I have not been to a circus since I was 13 years old, or so, but I have loved them all my life. I love that they are peculiar, that they are theatrical, and that they embraced the absurd side of performance long before the theater did. Yes, Beckett
's world is bizarre, but wouldn't you like to see Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky (obviously not Godot), Malloy, and Krapp shove their way out of a tiny Peugeot and then light each others' pants on fire?
Since the last time I attended a circus I was still at an age when pairing a too-large Victoria's Secret dress with a sickly yellow thrift store blouse seemed like a good idea, I've had to seek my pleasures elsewhere. You can find an aura of big tops and organ music in the later Tom Waits
album, which are full of dissonance, sadness, and vocal sepia tones. And one can always appreciate the idiosyncratic complexities of the average human mind (today in the course of a conversation with a friend we both paused to wonder: how do you transpose physical distance into quick breaths or heartbeats? What's the multiplier when you're walking, running, swimming, or riding an elephant?).
But the thing that has always made me feel closest to my own dark uncertainty that reality means anything at all (besides maybe drinking too much whiskey - but that is cheating and makes me vomit) is books. Surprise! (no.)
While reading a review
of the seventh installment of Harry Potter
, the idea was suggested that a good piece of fantasy literature will provide you with a "shiver of awe."*
As a young reader I could not get enough fantasy - that was where I lived and what I breathed. I can remember certain favorites - Half Magic, Dealing with Dragons, The Hobbit
& The Lord of the Rings
trilogy (of course...read to me by my father, who kindly skipped over the Elven songs when my siblings and I were young and impatient. Now, those are some of my favorite parts) - and most of them, I believe, had the quality of awe. These books (and there were many more that I'm not remembering offhand; like I said, I read all the time) made me deeply, seethingly jealous. I wanted to live in their worlds instead of my own, where bravery had no bearing and there were no parameters for adventure.
As I got older, I switched magical realism in for fantasy literature most of the time - school has a way of teaching one to do so. But some of my finest reading experiences have come from returning to the land of my childhood, picking something up or reading something anew (in some cases, even reading something aloud). Although I'm still jealous of the characters in books like The Golden Compass
(which I'm re-reading now) and Momo
, something different happens to me now when I read about them. I suppose I am inspired - and why does that seem like such a silly way to say it? - since it was these books, after all, which made me want to write in the first place. And so new ideas come streaming out of me, interweaving with those in the books themselves. My life becomes a part of their lives - as I wanted all along.
An illustrative example: when I was about 15 I read the tale of the peculiarly warped journey portrayed by Brooke Stevens
in The Circus of the Earth and the Air
. In this book the world of one man comes unhinged when his wife disappears into a magician's trick at an illusive and mercurial circus performance. He follows her to the seeming ends of the earth - a madman's opus, a religious fanatic's dream, an island on which the theatre is worshipped by an army of actors, stuntsmen, and mercenaries. I have not read the book in years, but when I did it became a test of sorts, helping me sift through the world: I made everyone I could read it, and all of my friends either loved it or hated it. Any lukewarm reactions drove me away, pointing to what I assumed was a lack of passion and a lack of possibilities.*
Of course, this reminds me uncomfortably of the much-teased "shock and awe" campaign of the Iraq war. It makes sense though, really: a good fantasy novel and a successful imperial war campaign both seek to unsettle their target audiences, causing them to question, for whatever length of time, their grasp on reality.
Labels: beckett, breathing, circuses, elephants, human cannonball, momo, possibilities, tom waits