After nearly 300 pages (with a bit more than a 100 to go), I don’t know what to make of this novel. I do know that the writing is powerful, often hallucinatory, filled with wonderful metaphors and poetic symbology. I do know it makes me think of all kinds of things: Death, Suicide, Heaven and Hell, Love, Masks, Mercurial Personalities. Nietzsche is a guiding spirit. As are the Icelandic Eddas, and the thousand and one journeys through love, hedonism, faith and beyond permeating our culture(s).
The life of a Christian ascetic is something Laxness knew first hand. And the life of a traveler. His protagonist, Steinn Elliði, a young poet, sets out from Iceland to become “the perfect man”. Travels throughout Europe. At this point in the book, he has found his way to a monastery, trying to find peace. I imagine when I return to his story it will take on another strange shape and find new touchstones.
We learn, through a combination of internal monologue, letters, and third person narration, some of the violent, poetic, surreal and volatile workings of his mind. Along the way. In search of. Always in search of. Steinn denounces, renounces, then embraces a host of philosophies, rejects and rediscovers Catholicism. On the page, his mind is powerful, which adds intrigue to the otherwise wild swings and bizarre verbal ramblings. Back home in Iceland, a girl, Diljá, may wait for him. Or, perhaps not.
* * * * *
Hiking today in the woods, I thought about the novel, and about music. And the arts in general. I thought about how so many gifted artists take their own lives. And that alters their work. Forever. Pushes us to dig more deeply into the words, the images, the sounds. Trying to find out why. Trying to see if the signs were there all along.
But that’s not how it works, usually. Art is done in the shadow of that desire at times. But rarely for long, extended periods. Here and there. Highs and lows. A sprint, a jagged moment or two or three. Much of an artist’s life may be spent inside hope, even if it ends voluntarily. We can’t really box up a life’s work and wrap it up and file it all under suicide. Though we often do just that.
A good friend of mine introduced me to the music of Elliot Smith a few years ago. A tremendous talent, Smith had a history of suicide attempts, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, before succeeding in taking his own life.
But should we look at his work solely in that light? Or the work of any artist who self-destructed? It’s sometimes hard not to. It was difficult not to as I walked through the thick green and brown woods, listening to his songs, looking up at a very blue sky.
Which came first, the emotional depth, the thoughtfulness, the melancholy quality of the person, or that dark muse? Was there a causal connection between the ability to feel life deeply, with compassion, with genuine empathy, an inability to ward off sorrow, and the desire to end it all?
Beauty, truth, light. Thousands have written about that trinity. Thousands have noted that feeling things deeply is not always the way to get through life. Masks are needed. Illusions. Sometimes, sedatives of one kind or another. Distraction equals coping.
Our artists show us how to feel, really, really feel, really, really see and hear and taste and touch. But who shows them how to overcome the truth and the light?
Between the Bars, by Elliott Smith