At the Edinburgh Book Festival, Elif Batuman was talking about her second novel, Either/Or
. The titles of Elif Batuman's first two books – The Possessed
and The Idiot
– clearly reveal an interest in Dostoyevsky and Russian literature. The title of her third, Either/Or
, shows her interest in philosophy. Her narrator, Selin, is a young undergraduate, trying to make sense of life, and is particularly puzzled by the nature of romantic relationships. She looks to books to find answers to 'how to live'. One of these books is Kierkegaard's Either/Or
which she adopts as the title of her own book.
The main thesis of Kierkegaard's book is that life has to be lived either aesthetically or ethically (you have to be one or the other apparently, you can't be both) and Selin discusses this thesis with her friend Svetlana, trying to work out if this is the case, or not. But Selin and Svetlana discuss many other things, including the nature of sex and relationships and the novel follows Selin's life in detail, her friendships, encounters and conversations, as she tries to come to terms with these conundrums. It is both very funny and at the same time addresses the fundamental questions in life, such as how to live and how to relate to others.
is a sequel to her first novel, The Idiot
, which I read a few years ago. I read part of it on a bus and I remember laughing out loud, because I recognised all Selin's dilemmas and uncertainties: how to respond to emails of someone she likes, how to teach English to someone who does not have a concept of what a different language is, how to negotiate machines, lifts that bypass the right floor, the frightful distractions of vast department stores and how they affect you, and the problems of free will. Her email friend is bothered by the thought that it might not exist. She, by the super abundance of it: 'I had nothing but free will. The thought that it might be limited in some way brought me only relief'.
is similarly humorous, particularly when discussing certain books, such as Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers
, where the narrator is horrified by a pimple on his lover's nose. But, she says in her talk, that was a very early novel, and 'I'm sure he (Martin Amis) got much better'. When reading Henry James' Portrait of a Lady
, Selin at first identifies with Isabel Archer, the eponymous lady. She later reads Henry James' preface, where he writes about where the idea for this book came from, and is annoyed and disbelieving when he describes his heroine as 'a wind-blown germ'!
I would highly recommend these books, preferably reading The Idiot
first, so you can follow Selin's progress, to the point where she realises that not all the answers to how to live life can be found in books, even though they give plenty of food for thought. As Elif Batuman said in her talk, Kierkegaard's separation of the aesthetical and the ethical is not a real distinction, but when you are young, reading philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Kant, you don't realise that it is just one person's point of view. And, she said, both of them had such dreadful childhoods, we have to remember that the theories they came up with were written by traumatised men.
Sidarta Ribeiro is a Brazilian psychologist, researcher and writer. He began his talk by reading from his book, The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams
(translated by Daniel Hahn), a vivid description of a child's recurring nightmares, so frightening and so persistent that the child became afraid of going to sleep and did everything he could to stay awake.
Eventually, he was sent to a therapist who gained the boy's trust and helped him to take control of the narratives, and they gradually became less frightening. It turned out that the boy had been traumatised by the death of his father, but as he learned to take control within the dreams, the sense of utter abandonment changed to situations which were dangerous, but in which he managed to make decisions which took him away from the danger; soon after that, the frightening dreams ceased.
Through this example, Sidarta Ribiero showed that dreams could, with help, have a healing effect, and he believes that the art of dream healing is one that has been forgotten in our modern lives, but they are our most powerful tool for healing. Today, he said, we have so much technological power and scientific knowledge, but there is such anxiety and despair about the future. He believes that the reason for this is that we have abandoned old traditions and no longer share our dreams. We need, he says 'to rescue our ability to imagine better futures'.
He said that the neglect of dreams by science is a recent phenomenon (for many centuries they were considered to be highly important) and that dreams are essential to navigate waking life. If, he says, we think that dreams are not important, it is us moderns who are the odd ones out.
In his book, an ambitious history of dreams and dreaming, he returns to the earliest records of dreams, in Babylonian, Biblical, Viking, Roman and Greek times. Some of the most striking dreams he records are those of Native Americans, the prophetic dreams of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, which were important not just for the dreamer, but for a whole people. There are also examples of people trying to solve problems and how they were given solutions in dreams, leading to scientific breakthroughs; and those working in creative fields too are familiar with dreams as inspiration.
As well as discussing how dreams are seen in other cultures, Sidarta Ribiero goes into great detail re the modern discoveries in neuroscience, which show what parts of the brain are activated during dreaming, and so can give us further insight into this research. This is an extraordinary documentation of all things dream-related, a reference book for anyone interested in the subject.
Morelle Smith is a poet and writer