Wednesday, March 29, 2006

More thoughts on O'Neill

Yes, I am on another one of my tangents. Now, it is Eugene O'Neill. In my last entry, I shared the speech by Edmund in Long Day's Journey into Night. It is a beautiful speech about momentary connection, momentary belonging.

Tonight, I was watching Boston Legal, one of my few TV indulgences other than PBS. In the episode I watched tonight, Alan Shore, one of the lawyers in the firm, develops a devastating psychological condition causing him to mix up his words occasionally and speak in a kind of "gibberish." Shore says this condition is devastating to him because he has always felt disconnected from the world, and words are all he has. If he loses his ability with language, he fears he will be completely alone.

Which brings me back to O'Neill. In the PBS documentary, the portrait that emerges of O'Neill is that he was a very lonely child and very lonely adult. He felt as though he did not belong anywhere. He was an unwanted child. His mother had lost Edmund to measles and felt she didn't deserve to have another child. She also blamed Eugene for her drug addiction. So all O'Neill had was books. His books were his company, his friends, his sense of belonging. Language was his way to belong, to communicate. He had to write! O'Neill wrote all his plays out in pencil. I think now about the documentary again, how he fought the tremor in his hands by writing smaller and smaller until he was cramming a thousand or more words on a single page. His wife had to use a magnifying glass to read it in order to type it for him.

As a result of his lonely existence, O'Neill plumbed the depths of his pain in an effort to understand himself. He was willing to go into the darkest parts of his psyche in order to do this.

Lately, I have been studying the Gospel according to Thomas. One passage in this Gospel says: "Jesus said: When you give rise to that which is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not give rise to it, what you do not have will destroy you."

In other words, what is inside of us is the supernatural light of creation. If it shines, it gives us life. If it doesn't shine, our world is darkness. O'Neill knew the darkness well. He tried to run from it by drinking. He lived a self-destructive lifestyle that nearly killed him. When he was well, he felt as though he had been raised from the dead.

In the Thomas Gospel also: "Jesus said: One who knows everything else but who does not know himself knows nothing."

So salvation rests within us. O'Neill, I think, found a kind of salvation once he'd finished Long Day's Journey into Night. It is indeed hard to dive that deep, that far, into what frightens you most. But if we don't know ourselves, we don't have access to our own light. If we access our own light, perhaps we will also illuminate the world. Jesus seems to be saying that if we substitute knowledge in general for self-knowledge, we are misguided.

Sometimes I worry that in writing about my own life, I write a lesser kind of story. Deep down, I know this isn't true. As long as I'm not self-indulgent, as long as I connect my pain to something greater than myself, I'm telling a story for the ages.


Paula said...

The first quote you offer here, from the Gospel of St. Thomas, was read at AWP by a panelist in a session called "When Life Interrupts the Memoir." And you must know that this entry connects me back to the end of the first chapter in Robert Olen Butler's "From Where You Dream"--the Michael Jordan analogy. Once again, dear friend and sister, you describe my (our) writing life.

Cynthia said...

There have been times I've felt just vain and self indulgent writing about my own life, and it was good for me to read this.

V said...

When writing, Nietzsche was plagued by severe migraine headaches. His vision was so poor that often after the first hour he could not read what he was writing.
He would continue to scribble his words and would have to spend the next morning trying to decipher what he had written.
His mother & 4 of his 7 brothers & sisters died while he was young.

emmapeelDallas said...

I haven't watched Boston Legal, but after reading this, I think perhaps I should...I so relate to Shore. And reading about O'Neill's tiny writing, I thought about Stendhal. I once read that when he was writing The Red and The Black, he didn't have paper, and so he wrote parts of it on his arms and hands, because the words were coming fast and he had to capture them. I don't know if that's true or not, but it's a great vision, isn't it?


Erin said...

I love how religions and ideas interconnect. In Christianity, Jesus is the LIGHT of the world. In Buddhism, they speak of enLIGHTenment. Some days I feel so far from the light, and others I feel like I may be getting closer day by day, or perhaps that I've even tapped into a bit. I think of Edmund's words again, on life as a fish. I think of a fish who dives in and out of the water, from sunlight to darkness and back and forth. A seagull must experience something of the same thing while feeding on fish. Light then wet darkness, and so forth.



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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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