There's a story about the Tang dynasty painter Wu Daozi that Rebecca Solnit remembers well. It is said that once, when Daozi presented a finished mural to the emperor, he pointed out a cave in the painted landscape and then set forth and disappeared into it. "All readers are Wu Daozi," Solnit writes in her latest, The Faraway Nearby. It's a book as much about the stories we tell, empathy, and the nature of storytelling, as it is about Solnit’s ailing mother, Alzheimer's, and one hundred pounds of apricots.
"They were an impressive sight," Solnit writes. "A mountain of apricots [...] upholstered in a fine velvet [...]" The apricots are the last harvest from her mother's tree, picked by her brother before he goes about selling their childhood house and installing their mother in a home for the elderly. At first, Solnit thinks of the apricots as a bountiful inheritance, but as the apricots begin to rot they remind her of something else: "[Fairy tales] are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with, the roomful of straw the poor girl in "Rumpelstiltskin" needs to spin into gold overnight, the thousand pearls scattered into the forest moss the youngest son needs to gather in order to win the princess, the mountain of sand to be moved by teaspoon."
An engraving after a drawing by Augusta Innes Withers. Image: Wikimedia Commons
A task, a tale.
The Faraway Nearby is easily described as a fairy tale. Solnit's mother is like "a book coming apart, pages drifting away, phrases blurring, letters falling off, the paper returning to white, a book disappearing from the back because the newest memories faded first, and nothing was being added." Solnit as the hero of the tale needs breast surgery and goes under (in fairy tale terms takes a journey to the underworld) and emerges a different person. She is then beckoned to Iceland, where "everyone walks on water, which is solid. Ice is blue. Snow insulates. Water crystallizes into floating mountains that destroy whatever collides with them [...] Nothing decays, and so time stops for the dead, if not for the living."
Following Solnit's reasoning is one of the delights in this book. Her style is dizzying, a kind of shout-out to Scheherazade's unraveling tales in Arabian Nights. Solnit jumps from metaphor to history, emerging with new metaphors, continuing forth, looping across time and disciplines, touching on themes as unlikely as cannibalism, leper colonies, vanitas paintings, and Frankenstein. To Solnit, all stories take the form of a labyrinth, "but fairy tales are often particularly labyrinth-like. Something happens [...] you twist and turn, turn away from the center, journey to the farthest reaches before you can reach your destination [...]" Solnit could easily be describing her own book.
And in this book, fairy tales continuously serve that purpose, vehicles through which Solnit banks at a shore and travels to another. As Solnit's mother's health declines, she seeks in stories the path to healing their tense relationship. At first, she lands unexpectedly on the story of Snow White, surprising herself by quoting that well-known "Mirror, mirror, on the wall." Solnit describes a jealous mother who is self-involved and unsupportive.
An illustration from an Icelandic translation of Snow White. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
While fairy tales provide Solnit with useful thought-experiments, they fall short of providing life lessons. Fairy tales embody important questions about who we are, what we desire, and how to lead our lives, but in their resolution, Solnit writes, they "break with their own principles and unleash an avalanche of conventional stuff: palaces, riches, and revenge." Instead Solnit turns to "anti-fairy tales." These are the stories that begin in reverse, with protagonists who have riches and leave their riches for a more altruistic path. Siddhartha, for example, or Ché Guevara, whose lives were both transformed by empathy.
Most useful of all is Ché Guevara's story. Born into an aristocratic family, the young Guevara takes leave of medical school to travel South America by motorcycle. "The long road trip on the motorcycle that kept breaking down and was eventually abandoned is how and when Guevara woke up to a particular kind of pain himself and then to his sense of purpose on earth." Guevara saw the destitute, dispossessed, and outcast, but it was on his visits to leper colonies that he was moved by his patients' tears. No other doctor had dared to touch them. Guevara made up his mind to become a revolutionary.
Ché Guevara, right, aboard a raft given to his group by lepers from a leper colony. Image from: Wikimedia Commons
The common understanding of leprosy is that it eats away at a patient's limbs, but Solnit discovers that the disease kills off the nerves that signal pain and infection. "You begin nicking, burning, bruising, abrading, and otherwise wearing out your fingers, toes, feet, hands, and then losing them." Here Solnit finds a metaphor -- one in which the organism of humanity is undone by emotional numbness, and expanded by empathy. In empathy, Solnit goes from Snow White to Guevara and is able to find forgiveness.
There is also a line of text that runs at the footer throughout the whole book, one I chose to get to once I reached the end. It is as magical as anything in the text. "Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds," it begins. "This is the title of a short scientific report from 2006, and the moths are a species on the island of Magadascar named Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica, but the title is a sentence, and the sentence reads like a ballad of one line or a history compressed down to its barest essentials. There are two protagonists in it, a sleeper and a drinker, a giver and a taker, and what are tears to the former is food to the latter. The story tells us everything we ever wanted a story to tell. There is difference. There is contact. You can feed on sorrow. Your tears are delicious." A meditation on what it means for us to get vitality and experience from stories, "to live on other's sorrow," this last story for me is the big one.