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Book impressions: Jean-Christophe I

In my book destroyment post, I mentioned my ugly old editions of Jean-Christophe. I do exaggerate for effect quite often, but as one can see below, I was truthful, wasn’t I?

"Get thee off the shelf and on to the table. You will have your picture taken for the blog. Please be good and try to look romantically and artistically aged."

Get thee off the shelf and on to the table. You will have your picture taken for the blog. Please be good and try to look romantically aged.

These were published in 1958. They have been repaired with adhesive tape in places, the covers are somewhat loose, there’s pages sticking out, some staining, and general wear and tear. I got them for free at the library’s book give-away day.  Since I was so enamoured with the first book, I naturally checked whether there were any newer editions available so I could replace mine.

There weren’t. But what should I come upon but an advertisement on a local forum. Some person seeking other individuals who had read and been deeply impacted by Jean-Christophe, with a half-apologetic “I’m seeking kindred spirts, you know” at the end. If it hadn’t been posted 10 years ago, I’d have replied.

I don’t think I’ve ever come upon an ad like that on a local forum. A person seeking soulmates based on a book they liked? Yet I can totally see why this particular book.

It tends to inspire and pull into itself if you can at all relate to the main character’s aspirations and temperament.

I’ve been yammering on about Jean-Christophe on the blog for a while. I would apologise for it if I was sorry, but I am not. I want to write of what inspires me at a particular moment and sometimes it just happens to be one and the same thing. It took me more than a year to finish the first volume because I’m weird. The more I like a book, the more likely I am to put off reading it, and go for something else instead. I want to draw out the enjoyment of it.

The first book consists of four volumes and focuses on Christophe’s childhood and early adulthood. His struggles with an alcoholic father, the death of his grandfather, his developing musical talent and fame, his disappointments, humiliations, numerous infatuations, rebellion against falseness and unearned high status in society and in music.

Speaking and thinking truth

The final volume, Christophe’s rebellion years, was where I grew to dislike Christophe a little. Part of the charm of this book is that we are very similar, both highly emotional neurotics, passionately idealistic, who love life but hate what society is doing with it. Our personalities make us be tossed about by life, but we love it still, and find meaning in it, somehow. Just as he was crying by the river, face in the dirt, and was consoled by the awareness of “life” in the grass and birdsong, I’ve been consoled by the winds and the mists on similar days. Yet I couldn’t relate or like this Christophe who had nothing but contempt for every musician who didn’t share his preferences or was less talented, the Christophe who was difficult and alienated everyone with his frank nastiness. I didn’t like the pleasure he took in hating and destroying under the guise of speaking the truth.

I would not disagree with him. My understanding of music is very poor, but I too could relate to his sentiments on singers being full of affectation and theatrical performances being ‘unnatural’, with middle-aged ladies playing Hamlet. I would not disagree, but the manner in which he did it and what the results of it were – is truth in this form wise or necessary?

Truthfulness towards ourselves and towards others is one of the hardest things to successfully execute. Christophe failed and alienated everyone. When I start reading the second book, he will probably achieve a better compromise than that witnessed in the final volume where he had become a complete outcast as a result of his frankness.

Maybe the compromise could be that you remain truthful, but do not hate those with inferior abilities and discernment. A kind of sympathy rather than contempt? This might soften the harshness and antisocial way of expressing one’s truth.

However, the falseness one sees around ourselves has rubbed me the wrong way for a very long time, and inspires rebellion too, so I found Jean-Christophe’s frankness inspiring as much as I found it excessive and distancing.

I too have been comparatively more sincere and unversed in the art of social pretense, so I have a soft spot for such frankness, a kind of rational appreciation, even if emotionally I may recoil from it.

*****************

Christophe rebelled against people who only make a pretense of liking music, but don’t love it.

There’s always been a lot of that about. It’s pretty classic to complain about upper and middle class people attending concerts or art exhibitions more for the prestige than for the love of the thing.

