Day 212: such devices

The younger is taking a bath while I am brushing my teeth.

“Mom … are we bringing …” she pauses.

I spit into the basin, wipe my mouth and then meet her gaze, raising my eyebrows.

“Are we bringing … ?” I repeat.

She takes a deep breath and raises herself up from under the bubbles majestically. I brace myself.

“Are we bringing the iPad to England?” she asks cautiously.

“Oh …. yeah,” I reply, relieved, and start washing my face.

She doesn’t look satisfied.

“Are we bringing it …” She pauses again.

“Are we bringing it for the purpose of … electronic devices?”

I laugh as I rinse my face. “Umm, yeah, what other purpose would we bring it for? To lean on?”

She makes a face at me from the bath.

“For the purpose of starting conversations about ….”

She starts giggling and adopts a mock-lecturing tone, “… about how, in the eighteenth century, people didn’t have such devices …”

“Oh, come on!” I interject, giggling too, well aware that I am the object of the mockery here.

“And so,” she continues, barely able to speak through her giggles, “they would just have to play in … in the … stables … with … with an old burlap sack.”

We are now both laughing hysterically.

“And … and a potato,” she adds.

I can barely speak because I’m laughing so hard. “A potato!” I squeak out weakly.

When I’ve slightly recovered I add, “and what was the other thing? An old burlap sack? How do you even know the word ‘burlap’”?

She rolls her eyes. “Um, we use burlap sacks for projects? Burlap sacks are common, Mom.”

“Oh … OK,” I murmur meekly.

I hold a towel out for her.

“So …. anyway, the answer to your question is, yes we are bringing the iPad to England. For the purpose of electronic devices.”

I enfold her in the towel, snug, as the saying goes, as an eighteenth-century potato in a burlap sack.

 

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Day 211: Onegin, off again

Recently on Twitter someone posed the question, “why did you pick the 18th century to study?” and I replied, “The 18th century picked me, probably because I’m so constitutionally delicate.”

I was being half silly, half serious (which is my constitution in a nutshell: half silly; half serious; delicate all over).

One reason why I instinctively deflect such questions is that although I can tell a story about why I picked the eighteenth century, such stories feel similar to those we tell about falling in love; retrospectively, it’s pleasing to cast the experience as a coup de foudre but in reality it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where, when, how, or why something shifted. Here, I find a rare moment of accord with Fitzwilliam Darcy, who says, when Lizzy presses him to account for what precipitated his fall, “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Volume III, Chapter XVIII).

Another reason why it wasn’t facetious to say that the eighteenth century picked me because I’m constitutionally delicate is that I really am constitutionally delicate! Just a couple of weeks ago I became faint and was given smelling salts—which I didn’t realize were even a thing any more. (They smell awful. I could feel them in my nostrils for days.) When I’m feeling troubled, I cry a lot. The other day I couldn’t stop weeping and wondered: was I drawn to eighteenth-century novels because I’m constitutionally delicate? Or have I become constitutionally delicate because of all the eighteenth-century novels? N.B. Weeping and wondering is, according to Hester Piozzi, precisely the response that eighteenth-century novels induce. [1]

Even before that especially weepy day, I had already become preoccupied by the question of the causal relationship between reading eighteenth-century novels and one’s constitution because of Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s novel is not an eighteenth-century novel—it was published in serial form between 1825 and 1832—but its lovely, bookish heroine, Tatiana, is an avid reader of eighteenth-century fiction:

“From early youth she read romances,

And novels set her art aglow;

She loved the fictions and the fancies

Of Richardson and of Rousseau.” (Chapter 2, Canto 29) [2]

It seems fair to say that the ideas about love that Tatiana gleans from eighteenth-century novels prime her to fall in love with the caddish Eugene, whom, as Pushkin’s narrator can’t help pointing out, is “ … none the less / No Grandison in Russian dress” (Chapter 3, Canto 10).

Pushkin makes this observation more in sorrow than in scorn. One thing I love about Pushkin’s treatment of Tatiana is that he doesn’t patronize or castigate her as a naïve reader. On the contrary, he evokes how reading allows her to discover her own feelings.

I have always experienced both reading and writing in this way: as experiences that allow me to discover what I think and feel.

A brief digression: I was recently on a committee that had to assess a revision to the university’s writing program, one that placed more emphasis upon writing as a mode of thinking. As the only literature person on the committee I was asked to comment on the proposal; but all I had to say was that it seemed strange to me that writing hadn’t been taught this way before. I know that not everyone experiences writing like this. But I tend to be baffled when people describe doing research or having ideas and then writing. For me, thinking and writing are not usually distinct, sequential activities, but rather intervolved within each other; I write to discover what I think.

Likewise, Tatiana discovers her feelings and fantasies through reading novels.

“She wanders with her borrowed lovers

Through silent woods and so discovers

Her secret passions, and her dreams.” (Chapter 3, Canto 10)

***

My students and I read Eugene Onegin this quarter on the heels of Pride and Prejudice. Reading the two novels in that order was poignant and illuminating. Eugene Onegin reads like a darker, Russian, Pride and Prejudice. Structurally, the narratives parallel each other. In both, a world-weary young stranger turns up in the countryside, where he immediately alienates everyone with his brusque manners.

In both, the young stranger has an amiable friend. In Onegin, this amiable friend is Lensky, who is basically Bingley if he had taken a gap year in Göttingen. Bingley-Werther takes a shine to a local girl, Olga, who is characterized by the narrator as a generically attractive young woman—i.e., a Jane (or a Betty, as we’d say, if we were talking about Emma). “Glance in any novel,” Pushkin’s narrator advises us, if we wish to know more about her appearance. He adds, “I liked it once no less than you, / But round it boredom seems to hover” (Chapter 2, Canto 23).

Bingley-Werther, keen to introduce Eugene to Olga, invites him to join them at her family’s house one evening. Of course Eugene is like, kill me now, I can’t even with these provincial get-togethers; but he goes along for Bingley-Werther’s sake. At this gathering Eugene and Tatiana, Olga’s older sister, first lay eyes on each other, and, although they don’t exchange a word, each makes a striking impression upon the other.

Tatiana and Lizzy are not the same, temperamentally. Tatiana is dreamy and pensive where Lizzy is playful and wry. (Tatiana is basically a Goth; she dislikes smiling, small-talk, and playing games. She likes gory stories, sentimental novels, and star-gazing.) But Lizzy and Tatiana are both highly intelligent young women who feel keenly constrained by the parameters of the worlds they inhabit—parameters made stark by the limited orbits their respective mothers inhabit.

Both Lizzy and Tatiana are intrigued by the brooding stranger in their midst. But where Lizzy recoils from Darcy, Tatiana falls for Eugene, who is also attracted to her; but for him it’s a passing fancy. For her it’s a life-changing event.

