My Proustian flow of consciousness

Today I am going to break one of my self-imposed rules. Today, I will be all heart. Today, I won’t try to be a brainiac. Funny thing, when you google ‘brainiac’, you find out “he is a super-intelligent alien being from the planet Colu who has fought Superman.” Who knew? Who cares?

Now that we are done with the disclaimer, let us proceed down the rabbit hole we call the human mind.

Have you ever heard of the Proustian flow of consciousness?

Girl with a Book by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior (some time between 1850 and 1899). De Almeida Junior is one of the best Realists Brazil produced in the 19th century. His works are marvellous icons of a burning talented young man, who lived through his work, and died from his passion. He was stabbed to death by the jealous husband of the woman he loved. He died just before the turn of the century.

It is the stream of consciousness that functions as a soporific for some people while for others it opens the gates of mindfulness. By definition, it is a narrative device that emulates the character’s thought processes, either via interior monologue or stemming directly from his or her actions. The narrator’s thought processes are often depicted as overheard in the mind. The term “stream of consciousness” was first coined by philosopher and psychologist William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits … it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.

William James (The Principles of Psychology)

Incidentally it took another James but this time last named Joyce, and Marcel Proust, to popularise this literary technique. I highly recommend both former’s Ulysses (1922) and latter’s epic saga À la recherche du temps perdu or In Search for Lost Time (1913–1927).

A 1900 photo of Marcel Proust (1871-1922). A very talented French writer. The author of the romain-fleuve In Search for Lost Time, a glorious 4,300 pages depicting over 2,000 characters.
A 1918 photo of revolutionary and Lenin looking, James Joyce (1882-1941). Joyce had a trepidating life. He was one of the most famous Irishmen who lived and died in Switzerland. In the 1930s, he returned to Switzerland with his daughter Lucia, who suffered from schizophrenia, where she was analysed by Carl Jung. After reading Ulysses, Jung is said to have concluded that her father had schizophrenia. Jung famously remarked that she and her father were two people heading to the bottom of a river, except that Joyce was diving and Lucia was sinking.

But enough with the theory. I only mentioned stream of consciousness to explain how my thought processes brought me in front of my laptop, writing furiously this blog. Because, incidentally, that is how my latest epiphany struck me today after a very long day of work. And the Proustian flow of consciousness is very fast. If you don’t react quickly enough, you lose it. In my case, it took me a mad rush of 55 minutes to write down all 10 pages of it. I know because that’s how long Vivaldi’s compilation, I was listening to as I wrote, lasted on YouTube.

It all started when I was taking a shower tonight and going over the happenings of the last couple of days in my head. I was reexamining my motives for calling a friend the other day, and one thing led to another, as you are about to discover.

The Story Begins

Last Sunday, I felt like calling my dearest friend A. I just wanted to check on him and when he picked up my WhatsApp call, since he was not alone, he put me on speaker for everybody to hear me, and made me part to the larger conversation. You see, my buddy A. and another friend K., were hosting a party of old pals, an impromptu if you will ‘Covid-19 get together’, which by the way is totally legit in the land of Dracula.

One thing led to another, and lo and behold, I engaged with everyone present in a hearty conversation. We reminisced and after a quick round-table, we talked about the good old times. I felt included, yet somehow I also felt apart. You see, I was calling from another time zone, from an ocean and continent away. And they, the Friends, were there. And that is when I felt the brutal weight of my decision coming down hard on my weary shoulders.

You see, some 14 years ago, I had left the country of my birth, Romania. It was 2006, and I was 26 years old. I came to Canada, in search of a different life. And while my decision had been purely economic, in doing so, I had ventured but not totally lost, my personal relationships.

I write these words while I listen to the deeply despondent Double Violin Concerto in A minor, RV 523, composed by the greatest Italian Baroque maestro of all times, Antonio Vivaldi. My heart weeps in unison with the violins, when I remember how it grew small in my bosom, when my closest friends, A. and K., invited me for a brief hour into their world, allowing me to take part in their meaningful Decameron-like dialogue.

You see, for the past 14 years, I had been busy starting a family, building a career, going back to school, taking on a student loan, and while I became materially secure, and even dare I say, almost prosperous, I was alone.

