by Madonna Hamel
Arron came early and we began concocting a pot of rich and creamy hot chocolate to chase the winter cold and fueling discussion of the social and literary merits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with six other women bibliophiles. The table was soon laden with homemade comestibles of the mostly sweet variety, and we dug in to the 19th century classic, which apparently, is already influencing my written prose.
“I knew you’d see this as a novel about addiction!” Caitlin assails me, off the top. “But I don’t see that at all. Its about a chemist who is experimenting in his home apothecary.”
“Yeah, but what pharmacist ingests his own experimental concoction?”
“They all did back then! It wasn’t unusual to experiment on yourself. It was before ethics committees were invented.”
“Oh. Yeah. I guess you’re right. When you think about it, that guy who made ‘Supersize Me’ was experimenting on himself. ”
“That’s true, the inventor of the x-ray practiced on his wife and she died. And then there was grave robbing for medical anatomy classes”, adds Amber.
“True”, I add. But drugs themselves are morally. “Isn’t the point that it is something, like technology, that can be used or abused? There’s lots of prescription drug abuse today too. And Jekyll himself says the drug itself was ‘neither divine nor the devil’ ”.
Maybe we consider meth or cocaine or heroin use to be ‘worse’ because it’s illegal and we imagine broken people holed up in crack houses, but the good doctor ended up destroying himself and others too.
“And even those drugs you mention started out as medication for ailments,” adds Amber.
Clearly I am going to learn lots from the scientists in our book club.
“I find it hard to believe Jekyll could look so different from Hyde and be the same man!” pipes in a discerning voice.
“Well, if you’ve been around meth addiction you can see how possible that is.” I pull out my computer where I’ve been researching the social history of the times. On a site called Literary Ramblings, writer J.J. Horn, as part of his view on the novel, posts a picture from The Meth Project illustrating how a person’s visage can go from clean cut to ravaged and demoralized, with a face full of sores and lines and eyes empty of life, in a matter of weeks.
“Holy crap! Who knew!”
Unfortunately there are those among us who know only too well how addiction can rob us of the people we love. How our friends can retreat into seclusion out of shame or fear, staying sick in their secret. As did Jekyll when he decided to retreat from the world. “I must suffer to go my own dark way”, he moaned, consumed in “a morbid sense of shame”.
And just to be sure we get the sense of the word “morbid” right, Noreen pulls up the definition on her phone. “That’s the great thing about reading the e-version she says, every definition of every word is right there, at your finger tips. She also reminds us to remember the context because to her ‘context is everything’.
“Funny you should say that” I toddle back from my foray among the books on my shelf, “I have my timeline book here and apparently, at the same time as the book was published, the sewing machine was introduced and the first law of thermodynamics was postulate-”
“Which is ‘that energy can be transformed from one form of energy to another, but can be neither created nor destroyed”, jumps in Caitlin.
If that’s true then the zeitgeist, the prevailing mood, tone or, shall we say, energy, of the era was a shift out of the end of an industrial revolution of advanced technologies and conveniences into an accompanying social malaise of existentialism. Add to that the Victorian era’s last hurrah, wherein “lie back and think of England” would be soon replaced by Freud’s theories of repressed impulses, and we can see how the dual personality of Jekyll and Hyde becomes symbolic of a culture straddling two radically different, yet intersecting world views, but also how its energy infects life today.
Or not. Because the beauty of the book club, as I see it, lies in its own evolving, transforming energies. There are as many ways to read a book as there are readers. Clearly, I will have to curb my book reviewer, teacher, writer, etymologist, and verbage, to allow for everyone’s voice. But Jekyll and Hyde was my choice, so I give myself some leadership permission this go around.
I chose the book for myriad reasons, one of which was being inspired by the author Mary Karr in her memoir “Lit”. One day, feeling like a fake in her English Professor office, she stuck her head out the door and hollered down the hallway: “I haven’t read Moby Dick!” Instantly, her colleagues stuck their heads out their doors and, relieved I imagine, added their own omissions from the literary canon.
I was raised on Stevenson’s poetry, but I never read his novels. I did read Dickens, however. And his detailed depiction of crimes against humanity during the industrial revolution propelled me to read social history and commentary through other classics. Hence: Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’, our next book. I could add Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, as well as HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’, but why be a hog?
We are a splendid variety of humanity in our club, so suggestions also include nonfiction books about baboons, sci-fi tomes, poetic rambles in jazz and prairie novelists. We don’t know where our choices will take us. But we’re open. (At first Caitlin frowned at having to do ‘Dr. Jeykll’, but perked up when her research informed her the book may have had an influence on Jack the Ripper, whose murders swept London shortly after a play based on the book was staged. ) I am as interested in hearing the varied experiences of the read as I am in the books themselves. We each bring something unique to the table.
When we use books as a means of relating to each other we give our own particular genius, our inherent talent, a chance to use its wings. The book club is a safe place to fly. To confide. To confess. To test a theory or relate an experience or hazard a guess. It can begin with a book, but no book is worth its time spent reading it if it doesn’t shed some light on our common humanity, make life easier to bear. We read alone. But we relish the read together. And in this case, the read may not even be a “read” but a “listen”. Some among us are audio book fans, and while audio versions seemed ok for a long drive to another province, it just ‘felt wrong’ for a book club, I am reminded that books were originally meant to be read aloud.
I am also reminded that a read simply be a joy-ride out of a long winter, or a respite from a strained season of health or home troubles. Books challenge, reveal, and mirror, yes, but they can also, thankfully, carry us away! (And you get the thrill of the ride without having to change out of your sweats or brush your teeth.)
One afternoon at the hotel Amber and I toyed with a name for the club. I came up with ‘The Alibi’, a response to a story I’d heard that afternoon. It’s an old one we’ve all heard, told with humour and a wink and I laughed at the telling. But when I thought about it later, I wondered how often I was the butt of the joke. It entails a man in a bar. His wife phones to see if he’s there. It’s pay day and it’s way past suppertime. Nope, says the bartender, covering the phone and laughing with the husband in question. Haven’t seen him in weeks.
There’s another story, about how artistic genius gets away with murder. A friend once reflected upon his recent divorce, and how his friends warned him his wife, a famous actress, was “outta control”. “She’s so messed up,” they said, shaking their heads, then added, “but, she’s a genius!” As if that’s the price we must pay for living with a “genius”. Being a genius itself becomes an alibi for not being present, thoughtless. Amber suggests we call ourselves:’ The Alibi of Genius’.
I am interested in who we consider a literary genius and what is the criteria, but I’m equally interested in everybody’s inherent and potential genius. Maybe our usage of the word needs re-examination for its place of value in the bigger picture of daily life? Turning once again to the dictionary I read one definition of genius as an individual’s ‘particular aptitude’ for something. Perfect: We have an aptitude for sinking into couches, with books and jokes and musings and big mugs of hot chocolate.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie home.