Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

22 JULY, 2014

Shakespeare, Sadness-Shaman: How Hamlet Can Help Us Through Our Grief and Despair

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“Hamlet is about the precise kind of slippage the mourner experiences: the difference between being and seeming…”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on grief. Our coping strategies can be among the most disorienting defiances of expectation — it’s a given that nothing gives comfort per se, but the things that bring even marginal relief aren’t always the ones we imagine. From The Long Goodbye (public library) — poet, essayist, and editor Meghan O’Rourke’s stirring memoir of losing her mother — comes an exquisite case not only for finding a semblance of consolation in a timeless work of art, but for what Susan Sontag once termed the “self-transcendence” that reading affords us.

In the first few days following her mother’s death, O’Rourke had received such grief classics as C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961) and On Death and Dying (1969) by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who pioneered the famous theory of the five stages of grief. And yet the book that enchanted her the most was even older — centuries older: Hamlet.

Illustration by Kate Beaton from 'To Be or Not To Be,' a choose-your-own-adventure reimagining of the Shakespeare classic. Click image for details.

O’Rourke writes:

I returned over and over to key speeches as if they were prayers or clues. I’d always thought of Hamlet’s melancholy as existential. His sense that the world “is out of joint” came across as vague and philosophical, the dilemma of a depressive young man who can’t stop chewing at big metaphysical questions. But now it seemed to me that Hamlet was moody and irascible in no small part because he is grieving: his father has just died. He is radically dislocated, stumbling through the days while the rest of the world acts as if nothing important has changed.

For the trouble is not just that Hamlet is sad; it is that everyone around him is unnerved by his grief. When Hamlet comes onstage, his uncle greets him with the worst question you can ask a grieving person: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, tries to get him to see that his loss is “common.” No wonder Hamlet is angry and cagey; he is told that how he feels is “unmanly” and unseemly. This was a predicament familiar to me. No one was telling me that my sadness was unseemly, but I felt, all the time, that to descend to the deepest fathom of it was somehow taboo. (As my dad said, “You have this choice when you go out and people ask how you’re doing. You can tell the truth, which you know will make them really uncomfortable, or seem inappropriate. Or you can lie. But then you’re lying.”) I was struck, too, by how much of Hamlet is about the precise kind of slippage the mourner experiences: the difference between being and seeming, the uncertainty about how the inner translates into the outer, the sense that one is expected to perform grief palatably. (If you don’t seem sad, people worry; but if you are grief-stricken, people flinch away from your pain.)

Above all, Shakespeare’s hero holds up a mirror to O’Rourke’s own duality of emotion — emptiness and anger, despair and longing for relief — providing a kind of kindred comfort. It is no small gift.

Hamlet also captures an aspect of loss I found difficult to speak about — the profound ennui, the moments of angrily feeling it is not worth continuing to live. In A Grief Observed, Lewis captures the laziness of grief, how it made him not want to shave or answer letters. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy invokes that numb exhaustion:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter.
O God! God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

“Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”: yes. I shared with Hamlet the pained wish that I might melt away.

Researchers have found that the bereaved are at a higher risk for suicidal thinking than the depressed. But Hamlet, I thought, is less searching actively for death than wishing futilely for the world to make sense again. And this, too, was how I felt.

The Long Goodbye is enormously poignant in its totality, a must-read for anyone who has ever lost a loved one or ever will — which encompasses just about all of us, to the extent that we’re capable of love. Dive deeper into it here.

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22 JULY, 2014

The Science of Dust, Picasso’s Favorite Phenomenon

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“With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future…”

It takes more than three centuries for a one-foot layer of dust to accumulate. The entirety of the Roman Empire is buried nine feet underground — that is, under nine feet of tightly compacted dust. This household nuisance is indeed one of nature’s most humbling phenomena and Earth’s most steadfast preserver. Picasso was fascinated by it. In a passage from Hungarian photographer Brassaï’s 1964 gem Conversations with Picasso (public library) — which also gave us the iconic artist on success and not compromising and intuition and where ideas come from — Picasso marvels the news of an excavation in which archeologists preserved a cross-section more than ten feet high, containing multiple layers built over the millennia. When Brassaï notes how moving it is that “in a glance, you can take in thousands of years of history,” Picasso responds enthusiastically:

And you know what’s responsible? It’s dust! The earth doesn’t have a housekeeper to do the dusting. And the dust that falls on it every day remains there. Everything that’s come down to us from the past has been conserved by dust. Right here, look at these piles, in a few weeks a thick layer of dust has formed. On rue La Boétie, in some of my rooms … my things were already beginning to disappear, buried in dust. You know what? I always forbade everyone to clean my studios, dust them, not only for fear they would disturb my things, but especially because I always counted on the protection of dust. It’s my ally. I always let it settle where it likes. It’s like a layer of protection. When there’s dust missing here or there, it’s because someone has touched my things. I see immediately someone has been there. And it’s because I live constantly with dust, in dust, that I prefer to wear gray suits, the only color on which it leaves no trace.

