Posts Tagged ‘literature’

I’ve been speaking on and off again recently to someone very new to recovery–only days in, barely weeks. She is angry, beyond angry, and cynical and frustrated and resentful and…well, you get the point. Mostly, I think she’s looking for someone/something to blame and looking even harder for a way out. In short, it’s like looking in a mirror.

I don’t have to dig very far in my past to find the Me who was a walking defense mechanism. I don’t even have to look that far into my psychology to find these feelings, simmering like a black hot spring under the good earth I’ve been planting over top. I don’t count it as humility to be able to recognize these things in myself. It’s just a measure of my grasp on an unpleasant reality. On the one hand, I like to think I’ve traveled very far past the days when I lived as one, gigantic red nerve just waiting to cry or lash out. On the other, I live in the knowledge that, in some ways, it would take very little to get back there. One drink, of course.

I don’t believe in a “cure” for alcoholism, simply because I have not found a cure for stress or bad days or accidents or despair. As the phraseology goes: treatements, but no cure. Spending time, even very little time, with someone just days or weeks into her or his recovery is one form of treatment that is almost universally acknowledged among recovering addicts. When I ventured back into recovery circles in 2010, I didn’t realize I was a walking, talking memento mori–but that is probably the newcomer’s most important function in recovery circles. The newly recovering addict is a skull on the desk, the painting of the skeleton, the “remembrance of death.”

Hundreds of years ago, the pious kept these objects in full sight–particularly in their private rooms–to remind them of the inevitability, the closeness of death. In my twenties, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around this medieval/Renaissance habit of scholars and theologians. At best, it seemed like a quaint, foreign custom. At worst, fetishistic. I identified more easily with Hamlet, whose reaction to a skull is just a commonsensical freak out, followed by a little ego trip and nausea. Skulls belong in graves, not on top of the furniture.

Raised a good protestant, I still don’t quite get the power of the fully physical representation of Our Last End. (Southern Baptism will teach anyone that the scariest place to be is your own head. No need to decorate the lobby with Halloween enthusiasms.) Now that I am some years (and many close calls) nearer to my own death, it’s somewhat easier to understand the practice. I also understand the memento in its complexity a little better: these were not blunt objects designed to conjure simply the last gasp and the shroud, but were to remind the owner too that we can hasten death; we can live in it. For the medieval miind (and those religious folks who essentially keep the medieval world alive today), sin is a form of death. John Milton went so far to allegorize Sin as the daughter of Satan and Death as their incestuous offspring. (Paradise Lost gets serious kink points for this one in my opinion.) To live in sin is to live in death. For anyone coming out of addiction, it is easy enough to acknowledge that there are ways of living that more closely resemble death than life, ways of being that bring on a wish for death rather than survival.

At the very beginning of my recovery, I was encouraged to write a list of all the things my drinking had done that had led to suffering for me and other people. I realized quickly that this could be a very short list (“It destroyed everything”) or a very long one (if I decided to name all the things my addiction ruined). What one winds up with will hardly be comprehensive–because addiction’s losses are hardly comprehensible–but effective, just as the scholar did not have to look at every skull in the world to know he’d die eventually. One was plenty. I was told to look at this list any time I felt like drinking or any time it occurred to me that I wasn’t “really” an alcoholic.

I never look at this list, by the way. I just know it’s there, just as the scholar knew the skull was there without having to look at it, perhaps having even forgotten it a little. These mementos of my addiction–whether represented in my own hand in a journal or freshly from the experience of someone new to sobriety–will occasionally catch me off-guard, however. Listening to them, I am emotionally transported to the pain and rawness of addiction and the hard scrabble work of early weeks in recovery. I do not want to go back there, but it is good to go back there. It is psychologically good, if a little painful, and warns me against complacency. It’s also less conspicuous than keeping a skull on my desk, which would be weird and I think, somehow, less effective, though I don’t ever rule anything out.


It is not really possible to conceive (of) death.  Milton tried, of course, and pretty graphically.  In Paradise Lost, Satan first “conceives” Sin in Heaven, as he’s contemplating rebellion against God.  Sin is a sexy, slip of a non-angelic being who bears a striking resemblance to Satan.  How could he resist?  The offspring of their incestuous union, Death, springs out of Sin’s fateful loins sometime just after the war in Heaven.  Truly an ingrate, Death immediately rapes his mother, and then a lot of other unpleasant things begin.

Allegory was never really my thing, and I’ve always thought it was a theological (though not a poetic) misstep in Milton’s theodicy.  Allegory intellectualizes.  It removes.  We’re not thinking of Granddad on the slab when we encounter Milton’s Death.  If attentive, I think about the grand logics of causal effects and the poet’s lock-step familiarity with the spiritual “truth” of biblical truth:  the intimacy of sin and death.  If churlish, I think of B-movies and marvel a little at the self-indulgent grotesquery of it all.  Well, the point is I’m not really thinking about it at all—not death as experience.  It’s not a feint exactly, but it is a removal.

Writing about the Holocaust, Maurice Blanchot says,

The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.  It does not touch anyone in particular; “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. 


