Posts Tagged ‘france’

I’ve mentioned before that I love du Maurier’s awareness of the literary tradition, which she shows by telling updated versions of stories from the past – for example, many critics have pointed out the similarities between Rebecca and Jane Eyre. This time she does it again, but the story she’s retelling is by Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper. While Twain used the story to ruminate on social class and equality, du Maurier uses the same vehicle to describe something completely different.

One had no right to play about with people’s lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other.

Du Maurier’s novel is about personal responsibility, especially as it relates to family dynamics. The prince is the Comte Jean de Gué, who has recently failed to renew a contract and has thus ruined his family’s finances. The pauper is John, a historian from London who lectures at one of the universities. John spends all of his vacations in France, so his language ability is quite good. On one such vacation, he runs into Jean in Le Mans, and Jean drugs him and takes his place. John thus becomes a contemporary (1957) French aristocrat for a week. Until this point, John’s life has been mostly empty, without family, lovers, or close friends. When he is thrust into a family, with mother, sister, brother, wife, and daughter, it’s overwhelming for him. He spends the first half of the book trying to understand his place in this family, how they expect him to act, what actions of affection are considered normal in this family. As the first-person narrator, he tells us all about the changes in his personality, as he moves through shock and overconfidence to love. He makes all sorts of mistakes along the way – for a historian, he’s really slow about picking up on which girls Jean is sleeping with – but he comes through all right.

For me, there was a real shock and disappointment at the end. John is a little distant with the family and he makes some serious mistakes, but as Americans say, his heart is in the right place. He is figuring out what it means to love, and how to do it effectively. In the end, he finds a way to make each member of his new family happy, useful, and independent, or possibly interdependent. My shock was when the real comte returns, and he sees John as having dismantled his entire life. The comte is a cruel, power-addicted sadist – he likes his family to feel their dependence on him; he likes to feel them squirming under his thumb. John’s biggest blunder of all is assuming that Jean’s life is about love. To some extent, Jean has done the same thing to him: after living in John’s shoes for a week, he quits his job at the university, gives notice on his lonely apartment, and goes on permanent vacation. Everything is dismantled, but John’s life didn’t have people in it. There’s a strong implication that no one will miss him, or even much notice that he’s gone. But when I look at the life they’ve each lived in the de Gué family, I have very firm opinions on whose life is worthwhile and whose isn’t. John may not have attracted people to him, but when they are there, he does his best to treat everyone with love and respect. Jean is connected to many people in a tight web of mutual responsibility, but he has no interest in that responsibility. Everyone else has to dance to his tune, while he insists on playing whatever tune he likes.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I know what the title means, and John uses this word to describe himself. It’s commonly understood that the scapegoat is made to carry guilt that isn’t his, but consider the Jewish ritual. The animal is healthy and whole, and the priest heaps all the sins of the people on his head. These are the intentional sins, the unintentional ones having been atoned for by killing a bull. Then they beat the goat and chase it out of the community. If John is the scapegoat, it is essential that he be expelled. No matter how much he loves and is loved, no matter how better fitted he is for the position than Jean, he cannot stay. Cynics will find this ending more realistic than the one I was hoping for, but optimists will be as upset as I was.

I was quick to assign one character to the role of prince and the other to pauper, but the actual financial situation seems to indicate the reverse. Jean has an uncertain income based on a failing glassworks while most of the family fortune is entailed on an as-yet hypothetical male heir (I’m guessing the estate doesn’t bring in anything, or not enough to speak of); John has a steady job, and even if he is unemployed at the end, his habits of saving and living quietly mean that he is in no hurry to find work. Jean accuses him of loving the luxury of his house, but John doesn’t notice it. I think this could be indicative of the aristocracy in general after World War II – old family fortunes on the wane, being replaced by the middle class who works for their money and husbands it well.

The historical moment is very important in this story. During World War II, we know that France was occupied by Germany, but despite having read other books set in this time (I’m thinking specifically of Five Quarters of the Orange), I hadn’t much considered the conflict between the Resistance and the others, largely seen as collaborators or appeasers. Twelve years after the end of the war, these divisions are still significant, and John’s drunken jokes about shooting people at the big annual hunt are a little too on target. In the United States we talk about polarization, and people’s political opinions are becoming more vehement (or I’m becoming more aware of the vehemence they’ve always had), but few people are being killed because of them. After the election the university campus was covered with the hashtag gayandscared, but I never really was. I rely strongly on people’s combination of kindness to strangers and apathy on political matters in daily life. This part of France at this time in history doesn’t have that mix.

The thing that John understands that Jean doesn’t care about is the fact that we have a responsibility to ease the suffering of the people around us. In pursuit of relieving suffering, John causes some, but in the end he hits on a plan where each member of the family can live with the least possible amount of pain. I realize that reducing life to an analysis of quantifiable suffering is a very utilitarian Buddhist thing to do, but in the context of this book it makes sense. The principal difference between John and Jean is their approach to other people’s pain, whether they seek to increase or relieve it. When I think about my own family behavior, I know that I’m often careless of other people’s pain, but at least I don’t try to increase it.

My big struggle right now is figuring out how to explain to him that I’m moving to North Carolina in a way that will cause the least pain. I realize that enough time has passed since I made the decision that that ship has probably already sailed, but still. I don’t like to see him suffering, and he’s doing a lot of that right now on issues that are unrelated to me. I feel bad about taking his last support from him, but I also have my own suffering to attend to, and I know that in the long run, he won’t be happy if I keep increasing my unhappiness. And the longer I stay away from my kids and the place I think of as home, the greater my suffering becomes.

So, fellow du Maurier fans, I’d say that this is a good one. I don’t always connect well with her stories, but this one I really did. The last twenty pages or so are hard, but the rest is fantastic.

As you may recall, a few years ago I read Escape from Freedom, and quoted long sections from it in the coming-out blog. This volume claims to be an extension of that book, continuing from the discussion of authoritarianism and its attractions onto the subject of ethics. This book was written and published back in the 1940s, which means that he refers to all humanity as Man, so women may feel more connected by changing the pronouns to she and Man to Woman, though since the author is a man, he may refer to specifically masculine issues as if they were universal, and since I am also a man, I won’t catch it all the time. I’m sorry for any inadvertent sexism on my part. Another thing to note is that he uses italics like mad, so all emphasis in the following quotations is his, not mine.

This is a treatise on atheist ethics, and as such it really appeals to me. In Christianity, we are taught that ethics is largely a matter of pleasing the absent-yet-omniscient authority figure, sometimes out of love, sometimes out of fear of punishment. Sometimes the love and fear of punishment get mixed up together. However, removing the external authority from the equation, atheists are seen as people who cannot be trusted because they’re not trying to please the same authority. How can murder be wrong if there is no god to send you to hell for it? Well, as any experience with actual atheists reveals, a person who doesn’t believe in a god still has values, principles by which she lives her life. In many cases the atheist succeeds in Christian values better than Christians – atheists believe they are good because they do good things, while Christians believe they are good because their bad deeds can be excused.

Man can react to historical contradictions by annulling them through his own action; but he cannot annul existential dichotomies, although he can react to them in different ways. He can appease his mind by soothing and harmonizing ideologies. He can try to escape from his inner restlessness by ceaseless activity in pleasure or business. He can try to abrogate his freedom and to turn himself into an instrument of powers outside himself, submerging his self in them. But he remains dissatisfied, anxious, and restless. There is only one solution to his problem: to face the truth, to acknowledge his fundamental aloneness and solitude in a universe indifferent to his fate, to recognize that there is no power transcending him which can solve his problem for him. Man must accept the responsibility for himself and the fact that only by using his own powers can he give meaning to his life. But meaning does not imply certainty; indeed, the quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. If he faces the truth without panic he will recognize that there is no meaning to life except the meaning man gives his life by the unfolding of his powers, by living productively; and that only constant vigilance, activity, and effort can keep us from failing in the one task that matters – the full development of our powers within the limitations set by the laws of our existence. Man will never cease to be perplexed, to wonder, and to raise new questions. Only if he recognizes the human situation, the dichotomies inherent in his existence and his capacity to unfold his powers, will he be able to succeed in his task: to be himself and for himself and to achieve happiness by the full realization of those faculties which are peculiarly his – of reason, love, and productive work.

