The Refining Fire of Grief – Robert Fisher
The Refining Fire of Grief
Robert L. Fisher
And yet we yearn for transcendence, for life after death, for reunion with our loved ones somewhere outside time, in Eternity, in a world free of suffering and exploitation, for the resurrection of the young, like our son who died at twenty-two of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When we visit his grave and gaze upon the medallion bearing his photo, taken shorty before his sudden death, his glorious red hair cropped like an army recruit’s, we wish for his return to life in the full vitality of a young man. Our inability to believe in the supernatural, in magic, in souls and a God, means nothing to us: we stand at his grave weeping, after fifteen years, wanting him to walk up to us and ask what is this all about?
We plant flowers, like the perennial lavender, and rejoice in spring at its resurrection after the night of silent winter, but we know that is just a metaphor. But we could not bear living without these metaphors, like washing the dust from his black marble gravestone, as a symbol of renewal, as if we were keeping his room clean and orderly for his return, just in case.
We know that when we speak to him in his grave of the news in our quiet lives, that we are speaking to ourselves, but we want to emulate the peasants of Sardinia who, after a day’s work in the fields, stop by the graveyard to update the departed on the latest gossip, an attempt to incorporate the dead inyp the social life of the living, for as long as memory permits.
No event in our lives has ever so powerfully, and irrevocably, shaped our emotional life, our understanding of the human condition, our experience of daily life, and certainly our view of fate. What in me died with our son was the ecstasy that often swept over me of mystical union with the Earth and its living creatures. I used to ponder how when we die our constituent atoms and compounds merge with the soil, from which, enriched, new life will grow. The verity is still there; what is missing is the oceanic emotion, the dissolution of individual identity in the mass of seven billions. Now the thought of decaying into the soil is just a mundane fact of ordinary chemistry.
Today I saw an archival film of the scientists at NASA who were watching the first live photos of Jupiter, beamed to Earth by the Voyager probe in 1979. Among the spellbound and overjoyed scientists was a female astronomer, her face alight with awe, with the knowledge they were the first to see Jupiter in such detail, that this was a historic moment of great import. Her smile was beatific, and I felt I wanted to weep, for the thrill of uncovering the mysteries of that huge planet with its 79 moons ― a solar system in its own right, but also for her mortality, that one day she too will pass from consciousness into oblivion, despite her wonder and her achievements.
I think if I could watch from a safe distance through the porthole of a spaceship the swirling, frightening storms and their lightning strikes as large as planets, the twisting colours, and red hurricanes and blue poles, I would be transported into awe and never be the same again. I would not be able to verbalize this awe, or paint it, or compose music to send through listeners the shudders of being immersed in the ineffable. I would walk among men without seeing them, I would be oppressed by our puniness, I would lose my taste for food and simply wander the Earth without speaking. In other words, I would become a sanyasi, a person who renounces attachment to the material world, even to his begging bowl.
This is extreme and highly charged with drama, and yet something of this is what I have experienced with this loss, compounded by the losses before and since. I feel that in my sheltered middle-class life in North America I was blissfully unaware, as was the Buddha in his cocooned youth in his palace, of untimely death.
A little girl of five has just lost her first baby-tooth. She receives a tooth-fairy doll. The doll has written her a note, which the child carries around with her all day.
The child’s delight in being alive, in exploring the world, and the preciousness of a note written by her doll, at once amuses us and at the same time makes us wistful at this glimpse of the paradise we have been exiled from.
Here is a photo of my three-year-old grandniece, Scarlett, wearing a frilly gold dress, a recent gift from her grandmother, and a T-shirt on which ‘Hello’ is printed in sparkles in various languages. She has a butterfly painted on her face and is holding a ribbon to which is attached a giant inflated pickle that wants to float into the sky.
Scarlett is happy in her enchanted world of childhood, where animals speak, and fairies hover nearby, and every object has a mind and a voice and human features. She can even transform into a butterfly and hold aloft a pickle as big as she is.
We carefully shelter children during this all-too-brief residence in the land of enchantment. We so dearly want them to live a better life than the one we lived in a less technologically advanced, less affluent, less secure world.
Some young women are granted a reprieve from the real world, like a prisoner’s day-pass, once more when they live in the fantasy of a storybook wedding, including the enchanted isle, in Greece or the Caribbean. My grandniece’s gold dress is replicated, this time snow-white, long, trailing; the butterfly alights on her head in the form of a tiara; and a bouquet is held aloft, later to be tossed with back turned, its flight left to fate, caught by the next woman destined to travel for a day or two to the secret garden.
