The world’s “black dog”

Silk Screen illustration 2016 by jpbohannon.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression “having the black dog on his back.” This was not original  with him, but was a common saying, referring more often to moodiness than depression. One historian likened it to the phrase “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” But nevertheless, the phrase has been attributed to Churchill and ever since been associated with depression.

God knows, the world that Churchill saw certainly could buckle the strongest man’s knees.

And so it seems to be these past few months, as well. From Paris to Brussles to Orlando to Dallas to Nice  to Turkey to everyday traffic-stops, there has just been an onslaught of horrific and discouraging news. President Obama, in his speech after the Dallas shootings, said that “this is not who we are.”

But I wonder. Not we as Americans specifically–although I do wonder about that–but we as a species.

Sure, I know the heartwarming and hopeful stories as well: from high-school kids doing serious global service to individual neighbors coming together to help another in worse shape than they, from those who put their lives on the line to those who fight against power when it seems determined to crush the weak. I know people whose every thought seems to be how to better the lives of the sick and  dispossessed, the impoverished and the abused.

And yet these past few months have been relentless.

Last week, I read two novels by Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity and Professor Andersen’s Night. Both deal with teachers–Norwegian literature teachers–at the end of their careers. They both (a high-school teacher and university teacher respectively) question the value of the literature they profess. (Both are teaching Ibsen.)  The struggle to make students realize the value of literature has been ongoing throughout their career–that is always the natural give and take between student and teacher, although both feel it increasingly worse– but now they feel that that value is questioned by society itself. From evolving technologies–and  the distractions they provide–to current pedagogical trends and goals that emphasize success in a future career, they feel out of place, like dinosaurs, supporting a cause that is no longer relevant in the ultra-modern world.

And it is easy to believe that.

As hundreds are gunned down, blown-up, crushed, drowned, stripped of their homes, it is hard to rationalize the need to read a 150 year old Norse play, or a 450 year British play , or a 2500 year old Greek. Novels, poetry, drama, short fiction…it all feels so powerless against men with efficient guns and deficient ideas.

And yet, never before has it been so important.

Study after study has linked reading literature with an increase in the development of EMPATHY. Even the youngest teenager, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, understands on the simplest of levels, the importance of “walking in another man’s shoes.” Reading has always been a way of experiencing different lives, different cultures, different ideas.  And this is what it needs to continue to do. It is our insularity, our tribalism, our fear of (and intolerance to) the “other” that is that root of much of the world’s pain and horror.

I KNOW that art, music, literature, theater, dance are more than just “nice things” for entitled leisure. They are essential to us as a species.

I KNOW these things to be true. But these days I do not FEEL it.

But I must continue doing what I do, nevertheless: read and write.

However, as I read this, the “black dog” is wagging its tail frantically and banging up against the door.







Now some are born to fly high
Some are born to follow
Some are born to touch the sky
And some walk in the hollow
But as I watched your body fall
I knew that really you had won
For your grave was not the earth
But the reflection of the sun

“Icarus” by Anne Lister

Icarus                        ©2013 by                     J.P. Bohannon

illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

The mythological character Icarus has been a buzzword at my job recently. Many of us on the staff have been reading a book called The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. To be honest, it is not my kind of read–more of a marketing, business oriented approach to things with a fair mixture of Dr. Phil and Oprah thrown in–but it has me thinking about Icarus.

I have always had a soft-spot for him. (See my post “Breughel, Auden and the Death of my Mother” from 2012/8/19.) There is something more than heroic in his quest, in his attempt at flying to the sun–(and I don’t want to hear any of the archetypal “primal disobedience” stuff at the moment. Sure, wasn’t it his old man, that grand artificer Daedelus, that had gotten them both locked up in the first place, locked up in that “inescapable” prison, because of his own disobedience and rebellion.)

And the more I think of it, Icarus’s “disobedience” IS NOT the story. The story is THE FLIGHT, where the tips of his wings glow white and gold with sunlight, where he becomes–for a moment–transcendent. It is all about the attempt, about the individual’s need to push further, to soar higher. For in a large way, to stop pushing forward is the real death by drowning.

No one had flown before Icarus and his father, but what we seem to remember is his drowning. That’s the wrong focus entirely.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In a previous life, I wrote ad-copy for an agency. And I listened to a lot of music on a good old disc-player. If it was critical, creative stuff I needed to be writing, I used classical music or Irish trad or instrumental guitar. If it was mindless stuff, I listened to songs.


Martin Simpson

It was during this time that I became enamored with the guitar work and songs of a man named Martin Simpson. His playing was exquisite, intricate and beautiful and when he did sing a song, his voice was strong yet vulnerable. Until this weekend, I hadn’t listened to him in a long while although I must own four or five of his albums. But Icarus was in my head, and he had done a cover of Anne Lister’s song “Icarus” that I loved a lot and which never failed to choke me up. Told from the point of view of someone too timid to take a risk, too hesitant to make that leap, the song nevertheless details the pride and admiration he/she has for Icarus and what he has done. I always knew that the lump in my throat was not so much for Icarus but for his companion who “never wanted to fly high.”

