Flickers of Light: The Goldfinch

I would have loved to live in a Charles Dickens novel. I would have because, in Charles Dickens’ universes, everything makes sense. The tiniest fact, knock on the door, face seen through a window in the dark, silhouette drawn in the distant fog, dream or vision, signifies something. You would get to the end of the novel and realise in every little detail from the very first page there was the ending, an unavoidable fate written in every line, a unique conclusion advertised in every omen; everything is a sign.

Perhaps in our everyday lives, it is harder to see the connections, to interpret the omens, to wade through the random and insignificant. Is everything random, coincidental, or do we just fail to see the connections? That’s something Donna Tartt’s third novel The Goldfinch had me asking myself regularly. Dickensian in its structure, marvellously paced and incredibly moving, The Goldfinch is one of those novels that not only rescue the genre but bring it to its full bloom, an incandescent explosion of meaning, beauty, tragedy and humanity.

What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civil responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?” 

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker told by himself. An autobiography and a manifesto. For him, it all revolves around the tragic death of his mother at a bombing when he was thirteen. The incident irrevocably links Theo’s fate to a painting, Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch from 1664, and to an antique shop in New York, Hobart & Blackwell.

As Theo puts it, the death of his mother made a clear cut in the fabrics of his life, there was a before, where everything was happier yet illuminated by a dim light, almost blurry when looked at, and there’s an after. An after in which he is alone. The events take Theo to the Barbour’s house on Park Avenue, to Las Vegas with his father, to his calling as an antique’s dealer in New York, to unlikely friendships and drugs, to unrequited love and the underworld of illegal art dealing. And in the middle, connecting it all, is The Goldfinch.

“And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a  barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.”

I cannot express how much I loved reading the novel. I can’t say I enjoyed all of it, for it is a sad book, but I read it obsessively, always scared that it might end. Like a painting, this novel is made of light. It is made of thousands of brushstrokes, some fast-paced, some slow-paced, some violent and some gentle, a million colours, shades, textures by, surprisingly, a single brush: Theo’s point of view.

The narrator is, by the way, one of the things I most enjoyed. Like Jane Eyre, Theo is a compelling storyteller that mingles his memories and his reflections in a delightful way. The pace of the novel is also remarkable, for the time in the novel is like the time of the mind, some periods pass by rapidly in a couple of paragraphs while some instants—golden summer afternoons, visions of The Goldfinch— remain for pages, as if lived in slow motion.

Ultimately, The Goldfinch‘s theme (as with another of Tartt’s novels, The Secret History) is beauty. Could beauty be the meaning itself, instead of an accessory to the meaning? In Theo’s life, it is, for there is beauty in the most tragic of circumstances—or, at least, the most tragic events of his life led him, through crooked paths and unorthodox methods, towards beauty. Is beauty an honourable thing to seek? Who cares, argues Theo, the heart wants what it wants.

And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. 
Only what is that things? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about al the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet—for me, anyway— all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?

In Tartt’s novel, and in this it is not Dickensian, beauty is found in the connections between things and not at the end of a chain of events. There’s no meaning in the destination, but in the light that shines out of the cracks in an otherwise evenly paved path. And this is also why Theo Decker is not a hero or a villain, perhaps a decadent hero, a troubled one, a mistaken one, an honest one. The Goldfinch is, then some sort of Dickensian novel for our times, one that does not offer happy endings or meaning, but one that creates meaning in its very composition, in its own beauty.

“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. […] life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time—so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing.”

24 Books That Marked Me

Yesterday I turned 24. Scary. I’ve had the fortune to read many things along the years, and most of them have taught me something or challenged me in some way. Looking over all the things I’ve read, as one is bound to do when feeling nostalgic, I noticed that while there are hundreds of books I love, the ones that have actually changed me or that became an important part of who I am today are few, so I thought, why not choose a book that has marked me for each time I’ve completed a lap around the sun? These are the books I can’t imagine my life without (order is alphabetical).

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

††††“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dram all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” 

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us […] Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their arrive and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil […] There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, ill have left only the hard, clean questions Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them.” 

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” 

Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Hymns to the Night, Novalis

“At no grave can weep
Any who love and pray.”

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

“The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life? 

Answer.

That you are here—that life exists, and identity; 
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

“Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading.” 

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” 

Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Trust thyself. Every heart virbates to that iron string”

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

“If a coin comes down heads, that means that the possibility of its coming down tails has collapsed. Until that moment the two possibilities were equal. 
But on another world, it does come down tails. And when that happens, the two worlds split apart.” 

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector

“The world’s continual breathing is what we hear and call silence.” 