Of the countless girls who show themselves as great book lovers on social media, posting pictures of themselves reading a book in the wild, how many actually read that particular book? Isn’t it more often simply a decoration to get a good romantic look? Because reading books is romantic and if you want to ‘do’ the dreamer type convincingly, you got to have a couple of pictures of yourself reading, preferably on the beach, on a mossy stone near the ruins. I have no doubt some professed book lovers are sincere, but I have as little doubt that some are just putting it on as an element of their public image. And believing in it. That’s why Christophe alienated people to this extent. They believed their own lies.

I’m not above this either. I can create a good public image and in job or university interviews it has served me well. I can believe in it too. Don’t we all do this to some extent? I regret to say, however, that I’m a lot less intelligent and a lot less well-read than I appear. With the pace at which I read books, I couldn’t be all that well-read. I take it as a compliment when people assume I’m familiar with the authors they refer to, but frequently I am not and need to google not to lose face.

I think reading this book made me a lot more aware of my own lies to myself and this is what I’d like to reduce. To dare be a truthful version of myself. To find that truthful version from underneath the exaggerations and image-making. It has always been my goal to be authentic, but reading Jean-Christophe reminded me of how far I am from it still, how lost I’ve become.

The love of a thing. It really ought to be the primary guiding force for enjoying and selecting art to enjoy. Not curiosity, desire to understand and know what people are talking about, or the desire to appear educated. Pure love of a good book, film or musical piece. Not put on appreciation or faked interest. Genuine curiosity is of course different, but even that never beats love.

Maybe one way of uniting truthfulness with pro-sociality would be through a kind of trickster figure? As long as the tricks are friendly. And then there is comedy, of course. Laughing with, not at. I often feel that the only chance I would have of speaking absolute truth would be in my creations, because there I would not be limited by character. I could express all my contradictory truths and inclinations without causing dissonance.

I suppose what I would like to move towards is truthfulness even if it harms my self-image or disadvantages me. Today I caught myself once again denying a truthful assessment of character because I didn’t want to appear pitiful. I didn’t lie while denying it, but I diverted conversation to behaviours that I do possess and which contradict it. Yet, the former assessment was true too. I just happen to suffer from excessive pride and a disinclination to show weakness.

I think our Western society is suffering from the same problem. We attempt to eradicate and deny self-harming truth. It goes as far as the academia and science. We don’t want some hypotheses to be proven correct. We want to do away with truth that does not fit our desired image of ourselves and our humanist ideals, what we’d like us and humanity to be like. This would of course require a separate post of its own, so I won’t dwell on it further.

 

(Some more thoughts coming when inspired…)

Not practising what one preaches

Today is a hopeless one, so I decided to take a sick day in, read a book in bed and try a new comedy starring my current favourite actor. Writing on the blog also fits nicely into a day like this, so here I am.

While reading someone else’s blog, I noticed the blogger criticising one man, who was defending traditional family values publicly, but not being able to keep his own family together. This sort of criticism is often used to discredit what a person is saying. Even the most intelligent people employ it unthinkingly.

But if one thinks a bit.

Consider the people that practice harmful behaviours and preach it. Apologists of paedophilia and zoophilia, for example. Western society being heavily geared towards moral relativism, it is unsurprising that people dare to justify even such behaviours or that criminals may garner sympathy for having had a “difficult childhood”.

The main thing is, however, do we want to have apologists for behaviours that cannot be considered particularly ‘healthy’? Should people really be preaching what they practise? Or should the people whose families did fall apart, who can’t quite avoid cheating or be monogamous, who can’t quite quit drinking or eat healthy, should those people really begin to preach cheating as a justified necessity, drinking as beneficial to one’s creativity, and being fat from overeating as a new lifestyle choice? I think I’d much rather people didn’t preach their weaknesses, but joined the ranks of the “hypocrites” who preach what they fail to practise but believe in as a value. Who try to encourage others and society to be better than they are (even if this is not a concious aim, but more of an attempt to save face?).

I suppose this dislike for people who don’t live according to their ideals comes from the fact that some of them sound moralistic.  And no one likes a moralistic attitude – “You think you are better than us, eh? Look at your own relationship!” “My friend’s daughter’s grandmother saw you eating a burger in McDonald’s! Your healthy eating business is a fraud!” etc. Or maybe it’s simply the easiest way of discrediting someone’s opinion.

