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.


Nymeth said...

"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."

I relate to this all too well. Not because I do it, but because my inability to do it (which people have described as my "over-earnestness") is one of the reasons why I get hurt so often. Yet I don't blame you or anyone else for this kind of self-defence, at all. Like you said, we live in a world that pretty much demands it.

Lots to think about here. Thank you for that.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - Honestly, I wish I could simply be honest about things all the time, damn the consequences, and be gentle and kind at the same time. That's one of the things I love about you. I'm incapable of it, but I try to do my best.

Emily said...

Beautiful post, Jason. For the record, although I know this isn't the larger point of your essay here, your tweet didn't seem snarky to me at all. More like an affectionate ribbing, which is very much part of my process of loving something, personally. To be able to recognize its idiosyncrasies/patterns and chuckle at them like I would a dear friend: "Don't mention collective farms around Lev; he'll talk your ear off all through dinner!" Or "Don't tell Harry Potter the tea's gone cold - he'll think it's all his fault." :-D

That said, I know what you mean about using this kind of humor as a defense mechanism, whether about real-life people or characters/artists. Loving something is a dangerous proposition, alright.

Jason Gignac said...

MS Emily - Yes, I think the question is one of intent more than content - though even with the content, you have to know if they're the sort of person who will be amused or heart when they hear of what you said of them. With a dead person, that's a difficult calculus , I suppose, but I generally figure I can just go off of what I intended.

"Daedelus? Eh... yes, he's a lovely fellow to talk to. Don't bring up his mother."

Trapunto said...

Lovely, Jason. If I had to pick the essential Moored At Sea post, this might be the one.

“To love a thing we have made up ourselves, or interpolated from a book...” The way you put these two situations together is where I approach the issue differently.

It makes sense to love books characters as much as real people for certain kinds of readers (the kind who read your blog?). I can see how one might say it’s dangerous to love characters because they aren’t real and can’t respond in kind; if you think of them that way, books and characters become jaded lap dancers for their readers. There is at best something solipsistic about loving them, at worst mentally unbalanced. I suppose this does happen. I prefer to think that for people who are receptive to art in a certain way, book characters may the only individuals that do respond to and interact with the person’s whole self. It’s not the same as loving real people, but it’s not solipsism either. If you respect an author’s creation and love it truly, it must remain separate from you, you can’t co-opt it. You can learn things you don’t know from it, not just the things that are already in your own head. Sometimes the right kind of real people to love and and learn from are just too few and far between in life.

When I was young, the things that endangered my mental heath weren’t my love for a picture book dragon named Hojo, for Oswald Bastable, or for Jane Eyre. Those were a refuge from the real dangers--and I distinguish between refuge and flight. I love them for it still, but mostly just for being themselves. My gratitude to their creators is boundless.

Is it not a good thing to be the man Le Miserables made you?

You know I am a Hugo-esque idealist when it comes to true love between books and readers!

But no, you can’t talk about stuff like this just anywhere. The world is on the lookout for buffoons because it has a sense of humor. A good thing, too--better laugh at us than burn us.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - I think you make a good point, and I really didn't describe my point entirely. I would say that the actual EXECUTION of creating our internal version of a charater we read differs from person to person. I think so people DO make, as you put it, solipsistic lap dancers of the characters they read. Religion is a fine example, there are those who read the bible in order find excuses to confirm their opinions, and then there are those that contextualize it into a sort of playing field for figuring out who they are. I can admire the second more, but that doesn't make itm ore common, I suppose. I think people do the same with book characters, even when they're non-religious, at times.

As for the difference between characters you write yourself and characters you read - I imagine this varies wildly from person to person, but I would assume what you're implying (and if not, I'd love to hear a clarification?) is that a book written outside of us conveys something complete and created from an outside force, while a character from our own imagination reflects simply a piece of our own selves, and so it is not like loving someone external to ourselves. This is interesting to me, because when I write, while I'm sure my characters are weakened by my personal gaps of experience, the characters in my head have the same sort of vivid other-ness as ones I read. I've fallen in love with people I've made up from my own head, too, and perhaps that WAS narcissistic, but it didn't FEEL narcissistic. That would be like saying you must be attracted to someone's mother because she happened to have the cocktail of genes to birth them, if that makes sense? From a strict physiological sense, I understand this is nonsense - one cannot create a thing in one's mind that 'knows more' than they do, because the creation can only learn through the creator. But it feels different. To an extent, learning from writing and learning from reading don't feel so terribly different (well, not in THAT aspect anyways, in others they certainly do).

The paradox of being 'the man Les Miserables made me', is that a person is that being that person makes it very difficult not to judge whether I, as a human, am 'good' or 'bad', which is itself a kind of weakness. Humans aren't good or bad, they're human. Being a little bit of LEs Mis is neither good nor bad, it simply is - but it makes me deeply want to know whether it's good or bad. That probably made no sense...

Trapunto said...

Actually, it did make sense. And I really, really must read Les Miserables!

So then, if your natural inclination is to want things to be good or bad a la Hugo, where does the certainty that that humans are just humans come from?

Your middle paragraph--that's why I have more patience with Jung than I otherwise might. I know what you're talking about, and what's more I don't think those Tardis-y experiences of what's inside the skull being bigger than it ought to be are confined to creative endeavors--or at least not to purposefully creative endeavors like writing fiction.

This takes me back to what were saying about the difficulty of the mind/body/soul triptych, and my own method for unmuddling mind and body, but then I was at a loss for soul. So now I'm going to say, the experience of having a soul is the experience of the skull as a Tardis?

Boy that sounds silly.

...and I have been writing all these things while I was supposed to be checking the refrigerator to see what unexpired meat I have left after my sudden trip, and starting some kind of dinner in the bacteria multiplier I mean crock pot.

Jason Gignac said...

Re Hugo, it's worth mentioning that i am not JUST the man Victor Hugo made me - he's just the example at hand, since I just read one of his books. Altogether, though, I am gaining a much more nuanced view of human nature as I get older. When I was younger, for instance, it was ver difficult to read Virginia Woolf, largely BECAUSE I didn't know who to put in which role in my fairy-tale inclined brain. As I've gotten older, and started considering my fairy tales and romantics upside down, this is much easier now. The melancholy of age, when we lose our illusions, right?

The soul as Tardis-in-the-Head... clearly this needs to be the title of your doctoral thesis. It DOES make sense :).