My Jerkless Knee

Since the knee surgery of two weeks ago, I have been living in a fog of discomfort and confusion through which, occasionally, a dim light shines with enough brightness to permit me to revise a few pages or post something I have rewritten.  I on't feel terribly guilty about my sloth, but I have decided to share my tedium with others,

I have been monitoring everything on the website, though I failed yesterday to post Mr. Navrozov's column.  Other than complaining about aches and pains, I have been reading fiction, history, and biography.  Early on I finished a life of Swift and I am now slogging and skimming through Maynard Mack's biography of Pope.  Mack has many good things to say, but, for the life of me I cannot imagine why anyone would waste his time writing such a detailed account that never seems quite to pull anything together into coherence, and that failure, it seems to me, is the mark of the true academic biographer in modern and postmodern times.

I have reread many classic mysteries of Cecil Street, Ngaio Marsh, Freeman Wills Croft, et al, and last night, unable to sleep even after a dose of opioid,  I started Little Dorrit, a book I may have started some some fifty years ago,  bu never finished.  As years go by, whatever pleasure I found in Dickens has faded away.  I quite enjoyed the opening in Marseilles, but I knew, as soon as I met the gloomy Englishman on his way home, that I was in for it, and his arrival at his macabre family home seems better suited to The Mysteries of Udolpho than to a novel set in Victorian London.

I'll give  Little Dorrit another day, but I have put the author on notice.  Either he permits the readers to escape from a "home" that makes the Marseilles dungeon where the story begins a paradise of comfort and good cheer, or I am deleting the Complete Dickens from my Kindle.  I am reading at night mostly on Kindle because this way I do not need spectacles or a light.  The trick is to fall asleep in mid-sentence without causing the device to hit the floor in a thud, which requires the insomniac to start the process all over.

As I enter the strange country inhabited my old men and women, my mind plays tricks.  A year and a half ago, it started cobbling together specters out of a bathrobe hangin on a hook or a pile of books and payers next to an illuminated clock.  There was nothing frightening about the visions, and I knew they were the product of an ill-digested piece of beef or perhaps poor circulation of blood to the brain.  Although they were not terrifying, they were disturbing, though, nonetheless, I was comforted to be back in my early childhood when, as I tried to describe in a not very successful poem, I could conjure Indians in a canoe out of a streak of red grain in the moulding.

This visions mostly departed in the aftermath of last year's surgery--appearing once, instead of 25 times a month--but since they cut open my knee, a tendency, which has always plagued me, has grown stronger.  If I nod off as I am reading, my sleeping mind continues the account--whether fictional or historical--in new directions, sometimes to the point that, upon awakening, I cannot distinguish what the author has written from my own hallucinations.  This is not an occasional but an inevitable occurrence I look forward to, since it is telling me something about the imagination.  "Ah, this fellow has read Proust,"  you may be saying, but this is a different story.

I may have mentioned in one or another place that one of my plans is to reread Proust in French.  During the days, I devote a little time to Plato's Phaedo, whose Greek, when I am in a brief fit of mental clarity, seems transparent, though usually in ten minutes or so I am checking dictionary and commentary to figure out the plain sense of a lucid sentence.  When I give up on Plato, I either nap or turn to French tapes--too easy to distract, much less discipline a disordered mind.  I do have a pretty good review grammar with lists of idioms--the bane of every French student.  Perhaps today, I shall try some Simenon before moving on to some intermediate step before taking the leap into Proust.

When I decided to return to Proust, I had no idea of how relevant it would be.   Everyone, I hope, recalls the opening.  I shall close on this note, since I cannot hope to write, in my current state of lethargic confusion, anything so good as Scott Moncrieff's translation

"For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say "I'm going to sleep." And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.

I would ask myself what o'clock it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, shewed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home.

I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and blooming as the cheeks of babyhood. Or I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight shewing under his bedroom door. Oh, joy of joys! it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and some one will come to look after him. The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help.

