Reading Updates

Recall my earlier paean to Bellow? Well I must admit to a personal failure: I lost steam three quarters of the way through Humboldt’s Gift, and it is lying neglected on my dresser. So, too, Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare (someday?): adrift and crinkled in the bathroom. However, I raced right through Cesare Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfires (which now bakes on my radiator) perhaps because it is just short enough to be consumed in a couple train rides… I picked it up partly on the advice of the late Susan Sontag, who called him “essential,” and–may I address her across the great divide?–thanks but no thanks Susan, he’s not so essential for me. Summarizing:

In Italy, in the old days, we had the seasons, and everyone was poor and miserable. This, however, was all good, and I was happy. And since then things are even worse. In America, where I made my miserable money, there are no seasons, or roles, or festivals, nothing nifty. So I’m back home in Italy, where there are seasons. Many people have killed each other, and life is a horrible cycle of decay and death but I like it that way. See: death. Also: unhappiness, insanity, poverty, desperation. Did I mention about the seasons?

I feel sure irate Pavese fans will now be writing me in droves. Susan Sontag will rain destruction from above (or below). Surely they cannot dispute my essential point: the novel’s a downer; the introduction by Mark Rudman concedes that in this novel, “the only absolute is sadness.” Forgive me my impatience. If you, dear reader, are a consumer of the glum, then step right up; you may buy it here in bulk; it is a virtual Sam’s Club of depression. Personally, I prefer my glumness mitigated.

For example, a very sad story: a painter who has a car crash and loses his ability to see colors. Oliver Sacks manages to concentrate the desperation of this loss in just a couple devastating sentences:

He would glare at an orange in a state of rage, trying to force it to resume its true color. He would sit for hours before his dark grey lawn, trying to see it, to remember it, as green.

Well done, Oliver: I get it. But as was the case in Awakenings, Sacks transforms the loss; he does not obsessively paint on added colors of misery, but finds a release in the patient’s release, in the creation of alternative perceptions and frames of understanding:

At once forgetting and turning away from color … Mr. I, in the second year after his injury, found that he saw best in subdued light or twilight, and not in the full glare of day… He started becoming a “night person,” in his own words, and took to exploring other cities, other places, but only at night. He would drive, at random, to Boston or Baltimore, or to small towns and villages, arriving at dusk, and then wandering about the streets for half the night, occasionally talking to a fellow walker, occasionally going into little diners: “Everything in diners is different at night, at least if it has windows. The darkness comes into the place, and no amount of light can change it.”

Yes, it is still quite sad; but I find myself shivering each time I read it, a shiver which includes pleasure. Am I, exploiter I, taking pleasure in Mr. I’s tragedy? As I read it, though, it is a mixed bag: he is not passively shutting himself in, but heading out on his own terms to reencounter the world, to redefine it for himself, in his rare sad condition. He is not the barefoot-in-snow sufferer of the end of Winterreise; no nihilist. I adore this image of him wandering off to explore at night (when everyone “normal” is in bed, shut in), a tourist of shadows, exploring paradoxically when there is “nothing to see,” and then randomly striking up conversations… looking for contact, finding comfort in diners, which I ordinarily think of as being lit with a horrible fluorescent glow–but no, he’s right, the darkness of night is part of the lighting of a diner, is part of its wan appeal: to feel the surrounding darkness as the comfort of a lit room.

To discover your own places, the methods and moments for your own perceptions and pleasures, is so much better than to stare at an orange in a rage, wishing it were orange. Take that, Cesare Pavese.

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  1. Sarah Louise
    Posted November 3, 2005 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Thank you from a non-glum consumer.

    gaffguc: gee, all falling follies gel, you see. (my word verification)

  2. qais
    Posted November 3, 2005 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    I just got told about your blog by a percussionist friend of yours and found what i read as interesting as he said. But it is true that going onto the night if you have lost the sense of color sounds like a complete if tragic compensation. The problem, I find with this as in other works by Sacks is that it lacks the veracity of the true understanding of what actually happens in the brain and therefore in the psyche of these patients. At night we still see color, we do not see the same colors (what we see is affected by the spectrum of light) so where is the sense of loss here; how does being a night person actually differ from being a day person in terms of color sensation. These are the questions that are scientificaly critical and therefore are the ones that determine Mr I’s emotional responses.

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