Yesterday, Les UDs hiked the towpath at the C & O Canal Park in Maryland. UD has visited these rocks and waterfalls all her life, first following the flat canal past mules pulling tourist boats, and then hanging over bridges above the rapids.

One winter Sunday in 1969, she walked the half-muddy, half-frozen towpath with her boyfriend, David Kosofsky. The day after that walk, she wrote a poem about it (the poem appeared in the Walter Johnson High School literary magazine, The Spectator). The first lines of the poem are this post’s title.

With David’s recent death in mind, UD yesterday recalled that day at the canal forty-two years ago. Her poem described David crashing a good-sized rock onto the canal’s surface, and the rock barely denting the ice. This seems to have struck wee UD as a metaphor for the way lovers try to break through the resistant enigma of each other … Maybe lovers even believe they have pierced the ice and gotten to the deep heart’s core , through the labyrinth of another’s being… More likely, love represents an unstoppable, every-day-briskly-setting-out, venture into the labyrinth… The thrown boulder, UD wrote in her teenage poem, barely nicks the surface. / Yet we never quite admit defeat. / Is this love?

Throughout our lives, David’s and mine, this idea of the mystery of other people expanded to embrace the mystery of one’s own self, and then the mystery of a larger world of humanity, nature, the divine. Here’s an excerpt from an October 2008 Gchat between UD and David. In it, he mentions his sister, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

UD: i’ve always been able to – it feels like really enter into the personality of certain other people
i guess that’s often a novelist’s – or a deep reader’s – trait
leaving yourself
entering other people
or some plausible version of other people
like… norman bates becoming his mother!!

David: and manage to experience other people from the inside?

UD: that’s how it feels
obviously one can’t know to what extent one’s getting anything right
but that’s how it feels – really climbing into their skin

David: have you ever read Dilthey? His idea of `verstehen’? It’s about that… only as applied to history or sociology.

UD: yes – verstehen is in fact an interesting way of approaching what i’m trying to get at
understanding deeply
selflessly
only sometimes i think it’s a little crazy

David: Eve and I, when we were younger, used to talk about what you were just talking about… that kind of understanding of another person… whether it was possible… and if so whether desirable.. and if so whether (as Eve always insisted) FRIGHTENING.

But in Iris Murdoch’s unfrightening sense, this entering into the truths of another person was the basis of virtue:

[M]ost great writers have a sort of calm merciful vision because they can see how different people are and why they are different. Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centers of reality which are remote from oneself. The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world in his own image. I think this kind of merciful objectivity is virtue…

Key to mercy is this retained sense of the shadowiness of other human beings. Robert Penn Warren begins a poem to his child this way:

Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true.

He wants to speak to his child directly, unload his wisdom and his love… And yet nothing direct can be said. The poem is a series of beautiful indirections, failures to say anything forthrightly.

And when, by the hair, the headsman held up the head
Of Mary of Scots, the lips kept on moving,
But without sound. The lips,
They were trying to say something very important
.

In that same chat, David put the matter in Buddhist terms.

David: within each person (I’m not stating this as an empirical fact or observation at all… it’s a `belief’ if you will) there is what I’ll call (since I guess I got…
… the idea from this tradition) a Buddha Nature. The trick of really understanding a person… in the sense of wanting to be compassionate… or of actually BEING compassionate towards them…
… is to find… to recognize their Buddha Nature.

***************************************

Was anything less shadowy now, avoiding stretches of towpath mud with my husband?

No. The clarity I’d gained was about the compassion drawn forth from obscurity.

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