When I look at Scarlett’s innocent, joyful face, my grumbling, Hobbesian view of life feels mean and arid.
And yet, grief lies in wait for us like a predator lurking in a forest of sublime beauty.
In A Sportsman’s Sketches, Turgenev describes an evening in summer when he came across a group of peasant boys, ranging in age from seven to fourteen. He listened carefully to their peasant superstitions and tales of malevolent supernatural beings that roam the forests and fields looking for victims. One boy, Pavlusha, impressed Turgenev with his intelligence and courage. He did not hesitate to scare off some wolves that were threatening the horses the boys were set to guard through the night. In the morning the boys are asleep, save for Pavlusha who looks closely at the hunter as he takes his leave.
The tone of the sketch is a sense of the beauty of the world: the summer weather and the innocence of the boys and their primitive beliefs. Then Turgenev mentions, without comment, that a year later Pavlusha died in a fall from a horse. With those words we see that the beautiful world includes accidents that can take away anyone’s life, regardless of their goodness or evil, or their youth or age, or their wealth or poverty. This smart, brave youngster’s death was completely random, in an indifferent universe, and the reader feels a pang of loss, along with the recognition of our own vulnerability. No one who has lost a child, for example, is ever again complacent about the secure, even boring, predictability of life. No longer are the stages of life ― high school graduation, college or university, establishing a business or career, marriage and children, grandparenthood ― taken for granted or assumed to be a right. That used to be something that happened in war-torn, poverty-stricken lands far, far away. And then it strikes in an upper-middle class suburb with SUVs in the driveways.
The siblings who have been spared are never the same again. They wonder if they will be next. They live their days in a house with an empty bed or a room with a permanently closed door, perhaps turned into a shrine or just walled off as a chamber where the pain of loss is stored. The parents see their child’s classmates and friends growing older, celebrating birthdays and later weddings and baby showers. The child in their photos never ages.
Some species of bird lay two eggs, and the chick in the egg that happens to hatch first devours the chick in the yet unhatched egg. This seems cruel, yet by natural selection, those species that lay two eggs on average have a better chance of survival, even if most of those eggs never hatch but become food for the first chick. This expresses exactly the randomness of our survival. Humans, however, have technology that can ensure that almost every baby reaches adulthood, even old age. Yet the randomness of accident, war, domestic violence, gang fights over turf, incurable disease, and the gallows, in whatever form, still carry off people of all backgrounds every day.
On the last page of Civilisation (1969), Kenneth Clarke, who knew Yeats well, cited an oft-quoted, prophetic passage from the poem, The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The poem, written in 1919, in the aftermath of the Great War, describes the mood of Europe that hung over the Twenties, a sense of shock that otherwise cultured, reasonable nations had persisted in a four-year, suicidal conflict that nearly ended civilization. Despair and the shattering of familiar routines and assumptions of Western civilization pervaded literature and the lives of the post-war population. Maimed and blinded veterans, some horribly disfigured, haunted the streets and boulevards of cities and towns. Hardly a family was untouched by loss. In even the smallest hamlets war memorials commemorated the fallen, their names the names of sons and friends, schoolmates and husbands. Vast cemeteries of uniform white crosses became a common sight. Occasionally photographs disclosed the sheer, incomprehensible scale of the destruction of human life, but it was as unimaginable as astronomical distances and size of Jupiter compared to Earth.
The remains of living, thinking, feeling human beings, most in the prime of youth, were stripped of their worth and humanity by the overwhelming problem of how to cope with cadavers in their hundreds of thousands. Most were so fragmented by explosives that identification was impossible. And for what?
In the 1920s the Douaumont Ossuary was built on a part of the battlefield of Verdun. It contains the bones of some 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers, of the total of approximately 230,000 soldiers who lost their lives in this horrific battle, which lasted 300 days. The Ossuary is 449 feet long.
The bones are visible through windows in 46 alcoves. Every year new remains are discovered in the fields where the battle took place. They come to the surface after heavy rainstorms.
This Ossuary is one way we deal with the emotions we feel ― loss, sorrow, fear, anger, hatred, despair, shame, and survivor’s guilt. These monuments show us in the starkest manner what evil we humans are capable of inflicting on each other with the help of death machines. How could any visitor not feel panic at the scale of the slaughter and the insanity of this mass murder of strangers committed by ordinary people? One could ask the same question of visitors to Auschwitz or Tuol Sleng in Cambodia.
