March 04, 2007
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
I just finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which she completed by the age of 23. Called a literary sensation, there are times throughout the novel you realize a young girl is writing and other times when you scratch your head and think - "how is this kind of insight possible with such a background at such an age?"
The setting is a small Southern town, the cosmos universal and eternal. From a 1981 synopsis: The characters are the damned, the voiceless, the rejected. Some fight their loneliness with violence and depravity, some with sex or drink, and some -- like Mick -- with a quiet, intensely personal search for beauty." That about covers it.
There are times in the book where you want to just grab a character, any character and say, "I'm here, I'll listen to you." Since none of them feel heard, they find solace in speaking to a deaf mute, who at times can understand what they say and at other times, its enough that he just listens.
On men -- all men or the men in the book? this is not clear -- she writes, "in some men, it is in them to give everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons - throw it to some human being or some human idea. They have to."
I thought of illusion after reading that, and the power of illusion. It is in many cases what keeps things and people going but sometimes, it is what kills them.
There are also female discussions, some of them among teenage girls: Portia who is a colored teenage girl who works for a poor white family, of which 15 year old Mick, the main character, is a daughter. Mick dreams of being a musician, a composer, the Belle from Beauty & The Beast. They speak in their broken-down English, and Portia, who struggles to make sense of the world says to Mick one afternoon:
"You going to traipse all around like you have to find something lost. Your heart going to beat enough to kill you because you don't love and don't have peace. An then some day, you going to bust loose and be ruined. Won't nothing help you then." She has a point - know anyone in your life like that?
Perhaps it was Mick who I related to most. Likely because she was a girl and even if she was a fully grown woman in the book, she'd still be a girl -- full of that innocent wanting, longing and hunger to be something more, always something more. And yet, while this was always present, Mick, like every other character in the book was lonely and struggled to be 'heard.'
A single male character who moves to the town can't seem to find respect from anyone in his life - professionally or personally. He has a one-way philosophical discussion with the deaf mute about 'teaching the nobodies the truth so that they can become somebodies.
He makes more progress with Negro doctor Copeland in the town, who not only struggles to unveil the truth about racism and equality to everyone he knows, but to his own family, who has become estranged to him since his children were babies. His daughter, the same Portia who works for Mick's family, is the only one who can cross the strained line that only love can force someone to cross.
Despite their in ability to communicate, Copeland leaves an important message that resonates again and again. "Do Not Attempt to Stand Alone." Yet, all the characters are alone again and again and remain in their own despair.
It is during one of these hungry dialogues that we start to see the breadth of McCuller's writing: "the fire shadows lapped against the walls. The dark, shadowy waves rose higher and the room took on motion. The room rose and fell and all balance was wrong. In helplessness and terror, he strained his eyes, but he could see nothing except the dark and scarlet waves that roared hungrily over him."
In every great passage she writes, you painfully realize how much each character struggles to find clarity, clarity about pretty much anything AND to be understood. Don't we all want to just be understood and listened to? Even more critical during a time when there was a raging war in Europe, racism in the south was brutal and people were struggling to pay their bills.
There were other reasons I related to Mick and it had to do with her yearning to compose, to create, to amaze and dazzle herself and others with great music. During one of her childhood day dreams, she is far away, "she could play the Beethoven symphony any time she wanted to. It was a queer thing about this music she had heard last autumn. The symphony stayed inside her always and grew little by little. The reason was this: the whole symphony was in her mind.
It had to be. She had heard every note and somewhere in the back of her mind, the whole of the music was still there, just as it had been played. But she could do nothing to bring it all out again. Except wait and be ready for the times when suddenly a new part came to her. Wait for it to grow like leaves grow slowly on the branches of a spring oak tree." I get that Mick. I get that. Any musician would understand. Anyone who thrives on passion, the kind that is nurtured in just the right way, will understand too.
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