Friday, June 30, 2017

A Tour Through the Childhood Archives

Spending a week at home after being away for four years of your mid-twenties is a bit like slipping into a tropical fever -- an effect that is magnified if that home happens to be located in coastal Florida. I am here now amidst the mangroves and mosquitoes, and for the first few days back I am still fighting the current; clutching at driftwood and débris left over from what has already become a dimly-recollected adulthood. No wait, I was working on something... a project... I was reading something... something was happening at work... already they are lost to me, these links in a chain of thought. The years slip off me like a Dance of the Seven Veils. I am a teenager again. A decade of experience has vanished. I am that boy whose plans are made without respect to fulfilling them, since the time ahead is limitless. I am the would-be reader who is continually defeated by the size and number of unfinished tomes next to his bed -- where to begin? The possibilities are endless, and therefore actually starting on anything is impossible. I even slept in until 11 o'clock yesterday -- something I have not done in any recent year I can recall. I am praying for work emails as for a lifeline, to remind me that my twenty-seven year-old existence still continues on somewhere, even if it involves a different self.

In the effort to reclaim an element of that sense of purpose that comes so easily in New England, I start in on the assignment that brought me here -- that of helping my parents move into their new place. In particular I am tasked (partly by myself -- in an effort to prevent my parents mistakenly throwing out any too beloved objects) with sorting through my old things and deciding what we need to keep. In the course of it I unearth what I am am most hoping and expecting to find -- the endless notebooks scribbled full of my childhood's parade of obsessions.

They provoke many feelings in me, these obsession books. Sometimes, they leave me impressed with my younger self. I find title pages heralding themselves as, for instance, "The Mathematical Analysis of the Universe -- a Scientific Work by Josh Leach, PhD" -- a product of my fifth-grade self who, even if his projects were unrealized, at least had the good sense to aim for the complete, the universal, the Absolute.

And I notice that -- while he wasn't exactly on track to mathematically describe all reality -- he did know a few things -- in some cases, things I have now forgotten. He could name the correct title of a work by Heisenberg, for instance -- knowledge that I have since managed to lose. He could give a not half-bad conceptual account of special relativity, complete with illustrations.

And how's this for an account of natural selection?

Where did all that much-vaunted precocity vanish to a couple years later, when my 13-year-old self arrives on the scene? The written records of his existence are far more dismaying to me. They are full of schemes for transforming himself into a guitar-playing Lothario (fourteen years his senior, I can say confidently that neither ambition was fulfilled). It is as if I had it all figured out as a human being by the end of my first decade only to misplace everything I learned again at the start of middle school. From an essay by V.S. Pritchett: "Between the ages of ten and fourteen a boy reaches a first maturity or wholeness as a person; it is broken up by adolescence and not remade until many years later. That eager period between ten and fourteen is the one in which one can learn anything." The ten-year-old mentality that could meaningfully recapitulate the most basic elements of Einstein was certainly broken up into something quite different by the onset of puberty.

I do notice that even in the 13-year-old self, however, the irrepressible dork within me -- the one that would roar back into conscious life a few years later -- could not quite be stifled. The book of "songs"  that I wrote for my non-existent 8th-grade band contains no music, per se, but it does feature a lyric castigating the French for banning hijab in the schools.  I had no idea that my 13-year-old self knew or cared the least thing about civil liberties or free exercise, yet here it is. There will be more than one happy surprise of this kind in my sort through the paper archives.

These fond moments are balanced, however, by the eery occasions on which my childhood obsessions cease to take on the form of a goad to unexpected creative feats and become a form of outright compulsion. I was kind of an undiagnosed OCD kid, I've realized in years since, and some of the artifacts I find in my closet have a chilling "All Work and No Play Make Jack a Dull Boy" quality. I can see why my fifth-grade self, searching ever and anon for ways to appear brighter than he was, would have an instinctive attraction to the mysterious arcana of the quadratic formula, for instance (at that time far and away the most complicated bit of mathematics I'd ever laid eyes on and been able remotely to understand). But why, exactly, did I feel the need to write it out in longhand, over and over and over again, day after day, filling up reams of yellow sticky notes?

