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Maira Kalman on How to Live with Remorse and Wrest from It Defiant Joy in Living

Maira Kalman on How to Live with Remorse and Wrest from It Defiant Joy in Living

Each time we have tried to elevate ourselves above the other animals by claiming singular possession of some faculty, we have been humbled otherwise: Language, it turns out, is not ours alone, nor is the use of tools, nor is music. Elephants grieve, octopuses remember and predict, crows hold grudges.

Perhaps one day this too will be snatched from us, but for now there seems to be one tumult of being pulsating in the human breast alone: the capacity to be sorry, to feel the soul-ache of remorse as the penitent past fangs the flesh of the present.

How to live with remorse, how to make of it a catalyst for creation, is what the philosopher-artist Maira Kalman explores in her small and splendid book Still Life with Remorse — a collection of miniature essays, poems, and painted vignettes reckoning with remorse through Maira’s own family story, punctuated by glimpses of the lives of some of her muses: Leo Tolstoy, Clara Schumann, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Henri Matisse.

Objects in Matisse’s Studio by Maira Kalman

Defining remorse as “deep regret implying shame, implying guilt, implying sorrow,” Maira observes that “in still lifes and interiors there must be a certain amount of remorse lurking among the bowls of fruit, vases or flowers and objects scattered about the room.”

Rising from the pages is the intimation that memory is the still life of living, that while remorse may haunt the mental images of our recollections, we can find in it an occasion for beauty, for creative vitality, for defiant joy.

Tolstoy Eating Breakfast by Maira Kalman

Opening with an allusion to that immortal line from Anna Karenina — “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — she considers the half-life of sorrow across generations:

Happy families,
Unhappy families.
All the same, right?
Ach. ach. ach.

To begin
You are born.
To a long line of ancestors
who are long gone
but still yell or whisper
in your ear
in the depths of night.
A game of telephone played
from one generation to the next.

Garbled and confused.
Glimmers of light.

And now, here you are.
With the ones you love.
Or the ones you don’t.

The ones you cannot live without.
The ones you would like to smite.

Those who have disappointed you
or betrayed you. Those who have
been kinder than you deserve. And
the kind ones who inevitably die.
And leave you feeling very much
alone. They are what you have.

And if you think, at any given point,
that you know what is going on,
you are sorely mistaken.

And yet.

With an eye to the complicated marriage of Sophia and Leo Tolstoy (so different from that of Anna and Fyodor Dostoyevsky) — the initial mutual infatuation, the thirteen children, the selflessness with which Sophia transcribed all of Leo’s writings, the mutual resentment of the end — she writes:

When trying to understand why human beings do what they do, a fog descends.

The verse to which Mahler wrote music becomes a quiet animating chorus for the book:

Dark is life.
Spring is here.
The birds are singing.

Virginia Woolf’s Writing Table by Maira Kalman

From the personal stories — her grandparents killed in the Holocaust, her father delivering milk as his cover while working for a Palestine liberation underground, Kafka’s troubled relationship with his own father, Clara Schumann’s tenacity and her tender unclassifiable relationship with Brahms — emerges a universal lens on suffering, remorse, and redemption, shining a sidewise gleam on what makes life worth living despite the almost unbearable brunt of being alive.

Your family.
My family.

Your remorse.
My remorse.

All the same, right?

Vast skies full of remorse.
Oceans of remorse.
But enough.

There should be merriment.
And good cheer.
Good tidings. Well wishing.

Tables laden with food.
Children playing.
Gathering of kinfolk.

Like Clara would have wanted.
Seeing the best.
Forgiving the worst.

If there is remorse,
let there be a limit to remorse.
A way to shake off the heavy weight.

But how can we make this happen?
How to do this?

Dark is life.
Spring is here.
The birds are singing.

In the strangeness of life, LIVE.

Yellow Vase by Maira Kalman

Couple with “Antilamentation” — poet Dorianne Laux’s antidote to regret — then revisit Maira Kalman’s wonderful Women Holding Things and her illustrated love letter to Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein’s love.

Published February 13, 2024




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