Personally, I cannot imagine turning my worst weaknesses into things I’d advocate. If I were an apologist, then an apologist of well-intentioned hypocrisy for the benefit of society, our values and healthier lifestyles. We really don’t need to have paedophilia normalized. The people that cannot help it should at least publicly denounce it, not try to paint it in a positive light. I can understand why they do it – they want a positive self-image, but well. If you are a terrible person, you should deal with the consequences.

Having said all that, I, like anyone else, much prefer a person who actually manages to live up to the ideals he or she preaches. Yet I don’t see why we should automatically discredit someone’s opinion if they fail to live up to what they publicly support. People are not ideal, people are often weak, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some standards and ideals to aspire to. Speech over and out.

Too young, too old

I’ve felt younger ever since I remember myself. I had a younger sister and younger best friends in early childhood. Maybe it led to me wanting to identify with them, I don’t know. Youthfulness somehow runs in the family, too.

I’ve looked younger than my age from my teens onwards. Prior to that, I was normal and at one point I must have looked older. I was tall once. That is funny to recall.  One time in my life I was actually tall. Anyhow, looking younger continues to this day. Most of the time, I’m grateful that nature has been so generous. It feels very fitting that if I feel younger at heart, I should also look younger. I’m really most glad.

The only downside is dealing with the adult world. No, it’s not about how I feel inadequate doing adult things. I feel that too, but it is worse. People sometimes don’t take me seriously because I look 18 or something. I meet with raised eyebrows and confusion so very often when I’m trying to handle some formal business. I’m sometimes patronized. I’m often not treated with the same courtesy as more mature-looking people. Add to it my natural shyness, and the result is a disaster. I look like a total ingénue tossed into the real world.  And I do try. I try to dress more formally, but it seems to be of little help. Fortunately, there are people who manage to remain professional, but there is a lot of the opposite too. I don’t actually mind being patronized. BUT I do mind not being taken seriously as a customer when dealing with serious things. If my hairdresser patronizes me and calls me doll-like and sweet, they have my permission to waffle away. But if bank employees and real estate agents do that, it’s annoying.

This leads me to prefer e-mail communication to handle formal affairs. I’m neither shy nor will they see my face. Chances are that everything works out more satisfactory than face-to-face dealings where I regularly fail to appear assertive and competent enough. I’m actually both, if necessary and up to a point. But when I feel cornered and not taken seriously from the very start, I feel that I must prove myself to be an adult and I don’t perform well.

That is one side of the coin. It will most likely pass and by the time I’m supposed to start working as a psychologist I will be old enough in numerical terms so that signs of age will be visible. I actually hope to work with young people more, so that may be an advantage even.

The other side of the coin is that when signs of age do become quite visible, what of the 16-year-old inside? How can I keep her?  The world is so ageist and every behaviour is classified into age-appropriate and not. Oh well. That is to be seen.

Sunday

I must be getting old. Really old. My greatest dream is no longer an exciting and fun life, but one of peace and quiet. It feels bizarre to think back on this time last year and remember how I longed for exciting things to happen. Now, quite typically to any human, I long for nothing else but my release from such misfortune.

I was reading Hoffmann again. It so happens I’m foolishly in the middle of 5 books at the same time, so nothing ever gets finished. Hoffmann strikes me as one of those authors who is too rich to be consumed in one reading. He makes my head spin. His vibrant fantasy world is marvellous in small doses, but when I reach page 25 or thereabouts, I feel I need a break. Too much of the bizarre upon the bizarre mingling with the realistic. His writing reminds me of some very rich Baroque fabrics, with plenty of red and gold.

It is not a bad thing. Some books and writers are not suited for reading in one sitting. Typically the more philosophical and intellectual ones. I haven’t yet experienced it with a fantasy author, but I don’t often read fantasy either. Hoffmann just happened to bewitch me with his Cat Murr and his Romantic values. Continues to do so too, but I guess he is yet another author who is best read in small portions.

Beautiful hearts

I have some sort of interesting thing going on with beautiful souls.

