Sunday, October 15, 2006

Lust for Life

Now I'm reading two books at once. Actually, I'm reading a million things at once. That happens in law school. Even apart from assigned reading, I've got multiple books going on right now. I've just been in one of those restless phases, picking up things and getting into them but not having time to complete them. But I'm plowing through -- and, apparently, now posting about -- two books at once.

It was kind of random how Lust for Life happened. A couple weeks ago in my very philosophical (I LOVE IT!) Criminal Law textbook there was a mention of Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, which I have always been interested in reading though it has yet to migrate to the top of my list. I thought now was as good a time as any to elevate it. I wandered over to the undergrad library and meandered through the fiction. No Irving Stone?! Oh, wait. Library of Congress. English and American literature are separate. Right. What's up with that, by the way? Annoying. Ahh, there's Irving Stone. Wait, no Agony/Ecstasy? Really? I somehow think of that as his most prominent novel. A perennial bestseller, that is my recollection from my bookselling days.

I still felt compelled to get a book of his on the spot, though. So I perused. I decided on Lust for Life because the idea of reading about Vincent Van Gogh's tortured life of love and searching for creativity and trying to change the world and do some good and being thwarted a lot, well, I just thought I might relate. I checked it out.

Then, sidenote, I wanted to request The Agony and the Ecstasy via interlibrary loan. Not only were the friendly but unhelpful undergrads at the circulation desk decidedly clueless about interlibrary loan and equally clueless about when the woman who could help, at the reference desk, might return, plus they were further mystified by where she might have got to...but everyone seemed sort of surprised in general to have a law student checking out a book. I was like a special guest star. It was fun. Eventually, the reference woman returned and she, too, reacted with shock and dismay when I dropped the 'L' word. "Oh, you've got to do that over at the law school," she said. "They have a different system for interlibrary loan." A few days later at my law library electronic resources orientation I learned that the law library feels pretty special about its own self, too, and doesn't care to associate with the riff-raff of those other campus libraries. "Please don't link to our search catalogues from their page, come directly to ours this way," we were admonished. Actually, I'm saying all this a bit facetiously, OK? I am in love with my law library. It even has a blog.

But I digress. And then some.

Irving Stone's specialty was biographical novels. He found his niche and ran with it. Go, him! I am all about finding a niche. In Lust for Life he brings to life Vincent Van Gogh. Young Vincent, starting out in life, hopping from city to city, falling in love with all the wrong women, selling art when he should be making it, thinking a life of religious service might be the answer but becoming woefully disillusioned by the focus on What We Should Do Because We've Always Done It rather than getting down and dirty with the common folk...I relate to this guy a lot, fictionalized as he may be. I haven't got to any ear-slicing yet. I have, however, reached passages such as this:

"At length he reached the saturation point in reading and could no longer pick up a book. During the weeks that followed his debacle, he had been too stunned and ill to feel anything emotionally. Later he had turned to literature to drown out his feelings, and had succeeded. Now he was almost completely well, and the flood of emotional suffering that had been stored up for months broke like a raging torrent and engulfed him in misery and despair. The mental perspective he had gained seemed to do him no good.
He had reached the low point in his life and he knew it.
He felt that there was some good in him, that he was not altogether a fool and a wastrel, and that there was a small contribution he could make to the world. But what was that contribution? He was not fitted for the routine of business and he had already tried everything else for which he might have had an aptitude. Was he always doomed to fail and suffer? Was life really over for him? The questions asked themselves, but they brought no answers. And so he drifted with the days that slurred into winter..." -- pp. 87-88

OK, for starters I hereby officially plan to adopt the moniker of "wastrel" for myself. It is much better sounding than wastoid, at any rate.

But here's the intriguing thing. The first half of that passage: me. Me, me, me. And questioning, yes, I still do that, too, of course. But all that talk of "low point" and "doom" and life being "over"? You know what? I so don't feel like that. Even though I have seen some dastardly doings in the last little while, my life has actually marched on quite forthrightly. Wastrelry notwithstanding. I guess what I'm saying is, I REMEMBER that feeling. I know that despair. I knew it as an angst-ridden teenager, and I daresay I knew it on several occasions in my twenties when I would just hold my head in my hands because I couldn't even be bothered to make a fist and shake it at the universe.

And I have several close friends who are currently embarked on the soul-searching ship, and I feel like we understand one another.

But I think I feel really, really grateful that at my low points I'm no longer so low that I've lost sight of the passion for life. Even when it's numbed -- and it has been numbed on many a recent occasion -- it hasn't been killed. Of course, we know it's lurking in Vincent, too, and is bound to resurface in artistic frenzy. But that comes later in the book.

Read with me! My library edition is a 1934 Random House hardcover with no ISBN!

"To stroll on wharves, and in alleys and markets, in waiting rooms and even saloons, that is not a pleasant pastime, except for an artist!" -- p. 204

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