Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Poem M Reads in Skyfall: A Quote From Tennyson's Ulysses

Daniel Craig in Skyfall, the most recent Bond film that quotes Tennyson's Ulysses. Image from guardian.co.uk

I went to go and see the new Bond film last night, and I must say that I enjoyed it. There was plenty of action, humour, and "Britishness" - everything that a Bond film needs, really. At one point M quoted Tennyson, a moment which was always going to be a winner with me. You can watch the clip on Youtube here.

Some may say that this addition was excessively melancholy and staged, but I love intertextuality in films (the Dickens A Tale of Two Cities reference got me through The Dark Knight Rises, for instance). 

Below is the passage that was quoted. It's taken from Tennyson's Ulysses, which the poet famously claimed described his own "need of going forward and braving the struggle of life" after his friend Hallam's death. It's a very fitting choice for the circumstances in the film, and as Poet Laureate during much of Queen Victoria's reign, he's a very patriotic choice.

The Tennyson quote read by M goes...


Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


I hope you gain some personal meaning from the poem, as I have. The last two lines of the above passage are on a post-it next to my desk, for reference when I'm having a bad day and not feeling particularly strong. It makes me realise that although the past has often hurt me, it doesn't mean that I'm weak-willed or possessed by my memories.

If you want to read the whole poem online, click here.

Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Antonio Machado's "Recuerdos" and the Healing Power of Nature

Antonio Machado's Andalusia. From flickr.com

After an endless stream of presentations, translations, meetings, and seminars, I had a bit of a meltdown on Thursday. To be honest, I had one on Wednesday too: I woke up and my head was screaming "DON'T DO IT, STAY IN BED!". I managed to fight through that and attend two seminars and a meeting, but on Thursday my inner-self concerned with my wellbeing was having none of it. I can tell that a day isn't worth pursuing when I can't stop crying, noises make me jump more than usual, and I hate everybody. It's not pretty in the slightest.

The part of Thursday that I was most stressed about was the group presentation I was to do late morning. I texted another group member to say I wouldn't be able to attend, and she still hasn't replied (oh dear). I'm glad that I didn't push myself, however; it's not worth putting my health at risk.

Although I skipped that seminar, I did go to my 9am Spanish lecture the same day. I'm glad that I did too, as the lecturer of this module - on The Generation of 1898 -  is a certain supporter of bibliotherapy! We're currently studying Antonio Machado's Campos de Castilla collection.

The Thursday lecture focused particularly on a lovely poem called Recuerdos, in which Machado mourns Soria, a city in north-central Spain in which he once lived. A week after his wife died of TB, he felt he could no longer live in Soria, and left for Andalusia  Machado writes about the gloomier landscape of Soria whilst looking out his window at the bountiful, flourishing Andalusian countryside. Here's the first stanza of the poem, which I've very loosely translated:

Oh, Soria, when I see fresh orange groves
filled with perfume, and fields turning green,
flowering jasmines, ripened wheat fields,
blue mountains and an olive grove in bloom; 
the Guadalquivir flowing through land to the sea; 
gardens filled with lilies under the April sunshine, 
and swarms of golden bees leaving their hives to 
spread through the fields and make their honey; 
I know the oak tree is crackling in your fireplaces, 
the north wind blowing through your frozen fields; 
and I dream of the harsh mountains—Urbion above the pines, 
white Moncayo, rising up into the sky of Aragon! 
And I think: Spring, as if a shiver,
will begin to cross the high plain of the romancero, 
poplars by the river must now be turning green. 
Can that elm by the Duero have green leaves by now? 
The towers of Soria will probably have their storks, 
and on the rocky hills blackberries are in bloom; 
the shepherd will now be herding his white sheep 
through the gray rocks to the high meadows.

The poem is so beautifully written, and you can't help wanting to see similar views, flowers, and animals. During this lecture, I decided that I needed more time outside and in nature. I was too caught up with my desire for isolation and peace to spent time getting fresh air, and when I was outside I was distracted by anxieties.  On the way back from my lecture, I paid more attention to the colours of trees and the crunchiness of the leaves lining flowerbeds and paths. It's a beautiful time of year, and by paying proper attention to the state of nature surrounding you, you can do great things for your wellbeing. So many studies have certified the benefits of "ecotherapy" on mental health, particularly if you're affected by depression.

