Monday, January 18, 2010

living in fantasyland

I realize that I am absolutely ridiculously lucky to have the life that I'm living, but I try to keep my potentially hubristic tendencies to a minimum by remembering that there's always room for improvement, new places to go both physically and emotionally, not necessarily better or worse so much as just different. What fun would life be if there weren't new possibilities around every single corner, hidden within each conversation and trembling just below the surface of every new interaction? What those possibilities are matters less to me than that they exist, that my ideas about what might happen tomorrow or a month from now are completely useless and also probably entirely false. I spent most of my life planning for the worst, or at least not the best; it feels good to throw up my hands and finally admit that I have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

Giving myself up to infinite possibility doesn't mean that I don't do my damnedest to try and ensure that more of my likelihoods are helpful than harmful. I've been making a serious effort for the past few months to change some of my less-than-stellar habits, the negative gains and slouching losses incurred during years of post-school semi-directionless life; why weight the odds against myself when all I have control over is now? I quit smoking, for one, a decision that I'm increasingly glad that I made, and I don't drink anywhere near as much as I did when I was younger; I sometimes even try to sleep more than six hours a night, although I'll admit I put off much-needed rest to begin writing this so maybe the learning curve's a bit slower on that one. I've also been attempting to become better at knowing what I need to be happy. I've learned to breathe, and I've learned to slow down enough to look around me, and I'm a better and more alive person for that.

But there's any number of things left to work on, and one of them involves speedily remedying the sad fact that I didn't read enough this past year. I've been coasting on the strength of my past more-than-two-decades of bookishness and neglecting my own dusty shelves, ignoring unread volumes because... I'm not sure. The best I can come up with is that there's been an awful lot going on: new friends, "personal journeys", way, way too many cookies. But in truth, none of those reasons are sufficient. Because, my god, I love books. I've loved books since before I was able to read to myself--I resisted learning to read at the age of five because, I'm retroactively convinced, I knew I would no longer be read aloud to anywhere near as often once I could carry the burden myself--and there is no excuse for neglecting something you love for that long. I console myself by remembering that all of the things I value about my life seem to come in waves; I cook not at all or have dinner guests three times in one week, I write pages and pages or next to nothing, and I play my viola as if my life depended on it one moment only to abandon it for weeks at a time the next. This past year may have had less literature in it than other years of my life, but that doesn't mean anything at all about now, or tomorrow.

Luckily, I have inspiration on my side. My boyfriend is an avid bibliophile; he once started a makeshift library in the breakroom of his place of employment, fomenting intellectual chaos of the best sort in his co-workers and building, in his words, "an army of bookworms", because his then-girlfriend insisted that his many volumes would topple over his bed and suffocate her in her sleep. When he returned to grad school in Montreal after new years he left me with a half-shelf of books that he'd already read and which I'm working my way through; I'm supposedly picking up several more boxes from his brother to store for him until he returns in a more permanent way. My girlfriend is equally dedicated to words--she's the one who turned me onto The Trouble With Normal, the book I was ranting about a few months ago--although she has less (by which I mean "absolutely no") time to read non-school things; she is, however, currently taking a storytelling class, which prompted me this past weekend to pull out my parents' old copy of Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales.

I mentioned that my parents read to me before I was able to read to myself, and in retrospect I'm impressed by how much ground we covered; before I was five we'd gone through, among other things, Narnia, Oz (all of Oz, which is a hell of a lot of text), and The Call of the Wild, which might have explained part of my childhood fear off dogs. I don't remember specifically reading folktales with them, but these books (with the exception of Jack London, probably) are perhaps sort of the Grimm Brothers of our age, and at any rate I'm fairly positive that by the age of seven I'd already been exposed to some of those old German stories, with their talking severed horse heads and gruesome fiery stepmother deaths. My parents had two volumes of folk stories, fairy tales, a massive Grimm Brothers and the Calvino that I loved enough to steal from them when I left for college, and I read them both obsessively and many times over; in high school, I also read a great many re-written folk tales, adult versions of the tales that we'd long ago sanitized for our children.

It's no huge secret that the old stories aren't as nice as Disney makes them out to be, and part of the attraction when I was young was definitely the blood and gore, the dismemberment and torture and stern justice meted out to the wrongdoers, who were usually women. In some original versions of Sleeping Beauty, the sleeping princess is raped and bears children in her sleep, who eventually suck the magical spindle out of her finger as they try to nurse and thus rouse her from her sleep; in the Grimm Brothers' version of the Frog Prince the poor amphibian receives, not a kiss, but a hard toss against the nearest wall before he is returned to his human form. This doesn't even begin to approach the punishments reserved for wicked stepmothers, such as being rolled down a hill naked in a barrel spiked full of nails or being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes until they danced themselves to death. And finally, there was my personal favorite gross-out moment: a stupid peasant girl is told that in order to win her paramour's heart, she must "cast friendly eyes upon him." The girl promptly gouges out the eyes of all the goats in her immediate vicinity, puts them in a bowl, and tosses them in his face. You can only imagine how well that went over.

But beyond the blood-and-guts aspect of my early fascination with folktales, there was something else, intriguing enough that it has kept me enamored to this day. Calvino, in the excellent introduction to his Italian Folktales--which I highly, highly regret never having read until last night--calls it "infinite variety and infinite repetition." Folktales have a certain inevitability to them; the youngest child will always prevail, cleverness and humility will eventually be rewarded (although it might be only after seven years living naked in the woods except for a bearskin, or whatever), and evil is punished. Against the backdrop of that stability is the weird-ass stuff that goes on in fairy tales, the talking animals and handless orphans and divine intervention and so on, the instability of total random bullshit happening to apparently nice people. Fairy tales have their own logic, and it's both comforting and fascinating to see how these two elements, the structure and the details, work against and eventually with each other.

Calvino, a communist and quite a distinguished writer in his own right, was seemingly drawn in by folklore nearly against his own will; he began the project by tempering his responses to the stories with careful hypothesizing and painstaking analysis, but eventually he became so enamored with his subject that he "would have given all of Proust in exchange for a new variant of the 'gold-dung donkey'." He writes that while he was editing the book the entire world seemed to become a fairyland, full of transformation and possibility, and concludes in the aftermath of his efforts that, in fact, he was correct and his suspicions were more than a work-induced hallucination: folktales are real. Not literally, of course, but as "the catalogue of the potential destinies of men and women", a mythology not of gods but of everybody, a means to explain the many ways our lives might progress. We are bound together in a struggle to determine some small measure of our own fate in the face of bizarre and sometimes unintelligible happenings, and our collusion in the face of the random is part of what makes us human. Like any good story, folktales are less about what happens inside of them than they are about where the people within them end up.

This is my favorite folktale. It's called The Happy Man's Shirt, and I love it for its completely normal structure and for the somewhat open ending paired with the complete finality of the last line. Here is the basic plot: A king has a son, and this son is sad, but sad all the time. A doctor tells the king that his son can only be cured by wearing the shirt of a truly happy man, and there is a subsequent kingdom-wide search for this joyous individual. Several possibilities are rejected--the priest claims happiness but would be even happier if he were a bishop, the nearby ruler of a peaceful and bountiful land worries at night about what will happen to his possessions after he dies--until eventually the king becomes lost during (what else?) a hunt and hears a voice singing in the woods. He comes upon a young man, singing his lungs out as he prunes away in his vineyard. After ascertaining that this young man is truly and deeply happy, the king asks him for his shirt. The young man unbuttons his jacket, and the king stops dead, because:

The happy man wore no shirt.


I love folktales for their simplicity and their excess, their mixture of wit and somewhat dense moral staunchness, the way that even though I know what will happen I still want to read just one more version of Snow White just in case. I love reading in general because every damn thing I read becomes a part of my worldview, and the more I know the more colors and textures I see in everything around me, the more nuance I can understand and relate to and love. Sometimes the happy man wears no shirt. Sometimes you just have to figure it out for yourself. For my own part, I'm going to go close this computer now, sit myself down with a good book and a cup of tea, and give myself just a few more tools to ensure that I'll never need somebody else's shirt to make me happy. I'm just fine on my own, thanks.


Z said...

The surprise moral of the story is actually that you shouldn't wear clothes. <3
Re: Trouble With Normal - Ranted about? You mean ~raved~ about!
Oh, but you would love the horrible punishments in the fairy tales, wouldn't you? It's cool - I did too. That and the cats.

Rosiecat said...

Does this mean I ought to scour the library catalog for some fairytales? I'm excited to get some new books this week!

And oh, what a bibliophilic trio you are!

Rosiecat said...

PS I can't wait to read The Trouble with Normal. I'm adding it to my library list right now!

erica said...

ha! that'd make a great sticker. i was gonna say t-shirt, but...well, maybe the irony would work? hmm...
(and i can't read my word verification at all. this could take a while.)

ShanaRose said...

Mmm, great post Ammie! I love when you get all literary on us :)

Here's a short tale I really like that Hadj tells: The son of a lord is spoiled with any riches he desires. He is being given a party at his manor and no expense is spared. He invites all the most elite guests and bids them dress in finery. He has an ice cream vendor, a band, it seems to be the best party ever held, but the son is displeased. Seeing his long-faced son in dismay, the father offers him a walk out to fresh air. "What is wrong, son?" the father asks, "I have given you your every request for this day. Why are you displeased?" The son thinks in quick desperation and exclaims "AHA! I don't have a pony!" This realization makes him more fully suffer the injustice of a party without a pony and he throws himself on the dramatic despair of his realization. Just as his wailing is getting out of control he hears singing from nearby. He is curious about this joyful song and walks over to the stable from which it emanates as he wipes his face. He rounds the corner to find a local dunce boy standing thigh deep in a stall filled with manure. The boy has nothing with him but a shovel, and yet his singing betrays innocent pleasure as he shovels the manure out. "Why are you so happy?" the son demands. The peasant boy looks up in surprise and answers simply, "Well, with all this shit in here, I figure there must be a pony somewhere!"