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Happiness is not all

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Dr_Martin_Seligman.jpgIt's not every day that one's psychological analysis extracted from Hamlet finds confirmation in The New York Times.  But today appears to be that day.

Having blogged about how the paralysis Hamlet suffers because of his existential and epistemological crisis parallels my experience in the face of unyielding rejection and failure, I then read in the Times that

when animals or people were given a series of arbitrary punishments or rewards, they stopped trying to do anything constructive.  "We found that even when good things occurred that weren't earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people's well-being," [Dr. Martin Seligman] said. "It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive."
I can relate.  My experience of the world is that, regardless of my merit, effort or desert, luck - that is to say, arbitrariness - is the deciding factor in my accomplishments, both personal and professional. 

Because, as Dr. Seligman says, "accomplishment [separate from happiness] is a human desiderata in itself," my situation is not conducive to satisfaction:

"'Well-being cannot exist just in your own head,' [Dr. Seligman] writes. 'Well-being is a combination of [happiness] as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.'"
Accomplishment must not, therefore, always be based on luck; but achieving this happy state requires a certain redefining of "accomplishment."  For example, as a well-intentioned friend said to me of my novels, I finished them - never mind that they're unpublished and no one reads them.  My friend isn't the only one to employ this technique: in Hamlet, the Danish prince makes "readiness" his accomplishment: "the readiness is all."  The rest?  "The rest is silence."  

This coping mechanism may provide some solace, but the larger relief comes in the recognition that the paralysis is not madness: it's normal.  Well being requires certain objective external conditions that, when absent, sabotage one's enjoyment of life.

That's what the doctor says.  And, I suppose, anticipating that advice through recourse to Hamlet might be considered some sort of accomplishment.
   
(Image of Dr. Martin Seligman from Princeton Alumni Weekly)

The readiness is all

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Alexandri_marathoners.jpg
Seven months ago, I saw the (British) National Theatre's production of Hamlet in London, and it was brilliant.  The director, Nicholas Hynter, dropped the royal house of Denmark into the security apparatus of modern governments.  In addition to imbuing the play with the excitement and suspense of a political thriller, this present-day setting made the power dynamics of the play come violently alive.   

In keeping with the modernity of the production, Peter Holland - writing in the program's playbill - offered an interpretation of Hamlet's dilemma that seems tailored to today's psycho-analyzed, cosmopolitan, post-deconstructionist, alienated audience:

[Hamlet] approaches a paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached by his thinking: the more he is able to grasp his awareness of how he knows anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative . . . . Confronted with the enormity of that crisis of truth, the only response is to "Let be," to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes.
The quote to which Holland refers comes at the end of the play, when Horatio is exhorting Hamlet to listen to himself and decline to fight Laertes: "If your mind dislike any thing, obey it."  Hamlet responds by dismissing his feeling of foreboding, saying - in essence - we're all going to die and we don't know when, so what does it matter if it's soon?  "The readiness is all . . . Let be."

I don't know if Shakespeare ever ran a marathon.  I doubt it.

Nor do I have any insight as to whether Peter Holland ever ran a marathon, but he has a goatee, so I think it's unlikely.

Nonetheless, both men seem intimately familiar with the modern marathoner's mindset.  After months of single-minded physical labor, abstinence from late nights, booze and any semblance of vice, the marathoner surrenders to reality: the preparation is all you can do; after that, as my brother says, "anything can happen in a marathon."

In fact, the "anything" that happened to my brother during last Sunday's marathon in Prague, was a pretty damned impressive "anything."  He ran 3:15:57, which is not the kind of fate one can complain about.  Had my brother gone off to fight Laertes, the play would have had a different ending.

Not so with me.  My legs all but shattered, and I staggered across the finish line 5 hours, 9 minutes, and 54 seconds after I started.  I never ran slower in my life.  Indeed, during training, I ran 22 and 23 miles in roughly four hours; but the race was nothing like training: blisters on my toes, leg muscle cramps, and an extended stretch of walking were all present during the race and noticeably absent during training.  Had I been tapped to duel with Laertes, death would have arrived on the playwright's schedule.