When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come. 

And this is abstraction, but somehow nearer a truth about death than Milton’s allegory.  Camus would have agreed:  we cannot experience death; no one has, nor will anyone.  You could say that death is the ultimate abstraction that will level all the empirical minutiae.  Maybe envisioning death as a giant, perverted monster personifies not death itself but our cartoonish removal from its reality.  Why not give it horns and fangs?    It’s as accurate as anything else.

 In the last years and months of my drinking, I felt death was very imminent.  It was not only that, like many alcoholics toward the ends of their addictions, I contemplated suicide—although I do recall planning it out.  A gun, it seemed to me, would be preferable: and there were moments I would happily have pulled the trigger, but the task of obtaining one just seemed beyond my capacity.  (This alone might suffice as an argument against personal gun ownership.)   Next was pills, but I did not know how to get those either, not “good” ones anyway.  Exhaust fumes could work, but I was reasonably convinced I’d chicken out after a few minutes.  Luckily for me, the inertia that marked every other part of my drinking life made the effort of suicide a near-impossibility.

What I mean is that I felt my death very near, physically.  I had a quite rational horror of falling in the shower or down the stairs.  (And I have since known women and men whose drunken household accidents led them to AA or WFS.)  My liver ached daily—a hot, throbbing pressure under my right rib cage or what some describe as a “burning.”  I habitually squeezed at the lowest rib bone, pinching it with thumb and forefinger to try to get relief from the pressure.  Oddly, I still do this when I feel anxious—a little “hangover” from the near tragedy of that recent past.  Perhaps the worst feeling was the heavy, woolen irritation my brain would give me.  I could feel it swelling, panting there inside my skull.  And I would reflect grimly on the numbers of brain cells I was obliterating and on the certain effects of toxic encephalopathy (what amateurs call “wet brain”).

Oh, I knew all about the blood-brain barrier and about cirrhotic livers, about alcoholic heart disease and the higher incidence of breast cancer, about violent death statistics and the depressive tendency toward suicide.  Enough to be dangerous, but not enough, ever, to get sober for these reasons.

Why wasn’t the threat of death enough?

 Last week, my family and I learned that an old friend of ours had been murdered along with her mother at the hands of her new husband.  He’d attacked and raped her daughter after showing the girl the bodies of her relatives.  She survived, somehow.  A blessedly short manhunt led to his arrest.  The girl is being cared for (we think) by an aunt.  The murderer is in prison where he will presumably molder for the rest of his life.

We found out about this through, of all places, Facebook.  (I say “of all places,” but my guess is that if you are under 45 and you learned of an illness or death among your friendship circle, you had a 50/50 chance of finding out via Facebook or text message.)  The bodies of my old friend and her very sweet mother had not been dead 24 hours before some teenager had posted a grotesquely up-beat collage of photos of the family with sentiments like “R.I.P.” and “We miss you!” scrawled over their faces in a pink, comic sans font.  If it had been a joke, it would have been obscene.  Because it was not, it seemed to me all the more obscene.

But why?   Just my bourgeois taste being offended, I suppose.  It’s not the kind of remembrance that I’d want.  This says something about my priorities, since I’d been willing to be found full of vodka, slumped unheroically over my Toyota’s steering wheel.

As the days have passed, the deaths of my friends and this young woman’s trauma don’t get any more real.  Or, should I say, “realistic.”  My partner was interviewed by a t.v. local news reporter because we were some of the few friends who’d known the family when they’d lived in our city.  I follow news reports from West Virginia to see if new details have emerged, which makes me feel distant and stupid.  Each day, I read the “status updates” from my friend’s daughter in that sophomoric medium.  She has no other outlet, I suppose.  And it is not her fault—I go a little further—that it’s de rigeur to publish the adolescent thoughts that in my generation we kept to ourselves or forced between the pages of diaries we later cringed to read.  Why should I cringe for her when I  read,  “Getting ready then heading to funeral” and then a day or so later, “Found out have to go back to public school next year :/ “.  But I do.  And can’t help thinkin that if, as Shakespeare said, “silence is the perfectest herald of happiness,” then surely it acts all the more perfectly for grief?

I am embarrassed by these things—by the failure of this tragedy to be presented and handled as a tragedy in the classical sense—because the failure so accurately reveals the absurdity, the incomprehensibility of death.  If the news anchors and well-meaning friends and even the survivor herself cannot help mocking (however unconsciously) the traditional pageantry of grief, is it not because those trappings and gestures are themselves bankrupt and have no hope of approaching (let alone containing) the experience of death.  Why not be absurd and superficial in the face of the incomprehensible?  Surely, this response is as valid as any Puritanical funeral rite.

 The families and friends of addicts often wonder why the threat of death—even one that seems quite imminent—is not enough to dissuade us from getting help, “cleaning up our acts,” or otherwise “quitting.”  I remember feeling that way about my father, when he was swaying in the slow, suicidal tango of his own alcoholism.  But this was because I clung mystically to a potent, tragic eschatology that says death is absolute and knowable.  In my own addiction, I had to learn that, because it is absolute, death is unknowable, and the unknowable is always absurd, and even comic.  It is always the cartoon monster, always Wile E. Coyote groaning under the endlessly repeated rock.  It’s the zither and the xylophone, not Mozart’s Requiem.

