Dave's Progress. Chapter 76: Me and My Masochism.

As I took a stroll yesterday with a friend through "Sanity Fair" (the subject of my last post), we began to have a conversation about what we were both reading, and I remarked that I had just finished Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and was now on to the gargantuan Second World War epic, "The Kindly Ones", which, coming in at 975 pages long, must go down as one of the longest books I have attempted to read, excluding, that is, Norman Mailer's enormous wedge of a book, "The Executioner's Song", which was over the magic 1,000 pages. My friend then said, jokingly, that he had noted "something of a masochistic streak" in my choices of the material that I read. And, indeed, I seem to always choose books which are either massive or notoriously "difficult". And, I began to wonder, why do I always seem to want to challenge myself in this way? Was I trying to prove something? Or was it, as my friend had said, albeit jokingly, that I take a perverse form of pleasure in putting myself through a certain amount of displeasure, even anxiety and stress, from reading such mammoth tomes?
From when I was very young, reading had always been one of my great pleasures, and when I grew up, I thought that perhaps the greatest thing anyone could be was a writer. To me such people were God-like, remote enigmas. I loved gathering facts about them, and for some reason the often self-mythologising Americans, people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the majority of "the beats", occupied a special place in my young, impressionable imagination. Why, then, did something in which I took such great pleasure, almost become a task, an obligation?
Well, I can only say that, in part, my education was to blame. Literature became "work", and books were there to be pulled apart and deconstructed. It has sometimes been said that education has been the ruin of many a fine mind, and to me, my own foray in to the land of academia, as I look back on it, has been something from which I have had to almost disentangle myself in order to feel a bit free again in the way that I think.
Moreover, though, I feel as if it was my illness which took away a large part of the pleasure I took in literature and, for that matter, all art. I have spoken before about the feeling of joylessness that such illnesses can bring, or anhedonia, as the Greeks called it, and also, only a couple of blogs ago, about how I have felt, often, that through my illness I somehow lost part of myself. I began to feel as if the emotional part of my being had all but disappeared and as literature and art would seem to operate not only on an intellectual but emotional level and therefore demand a certain emotional intelligence in their interpretation, I began to have doubts about my talent, if that was what it was, in that area. Indeed, the saying that "a man may gain all literature but lose his own soul" often went through my mind. Also, when I read of one character in "Catch 22" being described as someone "who knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it", I could not help but identify with him.
No doubt, also, though, my illness began to cloud some of my cognitive functioning, but instead of realising this, I seemed to develop the idea that I was just a little stupid. This perhaps led me to over-compensate for my lack in certain areas, trying my hardest to be as intelligent as I possibly could be. This did not stop me, or others, from noticing that I had become something less than I had been. "You've lost something", my then girlfriend remarked. This comment cut me to the core, partly because of the realisation that it was true.
So, my streak of so-called masochism began. I could now beat myself up about not being quite as clever as I had been, that I had lost something which was so special to me- my "talent". So, am I, in some ways, still trying to prove somehow, mostly to myself, that I'm not stupid? Am I still, in some part of my mind, unsure of this part of myself?
I think I have come to the stage now where this is not the case. I think I have proven, once and for all, that I am not a stupid man, both in the work I have done and in my new, improved life.
Indeed, I would say that my illness, also, led me to feel a great amount of guilt. I had been terribly unhappy about how I had behaved, particularly towards friends and family, and I began to experience this in almost biblical proportions, as if I were a sinner in need of redemption and atonement. Now it is as if this great burden has been lifted, at last, from me. Feeling something like a criminal who has "done his time", I feel now as if there is nothing for me to feel bad about or beat myself up over. Once, suffering seemed my natural state, but now having put most things in to perspective, I can say, OK, I have been ill, the things I did and said then were not a true reflection of me, and now I am somewhat better. I can finally live, breathe, again.
Then again, I've always fancied reading "War and Peace". "Ulysses", anyone? Oh, stop it, Dave!
That's all for now from your normal, average, paranoid and delusional man.


bazza said…
By a big coincidence I mention a 'difficult' read in my next post about my holiday reading. (Not yet posted). It was the subject matter that was difficult, not the length. I had attempted to read it several years ago and gave it a second try while in Portugal during the last two weeks.
The reason I am attracted to books that are considered difficult for any reason is that I beleive that the harder one has to work to appreciate something, especially a work of art, then the greater the reward. This applies to paintings, poems, books, science (quantum therory, relativity etc). That's the reason why I blog about these kind of things; I am not seeking to preach but it's a personal voyage of learning.
Therefore I think your struggle or difficulty with these long complex books will become it's own reward. When the author or creator makes you work to understand or appreciate something it's much more enjoyable. I think it's the reason I prefer radio to TV.
The longest book I have read is probably Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
David said…
Dear bazza,
Firstly, may I apologise for not visiting your blog recently- I will definitely be over to view your next post.
Having now read "Anna Karenina", I can see what you mean about such things being their own reward. I struggled with the book, but in the end, loved it.
I suppose now I am over my "feeling stupid" phase, I find the challenge of reading such things in some way "good for me" and self-inprovement surely can only be a good thing.
By the way, although I have not read "Atlas Shrugged", I have read Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead", which at over 700 pages was also a battle, but in the end, again a great book which I love.
Thanks for your continued interest, bazza.
Yours with Very Best Wishes,
Anonymous said…
klahanie said…
Dear David,
I mentioned to you that if a book seems ponderous or too difficult for me to comprehend, I personally am not driven by some desire to torment my brain with something that should be a pleasure and not a chore.
I think, from our conversations, that you are trying to recapture a part of you that has now changed. Yet, despite what your illness has clouded in your ability to appreciate your pleasure of reading and almost turning it into a task; I see a positive attitude from you. You know that you are not 'stupid'. Far from it. I just think you put too much pressure on yourself to perhaps live up to unrealistic expectations of how you should be.
I think that some books that are difficult to read, are just poorly written. Just my opinion. Of course, I'm intellectually challenged by such classics as 'Run Spot Run.
David, you are a writer and a darn good one. I just hope that any book you read, from now on, is one that gives you genuine pleasure and is not read out of some perceived obligation to do so.
With kind wishes, Gary
David said…
Dear Gary,
Thanks for your kind remarks.
Of course, I realise now that I am not a stupid person. It was mostly though illness that I think I arrived at such a conclusion.
Most books I read I do get pleasure from, and I suppose it is the challenge now, of reading such difficult things, that perhaps inspires me.
Thanks once again and I look forward to your imminent "visitation".
Yours with Very Best Wishes,
Anonymous said…

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