The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe

“I am proud of my heart alone, it is the sole source of everything, all our strength, happiness and misery. All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own” 

The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Janice Galloway

“No matter how often I think I can’t stand it anymore, I always do. There is no alternative. I don’t fall, I don’t foam at the mouth, faint, collapse or die. It’s the same for all of us. You can’t get out of the inside of your own head. Something keeps you going. Something always does.”

The Waste Land and Other Poems, T. S. Eliot

“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Villette, Charlotte Bronte

“So peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star.”

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

“Not until we are lost do we being to understand ourselves.”

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

“… perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant i too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” 

Lives Without Principle: Thoreau and Our Complex Times

As you may know, recently I finally got down to reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Thoureau had fascinated me since I studied some of his essays in university, mostly because I believe he’s one of the few thinkers who really put his money where his mouth was: his lifestyle was always coherent with his words.

What Thoreau had in mind when he decided to live in the woods in Massachussets could not be more relevant in our times. Reading Walden made me want to revisit the first essay I read by him: “Life Without Principle”. What he writes there is very relevant in our turbulent times.

Henry David Thoreau

In “Life Without Principle”, Thoreau speaks of how America evolved after the Independence, making industry and commerce its main focus and pushing art and philosophy to the side. What Thoreau defends agains this way of living is the idea of working for something we can actually find true to our selves. Only a job that doesn’t ask of us to look away from our dignity and that of those around us can lead us to the truth, a truth we find looking into ourselves.

Every day I see it more and more that my friends and acquaintances start working at things they don’t believe in and don’t even enjoy, just to get a check every month. And it pays off, I guess, if you can live your life numbly five days a week to get a nice holiday every year. Every Monday on social media I realize most people I know do not enjoy what they do, some of them even work for companies or organisations they know are not good for our society or our environment, but their goal is to make it to Friday and save some money and have some fun and hopefully find a job they enjoy more, or retire young.

What Thoreu would find problematic about this lifestyle is that it turns people into slaves. Thinking, for example, about the fast-fashion industry and how many jobs it generates—from CEOs and accountants, to people in retail, to people in actual sweatshops—: thousands and thousands of people working towards a goal that is doing more harm than good. But they all are capable to look away from the issue and from themselves: for a check that will pay a condo, a rent, food for their families. Such labour, a job that requires you to numb your conscience, induces a kind of slavery—slavery to consumerism— that makes it harder for people to seek true meaning in their lives.

“What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom? Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?”

Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”

It is a vicious circle, and it doesn’t only apply harmful industries, the same can be said of banks or political organisations or what have you. For in order to survive, one must give up their individuality; in order to achieve economic freedom, one compromises his or her youth and strenght and, worst of all, conscience, in the hope that one day one will be free to do as one pleases. Thoreau points out examples such as the Gold Rush and the trade of slaves, but we can find plenty of contemporary examples.

But how can we end this? You’re probably wondering that now and I wondered that when I read the essay. And Thoreau says: “I do not make an exorbitant demand, surely.” Is it doable then? Could we all, each one of us, work at something we not only enjoy, but respect because it makes us better and the world around us better? I believe we can, that at any rate we can begin now to change and to think twice if that which bring us immediate joy or comfort—a paycheck or some jeans— is really good for ourselves and those around us. I don’t think it is easy, but I think it is possible. Hard as hell because it’s easier to switch your conscience off from 9 to 5 than struggling 24/7 to make ends meet. But it’s possible.

Thoreau would say we should treat our minds as something sacred, that is also a great start. It is hard to think of these changes in the big picture, specially because there are many people who do not have a choice, but what about us who have the time to write and read blogs and books and use social media? It is not an exorbitant demand, indeed, if we start with small changes. What Thoreau would ask of us, I dare say, is that we follow the beat of our own drum, that we dare disagree and struggle if we find that our circumstances do not agree with who we are, that we break the rules if we find that the rules offend our dignity, or the dignity of our brothers and sisters, as human beings.

“At any rate, I might pursue some path, however solitary and narrow and crooked, in which I could walk with love and reverence. Wherever a man separates from the multitude, and goes his own way in this mood, there indeed is a fork in the road, though ordinary travellers may see only a gap in the paling. His solitary path across lots will turn out the higher way of the two.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”
Into the Wild

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‘Thou Mayest’: John Steinbeck on Free Will

“‘I am mine, I am my own’,
Said the ancients years ago”
–”I am mine”, Beta Radio
 

A couple of months ago I found a copy of Travels with Charlie in Search of America by John Steinbeck at O’Hare Airport. I had never read anything by him before, but this memoir was on my travel books list. Being traveling at the time, I thought it was only fitting to read it. This book marked me deeply, and it was the beginning of my current love affair with John Steinbeck’s work. I learned many things from and because of the book, amongst them a refreshened sense of accountability and what it means to be free.