Here we see part of the journey my life has been on. I used to ‘abrogate my freedom and turn myself into an instrument of powers outside myself, submerging myself in’ church and the prescribed nuclear family. But, as Fromm points out, I was ‘dissatisfied, anxious, and restless.’ Still am, in many ways. I faced my fundamental aloneness, and still feel it acutely, but it still produces that feeling of panic that I need to get over. In the last five years, I seem to have been searching for another authority figure to take the place of the church that I lost, but rejecting in a panic all the ones that come along. Like Jane Eyre, I’m looking for another role as servant, but being choosy about the type of master I get. Yes, part of this refers to the job search, but it more closely describes my search for love. I want someone whom I can give my life to and who will take care of my needs in return. The fact that it’s not working doesn’t tell me my idea is flawed, just that I haven’t found the right man yet. Fromm disagrees. Meaning in my life isn’t going to come from masochistic submission, but from actively pursuing the activities that make me feel alive. The other day I was crocheting dish scrubbers out of veil netting for him to sell, and I realized that this type of commercial activity doesn’t fit Fromm’s definition of productivity; working on projects for my family does. I don’t want to be someone who sells; I want to be someone who gives. The things that make me feel alive, the most myself, are writing, reading, and making music. Teaching is good, but primarily insofar as it allows me to read and write, and help others to do the same. Fromm talks a lot about productivity, but gives the best definition near the end of the book:

In contrast, humanistic ethics takes the position that if man is alive he knows what is allowed; and to be alive means to be productive, to use one’s powers not for any purpose transcending man, but for oneself, to make sense of one’s existence, to be human. As long as anyone believes that his ideal and purpose is outside him, that it is above the clouds, in the past or in the future, he will go outside himself and seek fulfillment where it can not be found. He will look for solutions and answers at every point except the one where they can be found – in himself.

The only place we can find knowledge, especially ethical knowledge, is in our own minds. When we read or listen to someone’s ideas, we bring them into our minds and decide if we want to keep them. In the mind is the only place we can bring objects or abstractions to know them. So if we want to know something, like the meaning of our lives or the proper manner of living, we have to look inward, not outward. Being productive means using our abilities to create the best version of ourselves we can be. It means developing our abilities to their fullest extent. Unfortunately, there are some attitudes that prevent our complete development: the sadism and masochism that come from authoritarian attitudes, and the hoarding and marketing that come from capitalist attitudes. Fromm spends a good bit of space expounding on these blockages, and he predicts a lot of my behaviors in his discussion of masochism and marketing, but he also gives me hope:

There is no person whose orientation is entirely productive, and no one who is completely lacking in productiveness. But the respective weight of the productive and the nonproductive orientation in each person’s character structure varies and determines the quality of the nonproductive orientations. In the foregoing description of the nonproductive orientations it was assumed that they were dominant in a character structure. We must now supplement the earlier description by considering the qualities of the nonproductive orientations in a character structure in which the productive orientation is dominant. Here the nonproductive orientations do not have the negative meaning they have when they are dominant but have a different and constructive quality. In fact, the nonproductive orientations as they have been described may be considered as distortions of orientations which in themselves are a normal and necessary part of living. Every human being, in order to survive, must be able to accept things from others, to take things, to save, and to exchange. He must also be able to follow authority, to guide others, to be alone, and to assert himself. Only if his way of acquiring things and relating himself to others is essentially nonproductive does the ability to accept, to take, to save, or to exchange turn into the craving to receive, to exploit, to hoard, or to market as the dominant ways of acquisition. The nonproductive forms of social relatedness in a predominantly productive person – loyalty, authority, fairness, assertiveness – turn into submission, domination, withdrawal, destructiveness in a predominantly nonproductive person. Any of the nonproductive orientations has, therefore, a positive and a negative aspect, according to the degree of productiveness in the total character structure.

So, no one is wholly good or bad, and no one quality is absolutely bad. Everything I have and am can be used in constructive ways. I just have to be vigilant, to make sure that I don’t end up overly submissive.

I’ve been thinking about my relationship a lot lately, all the ways it isn’t working, why I’m still in it. He’s not helping me become the person I want to be. Part of it is his personality – he wants everyone in the house to be together all the time, which is natural to his Myers-Briggs type, but it means that he sees the desire for solitude as a disease. The things that help me become a better me generally require solitude, so I’m harming my personality with all of this together time in order to reassure him that nothing is wrong. Another issue is that he doesn’t enjoy writing, reading, or making music himself, so he doesn’t see the importance of them to me. I often see academics in couples, and I’ve wondered why that is. At one time I thought there was some snobbery involved, at another I thought it was just a lack of opportunity to meet nonacademic people. Now I’m thinking that it’s because academic work creates habits of mind that are incompatible with certain lifestyles. He and I aren’t working out, not because it’s anyone’s fault, but because we don’t want to develop the qualities we see in each other. There have been other warning signs that he’s not interested in keeping me happy, like when he said that he refuses to have a piano in the house, or when he told me that he could not handle me expressing my emotions all the time, or when he borrowed my child support money and didn’t pay it back. He always has reasons and excuses, but they all boil down to the fact that he’s not willing to nurture an environment where I can grow and be happy.

Why do I stay here, then? Because I can’t afford to live anywhere else. Living in the United States is expensive, and none of my jobs here really give me enough to live comfortably. I saved some money when I was in the Middle East, but that’s all gone now. I barely make enough to pay my bills, even though I’ve been teaching for ten years now. I’ve been making barely enough money to pay my bills for ten years. The state of education in this country is really depressing. A professor once told me that the primary difference in his life between being a student and being an instructor is that now he could afford to buy juice; or in other words, he made a little less than five dollars a week more than he did when he was on assistantships and student loans. And he was a department head at the university. Macron promised a home in France for all the climate-change scientists; I wish he’d do the same for English teachers.

I’ve been gearing up to apply for other jobs, and the gearing up process is lasting a lot longer than it should. In thinking about this, I’ve realized that it scares me, a lot. Not only because change is scary, but because I want to settle down and stop moving so much, but I don’t trust that life will allow me to do that. I’m afraid to make a change that I won’t want to change from. I’m afraid of ending up . . . anywhere, doing anything. I’m afraid of reaching the end of the story, when the wandering protagonist has learned his lessons, finds a home, and lives the rest of his long happy life in a few short sentences on the last page. I’m exhausted, but still afraid to slow down.

The assumption that man has an inherent drive for growth and integration does not imply an abstract drive for perfection as a particular gift with which man is endowed. It follows from the very nature of man, from the principle that the power to act creates a need to use this power and that the failure to use it results in dysfunction and unhappiness. The validity of this principle can be easily recognized with regard to the physiological functions of man. Man has the power to walk and to move; if he were prevented from using this power severe physical discomfort or illness would result. […] The validity of this principle is apparent with regard to psychic as well as physical powers. Man is endowed with the capacities of speaking and thinking. If these powers were blocked, the person would be severely damaged. Man has the power to love, and if he can not make use of his power, if he is incapable of loving, he suffers from this misfortune even though he may try to ignore his suffering by all kinds of rationalizations or by using the culturally patterned avenues of escape from the pain caused by his failure.

Physiological symptoms of unhappiness! Yes! I have those! I’m having a hard time sleeping lately, and I cough all the time. I’ve been thinking that it’s from all the second-hand smoke, but it may be from the stress of being unhappy in this relationship. [Cue “Adelaide’s Lament.”]

In fact, happiness and unhappiness are expressions of the state of the entire organism, of the total personality. Happiness is conjunctive with an increase in vitality, intensity of feeling and thinking, and productiveness; unhappiness is conjunctive with the decrease of these capacities and functions. Happiness and unhappiness are so much a state of our total personality that bodily reactions are frequently more expressive of them than our conscious feeling. The drawn face of a person, listlessness, tiredness, or physical symptoms like headaches or even more serious forms of illness are frequent expressions of unhappiness, just as a physical feeling of well-being can be one of the “symptoms” of happiness. Indeed, our body is less capable of being deceived about the state of happiness than our mind, and one can entertain the idea that some time in the future the presence and degree of happiness and unhappiness might be inferred from an examination of the chemical processes in the body. Likewise, the functioning of our mental and emotional capacities is influenced by our happiness or unhappiness. The acuteness of our reason and the intensity of our feelings depend on it. Unhappiness weakens or even paralyzes all our psychic functions. Happiness increases them. The subjective feeling of being happy, when it is not a quality of the state of well-being of the whole person, is nothing more than an illusory thought about a feeling and is completely unrelated to genuine happiness.

