Monday, November 10, 2014

Growing Up

Any great coming-of-age tale, whether it is autobiography or bildungsroman, is chiefly a story about four things: sex, death, money, and God (or the absence thereof). And in roughly that sequence. In the case of Gandhi's Autobiography, at least, sex most definitely comes first, and death follows uncomfortably close behind it. (Gandhi was in coitus with his wife, he tells us, at the moment of his father's death-- a temporal coincidence that an adult conscience would recognize as beyond the individual's control, not anyone's fault. Gandhi, however, was no adult at the time of this event. In the mind of a child who had been married at an unconscionably young age, it became knitted into a whole web of self-doubts and inner conflicts where sexuality was concerned.) I don't remember there being as much about money, but there certainly is a great deal about God, and the struggle to find it.

In Henry Roth's 1934 classic Call It Sleep death slightly precedes sex, but still accompanies it with dangerous proximity, as it does in Gandhi. There is perhaps no other book that has ever charted as intimately and plausibly the operations of obsessive compulsive behaviors-- how acts that seem "illogical" to the rest of humanity take on an absolutely compelling logic to the sufferer. David, the book's child protagonist, is terrified of the blackness of the cellar in his family's apartment building, and associates it with his mother's explanation of the hole in the Earth in which one is placed at death (in which one will sleep "eternal years," in his mother's phrase). Later on he is molested by an older child in a dark closet that he associates in his mind with the same unlit cellar, and in which he steps on an unused rat trap similar to the ones his father places in that underground chamber. Later still he sees a wedding carriage he takes to be a hearse, and connects all the images together in his fevered thoughts-- "all part of the same darkness!" he tells us. The light that tears through this darkness for David is God, whom he associates at once both with a passage from Isaiah and with a streak of electric lightning he once saw coming off the third rail of an above-ground tramline (another potentially fatal mental association).

There are moments in Call It Sleep that read like the confabulated memories of an adult who just underwent the worst kind of 1930s Freudian psychoanalysis and has come to see "symbols" in everything. These particular chains of associations on David's part, however, by which death and marriage and sexual violence become dreadfully entangled with one another in his psyche through their shared "darkness" and by which God and electric shock form a countervailing matrix of images associated with light, possess a great deal of inner reality.

Sex, death, money, and God's absence. They are the four horsemen that herald the decisive end of every childhood and the beginning of the teenage apocalypse. They are also the four most closely guarded secrets of the adult realm. Not only do adults shield children from knowledge of them, but there are also intrinsic limits to a child's capacity to understand them. The transfixing power they thereby gain over us even before we fully grasp them, as well as the long struggle we each pass through to break these adult secrets wide, to crack the code, to decipher all the oblique references, are essential features of every story of childhood and adolescence -- and of the transition between the two. There is a reason the protagonist of Call It Sleep spends so much of the novel silently listening through walls and under doorways to the whispers and un-cautious remarks of older relatives, trying to process what he hears in the idiom of a child's mind.

The process of growing up, however, is more than just a quest for knowledge. It is also a matter of coming to terms with the four horsemen, once they are within one's ken-- more specifically, of learning to accept and somehow tolerate the various discomforts and frustrations they introduce into our lives. We have to make some sort of peace with the fact, for instance, that our sexual desires are not always or easily appeasable -- and that they can obtrude themselves in harmful and unexpected ways into our lives, if we do not understand them for what they are. We come likewise to understand the fact of impermanence-- that what has a beginning very likely has an end, including our lifespans. We grapple with the realization that various necessities -- food and water, e.g. -- do not naturally gravitate toward our orifices of intake, which has the unfortunate consequence that, in some sense of the phrase, we will have to shift for ourselves in this world (though this realization dawns less slowly for some than it does for others. It can arise from something as life-defining as having to earn a living for oneself at age fifteen or from something as minor as having to do one's own laundry for the first time at twenty). And at some point, at last, we have to call into question the faith of our childhood in God and the cosmos. Some say this faith will later be restored, though in a more nuanced and complex form. I don't know exactly how, but then, I am nowhere near completing my own intellectual maturation, so I wouldn't. It is more directly evident to me, however, in my present stage of life, that at some point many of us start to fear that we have been abandoned and forsaken by the universe, and equally to relish the betrayal.

This holds true, may I add, for believing children and infidel ones alike. I was an officially unbelieving child, for instance -- I thought of myself as an "atheist" as soon as I heard the word defined; nevertheless I had the "basic trust" in the universe that Erikson regards as developmentally essential, and that is engendered in most children who have loving caregivers, as I was fortunate enough to have. I assumed on its basis that I was in some essential way of interest to the cosmos, that it cared what happened to me (even though I would not have consciously admitted to the belief). At some point in the journey to adulthood, however, I realized there was just as good a chance or better that the universe was hostile, or at least indifferent. It began to dawn on me that there was no necessary reason why one's inner evaluation of one's worth should be matched by any equivalent cosmic judgment. "Sir, I exist," says Stephen Crane's man to the Universe. "The fact has not created in me," replies the other, "a sense of obligation."

Even that semi-comic duet, however, imagines the universe caring enough to speak back to us. More apt still is something Crane wrote in "The Open Boat," his famous short story of near-death at sea -- a further entry in his career-spanning attempt to capture in the bluntest and most unmistakable prose possible the terror of cosmic oblivion. "When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important," he writes in "The Open Boat," "and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples." One peers over such dark and deep wells in reading Crane.

It's not that it had never occurred to me before my college years that the universe has no will and no eyes and no mercy (nor malice, for that matter). If you had asked me, I would have consented to all these propositions. But it is the nature of the developmental process that certain ideas we have long held to be true, if uninteresting, suddenly come to mean something to us for the first time, at the moment we are ready at last to cope with their implications. An idea like the "indifference of the universe" may have seemed just an Existential cliché or pessimistic literary conceit to us as younger people, but it takes on real personal substance as we get older. Suddenly one tumbles headfirst into Crane's well, when before one had only looked down into it and known that it was there. Now the idea that the universe has no personhood seems only to lead us further into darkness the more we puzzle out its consequences. Each time one thinks one has reached the bottom of it, another floor is withdrawn and one takes another somersaulting plunge to an even lower chamber of the Earth. That the universe is indifferent to us first inspires anger, hence Crane's "bricks." But then one realizes that there is no person at which to direct one's anger; no agent against whom one can possess any outraged claims-- hence there are no temples at which to hurl one's bricks, as Crane says. The universe never built any temples in its own honor, after all, and it was only our presumption to have expected it to reward a worship it had never bid from us.

This is the kind of vertiginous precipice from which the four horsemen dangle us. These various abandonments form the conflict at the heart of the bildungsroman and the novel of adolescence.

But as always with the process of growing up, this is not just a story of loss, but also one of gain. Perhaps it is the vindicating anger we experience toward this divine betrayal, however conceived, that gives us the needed spur to independence and autonomy that instigates adulthood. We have to ask at some point whether the universe deserves our worship, and many of us may conclude, at least for a time, that it does not. "Shall I honour you? What for? / Have you softened the pains, / Ever, of a burdened one?" asks Goethe's Prometheus. If we have been given a solid dose of "basic trust" at a younger age, then by the time we are post-adolescents or young adults we are prepared to pose Prometheus' questions to the various Zeuses in our own lives. And -- more importantly -- we are prepared to address them not just with despair and anger, but also with the courage that says maybe we will go on to do the tasks the universe has so far been neglecting; that maybe we will assuage the pains of all the afflicted whom the universe (and our many personal gods) have disregarded.

For most of us, this process of growing up has no clear terminus. We can reach ripe ages indeed before we have been fully initiated into the sacred adult mysteries, and those of us in our twenties may feel we've scarcely begun the process. Sex often remains baffling, death terrifying, God absent from us, money as absent as God (and no less perplexing in its metaphysics and its subtle transformations). But at whatever age we may be, we have to find some way of coping with these frustrations and anxieties.

I say "coping" here, because it is a sufficiently broad word to encompass the varied devices by which we try to address our adult frustrations, some of them less healthy than others. I used above the phrases "come to terms with" and "make peace with", by contrast, but these are not universal solutions, they are only those favored by those semi-mythical beings known as mature adults. The rest of us, especially if we are still young, will probably have to make due with various defensive gestures that allow us to achieve some passing détente with our fears, rather than a genuine peace. "It is a matter of attitudes, of stances -- of masks, if you wish," a character in a John Barth novel tells us: "During my life I've assumed four or five such stances," and he details a few of them in the pages ahead: The Cynic, The Saint, and so on. Each one is a means of meeting the facts of death and mutability and cosmic indifference. The Saint has no selfhood that can resent these facts; the Cynic only meets disappointments with contempt, and so on. These are how the character faces down the four horsemen.