Whenever I come upon one, either in real life or through TV or internet, it makes me want to cry. I’ve wondered about this sort of peculiar reaction a lot. I’m obviously touched that a person like this exists. But it doesn’t quite seem like a sufficient explanation. I rarely do actually cry, but I feel like their beauty pierces my heart somehow. That my own heart leaps up and wants to run to theirs. Or press their hand in sympathy and understanding. To express it somehow how much it means to me that people like this exist.

In addition to that mixture of joy and pain, I also experience an overwhelming desire to protect the said person from the world. Even if they are a grown man twice my age in no need of protection. But there is that feeling. Of a treasure. And a distrust of the world. That destroys its beauty.

But a grown man twice my age surely knows that….

An absurd feeling overall.

 

It matters, it matters not

At the beginning of university, I struggled with stress management. My particular problem were presentations and essays. I could fret and worry about them weeks, months in advance.

And then magic happened and I learnt to “think about it tomorrow”. While I so rarely make leaps in self-development, that was the start of my present life philosophy. That I consider to be the most useful skill I’ve acquired during university and during adult life in general.

At first, I used to think about things tomorrow when dealing with school work. Everything came to be categorized into two groups: the immediately relevant and the not. All things in the ‘not presently relevant’ category I would deal with when I came to them, a day or two before the presentation or essay. While at first a conscious stress-management technique, it later became automatic. Rather than worry myself sick over the upcoming exam session or thesis defence, I managed to switch off, enjoy carefree walks and film evenings and have an altogether better time of it.

In time, the same tendency to categorize crept into other areas of life. I’m  overly sensitive, so there is only so much I can take into heart. I had to learn to control at least to some extent what I care about. Psychologist might call it the repressive coping style. They say it is bad for you, apparently, but I’ve only found it to be good, so perhaps my strategy is not THAT repressive? I’ve never believed in suppressing one’s emotions. I’m the sort of person who advocates letting yourself hit the bottom because only then can a full recovery follow. So, when down in the dumps, I cry in my room and don’t repress a thing. When in the heights of happiness, I dance and giggle and don’t repress a thing either.

What I do believe in controlling, however,  is the things I have an emotional reaction to. If I allowed myself to take everything to heart, life would be too emotionally overwhelming. I’ve learnt to stay calm when someone pushes past me in a queue, cheats me out of a small sum of money, snaps the very thing I want from in front of my eyes, listens to music on full volume upstairs, gives me a bad grade unjustly, and other trivialities. I always ask myself in situations like that whether it would matter on my death bed. If it does not, it’s not worthy of a strong response. Rather, a few deep breaths and maybe a curse, and life goes on.

I also do not read or watch the news very often. Major news do reach me, but I try to avoid constant exposure and commitment to following the madness that goes on in the world. I admit I felt or feel? ambivalent about that. Am I being cowardly? Hiding my head in the sand? Perhaps. Some crime reports can be very detailed and it is hard to read without having your imagination spoilt by yet another atrocity that cannot be unseen. Also, what good would MY knowledge of the worst of humanity do? I’m not in a position to help or influence. It amuses me sometimes how people are opining away on TV about what ought to be done to fight crimes against humanity or do for the poor, but then go home, drink tea and have a cuddle with their spouse. Nothing but waffling. All talk and zero action. From times immemorial, the doers and talkers are often different people.

But, to return to categorisation, to what matters and what does not. The death bed question is what I keep returning to. If I lose something that seems important, if I get hurt or angry, I always ask myself if it would matter on my death bed. If it would not, then I try to calm myself, take a few deep breaths and let it go.

I lost my job? Will it matter on my death bed? Not unless it was my dream job. If it weren’t, there will be others. There always are. Particularly in my field.

I have even learnt to categorise illnesses and dangerous situations. I ask myself: is it deadly? Will it change my quality of life? If not, then I’ll suffer through it or try to ignore it if it is chronic and nothing can be done but live with it.

Human relationships are a little trickier, but to protect myself from overdoing on the caring front, I also tend to categorize people into two basic groups: friendship material and superficial social butterflies. The former I invest myself in emotionally. Social butterflies are the kind of charming people that you can have a nice chat with once in a while but who are incapable of caring about you deeply. They have just too many other friends and acquaintances, and a different sort of personality altogether. But I want some sort of devotion, even from friends. I want to matter. If I feel I don’t matter, my heart stays locked in self-defence.

