AT THE END of King Lear, among the dead bodies of both the heroes and villains, the Duke of Albany says,
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
In short, he is saying that the truth of our dark times must be told, whether or not it is what others want to hear. Frederick Buechner has long been concerned with telling the truth, a theme in many of his books including his memoirs in which he grapples with his father’s suicide. Knowing the value of speaking from the heart, Buechner encourages us through his reflections to do the same.
In Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought To Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith, Buechner identifies four authors, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton and William Shakespeare, whom in his opinion wrote at least one piece from a deeply vulnerable place and thus spoke the truth. Each author confronted the particular darkness in his life through writing and in doing so “speak for, speak to, speak about all those who in some measure have faced the same darkness themselves."
Buechner has written about at least three of these authors before, which suggests that he has been influenced by their writing for some time. In Alphabet of Grace (1970), he includes thoughts on Twain and Chesterton in his stream of consciousness prose. In Telling the Truth (1977) Buechner shows how Shakespeare tells the truth at the risk of looking like a fool. Decades later, Buechner's aged thoughts are well developed, amply supported with quotations from the texts, and similarly enlightening.
I knew little of Gerard Manley Hopkins before reading this book, other than of his wonderful ability to create an almost magical sense with words as his poem "God's Grandeur" illustrates. Hopkins' manuscripts show his painstaking work of searching for the exact word to fit not only the intended meaning and rhyme scheme but to imbue the piece with a spectrum of nuance. In the same way that Hopkins brings to life details seen only with his inner eye, Buechner brings this 19th century Jesuit to life. Reaching into his imagination Buechner envisions Hopkins sitting at his desk, administrating an examination, bored listless with the tedium of college and longing to be elsewhere, perhaps walking in the woods or by his dear friend's side. Hopkins' loneliness and longing shown through Buechner's compassionate eye are confessions. We come to see a man not only gifted with words, but one who felt betrayed by God and was utterly miserable. It is as if Buechner becomes his confessor by seeing in Hopkins' poetry not only the longing to be free of his depression, but also his admission of responsibility for his own suffering. Hopkins' truth telling didn't end with his misery; it continued to the end of his life when on his death bed, having acknowledged the beauty surrounding him in nature and in himself, he whispers, "I am so happy."
Hopkins' truth telling didn't end with his misery; it continued to the end of his life when on his death bed, having acknowledged the beauty surrounding him in nature and in himself, he whispers, "I am so happy."
The sign of truth telling, however, is not, from Buechner's perspective, a happy ending. If so, Mark Twain's writing would not be included in this book. But Buechner sees even in Twain's guilt-riddled life a window of redemption in the character development of one of his most popular characters, Huckleberry Finn. Probably because of his own pain, Buechner is acutely attuned to the voice of suffering. This is especially the case with his section on Mark Twain. In watching Ken Burns' recent documentary on Twain, I noticed how the lens through which Buechner interprets Twain's (or Samuel Clemens') life is much more pain oriented. Buechner identifies Samuel's childhood as so consumed by guilt from the many deaths he saw and felt responsible for, that he lived under this burden of guilt for his entire life. His character Huckleberry Finn, an outcast, and a sinner according to his caregivers, may have felt similarly. And although Twain's life, especially towards the end, shows few signs of relief from this guilt, Buechner suggests that Huckleberry Finn's development parallels Twain's understanding of redemption. Helping his friend Joe escape from slavery, Huck learns to be guided by the truth of his own heart. Lying naked on the raft in the cool night breeze, Finn is a symbol of rebirth. No longer defined by others’ guidelines of right and wrong, Finn, and Buechner hopes Twain too, finds the grace of his deeper values than the fears that bind him.