I think about how things have changed in this last year with him. My job was a little uncertain, but I felt really good about myself, the way I looked and my ability to direct my life. Now, my job is secure, but I hate myself for having gained this much weight, and I seriously doubt whether I can make my life work or not. Even though I felt really hurt back then, I was still basically happy with myself; now, I’m just unhappy all the time. I love him, despite all the badness, but loving him isn’t making me happy or my life better.

The experience of joy and happiness is not only, as we have shown, the result of productive living but also its stimulus. Repression of evilness may spring from a spirit of self-castigation and sorrow, but there is nothing more conducive to goodness in the humanistic sense than the experience of joy and happiness which accompanies any productive activity. Every increase in joy a culture can provide for will do more for the ethical education of its members than all the warnings of punishment or preachings of virtue could do.

And of course, part of me thinks that I deserve this, because most of my brain is still wired in the authoritarian manner of my youth. I’m working at overcoming it, but it’s going to take a lot of time yet. Notice how the authoritarian mindset reverses mental health and illness:

Paradoxically, the authoritarian guilty conscience is a result of the feeling of strength, independence, productiveness, and pride, while the authoritarian good conscience springs from the feeling of obedience, dependence, powerlessness, and sinfulness. St Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin have described this good conscience in unmistakable terms. To be aware of one’s powerlessness, to despise oneself, to be burdened by the feeling of one’s own sinfulness and wickedness are the signs of goodness. The very fact of having a guilty conscience is in itself a sign of one’s virtue because the guilty conscience is the symptom of one’s “fear and trembling” before the authority. The paradoxical result is that the (authoritarian) guilty conscience becomes the basis for a “good” conscience, while the good conscience, if one should have it, ought to create a feeling of guilt.

I want to be happy in a simple, straightforward way, not in this twisted weird guilt/goodness trap. I’ve often thought that amnesia would be a good solution, as in When God Was a Rabbit. Fromm points out that happiness means valuing ourselves, that creating happiness requires making our own happiness a high priority, but my default habit of mind is to find someone I can make more important than myself and lose my independent self in creating their happiness. Which is toxic and doesn’t work. I think this is why I really am happier spending a lot of time alone – then, I don’t have anyone else’s happiness to attend to. It’s great, because keeping other people happy is exhausting.

I thought I was doing better, mental health-wise, but I clearly still have a lot of work to do.

Yes, this is a book about the pace of modern life. Partially.

We begin with Kundera and his wife driving out to a castle-turned-hotel for the evening. As he’s driving, he’s thinking about the modern tendency to road rage (yes, I’m pointing at myself) and our insane hurry to do everything. After they arrive, they enjoy a quiet evening and go to bed early. So, for most of the book, he’s imagining it, and his wife is dreaming what he imagines, like their minds are in the same vehicle but he’s driving. Every now and again she’ll wake up and comment on the story, or a piece of music that he mentions. This is the frame.

Because this is a Milan Kundera novel, he moves quickly to the subject of sex. He thinks that our sex lives must be as hurried as the rest of life, and he finds this unfortunate. He remembers a short erotic story from the eighteenth century, Vivant Denon’s Point de Lendemain. This is a real story; you can read it at Project Gutenberg, if you read French. Denon was more famous for his Egyptology; his travel book on Egyptian archaeology fueled the orientalist fads of the late eighteenth to the nineteenth century, which sort of culminated in Aida – because why not set an Italian opera in Egypt – or possibly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – because why not send an American teacher to fight Nazis in Egypt. Frankly, if you’re looking for eighteenth century smut, Fanny Hill is much more detailed, with less not-sex. A young man sees a married friend of his mistress, and she takes him out to her home in the country (the same castle Kundera is staying in, of course). Over the course of the evening, she works a slow seduction, the type designed to end in sex but in such a way that the man thinks it’s his ardor leading the charge. There are a few changes of scenery; she leads him all over the garden. She flirts him in a little, then pushes him away with that classical French pout. Finally she takes him to a secret room in the castle and they do what she brought him for; the next morning he runs into the guy she’s been fucking and he reveals that the whole night was just a smokescreen so that her husband would focus his jealousy on Young Protagonist instead of on the real lover.

So of course Kundera reimagines the story in the modern world (twenty years ago, before we all had cell phones). Kundera’s pal Vincent is at the same hotel, attending a conference of entomologists. He meets Julie, some kind of admin assistant working the conference. They bond over the fact that they both feel young and undervalued, so they abuse the other attendees over a few drinks and decide to go up to her room. They get sidetracked by the new swimming pool, so they swim naked for a bit and do it poolside. Then she runs away all flirtatious-like and he follows her but not quite fast enough (A lady clutching a dress to her nude front is all right, but a gentleman ought to put on the trousers in his hand). He can’t find her, so for both young men, the love affair has no tomorrow. I feel like I ought to be sad about that, but a one-night stand is one of my favorite memories, so I’m really not.

Because this is a Kundera novel, there’s also a socio-political element, this time focused on performance. Some people grow and expand like a rose blooming when they have an audience. So they play to that audience; Kundera calls it dancing, and he has quite a lot to say about dancers. Most of it not great. We wear masks in public, and sometimes we confuse the mask for the real self. People who don’t even know a person’s real self can reject a mask, but the rejectee feels it in the real self. The good politicians and academics know how to manage their personae to get ahead. Čechořipsky is less skilled in this area. He may at one time have been a brilliant entomologist, but he failed to ingratiate himself with the Soviets when they took over Czechoslovakia. He tries to see it as a successful rebellion now, but at the time it was just cowardice. So he’s spent the last twenty years as a construction worker, not studying bugs. He’s so emotionally overwhelmed at the conference he forgets to present his paper, and when he realizes his mistake he feels like a big idiot, so he comforts himself by thinking of his physique. Working in construction like that, he’s stronger than any of these guys who have spent their lives in laboratories. Boys have always comforted themselves for the fact that they’re not comparatively smart by asking themselves who would win in a fight. But the other scientists don’t see him as buff or hot or anything. They seem to see him more as a Quasimodo figure.

So he goes down to the pool to do some lengths and feel better about himself, and he sees these two people fucking next to the pool, and he thinks what a strange and wonderful country France must be, where lovers can do that in public without drawing unwanted attention. What he doesn’t realize is that Vincent’s dick is not at all engaged. It’s in its resting state, dangling about but not actually inside her. This sex act is a performance. Vincent and Julie are each performing their rebellion against society for an invisible audience, possibly each other, so there’s no need for them to actually touch. Just like in Denon’s story, where the lady takes the young man to prove to her husband that he doesn’t have to worry about the man she’s sleeping with habitually – it’s all performance. Our lives are full of performance too; we’re all dancing about in front of the cameras, hoping to get our pictures taken. Our cultural conversation insists that fame is ephemeral, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing for it. Kundera points out that we all think we are the elect, and that we will somehow get our image preserved forever. It’s hard for us to cope with our equality; we believe we’re special, that we somehow deserve nice things even when no one else has them. Or maybe I’m just talking about me, who secretly never gave up his dream of becoming a rock star. Even though he’s 37 and has only a basic musical talent and a complete disdain for autotune. It makes people sound like robots.

So, to complete this book on fame and sex (and the informal spaces where the two interact) and pacing, there’s this weird little apostrophe on the last page that doesn’t seem to fit with the novel.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope.

Is that really what the whole thing has been about? Happiness? and Hope?

What does it take to be happy? What does ‘happy’ even mean?

Against my expectations, I’m reminded of a bit of St Paul, where he says that external circumstances don’t matter to him because his contentment comes from within (Phil 4:12-13). Much as I dislike supporting Paul, this one makes sense. The characters in this book are mostly unhappy, but it’s primarily themselves they are unhappy with. Vincent and Julie and Čechořipsky and the other dancers are all acting out their obvious insecurities, while the characters he borrows from Denon seem happy, even the young man who was manipulated and used. I guess that makes sense, according to the codes of the time he protected a woman (read weak, defenseless creature) from the vile aspersions of her husband (however true they may be). I guess people like being helpful, even if the help is kind of strange. In context, though, I think Kundera would link their happiness to their slower pace of life. Their actions are more deliberate: Julie takes the opportunity when it comes, but Madame de T creates the opportunity and orchestrates the entire experience. My modern self wants to be special, unique, not so easily predicted, but Denon’s lad finds happiness in the utility that comes from being so utterly conventional. Less individuality, less fame, but more happiness.

