Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lost: Madness and Clarity

One of my favourite writers of all time is Timothy Findley. I was crazy about CanLit (Canadian literature) when I was a student, and I was forever changed the first time I discovered Findley’s work through his masterpiece, The Wars. A gorgeous, gorgeous piece of writing about a boy’s experience as a soldier in the First World War and the mental toll it took on people, this book led me to the many, many other books Findley wrote. Findley was a lion of CanLit, a popular fave but also a critical and literary success. I’ll never forget the morning of June 22, 2002, when I grabbed the paper, unrolled it, and saw the giant picture of Findley on the front cover with his birth... and death... dates written across the top, and I leapt back as if the paper had electrocuted me. I’ve never had such a visceral reaction to a newspaper headline before, but I began crying. He’d died in France the day before after a fall, and I was devastated.

One of my favourite novels of Findley’s was 1993’s Headhunter, set in the very real mental hospital on Queen Street West in Toronto. That same year I was privileged enough to interview the man, who is affectionately known as “Tiff” (after his full initials, Timothy Irving Frederick Findley), when he had written a play, The Stillborn Lover, to be performed for the first time at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, where I was then living and going to school. I remember being so excited, and since I’d written numerous papers on his work, I’d read most of the interviews he’d conducted over the years, knew what questions he avoided (and was still determined to ask them anyway), and I knew his work inside and out. I was prepared.

I called him up, his partner Bill answered the phone, we chatted for a minute, and then he passed the phone over to Tiff. And what followed was an incredible hour-long phone call that went from interview to conversation. We talked about the play, about Headhunter, about his books (and there was one question I’d been trying to find an answer to for two years of paper-writing but he refused it in every interview I’d read, and when I asked it at the very end of the interview, he answered it without hesitation), and... about madness. It’s an ongoing theme in Findley’s writing: his main characters are mad, or the world around them is mad, or their family has gone mad. And he revealed that he’d had an aunt who suffered from a mental illness and he’d spent a lot of time around her, and where others would avoid her, he would talk with her endlessly. Through those conversations he discovered that this woman seemed to “see” things that no one else did... she had a sense of clarity about the world around her that cut through all the bullshit and just saw right to its core. She’d been one of the biggest influences on his writing, and he found he was often trying to work that sense of clarity through madness into many of his books based on the experiences he’d had with her.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because in the past week I’ve been thinking more about that long conversation I had with him and wondering if there could be a link with his ideas and Lost.

In the sideways world on Lost, the characters seem to need a jolt of some kind to see the original timeline, whether it’s being shot or kissed or holding hands or some burst of electromagnetism. But Libby didn’t need a jolt. Her madness gave her the clarity to see to the other world. There were no holding hands or kisses or getting slammed by a car or almost drowned... she just saw it, no jolt needed. I suggested on Chris Kelly’s site the other day that I wondered if Libby in the original timeline was in the mental institution because she could actually see the sideways world and thought she was completely mad. Is it possible someone from the original timeline had a sense of the other timeline?

Hurley has spent time in the mental institution but is really sensitive about it – we’ve seen many instances where he’s become incensed when someone has suggested he’s crazy – and he can speak to dead people. Just like Libby seeing the original timeline from the sideways world, he can see across the line of the dead. No one else can see them, just like no one else can see the sideways world except for Libby, suggesting that once again those who are mad have a clarity that allows them to see things other people simply can’t see.

Think of how many of the books that have been mentioned on the show and how many of them deal with madness... just about every character in Wonderland and the Looking-Glass worlds is entirely mad, and Lewis Carroll’s books are the most referenced ones on the show. If you look back through the show and think about every time a character mentions that someone else is crazy, usually immediately following that moment, the character who’s been called crazy has a moment of clarity. It’s definitely worth thinking about.

Oh, and to bring this all back around to me (which, those on my Facebook page will tell you, is definitely my modus operandi), after interviewing Findley I wrote that piece in the student newspaper at UWO, and the night it ran I went down to the premiere performance at the Grand Theatre. I went over to the press table to grab my packet (I was going to be writing a review for the next day’s paper) and the press woman got my name and said, “Oh! I have a message from you from Tiff.” Me = froze. “He said that of all of the stories on the show that he read today from all of the various papers, including the national newspaper, he wanted me to tell you that you were the only one who truly GOT it, and that he got that sense from you even when he spoke to you. He said he really loved your piece, and wanted me to tell you to keep up with the writing, and you will be successful at it someday.”

I barely remember that night’s performance, because all I could do was sit there in the audience in a blind haze, enveloped by the surreal notion that my favourite writer in the universe had just complimented MY writing. Wow. It was a moment I’ll never forget.


keegan said...

Thank you, that was a small yet inspirational piece!
Maybe my favorite author could one day say I've got what it takes.

Gracie said...

Nikki: Very well written. As for this comment: "and you will be successful at it someday." isn't it safe for all of us to say that that day has come? You ARE successful at it. :)

humanebean said...

What a great story. I can only begin to imagine what that experience meant to you (and still does) even as you have done such a wonderful job of sharing those moments with us. I'm reading Clay Earl's bio of Steve Goodman just now and I'm reminded again and again of the magnificent power we have as individuals to touch the lives of others. We often overlook this; sometimes because we think we are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, other times because we are caught up in our own concerns or day-to-day stresses.

