Saturday, June 16, 2007

Childhood 4

Growing Up

As any reader of these pages will attest, I have always loved books on childhood, adolescence and growing up. We human beings are so like onions in a way, if you will excuse the rather obvious and much used simile. Why? Well, within the human being who is say 75 years old there are many layers – at the centre the mewling child (Shakespeare), and then, added on layer by layer we get the toddler, the young boy or girl, the adolescent, the young adult, the middle-aged man or woman and finally the elderly person. Some of us may be aware of the PAC concept of personality of Transactional Analysis, founded by the late great Dr. Eric Berne. (PAC is an acronym for Parent, Adult, and Child, which he sees as three major aspects of every human being.) So to study our growth and certainly the various crises, minor and major, and even any traumas that may have occurred during childhood is rich and rewarding personal work.

In this post I wish to continue reviewing some books I have read over the years on growing up. The books I have read in this area are (i) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, (ii) Portofino by Frank Schaeffer, (iii) The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson and (iv) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini which I reviewed in a previous blog entry entitled “Childhood Three.” Immediately here I wish to treat of The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson.

I came upon this marvellous first novel by Bruce Robinson by sheer chance as I was browsing the shelves of Books Unlimited, my local bookstore here in Coolock, Dublin. It was not so much the title, though that was strange indeed, that caught my eye but rather the very striking cover. The cover is a marvellous picture of a wide-eyed, almost-startled but fully-bemused little boy. It is a riveting picture and would draw anyone’s attention. I did not have to read much from this book to realise that it would be good, and very good at that. This wonderful little book is a marvellous read and covers such diverse issues as growing up, coming of age, the relationship between a young boy and his grandfather, life and death and dying, sex and hate, dog’s meat, shit, pornography, enemas, everything about digestion and excretion, Morse code, puberty, secrets, God and Religion and much more. But mostly it deals with love - that much abused word and the much abused reality it signifies. In sum, it describes a dysfunctional family in 1950s England.

I remember Patrick Kavanagh saying somewhere that life is more tragi-comedy that it is either tragedy or comedy. There is much tragedy in this book, but it is shot through from beginning to end with masterful comedy. One runs the whole gamut of emotions reading it – one cries and laughs by turns. This is also a disturbing book, and we need such books to knock us out of own self-righteousness and complacency by times. It is grotesque in places with dog shit all over the place, not to mention Thomas’s own propensity to soil himself at school. It is good to remember that this first novel is the work of a screenwriter and director who was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of The Killing Fields and that he has also written and directed many other films, most notably Withnail and I.

Thomas's father and mother are separated and they wage silent war throughout this brilliant little novel. His grandfather pores over pornography in his attic room and keeps it all under lock and key in filing cabinets. A marvellously rich and moving relationship develops between this young boy entering adolescence and his grandfather who is dying of cancer. One can almost smell the shit and the cancer in this book the writing is so good. I suppose a dramatist and screenwriter would have such a marvellously dramatic way with words.

The old man tells the young boy about his experiences of war and about his first love affair and what life was like for him as a young boy growing up. He tells Thomas about his experiences of making love. Clearly the boy worships his unusual and dying grandfather. We are invited to live with Thomas as he grows older through his adolescent confusion, as he learns to smoke and as he daydreams about his sweetheart, Gwen. We also get a sense of a pre-divorce, old-fashioned, sad and claustrophobic England throughout the book. Who said Ireland was the only claustrophobic country on the planet in the pre 1960 years?

I got this sense from reading the book:- that it is a well-written pacey book which flows quickly like good conversation. In other words the style is that of the stage or of a good drama. The author cuts from scene to scene like a brilliant director keeping us captivated by the images he creates in words for us to see. One reviewer succinctly pointed out that for Robinson the whole task of writing whether it be for stage, cinema or novel is simply to tell a story and tell it well. On this latter point I will be discussing a marvellous book on stories by our very own brilliant Irish philosophy Professor – i.e., Richard Kearney in later posts. The famous Northern Ireland comedian Frank Carson had a catch-phrase: “It’s the way I tell ‘em!” And for Bruce Robinson “it is the way he tells it” that counts.

