Art Goes Where Humans Can’t

Evelyn de Morgan, "Angel of Death"

As I watched my three seniors present their St. Mary’s Projects to the school last week, the thought that went through my mind was “they’re grown-ups!” All three were confident, commanding the podium and then answering questions.  Only I knew how nervous they had been before stepping up.

To honor all graduating seniors, I share here an excerpt from Erica Rutkai’s project in which she studied the grieving process and applied her understanding to Gail Godwin’s novel The Good Husband. A past post describes how Erica has been writing this project while her mother is dying of a brain tumor. Her mother hopes to make it to Erica’s graduation and, rather inspiringly given the discomfort of a long car ride, came to the Baccalaureate ceremony to see her daughter win a major departmental award.

The excerpt looks at how Godwin’s protagonist, literature professor Magda Danvers, turns to John Donne’s “Of the Progress of the Soul: The Second Anniversary” to help her negotiate the cancer that is killing her. Magda focuses on the following passage:

Think then, my soul, that death is but a groom,
Which brings a taper to the outward room,
Whence thou spiest first a little glimmering light,
And after brings it nearer to thy sight;
For such approaches doth heaven make in death.

Through Magda’s use of Donne and her own use of Godwin, Erica shows how literature can help us find our way to grieving’s desired end: acceptance of death.

By Erica Rutkai ’12, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

. . . Magda uses her own background as a professor of visionary studies to further explore the meaning of life through death. By drawing on the power of literature, she is able to make broader connections between her own experience and the more general themes of life.

In a paramount exchange between Magda and [novelist and friend] Hugo Henry, Magda explores Donne’s “The Second Anniversary” by reflecting on an essay she wrote in her undergraduate years. She states that “the poet comforts his soul by comparing Death to a groom slowly approaching with a taper” and furthermore claims that the groom “brings the light closer into view.” In the essay, Magda claims that Donne “revers[es] the prevalent attitude towards death” by making the groom—read Death—approach with light, something that Magda claims “the human mind associates…with reassurance.” Later, Magda argues that Donne goes even further as to “make death equal heaven.”

After having Hugo re-read this essay, Magda makes the allusive remark, “’My good husband,” further claiming that he—read: it—is “[t]he only one I want.” Hugo, finally understanding her allusion to the poem, makes the connection that Magda  “meant the groom in the poem,” or Death, as opposed to Francis, her husband.  In this way, Godwin directly parallels the use of literature to finding acceptance in death.

Like Donne, Magda seems to think about death in a positive manner, as a “light” in the darkness that is sickness. Using literature to express her deepest thoughts, she exposes her mindset as viewing life as a journey ending in spiritual enlightenment through death. Keep in mind, this comes at a time where Magda’s slow decline has taken a turn for the worst. Thus, this could symbolize the beginning of Magda’s own acceptance of death through the calm realization that death might bring something monumental yet intangible, something relieving, as opposed to the mundane physical pain and stress found in the physical world that she is slowly departing from.

Even more central to the story itself is the way that, through her own slow death, Magda serves as a teacher. Through playing this pivotal role, Magda communicates with other characters to both help them to understand their own experiences with death and grieving as well as to sort out her own experience. As she thinks,

I have shown them some pointers toward the wholeness, led them on day-trips toward it, but I haven’t provided the wholeness myself. That is art’s purpose.  It may be the only way we can get what we strive for in this life. The human condition is notorious for its lack of wholeness.

With an eye to the future, she examines the lives of Francis, Alice, and Hugo in order to develop a schema of what is important in this life. Although her speculative gaze seems inconsiderate at times, she uses it in a proactive analysis of dying. What other characters may experience as secondary loss, Magda imagines as a way of “keeping company” after she leaves the physical world.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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