Therefore, I've come up with the following action plan (I love a good list):

  • Wear less products with SPF protection. Judging by how I usually mix spf40 primer, spf15 moisturiser, and spf15 tinted moisturiser, it's no surprise that I feel in need of sun. I do supplement with Vitamin D (although probably not enough), but getting some from the direct source would be handy. 
  • Walk to places where there are trees, not shops. Chris is staying for the week as of this afternoon, and we're planning to spend a few days in Corwnwall - this will be the perfect opportunity!
  • Take better care of my plants. My mighty cheese plant and withering herbs could do with a little extra love. 
  • Visit the gardens and ponds on campus. I'm very lucky to go to a university with a campus that makes you feel like you're in Center Parcs. Despite the rapidly lowering temperatures, it will be easy to have a break on a bench away from the usual hustle and bustle.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Shaun Ferguson Artwork

I love the painting below - it seems to encapsulate all that I'm feeling currently. The woman painted could just be sorting her hair, but I also see overwhelm and instability. This week has been very busy for me at uni, and I've also started a new course of therapy. I'm sure I'll be fine though; I always manage.

I've found out that the artist is represented in a gallery in my nearest town, which is quite coincidental! 

Here's his website: http://www.shaunferguson.co.uk/index.htm

I'm not associated with him at all, I just love how he paints. 



Five TED Talks for Social Anxiety and Shyness

I could spend hours watching TED talks: there are so many videos of educational and inspirational value to enjoy. It's certainly twenty minutes well spent, as you not only learn through watching, but you also feel inspired to get off your bottom and do something. It's hard to slob out on the sofa after viewing J.K. Rowling's famous Harvard commencement speech, for instance.

 If you've suffered from social anxiety like I have, I'm hoping that you'll find familiar words in the following videos, alongside inspiration and motivation to move forwards.

1. Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are - Amy Cuddy


I've read a lot about this first video on anxiety websites. Amy Cuddy, a glamorous, confident social psychologist, speaks of the power of body language and faking confidence. Upon first impressions of her, you may question what she knows about low self-esteem and shyness, but the biographical revelations that she makes will change such perceptions.

Amy Cuddy TED Talk for Social Anxiety
Amy Cuddy on social anxiety and faking positive body language and confidence. Image from TED.


2. The Power of Introverts - Susan Cain


Susan Cain's recent non-fiction book about being introverted in modern society has gained plenty of press attention, and it's a superb read for those of us with social anxiety. It shows that it is perfectly acceptable to be introverted, and that there is no need to change yourself or pretend to be different.

This seems conflicting to Amy Cuddy's message, yet I believe that faking confidence in certain situations (such as presentations) is perfectly acceptable too. Also, Cain classifies shyness as fear of judgment, and introversion as dislike of social stimulation. According to Susan Cain, our culture needs introverts for the sustenance of a thriving creative culture, and I entirely agree.

Susain Cain TED Talk for Social Anxiety
Susan Cain on the advantages of being introverted. Her book Quiet: The Powerof Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking is superb. Image from TED.

3. Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself - Thandie Newton


Thandie's a beautiful lady. In this TED talk she discusses her feelings of otherness whilst growing up, and comes to a positive conclusion. Watch this if you've ever worried about fitting in, or struggled with your sense of self.

Thandie Newton TED Talk for Social Anxiety
Thandie Newton on bulimia and 'otherness'. Image from TED.

4. The Habits of Happiness - Matthieu Ricard


Matthieu is such a wonderfully smiley and inspirational Buddhist monk. He recommends, like the Stoics, to be aware of our inability to change external circumstances, and to instead focus on our inner strength. You can't always change what's happening to you, but you can change your perceptions.

Mattieu Ricard TED Talk for Social Anxiety
Matthieu Ricard on the habits of happiness, providing a stoic perspective on social anxiety. Image from TED.

5. The game that can give you 10 extra years of life - Jane McGonigal


Are you a gamer? If so,  this TED talk is perfect for you. Several years ago, Jane McGonigal suffered a serious concussion, and she created a multiplayer game to get through the psychological and physical issues that came with it. In Superbetter, players set health and wellness goals and invite others to play with them (and to keep them on track). 

If you have social anxiety or shyness, this game is certainly worth a go. There are challenges particularly for your anxiety, and these will help you to build resilience, form goals, and face challenges. The philosophical and psychological thinking behind Superbetter is fascinating, and I can comfortably say that the game has ben really useful for me.

Jane McGonigal, founder of Superbetter: a superb online multiplayer game to help you through your social anxiety
or shyness. Image from TED.

Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

"Family Happiness", The Tolstoy Book Mentioned in 'Into the Wild'


I wanted to read Tolstoy's Family Happiness after watching Into the Wild a few months ago: an emotional, philosophical film based on John Krakauer's biography of Christopher McCandless in which the book is mentioned.

In 1992, McCandless decided to leave his comfortable American home to hike into the Alaskan wilderness and find the solitude and connection with nature he so yearned for. This was all done under the alias Alexander Supertramp - amazing, right? I don't want to give away the rest of his story, but here's his Wikipedia entry if you want it revealed. I'd recommend the film wholly, although the ending really did get to me.


Into the Wild quotes the following passage from Family Happiness:


“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbour — such is my idea of happiness.”

I love this quote. Taken without the context of the rest of the novel, you get the impression that it's a story of idealist and tranquil ways of living. However, the marriage of Masha and Sergei - although beginning in this happy manner - deteriorates over the course of the novel. Masha gets bored of quiet life in the country, and she becomes a little flirty. The novel touches on fading love, naivety, and the position of a couple within society.

I'll quote here another passage from Family Happiness that was found highlighted in Chris McCandless's copy of the book:

"I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”

I'm sure that a lot of people will relate to this. Personally, I run from the first signs of danger, but perhaps this will change in future. I did find it very easy to relate to McCandless's wish for solitude, and moreover the way Masha and her husband live their lives in the opening time of their marriage. Both connote peace and time for reflection.

When I first started reading Family Happiness, something immediately struck me as odd: Tolstoy was writing in conversational first-person, and from the perspective of a woman. Had I ever witnessed this before?! He was a genius of his time, that's for sure. I do wonder what Sofya thought of this novel though. There are clear connections between the literary marriage and Tolstoy's own, an example being the age difference between husband and wife (Tolstoy married Sofya when he was 34 and she was 18, not far from the ages mentioned in the novel).

This is a lovely short piece by Tolstoy, and I'd certainly recommend it if you wish to ease into the author's work without yet facing War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Family Happiness in Into the Wild
Christopher McCandless and his bus.


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe.

Friday, 19 October 2012

TV's "Revenge": Links to The Count of Monte Cristo and a Theme of Self-Improvement

Revenge: a modern Count of Monte Cristo?
Revenge -  a great TV show with echoes of Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo. From guardian.co.uk

I'm completely addicted to the TV series Revenge shown here on Channel 4 and in the US on ABC. It's the story of Emily Thorne - real name Amanda Clarke - who returns to the Hamptons intent on revenging those who wronged her and her father many years previously. At the top of that list is Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), matriarch of the Grayson family and the woman whom her father loved before she betrayed him.

All the revenge involved - seriously, it's unending - makes the plot understandably linked to Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, first serialised 1844-5. In case you are not aware of the plot, here's a quick summary from Goodreads:
Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantès is confined to the grim fortress of If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration. Dumas' epic tale of suffering and retribution, inspired by a real-life case of wrongful imprisonment, was a huge popular success when it was first serialised in the 1840s.

Whilst the Abbé Faria becomes Edmond Dantès's mentor after they meet at the Château D'If jail, Emily meets her mentor, Takeda, after leaving juvenile court. Emily is instructed in combat, like Edmond, and they both learn how to create an unsuspecting, confident facade. Emily learns Japanese, and Edmond is taught by the Abbé three or four popular languages. Essentially, each mentor becomes their student's intellectual father and guide. Edmond is able to escape the Château d'If equipped with the education of a rich man - including the sciences, history,  mathematics, and languages. Similarly, Amanda attains the physical and mental dexterity required to ensure her safety. Both characters, therefore, are ready to revenge their enemies.

From the 2002 film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo

I don't agree with revenge, but such learning and transformation fascinates me. Education changes the persona of both Edmond and Emily, and it gives them the confidence to face those who have hurt them in the past. Although Emily and Edmond are both involved in nasty circumstances, having a period of time dedicated merely to educating and strengthening yourself sounds quite enviable. I greatly hope I'll never be taken captive or anything similar, but if I suddenly had dedicated time to learn and improve myself, I would...

  • Learn Japanese. I taught myself some written characters today, and the language seems fascinating.
  • Finish all of Tolstoy's works.  
  • Learn self-defence. I'm a bit feeble at the moment.
  • Read the Stoics. Doing this has helped me immensely in the past. 

