Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Samuel Johnson and the Comfort of Wisdom

"He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good and evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful." Samuel Johnson, 1780.

Two and a half years ago, right before I began this blog, I read "The Life of Samuel Johnson" by James Boswell. Johnson was a brilliant though eccentric man, one of the great English writers, a lexicographer, and apparently one of the greatest conversationalists and wits to ever walk the earth. We know this because he was trailed by his biographer and sycophant James Boswell, a genius in his own right, who basically followed Johnson around and wrote down everything he said. It's a very long book, but one of the most wonderfully rewarding ones if one takes the time to read it and enjoy Johnson's wit and wisdom. It's a rare book that can both stick with one, and comfort one, and illuminate one's mind well after having read it, and I find this book to be one of those. Recent events in my life have caused me to remember the above quote by Samuel Johnson, which was written in a letter to a friend whose wife of many years had just passed away. The quote is about the loss of a spouse, and the experience of the resulting grief. And yet, I think it's also more generally applicable to the loss of any romantic partner you truly love, no matter what the means of separation.

I've been thinking a lot about lost love and heartbreak recently. I've never experienced the loss of a lover and companion through death, thankfully, but I certainly have in other ways. Losing a lover to death would seem so final…there’s no choice involved. But losing a love through a breakup…well, then choice is involved in many cases, which has the potential to add an element of regret. And regret can be a dismal feeling in its own right, in addition to the dreadful suspense that Johnson describes.

It’s called “heartbreak” for a reason, and that’s because one can feel it in one’s chest, right behind the sternum. It lingers there, pulsing and throbbing alongside the heart, reminding you continually of what once was. It reminds one that there’s an empty space inside now, where once resided the dreams one held inside the deepest recesses of one’s body, dreams that spread from the heart down into the bones. “The continuity of being is lacerated” indeed. What had seemed like a swift current into the future, full of rapids and waves and adventure, has suddenly stopped flowing, and one is left to aimlessly drift on a shallow and tepid sea gently seasoned with ones own tears, like bitters in a martini. It is a sad and lonely and dreadful place. And in a place like that, one of the few comforts available is to read things like this quote from Samuel Johnson, so wise and profoundly knowing, so that one realizes that others have been here as well, that others have sailed on these forlorn and gloomy seas and lived to tell the tale. Some have reached the shores after being “driven by external forces into a new channel”. Others, I think, find the shore after being driven by internal forces, because separation from a lover by breakup, unlike Johnson’s death of a spouse, allows the possibility of reflection and contemplation and a new course of action. Sometimes a period of separation is itself the external force that forces one to muse and meditate on the meaning of a relationship, and on the meaning and value of another’s love and their love for another. This can force one to discover truths within themselves that they weren’t aware of before, which causes a re-evaluation of all they presumed about a relationship. That is not an easy feat, but it can lead to the recovery of a love thought lost or diminished, to a rekindling of an ardor that had dampened from flames to embers. But whether the final course is a final separation, or a glorious reconciliation, the path is not an easy one, and the heartbreak will not be mitigated easily. As Johnson says “The time of suspense is dreadful”.

The amount of people that one truly loves and is loved by is not a large number when viewed in the full span of most people’s lives, and it’s hard to often remember that and keep that in perspective. It’s too easy to focus on the flaws of a relationship, or to unrealizingly get caught up in one’s own shortfalls and not see the big picture of exactly how truly precious love is. For love is rare, and life is short and brutal, and if one doesn’t do all they can to hold on to those who one loves and who loves them back, then what’s the point of doing anything at all? True and deep connections in life should be treasured and nurtured, because they hold back the dark. If you love someone, hold on to them and hold their love close. Do all you can to make it work, even if that means struggling with one's own flaws and assumptions and limitations. For the end result can be a bright and glorious love, a shot down the rapids into a radiant future with another’s hand in yours...a rewarding and magnificent and abiding joy, rather than Johnson’s dreadful suspense.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book #34 - Animal Farm (George Orwell)

How many adjectives are named after authors? I can think of two: Orwellian and Dickensian. Oh sure, you can argue there's "Shakespearean" as well, but that refers to the author himself, so that a "Shakespearean" actor is an actor who performs in plays by Shakespeare. So old George Orwell seems to have done pretty well for himself, I have to say.

Today I read "Animal Farm". Yes, I read the whole thing in a day, which isn't saying much because it's only 97 pages long. And for some reason I keep wanting to call it "Animal House", but as we know, that was an entirely different story altogether.

So is "Animal Farm" Orwellian? Well, yes. To me, the epitome of Orwellian is in "1984" (a book I read in high school) which features a dystopian future where citizens are under the control of a total dictatorship, and all aspects of their lives are monitored and controlled. And that's similar to the way things end up in "Animal Farm", although there are differences.

"Animal Farm" is a book that most of my friends seem to have read in high school, and after reading it I can understand why. The book is an allegory for the Communist revolution and the evolution of the Soviet Union under Stalin. The symbolism is obvious and straightforward, which makes it a good book to teach concepts like symbolism and allegory, assuming the students know the history of the Soviet Union. But I'm actually really glad I didn't read the book in high school, because I think I appreciate it a lot more than I would have then. The book is very dark, painting a dim view of human nature, as symbolized by animal nature. The book tells the tale of a farm in England, where the animals take over. The revolution, where the animals overthrow the drunken farmer who runs the farm, is at first idealistic, democratic, and socialist. The animals are all equal and all comrades in arms who stand united against their common enemy, the humans. But then things go awry. The pigs, who are by far the smartest of the animals, assume leadership roles, with two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, duking it out for supremacy. Napoleon clearly represents Stalin, and Snowball is Trotsky. We all know who wins that one. Napoleon raises some dogs from puppies, who become his vicious thugs. They attack Snowball, forcing him to flee, and a reign of terror more or less begins, albeit slowly enough so that the animals never really realize what is happening. Napoleon consolidates his rule with a number of show trials, resulting in a death sentence for those who confess to crimes they haven't committed. The initial ideals of the revolution are long gone, and the seven commandments that were written down at the beginning of the revolution (such as "No animal shall drink alcohol" and "No animal shall sleep in a bed") are modified to suit the pigs' needs ("No animal shall drink alcohol to excess" and "No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets"). Eventually all the commandments are overwritten with one commandment, the famous "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". In the end, the pigs and the dogs live like princes, while the other animals are slave labor to them. The pigs eventually start to walk on two legs, and put on clothes, and become indistinguishable from the humans, whom they have now allied themselves with. And so the glorious revolution leaves the animals having substituted one terrible set of masters for another.

Very bleak, indeed. But I can appreciate now, much more than I would have in high school, just how truthfully this story rings. Power corrupts, and in any society, those in power tend to gain more power, and those at the bottom find it terribly difficult to escape their class. It makes one wonder whether a true socialist society can really exist. It seems that in all societies that have ever existed there's been a social hierarchy, with powerful families and groups, and the vast majority under their rule, either directly or indirectly. Maybe that's my age talking...the triumph of cynicism and cold reality over the idealism of youth. But it's not just me..."Animal Farm" clearly presents a similar take on human nature. One that's positively Orwellian.