I would fall asleep, and often I would be awake again for short snatches only, just long enough to hear the regular creaking of the wainscot, or to open my eyes to settle the shifting kaleidoscope of the darkness, to savour, in an instantaneous flash of perception, the sleep which lay heavy upon the furniture, the room, the whole surroundings of which I formed but an insignificant part and whose unconsciousness I should very soon return to share. Or, perhaps, while I was asleep I had returned without the least effort to an earlier stage in my life, now for ever outgrown; and had come under the thrall of one of my childish terrors, such as that old terror of my great-uncle's pulling my curls, which was effectually dispelled on the day—the dawn of a new era to me—on which they were finally cropped from my head. I had forgotten that event during my sleep; I remembered it again immediately I had succeeded in making myself wake up to escape my great-uncle's fingers; still, as a measure of precaution, I would bury the whole of my head in the pillow before returning to the world of dreams."

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

20 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    You might try meditating when you go to bed. Usually works for me, especially if I meditate on the Jesus prayer.

    You might try visiting the speed sleep web sight and trying the speed sleep I download. One track is for a 25 minute speed sleep and the second track is for attaining deep sleep at bedtime.

  2. andrei navrozov says:

    The Goldberg Variations seems like the logical choice! Apart from this, Tom, at least one aspect of the malady is positive, in that your imagination – uncontrollably, but free of charge – diversifies and multiplies the story line of whatever work of fiction you’ve cracked open. This is the kind of gift that would make one the man to befriend in a concentration camp or on a desert island!

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I ran across something today about studies showing that drinking tart cherry juice daily improves sleeping and reduces chronic pain.

  4. Sam Dickson says:

    Very disturbing, unquieting account.

    You should learn to me kind to yourself.

    Would you put up with a “friend” who was as unkind to you as you are being to yourself?


    When you go to bed and turn off the light, says to yourself things like:

    “Tom, this is my time for myself. I give you permission to be selfish…to sleep like a baby…to dismiss from your mind all concern about quarrels, mean people, unhappy episodes in life, critical issues, etc.”

    Always ask yourself:

    “WWED?” (“What would Epitetus do?”)

    As you will know better than I or almost anyone else the great Epictetus taught that we should distinguish the things over which we have control, the things for which we are responsible, and those things that are not under our control and for which we bear no responsibility.

    I am very grateful to another great classicist, my beloved friend Dr. Revilo P. Oliver, for having introduced me to Epictetus.

    I have learned Epictetus’ lesson. In fact, I have learned it thousands of times. I will go on learning it. Life keeps on teaching his lesson to me.
    Maybe some day I will finally truly learn it. Then life will move on to the next lesson.

    In the meantime, it’s past my bedtime.

    I am going to be nice to Sam. I’m going to give Sam a gift of 8 hours on my splendid comfortable mattress, carressed by my soft microfiber blanket, my head on the 2 wonderful pillows perfectly positioned to support my head evenly with my neck. I dismiss from my mind all the people who have done me wrong, all the people I hate, all the terrible things I fear in my people’s and my country’s future.

    Sam is going to be totally selfish. Time for Sam.

    It’s time for Tom.

    Go thou and do likewise.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Sam, your devotion to Epictetus comes somewhat as a surprise. I did not think that A Stoic could give you lessons on selfishness. Poor old Epictetus, if his ghost is aware of your devotion, must feel that he has been carrying coals to Newcastle.

    These days it is mostly pain and discomfort, not anxiety for my friends, that is keeping me awake, though I am sometimes kept awake worrying that good Calvinists go to a hotter Hell than bad Catholics and Lutherans, but I console myself that such fears do not apply to my friend Sam Dickson.

  6. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    You might try physical therapy for your knee. The therapist will provide exercises to help healing and reduce pain. Short of that get the book Framework for the Knee.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I appreciate Mr. Van Sant’s satiric forays into medicine, but after surgery, 16 days of having a leg wrapped so tight that there were furrows a good half inch deep as well as what looked like blood blisters where the wrapping had bitten the deepest, it will he another four weeks, so the surgeon explained yesterday, before any therapy can begin. At this point, the Iron Maiden encasing my leg is set at zero flexibility.

    The good news, is that with staples removed yesterday and the bandaging gone and and with it the plastic wrapping for ice water circulated by a pump, it is now possible to sleep for as long as 90 minutes at a time. The surgeon still will not commit himself to a prediction beyond his initial guess that I have two chances out of three for restoring the knee to something like normal functioning. Failure condemns me to go on taking one stair at a time and being unable to walk on broken ground or up or down a slope.

