One Sweep of Apprehension and Tenderness

Carson McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was only 22, and the book was quite a sensation in the Literary world. Critics compared her to Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence. Richard Wright said “To me the most impressive aspect of ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”

As I read the novel three quarters of a century later the book still resonates for me, almost as if it was but freshly minted. Though some progress has been made on the issue of civil rights–for instance, the march of a thousand men on Washington envisioned by the black Doctor Benedict Mady Coleman has happened, and a black president sits in the White House serving out his second term–there is still much to be done. McCullers was quite prescient in describing the unequal treatment under the law that inspires the current Black Lives Matter movement.

The main theme of the book, loneliness, has only intensified over time. We are all Eleanor Rigby, picking up rice in a church where a wedding has been. We are all Hank Williams. So lonesome we could cry. We are all lonely hunters. In 1949 Carson McCullers would write an essay entitled ‘Loneliness . . . An American Malady.’ Though loneliness is no doubt experienced in all corners of the globe, it seems that America has produced its own brand. With all our focus on productivity, we have only painted ourselves into a corner. Our technological innovations meant to connect have only increased our isolation. Perhaps it is the flip side of rugged individualism?

I really feel this loneliness intensely. It isn’t the kind of thing you want to start a conversation with. A confession of loneliness is a most effective human repellant. ‘Hi, I’m a black hole of loneliness and need so intense that if you take one step closer you’ll be sucked into the vortex and completely and totally annihilated,’ is not the way to make friends and influence people. I wouldn’t open with it.

But, seriously, I have found solace in Literature, but for a while that was widening the gap. I would read a book like War and Peace or Infinite Jest and then I would want to talk to Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace, but they weren’t available. Holden Caulfield liked books where you would finish the book feeling like you knew the author and could call him up and go have a beer with him, but good luck chatting with J.D. Salinger. Even when he was alive he was a total hermit. And with fans as crazy as his, can you blame him? I would settle for someone who had read ‘War and Peace,’ let alone written it. But guess what? In today’s post Gutenberg Parenthesis world few people read much anymore.  Readers of any door stop novel that exceeds a thousand pages are few and far between.

Anyway, I had to lower my standards if I wanted to have any friends at all, and I also thought of it this way: Of all the many characters in ‘War and Peace,’ how many of them would be capable of reading it? Maybe Pierre, and a few others. I doubt if either Boris or Natasha would have read it, even had they known that they themselves were in it, along with all their friends and relations. Boris would have pretended to read it if he thought it would aid him in social climbing. So, to be an author, you can’t really confine your conversations only to people who have read ‘War and Peace.’ The readership for serious Literary fiction is dwindling and it’s hard enough finding people to talk to, let alone read your serious Literary fiction, or listen to an intense one-sided conversation (soliloquy? monologue?) about such things. Shakespeare and Tolstoy were interested in all manner of people. I think of myself as shy, and am afraid of being boring to people, but probably come off more as arrogant and stuck up–thinking I’m too smart to talk to the hoi polloi. I’m working on the problem and getting better at the Art of Conversation, better at listening; but I still crave deep conversations where you can delve into arcane aspects of Art, Literature, and the Human Condition, without holding back.

So, when I am starved for conversation I seek solace in Literature, and when I want to talk, I put my thoughts down on paper. If what I write still seems lucid the next day, in the cold light of morning, I post it on my blog, and the catharsis is almost complete. I like channeling this urge to communicate–this accursed loneliness–into my writing. It is a blessing in disguise.

I wanted to read this book because it was one of three books that Azar Nafisi wrote about in her book, The Republic of Imagination. After finishing the excellent book by McCullers I read what Azar Nafisi had to say about it, and I was in such accord with her views that this blog verges on plagiarism. I tried not to copy anything verbatim, but did use the exact same quotes as her–the one by Richard Wright and two by McCullers. They really illuminate the book and clear up the questions that arose. They are perfect quote choices, and it was impossible not to use them.

In The Republic of Imagination Azar Nafisi writes about the outline for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, with the working title: The Mute. I found the complete outline in The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Illumination & Night Glare. After reading the book I found the outline most illuminating. It says exactly what she was trying to do, and how she wanted to do it. The book follows the outline with a few notable changes. It is helpful especially to anyone who intends to write any books of their own.

