Monday, July 30, 2012

About A Severed Wasp

I've been re-reading A Severed Wasp in small chunks around studying for my qualifying exam. I love Madeleine L'Engle, so much. I know she's been accused of being pompous and unrelatable, and maybe what draws me to her, and her work is those same unlikeable traits in myself.  But why am I apologizing for my taste in literature on my own blog?

It's very possible that A Severed Wasp is the only one of L'engle's adult fiction novels that I've read-I tend to take long soaks in her nonfiction, and her young adult novels.  Not too long ago, I discovered that it was the sequel to A Small Rain, which I'll likely pick up in the future. And I was intrigued to find that Suzy Davidson in A Severed Wasp was once Suzy Austin, who I rather liked (possibly because I find Vicky Austin to be the absolute most irritating character of L'engle's that I've ever encountered).

One of the things that draws me in is the Cathedral setting, with its musicians, priests, and bishops. Like L'engle, I'm one of those lucky people who breaks bread regularly with priests and bishops, at the Eucharist and in Starbucks. As a clergy kid and clergy friend, I appreciate it when people with religious vocations are presented in literature as real people, rather than just their occupations.

In some ways, this book is a mystery, in some it's a crazy soap opera. I love the way the story's told - both through Katherine's memories and her present. The way the details connect and pull the story together is absolutely masterful. But what resonates most with me right now is an undercurrent in the novel - a lengthy discussion about talent,  vocation, and practice. There are so many different extraordinarily gifted people in this novel - Madame Katherine Vigneras (the main character), doctors Suzy Davidson and Mimi Oppenheimer, Bishop Felix Bodeway, young violinist John Davidson, for starters.

This is one of those things I love about L'engle, incidentally- she respects the creativity and gifting of scientists and physicians. One of the earliest official definitions of public health is "the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals" (Charles Winslow). I'm honestly not sure where the line runs between art and science; I think that quite often the line is thin and blurred.

A Severed Wasp is full of characters who have proved themselves great, those whose gifts are mediocre (Dorcas the dancer, for instance, or Felix the Bishop, who once was a violinist), and those who are still waiting to find out whether this thing inside them- "this one talent that is death to hide", in Milton's words- is enough.

Madame Vigneras practices incessantly, even though she's retired. This reminds me about how L'engle writes about her own practicing - the finger exercises for piano, and the writing that is their equivalent. It's that notion of practice that keeps me focused these days- course papers, and even qualifying exams are finger exercises in their own way. And I practice - some times as though my life depends on it, sometimes resentfully.  Because at least here- practice doesn't exactly give clarity on what your potential is. As great as class projects are, there's this rather immaculate, "testtube" quality about them. Outside the School of Public Health, there are people, problems, stakeholders, ideologies, and competing interests all interacting. I want to be good at Health Promotion - this is what I've been blindly stumbling towards ever since I was a 7th grader who wanted to be an epidemiologist. When I read A Severed Wasp, and hear  Katherine ask herself if she would have been able to accept it if her talent were second rate, I find myself asking "what if I'm only mediocre?" I think perhaps the greatest test of character in my life will be this next decade- as I move through this doctorate, and establish myself outside the walls of my dearly-loved university. If I prove myself great, can I keep from being proud? If I find myself lacking, can I accept my limited abilities with grace, and use them the best I can? In another ten years of practice and hard work, we should know.

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