Friday, February 08, 2008

Bridge of Sighs---Magnificent and devastating contradictions

A selection from Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs:
Odd, how our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime. In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all a choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we're faced with a hundred more and choose again. We choose not just what we'll do, but who we'll be. Perhaps the sound of all those doors swinging shut behind us each time we select this one or that one should trouble us, but it doesn't. Nor does the fact that the doors often are identical and even lead in some cases to the exact same place. Occasionally a door is locked, but no matter, since so many others remain available. The distinct possibility that choice itself may be an illusion is something we disregard, because we're curious to know what's behind that next door, the one we hope will lead us to the very heart of the mystery. Even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary we remain confident that when we emerge, with all our choosing done, we'll have found not just our true destiny but also its meaning. The young see life this way, front to back, their eyes to the telescope that anxiously scans the infinite sky and its myriad possibilities. Religion, seducing us with free will while warning us of our responsibility, reinforces youth's need to see itself at the dramatic center, saying yes to this and no to that, against the backdrop of a great moral reckoning.

But at some point all of that changes. Doubt, born of disappointment and repetition, replaces curiosity. In our weariness we begin to sense the truth, that more doors have closed behind than remain ahead, and for the first time we're tempted to swing the telescope around and peer at the world through the wrong end---though who can say it's wrong? How different things look then! Larger patterns emerge, individual decisions receding into insignificance. To see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, drama's enemy.

Yes. Yes, this is what this age and stage I am at feels like.

Russo's insight into the human condition and moreover, the human soul, combined with his flawed characters who make you care anyway, make him one of my all-time favorite writers. His books can make me choke up, just to see his words, which can pull at my heart, give it a voice.

I had a harder time becoming attached to this book, Bridge of Sighs, versus his other books, all of which had me at the first line. But when one of the main characters, Noonan, an artist from New York but based in Venice, sits in a church and sobs from a well of grief even he doesn't understand, I fell in love with the book before I knew what had happened. I suddenly understood that the straightforwardness and nearly one-dimensional simplicity of this book's characters was a brilliant mask that Russo would slowly peel away, voluntarily or involuntarily, much as we do in real life at times for ourselves and people we cross paths with. I settled into the tale, with full trust that these characters were emerging in such a way that they would become rich and full, and give proof to this theory of how our view of choice changes with age. I comprehended why Russo opted to have the time skip back and forth, and make one character recite more of a memoir beginning with his earliest memory rather than actively be part of a current story. Sometimes we do find that inevitability to life, and we are thrown into situations with people who see us so clearly and whom we see so clearly that it is an ache of ugliness to know another so intimately.

By my age, you do begin to review life and what you thought was choice and how you chose from a different angle. You do begin to wonder just how much freedom there really was, and you begin to see that perhaps you are not the main character in any story outside your own.

"Or so it sometimes seems to me," to again quote Russo in this same section.

The bigger thing that Russo provides for me (that make me fan) are the enormous concepts such as the one I quoted above. That concept is a big chunk of peanut butter that my brain chomps, licks and chews on for a long time, trying simply to swallow it, never mind what it will take to digest it.

When Russo wrote of the youthful belief that we'll find the heart of the mystery, which will reveal our true destination and meaning, I thought of our desire for the extraordinary in our lives. I started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, that was instead a quest for worth and possibly also a desire for a signpost of destination and meaning.

Maybe, just maybe, letting go of that desire and quest is the final acceptance that who we are, all that is in our lives, all that we do and experience and are, is not necessarily all a choice.

But I don't know, yet. I still retain just enough of youth.

Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert
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niobe said...

I really like the quotation and your riff on it. Though, considering, I'm not sure that I've ever felt like the main character in even my own life.

Slow Panic said...

thank you for posting this. it was beautiful. it's finding the balance between the two.. that seems to be the constant challenge.

now this is the next book on my reading list!

SciFi Dad said...

This comment may end up like an ouroboros, but I will give it a shot anyhow.

While I understand the metaphor of the doors, entering them, and hearing them close behind us, I cannot see the lock aspect.

While it is true that we cannot reverse time, that does not mean that these doors do not exist on some sort of mobius strip that lead us on a path eventually to the other side of the same door we just came out of. To try and state it another way, while we cannot "unenter" a door, we can take such a path as to bring us back to the point where we chose that door and instead choose another one.

Building on that premise, no door is locked to us (effectively; arguably there are some facets of reality that do restrict our door choices, but we are in no way as limited as implied by the quote). Instead, we choose not to return to that point of door selection, and by having that choice, we are not as trapped as implied.

For example, a career: way back when, a person decides they want to be a writer, so they plan to study english/creative writing at the post-secondary level. Unfortunately, their portfolio is rejected, and instead they settle on a major in another area (say, history). After a number of years in the secondary school system as a high school history teacher, they still want to write.