Anyway, I really admire what McCullers has to say on the subject of loneliness. She has fashioned an extended metaphor consisting of four main characters who all have secret passions that delude themselves into believing they are sharing with a fifth character, who is a deaf mute. The ironically named Mr. Singer is engaged in a parallel delusion with the sixth character, another deaf mute, Antonapoulos. Singer pours his heart out in hand signs and unsent letters to the Greek, who doesn’t comprehend or appreciate any of it. He is totally unworthy of the gifts Singer showers him with, and doesn’t even show him the empathy Singer gives to the others.

The working title for the book was ‘The Mute,’ and McCullers described the theme in her outline as “man’s revolt against his own inner isolation and his urge to express himself as fully as is possible.” McCullers is perhaps closest to the character Mick Kelly. Mick is an intense but awkward young tomboy who yearns to compose music inspired by ‘Motsart’ and Beethoven’s Third Symphony, The Eroica, which she hears from a neighbor’s radio while lurking behind a shrubbery. McCullers also had dreams of becoming a concert pianist, but at 15 decided on becoming an author instead.

It achieves maximum irony when Mick confides her musical aspirations to the deaf mute Singer, who reads lips, and can make out her words, but who knows what he makes of the concept of sound, let alone music?

“A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Nevertheless, Mick projects onto Singer the capacity to somehow comprehend all the inchoate music that swirls in her soul. At one point she fantasizes about falling through the ice of a pond and being saved by Singer. Indeed, though it is doubtful that he understands the music that torments Mick Kelly, or whatever torments the others, he does at least offer compassion and empathy. He even buys a radio for his guests to listen to, and Mick especially avails herself of that amenity.

Singer is a restless soul and when not comforting the lost souls who flock to him he roams about. Many who see him project their own illusions upon him. The Turk feels he understands Turkish. The Jews felt he was a Jew. The rich merchants felt like he was also rich. He was a blank slate upon which people could project what they wanted.

McCullers was very musical and in her outline says the form of her book is “contrapuntal throughout.” And then says: “Like a voice in a fugue each one of the main characters is an entirety in himself–but his personality takes on a new richness when contrasted and woven in with the other characters in the book.”

Indeed, over the basic story of the mute and the five others there is also the counterpoint and fugue voices of richly developed minor characters: Dr. Coleman’s family–Portia, William, Hamilton, and Karl Marx; Mick’s father and her brother Bubber, and her friend Harry Minowitz; and last but not least, Baby, her era’s answer to Honey Boo Boo.

There is a scene where all four of Singer’s followers converge on his apartment at the same time, but an awkward silence ensues. Each guest is reluctant to share their secrets with others present.

Another telling scene has Jake Blount–a would-be socialist leader, who works as a carnival roustabout, coming to Dr. Coleman’s house when he learns that the Doctor’s son William has been crippled by cruel mistreatment by the guards while he was in prison. Jake wants to cart the crippled Willie around to tell his story so he can then explain what happened with his radical political views, to win converts to his cause.

The Doctor’s reaction was no less helpful as he had tried to talk to a judge but had himself been beaten and thrown in jail. The Doctor is delusional with fever and recovering from his stay in jail, but Jake forces his way in, and spends the night arguing with the Doctor. Jake feels he has some special knowledge, and has read books on philosophy and politics, as has the Doctor. They both feel that they are too clever to fall for God or religion–‘the opiate of the people.’ Jake recognizes the Doctor as a fellow traveler, one of the rare few who “know.” Yet they spend their time in pointless argument. They are both plagued by conflicting emotions of love and contempt; wanting to help people, thinking they can show them the way, but angry at them for not understanding, for not doing what they think is best.

There is no happy Hollywood ending for anyone, and indeed, in 1940 there is a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Biff Brannon is hearing ominous voices on the radio and while Hitler and the Nazis would ultimately be defeated, nuclear weapons would also soon be unleashed.

In spite of the lack of a happy ending, I still felt an uplift from this book. Maybe I just felt a little less lonely knowing there are others who feel this way; but I think that the characters were liberated from a false sense of being heard, an illusion of being listened to and understood, and as painful as it is, they revolt against inner isolation and struggle to express themselves as fully as is possible, by any means necessary. Even if all the characters fail in this endeavor, there is something noble about the cause. Others will take up the fight, and keep fighting until their cause is won. Maybe you or I will be the ones to finally break through.

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