It’s at this juncture in each narrative that the parallels and contrasts between the two novels emerge most strongly. Tatiana has learned from eighteenth-century fiction that she should be open with her feelings and that she should express them in epistolary form. And so she writes boldly to Eugene declaring her love:

“I’m writing you this declaration—

What more can I in candour say?

It may be now your inclination

To scorn me and to turn away;

But if my hapless situation

Evokes some pity for my woe,

You won’t abandon me, I know.” (Chapter 3, Tatiana’s letter to Onegin).

Both Tatiana and Lizzy defy their society’s expectations of how women should behave towards men in order to attract them. As Lizzy observes, her open contempt for Darcy departs from the “civility … deference,” and “officious attention” to which he is accustomed (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). Likewise, Tatiana’s warmth and openness departs from the strategic coldness and reserve—the “inaccessibly serene” air—affected by the society belles with whom Pushkin declares Eugene has become bored (Chapter 1, Canto 42). Lizzy supposes that it is her departure from the norm that attracts Darcy: “I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them” (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). By making Eugene’s propensity for boredom his main character trait, Pushkin primes us to expect that Tatiana’s ingenuousness may move him as Lizzy’s irreverence moves Darcy.

But where Lizzy gains from resisting a prevailing ethos of servility, an ethos that results in Darcy “thoroughly despis[ing]” the women “who so assiduously court” him, Tatiana loses by resisting a prevailing ethos of studied indifference (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). In fact, the same economy of desire seems to operate within both novels: both men are only attracted to women who seem immune to their charms. Although Eugene thinks he’s tired of the performance of inaccessible serenity, it turns out to be the only thing that actually moves him.

Accordingly, both to Tatiana’s dismay and to ours, her letter inspires in Eugene, not a declaration of desire but rather a speech that is rightly described as a “sermon,” and which is, as one of my students observed, essentially a long-winded version of, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Eugene insists, in this speech, that he’d just make her unhappy if they were a couple; he then consoles (“consoles”) her by informing her that she’s young and predicting that she’ll get over him soon and fall in love again. He closes by recommending she exercise a bit more restraint in the future when expressing her feelings.

Oof.

He’s just awful: cold; condescending; self-righteous, unkind. One could be generous and argue that he is purposefully unkind in a misguided attempt to shift Tatiana’s feelings. But he honestly seems so caught up in his own performance of piety that I doubt her feelings even cross his mind.

Nobody in my class, including me, had read the novel before. Especially coming on the heels of Pride and Prejudice, this turn of events was especially wrenching. After our first class on Eugene Onegin, when it still seemed like things might work out for Eugene and Tatiana, I’d asked the class how Tatiana struck them. One student observed that she seemed like Elizabeth Bennet in her intelligence and discomfort with the strictures governing women’s conduct. We’d already established that cool, detached Eugene was not terribly sympathetic—but then neither was Darcy! Everyone was primed to see our girl Tatiana ruffle his composure. I’d read ahead and knew what was coming but I couldn’t bear to tell them.

The next class, after everyone had read the chapter in which Eugene rejects Tatiana, the change of atmosphere in the room was palpable. There was something about the quotidian nature of Eugene’s bad behavior that seemed to gut us all—but especially the women in the class. The ordinariness of his shortcomings made them all the more believable. He’s not abusive; he’s sanctimonious. He’s not sadistic; he’s thoughtless. He’s not intentionally mean; he’s self-absorbed. He’s not a villain; he’s just really disappointing.

“All I can say,” commented one student, shaking her head, “is that men have not changed.”

There were general murmurs of assent. I felt slightly bad for the two men in the room, who stayed quiet. [3]

I put it to the class that what made Eugene so disappointing as a person was also what made Eugene Onegin so satisfying as a novel. Like Darcy, Eugene comes across initially as arrogant and condescending. But where Pride and Prejudice makes Lizzy turn out to have been blind to Darcy’s hidden depths, Eugene turns out not to have any hidden depths. He seems shallow from the beginning. And what Tatiana discovers when she looks more closely is that he actually is shallow.

There’s something, I maintain, satisfying about this as a reader.

In both novels, the hero’s character reveals itself more candidly in his own writing and in his empty house than in face-to-face encounters. In both novels, reading the hero’s own words and touring his vacant mansion are transformative experiences for the heroine.

After Eugene leaves the countryside, Tatiana, on impulse, “requests permission / To see the vacant house alone / And read the books he’d called his own” (Chapter 7, Canto 20).

She discovers that his tastes run to

“The bard of Juan and the Giaour,

And some few novels done with power,

In which our age is well displayed

And modern man himself portrayed.” (Chapter 7, Canto 22)

I mean, I love Byron too. But a guy who mostly has Byron—and novels lionizing “modern man”—on his bookshelf? If that’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is. What is telling, moreover, is not only Eugene’s selection of books but also the markings he has made upon them: those places where he has literally impressed himself onto the page:

“Some pages still preserved the traces

Where fingernails had sharply pressed;

The girl’s attentive eye embraces

These lines more quickly than the rest.

And Tanya sees with trepidation

The kind of thought or observation

To which Eugene paid special heed,

Or where he’d tacitly agreed.

And in the margins she inspected

His pencil marks with special care;

And on those pages everywhere

She found Onegin’s soul reflected—

In crosses or a jotted note,

Or in the question mark he wrote.” (Chapter 7, Canto 23)

It’s inspired on Pushkin’s part to have the bookish Tatiana discover Eugene’s character by reading his marginalia. According to Nabokov’s commentary, Pushkin “toyed … with the idea of having Tatiana discover Onegin’s St. Petersburg diary,” before opting instead to have her divine his character from his marginalia. [4]

In a further stroke of genius, Pushkin does not provide any examples of the marginalia that enables Tatiana to see Onegin for what he is: an empty poser. What he shows us instead is her dismayed reaction to what she discovers:

“What was he then? An imitation?

An empty phantom or a joke,

A Muscovite in Harold’s cloak … ?” (Chapter 7, Canto 24)

What. on earth. did Eugene. write. in those margins? [5]

 As one of my students observed, chuckling and shaking her head, “I’d really like to see what he wrote that made her change her mind!”

To be clear, after reading this marginalia, Tatiana reluctantly agrees to go to Moscow, where her mother deems her marriage prospects will be brighter. And, indeed, shortly after she is married off to a wealthy old and seemingly harmless but also possibly armless General.

