I've been reading a bunch of stuff and finding it either acutely painful or strangely comforting - sometimes both at the same time.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is the memoir of a neurosurgeon who finds out he has advanced lung cancer at 36 just as he's about to finish his residency and start an illustrious career. I'm always a bit hesitant to read books like this, because you feel like a total dick if you can't give them a rave review, you know? When I was working at a little bookstore in Toronto, a book came in that a guy with locked-in syndrome wrote by blinking through the alphabet so someone else could transcribe every word. When my coworker asked what I thought of it, I said "It's definitely the best blink-written book I've read this year".
This book was quite remarkable. I feel like Kalanithi himself was quite remarkable, even allowing for some fudging which, come on, if you're writing an autobiography at 36 before you die of cancer, you're allowed. He was talented and engaged in both literature and science and could have chosen from a range of careers, and he had a massive, questing curiosity about where meaning and life and experience reside. He doesn't come across as martyr-like about his diagnosis, but he handles it as graciously as possible. At one point, while he and his wife are trying to decide if they should have a baby, she asks him if he doesn't think saying good-bye to his child will make dying more painful, and he says "Wouldn't it be great if it did?", because he felt that life wasn't about avoiding suffering. This struck me deeply, as did his assertion that Darwin and Nietzsche agree on one thing - that the defining characteristic of a living organism is striving.
So, yeah. Here I was, huddled in my reading chair, feeling like I'd been given a great gift by a dead man. I was stuck, pinned down, barely functional, but it was okay - I was striving to keep breathing. and happiness isn't always the point of life. Anyone who walks through this world never feeling the least bit fucked-up maybe just isn't paying attention, right?
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides for book club. Having read his book Middlesex a few years ago, a dense, rich, subtle novel that dug deep into the complexities of family relationships and gender roles, this felt strangely flaky and shallow - I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but it seemed strange that it came after Middlesex rather than before. Someone at book club ventured a guess that he had started it much earlier and then dug it out and finished it (in a somewhat desultory manner), which seemed extremely plausible.
At one point, Madeleine, a college English major devastated by a break-up, reads and becomes obsessed with Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse. It seems not only beautiful and insightful to her, but gives her a sign that she's not alone. That's as it should be - I read and become obsessed with books, and blogs, on the same principles all the time. Then it says, "It had to do with Leonard. With how she felt about him and how she couldn’t tell anyone. With how much she liked him and how little she knew about him. With how desperately she wanted to see him and how hard it was to do so.” And then I was making fun of her for her angsty early-twenties philosophizing about a BOY.
And then I gave myself a mental slap for being a disaffected forty-something cynical shithead. Break-ups are HARD. Love is hard. Just because that's not my particular source of pain right now doesn't mean it's not a valid one for anyone else.
Then there was this: "“A Lover’s Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being ‘in love’ was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was, it didn’t work”.
That works for depression too, doesn't it? You can use your head, and understand that this is all a brain chemical thing, and, well, your symptoms ARE largely mental. Does this help to liberate
yourself from its tyranny? Like fuck it does.
Finally, Madeleine's childhood room is wallpapered with scenes from the book Madeline, including the quote "They smiled at the good/ And frowned at the bad/ And sometimes they were very sad." And, well, damned if Ludwig Bemelmans hasn't summed it all up - life, the universe and everything - right there, yes?
Kalanithi refers often to the Samuel Beckett quote "I can't go on, I'll go on" in his book. I feel like a rusty pair of scissors trying to cut through a phone book right now. I feel like I've lost my way, especially here, where everything used to flow so easily. It feels like the world would be losing nothing of real value if I stopped. But people are writing books with their fucking eyelids, and the organism has to keep striving. So I'll go on.