I’m glad it’s March. This morning after two straight days of rain the sky was clear by the time Clio and I went out for our run. I felt really heart-liftingly grateful for the bright grey skies, for the birds who sing earlier and earlier every morning, for a romp across a snowy field with a bright-eyed girl. And now, right now, we have actual bright blue sky, bright clouds!
I love these things today:
I love licorice allsorts, especially the pink ones that taste like blackcurrant. I love the fact that I bought a bag last week from the chocolate shop across the street and Isaac kept trying to put it out of my reach, on top of books and tall shelves. I love that he’s taller than me and getting taller every day, and a little giddy about it.
I love this from an article about Andre Bazin: “They felt that the cinema, having taken a certain aesthetic direction, had become an art that was supremely suited to what was known as the ‘exquisite unnaturalness’ of silence. The realism of sound was bound to upset matters. “
I love the weird lovely mints David drops on my desk every once in a while when he gets coffee from the coffeeshop.
I love the bagels I’ve been making lately. It’s the sort of thing you want to wake up for. I love the dreams I’ve been having lately, the sort of thing you don’t want to wake up from.
I love that Malcolm (away at college) texted me a picture of a snoring dormouse. I love snoring dormice. I love that Malcolm at midnight sent me a text that suggested that part of his idea of what it means to love somebody is to wake up bright and early to go look at birds with them.
I am absolutely fascinated by Lee Godie, whom I just discovered from an Instagram post by the American Folk Art Museum, and I love them too. I feel certain that I will talk about her more at some point in the future after more research. I’m fascinated by her art, but also the idea that she lived rough, though she had money to live comfortably. She was sad, maybe, or she didn’t like to be inside. Fascinated.
I love the fact that I’m going to go now and listen to music and make dinner and talk to the people I love.
Sometimes I occupy my busy brain with the exercise of thinking-of-things-that-are-punk-rock-that-aren’t-actually-punk-rock.
First, of course, it is necessary to arrive at a definition from which to work. “Punk” has a long and fascinating history, well-documented here, with a meaning ranging, over the centuries, from mild praise to damning condemnation. For the most part, though, it has not been a compliment. The word has always suggested a sort of marginalization, something odd, imperfect. Often there’s an extra level of removal from all that is proper, polite, and normal. Not just a criminal but a young and petty criminal. Not just a circus worker, but an untrained and unskilled circus worker. And apparently at one time the word might have meant amateur, and an amateur is a lover, and “punk rock” means passionate–a lover or a hater–but with more than a hint of ennui, more than a sense that it might all not matter. The idea of punk is full of these contradictions: self-consciously unself-conscious, seeking attention but resenting it.
And there’s a pervasive meaning, over the years, of something worthless used to start a fire: “Rotten wood used as tinder” (1680s), perhaps from Delaware (Algonquian) ponk, literally “dust, powder, ashes;” but Gaelic spong “tinder” also has been suggested (compare spunk “touchwood, tinder,” 1580s).
I really love this, I really love all of this; something useless ignites a flame, someone untrained and unskilled, with insufficient training and imperfect equipment, creates something speakingly powerful, which is embraced by all of us who are outside the outsiders, weirder than the weirdos.
So here are some of the things I think of as punk-rock-but-not–actually-punk-rock. I’d like this to be living list, so if you have suggestions of your own, I would love to add them:
Jean Vigo, Zero de Conduite. EVERYTHING about this film is punk rock. The characters, the director, the storyline, the creation of it.
Jane Eyre, (of the novel Jane Eyre fame) is Punk Rock as are pretty much all the Brontes, as far as I can understand it.
Nina Simone is punk rock. I don’t want to suggest that she was unskilled or untrained, but if “anger is an energy” is a punk rock anthem…
I’m a little torn on this one, because seemingly by my definition most outsider artists are punk rock, but I think…not. The ones I love are completely unselfconscious, completely not seeking attention, and have a passion of a different nature that I don’t want to touch here.
Manu Chao is punk rock, and don’t take it from me, take it from Punk and reggae historian Vivien Goldman who said, “He’s one of the punkiest artists out there I can think of. It’s an inclusionary spirit that is punk.”[
And this is my pick for punkest Manu Chao peformance.
My husband, sons, and mother are punk rock. I am punk rock when I cook.
