Yes and No. The Meaning of Suffering in a Looking Glass Universe.
Yes and No is not a simple book. Nevertheless, it is comprehensible because it speaks about an experience common to everybody: the private and intimistic encounter with suffering and death. As the author suggests, every human being reserves a private space for his/her dialogue with the Mystery: such an experience defines human identity itself and is thus felt as necessary.
But Yes and No is also an in-depth study on the difficulties of living in our modern life, where digital prosthesis (computer, telephone, television) triumph in replacing human work and communication – and then, life itself. Modern man, in his narcissistic view of the universe, considers Nature a mirror of his humanity, flattering himself that nothing exists if not because of his existence.
Here is how the book begins:
Philosophers, theologians, and writers have different names for the unnameable, the mystery that appears to us in the many forms, or masks, of Nothingness. Ernest Hemingway calls it nada; Paul Tillich calls it the God above God; Leo Tolstoy simply calls it It. I prefer It. (p. 15)
The Mystery, unrepeatable and indescribable, of Death (It) is evoked, announced and then explored in a variety of narrative worlds, autobiographical excerpts and critical essays. What strikes me as strongly effective is the simplicity, even the crudity of the label «It» – an impersonal third person – whose use is rendered necessary as an implicit revelation of the inscrutability of the Mystery.
Carter is at the same time author, principal character and narrator in the logic of the text, and he succeeds in assuming from time to time the point of view of a philosopher, a sociologist and an ordinary man. It’s not a case, I think, that the essay begins with a strongly autobiographical chapter, where the narrator describes the first childhood encounters with Death of the character Carter. In the logic of the text the description of the death of his parents assumes a strategic importance, almost to justify the subsequent search, as an adult, for answers to questions posed in his early childhood.
The encounter between Carter as a child and Smokey, the tramp who lives in the woods and tells his fantastic tales to the neighbourhood children, seems to have a strong symbolic value. In a context described in a picturesque style and with light and shade effects, the author succeeds in evoking the oppositions between life and death, but also between rationality and irrationality, materiality and spirituality. The relation between Smokey and God is thus symbolically interrupted by the presence/interference of the main character as a child, in the metaphoric space of hell – or rather, of an antechamber leading to the afterlife – where Carter finds, by pure chance, the prayer to God that the tramp had drawn with white chalk on the wall of a dark gallery: «JESUS CHRIST HAVE MERCY ON MY SOUL» (p. 19).
The unwanted and casual intrusion of the main character in the dialogue between an other person and It, will develop a strong sense of guilt, raising a world of unresolved problems with his own conscience.
What the character of Carter as a child is experiencing is the discovery of his own submerged conscience and of deep and hidden fears. Only the flight towards the Light – that is, Life itself – will grant him, at least apparently, the right feeling of safety, restoring him to the realm of the living. By then the tunnel of Guilt and Mystery have been just evaded but always present, even if relegated in the restricted space of his subconscious. The whole book could represent the attempt of this grown up child not to avoid the Mystery, but to investigate it in a mature and conscious manner, in all its fascinating forms.
I don’t believe it is a case if, at a given point in the book, the narrator talks about one of the major Shakespearean works King Lear, which is focused on the tragic theme of the suffering leading to consciousness. Suffering is not always a negative element: on the contrary, it can lead to a fruitful process of maturation, and to a truer contact with one’s real interior dimension.
As happens for the foolish king of the Shakespearean tragedy, Love could be the only remedy to suffering. But the difficulty of communicating, and the substantial solitude of Man in face of the Mystery, complicates and obstacles a regular path towards a coherent construction of himself relative to his spirituality and social dimension.
But an alternative response to the typically egoistic mental schemes of modern man seems to be that given by one of the book’s characters: the tennis champion Arthur Ashe, affected by AIDS after a transfusion. Having become successful in the world of the living, he had been represented in the collective imagery as a positive hero. But, unexpectedly, he becomes interpreter of an ideology completely different from the modern individualistic one. Carter remembers the episode when a journalist had asked the athlete if he had ever wondered why such a disgrace had befallen him.
When a reporter asked the dying athlete if he ever wondered Why me? Ashe replied that because he was hardly the only person in the world in such dire straits at that particular moment in time, the proper response was, Why not me? Ashe’s was a magnificent bearing witness that few men and women born and bred in a narcissistic culture such ours would appear capable of. (p.65)
His response is extremely revealing in its simplicity: reversing the points of the question, and choosing a universal point of view to a self-centred one, he asks himselfWhy NOT him!
The solitary and essentially egocentric dimension of the modern western man can be rescued by a humble acceptance of one’s own human dimension.
These episodes are just a few example of the many others in the book, where a great variety of topics echo from one point to the other, in a network of thematic references similar to déjà-vus (such as the ones described by the author in the autobiographical sections of the text, in occasion of his personal encounters with Death). These episodes appear disposed in the essay on the basis of the author’s argument. The text is thus a constant intellectual twofold dialogue, not just with the great authors of the past, but also with himself and his own personal experiences. The reality, or at least his representation as perceived by the author, seems to confirm the truths intuited, alluded to, often deeply searched for by the geniuses of the past.
This ‘reality’ I alluded to, is the one personally experienced by the author or narrated by other characters: but if, as this book seems to prove, as Umberto Eco says, every ‘narrative world’ has the same dignity to exist as any other world, then why should the world of the Reader itself, here directly addressed by the author, not be taken in the same manner of the narrated ones, with all its dumb presence…?
Here we can find the profound meaning of a potentially never-ending text, which involves the personal experience of whomever reads it and underlies the universality of a typically human necessity. Even in the mystery and in the unsaid, through a rupture with our own materialistic and individualistic everyday reality, we need to be led back straight to the precious space of our authenticity and spirituality.