: that somehow the Mother of us all is dead, and we the orphans live in an impoverished world, the waste land of her permanent absence. The word mother is among the most heavily loaded and significant in any language; so is the word die. Putting the two together creates a tremendous voltage. Mother is who gives us life; for her to die is a somber, almost paradoxical event.

I recall that the opening scene of James Joyce's Ulysses also deals with the death of a mother--the mother of Stephen Dedalus. In that respect these two great artists were mining a similar vein. In the 19th century Nietzsche proclaimed God to be dead. In a sense, these writers are suggesting a catastrophe that might be still greater, or anyway more jarring and traumatic: that the Goddess is dead too.

This is the condition of the Waste Land as elucidated by Joseph Campbell: no divinity without, no divinity within--just the sterility of a landscape populated by traumatized survivors thirsting for life. It's the spiritual condition of modern man, and the fact that Camus can suggest this condition in just a few words shows why he is among the greats.

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