Tag Archives: WWII

The Lemon is the Antidote

Reason must know the heart’s reason and all other reasons which are felt from the tip of one’s hair to the extremity of one’s toes
—Leonora Carrington, Down Under (28)

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Portrait of Madame Dupin, 1947

Down Under is Leonora Carrington’s riveting account of being held in a Spanish institute for the incurably insane. How she got there is in itself a fascinating story. She was Max Ernst’s lover and at the outbreak of WWII he was arrested by the Gestapo, but then released. He escaped further arrest (or worse) when Peggy Guggenheim arranged for him to come to the United States. Peggy, I guess, did not arrange for Carrington’s escape and ended up marrying Ernst herself…. Carrington was left bereft, heartbroken. She escaped France by going to Spain, which was where the pressure on her heart and soul cracked her brain. I suppose in the face of the combination of heartbreak and the terror and insanity of WWII, a psychotic break must be a near inevitability. When her friend, who was driving the car to Spain, commented that the brakes had jammed Carrington internalized that word. She was “jammed” the world was “jammed.”

What caused the panic to rise within me was the thought of automatons, of thoughtless, fleshless beings (8)

But things got seriously worse at the institute to which she was taken. She was given a series of shots of Cardiazol which induce seizures (a sort of “shock therapy”). Down Under describes that harrowing experience.

When I came to I was lying naked on the floor. I shouted to Asegurada to bring me some lemons and I swallowed them with their rinds. […] then I went back to bed and, intimately, tasted despair (36).

The psychotic fantasies and delusions that ensue are disturbing and not uncoincidentally surreal in the extreme. After all, Carrington was a surrealist artist (English-born, Mexican/Irish descent). But there is something in the way she tells of the ordeal—the odd details that make it very real. I (perhaps strangely, but none the less) completely understood her random obsession for lemons—she comes to consider lemons as an antidote to the Cardiazol, and believes, in her delusion, that the lemons are the key to the story! Or when, at great effort, she gets ahold of a pencil and piece of paper, draws a triangle on it and passes it to José, one of the orderlies:

That triangle, to my way of thinking, explained everything (28).

You feel her mind trying to grip onto anything to prevent the free fall into an utter disconnect with herself. And she does strategize—she tries to organize her mind in interesting ways. She has a sort of mental visual map that helps her at least name the buildings and areas of the institute she is in (which, when she later gets away, she is able to match against what was actually there instead of what she thought in her confused altered state, i.e. “Down Under,” “Africa,” “Outside World Street,” “Garden Pavilion”). She uses objects in her room or dresser to represent the pieces in her mind:

My red and black refill pencil (leadless) was Intelligence. Two bottles of Eau de Cologne, one flat was the Jews, the other, cylindrical, the non-Jews. A box of “Tabu” powder, with a cap half of which was grey and the other black, meant eclipse, complex, vanity, Tabu, love (41).

In this way she gets them out of her head, outside of herself so that she can make some sort of sense. She also struggles to solve the problems of the world developing a full blown martyr complex on the way. Her sexual passions get wrapped up into her state of being and one gets a real sense of her as feeling, intelligent, sensual woman. It is a brief tale, but the complexity she brings to the story is fascinating.

An interesting aspect of this little book is that it was not actually written, rather, it was “told to Jeanne Megnen” which, I think, alters the telling. In many ways, the mind wanders more freely when it does not have to concern itself with organizing the words and sentences on the page. In the case of this particular book, that quality lends itself to the overall oneiric, nightmarish quality.

I sank, I sank down into a well…very far…The bottom of that well was the stopping of my mind for all eternity in the midst of utter anguish. But will you ever understand what I mean by the essence of utter anguish? (36)

*Published by Black Swan Press, translated from the French by Victor Llona

 

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The Fuse Held

This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.
—Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (7)

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In between the purity—the depth and quiet—of our natural world, and the chaos and horror of humankind’s cruelest deeds, there is a fuse. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient balances on the pinnacle between what is de-fused and what ignites—exploding in one’s hands.

In the desert the most loved waters, like a lover’s name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence (141).

Simply stated: it is a beautifully written book. Some of the lines are just devastatingly lovely. Many years ago I saw the film, which I liked, and I had the book somewhere in my mental-book-queue to read. But it wasn’t until my step-father mentioned he was reading it (and highly enjoying it) that I hurried over to the library. I swear, when the library has the book I want on the shelf I sometimes skip and hum a tune!— it is akin to the joy that only a best friend can bring. But I digress…although, not too much because the blood and sinew of The English Patient really is books.

‘This history of mine,’ Herodotus says, ‘has from the beginning sought  out the supplementary to the main argument.’ What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history—how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love….How old did you say you were?
“Twenty.”
“I was much older when I fell in love” (119).

It is the books that sooth and alter with unthreatening loyalty. The story sways from post-WWII Italy, with a mysterious, gruesomely burnt, “English patient,” a nurse, an Indian bomb defuser, and a former thief/spy, to the pre-WWII deserts of Africa and a wrenching adulterous love affair.

After that month in Cairo she was muted, read constantly, kept to herself, as if something had occurred or she realized suddenly that wondrous thing about the human being, it can change (230).

On the heels of her honeymoon with her very blue-blooded husband, Clifton, Catherine falls devastatingly in love with Almásy. How does this happen? “How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled (158)? I am sure I don’t know, but I wonder too… “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Towards a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams (150). When one’s own mind and heart are as fathomlessly mysterious as a desert perhaps this is what makes an unquenchable desire for knowledge to bloom, a seeking thirst that books, at least, seem to temporarily abate and rectify.

She was discovering herself. It was painful to watch, because Clifton could not see it, her self-education. She read everything about the desert. She could talk about Uweinat and the lost oasis, had even hunted down marginal articles (230). 