Help me out, Ordinary friends! Who is punk rock but not punk rock? Let me know in the comments and if it passes muster I will add it to my list.
Sometimes when you first take bread out of the oven it will crackle at you. It is ridiculously lovely, and gives the bread so much personality that you almost don’t want to eat it. It really does feel like it’s trying to tell you something–perhaps a creation tale of life at 450 degrees in a cast iron pot.
I like to believe everything is trying to tell you something, if you’re paying attention. The blue jay who took a peanut from the table where I was playing solitaire, and who cocked his head at me in a very cheeky manner had a message, but was too cool to care if I understood. The cards I play solitaire with every morning while I drink tea and blue jays visit; they tell me how the day will go, though they are often wrong, or right in a way that I don’t understand. But with the cards, I believe it’s more my own self telling me things as I let my mind wander with the toc-toc-toc of the cards. (And lately it is resoundingly telling talking to me about the movie Diary of a Country Priest. And a little bit Le Samourai. And Malcolm, a lot, visiting the dadaists in the National Gallery of Art, with him. My mind goes to these places every single time I play solitaire while drinking tea and forbidding anyone to talk to me. Which is every single morning. I don’t will it to go there, but there it goes.)
I make a lot of bread: boules, and baguettes, and bagels every week. I think that at some point the dough I washed off of bowls and spoons took a toll on our beleaguered kitchen drain, and it stopped working. We tried to fix it for a couple days, but we could not. So we called a plumber. I have such a real affection for the man who came to fix it. I like that after every fix he said “prayerfully” it would work now. And I love the fact that he listened to the water running through our drains. The water talked to him, and he could tell when it wasn’t quite fixed, and then when it actually was. He listened for the moment it stopped draining, and that told him where the problem was, he could hear exactly where the problem was. I love that. We also talked about how you can live without water, you can live without power, but if you have family you’re ok. We also talked about how the government should just take care of people. Sigh.
If I’m being honest (and I am always honest) this was a sort of silly thing to start writing on a Tuesday (if, indeed, it is a Tuesday). Edinburgh has meant so much to me at so many times in my life, it’s stupid to try to… All nagging doubts aside, if I question everything I’ll write, I’ll never write anything, so here we go.
The second-to-last time we left the US we went to Scotland. It was, in every way, a perfect trip. We stayed in the loveliest house I’ve ever seen, in Edinburgh, with a terraced garden with a rosemary TREE, and gooseberries and golden raspberries and fruit trees that attracted magpies and European goldfinches and feisty little robins.
Then at the very end we were all set to fly out from Edinburgh airport and our flight was cancelled. We were scheduled for a flight the next day and put up in an airport motel. (After a day in town we watched comedy shows and ate snacks from the bar and watched some World Cup soccer.) We got to the boarding gate, the next day, and at the very last minute that flight was cancelled as well. The airline had no answers this time, and staying in a one-flight-a-day airport seemed foolish, so we took the train to London, spent the night there, and flew out uneventfully (but really really memorably, to me) in the morning.
At the time, this whole period was quite stressful. Time passed bizarrely, it felt blank and black, and I felt I had to be weirdly adult in unexpected situations, and as the saga continued I started to feel that we had some kind of Brady Bunch-esque curse against us.
But I have to also say that those few days, in my memory, are some of my absolute favorite moments of travel ever. Not because of what we did, but because of the odd out-of-time, wood-between-the-worlds feel of those hours. We took the time to visit places David and I had loved on our honeymoon, that we hadn’t had time to visit with the boys. We lay in the sun, just out of the shadow of the castle, and watched the seagulls harass people in the park. We had beer and French Fries at a pub in Rose Street. The memory of Isaac trying strange foods in the airport while I drank wine very early in the morning (it’s never too early in an airport! Nobody is judging) is so tender to me it still makes me weep.
I have always loved Edinburgh, and sharing it with Malcolm and Isaac in this strangely heightened time is an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat, but would not give up for anything in the world.
So here are a few things I love about Edinburgh at the moment.
Hidden in a shoebox: vintage Edinburgh shots that were nearly lost – in pictures. This gorgeous collection of images found in a shoebox of Edinburgh in the 60s, by street photographer Robert Blomfield.
When David and I went in the last century, and we visited the ornithological society, and the elderly gentleman who oversaw operations arranged to take us out in his tiny winnebago the next day. We saw sweet eider ducks, and the big gulls he called “bruisers,” but as he said, we never got our European Starling (until this last trip).