There is NOTHING stopping them from reapplying to study english/creative writing at the post-secondary level again, save for their fear of failure.

The door isn't locked; just harder to get to the second time around.

jennifer h said...

I read this book just a few weeks ago, and loved it. The part you quoted gave me goosebumps when I read it, though I had read it before. He's one of my favorite writers, also.

Thanks for taking me back into the book again. I hope your readers will pick up this book.

atypical said...

Interestingly, as a child I was just overwhelmed by the fact that there were altogether too many doors. This prompted the fear that choosing one wrong door would have everlasting consequences.

It is interesting to note that looking at the telescope through the wrong ends also diminishes the scope. It sometimes takes that reduced scale to put everything in perspective and to realize just how many choices are still available.

-t (once again leaving out the connective tissue between thoughts)

Sober Briquette said...

What strikes me is what a privilege it is to have that point of view, to believe in all those doors opening. I think that too often, I have only seen one door, at the bottom of an escalator.

I still hope that I'll choose a path with some meaning. Perhaps now that I am older, I'll have the advantage, looking at it so as to see the larger patterns.

we_be_toys said...

I realize now, that many of my dreams are not going to come to fruition for me, but I refuse to give up my wonder, my belief that tomorrow will reveal an even greater dream or opportunity. It isn't always easy to be so firmly positive, but the alternative of doomsday and naysaying isn't going to get me out of bed in the morning.

liv said...

you know, these girls have said some powerful things in response to your post. i think i'm just going to soak it up and dwell for a while. (hugs)

Robert said...

Fascinating post. Many thoughts come to mind.

I definitely find myself wondering at times if my life is really just about going through each day, remembering what items are on the schedule each day, all the while trying to make the money to pay the bills to keep life sustained in the status quo... and dreams seem like a distant memory as well as a future myth. Where is my novel, the brilliant book that so many would read that people would listen when I spoke in the news? Where is the brilliant idea to make me the next great success story? Where is anything vaguely resembling a hope for more than the day to day? Has vacation replaced the youthful aspiration to "be somebody" or "do something" in the world? Perhaps I'm being too whimsical. I have definitely thought about these concerns lately, though. And I've been guilty of "reversing the telescope". Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathryn said...

What I want to say is, ditto what liv said. But I guess I'll add...

My mom and I were actually just talking about this yesterday. She had always planned on being a nurse and was so close then at the last minute chose another path. Had she not chosen the path she did, would I be here? Would my children be here?
Are the doors REALLY chosen by us? It is so hard to say. It feels like there is a much greater force than just us working on the doors.
Great post.

realitytesting said...

It's interesting, the little Gods we sometimes think we are...more so when we are young. Sometimes, I find myself feeling very helpless about closed doors, but I often wonder if the meaning in life is not at all about what we choose, but about paying attention to what we're given. Accepting that loss of perceived control and the meaninglessness that echoes in that understanding is REALLY uncomfortable...but I can't help but think the bigger plan and purpose is really far beyond the grasp of my eager little fingers.

le35 said...

I feel like our choices do make us, but in reality, I know some people who make it to their 70's, 80's, or 90's and still retain that optimism of youth. I think that's the great challenge of life. We make our choices and we do have impacts on others, but the largest impact is ourselves. We get to choose who we become! The wisest "grown ups" I have seen are the people who get to the end of a long life still optimistic about what they have done with what life has dealt them and what tomorrow will bring. Regardless of how hard our lives are or what trials we stumble on, (whether by opening the door with a previous choice or by having the door opened for us and being pushed through it because of someone else's choice)whether our life turns out to be good or bad is all how we view our choices, what we've learned from them, and whether or not we're wanting to learn again tomorrow.

kirida said...

My husband went to school with Richard Russo. They were in the same creative writing class. That is all I have to offer up here.

Lawyer Mama said...

Wow. I must read that book just based on those two paragraphs. I must admit that I've been coming to the same realization lately. I guess you could call it pessimism or realism.

I do see what he's saying about locked doors though. Some truly are locked after a certain point. Am I going to go out and become an Olympic gymnast? Not even my most ardent hope and desire could make that happen.

There is something about having children and seeing them age that really makes you reflect on your own life. I just hope that, like you, I still have enough of that youthful optimism left in me.

BTW, I just finished Purple Hibiscus two days ago and I can't stop thinking about it. Thanks so much for the recommendation.

Jeff said...

That passage is a tad sad in my eyes. I look forward to everything the future holds and never consider the past to be a series of closed doors, but more like a choice of wide open paths that have led me to where I am today.

I did the things only a young person could do, and now I'm going to do the things only an older person can do.

flutter said...

Youth and wisdom, a nice balance hmm?

melissa said...

This looks like another must read for me. I'm never going to catch up...

I read Purple Hibiscus recently, too. Great storytelling. Very compelling.