It was life that was frightening—the known, terrible grinding of that worse-than-soap-operatic script.

In recovery, we move back from that ultimate vanishing point, death.  More accurately, we take our eyes from it.  We begin to take in the rest of the scenery.  And when we do, returning to the land of the “living,” we are graced again with the ability to take death seriously, because we can see it as the antithesis of life, the end to the fantastic mummery in which we’ve finally begun to take part.  It’s a strange amnesia, and a bargain too.  The price of life is merely the repression of death’s incomprehensibility.  That’s not so bad.  It’s why we grin at Dickinson’s paradox, “Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me.”  There is no “place” in which both of these things could be simultaneously true.  And most of us don’t think too hard about that.

Those who croak too loudly about death—who use it as the scourge to whip the unrecovered toward the light—remind me of Coleridge’s mariner, creepily grabbing the wedding guest’s arm, resolved to inflict his allegory on the unsuspecting.  I have the vivid memory of my students’ dull, unmoved expressions to know how delighted most people are to hear this story.  Death—incomprehensible and absurd, as we have come to know it in our addiction—is no deterrent FROM addiction.  And now that I have ceased to live with my eye on that dark horizon, I can no longer speak of it with any intimacy.  But to pretend to is worse, much worse, because it gives the lie that death can be known and experienced.  The ancient mariner is terrifying because we can all become that:  pathetic preachers who sell only the fear of death.

Much better, it seems to me, to admit that we cannot return and do not wish to return to that space.  For me, it was not a delusion.  I believe I may have come very close to understanding death as that which is utterly incommensurate during those awful days.  It does not follow that that knowledge is edifying or valuable.  The truth doesn’t always set you free.

 E, S, and H.  Experience, strength, and hope.  In recovery, I’m told that these are the things we’re meant to bring to the table when speaking with one another.  I share my experience, my strength, and my hope.  I listen to others and learn, identify, grow.  My individual story is meant to “disclose in a general way” how I was before and how I changed through recovery.  In the Big Book and the management of AA meetings, the emphasis on E.S.H. is supposed to curtail any speech designed as directive or advisory.  I can only share what I know of my own journey; I have no other role as guru, psychologist, minister, lawyer, or substance abuse counselor.


I was grateful when fellow recoverers took time to explain this aspect of the solution to me (for it is typical of almost every sane recovery program I’ve run across).  At the worst parts of my addiction, I had been “told” what to do by enough people.  Of course, all this (mostly well-meaning) advice did absolutely zip to help, and often made me feel worse.  But, much more importantly, dispensing advice and being The Sage on the Stage were hallmarks of my addictive personality.  Like an illusionist, waving my fingers in the direction of others’ problems and foibles took attention away from scaffolded fakery of my own shattered life.  Taking away my ability to focus on what others should be doing and sharing onlywhat I had managed to do myself…well, that was a giant step away from old patterns and the beginning of a new focus on self-improvement.A lot of former booze-hounds will admit to being armchair-shrinks when deep in their cups.  And, let’s not forget the always heady allure of melodrama.  If there wasn’t any, heaven knows I’d try to stir some up!  Or, as my best friend says, “Why have a small crisis when you can have an enormous one?”  All this hoo-haw and falderall and much-ado-about-nothing? Mine, courtesy of a disease that needs a very big curtain behind which to hide.  Advice-dispensing seems to fall squarely into this camouflage pattern:  if I keep enough attention on YOU, we can all forget about ME–while, of course, acknowledging that I’ve got it all together, and YOU do not.


It’s not that we do not need to give or receive advice sometimes.  For instance, AA has the much-loved and -hated, but ultimately time-honored, tradition of slogans.  We even have slogans that caution against giving advice:  “Clean house,”  “Stick to your side of the street,” and “Keep your fork on your own plate.”  Because they are designed to be cliche, the slogans can side-step vanity. I can’t take “credit” for any of them.   And, as they are shared by all recoverers, they are impersonal.  One doesn’t feel singled out by being told, “Take one day at a time,” because everyone has to take one day at a time.  At one time or another, we’ve all also asked for advice, maybe even begged for it.  If I ask for advice, that’s a pretty clear signal that my ears are wide-open for the message.



Perhaps the most famous literary advice-giver of all time is Shakespeare’s Polonius, the first murder-victim in Hamlet and one hell of a Sage on a literal Stage.  It has never failed to amuse me that it’s Polonius’ line, “To thine own self be true,” that AA prints on chips marking sobriety milestones.  It’s good advice, but, ironically, it’s from a guy whose advice leads on the one hand to needless and ultimately murderous pot-stirring or serves to make him look like a well-meaning but finally buffoonish patriarch.   Polonius also doesn’t take his own advice, and instead of being true to himself, fishes around in his daughter’s business (and Hamlet’s, and Claudius’) …with aforementioned disastrous results.  If the play does not quite suggest that all unsolicited advice is bad advice, it does not paint a happy ending for those who offer it, nor for those who follow it.  Having done no research, I don’t know if the context of the quote was simply misunderstood or ignored, but I assume the latter.  We take what we need and leave the rest, and it is–after all–a snappy phrase, if you can just forget who’s saying it.


