The Big Sleep – Book Review

 

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I have been having a lot of fun lately reading the annotated version of the Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. The text of the novel appears on the left side of the book while the notes are on the right. This book was annotated and edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto. Much of the material in this review is gleaned from their notes.

Raymond Chandler wrote, as Ross Macdonald said, like a slumming angel. His private eye, Philip Marlowe, was portrayed as a knight errant, searching for adventures and rescuing damsels in distress. He embodied the chivalric code.

In The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler wrote: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.” He also said, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

The Big Sleep, like all of Chandler’s novels and short stories, is of the hard boiled, pulp fiction, detective story genre. But Chandler was a cut above the rest. Heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, he improved upon a category of fiction that was mostly known for its lurid and salacious subject matter.

Another reason I like this book is that it gives the history of Los Angeles during and around the time period (1930s) of the novel. It also goes to great lengths to explain Americanisms, colloquialisms, slang, and genre jargon.

The Big Sleep, while a great read and a ripping good story, has a complicated plot. In this version the editors give us some guidance into Raymond Chandler’s intricate and labyrinthine novel.

I quote liberally from the novel as Chandler’s writing style is the best part of his work and the most entertaining. His use of hyperbole and exaggeration is a real gas. Also, I will be dropping some interesting asides about LA.

Los Angeles in the 1910s was the fastest growing city on earth. The population exploded 400% between 1910 and 1930. It went from 310,000 to about 1,250,000, with the greater LA County area housing 2.5 million. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was built to steal water from the Owens Valley 250 miles away. Corruption was rife. Politicians and the police often worked together with organized crime. Los Angeles was also known as a “Sin City” much like Las Vegas, with booming prostitution and gambling. According to journalist Carey McWilliams, “Los Angeles was the kind of place where perversion was perverted and prostitution was prostituted.”

“I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”

Marlowe cracks wise throughout the novel. The term wisecrack dates from the 1920s and is associated with tough guy or hard-boiled fiction. The queen of the wise crack was the dame of the Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker, who was known to have said, “The first thing I do in the morning brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

Carmen: Tall, aren’t you?

Marlowe: I didn’t mean to be.

Carmen: What’s your name?

Marlowe: Reilly. Doghouse Reilly.

Carmen: That’s a funny name. Are you a prize fighter?

Marlowe: Not exactly. I’m a sleuth.

Chandler considered it his duty as a writer to affirm life and liveliness against the deadly and the dull. A sentiment I have always lived by myself.

She put a thumb up and bit it. It was a curiously shaped thumb, thin and narrow, like an extra finger, with no curve in the first joint. She bit it and sucked it slowly turning it around I her mouth like a baby with a comforter.

Chandler used blackmail in fourteen of his short stories and five of his novels. Blackmail was very common in LA in the 20s and 30s. As headlines show: “GIRL TRIES BLACKMAIL! CAUGHT IN POLICE TRAP!” “FUGITIVE SEIZED IN EXTORTION CASE.” “FANTASTIC PLOT AGAINST POLA NEGRI BARED” “EXTORTION PLOT SUSPECT TAKEN: STANDARD OIL MILLIONAIRE’S EX-CHAUFFEUR ACCUSED.” W. Sherman Burns, head of the Burns Detective Agency, said in 1922, “Blackmail is the big crime in America today.

The 1939 WPA (Works Progress Administration) Guide calls Los Angeles the fifth largest Mexican City in the world.

In 1904 Lincoln Stephens wrote an expose called, The Shame of American Cities. In it he states politics is business. In America, politics is an arm of business and the aim of business it to make money without care for the law, because politics, controlled by business, can change or buy the law. Politics is interested in profit, not municipalities, prosperity, or civic pride. The spirit of graft and lawlessness is the American spirit. Raymond Chandler wrote in 1934, “The typical racketeer is only slightly different from the business man.”

Ernest Hopkins wrote in Our Lawless Police, 1913, “Nothing so clearly marks our policing traditions in American cities as the use of extreme and unlawful force. In LA there exists a theory of law enforcement more openly opposed to the constitution than any I have yet encountered.”

“A life is a life.”

“Right. Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare.”

There seems to be a connection between French Existentialist writers and hard-boiled fiction writers like James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond chandler. Albert Camus may have been influenced by the private investigators appearing in American detective novels like Philip Marlowe, as his portrayal of the quintessential alienated outsider Meursault in his own novel, The Stranger, clearly shows.