While I've had enough exposure to truly rotten fates to refrain from describing mine as one about which I can complain, my situation is nonetheless dispiriting - all the more so because, from the outset, I saw running the marathon as a metaphor for how I live my life, a microcosm that reveals the whole.  I became attracted to this idea last year, when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and discovered that the key to reaching the peak was going slow and surrendering to the limitations imposed by the environment.  I blogged about the inspiration I drew from my mountain experience to persevere in my writing.

Unfortunately, the take-away here is less upbeat.  Months of planning and work, tireless effort, deprivation of socializing and fun, dieting, forswearing alcohol, money spent on clothes, shoes and supplements - not to mention all the acupuncturists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and masseuses who toiled to get my legs race-ready - resulted in a completely disastrous performance.  Enthusiasm, willpower, investment of resources: all easily come to nothing.

I thought I'd already learned this truism the hard way.  Six years of work, discipline and sacrifice to write novels have yielded (a) four novels on the shelf, as of yet unpublished and unread, and (b) a state of near bankruptcy.  Rejection is the only constant, and my life is so unstable that I've come to feel for rejection a wry and perverted gratitude: it's the only thing I can rely on. 

It also make me want to vomit.  Not just vomit, but curl up in a ball on the curb and stay there.  When your rock is rejection, maybe you're better off under the stone.

Of course, I'm not the first to feel this way.  I refer to the aforementioned "paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached" when "the more [I am] able to grasp [an] awareness of how [I] know[] anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative" - although I add, no less painful for being relative.  "[T]he only response is to 'Let be,' to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes."

While I'm constitutionally constrained from waiting patiently - the best I can muster is waiting in a state of thinly-veiled neurosis and sincerely-felt misery - I take the larger point.  "The readiness is all" because it's all we can control.  The loss of control reduces us to paralysis - metaphorically, literally or, if we're really unlucky, both.  Though being without control is an aspect of reality, living in that reality without being sabotaged by it requires a mental discipline of preferring, and prioritizing, what you can control.

That's our choice: lopsided or frozen.

And here, at last, is the metaphor I'll draw: even a lopsided runner (like myself, suffering from a biomechanical breakdown in her right leg) can finish a marathon.

(Images of Maya Alexandri and Talmon Alexandri running the Prague marathon on 8 May 2011 compiled by Maya Alexandri)
Gauguin_portrait_of_the_artist_with_the_yellow_Christ.jpg
Great artists are so frequently assholes that I have learned to compartmentalize. Ok, so Lord Byron was loathsome in his relations with women; doesn't stop me from admiring his work unstintingly.

Whether such compartmentalization is difficult to maintain or distasteful - probably a bit of both - it's not a popular approach.  People prefer judgments.  There's a pleasing equanimity in being able to say, for example, that because Picasso hated women, Cubism amounted to a visual violence against women - cutting up the planes of their faces and bodies and rearranging them - and that our assessment of Picasso's achievement should be accordingly tempered.  In a world where bad produces bad, we find stability.

Such a world is not the one in which we find ourselves. 

As a result, many people require a certain amount of creative narrative to rationalize situations in which bad produces good.  Maurice Malingue is one such person.

Malingue was the editor of Paul Gaugin's letters to Mette Gad, his wife, and others.  Working in the middle of the last century, Malingue attempted to reconcile aspects of Gauguin's life that were in some tension: on the one hand, he was a genius painter; on the other hand, he was an asshole. 

The facts supporting Paul Gaugin's categorization as an "asshole" are as follows:  After fathering five children, he quit his job, lived apart from his family and contributed little to his family's support or upkeep.  He was openly unfaithful to his wife.  He did not return home either when his favorite daughter, Aline, or his favorite son, Clovis, died, both in their early twenties.  That Gauguin had syphilis, apparently of the variety that leads to madness, is something of a mitigating factor, though he seems to have contracted it after he set himself on the path of abandoning his family.

