The Indifferent ‘Pain Of The World’

In All the Pretty Horses (Vintage International, New York, 1993, pp. 256-257), Cormac McCarthy writes:

He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations. What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits.

The ‘pain of the world’–its irreducible melancholia and absurdity, its indifference to our fortunes and loves and fears–can indeed feel like a malevolent being, a beast of a kind, one that may, if provoked, swat us about with a terrible malignity.  Here, in these impressions, we find archaic traces of an older imagination of ours; the formless fears of the child’s world have congealed into a seemingly solid mass, serving now as foundations for our anxious adult being. It is unsurprising that we have found ways to pay obeisance to this beast through prayer and fervent wishing and day dreaming and fantasy and incantations and magic and potions; we hope to pass unnoticed through its gauntlet, afraid to set astir the slumbering beast and provoke its attentions and wrath. As John Grady Cole, McCarthy’s character, notes, we fear two things especially about this beast: we suspect ourselves to be particularly vulnerable to its depredations, a particularly attractive prey for this predator; we fear we sport a bull’s eye on our backs, a scarlet letter that marks us out as an offender to be dealt with harshly; we fear there may be no limits to its appetites; we sense that lightning might strike not once, not twice, but without no constraint whatsoever; perhaps we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and much more misfortune awaits us around the corner on life’s roads.

In our darkest moments we attribute a malevolent intelligence to this beast, but we know the worst eventuality of all would be a mindless beast, one whose ignorance of us and our capacity to tolerate pain could cause us to plumb unimaginable depths, to experience pain whose qualities defy description. (The fears of these sorts of mental chasms are expressed quite beautifully in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ mournful poem ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.’) McCarthy also seems to suggest the possibility of a presumption of ‘too much’ knowledge on Cole’s part–a la Oedipus, a possible arrogant claim to know the ways and means and methods and mind of the beast; but as McCarthy goes on to note, there is no mind here to be known, no rationale to be assessed, no strategy or tactic to be evaluated; there is merely being and man, caught up in its becoming. It is this irrelevance of man and his capacities and attributes to the working of this beast which is Cole’s deepest fear; it is ours too, the root and ground of the absurdist existentialist vision.

 

Flannery O’Connor On Free Will And Integrity

In the ‘Author’s Note to the Second Edition’ in Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor writes:

Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.

Unsurprisingly, here we find a provocative intervention in a philosophical debate by a novelist. We define integrity as “the state of being whole or undivided” or as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” The latter definition related integrity to honesty and morality, and thus presumably to actions taken and choices made; we acted ‘appropriately,’ we chose ‘correctly.’ It is our integrity that makes us capable of doing so. (There is a relationship visible here between the two definitions of integrity in that the person with integrity can be seen as unitary in moral resolve, and not incoherently torn between conflicting moral impulses, unable to choose and act.) So how could integrity consist in not being able to do something? If you are unable to do something, then where is the choice, so crucial to moral action?

O’Connor suggests that this conundrum may be resolved in Nietzschean fashion: we imagine that we have one will, one moral drive of sorts, but this is a mistake. We have many drives, each rudderless, each competing with the other in some shape or fashion; the effect of a drive may be tempered, attenuated, or amplified by others. The net resultant effect, the vector sum of a kind, is the ‘personality,’ or the ‘character’ of the moral agent. We are this resultant sum. Those who think they have ‘free will’ say so not because they experience a unitary drive that directs their choices, but rather, because they experience themselves as a location for an ongoing conflict, an irreducible dissonance, on the occasions of decision-making. This psychic disturbance, this evidence of distant battles between our various drives, waged in various subterranean locations of our subconscious and unconscious is what we call ‘free will’: acting in the presence of conflict, or perceived choices.

Now we can understand what O’Connor means when she says that perhaps our integrity may lie in what we are not able to do. We–some of us perhaps, whose drives add up in particular, distinctive, idiosyncratic ways–do not strike the helpless, the old, the infirm, we do not refuse water to the thirsty, not because we want to do so, but because we cannot; the drive that would make us do so has been combated by another one–or by a combination of others, and it has been bested. The social hosannas heaped on us for our action–or inaction–may suggest to us the pleasing ‘fiction’ that we have ‘chosen correctly’ and that we have ‘acted rightly’; it perpetuates the notion of a unitary free will, which reaches into the various choices available to the agent and picks out one. And leads to further puzzles like those of self-destructive behavior.

O’Connor is not the first to suggest our selves are a dynamic multiplicity, of course, but the indication of morality as a kind of ‘inability’ is certainly noteworthy.

Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.

Tish:

But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.

Fonny:

When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

On Failing In Our Own Style

In Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 39) Julian Barnes writes:

But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure….

His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion.

We are reminded, in many walks of life, that it is not only winning that is important, we must lose, if such is our fate, with dignity too. This ‘American academic,’ whose biography of Edmund Gosse will almost certainly never be completed (perhaps because the weight of its own ambition drags it down and renders onward movement impossible), has found his own unique realization of that state of grace–a state not suffused with bitterness and resentment. Success is not imminent; failure is highly probable; better to not rage against the dying light if that rage were to result in further indignities being heaped upon an already bowed head, a knee already bent.  Cut the line; sink gently to the bottom.

A realization that many dreamed of projects–members of the dreaded ‘bucket list’–will not ever be made manifest is sometimes said to dawn in ‘middle age.’ (The scare quotes indicate that ‘middle age’ is not a precise chronological quantity.) Then, our bodies betray us with ever greater frequency, we realize–thanks to a clear remembrance of the past–that a pattern of behavior we have been trying desperately to modify has been an ever-present feature of our selves, and that new habits are increasingly harder to form. Self-improvement becomes intractable; we become tired of the role of Sisyphus we have been cast in. We had imagined for ourselves an endless and infinitely renewable plasticity; we had extended ourselves and pushed against the bounds of our being and capabilities; but we find familiar barriers blocking our path onwards and upwards.

Under such circumstances Ed Winterton’s strategy is an eminently respectable one–even if not beloved of those who compose inspirational quotations for calendars and internet memes. At some point, we cease the straining and start to find greater comfort in homilies that urge us to accept ourselves for who we are, to not live for the future, but for the present. These now appeal to our sensibility–a more ambitious version of which had scorned them in the past. Now they appear to speak to a truth previously unglimpsed.

The notion of ‘a correct and acceptable fashion’ for failure introduces a wrinkle of course. It is unclear whose standards of correctness and acceptability we are to follow as we decide to settle for failure. Surely, we cannot imitate and emulate other failures; they are failures after all. The ambiguity of such a description provides hope then for one last signature gesture. If we are to fail, then we must fail in our own distinctive style; we must choose its manner and time and mode of expression. (Remember the bit about unhappy families being unhappy in their own particular way.) If we cannot succeed, then let us not at least fail at failing.

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate At The Stairs’ And An Implausible Grieving

There is much to like in Lorrie Moore‘s A Gate At The Stairs: there is Moore’s trademark dry humor, her dazzling vocabulary and eye for natural and urban detail, her exploration of weighty issues–race, adoption, gender, families, parenting–with a writerly touch that is deft and light in equal measure. But there is a crucial implausibility in the story, which when encountered by a reader like me, is liable to ripple out and weaken the hold of the novel. And reduce in significant measure its emotional impact.

[Spoilers ahead; turn back or hold your peace forever.]

At the heart–or at least, somewhere vital in the novel’s body–is a terrible tragedy, the worst of all: the death of a young child. It is the black hole in the universe of Sarah Brink, who has now found a nanny–the central character, Tassie Keltjin–to look after her adopted bi-racial child, ostensibly representing the start of a new family.

But Sarah and her husband, Edward, lost their son in no ordinary manner. Instead, his death came about quite directly as a result of actions taken by his father. While driving on a highway, their son had repeatedly engaged in loud, disruptive, and disobedient behavior; his father, finally losing his patience, had snapped and forced the boy out at a highway rest stop; once the lesson had been learned, the boy would be let back in to the car. Thanks to a series of confusing interactions with the traffic behind them, the Brinks are forced off the rest stop and back onto the highway and as they frantically try to turn around and retrieve the boy, he wanders on to the highway and is struck and killed by oncoming traffic.

Lorrie Moore now expects the reader to believe that after such an accident, involving the death of their only son, one caused by the inappropriately angry actions of the father, that the mother–who had protested the father’s actions throughout the incident–stays on in the relationship, and that the couple somehow endures and carries on with their lives. Now scarred, of course, but they do endure.

This, I’m afraid, is entirely implausible. Forgiveness in this matter will not be easily forthcoming, if not impossible. The death of a young child very often tears the relationship of the parents’ apart; this is because haunted and grieving parents, looking for some explanation of this most inexplicable of events, will, quite understandably, blame and indict any entity, material or otherwise, for it. All too often, the love for, and the relationship with, a romantic partner and co-parent, will not survive such a lashing out. It will especially not survive when one of the parents is so clearly to blame.

Parents understand the rage that children can provoke in their parents; some might even–from a distance–empathize with Edward. But very few, and I’m one of them, will be able to comprehend how a grieving mother could ever ‘get over’ the knowledge that her co-parent’s impatience and anger had caused the death of her child. To err is human, to forgive is divine; but gods do not walk this earth. Only flawed humans do.

John Cheever On Computer Programming

In The Wapshot Chronicle (Harper and Row, New York, 1957), John Cheever writes:

There was a demand that year for Tapers and he pointed this out to Coverly as his best bet. The government would pay half of Coverly’s tuition at the MacIlhenney Institute. It was a four-month course and if he passed his exams he would be taken into government service at seventy-five dollars a week,.  Advised and encouraged by his friend, Coverly enrolled in some night classes on Taping. This involved the translation of physics experiments into the symbols–or tape–that could be fed into a computation machine….

The first lecture was an orientation talk on cybernetics or automation, and if Coverly, with his mildly rueful disposition, had been inclined to find any irony in his future relationship to a thinking machine, he was swiftly disabused. Then they got to work on memorizing the code.

This was like learning a language and a rudimentary one. Everything was done by rote. They were expected to memorize fifty symbols a week. They were quizzed for fifteen minutes at the opening of each class and were given speed tests at the end of the two-hour period. After a month of this the symbols–like the study of any language–had begun to dominate Coverly’s thinking, and walking on the street he had gotten into the habit of regrouping numbers on license plates, prices in store windows and numerals on clocks so that they could be fed into a machine….[pp. 155]

Coverly passed his Civil Service examination and was qualified as a Taper. [pp. 164]

These little excerpts are notable for several reasons:

  1. I have never seen the programming of computers in that early period of computing history referred to as ‘taping’; neither have I seen programmers referred to as ‘tapers.’ I have not been able to find instances of this nomenclature elsewhere. (I have, of course, seen human calculators referred to as ‘computers.’)
  2. Cheever’s descriptions of ‘taping’ and the process of learning a ‘programming language’ are not elementary; I wonder if he had some experience with computers and working on them. (Incidentally, the method of instruction–the memorization of a set numerical quota of symbols every day or week–reminds me of a story a Taiwanese friend once told me about how Chinese is taught to young children in elementary schools.)
  3. Cheever refers to Coverly being employed at “one of the rocket-launching stations where Tapers were employed.” The Wapshot Chronicle was published in 1957; NASA only came into being in 1958, so the activities Cheever would have been referring to would presumably have been those of the US Air Force’s Atlas missile program or perhaps an experimental project run by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).
  4. Cheever indicates that Coverly was “qualified as a Taper” on passing a Civil Service examination; I wonder whether there was such an examination and if so, who administered it, what it was called, what its contents were, etc.
  5. I wonder if such a reference to computer programming is among the first–if not the first–in post-war mainstream fiction. (By which I mean works not classified as science fiction.)

Kundera On Virtuous and ‘Timid’ Centers

In Immortality, (HarperCollins, New York, 1992, pp. 75) Milan Kundera writes:

Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance…

There is something Nietzschean about the kind of center that Kundera has in mind.

The classical, geometric center of the circle ‘avoids extremes’ by maintaining a safe, antiseptic, boringly equal distance from every point on the circumference. (And there are an infinite number of these ‘extremes’, so this feat takes some doing, a wonderful and exhaustive precision of sorts.) This kind of center, when manifest in our psychological and intellectual dispositions, can lead to a rather banal sort of moderation, an insipid, ‘timid’, overly cautious, scared-to-try-the-deep-end character. This kind of personality will have no ‘style‘; it will all too easily blend into the background. It will experience little terror and so, perhaps, little beauty. (‘For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure’?) This character has little virtue to speak of; it has found its path by avoidance, not experience.

The second kind of center though, one best imagined as one that holds, in addition to the ‘remarkable balance’ alluded to above, a tension in its connections to its extremes. This is the tension of the bowstring drawn tight, just right: any more, and it snaps; any more, and the arrow does not reach the target. The tension restrains the extremes; it holds them in check; the center represents, as it were, the sum total of the interacting forces acting on the center through its relationship with the points on the periphery. It is the tension in these relationships that holds the center in place, and grants it its gravitas.  This center is not the slave of the extremes, as the previously ‘timid’ center was, which shrank from contact. Rather, it holds its ground, confident it can avoid the collapse, the fall, the descent into the abyss. It walks to the edge of the cliff but no further; it does not retreat, unwilling to experience the vertigo that is an inevitable accompaniment to the beauty of the view that can only be glimpsed from the rim.

Note #1: The full excerpt from Immortality reads:

Now, perhaps, when the end of the century provides us with the proper perspective, we can allow ourselves to say: Goethe is a figure placed precisely in the center of European history. Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance which Europe will never know again.

Note #2: It is perhaps not a coincidence that Kundera invokes these contrasting notions of the center in the context of speaking about Goethe, who after all, did write ‘Nature and Art‘, which ends with:

Whoever wants what’s best seeks combination:
A master first reveals himself in limits,
And law alone can truly set us free.

Here again, we glimpse the notion of a virtuous balancing of freedom by constraint.