Let’s have a taste, then, of Robinson’s sweet writing. Here, the boy and grandfather are walking on the beach and the older man has just given the growing boy his flask of alcohol to drink from. Before this the grandfather had been teasing young Tom about his first love Gwen:

“He popped the cork of his VP bottle and took another hit. Handed it to Thomas and this time he didn’t refuse. It tasted divine, hot and fantastic. It tasted of the moment, and this was the best moment of his life. He soared like a giant in the air, drunk on love and red sherry. The sky split again, the sea was silver and gold again, it was heaven, and Thomas was in love with its nearest angel…” (99-100)

Then there is a lot about granddad’s memory of the First World War and not a little about the slaughter of innocent horses, a thing that always obsessed and disturbed me. Robinson writes brilliantly and sympathetically about this:

“There were tanks and horses, Walter told him about the horses, sometimes as many as six, heaving in their traces, dragging eight-inch howitzers through the mud. English horses fighting German horses with no particular difference of opinion, but dying just the same.” (103)

Later we have this marvellously evocative writing:

“The explosion took the head off the horse in front, and behind the white horse was screaming blind, blood hosing out of its nostrils, its face like shattered crockery. A boy from Bow, east London, died instantly: a sergeant in the Scots Infantry died too. And Walter stood there looking at it all, horses dragging dying horses, and the sky full of burning earth. Even as the shrapnel went in he’d been hungry; the passage of the metal through his stomach felt like nothing more than a sudden increase in appetite, not really pain, just sudden hunger accelerating into unconsciousness. And as he fell, in that same piece of a second, shrapnel from the same shell hit him in the head.” (p. 105)

This writing is so potent I feel that I’m getting drunk on it. This passage continues on and leaves us mesmerized, because in it we have the experience of death linked with Walter’s first experience of making love. I wonder did Robinson have that famous French description of orgasm as “le petit mort” in mind as he continues to write this account?:

“And then he was in brilliant sunlight, walking again across the same dusty square in the village east of Passchendaele. She was fifteen with corn-blonde hair that smelt of bacon and apples, and she was pretty as flowers. He knew he was in a dream, and the dream was her laughter in a plait of burning stars and a language he couldn’t understand. ‘Je t’aime.’ Before he left to go up the line he took her a bunch of Michaelmas daisies wrapped in newspaper. They made love at the edge of a wood in a drift of bluebells. It was the first love for both of them, and he knew she was the love of his life. (p. 106)

This is a fine and beautiful novel written in a fine and well-tuned style. It evokes appropriate emotions in the reader and leads from the heights of joy to the depths of despair and back again. Its lucid and potent style is spell-binding and will have the reader crying and laughing by turns. It is a profound and disturbing little book, simple and complex at one and the same time, funny and sad, light and heavy, wise and witty and above all compassionate. The samples of writing style given above are a drop in the formidable ocean of description within the covers of this fine and beautiful novel. His grandfather had left young Tom a message in Morse code which read “Love is the only truth, Tom. I love you.” Robinson continues, “Thomas stood for a long time in the silent workshop, relishing sweet tears. Walter loved him and never let him down. He could feel the love of the old man, and felt more loved than he ever had in his life.” (277) Ten out of ten on all counts.

The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman is a Bloomsbury Paperback, first published 1998.

I have pasted in a picture of the book cover above. Is it not a wonderful photograph? Unfortunately, I can find no credits to either the photographer or the boy in question anywhere on the inside or on the outside the book.

The Terror Without!

The Terror Without

I have already written a preceding post entitled “The Terror Within.” This post would, therefore, seem an obvious continuation. In the course of my lifetime I have been lucky to read many books.

