My reality: for the entire week, I was dragging – my feet, my body, my mind, and myself. The drag was to the extent of a dread. An unexplainable melancholy, I was struggling with a major mental fog; and just generally not feeling like myself. But how does “myself” even feel like?
To feel, is an indispensable aspect of our lives yet we rarely approach it. “What do you THINK” comes up at a way higher (too high) frequency than “How do you FEEL about it?” Ironically, just two months ago, to celebrate my twenty-three years of existence, I granted myself the right to feel. But as if it is made a universal crime to feel, or to relish in my feelings now, I was lathered in further frustrations when I found myself mulling over my emotional muck than doing productive work.
Productive work would mean to write. To one who writes to get fed, words are our financial productive machines.
“Writers” believe in their words, hoping they add up to something – ideas, stories, narratives, lists, whatever sells now. Words are always our salvation. But words fail, sometimes, even at a conversational level with myself. My writing is a slice of me, how am I going to write if I am not going to “feel” (like) myself first?
Despite my staunch habit of reading one book at a time, I gave myself the liberty to pick up another this time round. It was an excuse to indulge in this low ebb and wallow in self-sympathy. I went for dog-eared Levels of Life (Julian Barnes); precisely because I had read it before. Like an old friend, I knew exactly what the book entails. I knew exactly what Barnes is going to say to me. I needed that assurance.
My first encounter with Levels of Life was in 2013, going through what a mainstream historian might label “Dark Ages” or a geographer, “Barren Land”. To examine that period from a retrospective vantage, “to make the subjective suddenly objective” as Barnes would have it, it does more than sending chills into my bones. Paradoxically, the spine-chilling characteristics of darkness envelop me into a consoling refuge. I needed this pattern.
Pattern is what Barnes was trying to get out of, but one he sought comfort in, too. His book wears many hats. The title gives a glimpse of the gripping content, though if one expects Levels of Life to be a self-help motivational book about living life, it’s not. Thankfully, it does not intentionally add to that genre. His work is an artful blend of historical facts, fictional narrative, and a personal memoir with and of grief. These pieces conflate to form a compelling discourse on life. Life, and its different levels from intoxicating heights to unbearable lows, Barnes structured his book rather neatly into three parts.
Each of the three chapters – “The Sin of Height”, “On the Level”, and “The Loss of Depth” – follows a pattern and begins with the same narrative of “putting together two things that have not been put together before”. Yet, it brings readers into another paradigm of possibilities of seeing things from higher and wider perspectives.
Barnes is obsessed with metaphors, and Levels of Life employs the history of ballooning and aerial photography to encapsulate and bring forth the undisguisable pain of loss. The book’s first chapter offers a brief history of nineteenth century Anglo-French ballooning, and aerial photography. French balloonist Felix Tournachon (Nadar) put together his capabilities in ballooning and photography to transcend a space that was previously considered divine. Ballooning beyond the clouds, Nadar offered visual evidences of “God’s space”. His findings changed how people viewed the world, and themselves.
The second section, On The Level, is a short fictionalised story of an ill-fated love affair between balloonist Fred Burnaby and actress Sarah Bernhardt. Here, ballooning represents freedom, provoking excitement and thrill. It parallels with the chase of a settled phase of love. An encompassing experience of a new high, but with the potentiality of crashing. As high as the balloon can rise, and as boundless as a love affair can get, both are forms of freedom subservient to the powers of wind and weather; or whims of the heart.
Levels of Life uses a tripartite structure of linked narratives, and elements from the first two sections resurface as metaphors in the third. Aeronautics, as a metaphor, expresses rather accurately the incalculable nature of love and its risky crash. In 2008, Barnes’s wife, Pat Kavanagh, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died (Barnes forbids “passed away”) thirty-seven days later. In this concluding section, The Loss of Depth, Barnes re-opens The Sin of Height in relation. As we have trespassed the divinity of height, we have inevitably given up on the depth of an afterlife (underworld), which our late loved ones may possibly reside in. Accounting his interaction with and experience of grief, Barnes unveils the curtains that often draped over humanly emotions. His unsparing descriptions of his personal grieving redefines grief, where it should be unapologetic and personal as “one grief throws no light upon another”. What makes Barnes’s work riveting is the multi-dimensionality of his grief-work, a human emotion that is (too) often left unaddressed and evaded.
Keeping in mind that “every love story is a potential grief story”, Levels of Life leaves me throbbing with emotions, and tears. And that’s when I realise, my ability to feel has never quite left me. Constantly living in the opinion of self and judgment, I never dared to really feel. But feel as you may, feel as you can; at the end of the day, it is how you feel and how you want to feel about anything. Be reckless, be illogical, be irrational. Feel – love, pleasure, fear, strength, and you. Be bare.