Possibility: Essays Against Despair, Patricia Vigderman's second book, shares affinities with her first, The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Associative in nature, the essays assembled here cross genres, encompassing biography, memoir, art history, natural history, and film studies, to name just a few of the subjects that Vigderman brings into dialogue. In the introduction “Seeing Double,” Vigderman describes the evolution of the collection as follows:
These essays, written over the course of a decade, have been a kind of spontaneous reaction to [the presence of despair], to its, OK, daymare. They have been translations of life’s disordered discoveries into the formal pleasure of language, and evoked for me Walter Benjamin’s lonely image of translation itself: a calling into the dark forest of language, seeking in the new language a sympathetic resonance with the old one….Writing my way into and out of landscape, painting, literature, affection, sorrow, and even death, however, has been a happy experience of constant motion….Now these twenty-one essays trace a progression of discoveries by way of written language…a process that has changed the reality experienced.
Structured in four parts, the first, Internal Conversations, focuses on the problem of narrative itself, and begins with Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” by entering into provocative dialogue with Benjamin’s idea that the translator must approach language from the outside. “To overcome difference by taking it in, by being different." The remarkable discovery that Vigderman makes in this essay, one borne forth and enlarged across the collection is: “When we are with art we are calling from a loss of ourselves, and yet one’s reason is also always part of the landscape."
Vigderman’s cognitive powers—she teaches Victorian literature, autobiography, creative writing, and film at Kenyon College—enable her to overcome despair, “that sad little frontal attack on faith” by filtering despair through the lens of her subject or at least by setting the two into dialogue, a process that inevitably brings perspective as well as some release from suffering. This process is most self-consciously evident in “Henry Adams in Japan,” the closing essay in Internal Conversations. Here, Vigderman returns to Adams’s trip to Japan in the aftermath of his beloved wife’s suicide. Quoting from Adams’s letters home, Vigderman reveals how difficult the trip and the loss of his wife were for the great American writer and historian. Simultaneously, travel, in particular Adams’s encounters with the landscape of Nikko, Japan, enact the ways in which radically new experience did manage, at times, to distract him from his grief:
Adams’s letters are neither discreet nor indiscreet; in general their open indulgence in complaint about the weather, the aesthetics, the food, even the horses (all Japanese horses known to me are rats; and resemble their pictures, which I had supposed to be a bad drawing) has the effect of drawing his reader close to him. For all their casual disparagement and distanced superiority, they keep the freshness of their feeling.
Vigderman is a compassionate biographer; at the same time, her portrait of Adams inevitably reveals to us ourselves. In translating what initially appears to be outside herself and her realm of experience, she ultimately brings her subject very close, as close as the biographer and her reader.
The Measure of Grief, the second section, expands upon the themes of loss and mourning. The most stunning piece here is “My Depressed Person (A Monologue),” a harrowing, deeply felt essay about Vigderman’s depressed friend. In building a narrative about what it’s like to try to support and care for someone who is depressed, Vigderman draws upon David Foster Wallace’s story, “The Depressed Person,” using his subject—a depressed and isolated woman—as a foil for her own depressed person and as a point of connection. As Vigderman tries to help her friend find a successful therapy, she herself is pulled into the vortex of despair:
[On the day we went to see the new therapist] I was actually in worse shape than my depressed person. I was worn out and sad from all the nights of watching her suffering and the mornings of going to her house to get her out of bed where she was envying the dead, and talking on the phone and in restaurants analyzing the terrible precipitating event….
“My Depressed Person” manages to find points of humor and perspective in an otherwise bleak situation in which no true resolution actually presents itself. Simultaneously, the essay points to all the ways in which a piece like “Grace Paley Reading” and her voracious mind are fundamental to Vigderman’s ability to retain her eloquent, mental balance.
Ultimately, reading Possibility is as Mona Simpson has said, “‘like attending an ideal dinner party, where everyone has read your favorite books.’” In this case, however, Vigderman herself constitutes the entire party. The fourth section, Particular Artifice, contains a marvelous essay on the history of film entitled “Inventing Cinema.” But it is in the third section, At Liberty, that I found the most startling essay. “Manatees” begins with the writer standing along a warm spring adjacent to the St. John’s River in central Florida. It’s late January, and she and a crowd that includes a bus of schoolchildren and a knot of old people are here to watch the manatees surface in “the boil,” where the waters rise up from underground and run towards the St. John’s River. A writer who is at home with Proust, Vermeer, Wallace, and Benjamin is not necessarily at home with manatees. Yet Vigderman vividly chronicles the ways in which the seemingly other manatees captivate the crowd, and ultimately she finds a way of relating them to human behavior:
Indeed, we are stranger than they are, curious and wild in the way we run through the abundance of Florida, of our planet, giving the things around us names: manatees, boil, mortgage broker. We turn our encounters with what is not us into narrative. We are explainers, storytellers….We want nature to come to the point, as we think we do ourselves.
At the last, however, manatees are very different from us, Vigderman reminds: “We maim them and we name them. Still, they come to us, swimming up the river with their young. They come as if this were indeed a peaceable kingdom, and we only another species, sharing the warm winter harbor….” We are not only another species, obviously; and yet, in reading Vigderman’s collection, for the space of the journey, we are able to step outside ourselves, or at least engage her subjects—a small town in Texas, Proust, W.G. Sebald, and yes, manatees—to find some perspective on what it is to be human.
Jacqueline Kolosov’s poetry and prose have recently appeared in Cimarron Review, The Southern Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, and APR. Her third collection of poems is Memory of Blue (Salmon Poetry, February 2013).
Possibility: Essays Against Despair
Sarabande Books, 2013
$15.95 paper; $12 (ebook)