Overall, this ability to categorize may seem suspect to some, but it has helped me immensely in limiting what I get worried, hurt, angry or sad about. Very often, I can’t avoid the hurt, worry or sorrow, but thinking like this – that it doesn’t matter in the end – it helps me overcome life’s little annoyances and disappointments much faster and relatively unscathed. So there is more room for my heart to be scathed by the big things. Haha.

Utterly ordinary I

To contrast with previous posts’ display of eccentricity. And just so. To record some thoughts I’ve had on the subject.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been feeling every once in a while what a very ordinary person I still am. And this ordinariness, in better moods, branches into an all-encompassing feeling of connectedness with humankind. I know, it sounds frightfully sentimental. Yesterday, as I was driving through the countryside, I felt that connectedness again. With the old ladies sitting and chatting behind me on the bus, the farm workers, the cats on windows and roofs, the boys playing football. The entire cycle of life and my own small part in it too. It’s a funny sort of feeling. Like looking down upon life and yourself, whilst at the same time submitting to its ways. I guess it sounds very cryptic, so without further ado, a little exercise in ordinariness:

  1. There is absolutely nothing wrong with me. I have arms and legs. I can walk and run and am in good health. I am not tall, but I’m not terribly short either. I’m not strikingly beautiful, but I’m not ugly either. My hair could be thicker and nose could be smaller, but overall, there’s nothing wrong with my looks.
  2. I prescribe to no modern eating style, except that of trying to eat healthy on a regular basis. This means I try to avoid ice cream that is made up of water, coconut fat and 10% of milk powder and seek out foods with higher quality raw ingredients. Real, genuine stuff as much as possible. However, I’m not religious about it and if I feel like it, I’ll eat marshmallows, colourful candy and Emperor burgers. So, I’ll be an ideal guest to any family. No special demands. Will eat and drink almost anything.
  3. I like sports, such as skating, rollerblading, swimming, cycling and would happily try some more if I could afford it (windsurfing, yachting). Other days I’m very lazy and only like to do things at home.
  4. I like having friends and spending time with people. I like to give and receive affection.
  5. I complain about the weather, the government and where the world is going at this rate.
  6. I would like to win in the lottery.
  7. I want to have a lovely home of my own, and to have children and grandchildren one day.
  8. I enjoy birthdays and Christmas and other holidays.
  9. I am bored out of my wits watching some highly revered films. I just don’t get them. The authorial way of looking and showing is alien to me.
  10. I laugh when something amuses me and cry when something hurts me. I think kittens are angelically cute and serial killers pure evil.

I stretched it to ten, but that list was far harder than I predicted. Not because I was so extraordinary, but because a lot of these things are almost undefinable. As I said above, a feeling of connectedness. But abstract, not concrete. Seeing you are alike with the rest and that the differences are trivial compared to the overwhelming commonalities.

A lecturer of mine once said that those who are truly different never stress their difference. And I don’t know if he got that idea from somewhere or whether it was his own, it’s a brilliant idea regardless. It got instantly adopted into my personal life philosophy. I am relatively different from the mainstream, there is no questioning that, but what is my difference compared to that of some who can’t pass off as normal nowhere. Who would like to, but can’t. Me, with all my strange ways, I could theoretically go to a night club and not stand out. Of course, there are places where I’d feel extremely uncomfortable and out of my element, but outsiders wouldn’t know that. I’d look alright. Perhaps shy and awkward, but that’s not the same thing. I suppose that’s the essential ordinariness. I can blend in or digress at will. The truly different, they cannot.

However, I’m not 100% positive which I am in the end. Does emphasising it alone mean that I’m not THAT different? Probably. But what then of my early years when all I did was to hide it painstakingly, up until 17-18 for sure. Was I truly different then and now am not? Or have I simply learnt self-acceptance and confidence. God knows. And I don’t suppose it matters. I am what I am. Ordinary or different.

It is most likely situational.

Weak as water

What makes a film good for me are two things: it manages to involve me emotionally to the extent the world disappears, or it stays with me for a while and makes me ponder its key points.

Recently, On The Waterfront (1954) has ticked the second box. And maybe the first too, but to a lesser extent.

