Friday, June 07, 2019

Books As An Anti-Depressant in the Trump Era

My own fiction reading for pleasure is rapidly sliding back in history.  The further I am from the present era and its myriad problems, the more relaxed I become.

This trend began right around the Day of the Apocalypse in November of 2016 when my light reading turned into re-reading 1920s and 1930s novels and detective stories.

At some point I began reading all of the 19th century British novels (and reading some I hadn't read before):  Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Thomas Hardy,  George Eliot, Charles Dickens and many more.

My poetry reading has also crept backward in time so that I now mainly read Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, as well as poets from much further in the past.

All those lists are only about those who wrote in English, of course.  But Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Camus and many other writers who did not write in English are also back in my daily reading schedule.

As my emotional agony grew with every new example of how terrible Trump, the right-wingers and also some left-wing circular firing squads are now, and how very little any kind of logic or facts matter in politics, my reading moved  even further back in time:  I am now re-reading Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Very soon I will have to read The Tale of Genji again!  Some consider it the first known novel.  It was written in the 11th century in Japan by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting.

Reading very old books takes me away from the unreal reality we live in today.  This is not something dystopian science-fiction novels would do, because they might now have to be reclassified as non-fiction.

But an added gift I receive from those old books is to be reminded that every place in every past time period thought that the values, biases, social hierarchies and sex roles which then prevailed were the obvious, natural and god-given ones*.

Some classics challenged the biases of the time when they written, true, but even then the challenges were partial.  Dickens, for example, drew attention to the plight of the poor and the dangers of capitalistic greed, but at the same time was quite adamant that women belonged in the home (first mis-typed that as "hole") and that families should be patriarchal.

The other way that realization was a gift to me is this:  We should take care that we don't repeat that same mistake today.  It seems to be a human tendency, a widespread human arrogance, to view one's own era as the one in which all answers are going to be  found, when every medical study is going to be the final word on how to cure some illness (only to be refuted in the next era), and so on.

We need more humility, skepticism and debates.  Oh, and a lot more use of that thing which some assume to exist only to keep our ears apart and to give head hair a flat surface to grow on.


* The Tale of Genji is such a good example of that.  He is the hero of the book, even though his love life we would now call the life of a serial rapist.  But in that time and place noblemen were allowed to have almost any woman they lusted for.  That behavior does not count against Genji in the book.  Indeed, in one story he is praised for the gentle way he extorted sex from a young woman.