What Malingue made of these facts is laugh-out-loud funny to today's reader, who is at least 150 years too removed from the Romantics to be reflexively sympathetic to Gauguin's choices.  Malingue has no such scruples.  With a zeal unknown to generation acclimated to a divorce rate of roughly 50%, Malingue - in the Preface to Letters to his Wife and Friends - attacks Gauguin's wife, Mette Gad, and condemns her for expecting Gauguin to support his family:

[Gauguin's] letters constitute the most . . . overwhelming indictments in the trial of Mette Gauguin, who can now be charged with incomprehension of the artist, indifference towards the man, and with having as a wife failed the father of her five children.
. . . .
Mette, in contrast with wives of innumerable artists, found it difficult to contemplate poverty for herself and her children.
. . . .
It is probable that Mette, the daughter of an official, brought up with some degree of mental freedom but in the observance of somewhat rigid moral principles, never could understand how a father of five children could throw up a comfortable position without bothering what was to become of his family. 
Of Gauguin's abandonment of his children, Malingue remarks:

[Gauguin] is a father who suffered keenly in living apart from his children.  Obviously, he could have had them with him if he wanted to.  He renounced his paternal duties deliberately, because constrained to do so by the demands of his art.  The presence of his children would have imposed on him paternal obligations.
As for Gauguin's infidelity, Malingue takes a (dare I suggest typically French?) brazen line:

[Gauguin] plunged into casual amours at Pont-Aven, set up house in Paris with a Javanese, and in Tahiti bedevilled hussies invaded his bed every night.
These "bedevilled hussies" were 14 year-old girls who Gauguin took as his live-in companions.  (In Mario Vargas Llosa's telling - in This Way to Paradise - far from finding his bed "invaded" every night, the aging, broke and syphilitic Gauguin, whose legs were covered with sores, and who lacked money necessary to feed even himself, struggled to find girls willing to live with him.)

Of course, Malingue is full of shit.  Mette might not have been a creative woman, but she was in no way wrong (or even "rigid" in her morals) to expect financial support from her husband and the father of her many children.  Caring for five children might be inconvenient for Paul Gauguin, but the existence of children - not their presence or absence - imposes parental obligations; abandoning one's children geographically does not absolve a parent of responsibilities, however much one's time needs to be devoted to art.  As for adulterous husbands, at a minimum one can demand that they be discrete and steer clear of minors.

In fairness to Malingue, he lived in a different era, when he was not alone in being relatively receptive to justifying the bad acts of a genius, done in the name of his art.  All the same, Malingue's thinking - in any age - is slavish and lazy, the automatic "yes" of a dazzled fan.

Today, the trend is towards the opposite error, of dismissing Gauguin's mastery because he was an adulterous pedophile and a deadbeat dad.  But such reasoning would be equally slavish (to PC standards) and lazy.

We live in a world in which good can come from bad.  In which - Malingue is almost certainly right - Gauguin could desperately miss his children, and yet do nothing to be with them or help them.  In which Gauguin's actions can be wrong and sick, and still the general public is much the better for them.

The accurate narrative is the critical and rigorous one, the one that describes the world in its ambiguity, and that captures and conjures what beauty there is in such a world as ours.  It's not an easy narrative to tell or to absorb, not a narrative that likely to gain popular currency.  And yet it's the narrative in Gauguin's painting; it's the reason, in fact, that Gauguin is great.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ from the National Gallery of Australia website)

Audiobook recording the hard way

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The_face_of_frustration.jpgBack in January, I blogged about recording my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, as an audiobook.  I am sorry to say that the experience has taught me several life lessons in the manner through which I most commonly learn: the hard way.

First lesson: location, location, location!  Eureka, California is about as good a place for recording an audiobook as coastal Japan is for a nuclear power plant.  Quite simply, the audio engineer talent isn't in Eureka.  If you want an audio engineer who is incapable of recording the spoken word inside a booth without also recording himself zipping up his hoodie outside the booth - along with picking up other technical noises, like 60-cycle hums, which shouldn't be on the track - then by all means, record in Eureka. 

Second lesson: notwithstanding my default assumption that most people in the world are basically well-intentioned and doing the best they can, the world is occasionally peopled with unprofessional, unethical scoundrels.  Such folk may be disguised as soft-spoken, physically-pathetic, socially-awkward sound engineers to whom one may be predisposed to show kindness.  But for reasons known best to themselves, the mask slips, and they reveal themselves: in my case, the incompetent sound engineer held my master audio file hostage and demanded a ransom of more than a hundred dollars in excess of the hundreds of dollars I'd already paid him . . . for an ultimately unusable recording.    