Here are the full lyrics:

I never wanted to fly high
I was too fond of walking
So when you said you`d touch the sky
I thought it was your way of talking
And then you said you`d build some wings
You`d found out how it could be done
But I was doubtful of everything
I never thought you`d reach the sun

You were so clever with your hands
I`d watch you for hours
With the glue and rubber bands
The feathers and the lace and flowers
And the finished wings glowed so bright
Like some bird of glory
I began to envy you your flight
Like some old hero`s story

You tried to get me to go with you
You tried all ways to dare me
But I looked at the sky so blue
I thought the height would scare me
But I carried your wings for you
Up the path and to the cliff face
Kissed you goodbye and watched your eyes
Already bright with sunlight

It was so grand at the start
To watch you soaring higher
There was a pain deep in my heart
Your wings seemed tipped with fire
Like some seagull or a lark
Soaring forever
Or some ember or a spark
Drifting from Earth to Heaven

Then I believed all that you`d said
I believed all that you`d told me
You`d do a thing no man had ever done
You`d touch the stars to please me
And then I saw your wide wings fail
Saw your feathers falter
And watched you drop like a ball of gold
Into the wide green water

Now some are born to fly high
Some are born to follow
Some are born to touch the sky
And some walk in the hollow
But as I watched your body fall
I knew that really you had won
For your grave was not the earth
But the reflection of the sun

I never wanted to fly high…

And here is Martin Simpson playing and singing. Give it a listen:

A quibble with electronic publishing

I’m a little worried.

Just a little worried.

The majority of things I’ve had published are in print. They  haven’t earned me a fortune–five dollars here, twenty dollars there–but a least I have a copy of them. Actually, two copies of them, because most of the ” legitimate” small journals pay in copies. They publish your story, poem, essay and pay you with two copies of the issue in which you appear. Two copies placed with the others in a chest at the foot of my bed.

And then along comes the Internet. Instant gratification. Electronic submissions. Electronic responses. Usually much quicker than traditional ways.

The best story I think I’ve ever wrote was published on line. “Nadja and the Dream of Teeth” first appeared through the Dublin Writer’s Workshop in the journal The Electric Acorn.

Then it was published electronically by The Richmond Review (UK). The editor at The Richmond Review was wonderful. She asked questions, made good suggestions, and, overall, made me tighten things up.  All through e-mails. From across the pond. This was the internet at its best.

And then it appeared electronically. It was beautiful. Nice layout. Clean font. Well done. I was proud of the story and proud of its being out there.

Now several years later, the site is down. Just a blank white page. Try it. Google “Richmond review uk” and you’ll find the link.  And then a pure white page. Where is my story? Not there. Not archived. Nowhere. And it was a legitimate journal!

Sort of the same thing with another story– “Pierced.” Except the journal it appeared in didn’t disappear; it sold its domain name to a Japanese company. Try to find my story and you’ll be staring at a beautiful chrysanthemum surrounded by Japanese writing. I am pretty sure that it is not my story translated into Japanese.

So. No big deal. Two short stories that meant something to me but certainly not to anyone else. Vanished. Pouf! But what if this was important material? Is there a fear that important things might simply disappear after a given time?

I know the saying that nothing ever disappears in cyberspace, but will future researchers, historians, students all have the tools necessary to recover those things that have?

Granted there is much that is superfluous, so much that is ephemeral on the Web. Much of it–my own scribblings included– really doesn’t deserve a long shelf life. But, by caching materials away so easily are we also tossing away things of lasting value.  I don’t mean the works of a future Shakespeare or a document of “Declaration of Independence” import.  I mean things like the novelist Rick Moody’s music reviews on Rumpus or Margaret Atwood’s book reviews for The Guardian or the Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s powerful reading of “At Roane Head.”  My fear is that this stuff–which is important stuff, important aspects of our culture, glimpses into who we are–will someday disappear.  Without a trace.  Without record.

Is it the nature of blogging or on-line writing in general to be ephemeral? Is that what is the draw? Do we read it not expecting ever to go back to it.  I don’t know.

But it does worry me at times.

Dragonflies, wives’ tales, and worse

I bought some wallpaper the other day. Just four yards of it.  It has enormous dragonflies on it–each one is 2 feet across, a pen and ink drawing done in exquisite detail.

Don’t ask me why.

When I was young I was told that dragonflies sewed your mouth shut.  I can clearly remember knowing that and believing it as a child. Yet when I ask other people, no one else had ever heard of such a thing.  Is it a ethnic thing that came from my parents? Was it just an off-the-cuff remark that some joking adult told me and which I always believed?  I don’t know.

I mentioned it to a woman I worked with once. She had never heard of their sewing mouths shut, but she told me a much, more horrific tale about her and dragonflies.

She was a little girl around seven or eight and there was a copse of trees behind the house where she lived, ringed by a swatch of tall, wild grass.

One day when she was playing in or walking through the high grasses, three slightly older boys molested her.  They dragged her to a clearing in the woods and the weapon they used was a dragonfly.  They pinned down her arms and legs and waved the dragonfly in front of her face while they groped her and de-pants her. For her, a dragonfly meant much more than a silly wives’ tale about sewing children’s mouth shut.

What more can one say?

And where are those boys? What have they become? Do the remember that hell they visited on that little girl?

I have outgrown my fear of dragonflies–in fact, now I find them beautiful and graceful.  But I am sure that that young girl, now a woman in her 60s, never has.