Of course, it’s easy to forget when you’ve never known who said it, which is my point about the slogans…


I can only assume that the traditon of ESH was born from fertile spiritual earth of protestant evangelism, which puts a premium on the practice of “witnessing”–not merely as an exercise in prosyletization, but as part of the spiritual hygiene all good Christians should practice.  In the basement of the Baptist church that was my adolescent spiritual home, I sat in a semi-circle around my grandmother who led classes for new Christians–a requirement for full membership in the church.  A trusted church leader and teacher, she instructed us gently not only in the life-saving Bible passages that would ensure our eternal lives, but in the earthly mission vouchsafed to us as believers.   She explained that “witnessing” to others–that is, sharing the story of our conversion–helped strengthen our own faith, even as it brought the message of Christ to others.  It’s first goal, however, was always to re-confirm our own faith in the transformation that had taken place in our own lives.


Here are some things we were told from the book she gave us:


1.  Use every opportunity to witness to others, but do not force anyone to listen.

2.  Only share your personal story; do not preach.

3.  Once you’ve shared your story, let the other person ask questions and listen to her or his story.  Do not give more information unless s/he asks.

4.  Be humble.  In the final analysis, this story is bigger than you.  Don’t try to be bigger than it.


It’s not really possible to imagine Polonius sticking to these general rules–taught to us Christian newcomers more by my grandmother’s behavior than by the book, in between the moutfuls of cookies and occasional peeps at the wall clock.  Such a philosophy and way of life was also antithetical to the pushy egotism that was the recipe-for-success in my professional life as an academic.  I am continuing unlearn a lot of that self-seeking in order to re-learn the sober sense I’d absorbed quite innocently in the church basement.  And perhaps that’s why the concept of ESH was simultaneously refreshing and deeply familiar, comforting.  Although it is a long journey from that insecure young convert to the sober, atheist alcoholic, good principles continue to make sense, however they are disclosed.


Early on, I recall asking someone for advice–actually, I asked her how she listened to others in recovery, asked her how to do it better.  She told me that she only listened to ESH.  If they’re saying anything else, she said, they’ve got another agenda–maybe not a bad one, but it’s not recovery.  That’s advice I continue to take.

For about the past eight months, I have been reading a few pages of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers before bed.  It’s a longish novel, and if you manage only a few pages, four-to-five nights a week, it really will take that long to read.  But it’s a romp.  The characters are round but almost entirely without any real interiority.  The plot is ALL, really, ALL.  Fast and ridiculous.  Modest in the bodice-ripping department, as befits  mid-nineteenth century novel, but there are plenty of unripped (and partially ripped) bodices and swordfights and implausible intrigues to go around.  It’s a historical fiction, set by Dumas in the 17th century, and thus there are often playful swipes and slanders against historical characters which, by the nature of things, Dumas could hardly do for his own time in the jittery decades after the French Revolution and Napoleon.

Dumas cut his chops on the stage, and that might account for the staginess of scenes, the emphasis on dialogue over interior monologue, and the grand, sartorial style of his dramatis personae, all of whom seem to be more costume than character.  It’s fun, and you can tell Dumas had fun writing it.  Reading it is something like watching a very excellent maker of sand castles play on an empty beach with all the buckets he can find.  The novel wasn’t built for the ages and it seems something of an accident that it lasted this long.  Perhaps on his deathbed, even Dumas knew he’d pulled a fast one over the public, who thought him a genius.  Or maybe he finally believed his hype.  James Cameron will feel like that, no doubt.

About a quarter of the way through the novel, the reader realizes the farce.  Nothing genuinely bad can happen to D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  They’re covered in Teflon.  Even when they are injured, it never seems for long or very seriously.  If there is a plot for D’Artagnan to be poisoned, a character whom we just met and don’t really know will have sucked down the offending liquor before the hero can taste it.  If they need money–and frequently they do–it arrives somehow, in the nick of time, before anyone gets really hungry or needs a horse.

But they’re bumblers, and it’s funny to watch them bumble along, like Charlie Chaplin who comes out smelling of flowers while everyone else is up to his eyes in muck.  Their enemies don’t realize this, and that’s the fun.  They are not perfectionists, but optimists.  Nothing can harm them, so why bother with armor?  The novel is what Carlyle called “a superlative lollypop.”

We dismiss these books as fantasies and fluff or we would if it weren’t old and French and prettily written.  As moral fibers go, it’s pretty threadbare, and doesn’t have the kind of tough, unflinching durability of Dickens or Dostoevsky.  Bumblers who muddle through are not heroes; they are  papier mache.  Real heroes are transformed or are transforming.  They are nearly eclipsed by the genuine tragedy around them but come through, certainly not unscathed.  They get down at the crossroads and confess sins.  They forgive the unforgivable.  They do not rattle a sword about, fool a Catholic Cardinal, and run off with a young bit of stuff. Nor do we laugh at them.  Above all.

