A Little Life: Hanya Yanagihara on the Inescapability of the Past, the Solace of Friendship & the Limits of Human Endurance

Hanya Yanagihara’s masterful A Little Life is-dare I say- one of the best books I’ve ever read.  hanyaFerociously heart-breaking and profoundly, unimaginably upsetting, this harrowing beauty of a novel chronicles the saga of four college friends: Willem, a handsome, kind-hearted actor, Malcolm, an aspiring architect, J.B., a talented-if cocky-artist, and Jude, a mysterious litigator.  The setting: New York City, the twinkling land of starry-eyed hopefuls where the only thing people have in common, one character notes, is their drive for success.  When the novel opens, each character has yet to materialize his ambitions: Willem, like most would-be actors, spends his evenings waiting tables in between auditions, his tips sustaining him rejection after demoralizing rejection; J.B., like most starving artists, pays his electricity bill not by selling his paintings but by working at a downtown art magazine as a receptionist while Malcolm, despite having landed an impressive associate position at a prestigious architecture firm, finds himself hopelessly unfulfilled.  As Sinatra sang in his classic ode to the restless city, Yanagihara’s characters have “vagabond shoes” that are “longing to stray.”  But what first appears to be your typical bildungsroman about four best friends trying to make it in the big city turns out to be both a devastating and heart-warming account of the inescapability of the past, the solace of friendship, and the limits of human endurance. 

A Little Life purports to be the story of four friends but the story is really Jude’s alone.  Beautiful but tortured, Jude is a mysterious figure throughout much of the novel: no one, not even Willem or Malcolm or J.B., know anything about his upbringing.  Such an enigma is he that J.B. takes to calling him the “postman” because he’s “post-sexual, post-racial, post-past, post-identity.”  Over the course of 700 horrifying pages, we learn Jude was abandoned at a monastery at birth and as a child was made to endure unspeakable sexual, physical, and psychological abuse.  Though Jude goes on to have a life most of us would envy- a successful career as a corporate lawyer, a loving relationship with a thoughtful (not to mention gorgeous) movie star, a New York socialite’s exciting calendar of chic rooftop parties and nights at the theater- he’s a man wounded.  Despairing and tormented by terrible self-loathing, he believes himself fundamentally unlovable after years of being degraded in the most monstrous of ways.  Is it possible, A Little Life wonders, for a man to bear so much suffering and still persist?  Throughout the novel, Jude’s past has a stranglehold on him which he desperately tries to escape:

There were two ways of forgetting.  For many years, he had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of the day, he would gather the images and sequences and words that he didn’t want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly.  But this method wasn’t effective: the memories seeped out anyway.  The important thing, he came to realize, was to eliminate them, not just to store them.  So he had invented some solutions.  For small memories—little slights, insults—you relived them again and again until they were neutralized, until they became near meaningless with repetition, or until you could believe that they were something that had happened to someone else and you had just heard about it.  For larger memories, you held the scene in your head like a film strip, and then you began to erase it, frame by frame.  Neither method was easy: you couldn’t stop in the middle of your erasing and examine what you were looking at, for example; you couldn’t start scrolling through parts of it and hope you wouldn’t get ensnared in the details of what had happened, because you of course would.  You had to work at it every night, until it was completely gone.  Though they never disappeared completely, of course.”

The past’s inescapability becomes one of the novel’s paramount themes when Jude realizes he’s a little lifeeternally doomed to his own identity.  Just as “x must always equal x,” who he was must always define who he is.  He may have love and friendship, prestige and wealth but he will never be entirely liberated from the horrors of history:

The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume it is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered.  But it is impossible to prove.  Always, absolutes, nevers: these are the words, as much as numbers, that make up the world of mathematics.  Not everyone liked the axiom of equality––Dr. Li had once called it coy and twee, a fan dance of an axiom––but he had always appreciated how elusive it was, how the beauty of the equation itself would always be frustrated by the attempts to prove it.  It was the kind of axiom that could drive you mad, that could consume you, that could easily become an entire life.

