October 3, 2013
Last week the air was filled with noise about the teaching of certain books by certain kinds of writers and not others and teaching only what you love. The question of loving (or not loving?) what you teach preoccupies me. What does love mean in this context? Surely it depends on the kind of love. If it’s a love that only permits you to take in things that look like yourself then the nature of the love is a problem. If love means believing that something matters, then we who teach the writing and reading of literature or anything at all need to love what we teach. We need to teach books because we believe that they are an urgent matter, that the art of reading literature and responding to it is an urgent way of being alive. Otherwise, why do it? Love as altruism and an attention to the world beyond us. (There’s tenderness in attention, a stretching towards something, from the Latin tendere, that is surely required to truly take in something or someone other than ourselves.)
All the noise steered me back to a story I hadn’t read in a long, long time, “The Blank Page” by Isak Dinesen, from her Last Tales. It’s available online here. It’s a story about storytelling, and life, and reading, but not imprisoned in self-referentiality. It’s too mysterious for that. All the storytellers in it are women. It’s mostly narrated by an old woman who makes a living as a storyteller, whose grandmother admonishes her while giving her a kind of professional advice.
“Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence.”
I don’t want to try to summarize the story because I want others to read it. I want you to read it. It’s not long. Read it out loud if you can. The story itself, within the story, is passed from voice to voice or hand to hand. It asks us to pay attention in unstraightforward ways. It tells of journeys through time and space, of different lives, of nuns and princesses, of flax made into the finest linen and sheets woven of it that are stained with the blood of women from their marital beds and hung in frames on the wall of a gallery to be viewed by others. Viewers read lives into each sheet. There is one framed sheet that remains blank. Which might have been left out but wasn’t. Out of loyalty, which is perhaps another kind of love. What happened to cause its blankness? We aren’t told. The blank sheet is the one that strikes its viewers dumb — and makes them think.
The blank page is not noisy with event. It gestures to what isn’t there, what isn’t spoken or can’t be spoken or speaks through silence and is nevertheless felt as a presence. The best writing invokes such a silence. The strongest words have silence on the other side of them. The words shape themselves around what isn’t there even as they summon up what is. The loyalty that is demanded of storytellers is also asked of readers: pay attention, pay attention to the absences, which are their own heart beat.