The Rings of Saturn finds an unhappy man walking desolate country and recalling awful history. But the lucid beauty of the writing is cathartic
At the beginning of The Rings of Saturn, the narrator announces that he is setting off “to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work”.
It’s hard not to think that he might have been better off going to a Greek island. Especially at the start, heading to the coastal town of Lowestoft on “one of the old diesel trains, grimed with oil and soot up to the windows” on a “grey, overcast day”. It gets worse when he finally arrives and finds it “run down” and deserted. “I was unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of me,” he says. When he strolls out of town, walking through “blue petrol fumes” and past “decommissioned and unemployed trawlers”, there is still more desolation in store. The sparse moorlands and dark pebble beaches of Suffolk are hardly a tonic against emptiness – in fact, they often seem to embody the feeling that Sebald’s narrator is seeking to escape.
GHOST CAT all began because, well, I have a ghost cat in my house. I never really see it—just darts and blurs out of my peripheral vision. There may be any number of logical explanations for this phenomena but I’m going with the ghost cat explanation.
We had a cat, a black cat, that showed up at our house years and years ago. It just appeared on our porch for several days in a row and eventually my wife, Teri, stated feeding it. I warned her if she fed it it would stick around. And she did, and it did. It came to us as an outdoor cat but eventually became an indoor/outdoor cat. If it had other places to be he was free to go there. He didn’t, preferring to live with us. And he did for about a dozen years. One day I hadn’t seen him around and went looking for him. I found him lying dead in the side yard.
When the cat died, my wife was five or six years into a diagnosis of young-onset Alzheimer’s disease. I had to tell her several times over the next few days that the cat had died. Each time it was like she was hearing it for the first time. Eventually she forgot that we even had had a cat.
Jumping ahead, a year or so after the cat died I ended up having to place Teri in an Adult Family Home. I had been her primary caregiver for seven years of decline but it got to the point I couldn’t do it anymore and still make a living, let alone have a life. I can’t remember if it happened before I placed Teri, but this is when I started noticing the “ghost cat appearances.” Maybe because I was home alone all of the sudden with no responsibilities.
It was always interesting and I don’t think I really believed I had a ghost cat, but I kept almost seeing it. So, naturally, as a writer, I thought I’d write a story about it. I had no idea what the story was, but I knew it would be different than anything I had written before. When I shared the first few drafts with my critique group, I was encouraged by their acceptance and suggestions. A year later, several more drafts, and they told me, “Kevan, this is your story,” which of course it was. I’d written it. “No,” they said, this is YOUR story. You have a ghost in YOUR house.” And what they meant is that ever since I had placed Teri in a home, I really was living with a ghost in my house. It became imperative at that realization that I get the story absolutely right. And I understood where exactly it needed to go. This was a story about loss, moving on, and the permission to love again while never giving up the love that came before.
Publisher’s Weekly said it well…”The heart, it seems, has room for everyone we have ever loved.”
It may also be notable that this is the first time I’ve jumped back into traditional medias to create the art for GHOST CAT. Every book before has been primarily digital. And the illustration style, obviously, is completely different than anything in previous books.
Initial thumbnail for spread 10-11.
First sketch for page 11.
Problem: page 10 and 11 were too similar. And besides that, the boy is not supposed to see the cat, yet he seems to be looking right at it.
Decided to keep page 10 as it was but change the angle on page 11 to more of a profile, putting the cat out of the sightline of the boy. This first rough sketch.
Created final pencil work (I would clean up in Photoshop.)
Created final illustration in Photoshop using pencil lines and the painted sources below.
These are the uncorrected colors and textures I used in coloring most of Ghost Cat.
Kevan, thank you so much for sharing the very personal story behind GHOST CAT–which was released June 11th!
You can win a copy here by leaving a comment below.
A winner will be selected at the end of the month.
Hey, Jonathan Levit here! Welcome to Part Two of The Perfect Trick. If you haven’t seen Part One, you’ll find the link here. In it, you’ll discover a system that takes an ancient trick known as The Wizard—and transforms it into a miracle that’s so strong, you can use it to astonish any audience in ANY […]
A foundational work to start with. Aeschylus’ Oresteia has awed paulburns:
I’m a bit overwhelmed by its brilliance, even though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read it. Translated by Robert Fagles, one marvels at its poetic grandeur and religious ritual, especially in Agamemnon, the first play of the cycle, Though that reaches a dramatic height with Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra. The second play, The Libation Bearers, where Orestes decides to murder his mother in revenge for her murder of Agamemnon, moves more quickly, and, to my mind, reads better. The final play, The Eumenides, is the most frightening. Legend has it that the dance and chant where the Furies called down revenge on Orestes had women fainting in the audience. (I’d bet the men were shivering in their boots as well.) There was nothing to match it in world literature until Shakespeare wrote the witches’ scenes in Macbeth.