As I’m sitting here considering times I have been both happy and slow, I think that the connection has to do with the amount of control I feel I have over my own life. If I let modernity have its way, I get swept into the rush of things. When I can control my life, I slow it down. When I feel in control, I feel happy. And frankly, reading seems to play a large part in all this. He got me an iPad a month or two ago, and it’s a nice toy for checking my friends’ facebook posts, but when I try to read an article they share, the ads load very slowly, so I read a few sentences and the screen goes blank to reload the next ad, so I find my place and read a few more words before the screen goes blank again. If I get through an entire paragraph and have to scroll down, when the screen goes blank it will leave me at the top of the page again. It’s one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve ever had because I’m forced to rush. But reading an actual book is wholly different. The artifact is already intact, so I don’t have to wait for ads or buffering. It’s always immediately available, and it never reloads. There’s no pressure to hurry before the words disappear. Any pressures are purely internal, so I’m in control of the experience. I can choose to read quickly if the book is exciting, or I can slow down if the writing is complex or beautiful. With a printed book, I can make choices because there is so little technology mediating my experience of the text while I’m reading it.

Choice might actually be a better way of thinking about this than control. When I make choices, I’m happiest if I can take them slowly. Modern life does have a way of insisting that choices be made immediately, whether the matter is actually urgent or not. It’s better to have time to deliberate, weigh the options, think on it for a bit. The slower pace gives me confidence that I’m making a good choice. So. Slow is good. Taking time with/for people shows them that they are important to you. Taking time is how we escape from that twentieth-century French conviction that everything is meaningless. Slowness makes things matter.

This entry is tremendously long. Please, sit somewhere comfortably and refill your cup before you proceed.

This book was difficult to read. Not the vocabulary or sentence structure, it’s the outdated ideas. Some of them, anyway. It’s twenty years old; society has moved on.

Badinter is a French feminist theorist, writing about men. I should have known to be more careful. Do you remember what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë? I’m sorry I don’t have the quotation from the letters to hand, but she basically said that Brontë had a way of putting herself between her material and her readers, which prevents her from reaching the objectivity of Jane Austen. I don’t think any of us complain about finding Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, but the novel isn’t a work of scholarly nonfiction. Badinter’s book is, and finding the author putting her offensive opinion between me and the facts upsets me. For example,

The medicalization of homosexuality should have protected it from moral judgments. Nothing of the sort happened. The problematical question of “perversions” allows for all kinds of ambiguities. No distinction is made between disease and vice, between psychic illness and moral illness. By consensus people stigmatize these effeminate men who are incapable of reproducing!

Or in other words, she attacks homophobia not by saying that fearing and hating other people based on a difference in sexual orientation is dumb because that type of fear and hate is irrational and leads to violence; she says homophobia is dumb because girly men are inherently unthreatening. Which fills me with shock and rage, but it isn’t nearly as intolerant as her comments on transgender individuals. She denies the validity of the very idea that some people’s gender identity does not match their biological sex. Maybe you could have this idea and still be a successful academician in the 1990s, but I don’t think the attitude would get published now.

All of that being said, most of her comments are absolutely spot on. When she puts herself aside and delivers the theory, it’s accurate and well done.

In traditional societies, becoming a woman is a fairly straightforward process. A girl separates from her mother in infancy, then sometime later begins to menstruate. While it’s not a smooth ride, it is not as complicated as becoming a man. Woman is at least defined positively, she is; man exists by not being something, which is much harder to prove. Badinter describes three stages, or gates, that a person must pass through in order to become a man. First, I am not my mother. Second, I am not a girl. Third, I am not gay. These are typically accompanied by rituals that mark the person’s developing masculinity. In industrial Euro-America, we’ve lost the rituals and the traditional definition of being a man, and while some of that isn’t terrible, it leaves a void.

The difficulties of masculinity are obvious, especially nowadays, in our countries, where the power that served as man’s armor is crumbling on all sides. Without his age-old defenses, man’s wounds are exposed, and they are often raw. One has only to read the literature of European and American men of the last fifteen years to grasp the entire range of feelings by which they are assaulted: rage, anxiety, fear of women, impotence, loss of reference points, self-hatred and hatred of others, and so on. One element that is found in all these texts is a man crying.

She frequently refers to novels as evidence of men’s thought processes; some that she finds significant are Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides and everything by Philip Roth. I’ve never read the Conroy book (or seen the movie – in my childhood, watching it was proof of effeminacy, sort of like Beaches), and I hated that one Roth novel I experienced, so I’m not sure if she and I have similar ideas about masculinity. But then, I feel like there’s someone inside me who’s crying all the time and never stops, so maybe we’re not so different after all.

I AM NOT MY MOTHER

And thank God for that. I was the fifth child; my brother’s fifteen-month birthday was the day after I was born. Our proximity in time meant that our mother’s body hadn’t recovered sufficiently for me to be a completely successful pregnancy. Since there were three more before him, she was sort of worn out with the childbearing. Fortunately, I was the youngest for two and a half years, so my little sister developed in a more nurturing womb than I did. I was a sick baby – now I know that I was allergic to breast milk, but back then there wasn’t a reason; there was only the fact that I did better with soy formula. My mother didn’t like nursing anyway. She likes babies because they love you without your having to work for it, but that’s hardly enough reason to have seven. I suppose the point is that for me, the mother-child dyad was never as pleasant or healthy as other people seem to think it should be.

On the other hand, if this total love has not been reciprocal, the child will spend the rest of his life painfully seeking it.

And that explains a lot.

Of course there exist here and there admirable mothers who give their child what he needs to be happy without holding him prisoner, who spare him excesses of frustration and guilt, hindrances to his development. But these “gifted” women, like great artists, are miraculous exceptions that confirm the rule that the reality is difficult, unclear, and most often unsatisfying.

Indeed, yes. As an adult, I find that my relationship with my mother is still difficult, unclear, and unsatisfying. I talk with her once or twice a year of my own volition, and from time to time I text her because she doesn’t know how to text back. She likes to feel that she’s involved in my life, and I like to feel that she’s not. My mother is not great with the idea that we’re different people; she is the most adamant about projecting an identity onto me that doesn’t fit with reality. She’s been doing this as long as I can remember, at least as far back as my parents’ divorce. I was eight, so I retreated from my feelings, and thus the entire outside world. It was easier for my mom to fill in the blanks with her own rage than to get to know me. Remember the six siblings, most of whom directed their energy outward and so got the attention they needed. I found greater acceptance from my remaining parent by not needing attention. It was easier for me not to challenge her assumptions, to let her act as if she knew what was going on inside me until I could figure it out. I didn’t really figure it out until I was an adult, so that became how I interact with the world. It’s unpleasant for me to assert myself if I’m not being confronted directly; it’s still easier to let other people assume I’m the same as they are. Which I seldom am. This is how I have so many people who think of themselves as my friend whom I don’t. And this is also why I feel alone most of the time, because I need to feel known in order to feel accepted, or like I belong. I keep searching for this mythical feeling of home/family/security without finding it.

I AM NOT A GIRL

I have three older brothers. My mother and my older sister really wanted a girl. I was a bit of a disappointment, from birth. And now I find myself in the midst of a community of men who sometimes use female pronouns and references, which is very odd. Just last week a friend of mine called me princess – I have rarely been so offended. I had to think through the fact that he enjoys being offensive and pushing limits; he’s cultivated this persona of the lovable idiot so that he can say whatever he feels like, and if it’s bothersome, he can fall back on the “I’m too stupid to know better” routine. It’s designed to turn other people’s anger into pity, and is actually a fairly common tactic among men of our socioeconomic group.

A girl is just one of those things that I am not, and other people seem to want me to be. No matter how many times I erase it, they keep writing it on my blank slate.

I AM NOT GAY

Okay, so in my case we all know this one isn’t true. But people have long expected this as part of being an adult man.

Masculine identity is associated with the fact of possessing, taking, penetrating, dominating, and asserting oneself, if necessary, by force. Feminine identity is associated with the fact of being possessed, docile, passive, submissive. Sexual “normality” and identity are inscribed within the context of the domination of a woman by a man. According to this point of view, homosexuality, which involves the domination of a man by another man, is considered, if not a mental illness, at least a gender identity disorder.

