Monday 31 December 2012

The way up

...facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.

The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies.

Virgil Aeneid Book 6  lines 126-9, English translation by Dryden

This blog is rarely the place for the confessional, but I did vow that once I felt like my old self again, I'd stop puzzling some of the more inquisitive readers here as to the reason for the latest absence (long-term followers will have noticed the others; the 'episodes' began, for the first time in my life, shortly before I began this blog). After two and a half years of good health, far too much of 2012 was devoted to what I'd call not so much the black dog as the black hole. Around its edge were the constant modicum of working when I could, premature attempts to re-enter the public arena in April, and a return to teaching in September which soon felt natural. We managed trips to friends in the west during the spring and a wholly successful walking holiday around Chamonix in August which proved how crucial a part exercise plays in temporarily raising the spirits.

Even so, full wellness didn't return until November.

The mechanisms and triggers of these devastating episodes I still fail to understand. Did the trauma of extended dental work including a three-hour tooth extraction kick it all off, as I felt it had when the first crisis began six or so years ago? Was it the full impact deferred to the middle years of a bereavement in adolescence - the death of my father when I was 15? Well, in psychotherapy we've been through all that, raised aspects I hadn't considered - how not a single person really asked how I was, since all focus was on looking after mother; how maybe these spells from the mid-forties onwards have been a kind of identification with my unhappy father, disabled for the five years between his first stroke and his second, sitting at home feeling useless. Now I don't think we'll get any further along that line, though who knows?

Still I don't feel equal to defining the abyss. I need others to do it for me. Gwyneth Lewis in Sunbathing in the Rain, 'a cheerful book about depression',  approaches it poetically; Lewis Wolpert's Malignant Sadness and Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon add to the stock of understanding. With the qualification that all-enfolding love never deserted me - and I would insist that my best of men saved me, as before - Solomon's opening definition of depression does the job:

It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connections to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself. Medications and psychotherapy can renew that protection, making it easier to love and be loved, and that is why they work...In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaningless of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.

All I know is that on examination of the terrible times, there were oases of love and reassurance, even enjoyment, however much a casual glance back suggests nothing but the black. All this may seem strange since this is mostly a blog about enthusiasms, and, yes, I do love life with a passion when I'm well. Everything in the alternative state is a negative of that, a reversal. Two borrowed ways of defining it have been to say that I lost my soul, and that I joined the ranks of the undead (since at its most seemingly unendurable it did indeed feel like a fate worse than death, which you think about so often in the negative state; I don't believe anyone who denies this). Is there more than a touch of the bipolar? Very possibly. Each doctor, psychiatrist and psychotherapist seems to have different theories. It's not a science, but to be sure it needs medical supervision. If simply mentioning all this helps someone out there, then it's been worthwhile: don't be afraid to ask if you think I can be of use, though I don't suppose I can say more than, endure, this too will pass.

Anyway, here I am back in the midst of abundance, and in the few months of full enjoyment I can easily pick out a list of highlights. There were a few earlier in the year - chiefly an isolated excursion to English National Opera to see my beloved Rosenkavalier, and though there was a veil or two between me and my usual enjoyment of it, I could tell that this was a superlative revival, vivaciously conducted by Edward Gardner with perhaps the most successful third act I've seen. Sarah Connolly trumped her first Octavian at ENO, Amanda Roocroft had the bittersweet presence the Marschallin needed and John Tomlinson's chief asset as a vintage Ochs was his sheer ease on stage. But the voice which blew us away was Sophie Bevan's, blooming every time her Sophie hit a high ecstatic line. Here she is with Connolly in the Presentation of the Rose (photo for ENO by Clive Barda).

Richard Jones's staging of Martinů's Julietta was the next operatic highlight, drawing very few negative criticisms from anybody other than about the quality of the music and its subject, in which I was happy to join battle on the rapturously positive side. Below, three mini-Michels and the 'real' he (fabulous Peter Hoare) photographed for ENO by Richard Hubert Smith.

I seem to have struck very rare Royal Opera gold in July to catch Anja Harteros's long overdue return to the house. Her Desdemona shone Venus-starlike in a Verdi Otello which also included the right-sounding sort of protagonist in Alexanders Antonenko and magnificent work, as ever in the Italian rep, from Pappano and the Royal Opera Orchestra; shame about the Iago and the lame old production.

It was hard work getting to Glyndebourne for The Cunning Little Vixen, especially as that opera's glorious message wasn't chiming with me at the time, but I reckon Melly Still did a good job on the production. A much happier experience later in the year was talking again at a study day on The Marriage of Figaro while the Glyndebourne tour was kicking off at its home base, and loving the mostly superlative cast of the subsequent performance as well as Jonathan Cohen's vivacious conducting.

December brought my only Wagner live other than the surprisingly satisfying experience of hearing Mark Wigglesworth scale mountains in De Vlieger's potted Ring for orchestra. If any operatic event in anniversary year is better than the Fliegende Holländer in question, I'll feel lucky: Bryn Terfel covering all expressive and dramatic bases as an astounding Dutchman was equalled by Anja Kampe and Matti Salminen in the visiting Zurich Opera concert performance.

