Probably the thing I hear – or perhaps think of – most, when considering relaxation, is to lie on a couch and read a book with a hot drink. Blankets help too, and a rainy day is a bonus. I would go further and say that this is probably relaxation’s poster child, and the reason is obvious. How could such a scene be anything but relaxing? There’s the warmth, protection, the apathy of lying, idle and inactive, on a couch, and the implicit I-don’t-care-about-you thrown at those pesky grey raindrops which just just won’t stop falling outside but that’s ok because you’re inside enjoying your book and drink and blankets. That’s relaxing.
You could argue that each of these elements plays a key role. The blankets keep you warm, keep you from shivering, and make sure that you can enjoy the rest of your time comfortably. The hot drink warms your insides the way the blankets warm your outsides, and if it’s coffee then, well, excellent – because no one in their right mind doesn’t like coffee, except (of course) for those who like other things. The rain is fantastic because it reassures you that yes, you should be inside and not going somewhere else.
But the book! I think the book is what truly makes this whole thing relaxing. If you take away the book and stare into nothingness while drinking coffee under blankets with rain outside, yes, that’s good… but a little worrying – presumably for others – if you do it for too long. Nor is it the presence of something rather than nothing that completes the scene, or else it would be perfectly relaxing to read a dictionary – or some esoteric journal paper. Not to say these things aren’t enjoyable in themselves, but could you imagine a regular person coming home from a long, hard week, plopping down on bed and say, “Ah! Can’t wait to continue on the M’s”? Neither (I hope) can I. But a funny comic, maybe a jokebook – these do the job. Alternatively, you might prefer lying under the blanket and watching a movie or a TV show you particularly like, and indeed staring into space makes a fair bit more sense if you’re listening to music at the same time.
What is it about these we like? Well, though I’ve presumed a bit up to now, I can’t continue to speak for the universe at large – no, what I like about these things is their potential for escapism.
I love this. It’s not so much forgetting about life and the world – after all, what’s so bad in my life that I need to forget about it? No, books give something else – the ability to read about someone and something else. It’s the otherness of it that is so attractive. Science fiction and fantasy are good for this, but there’s a strange paradox in modern writing to make them appear everyday and perhaps mundane. The British science fiction writer Bob Shaw noted this difference between old and new science fiction: the first stories were sensationalist, they would show a mere Earthman walking the streets of some Martian city, marveling at the strange alien architectures and technologies. Thus the otherness of the story was exhibited in the most explicit way to the reader, via the protagonist. It was all as new to the character in the story as to the reader.
But as science fiction developed, it became passe to refer to things like this. Things started to be presented in an offhand way, because the characters were already so familiar with the world that the narrator could, in context of the story, see no need to explain anything.
But I want something more – I want the writing, or the cinematography, or the musical structure, that is beautiful and contemplative. This doesn’t mean I want a fairy tale – a story of a brutal war can be horrifying, but there are elements that may give it the simultaneous otherness and realness that makes a story worth thinking about and worth remembering. Pinning down these elements is so hard… so I think I will show you, at some point, things that fit this for me. Maybe it is so elusive because the elements concern such common, well known things, but are expressed in such beautiful ways. But for me, something that has these things is something that will make me say to Latte, “Here is something I want you to see”. It’s not even important that I’m there with her to watch it or read it or whatever. It’s something I want to show her – “look at this, do you see? Do you see this?”
A good example to start with is a short story by Bob Shaw, entitled Light of Other Days (for which I unfortunately don’t have a link, but any self-respecting library should keep it as part of a collection entitled Other Days, Other Eyes by the same author) – it is so thoroughly a science fiction short story, but somehow still says something human. I don’t know what. Maybe it’s just that people are people and will always be people even in a world we don’t live in. Makes me long for something but I don’t really know what it is.
Anyway, that disappointingly short discussion on what it is about books and things that I like is probably all I can manage at the moment, but maybe it’ll be worth talking about a bit more in the times to come. Perhaps I’ll just finish with Ozymandias, by our buddy Shelley, which I found and copy-pasted from Wikipedia. It can be found in, and was ultimately (obviously) obtained from, Shelley’s Rosalind and Helen, a modern eclogue, with other poems, and can be found (apparently for free) off Google Books as an eBook. Famous poem, I know, but I like it anyway, for it holds one of these elements I ache for when I search out a book.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.