    Proust was certainly hypochondriac though his asthma symptoms appear to have been real enough. For years he had been subsisting only on cafe all lait, because an acquaintance had informed him that a healthy diet would impede his imagination, and he had his gigantic novel to finish. His brother Robert was a physician but neither he nor anyone could persuade Marcel to eat anything more substantial. He had revised a bit more than the first half of the novel and left a pretty good draft of the rest.

    E.M. Forster, in his book Aspects of Fiction, uses Proust, all of whose novel was not yet in print, as a certain kind of failure, and Forster confidently predicted he could never resolve the paradoxes of time he had made the basis of the book. How he must have eaten his liver when the completed work towered and continues to tower over all the good novels that Forster and his friends would ever write. Now if Proust had only heeded some good medical and spiritual advice he might have lived another 25 years, eating roast beef and chanting nammyhorengekyo.

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    When I played football I injured my knee my senior year. Later during wrestling season my knee would sometimes pop out of joint when my opponent grabbed my lower leg or ankle and pulled up on it. I would have to stretch my leg out and push down on my knee to pop it back in place. My knee popped out on me during the duck walk portion of my physical for the Naval Academy. Fortunately there were a lot of us taking the physical and I was able to pop my knee back in without being noticed after I completed the duck walk. I rehabilitated my knee before I reported for induction by doing squats. I avoided surgery.

  9. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    At the Naval Academy, I injured my neck my junior year and had to stop playing football. Later I had a lot of trouble from the pinched nerve in my neck. I’m again avoided surgery by getting physical therapy that along with exercise resolved my problems.

  10. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I have a problem with degeneration of my lower spine that causes sciatica and other issues. Again I avoided surgery and turned to physical therapy and exercise to successfully resolve my problems.

  11. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I cannot say that I would not have benefited from knee, neck, or back surgery (or shoulder, which I also injured wrestling and sometimes pops out), but my experience and stories I hear about problems after surgery, makes me believe that surgery should be a last resort.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I probably should not have posted this little essay, which was designed to let friends know I may eventually become fully mobile and, so I hoped, to provide a little entertainment. Like many other types of injuries, various knee injuries can heal to some degree on their own and exercise can strengthen muscles and tendons to the point that full function is restored. Acting on this for several months, I went from hobbling in a brace with a walker or cane to being able to walk several miles, albeit at two thirds the pace. But exercises, while they strengthened the muscles, could not improve one iota the severed quadriceps tendon for which there is no cure but a surgical procedure in which the knee is cut open, holes drilled into the patella, and strings inserted to reconnect the tendon to the knee. In bad cases, like mine, cadaverous muscle tissue is also inserted as back up. If anyone has an exercise program that will miraculously reattach tendons to bone and muscle, he should communicate it immediately to physical therapists, because at this point–from everything I can learn–curing a severed quadriceps tendon with exercise is on par with curing leukemia with lemonade.

  13. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    So surgery was a last resort in your case. Post surgery, when you are able, you will need some kind of physical therapy and exercise to help heal and rehabilitate your knee.

  14. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    For those experiencing the normal physical deterioration due to aging or who need to deal with old injuries, I recommend looking into my suggestions. A few more:

    Yoga exercises
    Tai Chi (meditation in motion)
    Five Tibetan Rites

    Ellen Wood has some online videos on the Tibetan Rites. I have incorporated them into my exercises for my back problems. They really help.

  15. Michael Strenk says:

    The commentary on Proust is appreciated.
    You might try a cup or two of bone broth every day while recovering, especially from pigs or calf’s feet or poultry heads and feet. Not only is it a culinary delight, but the collagen and minerals will help your body to knit the tendon to the bone more effectively and make it more flexible. It worked wonders for my father when he was recovering from knee surgery and was a welcome relief for him from rehab food.

    Mr. Van Sant, you might try Rolfing, also known as structural integration ( I was badly crippled some years ago by accumulated scar tissue from many years of construction work and playing rugby. The results were nothing short of miraculous for me. It gave me my life back.