We all know that a long time ago some homosexuality was considered a normal part of a boy’s education. Some groups believed that a boy had to drink the “man’s milk” from a penis in order to become a man; others that the close relationship with an older man was necessary to learn how to be a man. The part that was always missing, though, is just how much older this older man should be. We imagine guys in their fifties sleeping with ten-year-olds, but that’s not how it was done. Older man really means only slightly older; it’s much more likely that a fourteen-year-old was hooking up with an eighteen-year-old. People expected a man to put away his homosexuality when he became an adult ready to marry. Under this model, men who are honestly gay are seen as either arrested in development or regressive. And, men who are “normal” and straight these days deny themselves the expression of a natural desire. Gay is a socially constructed identity; before a hundred and fifty years ago (estimating), gay was an action, not a person. The heteros have lost a lot by this polarization we have; if they get interested in another guy once, they feel like it ruins everything they are, it makes them not-man. Teenagers may look around the locker room, but they’re often too afraid to reach out and touch. Even with adults, it’s natural for usually straight guys to form an attachment with another man, but now it’s overladen with the “No homo” recitative. It’s a special friend who will let you sit in the seat next to him in an uncrowded movie theatre.

But, some facts:

Thus, the sociologist Frederick Whitam, after having worked for many years in homosexual communities in countries as different as the United States, Guatemala, Brazil, and the Philippines, suggests six conclusions: (1) homosexual persons appear in all societies, (2) the percentage of homosexuals seems the same in all societies and remains stable over time, (3) social norms neither prevent nor facilitate the emergence of a homosexual orientation, (4) homosexual subcultures appear in all societies that have a sufficient number of persons, (5) homosexuals of different societies tend to resemble one another as to their behavior and their interests, and (6) all societies produce a similar continuum between very masculine and very feminine homosexuals.

PROBLEM MAN 1: THE TOUGH GUY

The tough guy is the natural response to this sort of society. He denies any sort of femininity in himself. If he feels compassion or emotion, he hides it. From himself, if possible. Acknowledging any internal womanishness is failure. The problem with this is that society has arbitrarily divided basic human qualities into masculine and feminine categories, so the tough guy is really only half a person.

Jourard postulates that men have fundamentally the same psychological needs as women (to love and be loved, to communicate emotions and feelings, to be active and passive). However, the ideal of masculinity forbids men to satisfy these “human” needs. Others have insisted on the physical dangers that lie in wait for the tough guy: boys are forced to take risks that end in accidents (e.g., various sports); they smoke, drink, and use motorcycles and cars as symbols of virility. Some of them find confirmation of their virility only in violence, either personal or collective. In addition, the competition and stress that follow in their professional life, and their obsession with performance, only add to men’s fragility. The efforts demanded of men to conform to the masculine ideal cause anguish, emotional difficulties, fear of failure, and potentially dangerous and destructive compensatory behaviors. When one sizes up the psychosomatic uniqueness of the human being, the influence of psychic distress on physical illness, and when one realizes that men find it harder to consult medical doctors and psychologists and do so less often than women, then the shorter life expectancy of men is easier to understand. If one adds that in our society the life of a man is worth less than that of a woman (women and children first!), that he serves as cannon fodder in time of war, and that the depiction of his death (in the movies and on television) has become mere routine, a cliché of virility, one has good reason to regard traditional masculinity as life-threatening.

The violence is really a problem, especially in the United States. We have more people in jail than any other country in the world, and that doesn’t cover the crimes that aren’t reported.

Rape is the crime that is increasing the most in the United States. The FBI estimates that if this tendency continues, one woman out of four will be raped once in her life. If one adds that the number of women beaten by their husbands every year is estimated at 1.8 million, one will have some idea of the violence that surrounds them and the fear of men they legitimately feel. The threat of rape – which has nothing to do with the fantasies of the hysteric – has caused one woman to say: “It alters the meaning and feel of the night . . . and it is night half the time.” More generally, the fear of being raped looms over the daily life of all women.

I question the word all. It’s a big world, and I don’t believe that 51% of it is living in fear. But more of them are than I might realize. Strange women seem to find me threatening; being alone and silent and male is enough to be considered dangerous. Though I suppose the silence and the solitude aren’t as important as the maleness. Giving women I don’t know a wide berth seems to be a good solution, and living in the Middle East was good training. Now I don’t even look at women.

PROBLEM MAN 2: THE SOFT MAN

For a long time I dealt with the problem of being a man as many others do: we reject the aggressive, violent qualities of the tough guy and end up a softie.

The couple that consists of a feminist and a soft man share all household tasks and organize “a scrupulously exacting democracy, to such a degree must the division of tasks be fair.” Merete Gerlach-Nielsen points out that adaptation to the role of the soft man is not easy: it is often the feminist spouse who imposes this new behavior on her partner, though it may be profoundly alien to him. The man feels his masculinity is being attacked, his identity becomes uncertain, and most often the couple separate.

The ex and I were like this at first. I spent my undergraduate career reading feminist theory, and shortly before graduation I married someone who seemed to share these ideals. But after a year or two she didn’t want a soft man anymore. She wanted a tough guy, but I wasn’t him. So she lived with a man she didn’t respect, and I was plagued with my own inadequacy. Then, when the kids were born, she thought I was too violent to be left with them. I kept being pushed this way and that without being respected, without someone who claimed to love me taking the time to find out who I am.

The absence of attention (love?) on the part of a father prevents a son from identifying with him and establishing his own masculine identity. As a consequence, this son, lacking a father’s love, remains in the orbit of his mother, attracted by feminine values alone. He regards his father and his virility with the eyes of the mother. If the mother sees the father as “maybe brutal . . . unfeeling, obsessed . . . and the son often grows up with a wounded image of his father” and refuses to be like him.

Or, in my case, the son reproduces his parents’ relationship in his own marriage, with a similar situation of depression, dissatisfaction, suicidal ideation, and separation. I can only hope that my sons are going to make better choices.

To judge from Ernest Hemingway’s biography or those of other famous American men, an all-powerful mother who ceaselessly castrates those around her and a father obsessed by a feeling of incapacity produce boys who are very badly off.

I feel less incapable now than when I was still with the ex. Getting divorced was a terrible experience, but I’ve gained so much in self-respect that I’m glad I did it.

THE WAY FORWARD

Badinter points out that fathers are separated from their children in almost all these situations, and writes that bringing fathers back into their children’s lives is the best way to create a masculinity that doesn’t destroy traditionally feminine virtues.

All the studies show that paternal involvement also depends on the willingness of the mother. Yet many women do not want to see their companion become more occupied with the children. In the 1980s two studies showed that fathers who wanted to involve themselves a little more were not encouraged to do so: 60 percent to 80 percent of their spouses were not in favor.

To explain their rejecting attitude, many women mention their husband’s incompetence, which makes more work for them than it saves. But on a deeper level, they experience their maternal preeminence as a form of power that they do not want to share, even at the price of physical and mental exhaustion.

As with FGM, male personality mutilation is often performed by women. The ex hasn’t wanted me to be involved with her children for a long time. She used to say that she did, but she wanted me to interact with them in ways that she had scripted without giving me my lines. Naturally, I didn’t perform according to expectations. Even today, her children are her source of power and identity. I’m not sure if she exists without them. She thinks I don’t love them, perhaps because I understand myself as a separate human being.

Single mothers who work full time know that children are a heavy responsibility. For some, the emotional compensations are well worth the price. But for others, the reasons for the choice have more to do with guilt and a sense of duty – pressures that as yet do not weigh very heavily on fathers!

Badinter doesn’t have much use for fathers either, apparently. Guilt and a sense of duty weigh so heavily on me that they’ve often pointed me toward self-harm.

The thing that Badinter couldn’t predict, that I believe no one could have predicted, is what has actually happened. There was this show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The title serves as an abbreviation for this complex cultural phenomenon where heterosexual men have appropriated traits seen as characteristic of homosexuals while retaining their heterosexual “real man” identity. For a while there was the metrosexual, who seemed totally gay while still being totally hetero; now straight guys put some work into their hair and clothes, and even get a little flamboyant in their style. Badinter wanted a mixture of tough guy and soft man attitudes, and it’s sort of happened by absorbing the gays instead of by reforming parenting styles.

