Angel Ysaguirre is the Executive Director of the Illinois Humanities Council.
I just finished reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a beautiful story about Macdonald’s training a baby goshawk after her father dies. She impressively weaves memoir, nature writing, history, and literary criticism together to chronicle her grief, showing how situating yourself among others can help you understand your own ordeal better. Or, maybe showing how your own vulnerability can help you understand others better.
Macdonald had trained hawks before but training a goshawk is more demanding. She thinks that the wildness of a goshawk mirrors her feelings upon her father’s death. As she trains her goshawk Mabel, she re-reads T.H. White’s “The Goshawk” and “The Once and Future King.” My favorite part of this book is the relationship she develops with White, through the reading of these books but mediated by her feelings of loss over her father and frustration over training this wild bird. Along the way, even her reading of history is affected. The sensitivity with which she comes to understand White’s life and writing, a homosexual man living in the first part of the 20th century, is a testament to the power of reading when it is paired with a spirit of openness. And, the way in which that reading can help us make sense of our own lives, and the sense of control we feel when we can articulate our feelings.
This issue of understanding oneself plays itself out in many ways, especially in relation to the wildness one feels in the midst of grief and the textbook theories about the stages of grief. That feeling of wildness can manifest itself in hopelessness or anger and we try to control our grief, or move through and past it, by containing it through the understanding of our feelings in relationship to the situation and others. Thus, the issues of the wildness of the goshawk and Macdonald’s evolving understanding of her relationship to that wildness becomes a central metaphor for her process of dealing with grief. And her understanding of a gay man in a deeply homophonic world is informed by this process.
I’m now reading two books, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’ new collection of short stories, Lovers on All Saints Day, and the most surprising book of anthropology, Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History, interspersing short stories and chapters of the book of anthropology. The stories in Lovers on All Saints Days are all love stories but I think that, more than that, they are all stories about loneliness. The first story, “Hiding Places,” is narrated by a writer who witnesses a marriage that is fraying but focuses emotionally less on the marriage than on the narrator who is witnessing the events. The title story is about a couple that is gathering the courage to break up while trying to do so in a way that will not make them feel lonely. “The Solitude of the Magician” is about a love triangle that involves a magician who has always felt lonely and a woman who doesn’t want to abandon her marriage for fear that her daughter will feel deep loneliness growing up without her father. It is the rumination on loneliness that I think give these stories their power.
For a non anthropologist, Lines: A Brief History is a series of investigations that make the most commonplace things start to feel like puzzles. Ingold, for example, looks at the history of literature alongside the history of music, finding common origins and asking why they developed along such different trajectories, with music divorcing itself so much from writing and literature divorcing itself so much from sound. As Ingold gets deeper into the book, it starts to feel more like what I understand anthropology to be. He looks at the relationship among threads, traces, and surfaces, finding examples of how they work among different societies across the globe and over time. These discussions start to feel philosophical, rooted as they are in human behaviors and beliefs.