At college I used often resent the long book lists we received during our English Lit classes – not that I ever regretted reading them, but I doubly regretted the fact that they prevented me from reading those books to which I was naturally drawn. I was always a voracious reader from early childhood. I have also read many books recommended by friends. Here, I wish to review a book, recently lent to me by a good friend, Noel Young. The title of the book is Lisey’s Story by the one and only Stephen King. I have never really been drawn to the horror genre per se, but I was always entranced and enthralled by the earlier Gothic horror stuff, being a true Romantic at heart. One of my favourite Romantics and indeed favourite writers of all time is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on whom I have published an article in Studies many years ago, who was himself enthralled by Gothic horror novels. (His father, a conservative country parson, was to burn these “nasty” books on the young Sam). I did, of course, love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818) when I first read it and indeed Robert Louis Stevenson’s marvellous The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, (1886) not to mention that superb book from the pen Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights (1847). All of these marvellous books are imbued with a sense of the supernatural, of the “Ósnádúr” or “beyond-nature” as we put it in the Gaelic tongue. More than that, they are steeped in a basic wonder and awe at the marvellous, the mysterious, the mystical, the religious, both angelic and satanic and the passionate, the unusual and the extremes of human emotions.

All of the above qualities I found in this very good novel by Stephen King. I would give Lisey’s Story 7 out of 10. Probably, I might give it more if I were a dyed-in-the-wool horror fiction reader. Basically, this novel is a love story of great strength and depth. How often have we heard that opposites attract? For instance, did not James Joyce fall in love with the virtually “uneducated” or at least poorly schooled Nora Barnacle? What a wonderful human being she was, totally dedicated to her man as he was to her. Humanity is deeper than so-called knowledge or the trappings of such knowledge. In this novel, Lisey's Story, we are presented with a famous award-winning but tormented writer called Scott Landon. Scott had won the Pulitzer and National Book Award literary prizes. He had to go on national tours from state to state, from university to university, giving readings and opening libraries and conferences. He had also written many novels, short stories and literary criticisms. Lisey (pronounced Lee-cee), his wife, loyally followed him everywhere like Nora did James. Lisey had not taken her degree as she fell in love with Scott and married early. In fact she had only given one interview in her life, and that was as her husband’s wife. All in all she was Scott’s confidante and care-taker just like Nora had been for James.

We know that often one partner in a marriage serves to expiate the demons of the other, or to use another metaphor to suck the poison out of the partner’s system, as it were. I remember reading a friend’s poem where he likened his girlfriend to a sea-bird reaching into his stomach and eating horrible tapeworms that were disturbing him. Lisey serves such a role for the great Scott Landon. Here are Scott’s words to his spouse, and King writes them beautifully: “You were my miracle,” Scott said. “You were my blue-eyed miracle. Not just that day, but always. You were the one who kept the dark away, Lisey. You shone.” (p 29) Simple but wonderful writing. Again, a little before this Lisey says, “darkness loves him.” (p. 21) Not a word here is out of place. I am reminded of Coleridge’s definition of good writing as being “the right words in the right places.” Indeed, King lives up to Coleridge’s wonderful definition. Immediately, we are introduced to the horror to come, “the dark” which is always a foreboding of evil of great depth and terror.

I have some friends who are alcoholics and they talk about “facing their demons.” In this task the AA and the constant telling and sharing of their story with each other helps and is indeed healing. However, in this novel, Scott goes to a powerful place (some mysterious pool somewhere) where he could face his demons head on, eye to eye. When the novel opens Scott is dead for two years and Lisey is attempting to come to terms with clearing out Scott’s study and is engaged in discussions with a university professor about the future of her husband’s important literary papers. As Lisey comes to face dealing with this clearing out of her husband’s study she has to face her own demons and also the demon traces left in her life by her late husband Scott.