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Also, I have a crush on him.

Almost at the beginning of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck justifies his desire of going on a road trip at his age (he was sixty) with the following quote:

“For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as consequence, not as punishment.”

It is the last part, about acknowledging the consequences of our actions as such, where the possibility of freedom lies. Far from romanticizing free will, Steinbeck does not seek it in the possibility of doing whatever one chooses, but rather in recognizing the outcomes of our actions as completely our own. Free will resides in being individually accountable for our actions, however good or bad, fortunate or ill-timed, as completely our doing. Free will requires therefore a rejection of all superstition and religious fatality.

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Later on in his memoir, Steinbeck attends mass at a small church in Vermont. After describing the harsh manner of the priest and his straightforward attitude about hell and sinning, he writes:

“The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control.”

The problem with the “sinning nature” of humanity shared by many a religion lies exactly there: it is not possible to be accountable of something we are not guilty of, something we cannot help. But without accountability there cannot be choice, not self-reliance, no freedom. The priest Steinbeck writes about did not see it that way, and assured everyone in the service that they would indeed burn in hell if they did not change their ways. Instead of being frightening, this thought is uplifting for Steinbeck; there is choice then, and if one is to burn in hell, it is because of his or her own doing:

“I hadn’t been thinking very well of myself for some years, but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left. I wasn’t a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it.”

Funny as this passage might be, it had me thinking for a long time after finishing the book how damaging it is to find excuses for our wrong doings (in our religious belief, in our upbringing, in our family history, in our social or economic circumstances). Not only because it takes from us the pride there is in any achievement (if our wrongdoings are not our own, surely our successes can’t be completely ours either) but because it completely alters the light under which we see ourselves. There is no greater danger than believing we are not accountable for our actions, good or bad.

A few weeks after reading Travels with Charley, I bough a copy of East of Eden. I couldn’t wait to see if his novels were as compelling as what I had read so far. I was not disappointed. Out of the many things that are praise-worthy in the book, I was surprised to see the whole novel revolves about the same dilemma on free-will and accountability.

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East of Eden, as its name suggests, is in some ways a reenacting of the Book of Genesis, specially the story about Cain and Abel. The novel follows various generations of two families that settle in the Salinas Valley at the end of the 19th century: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. There is a wonderful chapter in the middle of the novel in which the characters discuss the story of Cain and Abel. As Lee, a Chinese employee in the Trask ranch, says, the different translations of the story alter its meaning completely.

When God, in the Book of Genesis, finds out Cain killed his brother Abel, he banishes Cain to the East of Eden and He says to him, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?, and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door”. This is the choice given to Cain, however the next part of the dialogue varies depending on the translation. The King James versions says, “And unto thee shalt be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him”. This is, as Lee acknowledges, a  promise: Cain will conquer sin, therefore his free will is taken from him.

Another version of the Bible, the American Standard, says “do thou rule over him” instead. This is not a promise, but an order, also taking free will out of the question. Lee is also not satisfied with this translation, so he consults some scholars on the Hebrew word used in the passage. The word is timshel and it does not mean either “thou shalt” or “do thou”. It means “thou mayest”, thou mayest rule over sin:

“… the Hebrew word, the word timshel‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man. For if ‘Thou mayest’, then it’s also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see? […] Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and in his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win […]

I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed—because ‘Thou mayest’.”

Timshel is the motif of the whole novel, a retelling of the book of Genesis with an emphasis in the possibility of choosing. The novel follows the hardships of a varied set of characters, and each one of the is confronted with difficult choices, some great and some small, but not all of them are accountable for the paths they choose.

The same respect towards accountably that an older Steinbeck would put down in his travel memoir can be seen in East of Eden, and also his belief that literature is nothing but an attempt to explain this struggle, this search for and fear of free will:

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us […] Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their arrive and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil […] There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, ill have left only the hard, clean questions Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

East of Eden was published ten years before Travels with Charley, and both follow the same line of thought on free will. They both speak of a complex kind of freedom, a kind of freedom that rejects the two main myths about humanity, that people are inherently good or evil; a kind of freedom that places a huge responsibility on being human: “You see, there is responsibility in being a person. It’s more than just taking up space where air would be”. And it is in the responsibility and in the hardship where beauty lies, for if we are capable of the worst evil, we are also capable of the greatest good; “I am my own”, Caleb says in the novel, “If I’m mean, it’s my own mean”.


I am currently reading The Grapes of Wrath (I am obsessed with Steinbeck, I know). Have you read anything by him? Any recommendations on what to read next?

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Also, here are two relevant songs:

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