Third lesson:  people who deserve to be sued don't have to be sued by you.  I didn't pay the ransom, but I did retain a lawyer.  And another sound engineer.  The lawyer sent a demand letter, which threatened to sue the first sound engineer if he didn't return the master audio file to me.  The second sound engineer meanwhile analyzed some mp3 files made from the master audio file, a process that revealed that the master was hopelessly flawed and useless. 

Thus, when the first sound engineer responded to the demand letter by refusing to return the master audio file, I found myself without much reason to pursue litigation.  I could ask for a refund, yes, and punitive damages, as well; but the impetus for the suit had never been money: the audio recording was my voice, my novel, my creation - and I wanted it back.  If it was, in fact, unusable, then I wasn't much interested in being the instrument of punishment for the Eureka-based, unprofessional, unethical sound engineer: let adult-onset diabetes, or some other lifestyle disease related to his obesity and general decrepitude, finish him off.

Fourth lesson:  the fact that I paid $1,150 to two sound engineers and an attorney and ended up with nothing isn't the kind of fact that I should dwell on.  Financial loss is an unavoidable fact of life, especially for artists, and apparently for me in particular, and acceptance is the only manner of dealing that isn't going to impair my quality of life (to say nothing of my emotional calm).  Instead, I will focus on this soothing, amusing quote from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, in which Aziz says:

If money goes, money comes.  If money stays, death comes.  Did you ever hear that useful Urdu proverb?  Probably not, for I have just invented it.  
The Swing of Beijing will be available as an audiobook at some future, but as-of-yet undetermined, date.

(Photo of Alice Forney personifying the Goddess of Frustration in Relation to Sound Recordings by Maya Alexandri)

If only "only connect" . . .

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EM_Forster_1938.jpgIn his Express review Wendy Moffat's biography, EM Forster: A New Life, Duncan Fallowell wrote that "the great and beautiful theme of all [Forster's] work [was] 'the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being.'"

Certainly Forster's theme is no secret.  Indeed, his formulation of it in Howard's End is endlessly quoted:

Only connect! . . . Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.  Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Although "Only connect" obviously resonates with many people, I prefer Forster's statement of the principal in concrete terms.  Here he is, explaining in A Passage to India, how "only connect" works in action, without any of the abstract "beast" and "monk" references:

There needs must be this evil of brains in India, but woe to him through whom they are increased!  The feeling grew that Mr. Fielding was a disruptive force, and rightly, for ideas are fatal to caste, and he used ideas by that most potent method - interchange.  Neither a missionary nor a student, he was happiest in the give-and-take of a private conversation.  The world, he believed, is a globe of men who are trying to reach one another and can best do so by the help of good will plus culture and intelligence - a creed ill-suited to Chandrapore, but [Fielding] had come out too late to lose it.
Forster's description of cross-cultural connection through conversational interchange is something I recognize from experience.  But the more important reason for preferring "good will plus culture and intelligence" to "only connect" is that, in A Passage to India, Forster illustrates something else I know from experience: the limits of his doctrine.

"Only connect" just isn't enough.  Abstractly stated, it's easy to romanticize; contextualized in A Passage to India, it's exposed as wishful thinking.

A brief summary of the plot of A Passage to India is here useful: Fielding and Aziz manage to become friends despite the British raj.  When Adela Quested accuses Aziz of making criminal sexual advances, Fielding maintains Aziz's innocence.  Fielding resigns from the British club in protest of the colonial community's racist presumption of Aziz's guilt.  Adela receives vulgar support from racist colonials, against which her intrinsic decency recoils.  On the witness stand in court, Adela dramatically retracts her accusation.  In the aftermath of the trial, Fielding houses Adela at the school where he teaches, and he urges Aziz not to sue Adela for libel.  Aziz accuses Fielding of helping his [Aziz's] enemy, and years later refuses to see Fielding when he returns to India with his new wife.  Upon learning that Fielding's wife is not Adela Quested, but in fact Stella Moore, the daughter of an elderly woman who Aziz loved and honored, Aziz relents in his anger, but the rupture in their friendship is permanent. 

