I just finished reading and teaching Never Let Me Go for the second time this year. I am writing this post because the aspect of the novel I find most meaningful is one that I never fully bring into the classroom: Norfolk, which their guardian Miss Emily calls “the lost corner of England.” This is what the lost and found at Hailsham is called, and that colors how the students think about Norfolk. In recollecting the students’ idea of Norfolk as the lost corner, Ruth claims, “When we lost something precious, and we’d looked and looked and still couldn’t find it, then we didn’t have to be completely heartbroken. We still had that last bit of comfort, thinking one day, when we were grown up, and we were free to travel around the country, we could always go and find it again in Norfolk” (Ishiguro 66). Students at Hailsham are granted the privilege of collecting possessions, over which they enjoy an ownership they do not have over their bodies. Even as their organs are taken away, they can still keep their collections of personal belongings. The possibility of losing a possession reminds them of everything else that can be taken away from them – their organs, their friends, and eventually their lives. Because of the loaded value of possessions, Norfolk becomes a kind of heaven. Adding to this sense is the fact that the students have never seen a picture of Norfolk: “the fact that we had never seen a picture of the place only added to its mystique” (66).
The end of the novel returns to the idea of Norfolk as heaven or a gathering place for those who have been lost. After Kathy’s beloved Tommy has completed (died) from donating his organs, she drives to Norfolk and sees rubbish floating around a field surrounded by a fence that holds the rubbish and keeps it from floating away. By this point, Kathy must in some way be aware that she and her friends are essentially being treated as disposable rubbish, used for their parts. Amidst all the rubbish, she has the sense that if she waits “long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that—I didn’t let it—and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control” (287-288). Norfolk thus holds out the consoling possibility that she could be reunited with her love and who has just died, and her other friends who are treated as rubbish, again.
What I find so moving about thinking about Norfolk as heaven is what that implies about religion. Perhaps like the idea of Norfolk, religious faith could emerge out of a consciousness of our intolerable vulnerability. Regardless of how moving I find this novel’s engagement with the afterlife, I don’t share this with my students. Here’s my reasoning:
Religious students wouldn’t appreciate the implication that religion isn’t true but merely a coping mechanism.
Non-religious students would be alienated because it would seem that I was presenting a certain religious stance as a natural consequence (among others!) of being aware of vulnerability to suffering.
I also don’t spend much time on Norfolk because I think my interest is motivated by my personal experience of faith, which clouds my ability to evaluate if such a discussion would resonate with others. I find it moving to relate to my own Catholic religious practice as a self-compassionate response to the form of suffering to which I am most susceptible. Kathy H, Tommy, and Ruth have a lot of vulnerabilities that everyone to some degree shares, but this novel is so meaningful for me because the narrator Kathy H shares my unaccountably acute consciousness of the possibility of losing one’s basic dignity and personhood. Stephen Cope says, “each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. It tears at our hearts. Others don’t see it or don’t care. But we feel it. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform” (The Great Work of Your Life 64). Cope argues that suffering that we care about most is an important source of life direction. I would add that when the suffering we care about most is suffering we anticipate having to undergo ourselves, it also provides a direction for faith, or if like Kathy H one would rather not go down that road, then it provides a direction for a fantasy which is experienced as equally precious.
First blog post -- since the website has this option, I thought starting a blog would be a good opportunity to keep track of my experiences in a way that is, you know, public. ;) I am not very active on social media -- I mostly use it to read others' work -- so I thought this would be a more comfortable way for me to put my thoughts out there only for those who are interested. So, as the title says, these are books that affected me this year(ish) and how.
1. Leslie Scalapino's that they were at the beach and Considering how exaggerated music is
How: these books really excited me since they anticipated my own anti-poetic impulse (note the title of Considering). I realized that from reading poetry, I can get the same satisfaction of seeing my own impulses fulfilled that I get from writing. I then went on to read Diane Seuss and Dorothea Lasky and experienced a similar pleasure. I discovered that I need to get from reading everything I can in order to get from writing what I can only get from that
2. Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends
How: made me feel pleasure for a sustained period of time after feeling depressed about moving to Iowa without Aaron. Also, made me think about how loving someone means letting them complicate your life more than you thought you could handle. Maybe the capacity for love amounts to the capacity to handle complication…
3. Rick Hansen's Just One Thing and Hardwiring Happiness
How: made me feel in control again after feeling anxious about being in Iowa without my emotional support animal, Aaron. Highlights: positive experiences can become wired into our brains if we enrich and absorb them; also love Hansen’s formulation of humility as not being in “the rat race of self-glorification.”
4. Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey
How: first time I have read The Odyssey since hearing it aloud in eighth grade; the book made me think about the relation between being sharp-eyed and being asleep, and I got some words of wisdom for my entitled self from the goddess of wisdom herself: “Odysseus, you are adaptable.”
5. Juliana Spahr’s Response
How: led me to read several other of her works. When I opened this book, I just read it straight through and could not put it down – it’s rare that an entire poetry book has that effect on me. I felt, something is being said that is reaching out to me, reaching out for a response (the response, which is another person’s sense of having been really reached), and I cannot stop until it is done. When I finished the book, all I could think is, “This is what poems are.”
6.Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
How: I re-read this to teach. Made me think about the power of individual words and experiences (like having a glass of wine) to summon different selves. Also, the idea that literature is a wild goose chase after the meaning of life, which is the beauty that comes from the goose’s shadow. And then after giving the final lecture, I saw a bunch of geese assembled for the first time right on the path I take back from the English building! They were saying, “Yes, you were right about the meaning of Orlando and of life.”
7. Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness
How: made me realize that the desire to spend all of your time reading is kind of the ultimate political critique. Also, made me understand how the idea of happiness (and unhappiness) does not just describe an emotional state, but actually renders people unhappy. This is why, as soon as I start to describe my life or what I have been up to, I tend to become unhappy—no matter how much I am enjoying myself in a moment-to-moment way.
8. Adela Pinch’s Strange Fits of Passion
How: I had read chapters of this book before and assured my dissertation adviser that the chapter entitled “Getting Lost in a Book” totally had nothing to do with my dissertation on getting lost in the novel. Revisited the book only to realize I couldn’t be more wrong! Pinch captures so perfectly how we inure ourselves to a sensation through overexposure – this then has the contradictory effect of leading that sensation to affect us as a shock. What if this is how the subgenres of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novel work?
9. Herman Hesse’s Demian
How: this book meant a lot to me in ninth grade; this time, I read it more critically (especially some of the gender and the beyond good and evil stuff). But I was still really struck by the idea that everyone’s ideal is already within themselves (as their own soul). It’s not some more impressive already-there person, but Amanda Auerbach herself who has shown and can show me the way I need to go. The future self is the one who can most help the past self along—how healing and what a powerful source of self-confidence!
10. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God
How: this book always meant a lot to my sister, so I knew it would have an effect. It is definitely a deep book, which holds there are forces so large and sweeping that not even God could stop them from overtaking us. Maybe it is only when we are conscious of the impossibility of being helped that we realize the value of the powers that helplessly, but still steadily watch us. Not 100% sure what to do with this, but such a God is more in line with how we could value other people than a more powerful being with more of an ability to practically help us.