In other words, reading this marginalia has consequences. [6]

So tantalizing is Pushkin’s withholding of what it is exactly about Eugene’s marginalia that so disillusions Tatiana that I must forgive Nabokov for speculating, in his commentary, about which passages from Byron’s Giaour and Don Juan Onegin might have marked. This, to be clear, is based on no evidence in the text at all[7]

The mood in the class lifted after we discussed the scene in which Tatiana reads Onegin’s marginalia. Why? Perhaps because we felt a little protective of Tatiana earlier, in Chapter 3, Cantos 11-12, when the narrator intimates that the sentimental novels Tatiana adores aren’t fashionable any more and that tastes have moved on to darker, more Byronic fare—the type of stuff that Eugene favors. Even as the narrator sympathizes with Tatiana it’s clear that Eugene would regard himself as having more sophisticated taste than she does.

It is therefore extremely satisfying to have Tatiana discover in this scene that Eugene is a terrible reader. What’s also so economic about this episode is that, at the same time as it reveals Eugene’s character to Tatiana, it also deepens the reader’s sense of Tatiana’s character, supporting Pushkin’s initial characterization of her as intelligent and discerning.

So often, narratives tell us that a heroine is sharp-witted and discerning but then what they show us is her misjudging a man who initially seems pretty mediocre but who turns out to be super underneath. It feels like a form of gaslighting.

I had already confessed to my students that I’d had a lot, like, a lot of trouble adjusting to the idea that Darcy was actually worthy of Lizzy when I first read Pride and Prejudice. More recently, as I now told them, I’d had much the same problem re-watching the Harry Potter films with my kids.

“ … It’s just really upsetting to me because Hermione is so smart and …”

I didn’t need to continue.

One of my students just said “Ron” and shook her head.

***

Eugene Onegin concludes with a peripeteia or reversal: when their paths cross again after many years, Eugene is immediately drawn to Tatiana, who is now married to her wealthy general and exudes an “inaccessibly serene” aura. Eugene writes to her; she ignores him. He declares his love in person; she rebuffs him. The reversal, however, is not as complete as this account makes it sound. Tatiana, as she freely admits to him, still loves Eugene. Reading his marginalia causes her to perceive his shortcomings, but not to fall out of love with him, because her falling in love was not based in the first place on an estimation of his goodness.

When is it ever? As Lizzy observes to Darcy, “to be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love” (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). Moreover, although Eugene, at the end, is in love with Tatiana, it’s not clear that this change of heart results from any growth on his part. What has changed is structural: she is no longer accessible to him and so now he desires her. In this respect, their characters seem unchanged even as their positions have shifted.

Eugene Onegin shows us what we know is true about desire but don’t want to believe: that it’s almost always asynchronous; that no-one ever got anywhere trying to talk someone else out of their feelings; and that sometimes it’s just too late.

Pushkin portrait

Cover illustration: detail from “Aleksandr Sergevich Pushkin with his wife, Natalya Goncharova, at the Court Ball,” 1937, by Nikolai Pavlovich Ulyanov. Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

My students seemed to find the end of the novel at once disappointing and cathartic. I asked them what they took from the novel’s conclusion. Someone said something about toxic masculinity. Someone else said that they admired how composed Tatiana is—how perfectly indifferent she is to Eugene when she encounters him in public at the end. I agreed. I’d like to be able to channel her composure. Tatiana is an inspiring example to all of us who are delicately constituted—whether by nature or literary influence—because her example suggests that, with practice, even the most tender hearted among us can perfect the art of affecting indifference.

 

Notes

[1] “Richardson, Rousseau, and Sterne meantime, to whose powers of piercing, or soothing, or tearing the human heart, all imitation of manners becomes secondary—even adventure and combination of STORY superfluous—will continue to be wondered and wept over while language lives to record the names of Clarissa, Julie, and Le Fevre.” (Hester Lynch Piozzi. British Synonymy; or, an attempt at regulating the choice of words in familiar conversation. 1794, p. 446).

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Eugene Onegin are from James E. Falen’s translation (Oxford, 2009).

[3] But only slightly bad.

[4] Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse. Translated by Vladimir Nabokov. 2 vols. Volume II: Commentary and Index. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, Bollingen Paperback Edition Series LXXII, 1990), Part 2, 104.

[5] I would like to try to recreate Eugene’s marginalia. I imagine there’s a lot of “Christ symbol” and !!! and ??? and “note to self: remember not to leave shoes out when hiding in married woman’s bedroom.” If anyone wants to collaborate on this please get in touch ASAP.

[6] In one of Nabokov’s very best notes (which I imagine him composing with his head cocked just so, as if trying to make out if he hears a Sternian resonance or if it’s just his imagination), he observes, of Tatiana’s statement to Onegin that her husband was “maimed in battle”:

maimed

[7] See, for example, Nabokov’s note to Chapter 7, Canto 22, which identifies the 1820 French translation of The Giaour by Chastopalli as that which would have been “known to Pushkin and Onegin,” and goes on to quote a particular passage that “Onegin might have marked.” He goes on to suggest, “Tatiana (in June, 1821) might have found the following passage [from Chastopalli’s 1820 translation of Don Juan] marked by Onegin” (Nabokov, Commentary, Part 2, 94).

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Day 210: Nothing you ever wanted to know about Alfred Hitchcock and weren’t afraid to ask anyone

For the second-grade end-of-year event, the kids choose a historical figure, dress up as them, and perform a little monologue in their persona. The younger has chosen to appear in the person of Alfred Hitchcock.

This morning, the kids and I were sitting around the breakfast table.

“Have you started writing what you’re going to say when you’re Alfred Hitchcock?” I asked the younger.

She looked sheepish. “Yeah, I’ve started …” she said slowly.

“Cool! Let’s hear what you’ve got so far!” I said.

The younger demurred. “I don’t have a lot of facts yet,” she explained. “Some of them I’m just guessing from looking at the book,” she went on, referring to the book, Who Was Alfred Hitchcock? that had inspired her choice.

“That’s OK! “I said encouragingly, “Let’s just hear the beginning. “

“OK,” she said, taking a deep breath.

“My name is Alfred Hitchcock,” she began, strongly, “and … and I had my kidney removed.”

She paused.

The elder and I waited expectantly.

The younger shrugged her shoulders.

“Is that it?” I asked carefully.

“Well, I’ve only just started,” she reiterated.

“Right,” I said. “Is that true?” I asked. “Did he have his kidney removed?”

“Well, he definitely had something removed,” she declared authoritatively.

“That may well be true,” I said.

“It’s maybe not,” the elder ventured tentatively, making eye contact with me and severely straining my ability to keep a straight face, “it’s maybe not the most relevant fact to his life?”

The younger shook her head at us witheringly.

“I told you that I’ve ONLY JUST STARTED,” she said, icily.

As you can see below, she now has a full draft. Shared with the author’s permission.

hitchcock

 

 

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Day 209: Mom, can I ask you something?

A small sampling of questions put to me by the younger, aged 8 years and 4 months, in the last 24 hours. With answers below for the curious.

