I remember the phone call, coming as I was just waking up and looking at the day ahead with trepidation. The Spanish lab technician, speaking Italian, told me that my embryo had stopped developing, on the same day they were supposed to complete the IVF process and transfer it inside me. I remember answering briefly, and looking forward to when I could hang up the call. I looked around the room and saw my mother’s pained face, worried about my pain. Her face told me what I was feeling, for I thought I was feeling nothing. I was empty.
And here comes the surprise. I thought suffering would be rich, like a gushing of moist tears on the cheek. It was dry instead. I thought it would mean fumbling for some action or solution, but it was very still. In my being – ‘at the still point of the turning world’ -- there was neither meaning nor will. Void.
I thought suffering would be rich, like a gushing of moist tears on the cheek. It was dry instead. I thought it would mean fumbling for some action or solution, but it was very still.
Let’s move back a few months. I’m attending my online poetry group, and I hear my dear friend Gareth, a Larkin enthusiast, read this poem:
Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun's occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.
Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfillment's desolate attic.
It’s Philip Larkin’s ‘Deceptions’, about a woman being raped, which Larkin read about in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor which provides the epigraph. (I hope the reader will be kind enough not to think that I am comparing the amount of suffering, the intensity, or the lastingness of the damage in the two given cases, so let’s proceed.) ‘Suffering is exact’. To a mind that lays ‘open like a drawer of knives’, to a person to whom light is ‘unanswerable and tall and wide’, exposing things as they are, suffering is nothing like the familiar picture of a river of tears.
This is exactitude. Your existence shown up to yourself unadorned. A moment in which one sits still and just observes: ‘This is it, now’. Not because one likes it, but because there’s nothing else to do.
‘Suffering is exact’. What a striking line. I think that day, two months after hearing it, this line played in my head, and revealed a face of its truth. There is, following Larkin’s thought, a coolness about suffering, like a winter light that falls upon the furniture and reveals all the specks of dust, the stitches, the coffee stains. There is nowhere to go. This is exactitude. Your existence shown up to yourself unadorned. A moment in which one sits still and just observes: ‘This is it, now’. Not because one likes it, but because there’s nothing else to do.
This is one kind of suffering. Not all suffering is like this. But perhaps it is ‘the’ suffering, suffering having exhausted all alternatives, or not seeking for any. It is the suffering that knows itself, and hence seeks no escape. Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic who had, and witnessed, more suffering than many of us could bear (think: factory workers’ alienation, civil war in Spain, and then the Second World War in France and England, to name the most striking ones) named this kind of suffering ‘affliction’ and gave us something remarkable to think about it. The afflicted, according to Weil, is plunged into the void, because she has nothing, she is nothing. And from there, she can be saved.
I may be doing injustice to Weil and breaking her own requirements for affliction – that the suffering be total, physical, psychological, social – to apply her brilliant thoughts to more ordinary cases of suffering such as the one I used, at the start of this piece, to ground my thoughts: mostly for myself, but perhaps for some of you, too, whose suffering feels just like this void, but feel ashamed to say it because it feels like you didn’t earn the label by going through some more objectively tragic event.
So be it. Let’s call it suffering, and not affliction, but let’s see what we can learn by describing it in a similar way. Like Larkin, Weil saw the emptiness, the helpless and unadorned state generated by suffering, as a door to truth. Larkin saw clarity in suffering. Weil saw truth. In the absence of consolation which grasps hopelessly at the twigs offered from above, both our vision and our being are clear.
Like Larkin, Weil saw the emptiness, the helpless and unadorned state generated by suffering, as a door to truth. Larkin saw clarity in suffering. Weil saw truth.
We do not grasp, we do not embellish; being nothing, we feel we can be no better than anyone else: we do not judge.
This is not yet another kind of consolation. Nor is it a reason to seek this form of suffering (if one did go after it, moreover, it would be self-defeating). Weil transforms metaphysically what is in Larkin a psychological observation. She finds the sufferer into the ‘void’, where we are nothing, and see ourselves as such. There, devoid of illusion, devoid of ego, we have no interest to pursue anything, not just physically but also psychically. There, we are as close as we can get to the original mind, the objective mind with no desire, interest, point of view.
These are heady thoughts. I advise the reader who is intrigued by them to look into Weil’s reflections to find the full meaning and richness of her insights. What I wanted to do in this piece was find a space for the silent, still suffering that I think so many experience, a specific form of suffering, and see what can be found in it; to reflect together on the idea that sometimes the question is not ‘what to do’ with our suffering. Indeed, what can we do with the suffering of a broken heart?
It’s no consolation. And that’s precisely the point.
What I wanted to do in this piece was find a space for the silent, still suffering that I think so many experience, a specific form of suffering, and see what can be found in it; to reflect together on the idea that sometimes the question is not ‘what to do’ with our suffering.