Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

A few weeks ago, a very dear friend asked me my opinion of this book – apparently it’s the new big thing among certain gay communities. I must say, since it was copyrighted last year, this is one of the most recent books I’ve ever read in my life. I usually catch the cultural moment ten, fifteen, thirty, sometimes fifty or a hundred years late. Sometimes more.

My first impulse is to talk about the negatives, but that’s because he’s writing about things that are very similar to my experience, but expressed differently than I would, and not exactly my experience. It felt like he was trying to write my story but getting it wrong, as if he were making a collage of my life but mixing it in with stereotypes I don’t fit. I think this is what Rider Haggard must have felt when he read Treasure Island, only I’m not actually planning on writing a response.

I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

This is one of the places where I diverge from him, because even though a good bit of my life has been dominated by inhibition and missed chances (as I think is inevitable when you wait until you’ve passed thirty to admit to yourself that you’re married to someone of the wrong gender), I have not lived my life beneath the pitch of poetry. I have always felt things deeply, and though my life has not always been what I want, my inner life has always been quite intense, and that is where poetry comes from. I don’t share the full force of my emotions with many people, and when I have done over an extended period of time, those people have asked me to please stop. I’m too much, which would make poetry the perfect outlet for me if I took the time for it more often.

Stylistically, all you really need to know is that Greenwell attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It wouldn’t be fair to say that they all speak with the same voice, but they definitely all have the same accent. It’s the type of writing that wins the National Book Award, the highly self-conscious writing of Americans who write Literature (capital L) after around the 1990s. His sentences just keep going on and on. I wanted to break some of them into smaller sentences (comma splices are okay in the UK, but not here), but others I just wanted to cut off the ends because they were unnecessary, the meanings of those last clauses already understood. As I was thinking about why he would keep these obvious redundancies, I thought about what they contribute, and I realized that they were pointing out things that Protagonist doesn’t know, often with the implication that he can’t know, or that he can’t be bothered to find out. Or, you know, since this is supposedly fiction, the author could just make something up. There’s an air of ignorance and apathy that I had a hard time with, considering that this is a love story.

Thematically, all you really need to know is that this is a gay love story, and in our current cultural climate, that means there are three options: pornography, unrealistic stereotypes played for overdone comedy, and Greenwell’s choice, utter tragedy involving isolation and alienation. Seriously, gay writers and filmmakers have got to be the most depressing people in the world. What we need is our own version of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a story of how great it is to be us that doesn’t hide from the times it’s not, where we see someone really learn to love himself and claim his identity as something positive and peaceful rather than defiant and in opposition. Protagonist is an English teacher from Kentucky living in Bulgaria, and I guess he likes it even though he says some unkind things about the cityscape. He doesn’t like the Soviet architecture, but he seems to get on okay with the native stuff that survived World War II and the Cold War. The fact that he’s an English teacher doesn’t impact the story much because we don’t see him in class, but his narration shows that he loves languages and words, and the phrases he says in Bulgarian sound similar enough to the Russian that I remember to pique my interest.

Okay, plot. Mitko is a hustler in Sofia, and First-Person Narrating Protagonist hooks up with him a few times. They start to feel something real for each other, but FPN sort of freaks out and breaks it off. Then, a couple of years later, Mitko shows back up to tell him that he may have given FPN syphilis, and yup, sure enough, he did. The American teacher has enough income to pay for treatment, but the Bulgarian street kid does not, so he ends up most probably dying from it. It’s as simple as La Traviata, but as in that quote up above, he overthinks everything as a way of keeping his emotions in check, so he doesn’t get operatic. He feels this overwhelming attraction for this guy that he doesn’t even seem to like much, but he doesn’t dig into that. He treats his own emotions as something alien to him, along with everything else because he’s living in a foreign country. To some degree, he’s hiding from his anger so that it doesn’t overwhelm him – he’s bought into the lie that he’s monstrous, only capable of hurting the people around him. We see this most strongly when he has syphilis; one of the common themes of the gay tragedy archetype is that our love is paired with disease, as if being gay is inherently unhealthy. Well, his anger isn’t a disease, it’s a response to being rejected by his parents because he’s gay, and to having a pretty shitty dad. In the course of this book, he doesn’t unpack the injustice of his life; he just pushes it down and tries not to deal with his family. Moving to eastern Europe is a convenient way of hiding from his feelings.