“I was fired for insubordination. I test very high on insubordination.” Marlowe

Marlowe is not an outlaw, but he does live by his own code, and he sometimes breaks the law by so doing. Jean-Paul Sartre says in Being and Nothingness: “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on none but himself; that he alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than to the one he forges for himself on this earth.” Marlowe understands this and accepts the challenge.

Some of my favorite lines and quotes from the novel:

  • “What does Carmen say?”

“I haven’t asked her. I don’t intend to. If I did, she would suck her thumb and look coy.”

“I met her in the hall. She did that to me. Then she tied to sit on my lap. I was standing up at the time.”

  • “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
  • The general spoke again, slowly, using his strength carefully as an out of work showgirl uses her last pair of good stockings.
  • The next morning was bright, clear, and sunny. I woke up with a motorman’s glove in my mouth, drank two cups of coffee and went through the morning papers.
  • “Well, how’s the boy?” He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money.
  • Vivian: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front runners, or come from behind…I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.”
  • “She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a business man’s lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray, but not very stray, tendril of soft glowing hair. Her smile was tentative but could be persuaded to be nice.”
  • Marlowe: You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who is in the saddle.

  • The giggle got louder and ran around the corners of the room like rats behind the wainscoting. She started to get hysterical. I slid off the desk and stepped up close to her and gave her a smack on the side of the face. The giggles stopped dead, but she didn’t mind the slap any more than last night. Probably all her boyfriends got around to slapping her sooner or later.
  • The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street Tunnel, but I didn’t move. Not being bullet proof is an idea I had to get used to.
  • “Get up Angel. You look like a Pekingese.”
  • “You’re broke?”

“I’ve been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”

  • “Go fuck yourself”

“That’s how people get false teeth.”

  • I made myself a drink and was drinking it when the phone rang.
  • Listen hard and you will hear my teeth chattering.
  • I was thinking of going out to lunch and that life was pretty flat and that it would probably be just as flat if I took a drink and that taking a drink all alone at that time of day wouldn’t be any fun anyway. I was thinking this when Norris called up.
  • I was catching up on my foot dangling.
  • I got out of my office bottle and let my self-respect ride its own race.
  • …even if they didn’t strap him in a chair over a bucket of acid.
  • “Two coffees. Black, strong, and made this year.”
  • “That makes you just a killer at heart, like all cops.” Vivian to Marlowe
  • “Let’s get out of this rotten little town.” Vivian
  • A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog.
  • I braked the car against the curb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel. Under the thinning fog, the surf curled and creamed, almost without a sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.
  • “Hold me close you beast.” Vivian to Marlowe
  • Her eyelids were flickering rapidly. Like a moth’s wings.
  • “Killer,” she said softly her breath going into my mouth.
  • She took her right hand from behind her head and started sucking her thumb.
  • I didn’t have anything really exciting to drink, like nitroglycerin or distilled tiger’s breath.
  • She’s a grifter, shamus. I’m a grifter. We’re all grifters. So, we sell each other out for a nickel. Okay. See you can make me.
  • “Let’s dip the bill. Got a glass?”
  • Canino driving fast through the rain to another appointment with death.
  • …bare as hell’s back yard.
  • Fate stage managed the whole thing.
  • “A man has the right to live his own life.” General Sternwood
  • He looked a lot more like a dead man than most dead men looked.
  • You were sleeping the big sleep.

And the last line of the novel:

  • On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.

THE FALL: BOOK REVIEW

A Novel by Albert Camus

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Every once in a while, I get inspired to reread one of my favorite books from the past. I have just read Camus’ The Fall for the third time. I read The Fall for the first time 34 years ago when I was age 36. It made a huge impression on me then and quickly became my favorite of Camus’ books. It somehow resonated with me in a way I didn’t quite understand. A second time in 2003….15 years ago when I was 55, a little grayer and a perhaps a little wiser.

Now, many years later, with a little more living under my belt, I am at it again. This time I have discovered a whole new territory. There on every page was an earthquake. In each sentence an incendiary device. What could I have been thinking all those years ago when I was reading this extraordinary book? How could I have missed so much? Was I sleeping? Well, the sleeper has awakened.

