Category Archives: the fallen world

For those who have been wrecked that they weren’t called to Hogwarts or let into Narnia. Or, for existential nerds.

(Note: This post quotes heavily from the book.  It was the only way I could process through it. And it’s rather long. I have some opinions about the narrative being so inner-thought heavy that the reader doesn’t have to infer, but those are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.)
Fillory had yet to give Quentin the surcease from unhappiness he was counting on, and he was damned if he was leaving before he got what he wanted.  Relief was out there, he knew it, he just needed to get deeper in…He had to jump the tracks, get out of his Earth-story, which wasn’t going so well, and into the Fillory-story, where the upside was infinitely higher (304).
The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a coming of age story that begins when Quentin Coldwater, brilliant and bored, is a senior in high school in Brooklyn.  He has never left behind his Fillory books–a series Grossman made up, very similar to Narnia, and deeply believes without irony that if only he could find his way into a land like Fillory that life would make sense.  “He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world–he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the evidence that it in fact was, ” (37).  His existence is defined by his longing for Fillory and all that it represents: wholeness, beauty, peace, fulfillment, adventure.  One day, though, Quentin unexpectedly finds himself walking through a garden and onto the campus of Brakebills, a college in the Hudson River Valley for magical training, and not visible to the non magical eye.  
When Quentin arrives at this school that does indeed exist on Earth and not in Fillory, a professor tells him: “Most people are blind to magic.  They move through a blank and empty world.  They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they’re alive (88).  For Quentin, this makes sense, because they haven’t been able to step through to the magic.  The twist of expectation here, though, is that Quentin’s experiences with the magical realm are disappointing, and he finds himself struggling with the same kinds of things: “This was the kind of disaster Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn.  Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along way came back to life at the end of the book.  Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam,” (148).
As it would turn out, one of his magical friends finds that not only does Fillory actually exist (even among the magicians, they see Fillory as a children’s story), but he’s found a way to get in.  Quentin remained convinced that life would finally become ok: “He was in Fillory. There was no question about it now.  And now that he was here it would finally be all right,” (288). And I suppose that this is how it goes for most adventures: the initial thrill and newness of a move, a new job, a new relationship can make one think that life will be different.  And, of course in the book there is a feeling of true adventure for a while, but ultimately Quentin has to face the same existentialism that has plagued him all along: “Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? He thought he left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him,” (311).  
The Magicians could be described as a grown up’s Narnia or Harry Potter–it turned the magical into the ordinary and made the concept of fighting evil much more postmodern, and in turn, depressing.  The characters at the end just settle for a different brand of discontent.  There is not one clear foe or one clean answer in which to rest and find peace.  
I don’t want to be so jaded or realistic that there isn’t room for magic–or at least hope.  Reading Quentin’s story, I was surprised how much I related to parts of his mental journey.  At this point in the story, one would think that something would happen to re-instill Quentin’s hope in magic, but it takes a turn for pretty stark realism: He should have stayed in Brooklyn, in the real world.  He should have nursed his depression and his grudge against the world from the relative safety of mundane reality…Sure you can live out your dreams, but it’ll only turn you into a monster.  Better to stay home and do card tricks in your bedroom instead…The trick was just not wanting anything. That was power.  That was courage: the courage not to live anyone or hope for anything. The funny thing was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered (382-383). 
One of the professors at Brakebills seemed to be describe coming of age: “Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it.  Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children.  The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded,” (216).
And yet, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, pressed into the longing: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” Readers and thinkers have to wonder if there is a space in the world for magic–and could the longing point to something real? Lewis, in his non-fiction writings on his Christian faith, explained that the longing was for Heaven and that life once again became magical for him when he realized that the longing was not in vain, but that it as was made him alive.  Grossman’s book seems to be a critique of the Narnia-like longings.  I can’t decide if Grossman himself would find Quentin a pathetic character in the hopes he had for magical lands. The bleakness of who Quentin becomes at the near-end of the story suggests that intellectual, passionless realism is the best way to cope with the disappointments of the world.  
And yet. There are some universal truths woven into the story: love, sacrifice, human fallenness and the pain of longing.  
So.

in the company of those who struggle.