What begins as Lisey’s efforts to sort through her husband’s effects becomes a personal perilous journey into the heart of darkness. This heart of darkness throws up such terrors as self-harming in the form of cutting and mutilation, physical and mental abuse of children, animal abuse, catatonic states and murder and attempted murder, and a murderous madman called Dooley. Somewhere in the midst of all this the lives of Scott and Lisey are enmeshed. Somewhere in the midst of all this horror and darkness we find the wellsprings of creativity, the secret language of love as well as the terror of madness itself. How Scott extricated himself and how Lisey does the same is the very heart of this marvellous novel. I will not spoil the story by giving away much of the storyline or plot. Instead I should like to confine myself to matters of style and diction.

I loved such expressions as how Lisey had felt “the pigeon-pulse of his heart” (p. 50) when Scott had been shot. Again read the following for clear and precise horror writing: “The death certificate will say something sane, but she’ll know: the dark thing finally saw him and came for him and ate him alive.” (p. 55) Or sample this for a brilliant chapter or rather section opening: “She awoke in the deepest ditch of the night, when the moon is down and the hour is none.” This is a brilliant sentence. I wish I could have written it. Ten out of ten, Mr. King for sheer stylistic brilliance. Dan Brown, eat your heart out! (Read Stephen King after reading Dan Brown and you’ll end up realising what a poor writer the latter is!) Or yet another sample of brilliant writing - here Scott is talking to Lisey: “I come to you and you see me whole. You love me all the way round the equator and not just for some story I wrote.” (p. 137) Again I am enthralled by this piece of beautiful writing: “In the stove, a knot of wood explodes and jumps. He holds her closer. She snuggles against him almost fiercely. It’s warm under the covers; warm in his arms. He is all she has ever wanted in the dark.” (p. 393)

Another aspect of books and literature in general in all its genres that has always bewitched me is the fascination with the imagination, while at the same time being the very work of the same reality. This description of the pool at Boo’ya Moon is rich and deep: “I think most kids have a place they go when they are scared and lonely or just plain bored. They call it Never Land or the Shire. Boo’ya Moon if they’ve got big imaginations and make it up for themselves. Most of them forget. The talented few – like Scott – harness their dreams and turn them into horses.” (p. 427) I am inspired to say to Mr King, “Ride on, Mr King, ride on!!”

Perhaps my only criticism with this novel is that it is far too long and that it could have benefited from some closer editing. I think Stephen King was aware of this as he does indeed defend his editor at the end of the book in what he calls the “author’s statement.” However, that criticism aside this is a wonderfully written book. Seven out of ten!

Above I have placed a picture I took of a rather ominous cloud over San Gimignano, July, 2006

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Constructing Meanings - It's the effort that Counts!

Synchronicity 3

Whether “God” exists or not is neither here nor there. What is important is our need for “God”, for some “principle of order”, for some “pattern” or “meaning” in our lives. I was always taken with the famous statement of the French philosopher and playwright Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778) that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” I remember a fellow student, Esther Crowe, introducing me to the thought of this philosopher in 1979 when we were both presenting our theses at Mater Dei Institute of Education in Dublin - a long time ago, indeed. Esther was always, and no doubt still is, a wonderfully bright philosopher. The meaning of Voltaire’s quotation is still debated today. Voltaire was a leading light in the Enlightenment which espoused the authority and supremacy of reason alone. Voltaire did believe in God and did write a lot about religious tolerance.

Voltaire seems to suggest, to my mind anyway, that society needs a God or an ordering principle to allow it have an ultimate source of truth and law etc. In like manner, I think he also proposes the necessity of a God for the individual human being. More atheistic interpretations of Voltaire’s famous quotation have been given, but I instinctively think and feel that my understanding may be closer to the truth. I admit my own bias here, having been brought up in the religious tradition of Roman Catholicism, having been steeped in it for some length of time, though I would now term myself a liberal Catholic Christian with a leaning towards Traditional Christian Mysticism and Buddhist Meditation Practices. It is impossible for me to be any clearer than this about my stance towards life which I find a profound mystery.