Some of the similarities to my life are obvious, as in the whole ESL teacher thing. I came out of the closet and moved to Saudi Arabia, which isn’t that far from Bulgaria. I didn’t go looking for hookups, though, because having gay sex is punishable by beheading there. I know most gay Saudis don’t get their heads chopped off, but we’re all products of our culture, and I didn’t want to get involved with someone who thought what we would be doing was evil or shameful. I cannot deal with that kind of secrecy. I’m just not discreet enough.

I did hook up with a guy I met in Europe, though, and there were some similarities to Mitko. He expected me to be rich, not understanding that I was blowing all my money on a week in Paris. We went to an expensive restaurant and I spent way too much on a lunch, but I also skipped eating a couple of days that week. People don’t often get the way I swing back and forth like that; I’m not sure I understand it myself, but I know that I do, and I love and accept that about myself. Like Mitko, the Algerian boy made sure I knew where I stood in his life – as in, not the center, not even for the three days we spent together. He was also into some BDSM stuff that I am definitely not into, but Mitko doesn’t seem to be into choking. As I’m thinking about it, the Algerian was actually pretty great when his clothes were on; he just went sort of bizarro once the trousers were off. Mitko is pretty consistent, whether his dick is out or not.

When FPN was describing their early encounters, I contrasted them with my singular one-night stand. FPN can’t wait to get down to business, but Mitko puts him off, and actually borrows his computer to set up encounters with other clients. FPN just sort of lets him, staying off to the side, having someone within reach without reaching out to him. With Mr Labor Day, it was very different. I should say, I was very different. FPN is like me in being shy, but he’ll reach out to guys who set up dates in public toilets and I won’t. Then he keeps being shy all the way through. I believe that there is a time and a place for shyness and modesty, and that is in public when my trousers are still on. Once the clothes come off, the time for being shy is over. All I wanted to do with Mr Labor Day was touch him, so I did. There was Round One, then I rubbed his back and shoulders until he was ready for Round Two, and then after we were dressed I held him close and swayed and sang, “Do You Wanna Dance?” And I kept kissing him all the way out of his house and into the driveway. And on his side, he was so gentle. I remember how carefully he used his big rough hands to take my glasses off, fold them, and set them on his nightstand. Sometimes I remember the way that he touched me and my entire body responds, even if I’m driving down the freeway. FPN doesn’t get into the sexy details, at least not many of them, but when I was reading I had to assume that the sex was pretty phenomenal for FPN to put up with being treated with this lack of interest. But then again, maybe it was uninteresting, because he describes everything else in such detail. Or maybe his editors made him take it out. It’s like when people write gay romances but don’t have any experience with gay sex, so they describe in minute detail the furtive glances, the covert touching of hands, the stolen kisses, but when the lovers take it further the authors suddenly have all the prudery of the Hays Committee. Greenwell isn’t that extreme, but it’s clear that his story isn’t there. It’s not his goal to give us a blow-by-blow account of blowing Mitko, so we gloss over that. Oddly enough, we seem to get the most details when they’re in public restrooms, as if the level of privacy of the location is reflected in the way the story is told.

I’ve never been good at concealing anything, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession.

This is true of me as well (check the name of this blog again, if that’s a surprise to you), and I wonder if it’s the author rather than the narrator talking. After all, FPN has a name that’s hard for people who speak European languages to pronounce, as is Garth. What other languages use that dental fricative sound at the end? Arabic, and some Spanish accents. There are probably more; I’m just listing the ones I know from my own experience. He also only gives us the name of the guy who’s dead (probably) – everyone else is referred to by a common noun that indicates their relationship to FPN, or with a first initial. Maybe it’s a tactic to lend authenticity to a fictional narrative; maybe he just isn’t willing to assign fictional names to people who are real, alive, and possibly willing to sue him. In this blog I’ve been avoiding the use of names, but in the past I assigned fictional names to people, sometimes using their middle names, sometimes using names that would be easy for me to remember, like switching Jason and Justin, or renaming Peter Paul. But it seems like a cop-out. Once I was in a church pageant that was structured as a set of songs introduced by monologues, and all the monologues were given by characters named things like First Woman or Third Man. My friends kept saying, “George. Betty. How hard is that? Just give them names!” And really, if he were retelling his actual experience as if it were fictional, he’d be in good company (anything by Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac). I’d just prefer that it be made explicit. I’d like to know, am I identifying with someone who doesn’t exist, or am I making a real emotional connection with someone I have never met and will never meet through the medium of language?