I came across Mary Karr’s book Lit after I read an article in New York Magazine about her, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen.  I had read all of the authors except for her and sought out to get a copy of The Liars Club.  Then I found Lit, an incredibly written memoir based in Karr’s alcohol abuse, the dissolution of her marriage and recovery, on a brownstone’s stoop and decided that would work.   I later found out that a few friends of mine had recently read and loved it, so I moved it to the top of my “to read” stack.
{I’ve learned that sometimes I love to share the story of how I stumbled upon a story.  Thanks for indulging me.}
There are a few parts from Lit that I haven’t stopped thinking about. One was that her recovery and redemption came in the company of those who struggled, too.  Karr found herself in AA with a mix of every kind of person imaginable, none of whom she would have sought out on her own.  The friends she made there were from across the social spectrum, people whose paths would have never crossed otherwise. And yet, they became a lifeline for one another because they deeply understood that struggle is best endured together. No one lives immune to hurt–and that means that each of us has something in common with every person we meet.  
I would not normally call myself a cynic, but in the winter it happens from time to time. For some reason that was the space my mind was inhabiting in the week I was reading this book: not in response to the book, but just in response to life.  I often get frustrated at the instagram-portrayed life.  Don’t get me wrong, I think small moments of life’s poetry are worth sharing, but sometimes it is easy to start thinking that everyone around has a perfectly curated life.  I know this theory is false.  Or, I start soaking in cynicism about the self promotion social media induces.   I’ve found that when I remember that I am always in (and a part of) the company of those who struggle, my heart seems to grow in compassion.  
I am always trying to teach my students that books make us better people because we learn to empathize with almost any character once we understand the ins and outs of his or her story.  Sometimes the teacher needs to remember this, too. 
 I also didn’t realize just how much spirituality was a part of Karr’s journey, and when added to a life rich in real community, a portrait of how beautiful–and simple–life can be rose before me. 
Therapy rescued me in my twenties by taking me inward, leaching off pockets of poison in my head left over from the past.  But the spiritual lens–even just the nightly gratitude list and going over each day’s actions–is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved,” (304).
I really can’t add much to her words, except that by allowing herself to consider, and ultimately accept, the way faith, not religious duty, could change a life, her life and mental landscape began to change.  Sometimes I forget this–and reading Karr’s story became one of the brightest reminders of my winter–and my own cold weather induced cynicism and anger has begun to slip away.  

Unbroken.

So many people have recommended Unbroken, the life story of Louie Zamperini–Olympic runner and Air Force bomber and POW in the Pacific during World War Two, by Laura Hillenbrand to me over the past few months.  It worked out perfectly that my mom had recently read it, so I curled up for many hours of my visit home for Christmas in front of the fireplace with it .  I love history, but realized that my knowledge of the Pacific front of the war was incredibly small, which is sad to me because my grandfather was on the Underwater Demolition Team, the precursor to the Navy SEALS, in Japan. Hillenbrand’s book provided a well researched overview of what went on and some of the facts I learned in the book shocked me.  The narrative arch in the book, though, took my breath away.

I wrote my last post about my struggle in thinking about the lost in war, and this one I realized is one about the survivors. It still leaves me thinking: at what cost will humans ever stop?  I cannot imagine surviving through what these men faced as prisoners.  It was impossible for me to read this story without feeling sick to my stomach about the complaints that arise about my own life circumstances.  What stood out to me the most in reading this book is the incredible fortitude of the human spirit. It saddens me that this phrase might sound cliched, because if I look at the hardships people have faced faced throughout history and the fact that they have survived–be it a global war or a personal one–is truly miraculous.  And in the case of surviving the war, making it home was only half of the battle:

The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were a torn-down men.  They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it.  They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized.  Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn’t understand…Coming home was an experience of profound, perilous aloneness.  For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness.  There was no one right way to peace; every man had to find his own path, according to his own history.  Some succeeded.  For others, the war would never really end,” (349).


In my city there are times that it feels like a superficial quest for outward beauty: to maintain the posture that every aspect of one’s life is meticulously curated.  But, as most New Yorkers know, there is beauty in the broken and in the faces that no fashion magazine would ever run.  There is beauty to be found in the mess and in the trying.

In my last post, I wrote about how wars are often fought for freedom of some sort, and that for the opposing forces there seems nothing left to do but to obliterate the other side.  It seems to me as though this can stand for a metaphor for living–for those who can’t escape the messiness of being human, anyway.  It feels as though my reading life is bleeding one book into the next, because I am about to finish Lit by Mary Karr, which is the story of her battle with alcoholism–finding freedom and everyday fighting against the blackness.  I can’t help but think about how she needed to find her way to peace.  I just saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (one of my favorite books) and was broken watching Oskar, the 11 year old main character who lost his father on 9/11, struggle and fight through his pain, in a way different from everyone else around him.

My students often complain about why they have to learn something that they think they will never have to use.  I have set answers for every subject area, but my one for social studies is always that I think that the best president, and any kind of leader for that matter, will always be the one who not only looks anxiously into the future, but one who is able to look back into the past–understanding both the macro and micro horrors and hardships.  For it is understanding–and experiencing–struggle that enables us to live and lead in a just, compassionate way.  Louie Zamperini’s story was a reminder to me of many things, but the most heavy one to me was to know the stories that make up our collective past: to learn what others have been through and to let that lead me into a life of greater compassion and understanding–as well as hope for the moments when I find myself fighting a battle that seems greater than myself.  The incredible part about it, to me, was that this was not a work of fiction–but rather, a demonstration of the patterns that great works of fiction try to portray.

War and letters and stories.

I had a rough start with For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.  As his is typical style, it was written in a matter of fact, moment by moment description, in this case mostly from the voice of Robert Jordan, an American fighting with the revolutionary guerillas in the Spanish Civil War.  But, Hemingway accomplished his goal and while reading it I felt like I was there with him, moment by moment, which is probably also the reason why I never made it past 3-5 pages when reading it before bed and why it took multiple in-flight reading swathes of time and my break from school to finish.
About two thirds of the way through, Jordan spends time reading the letters found in the pockets of a dead opposing cavalryman, which spurs on one of the longest inner conversations that the reader hears in the story. The entire account is fascinating, and is Jordan thinking about who and why he has killed.  Here are a few excerpts:
“You never kill anyone you want to kill in a war, he said to himself,” (302)…
“How many of those you have killed have been real fascists? Very few. But they are all the enemy to whose force we are opposing force,” (304).
“Listen, he told himself. You better cut this out.  This is very bad for you and your work,” (304).
I would argue, and actually don’t think it’s that controversial of a theory, that the reading of his dead enemy’s letters were what brought on his mental struggle with the death that accompanies war.  What I find interesting about this, though, is that it comes back to the core of my own beliefs: once you know someone’s personal story, even the bits of daily minutia detailed in letters Jordan read, it is near impossible to view them in the same way.
I struggle with war because whenever I read about it.  I am constantly thinking about the lives of the lost–on either side–and generally it is the daily minutia that destroys me.  The first time I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., it was the displays of the personal effects those sent to concentration camps gave up: the piles of brushes and razors, the pile of shoes.
This is what creates empathy in literature and I why I plead with people to read…and write.  To me, reading is the great metaphor for understanding humanity and a reminder for me to remember that everyone in front of me has a story–whether it’s a student who is driving me crazy, the driver who is honking at me to walk faster through a crosswalk, a stranger I pass on a run.
The interesting part of this excerpt from the book, though, is that Jordan says that thinking in this vein is very bad for his work–which is true.  To fight for his cause in this context, personalizing the enemy would lead to failure.  He talks himself through the fact that he must do what he is doing to create a better world for the future: and yet, there are people fighting on the other side who believe the same thing, whether it is war on a national level or between two people.  And sometimes, looking back, there is a clear, right side.  Sometimes there isn’t.
I wonder a lot about the fact that throughout history, it has come down to fighting to achieve freedom. I wonder a lot about what this says about us as people.  I wonder about what would create a world (or nation or state or city or home) without violence.  I don’t think it’s possible to live without conflict, but I wonder what it would take to teach us to handle it differently. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be writing about it as many of my recent reads have been about war, both fiction and non fiction, adult and young adult.   I have no answers and it only gets more complicated, but reading and writing is the only way for me to work through it all.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby in one sitting a few weeks ago, as I was left sitting in the wake of my family leaving town.  After suffering a massive stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, he could only blink his left eye.  He composed the book in his head and dictated it by blinking his eye, with the help of Claude Mendibil. Of course, much has been said in the history of words about taking goodness for granted, but the way that Bauby approached his memories without being able to do anything physical about them was astounding–and the very existence of this book–of producing a creative work in his condition is the ultimate story of triumph and the power of art. 


I’m struggling about responding to this book under the umbrella of not taking life for granted, for that feels so trite.  What saves me from this, I hope, is the depth of pain with which he wrote–this book is no “go get ’em, pursue your dreams, you can accomplish anything” story.  It distills the goodness of human existence while enduring physical impossibilities and deep existential struggle.  No matter how shallow my own wrestling seemed in comparison, this memoir made me want to live actively remembering what is real and good and true–a theme that keeps repeating itself to me in recent months.  


Here are three of my favorite excerpts from the book that underline the way that I want to live–and the kinds of things that keep popping up in every meaningful conversation I’ve had in the past month. 


Taking joy in and being thankful for small pleasures, rather than constantly looking forward to the next big item or trip that money can buy.
The delectable moment when I sink into the tub is quickly followed by nostalgia for the protracted immersions that were the joy of my previous life.  Armed with a cup of tea or Scotch, a good book or a pile of newspapers, I would soak for hours, maneuvering the taps with my toes.  Rarely do I feel my condition so cruelly as when I am recalling such pleasures.


Feeling deeply and not allowing busyness or struggle to make me feel numb.
I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much or too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.


Living life with good people.
Other letters simply relate the small events that punctuate the passage of time: roses picked at dusk, the laziness of a rainy Sunday, a child crying himself to sleep. Capturing the moment, these small slices of life, these small gusts of happiness, move me deeply than all the rest.  A couple of lines or eight pages, a Middle Eastern stamp or a suburban postmark…I hoard these letters like treasure.  One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.