Brother Luke was right: the cutting was better. When he did it, it was as if he was draining away the poison, the filth, the rage inside of him. It was as if his old dream of leeches had come to life and had the same effect, the effect he had always hoped it would. He wished he was made of metal, of plastic: something that could be hosed down and scrubbed clean. He had a vision of himself being pumped full of water and detergent and bleach and then blasted dry, everything inside him made hygienic again. Now, after the final client of the night had left, he took Brother Luke’s place in the bathroom, and until he heard the brother telling him it was time to go to bed, his body was his to do with what he chose.
–From “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara
I love that story Buddhist meditation-instructor Sharon Salzberg tells about her first meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1990.
“Your Holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?” she asked him.
After a pregnant pause, he answered: “What’s that?”
“How could you think of yourself that way?” he asked her after she gave him some clarification about the popular Western “cycle of self-judgment, guilt, unproductive thought patterns.” In the end, he emphasized that “we all have Buddha nature.”
But, wow, you don’t know self-hatred until you meet Jude St. Francis in Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life.
Jude has a horrific history of sexual and physical abuse that is parceled out in painful doses. Yanagihara’s thorough dedication to Jude’s every act of self-mutilation made me wonder at times if I were engaging in self-hatred simply by reading this book. After all, repetitive thoughts of self-annihilation are a poor habit for the mind to get used to. And sometimes I felt that the self-punishment was sensationalized.
But after finishing the novel, I admired the author’s ability to step into the darkness and stay there, stopping to savor every razor’s slice, every thought of unworthiness, every feeling of being despicable, worthless, and alone.
Is it cathartic in the end? Clearly Jude is the king of self-loathing. Most mere mortals can’t compete with their garden-variety inferiority complexes.
One thing Yanagihara captures is the sheer pain of life. Yet there are many characters in the book who love and support Jude. Somehow their compassion isn’t enough for him, but that is his choice. And now that I have finished the 800-page book and am no longer reading about Jude’s every shade of self-doubt and every flirtation with death, there is a sweet sensation of weightlessness. It hollows me out inside and makes me feel almost hopeful.