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.






Book Review: Winter’s Bone by Darrell Woodrell–can you find a better heroine in all of literature?

I have a tendency to exaggerate, to think that whatever I have read, heard or seen lately and liked  is the BEST!  I am much more nuanced about things I dislike and usually soften the blows rather than exaggerate them.

But with Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone, I feel confident in stating what a truly fine book it is.

In fact, since I have read it, I have tried to think of a heroine in an American novel who matches Ree Dolly for grit, perseverance, wisdom and sheer moxie. These are the suggestions I have gotten so far:

1. Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (too spoiled, mercurial and self-centered)
2. Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (not really her story but her father’s–who, by the way, may be the best father in literature.)
3. Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter (interesting suggestion, but her props come from accepting her punishment and not revealing who the father of her child was, while letting the simpy Rev. Dimmesdale preach his sermons and fill himself with self-loathing. I don’t see her as a particularly active heroine.)
4. Katniss in Susan Collins The Hunger Games (must say, I don’t know enough about her, except that Jennifer Lawrence played both Katnis in the Hunger Games AND Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone.)
5. Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ True Grit (Mattie is a good second to Ree Dolly. Her challenges just don’t seem as daunting as Ree’s.)

Please feel free to add your own selections.

But my point is, I can’t remember any heroine–or any protagonist for that matter–who is so admirable in her refusal to not back down, in her persistence in doing what she must, and in her bravery in standing up to the very nasty forces that surround her.

In case you don’t know, Winter’s Bone is the story of Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year old girl who is raising her two younger siblings and caring for her catatonic, demented mother. Her meth-cooking father has just skipped bail and he had put up their hovel of a home as bond.  If he doesn’t show up for court, Ree and her family are out on the streets–or more realistically out in the fields of this very hardscrabble Missouri Ozarks setting.

Suffice it to say that her father is dead. And people aren’t real happy about Ree poking into their business. This is a community whose main economy and main diversion is crystal meth-amphetamine, and there are a whole lot of very, very nasty people.  No one talks. Talking creates witnesses.

In the course of her journey, Ree gets a truly horrible beating, she allies herself with her rough Uncle Teardrop (named such because of the three tears self-tattooed on his face), and finally proves her father’s death by sawing off his two hands (with a chain-saw from where he is sunken in a murky lake) and bringing the “identification” back to the authorities.

If it sounds gruesome. It is. But it is also one of those books that hooks you immediately and which you wish would go on forever. And it is all because of the character of Ree.  It is Ree that rises above all the violence, the poverty, the bleakness. But while Ree completes her quest at the end, while a few things begin to go right for her and her family, one is left feeling that in another five or ten years Ree will have turned into one of the many harridans that populate this mountain.  I hope not.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

I read the novel for a film class I am teaching.  And so, I also had to show the film. As in all translations, there are various changes–her two brothers for some reason become a brother and a sister–and particular scenes are deleted.  Yet the film very much captures the spirit and the landscape of the novel.

Jennifer Lawrence is, at times, magnificent. There are moments when the camera captures the soft plumpness of her face adding even a greater vulnerability to this girl/woman who has to face such ordeals.  At other times, that softness works against her, straining our credibility that she is who she is supposed to be.

Not so with John Hawkes.  Hawkes, who was the soft-spoken hardware salesman in Deadwood–a similar world of extreme dirtiness and corruption, plays Teardrop perfectly. Hard as Ozark flint, creased and shaky, Hawkes captures the violence, the drug addled paranoia and stupor, and the family loyalty of these inbred mountain folk with studied truthfulness and credibility.  While Winter’s Bone is Lawrence’s movie, you don’t forget Hawkes for too long.

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone.

John Hawkes as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone