My Anniversary, Rosy Thornton, and Love

So yesterday was my anniversary of being married to Amanda for 11 years, and for the 11th time, I woke up yesterday with a sudden humble realization of who it was that I had married.

There is a part of me that wanted to wait to write something about it, today. There are two kinds of people you remember in this world. I have a tendency towards the grand gesture, myself, and that puts me into one type. Living with me, on a day to day basis, is I'm sure immensely frustrating, because I'm really only good at these little stabs of kindness, flashes of very bright light as it were.

Over the last month, though, I've been reading a book Amanda recommended to me, a romance by Rosy Thornton called Crossed Wires. Usually romances depict the grand gesture, and so people confusedly think that the grand gesture is what healthy love is built on. Crossed Wires has in it no moment like this - in fact, the one moment that MIGHT have been a grand gesture ends up being a big mistake that muddles up the relationship for a while. Crossed Wires, instead, is the story of two people who fall in love over a stream of a thousand kindesses, a thousand tiny beauties that they notice in each other.

This is the kind of beloved Amanda is, which is why originally I wanted to wait until today to write about her - Amanda is not, to me, the wife of the anniversary or the birthday. When I think of Amanda, I do not think of bright moments punctuating the dark. Amanda instead is better, becasue hse burns steady and true all the time. Being married to Amanda is not like an Anniversary, where you are waiting for the moment when they do whatever it is they've planned, its comforting and continuous and immensely, immensely powerful, which is very different.

At the same time, now that I write my post up on the morning after my anniversary, I wish I had written it yesterday. I have a tendency to romanticize the unexpected - to, in fact, react to the steady, comforting stream of being loved by a saint by trying to make my little flashes brighter and brighter, so that hopefully they'll last a bit longer until the next time I remember to flash (and hopefully brighten up the muddle I make of loving someone day to day and being loved). The thing I've learned from being married to Amanda, though, is that love is about kindness, not about impressions. It's about comfort, not about roller-coasters. And the irony, of course, is that as much as I am confused, awed, sometimes even slightly frightened to realize how much my wife loves me, the more it makes me want to love better in return - Amanda makes me want to be unselfish and kind.

Yesterday, I ended up running errands for a big chunk of the day. One errand was getting my haircut. The hair stylist ws cutting my hair and asked me how I was, and my first instinct was to complain - it had been a long day, and one filled with lots of little worreis. IT's easy, and it's my tendency, to perceive life as a battle. But I realized that while I coudl recite lots of things that COULD be unpleasant things, that in fact, I flet very calm and quiet and happy - something that is admittedly not my most common impression. So I responded back, "Oh, I'm wonderful. Today is my anniversary." And I wished, very much that I was holding Amanda's hand. Here's to another year, and hopefully one where I can hold it more often, more steadily, more like Amanda holds mine.

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Fear and a Handful of Dust

I made a snide comment earlier today, about Victor Hugo, how certain elements exist in all his books - this was in mind, because I've just finished listening to my third of his novels: Toilers of the Sea, a very Hugo-ish novel about a man from one of the Channel Islands struggling against the elements. I loved the novel to death, another consistent element of Victor Hugo novels, that I neglected to mention this morning. It was wonderful, I listened to the end while grocery shopping, and knew just where it would end up pretty early on, but just about started crying walking the aisles of the grocery store.

So, if I enjoyed it so much, why did I feel the urge to make a snide comment?

In specific, here is what I said:

"How to recognize a Victor Hugo novel:
1) Accidental love triangle
2) Heroic Gesture
3) Suicide near the end
4) Tangents
5) French People"

I do not intend to make of this comment more than it was. I think it sounded not too mean-spirited, a sort of gentle ribbing between friends. So, this post will not be one of my confessionals, I promise. But the question itself is interesting to me - why, if I really enjoyed the novel, did I feel the need to be snarky about it? I didn't say anything nice about it, which is what one would expect in a perfect world where I loved the novel. Why?

Well, I will tell you, after much thinking - it's a kind of self-defense. I don't think this is particularly uncommon. To love a thing is to give power to it, and power to others who know of your love. Love is a distilled and keened kind of vulnerability. And we live in a world, honestly, where it's necessary to keep yourself safe. Say all you will about how it should be from a practical standpoing, but having had people laugh over things I thought were sacred and beautiful, and it's a painful thing. I've done the laughing too, I know how easy - and socially acceptable - it is to twist each other's knives. 

