Jun 12 2019

Reading in the Hospital

porticos in Bologna, Italia

C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) once confessed what his ideal reading situation would be:

Johnson once described the ideal happiness which he would choose if he were regardless of futurity. My own choice, with the same reservation, would be to read the Italian epic—to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936; Second Edition, 1946) 304)

Lewis is referring (I think) to Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) choice of Shakespeare:

Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, “I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings.”’

BOSWELL. ‘The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir.’ Boswell. ‘There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours [Dr. Percy] tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.’

JOHNSON. ‘This is foolish in [Percy]. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds: for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto. [‘All that is mine, I carry with me,’ Cicero, Paradoxa, i]’

BOSWELL. ‘True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakepeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady, whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, “The first thing you will meet with in the other world will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare’s works, presented to you.”’

Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion…. (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 69, April 1778)

But compare Lewis’s preferred hospital to those in Thomas More’s (1478–1535) Utopia (c. 1516), where:

hospital patients get first priority—oh yes, there are four hospitals in the suburbs, just outside the walls. Each of them is about the size of a small town. The idea of this is to prevent overcrowding, and facilitate the isolation of infectious cases. These hospitals are so well run, and so well supplied with all types of medical equipment, the nurses are so sympathetic and conscientious, and there are so many experienced doctors constantly available, that, though nobody’s forced to go there, practically everyone would rather be ill in hospital than at home. (Utopia (c. 1516, 1551), trans. Paul Turner, (New York: Penguin, 1965) II, 61–62)

To be a patient in Utopia is to be a king: everyone attends to you. Compare Mayra Hornbacher: “Hospital policy is to impose the least level of restriction possible,” (Madness: a Bipolar Life, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) 5).

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Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (I of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (I of III)

I. CONTEXT

Some newer books I’ve recently read and reread include Ta-Nehisi Coates,’ Between the World and Me (2015), Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015), Michael Morton’s Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace (2014), and Mayra Hornbacher’s Madness: a Bipolar Life (2008).

In a certain sense they’re all coming-of-age books whose stories are not told in the traditional sequence that begins with childhood, follows into adolescence, then adulthood. Rather these authors narrate their struggles to adapt to new modes of behavior as they find themselves evolving from young adults into middle-aged ones. How so?

Coates, finding himself in the adult role of parenting a teenager, struggles to impart wisdom to his son; Dreher strives to reconcile with his father and the world view of his home town after a lifelong rift from both; Morton fights to survive after finding himself in prison wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife, while Hornbacher attempts to understand her battles with mental illness and all the instability it brings with it.

But of the four writers, I come back to Coates because, even though I’ve been a long time reader of his work, his book, after an initial reading, left me the most perplexed. Part of my confusion was unexpectedly encountering a text of such brevity and (seeming) simplicity. In my blurry memory, his “The Case for Reparations” article for the Atlantic (June 2014), which gained him national and international attention, seemed a bit longer than the 150 page chapbook published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015.

(go to Part II of III)