“To Be Yourself is All that You Can Do”

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The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met last Thursday to discuss his final novel, Timequake. Published in 1997, it is the most autobiographical of Vonnegut’s novels (and they almost always are autobiographical to some extent). It is loosely constructed around an event called a “Timequake” in which history kind of “slips back” ten years and goes into a re-run. To those reliving the past ten years, it is nearly impossible to not drift into sort of an “autopilot mode” in which they know for certain that any free will is suppressed as the re-run plays out. Vonnegut uses this concept to explore the idea of free will and determinism. He more often, frankly, uses the book to comment on the human condition, and relate a lot of stories from his own life.

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(above: Chris Cornell & “Audioslave”)

While reading Timequake – as a fan of musician and songwriter Chris Cornell (front man for the band “Soundgarden” and later another favorite of mine, “Audioslave”) – I found myself often reminded of the great Audioslave song, “Be Yourself,” which includes the frequent refrain “(and) to be yourself is all that you can do…” Much of Vonnegut’s musing in the book settles back to this idea, probably most overtly in chapter 35, where after relating that geneticists are now “seeking and finding more and more genes that make us think this way or that way, just as a rerun or timequake would do.” He goes on to say that:

“…it appeared to me that Jane’s and my children, and Allie’s and Jim’s children, while not alike as grownups, had each become practically the type of grownups they had to be. All six are OK.”

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We had, as a guest at our book club meeting, author Majie Failey whose book about Vonnegut, “We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek,” I read last year. Somehow in our pre-game warmups before we started talking about Timequake, the matter of Vonnegut’s mother’s suicide came up. Mrs. Failey was of the firm belief that her death was accidental, citing several reasons why. One of our other members, Bob, pointed out that regardless of what we may believe, Vonnegut himself believed it, and it indelibly shaped the course of his life. He even states (chapter 26) “I’m a monopolar depressive descended from monopolar depressives.” Perhaps his life and artistic output was what simply had to be, or to paraphrase the words of Chris Cornell, “all that he could do.”

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This book was not among my Vonnegut favorites (too much of a downer) but there were many things about it I liked. One was the expanded role of Vonnegut’s recurring character, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who usually serves as the author’s alter-ego. Vonnegut also has several  insightful things to say about art as well. For example:

“Many years earlier, so long ago that I was a student at the University of Chicago, I had a conversation with my thesis advisor about the arts in general. At that time, I had no idea that I personally would go into any sort of art.
He said, ‘You know what artists are?’
I didn’t.
‘Artists,’ he said, ‘are the people who say, “I can’t fix my country my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly I can make this square of canvas, or this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay, or these twelves bars of music, be exactly what they ought to be.”’

True, Vonnegut didn’t make this statement himself, but it’s yet another “bulls-eye” found in his writing.

Our club’s resident poet, Bill Briscoe, composed a second “diamanté” poem for this book. A snapshot is presented below. Information on the “rules” of diamanté poems have been presented previously on my blog here.

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I look forward to next month’s meeting, where we will be discussing the posthumously published short story collection, Bagombo Snuff Box, a selection of Vonnegut’s previously unpublished work.

For those interested, here are the lyrics to the song “Be Yourself”:

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“Someone falls to pieces, sleeping all alone
Someone kills the pain, spinning in the silence
To finally drift away

Someone gets excited
In a chapel yard and catches a bouquet
Another lays a dozen, white roses on a grave

Yeah and to be yourself is all that you can do
Hey, to be yourself is all that you can do

Someone finds salvation in everyone, another only pain
Someone tries to hide himself, down inside himself he prays
Someone swears his true love until the end of time
Another runs away, separate or united, healthy or insane

And to be yourself is all that you can do, yeah
(All that you can do)
To be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)
Hey, be yourself is all that you can do

Even when you’ve paid enough
Been pulled apart or been held up
Every single memory of the good or bad
Faces of luck

Don’t lose any sleep tonight
I’m sure everything will end up alright
You may win or lose

But to be yourself is all that you can do, yeah
To be yourself is all that you can do

Oh, to be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)
Hey, to be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can do

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The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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How does a story without a ghost make it into an anthology of ghost stories? Well, maybe if there are ghosts, but only in the mind of the main character. (many think those are the only kind of ghosts, thus the expression, “There are no haunted houses, only haunted people.”)

**Major Spoiler Alert! – if you want to read the story yourself, do so before proceeding**
I first read this unsettling story almost twenty years ago. It chronicles a young woman’s descent (initially through journal/diary entries, but later this structure of the story loosens a bit) into psychosis. Suffering from a “nervous condition” (perhaps what today would be diagnosed as post-partum depression) her husband, who is also a physician, prescribes, effectively, what was known as a “rest cure,” a popular treatment for hysteria in the late 1800s, when this story was written.