This absolutely kills me every time. Puddle of tears. From the stadium we saw whilst walking up Arthur’s Seat, though it was empty because everyone was in Russia for the World Cup.
This song is not actually a memory of Edinburgh, though Idlewild met there, but a memory of a small club in Boston where they were performing. Roddy Woomble bummed a cigarette from me.
It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling. It’s like, how do you tell somebody how it feels to be in love? How are you going to tell anybody who has not been in love, how it feels to be in love? You cannot do it to save your life. You can describe things, but you can’t tell them. But you know it when it happens. That’s what I mean by free. I’ve had a couple times on stage when I really felt free and that’s something else. That’s really something else! I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: NO FEAR! I mean really, no fear. If I could have that half of my life. No fear. Lots of children have no fear. That’s the only way I can describe it. That’s not all of it, but it something to really, really feel. Like a new way of seeing. Like a new way of seeing something.”
Happy birthday to Nina Simone. There’s nothing I can really add to this, because it’s perfect.
The other day as I was writing about Gooseberries, my second favorite Chekhov story, I revisited my first favorite Chekhov story as well, because I suspected that the protagonist of each story shared the same name (they do). I was delighted, delighted, to discover how much else the stories had in common, and a little ashamed that I’d never noticed all of this before. And then I started to take note of the differences as well, all the more remarkable in face of the similarities.
They both begin with a man named Ivan walking through fields in moody weather towards the close of day.
The Student: Ivan Velikopolsky, the son of a sacristan, and a student of the clerical academy, returning home from shooting, kept walking on the path by the water-logged meadows. His fingers were numb and his face was burning with the wind. It seemed to him that the cold that had suddenly come on had destroyed the order and harmony of things, that nature itself felt ill at ease, and that was why the evening darkness was falling more rapidly than usual. All around it was deserted and peculiarly gloomy. Gooseberries: From early morning the sky had been overcast with clouds; the day was still, cool, and wearisome, as usual on grey, dull days when the clouds hang low over the fields and it looks like rain, which never comes. Ivan Ivanich, the veterinary surgeon, and Bourkin, the schoolmaster, were tired of walking and the fields seemed endless to them.
Both Ivans think of the poverty, ignorance and evilness of people as inevitable and eternal. Both are swayed by the weather. The fields that are dull and dispiriting in Gooseberries looked different in the spring, in the sunshine. “In the calm weather when all Nature seemed gentle and melancholy, Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin were filled with love for the fields and thought how grand and beautiful the country was.” And in The Student, Ivan’s mood shifts completely with the weather: “At first the weather was fine and still. The thrushes were calling…with a gay, resounding note in the spring air. But when it began to get dark in the forest a cold, penetrating wind blew inappropriately from the east, and everything sank into silence. Needles of ice stretched across the pools, and it felt cheerless, remote, and lonely in the forest.” And the cold weather brings on the depressed thoughts. “And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression — all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better.”
But there are telling differences. In Gooseberries, Ivan has been trying to tell his tale since even before the story begins, since the last story in the trilogy. He has a sort of agenda and a message that he’s eager to share, but it keeps getting put off and interrupted. When the student stops at “the widows” he tells a story seemingly out of nowhere, almost surprising himself with the telling. And it’s a story from the Bible, one the widows tell him they’ve heard before.
And the stories are received very differently. The story Ivan had been waiting and wanting to tell in Gooseberries “…satisfied neither Bourkin nor Aliokhin. With the generals and ladies looking down from their gilt frames, seeming alive in the firelight, it was tedious to hear the story of a miserable official who ate gooseberries.” But the student’s story moves the widows to tears, “Still smiling, Vasilisa suddenly gave a gulp, big tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and she screened her face from the fire with her sleeve as though ashamed of her tears, and Lukerya, staring immovably at the student, flushed crimson, and her expression became strained and heavy like that of someone enduring intense pain.”
And Gooseberries ends with Ivan safe and warm in clean sheets, but unhappy and dissatisfied. And the student Ivan has a long trip home across the icy river by ferryboat–to a home with a barefoot mother sitting on the floor and a sick father coughing in his bed, but Ivan’s hopeful, he’s elated. Not just because it’s a good feeling to tell a story that people pay attention to and respond to, although certainly that’s a part of it. The student is moved by the widows’ reaction because that moment of connection and recognition travels throughout human history as surely as the ignorance and poverty do. “The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter’s soul…And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. ‘The past,’ he thought, ‘is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.’ And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered. …and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.”
