Friday, 24 July 2015

Reading The Great Gatsby when you can't sleep, as in Donna Tartt's The Secret History

I've posted before about insomnia and the books that might help to alleviate it. However, sometimes nothing seems to work. If you struggle with insomnia too, you might find this quote from Donna Tartt's The Secret History resonant. It mentions F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, as just one of the many books referenced in Tartt's novel.

The sleepless character in The Secret History is Richard Papen: the narrator who belongs to an elite group of six close-knit classics students. The novel is a stunning tale of destruction and creation and irrationality and rationality, and is in many ways akin to a Greek tragedy. Do read it if you get a chance.

Nothing is lonelier or more disorienting than insomnia. I spent the nights reading Greek until four in the morning, until my eyes burned and my head swam, until the only light burning in Monmouth House was my own. When I could no longer concentrate on Greek and the alphabet began to transmute itself into incoherent triangles and pitchforks, I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favourite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humourless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.

This isn't exactly an glowing appraisal of Gatsby as a book for insomnia, as it "only [makes Richard] feel worse". However, I think it says a lot about the novels we choose when we cannot sleep. They are "favourites" that we turn to for comfort, and they often do provide this, depending on our place in life and our present feelings.

I certainly think there's something magical about The Great Gatsby, as in the following quote:

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.

Magic tends to be a good thing at four in the morning when it's getting light outside.

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Thursday, 16 July 2015

Nick Cave's chosen "sad poem of loss": "The Widower in the Country" by Les Murray

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2012.
Image credit Sally May Mills. 

I was very saddened to hear the news of Nick Cave's son; the family facing a tragic accident not far from where I live in Sussex. It reminded me of the musician's selection for the Poems That Make Grown Men Cry anthology (edited by Anthony and Ben Holden): "The Widower in the Country" by Les Murray.

Nick Cave writes how this "very sad poem of loss revolves mournfully" around the death of the farmer's wife, which remains unmentioned as we follow him through his "dire and ineffectual day's work".

I'll get up soon, and leave my bed unmade.
I'll go outside and split off kindling wood,
From the yellow-box log that lies beside the gate,
And the sun will be high, for I get up late now.

It's the unmade bed and the "I get up late now" that gives away so much. Cave sees the farmer as "that tough old Australian man, so familiar to me, just getting on with the business of life", but views "the violence of the last two lines, that screaming unconsciousness" as the part of the poem that "really brings on the waterworks":

Last night I thought I dreamt – but when I woke
The screaming was only a possum ski-ing down
The iron roof on little moonlit claws. 

It is hard to put words to sad situations like this, but poetry might get close. After all, poems can't always provide solace, but often we can find something close to what we're facing.

My favourite Nick Cave Album? The Lyre of Orpheus half of the Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus double album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. I'm unsure how O'Children could be more beautiful.

You can read "The Widower in the Country" (1963) by Les Murray in full here and find other superb poetic selections in the Poems That Make Grown Men Cry anthology by Anthony and Ben Holden.

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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

How people (and hobbits) can "find strength they didn't know they had" with books and good company

The End of Your Life Book Club
Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club is one of my best-loved non-fiction books, rightly described by Edmund De Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, as "a true meditation on what books can do".

It is Will Schwalbe's account of the books that he shared with his mother in her final months of living with cancer, and about one third into the book, he relates how, upon returning home on one particularly bad day and unable to sleep, he searches for comfort in his childhood copy of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Schwalbe soon encounters the scene in which protagonist hobbit Bilbo and his dwarf companions find themselves lost and separated in a dark wood. Tolkien's wisdom at this point of the book could not be much more poignant:

That was one of his most miserable moments. But he soon made up his mind that it was no good trying to do anything till day came with some little light.

When sharing his experience of revisiting The Hobbit with his mother the following day, he tries to explain why Tolkien, his childhood favourite, still has a certain power over him:

"I think it's because it shows that people–or hobbits, as the case may be–can find strength they didn't know they had"

Tolkien, throughout The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and his wider work and writing, dispenses a trove of guidance for finding courage when all seems lost (or distant, at least). In The Return of the King, Arwen hands Frodo a diamond that was hanging around her neck and says:

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

"When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you, this will bring you aid"

This reminds me that there is a way through difficult and memories, be it with the help of material objects or, say, the memory of happier times. Another wonderful quote is to be found in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf tells the protesting Frodo ("Why did [the ring] come to me? Why was I chosen?) that:

You have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.