Oh don’t get me wrong, I have a beautiful, doting and loving wife and a splendid daughter, who takes a lot after both of us, and borrows quite a few traits from her Romanian-based grandmother. I have a mother, who lives in the old country, and whom I also deeply love and miss every single day of my existence. And perhaps, soon now we’ll even have a dog. I am happy. But still I feel alone. Separated by 9,000 km of sea and land from my friends, whom I love and miss, I live in a personal desert.

I am alone…

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), who in an often quoted passage stated “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

Or perhaps I am just autophobiac. Or perhaps I am like Gilgamesh, and I just hate being lonely. I do believe that death is no worse fate than steering a path through life without your friends nearby.

Loneliness by Hans Thoma (1839-1924) (National Museum in Warsaw) – (1880).

Anyhow, that is neither here nor there.

The question remains why then did I ever leave Romania? I left because of a strange occurrence, which made a lasting impression on my younger self, one dark night in the late 90s.

Back then, I must have been either in high-school or in my first junior year in my undergraduate. At the time, I was living in Bucharest, Romania, with my mother and grandmother. Those were much simpler times, and life was not so complicated as it is today. My uncle had just moved away with his brand new wife and I had taken over his former bachelor room.

I was as happy as a young dog for I could come and go with ease at any time of day or night. My friends and I were tighter than the fingers of a clenched fist. We did everything together, the dumb and the smart things teenagers usually do when they start opening their eyes to the realities of life.

I guess I was a lucky bloke for I was blessed with the best friends anyone could have. For instance, when my family went through difficult times, they helped out financially, and they took turns feeding me. They did not have to but they did it nonetheless. I will always remember that I told them this in all seriousness. They also made sure, when my mother had some health issues, that I stayed in school and maintained my grades, and hit the books religiously, when in truth those were the last things on my mind.

Consequently, I got into high-school in 1994. And again, four years later, thanks to their relentless watch and help, I stood the course, aced my entry exams and was accepted with the highest GPA in the BA History and International Relations Program at the University of Bucharest.

I remember with melancholia how that long summer of 1998, for 120 days straight, whenever I called them to say I wanted to go out and hit the bars, they would always ask me:

“Ok we’ll go, but did you study for the entry exams? If you did, we’ll go out with you. If you didn’t, we won’t.” It was all based on the honour system but we are all honourable gents, so it all worked out for the best. And that is how and why I got accepted in college. Because even the best students can fail if they lack motivation. My buddies provided that motivation to me at a time when I sorely lacked it myself.

I am the man that I am today largely because my friends loved me and cared about my life perhaps even more than poor little me did back then. I guess I was lucky to surround myself with deeply moral friends. The lesson learned is that you’d better find friends you can aspire to because if you don’t, you will suffer in life.

Anyhow, going back to that strange night, I was asleep when I suddenly heard a sharp metal noise coming from inside the house. I got out of bed and went to investigate like the young man of the house I imagined myself to be. How silly I must have looked in my underwear when I came about a middle-aged guy ransacking my uncle’s tool and instruments chests, which he’d left behind.

When I confronted the burglar, he told me he was a friend of my uncle’s and that he had his permission to be there to borrow some stuff… in the middle of the night. Yeah, I know, liar liar pants on fire. So, I instantly woke my uncle up, as I was certain that the guy was lying through his yellow teeth.

A Burglar.

When my uncle pulled up, 20 minutes later, the dude was about done loading a big tool chest in his own junk car, and when my uncle confronted him, the dude started piteously crying. He kept lying to my uncle though, who was for the first time in his life at a loss for words.

You see when we caught him red-handed, the guy who was broke, expected my uncle, whom he shamelessly called an old friend, to call the cops on him. My uncle, instead, said that he could go, he was free to leave, and that he could even take the proceeds of his thieving with him. But if he did, he could never ever call on my uncle again. And when the thief departed, my uncle shed some much needed light on the whole incident.

You see, the thief was an old friend of his from high-school, who had fallen on some tough times, and after losing everything, he also lost his most precious asset, his honour. Dirt poor as he had become, all he’d have to do was to give my uncle a shout, and he would perhaps have hired him at his newly opened business. If not, at least my uncle would have helped him financially or put in a good word with a friend, for he knew lots of people in the old country.

Instead, the Judas chose to sneak in and burglar his way out of a solid friendship. That life’s lesson stuck with me for the past 20 years and perhaps motivated me to escape from a personal situation, where odds were even for me making it or not.

