Black: I see a different truth. Settin right across the table from me.
White: Which is?
Black: That you must love your brother or die.
–The Sunset Limited, Cormac McCarthy
I’ve been reading through Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited with a literature class I’m teaching this semester. It’s my third time through it, but reading it this time has smacked me. Hard. It’s left a mark.
Fiction hadn’t left much of a mark on me lately. I’ve been focused on creative nonfiction for so long (I’ve spent the past three to four years reading, writing and breathing it as I’ve worked on and finished my graduate school work and writing my own memoir) that I haven’t given fiction much thought.
Recently, though, I’ve thought that I need to stop neglecting fiction because it allows me to see an alternate universe that sometimes speaks more loudly and clearly than my own. Not only that, truthfully, I’ve taken it up again out of necessity. I’ve been teaching a gen. ed. literature class this past fall, and in the spring I’ll be teaching a novels class (We’ll be reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, Love by Toni Morrison—all favorites of mine. We’ll also be reading a book called How to Read Novels Like a Professor that I think will be helpful for my students.).
I’ve discovered I’ve been away for far too long.
My mother’s been in and out of the hospital over the past four weeks—once for surgery, and twice now because she hasn’t been able to eat or drink or even stay awake. She hasn’t been able to take her medication, which has led to a whole host of other life-threatening issues associated with multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure, arterial disease and blood clots and more health issues that are too numerous to list here. Physically fragile, she’s developed complications from a surgery to remove her thyroid. Doctors discovered that she has diabetes on top of it all. Thankfully, she seems on the mend, but I never take anything for granted when it comes to her health.
My lit class had its last discussion of The Sunset Limited yesterday, and the book’s central questions, “Who is my neighbor” and “Am I my brother’s keeper,” have been resounding through me.
My mother lives alone. She doesn’t drive. She can’t get out unless someone helps her. If one health issue isn’t setting her back for weeks at a time, it’s another. She suffers. She needs. Before I began writing creative nonfiction and trying to better understand her (I admit, I can never know the extent of her suffering), I found her inconvenient. I resented having to help her. It cut in on my time. Rather than willingly help her, I found just being around her became a chore because she needed so much. I wanted our relationship to be about me, not her. I believed she was making me suffer. White, a character in The Sunset Limited, has brought this in to even sharper focus for me.
White is the epitome of selfishness. Every time I read the book, I become more and more empathetic toward him, largely because I’ve seen that trait in myself over and over and over ad nauseum. He makes other people’s pain about himself. When Black (the character who’s trying to get White to see the futility of his “elegant” suffering) asks White what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, White acknowledges that something awful happened to someone close to him. While we never learn what that tragedy was, Black asks White if it tells him something about himself. White responds, “Yes. Don’t get close to people.”
“You a hard case, man,” Black says.
White ultimately sees people as “loathsome” and one of my students rightly pointed out that when we see others as loathsome or inconvenient or boorish or whatever, if we hate our brothers, then we can do nothing but hate ourselves because we are our brothers and sisters. When we hate others, when we hate ourselves, we can do nothing more than die because all of life becomes futile.
“I mean, it’s hopeless. This place is just a moral leper colony,” White tells Black. When we separate ourselves from the leper colony, we may finally come to White’s conclusion that “The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy. Every road ends in death. Or worse. Every friendship. Every love. Torment. Betrayal, loss, suffering, pain, age, indignity, and hideous lingering illness. All with a single conclusion.”
I was never able to find life until I was able to see my mother as human, rather than simply my mother, the person who was supposed to focus her entire being on me. Black tells White: “You got to get in the right line. Buy the right ticket. Take that regular commuter train and stay off the express. Stay on the platform with your fellow commuter. You might even nod at him. Maybe even say hello. All of them is travelers too. And they’s some of em been in places that most people don’t want to go to. They didn’t neither. They might even tell you how they got there and maybe save you a trip you’ll be thankful you didn’t take.”
And that’s the way with stories, fiction, isn’t it? They help us see our fellow commuters. And if we listen, they can help us avoid taking trips we’re thankful we didn’t take.