5 min read

"Not an Important Failure"

WH Auden, a demon barber, and an ode to the recklessness of springtime
"Not an Important Failure"
Photo by Arno Smit / Unsplash

Hi grownups!

Thank you for all of your feedback about the new newsletter format. A couple of people said that ten things were too many things, so this week I'm trying five.

1. Musee Des Beaux Arts

You know when somebody makes something and it's like they made a gift especially for you? Well, Elisa Gabbert in the NYTimes took one of my favourite poems, which is about one of my favourite paintings, and dissects it line-by-line, drawing connections to the extremely weird world we're living in right now. Like high school English class, but without the smell of 30 adolescents who haven't yet discovered antiperspirant.

It's an analysis of "Musée des Beaux Arts" by W. H. Auden, which is largely based on a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder called Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, which I love so much that I once had printed on a mug.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Notice Icarus drowning in the bottom-right of the image.

It's a poem about suffering, and about how easy it is to look away and get on with your life while someone else is suffering, somewhere else. For the ploughman busy with his fields, Icarus's death was "not an important failure".

This is what's extraordinary to me about art: Auden wrote this poem in 1938 when Europe was on the brink of World War II, and it still feels entirely applicable to today. We can see the echoes in the events he was writing about in 1938 still reverberating through the newspapers in 2022 (a connection drawn most vividly for me by John Green in the "Tetris and the Seed Potatoes of Leningrad" episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, where he talks about how Putin's older brother died in that WWII siege). Art draws our attention to the things we should notice.

“History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” – often attributed to Mark Twain.

2. Stickers - put em on your bank cards!

The 70% off everything sale is nearly done. Thank you for helping me to clear out all my excess books, lovelies. We've still got a few sticker packs left to help you split up your money onto different bank cards. I'm a big believer in having separate bank accounts for your fun money (AKA your "Fuckaround Fund"), your serious grownup money, and your emergency fund (AKA the "Oh Shit" fund). These stickers can help you keep track of whats-what.

Three bank cards with stickers on them

We've also got bank-card sticker packs designed for teens, with the organisation method that's suggested in my teen money book (basics, give, fun, save). There are also bigger stickers for those who prefer putting cash in actual physical envelopes, and balloon cat and snorgle stickers to make you smile.

70% off everything while stocks last, in South Africa only. And when they're gone, they're gone.

3. Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!

My musicals-hating partner is away, so Stephen Sondheim is the soundtrack of my life right now (and of my neighbours' lives, sorry neighbours). Highlights have been discovering that the whole original cast recording of Sunday at the Park with George is available on YouTube somehow, and singing along to Sweeney Todd very loudly while cleaning the house (really, neighbours, I owe you flowers). If you've only ever seen the film version of Sweeney, try the original cast recording, it's so much funnier. Angela Lansbury (from Murder She Wrote) is the definitive Mrs Lovett. My only complaint about this musical is that I want an alternative ending where Johanna Barker realises that she doesn't need a husband to be free - girl, you could just continue to dress up like a sailer and go live your life! James Barry did it.*

* We have no idea how James Barry felt about their gender, but we know from letters that at least part of why Barry lived as a man was to pursue the career they wanted.

4. Spring is the time to be reckless

I've written before about how I like to set a theme for each season. Left to my own devices, I have a tendency towards routine, convention, introversion, so this springtime I'm trying to channel my inner Knight of Wands and push myself to embrace the newly-opened world, stop overthinking things, be bolder, love more wholeheartedly.

Knight of Wands from the Rider-Waite tarot deck
The Knight of Wands! They have no time for thinking! They are too busy BEING ON FIRE and charging into creative battle!

(Yeah, don't even pretend to be surprised that I'm into tarot. I am nothing if not a walking, talking pansexual stereotype. A friend recently gifted me Lisa Sterle's wonderful Modern Witch deck, and it's just the damn best.)

I'm still working on a new novel, and I'm particularly trying to channel the spirit of recklessness into it, because the #1 rule of writing is Don't Be Boring. I've printed out this reminder from Chuck Wendig and stuck it on the wall above my desk:

Go wild. Throw yourself into the work like a rabid chimp against a sliding glass door. Run pantsless through Wal-Mart. Any of the safety mechanisms and limitations you might usually place on your work, smash ’em with the heel of a boot and see what happens. Like, if we are to view this month as an opportunity to not fall into the trap of but what does the market want, what are the trends, what will an audience think, and we further view it as a chance to use our writing as an explosive testing chamber, then you can do anything you want. It’s a sandbox on fire. A heart gushing aerated blood. The empty page is a chance to write the most wonderful thing, or the most fucked up thing, or the most wonderfully fucked up fucked-upedly wonderful thing. Like, sometimes, it’s good to stop and look at that blank page and realize fully, I can do whatever the hell I want here. Really. Anything. And I think looking around us, seeing the pandemic, seeing the world changing, seeing the chaos, maybe that’s a sign to embrace this outlook, even if only for this month. We are not guaranteed more time or more chances, but you have this time, you have this opportunity, so why not materialize every want and fear and idea and anxiety you have roiling around your skull? Bring the monsters out to play. See what happens. Throw all the fucks out of the fuck basket, and the fuck basket is now a boat, and you’re going over the waterfall. See you on the other side. Try not to die!

5. Survive the Century, in book-form!

With help from my friends over at Electric Book Works, Simon, Chris and I are turning Survive the Century into a physical book. Just like the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure™️ books you loved as a kid, you'll be able to flip between pages to see what happens when YOU decide what happens to Earth's future. It will be available in bookstores soon, but here's a SNEAKY SNEAK PEAK at the delicious cover, designed by Annika Brandow.

Survive the Century by Sam Beckbessinger, Simon Nicholson and Christopher Trisos

Wishing you just a little bit of recklessness,