Killing on this scale must leave a deep psychic scar on the culture, on the survivors, on the maimed, on the witnesses. We speak of the Lost Generation, the novels of the Twenties, the characters suddenly aimless, numb, nihilistic, engaged in a frenzy of hedonism, drunkenness, a desperation born of shock, the embrace of mysticism and rejection of science and reason, as if the Enlightenment was all a ghastly failure, an ideal far above our human nature.
We walk from alcove to alcove in this eerie red light, like visitors to Mars.
The red light is the blood that has been shed. We wade through it. There is no escape from this reality. In red light or ordinary daylight, the impact on the visitors to the Ossuary in the 1920s, when the wounds of loss were fresh, must have been staggering. The immensity of the building, the stark display of the jumbled bones and skulls, the silence of what was once an enormous battlefield where millions of artillery rounds had been fired, the strangeness of the architecture that made the building out of the ordinary, almost otherworldly, all these qualities would have created an atmosphere conducive to mourning.
One victim of the carnage was the promising young sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (he appended the Polish name in honour of his companion and muse, the mentally unstable Sophie Brzeska, who was eighteen years his senior). Gaudier was born near Orléans in 1891, and having decided to dedicate himself to sculpture, moved to London in 1911. It must have taken considerable
courage for a nearly penniless twenty-year-old man to relocate to London to pursue his development as an artist. His “atelier” was a room under a railway arch, where he was sometimes ankle-deep in water. He could not even afford to buy stone blocks for his sculptures; as a result, he at first carved small stones in the manner of netsuke.
In the summer of 1913, he met Ezra Pound at an art exhibition. Pound was immediately impressed by Gaudier’s intelligence and his sculptures. Gaudier quickly became a key figure in the Vorticist movement, even writing in pencil in the trenches a brief essay on its principles. This was published in the avant-garde journal Blast (July 1915).
Pound had found an artist who was naturally congenial to the new movement. Pound saw him as being “like a well-made wolf or some soft-moving, bright-eyed wild thing.” In fact, one of Gaudier’s drawings was of a wolf, though lean and sad-eyed:
The wolf-drawing, and his drawings generally, had the spontaneity and fluidity of Chinese characters. The wolf was reduced to its essence in a few simple, but sure lines, quickly drawn without conscious thought, and, as in Chinese and Japanese brush painting, without the possibility of correction or modification. Pound recognized in Gaudier a kindred spirit, who, in fact, took up Pound’s fascination with Chinese characters, to the extent of memorizing and writing a great many of them. Imagism was concerned with removing ornamentation from both literature and the visual arts and reducing the image to its essentials.
Gaudier’s sculptures also expressed this spirit of minimalism. Undoubtedly his most famous sculpture is the bust of Pound, the so-called Hieratic Head (1914), now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Pound supplied the funds to buy the half-ton marble block, and when the completed bust was displayed at an exhibition Ford Maddox Ford bought it for £2.10 s., which was equivalent to the cost of the marble.
Gaudier worked from several quick sketches he made of Pound in his studio under the railway line. Pound wrote in his memoir of Gaudier (p. 47): “He was certainly the best company in the world, and some of my best days, the happiest and most interesting, were spent in his uncomfortable mud-floored studio when he was doing my bust.”
The statue was not meant to be an accurate representation of Ezra Pound’s appearance, as Gaudier himself emphasized. He said he intended the statue to reflect the emotions “I get from your character” (p. 50).
The statue has a Cubist quality to it, for it seems to derive its effect from planes. In his little Vorticist manifesto from the trenches. Gaudier had “emphasized that my design got its effect from a very simple composition of lines and planes” (p. 28).
Two other sculptures, much smaller, are beautiful precisely because of a simplicity that captures the essence of the animals. The first is a crouching fawn, made from marble, but subsequently copied in bronze from a mold:
The second is a charming little dachshund:
It was the bombardment of Rheims that incited Gaudier to leave London and enlist in the French army. Pound felt that Gaudier’s “genius was worth more than dead buildings” (p. 54).
His first letters from the front, in 1914, are those of a young man excited by high adventure:
“I have not had the luck of sighting an enemy patrol…Perhaps to-night we shall have greater fun, anyway it is a happy life, there are hardships but sometimes we can steal away…and bring back wine, beer, etc.”.
“I have had the greatest fun this night of all my life.” He reports on an incident when he and his comrades as they were stringing barbed wire were fired upon and just managed to escape. The French returned fire and Gaudier was pinned down as shots from both directions buzzed over his head. He managed to make his way back to the French line, much to the surprise of his lieutenant who was sure Gaudier had perished.