And after days of rain and sleet with skies so heavy and grey they were barely distinguishable from the roofs of town, which are covered in feet of heavy grey snow, the sun shone brilliantly this morning. Sunshine on snow so bright is a pleasant confusion I can feel–a pricking behind my eyes, like tears or memories. I was thinking about these two Chekhov stories, and the thinking made me happy, and the sunshine made me happy, and the connection to Chekhov, to his characters, to his concerns and to the things I detected in his stories that I suspected he didn’t even know he was telling, seemed enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.
This is a strange one for me. I do not now nor have I ever owned a Tears for Fears Album, but I had this strange memory of a song about mothers and weather I heard on the radio as a youth. Both probably more influential on our moods than we’d like to admit. I think this might be it:
I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something.
He was a much better guy than the other driver I’d had. Anyway, I thought maybe he might know about the ducks. . . . [“]Do you know, by any chance? I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves—go south or something?”
I figured I’d go by that little lake and see what the hell the ducks were doing, see if they were around or not. I still didn’t know if they were around or not. It wasn’t far over to the park, and I didn’t have any place else special to go to—I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep yet—so I went. I wasn’t tired or anything. I just felt blue as hell.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you who was concerned about ducks throughout the entire novel he narrates. This line, in particular, kills me, “It wasn’t far over to the park, and I didn’t have any place else special to go to—I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep yet—so I went. I wasn’t tired or anything. I just felt blue as hell.“
Blue as hell. Holden’s worry for the ducks is something you could write a thesis about, but I won’t do that, I’ll just say I love that Holden is so transfixed about the ducks, and he’s telling everyone about it, throughout the novel. I know he’s not just worried about the ducks, it’s his childhood, and fragile beings growing up in the place he grew up, and many other thesis-worthy things, and yet, even on the merest face value of worrying about mother-flipping-ducks, It’s a worry that resonates with me (And I think Holden would be ok with that and probably despise the rest). We’ve had an unprecedented amount of snow and I worry about our towpath ducks because I LOVE our ducks. Especially the little American black ducks, who I just discovered this year, though they must have been there before. I walk on the towpath to find them almost every day, and most days once I see them–all collected on the towpath with the mallards and the geese–I double back, because me walking by with Clio causes an exodus onto the water, with a call to each other that you can feel in your bones. I love that the small patch of towpath that the ducks and geese rest upon is often the only patch devoid of snow, and I like to think it’s the warmth from their warm feathery outrage at dogs walking by that makes it so. But I don’t know.
Also, I love that every afternoon at about the time the sky is mourning dove colored (which is a non-color, an uncatchable color) our yard is filled with mourning doves. I love that right now, in the snow, the mourning doves are perched in the neighbor’s tree like ripe pears. I like that I mentioned this to David, and he said he’s worried about hawks in the neighborhood noticing the proliferation of doves in our yard, cause they do seem to target them. And I said, they just like the metaphor (hawk v. dove), and David said, “Yeah, doves aren’t particularly tasty to them but they’re big fans of symbolism.” Girls, marry the man who gets your weird joke about bird-related symbolism.
Also, looking at the origin of Chaucer’s “The Lyf so short, the craft so long to Lerne,” I find it’s from a Parliament of Fowls! The narrator falls asleep reading Cicero, and is taken to a dark temple where nature is convening a parliament at which birds will choose their mates. “The dreamer awakes, still unsatisfied, and returns to his books, hoping still to learn the thing for which he seeks.” We’ve all been there! I will be reading this at greater length, and probably telling everyone about it!
I saw a video once, on the non-stop animal rescue videos that show on my timeline because I watch them all, in which a woman rescued a duck. And she said at one point in the video, (I’m paraphrasing) “I hope that I can ever be as happy as my duck eating lettuce in a puddle in the rain.” And that is my hope for anybody reading this.
We have more snow, or rain, or sleet, though at this exact moment it’s just heavy and grey but with a strange winter glow. I was thinking in the night how I love stories with people coming in out of the cold and finding warmth. Everything I’ve been re-reading this past year has been about that–Dickens, Joan Aiken, Anton Checkhov. Travelers finding comfort after wandering in adverse conditions. The contrast makes it delicious, like a hot fudge sundae.