Of course there is much more to this story than the mystery of love. But perhaps everything is subordinate—so much of the action of life is dependant on love. Love is the logical casing in which everything else is shaped: treachery, pain, torture, slaughter, nationhood, racism, religion, emptiness, caring, tenderness, melancholy and mirth—it is all encased or exiled from a simple thing—the unity (in unity) of love. What does our love serve? If we are not defusing bombs, then the detonation is inevitable— horrifyingly so. But life is complex; passion is a powerful thing, and love—love is the essential thing. How do we know whom to trust, where our hearts are safe from devious trip wires?

When someone speaks he looks at a mouth, not eyes and their colors, which, it seems to him, will always alter depending on the light of a room, the minute of the day. Mouths reveal insecurity or smugness or any other point on the spectrum of character (219). 

The impersonal majesty of nature, (in the case of this story—the desert) lifts and joins our souls, yes, and books orient and expand our minds, ah but it is love, love, that unifies and mends our hearts, body and soul.

But all parts of the body must be ready for the other, all atoms must jump in one direction for desire to occur (259).

 

 

 

Live Without Appeal

The only question for us was whether  or not to accept a world in which there was no choice possible save whether to be victim or executioner (Albert Camus quoted 271). 
– Sean B. Carroll, Brave Genius

IMG_2405It is difficult to assign a genre to Sean Carroll’s book Brave Genius. Ostensibly about the friendship between Albert Camus and Jaques Monad, like life, the book is quite a bit more complex, enormous, and interlaced than the simple premise would suggest.

Camus, famously, was the moral voice of an amoral age, writing anonymously for the French Resistance paper Combat during the Nazi occupation, he also wrote his manifesto, Myth of Sisyphus during that time. I find that astounding. But I suppose it really underlines the message of his profound essay – the revolt is against the absurdity of the world, the revolt is actively rejecting the blinding  copout of ideology or suicide – to live! to feel joy or pain, but to feel! To be authentic to the vitality, the humanity, the passion – to the only thing we have – life.

Jacques Monad was a Resistance fighter, and Carroll gives an account of those years with frightening clarity. The terror is palatable. But Monad was also a biologist trying to understand, through science, the same questions Camus was deeply engaged in – what is the meaning of life – what is life? Monad would go on to discover what happens in between DNA and the creation of protein, and he too would win a Nobel Prize for his contributions to humanity through his work.

Monad admitted that, of course, “this fundamental scientific result is also the most unacceptable” to most people, as it overturns all previous, long-cherished notions of human’s special significance in the universe (487).

It is more than halfway into the book before Camus and Monad even meet, and by then their friendship is a logical conclusion of their individual work, perspectives and proximity… yes, the friendship was meaningful and true, but…it is the steadfastness of their humanity that is raison d’etre of their individual importance and importance to each other. The consideration of their bravery in the face of absurd cruelty and a devastatingly frightening  absence of kindness is profound and deeply moving. The book is really equal parts history, science, and philosophy. Carroll takes the near inevitable friendship between like-minded intellectuals as a baseline for what is really an exploration and history of all travellers on the same journey.

“We are living in nihilism….We shall not get out of it by pretending to ignore the evil of our time or by deciding to deny it. The only hope is to name it, on the contrary, and to inventory it to discover the cure for the disease…Let us recognize that this is a time for hope, even if it is a difficult hope” (267, Camus quoted) 

The confluence and yet beautifully related questions concerning the meaning of life, whether it be through philosophy , politics, science, or any other mode of thinking,  is at the heart of the book. None are possible without intellectual freedom and Carroll’s focus on the horrors of the infringement upon intellectual freedoms is the cris de coeur of the book.

In the act of refusal, the rebel thereby defines a value, a value that Camus alleged “transcends the individual, which removes him from his solitude” and thus joins him to others, and so establishes “the solidarity of man in the same adventure.”
The first philosophical secret of life for Camus was the recognition of the absurd condition. This instinct for positive rebellion–against death, oppression, suffering, or injustice– was the second secret of life, the path to humanity (308).

As much as Albert Camus was, and is,  an inspiration for all of the open-hearted and sincere populace, I have a feeling that this book was written to expose the truth that there are many amongst the true-hearted. Jacques Monad’s story is every bit as riveting and moving as Camus’ or any other of the countless unsung heroes of humanity. And yes, Monad is not exactly unsung, having won a Nobel Peace prize and what not, but still, Carroll’s purpose is to invigorate that which is universally graspable- freedom, and human dignity. The choice between executioner and victim is exactly the hell Monad and Camus gave their lives’ energy to combat. And yet…the world remains what it is…it is enough to make one weep in futile rage.

What Camus could not abide were ideologies that sacrificed life in the present, the one fundamental value above all, for some promise of future justice (310).

Brave Genius, while not really about a friendship per se,  makes the history, science, and humanitarian interest of that time so compelling that one hardly notices. It is simply inspiring that such people existed. Camus is well known, Monad less so, but there are many other heroic, beautiful people intertwined in the story and that is the moving heart and soul of this history. Good people existed then. They exist now. There has never yet been a system designed to put them down permanently. Never.

The question (and striking down) of adaptation (in enzymes) was key to Monad’s work, and in another way, Camus’ as well. To adapt to evil is true suicide. To adapt to fear and the fettering of intellectual freedom is the death of humanity. The acute crisis of WWII was horrific, but the chronic crisis of existence is another, and for Monad, Camus pointed a way out of the despair that the cosmos’s indifference or the scientific evidence of mere chance and necessity being the sole arbiters of all existence seemed to make inevitable. After all, what does any of that matter when we have life within us now?

In the middle of winter  I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer (322 Camus quoted from Return to Tipasa).