Henry Roth has given us perhaps the best literary depiction of childhood OCD ever written, in his Call It Sleep (though it is packaged in the form of too many implausible Freudian clichés). His account shows that there is always a kind of logic to the disorder, though it is a private logic -- difficult if not impossible to convey to others -- which is why I would always hide my piles of post-its from the outside world. Roth's young protagonist becomes fixated, by the end of the novel, on the notion that what he really needs to do is to run a metal soup spoon along the electrified third rail of a street-car track, because the explosion of sparks that will result is somehow related to a sacred burning heart he saw in Catholic iconography in a friend's house, to images in the Bible of God as light, and ultimately, to the divine itself. It is madness -- yet it makes a certain kind of sense. Obsessional sense.

What was the sense underlying my obsessions?

In following the development of the obsessions through the archives, I can observe a certain tendency toward reductionism. I wanted to get things down to their essence, to the fundamental unit of analysis. A broader fixation on math and physics was gradually warped into this repetitive stroking of a single complex formula, the quadratic. After I spent enough time obsessing over the act of filling up notebooks with this cluster of symbols, I eventually decided that notebooks themselves ought to be the objects of my interest, so I filled notebooks with thoughts about notebooks (I still have the products of this phase in that closet for anyone to inspect). From there it became different kinds of materials that make up notebooks, and so on. I was on the hunt for the thing-in-itself. I was trying to get behind mere phenomena. Slumbering within me was a little Buddhist, dissecting the elements of my desire down to smaller and smaller units -- though I stopped just shy of the full Bodhi insight that if you reduce things down far enough by these means, they will cease entirely to exist as such, and thus, nothing really is -- neither self nor time -- when analyzed to the smallest possible constituent parts (which themselves are never actually the smallest possible). I was looking for something that couldn't be subdivided any further,  that I could have with me always. Something like Wittgenstein's feeling of "absolute safety."

In my adult life, I've learned to see my way around this. I've found that the fact that the self can be analyzed into parts does not mean that the phenomenon of the self does not exist, any more than the fact that a notebook is made of atoms means that there is no such thing as a notebook. But my childhood self was not self-conscious enough in his philosophizing even to know the problem he was trying to solve, let alone how to find an answer. So he just kept hacking things down by another order of magnitude, and pausing there for a time as if he was finally safe -- before the first signs of the next great disordering began to manifest themselves, and he would know that he still hadn't arrived just yet at the real, the ultimate, the essential.

The final stop in the archives, however, shows us the obsessions broadening again, though in a direction that would have been shocking to the fifth-grade self. Now, math and science are out, with a sneer, and arts and literature are in, with a vengeance. Now and from this point on, it will be all "literature, and politics, and literary politics, and political literature" as the subheading of an earlier attempted blog of mine once had it.

The progress of the literary half of this obsession is conveyed in the archives in the form of one vast list after another. These were my efforts to catalogue the name of every important book ever written, from every region of the globe. Always, of course, I found to my dismay that the vastness of the available information would o'erleap any limits I tried to hedge around it, and eventually I would have to start the list over again, or move it off paper. I hadn't yet figured out that the joy of this project of reading and knowing everything was precisely that it could not be completed - that in fact, it was an infinite project, and was therefore more than enough to supply me for a lifetime. At that time, I still thought the list would one day be completed, and all the items on it read. Well, ten years later, I can say that there is no sign of any such satiation yet. The latest version of the list, begun toward the very end of high school, still exists on my computer and periodically receives new additions.

As for politics, the obsessive tendency returned to its reductionist roots. I was constantly slicing and dicing my political persuasion. What began as Marxist socialism became Trotskyism, became Left Communism, became anarcho-communism. You can see that I was trying by these means steadily to put distance between myself and any possibility of historic error. Adopting Trostkyism managed to cut me off satisfactorily from everything rotten that happened in Soviet history after the beginning of early Stalinism. But it still left, on the stump that remained, all of the hideous crimes of the early Bolsheviks, from Kronstadt on. After a tussle with my conscience, I eventually found those too had to go. So I next reverted to that "Infantile Disorder" that Lenin denounced so memorably. When it dawned on me that "Left-wing Communism" too could be pretty rough on its enemies, I decided to plump for anarcho-communism instead, figuring I was safe at last from the problem of bloody hands by siding with something that had never actually existed, and probably could not exist.

Note what a good commissar I would make, even in my "anti-authoritarian" mode. I certainly know the jargon and had the hectoring tone down pat.