But sometimes people wander with no safe home to go to and no warmth to find, and as a dormouse in human form, I find that frightening and moving, but absolutely fascinating as well. So many examples in blues and bluegrass songs, of poor boys (or girls) a long way from home. Sometimes by choice, sometimes because of injustice or poverty. Sometimes traveling with the wild geese in the west, or riding the rails, as if called to be with them, sometimes wandering from town to town in search of work or shelter.
I was thinking it’s different for women wandering. It’s not expected, it signals some loss of home, some deficiency of character. And such vulnerability. Here are scenes from two beautiful but very heavy wandering women films. I’ll probably talk more about each one of these days:
And just some songs.
Mississippi John Hurt Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor
I’m going up the country, 20 miles more I’m going up the country by the cold sleet and snow I’m going up the country by the cold sleet and slow No telling how much further I may go
John Prine Rocky Mountain Time
And the water taste funny When you’re far from your home But it’s only the thirsty That hunger to roam…
Christ, I’m so mixed up and lonely I can’t even make friends with my brain Yeah, I’m too young to be where I’m goin’ But I’m too old to go back again
It was a train that took me away from here But a train can’t bring me home What made my dreams so hollow was standing at the depot With a steeple full of swallows that could never ring the bell And I’ve come ten thousand miles away, not one thing to show It was a train that took me away from here But a train can’t bring me home
In the evening, while we were having tea, the cook laid a plateful of gooseberries on the table. They had not been bought, but were his own gooseberries, plucked for the first time since the bushes were planted. Nicholai Ivanich laughed with joy and for a minute or two he looked in silence at the gooseberries with tears in his eyes. He could not speak for excitement, then put one into his mouth, glanced at me in triumph, like a child at last being given its favourite toy, and said, ‘How good they are!’ He went on eating greedily, and saying all the while: ‘How good they are! Do try one!’ It was hard and sour, but, as Poushkin said, the illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.
– Anton Chekhov’s Gooseberries
This is one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite stories I’ve ever read.
Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin are on a hunting trip. They’re tired of walking and the fields seem endless. Ivan is about to tell a story, but is interrupted by a sudden storm, so they take shelter at a nearby mill owned by Aliokhin. The story is delayed further as they bathe (first time for Aliokhin since spring), and then Ivan swims in the river in the rain, and then they dress in silk dressing gowns and warm slippers and settle by a fire.
Ivan tells the story of his brother Nicholai Ivanich, a clerk for the Exchequer Court from the age of nineteen, who spent his youth working and pining away for the fields and woods where they passed their days, seemingly happy, though poor as peasant’s children. “And you know once a man has fished, or watched the thrushes hovering in flocks over the village in the bright, cool, autumn days, he can never really be a townsman, and to the day of his death he will be drawn to the country.” Nicholai is obsessed with the idea of buying a farm and enjoying all of its pleasures, but mostly of raising gooseberries. “Not a house, not a romantic spot could he imagine without its gooseberrybush. ‘Country life has its advantages,’ he used to say. ‘You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good. . . and there are gooseberries.’ He used to draw out a plan of his estate and always the same things were shown on it: (a) Farmhouse, (b) cottage, (c) vegetable garden, (d) gooseberry bush.” (How I love the beautiful absurdity of this!) Nicholai marries a widow, lives as a miser, basically starves his wife to death, but, eventually buys his farm and orders twenty gooseberry-bushes and settles down to a country life.
Years later Ivan visits him. It’s a hot day, and he describes his brother, his brother’s dog, and his brother’s cook as fat and pig-like. “We embraced and shed a tear of joy and also of sadness to think that we had once been young, but were now both going grey and nearing death.”