Portrait of Picasso, in one of his gray dust-proof suits, by Brassaï

So what is dust, really? And what makes it so special? Count on Joe Hanson to put some science behind the legendary artist’s muse:

We’re constantly moving dust from one place to another, only to have it replaced by more dust — entropy always wins.

[...]

A piece of space-dust falls on your head once every day… With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future, the smells and stories of the world around us, even the seeds of life.

Lest we forget, as Carl Sagan memorably put it, we are but “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

For more of Hanson’s illuminating science videos, see the science of why we kiss, why there was no first human, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, the universe in a glass of wine, and why sci-fi writers are so good at predicting the future.

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21 JULY, 2014

New Yorker Cartoonist Roz Chast’s Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Aging, Illness, and Death

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Making sense of the human journey with wit, wisdom, and disarming vulnerability.

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

But besides appreciating Chast’s treatment of such grand human themes as death, duty, and “the moving sidewalk of life,” I was struck by how much her parents resembled my own — her father, just like mine, a “kind and sensitive” man of above-average awkwardness, “the spindly type,” inept at even the basics of taking care of himself domestically, with a genius for languages; her mother, just like mine, a dominant and hard-headed perfectionist “built like a fire hydrant,” with vanquished dreams of becoming a professional pianist, an unpredictable volcano of anger. (“Where my father was tentative and gentle,” Chast writes, “she was critical and uncompromising.” And: “Even though I knew he couldn’t really defend me against my mother’s rages, I sensed that at least he felt some sympathy, and that he liked me as a person, not just because I was his daughter.”)

Chast, like myself, was an only child and her parents, like mine, had a hard time understanding how their daughter made her living given she didn’t run in the 9-to-5 hamster wheel of working for the man. There were also the shared family food issues, the childhood loneliness, the discomfort about money that stems from having grown up without it.

The point here, of course, isn’t to dance to the drum of solipsism. (Though we only children seem particularly attuned to its beat.) It’s to appreciate the elegance and bold vulnerability with which Chast weaves out of her own story a narrative at once so universally human yet so relatable in its kaleidoscope of particularities that any reader is bound to find a piece of him- or herself in it, to laugh and weep with the bittersweet relief of suddenly feeling less alone in the most lonesome-making of human struggles, to find some compassion for even the most tragicomic of our faults.

From reluctantly visiting her parents in the neighborhood where she grew up (“not the Brooklyn of artists or hipsters or people who made — and bought — $8 chocolate bars [but] DEEP Brooklyn”) as their decline began, to accepting just as reluctantly the basic facts of life (“Old age didn’t change their basic personalities. If anything, it intensified what was already there.”), to witnessing her father’s mental dwindling (“One of the worst parts of senility must be that you have to get terrible news over and over again. On the other hand, maybe in between the times of knowing the bad news, you get to forget it and live as if everything was hunky-dory.”), to the self-loathing brought on by the clash between the aspiration of a loving daughter and the financial strain of elder care (“I felt like a disgusting person, worrying about the money.”), Chast treks with extraordinary candor and vulnerability through the maze of her own psyche, mapping out our own in the process.

Chast also explores, with extraordinary sensitivity and self-awareness, the warping of identity that happens when the cycle of life and its uncompromising realities toss us into roles we always knew were part of the human journey but somehow thought we, we alone, would be spared. She writes:

It’s really easy to be patient and sympathetic with someone when it’s theoretical, or only for a little while. It’s a lot harder to deal with someone’s craziness when it’s constant, and that person is your dad, the one who’s supposed to be taking care of YOU.

But despite her enormous capacity for wit and humor even in so harrowing an experience, Chast doesn’t stray too far from its backbone of deep, complicated love and paralyzing grief. The book ends with Chast’s raw, unfiltered sketches from the final weeks she spent in the hospice ward where her mother took her last breath. A crystalline realization suddenly emerges that Chast’s cartooning isn’t some gimmicky ploy for quick laughs but her most direct access point to her own experience, her best sensemaking mechanism for understanding the world, life and, inevitably, death.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is an absolutely astounding read in its entirety — the kind that enters your soul through the backdoor, lightly, and touches more parts of it and more heavinesses than you ever thought you’d allow. You’re left, simply, grateful.

Images courtesy of Bloomsbury © Roz Chast; thanks, Wendy

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