Podcast: Michael Cunningham – The Hours


Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Radio of Resistance. First, you might, or might not, have noticed a missing episode during the last week and for that, I am sorry. There is nothing else to say, except that I have taken a step too far down the spiraling staircase and I was struggling to climb up again.

While I was gone, the world continued moving on in its own chaotic and tempestuous dance. Seeing people on the street, killed and being killed, I asked her, Is this all we ever do? She never said anything back but I supposed she put a mental note on that question as a proof of how lower I was falling down the spiral. You see, she said, you see, we start with peaceful protest, but it ain’t working. So we start a proper, organized protest, and that ain’t working either. The anger of voices unheard keeps piling up on top of one after the other. So we start a riot. And if we ain’t being heard again, it will just keep going on and on.

What’s that for? I asked her.

Because we want someone to listen. To change. To escape the constrains that is put on us without our approval. We want to be free.

I also want to be free.

No, she said, what you want is happiness. And those two do not necessarily go hand in hand.

And who will win in the end?

The stronger one.

Do you think that will be the people?

I don’t think either this people will win or that people will. I just want to keep it realistic. And by that, I mean the stronger one will win.

She reminds me of a quote by Ernest Hemingway in his novel, “A Farewell to Arms,” where the narrator said,

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Again, we need to be the stronger one. The world breaks everyone, and if it cannot break you, it will kill you. As it happens, the world is breaking us outside our very windows. People are falling down, but they refuse to be broken by the world. We need to be the stronger ones. We are maimed and broken, but we stand up right at the place where we are wounded, and we shout, You haven’t seen the last of me yet. And we charge ahead. Despite the rain, the storm, the fire, the guns, the bullets, everything and everything, we will charge ahead.

Because if the stronger one will win, we just have to be the stronger one.

So, you might have wonder, What does this rant have to do with Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours”?

It is solely because on one sleepless night, I lay there, fully awake on her bosom, and thinking about Richard Brown, a character in “The Hours,” whose ending left me listless and hanging loosely on the edge of existence for many days after finishing the book.

“The Hours” was a tough book to follow through in one sitting. I had to read  it three times, trying to figure out the correct map to escape the labyrinth of marvelous word phrases, the connections that were intelligently weaved together as if one character is walking straight into the other characters’ life at the end and the beginning of each chapter. The stream of consciousness is the wall standing between me and the full understanding of the work.

But I climbed over the wall, and seeing Richard Brown, I am glad I did. I guess after all, I am so used to being the stronger one to even think about giving up. And what’s the cost, you might wonder? It’s simple, I have carried Richard Brown with me ever since. I kept thinking about the tiny apartment filled with nothing but papers, books, and trashes littering everywhere. Sitting there on the window panes, Richard Brown, now a moving skeleton – the glamor of youth has gone, the little fire of passion had died out, even the dying sparks had lost within those glistening eyes that used to see life filled with its colors and accept all of them – Richard Brown jumped.

I guess in that moment, Richard Brown only wants to be free. Free from himself. Free from the torture the world had put on his shoulders. Free from the weight ties to his ankles to sink him down the river deep. Free from everything. Will that decision ever bring him happiness? We will never know.

What I know after Richard’s ending is that he is not the stronger one. And because after so many battles, so many wounds, the world still cannot break him, so it kills him instead.

I wonder if he ever had a wish – a fervent desire of some sort – to be saved. But to be saved from what? I get the feeling that whatever Richard had done within the many decades of his life, he had done it to get out of himself. Just like Patrick Modiano’s Louki, he finally had enough and he let himself go.  

“Dear Leonard. To look life in the face. Always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it. To love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. Leonard. Always the years between us. Always the years. Always the love. Always the hours.”

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Sanity is an important theme that intertwined the life of all the characters in “The Hours.” Ms. Virginia Woolf, in the quote above from her letter to her husband, Leonard, displays the sanity within the insanity of her mind. She was able to look life in the face, to see it for what it is and still, fall in love with it. Despite knowing that the void within her, the darkness that would eventually drive her to her own dead, can never be fulfilled by whatever beauty life has to offer, Ms. Woolf chose life. Always the love. Always the hours.