His brother disappoints him with his elitism and greed, his condescension to the peasants, his self-satisfaction, his hypocritical forgetfulness that their grandfather was a peasant and their father a common soldier. Then his brother eats his gooseberries, and as Ivan watches him, he suffers an existential crisis as he realizes that happiness is unobtainable if you’re aware of the suffering of others. “In my idea of human life there is always some alloy of sadness, but now at the sight of a happy man I was filled with something like despair. And at night it grew on me. A bed was made up for me in the room near my brother’s and I could hear him, unable to sleep, going again and again to the plate of gooseberries. I thought: ‘After all, what a lot of contented, happy people there must be! What an overwhelming power that means! I look at this life and see the arrogance and the idleness of the strong, the ignorance and bestiality of the weak, the horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, drunkenness, hypocrisy, falsehood. . . . “
He finishes his story, and the men he’s telling it to, as well as the portraits of lords and ladies on the walls seem to have found it tedious and unsatisfying. Ivan and his companion go to bed in comfortable rooms, with clean linen, and the unpleasant smell of Ivan’s pipe, left on the table, keeps his friend awake. And the rain beat against the windows all night long.
Well! There’s so much here! There’s so much here to think about and talk about, in such a simple story. Chekhov very famously said, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” And I love these questions, though I believe there are no answers to them.
On one level, the story is an examination of happiness. What it means to be happy, if it’s selfish to be happy, if it’s even possible to be happy in the face of universal human suffering. But the story of Nicholai is a story within a story, it’s not even the bulk of the story, and Ivan is an unreliable narrator. When he tells the story of his brother eating gooseberries, he says that it’s really his mood at the time that he wants to relate, and I think he tells more about himself, throughout the story, than about his brother. Or Checkhov is more interested in talking about Ivan than about Nicholai, the narrator and author become beautifully tangled when reading about the story within the story. Everything Ivan says makes perfect sense when he says it, and the reader likes and sympathizes with Ivan, you feel that Checkhov likes and sympathizes with Ivan, but it’s not that simple when you think about it.
Ivan is more like his brother (and like all people, I think) than he would want to admit. He disparages his brother’s desire to live in the country, [“He was a good fellow and I loved him, but I never sympathised with the desire to shut oneself up on one’s own farm. It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of land. But surely a corpse wants that, not a man. And I hear that our intellectuals have a longing for the land and want to acquire farms. But it all comes down to the six feet of land. To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life, and go and hide yourself in a farmhouse is not life it is egoism, laziness; it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action.”] but his description of their childhood and the thrushes is the most lyrical passage in his story. When Ivan swims in the river in the rain*, after being clean and dry in the baths, he must be cold and miserable again, but he seems happy, or pretends to be, “Ah! how delicious!” he shouted in his glee. “How delicious!” … he lay on his back to let the rain fall on his face.” It’s a lovely foreshadowing of his brother’s delight in eating hard sour gooseberries. And though he entreats his friends to be aware of the suffering of others, he thoughtlessly leaves his foul-smelling pipe burning through the night, keeping his friends awake, as he sleeps in clean sheets arranged by the pretty maid. He’s so eager for his companions to know about his epiphany in watching his brother eat gooseberries, but his response to the revelation of the endless suffering of others is to lamely entreat his rich friend to “do good.” And his judgmental, condescending description of the people he claims to care about so much that he can’t feel happiness is an uncomfortable read for anyone distressed by the “the ignorance and bestiality” of Trump supporters, that “basket of deplorables.” And I’m aware that I’m judging Ivan for being judgmental.
I do believe that Ivan is confusing comfort and happiness, though the two are intimately related. I do believe it’s possible to be elatedly happy though physically uncomfortable, although nobody should need to find that out. I do believe that rather than believing that nobody should ever be happy, we should work on creating a world where everyone could be happy, and I do understand that writing that here is as ineffectual as telling your rich friends to do good. And Ivan says, “Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others.” So it’s not just the idea of others’ misfortunes that should block happiness, but the idea that everyone will bear misfortunes, will feel loss and sadness in their life. It’s a compelling argument, it feels correct, but surely this realization of inevitable suffering is exactly the realization that makes you appreciate the happiness you feel when you feel it. I think Ivan would find me trite and useless for writing that!
I love the idea of someone being happy with something they’ve grown or made themselves, which is more pertinent now than it would have been then. There’s something I love about gooseberries, and blackcurrants and quince. They’re not very popular in America these days–we want things to be sweet and ready to eat–these fruits take some work, they have a bitterness within them that’s almost confusing, and they must be cooked and sweetened to yield their odd but unforgettable flavor. This story is like that, and it’s not lost on me that I’ve felt more happy thinking and talking about this story than I have about many things other than my family in many months. I’m sure I got it wrong. I’m still thinking about it, I will have more to say.