Dealing with the Dog -- Peter Leyland
Dealing with the Dog, a meditation on using literature to help us feel better
The idea of using literature as a support in times of trouble is not a new one. The philosopher Montaigne after the death of his friend from the plague in the C16 spoke of the companionship of books and there are indeed many studies of how this works. It has even been given a label, bibliotherapy and I have presented a number of papers on the subject at adult education conferences over the last few years. These papers were not particularly academic but rather autoethnographic and to save you looking that up it is a research method where a writer uses self-reflection to explore personal experience and to connect this to wider cultural, political and social meanings.
So here goes. Some time ago when I was in the depths of despair following a marital breakup, not so unusual now but in those days difficult particularly for men who were unable to share these things with friends the response of whom often was, ‘Well get on another horse then,’ as if the answer could be so simple, I came across a poem by Andrew Young called Hard Frost. The poem begins with an invocation by Frost for water to Halt! and continues to describe the stasis caused by this frost, but goes on to say that 'In the long war grown warmer/The sun will strike him dead and strip his armour.' The message was of course that things would change and even get better just as the seasons do.
I found the idea that things would get better a useful one and I was thinking of it today in mid-December as I walked down to the town through bare trees and over the leaves that had been shed, rolling up my trouser cuffs to prevent mud sticking, although it happened anyway as I found when I reached the relative safety of the coffee bar a few miles away; I was thinking about if and when the current pandemic would end. I was well stocked with books which I could read to stave off this more recent despair, and I was now no longer alone having remarried more successfully once a lengthy period of mourning had elapsed, but just as the philosopher Montaigne did, I do believe that reading books can heal us when we are in the throes of depression from whatever the cause.
My earliest recollection of this healing process was when as a boy I watched the unfolding of the Aberfan pit disaster in 1966 and couldn’t make any sense of it except by looking at a poem by Dylan Thomas called Once it was the colour of saying, and the lines ‘With a capsized field where a school sat still/And a black and white field where girls grew playing,’ which although it had nothing to do with the disaster told me something about the power of poetry to heal my troubled thoughts.
It was the same with my general incomprehension of the world in general, a world in which my father had died too early, and which was fraught with the enduring cruelty of war. The poetry of Wordsworth that I was studying at school resonated with me in a way that nothing had before and I looked for the 'spots of time scattered everywhere' which could repair and renovate. I did not yet have a girlfriend and when a trainee teacher with whom I was sharing a hospital ward while awaiting a cartilage operation introduced me to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock something indefinable happened. I was struggling with adolescence and like T.S. Eliot I didn’t think those mermaids would sing for me however much I wanted them to. If we want a more modern understanding of the emotional struggles of young men, we need look no further than the recent novel Normal People by Sally Rooney in which the issue is dramatized in the character of Connor. His early experiments in a relationship with Marianne lead him to the most remorse-filled tears and I would highly recommend the book for those suffering from teenage angst, or indeed to anybody who wants to understand the state.
We make choices in our lives, probably the most important one being our partner or non-partner if we prefer singlehood. I have had experiences of both states, coming down on the side of the former eventually after having spent time in each, neither of which were particularly well chosen. If I could take a novel as a template for my life, George Eliot's Middlemarch for instance, I would tell you how I thought about Lydgate and how his marriage to Rosamond Vincey and the compromises that followed seemed so very much like my own, or how relieved I was when Dorothea in the same book was given a second chance after making her disastrous choice to marry Casaubon, although admittedly women had less scope in the matter in those days.
Be that as it may, this is a self-reflective example of how a particular book spoke to me, but to what extent has literature really helped me with my own life experiences? I can pick out times when I think it assisted me along the way. Once when I had been diagnosed with hearing loss and was attending a literary festival clutching my new hearing aids which seemed to stick out like elephant’s ears when I wore them, and was listening to the poetry of Bejamin Zephania, he invited the audience to get up and dance to the music of his verses and we did and danced, danced, danced and forgot about whatever else was on our minds. And another time when I had been reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac and decided to read it right through without stopping as he had supposedly written it on a long scroll of typing paper which is still preserved somewhere and I was filled with the sublimity of Kerouac’s ending to his novel: '“Come on up,” she called…and I went up and there she was the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and so long.' And soon after this I met someone to whom I ended up getting married. Sheer coincidence? I wonder.
Finally, in a recent interview for a podcast on the subject of bibliotherapy I was asked what books I would recommend at the present time and I unhesitatingly answered The Cure at Troy, a verse play by Seamus Heaney. The play is about the Trojan war, but the situation Heaney presents is analogous to the civil war between Catholics and Protestants that existed in Northern Ireland before the Peace Agreement. The Greek, Philocetes, has a wound that will not heal but after a long and tortuous debate about weapons between the characters of Neptolemus, Odysseus and himself Philocetes lets go of his suffering and agrees to bring his magic bow to Troy in order to end the war. I thought to myself after reading it that we often have wounds that are difficult to heal yet how important it is to forgive the hurts that have been done to us, however cruel, in order that we might progress.
But now it is the New Year and I expect many of you have received books or book tokens as Christmas presents. Whether we use these to engage with aspects of the world more deeply as in the novel Here Casts No Shadow by Bronwen Griffiths which is about another civil war from which refugees are still fleeing, or whether we use them to escape from it as in the stories of Katherine Mansfiel which I often do, there may be a bit of bibliotherapy in there. My wife’s Xmas present to me was an online course on the subject. Watch this space and a Very Happy New Year to you all.
Peter Leyland 1/1/21
“I’d disapproved of using poetry as personal therapy, but the Black Dog taught me better. Get sick enough and you’ll use any remedy you’ve got.” Killing the Black Dog, A memoir of depression (1997) by Les Murray