Mezzo of the year second time running for me is sublime Alice Coote (pictured above by Ben Ealovega), for her Mahler Rückert Songs with Saraste and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and her Purcell, Handel and Britten Phaedra alongside the splendid Britten Sinfonia. Violinist Catherine Martin (pictured below) revealed afresh the strange beauties of Biber's 'Rosary' Sonatas between homages to Bach's Orgelbüchlein in the Tower.

The BBCSO pulled off a sequence of well-programmed concerts but the LPO carries on reaping the rewards of a central intelligence in the shape of their music director Vladimir Jurowski. Hard to choose from his through-planned events, which will continue in 2013, but the last of his programmes I heard this year still resonates, with a spellbinding revelation of Grisey's Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four chants for crossing the threshold) enveloping hyper-agile soprano Allison Bell in a host of original sonorities. The Mahler Five that followed was absolutely fresh, too, as one has come to expect from VJ.

Theatre - I saw too little, though the Young Vic Three Sisters came to seem like a masterpiece of rethinking alongside the music-drenched pantomime of the Vakhtangov Company's enervatingly wilful Uncle Vanya (wish I'd seen Lucy Bailey's Print Room Vanya). So glad, all the same, to have been along to five of the Globe to Globe shows, top of the list the Maori Troilus and Cressida and the Hindi musical version of Twelfth Night (photo below by Simon Annand).

And we did a bit of catching up the week before Christmas with the still-sparkling second cast One Man, Two Guv'nors and a Sondheim treat which has been top of many critics' lists, Merrily We Roll Along at the wonderful Menier Chocolate Factory.

Now I feel more like the youthful Frank and Charley  (Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley pictured by Tristram Kenton above), starting out at the end of the show with wide-eyed optimism. Here's to a much better 2013 - and may yours be what you wish of it.


David Damant said...

Winston Churchill admitted to black dog rather than black hole, but there may be a parallel in that his father Lord Randolph died when Winston was young (admittedly 21) and of a debilitating illness which went on for some years. We do not understand these things, as you indicate. Also I might mention that, although the practice is in decline, Englishmen still tend to the stiff upper lip, whether they are looking at their own troubles or those of a friend. So expressions of sympathy can be restrained. Nelson's "Kiss me Hardy" can still cause embarrassment, or more recently was foolishly seen as evidence of homosexuality. The Duke of Wellington is sometimes crediting with embedding the stiff upper lip into the English character, but it was probably the spirit of the age which also turned male costume grey

Even schoolboy Latin lessons ( faded now for me I regret to say) could show up the musical nature of Virgil's poetry. I might add the comparison made by Kobbe with Gluck's "sublime number" che faro:

Vox ipsa et frigida lingua
"Ah! Miseram Eurydicen " anima fugiente vocabat;
"Eurydicen" toto referabant flumine ripae [Georgics]

E'en then his trembling tongue invoked his bride;
With his last voice "Eurydice " he cried
"Eurydice" the rocks and river banks replied [Dryden]

I would also argue that the "sublime number" is about the loss of everything, not just a wife, and like Dido's lament "shifts the emphasis .. from the particular to the universal" [Harewood] There is nothing we can do about our predicament but by detaching ourselves from the particular we can perhaps see our fate in perspective. And works of art of genius are perhaps the greatest way to achieving this perspective

Laurent said...

To you dear Friend and to J. very best wishes of good Health and Happiness in 2013. To the pleasure of seeing you again in London. To continous reading of your delightful blog and helpful reading suggestions which I enjoy a lot. Bonne et Joyeuse Année!!

Willym said...

Dearest David
An e-mail is to follow but one of the joys of the past month or two has been to see you return to blogging, to writing at the Arts Desk and to be able to see you (though we had seen each other briefly in Janaury) two weeks ago.

Let us hope that for all of us 2013 brings health - physical and mental - and happiness (something that you and I both have in spades from our loving and supportive spouses).



David said...

Thanks all three for so quickly cushioning my anxiety over the public confessional. David, your points are so eloquent and enriching, as ever. And here's the sun on the first day of 2013...

JDCMB said...

Thinking of you very much, David, and wishing you a complete resurgence of health and happiness in 2013! xx

David said...

The resurgence has already begun, masha'Allah! We hope to see more of you and T in 2013. Now tuning in to Vienna - I'm not one of your sniffy ones when the NYDC is concerned, even with Welser-Most.. xx

Susan Scheid said...

I don’t think a day went by during all this period when I didn’t think of you and root for your return to good health, and with it, a return to your particularly gladsome brand of abundance from which I, and I suspect all of us, have gained so much. It is wonderful to have you back, as I hope you know. May 2013 bring an extra measure of abundance for you both!

David said...

And your support has meant so much to me - more than I would ever have thought the often deceptive world of blogpals could permit. Thank you, dear Sue.