Questions

  1. Why do you start to talk all British when you talk to another British person?
  2. You know that kind of movie in which the bad guy becomes something like a grocery store manager or a librarian at the end?
  3. Would you rather have all the money in the world but you can only spend it on what you need or a hundred dollars that you can spend on what you want?
  4. Is it true that if you bathed in pickle juice your skin would become all warty and bumpy?
  5. Have you ever broken anything?
  6. Do you think that an ant’s brain is microscopic?
  7. Did you know that sand is just tiny rocks?
  8. Why is the sky blue?
  9. Have you ever been to Starbucks?
  10. What’s your favorite number?
  11. Would you rather bathe in a tub full of squishies or a tub full of water that smells like your favorite food?
  12. Can I tell you a story?
  13. Can I tell you the worst idea ever had?
  14. Did you know that Tom Cruise has a middle tooth?
  15. Who do you think is the best Ron, Ron in Parks and Rec or Ron in Harry Potter?
  16. Which is your favorite squishie?
  17. Were you alive in 1967?
  18. What’s your favorite kind of film, films with magic or films without magic?
  19. Would Max be grounded if he doused me in boiling water?
  20. Which character from Harry Potter do you think I am most like?

Answers

  1. I don’t really know! But I know I do it! I suppose hearing them I naturally fall back into British ways of saying things? It’s sort of contagious?
  2. No, I can’t say that I do.
  3. Hmm, I think all the money in the world and everything I need. I feel like I could figure out a way to get some stuff I want too …
  4. Umm. I’m not sure? Did someone tell you that? No? I mean, I don’t think you would become warty … if there was a lot of vinegar in it maybe it might sting though?
  5. Like what? A vase? A promise? Oh! Well, I fractured my elbow once. That doesn’t count? Then, no.
  6. I would say probably … yes. Because an ant is already very small. And their brains are probably quite small. So, yes, I would say microscopic.
  7. Well [pedantically], I would say tiny shells? Actually, I just looked it up and her answer seems more accurate than mine.
  8. Oh man. I know I know this. But I just can’t remember. Is it something to do with why the ocean is also blue? No, that’s not right. I can’t remember. We’ll have to look it up when we get home. We forget to look it up. If you can be bothered, you could read this for the answer.
  9. Yes. Many times. She seems quite surprised by this answer.
  10. 27. Well, 27 used to be my favorite number because I used to think that would be the perfect age. But it was just, you know, fine. What’s yours? Why 4? Huh, a “warm feel,” that’s interesting. Because I’m 44 so then maybe my age is the perfect age because it’s extra warm!
  11. Squishies. I don’t want to bathe in a bath that smells of food. No, not even my favorite food.
  12. Yes. I cannot remember the story but it involved strange, hybrid pets.
  13. Yes. I cannot remember the idea, but it was something she saw on YouTube.
  14. I didn’t know and no, I don’t need to verify it. She insists we verify this.
  15. Ooh, that’s a really good question. I ponder this one seriously. I mean, I think I’ve got to say Ron from Parks and Rec because, as you know, I think Ron from Harry Potter is kind of meh and certainly he is nowhere near good enough for Hermione, and my irritation at that makes it difficult for me to feel kindly towards him, although I suppose that’s not really his fault. She counters that Ron “lives in the world of magic,” “has a really nice Mom,” and lives in a “really cool house.” I counter back that these are not really essential aspects of Ron-ness and that Ron-from-Parks-and-Rec has more skills because he can make stuff out of wood. I’m approaching this question in terms of a who-would-you-want-to-have-with-you-during-the-zombie-apocalypse type question.But I would rather live in Ron-from-Harry-Potter’s world,” she says. OK, well that’s a totally different question, I would rather live in Ron-from-Harry-Potter’s world too. I mean, sure! I get to be married to Hermione, so I’ve somehow managed to snag someone who is totally out of my league; and also my best friend killed Voldemort which was really the only bad thing about living in the magic world; what’s not to like?
  16. Definitely the hybrid raspberry-sheep.
  17. No. No!
  18. Films with magic.
  19. He would be more than grounded.
  20. Hagrid.

 

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Day 208: the continuation of love

“Grief is the continuation of love.”

(Robert C. Solomon, In Defense of Sentimentality, 2004, p.90)

A couple of sessions ago, Dr. F asked me if I felt angry with my father when he died. After thinking it over I said no, that while I was angry more generally, I didn’t feel anger directed specifically at him.

But later I remembered that, yes, I had actually felt angry about something quite specific; and I had also felt—still feel—embarrassed by this anger; perhaps that’s why I didn’t think of it or didn’t mention it when she asked, because it felt too trivial.

When my mother told me on the phone that my father was dead, the thought that shuddered through my mind like an electric shock was “but he promised me that he wouldn’t die.”

This promise—to perhaps state the obvious—was one he made to me when I was a young child. As a child, I worried a lot about my parents dying—not that they would die in an accident or something; simply the prospect that I would one day have to live in the world without them caused me immense distress. I remember crying in bed and being unable to go to sleep because the idea was so awful to me.

I’m probably conflating a lot of different memories here—but what I have experienced as a distinct memory for a long time is this: I am in bed and both of my parents are in the room near my bed. I am younger than eleven because I’m in the bedroom I shared with my brother until that age. I am crying and begging them to promise me they won’t die. My Mum promises me that she won’t die until she is a “very very old woman,” which doesn’t make me feel better at all. My Dad promises me he won’t die and, while my Mum makes disapproving noises at his making such a promise, I immediately feel better, like a weight has been lifted.

Obviously, even if I believed him at the time, I understood as I grew older that this was not a promise he could keep. And it didn’t bother me; I understood it as something he’d told me at the time to comfort me and make me feel safe, knowing that I wasn’t yet able or ready to live with the truth.

It was therefore surprising to me to find how violently this sense of the promise having being broken coursed through me at the moment I learned of my Dad’s death.

***

I’ve been reading a book by the late philosopher, Peter Goldie, called The Mess Inside (OUP, 2012), which is about the importance of narrative to the way we experience emotions. One of his insights is that, when we reflect upon past experiences, we often inhabit a point-of-view that Goldie views as the “psychological correlate” of free indirect style. What he means by this is that, when we reflect on the past, we encounter “an unelectable ironic gap (epistemic, evaluative, and emotional) between internal and external perspective”; and that when we inhabit this point of view, it performs the same function of free indirect style: that is, “simultaneously closing the ironic gap and drawing attention to its distance” (43, 48).

I’ve been rereading Pride and Prejudice this week for my class on the novel with Goldie’s observations in mind. Austen is famous for her use of free indirect style; but what I now notice is that she also puts her characters in situations where they inhabit the point of view that Goldie suggests is the psychological correlate of free indirect style. So, for example, the following sentence describing Lizzy reflecting on Wickham’s past behavior is not in free indirect style, but it expresses the point of view that concerns Goldie:

“She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before.”