But now he knows for certain how true the axiom is, because he himself––his very life––has proven it.  The person I was will always be the person I am, he realizes.  The context may have changed: he may be in this apartment, and he may have a job that he enjoys and that pays him well, and he may have parents and friends he loves.  He may be respected; in court, he may even be feared.  But fundamentally, he is the same person, a person who inspires disgust, a person meant to be hated.” 

The saddest part of A Little Life is that Jude believes himself deserving of such heinous mistreatment.  Violated by the very men who were supposed to protect him, forced as a child into prostitution: Jude was very obviously a victim.  But- like many victims- he directs his rage inward.  To cope with his trauma, he begins cutting himself, a masochistic habit he continues into adulthood.  Yanagihara spares no mercy in her detailing of Jude’s self-harm, at one point revealing he had long ago “run out of blank skin on his forearms” and so “recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue.”  Seeing the damage he’s inflicted, Jude feels “disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he had deformed himself.”  Such graphic depictions of violence, though gruesome, never feel titillating or excessive but rather seem necessary to depicting Jude’s anguish.  Not only does Yanagihara handle this sensitive material expertly, but she constructs the novel with great skill: just as Jude’s traumatic past relentlessly intrudes on his present, so too does it encroach on the reader in the form of distressing-and disturbing-flashbacks.  James Joyce’s epic hero Stephen Daedalus once memorably called history a “nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”  A haunted man, Jude St. Francis knows intimately this sentiment.  

Though A Little Life probes the depths of human depravity, it also reveals man’s extraordinary capacity for love.  Despite never fully understanding the demons that beset him, Willem, Malcolm and J.B. remain Jude’s loyal friends, selflessly caring for and consoling him during dark nights of the soul.  At times- in fact- I found it hard to believe any one person could be blessed with such devoted supporters.

But A Little Life’s tragedy is that love is not enough to deliver Jude’s soul.  In the end, trauma is trauma is trauma and, though we cherish uplifting stories of redemption, sometimes absolution never comes.  True to life but brutally sad, A Little Life will linger long after you’ve shut it closed.

Why I Write: Joan Didion’s Meditations on Art as the Expression & Discovery of Self

Why do you write?  In answer to this perennial question, poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied, “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead.  I have a kind of primitive need to leave my mark on the world.”  “I write,” Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan maintained, “because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.”  Best-selling author Jane Smiley responded she wrote “to investigate things she was curious about” while James Frey, screenwriter and memoirist behind the controversial A Million Little Pieces, wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”  Other literary luminaries confided writing was a foundational part of their identity, a vocation inseparable from their sense of self.  Being a writer was often described as a destiny etched in the firmament, a kind of fate rather than a conscious choice.  In her timeless essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the New York Times Book Review in December of 1976 and found in The Writer on Her Work Volume IJoan Didion divulges why she personally writes.

joan didionIn her gorgeously understated prose, Didion defines writing as a forceful, even belligerent expression of self:

“Of course I stole the title from this talk, from George Orwell.  One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write.  There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:

I

I

I

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.  Its an aggressive, even a hostile act.  You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space.” 

Later, Didion confesses she always felt like a foreigner in the republic of ideas.  Unlike her peers in Berkeley academia, she was fascinated not by abstractions but by what she could “see and smell and touch”:

I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts.  During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think.  I failed.  My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral.  I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.  I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron up the hill.  When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong.  I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked.  A physical fact…

I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in “Paradise Lost,” the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer.  But I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light.  In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus.  During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas.  I knew I couldn’t think.  All I knew then was what I couldn’t do.  All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.”