Rather than helping me revenge others, doing the above activities would help me deal with daily challenges more effectively, and feel stronger mentally. Emily and Edmond are excessively focused and almost without emotion, but I believe a gentle stoic attitude can be beneficial. Time to think, reflect, and learn can be incredibly advantageous if you're trying to overcome pain or mental health troubles, I believe. Replicate Emily and Edmond's development in a positive way, and not the revenge that follows!
“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes. You must look into that storm and shout as you did in Rome. Do your worst, for I will do mine! Then the fates will know you as we know you”

Monday, 15 October 2012

A Translation: The Jump (El salto) by León Felipe

An image well-suited for this Felipe poem from http://root.timothyponce.com/


Note: I am now posting my translations here: http://leonfelipeinenglish.blogspot.co.uk/


I love León Felipe's poetry. This post contains one of his poems that I most enjoyed translating some years ago - I hope you also enjoy reading it. This poem is from Ganarás La Luz, which you can view on Amazon here: Ganaras La Luz (Letras Hispanicas / Hispanic Writings)

The poem has an interesting take on mortality and the brevity of life, alongside living mindfully. This is particularly pertinent considering that Felipe fought in the Spanish Civil War; a time of both brutality and uncertainty.


THE JUMP (El salto)

We are like a horse without memory, 
we are like a horse 
that has already forgotten 
the last hurdle jumped. 

We come into this world running, running 
along century-long tracks ridden with obstacles, 
including, every once in a while, death… 
                                                            The jump! 

And nobody knows how many 
times we have leapt 
to get here, nor how many more we have to leap 
to get to God sitting 
at the end of the race… 
waiting for us. 

We cry and we run, 
we fall and we turn, 
moving from one difficulty to the next 
doing skips and turns between diapers and shrouds.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Mental Health, PTSD, and Literature

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, mental health and PTSD
Sam, played by Emma Watson, and Charlie, who appears to have PTSD, by Logan Lerman From guardian.co.uk
Perhaps I enjoyed watching the film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower so much because the novel's author, Stephen Chbosky, directed it. Judging by the frequency of his name on the credits, he did most the work. Therefore, it seemed incredibly difficult for the film to be unfaithful to the book; a novel that I remembered enjoying some years ago.

The film hit home hard on many levels. The story of Charlie, a high-school "wallflower" affected by mental health problems, seemed all too familiar. I was practically his female equivalent when in secondary school. He says the wrong thing, and then he worries incessantly about the consequences. His family believe that everything is fine, and that he will automatically make friends at a new school. He's tormented by troubling memories, including his best friend's suicide and a history of childhood abuse that's gradually unveiled. Charlie cannot blame others; instead he manages to find reasons to relieve them of it. For instance, that they had a hard life, they had relationship troubles, they were treated unfairly. This attitude continues until his feelings bottle over after a breakdown. For someone with PTSD, this film was emotional to watch.

Another aspect I related to greatly was the relief Charlie finds in literature and music. The friendly, supportive bond he forms with his English teacher is admirable, and it even makes me consider the job for myself. The teacher, played by Paul Rudd so well, helps a student like Charlie in what I see as the best way possible: he shares books with him. By giving him literature like Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, Charlie finds he can trust him. Charlie knows that he can ask him about almost anything, even love. Teachers should take notes on Paul Rudd's performance. For anyone nerdy like me, below is a list of the texts that Charlie receives in the novel. It's interesting to consider how reading the following would shape a young person...

Books mentioned in The Perks of Being a Wallflower:



The Perks of Being a Wallflower cover
I mentioned that I can relate to the music involved in both novel and film. Charlie is very fond of Asleep by The Smiths, as evident in the countless mentions the song receives. Like Chbosky's Charlie, the song (to be clichéd) just struck a chord with me. It would with any troubled person, I imagine. Also like Charlie, I wasn't an attention-seeking person back then - nor am I now - but someone filled with deeply painful memories and feelings. Eventually you need an outlet.

The film's ending is positive, I'd conclude. Charlie's family is now aware of his trauma, and this hopefully suggests that his recovery will be actively overseen by them. Charlie is in contact with his friends Patrick and Sam after a brief friendship hiccup, and he has his typewriter for cathartic release. I'm sure that the post-plot Charlie will pull through, as we all will too.

So, I guess we are who we are for alot of reasons. And maybe we'll never know most of them. But even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.
Here's a link to the novel, if you're interested in buying it.


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A Review of "How To Live: A Life of Montaigne" by Sarah Bakewell

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell
I really admire Montaigne's writing and philosophy, so Sarah Bakewell's part-biography, part-self-help book easily caught my attention. I read Montaigne because - as millions of other people do, making this statement quite meaningless - I see elements of my mind in his. Anyone who decides to retreat into their study and focus on writing gets praise from me.

I certainly enjoyed the first part of this book by Sarah Bakewell; in particular, her passages on solitude, death, and living convivially. These were the sections that did what it says on the tin (well, the front cover): they show you how to live by Montaigne's philosophy. After this, I'm afraid, I got slightly bored. I'm not too interested in the politics of the time, nor trivial details about everyone he was related to. I'm sure this is largely a personal preference. I merely wished to read about Montaigne's teachings, and how they were influenced by his way of living.

I thought I'd quote the inscription that Montaigne wrote on the wall of a side-chamber to his library, upon deciding to "retire". If I could speak Latin, I'd definitely replace this with my own translation, but unfortunately I cannot. Here, therefore, is the rather odd translation that Bakewell supplies:

"In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned Virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure."

Perhaps re-reading his essays alone, with merely a pen for annotations and copious underlinings, would have been sufficient for me. That method usually works well, and I'll probably return to it in future. However, I do think that Bakewell has created here a very insightful biography. Check it out if you're interested in Monsieur Montaigne, and would like to know more about his life.


Monday, 8 October 2012

A Favourite Poem: I Am Very Bothered - Simon Armitage

From loveafrican.wordpress.com

I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn't shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.

Don't believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.


Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Faerie Queene, Healing PTSD, and Wilfred Owen

This may be a generalisation, but I'm sure that most people who read The Faerie Queene never go back to it. It's not the lightest text to read on an easy night in, and Spenser as a character wasn't too charming. However, in my recent studies of the text I've made some discoveries (sounds exciting, right?) My first points will seem completely irrelevant, but bear with me. Also, apologies for any parts that don't seem to make sense: my brain doesn't seem to want to switch on fully today!

Wilfred Owen was an English poet and soldier during World War I, writing in shocking detail the horrors of trench and gas warfare that he witnessed. If you studied in an English secondary school, you probably read Dulce et Decorum Est in your English classes. If not, here's a section (or you can read the whole piece here):

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--- My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

You may be able to deduce from the intensity of Owen's writing here that he suffered from PTSD. He was diagnosed with "shell shock" after first being blown high into the air by a trench mortar, landing on the remains of a fellow officer, and later being trapped in an old German dugout for days. As a result, he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment, where he met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was to considerably influence his war poetry.

However, the main point of this post: whilst later continuing his recovery in Amiens, France - a delightfully rural location away from the "whiz-bangs and machine guns" - Owen described how,
"The scenery was such as I never saw or dreamed of since I read The Faerie Queene. Just as in the Winter when I woke up lying on the burning cold snow I fancied that I must have died & been pitch-forked into the Wrong Place, so, yesterday, it was not more difficult to imagine that my dusky barge was wending up to Avalon, and the peace of Arthur, and where Lancelot heals him of his grievous wound."
If you've read The Faerie Queene, you'll probably realise that Owen confuses the plot with another book (Malory's Morte D'Arthur, in fact). Yet this confusion shows how Owen associated in his memory the FQ with the romantic pastoralism of Malory's text, which is not a negative factor. It seems that Owen associates Arthur's "grievous wound" with his own PTSD, and hence uses literature to aid his PTSD healing.

In the same year as Wilfred Owen wrote this, a British officer named John Bailey related a story of an officer who read The Faerie Queene to his men when they were in a particularly difficult situation. Although the men didn't necessarily understand all the words that he read, the poetry had a soothing influence on them. Why? Perhaps because the story relates magical and idyllic occurrences, which provide an escape for those in difficulty, or the Spenserian stanza may have a particularly therapeutic rhythm. Alternatively, one event in particular from the text appealed to me, as a sufferer of PTSD. This is in Book I, when the Redcrosse Knight is brought by Una to "The House of Holiness". The story explains,
"From what had happened in the Cave of Despair, Una saw that her Knight had grown faint and feeble; his long imprisonment had wasted away all his strength, and he was still quite unfit to fight. Therefore she determined to bring him to a place where he might refresh himself, and recover from his late sad plight."
This sounds rather like Wilfred Owen's story, doesn't it? Perhaps this passage appealed to both Owen and the soldiers that John Bailey tells of - they too were looking for the rest and contemplation needed to refresh their mental and physical strength. To aid their PTSD, they were attracted to texts that they could relate to, and that encouraged them to recover. Even the Redcrosse Knight, a mythical figure of valiance, needed his own time to recuperate after battle. Why shouldn't these soldiers, or any other PTSD sufferer, do the same?