One would have to be ignorant of identity problems to believe that one and the same generation of men, brought up with the old model, could succeed all at once in performing the dangerous triple somersault: first, questioning an ancestral virility, then accepting a feared femininity, and last, inventing a different masculinity compatible with that femininity.

I’m not sure where in this triple somersault we are now. I’d like to think that we’re on that last stage of things, but there’s no real way of knowing. The thing is that it’s like an idea I used to think about a lot: that every person goes through the ages of history in his own life. In childhood we’re interested in physical pleasures and making everything into a god, like the classical empires; later childhood is sort of Medieval, with the superstition and the ignorance; the Renaissance is an early adolescence, followed by an Age of Reason in young adulthood, a bit of Romance/Romanticism, and a Victorian middle age. Then it’s all (Post-) Modern and fragmented as we drift into senility. We each have to question the old virility, accept the feminine side of ourselves, and then figure out what that means. Every man has to relearn how to be a man; we recreate masculinity in ourselves all the time. That’s the inevitable result of an identity that is always provisional and based on negation. The important question is, is it the same old masculinity or something new? Does our gender performance lead to violence against women or not? Is it based in fear or respect? Are we more concerned about being a man or being a human?

More generally, those in favor of the tough guy or the soft man are making the mistake of thinking that there exist certain qualities exclusively characteristic of one sex and alien to the other, such as aggressivity, supposed to be specifically masculine, and compassion, essentially feminine. In fact, whether one considers aggressivity as an innate virtue or an acquired disease, one would have to be blind to say that women are not aggressive. Even if the patriarchal education and culture have taught them – more than men – to turn it against themselves, women are thoroughly familiar with this human impulse. They are, like men, influenced by the degree of violence in the social environment. Aggressivity is characteristic of both sexes, even if it is expressed differently. What is more, it should not be identified merely with a destructive, gratuitous violence. It is not only that, as Freud saw. It can also be equivalent to survival, action, and creation. Its absolute contrary is passivity and death, and its absence can mean loss of freedom and human dignity.

This entry has gone on for rather a long time, rather longer than necessary for a book this short. It provoked a strong response, and I have even more quotations that point out that my experience of my sexuality (convinced I was straight, marrying and having kids, then coming out) is far from idiosyncratic, as well as my experience of the homosexual community (not so polarized into female or male gender stereotypes as people think), and I was going to talk about a return to nearly traditional heroes after September 11, but it’s really quite long enough. Just one last thing:

Today, in our societies in which rituals have lost their meaning, the transition is more problematic, for it is not sanctioned by glaring proofs.

Fight Club showed us that rituals have not lost their meaning. Meaningful rituals are perhaps rare, but humans will never completely lose their taste for them. And while becoming a man is indeed problematic, we affirm each other; we negotiate manhood in communities rather than on the lone prairie. Every day we remind each other that being a man does not mean cleaving one’s heart in twain and throwing away the worser part of it; it means accepting all of ourselves, kindness and strength and compassion and anger and fortitude and adventure. All things human belong to all beings human. It takes a real man to love himself and others.

So, a little confession to make. It’s been so long since I read The Second Sex that I don’t remember much about the style it’s written in. But, I have read Sartre lately, and I have a general idea of the type of writing done by the French feminists, and this book wasn’t what I was expecting. It is a deeply personal, extremely intimate relation of de Beauvoir’s experience of her mother’s death. And it is beautiful.

Amazement. When my father died I did not cry at all. I had said to my sister, “It will be the same for Maman.” I had understood all my sorrows until that night: even when they flowed over my head I recognized myself in them. This time my despair escaped from my control: someone other than myself was weeping in me. I talked to Sartre about my mother’s mouth as I had seen it that morning and about everything I had interpreted in it – greediness refused, an almost servile humility, hope, distress, loneliness – the loneliness of her death and of her life – that did not want to admit its existence. And he told me that my own mouth was not obeying me any more. I had put Maman’s mouth on my own face and in spite of myself, I copied its movements. Her whole person, her whole being, was concentrated there, and compassion wrung my heart.

Mme de Beauvoir broke her leg, and when she went to the hospital they found a tumor. There was an operation, but she lived in the hospital for four weeks before dying. She loved life, quite passionately, and despite her devotion to religion she dreaded the idea of death. No one tells her that she had cancer; they focus on how her leg is healing. But when the ship of life drifts gradually into death’s harbor, the passengers aren’t fooled. She knows, and she relies on her daughters to protect her, but they can’t save her life.

The issues that de Beauvoir raises about the medical profession seem to me to continue to be in effect here in the United States, fifty years later. Doctors do whatever the hell they want, without any attention to the patient’s wishes. She doesn’t want to suffer? Well, we can keep her alive for a few more weeks, so we’re going to. They spend so much time in contact with other people’s sufferings that they don’t feel for them anymore. And if a patient is terminal and wants to just go ahead and die, they will hold the struggler in this life no matter what she wants. It reminds me a bit of the mother at the end of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” the one who is deleted in some versions of the poem:

Like those, my babe! which ere tomorrow’s warmth

Have capp’d their sharp keen points with pendulous drops,

Will catch thine eye, and with their novelty

Suspend thy little soul; then make thee shout,

And stretch and flutter from thy mother’s arms

As thou wouldst fly for very eagerness.

Coleridge’s son wants to leap at the icicles and catch their lucent beauty, but his mother holds onto the child, protecting him from a fall but keeping him from flying. I’m not saying that six-month-olds can fly; I’m saying their mothers won’t let them try.

My infrequent contact with Western medicine leads me to believe that things haven’t changed much. The ex and I spent some good time talking through a birth plan with the midwife, who then ignored the whole thing when the birth happened, to the point that she used a lubricant that the ex was allergic to. There are some areas of the body where no one wants an allergic reaction, particularly when that part has just been stretched to expel a larger-than-average head. But doctors don’t care. I think that, instead of healing people, their mission is to avoid malpractice suits. They’re good at that, but it means that the healing can become less important than the procedures.

Mme de Beauvoir completely loses herself, clinging to life at the doctor’s behest. She defined herself by her religion, but she stopped praying and refused to see priests for her last rites. She was too modest to be comfortable with her daughter living in sin with a philosopher, but when the nurses turned her to prevent bedsores, she flashed her genitals at the entire room without a thought. She said that she’d rather die early than suffer long, but she was still in pain while on the maximum dose of morphine yet refusing to die. To give an indication of her suffering, her body was excreting urea through her pores because she had ceased to function properly, and it was getting into and infecting her bedsores. Her life became awful, her daughter saw her as a living corpse, but no one had the courage to defy the medical institution. We are trained to knuckle under to authority, so we do.

I worry about my mother sometimes. A while back she said that she felt that all she had left to do was make sure her children were taken care of, by which she meant married. At the time, only my youngest brother was single, so I was worried that she was ready to pop off at any time. Now my sister and I are both divorced, so I guess my mother will live until we remarry. I don’t imagine she’ll recognize any gay marriage, so if that’s her criteria, I can keep my mother alive forever. And I didn’t realize until I wrote that sentence how much I believe my mother’s life and happiness depend on me.

De Beauvoir had a troubled relationship with her mother. She inherited all her mother’s vitality, but she didn’t have the childhood that continually beat her down and made her dependent on others, so she became a famous writer, even though everyone knew that she was living in sin. Her mother was proud of her success and ashamed of the scandal that made it possible. My relationship with my mother is hardly straightforward (click on the word mom in the tag cloud on the left there to read more), and she also loves me and is proud of my professional success even though she can’t stomach my private life. And de Beauvoir and I both love our irritating mothers. We don’t want them to die, but we don’t want them to suffer either, and if I am ever faced with this decision, I will probably freeze up too. The difference is, I’m the fifth of seven children, so when it comes time to decide things, my opinion will hardly matter. I doubt it will be asked for or listened to.