Contemplating the titular question of what compels her to put pen to page, Didion explains that for her-much like Henry Miller-writing is a voyage of discovery, a safari into the most unfathomable depths of the self.  With a hint of self-deprecation, she reveals:

“Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer.  Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.  I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Why Work is Essential to Happiness

Since God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden and forced them to toil, we’ve understood work as a terrible burden rather than a source of pleasure.  The common conception is labor is an onerous responsibility, a wearisome obligation to get over and done.  But philosophers throughout the ages have recognized thatdespite prevailing belief— work is crucial to happiness.  “Work,” astute philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell once noted, “is desirable, first and foremost, as a preventive of boredom.”  Not only is work an antidote to ennui— it’s humanity’s most profound source of satisfaction.

Csikszentmihalyi

This vital link between labor and happiness is what ground-breaking positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a brilliant culmination of years of scientific research that today stands as his crowning achievement.  Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as an exalted state of consciousness where you’re so completely absorbed by the task at hand that you experience the pure bliss of doing something for its own sake.  The poet who reveres language and spends hours choosing the word that precisely conveys his meaning, the painter who looks at the clock only to realize a whole day has passed since he first began at the easel, the scientist who so engrossed in a problem— forgets to eat his regular meals: all know this magical state.  

Often called a “man obsessed by happiness,” Csikszentmihalyi and his team devoted years to uncovering what, exactly, brings about this entrancing euphoria.  What Csikszentmihalyi found was that most people experience flow while working.  Though participants surveyed reported far higher rates of engagement while working than while relaxing in leisure, most nevertheless disclosed they’d rather be “somewhere else.”  Csikszentmihalyi observed the opposite phenomenon when participants reported their feelings during leisure.  Despite the fact that they were often the least captivated while say, watching television or reading for pleasure, respondents claimed they felt most motivated while liberated from the drudgery of work.

But why is this?  Csikszentmihalyi attributes the paradox to our cultural attitudes toward work:

“When it comes to work,” he explains, “people do not heed the evidence of their senses.  They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like.  They think of it as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of their freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.”

However, it is just the nature of work—its goal-direction, its confinement to rules, its immediate feedback— that make it so conducive to flow.  Though work provides us with more opportunities for challenge and, thus, genuine gratification, the sad reality is most of us count the minutes until we can leave the office and engage in “real” pleasure.

This, I think, is why free time is so often unsatisfying, why a hard won vacation or sabbatical usually disappoints.  Unstructured time is just that: unstructured.  In order to feel fully engrossed in the moment, to feel enthralled by living, we must be engaged in the pursuit of a goal a few leisurely hours after work offer nothing to strive for.  Yet at work we have countless things for which to aim: the doctor, to cure his patient, the teacher, to explain a difficult math problem.  Without an end in mind, life becomes pointless— we need something to direct our energies.  As New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean notes in her poetically understated prose:

“The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it.  There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go.  I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.  It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”

If the natural state of the mind is entropy, then from a purely psychological, scientific point-of-view, life is chaos.  As Orlean so beautifully articulates, work— a passion, a dream, an obsession shrinks the world to a more “manageable” scope.  It is passion that brings law to anarchy, order to chaos.  Imagine a dazed, humid summer afternoon.  If you passed these hours unhurriedly reading whatever was at hand, I doubt the afternoon would hold any meaning for you.  But if you used your “unstructured” hours for some purpose, say, to read the great romantic poets or study Italian or read philosophy or learn French, those hours would be both more absorbing and more memorable.  

“Contrary to what we usually believe,”  Csikszentmihalyi defends, “the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” 

 

Ted Gup on Facts, Truth & the Value of Not Having an Opinion

If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed.  It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed,” the sage Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote.  Nearly two millennia later, Charles Darwin, a naturalist whose formulation of the theory of evolution made him intimately familiar with the dangers preconceptions posed to truth, proclaimed: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  Unparalleled genius of physics Steven Hawking agreed.  Intelligence, he held, was not the firm, unyielding belief in one’s convictions but an openness, an inquisitiveness, an ability to “adapt to change.”

