In his great essay “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson has some famously cool things to say on the warm subject of grief. In January 1842 Emerson and his wife Lidian lost their much-loved son, five-year-old Waldo, to scarlet fever. On the morning after the death Emerson wrote to various of his friends and poured out his sorrow:
My boy is gone…. The world’s wonderful child…has fled out of my arms like a dream. He adorned the world for me like a morning star…. All his wonderful beauty could not save him…. I cannot in a lifetime incur such another loss…. Shall I ever dare to love any thing again?”
Not very long afterward, however, in “Experience,” he was writing in quite another vein:
In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous.
For the literary artist grief is at once a productive and a perilous theme. A deathbed scene and all that follows may seem guaranteed to win the reader’s empathy, but it can turn to bathos in the twinkling of a tear. As usual, the ancients knew how to do it—“About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters,” as Auden ruefully acknowledged—and certainly the Greeks had many a word for it. Antigone’s weeping for her dead but unburied brother still dampens the page, and Dido’s lament echoes plangently down the ages.
However, the nearer we come to our own disenchanted times the harder it is to write convincingly of large emotions, or to be convinced by what is written of them. The sorrows of young Werther seem preposterously overdone, while the demise of Dickens’s Little Nell, at which Oscar Wilde was not stony-hearted enough not to laugh, leaves us queasily embarrassed. Has something essential gone from our emotional lives? Have the horrors witnessed by our age, if only at a televisual remove, destroyed in us that aptitude for vicarious grieving which our forefathers enjoyed? “The only thing grief has taught me,” the hardheaded Emerson confesses, “is to know how shallow it is.”
Per Petterson’s latest novel to be translated into English, Out Stealing Horses, is thoroughly grief-stricken, though not so sodden with tears as its predecessor, In the Wake (2002), to which it is not a sequel, exactly, but certainly a companion piece. Petterson, a former librarian and bookseller …