To bring this ’round, at last, to recovery:  what is wrong with bumbling and muddling through?  Are they not “real” or not “heroic”?  To model oneself on D’Artagnan is to assume that life–while it doesn’t precisely owe me–will cough up the goods reasonably enough if I show plenty of pluck.   Not realistic.  So, dumb, and therefore not heroic.

We have the phrase, “Act as if,” in recovery; we say, “fake it ’til you make it.”  Well, it’s not really D’Artagnan’s fault that the world he lives in just happens to be one in which he can’t fail.  He does, as it were, take “life on life’s terms”–it’s just that the terms are always in his favor.

Bumbling along, muddling through is, for me,  not nearly the pretty sight that it is for the Musketeers, but does that mean that it does not work?  I see so many people in recovery putting pressure on themselves–the pressure to be heroic.  A woman I know recently remarked that she’d been having a tough time with her sobriety.  At eight months, she has found herself struggling again–crying frequently, feeling lonely and despairing.  She has been going to lots of meetings during this period, being of service, reaching out.  Yet, she said (and I quote) “I’m failing at this.”  Where does this come from?  Does it come from the expectation that the world should be like that of The Musketeers, who never meet a genuine obstacle?  Or does it come from the self-imposed belief that we should always “rise above” our reality–that survival alone is not enough and must be accompanied by the beattitudes of grace and perfect serenity.  My acquaintance says that if she is not happy, joyous, and free, she is “failing.”

To me, she is anything but a failure.  She’s doing everything right.  It’s… heroic.  My hardest days are my best, because I am working my program hardest.

By contrast, I’ve been muddling through lately.  Not been as engaged in my recovery as I might be–not doing my meetings as much as I should, not reading, not meditating, not blogging (sorry, One Fan of Blog), but… you know… NOT DRINKING either.  I suppose I choose to think this is okay.  Everything will work out.   I genuinely believe that.  I trust my recovery to be there and trust myself to pick it up again.  Is this out of place?  Silly?  Deluded?

It’s not heroic–that’s definite–and it’s not realistic, maybe–not according to some.  There is no guarantee that things will work out, so operating on the assumption doesn’t seem very politic.  But there it is:  I believe in the unrealistic, nonheroic act of muddling through.  It just sounds better in historical novels.  With velvet uniforms.  And swords.  And in French.

If you want to know a little about someone without talking to them (and who wouldn’t choose this option?), you could do worse than scan their shelves.  It’s a good forensic tool for the amateur psychologist and general snoop.  And I’m judgmental; I admit it.  I’ll scorn your book choices if they seem too low-brow or just too few (assuming you’re not a Buddhist or something).  I don’t necessarily judge the guilty pleasure shelf or shelves.  We’ve all got those, be it trashy romances or sci fi/fantasy.  Everyone keeps a little erotica in the boudoir somewhere.

Of course, we all know that we’re judged by our books.  Books ceased long ago to be merely vessels of human communication and became objects that are cherished for themselves–witness those of us who collect first editions or signed copies that are hoarded, displayed, but never read (or read jealously by only the owner herself).  Books have always been capable of conferring status of one kind or another.  And at least as early as the Renaissance, when Gutenburg made it possible for the middle class to self-educate, became the way people could advertise which side their political/religious/intellectual bread was buttered.   In the 90’s, for instance, every would-be intellectual definitely had copies of Joyce’s Ulysses and Rushdie’s Satanic Verses proudly stacked somewhere in the living room.  I know of only one person who read the first without be forced to by a college professor.  And he joins me and one other person as the only people I know who have also read the second.

So when I go into people’s homes, I look for what’s on display.  The more education someone has, usually the more anxious s/he is about this necessary front-matter.  I know a couple–both of whom have PhDs–whose house is very telling in this respect.  Her doctorate is the humanities, his in the sciences.  It’s obvious who wears the public pants in the family, because all the correct novels and nonfiction are upstairs in the living room, and all his geeky manuals and sci fi are down in the basement (which got flooded a few times).  No one but close friends goes downstairs, mind you.

Self-conscious Christians are the worst in this respect.  The coffee table is always set with that big, fat bible on it.  Some of this breed like to display a very nice, white “guest” bible–like the towels in the half-bath for company.  While others proudly place a well-worn, dog-eared copy somewhere prominent.  It has the subtlety of a billboard, of course, and about as much of the same authentic spirituality.  Maybe they’re worried that, with the Rapture right around the corner, Jesus might just come knocking and wonder why it took Him a few minutes to find His book.

So, we know all this.  So now, fellow addicts-in-recovery:   where are we putting our recovery literature?  Most of my close friends and family know about my alcoholism and my efforts to recover, but what about people who just might be in the living room?  Neighbors?  Parents dropping children off for sleepovers?  Nope.  The living room is out.  I’m just not ready for that conversation.

