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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

Houghton Mifflin, June 1, 1940

For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labour and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended.

It was my mother who taught me compassion. She was from the South. And there in the South, deep down in the swampy backyards where time was slow and the air sticky and hot; where porch bugs crawled fat and juicy up dark wooden walls; where crayfish scratched fretfully across hard kitchen tables in old Creole houses; there where night was black and muddy and pools of dark water and grey lake gave up creeping and eerie evening sounds: cries and murmurs that sounded like ghost-whispers making you both curious and afraid—it was there, deep in the South, that compassion and cruelty hung together like weeping moss from all the sad Louisianan cypress trees. It was there where love and hate and humanity crept grassy and spongy over the world like thick green kudzu, beautiful and ugly all at the same time.

In the quiet secret night she was herself again.

Despite all the clichés of the South, it was my mother who taught us never to judge a person by the color of his or her skin. She taught us to treat human beings with respect. She taught us to love each other and others around us despite their social status, occupation, race, creed or religion. She spoke out loud when she thought something was not right. She had a warm and generous heart that was bigger and sweeter than the moon over all of the green-blue Gulf of Mexico. That philosophy. That ardent and passionate belief. That way of life has never left me.

Her daddy was a town sheriff and my mom’s family had moved to Lake Charles from Virginia when she was small. She told us stories of her childhood. How she got drunk accidently off a tray of whisky on the back porch as a little girl. How her parents tied her up (along with her brothers and sisters) to a bedpost during a huge and inexorable hurricane. How her daddy once harboured a black man in his local prison to protect the man from being lynched by an outraged mob for an alleged crime he had committed. How afterwards the KKK had burnt a cross on my mom’s front lawn scaring the family half to death. Yes, it seemed all made up right out of some dark Southern Gothic novel, and perhaps everything was somehow, every true moment and every story and event in this world generated from fiction, every sad and callous and real and immovable history derived from some folk tale or legend.

Out of the blackness of sleep a dream formed. There were dull yellow lanterns lighting up a dark flight of stone steps. Antonapoulos kneeled at the top of these steps. He was naked and he fumbled with something that he held above his head and gazed at it as though in prayer. He himself knelt halfway down the steps. He was naked and cold and he could not take his eyes from Antonapoulos and the thing he held above him. Behind him on the ground he felt the one with the mustache and the girl and the black man and the last one. They knelt naked and he felt their eyes on him. And behind him there were uncounted crowds of kneeling people in the darkness. His own hands were huge windmills and he stared fascinated at the unknown thing that Antonapoulos held. The yellow lanterns swayed to and fro in the darkness and all else was motionless. Then suddenly there was a ferment. In the upheaval the steps collapsed and he felt himself falling downward. He awoke with a jerk. The early light whitened the window. He felt afraid.

Perhaps that’s where my mother first learned the idea of right and wrong. Justice and injustice. Compassion and cruelty. Maybe it’s just the nature of the Southern heart. The artist’s heart (though mom was never an artist). Perhaps it’s just something deep down inside that tells you—that just makes you feel—that something’s not right. It’s outright wrong and needs to be exposed so. Sometimes it’s the rage and anger at the overwhelming inhumanity and cruelty around you. You look back, and it was just not that long ago when citizens of your own country were segregated by race. That they were chained to boats coming across the Atlantic less than 200 years ago. That they were hung from trees for crimes they did not commit. You look at your own life and try to imagine how it would be living in the ’40s and you’re suddenly frightened because you realize: that time was just not that long ago! Like the bombed-out town of Würzburg you visited recently in Germany. And then you realize you still see the injustice here in the modern world every day. The racism and discrimination and homophobia bright and glowing on a social media page right in front of you, in an email from an old friend from high school. In the newspapers and on TV. Cruelty and injustice and death and history have never left. They are dangerously and frighteningly close.

What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good it was. All the plans she had made and the music. When all that came of it was this trap—the store, then home to sleep, and back at the store again.

Only the true artists know perhaps. Carson McCullers knew. And she wrote it all down and told the world. She had the real insight into the fragile and yearning and terrible human heart, the true existential eye into the savage and tormented lives and souls of men and women no matter what the color of their skin. Their hopes and dreams and disappointments. The power and injustice of those who have over those who have not. And after reading McCullers you realize why you are so frustrated with the contemporary world you live in. The clinically clean and digital modern world where it seems nobody seems to give a shit much anymore about anything except themselves. A place where most authors and artists write or sing or convey themselves about things that are hip or cool or ironic and trendy. A superficial, insensitive expression in a hopelessly jaded world. It seems no one out there seems to write or speak out about the human condition. The love and ache and tragedy and joy and tribulations of the delicate human heart. Those writers and artists all seem to be gone. But not the human heart.

So rage you tell yourself. Rage at the injustice around you. Speak your mind. Uncover the madness and cruelty and inhumanity of what you see. Help and love and protect your fellow human beings. They, too, shall love and protect you. Learn to love and learn to love deeply. Do not be afraid to show your heart. It is warm and sticky and hot like the yellow Louisiana sun. It will suck you in and suck you down and keep you warm and protected forever. If only every piece of literature and every human being was like this book. If only every story and history and heart had this much love in it. If only every generation learned from the previous one about all the sad mistakes and hurt it’s caused and passed on. If only there was more love. If only more heart.