Wow, I’m still a little discombobulated with that one, which is rarely a bad sign. The book didn’t really go at all how I expected it to. The direction of the narrative set in the first 50 or so pages preordained a certain finish, but the end was not what I had foreseen. Those closing pages really just knocked me on my ass ever so slightly.
It is apparently one of the longest novels ever written, which explains the tissue thin papers and small text. My god, is it good. Part anthropological dig into the residents of “The Boroughs” of Northampton, part historical fiction, part fantasy, and a deep delve into life, death and the afterlife that serves as the veins of the story. Jerusalem blends real life and fiction perfectly, it truly is Moore’s magnum opus. Out of all of the fascinating, mad, dark tales the author has given us, truly this is a story to rival Chaucer’s Tales. It feels like the type of story that should be broken up into parts and retold as folk tales for centuries to come. Highly recommended.
This morning I dug out Hill’s excellent book on the radical ideas of groups such as Levellers, Seekers, Ranters, Diggers and Fifth Modernists, sects like Quakers, Baptists and Muggletonians … But here’s the strangest thing. Something I had not noticed before. This paperback was published by Penguin in 1991. I must have picked it up in some secondhand bookshop one day and I wanted to look up a reference to Sir Isaac Newton and his belief in alchemy, page 290, when I noticed that page 288 had a different typeface. Checking further, all the pages from 240 were in the same different typeface, in fact, after 240 the page number was 129. How odd. Investigating further, I discovered that a section from a different book was included (129-160); this is from Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. Pages 240-288 of Hill’s book missing. I have never come across such a thing before and wonder if every 1991 edition has the same error?
It is exactly the book I was looking for. What a treat to find there are two more in the trilogy! Feeling positively energised and happy with my reading habit.
My, what a strange, surreal little book it is! As I read, I couldn’t help envisioning it as a black-and-white New Wave film, filled with shadowy lighting, rapid scene changes and long tracking shots… I am enjoying my initial forays into the world of Maigret very much. Given how many of them there are, of course, I shall have to pick up the pace if I intend to get through all of them: there are 73 novels left (not to mention the short stories) which, at my current rate of three a year, will take me another 24 years to get through … and I rather think I’ll be lucky to live that long.
This week every year I take Ulysses down from the shelf and read three or four pages from each of the 18 chapters. It’s a ritual I enjoy more with each passing year and my admiration for Joyce’s masterpiece grows accordingly. Such a wonderful affirmation of words, of language, and ultimately, of our humanity. It is a novel that has never been bettered and I will be forever grateful to Joyce for completing it and to Sylvia Beach for publishing it.
“I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been.” Rejoice! The poet, lyricist and extreme talent David Berman is back.
Part 22 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
There’s little in this cosmos that writers want more than our readers’ love and respect. We want them to buy our stories, love our stories, tell their friends about our stories, buy more stories, support us in style for the rest of our lives, and acclaim our words far after.
But when it comes to figuring out how to earn your audience’s loyalty, you’ve likely noticed you’re on the receiving end of much confusing and conflicting advice. Some say you have to write to your audience, with a precision-point awareness of what it is they want. Others say you just have to write a good story, and your audience will follow anywhere you lead. Some say it’s about pacing and full-fledged development of character motivations. Others say it’s about proper setup and payoff of reader expectations.
In an era of pervasively disappointing stories and ever-waning audience attention spans, it can be difficult to find stories that offer solid examples of what it means to earn your audience’s loyalty—much less how to actually do it. One of the major and, at the moment, most obvious exceptions is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As it closes out its expansively ambitious 22-movie mega-arc, it feels only appropriate that we complete our series “The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel” by addressing some of the reasons behind its well-earned success.
Needless to say, there will be SPOILERS.
Saying Goodbye to The Avengers: Endgame
I am so full of feels right now.
Honestly, I’m still trying to unpack it all. Mostly, what I find myself feeling is gratitude. I am full of gratitude that I got to see Endgame in theaters at all (various obstacles—illness, company, weather—prevented me from getting there until literally the very last showing at my local theater). I am full of gratitude for eleven years and twenty-two (mostly) bright spots in what was a tempestuous era in both my own life and the world around us. I am full of gratitude for characters who made me love them, made me relate, and made me think. And I am full of gratitude that the whole experience was given the sendoff it deserved—that, indeed, it had earned.
In thinking about what writing topic I might focus on for Endgame, I realized what I really wanted to do was talk about the entire series—because, as I always say in structure discussions, the end is in the beginning. Endgame works because the series works, and the series works, in the end, because Endgame works.
Almost all of my personal highlights (and a few lowlights) feature later in the article, so let’s just get down to it.
5 Ways Endgame Shows You How to Earn Your Audience’s Loyalty
You know that feeling you get when you open the final book in a series or attend the final movie? It’s a feeling of deep anticipation and excitement—but also a feeling of nervousness. What if they don’t get it right? What if, with all the best intentions, they get it all wrong and forever put a blot on a story experience that has become such an important part of your life?
I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only one feeling that as Marvel’s opening logo unfurled across the dark screen. After eleven years and so much thought, energy, and emotion invested in these characters and their stories, I hoped so much that the finale would at least not screw it up.
About two and half hours later—as the screen filled up with nearly every single character the series has ever introduced—I found myself with tears in my eyes. It wasn’t so much because of what was happening onscreen (those tears came a little later), but because I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the incredible experience the MCU has been in my life. With all its ups and downs, its handful of great films, its many so-so-but-always-entertaining entries, its few bombs, its incredible casting across the board, and its sheer audacity as one of the most expansive story ventures ever created—I can truly say it has been an unforgettable gift in my life.
It has influenced my own storytelling in many ways. It has contributed its archetypes to my own personal journeys. It has provided me precious memories with dear ones who have sat beside me in dark theaters. And, of course, it’s given me a couple ideas for a blog post here and there…
For me, Endgame was the red ribbon on top of that gift, a thoroughly satisfactory final entry that has solidified the series as an epochal story within my life.
Today, I want to take a look five examples from this climactic installment, demonstrating what Marvel did to earn and keep its fanbase’s appreciation and what you, too, can learn about how to earn your audience’s loyalty.
Truly memorable moments never just happen. Rather, they are the result of a two-part power punch: setup and payoff.
Ultimately, setup is always going to be foreshadowing. If there’s a callback to anything that happened earlier in a story, however mundane it might have been in the beginning, that earlier thing instantly becomes recognizable as foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is the biggest magic trick in all of fiction. When readers feel the writing was on the wall all along, when they realize that sly dog of an author already gave them everything they needed to make the payoff work, the feeling they get is one of deep satisfaction. Not only does the story make sense, but in that moment the world itself makes sense.
This is why payoffs—both big and small—are always the best moments in any story. Whether or not the payoff directly answers a question readers may have had, the readers will always feel like a question was answered. They feel like they’re participating in the story. They feel like they got the in-joke. And more importantly, they feel like the story works. Instead of the author simply assuming the audience should feel a certain way, the author has earned all these good feelings.
How Endgame Pays It All Off
Endgame is chock full of payoffs. There are big and obvious payoffs, such as using the Infinity Stones to undo Thanos’s dust-up. And there are countless smaller payoffs to earlier character moments throughout the series. These payoffs work solely because of the extensive set-up work that was honored from the previous stories.
For example, would Cap’s wielding of Mjolnir have been anything more than a weapon exchange if it hadn’t been set up in Ultron? Would Tony’s hugging Peter have offered any meaning beyond the relief of the moment if it hadn’t been set up in Homecoming? Would Tony’s final words have packed such deep resonance if they hadn’t symbolized his entire character arc by calling all the way back to the beginning of it all in Iron Man?
Endgame benefits tremendously from the sheer massiveness of the story that preceded it. A simple rule of thumb is that the bigger the buildup, the bigger the payoff. Not only do many of Endgame‘s “small” payoffs pack more punch because of the huge story that preceded them, but the film can afford to pack them in. A shorter series or standalone episode can and should utilize setup/payoff similarly, but only a story of this scope can create tremendous impact out of such objectively small moments.
2. Resonance: When the Artist Is the Audience
Sometimes you’ll hear fans talking about getting the story “we deserve.” To this, I say phooey. The only thing audiences deserve is a good story well-told. They don’t deserve to have all their personal theories or wishes validated. They certainly don’t deserve creative control à la “democratic storytelling,” which as I talked about a few weeks ago only dilutes artistic integrity.
But this is not to say audiences don’t deserve to be wildly satisfied with any story in which they invest themselves.
How can an author be assured of creating this kind of resonance without simply polling the audience for their Christmas wishes?
There are two sides to this answer:
Part 1: The author must be in control of the story, must remain firmly dedicated to the artistic and thematic integrity of that story. The author must be disciplined enough to make only the right choices for the story, regardless whether they necessarily seem to be the most popular choices.
Part 2: The author must be an audience of one. The author must be the story’s single greatest fan. The author must fanatically love and respect the story and the characters more than any other member of the audience.
When the latter happens, the author doesn’t need to poll the audience to know what resonates. The answer is already there, in the author’s own heart. What resonates for the author resonates for the audience and—if the first part of the equation also rings true—usually in a way that is deeply meaningful within the overall story.
How Endgame Connects With Its Fans
Even in my (astonishingly successful) bid to avoid spoilers before seeing the movie, I did run onto a few references to “fan service.” I agree that the film did an incredible job of giving its audience just about every single thing they could have asked for, and a little more to boot. But for my money, these moments can’t be considered fan service when they have been suitably earned over the previous course of the series.
What it felt like to me was a storyline that had been planned and executed by storytellers who, more than anyone, wanted themselves to see appropriate endings for beloved characters. They didn’t provide moments such as Tony’s having a daughter or Thor’s glee when Cap wields Mjolnir or Cap’s dance with Peggy or Tony’s making peace with his dad simply because fans wanted them. They built them into the story because, as fans themselves, they wanted them.
3. Honesty: Staying True to Your Characters
The only stories that matter—the only stories that are ever remembered—are those that are honest. These are the stories that resonate on a level deeper than whatever cotton-candy visuals they’re spinning across the screen in our heads or at the theater. That honesty starts and ends with the characters.
There is no greater slur upon a story than to say its cast is “acting out of character.” What this inevitably means is that the characters are no longer acting with sincerity, but instead mouthing lazy lines of convenience.
Creating and implementing “true” characters is the greatest challenge in all of writing. Few of us pull it off 100% of the time. Mostly this is because staying true to your characters is difficult not just technically, but also personally. It’s hard to understand ourselves well enough to understand the story we’re trying to tell in order to understand the characters who are telling it.
When we do achieve this deep and true understanding, the result is character dynamism. These characters power the story. They are realistic, dimensional. They are sympathetic. The audience comes to love them not in spite of their flaws but even because of them. We come to love them, at a certain point, because they are us.
How Endgame Gave Us True Characters
I won’t say Endgame pulled this one off across the board. Hulk’s transformation in this story didn’t resonate deeply for me, and however authentic the idea behind Thor’s devolution, it was executed abysmally in a way that did not respect the character and his importance in the series.
These two characters have rarely strayed from their initial headings. Both would have been difficult characters to write, both could have been difficult characters to like. But they have always burned true to their deep driving desires, to their strengths, to their weaknesses.
Largely because of these things, their endings feel particularly earned. We are happy both were given the chance for closure, for a normal life, for fulfillment, and even for the end of their struggles.
4. Meaning: As the Climax Goes, So Goes the Story
In any story, the Climactic Moment is the defining moment. Whatever happens in the Climax is what every moment of the preceding story was leading up to. Whether or not the story as a whole succeeds is proven by how well it builds into and explodes out of its Climax.
In structuring your story, you can use your Climactic Moment as the plumb line to align your story’s structural spine. When you isolate your major structural moments, they should line up thematically, all of them pointing in a straight arrow directly at your Climax.
More than that, the Climactic Moment is your story’s reservoir of meaning. When the conflict is finally resolved in the Climax, what must emerge from this final bit of context is the deep subtextual meaning of all that has come before. This, more than any other factor, is why stories are made or broken by their endings. No matter how great the ride up to that point, if the ending fails to make sense of it all, the audience will almost always leave frustrated.
How Endgame Nailed Its Climax
No one was ever in doubt how the overarching conflict with Thanos would end. As per genre conventions, he would be defeated. The horrific consequences of his actions would be overturned. We’d all get our happy ending.
But we could have been given that exact ending in a way that mattered far less. The Climax Endgame gave us was specifically Tony’s climax. This was as it should have been. The ending was in the beginning. When Tony closes his fist and snaps his fingers, he is ending what he, in so many ways, began himself. When he defiantly tells Thanos, “I am Iron Man,” he finally and fully climaxes his own long and desperate attempt to do the right thing, to make the sacrifice, to save the world.
I’m not aware of how thoroughly the events of Endgame were known and planned when Marvel started its ambitious project way back in 2008. I suspect they knew very few of the specifics, but they clearly did know the bones. They knew Thanos was the antagonist. They knew what the conflict would be. They knew how it would end. As a result, the series offers a solid structural integrity, with Thanos being introduced very near the quarter mark (at what might be considered the series’ First Plot Point) and followed up regularly throughout. The Climax proves the structure, and the structure is the reason the Climax works.
These days, many stories avoid finality like the plague. If they can crank out a few more episodes, seasons, movies, books, so much more the money, right? But the stories suffer. Even if the follow-up episodes don’t actually happen, all those little teases the authors included in early installments just in case the story went on (and on and on and on), almost always mess up the story that could have been.
This is why so many TV series are good only for about three seasons. After that, the storytellers start messing with the initial arc in order to expand the story. The result is that the characters start getting messed with as well—and the slide begins. Smart, sympathetic characters who started out making smart, sympathetic choices start being forced to act out of character in order to accommodate a more complicated plot.
A story that offers successful finality is a story that planned and prepared for that finality. It’s a story that used its structural throughline to build into a meaningful Climax. It is not, necessarily, a story that ties off all loose ends. However, even though the characters don’t end (unless they die, of course), the structural throughline of the plot does end. And the audience, however sad they may feel about saying goodbye, will find relief in the closure that comes with closing a story.
How Endgame Offers Closure
There were a handful of things I really wanted to see happen in this movie, but at the top of the list: I wanted Cap and Tony to die.
There, I said it. :p
I didn’t, of course, want them to die because I wanted them gone, goodbye, finito and good riddance. I wanted them to die because I desperately wanted to see their characters closed out. For twenty-two movies (or whatever number they each actually appeared in), they had been scripted with scarcely a misstep. And that’s the way I wanted them to go out. I desperately did not want them to be given open-ended finales in which maybe they’d come back if ever the actors could be tempted.
Of course I’d go see another Captain America movie or another Iron Man movie. But I am ecstatic that I’m not likely to get the chance. I have so much respect for the Marvel team not only for planning and pulling off a huge story arc, but even more so for ending it. Yes, the MCU continues with secondary characters introduced during this initial arc, but they will be continuing with their own story arc (and, frankly, they have their work cut out for them if they want to win my heart in the same way as the originals).
Endgame really was the endgame. That was more than half the reason it took every bit of my self-respect not to sit there in the theater and bawl all the way through the credits. But it was also the reason I was given the gift of such an emotional closing experience.
This will be the final installment in The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel. It’s been an incredibly fun ride, and I’ve enjoyed sharing my love of the series with so many of you. I’ve learned a lot myself in pulling a definitive writing tip out of each movie. But after twenty-two entries, it’s getting harder to find a new technique to discuss in each film. I feel like Endgame is the right place to end it.
Thanks very much for coming on this ride with me, both here on the blog and as MCU fans yourselves. Here’s to all of us continuing to learn from other great storytellers on our way to writing our own amazing adventures.
A sharply observed portrait of a comically foreign creature is shadowed by unease about its future
The newt that plays so delicately dead must be on the qui vive unless terror just flicks the switch. Its limbs go limp, Its upturned orange underbelly over-ripe: a toxic flag unfurled from the beyond. – Clubbed fingers, clammy green and spectral, appear to have slipped off the frets of a miniature guitar.
Last week I texted Stacy McAnulty because I heard the most amazing news!
Stacy, I just learned your new book MOON! will be on Elon Musk’s next SpaceX rocket. How did you arrange to be the first picture book in space?!
Ha! Wouldn’t that be something. I love seeing my books in stores and in libraries. Knowing it’s in space would be amazing. Yet not as amazing as seeing MOON in the hands of young readers. Astronauts and aliens are welcome to read my books, but I do write for kids.
OK, so your book isn’t going to the moon, but other objects from earth have…and have stayed there to form their own colony! How on earth did a pair of nail clippers get left on the moon?
I wish I knew! NASA has a list of what’s been left behind, but they don’t include the why. And since there’s no weather (no wind, rain, snow, etc.) on Moon, the objects could technically be right where the astronauts left them. However, with hardly any atmosphere, Moon is pummeled constantly by space rocks (asteroids, meteoroids). There’s a chance things have been destroyed by impact—including the nail clippers. If the next astronauts brought back those nail clippers, I wonder what they’d go for on eBay. They probably belong in the Smithsonian.
Now that’s an auction to break the Internet!
In your book, Moon and Earth are besties. But what if we had two natural satellites instead of the one moon—would all three be best friends, or would there be a lot of push and pull between them?
Earth is certainly capable of having multiple best friends. She’s so kind—she lets us live here after all. But I can imagine Moon being slightly jealous of another natural satellite. Moon’s life revolves around Earth. Literally. She’d be a little bummed to share that spotlight. Luckily, Moon doesn’t have to share. Unlike Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus, which all have multiple moons. Moon is a one and only!
We know Moon has many different phases. What do you think is Earth’s favorite look for her BFF?
Full Moon for sure! We get to see her whole, beautiful face. But we don’t want to phase-shame. Moon looks gorgeous all the time. Earth and I agree on this.
Do you have a favorite moon fact that didn’t get into the book?
I learned about synchronous rotation: Moon rotates on her axis and revolves around Earth at the same rate, approximately 27.3 days. That means we see the same face of Moon. I do talk about this in the book, but I never get to use the term “synchronous rotation.” It’s such a nerdy-sounding phrase. I love it. “I suffer from synchronous rotation.” Also, here’s a fun-fact that didn’t make the cut. Moon is moving farther away from Earth at a rate of one inch per year. Bye-bye, Moon!
No, no, don’t go away Moon! I mean, Moon probably likes to get away, but with her best friend. Do you think Earth and Moon like to go out and do things together? Like sing karaoke?
Oh, yes! They’d very much be into karaoke! Who isn’t? Their song would have to be a duet. Maybe “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. That works!
That’s a fun one! They definitely don’t want to try “Blue Moon” or “Bad Moon Rising”!
OK, kidding aside, you made this entire non-fiction series so fun for kids—by letting Sun, Earth and Moon narrate their own stories. How did you discover that unique angle?
Like all great discoveries, it was by accident. Sort of. I like to tell the story of Earth’s birth when I visit schools. Before I wrote Earth, I wrote a story about a pet rock. It was fiction like everything else I’d written to that point. In the manuscript, this pet rock lived with numerous children for thousands of years—going from caveman times to today. I shared this pet-rock story, and my critique grouped hated it. But what I realized through their candor, was that I wasn’t writing a story about a rock but about Earth. She’s been here a long time and us humans are pretty new. So I penned a story about our planet, and from the first draft, I knew it had to be narrated by the star of the show, Earth! (Of course, Earth is not technically a star.) When I tell this to kids, I always ask, “Was that pet-rock story—that unpublished story that only lives on my hard drive—a failure or a step in the process?” They always give the right answer.
Those kids are so smart! Thanks for chatting with me about your newest book, Stacy.
“I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence…”
“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Van Gogh described depression in a stirring letter to his brother. “The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” William Styron wrote a century later in his classic masterwork giving voice to the soul-malady so many of us have suffered silently.
Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression, for which he found a salve in creative work. “Life must be undergone,” he wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.”
In May 1817, Keats confides in the artist Benjamin Haydon, who had just cast the young poet’s life mask and who would later succumb to depression himself, taking his own life at the age of sixty, having outlived Keats by a quarter century:
At this moment I am in no enviable Situation — I feel that I am not in a Mood to write any to day; and it appears that the loss of it is the beginning of all sorts of irregularities… You tell me never to despair — I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying — truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals — it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear — I may even say that it is likely to be the cause of my disappointment. How ever every ill has its share of good — this very bane would at any time enable me to look with an obstinate eye on the Devil Himself… I feel confident I should have been a rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine.
The following spring, an even darker cloud of despair enveloped the poet. His now-iconic poem Endymion — which opens with the famous, buoyant line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” — was published to scathing reviews. One of his brothers suffered a violent hemorrhage. Another announced his abrupt plan to marry and emigrate to America. This swarm of instability and the attacks upon his primary psychological survival mechanism plunged Keats into a deep depression. Long before the clinical profession and the modern memoirist made the illness their material, Keats describes it exquisitely in a letter to his closest confidante, Benjamin Bailey:
I have this morning such a Lethargy that I cannot write — the reason of my delaying is oftentimes from this feeling — I wait for a proper temper — Now you ask for an immediate answer I do not like to wait even till tomorrow — However I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence —
My intellect must be in a degenerating state — it must be for when I should be writing about god knows what I am troubling you with Moods of my own Mind or rather body — for Mind there is none.