I am tempted to send this book to my mother, but I fear it would be misunderstood. Would she hear that this is a book about filial regret? I’d like to have a closer relationship with my mother, but so much about her puts me off – her politics, her religion, her voracious consumption of her children’s love, her need to be needed by us, her way of making me feel like her cats are more important to her than I am – that it’s hard for me to reach out more than I do. I let her know when there are major changes in my life, such as moving to a new state or starting a new job, but otherwise, we talk once or twice a year, which is plenty enough for me. Few people enjoy bad news so much; her excitement in relating family tragedies gets me depressed. And yet, my mother loves her life in a way that she never did when I was young. It started when she quit teaching and worked as a hospital secretary instead, and now since her retirement, it’s only getting stronger. This were rough for a while, as she battled with feeling useless without her job, but now she spends so much time with her sister and her grandchildren that she’s happy most of the time. And if my cousins can produce another interracial illegitimate child, that’ll feed her sense of moral superiority and make everything just that little bit better. Besides, it looks like my baby brother may actually be getting married soon. A marriage for each of seven children is no small accomplishment (not that she did anything to produce these marriages, and a third of them have failed, but I won’t remind her of that).

I’m knitting my mother a winter hat, at her request, but I wish there were more ways that I could show her that I love her that don’t make me depressed. Maybe if I see her dying I’ll react as de Beauvoir does, I’ll discover a desire for closeness that overrides the personality issues that keep us apart. Maybe I don’t have to wait that long.

I read once that a writer is “a reader moved to emulation.” There is no writer who stirs me to write like A. S. Byatt. This is not to say that I have her skill with language, but simply that I wish I had. Her descriptions are lovely; reading her is like resting in a pool, feeling yourself borne along floating, but only temporarily, only so long as you keep very still, because with the slightest movement you will sink or be forced to swim.

The stories in this collection are only partially, and usually only metaphorically, about fire and ice. Water and light are more common. Beyond these elements, though, these are stories about stories, and story-telling. In them ancient myths come back to life. Visual art plays an important role as well. They’re also stories about foreign travel and therefore crossing boundaries between the familiar and the unknown, the uncanny finding of things known in unfamiliar settings.

CROCODILE TEARS

A married couple has a little tiff in a London art gallery over some kitschy piece of shit that the husband wants to buy; a few minutes later he drops dead. She leaves, goes home, packs a few things, and takes a train to France. She does what she can to elude detection, and ends up in Nimes. Not for the bullfighting, but just because that’s where she ended up. She spends her time avoiding the things that (as a tourist) she ought to do. She meets a Norwegian gentleman whom she does not fall in love with; she gets rather irritated when he keeps saving her from suicidal accidents. He tells her the old Norse story of The Companion, a man who was frozen in the ice and then mystically aided his thaw-er to achieve his goals. Eventually she softens toward him, and they decide that together they can face the traumas and responsibilities they are each running away from.

A LAMIA IN THE CÉVENNES

An English painter moves to France and installs an outdoor swimming pool. He’s captivated by the shade of blue that results from the interaction of the tile with the water. There are some chemical problems with the pool, so he has it drained and refilled from the river. Wouldn’t you know it, a giant snake gets into the pool with the river water. It’s the Lamia from the Keats poem; if he kisses her, she’ll become a woman and make all his dreams come true. But he doesn’t want a woman, he wants the colors that shine and iridesce all over the snake body. He strings her along until a houseguest takes her bait.

COLD

While I love her realistic stories, no one can write a fairy tale like A. S. Byatt.

Princesses, also, are expected to marry. They are expected to marry for dynastic reasons, to cement an alliance, to placate a powerful rival, to bear royal heirs. They are, in the old stories, gifts and rewards, handed over by their loving fathers to heroes and adventurers who must undergo trials, or save people. It would appear, Fiammarosa had thought as a young girl, reading both histories and wonder tales, that princesses are commodities. But also, in the same histories and tales, it can be seen that this is not so. Princesses are captious and clever choosers. They tempt and test their suitors, they sit like spiders inside walls adorned with the skulls of the unsuccessful, they require superhuman feats of strength and cunning from their suitors, and are not above helping out, or weeping over, those who appeal to their hearts. They follow their chosen lovers through rough deserts, and ocean tempests, they ride on the wings of the north wind and enlist the help of ants and eagles, trout and mice, hares and ducks, to rescue these suddenly helpless husbands from the clutches of scheming witches, or ogre-kings. They do have, in real life, the power to reject and some power to choose. They are wooed. She had considered her own cold heart in this context and had thought that she would do better, ideally, to remain unmarried. She was too happy alone to make a good bride. She could not think out a course of action entirely but had vaguely decided upon a course of prevarication and intimidation, if suitors presented themselves. For their own sakes, as much as for her own.

A genuine ice princess falls in love with a man of fire. She’s initially captivated by his glasswork, and my heart ached for her because even in the gift-sending stage of things it’s clear that his nature is wholly different from hers. They each find beauty in otherness, and they find ways to make it work.

BAGLADY

While it seems realistic at the beginning, this story takes on a fairy-tale quality as well. A woman gets lost in an Asian shopping mall. Maybe less fairy tale and more urban legend, but maybe these two types of story are not so different. When I went to New York, my friends warned me not to go out drinking late or go home with strange men because I don’t want to wake up in a bathtub full of ice with no kidneys; just like German parents used to tell their children about Little Red Riding Hood to keep them away from going into the woods alone.

JAEL

So, you know the story from the Old Testament. Israel is in bondage (again), and under Deborah’s direction, they go to war against their oppressors. The leader of the enemy army, Sisera, runs into the Hebrew camp and asks a woman to hide him. She treats him nicely, gives him dinner and a place to rest. While he’s sleeping, she nails his head to the ground. Byatt uses this to talk about gratuitous betrayal – unexpected, purposeless betrayal. A woman remembers being in school, when she lived on the peripheries of a couple of rival gangs (1960s-ish white-girl gangs, so don’t think of Baltimore or Detroit). She also talks about her current life designing advertisements for fruit drinks. She always incorporates classical themes, from the Bible or Greek mythology, and the younger set don’t understand. One of the younger women is working at betraying her, so it’s kind of a vicious circle. If I were more misogynistic than I am, I’d say that this story shows how all women are like this, but I don’t actually see it that way. I have very good friends who are women, and they aren’t vile betrayers.

CHRIST IN THE HOUSE OF MARTHA AND MARY

And, from the New Testament, Mary and Martha. Someone summarizes the story from the Bible, but the narrative is more about the painting than the Bible. The Velazquez painting, with the same name as the story. I’m used to hearing it as the story of Mary and Martha, I guess since the final –y of Mary elides more effectively with the following and than the final –a of Martha; I don’t say it Marthanmary, there’s always a glottal stop between Martha | and. Nevertheless, I like putting Martha first; she gets the short end of the stick all the time, but if we all just sat at Jesus’ feet waiting for him to multiply loaves and fishes no one would ever get any dinner. Maybe Mary was clumsy or a bad cook, so listening was a better task for her than serving and cooking. It always seems to me that there must be more to the situation than we get in the Scripture. Some people are active, some are contemplative, and some are both; to me, the bad thing is to go against one’s own nature, not to be careful with the housework. So Byatt describes an angry, rebellious cook (aptly named Dolores) who meets a painter who visits the house where she works. He does beautiful things with light on still life, and even when he makes a painting of her she notices first the fish, eggs, and garlic.

I know that there are some people who will object to my associating the Bible with myths and poetry; well, that’s what it is. They’re Hebrew myths. Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah: the people of Sodom commit an offense against the laws of hospitality; some Biblical writers who interpret this story say that the reason God sent the angels was that the people didn’t take care of the poor; the Qur’an and the New Testament writers (who lived two or three thousand years after the event) say that it was a cautionary tale against homosexuality; the Gay Church movement insists that the story is about gang rape. These stories might be moralistic, but they’re also malleable. The important thing about Scripture, as with myth, is not whether these stories literally happened; the important thing is how we respond to them, what they say about human nature, and how these stories impact the way we live our lives. In this sense, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Spock can be as important as Ehud and the disgustingly fat Moabite king. Stories – myths, legends, poems, scripture, novels, jokes, anecdotes, fairy tales, television programmes – even more than fire and ice, quicksilver and brimstone, or fire water wood air metal, are the elements that compose our lives. We are the stories that we believe, that we live, that we love.

 

Ignorance is a novel about immigration. It changes our reaction to the people involved, though, by referring to them as émigrés instead of immigrants. Immigrants are itinerant laborers from Latin America, southern Asia, or some other slightly disreputable country. Émigrés are refugees fleeing unsatisfactory political or economic situations. Émigrés are more educated in general and are more aware of and invested in current events. They bathe more regularly, have lighter skin, and make more of an effort to learn the language of their new country. They have children instead of anchor babies. The power of French terminology. We do this in English too – what’s the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant? We all have our reasons for leaving.