In the book's last scene, Fielding and Aziz meet, "aware that they could meet no more."  Aziz asserts, "if it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then . . . and then . . . you and I shall be friends."  Fielding questions this perspective: "Why can't we be friends now? . . . It's what I want.  It's what you want."  But Forster makes clear that everything in the environs - the horses, "the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion . . . they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there.'"     

As even the plot outline clarifies, the connection between Aziz and Fielding does not make manifest "human love at its height."  It reveals that individual human connections devoid of social support are fragile, fleeting and unstable.  The flip-side is shown by Adela Quested, who is propped up by people she loathes: social support devoid of human connections are equally fragile, fleeting and unstable.  Both - as demonstrated by the ostracization of both Fielding and Adela -  lead to loneliness and isolation.

I have lived this saddening dynamic myself.  The vast majority of interactions that I've had over the last seven years have involved some attempt to connect across a cultural divide.  The connections so achieved don't mean what I hope, or wish, or think they mean; they're superficial; they evaporate with a hint of pressure; they continually disappoint.  Falling into the trap of blaming myself - I didn't try hard enough, I didn't have enough compassion - is easy, but the truth is hard.

What EM Forster could have said - what's accurate - is "Only connect, in a context that supports connection."  The drawback to truth, of course, is what Forster describes at the end of A Passage to India: contexts often don't support connections.  The temples, the sky, they don't want it.  And if you're in a context that doesn't support the connection you want or need, then you must remake your context, which is vastly more difficult than making a connection.

To describe Forster's "great and beautiful" theme as finding individual connection with another human being does a disservice to Forster, I think.  In his own life, he knew that what he needed was not an individual connection, but a gay-friendly social context.  And in A Passage to India, he suffused his art with that more complicated version of his theme: "Only connect, although the connection will fail, fragile, fleeting and unstable is our portion."
   
(Image of EM Forster from The Daily Mail)

Recommending Henry

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Sargent's_Henry_James.jpg
A friend recently wrote to me asking for recommendations of classic books he could read over Spring Break.  (Plainly, he's not one of my friends who believes that nothing in the classics can rival Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break; and for those of my friends who do hold such beliefs, what about the "lioness on the cheese grater" position referred to in Lysistrata?)

So back to my friend: I replied with a list of books that included Henry James' The Aspern Papers, possibly my fave of the James oeuvre.  Short, shocking and chock full of nasty conflicts of interest and sexual tensions, The Aspern Papers is my idea of reading satisfaction.

Not so much my friend: "I tried reading the Aspern Papers, but didn't really enjoy the writing style."

Poor Henry!  All those long sentences with tangential, intermediary clauses; all that punctuation - those dashes, those commas; all those asides, all that effort, all that style: all beyond the ready appreciation of today's reader.

And poor friend!  Henry James is not called "The Master" for nothing.  All his learning, his intimate knowledge of the human viscera, his understanding of emotional contortion and manipulative behavior, of the corrupting power of money and the dangers of life on society's periphery: all inaccessible under the lock of his impenetrable prose.

The situation brought to mind the scene in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, when Aziz spontaneously recites a poem by Ghalib to an assortment of well-wishers who have come to his bedside when he's sick:

[The poem] had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs.  They were overwhelmed by its pathos; pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers.
. . . .
Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry.  The minds of the others were inferior and rough.  Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization.  The police inspector, for instance, did not feel that Aziz had degraded himself by reciting, nor break into the cheery guffaw with which an Englishman averts the infection of beauty.  He just sat with his mind empty, and when his thoughts, which were mainly ignoble, flowed back into it they had a pleasant freshness.
(p. 99-100.)  With humor and a deft description, Forster captured - almost 90 years ago - what we have lost and, still today, haven't been able to replace.  The "infection of beauty" imbues even the ignoble thought with a "pleasant freshness."

Translation: Girls Gone Wild is even better after reading The Aspern Papers!

(Image of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Henry James from State College of Florida website)

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