Through all the manic casting off of labels and the extravagant refining of an ever-narrower sectarian identity (Would it be Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong Thought? Fourth Internationalism? Revisionism or Anti-Revisionism for me? How about Hoxhaism?) a few key insights emerged that made the whole thing something other than just an exercise in futility. The whole process was actually a priceless inoculation against totalitarianism, because -- just as the effort to cut the notebook down to its essence eventually revealed that there was no notebook remaining -- the quest for the pure ideology and the ideal historical model led to the conclusion that there was no such thing on this Earth. It was the Buddhist insight all over again. And thanks to this, I have been immune ever since to all movements and leaders and scriptures claiming to have discovered one. They are promising the coordinates of the fountain of youth.

Besides, whenever my teenage self could get his mind off utopia, and managed to turn himself onto the trouble with the world as it actually was, he did a pretty good job at diagnosing the evils. Much better than did my late college and early divinity-school self, with his occasional -- but always, I assure you, unconsummated -- flirtations with various kinds of conservatism.

Most of all, my teenage self was angry. Boy, was he angry. Angry about Bush. Angry about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angry about white phosphorus and depleted uranium-tipped missiles and the bombing of Fallujah.
This never amounted to much, but it sure started boldly...
Angry at what he felt was an effort being made by the society around him to blind itself to the horror and the ghastliness in which it was elsewhere complicit. At age 15 I felt myself to be living in a world of evils that had been made possible by the indifference of the people around me. As Hugh MacDiarmid writes, in "Facing the Chair":

I think again of men as innocent as I am
Pent in a cold unjust walk between steel bars,
[…]Because of the unconcern of men and women,
Respectable and respected and professedly Christian,
Idle-busy among the flowers of their gardens here
Under the gay-tipped rays of the sun.

Of course, it helps one along toward this sense of righteous indignation to maintain a partial view of the matter -- namely, one in which oneself is innocent, and only all the others are to blame. And it's not even entirely the wrong view to take, at that age. Children are innocent (may Augustine be blasted from his high horse). They come into a world that they did not choose. But as adults we tend to incline toward a more forgiving attitude, for we start to sense we are among the people who need forgiving. We start to understand a bit better those who shield their eyes from the horrible truth, and recognize that it may not be because they have never been willing to look at the darkness, but because they know it well and spent a lifetime managing to wrest some temporary shelter from it.

Those who manage to carry the original, pure, adolescent rage into their adulthood, by contrast, tend to be those who are distinctly untroubled by a sense of irony, or self-awareness. Hugh MacDiarmid himself, for one. Perhaps he was able to write so powerfully about the appalling moral apathy of his "professedly Christian" neighbors in the face of capital punishment in part because he had long since renounced any claim to moral consistency (it was an element of the "cursed conceit of being richt," according to M'D, which "damns the vast majority of men"). M'D seems not to have been bothered while writing this poem about the fact that he had spent most of his adult life singing hymns of praise (ahem, literally) to a Soviet regime that had subjected more innocent people to exactly the fate he describes in the poem than any Western democracy ever did, or could, however complacent.

I won't ever be able to write again with that purity of wrath, and totality of scorn. I can't be so unforgiving again, because I won't ever be so innocent again. When young, one is powerless, and has all the genuine guiltlessness of the powerless. That is why in all the Victorian or Southern Gothic novels -- take, say, Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms -- the children are the ones in the home who always have the instinctive fellow-feeling with the servants. But as one gets older, Wordsworth tells us, the feeling is lost. "Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing Boy[.]"

But the archives that survive can remain a window into how the world looks to one who is still innocent. One can see reflected in them how we all must appear to someone who hasn't yet been compromised. What would he say of what has become of all of us, in the years since? What would he, boiling with fury at the devastation his country was visiting on Iraq, say of that society when it turns around and tries to ban travelers and refugees from the very country it has just destroyed? What would he say of the fact that nearly every country on Trump's "banned" list is one where the United States has wreaked unconscionable damage over the past two decades? How about the fact that the U.S. military just relaxed its rules about civilian casualties in its bombing campaigns in Syria, just as the walls go back up against Syrian refugees? About the fact that Yemen was included on the list of "banned" countries even as the U.S. just concluded a half-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia to continue its devastating air war in that country? We create refugees and then deny them the chance to flee. What can one possibly say to redeem a society like that?

One does not have to return to the vantage point of the innocent to recognize the truth of what he sees. Old Wordsworth himself seems to have missed this fact. The burden of his "Ode" is that we lose the divine light as we age, and he seems to have taken himself at his word well enough to settle into a dreadful elderly Toryism that was profoundly at odds with his own youthful ideals. Shelley was not about to put up silently with the irony of this transformation:

"Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know 
That things depart which never may return: 
[...] One loss is mine 
Which thou too feel’st, yet I alone deplore" -- namely, that of Wordsworth himself, as a former radical turned traitor to liberty's cause.

In honoured poverty thy voice did weave 
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,— 
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve, 
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be. 

You don't have to follow Wordsworth's course. You can become a different person as an adult without having to deny the self you were or disgrace what that younger person was trying to achieve. In looking back, we find ourselves appalled by the number of facts that we didn't yet know as young people -- but unexpectedly impressed by the number of truths we had figured out. Many times, they are truths we periodically mislaid in the years since, and had to go back and retrieve. We encounter various kinds of clevernesses and impostures that are in fact dressings-up of very old and tired absurdities, and we buy into things that our young, less clever self would have spurned. We are like Ernest Pontifex, being misled in his college years by a fellow student who persuades him to sink money into founding a "College of Spiritual Pathology." We are like the young Bertrand Russell, who found his way to a stout agnosticism as a teenager, only to be briefly persuaded by a cluster of donnish Hegelians as an undergraduate that the ontological argument was sound, and to realize still later, all over again, that in fact, it was not. We find ourselves back where we started again, astonished at the discovery that there's actually less to the other side's arguments than one thought. Writes Poe in his "Marginalia":
"In general, our first impressions are true ones–the chief difficulty is in making sure which are the first. In early youth we read a poem, for instance, and are enraptured with it. At manhood we are assured by our reason that we had no reason to be enraptured. But some years elapse, and we return to our primitive admiration, just as a matured judgment enables us precisely to see what and why we admired.
Thus, as individuals, we think in cycles[....] It is really wonderful to observe how closely, in all the essentials of truth, the child–opinion coincides with that of the man proper–of the man at his best." 
Is it then just a cycle? And if so, is there any purpose to making the journey at all? Yes, because it is after all a progression in the direction of greater truth. My teenage self might have been right about a lot of things -- neoliberalism, neoconservatism, the U.S. role in the Middle East -- but he didn't really know why he was right.

From something called "The Structure of Global Capitalism"
And as a result, he was often haunted by doubts to the effect that the evidence and arguments might after all actually turn out to be on the side of his opponents. Maybe structural adjustment really was the path toward economic growth in the developing world. Maybe the U.S. was sowing the seeds for democracy in Iraq, rather than the dragon's teeth of destruction. It was only natural that in college and later, he would have to take up and examine with more seriousness each of these possibilities, once he had gained the courage to do so, and maybe even try them on for mental size. Thus, he was right for the wrong reasons in high school, and in college he was wrong for the right reasons.

Is it possible that, at the end of the journey, I do in fact become right for the right reasons, and that is the sense in which -- as Poe says -- it is a cycle -- but not a futile one, in which nothing is gained or learned? Do I in fact arrive at the truth at last? I can't be sure, but it seems to me more likely, now that I know that I am an adult, and am complicit in the evils of U.S. foreign policy and refugee policy and trade policy. As a teenager, I only ever wanted to be proven right about structural adjustment and neoliberal globalization. I wanted to win arguments. And for that very reason, it seemed more likely that I wouldn't. Now, the possibility that my teenage self was right all along terrifies me. And so, it seems all the more likely that he was. As a teenager, I wanted history to condemn the United States as wholeheartedly as I had. Now, I want to redeem it, just a tad, because I have become part of it, for all its egregious failings. I partake of its sins.

And of my own too. I cannot escape my younger self, at any obsessional stage. The Six Foot Turkey in which I feel the need to write with quotes about how I quote is but the spiritual descendent of the notebooks about notebooks. As the narrator of The Way of All Flesh concludes, at the end of relating Ernest's life and career: "He would not, it is true, run much chance at present of trying to found a College of Spiritual Pathology, but I must leave the reader to determine whether there is not a strong family likeness between the Ernest of the College of Spiritual Pathology and the Ernest who will insist on addressing the next generation rather than his own." So too, I leave it to my readers to determine whether the creator of this blog is not but an inevitable emanation of the child revealed in the archives.

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