Or consider another example, which is both in free indirect style and represents its psychological correlate in such a way that proliferates the number of viewpoints that the sentence brings together: the free indirect style merges narrator and Lizzy, and the retrospective point of view merges present Lizzy with past Lizzy. Again, here, Lizzy is reflecting on Wickham:

“How differently did every thing now appear in which he was concerned!”

Goldie focuses on grief as a case study of this way of narratively thinking about the past. As he observes, in grief, “you remember the last time you saw the person you loved, not knowing, as you do now, that it was to be the last time. And this irony, through the psychological correlate of free indirect style, will infect the way you remember it” (65).

Goldie describes here exactly how I think about lying with my head on my Dad’s knee while he stroked my hair, the night before he died. He died when I had just turned eighteen, at a time when our relationship was combative. Our conversations always turned into arguments in those days. But his stroking my hair and back, as he always had, still soothed me. That memory took on an aching poignancy after his sudden death because of not knowing at the time, but knowing ever after, that it was the last time.

Another insight Goldie makes about grief is that it does not endure but, rather, perdures. Things that perdure tend to be processes as opposed to states. To say that a process perdures is to say that “its identity is not determined at every moment of its existing” (61). This is very abstract; a helpful example of a thing that perdures that Goldie takes from the philosophers Thomas Hofweber and David Velleman, is the process of writing a check. Here are Hofweber and Velleman:

“A process of writing a cheque is a temporally extended process, with temporal parts consisting in the laying down of each successive drop of ink. What there is of this process at a particular moment – the laying down of a particular drop – is not sufficient to determine that a cheque is being written, and so it is not sufficient to determine which particular process is taking place. That particular drop of ink could have been deposited at that moment, just as it actually was, without other drops’ being deposited at other moments in such a way as to constitute the same process. Not only, then, is the process not present in its temporal entirety within the confines of the moment: it is not fully determined by the events of the moment to be the process that it is.” [1]

Goldie’s point, in bringing the concept of perduring to grief, is that grief, like writing a check, is a process with many features, “none of which is essential at any given particular time” (62). This observation might seem obvious or banal but I think it’s actually profound. It is its perduring quality that makes grief so particular, and so painful. Goldie quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961), a passage that captures the way that grief’s capacity to subside for a while is part of its agony:

“It’s not true that I’m always thinking of H. Work and conversation make that impossible. But the times when I’m not are perhaps my worst. For then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss. Like in those dreams where nothing terrible occurs—nothing that would sound even remarkable if you told it at breakfast-time—but the atmosphere, the taste, of the whole thing is deadly. So with this. I see the rowan berries reddening and don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember.”

I remember, after my Dad died, the feeling of awakening, day after day, from the oblivion of sleep into the memory of loss. Every night I would forget, and every morning I would remember.

This is part of grief’s cruelty; if it was enduring rather than perduring, perhaps you could get used to it. But there’s no getting used to it nor getting over it either, not so long as you love the person you have lost; for grief, as Robert Solomon writes, is the continuation of love. As Goldie cites Wittgenstein,“‘grief’ describes a pattern which recurs, with different variations, in the weave of our life” (from the Philosophical Investigations, cited in Goldie, 62).

Like writing a check, grief perdures. The analogy only goes so far. Unlike writing a check, there’s no being done with grief. It’s a check you’re forever writing that never gets deposited. It’s a check that, like a reckless promise, can’t be cashed.

 

Notes

[1] The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 61, Issue 242, January 2011, Pages 37–57, p.50.

 

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Day 207: breaking news: it’s a ducking rabbit

Scene: Friday morning, 7:30 am, at the breakfast table.

ME: OK, you guys remember that I have this conference today and tomorrow?

ELDER: Yes. Are you giving a talk today?

ME: It’s tomorrow. Wanna hear my title?

ELDER: Sure.

ME: It’s called “How to Do Things with Ducks and Rabbits.”

YOUNGER: [scrunching up her face] That reminds me of that book which has the picture that kind of looks like a duck and kind of looks like a rabbit.

duckrabbitbook

ME: Yes! The talk is actually about that picture so it’s good that the title makes you think of that—of the duck that looks like a rabbit.

YOUNGER: Well … it’s actually a rabbit that looks like a duck.

ME: [laughing] is it?

YOUNGER: [not laughing]: Yes.

ME: [somewhat condescendingly] Well, I think the point is that you can see it both ways.

YOUNGER: [adamant]: No, if you look at the picture you’ll see that I’m right.

I Google the picture–the one from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, because that’s the version I’m discussing in my talk–on my phone and we all peer at it.

another wittgenstein duck-rabbit

YOUNGER: [triumphantly] Yeah, it’s definitely a rabbit that looks like a duck.

ELDER: No, it’s a duck that looks like a rabbit—because I saw the duck before I saw the rabbit.

ME: Yeah, I think I agree with him—the duck seems more obvious. But the fact that we all see different things is the point!

YOUNGER: [Exasperated by our slowness.] No, look, do you see this [pointing to the indentation that makes the rabbit’s mouth]? Why would the duck have this thing on the back of his head? There’s no reason for it. So it’s a rabbit that looks like a duck!

ME: Huh ….

***

The more I thought about it, the more I thought she was right. Especially in Wittgenstein’s minimalist rendition of the duck-rabbit, every mark matters. A mark that isn’t doing double duty in contributing to the identity of both duck and rabbit inevitably tips the duck-rabbit more to one side of its identity than the other: in this case, towards the rabbit’s side.

As my friend Elaine recently observed, “the duck-rabbit has to do with a deficit of representation. The deficit allows it to remain ambiguous (if Wittgenstein had draw whiskers and a carrot, it couldn’t be a duck).”

He didn’t draw whiskers and a carrot, of course. But he did draw that tiny gesture of a mouth–and it’s a mark that, in enhancing the rabbitness of the rabbit slightly diminishes the duckness of the duck. Or, perhaps the mark makes us want to create a narrative about the duck; like, he’s a duck who got into an accident and has a scar on the back of his head–but you should see the other duck!

I know that Wittgenstein didn’t originate the duck-rabbit illusion but I found myself wondering how he first imagined the duck-rabbit—that is, how he first drew it.

Reader, you know what happened next. I fell down into a deep, deep duck-rabbit hole trying to find the original manuscript. I discovered that the duck-rabbit first appeared in Wittgenstein’s manuscript notes, later published as “Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology,” which are considered as preparatory studies for Part II of the Philosophical Investigations. Although Wittgenstein produced typescripts based on those manuscripts, and those typescripts are reproduced in the Collected Works, the typescripts didn’t include the original drawings. Anyway, I was desperate to see the duck-rabbit in its natural habitat, as it were, on the lined, scrawled upon note-book page.

