L’esprit du lieu has always had a powerful influence over my sensibility, a fact which once made a visit to a concentration camp in Germany unbearable and which last week transformed a walk down Boylston—open for the first time since the bombings at the Boston Marathon—into a painful pilgrimage.
The memorial in Copley Square was so crowded with mourners taking in the rows of brightly colored flowers, balloons, T-shirts, candles, icons, and running shoes, that there was little room for reflection. I moved past reporters and up the street toward the place where the first bomb exploded at Marathon Sports.
A crowd was gathered outside the boarded up store front, but I could not cross the street to join them. I stood by the library until I noticed a woman directly across from me kneel and touch the pavement with her finger. I looked down and saw that a broad stripe of faded yellow stretched across the road from her to my feet, and realized that my tears fell on the finish line.
I continued up Boylston until I was across from the Starbucks that stood near where the second bomb detonated, and where, two marathons prior, my husband had been working, making the terror of that day all too easy to imagine.
Perhaps because it was so close, the story that unraveled last week in Boston engaged my imagination in a way no tragedy has before. Engaged—and exercised, because if I were to imagine the grief of the victims of that day I must also address those that inflicted their pain.
Now the story complicates. And perhaps especially for readers—that is, for those of us who, within the safe and cozy confines of a good novel have let our imaginations wander into the consciousness of another. Maybe it was a character who on the surface seemed different than us; someone who, if we had read of their actions in a headline we may have written off as simply “criminal,” but who, when rendered through a genius such as, say, Dostoevsky, became for us suddenly, strangely intelligible.
What reader of Crime and Punishment has not wondered, could my way go the way of Raskolnikov? I made that pilgrimage once—from Sennaya Ploshchad in St. Petersburg, the Haymarket of the novel, to the moneylender’s flat. Along the way I remember often finding myself behind a stooped, elderly women looking painfully vulnerable.
I am currently reading Albert Camus’ L’Etranger for the first time, and for a long time—because I am reading it in French. Perhaps having dwelt so long in the mind of a murderer, things are getting confused—or are they clarifying? Meursault has shot an Arab “à cause du soleil,” and who can understand that? And yet—as his reader, I do. Can I really admit that? Am I taking empathy too far?
This question echoed in my mind Friday as I watched the man-hunt unfold. If this were a story, mere literature, reader, where would your heart have been? When I saw the thermal images of that stranded soul—I couldn’t help it, I’m a reader, so the boat was a metaphor and this had to be a story. And those subtle movements inside the womb of the boat—what mother did not think of an ultrasound and hope for life? Unbidden, my imagination conjured up the lonely wounded hours. Was it a relief, I wondered, to be captured?
And what then of the other images, that show the same man setting a bomb by those more vulnerable than himself? Motives and wonder and empathetic imaginings—the story itself—collapses in an explosion of chaos and horror. Because I can imagine that, too—having watched both my parents finish marathons as a child, having walked Boylston countless times, and having cheered on the finishers of previous Boston Marathons. The mind reels, struggles to hold in tension these two images of one self, and, ultimately, to understand the potential of such extremes in one’s own self, and in everyone.
What is the good of literature if it does not expand our selves to such extremes? The cover image of the recent issue of Boston Magazine shows empty shoes belonging to runners of this year’s marathon gathered into the shape of a heart. The unoccupied shoes might recall other tragedies, like the piles of shoes at the Holocaust Museum, or simply help us to imagine ourselves slipping into a pair of shoes other than our own.
The experience of empathy may not lead to answers or clarity or judgment, but I am hoping that for those brave enough to read the world as a story of which we are all a part, beyond the struggle of interpretation there lies compassion, grace, and yes, Boston—strength. May the spirit of this place endure. May it extend to other selves and other places where the instability and fear we have tasted still exists.