During our divisive political climate where parties are more polarized than they’ve been in 150 years and everyone seems to be certain of the correctness of their side of the debate, there’s sadly been a decline in our willingness to change.  Opinions are no longer open to reasoning or refutation or facts but have solidified into the intransigence of dogma and the fervor of party politics.  No longer are we open to listening to opposing points-of-view: when confronted with a fact that undermines our position or threatens our worldview, we question its legitimacy, accuse it of being “unreliable.”  A “fact” that contradicts our position is not a fact but a dubious piece of dis-info.  In an era when Oxford English dictionaries named “post-truth” word of the year, it seems objective facts matter less than maintaining our subjective beliefs.  But as Czech novelist Milan Kundera elucidates, an opinion is merely the “hypothesis we favor…imperfect, probably transitory, which only very limited minds can declare to be truth or certainty.”  Despite the frenzied zeal with which we defend them, our opinions, we forget, are just that- opinions, nothing more.

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For journalist Ted Gup, this is the greatest tragedy of our age.  Too many of us are so completely convinced of our opinions that we forget the nobler pursuit of truth.  Rather than act as scientists-make observations, propose hypotheses which we then test, and revise our conjectures as necessary- we become obsessed with defending our stance, only recognizing evidence that confirms what we already believe to be true.  

Featured in NPR’s This I Believe series, a treasure trove of earnest, heartfelt essays in which the exceptional and ordinary share their life philosophies, Gup’s witty “In Praise of the Wobblies” adopts a fresh take on the value of having an opinion or, more accurately, the value of not having one.  Though we tend to admire those with strong convictions, Gup observes impassioned opinion has the habit of mutating into zealotry, certainty into narrow-mindedness, and conclusive answers into a troubling lack of curiosity.  35 years ago when he was just a college kid interviewing for an internship at the Washington Post, Gup confesses he felt insecure about his inability to pledge allegiance to either side of the political debate:

For years I really didn’t know what I believed.  I always seemed to stand in the no-man’s-land between opposing arguments, yearning to be won over by one side or the other, but finding instead degrees of merit in both.  

I remember some thirty-five years ago, sitting at a table with the editor of The Washington Post and a half dozen Harvard kids.  We were all finalists for a Post internship, and the editor was there to winnow our numbers down.  He asked each of us what we thought about the hot issues of the day- Vietnam, Nixon, the demonstrations.  The Harvard kids were dazzling.  They knew exactly where they stood.  Me, I just stumbled on every issue, sounding so muddled.  I was sure I had forever lost my shot at the Post.  Why, I wondered, could I not see as closely as those around me?”  

When a month later he received a rejection letter from the editor explaining he was too young for the internship but that he “hunched” one hell of a future ahead of him, Gup recognized that- unlike those who knew exactly what they thought and were often blinded by their own preconceptions and biases- he, for the very reason that he did not possess a staunch opinion, was more open-minded and able to apprehend reality:

“But that first letter…had already given me an invaluable license.  It had let me know that it was okay to be perplexed, to be torn by the issues, to look at the world and not feel inadequate because it would not sort itself out cleanly.  In the company of the confident, I had always envied their certainty.  I imagined myself a tiny sailboat, aimlessly tacking in whatever wind prevailed at the moment.  

But in time, I came to accept, even embrace, what I called my “confusion,” and to recognize it as a friend and ally, no apologies needed, I preferred to listen rather than to speak; to inquire, not crusade.  As a non-combatant, I was welcomed at the tables of bitterly divided foes

An editor and mentor at the Post once told me I was “wobbly.”  I asked who else was in that category and drew comfort from its quirky ranks.  They were good people all- open-minded, inquisitive, and, yes, confused.  We shared a common creed.  Our articles of faith all ended in a question mark.  I wouldn’t want a whole newsroom, hospital, platoon, or-God forbid-a nation of us.  But in periods of crisis, when passions are high and certainty runs rabid, it’s good to have a few of us on hand.  In such times, I believe it falls to us Wobblies to try and hold the shrinking common ground.”