Fear of other people (or of myself in the midst of other people, more precisely), though, is a theme I probably talk abotu too much already. What's more interesting is that part of this fear, this vulnerability is a vulnerability to the book itself. 

People spend a great deal of time talking about how a book can change your life for the better, how books can salve wounds, or staunch sorrows, or teach lessons. But people seldom mention the ways a book can stab you, mock you, or break your heart. In order to let a book change you, you HAVE to unshield yourself. 

I have experienced this myself, in the best and worst of books. I read a book earlier this year that nudged me into a good few months of depression. I read a Jeffrey Archer book when I was about 12 that has a scene that has gnawed painfully at me ever since. Nor is it simply a matter of 'this book really made me sad'. In my more lucid moments, I can look at some of the books that I love, and see what they've made of me - and how it is sometimes a bad thing. Victor Hugo is a good example, one that probably goes back to why I avoided being honest with myself in my tweet.

I read Les Mis a long, long time ago, and loved it. Something in the way it echoed and spoke felt very familiar and honest to me. The problem is, of course, Hugo is a wild-eyed romantic idealist, and the echoes of his hopes for a lot of things - for love, for revolution, for the success of virtue over the world - do not necessarily reflect the world. One of the reasons I never dated in high school (one reason, of many), for instance, is because all of my favorite love stories (Valjean and Fantine, Quasimodo and Esmeralda, to an extent Romney Leigh and Aurora Leigh) were these wild, chaste, hopeless loves, loves that cannot be, and that are beautiful because they exist precisely BECAUSE they cannot be. Love, in real life, doesn't work that way. When I did finally get married, this desire for the ideal, for a love affair that told a story, instead of a love affair that was real and present, gnawed at me, made me feel as if I was failing to live up to my ideals, made me do wildly, stupidly foolish things as a result. I don't BLAME this on Victor Hugo (and his various friends). To write an ideal is beautiful and valuable, and I would be horrified if I could forget I'd ever read them. To an extent, this part of Hugo is so imbued into me, now, that I can't even realistically tell you 'this is where I stop and Hugo starts' - I am to an extent the man that Les Miserables made me (along with many other books). But, to be the man that Les Miserables made me is as dangerous (for me and others) as it is comforting. 

Yesterday, Ms Amy put up a quote about characters on Tumblr, and I think it gnaws, in a way, at the duality of this power. The thing that caught me up most in the quote was that the book tv show, in this case, tore her in two different directions: it made her wonder if she could keep watching, and knowing she won't ever not watch. There is something horrible about a well-written character, a great and terrible part to it, because if we allow ourselves to engage entirely with a book, then we can feel for these figments of someone else's imagination as powerfully as for a real person. This is a dangerous proposition, one that produces situations that are almost, ALMOST horrifying. When I look back on my childhood, and try to think of the people I felt closest to, I felt far closer to Anne Shirley, Ozma, Galadriel, than I did to any of my real life friends. There is a little part of me that thinks of Wuthering Heights as a companion from high school who has stayed closer to me than any of my other companions of that time. And my relationship with Emily Dickinson, now, bears a sort of emotional intimacy in my mind, a sort of seriousness and intensity, that makes me feel at times as if I am waiting for a friend to come home who never will. But, you don't talk about it this way in real life, in everyday. IF you do, it's a joke, it's playing. Celebrating Emily Dickinson's birthday is a silly thing. REmembering how I felt about Galadriel is sort aww-cute-adorable in the way that we react to any story about the innocence of childhood. I see other people say things about books, and sometimes, I think I sense that same hesitance, that same sort of terrified self-ignorance, and I wonder if this is something other people feel.

The other thing Ms Amy's quote did, the thing that finally made me change the original topic I was going to write about in reaction to Toilers of the Sea (the idea of 'struggling against nature' and 'subduing nature'). In the middle of the quote, as she talks about how a character exists in the nether regions of the emotions she inspires, she (mis)quotes T.S. Eliot's most famous quote: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." The full quote is longer:

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

I will not begin to pretend that I knew what Eliot 'meant' in the Wasteland. I know people spend their lives trying to understand the poem. But for me, this gnawed at me, when I first read it, and again when I saw this in the midst of Amy's quote yesterday. To me, feeling about a person is like carrying a shadow - we can never carry a shadow on purpose, because it isn't really there, but we carry one continuously nevertheless, a shadow that can loom larger and larger as the sun gets cloer and farther from the horizon, until night when the shadow melt into the omni-shadow of lightlessness, and everyone's shadows sort of mingle until the sun returns to tease our bits apart into individual self. Emotions are only safe because, at some level, like a shadow they remain attached when the sun comes up. We each carry our own, and noone else's. To love a thing we have made up ourselves, or interpolated from a book, this is different. There is nothing casting the shadow, it's like a reverse kaleidoscope, little shafts of shadow ever whirling inwards and inwards on themselves, inescpable, and ever comingling, perhaps to form our own shadows. Imbued with meaning, but completely ineffable, inseperable (this happens, eventually with people too, we create our own internal shadows of them). But that is the handful of dust - the infinitely ineffable, gathered together to stare at, to see the two simultaneous horrors, that that which we thought was nothing, was escapable, is in fact a thing, a thing that comes about and can be held in the hand, and msut be reckoned, and at the same time, that all the significances of the world, all the things we feel matter, are just as much nothing as this nothing. Shadows falling, overlapping, combing and shifting, passing through each other, affecting and reflecting (or the reverse of reflecting), but still at some level, atomic, able to touch and combine only in the darkest, shortest moments. This simultaneous isolation into individuality, and knowledge that one's self is simply an absence, the reverse shadow of all the things that have made it, is the struggle that religions have been born over, that philosophers have tried to rationalize, that humans conquer nations and throw themselves off bridges for. And narrative is as close as we can get to it, which is it's combination, in a way of horror and power and beauty all at once. 

People always quote Nietzsche when he said that if you stare at the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back. Then why do men stare at the abyss so long? Maybe it's that the abyss is the only thing that can truly stare back.

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Thoughts on Heroism From the Odyssey

With Ms Trish's recently completed readalong (which I did a horrible job of contributing to, sorry Trish), I have read the Odyssey three times now. I've read three different translations (my favorite, though I know this is geeky, is the old, inaccurate poetic one by Alexander Pope). I've been told the story in a number of forms outside of this, I've even read Ulysses.

And every time I read this story, my main impression of it is strengthened: that Odysseus and Telemachus are big jerks.

Let me apologize, this is in some ways my failing. I am aware of why I don't like him - it's the classic issue of a 21st century reader trying to sympathize from someone from a very different time and place. Intellectually I can understand this, but it doesn't change the fact that I really loathe the guy. He's just not very nice. At all. Ever.

Looking at WHY I dislike him so much, however, was kind of illuminating to me, so since I want to at least show that I MEANT to be a good participant in the readlong, I will try to put a few of these thoughts down.

Of course, at one level, it's very simple to explain why I dislike Odysseus. He's a misogynistic, violent, seemingly unloving man, dishonest on a whim, unabashed about taking advantage of others, and cruel to even the slightest failing of others (killing the maids of the house because they had sex with teh suitors puts the final nail in for me). But then, of course, I'm left to step back, and ask myself: why was a man like this considered heroic? And why do I hate him so much, when I can like other heroes from later in history that are obnoxious in their own ways? Why, in short, does Odysseus, whether I like him or not, not feel like a hero, when clearly he is meant to?

The trick, for me, in looking closely is that Odysseus's heroism is almost entirely selfish. Throughout the book, his entire purpose is for himself - he wants to get home, and get his life back. HE wants to be back with his wife, but only after he's tested her loyalty. He wants to meet his son, but only if he's worthy of him. He wants to reward those loyal to him, and punish those who were not. In Odysseus's character there is not. one. single. shred. of altruism. No ideals, no grand purpose, or meaningful direction. He just wants to get home, get his stuff back (his wife being more or less just slightly noisier stuff from his point of view, by the way), and get back to being the king.

At some level, this is honest. After all, at some level someone like, say, Joan of Arc to take a somewhat more contemporary mythic hero, is much more selfish. Sure, she goes out with a purpose - to save France and glorify God - but it's not really out of the goodness of her heart. The religious martyr can never do anything truly selfless, because every good thing becomes an investment in some future heaven. Joan's suffering, in some sense, doesn't matter to her, because she knows that when she dies, if she remains faithful, god will pluck her up and reward her for her goodness.

In some sense, then, the closest character to this modern martyr-hero model in the Odyssey would be, say, Eumaeus, the faithful swineherd who is a slave to Odysseus, and who could have made his life easier by being craven with the suitors, but who is loyal to his 'god', believing that when his master returns (or when he dies and the Gods see what kind of slave he was), he will be rewarded.