The novel opens with Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the main character, sitting in a dive bar named Mexico City located in the red light district of Amsterdam. He is talking to another patron. They discover they are compatriots, both hailing from Paris. Clamence tells his interlocutor about his past life in Paris as successful lawyer. The person he is talking to he refers to as “you.” This is a clever literary device by Camus. The “you” is actually you, the reader. Clamence regales you with stories of helping others. As a lawyer he takes most usually “widow and orphan” cases. He looks at himself as a person who lives solely for the purpose of benefiting others and living a life where virtue is its own reward.

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Mexico City Bar, Amsterdam

He asks if you have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life – and hence its crimes – becomes denser, darker. Here (in Mexico City), we are in the last circle.

Amsterdam

Then he tells you about an incident that happened late one night in Paris while crossing the Seine on the Pont Royal on his way home from seeing his mistress. He comes across a woman dressed in black leaning over the edge of the bridge. He hesitates a moment but continues on his way. He had walked only a short distance when he heard the distinct sound of a body hitting the water. Clamence stops walking, knowing exactly what happened, but does nothing. The sound of screaming was repeated several times as it went downstream, then it ended. He continued on his way home doing nothing.

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The Seine River, Paris, France. Photo: Benn Bell

This incident haunted Clamence throughout the rest of the novel and weighed heavily on his mind. There were a couple of other incidents that occurred that brought Clamence to the realization that he had actually lived a life seeking honor, recognition, and power over people. He was, in short, a hypocrite. Having come to this realization he knows he can no longer live the way he once lived. These factors precipitated his fall from grace and led to how he landed in Mexico City in the red light district of Amsterdam in the last circle of hell.

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Bridge over the Seine River, Paris. Photo: Benn Bell

Clamence responds to his intellectual crisis by withdrawing from the world. He closes his law practice, avoids his former colleagues and people in general and throws himself into debauchery, which he describes in the absence of love is a suitable substitute. “True love is exceptional – two or three times a century, more or less. The rest of the time there is vanity or boredom.”

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St Michael’s Fountain located in the neighborhood where Clamence lived in Paris.  Photo:  Benn Bell

“There is a certain degree of lucid intoxication, lying late at night between two prostitutes and drained of all desire, hope ceases to be a torture, you see the mind dominates the whole past and the pain of living is over forever. I went to bed with harlots and drank nights on end.  Sensuality dominated my love life. I looked merely for objects of pleasure or conquests.  For a ten-minute adventure I’d have disowned father and mother…I can’t endure being bored and appreciate only diversions in life… I have never been bored with women. I’d have given ten conversations with Einstein for an initial rendezvous with a pretty chorus girl.”

He thought for a while about joining the French Resistance, for this during the time of war, but decided against it as it was not suitable to his temperament. He preferred the “heights” and could not see himself part of a movement situated somewhere in a “cellar for days and nights on end with some brutes coming to haul me away from hiding, undo my weaving, and then drag me to another cellar and beat me to death.” He joins the army instead, gets captured by the Germans in Tunis, and is interred in a concentration camp in near Tripoli. Here he is elected to the position of “pope” by the other inmates and holds this position of power for a while. He drinks the water of a dying comrade, oh well, he was going to die anyway, and I needed to stay strong to survive to carry on continue to do more good, or at least that is how he rationalized it. He was eventually released and made his way to Amsterdam.

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Foggy Amsterdam

On the way home, walking through the streets of Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells you stories. He says he lives at the site of one of the greatest crimes of history, “the Jewish Quarter or what was called so until our Hitlerian brethren made room. What a clean-up! Seventy-five thousand Jews deported or assassinated: that’s real vacuum-cleaning. I admire the diligence, that’s methodical patience. When one has to apply a method. Here it did wonders incontrovertibly.”

Jewsish Quarter, Amstedam

Jewish Quarter, Amsterdam

He relates this story: “In my little village, during a punitive operation, a German officer courteously asked an old woman to please choose which of her two sons would be shot as hostage? Choose! – Can you imagine that? That one? No, this one. And see him go. Let’s not dwell on it.”

Another story: “I knew a pure heart who rejected distrust. He was a pacifist and libertarian and loved all humanity and all the animals with an equal love. An exceptional soul, that’s certain. Well, during the last wars of religion in Europe he had retired to the country. He had written on his threshold: ‘Wherever you come from, come in and be welcome.’ Who do you think answered that noble invitation? The militia, who made themselves at home and disemboweled him.”

Jean-Baptiste Clamence’s final monologue takes place in his apartment. There he relates the story of how a famous 15th century painting came into his possession. One night a regular patron of Mexico City came into the bar with the priceless painting under his arm and offered to sell it to the bartender for a bottle of booze. It was hung on the back wall of the bar for some time until Clamence told the bartender the painting was in fact stolen and that police from several countries were searching for it. He offers to keep it for him and the bartender readily agrees.