As part of his “prescription,” they rent a home for three months in the summer while their own home is being remodeled. Over the wife’s objections, he chooses an upstairs former nursery room for their bedroom. It has the most hideous yellow wallpaper. Gilman describes the paper in increasingly disturbing ways. “I never saw a worse paper in my life,” and the “pattern lolls like a broken neck,” and “great, slanting waves of optic horror,” and “It is the strangest yellow, that wall paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.” She eventually decides there is something/someone lurking (creeping) behind the pattern, especially when viewed in the moonlight.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.” This revelation comes about halfway through the story, and the reader is now certain that, even though at the start of the story it seems certain that she is a “victim” and her only physical illness is in her mind (or, actually, in her husband’s mind), she is now actually becoming psychotic. Clearly a case of “the cure being worse than the disease” – a charge frequently leveled against the “rest cure.”

As the end of their three month rental nears, she becomes more obsessed with “getting her (the “woman” she sees behind the pattern) out.” Having locked herself in her room she succeeds in ripping some of the paper off the wall, and when the frantic husband finally gets into the room she triumphantly tells him, “I’ve got out at last…and I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” He faints and becomes merely a obstacle for her to crawl around as she continues tracing the path of the wallpaper around the room.

This story is frequently offered as an early example of feminist literature. In the way that it condemns the unequal – and frankly condescending – treatment of women’s illnesses in an androcentric (that’s a new word I learned today 🙂 ) medical world, it certainly qualifies. I must admit, however, that the first time I read this story, I hadn’t even thought about that interpretation. I merely enjoyed it as the genuinely creepy, well-told story which it truly is.

Have you read The Yellow Wallpaper? What did you think of it?

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“Ride Along the Winds of Time and See Where We Have Been”

Are you sitting comfortably?

Yes, that’s also the title of an old song by The Moody Blues (and a great song it is – see the bottom of this post for the lyrics). I was reminded of it a couple weeks ago during a visit by author James Alexander Thom to “Bookmama’s Bookstore” in the “Historic Irvington” neighborhood of Indianapolis. Mr. Thom first spoke for a bit – for the most part about the topic of his latest book, “The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction” – and then entertained questions from the small audience (which strained the capacity of the cozy neighborhood bookstore).

One of the things he said that particularly struck me was that, in times gone by – and especially those times in which many of his own historical novel are set – people spent a large percentage of their time in some state of discomfort. Think about it for a moment. There was, for example, no central air conditioning or heating. (Can you imagine sweating through a summer like we had last year with no air conditioning?) Today, if we have a headache or a fever or cold we can go to the pharmacy to get some immediate relief. When we have to go to the dentist, there is such a thing as novacaine that makes the experience more tolerable. All of these options are relatively new developments.

He mentioned this in context with his other thoughts on being a writer of historical fiction, in particular how difficult it can often be to successfully transport the reader to another era. One of the questions I didn’t have time to ask him was whether or not he ever found it hard to re-orient or “re-boot” himself for the present day world after a particularly long stretch of working on – and perhaps in – the past. It would have been interesting to hear his answer.

He also spoke about the nemesis of the Historical Fiction writer – the dreaded anachronism. This part of his talk helped fine tune my vocabulary as well, since even though I knew the general meaning of the word “anachronism” as something “out of place,” I had never fully appreciated the Greek root “chronos” meaning “time” and that the full, correct meaning of the word is which is a person or thing that is chronologically out of place. Shame on me as a Classics Minor in college. I hope none of my old professors are reading this one!

Thom mentioned also that his preferred title for this book was “Once Upon a Time it was Now.” Sadly, he was overruled by his publishers, and we were robbed of that superior title. I read the book recently (although I have no aspirations to be a historical fiction writer) partly because I was a History Major in college and have an abiding interest in all things historical, but mainly because I was so impressed with this author when he visited the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library a couple months ago.

My favorite chapter of the book was the final one, titled “Around the Fire” and dealing with the fact that “stories” were the heart and genesis of everything. Stories told around the fire about the discovery that “willow bark can make an ache go away,” for example, were the birth of “Medicine.” Tales of ancestors and their deeds became “History.” A bird call is imitated and the birth of “Music” grows nearer. Tribes from ‘beyond the mountains’ tell what their lands are like and “Geography” is born. He lists many more examples. These are just a few. As he puts it, “I have come to believe that everything that makes up humanity and human civilization began as storytelling.”

So, if you’re an avid reader of historical fiction (good historical fiction, I mean) or even just a run-of-the-mill amateur historian, I think you’ll find a lot in this slim volume.  I know I did.

Here are the lyrics promised above from the Moody Blues song:

“Take another sip my love and see what you will see,
A fleet of golden galleons, on a crystal sea.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Let Merlin cast his spell.

Ride along the winds of time and see where we have been,
The glorious age of Camelot, when Guinevere was queen.
It all unfolds before your eyes,
As Merlin casts his spell.

The seven wonders of the world he’ll lay before your feet,
In far-off lands, on distant shores, so many friends to meet.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Let Merlin cast his spell.”