There is a quote early in Milton’s Paradise Lost which stuck with me.
“The mind is its own place, and it can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Granted the particularity of this moment for Satan as he has been cast down after a failed coup is the context, but the great power of quotes lies in their universality.
I doubt that Milton had any sort of technical awareness that we do in the field of positive psychology that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a treatment that works at the level of SSRIs when trying to repair a mind wracked by depression and anxiety. And yet the quote here says just as much. Perspective can really dictate the quality of the truth from any event.
In the recent months I have felt just so lucky to be alive.
I do not know if it has to do with my luck in being able to weather the distance learning as a teacher from the comforts of my own home, to have my family feel safe from the coronavirus. I do not know, either, if it is the new routines I have built for myself such as walking, meditating, and writing this blog, but at some point along the way I have counted the cost of living and discovered that I am in the black.
Unfortunately, Jonathan Franzen’s characters never seem to count quite the same way. They always feel as though they are in the red. And usually, in the brief glimpses of ecstasy come out at the absolute worst moments.
Tom simply cannot create for himself or for Annabel the thrill of being alive. For years it seems as though he tried, by sound proofing Annabel’s rooms and eating tomato eggplant pasta more than twice a week. But the disgust he soon feels arrives suddenly and without provocation. We all snap, sure, but to snap the way Tom and Annabel do is worrisome. Annabel spat in her father’s face, actively refused money, and counts every interaction in a bank account only she can see. I do agree with Tom’s mother that for Annabel to refuse that money from her father says more about her personality than about her convictions. Tom too, until he finds a perspective he can get behind, is obsessed with looking clean in Annabel’s eyes, and as such will also refuse the inheritance he could have been provided. Both of these characters repeatedly make a hell of heaven.
Yet when we meet Andreas Wolf through Tom’s perspective and we see a young man happier than we could ever imagine, we are horrified. With Tom’s help he is able to move Horst’s body, but they do not leave until Wolf…ahem…masturbates on it.
This is something serial killers do, by the way.
Sexually gratifying oneself by returning to a scene, handling the bones, is making a heaven out of something terrible, which is murder. Andreas claims it is self defense, but we know better. Andreas claims he will never forget the help that Tom provides, but as we can see in Andreas’s paranoia, we know better.
Annabel disappears, leaving Tom with the interesting pronouncement that she had beaten Tom in some game of chess we did not know they were playing with each other. It is interesting that chess is mentioned. It is a game of perfect contrasts, black and white. There are only so many moves that can be done, and likely with the amount of chess played in the hundreds of years, as well as those performed by Deep Blue and other AI, all moves likely have. Yes it is a large game, but it is not infinite. And it is so adversarial. Why does Tom continue to place himself in the context of Annabel, willingly imprisoning oneself to a game that has few outcomes? Win, lose, or draw, that is what love is I suppose. As much as I wanted Tom to fall for a girl like Lucy Hill, we do not get to pick our own hearts. But what I suppose also is that we do get to choose our own justifications. And to me, chess is not the right justification. It says a lot about how Tom does not adjust to life, feeling as he says, “stuck.”
There is so little left to the book. Will Annabel and Tom reunite? Will Andreas be unmasked for his wrong doings? Will Pip discover who her father is? Will anyone pay more attention to Leila? And what about the money!?
Until next time…