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The Just Judges

The painting is a panel from the Ghent Altarpiece known as The Just Judges. Clamence takes from this image the idea to identify himself as a “judge-penitent.” As a judge-penitent freedom is relinquished as a method of enduring the suffering imposed on us by virtue of living in a world without objective truth, and one that is therefore, ultimately meaningless. A judge-penitent confesses his sins so that he has the right to judge others.

The following snippets from the novel are spliced together and presented to you to give you a further flavor of the horror of the piece and are better told in the author’s own voice:

“I need your understanding. I have no friends, only accomplices.

The question is to slip through and, above all – yes above all, the question is to elude judgement. But one cannot dodge it so easily. Today we are always ready to judge as we are to fornicate.

People hasten to judge in order to not to be judged themselves.

The idea that comes naturally to man is his innocence. We all like that little Frenchman, Buchenwald, who was interested in registering a complaint with the clerk, himself a prisoner, who was recording his arrival. A complaint? The clerk and his comrades laughed: “Useless old man, you don’t lodge a complaint here!” “But you see sir,” said the little Frenchman, I am innocent!” We are all exceptional cases.

Let me tell you of the little-ease. I had to submit and admit my guilt. I had to live in the little-ease. To be sure you are not familiar with that dungeon cell that was called the little-ease in the middle ages. In general, one was forgotten there for life. That cell was distinguished from others by ingenious dimensions. It was not high enough to stand up nor yet wide enough to lie down in. One had to take an awkward manner and live on the diagonal. Sleep was a collapse, and waking a squatting. Every day, through the unchanging restriction that stiffened his body, the condemned man learned that he was guilty and that innocence consists in stretching joyously…we cannot assert the innocence of anyone, whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all. I’ll tell you a big secret. Don’t wait for the Last Judgement. It takes place every day.”

“Do you know why he (Christ) was crucified? He knew that he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of he had committed others – the slaughter of the innocents, the children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place. Why did they die if not for him? Those blood splattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror…it was better to die, in order not to be the only one to live…he cried aloud his agony and that’s why I love him.

Since we are all judges, we are all guilty before one another.

A person I know used to divide human beings into three categories: those who prefer having nothing to hide, rather than being obliged to lie, those who prefer lying to having nothing to hide, and finally those who like both lying and the hidden. I’ll let you choose the pigeon hole that suits me.

But, let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!”

 Conclusion

What is Camus telling us in this extraordinary novel? First of all, it is a novel of confession. The stories he tells his interlocutor are a confession. Jean-Baptiste Clamence says that one cannot die without confessing all one’s lies. It is also a novel about guilt: “I always hope my interlocutor will be a policeman and that he will arrest me for the theft of the Just Judges. Perhaps the rest will be taken care of subsequently; I would be decapitated for instance. I would have no more fear of death. I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd. You would hold my still warm head so they could recognize themselves in it, and I could again dominate- an exemplar. I should have brought to a close, unseen, and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness.”

Clamence discovers he can’t condemn others without judging himself first. I am a judge-penitent, he says. The more I judge myself the more I can judge you. So, the idea is to heap judgments on himself in order to justify judging others. That’s why he is a judge. Someone who condemns others, but also a penitent, someone who recognizes and judges his own crimes. All men are guilty of something. We are guilty not only by our actions but by our inaction or our failure to act.

On the absurdity of existence Clamence tell us, “a single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the newspapers.  Each day hundreds of millions of men, my subjects, painfully slip out of bed, a bitter taste in their mouths, to go to a joyless work.”

As for Truth: There is no objective truth.

And the fall from grace: The fall always occurs at dawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Traveler

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Benn Bell, Nairobi, Kenya

“He did not think of himself as a tourist. He was a traveler. The difference was partly one of time. Whereas the tourist hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging to no more one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. It would be very difficult indeed to tell anyone, of the many places he lived, precisely where he felt most at home.