Ignorance is not just about immigration; it’s about returning after having been gone for a while. I don’t mean the two-year stints that I do in other places – Kundera means spending twenty years in a foreign country, then going back to where you were born. At this point, you can no longer call it home. Home is where you either rent or own a living space where you keep your stuff. That no longer applies to the birth country. I’ve never stayed gone the length of time that he says is necessary for The Great Return, but I feel the same things on a smaller scale, as I travel about and occasionally head back to what should be home.

Home has always been a difficult concept for me. It seems to denote a place where people feel safe, and I didn’t grow up feeling safe. Children in abusive homes seldom do, I believe. My father refused to self-medicate his undiagnosed bipolar disorder with drugs or alcohol; he beat his kids instead. I dodged that by being tiny and young; four older siblings can be useful. My mother wasn’t good at dealing with emotions, so I never felt that anything I did was good enough for her. I did notice, though, that she seemed grateful if I could handle something by myself, so I did. I rarely took my problems to anyone, and besides, I was afraid that if I did a social worker was going to come split our family apart. Somehow most of my siblings have forgotten what it was like to grow up with that, because they want to have a close relationship with her, and they argue about where she should spend her retirement. I don’t want her following me; I can only tolerate her for about three days. Visiting my mother always shows me how far I am removed from ‘home,’ culturally speaking; she tried to convince me to buy a George Strait CD this summer.

I tend to think of the area where I studied at university as home. As soon as I graduated from high school, I rocketed away from that place and moved a solid 350 miles down the road. At Thanksgiving, I went back to my mom’s house with a big bag of laundry. I set it next to the washer and said, “Look what I brought you!” She replied, “You mean look what you brought yourself. I have to wash your brother’s work clothes.” [All weekend? Really?] I had been joking; she was serious. That was the moment that I first realized that this was not home. I was happier at school anyway, so it was easy to start calling it home. My ex’s family was from that area, so after we graduated we kept calling it home and coming back to it, and now that my kids live there it’s the place with the greatest draw for me. The place I came from is Down East; the Appalachians of North Carolina and Georgia are home.

Kundera’s characters experience this in a much more extreme fashion. They left Prague when Russia stamped out Czech-ness in 1968, and now that the Communists are gone, many of the Czechs are returning (published in 2000, but probably set early-90s). After twenty years abroad, what does it mean to come home? The opening page of the novel:

“What are you still doing here?” Her tone wasn’t harsh, but it wasn’t kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.

“Where should I be?” Irena asked.

“Home!”

“You mean this isn’t my home anymore?”

Of course she wasn’t trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: “You know what I mean!”

“Yes, I do know, but aren’t you forgetting that I’ve got my work here? My apartment? My children?”

“Look, I know Gustaf. He’ll do anything to help you get back to your country. And your daughters, let’s not kid ourselves! They’ve already got their own lives. Good Lord, Irena, it’s so fascinating, what’s going on in your country! In a situation like that, things always work out.”

“But Sylvie! It’s not just a matter of practical things, the job, the apartment. I’ve been living here for twenty years now. My life is here!”

My life is here. This is the struggle that long-term immigrants have to deal with; where is your life? What is temporary, what is permanent? I’m renting a storage unit where I keep the detritus of nearly thirty-five years of living, and there’s an ocean and a couple of continents between my apartment and it. Which place is home? This is where I work and sleep, there is where I’ve stashed my life. How can this be home if most of my books are there?

“Tell me,” he said. “Is this still our country?”

He expected to hear a sarcastic response about worldwide capitalism homogenizing the planet, but N. was silent. Josef went on: “The Soviet empire collapsed because it could no longer hold down the nations that wanted their independence. But those nations – they’re less independent than ever now. They can’t choose their own economy or their own foreign policy or even their own advertising slogans.”

“National independence has been an illusion for a long time now,” said N.

“But if a country is not independent and doesn’t even want to be, will anyone still be willing to die for it?”

“Being willing to die isn’t what I want for my children.”

“I’ll put it another way: does anyone still love this country?”

N. slowed his steps: “Josef,” he said, touched. “How could you ever have emigrated? You’re a patriot!” Then, very seriously: “Dying for your country – that’s all finished. Maybe for you time stopped during your emigration. But they – they don’t think like you anymore.”

“Who?”

N. tipped his head toward the upper floors of the house, as if to indicate his brood. “They’re somewhere else.”

This passage shows some of my foreignness. The Americans of the South, including all of North Carolina and several other states, tend to think like Josef, patriotism being important and meaning a willingness to die for a certain plot of land and the people who live on it. I tend to be more like N – I don’t want my children to want to die. I’m ready for the American Empire to retract its claws, to loosen its grip on world affairs. Some people are criticizing Obama for not playing a larger part in international affairs (Syria), but I think the United States needs to start asking the question, is this situation any of our business? Less dominance, more cooperation, more letting other peoples handle their own problems. I’m somewhere else.

But I also fill Josef’s role whenever I go back. In my memory, towns stay fixed; in reality, they are always changing. The city I grew up close to built a new shopping center out toward the airport (Target! Best Buy! Starbucks! Welcome to twenty-first century America!); it’s become one of the biggest shopping areas in town and it killed the mall, so the residents see the city as shaped differently than when I lived there. The university I attended has changed the center of campus, ripping out streets and putting in walking areas and a huge fountain; my heart doesn’t recognize it as home any more, even though that is the place I’ve lived longest as an adult. The town close by has changed less, but time still marches on. Zoo Video disappeared more than ten years ago, KFC closed and became Dunkin Donuts, there’s a new Dairy Queen, and last week there was a fire in one of the buildings downtown. Its future is still uncertain, but I think they’ve decided that they don’t have to tear it down. There are some changes I’m comfortable with, like the restaurant that changes hands every couple of years because the parking lot is too small and too much of a pain to get in and out of so nothing lasts, but the downtown area has too distinct a character to lose a building easily.

Kundera spends some time with our relationship to time. We don’t possess the past because our memories are so faulty. We forget things, we reconstruct alternate versions to make sense of the disconnected scenes we can remember clearly, and sometimes we fabricate memories without quite meaning to. In the early years of our marriage the ex had a favorite story to tell about our married life, and once I told her that it hadn’t happened the way she was telling it, and she responded that it made a better story the way she told it. She was right, but she was also purposely obscuring the truth and making me seem different than I am. But it makes a better story, so that’s how it gets remembered. This is the difference between history and the past. According to Kundera, we don’t possess the future either; we can’t predict it or adequately prepare for it, so it’s out of our reach. Because of our inability to grasp either past or future, we can’t really say that we have the present either. The present is indissolubly linked to two unknowable moments, so it becomes covered by the same fog, the same ignorance.

Kundera’s Irena and Josef come back to Prague to think about the possibility of moving back permanently, but they have grown too foreign, their lives are somewhere else, they don’t fit any more. They belong in their new countries, France and Denmark. Their old friends have moved on, and there is no vacant place in anyone’s life for them to step into. Nothing they left behind belongs to them. Thomas Wolfe titled one of his novels You Can’t Go Home Again, and while I haven’t read it to see what he intends with that phrase, as an expat I’ve felt it to be true. You can’t go home again because home is never where you left it. It’s changed, moved along, and so have you. I don’t have a single home right now; ‘home’ is an area that covers three counties and several cities that are all on the opposite side of the world from where I live.

Kundera’s novels seem to be getting shorter, tighter. This would have been only one part of Immortality or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but it stands on its own quite well. Ignorance and Identity are much more strongly unified, which I imagine makes them more approachable. Kundera is publishing nonfiction these days too, so it makes sense that the philosophical musings are taking up less space in his fiction. He’s becoming less post-modern. Maybe the rest of us are too. Story is becoming the center of literary fiction again; I wonder what we’ll call this period, thirty years from now?

I envy people with simpler lives, shorter stories. Characters in Hardy novels seem to grow straight out of the ground – their families have lived in the same place for generations, they know everyone they see and everyone they see knows them. I’ve spent my life looking for roots, but I don’t really have them. I’d like to belong to a place instead of wandering about the world, building a life out of blocks that don’t fit together. I’ve got Lincoln Logs, Legos, Duplo blocks, K’Nex pieces, and a bit of an old erector set, and I’m trying to make a coherent whole out of these chunks of different things. Sometimes I can keep things balanced, but other days I just slide apart.