  16. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thanks Mr. Strenk. Glad you benefited from the treatments. I have no need for additional treatment of my issues because my exercises and meditation work fine. And they are free. My previous physical therapy was covered by Medicare and Tricare.

  17. Harry Colin says:

    As one who suffered through a torn patellar tendon surgery, I fully understand your situation and your misery, Dr. Fleming. The injury is completely different from typical knee injuries and until the re-attachment is complete no therapy is possible. I wish I could tell you that once you begin that rehab process it will be easy but alas you are in for one helluva journey, if you’ll pardon my Hungarian. The atrophying after a long stretch of keeping the leg locked in a straight brace will be significant. Fortunately, there is mobile life on the other side.

    You did make my day with your description of Mack’s book on Pope. I attempted that massive time as few years back after acquisition of it, along with a few other biographies of writers when a used bookstore was closing and was selling at huge discounts in advance of a lease expiration. I couldn’t make it through Mack, and thought I was deficient somehow, finding it intolerably boring. I feel better now, given your assessment!

  18. Harry Colin says:

    As one who suffered through a torn patellar tendon surgery, I fully understand your situation and your misery, Dr. Fleming. The injury is completely different from typical knee injuries and until the re-attachment is complete no therapy is possible. I wish I could tell you that once you begin that rehab process it will be easy but alas you are in for one helluva journey, if you’ll pardon my Hungarian. The atrophying after a long stretch of keeping the leg locked in a straight brace will be significant. Fortunately, there is mobile life on the other side, it will just require patience – and plenty of ice.

    You did make my day with your description of Mack’s book on Pope. I attempted that massive time as few years back after acquisition of it, along with a few other biographies of writers when a used bookstore was closing and was selling at huge discounts in advance of a lease expiration. I couldn’t make it through Mack, and thought I was deficient somehow, finding it intolerably boring. I feel better now, given your assessment!

  19. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Mr. Colin, thanks for the condolence and reassurance. The surgeon told me the key to success was patience, and that if I try to rush the recovery, I’ll do harm. In one sense, I I have a small advantage in having put up with a non-functioning knee for nearly 2 years I am used to being a quasi-cripple. I’ll be delighted, initially, a month or so from now when I begin approaching the immobility I “enjoyed” before the operation, when I could manage many things so long as I took them one step–literally–at a time.

    Mack did his homework and avoids eccentricity, though he is occasionally deficient in his understanding of the classical background of the period. His observations on Pope’s Iliad are actually pretty sound. I have a great advantage over most readers, one that I a happy to share. In high school, I became a speed reader and read then at an average of 700-800 words a minute and could triple that rate when I liked. Now, this is a terrible way to read Vergil or Plato or Proust, but a great way to read Dickens and long-winded works of scholarship. Dickens taught me, decades ago, that when he was about to launch into some set piece on a sunset, I would not even skim but turn the pages until I could escape the horror. With Mack I am reading some parts carefully, skimming others, and skipping what does not interest me. All in all, I am doing over 100 pages and hour, though an hour is about all I can stand.

    Years ago I offended several friends who were English professors by expressing contempt for their imaginary discipline. I remember telling Mel Bradford, when he recommended some piece of lit crit on Faulkner, that a grown man has better things to do with his time than spin wheels interpreting what some poor devil had written. Now, Bradford, Mr. Brooks, Peter Stanlis, and even Maynard Mack were not literary hermaneutes but historians of literature, so I can admire their scholarship and preserve friendships. But, one of the real problems in English studies derives from their toleration of lit crit and the failure to develop rigorous standards. A philologist like A.E. Housman, who had to work hard at questions of text, grammar, meter, once declared in a famous speech (to my ever lasting delight) that he was not that rarest thing on God’s green earth, a critic.

  20. Allen Wilson says:

    I apologize for this late post, but I’m catching up after falling behind on this site for a couple weeks.

    Polarity Therapy may offer some help down the road. The name may make one suspect that it is hocum, but it does work, as I know from experience with a leg just healed up from a shattered bone, steel rod and all.

    Anyone looking for something to put them to sleep may try Astral Sounds. It always puts me out, and I don’t know why. Unlike one of the commenters on the YT page, I would not listen to this while driving: