book review Musings reading

Perilous Inner Worlds: Four Quests Without Compasses

…there are souls so infirm and so accustomed to busying themselves with outside affairs that nothing can be done for them, and it seems as though they are incapable of entering within themselves at all.

Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle, translated and edited by E. Allison Peers

What do the following four reads — Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems, Larry Godwin’s Transcending Depression: Quest Without a Compass (whose subtitle I am borrowing for my exploration, because it is an apt metaphor), Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, and Theo Ellsworth’s The Understanding Monster series — have in common? Not a lot, one might expect, since the first is a hilarious graphic memoir by an internet sensation, the second a serious account of depression aiming to offer hope and practical aid to the author’s fellow-sufferers, the third a guide to prayer by a Catholic saint born before Shakespeare, and the fourth a brilliantly drawn, whimsical, and labyrinthine graphic account of the adventures of a “magical mouse” who “never stops moving.” But the title of this post probably tells you one commonality I see: all four of these writers’ obsessive introspection is troubling but indispensable to who they are and what they do. The other commonality? All have a disturbing, anxiety-provoking, and deeply relatable monotony punctuated by frequent, unsatisfying efforts to produce a satisfying narrative, a quality that life (at least, mine) has but writing often glosses over. (It is good that not all narrative writing mirrors life in this way — I value escapism intensely, in form as well as in content — but it is also good that some of it does).

Oddly for someone who writes about stuffing her childhood self repeatedly into a bucket she can’t get out of (for just one example), Brosh is without a doubt the most socially self-aware of these writers. She does a lot of ridiculous things, but she knows they’re ridiculous, and that’s why she tells many of these stories. She’s also the most simply entertaining, probably because she is the only one of the four who explicitly writes to entertain (Ellsworth — perhaps, but the drive to self-expression there goes deep, and audience seems to be only a small part of it; his earlier graphic novel Capacity tells in moving detail his obsession with his art and what a role it played in his life long before he began to self-publish.)

She’s also the grimmest. Something like existentialism verging on nihilism is an explicit theme. She’s suffered a lot in her life (crippling depression, health issues, a sister’s likely suicide), and she is not one to leap easily into finding meaning and significance in her suffering (in Hyperbole and a Half her interpretation of the beginning of the end of her depression is that, after months on antidepressants, she found herself lying on the ground laughing uncontrollably instead of crying because a piece of corn was just that funny).

Notably, the outside world, whether in the form of annoying neighbors hammering early in the morning, dogs and cats, music, or horror movies, forms a large part of her stories and her worldview. Her eye is both piercing and profoundly social — the brutal accuracy of her observations, large and small, is a large part of her charm. I wrote about monotony and striving for narrative; while she is focused enough on the humor and the strange details that this is not an overriding impression one gets from her book, it seems to be an impression she gets from her life, in, for instance, the brilliant section about her fantasies of power and her heroic plans for self-improvement (conquering all fear by watching scary movies on drugs).

She’s written about depression in great blog posts and it seems clear, though she doesn’t say explicitly, that depression is one of her struggles in Solutions and Other Problems too; I’ve read studies that mild depression, at least, gives people a more accurate worldview, and her depression, her humor, and her intellect (which all seem deeply intertwined) put her in touch with reality at its strangest and, sometimes, worst.

In Transcending Depression: Quest Without a Compass, Godwin, unlike Brosh, writes specifically about depression. The outside world is not quite so vivid in his work, but it’s still present, as he dates and marries, leaves one job for the next, and navigates conflicts with his children. But this is a series of aphoristic diary excerpts.

There’s beautiful writing here and keen perception. He works to express himself both gently and emphatically, accurately and kindly, and he is honest about some of his worse moments. The fruitless drive toward narrative I mentioned is painful here: early on, at least, almost every other page, he announces some new resolution or cause for hope about his depression. Toward the end, as he gains a sense of wisdom and control these flashes grow fewer and further between; real progress, when it comes, is gradual.

I said Brosh shows the most social self-awareness; Godwin shows the most relentless, realistic awareness of self; the pain of depression is a constant focus (naturally; this is a depression memoir). From this focused awareness comes also something Brosh lacks, a sense of effort — constant effort to feel better, to try new treatments, to try new outlooks, to approach his life differently. Brosh exists and chronicles her existence; Godwin is, as his title suggests, on a quest. And it’s a quest that succeeds. He finds a medication regimen that helps, though it is no cure-all. He figures out his priorities and limitations. He remains by the side of his supportive wife, despite the emotional difficulties the marriage brings him.

And he cultivates the spiritual, though he does not discuss it much here. Where Brosh chronicles the hilarious difficulties she has with loving-kindness meditation, though, Godwin’s approach to meditation and prayer seems sincere and engaged. This, which forms one aspect of Godwin’s inner journey is, of course, the center of Teresa of Avila’s.

Here, the self ceases to be merely an I that suffers or acts. The soul becomes a location, a castle of pure crystal, and the quest becomes explicitly geographical: the goal she recommends to her readers is to reach God, who lives at its center of the castle. And the book is a guidebook, a map of this castle. Like Godwin, this famous saint seems to succeed in her quest, given the stories told of her, and, as with Godwin, the quest feels more painful and less narrative than a reader used to fiction wants it to be. She describes the increasing ecstasies and divine favors she experiences without evoking them, such that the book sometimes feels like a string of ever-more extreme superlatives without enough justifying concrete evidence, and the constant anxiety she advises one to feel over one’s salvation, over the rightness of one’s visions, over whether one has stumbled, feels much like the close, anxious watch Godwin keeps on his mood, the constant questioning of whether an inner advance is real. What’s more, though the book is structured hierarchically, she emphasizes that this is not how the soul experiences the trip through the interior castle: the soul flits about itself, from chamber to chamber, forward and backward. Even what narrative she offers she offers as a self-conscious illusion and organizing device.

Godwin and Teresa, separated though they are by centuries, may be the most closely related of these writers. Godwin subtitles his work “quest without a compass.” Godwin and Teresa both undertake their quests, if not with compasses, then with maps and guides — in Teresa’s case, scripture, Catholic tradition, and spiritual guides; in Godwin’s, healthcare professionals, the field of psychopharmacology, and (again) spiritual guides. These guides and maps, however, often did not agree with either each other or the territory. Supplement after supplement, medication after medication, proved false friends to Godwin; Teresa was, as I understand, part of a mystical awakening in Spanish Catholicism in the context of the Counter-Reformation. She wrote firmly within but on the edge of, Catholic tradition; the Inquisition looked constantly over her shoulder, and she writes of the difficulties facing a mystic whose confessors do not believe in the reality of their experiences (decrying, however, mystical experience she herself believes to be false).

The more vividly the self is imagined, however, the more the outside world disappears. In Teresa’s case, this is because she is a nun in an order devoted to contemplation, deliberately sequestered from the everyday world. The distraction in which I wished Godwin were able to take refuge Teresa actively avoids, because God is, for her, to be found in the self as He is not in the world. So, just as the self grows and becomes encompassing, it also becomes not-self, divine, a place of holy mystery.

Theo Ellsworth, meanwhile, loses the explicitly sacred, but he goes, of all of these authors, perhaps the most deeply and fearlessly into himself. Almost the entirety of the action of The Understanding Monster takes place inside Ellsworth’s mind, which is a house full of cities and toys and intelligent flies and Pharaohs on afterlife quests. Gone are the neat maps and schematics, either of religion or of the medical profession — instead, there is arcane half-grasped knowledge in the form of whimsical science-fictional terms that are never fully explained or developed (“hyper-intelligence beans” — I want some of those! — or “a negative corner” or “mind cartoons” or going to school as an “inner space explorer”). This world of out-of-reach significance, humor and delighted invention, friendly monsters, is, I feel fairly sure, Ellsworth’s subconscious; there are still guides, but they are just as mysterious as everything else, at least at first. (I won’t spoil who they turn out to be.) And, despite the wild invention, there’s still that all-too-true monotony: goal after goal, feat after feat, must be accomplished, but to unclear ends. Inner unity, perhaps, or contact with the outside world. And there is, as with Teresa and Godwin but not with Brosh, a happy ending, and it’s still a happy ending that’s hard to trust.

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