"One wants glimpses of the real," wrote Harold Brodkey in his last journal entry before his death. "One almost never gets the real thing," lamented Saul Bellow in his last novel, Ravelstein.
Embodied in God, or a loved one, or, say, an adored work of literature or music, the experience of the real, the real thing, must be a perception of the truth of existence. At the very least the truth of one's own existence. Why you are here. What really matters. Who you really are. What Brodkey and Bellow seem to have in mind is a vision or a conviction of what Yeats called the deep heart's core.
In the same week during which we have followed the death of someone so unreal that it doesn't feel as though he had a self for us to mourn, we encounter the letters between the ridiculed and reviled governor of South Carolina and his Argentine lover, Maria.
Whoever released these private emails must have thought he was getting some sort of revenge. He was wrong. In revealing the authentic words these lovers exchanged with one another, he gave us a glimpse of the real.
I understand that the real in this case includes adultery and all its pain and betrayal.
When I first heard the farcical story of the governor's disappearance and then confession, I found it easy to laugh along with everyone else. I found it easy to agree with Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist as well as a journalist, that there was something bizarrely self-destructive in Sanford.
Now, having read the letters -- or the excerpts running in the South Carolina papers -- I'm not doing that anymore. The letters reveal nothing more nor less than true thunderbolt from the sky love. English professors tend to be people who love language, and who seek in language, more than in other places, the real. The Sanford/Maria letters have in them the grain of that sought-after actuality. Every word, every phrase, comes from the deep heart's core.
Maria's fractured English is as beautiful as Nora Barnacle's in her love letters to James Joyce.
Perfection after all isn't the real; Michael Jackson's multiply knifed face was a horror. The flaw and the fracture that convey our humanity and its exertions toward expressivity is the real.
Sanford's sincere, halting, emotional prose carries the impact upon him of his having been hit, and hit hard, by passionate love. Rather late in a very public life, Sanford has suddenly felt the bliss of utter enchantment with another human being.
[M]y weakness [is] doing rather than being — though you opened up a new chapter last week wherein I was happy and content just being. Last point worth further discussion... [The film Holiday] made me think of you — its mood and the notion of a holiday (wrapped up in our case over two days) certainly fit as well ... (though our visit in some ways for me was as well less of a holiday than it was uncovering and realization of some things and feelings that again are worth longer conversation)... The rarest of all commodities in this world is love. It is that thing that we all yearn for at some level — to be simply loved unconditionally for nothing more than who we are — not what we can get, give or become. [W]hile I did not need love fifteen years ago — as the battle scars of life and aging and politics have worn on this has become a real need of mine... I feel a little vulnerable because this is ground I have never certainly never covered before — so if you have pearls of wisdom on how we figure all this out please let me know ... In the meantime please sleep soundly knowing that despite the best efforts of my head my heart cries out for you, your voice, your body, the touch of your lips, the touch of your finger tips and an even deeper connection to your soul.
The quietude of private joy with another human being; this seems precisely what so many public figures, so many politicians, don't have. Maybe don't want. How crazy it must have felt for Sanford -- a powerful politician, a presidential prospect -- to be propelled into that realm of the private, where people act spontaneously, without thought of personal gain, and where they make all-too-human mistakes. Maria writes:
I haven’t felt this since I was in my teen ages, when afterwards I got married. I do love you, I can feel it in my heart, and although I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to meet again this has been the best that has happened to me in a long time You made me realized how you feel when you realy love somebody and how much you want to be beside the beloved. Last Friday I would had stayed embrassing and kissing you forever... Sometimes you don’t choose things, they just happen ... I can’t redirect my feelings and I am very happy with mine towards you.
What's striking about the email exchange is how much longer than Maria's Sanford's letters are. When's the last time the man wrote longer love letters than the woman?
First we feel, wrote James Joyce toward the end of Finnegans Wake. Then we fall. Relatively late in a pulled-back life, the governor of South Carolina felt. And of course he fell. But maybe this was - even with all the obvious disasters it brought down on him - a fortunate fall.