Value of adversity is expressed in clear and beautiful writing

January 20, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse

CARNAL ACTS.

Nancy Mairs.

HarperCollins.

161 pages. $19.95.

In her essays in "Plaintext" and "Carnal Acts" and in hememoir, "Remembering the Bone House," Nancy Mairs brings a poet's sensibility, a scholar's intellect and a lover's ardor to explore and make sense of her own life. Her hidden subject is language. We do not truly possess our experience until we have put it into words. The consequences of refusing permission to speak are denial and repression, which lead to misery and despair: "I think the key to . . . any sort of happiness isn't keeping your mouth shut but surfacing and experiencing every bit of life. To do so requires committing life to language, without which nothing recognizable as human can exist."

To give a name to our feeling is to embody it. This concept of writing as embodiment, as an act of integration and a restoration of the body and the soul/mind, is at the heart of all of Ms. Mairs' writing and inspires everything that she says. It is what she means when she refers to her essays as "carnal acts."

"Carnal Acts" is the most "accidental" of her books: "a collection of occasional pieces . . . bound . . . merely by the voice that, in response to some bidding, utters them." Most of these essays were written on request, delivered as speeches and published in newspapers and magazines. Many describe her experience of having lived for the past 17 years with multiple sclerosis, an incurable, progressively degenerative disease of the central nervous system.

These essays are remarkable for their hard-won candor, for the clarity and beauty of their language, but what makes them more than confessions, courageous though they may be, is Ms. Mairs' desire and willingness "to make sense of my own experience as it illuminates human experience more generally . . . so that whatever extraordinary circumstances you one day meet -- and you will, because all creatures do -- you will have, in some way, 'been there' before."

Her writing is a vanquishing of silence and a dismantling of secrecy. In keeping "as close to the bone of my experience as I can," she explains how she must transgress the boundaries of "polite discourse" and "utter the unspeakable" truth about herself. In naming her shame, guilt,anger, fear, and pain; in describing her desires, miseries and delights, she lays claim to them. From the disguises of euphemism and the denials of repression, she rescues them and frees them into language, and frees herself from their control.

"The first step toward transformation is to locate your feelings, recognize them, admit them out loud to yourself and, when necessary, to others," she writes in the essay, "I'm Afraid. I'm Afraid. I'm Afraid." "By naming your 'shameful' feelings, you take possession over them instead of letting them possess you."

It is precisely because she insists on her right not to be heroic, because she claims entitlement "to my fear . . . and to the choices it challenges me to make," that her message is empowering. Her essays encourage us to face our difficulties imaginatively and constructively, while not demanding that we overcome our feelings of inadequacy. She redefines vulnerability not as weakness but as sympathy:

"Use your hardships to augment your understanding of and appreciation for yourself and the world you dwell in. Because a difficult life is more complicated than an easy one, it offers opportunities for developing a greater range of response to experience: a true generosity of spirit."

These essays convey both Ms. Mairs' resolute tough-mindedness and her willingness to yield to experience, so that her life is enriched, as well as inevitably lessened, by its losses. "To view your life as blessed does not require you to deny your pain. It simply demands a more complicated vision, one in which a condition or event is not either good or bad but is, rather, both good and bad. . . . The more such ambivalences you can hold in your head, the better off you are."

Her ideas are both pragmatic and imaginative. She writes with wisdom and honesty. These essays "redeem difficulty." As they discover the blessings as well as the trials of adversity, their effect is exhilarating.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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