I've spent a big chunk of the last three or four days thinking and writing about, erm, thinking and writing, in comments exchanges on several different blogs. I thought about it some more this afternoon when re-reading (something I often do with favourite crime writers: it's comfort reading, perverse as that may seem) Kathy Reichs' Fatal Voyage.
Our heroine Tempe Brennan arrives back at the guesthouse near the plane crash site to discover that her room has been broken into and trashed:
'I went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. Then I closed my eyes and played a childhood game I knew would calm me. Silently, I ran through the lyrics of the first song to come to mind. "Honky Tonk Woman".
The time-out with Mick and the Stones worked. Steadier, I returned and began gathering papers.'
What this reminded me of was another favourite book, Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth in Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond saga, in which the hero is unknowingly tricked by his treacherous household cook into becoming an opium addict. Near the end of the book, deeply addicted, he goes cold turkey and gets through the first two or three unspeakable days by reciting poetry to distract his mind and stop himself from screaming.
Yes, there's a pattern emerging here. Stories, songs and poetry will always help. In Ted Hughes's astonishing Birthday Letters of 1998 there is a wonderful poem called 'The Rag Rug', about sitting reading to his wife Sylvia Plath while she worked on her 'rich rag rug':
Whenever you worked at your carpet I felt happy.
Then I could read Conrad's novels to you.
I could cradle your freed mind in my voice,
Chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence,
Word by word: The Heart of Darkness,
The Secret Sharer. The same, I could feel
Your fingers caressing my reading, hour after hour,
Fitting together the serpent's jumbled rainbow.
Even the Sturm und Drang of that toxic, doomed relationship could be momentarily transformed by storytelling into the warm calm of a reciprocal caress, a balance of mind and body, a couple at rest. Conrad: another voice telling a different story, one that was not the violent story of their marriage, giving them time out from themselves.
But there's one story I know I will never read. Decades ago now, in a tutorial on Anna Karenina, the professor teaching the class advised us that if we ever found ourselves in despair, in our worst moment, in a true dark night of the soul, we should -- for consolation; medicinally, as it were -- read Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
I haven't ever been able to bring myself to read it, and nor will I. Because to read it would be implicitly to claim that I had hit the bottom and that nothing worse was ever going to happen to me. And, hubris being what it is, something worse would immediately come along. Tolstoy's story, left unread, is a talisman protecting me from the worst that could happen.