These means of achieving détente -- these masks -- are equivalent to those "phases" we all had as teenagers, and through which we still perhaps occasionally pass. Most such masks will eventually be discarded, when we find they are insufficiently capacious to include our entire, multiform selves. ("There's more to me that being a..." was a typical refrain of my teenager-hood. It was usually delivered at the end of some phase in which I had tried desperately to convince everyone that just the opposite was true -- that there was nothing at all more to me than whatever came in place of that ellipse.) As we get older, we realize that what is actually worthwhile about ourselves is not really going to fit under a single heading. And yet we are still attached to our various masks, because they are the means by which we have been coping with our frustrations. We want to go on being The Revolutionary, who is so single-mindedly committed to some great cause that he or she cannot be troubled by existential doubts, or The Scholar, who is indifferent to the needs of the material realm, and so on. But we also don't want to limit ourselves to only one mask, because there is so much of ourselves to stuff under it!

One solution to this problem -- and it is the subject of Lessing's The Golden Notebook -- is to box off different parts of our natures into separate sealed containers, so that we can live behind many masks at once, and assume many stances in the course of the day. Anna, the protagonist of that novel, has at least four stances going at any given time, and she records their bounded, non-overlapping odysseys in four different notebooks: the Writer is in the black notebook, the Communist in the red, the Lover in the Yellow, the Mother in the blue, and so on. She manages to avoid having phases, but she does so not by achieving any kind of real rapprochement with the four horsemen. "If you’re not in a bad phase, then it’s because you can’t be in a phase, you take care to divide yourself up into compartments," as a teenaged character hectors Anna, defending his right to his phases. And he has a point. We are no closer to being whole people if we have many different masks at once, which never intersect, than if we try them on sequentially as teenagers do.

The ultimate conclusion of Lessing's novel is that it is a far preferable solution to the problem of the four horsemen, if a more arduous one, to develop that thing called a self. This solution will never be a fully adequate or sufficing one, but it is the best available, for the following reasons.

The four horsemen obtain their collective potency from the fact that they all reveal to our childhood selves the same discomfiting truth: that the fulfillment of our deepest desires and most basic needs depends essentially on external forces, including the choices of other people, that are not really in our control. These forces may have random and indifferent elements. They certainly cannot implicitly and always be trusted (at least not in the way that we perhaps trusted our caregivers as children). The sexual desires that burst in upon us at puberty cannot always be satisfied, for both practical and moral reasons; we will not live forever, nor will we die at a time and place of our choosing; we have to rely on sources of financial support that can never absolutely be guaranteed; and we have to exist in a universe that does not always give the outward appearance, at least, of compassion.

The self does not meet these fears of external disappointment and frustration with any promise of gratification. This is why it takes us so long to turn to it as a solution: our childhood instinct in the face of all deprivations is generally to seek gratification, and to assume that this is the only possible way to deal with our discomfort. It is also what distinguishes the self from the various teenage and post-adolescent "phases," most of which have as their primary agenda the elimination of personal pain through either the satisfaction or extinction of desires. The self does not encourage us to become The Libertine who always gets what he wants -- if only because such an ideal of complete satiation will always be proven illusory. It does not encourage us to become the Saint either, for that matter, who sheds attachments and desires because nothing then can be lost or frustrated. The self does not attempt anything so grand and ill-conceived as that. All it promises us is to be what it is -- an inner resource, something relatively unchanging in a world of eternal flux, a core within oneself to hold on to, regardless of external conditions. It is Tolstoy's "kingdom of God within you"; it is Wittgenstein's feeling of "absolute safety" he took with him even into the trenches; it is what enables people to face death and persecution at the hands of others without entirely knuckling under; it is the source of Baudelaire's "calm mien" he sees on the face of the condemned man that "damns the crowd around the guillotine." (Flicker trans.)

I cannot pretend to have such a self, yet. At present I am just pressing my nose against the glass of the house of integrated people -- which is the only reason I can report back to you on what I have seen there. But I can tell you there are people behind that window and they appear to be moving. Some of these integrated people are very close to me, in fact (I would include my parents among their number). Their problems are not all solved by virtue of having a self. They experience loss and pain and frustration with the rest of us. There is definitely not always a "calm mien" on their faces. But they have found a way to redeem their experiences. They have found compensations in the process of growing up.

That such compensations exist is testified by the fact that we tell coming-of-age stories at all, that we have autobiographies and bildungsromans on our shelves. We would not read so many narratives of other lives if they only ended in defeat and loss of hope. We read them, especially when we are young, because we actually wish to become adults; we greatly relish the prospect, in fact.

Above all its other mercies, a self is freeing, and it is this freedom we partly sense in the person of the adult writer who has emerged intact on the other side of the teenage apocalypse. It is this quality of freedom, as well as the courage that informs it, that we hope one day ourselves to possess. To arrive at this freedom plainly requires many and arduous steps. But one seldom reads accounts of anyone who has reached it and is sorry she made the journey.

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