The study seems appropriate, of course.  Ours doubles as a guest room.  It’s the kind of addition to the shelf that says, “Welcome to our home.  I’m sober.  Isn’t that reassuring tonight?”  But we actually do work in our study.  There’s something disconcerting about seeing Alcoholics Anonymous next to a copies of sociology textbooks and Strong’s Bible Concordance. Almost too compartmentalized.

My guess is that the bedroom will get a few votes.  Yep:  keep it there with the porn and the boxed set of The Lord of the Rings your girlfriend got you in college.  Isn’t this a personal matter, after all?  Close to your heart?  Like my autographed copy of Dorothy Allison’s first publication or my personal journals from college…  Well, yes… but if it’s there with the porn, aren’t we over-privatizing the issue?  It’s Alcoholics Anonymous, of course, but it’s always an open secret. Doesn’t the absence of recovery literature in at least a semi-public place indicate intense and self-destructive shame about something that ought to be celebrated and shared?

I have actually been to peoples’ houses who keep all their self-help stuff right out front–long shelf-fulls of handbooks and guides and recovery memoirs decorating the living room.  I can’t tell you how uncomfortable this makes me.  On the one hand, I am writhing with insecurity and a deep sense of unworthiness.  I will never be this sane, I think.  On the other, I remember what the people who own the house are actually like, and am struck by the simultaneous thought:  Have you people actually read this stuff, ’cause it doesn’t show…

Perhaps it is my southern upbringing that flinches at the sight of personal flaws being aired so publicly.  This embarrassment is joined in equal measure by a suspicion of anyone who makes a display of having (presumably) overcome such flaws.  But….

Wait.  I hear a pack of recovery folk buzzing in the background, dispensing very good, sage advice:  “Don’t worry about what other people think.  More importantly, why are you judging other people?  Keep your fork on your own plate!”  Perfectly true, sound wisdom there.  To get back to my but….

The fact is, these dumb little choices matter.  They matter because the conversations that might follow matter–just as they might when someone sees The Satanic Verses on the shelf.  They matter because someone coming over to my house might be struggling with an addiction and too afraid to say so to anyone other than someone who is open about her addiction.  They matter because people are cruel and very, very judgmental, and “worrying about my own stuff” certainly implies protecting myself from others’ stupidity and ignorance.  So, yes, these little things matter.

And after all this, I still don’t know where to put my books.  I think I will continue to be little self-conscious about them.  Right now, for instance, I have a copy of Kirkpatrick’s Turnabout in the downstairs bath, outside my study and bedroom.  What screwed up Freudian message is that sending?  Without going down the anal retentive/expulsive lane, I think the choice says, “hey, recovery is as much a part of my life as crapping and good hygiene.”  Disturbing?  Maybe.  Handy?  You bet!

But please:  tell me where YOUR books are!  (Please see the poll related to this post for more fun!)

This morning I woke up thinking about Houdini.  (Who doesn’t?)  Houdini the Escape Artist,  who made theater out of mortal danger and its destruction.  There is something sexual in the tension built by watching him or present-day magicians struggle with coils of rope or chain underwater, for instance.  The heart is racing for him; one finds oneself holding one’s breath.   Then, ah, the moment of release–the flooding triumph  as he comes up for air.  And all the while he has looked placid, while we have squirmed and squinted with anxiety.  There is an allure to these tricks, and an artistry to pulling them off for audiences.

But is it really escape that is the art of these antics?  To return to the sexual analogy, I think not:  no more than great lovemaking is measured by the orgasm.  If escape were the art being pursued, we would experience nearly the same thrill watching a woman escape from a pair of handcuffs as we do watching her escape from a iron cage, soldered shut as it hangs on a fraying rope over boiling water.  This kind of artistry is based on the aesthetic of danger, not on the aesthetic of escape itself.

Escapism is not supposed to be good for us, spiritually speaking.  It’s especially not good for addicts like me, who have spent large chunks of our lives retreating from realities.  One image of the alcoholic is of a selfish, and eventually resentful, dreamer who does not have the spiritual fortitude (or, more mildly, the spiritual tools) to face reality.  Is it therefore stubborn recidivism in me that asks, quite seriously, “What’s so great about reality?” Is it blind, selfish, and egocentric to champion the retreat from reality as spiritually necessary?

The problem of escapism as a spiritual or ethical strategy is that it evokes Houdini, rather than Daedalus, most of the time.  Houdini had always to “up the ante” in his tricks, like a gambling addict seeking higher and higher stakes or increasingly dangerous odds. These aesthetics are morbid.  As Houdini’s own end illustrates, the question is never if but when.  The point wasn’t escape; the point was that one day he wouldn’t.  Analogously, I confess I have found nothing sexy in the escalation of alcoholism, no matter how aesthetically a biographer might one day have posthumously painted my liquid game of Russian roulette.

Houdini, the alcoholic, the gambler:  these escape artists aren’t really interested in escape, only in the envelope-pushing that will one day erase the necessity for escape.

The real escape artists are not interested in envelopes and limit-pushing but in the distance from reality their starship imaginations can give them.  I mentioned Daedalus because of his early modern iconographic status as one kind of artist, just as Icarus is another (the one who flies too high).  In Renaissance terms, Daedalus escapes the dangers, but does not over-test his limits:  the image of playing it safe as opposed to the high-flyers who are interesting to watch for a while but who crash and burn.  I also bring up Daedalus because you can’t bring up Daedalus without Stephen Daedalus.  And that gets me to James Joyce.  And that gets me where I want to go.

