Short story: “Departures”

“Departures,” by John L’Heureux

Appeared in the New Yorker on April 7th, 1980 as a “Portrait,” whatever that means (subscribers can read online here); collected in Desires; anthologized in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (edited by Tobias Wolff)

Roughly 11.5 pages in this edition, no clue how many words

A bunch of barely organized thoughts:

In art, emotional distance doesn’t seem to correlate negatively with emotional intensity.

“His mother is beautiful, radiant, and she will not be dead for another fifteen years.” Every time I read this sentence, I trip slightly over “beautiful, radiant,” because I half expect it to be the start of a list of adjectives or adjectival phrases. I think this slight awkwardness is intentional. It’s as though that “radiant” caught the narrator by surprise, as it must have done to the priest himself in his memory.

The dice dream seems to implicate the priest in the ritual humiliation of Christ. In the Gospels, the casting of lots is a quiet moment of cruelty not unlike his greeting to his mother. He evidently doesn’t analyze it that way. In fact he appears to avoid analyzing it at all. The closest he comes is his thought that meditating on the dice “has something to do with not feeling, with the reason he is a priest in the first place.” Holding dice seems like a plausible symbol of “bring[ing] order out of chaos” as well, since dice are used to exploit blind chance within the formal rules of a game.

The kiss on the cheek, attempted twice and failed both times, also calls to mind Judas. Obvious, I guess. He could be a failed Judas, then, one who thinks he’s acting according to a plan, but is really only committing a pointless betrayal.

The priest’s fatal choice, I take it, was “order” at the expense of everything else. The “crazy couple” represents one of the possible traps he fears, the trap of what he sees as pointless emotion and public indignity and general inefficiency. He doesn’t realize he’s only walked into another trap until his dice dream becomes a nightmare.

What happens at the end? I can’t decide whether the priest has broken out of his trap or not. We know from the narration that he has another fifteen years to live. Does he walk out of the ceremony? Does he lose himself in drink? Does he reach out to take the dice, or perhaps to close his mother’s fingers around them and give them back, or merely to snuff out the vision he sees? The title suggests that he too is departing, but I don’t know from what.

I looked up the prayer he recites at the end, but I don’t see any particular significance in the words he fails to recite.* I think what stops him is the word “sanctify.” He has attempted to sanctify himself by ceasing to care much about anything. He must be realizing now that he’s failed, and/or that he was wrong to try.

The narrator is “omniscient” in that it knows things beyond the present moment, but “close” in that it almost exclusively speaks the priest’s own thoughts, without overt editorializing. I’m not sure if that even counts as omniscient rather than limited, since it’s technically possible for everything the narrator tells us to be within the priest’s lifetime knowledge. (Fifteen years from now, he may well be aware that he’s dying, and how fast.)

The author/narrator’s real opinions are expressed only indirectly, by making the priest’s thoughts ridiculous: “It is boring but good for him. Existentialism is good and humanism is good, and he feels that boredom is just something that goes along with the package.” And later: “But what is good? Well, he feels good and that’s something.” Mocking the priest’s inability to hold real (non-abstract) values or even to make a sincere search for them.

Present tense is widely said to make fiction more vivid. (Detractors say less reflective and less disciplined, but that criticism would be pretty laughable here.) I don’t think the choice of present tense in this story has anything to do with vividness. It’s probably a practical choice that makes it possible to mention past, present, and future events without grammatical difficulties. I think a lot of Muriel Spark’s fiction is in present tense for this reason. (Why don’t I have a Muriel Spark tag already?)

*According to the book From the Beginning to Baptism, by Linda Gibler, it continues, “Sanctify this new fire which was struck from flint and is destined for our use. Grant that we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires through this paschal feast that we may come to the feast of eternal light with pure minds.”