It would seem to me that all of psychotherapy works on this basic principle – that life is meaningful. If life is not meaningful, then the very project, which each of our lives is in essence, is from the outset doomed to failure. And, of course, in this line of thinking the ultimate failure is death. However, such negative thinking can have no place in psychotherapy, or in any positive take on the human condition. I have always loved Viktor Frankl’s marvellous book Man’s Search for Meaning (1945), which I read years back when I was a student at Mater Dei. That book was mind-blowing for me. Frankl (1905-1997) had been incarcerated in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Dachau Concentration Camps. While there he noticed that only those people who could find a meaning or a reason for living even in the worst hell on earth would survive. Viktor Frankl did survive. He set himself the task of coming up with his own therapy, logotherapy, as a project he could elucidate in his own head. Not even the worst punishments of the evil Nazi machine could penetrate into the strength of will and meaning he found in his own heart, soul and mind. In the silence of these private spaces he wrote his book word for word virtually in his mind. After release he would write it down on paper.

One way or another we each must construct a pattern of meaning to make our lives worthwhile and live-able even on a more superficial level. People find meaning in all sorts of ways: people, places, activities and things. Some people find a meaning in other human beings and in helping them – doctors, nurses, priests, teachers etc. Others find meaning in activities like say playing music, playing football professionally, being a truck driver, a bus or train driver, an airline pilot etc. Others yet again find meaning in things like amassing money, collecting sports cars, getting to the top in their company, becoming the best-paid lawyer etc. Some people are careerists where their worldly success is everything. Then, there are others, probably fewer in number, who find meaning in some religious or spiritual impulse – say Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, etc – all the major religions of the world. Some of these become monks and/or priests of their religion. Outside organised, institutionalised religion there are others who are spiritual pioneers or scouts who belong to no church, who are simply animated by the quest to get to know the Self or the Soul in a non-denominational sense. This latter group is forever growing as Eastern philosophies are incorporated into Western ways of thinking. Here we are confronted by that rather amorphous group of New Age philosophies and therapies which incorporate everything from the magical to the Tarot to the I-Ching to Crystal therapy etc. Then there is the more popular psychological movement which goes by the term “Self-Help” which often incorporates some of the former on the bookshelves of modern bookstores.

All of the above shows that humankind’s quest for meaning is unstoppable and unquenchable. We need meaningful patterns in our lives; otherwise we will literally go mad. Without meaningful patterns we are unbalanced and tipped over into the world of neurosis and possibly even psychosis.

So synchronicity, then, is not that far-fetched when contextualised within humankind’s overall search for meaning. Admittedly, to a dyed-in-the-wool sceptic or to one whose only concept of the human condition is sadly limited to the more cerebral and intellectual facets of this wonderful phenomenon that we human beings are, synchronicity will be a mere crazy hypothesis without any substantiation. I suppose the same could be said of belief in God.

This piece of writing that is shaping itself under the touch of my keyboard is a testimonial to humankind’s desire for meaning, for shape and for form to what would, without such a desire for such meaning, shape and form, be a dry world or even a universe of veritable automata. Where would all the arts, if not the sciences themselves, (and I use the term science in its broadest sense of that term, not just as delimited to observable data in a laboratory, but also to social sciences and to all forms of knowledge that attempt to grapple with the phenomenon that humankind is and with the reality of the world/universe that he/she is confronted with.) be without such a desire for meaning? Whether any such meanings in themselves can ever be proven as true and verifiable, (e.g., Does God exist? Is life meaningful? What is Truth? What is knowledge in se? Does the Man in The Moon Exist? Does Heaven or Hell exist? Do Angels/Devils exist?) does not really matter at all. What matters is the very desire for such meanings, patterns and forms in the first place. Like all good journeys it is the fun and support through troubles along the way that counts. Whether anything or anybody is there at the end does not matter a whit. What amuses and uplifts me is the variety of such meanings men and women construct to make their journey through life that much more bearable. In the end it is getting through that matters. All the rest is merely hot air!

Art, of course, is one way of constructing meaning. Above I have placed a picture I took of some art work from the Art Room as school.