With the cool, helpless lucidity of the depressed, he recognizes that the darkness is temporary — that when it finally lifts, one is left asking oneself, in the words of another great poet, “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?” — and yet the recognition, in depression’s cruelest twist, fails to serve relief:
I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the top — I know very well ’t is all nonsense. In a short time I hope I shall be in a temper to feel sensibly your mention of my Book — in vain have I waited till Monday to have any interest in that or in any thing else. I feel no spur at my Brothers going to America and am almost stony-hearted about his wedding. All this will blow over — all I am sorry for is having to write to you in such a time — but I cannot force my letters in a hot bed…
One beam of lucid light punctures the inky fog of inner desolation — one point of recognition does bring relief:
There is a comfort in throwing oneself on the charity of ones friends — ’t is like the albatross sleeping on its wings —
“I could not live without the love of my friends,” Keats writes in another letter. And indeed, it is in a letter to his dearest friend that he articulates the mightiest — perhaps the only — antidote to depression. More than a century before Styron himself, at Keats’s age, located happiness and the respite from despair in the capacity for presence, the despairing poet writes:
You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.
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Midway in time between Whitman and Sagan, another colossal mind clasped its tentacles around this slippery perplexity with equal parts scientific lucidity and poetic luminosity: the great German theoretical physicist Max Planck (April 23, 1858–October 4, 1947), laureate of the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of energy quanta, which originated quantum theory — the most radical leap in science since Copernicus.
Planck held at the center of his credo the conviction that the pinnacle of scientific progress is the discovery of a new mystery just when all the fundamentals are assumed to be known. This, perhaps, is why he was among the first in the scientific community to recognize the epoch-making genius of Einstein’s relativity theory — a theory Einstein began devising just as the venerable Lord Kelvin was taking the podium at the venerable British Association of Science to declare that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.”
Planck saw in relativity a strange and wondrous double portal into greater knowledge and greater mystery. In his 1932 book Where Is Science Going? (public library), he dispels a common misconception — one that persists to this day, particularly in the dangerous misapprehensions and appropriations of science common in New Age circles — by pointing out that relativity, rather than having refuted the absolute, “has brought out the absolute into sharper definition.” He writes:
That we do not construct the external world to suit our own ends in the pursuit of science, but that vice versa the external world forces itself upon our recognition with its own elemental power, is a point which ought to be categorically asserted again and again… From the fact that in studying the happenings of nature we strive to eliminate the contingent and accidental and to come fully to what is essential and necessary, it is clear that we always look for the basic thing behind the dependent thing, for what is absolute behind what is relative, for the reality behind the appearance and for what abides behind what is transitory.
In no case can we rest assured that what is absolute in science today will remain absolute for all time.
He lays out the fundamental framework of the scientific worldview:
We see in all modern scientific advances that the solution of one problem only unveils the mystery of another. Each hilltop that we reach discloses to us another hilltop beyond. We must accept this as a hard-and-fast irrefutable fact… The aim of science… is an incessant struggle towards a goal which can never be reached. Because the goal is of its very nature unattainable. It is something that is essentially metaphysical and as such is always again and again beyond each achievement.
Curiously, Planck’s most precise and poetic remark on the subject comes from a conversation with Einstein, who admired him as a mind that “has given one of the most powerful of all impulses to the progress of science,” replete with ideas bound to remain valid for as long as physical reality exists, and yet who himself believed that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” In a Socratic dialogue with Einstein, included as an appendix to Where Is Science Going?, Planck reflects:
Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.
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The macabre guide counts Reece Shearsmith and Nick Frost among its diehard fans. What’s so creepy about a 1970s children’s book?
So, it turns out I wasn’t the only terrified young reader. From the unnerving one-eyed ghost dog, Black Shuck, to the many gibbets pictured in its pages, Usborne’s World of the Unknown: Ghosts, out of print for more than 20 years, has inspired people from Reece Shearsmith to Nick Frost. Now a petition with more than 1,200 signatures, and a social media campaign backed by both the League of Gentlemen creator and the Hot Fuzz actor, have persuaded the eponymous children’s publisher to reissue the 1977 cult favourite just in time for this year’s Halloween.