Not all modern heroes are martyrs, of course. Not all are even saints, to be honest - one of the more popular heroes of the last few years would be Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. And he's the latest in a long series of rogue heroes - Han Solo is another great example. This woudl seem to be much closer to the old Odysseus model. Sparrow is not a paragon of virtue - on the contrary, his entire motivation is simply to get his ship back, to be captain again, etc. But here too there are differences, two of them really - one the writer juxtaposes the rogue character against someone truly wicked (Captain Barbossa, say, or the Galactic Empire and Darth Vader), making the rogue the lesser of two evils. Who is the greater evil in the Odyssey? The suitors? There's some argument to be made for this, but not to the same extent, particularly because of the second reason: rogue heroes are always underdogs. If they aren't, they cease to be heroes. Third, the sins of an underdog must be presented as, more or less, venial. Sparrow was a pirate, yes, but notice you never see him kill anyone except for Barbossa, you never see him rob anyone who can't manifestly afford it, etc. Of course, a moment's thought will tell us - thi sis a pirate. Of course in the normal everyday line of his business, he's going to rob a ship, which will require the use of martial force, and the indiscriminate robbery of the cargo no matter who it belongs to. But if he did these things on screen, his desire for a ship would cease to be easy to empathize with. Finally, rogues are pretty much universally comic characters, usually even a bit clumsy and clownish. In a serious picture, we'd engage the thinking part of our brain, the part that makes judgements.

Then of course there is the unbelievably competent hero - the action hero for instance. Take, Gibbs, from Amanda's favorite show, NCIS. Taciturn, endlessly loyal, impossibly talented, always wins. This is more the fantasy type - the man designed to be somenoe we yearn for, yearn to be or yearn to be with (Lara Croft, for instance, might be a female example). At surface level, I would say these are unlike Odysseus as well - again, they are always devoted to something - they are patriots, or protectors, or altruists, etc.

But in a sense, this is the closest equivalent we have to Odysseus, the man who is washed ashore after a shipwreck, and nonetheless can outplay the best people in the land at any sport, who can slip in and kill all the suitors almost singlehandedly, who could outwit the entire city of Troy. And this sort of points out the most interesting fact to me - that the main difference is simply one of cultural values. We, as a culture, value patriotism, and protecting the honor of or our country. The Greeks, at least in the evidence of the Odyssey AND the Iliad, fought more for the honor of the individual. There's some overlap in tribe and family loyalties, but even there, these things are mostly shown as simply extensions of the individual - Odysseus protects Penelope because her honor is his honor. When a friend dies in the Odyssey, it is sad because Odysseus has lost something useful or pleasing to him. To an extent, when a friend dies in NCIS, it is Gibbs' duty to pay back the affront, rather than something he does to protect his honor.

This points not to some civilizing effect of progress, I think, but rather simply shows that there are certain things in our current heroes that are equally ephemeral - heroes from a hundred years ago, for instance, often feel dated to us now, so will ours in a hundred years or so. So the hero who is a model of a 'perfect man' will appear less than perfect with time. And I would venture to say, that's a good thing. Gibbs, at a base moral level, isn't a morally superior hero really, and patriotism isn't really more productive, in the long term (or less selfish) than selfish defense of personal honor - after all, we could not fight wars without patriots, on BOTH sides of the conflict.

But then, of course patriotism has it's purposes, and is not an unalloyed evil. Patriotism and Nationalism, in many ways, were the birthing mothers of republicanism and democracy in the western world - they give a natural scope to a people's ambitions. Patriotism, additionally, does sometimes impel people to truly selfless acts in the defense and for the greater good of a group. The problem in the heroic formula of patriotism (or any other unshakeable loyalty) is in it's absolutism. A Gibbs would never, no matter what, betray his country. Just as an Abraham would never, no matter what, betray his god. In both cases, this produces an impetus in the unhealthy mind, towards extremism, in ways that it isn't difficult to find tragic examples of.

The personal honor of Odysseus, then, is very similar after all. Personal honor is not an unabashedly bad thing. A healthy respect for one's own individual welfare and reputation is, after all, at some level the basis of lawful civil society - there is never sufficient punishment available to deter crime, crime must be deterred because committing it has a social cost that is higher than it's physical benefits. Enlightened self-interest is a building block of civilization. Taken too far, though, it becomes the selfishness and mean-spirited hate of Odysseus.

The question, to me, then becomes what is the value of heroes? IS there forms of heroism that are valuable throughout generations? Or is heroism simply a structure we design to impel people to act in socially useful ways? What do you guys think? And with the age of nationalism and patriotism slowly in the decline, I think (a debatable point, I understand), what will be the next definition of hero, and will it be any better?

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