“There is a beauty in the world, though it’s harsher than we expect it to be.”

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

The notion that there will always be beauty in the world, though it is harsh, cruel, and cold-hearted, is something that a majority of authors want to say. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote, “There is always something left to love,” there is always beauty in the world. As Ms. Woolf sinks further down the river and takes within her the final moment of the world above, she finally sees it. The beauty of a breeze. The beauty of a mother and a child passing by, laughing, living, breathing. The beauty of life moving on, either with her or without her. And isn’t she glad that within that moment, she chose life. The beauty of life, of living, of existing and refusing to be killed by the force itself. Her decision to end her life, in spite her telling her husband that she chose life, is irrelevant.

Perhaps one can sink down a river, or jump out a window, and still maintain that child-like passion, that innocence of age, filled to the brim with an undying love for life. Perhaps they find in that undying love for life a sadness called “Despair,” because with that much love, life still cannot fill the void in their heart, the calling from their soul, saying, Take me with you. Perhaps Ms. Woolf’s decision and Richard Brown’s decision are, as Leonard Cohen puts it, their final attempt to try, in their own way, to be free.

I often wonder, What will happen after being free?

Or what burdens, what heavy weights, what walls, what locks and chains Ms. Woolf, Richard Brown, and all others like them, to choose life and end up dying?

What voices, what songs, what rhymes that can convince them that there’s nothing left, that they have one only option, and that option is dead?

Recently I’ve been listening to this song, Bird on Wire, on repeat. It does not help me get back on track, but it fulfilled my desire to be consoled.

Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

Bird on Wire, Leonard Cohen

I read “The Hours” about three years ago. Talking about it now is kind of too little, too late. I have almost forgotten most part of it, and I don’t have the physical book with me right now. Despite all that and the cruel passage of time, Richard Brown still remains. I wonder if he gets his wings, finally. I wonder if he, as his body falls down the apartment building, in his consciousness, at last, be happy that he is free.

No hopes. No dream. No futurity in any of his final hours. It’s just him lying there, stopping his stream of consciousness. Only then can he smile. Only then can he achieve the things he desires most of all. He chose life with his own love for despair, and there’s no going back from that.

After all, he had tried in his way to be free.

I also tried to be free. I don’t have any pretty stories to tell, except that now I’m living on my happy pills, and for that, I thank God. I often ask her, How much do you think happiness cost?

Well, at least, for now, it’s about $25.

How do you know?

‘Cause that’s the cost of the pills to pull you out of the bed and walking again.

So do you think it’s cheap? Or do you think it’s too expensive?

Doesn’t matter what I think. I just think how funny it is that happiness has such a price tag to it.

I imagine myself, one of these days, stepping on the cobblestoned road leading to the river, with weights in my pockets, and just flow away. But I know I will never be able to do that.

I also choose life, you see, but I don’t want the hours of the past. I don’t want what I have between me, my mother, my sister, and everyone I love to become just another faded photograph or worse still, a deleted picture on their phones.

I choose life, and I choose to live on. I choose to see my mother happy. I choose to see my sister with her silly jokes. I choose to see a midnight flower blooms in the garden. And yes, life has broken me, trampled upon me, all that stuff.

But I won’t let it kill me. And I hope you also will not, because you don’t know what wounds you will leave behind when you’re gone.

And finally, to end this episode, I will leave you with a bittersweet quote from “The Hours:”

“That is what we do. That is what people do. They stay alive for each other.”

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Stay alive. Getting through the hours, the days, the weeks, the months. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. And if you can’t crawl, I will always be here to pull you through. Do whatever it takes just to get through the hour.

Thank you for making it to this point of the podcast. As you might, or might not, have known, I am doing poems and novel reading sessions on my Patreon account, which is link in the description of the podcast. Your donation, no matter how small, is urgently needed and will contribute greatly to the maintenance and the continuation of this podcast series. With as much as $3, you can get access to my monthly poems reading session, and with as much as $9, you can get access to my weekly novel reading session and monthly livestream where I talk about my life and work. So please get to my Patreon account and become a Patron today to get access to Patron-only content.

This is Thanh Dinh, and you are listening to the Radio of Resistance.

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