Reader, I found it (them?)! Thanks to an absolutely amazing resource, http://www.wittgensteinsource.org, where you can freely access Wittgenstein primary sources, including manuscript facsimiles and typescripts. [1] And there he is, situated in a nice little clearing of blank page, leaving room for him to quack or … make whatever noise it is that rabbits make, in either direction.

Original duckrabbit

But here’s the thing (and I’ll wonder if you agree with me). This duck-rabbit is even more rabbity than the one in the Philosophical Investigations! I can barely even make myself see this one as a duck! The mouth is much more pronounced—this poor duck has suffered some even more terrible injury resulting in a cleft skull. (There’s got to be a story there.) It almost seems implausible for Wittgenstein to claim, as he does in the manuscript version, that this drawing is, indeed, ambiguous.

I think there are two lessons that we can conclude from this here philosophical investigation.

1. It’s a good thing that Wittgenstein improved his drawing of the duck-rabbit, or else his philosophical reputation might have been very different.

2: The younger is right: it’s a motherducking rabbit. Case closed.

 

Notes

[1] See the notebook page here: http://www.wittgensteinsource.org/box_view_url_shortener?u=dr

 

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Day 206: flapjack

I bit my lip, squared my shoulders, and walked into class, smiling as best as I could. I stood at the podium and started to unpack my stuff. One student wanted to make an announcement about the Writing Center, and as she spoke to the class I set up my PowerPoint presentation on Pride and Prejudice. Then she sat down and the class looked at me expectantly.

“I ….” I hesitated. I tried again. “I … I’ve been having kind of a hard time and so ….” I could feel my face crumpling but I was determined to press on “… and so I decided to bake something … because … because I like baking … and I thought you might like these …. they’re called flapjacks. They’re not pancakes,” I added hastily, “what you call flapjacks—they’re like oatmeal cookies … and they’re really good.

A sound emanated from the assembled students, something half way between a sigh and an awww, and I busied myself getting out the two big tupperwares and passing them around.

I spoke about the Regency against the pleasant background noise of munching and rustling wax paper.

After a while I even felt like eating a flapjack.

It lifted my spirits to find that my students could successfully pick out which parts of a passage from Pride and Prejudice were in free indirect discourse. It cheered me to discover that they could articulate that what makes Elizabeth Bennet feel “relatable” to them is how she finds ways to express resistance and creativity in a world that is so restrictive and codified.

At the end of class the students filed out shyly, thanking me for the cookies. “I’m glad you liked them!” I said, and I walked out of class feeling better than when I walked in.

As I walked to the parking lot I heard myself being hailed, “Sarah!” and pivoted. It was one of my students. She was running and breathing heavily. “First, sorry for calling you Sarah,” she panted.

I laughed.

She bent over, winded, “Oof, I’ve been trying to catch up with you,” she exclaimed.

I wondered what was so urgent.

She caught her breath.

“You mentioned that you were having a hard time and … and it just made me want to tell you,” she paused, panting again, “sorry, I’m still out of breath, and this is also just off the top of my head … It made me want to tell you that I really value everything you put into this class. It’s meant so much to me to be able to work with you. And … I don’t know if this helps to hear this, but I just wanted you to know how much you’re appreciated. Not just by me. All of us in the class—we all love you.”

I have got to figure out a way to stop from crying whenever people are kind to me.

I told her how much it meant to me that she would say that, more than I could say, and especially, I added, because I knew that she had experienced a bereavement, the death of a close friend, the previous quarter, and so she knew keenly what it is like to struggle to keep going when you’re in distress.

“And …” she added, a little sheepishly, “sorry for making you emotional.”

I laughed through my tears, “Oh, that’s OK,” I said, “I’m emotional every other minute at the moment.”

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked.

I accepted it gratefully.

What kindness. What tremendous kindness. I know I’ve been extremely Eeyorish in recent days but … I do also know how lucky I am. I won the bloody lottery in almost every aspect of life. I forget that sometimes, but I remembered it yesterday.

Oh, and here’s the recipe for the flapjack. You should make it.

From the Islington Cookbook

Flapjack

4 oz brown sugar
4 oz butter
4 oz rolled oats
4 oz flour
2 Tbsp golden syrup (or honey)
optional: 1/2 tsp vanilla
optional: pinch of salt

Melt butter; add brown sugar and mix. Add everything else. If you’re using golden syrup, I’d strongly recommend licking the spoon. Spread on a baking tray and bake at 375 F for 10-20 minutes, until lightly browned. It will firm up as it cools. Slice and eat—or give away, if you’re feeling extremely generous. Don’t feel bad if you can’t muster the willpower.

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Day 205: a bad day

I hadn’t met this nurse before and I didn’t warm to her.

“First day of last menstrual period?” she enquired.

I made a face, “I mean, about a week ago …”

“I need a date,” she said. “Do you want to look it up?”

“Uh, no,” I said, smirking mirthlessly at the idea that she thought that I had a place where I could look up such information.

“Let’s just say May 1st,” I said.

I thought I saw her roll her eyes slightly when she wrote the date down.

In the examining room, she stood in front of the monitor updating my information.

“Any new medications?”

“Yeah … it’s … actually I can’t remember what it’s called but I have the container right here.”

I fished it out of my purse. As she took it from me she caught sight of my face. It was the first time we’d made sustained eye-contact. I noticed her long, beautiful eyelashes. She noticed, I’m guessing, my puffy eyelids and contorted expression. Her face softened.

“Oh my God, are you OK?”

I started to sob.

“I’m … I’m just having kind of a bad day,” I said.

“Oh my dear!”

Before she had seemed impassive and now she seemed the opposite: almost anguished at my distress.

She hesitated.

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, my voice breaking. “Yes, please.” She gathered me in her arms and stroked my back.

“Thank you,” I mumbled into her shoulder.

“You give really good hugs,” I said as she released me from her embrace.

She still had to finish updating my information, so at first I thought I’d misheard her when she asked, “What makes you happy?”

“What makes me what?” I asked.

“What makes you happy?” she repeated, more softly and slowly, still staring at the monitor.

I thought for a second. “Dancing,” I replied. “Dancing … and writing.”

“What makes you happy?” I asked.

She considered. “Well I like dancing too, and, I mean, I can dance,” she declared, and I believed her. “And listening to music. And napping in the sun.”

“Those are all good things,” I agreed.

When my doctor—whom I adore—swept into the room a minute later, I duly explained to her, too, after she expressed concern upon catching sight of my face (which is apparently quite alarming looking, if measured by the number of strangers who’ve expressed concern for me today), that I was having a bad day,

I was beginning to feel that it was not only my body that was stark naked—I was having both a pelvic exam and a breast exam, so all clothes were off—but also my soul.