As it happens, before coming to Canada, I had had my own translation business for the previous four years, and life was good. It was hard work, of course, I was doing 12 hours days seven days a week, I was smoking like a chimney, and had started to hit the bottle. But money wise, I was making ends meet. I remember even affording to buy my mother a brand new Phillips 37-cm diagonal TV set, that she had up until early 2020. Incidentally, it seems I have created a tradition in that I actually got her a new TV set, this time a 70-cm diagonal LED LG.

In any case, I was doing OK compared to my peers at the time. However, ever since that fateful night, I had had a nagging feeling that something was amiss. What if, I kept telling myself, what if one day I was going to fall on hard times, and perhaps end up like that thieving rascal?! And that is why I left everything behind, my friends, and headed out for the New World.

That is why I abandoned a life full of personal rewards and friendships, and that is why I wasn’t there for my friends’ milestones, weddings, their sons’ and daughters’ baptisms, and that is why I am seven hours away from the pure joy of reaching out and touching my friends with a word, a gesture, a visit. I miss my friends but I don’t regret nothing. Je ne regrette rien, said Edith Piaf, and quite rightly so.

I left to escape a potential fate, worst than death. For what is betraying a friend like my uncle’s friend did, if not a worse fate than death. I couldn’t have stayed in Romania, when chances were that a hypothetical setback could have condemned to a life different than my friends’. And that I couldn’t abide. I just couldn’t run the risk of failing at life, not in my friends’ presence. Better to try and perhaps fail outside their reach.

As it happens, today I am a self-made driven man. I take care of my family. I am financially independent and stable, and I am not a burden to my family, mother or friends. I provide. And of course, I could provide much more. But I do my best each year ‘to keep up with the Joneses’.

After all, I may be alone. But I am not a burden.

And that, my friends, makes up for being far from the hearths but not hearts of my friends. I am never farther away than a WhatsApp call. I do miss being in the same room with them. But if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do it any other way. I love my family, my home, my life just as much as I miss and love my friends. And I work hard to make everybody happy. I sometimes fail but that doesn’t stop me from trying harder day in day out.

In 1673, Madame de Sévigné, a French aristocrat, told a friend that Viscount Turenne used to say fortune was for the big battalions. Four years later her cousin, the memoirist Roger de Rabutin wrote, “As a rule God is on the side of the big squadrons against the small ones.” I wholeheartedly agree that victory belongs to the bigger battalions.

What I mean to say is if at first you don’t succeed, try, try harder.

Napoleon crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). My favourite all time depiction of Bonaparte. The ‘big battalions’ famous quote was apocryphally attributed to him but a quick research identified Madame de Sévigné as the most likely culprit. And yet I used this subterfuge to bring you David’s masterpiece.

Funny thing, when I read my own words, I hear my dearest friend A.’s voice admonishing me: “Life’s never black and white, G.”

An yet for I, my friend, it’s always been like that: extremely black and so very white.

I am what I am, my friend. And although I recognise the wisdom of your words, in this I am like Martin Luther.

“Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

Martin Luther
Martin Luther (1483-1546) defined the world as we know it today. At the beginning of the 16th century, his 95 Theses revolutionised Man’s relation with God. He and others like him (Zwingli, Calvin, Knox) pulled Western Europe from the dogma of Middle Ages into a new age of thinking. When the Holy Roman Church offered him multiple opportunities to recant and return into the fold of a corrupt Church, he refused: “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.

So, yes I do have feelings and sometimes they even get the better of me, in spite of my best efforts to keep them bottled down. In the end, I share Epictetus’ rationalisation of how best to deal with life.

And because I want to conclude on a serene and balanced note, I give you the master of Stoicism, Seneca, who is one of my role-models.

The Death of Seneca the Younger (1612-1615) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). We saw this oil cuarto pintura at Museum El Prado in Madrid in July 2018. Then as now we were transported with awe at the level of detail Rubens managed to convey across the centuries.

Born in Cordoba, province of Hispania, this consummate rhetorician and stoic philosopher had the misfortune of living in the time of Nero, who assumed that Seneca was part to the Pisonian conspiracy, and ordered him to kill himself. Seneca, wanting to spare his household the horrors of a disturbed emperor, promptly took his life. He had lived and died in full accordance with his teachings.

The lesson of his life and death is apparent. His words will echo in eternity.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.


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