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December 2, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Defending the Right to a Jewish State

Heather Hale: Compliment your kids without giving them big heads

Megan Shauri: 10 ways you are ruining your own happiness

Carolyn Bigda: 8 Best Dividend Stocks for 2015

Kiplinger's Personal Finance editors: 7 Things You Didn't Know About Paying Off Student Loans

Samantha Olson: The Crucial Mistake 55% Of Parents Are Making At Their Baby's Bedtime

Densie Well, Ph.D., R.D. Open your eyes to yellow vegetables

The Kosher Gourmet by Megan Gordon With its colorful cache of purples and oranges and reds, COLLARD GREEN SLAW is a marvelous mood booster --- not to mention just downright delish
April 18, 2014

Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology

Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

Megan Wallgren: 10 things I've learned from my teenagers

Lizette Borreli: Green Tea Boosts Brain Power, May Help Treat Dementia

John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious

April 14, 2014

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time

Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

The Kosher Gourmet by Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon Don't dare pass over these Pesach picks for Manischewitz!

April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review March 3, 2008 / 26 Adar I 5768

Fiction as a crutch to get one through life

By Paul Johnson


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http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | I gave up writing novels in my mid-twenties, when I was halfway through my third, convinced I had not enough talent for fiction. Sometimes I wish I had persisted. There is one particular reason. The point is made neatly by W. Somerset Maugham in Cakes and Ale:


These remarks need qualification. I'm not sure that the essay can be used for such a purpose. Hazlitt, a great essayist, wrote an extended essay — short book length — to exorcise the torturing spirit of his landlady's awful (but to him divine) daughter, Sarah, and it did not work: merely got him into fresh, public trouble. It is true that Lamb, an even better essayist, occasionally used the form to rid himself of shaming memories: for instance, not sufficiently appreciating the kindness of his humble aunt who brought him culinary titbits when he was a charity boy at the Charterhouse, and in that delicate essay 'Poor Relations'. But I have published, I calculate, about 800 essays without using one for exorcism. It works in poetry, especially to expunge the pangs of loss — witness Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' and Shelley's 'Adonais', and most of 'A Shropshire Lad' — indeed nearly all Housman's verse was exorcism. It can be made to work, I suppose, in non-fiction. I suspect there is exorcism in some of Ruskin's prose, and Carlyle's.


But fiction is the ideal medium for killing painful memories. The most excruciating emotional torture in Thackeray's life — prolonged, too — was his hopeless passion for Mrs Brookfield, ending in heartbreak, bitterness and bad temper on the part of her unpleasant husband. But he cured himself by putting it all into Henry Esmond. Gustave Flaubert wanted to forget about his ten-year on-off affair with Louise Collet. So he wrote Madame Bovary, which did the trick and also proved to be by far his best novel because, unlike Salambo and Bouvet et Pécuchet, he had lived it. I think Anthony Trollope tried to deal with his illicit and unspoken love for the American girl Kate, not once but several times — she flickered in and out of at least three novels — but the fact that he had to repeat the dose shows it didn't work, any more than did Aldous Huxley's attempt to expel Nancy Cunard from his memory in Antic Hay.


Dickens was the great exorciser of emotional ghosts. One reason why David Copperfield was his favourite book was that it was a vast exercise in slaughtering his most painful memories of childhood. By recreating his father as an unforgettable comic hero in the shape of Micawber, Dickens triumphantly blotted out of his consciousness the fact that John Dickens was a hopeless and embarrassing failure. He remained an expense to Dickens to his dying day but no longer caused pain by his idiocies: Micawber absorbed and transmuted them all into laughter. His mother was a more difficult proposition. Dickens was bitter about her because she had done nothing to stop him being condemned to the blacking factory, the worst experience of his life. But the fact that he had to have several shots at her, from Mrs Nickleby onwards, shows that the exorcism did not work.


The truth is, I think, that anaesthetising memories by employing them in fiction operates at two levels. For comparatively minor characters Dickens experienced no difficulties. All his irritation at Leigh Hunt's persistent mendicancy, in which was subsumed Dickens's weariness at the endless applications for 'loans' he received from the writing fraternity (he was exceptionally generous, and people presumed on it), were both completely banished from his mind by his brilliant creation of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. But at the higher, more intense level where the deepest emotions are felt, Dickens was less successful. He could not expunge Maria Beadnell by fiction: she remained to torment him until he actually met and got to know her again, when her faded charms and capacity to bore were effective antidotes.


Nor could he use the chloroform of fiction to sort out the pain and shame of his brutal repudiation of his wife Catherine, who had borne him ten children, and his affair — if it was an affair — with the young actress Ellen Ternan. His anxiety to do it, and his repeated inability to carry through his intention, cast a faint shadow over his late novels. The extraordinary ingenuity he employed to keep secret his many meetings with Ellen reflected his inability to devise a fictional way of solving the problem. The secrecy means we still do not know the precise nature of their relationship, and the fact that Dickens could not fictionalise it suggests it was deeply unsatisfactory to him.


Transmuting bitter memories into stories can produce great work. Evelyn Waugh felt himself crucified by his betrayal by his first wife. But it produced what many regard as his masterpiece, A Handful of Dust, a powerful book I find almost too painful to re-read. An earlier humiliation by Cyril Connolly was gradually erased by General Connolly, the mercenary of Black Mischief, the Connolly slum-children of Put Out More Flags, and the odious Everard Spruce of Unconditional Surrender.


I suspect Jane Austen used fiction to exorcise moments of humiliation or shame. Emma's rudeness to Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic, perhaps the most painful experience in the entire oeuvre, must surely have recreated an actual incident which Jane bitterly regretted and was anxious to stamp out of her memory. There are comparable but less fraught episodes in her presentation of Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot, two heroines close to her own person. There is no question that Jane Austen was sufficiently in command of her inventive faculty to use her novels for all sorts of secret emotional purposes, and that as a result of writing them she was a much happier woman than she would have been otherwise. Fiction is a useful crutch to get one through life.

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Previously:

02/26/08: Impatience + Greed = Trouble
02/13/08: Shakespeare, Neo-Platonism and Princess Diana
02/07/08: Where Industry Has Failed Us
12/19/07: People who put their trust in human power delude themselves
12/12/07: What is aggression?
12/04/07: Pursuing success is not enough
11/07/07: Are famous writers accident-prone?
10/31/07: Courage needed to disarm Iran
09/20/07: Who Will Say ‘I Promise to Lay Off’?
07/24/07: Greed is safer than power-seeking
04/02/07: Benefactors must be hardheaded
03/07/07: American idealism and realpolitik
11/28/06: Space: Our ticket to survival
10/24/06: Envy is bad economics
10/11/06: Better to Borrow or Lend? Rethinking conventional wisdom
08/22/06: Don't practice legal terrorism
08/08/06: A summer rhapsody for a pedal-bike
08/03/06: Why is there no workable philosophy of music?
07/11/06: Historically speaking, energy crisis is America's opportunity
07/06/06: The misleading dimensions of persons and lives
06/06/06: First editions are not gold
05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty ones
04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle

© 2006, Paul Johnson

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