Proletarians of Pain, Unite!

“It came so unexpectedly that I virtually needed years in order to recognize what had happened. I was confronted with a radically new, completely unexpected event: love” Lars Gustafsson, The Death of a Beekeeper (52).


Just as a person’s ears always perk up when they hear their name being spoken, my ears are always tuned to titles of books. In a passing conversation the writer John Hawkes was mentioned and highly praised. Intrigued, largely by my ignorance of him,  I read his book The Blood Oranges. Written in the seventies it is a startlingly beautiful read of an odd sort. Thinking about it now I am aware that the vivid visual aspects and dreamlike sensuality still pervades and clings to the pith of my skin. I mentioned the book to a friend in the hopes that I might have someone to talk to about the compelling read and he in turn mentioned what he was reading. For fun we decided to read each other’s books, “You read mine and I’ll read yours,” I said. This post is about his.

“What is it? The possibility of love in our bodies. The presence, the possible presence of another human being.

   The humiliating, constant reminder that loneliness is not possible, that such a thing as a lonely human being cannot be.

   That word “I” is the most meaningless word of the language. The dead point in the language.

   (Just as a center always must be empty.)” (116).

Written in 1978 and translated from the Swedish by Janet K. Swaffar and Guntram H. Weber, The Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson is an extraordinary book. A man’s life is reviewed, in a subtle way, through the various notebooks that he left behind after his excruciating death by cancer. A cancer that he refused (by burning the letter from the doctors) to confirm with certain knowledge. The possibility of hope combined with the extremities of his increasing physical pain expose a clarity of his own understanding of himself and the life that he has led.

“The human being, this strange creature, hovering between animal existence and hope” (133).

Now, I should confess (as I have on other occasions) that I am of Swedish descent (among other strains). As I read the book, and as I fell in love with the book, I wondered if there was something in my DNA that caused me to respond so intensely. The protagonist (who says he is called Weasel) comes to terms with his cold remove through his quiet questioning of his conduct in his own life. The fear of wasted time: “perhaps I should have used the time better,” he muses—and I smile. I don’t know that I would love a man such as Weasel, but I know I understand him.

“Not far from here there is a young lady, almost a girl still, who is very pretty and has a good figure. I had never seen her from a distance of less than fifty meters and found her quite attractive. Her face had strikingly vivid color, and her large eyes were very dark, her neck long and white. For a long time I had been tempted by a delicious urge to fall in love with her” (29).

Gustafsson (according to the end notes), wrote five novels that were variations on what were, as he saw it,  narrow aspects of himself: each extrapolated and examined as an alternate life. What if I had been more like this or that, if I had done this or that? This version is told with a particularly appealing (to me) dry Scandinavian humor, a keen sensitivity to the natural world, and a tender longing to belong to one’s body and to one’s own life—the story is deeply moving.

“Not that the pain has gotten stronger, but rather the pills, e.g., my nervous system, have somehow lost their grip on it.

   It has given me a body again; not since puberty have I had such a strong awareness of my body. I am intensely present in it.

  Only: this body is the wrong one. It’s a body with burning coals in it.

   And then of course the hopes” (23).

Perhaps it is that reckoning, through pain, in which one’s physical corporal presence is an inescapable truth, where we must look for meaning. Where are we? Here. In our bodies. We think we are in our minds, and we are tempted to become masters of hiding all the pains disassociated with our bodies until we no longer even know how to look at one another—how to love one another. While assessing his marriage and subsequent divorce, Weasel realizes that he and his wife had an implicit understanding to never look at one another: “looking at one another was forbidden, I mean, really looking at one another.” This of course begs a question which Weasel’s series of notebooks answers frankly:

“Naturally one has to ask oneself what is behind such an agreement.

   I believe it is pain. A kind of primeval pain which one carries around with one from childhood on and which one dare not reveal at any price. Much more important than the presence of the pain is keeping it hidden” (43).

It is through this uncowardly examination of a somewhat cowardly life that the beauty of the tragedy is forged. It is interesting, or not—as Gustafson refrains: (a banal story, no, not a banal one at all.) that both The Blood Oranges and The Death of a Beekeeper are primarily concerned with love. The former is love lived for love’s sake: distilled and even abstracted or depersonalized in an oneiric haze, while the latter is love not lived, and yet both books foment a feeling of hope—there is always hope. And so, there is always love, here, in our bodies: in mine, in yours. Our human need to examine our lives, to understand and find meaning are deeply provoked by the stories—the books—that we share and read. They never provide the answers. There are no answers; there is an urge to hone in, to refine and define, but ultimately the living is all that really matters. And yet, as Clive Bell wrote, there are two kinds of art (and I will add—novels): good and bad. The good ones stay, they dwell in you and you dwell in them.

“When reality confronts us with unusual situations (for example, when an anticipated rivalry doesn’t materialize and instead there is a love which excludes us), we first reach for these emotional stereotypes common to novels.

   They don’t give us much footing. They make is lonelier than before, and head over heels we fall out into reality” (59).

*Title from page 16


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