Opened Graves, Emptied Coffins
March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
Finished: The Art of Fielding.
SPOILER ALERT: You’ll probably want to skip this post for now if you plan on reading The Art of Fielding anytime soon.
Given that the Bible is the wellspring of 2000 years of Western culture, it’s not surprising that the empty grave, and the resurrected body, should be recurring features in our literature. Early on in The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (through his character Mike Schwartz) introduces a lesser-known example from the life of Emerson:
“His first wife died young, of tuberculosis. Emerson was shattered. Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave. Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of the woman he loved. Can you imagine? It must have been terrible. Just a terrible thing to do. But the thing is, Emerson had to do it. He needed to see for himself. To understand death. To make death real….”
It’s a little surprising, when you start looking, how many of the open graves in our literature do not partake of the Christian joy and hope in resurrection: how many are full instead of terror, disgust, despair, existential questioning, grim humor. Hamlet, of course. The premature burials and morbid lovers of Poe. The countless tales of “resurrection men” in penny dreadfuls, ballads, and sensational stories.
In the coda to this book, Pella (with the help of Owen, Henry, and Mike) digs up her father’s body to bury him at sea, as she believes he would have wanted. Harbach is referencing a number of the empty graves in American literature with this finale — or at least, it reminded me of them. Most obviously, there is the coffin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, rescuing Ishmael from the Pequod’s doom. The famous last word of that work is “orphan,” and orphans abound in this work: Affenlight’s death leaves Pella orphaned, of course, but Schwartz is also an orphan. You can argue that Henry is also a kind of orphan in this work, at least spiritually. His parents are nonentities in his life, objecting to the liberality of his college experience; further, his spiritual father, Aparicio Rodriguez, is present for his public humiliation, leaving him too ashamed to meet his hero.
The two other allusions are more subtle, but I think they are there. The possibility entered my mind thanks to the seemingly innocuous fact that Westish plays Amherst in the national championship game. Amherst: hometown of Emily Dickinson, and alma mater of David Foster Wallace. With this choice of opponent, Harbach introduces connections to both the American Renaissance that forms the background of his work and the contemporary milieu of his work.
Dickinson, of course, is one of the great grapplers with death and the afterlife, testing possibilities and asking questions throughout her poetic career, imagining both death in the grave and life beyond it. The questioning and constant self-inspection of Dickinson, and her interest in conceptions of an end to same, are reminiscent of Henry’s journey from “thoughtless being” to “thought” to “return to thoughtless being.” Further, Dickinson is a weighty counterpoint to Emerson and the traditional, male-centered view of American literary history. Pella objects to the Emerson story that Mike tells, “the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”
Infinite Jest also contains (or at least looks forward to) the exhumation of a father: Hal Incandenza’s father James, whose head may contain the antidote to his unstoppably entertaining film. The allusion points out a number of parallels between Harbach’s book and DFW’s, especially the campus setting, casually precocious students, mysterious drive and stamina of gifted athletes, addictions to pain and painkillers, and battles with depression and stasis. But the different purposes for grave-robbing in the two novels point out the differences between the authors. I think, in this scene, that Harbach is referencing Infinite Jest (by way of Moby-Dick, and Hamlet, and Dickinson) to attempt to move beyond the postmodern condition which DFW critiqued and which Affenlight diagnoses earlier in the book, the crippling self-consciousness and “profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action.” In Owen’s eulogy over the body, he remembers Guert Affenlight’s belief “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.” He asserts the continuation of Guert’s soul in the people he loved, the works to which he devoted it. The whole scene feels a little like a “didactic little parable-ish story” at the close of a tragicomic, linear narrative of liberal-arts education. But we’ve seen that it’s actually pretty complex, and that it’s about how to be an adult, how to move beyond education: how to choose what to think about. The orator of the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech would be proud.