In his essay on King Lear the philosopher Stanley Cavell offers a compelling explanation for one of the long-standing conundrums of that play. Why does Lear banish his favorite daughter, Cordelia, for refusing to mimic her sisters’ fawning and disingenuous pronouncements of love for him? He banishes her, Cavell writes, because by refusing to falsify her love with showy declarations she brings her actual love for him into the open. And this is what Lear cannot tolerate. He can accept false love because it requires no intimacy, no self-knowledge, and no acknowledgement of his own weakness and mortality. Actual love, on the other hand, requires all of these things. Lear rids himself of Cordelia to avoid knowing himself. That is his tragedy.
Nothing so dramatic was taking place between Susan and me. But one of Cavell’s points is that in certain seasons, we are all Lear. We ward off love because it presents itself to us as a demand: to acknowledge another person’s needs, and thus our own; to glimpse their mortality, and thus ours. We each have our own means of achieving this avoidance. As a lonely kid, and later as a writer, I accomplished it through an “elegiac mode of relatedness,” sealing the present off as something already past.
Such dispositions aren’t easy to shed. We become them, and they are us. But here the paradox of writing reveals itself a kind of gift. Because however much solitude writing requires, it remains an effort to connect.
In these last five years of trying week in and week out to maintain my belief in the parallel world of the book I’ve been writing, I’ve been creating a fictional family, one that bears a good deal of resemblance to my own, but is at the same time invented, made up of my desires, my anguish, and my need to render an open-ended history into a meaningful narrative, something with a purposeful shape. Which is what I think of as the purpose of art. To bridge the divide of our intractable separateness by using our experience to create something that can be shared in common. Artists remove themselves in order to return.