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On Learning of the Death of Her Husband, Robert Scott

April 23, 2012

Scott’s wife was aboard ship en route to New Zealand to meet him when she learned of his death — five days after the captain got the news by radio. The captain had been so distressed that he could not approach her. She reports in her diary that his hands trembled when he finally showed her the message. After reading it she said to him: “Oh, well, never mind! I expected that. Thanks very much. I will go and think about it.”

Then, as she usually did each morning on the ship, she took a Spanish lesson. Then she ate lunch and discussed American politics and in the afternoon spent a while reading about the Titanic, determined to avoid thinking of her husband’s death until she was sure she could control herself.

She mentions that because it was too hot to go to her cabin she stayed on deck the whole day. Immediately after this commonplace statement, and without a pause, as though it were the most natural sequence in the world, she writes the following passage: “My god is godly. I need not touch him to know that. Let me maintain a high, adoring exaltation, and not let the sorrow of contamination touch me. Within I shall be exultant. My god is glorious and could never become less so. Loneliness is a fear that I have never known. Had he died before I had known his gloriousness, or before he had been the father of my son, I might have felt a loss. Now I have felt none for myself. Won’t anybody understand that? — probably nobody. So I must go on and on with the tedious business of discretion. Must even the greatest visions of the heart be blurred by discretions?”

–from the title essay of The White Lantern, by Evan S. Connell

This is one of my favorite passages in all of literature, though it is only a few lines from the diary of a woman mostly forgotten to history.

Connell does not even give her name. She was Kathleen Scott, née Bruce (1878 – 1947). According to Wikipedia: “She was a sculptor, socialite and cosmopolitan who had studied under Auguste Rodin and whose circle included Isadora Duncan, Pablo Picasso and Aleister Crowley.” She married the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott in 1908, only three years before he left on his final expedition. She later remarried.

I assume that by “the sorrow of contamination” she meant “the contamination of sorrow ” or “sorrow’s contamination.” But the first option would fail the rhythm of the sentence; the second would be good but perhaps, lacking “the/of”, did not match the shape of the sentence as she was anticipating it in her mind as she wrote. This point illustrates something crucial to the passage: that it is very literary, it is indeed literature. To avoid having the visions of her heart blurred she needed, for herself, to turn to this exalted literary language. She needed to write. That is part of what I love here, the powerful validation of written language, of literature itself, from a place of such indisputable emotional authority.

The White Lantern is a collection of literary essays on a variety of curious topics from history and prehistory. It is good enough that I am sad to find that my copy has contracted a virulent fungal infection and will have to be thrown away — I did expect to re-read it. Now at least I have this bit saved where I can easily get to it.

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