Depression and The Brothers Karamazov as Remedy

One thing I am very aware that this blog lacks is any personal narrative, a story you can latch on to and go along for the ride. My “blog” is not about my personal struggle with X disease, or my experience being of being thrust into raising quintuplets. Nor is it any other type of personal journey I am on that might be shared by some other person across the world who is searching for comfort and inspiration from others that share his/her same condition.

But of course we all have our afflictions. My ailment is probably the most common of all. The more common the condition, the less people care—understandably so. Nobody blogs about living life being 10 pounds overweight. But I’ll state my deal anyway: 5 days out of the week, I wake up and spend most of my day doing something that is the antithesis of my being. And the other 2 days of the week, I’m consumed with dread thinking about how I spend 5 days out of the week doing something that….

At any rate, I’m looking for something else, and maybe you’re an undocumented worker with three children and you pick strawberries and would kill to do what I do. Maybe you have balloons of heroin in your intestines, and whether you will survive long enough to finish reading this is up in the air. It’s true, it can always get worse.

But I digress.

A long time ago I sold women’s shoes at Macy’s and thought that job was the worst I could possibly do. Looking back, I was wrong because I at least had social interaction and became friends with many of my co-workers, but that’s not the point. The actual point of this post concerns literature as therapy. Whether it’s successful therapy or not, that depends. But before I get into The Brothers Karamazov, in Larry McMurtry’s Duane’s Depressed, which is the third book of the Last Picture Show, Texasville trilogy, Duane is prescribed to read the 3,000 page In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust to get over his depression.

I very much like to imagine the Duane in the film “The Last Picture Show” as played by the then very young Jeff Bridges, living his full life in West Texas and eventually finding himself in his 60’s reading a 3,000 page book about French aristocrats. Sorry Texas, but it’s difficult to picture any 60 year old native Texan reading Proust, although I’m sure it happens now and then. In the book Duane’s psychiatrist makes him read the incredibly lengthy book that he can barely follow, and to not give up until the end. Throughout Duane’s Depressed he cannot figure out the point in reading a novel that he doesn’t particularly enjoy, about people a half world away he has nothing in common with. It isn’t that In Search of Lost Time holds any secret, or magically administers Prozac through the eyes, but rather it is a something to separate Duane from his reality on a measured, continued basis—even if his eyes glaze over while turning the pages. And that ultimately is the revelation of the “prescription.”

Back to The Brothers Karamazov. dsc_0189I was 24, 25 when I read it. I was in one of those dead sea dating zones between having lost my college girlfriend of 4 years to someone else, and not finding a soul to move on with. I was selling shoes, as I said, living in a 1 bedroom apartment, driving a 1984 Toyota Corolla, and writing the kind of poetry I pray to God I have completely destroyed lest someone find it after I die. On my lunch break, I would walk out to my car in the parking lot, sit in the driver seat, and read The Brothers Karamazov. Usually I’d do so while eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that had reached 120+ degrees in the morning heat, washing them down with equally warmed water. Ahead of me, through the windshield, from time to time I would look up from the book and watch small birds fly in and out of a hedge. I barely remember anything about the story. I think there’s a patricide, I’m pretty sure there are three brothers, I know there’s some priest or monk that goes on and on for days on end about morality, and I vaguely recall something about someone climbing in through a garden window. That’s it. I’m not even sure if that qualifies as a claim to have read the novel.

And yet as I looking at my copy today, despite all that I have going on in my life right now, I’m thinking that re-reading this book would be just what the doctor ordered if I could simply find the time. Currently I’m the father of an awesome 7 month old girl, I work full time, I’m a husband, I’m in the midst of writing a TV pilot, I’m looking for a job, I have a yard full of weeds celebrating a healthy rainy season, I have this blog I want to maintain, I want to be active again and find time to exercise, and the list goes on. So how do I even think about committing to 1,000 pages of Dostoyevsky that I already read and didn’t all that enjoy the first time around? And why on Earth would I do that? There are so many other titles I might enjoy better and be less commanding of my time and attention.

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The Modern Library edition contains about 9 little illustrations at each part.

Well, the “why” is in part because I’m a better reader now than I was when I was 25, and maybe it will be a different experience. But even if it wouldn’t be different this time around, The Brothers Karamazov is exactly the kind of book to read without really reading, to escape daily life and scramble up the wiring of your brain trying to focus on a tedious exercise it’s only half interested in. Sure, you could get the same effect by reading the Dictionary, but this is still Dostoyevsky we’re talking about—a thousand pages you get to spend with a genius. And with great writers, even if your mind drifts while reading, there will be passages absorbed by osmosis, and sentences so expertly crafted and piercing that you are removed from your women’s shoe-selling life and transported into a Russian drawing room, circa 1878 (or whenever it is the novel taken place). So opposite are books like In Search of Lost Time and The Brothers Karamazov to anybody’s modern experience, they are the perfect remedy to sustain a continued separation from your daily experience over a long period of time. And isn’t that what any anti-depressant does—rough out those edges long enough for conditions in life to naturally improve?

As with any medicine, sometimes the hard part is simply taking it as much and as often and as regular as you have to in order to be well. In my case, I think the weeding will have to wait.