Through the autobiographical projection, Stephen Daedalus, Joyce didn’t embrace a “play it safe” attitude at all, but I can’t imagine how he might sneer at the AA slogan, “life on life’s terms” or “god on god’s terms.”  Joyce didn’t want to play those reindeer games:  “reality,” as most people define it, was to Joyce an artistic snare.  Ireland itself, moreover, was not so much a Minotaur’s maze as a it was the Isle of Circe, capable of domesticating artists into serviceable swine.   The Irish artists of his day were pressed into political service one by one, including Yeats and Dion Boucicault and a dozen others.  “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow,”  says Stephen to a friend who admonishes him to “take life on life’s terms”:  “Ireland, first, Stevie.  You can be a poet or mystic after.”

Stephen’s ethical response to these deadly sirens was to employ “the only arms I allow myself to use–silence, exile, and cunning.”  These sound like ignoble implements unless you’ve ever tried to use only them as a response to life.  The only shame about Joyce, as opposed to his character Stephen, is that silence, exile, and cunning came with a tall whiskey chaser.

The tools of escape–cunning, exile, silence–permit distance from a world that does not permit the artist to breathe.  It is no mere accident of autobiography or history that Stephen/Joyce toys for so long with the idea of taking orders.  It was one kind of retreat that was, in the last issue, another snare.  But the vocation to be apart from the world is what the novel emphasizes in Stephen’s religious peregrinations.

AA is its own world apart, of course.  My fellow AAs and I say all the time of what happens in the rooms and halls:  “You could only hear that here” or “No where does this happen but here.”  Because of AA’s emphasis on spirituality as the “cure” for alcoholism, many AAs approach meetings with a  reverence (or greater reverence) that they might reserve for a religious observance or rite.  We are set apart:  a notion underscored by the language of anonymity and secrecy embedded by the Twelve Traditions and by the closed nature of some meetings themselves.  “What is said here, stays here,” says the chair, followed by rapping knuckles on the tables and a murmured response of “here, here.”

Spiritual retreat, in the form of meditation and prayer, is practiced by most recovery programs.  The desire and necessity to escape the cares of the world, the pain and guilt and ugliness that sometimes (or even frequently) accompanies just getting up in the morning seems to me a healthy response.  More radically, the founder of Rational Recovery (which rejects on almost every level AA’s approach to alcoholism) claims that addiction itself is the function of a healthy body:  it is natural for the body to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to “escape”.  The problem is–according to this theory–that the source of pleasure becomes the creator of pain in alcoholics.  (I’ll leave aside most of my thoughts about RR and AVRT, its program of recovery.  I’ll simply say that a rational answer wasn’t what I was looking for at the bottom of a bottle.)

It’s no wonder that Keats in his “Ode to a Nightingale” first thinks of getting drunk as the antidote to his tuberculor fever.  He rejects it in favor of writing a poem, of course, but the Romantics in general fall into the Icaran category of artists.  Mary Shelley didn’t let them forget that.  Her Frankenstein is a punitive narrative of art-gone-wrong, as it chronicles the good doctor’s failure to escape the wrath of the creation for whom the author fails to take responsibility.  He is no escape artist, just an egocentric jackass.

I am currently reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude in the mornings, which is a study in the ethics of escape.  May Sarton is not 2/3 of the artist she thought she was, but I think she was definitely all the artist she could be, which is all anyone can ask, really.  She describes her retreat as both self-indulgent and painfully ascetic.  Interestingly, she adds at one point that she feels “like a house with no walls . . . . [W]hatever good effect my work may have comes . . . from my own sense of isolation and vulnerability.  The house is open in a way that no house where a family lives and interacts can be.”  Isolation is a blessing and a curse for Sarton, who by turns celebrates and bemoans her self-imposed exile.  Were she a genius, the angst and gaiety she records would be inspiring rather than peculiar.  She cannot laugh at herself, which is the greatest self-indulgence of all.

The great escape artists ultimately write (and perhaps live) in constant tragi-comedy.  They can always laugh.   More significantly, they do not “face” reality.  Instead they show us how to endure it, escape it, play with it, avoid it.  Samuel Beckett reigns supreme among the escape artists.  Reality in Beckett is in the four-to-eight second pauses, when the meaninglessness of life seems to threaten the chatty serenity of the characters.  But as long as the characters keep up a shell game of talk, nothing much seems to bother them.

I think about the way 8-10 year olds who still believe in Santa Claus mount defenses against the reality of his non-existence.  It’s spectacular to watch their minds at work on the problem of intractable physical and logical evidence.  It’s delightful.  I can imagine that is is only the worst Scrooges and Grinches who would want to drag these kids out of this belief.  The comic characters in Beckett refuse in the same way.  Didi and Gogo in Beckett’s most famous play play little games with language and meaning in order to avoid admitting that there is no Godot for whom to wait.  But without the wait, there lives would be meaningless.  As it is, they find spiritual fuel in the postponement of suicide:

Estragon:  You say we have to come back tomorrow?