The film is a very good case study – excuse the annoying academic jargon – of herd behaviour and human weakness.

There was scene in that film where I felt the weakness of humanity to be painful to endure. The main character, a soft-hearted dockworker who gets dragged into waterfront mafia and then challenges the system to help break the control the mafia holds over the area, is brutally beaten by a thug gang. The workers, whose life he had tried to improve, stand by and do not help. They want to, but are too cowardly to interfere. They stand, a whole crowd of men that could easily break up a gang of five or six, while the man that tried to improve their lives, could be beaten to death behind the corner.

It was just so frustrating and shameful to witness. Human weakness and herd behaviour at its worst. It was obvious that if one man from  the crowd had ran to rescue, the whole crowd would have followed. But there was not that one man. And for the absence of that one person, a lot of bad gets to happen in the world. No one interferes. Everyone wants someone else to take the first step. Many people would follow if there was a leader. Many people are not unsympathetic or uncaring, they are simply self-preserving and weak. They won’t risk the first step. And yet how terribly important are first steps.

ON THE WATERFRONT, Marlon Brando, 1954

ON THE WATERFRONT, Marlon Brando, 1954

 

I’m a self-preserving weakling too. But I try to improve and become more brave in voicing opinions that I think do not have majority support, that might result in me being ridiculed or socially shunned. This kind of bravery is within my abilities and among my goals for future self-development.

There is a thing called pluralistic ignorance. This means that people believe other’s have different ideas from their own, so they renounce their own ideas publicly and copy others to be socially accepted. Typical example is students believing other students enjoy drinking more than they actually do. And thus, the drinking student myth continues,  it gets copied and exaggerated without end. Truth is, a lot of students aren’t as into drinking but due to thinking others are, they are peer pressured to adopt the drinking lifestyle as well and pretend they love it.

That is why it is important to have the courage to express one’s viewpoint. Contrary to our perception, more people may actually back us up than we think. Taking the first step is hard, but if more people took first steps against norms and ideologies they do not like, perhaps such norms no one really likes would go away in the end.

I have been reading on these subjects a little lately, considered it from the perspective of my own personal weakness and that film really fitted in with these kind of ideas. It gave me a very powerful image of how regrettable human cowardice is. I hope I find the strength to conquer my own. And my undying admiration for people who can step out of a passive crowd and challenge the dominant mindset. You are my heroes.

Le Sigh

And here I go again…

I spotted in my study materials the following delightful pairing: emotional disorders (sensitivity).

It was probably not meant quite so badly, but nonetheless. Sensitivity! For heaven’s sake. It wasn’t even hypersensitivity, it was plain sensitivity.

But it is not to rant I want, it made me think instead. Of what a healthy person must be like according to these unrealistic standards. And how utterly dull such a healthy, perfectly balanced person must be.

Melancholy vs depression

When you type “melancholy” into Wikipedia, it redirects you to “depression”, but for me, these two states have always been clearly distinct.

Melancholy has an element of beauty to it. It is like autumn or how one might feel in autumn when observing the decay and dying of another summer. It is the emotion a person might feel when pondering their old dreams and realising none of them came true. But it is not an emotion that paralyses and sends you into apathy and despair. Melancholy is about acceptance of your circumstances, of knowing that indeed, none of your dreams came true, but at least you dreamt. And life is beautiful, even with its sorrows and losses. This is how I feel melancholy. Melancholy is like a poem to me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Depression, on the other hand, I see as an enemy. I cannot accept it or what it can do to a human being. It is no longer about a half-pleasant wallowing in sadness akin to a Romantic poet, it is an unwelcome problem. It can be debilitating, it is about despair and sorrow combined. It is about feeling trapped and “knowing” life will never work out. Or that you haven’t the strength to make it work out. To use the example of dreams that never came true: a melancholic accepts it and writes a sad poem about it, a depressive no longer considers life worth living, withdraws from trying and in very severe circumstances may attempt suicide. Because, if none of your dreams came true, and your depression makes you feel that they never will either, what’s the point of living? For other people?

I for one, will never see suicide as weak or foolish. It’s a cliché to claim that there are solutions to all problems. There are not.