Another important difference between the tourist and the traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization as his own without question; not so with the traveler, who compares it with the others and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”

-Paul Bowels, The Sheltering Sky

 

 

Little Sister

Top 10 Best Lines from Raymond Chandler’s Little Sister

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  1. She had a low lingering voice with sort of a moist caress in it like a damp bath towel.
  2. She looked almost as hard to get as a haircut.
  3. She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.
  4. She picked a cigarette out of a box, tossed it in the air, caught it between her lips effortlessly and lit it from a match that came from nowhere.
  5. “Shut up, you slimy, blackmailing, keyhole peeper!”
  6. She put a couple of cold blue bullets into me with her eyes.
  7. She looked as if it would take a couple of weeks to get her dressed.
  8. She reached up and pulled a fingertip down the side of my cheek. It burned like a hot iron.
  9. Marlowe, a private detective. Not the brainiest guy in the world, but cheap. He started out cheap and he ended cheaper still.
  10. It could have been a beautiful friendship. Except for the ice pick, of course.

Bonus Dialogue

“Do you always wear black?”

“Yes. It is more exciting when I take my clothes off.”

“Do you have to talk like a whore?”

“You do not know very much about whores, amigo. They are always most respectable. Except of course the very cheap ones.”

 

 

I Feel Bad About My Leg

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

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When I was in South Florida recently I injured my right leg. I don’t know how exactly, I just know I got up early one morning and I could barely walk. With every step I felt an excruciating pain in my right knee. It slowed me down for sure. Stairs were out, which meant I couldn’t get down the staircase to walk Gideon the Dog, a little white Shi Tzu with a boatload of energy. I took to wearing a knee brace which seemed to help. I hoped my leg would heal in a few days if I stayed off  it and I would get back to normal again. I am a pretty active guy.

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Gideon, the Dog

It did get some better for which I was grateful, because I had to travel back to Kentucky in a few days and there would be a lot of walking and schlepping of suitcases and bags. But as luck would have it, on the day of travel, I aggravated the injury to my leg as I stepped up onto the train platform. Ughhh!

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Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgefulness

I had to take a train from Delray Beach to Ft. Lauderdale, a  bus from the train station to the airport, then upstairs to the ticket counter to check in. I was carrying a backpack, a suitcase, and a small carry-on item. I checked the suitcase at the ticket counter and stumbled through security with the other two bags. It was more like a shuffle than a stumble but I managed to get through. There was more security than usual due the fact that there was a mass shooting at this airport just a few days earlier. Guy took a gun out of a packed suitcase in the baggage claim area and started shooting people. This would be your worst nightmare. He ended up killing five people.

I sat a moment in one of the ubiquitous lounges that lined the terminal and had a cheeseburger and a beer. Pretty good. So far so good. When the appointed time came I made the queue and boarded the aircraft. It was short flight to Atlanta but sitting on the tarmac and waiting to take off, then the time in the air didn’t do my leg any good. I was pretty stiff when I got off the plane and not just from the drinks.

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I had to change planes for the final leg of my journey back to Louisville. I arrived at Terminal 1 and had to make my way to Terminal 2. Thankfully there as an escalator, a moving sidewalk, and a train to take me to my destination. Then I had to walk the distance to gate 32, which of course was the furthermost gate away.

It was 7:30 at night when I finally got home. Had been traveling all day. All the sitting made my condition worse. By the time my daughter picked me up I could barely walk again. Once home I fell into bed exhausted. Weary, but glad to be home.

I continued to wear the knee brace and took it as easy as I could and gradually my leg began to heal. I was pretty worried actually, losing one’s mobility is a pretty frightening prospect. All this time I was thinking well this is it, this is how it’s going to end…I will lose my mobility and my life will change forever…

I got a little depressed while convalescing. I picked up a book I had recently purchased by one of my favorite authors, J. M. Coetzee’s , the novel Slow Man, and began to read. Turns out his protagonist, Paul Rayment, an older gentleman much like myself, as a matter of fact the same exact age, sustains a knee injury in a bicycle accident in the very first chapter in the novel. Only his injury was much worse than mine. He lost his leg just above the knee. Ironically, the things he thought about were the very same things I thought about. Here is what he had to say about it.

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“A circumscribed life. What would Socrates say about that? May a life become so circumscribed that it is no longer worth living? Unstrung. That is the word that comes to him from Homer. The spear shatters the breast bone, blood spurts, the limbs are unstrung, the body topples like a wooden puppet. Well, his limbs have been unstrung, and now his spirit is unstrung too. His spirit is ready to topple.”

My spirit was ready to topple too. But, as previously stated, I got steady better and now I am back to nearly normal. I don’t know what I would do if I were to permanently lose my mobility and my being became so circumscribed. It might not be a life so worth living.