My beautiful doctor hesitated after I explained that I was having a bad day.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Well, it’s just that … I just feel bad that I’m about to give you a pelvic exam, which I doubt will make you feel any better.”

I shrugged. “You never know!”

I actually think that combatting one kind of pain with a different sort can be quite effective. I pinched myself very hard when I was in labor. Recently, for the first time in over a year, I started running again; and not because I’ve rediscovered a love for running, but, on the contrary, because I find it quite relentlessly awful. It’s only something that’s relentlessly awful that can take you out of another sort of pain.

Luckily for me, I had a mammogram scheduled right after my pelvic exam!

The mammogram technician was especially lovely.

“Do you have a hair band to tie your hair back?” she asked, adding, “if not, it’s OK.”

I shook my head.

She nodded and gently guided me into position close to the machine. It felt intimate, as if she were a dance instructor correcting my positioning with a new partner. She draped my right arm more tightly around the machine. My body was tilted but also leaning in. She tenderly pulled my hair back over my shoulders. I almost started crying again because it felt so good, the way my Mum would adjust my hair.

“Ouch!” I exclaimed, as she clamped my right breast between the plates.

Having nursed two infants, my breasts at this point are not especially sensitive. But I also have an inverted sternum—a sternum that protrudes outwards. I like to think of this aspect of my anatomy as a feature rather than a bug, but it makes getting a mammogram rather awkward.

“It’s not my breast,” I explained, “it’s because I have this weird sternum.”

She nodded, “yes, I can see you have a protruding sternum,” she said, trying to angle me to avoid pressing on the bone.

“Now throw your head back!” she commanded, sounding even more like a dance instructor.

When it came to my left breast, the machine dug even more painfully into my sternum. I flinched in pain.

“You can yell at me!” she suggested. “Go on, take your chance!” she urged me.

I laughed uncomfortably in my constricted position.

“I don’t feel like yelling at you,” I said. “There are some other people I could yell at, but …”

Boys,” she interrupted, knowingly. “This machine,” she added, “was designed by a man, I’m sure of it. Now throw your head up again,” she commanded.

A machine that images breasts. Now in 3D! Not perhaps quite what Sterne had in mind when he imagined “the fixture of Momus’s glass in the human breast.”

No, this here, this duck-rabbit hole: this is the dioptrical bee-hive, is it not? Have you pulled up a chair? Hush! You must move softly if you wish to see the maggots gamboling.

Today, however, the maggots are sluggish (can maggots be said to be sluggish?). And I did not have the heart to dance. So I wrote instead.

 

 

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Day 204: filling in

“I always wonder if anyone actually draws a picture on the blank page,” I mused out loud to my class last week during the final lecture on Tristram Shandy.

 

If you haven’t read the novel, I’ll wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Sorry, that was actually just a joke for people who have read the novel.)

But really, if you haven’t read the novel, the situation is this: Tristram has just told us that his Uncle Toby fell in love with the Widow Wadman. Tristram then adds, “And possibly, gentle reader, with such a temptation—so wouldst thou: For never did thy eyes behold, or thy concupiscence covet any thing in this world, more concupiscible than widow Wadman.”

The next chapter begins thus:

“To conceive this right,—call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand.—Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—’tis all one to me—please but your own fancy in it.”

And then, famously, there follows a blank page ready to receive whatever you wish to draw there.

But does anyone ever draw anything there?

Today I can definitely answer that question: some people do; or, more precisely, at least one person has done so, and that person is me.

It was on a whim that I decided to draw in the book; it was just there and I felt like drawing and I thought “Why not?” But I wanted to draw in a way that would be relaxing; for that reason, I didn’t want to draw a face—which is always, I realized, what I imagined one would draw there, although Tristram’s characterization of the Widow Wadman as superlatively “concupiscible” might certainly inspire an artist to head in a different, more southerly direction.

Drawing faces never feels relaxing to me because it’s so difficult to get a good likeness. But then I remembered how I often draw when I’m sitting in panels at conferences; and what I draw there is often the backs of people’s heads, because … that’s generally what’s in view when you’re sitting in a panel. But also, I find drawing hair, like drawing folds of cloth, hypnotically relaxing.

It also occurred to me that it would feel somehow apropos to draw the back of a head on the blank page; it would be a way of filling in the blank in a way that wouldn’t close off but rather provide further fodder for the imagination.

“I should choose an eighteenth-century looking head,” I thought, and scrolled though portraits on Google images that showed vaguely eighteenth-century-ish backs of heads.

But then I got a different idea—inspired both by the whole project of Tristram Shandy as a work of self-portraiture as well as Sterne’s sometimes cheekily gendered references to the reader; I would draw the back of my OWN head.

I liked the idea that it would be an act of self-portraiture in the Sternian mode but that also, in drawing myself looking away from the reader’s gaze, I would kind of up-end what Tristram has in mind when he enjoins the reader, “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind,” with the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of “as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you.”

I didn’t really want to overthink it, though (you are probably thinking: oh, you are way past overthinking this), so I just asked the elder to snap a picture of the back of my head in the kitchen. I didn’t really think about the composition of the photograph and after I started drawing from the photograph he’d taken I started to wish I’d worn something different or that my hair hadn’t been thrown up so messily, or that I’d moved the box of tissues and the paper bag off the dining room table in the background.

original

But then something started to happen as I was drawing. It was a version of the phenomenon the art critic Richard Wollheim describes happening after he “evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time consuming and deeply rewarding. For I came to recognise that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was” (Painting as an Art).

copy

I’m not sure if it’s exactly that by trying to render the photograph as a drawing that it disclosed itself as it was; but the photograph certainly changed over the hours I spent with it. The most prominent part of the figure—the hair—gradually dissolved into abstract form—an interplay of light and dark, curls and waves. It started to look not messy but beautiful and intricate. The background objects changed in a different way; they began to seem freighted with allegorical significance, as if they each played a role in telling a story about who I am.

The chair on the left is one that used to belong to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved’s parents. He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved kindly let me take the chair with me when I moved out. The briefcase on the chair is one that La Bonavita gave me. I regard it as my first proper, grown-up work bag. The laptop that’s open on the dining room table—well, that’s because—have you noticed?—I’m always writing. And the paper bag—that, I’m pretty sure, is what our takeout that night came in, because takeout is sometimes the working mother’s savior. The box of tissues isn’t even visible in the drawing but that has significance too because it’s always important to have that kind of paper ready to hand too—both because the elder has allergies and because, as is well established, I’m a weeper. Oh, and the electric kettle: because you can take the girl out of England but …

The longer I looked at the photograph, the more I appreciated the composition: the way that the door frame framed my head like a picture frame. What you can’t actually see in the picture—because they are hidden by my massive head of hair—is that on the wall of the dining room are two framed paintings by my grandmother, Elfrida Tindal, who was an artist.