But late in the year the tone is far from exuberant:
“When we took the trenches after the march it was a sight worthy of Dante, there was at the bottom a foot deep of liquid mud in which we had to stand two days and two nights…the enemy who shell us from three sides, the close vicinity of 800 putrefying German corpses…”. He mentions “a stupid German sentry, whom I subsequently shot dead…”.
January 27th, 1915
“I dislike rotting away in a ditch like an old toad”.
May 25th, 1915
“We killed 1,250, but the horrid side is the stench now.”
(Date unclear, perhaps June 3rd, 1915)
“It is a gruesome place all strewn with dead, and there’s not a day without half a dozen fellows in the company crossing the Styx. We are betting on our mutual chances…I have read nothing, a desert in the head a very inviting place for a boche bullet or shell…”.
The premonition of a bullet to the head proved true. On June 5th in Neuville-St-Vaast Gaudier was shot in the forehead.
Pound wrote, “Gaudier-Brzeska has been killed … and we have lost the best of our sculptors and the most promising. The arts will incur no worse loss in the war than this is.”
What Pound mourns is the loss of an artistic genius. He deplores the utterly stupid waste of life in the Great War, but in particular the destruction of a sculptor who would have been a pioneer in the Modernist movement.
I wish I had known Gaudier, I wish we could have become friends, and above all I wish he, and many millions of others, had never marched off to war. I would have mourned his loss as a sensitive man who was passionate about art and life. In his brief manifesto he says he somehow acquired a German Mauser rifle. As an artifact, it was “a powerful image of brutality.” He broke off the rifle butt and “with my knife I carved in it a design, through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling, which I preferred” (p. 28). For that alone I would have treasured him as a friend: such gentleness, such devotion to beauty in a land of dead men and dead horses, uprooted trees, meandering trenches, mud-filled and emanating a stench that announced their existence miles before they were seen.
Gaudier, to my eye, resembles a friend that I had felt a deep affinity for right from the beginning, and became closer to with each passing day. After a few short years we ended up in opposite corners of the globe, he in Florence, Italy and I in Melbourne, Australia. I remember every detail of the moments when the telephone rang in my office and the overseas voice of a mutual friend said simply, “Francesco is dead.” His intense headaches and loss of appetite were symptoms of an inoperable brain tumor. The surgeons could not disentangle the malignant growth from his brain tissue. Francesco, dead at 33, was older than Gaudier, who died at 23. It was my first experience of loss of a loved one. I never overcame the shock. Even when I visited his grave, I looked in disbelief at his name and dates carved so irrefutably in stone. And now, the friend who delivered that awful news is himself buried not all that far away from Francesco.
I have carried this grief around for nearly half a century. I cannot write it out of my system. It surfaces whenever something reminds me of him, like the first time I saw Gaudier’s photo.
One of my younger sisters had an especially intimate bond with our mother. Our mother saw my sister through a disastrous divorce that involved abuse, stalking, harassment, and the impoverishment that often accompanies a divorced woman who has custody of small children and no skills, other than being a housewife and mother. Our mother saved her in a hundred ways. Although our mother died almost ten years ago, I still catch myself thinking I should call her to ask her something about family history or see how she is getting along. Then I gasp for a second and realize she is gone forever.
This sister tells me that the souls of the departed return to earth in the form of cardinals, and whenever she sees one in her backyard, she thanks our mother for visiting her. Is it the striking, otherworldly red, or the black mask that suggests a messenger from the departed? I wish I could see cardinals this way. But I know they are type of seed-eating tanager and that the females sing.
Perhaps it is even more wondrous to think that Francesco and my mother and other lost loved ones are combinations of molecules in the cells of my brain that somehow appear to me as images whenever these cells are stimulated with electricity moving along neurons. They are stored there for as long as I am alive. Eventually no one who carries these images taken from the real world will be left, and such is our ordinary fate. But these images trigger emotions ― themselves electrochemical in nature ― hence our sadness and grief. That is the way the human brain has evolved. Each individual, sometimes with the help of a culture’s healing ceremonies or the expressions of empathy from friends and family, sometimes from fantasy, art, stories and poetry, may be consoled or at least supported enough to continue functioning. Often there is the counterbalancing force of new life, new births in our circle of friends and family, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. We walk a tightrope with this balancing pole between inconsolable despair for ourselves and hope for a new generation, no matter how pointless the cycle may seem.