Certainly public figures such as authors, actors and musicians are poised to have more opportunity to touch lives in this way but sometimes the smallest gesture can resonate powerfully with another. Here was one instance when Findley was impressed with you during your interview and this impression was reinforced through your article. How easy it would have been for him to keep this opinion to himself and you might never have known of his regard. Instead, he went out of his way to send a message to you ... and it's safe to say that it was a life-altering experience.

Kudos to you, Nik, for creating and sustaining that impression and to Mr. Findley for taking the time to reflect it back to you. Such generosity of spirit redounds through the years and still has the ability to inspire us today. I think that those of us in the Nik at Nite community are the richer for it and certainly your own readers and fans are the beneficiaries as well.

Jazzygirl said...

Thanks for sharing, Nikki. I can imagine how special that was for you. It's rare we get that kind of experience. :)

On another note, I think I need to get myself in check. Last night, I had posted on my FB status around 8pm something about no LOST this week. SO many people responded, freaking out b/c they had no idea. On top of that, other people posted on their own statuses at 9pm things like "what? No LOST?", etc. OMG, I just about went crazy on all of them. I was posting things like "and you call yourself a LOST fan, HOW could you not know it was a repeat this week? DUH!" After a few of these posts, I pulled back and thought, "wait, are they the ones who have a problem, or ME?" LOL! *sigh* I guess I'm just too used the same level of intensity as we have here. Plus, when Nikki posted it here, you guys analyzed the fact that there was no new episode as if it were a new episode posting...which is why I love you guys! :)
Anyway, it was good to see Richard's episode again.

Kiki said...

Nikki -- what a dream to be so complimented by an idol! He just discovered earlier what we all here know now!

Jazzygirl -- How funny! My mom called me about 9:03 and was asking me about why there was a repeat. I had to enlighten her :)

One thing from watching the replay of the episode was the one "bubble" that said Richard was another person that Jacob had brought to the island who had directly or indirectly caused the death of another person -- Maybe it had been discussed here before I found this wonderful blog, but that was a bit of a "whoa" moment for me as I thought about all the characters.

And one more thing -- Jacob could promise Richard that he could live forever, which is very Christ like in that for those that believe are promised eternal life. I don't think I really made that connection during the first watch.

The Question Mark said...

This is great, Nikki, way to go!
And I agree with Gracie: I think "someday" has come, seeing as how you've now become a lot of people's favourite writer yourself!

Ambivalentman said...

Great post, Nikki. Thanks for sharing such a cool personal moment. I know I felt similarly when you made mention of my blog on your site -- it's great to be validated and inspired.

In addition, I like the idea about madness and clarity. It makes sense, especially now as Jack seems to be gainly more clarity as he accepts the madness around him on the Island.

Joan Crawford said...

This is a great story - I am not surprised he took such a shine to you; you are earnest and adorable - few, if any, can resist your charms, m'lady. I am sure he felt about you the way Hannibal did about Clarice. Except without all the, you know, killings.

As an aside, I have the exact same "crazy person" sweater that Libby is wearing in that pic. Coincidence, surely.

SonshineMusic i.e. Rebecca T. said...

That is such a great story.

And I loved the bit on madness and clarity in Lost.

Lots of food for thought, as always.

Teebore said...

Great story, Nikki. What an amazing confidence boost that must have been. And, as always, intriguing ruminations on Lost. Island Libby seeing Sideways Libby before coming to the island might be the best explanation for her stint in the mental hospital I've yet encountered.

@AmbivalentMan especially now as Jack seems to be gainly more clarity as he accepts the madness around him on the Island.

I like it!

Duke said...

I also love Timothy Findley's writing. Stones is one of my favourite book of short stories. You have inspired me to go back and re-read some of his stuff. And I must admit, I have never read the Wars. I am putting it on my list! I think it was also made into a movie? I saw, and very much enjoyed Elizabeth Rex at Stratford. He was an incredible talent. Nice to hear he was an incredible man too. Thanks for sharing.

VW: Ocula: an octopus that drinks blood.

JS said...

Nikki - thanks for sharing that. What a great moment for a young person - obviously he saw what we now already know.

On last night's repeat, one thing I notices is Hurley said that Richard had to stop the Man in Black. That is not a term anyone has actually used on the island besides Jacob. So, maybe it was Isabella/Jacob who told him and he didn't just make it up. Or it is a continuity error....

@jazzygirl - hahaha. Actually, my husband asked me WHY there was a repeat, as if Darlton and ABC had me on their internal memo distribution.....

Gracie said...

Humanebean said: "I'm reading Clay Earl's bio of Steve Goodman just now and I'm reminded again and again of the magnificent power we have as individuals to touch the lives of others. We often overlook this; sometimes because we think we are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, other times because we are caught up in our own concerns or day-to-day stresses.
Certainly public figures such as authors, actors and musicians are poised to have more opportunity to touch lives in this way but sometimes the smallest gesture can resonate powerfully with another."

You said that very beautifully, and it reminded me again of how I got to be here. And how grateful I am that someone "touched" the life of this "other".

Lindsey said...

You love Lost, AND you love Timothy Findlay? You are my now favourite. person. ever. :P

Forest City Fashionista said...

Nikki: Thanks so much for sharing that story--I am thrilled to learn you are a Timothy Findley fan, as I too fell long and hard after reading "the Wars" in high school. I ran into Tiff and Bill a number of times during the latter part of his life and they were always so charming and gracious to fans of Tiff's books, and he was never too busy at a book signing for a chat about the latest cat or dog addition to their farm, or the colours they painted their new home in Stratford. He was a brilliant writer and a fascinating man.