If Marcus Aurelius had been a wife and a mother, he might have written Jenny Offill’s new novel Dept. of Speculation. Every vignette is suffused with well wrought insight and wisdom. For example: “My daughter breaks both her wrists jumping off of a swing.”
We take our daughter to the doctor’s office to get the casts. After he puts them on, he warns her not to drop anything in them. “If you do, you will have to come back and have them removed, then put them on again under anesthesia,” he says. We leave the office.
Something fell into my cast.
I don’t know.
But you’re sure something did?
No, maybe. Maybe I just thought it.
You just thought it?
No, I felt it.
You felt it?
What was it?
I don’t know. Something.
Nothing. I think. Maybe something.
Nothing. No, something.
We wash her hair in a bucket, try to scratch her wrists with a chopstick. It is summer and she cries because she wants to swim.
What Wittgenstein said: What you say, you say in a body; you can say nothing outside this body (77-78).
The soul opens by way of the voice. It’s our way of sharing human life. Think of your mother’s voice. You might be hard pressed to describe it to others, though you’d never fail to recognize it. Its timbre, its cadence, its oft-chosen words are instantly recognizable.
That’s why those who want to hide what’s happening within the soul, don’t call their mothers. Your soul is laid bare as soon as you speak to her, just as the sound of her voice reveals hers. Souls don’t leave bodies in order to commune with others souls. Their bodies, their voices, are their place of communion.
We tend to think of the soul as a shadow self, hiding deep within the body, though there is nothing in our Christian faith to suggest that. On the contrary, Saint Thomas Aquinas defined the soul as the form of the body. It’s what makes the body intelligible, gives it an identity. Our souls and our physical selves are inseparable, save in death and then only for awhile. The resurrected Christ isn’t a soul set free from the fresh. He speaks to us with a glorified body.
It’s true that we’ve never heard the timbre of Jesus’ voice and wouldn’t recognize its sound. Yet, in the Gospels, Jesus does speak to us. An intimacy, woven of words, exists between the believer and the Lord, the one whom Saint John calls the Word. And quite often, we hear the sound of his voice on the lips of others who share our faith.
Words—and the way in which our bodies give them voice—are how souls share life. Saint John opens his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1.1) And Jenny Offill closes her story:
One night we let her sleep in our room because the air conditioner is better. We all pile into the big bed. There is a musty animal smell to her casts now. She brings in the nightlight that makes fake stars and places it on the bedside table. Soon everyone is asleep but me. I lie in our bed and listen to the hum of the air conditioner and the soft sound of their breathing. Amazing. Out of dark waters, this (78).
Acts 2: 14a, 36-41 1 Peter 2: 20b-25 John 10: 1-10