If you are in need of some extra courage, or a nudge in the direction of mental strength, you could try turning to Tolkien for an hour. Alternatively, perhaps jot down the quotations above for a day with more trials than today.

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Friday, 19 June 2015

Allen Ginsberg on never working again (and living a "literary and quiet city-hermit existence" instead)

Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart celebrating the reissue of JUNKY, NYC, 1977.

I recently came across a wonderful quote from Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation poet best known for his incredible epic poem "Howl" ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."), and wanted to share it with you.

I think that often we find ourselves reading books, articles and websites that push us to do more, see more, and be more, and I love that this conveys the opposite. Yes, motivating ourselves is important, but so is simplifying life and enjoying the little moments.

It reminds me somewhat of the Nicholas Carr quote that I included in my Arianna Huffington and slowing down article: “there needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden”.

But here's the Ginsberg quote:

“I really would like to stop working forever–never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m doing now–and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I’d like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence.”

Around 1953 Ginsberg began seeing a therapist at Langley Porter Institute, San Francisco, and recalls saying the above to him. He also remembers the therapists's response: "Well, why don't you?"

Mentioned in On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg by Lewis Hyde (p405)

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Monday, 15 June 2015

Kierkegaard on how "if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right"

Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard by his cousin 
Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840
I finished my undergraduate degree last month, and since then I've spent a few weeks travelling. One of the stops was Copenhagen, where I decided to make Søren Kierkegaard a focal point of my wanderings: the Danish philosopher and father of existentialism whose work included Either/Or and Fear and Trembling.

The philosopher was born in the city, studied at its university, and died there, and I found it fascinating to wander its roads with his life and work in mind. This is particularly fitting upon considering one of Kierkegaard's most famous quotes:

"Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

― Søren Kierkegaard, from a letter to his favourite niece, Henriette Lund, in 1847

If you find yourself in Copenhagen, try to meander around the Frederiksberg Gardens — “that wonderful garden which for the child was the enchanted land where the king lived with the queen,” as Kierkegaard wrote in “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.” You can also contemplate his grave in Assistens Cemetery, see a 1918 bronze statue of him in the Royal Library Garden, and stroll along the "Lovers' Lane" near Peblinge Lake that is the opening setting for The Seducer's Diary.

But if you're not in Copenhagen, perhaps try to wander a little regardless. Walk, with or without direction, and walk yourself into your best thoughts as the Danish philosopher did.

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Sunday, 17 May 2015

On retreating into galleries, museums and the beauty of art (with help from Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch)

Museums and galleries remain among the few oases that can deliver what has become increasingly rare in our world: the opportunity to disconnect from our hyperconnected lives and experience the feeling of wonder. Museums are where we go to commune with the permanent, the ineffable, and the unquantifiable. And it’s an especially rare, and thus precious, experience in our technology-besieged lives. Maxwell Anderson, the CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, describes a museum’s mission as providing visitors with “resonance and wonder … an intangible sense of elation—a feeling that a weight was lifted.”

- Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington
The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner (1839), displayed in the National Gallery.

Look for a museum when life isn't making much sense

"I mean seeing the Elgin marbles this morning gave me the same feeling and I didn’t know, don’t know whether I’m in Rome or Paris. I mean the Louvre and the British Museum hold one together, keep one from going to bits". - Asphodel, H.D.
Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine mountains, and the maker of canyons and pine mountains! All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions of stars. –Kabir 

Spend time looking at a painting (really looking)

View on Delft by Vermeer (c.1660-61).
She’d never seen a great painting in person until she was eighteen and moved to New York, and she was eager to make up for lost time – “pure bliss, perfect heaven,” she’d said, up to the neck in art books and poring over the same old slides (Manet, Vuillard) until her vision started to blur. (“It’s crazy,” she’d said, “but I’d be perfectly happy if I could sit looking at the same half dozen paintings for the rest of my life. I can’t think of a better way to go insane.”) - The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Care for, or admire, a few beautiful things

Croatian Apoxyomenos, a bronze statue from 4th century BC currently on display in the British Museum's "Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art" exhibition. Photo attribution: Marie-Lan Nguyen.
“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?” - The Goldfinch

Keep looking until you find art that resonates with you

Two Women in a Garden by Eric Ravilious (1933)
I’ve been thinking a lot about what Hobie said: about those images that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower, images that open up some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find. - The Goldfinch
if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” - The Goldfinch
“Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering - because you can't take it in all at once.” ― Audrey Hepburn

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