Travelling light, or dark

(Daumier, Honore; The Heavy Burden; Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-heavy-burden-160162)

I knew a woman called Janet many years back—bookseller, cook—and remember when she gave up smoking. It was, she explained, one less thing to worry about and to have to carry when you left the house. So, keys and money. This was before people pledged undying love to their phones, obviously. Lately, I’ve noticed how little I carry myself these days: the cash in my wallet has been there since March, untouched. I don’t carry a chequebook or cards, and don’t worry about pens or a notebook.

Still walking so early in the morning, there are no shops open yet, and nothing in them that I need, or plan, to buy anyway. I don’t bother with a notebook because I’d barely be able to see to write. My bunch of keys has shrunk even further: office keys a while gone now; and the keys to the house of the Librarian’s parents not needed these last few months since we’ve not gone down to visit them in Somerset, though they’ve visited us.

Travelling light or lighter, though in the near-dark. Not that burdens are always material, of course, and this year has been a heavy, sometimes crushing, one for people to bear. Literary history abounds in things carried, from memories or a sense of guilt to the objects carried according to the scheme, devised by Professors at the School of Languages in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, ‘for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever’. Words being ‘only’ names for things, ‘it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.’ Gulliver remarks that he has ‘often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave.’[1]

(Illustrated by J. G. Thompson: British Library)

From Corfu in 1935, Lawrence Durrell wrote to Alan Thomas: ‘The peasants are incorrigible thieves and liars, but make up for it by having the dandiest arse-action when they walk. This is due to always carrying huge weights on their heads. They’re very saucy and can be persuaded to do almost anything within reason.’[2] ‘Within reason’ is nicely placed.

When Greece’s terrible years of invasion and occupation by the Nazis were beginning, Mark Mazower relates, the Chief of Police in Mytilene, Nikolaos Katsareas, ‘had a finger in food and fuel rackets, helped “supervise” allocations of flour to the island’s bakers, and finally fled at an opportune moment by caique to the Middle East so weighed down with large quantities of British tinned goods that he had to ask his fellow-passengers to help him carry them on board.’[3]

In Guy Davenport’s story, ‘Mesoroposthonippidon’, he has Diogenes viewing civilization as ‘weightless’, since he carries books in his head. In ‘On Some Lines of Virgil’, though, during the visit to the cave at Pair-non-Pair, Jolivet carries his disabled friend Marc Aurel—who has lost both his legs—on his back: a burden borne  by choice whereas his Uncle Jacques represents, rather, the burden imposed by familial duty.[4]

‘Now we are truly adult, we think, stunned that this is what being adult means’, Natalia Ginzburg wrote in an essay called ‘Human Relations’, ‘nothing at all like what we thought it meant as children, certainly not self-confidence, certainly not a serene mastery over all worldly things. We are adult because we carry with us the mute presence of the dead, from whom we ask counsel in our present actions, from whom we ask forgiveness for past offenses; we’d like to rip away all our past cruelties of word and deed, from the time when we still feared death, but had no idea, couldn’t yet fathom, how irreparable and irremediable death was. We are adult because of all the silent answers, all the silent pardons of the dead that we carry within.’

In another essay, ‘My Craft’, she comments that, ‘When writing a story, you must toss in the best of everything you have seen and possess, the best of everything you’ve gathered throughout your life. Details can dissipate: if they’re carried around for long periods without being used, they wear out. And not only details but everything—ideas, clever turns of phrase.’[5]

(Natalia Ginzburg via Times Literary Supplement)

Tim O’Brien wrote, in The Things They Carried, that, ‘for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.’ He goes on to detail some of those things: ‘They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.’[6]

Often, what we carry is absence, not only the loss of others but of alternative, possible versions of ourselves. Helen Macdonald wrote that: ‘We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.’[7]

Sometimes, in fiction as in life, the burden can be laid down, as with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes among the ‘innumerable’ cowslips: ‘She knelt down among them and laid her face close to their fragrance. The weight of all her unhappy years seemed for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been; and in another moment she was released. It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been. Tears of thankfulness ran down her face. With every breath she drew, the scent of the cowslips flowed in and absolved her.’[8]

That weight is sometimes an accumulation of light, apparently slight things, as Charles Olson wrote:

Feather to feather added
(and what is mineral, what
is curling hair, the string
you carry in your nervous beak, these

make bulk, these, in the end, are
the sum[9]

Notes


[1] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726; edited by Paul Turner, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 184-185.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, edited by Alan G. Thomas (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 32.

[3] Mark Mazower, Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 56.

[4] Guy Davenport, Eclogues: Eight Stories (London: Picador, 1984), 110, 117; 176-179.

[5] A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 32, 47.

[6] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990; London: Fourth Estate, 2015), 14, 17-18.

[7] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 129.

[8] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926; London: Virago Press, 1993), 149.

[9] Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 5.