Thursday, March 2, 2017

An Ocean of Knowledge

The pond in the back of the Hempstock's house in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is also the ocean that carries Lettie's body away, merits more unpacking.

The metaphor of the ocean in this book is so rich it feels Biblical. It is both a placid pond and a ferocious ocean. It's also a bucket of water that transports the seven-year-old narrator to another dimension.
I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.  
Everything whispered inside me. Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all. 
The ocean is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. Makes perfect sense that the writers of the Bible would want us to avoid it, too. Seems to me that the keepers of the keys of knowledge too seldom wish to share, as though disseminating knowledge decreases its value.

Or, what if the tree/ocean of knowledge was cast as "original sin" because spending too much time thinking about it -- how souls are made, where we go when we die -- prevents us from being present here on earth, which is the whole point?

After his ocean experience, the narrator has a conversation with Lettie that illustrates this beautifully.
"Do you still know everything, all the time?"  
She shook her head. She didn't smile. She said, "Be boring, knowing everything. You have to give all that stuff up if you're going to muck about here." 
"So you used to know everything?" 
She wrinkled her nose. "Everybody did. I told you. It's nothing special, knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play."  
"To play what?" 
"This," she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars.
It's nice to believe that when she died, Molly entered this ocean, that she's been granted understanding and wisdom and comfort of a kind I hope not to see for several decades. It's an image of afterlife I can get behind, and provides me comfort comparable to what my mother probably feels when she visualizes heaven.

Long ago, literature became my Bible. I return to the books that have shaped me -- Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Stephen Dunn's poetry, and many more -- in the way Christians return to the Bible.

Literature does the Bible one better, I think. It's not a closed system; writers are constantly adding new ideas and metaphors to the conversation, interpreting the world as we find it for a new generation. Thus a book written in 2013, when I was cooking dinners and partying with Molly, offers me comfort when she's gone, just a few years later.

Shine on, bright star. Swim in knowledge.

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