Sunday, July 30, 2017

Terror, anxiety, and grace

I have saved an interview with actor Andrew Garfield from the magazine America (January 2017) by Brendan Busse because it deals with something that is part of my life and something I have written about: anxiety.

Garfield is one of the many performers I have read about (Barbra Streisand, among them) whose stage-fright has often prevented their going on stage.  The fear of being seen and watched and judged has affected me, not on the stage but in more ordinary circumstances I won't go into.

What's interesting is how Garfield, on the verge of suicide while preparing for a Shakespeare performance in London a few years ago, felt hopeless. "I feel like I'm going to die, " he said.  He had never before felt such terror or absolute dread at the idea of revealing himself.

People who hate to give public speeches can understand this common phobia.

To calm himself, he took at walk and encountered a street singer with a mediocre voice singing Don MacLean's "Vincent." Garfield remembers the imperfection of the performance:  "If that guy had thought he had nothing to offer and told himself he was not ready to perform in public, I would not have been given what I needed."

He needed a bit of outside inspiration, and it came from that song, which he considers a gift from God, just as his despair came as a moment of grace, a sign that he had to suffer before seeing that his depression was a kind of prayer, a cry for help.

Garfield then began to cry, feeling that God was telling him, "You think if you go on stage, you're going to die. But actually if you don't, you're doing to die."  And so he went on to this and other performances, always aware of the tension between the deep fear of being seen and the deep need of this.

As several self-help books tell us, feel the fear and carry on anyway.  Maybe your inner self will experience a moment of grace, as Garfield did,
when your inner self moves you from despair to participation in life.

A writer who has analyzed (in his book "Monkey Mind") his own acute anxiety is Daniel Smith, who reminds us of the universality of fear, an essential emotion essential for a full experience of life. Acute anxiety and terror are also common and can, he says, be dealt with despite their daily horrors and discomforts (by exercise, meditation, counseling, medication perhaps).

Before such anxiety leads to despair, he says, we must fight it. Keeping up the daily fight, I would add, is a holy struggle. It can be a form of prayer, a reaching out to the God outside us.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

The enigma of desire in a fine novel

I am always attracted to writers whose style, whose attention to sentences, inspires me to do better work or to return, revived, to an old draft of a story.

Such is the case with The Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman. I wasn't sure if I wanted to read a novel about a bisexual man or perhaps more accurately a man who at various stages of his life goes from a schoolboy crush to lust and jealousy with people of each sex--along with regret, fear, sadness, and worry and all the emotions that make sexuality so complicated.

But I am glad I stayed with it. I must confess to having been intrigued by the title, an allusion to Elgar's piece of music, and even more to the multiculturally rich background of the author: He was born in Alexandria,Egypt of Turkish-Jewish parents who spoke French at home and introduced their son to Greek, English and Italian, which he then perfected when the family moved to Rome.  Then as an adult, Aciman came to America, to Harvard to study comparative literature, which he now teaches in New York City.

It is no surprise to learn from this latest of his books that he is an expert on Proust: the intense, closely observed and analyzed states of feeling that become almost claustrophobic as we follow a man named Paul at various stages of his life.

The recurring theme of the five interlocking stories that comprise this novel is one of memory and desire, as our narrator takes us deeply into his mind and soul as he moves from a gay to a straight experience and back again, suggesting that these terms and categories are useless in describing, like Shakespeare's sonnets, all the emotions associated with lust and longing, with men and women,with time and regret, with joy and sadness.

Aciman, a master of subtly described arousal, shows us that all of us are various people at various points in our life.

In an elegant style that is almost hypnotic, Aciman has crafted a very original type of novel analyzing in agonizing detail what being in love is like, from various perspectives. It is also, my students will be happy to learn, full of those long sentences that I admire and urge upon them.

So, even if you at first find that the desire analyzed here turns you off, you will find the tone poetic--wistful and melancholy--and the style and the central character memorable.