The Nourishment of Fiction

Firmin by Sam Savage is a wonderful read, especially for bibliophiles.

It’s no accident that Firmin’s name rhymes with vermin, since he is indeed a rat. Born in the basement of a Bostonbookstore at 3:17 P.M. on April 30, 1961, Firmin is the unfortunate thirteenth member of his mom’s litter. Since she can only feed twelve at a time and Firmin is the runt, he is reduced to eating books instead of drinking his mother’s milk. So he is nurtured by gnawing on Finnegan’s Wake and soon comes to imagine that his adventurousness comes from devouring Moby Dick and his sense of being a strange outcast results from turning Don Quixote into confetti.

 Firmin, of course, is a good stand-in for any author learning his craft. His developing imaginative life lets him distinguish among various authors by the texture and taste of the books on which he gorges. His mother and siblings eventually vanish, but he remains in the bookstore that is his birthright and home. When he discovers an equally solitary sales clerk in the bookstore, Firmin dreams of a friendship that could transcend their differences.

Unfortunately, this section of Boston is to undergo urban renewal and the bookstore is to be torn down. How Firmin deals with this and the other challenges of his life make for a touching, inventive, and wonderful read. The loveliness of a rat with a writer’s sensibility is brought home to each copy of the book by a neat graphic device: the right side of the book has literally been gnawed away. So we better ingest this marvelous stuff quickly or a hungry rat may fill himself first!

The Desire Not to Write

Phillip Roth recently retired from writing. His career, started in 1959, has spanned five decades and included thirty-one novels. Nearing 80 (next March), Roth has had enough of writing.

“The struggle with writing is over.” That’s what he wrote on the note attached to his refrigerator. He no longer has to face the daily creative struggle.

What is a loss for his readers is a relief for him. As he says, “I look at that note every morning, and it gives me strength.”

The desire not to do something can be very powerful. Creativity is a wonder on the best days, a misery on the worst, and a struggle on almost every day. What creative person hasn’t thought at one time or another that it would be a blessing to stop. To simply say, “No more,” and turn one’s back on the demands of the psyche.

It will be interesting to see if Phillip Roth really can retire. In a way, I’m rooting for him to succeed. Isn’t five decades long enough to devote to any career? Hasn’t he accomplished more than enough?

“I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration,” Roth observes. “Writing is a frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And that’s if you’re one of the best hitters in the game.

To allow for the cessation of an activity that has received so much of one’s life energy is a brave attempt to create the new. What shape will the new take in the case of Phillip Roth or any of us who dare to allow space and time for the unfamiliar to enter our lives? Roth suggests that friendships, entertaining company, will be more part of his life. For the rest of us, if we ever face a similar challenge and opportunity, the answer is unknown, unfathomable, and worthy of at least a bit of speculation.

Do Dreams Tell the Future?

I just finished reading An Experiment with Time by J. W. Dunne. First published in 1927 and reissued in 2001 with an introduction by physicist Russell Targ, An Experiment in Time argues that some of our dreams reveal the future. This precognition is not the ability of a limited number of psychic adepts, but according to Dunne is the birthright of all humanity.

Dunne gives a number of examples of precognitive dreams from his own experience. Then he brings his scientific training (he was one of the early aeronautical engineers) to bear on developing meaningful tests and experiments for whether dreams can indeed foretell bits of the future. Much of the book is devoted to relativity theory and the nature of time in an effort to show that time—including the past and future—are not fixed in the way that our day-to-day awareness would expect.

To be meaningful, the correspondence of images between the dreaming and waking states would need to have statistical significance. J. B. Rhine devised experiments for telepathy from which statistically significant results could be derived. Dunne’s experiments have elements of subjectivity that makes such statistical significance elusive and, at best, uncertain.
Another challenge to the book is why dreams must be harnessed to such a practical purpose as foreseeing the future. The purpose, and value, of dreams will be a topic for future blogs.

Ariadne by Giorgio de Chirico, Metropolitan Museum of Art, photograph by wallyg, used by Creative Commons license.

Should Rapists Have Child Visitation Rights?

I find the question shocking, because the answer to me is obviously no. But the laws of a majority of the states allow for a rapist to demand visitation rights just like any father. This travestry is especially worth looking at in an election year when the Republicans promise an end to Roe v. Wade and generally are hostile to women on the many health care issues relating to contraception and abortion.

A woman who is raped has three choices. She can place her baby for adoption. She can have an abortion. Or she can raise this child of rape as her own. If the mother gives up the pregnancy by abortion or the baby by adoption, she will never have to deal with the rapist again once she testifies in the trial that sends him to prison. But if the mother chooses, as many loving women do, to raise this child, she may be the one who has to defend herself in court when the rapist demands rights of visitation.

Basically, a rapist has the same rights to visitation as any father unless the state has enacted a law cutting off those rights. The majority of states have not enacted such a law as discussed in an excellent law review article in The Georgetown Law Journal. That every state should have such a law is apparent.

The legal travesty that in many states a victim of rape who chooses to mother can be sued and haunted by her rapist suggests the need for a look at the larger picture of women’s issues and needs in the context of the election campaigns. There is no such thing as “legitimate rape” and women’s bodies don’t simply take care of avoiding pregnancy when a rape occurs. While I have sympathy for women who imagine that a Republican president could create a better economy with more jobs (although this is wishful thinking since tax cuts for the rich will do nothing to help the middle class), I don’t think these women could possibly recall what it was like before Roe v. Wade if a woman needed an abortion.

Also, women’s issues are economic issues. Motherhood has enormous financial consequences. If contraception is restricted as much as possible (will it be covered by health plans, for example) and the overturning of Roe v. Wade makes abortion illegal, a woman’s risk of mothering against her will is greatly increased. To try and take this decision out of the hands of women makes as little sense as allowing a rapist to demand visitation rights with the child of the victimized woman.

This election could do great damage to women. I certainly hope that an informed electorate won’t allow that to happen.