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The Reivers – William Faulkner

The list of William Faulkner books I own and have read, often multiple times, is long. I know I missed a few titles along the way, but certainly I would have claimed to have read all of the Faulkner essentials and then some. No one ever mentions The Reivers when listing Faulkner’s major worksdsc_0111, and it turns out I find that to be a shame. No, it’s not The Sound and the Fury, but this is not a work to be dismissed and unread. After all, isn’t it likely that even the worst work by a Nobel Prize winner has a good chance of being far better than the best book by an average writer? For my birthday my brother bought me a copy of The Reivers, published in 1962, a month before Faulkner’s death. A couple lines in the front jacket mirror my own conclusions, “The Reivers is, with no reservations whatsoever, one of the funniest books in our literature,” and, “But to those readers who have only sampled his work, The Reivers will be an especial delight.” Having believed I had read all of Faulkner’s good books, The Reivers truly was a wonderful surprise.

Turns out The Reivers is well loved and highly regarded by fans of Faulkner. For readers new to Faulkner, it may be a great place to start and for good reason. It’s one of the more accessible Faulkner books, it truly is comic, and it’s an adventure story not that dissimilar to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a kind of coming of age story about an 11 year old who on a short trip to Memphis, learns an immense deal about men, women, race, and the society he exists in.

This is definitely not a book you want to give too much of the plot away. In short, Lucius Priest (now 60) is reminiscing to his son about the time in 1905 when his grandfather bought the first automobile in Jefferson, Mississippi. 11 years old then, Lucius and older friend of the family, Boon Hogganbeck  borrow/steal the automobile to drive up to Memphis. Soon after starting, they discover a stowaway hiding under a tarp in the back–Ned William McCaslin who is Black and a distant relative to Lucius. As with many Faulkner books, The Reivers includes many of the characters and relatives from the McCaslin/Edmondses family tree found in other works.

Soon after arriving in Memphis, Ned trades the automobile for a stolen race horse that won’t run, with the grand scheme to set up a horse race in which they can win the automobile back and keep the horse too. Ned has a secret that he believes will get the horse to “run”, a secret that was previously successful in getting a mule to win any race it entered. Arriving in Memphis, Boon visits a brothel where we meet Miss Reba, Boon’s “gal” Miss Corrine, and Minnie, a Black maid with a gold tooth that has Lucius smitten.

1905. Road trip. Brothels. Horse racing… and all under the treatment of Faulkner. Say. no. more. Similar to some of the stories in Go Down Moses, in Faulkner’s hand this “road trip” story unfolds on a scale of fabled proportion.  Characters appearing in the novel are drawn out so vibrantly: Ned William McCaslin the brilliant con man and reader of men, Miss Reba who runs the bordello, Otis a 15 year old monster visiting his aunt Corrine at the brothel, and Butch, the horrific bastard of a White sheriff who embodies all that was so wrong for Blacks in the South. The language and dialogue is so rich and intelligent, even when coming out of the mouths of the ignorant.

I am going to mention as well that I began reading the book on a day that officially heralded in the era of “make America great again,” or so it is said anyway. As I began to read The Reivers I couldn’t help but think that, no, what makes America great is not an ugly rhetoric based on misinformation and lies, what makes America great (at least in part) are its artists, musicians and storytellers who distill the American experience into something we universally recognize and share. It’s literature like The Reivers that both makes America great, as well as depicts its greatness. Certainly I’m not suggesting that the South of 1905 is a benchmark in America we should be striving to return to. The racism and Jim Crow era is on full display in The Reivers, especially embodied in the sheriff, Butch. But counter to that darkness are some of the most dignified human portraits of Blacks, as well as relationships between Black and White, found in American literature. It shows its people’s shared humanity, intelligence, pluck, and ability of its people to have a solidarity with one another that is based not on color, but on character. The novel is a depiction of American people and of a society beginning to find mutual respect for each other, while also living with the realities of its persistent racism.

Given the age of Faulkner when he wrote it, coupled with the subtitle, “A Reminiscence,” this should be enough to inform readers that The Reivers will be something of a golden, wistful remembrance of childhood in the South, of a time when the very first automobiles ever seen were appearing on the roads. If you can imagine the novelty and wonder of even sitting in the first automobile to appear in town, let alone taking a road trip in it, then this may be the book for you. The novel is all of that, and yet a profound book as well. There is a fable-like quality to it, with larger than life characters and a depiction of a post Civil War America growing into itself.

Lastly, there is a hook in the story that once set, will keep you reading to the end: the secret of how Ned can make a horse who doesn’t want to run, run. I would absolutely love to tell you Ned’s secret ingredient–it’s really too good not to share. When I finally found out what that secret was, I laughed, and I mean really laughed. But I could never live with myself if I ever stole that opportunity to experience joy from someone. So I’ll leave you with this. Feeling uncertain about the world? Bogged down with social media posts and “Breaking News” about Beyonce’s pregnancy status? Cable news got you pulling out your hair? Stop, turn it off, buy a copy of The Reivers, and regain some hope in humanity.

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As a fan of both Faulkner and Modern Library editions, I had to post this photo from the back of the dust jacket.