Vladimir:  Yes.

Estragon:  Then we can bring a good bit of rope.

Vladimir:  Yes.


Estragon:  Didi.

Vladimir:  Yes.

Estragon:  I can’t go on like this.

Vladimir:  That’s what you think.

Estragon:  If we parted?  That might be better for us.

Vladimir:  We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow.  [Pause.] Unless Godot comes.

I wouldn’t tell Didi and Gogo that there’s no Godot anymore than I’d tell the nine-year-old about Santa.  I like to watch their escape from reality:  what is the good of looking at it, except that it would bring despair and suicide. The laugh I get from watching them is at my own expense.  My head is as much in the sand as theirs.

Didi and Gogo are also capable of empathy and tenderness towards one another–traits missing from their parallel characters, Pozzo and Lucky, whose relationship has devolved into sadomasochistic parody.  I think it is their ability to retreat constantly from reality that permits this tenderness:  the illusions  of hope and optimism create a space for selflessness that is impossible if the cruel facts of reality are laid bare.

This is why I am surprised sometimes that “dreamers” or “idealists” are so often labeled selfish.  Even the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous skirts this line a little, as it compares the alcoholic to the actor who wants to run the show (c.f. pp. 61-62).  The thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death was just this month.  His fans thought him selfish for breaking up the most popular band on the planet.  His detractors thought him an irresponsible idealist who retreated into the equally blinding beds of Yoko Ono on the one hand and political radicalism on the other.  Yet it’s rare to see a more PUBLIC retreat than this one, or one that produced such global ripples.  Lennon, Beckett, Joyce:  they all knew the wisdom of dropping out, not only for sanity’s sake, but for the world’s.  Every spiritual adviser who has ever recommended solitude and meditation knows it too.

Fighting the world for the fight’s sake is an extreme sport in which I’m not interested.  It is too much reality, as Beckett notes everywhere in his drama and prose.   Nothing would ever be imagined outside that reality, either.  Even though I know the basic reasons why, I am always surprised that more women and persecuted minorities aren’t drawn toward writing science-fiction, for instance, which offers the promise of Utopian spaces ungoverned by the painful social an political realities of the present.  Without time spent away from reality–escaping it, in fact–I can’t think about it, confront it, and change it.  Constant immersion in so-called “reality”–life on life’s terms–is caustic, draining, and does little to foster in me the qualities of empathy and tenderness I wish to bring to others.

There is something to be praised in an unflinching gaze at the miasma of reality.  Some men (and it is almost always men) I have met in AA will praise a former sponsor (a kind of AA mentor with more sobriety) for his “tough love”–men who will tell the newly sober that they are (and I nearly quote) “a lying, selfish piece of shit who has about a three percent chance of living sober.”  This works for some people:  it appears to be what they need to stay sober.  But I have not noticed that it has necessarily brought kindness, sympathy, or love into the world, the things that one might stay sober to have.

To me, this sort of sobriety is not much better than the Houdini trick, however much it may scald itself heroically on the “truth” of alcoholic reality over and over.  It is only my strategic escapes, my deliberate rejections of reality as unchanging that allow me to say, in the words of Beckett’s greatest protagonist, the Unnamable:  “I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”

I read a wordpress blog two days ago that gestured toward the underwhelming claim that poetry was dead.  Now, why every person who has ever mastered anything more complex than the five-paragraph essay feels entitled to drive nails into this century-old coffin is beyond me.  Virginia Woolf was the first, or one of the first eulogizers, who, in her disingenuous encouragement to young poets, felt the need to remind them that their poetry would never be as good as that written in the centuries before, nor would it be understood by contemporaries.  Having condemned the poets of her generation to uncelebrated mediocrity, Woolf got on with the serious business of writing fiction.  Since then, it’s been a funereal march down the byways of obsolescence for present-day versifiers.

The common wisdom is that we don’t like poetry now–as if teeming generations before us loved it j(literally, it seems, to extinction).  The better wisdom is that we don’t like poetry now because we are no longer trained to understand it.  Regardless, in terms of literary output and interest, the 20th and 21st centuries are the centuries of the novel, not the poem.  I’ve always thought this curious, given our soundbite culture.  You’d think that with our 30-second commercial-spot-trained brains, a 14-line sonnet would appeal more than a 350 page novel.  A good friend of mine explained this modern counter-intuition thus:  We crave stories, he said.  After Darwin yanked us out of the spiritual womb of creation, after Nietzsche put a stake in God’s heart, after Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes looked at each other a decided that even the author needed to be rubbed out, we have a need for narratives that continue to make sense of our fragmented, unhinged existences.  Or, to put it in Joan Didion’s words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  Lyric poetry only captures an instant; it is not interested in fitting that instant into a pattern larger than itself.  This was and remains as good an explanation for the rise of the novel as I’ve ever heard.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  I believe that.  So does every person who has ever been helped by AA or another 12-step program based on the AA model.  (more…)