Miss Lonelyhearts (Nathanael West)

Posted: October 15, 2015 in fiction
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You’ll be pleased to know that I really don’t identify strongly with Miss Lonelyhearts any more.

A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.

Not a pleasant situation. It’s sort of how I feel about teaching sometimes. Not that the job is a joke, but it’s something I shouldn’t take too seriously, and then I fall headfirst into my own natural seriousness and drown.

But I’m not running from or hiding my sexual orientation, as he does.

He paid for his breakfast and left the cafeteria. Some exercise might warm him. He decided to take a brisk walk, but he soon grew tired and when he reached the little park, he slumped down on a bench opposite the Mexican War obelisk.

The stone shadow cast a long, rigid shadow on the walk in front of him. He sat staring at it without knowing why until he noticed that it was lengthening in rapid jerks, not as shadows usually lengthen. He grew frightened and looked up quickly at the monument. It seemed red and swollen in the dying sun, as though it were about to spout a load of granite seed.

He hurried away.

Often.

While Miss Lonelyhearts was puzzling out the crabbed writing, Doyle’s damp hand accidentally touched his under the table. He jerked away, but then drove his hand back and forced it to clasp the cripple’s. After finishing the letter, he did not let go, but pressed it firmly with all the love he could manage. At first the cripple covered his embarrassment by disguising the meaning of the clasp with a handshake, but he soon gave in to it and they sat silently hand in hand.

I don’t listen to rape jokes in order to fit in, feigning the indignation at women’s success that so many men feel naturally.

Miss Lonelyhearts stopped listening. His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves. At college, and perhaps for a year afterward, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money and fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men.

I never lost my belief in beauty. I’ve been out of school for years now, but my appreciation of beauty and my belief in its importance are stronger than ever. It’s this that keeps me hoping, moving forward, because everywhere I look there is more beauty to be seen and experienced, and I don’t want to miss any of it.

Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst.

I’ll admit that sometimes I feel like I should be more jaded, because sometimes it seems that in the real world pessimism is the only reasonable response. But I can’t hang onto it. I’ll look over my shoulder as I’m pulling out of the driveway and see the sun pop over the horizon, and I feel filled with the awe and wonder I used to feel in religious experience. Living beauty is all around, if I keep my eyes open to see it.

If he could only believe in Christ, then adultery would be a sin, then everything would be simple and the letter extremely easy to answer.

Which is what makes the dying God so hard for me to connect to. It’s like Christ is the Hanging Man in a tarot deck – he represents wasting time, being stalled, the inability to progress. Christianity as it is commonly practiced seems to favor a simplistic worldview, which Miss Lonelyhearts can’t believe in. I understand The Great War did that to a lot of people, whether they actually went to it or not. I agree with him, that life is more complex than sin/virtue or any other binary, and that getting your needs met so that you can meet the needs of others sometimes requires actions that are deemed sinful. So, for me to believe in God I need him to have a more flexible view of acceptable behavior.

I’ve found a church that I seem to like. It was founded as a haven for gay Christians in Texas, and now it has weekly attendance in the hundreds. I found it through a friend of a friend, and his group is a little overwhelming for me – social anxiety means it’s okay to be alone in a crowd when they all leave two empty seats on either side of me, but when someone I don’t know well wants to hug me and sit close it’s a different story. And besides, do people only go to church when they’re in long-term relationships? “This is A and his husband B, C and his husband D, E and his partner F, and this is my husband G . . .” Wow. But more importantly, I feel like I’ll be accepted here, whether I believe as they do or not. I don’t feel like I have to hide who I really am.

There are a couple of places where the Christ our protagonist believes in is referred to as the Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts, which informs the character in a couple of directions. First, he sees God as an advice columnist, a distant faceless entity whose identity is a farce, but who tries to help in an ineffectual way. It also means that he’s like Christ to these people who write in, and it’s his job to save them. I’ve been both a missionary and a teacher, and it’s taught me that you can’t save people. You can give them tools, but they’ve got to save themselves. Similarly, I can’t wait for someone else to make my life better; I’ve got to save myself too.

Reading him this time, Miss Lonelyhearts is a reminder of how depressed I once was, and how important it is that I don’t let myself go down that way again. He encourages me to take responsibility for my own life, not to bounce along the way that he does, always seeking the path of least resistance, because that ends in disaster.

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