Friday, 31 July 2015

The power of a sunset: how Viktor Frankl & Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov are lifted from hardship by the beauty of nature

Despite experiencing unimaginable hardship during the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl describes in Man’s Search for Meaning how he was able to admire the beauty of a sunset like never before:

If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty.

This experience links to Viktor Frankl's concept of logotherapy, a treatment literally meaning “therapy through meaning” that is based on the premise that we are motivated by an inner pull to find a meaning in life. Essentially, life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.

I find it interesting that in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov has a similar experience to Frankl when he is falsely imprisoned for arson. One morning, Pierre recognises the awe of,
a sudden glint of light in the east followed by the sun’s rim rising majestically from behind a cloud, and the domes and crosses, the hoar-frost, the horizon and the river all merrily sparkling in the new light

Despite his captivity, Pierre develops an awareness of his self and surroundings in contrast with his earlier absentmindedness and desire for distraction. As a result, he is able to recognise the beauty of nature around him. This leads to "a new surge of strength and vitality, the like of which he had never known before", which only expands "as the hardships of his plight had gone on increasing".

As Andrew Kaufman describes in Give War and Peace a Chance,
Suddenly there is no better place to be–no world to save, no utopia to create, no alcohol or beautiful woman or poker game in which to seek intoxication [...]

Instead, circumstances force Pierre to “plant his feet firmly on the ground, and live, like [the peasant Platon Karataev], in the here and now”.

Look around. If you spot “a sudden glint of light”, try to savour it for a moment.

Read more:
Logotherapy and stoicism in Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning

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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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