Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pat Conroy & The Power of the Human Spirit

Today Pat Conroy's new novel came out. Therefore, today, after class, I headed over to Lincoln Square's Barnes and Noble and read it. It's called South of Broad. 512 pages of sheer humanity. See, when I first learned of Pat Conroy, his books seemed melodramatic and impossible to me. They were too lush, like a fruit that was slightly overripe. But I learned to love Pat Conroy because I learned to see that he was writing for and about the human spirit and its sheer indominability. He speaks of sin turned to sacrament, of the broken people who never come home the way they should. And when you finish reading him you feel like you've been blessed, because something sacred that hollows you out and nevertheless fills you has come into your life. You remember that you're lucky, that you're blessed. You realize that Conroy has figured out how to capture the soaring heights the soul can reach, and taught you yet again that love is only worthwhile when given freely, without constraints or limits. It's endless and unquenchable, and depends not on the one who is loved but on the lover. That's why we love people no matter what they do, and we're purer and the more sanctified for it.

There's a passage that particularly struck me; it's on page 172.
    "We were the girls of Charleston," Molly says. "They raised us to be the most charming of idiots. We're the sweet confections, the sugar dumplings who are the pride and joy of a dying society. I don't think my parents even know they were coconspirators in the scheme to erase my brain."
He's writing about the girls of Charleston, but it strikes me that works pretty well for the majority of Bais Yaakov girls as well. Incidentally, I think the line Chaim Grade uses regarding Musarniks applies to us Bais Yaakov girls. "You can't take Musar out of the Musarnik," Grade's characters assert. In some unmistakable way, that's true of the Bais Yaakov girls as well. Can't take the Bais Yaakov out of a Bais Yaakov girl; it's with her in some form to her dying day. Takes different forms in different people; it depends on their experience. With me, it's the voice of my beloved damnable teacher that whispers in my head; it never ceases to remind me of my worthlessness. I don't say that so you can pity me; there's nothing you can do to change it. It's a fact of life, as true as the fact that the sun rises in the morning. I say that only so that I can realize it myself, set it down in words so as to conquer them.

But then Conroy comes right back at you with something magnificent and life-affirming, something beautiful that warms you through your body and makes you feel like he's injected you with some sort of life-giving potion. This appears on page 510:
    We have been touched by the fury of storms and the wrath of an angry, implacable God. But that is what it means to be human, born to nakedness and tenderness and nightmare in the eggshell fragility of mortality and flesh. The immensity of the Milky Way settles over the city, and the earthworms rule beneath the teeming gardens in their eyeless world. I am standing with my best friends in the world in complete awe at the loveliness of the South.
And so, when you turn the last page, you thank God for the fact that you haven't been raped, abused or molested, that your brother didn't commit suicide and you've had a wonderful life for the most part, actually. You realize your blessings but what's more, you realize that the glory and grandeur of life are yours for the taking, and it's for you to make the choice to step out and choose to live. The world is both beautiful and tragic and one must be open to it. We must trust, love, suffer, forgive, revel in the beauty and sadness of our lives. To live is a kind of magic; to love is to experience God. And Conroy shows us this in the bonds of friendship that he writes, potent and powerful and heady as alcohol, an elixir dancing in the veins. Friendship knows no bounds- there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. For friendship is a form of love, one of the purest that we know.

To live is to choose to be vulnerable, but life is the greatest gift we have. Sometimes I don't remember that. Thank you, Conroy, for reminding me. And thank you, my friend-in his and every sense of the word-, for first showing me the power vested in his evocative, dark, sarcastic, hilarious and tragic works.

1 comment:

Jewish Atheist said...

Conroy's great but so heart-wrenching. The craziest thing I read him say was in an interview, in a response to questions about whether his dad was really as awful as the father in some of his books. He said his father was in reality much worse and that he had to actually tone him down to seem believable.