Colin Dunn said...

Thank you for saying what you did and in your concluding words "this too will pass." How very true: it's hellish, murderous, vile beyond belief, but in time the blackest of clouds can be seen to have pin pricks of light penetrating them; that the abyssal plain has fragments of beauty on it. It's the feeling of abstraction from bright shining life with its smells, tastes, emotions and so on that make it so horrible.

Offering a hand to someone who is deeply depressed is something that takes courage, but when offered it does give succour and a momentary awareness that you are not alone.

David said...

Huge thanks, Colin. I owe the exact phrasing of 'this too will pass' to Dorothy Rowe, though I haven't found of much use her theory that depression is a way of telling us we're leading our lives in the wrong way. Sure, one can make adjustments, but it seems too prescriptive to me.

I don't know what one can do for the sufferer, but I was very surprised by how many people had either suffered likewise or knew someone who had. And letters were very much appreciated.

wanderer said...

David, I think I lost a comment at the preview stage. If it somehow found you, let it through if you see fit. If it is bobbing around the ethernet, I'll have another go. You need not post the following unless you want - it's happily for you now I suspect we are the only ones left in this particular room.

I was saying how surprised I was to read that you had swung so low. For whatever reasons, you have never been far from my thoughts, and I did wonder if not worry what the problem was: cancer - the prostate, the blood; some consequence of the cycling accident - retinal detachment. Being used to your enthusiasms, as you say, the dark recesses of meaninglessness were hardly expected and now the silences are completely understandable. Praise be that you are back.

My own little period in my cocoon, you need to know, has little to do with the other and everything to do with the within and my dealing with my own complexities. To be honest, I spend often days at a time alone in the bush, with no extraneous noise, music or radio, or human contact, except that K and I speak often, but then he is hardly other. Isolation is my comfort and possibly my nemesis.

So, here we are, saying hello how are you again. How are you?

David said...

So pleased to see that comment, Wanderer, and I don't mind if you don't. Indeed, this post was written largely with you and your long-term concern in mind: one of the few that I think I know well through the personality that comes through and yet of course don't know at all.

Your own description is poetic yet oblique. But I'm so glad to see you back. And yes, you only have to read all that follows this post to know I'm fine. Maybe a little too fine, but I'm learning to be watchful and reduce the stress/sense overload (difficult, the latter, in London).

Onwards, anyway.

wanderer said...

As the last to comment, now I'm flirting with guilt. Still, I think/hope we can skip the need for immediacy and see another time arc at work here.

Obliquity (and you're right of course, it was) is boring, and often insufferably smug; I apologise. And it was a touch hyperbolic as I suspect you suspected too. There are perhaps some parallels with mania and hypomania in what I'm about to say. I can work the social circumstances with the best of them, forward to the point of garrulousness, learned from many years needing to engage the trust of strangers, at work that is. It isn't my natural state though, my mean if you like. Solitude, physical solitude, suits me well - a hypomanic state if we carry the analogy - and reclusivity isn't so unattractive or extreme, but I wonder what would lie beyond that once that path were cleared.

As for 'too good', well there's every reason surely that your upswing might tend to overshoot, and I'm sure you and yours are mindful of that. I'm loathe to enter the have-you-tried-this proselytizing posture, but I believe, as an adjunct to whatever physical and other therapies are in place, meditation is an acquired skill of incomparable benefits. I used to meditate regularly, now don't, consciously don't as in a willful self-destructive way, and am the worse off for it. This very conversation may be the trigger.

I am loving catching up, darting a bit here and there, chez vous, Bach, and Andrew Litton (stunning Guerrelider in Bergen and achieving the impossible by making Strauss - Rosenkavalier - work in the SOH), Beauty ..

David said...

I did a weekend course of transcendental meditation and found it wonderful, but lacked the discipline to follow it through - and being in the abyss, with negative thoughts so intrusive, was not the time to try and make it work again. I must plan the day so that I can manage the requisite 20 mins in the morning and another 20 in the afternoon.

Gurrelieder in Bergen? Did you make a flying visit there or was this on a broadcast? I love Litton's work with the 'other' BPO - hearing them in the Berlin Philharmoniker was an infinitely better experience than catching the home orchestra with Rattle in a terrible Ravel Sheherazade (Lady R on worst form) and a lumpy Strauss Heldenleben. And Litton was a joy to interview - there's a very long version of that on TAD.

Good news that our Ed Gardner is to take over from Litton in Bergen, much as we want to keep him here.

wanderer said...

We were in Bergen, doing the fjord thing, though timed it for the festival, Oslo, Helsinki/Ainola (without your entrees of course), St P, Moscow blah blah. If I say Bergen to K, all he remembers is the police on bicycles in black lycra!

To TAD to check the interview.

Must remember to follow Mr Gardener and his programming.

Thierry said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experience so openly and bravely dear David.

David said...

Sharing is always best, dear Thierry. It helps one to discover how many people have either been through something of the same, or know someone close to them who has.