When I was a child I always thought that I would write and illustrate my own books when I was grown-up. And I guess now I have, sort of.

 

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Day 203: On being wrapt up

“Our minds shine not through the body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood.”

In Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), Tristram makes this observation to evoke the difficulty of making characters legible to an outside observer. But the remark applies equally to the act of self-examination.

When you’re wrapped up in yourself all you can see is darkness.

The more you strain to see yourself clearly, the more the object seems to recede from view, and the quality of the darkness that enshrouds it becomes difficult to gauge. How do you know if you’re depressed or if you’re having an appropriate response to a difficult situation? And, whether the distress is situational or constitutional, how do you treat it without compounding it? Pharmacological prescriptions can produce side effects that exacerbate the initial distress; behavioral prescriptions burden you with additional tasks to undertake on top of your regular duties.

While the exact nature of the melancholy can feel elusive, other sensations become more vivid. I’ve learned that different types of physical pain correlate quite precisely to different qualities of feeling, even as the object of the feeling can remain indistinct. My fingertips sting, sharply, when I feel a particular kind of emotional vulnerability. My neck aches as though constricted by a tight collar that restricts my ability to breathe freely when I feel anxious. In her essay “On Being Ill” (1930), Virginia Woolf picks up Sterne’s metaphor of the body as an opaque casing that mediates the soul’s experiences: “All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy.”

I was reading Woolf’s essay because I’m working with an undergraduate who is conducting an independent study on mental illness and literature. If writing and reading about melancholy when you’re already feeling sad seems ill-advised—cozying up to the black dog when you should be chasing him away—the most famous meditation on melancholy suggests that, on the contrary, writing about melancholy can be curative: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy,” writes Robert Burton in the Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).

As I learned recently from reading another undergraduate’s wonderful thesis on Tobias Smollett’s channeling of Burton’s curative ethos, Burton’s recommendation to be busy was just one half of his two-pronged method for combating melancholy, encapsulated in the pithy imperative, “Be not solitary, be not idle.” As I learned from the thesis, in 1779, Samuel Johnson wrote a letter to James Boswell in which he both repeated and modified Burton’s dictum: “The great direction which Burton Has left to men disordered like you,” Johnson wrote to Boswell, “is this, Be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify;—If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.”

Johnson’s rewriting of Burton fascinates me. Most immediately striking is the change in syntax from Burton’s imperative to Johnson’s if / then parallel structure. Why did Johnson change Burton’s maxim?

Since I couldn’t ask Johnson himself, I did the next best thing: I texted my esteemed and beloved colleague, preeminent Johnsonian, and advisor of the Smollett thesis, Helen Deutsch, to ask her opinion. She texted me back right away, suggesting that “by translating Burton into his own style [Johnson] also gives us his habit of mind, of balancing opposites and seeing both sides.”

This seems to me exactly right.

But the reason, I realized at last, why Johnson’s version struck such a chord with me was not because of its stylistic elegance. Rather, Johnson’s version resonates with me in a way that Burton’s doesn’t because Johnson revises Burton’s dictum in a way that is deeply humane, particularly as an expression of care for another individual who is already feeling down.

Think about how different it is to say to someone who is feeling despondent: “Be not x; be not y” versus saying, ‘If you are x, be not y; if you are y, be not x.” Johnson’s version recognizes that the melancholy person is bound to be already overwhelmed and easily fatigued. The melancholy person is probably intimidated by the effort of tackling any one single task and, to be honest, is probably already either solitary or idle in their resting state.

Burton’s version sets you up for failure. Imagine it. You’re just sitting by yourself reading The Anatomy of Melancholy. Perhaps you are feeling, actually, slightly pleased that you’re nearing the end of what is, frankly, a massively long book. Then he hits you with “Be not solitary, be not idle” and now you don’t even have the chance to congratulate yourself on how you haven’t been idle because you are by yourself. Loser.

Now let’s imagine Boswell receiving Johnson’s missive. Boswell’s been out of town, visiting friends in Chester, and even as his initial letter to Johnson brims over with talk of visiting and social gaiety, his vulnerability shows plainly in his final entreaty to Johnson before he signs off: “two lines from you will keep my lamp burning bright.”

Let’s imagine this same, vulnerable Boswell, now having traveled to Carlisle, receiving Johnson’s reply five days later. It’s a warm, kind letter: Johnson both affirms Boswell’s lovableness and gives him practical suggestions for warding off his melancholy. And then we get to his reworking of Burton: “If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.” Unlike Burton’s reader, as Boswell reads Johnson’s words, he can feel a little smug that he’s already winning: he may be alone—but that’s OK! Because he is not idle—he is reading Samuel bloody Johnson, isn’t he! And Samuel bloody Johnson has just given him permission to fail even as he expresses faith in his ability to succeed.

The ethos implicit in Johnson’s version of Burton is one that Boswell records Johnson expressing earlier in a different context in the Life of Johnson (1791): “Because a man cannot be right in all things, is he to be right in nothing? Because a man sometimes gets drunk, is he therefore to steal?”

When one is melancholy, it’s easy, I find, to succumb to this all-or-nothing way of thinking: since I failed to achieve task x, the whole day is now ruined; in fact, at this juncture, I may as well fully commit to making the day a full-blown disaster.

Johnson’s approach is different. Allow, Johnson suggests, for the fact that you will end up falling into some of the habits that foster melancholy. Allow that fact to be the place from which you start rather than the place where you give up.

For me, Johnson’s dictum has also been a starting place for thinking up other dictums.

So, you can’t say I’ve been idle. Just saying.

  • If you have a croissant for breakfast, have not a croissant for lunch; if you have a croissant for lunch, have not a croissant for breakfast.

 

  • If you are texting, be not driving; if you are driving, be not texting.

 

  • If you are weeping, be not teaching; if you are teaching, be not weeping.

 

  • If you are drinking coffee, be not drinking diet coke; if you are drinking diet coke, be not drinking coffee.

 

  • If you are scrolling through Twitter, be not scrolling through Instagram; if you are scrolling through Instagram, be not scrolling through Twitter.

 

  • If you are drunk, be not sedated; if you are sedated, be not drunk.

 

  • If you are online shopping, be not KonMari-ing your closet; if you are KonMari-ing your closet, be not online shopping.

 

  • If you are binge-watching Netflix, be not overly nice in your tastes; if you are overly nice in your tastes, be not binge-watching Netflix.

 

  • If you are in bed, be not checking the apps; if you are checking the apps, be not in bed.

 

  • If you are sharing your feelings, be not averse also to listening; if you are averse also to listening, be not sharing your feelings.

 

  • If you are ashamed, be not self-flagellating; if you are self-flagellating, be not ashamed.
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