Summer, Freud and a sonnet...

We went down to the lake the other day, early in the morning to avoid the crowds, and just floated in the water. It’s colder than usual because we had a few days of rain, but everything felt very alive. The shoals of tiny fish around our legs, the buzzing insects in the plants, rustling leaves. Summer is a vibrant season, with July the jewel in its crown. We romanticise it and see it as a season unlike the others – sparkling, buoyant, special. Long sunshine-filled days light up the darker corners of our cities making everything seem more amiable and less ominous. Perhaps our romanticisation stems from childhood – our school years particularly, when summer holidays were the only time we had to be unstructured and wild and free of the threat of reports and tests?

Weirdly, it’s that childish freedom that creates a kind of pressure for many adults during summer. The pressure to make the most of every morsel of sunshine, to have the best holiday to the best resort, even simply – to be happy. It’s strange to be sad in summertime, and for many people the joviality that comes with the concept of summer exacerbates the difficulty of being depressed or anxious or lonely. It’s like a double-wound.

So let me say this: live your summer however you want to. We’re renovating our apartment and staying in town. Perhaps you’re on a glittering cruise around the Med. Maybe you’re at home feeling anxious. All those experiences are real and valid and – sorry to burst the bubble – summer is just a season like any other. It will go, and it will be winter again, and then it will arrive again later on – much like experiences and emotions do. Ephemeral, changing, blind to our hopes or fears. The late Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, reminds us: “Impermanence does not necessarily lead to suffering. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”

The nature of summer is handled with grace and subtlety in the final instalment of Ali Smith’s seasonal novel quadriptych, Summer. One character in the book muses on summer as:

“The briefest and slipperiest of the seasons, the one that won’t be held to account – because summer won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called or imagined perfect summers, summers that never existed.

Not even this one she’s in exists. Even though it’s apparently the best summer so far of the century. Not even when she’s quite literally walking down a road as beautiful and archetypal as this through an actual perfect summer afternoon.

So we mourn it while we’re in it.

Look at me walking down a road in summer thinking about the transience of summer.
Even while I’m right at the heart of it I just can’t get to the heart of it.

The story centres around a meeting between three groups of people and their relationships. The lack of hard plot gives it that lingering, long-summer-evening quality. The question of family – what it is, who it’s made of, why it exists – unfolds alongside the seasonal theme. The effect is bittersweet. Somehow Smith manages to conjure the joy of the season and of familial love, with its counterpart of loss. Which begs the question: do we love summer because it is summer, or do we love it because we know it will end?

La Comtesse, Paul Signac (1888)

In a short and very readable essay, On Transience, Freud discusses the nature of life, and its delicate balance of sadness and joy, with his two friends (one of them was, most likely, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke). It begins:

“Some time ago, in the company of a silent friend and a young, already well-known poet, I took a walk through a flourishing summer landscape. The poet admired the beauty of nature around us, but without enjoying it.”

Rilke feels the beauty of life is tinged with the pain of loss – he can’t fully enjoy the summer without already mourning its demise. Freud disagrees, saying that it is the very ephemerality of things that makes them so enjoyable.

​​“On the contrary, an increase in value! The value of transience is a rarity in time. The restriction in the possibility of enjoyment increases its preciousness. I found it incomprehensible that the thought of the transience of the beautiful should cloud our enjoyment of it. As for the beauty of nature, it will come back after every winter’s destruction in the next year, and this return may be called eternal in proportion to our lifespan. The beauty of the human body and face we see disappearing forever in our own lives, but this short life adds a new one to their charms. If there is a flower that blooms for only a single night, its flowering does not seem to be any less splendid.”

Freud goes on to discuss how value does not decrease with loss. A year after this conversation, war broke out and much of the German landscape was churned up, the culture was damaged and many lives were lost. But if everything were to crumble away, and human life cease to exist, Freud says, the things that we are, and did, and made, will not lose their value – they were valuable simply because they existed.

“The value of all that is beautiful and perfect is determined only by its significance for our emotional lives; it does not need to survive and is therefore independent of the absolute duration of time.”

Sonnet 18
William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Until next month…

May you be well, happy, whole, and free.

T & B


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