Tag Archives: Vivien Gornick

The fertility of doubt

 . . . . she “trumpets doubt and ambiguity, not because we are incapable of knowing things,” but because “doubt is fertile.”

Vivien Gornick , reviews Siri Hustvedt’s, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women in The New York Times, December 16th 2016

(from here)

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When I was eight years old my mother cut a piece out of a dress I had been longing to wear to a friend’s birthday party. She grabbed a pair of sewing scissors and sliced the part of the dress that would have covered my heart if, as she said, I had had one. “You’re killing me,” she always howled, eyes squeezed shut, fists clenched, when I disobeyed her or demanded an explanation she couldn’t supply or nagged for something she wasn’t going to give me. “Any minute now I’ll be dead on the floor,” she screamed that day, “you’re so heartless.” Needless to say, I did not go to the party. Instead I cried for a week and grieved over the incident for fifty years.

“How could you do that to a child?” I asked in later years, once when I was eighteen, again when I was thirty, yet again when I was forty-eight.

The odd thing was that each time I raised the incident my mother would say, “That never happened.” I’d look at her then, more scornfully each time, and let her know in no uncertain terms that I was going to go on reminding her of this crime against childhood until one of us was dead.

As the years passed and I regularly brought up the memory of the dress cutting, she just as regularly denied its veracity. So we went on, with me not believing her, and not believing her, and not believing her. Then one day, quite suddenly, I did. On a cold spring afternoon in my late fifties, I stepped off the Twenty-Third Street crosstown bus at Ninth Avenue, and as my foot hit the ground I realized that whatever it was that had happened that day more than half a century ago, it wasn’t at all what I remembered happening.

Migod, I thought, palm clapped to forehead, it’s as though I were born to manufacture my own grievance. But why? And hold on to it for dear life. Again, why? When my hand came away from my forehead, I tipped an invisible hat to Leonard. Me too, I said silently to him. “So old and still with so little information.”

Vivien Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

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Thanking a stranger

A wooden barrier has been erected on my street around two squares of pavement whose concrete has been newly poured. Beside the barrier is a single wooden plank laid out for pedestrians, and beside that, a flimsy railing. On an icy morning in midwinter I am about to grasp the railing and pull myself along the plank when, at the other end, a man appears, attempting the same negotiation. This man is tall, painfully thin, and fearfully old. Instinctively, I lean in far enough to hold out my hand to him. Instinctively, he grasps it. Neither of us speaks a word until he is safely across the plank, standing beside me. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you very much.” A thrill runs through me. “You’re welcome,” I say, in a tone that I hope is as plain as his. We each then go our separate ways, but I feel that “thank you” running through my veins all the rest of the day.

It was his voice that had done it. That voice! Strong, vibrant, self-possessed: it did not know it belonged to an old man. There was in it not a hint of that beseeching tone one hears so often in the voice of an old person when small courtesies are shown—“You’re so kind, so kind, so very kind,” when all you’re doing is hailing a cab or helping to unload a shopping cart — as though the person is apologizing for the room he or she is taking up in the world. This man realized that I had not been inordinately helpful; and he need not be inordinately thankful. He was recalling for both of us the ordinary recognition that every person in trouble has a right to expect, and every witness an obligation to extend. I had held out my hand, he had taken it. For thirty seconds we had stood together — he not pleading, I not patronizing — the mask of old age slipped from his face, the mask of vigor dropped from mine. In the midst of American dysfunction, global brutality, and personal defensiveness, we had, each of us, simply come into full view, one of the other.

Vivien Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City  (from here) 

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