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

My Thoughts on 1Q84: Appearance, Ushikawa & Perfection

Haruki Murakami. From guardian.co.uk.
I've mentioned before that I was a little underwhelmed by 1Q84. It did hold the magic that Murakami inspires into his writing, but the plot didn't seem to be going in a very clear direction. I enjoyed the second book of the series most, and the third book the least (it seemed rather extraneous). This post merely covers my fleeting thoughts about the series, and so I apologise for opinions that aren't properly backed-up or explained (of which there are many, I warn you).

Ushikawa is a great character to write about. He's one of my favourite inclusions of the 1Q84 series, purely because I'm so repelled by him. My way of rating Murakami novels is to consider whether they disturbed or haunted me in any way, and if so, Murakami's writing is at its best. His descriptions of the well in Wind-Up Bird Chronicleand Miu being trapped in the ferris-wheel in Sputnik Sweetheart, will stay with me for a long time, alongside the feelings that were evoked in me. Anyway, moving back to Ushikawa after that slight digression: he really creeped me out.

Ushikawa is not a very attractive character by any means. He has a misshapen head, his face isn't that great, and he repels everyone he meets. However, he did have a pretty wife in the past, and they had children together. Perhaps he was more attractive at that time, and as he became uglier inside his physical appearance deteriorated too. He may, alternatively, have turned repellant after a traumatic event, such as his wife leaving him. Or, quite simply, he made up the bit about wife and kids.

A character also by the name of Ushikawa appears in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. As they're both creepy and have similar quirks in their speaking, it's likely that they're the same creation. Because of this repetition, does Murakami see an aspect of himself in the character, or does he remind him of an acquaintance, maybe?

Another possibility I considered is that Tengo may have narrated 1Q84. He's working on a new novel that we're not privy to, and 1Q84 as a whole emphasises the act of changing or re-writing history (check out Violet's interpretation at Still Life With Books, which also proposes this idea). If 1Q84 is Tengo's narration, then there's the chance that he uses artistic licence to describe himself. Whilst in writing Tengo is clever, not bad looking, and has an older girlfriend on the side, perhaps this is just an ideal. He may actually have a misshaped head he's trying to pass off onto another character, and is in reality the "true" Ushikawa.

Physical appearance is so important in 1Q84; Murakami's judgement doesn't seem to be spared on a single character. Perhaps there is one exception, however: the Dowager. She's extremely desexualised compared to other female characters - Aomame's short skirts seem to be an essential plot factor, for instance - and has an air about her that makes me view her as a female version of Leader. She exudes a spiritual and powerful presence. On the mention of Leader, I couldn't help comparing him to other political leaders that live low behind mass security, such as Bin Laden. This would have made more sense if Bin Laden's (arguable) assassination had taken place whilst Murakami was writing 1Q84, but it happened afterwards.

If Tengo is the narrator's perfect male, Aomame appears to be the perfect female. A strong-thinking, mini-skirt-wearing, fitness instructor seems a little too good to be true. Rather than being a real woman (well, as real as a fictional character can be), Aomame is closer to being the object of a teenage fantasy. If the narrator is a less accomplished version of Tengo, then adding a beautiful woman to the storyline  seems just about plausible.

Also, there are a whole load of boobies in this novel, which adds to the theory that 1Q84 is the narration of a male fantasy. Tengo is completely fixated with them, which Freud would have plenty to say about, and they contribute to the identity of most female characters in the novel. We're often reminded of Aomoame's awareness that her breasts are different sizes, like the two moons in 1Q84. Fuka Eri has a small build but unnaturally large breasts, rather like the typical female Manga character. Also, she has yet to start her periods. Hmm. I won't go into this, but on the whole breasts form the divide between the male and the female in 1Q84. I don't think that there's an equivalent male body part that is fetishised in the novel: does this make it more likely that the narration is written by a straight male?

Here's another theory that I considered - it's my last, I promise. When I witnessed Tamaru's torture and murder of Ushikawa, I wondered if he also strangled Ayumi. Tamaru says the following:
“'I’m sorry about this,' [...] 'I didn’t do it because I wanted to.'”
If he's committing this murder under the dowager's orders and for the safety of Aomame, then the termination of a police officer's life seems just as plausible. Ayumi may well have been perceived by the dowager as a threat. Ah, so many questions!