One last complaint, I promise: the structure is weird. Yes, ABA form has been with music for centuries, and sometimes we do it in fiction too (think of Sense and Sensibility – Book 1 divided between two country homes, Book 2 in London, and Book 3 back in the country), but the B section doesn’t seem to fit. It feels like someone told him that he needed to add forty pages before they would publish his book, so he wrote a section on being a gay teenager in Kentucky (it’s only marginally about the present, when he gets news that his father is dying and takes forty pages to decide he’s not going back to the United States for the funeral). I suppose it gives us some motivation for him to have become an ESL teacher and left the country, but since he talks about word etymologies and English-Bulgarian cognates, he has enough of a linguistic interest to make it a reasonable career choice without hearing about how his father threw him out of the house. It would actually make more sense to talk about how he met the guy he actually calls his boyfriend, the Portuguese student named R (which makes me think of the Romeo in Warm Bodies). It might take some focus off of the Mitko stuff, but it’s sort of like in Merry Wives of Windsor, where I don’t care about the Fords’ marriage because I’ve never seen their happiness. I don’t know what his jealousy costs them both, except to recognize that Mrs Ford is completely awesome and his fears are unfounded.

Okay. I’ve talked and talked about the problems and the connections, but as I alluded to earlier, a good part of what I feel about this book is jealousy. Some people have the confidence and determination to make a career of writing, and I blog about them instead of doing it myself. Lately, all my attempts at fiction writing have veered into the pornographic, so I haven’t been sharing them. Much as I would like to write something that people would like to read, I would prefer it didn’t happen through Bad Penny Press. I often also have some envy for people who came out of the closet before marrying someone of the opposite gender, but as I think over my life, I’m actually fairly satisfied. For all that I hate The Ex sometimes, and I hate what I did to her, my life has been amazing, and she was a big part of that. And I would not trade witnessing the births of my children for all the disease-ridden gigolos behind the Iron Curtain. Yes, I spent the part of my life when most people are experimenting being too religious and pretending to be straight, and I’ve had to make up for that lost time in imagination and not in reality (like in Hesse’s Magic Theatre), but in every life there are tradeoffs. Most gay men will never know the feeling of biological fatherhood, of watching a part of you grow inside someone else, mixing with her and becoming an amalgam of you both, and then seeing this new person that is both you and not-you arrive into the world. And for most of the time we were together, The Ex supported and encouraged me to be my best self. If I had a dream, she set about finding a way to make it happen. I’ll probably never know what it’s like to be promiscuous, to know that I have a body that is young and strong and generally lusted after, to feel confident that I could have any person I wanted to be with. I may never know what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who wants to have sex as much as I do. But FPN talks about having a life that’s bearable, and it makes me sad that his expectations are so low. Life isn’t just for enduring; it’s for enjoying. It seems that the gay community as a whole is interested in pleasure without happiness, and I think that tendency is already sufficiently well documented. Let’s start telling the story of our joy as well as the story of our pain. Let’s start believing that joy is possible for us and that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. And when new gays come out, let’s help them work through the rage instead of burying it under a mountain of booze, sex, and pills. What seeds are we planting?

So, yes, I think eight pages of advance praise is a little excessive. I think this book is sad in a way that is becoming trite. But I also think that Greenwell is a talented, thoughtful author, and I’d like to see what he does in the future. It’s a first novel that grew out of a prize-winning story; let’s wait for him to get some more material and show us something really new. Given the title, I suppose I should have written about possession and possessiveness and recognizing what is and isn’t a person’s responsibility, but that’s a strain I wasn’t much interested in. I suppose because I still need to do some work in this area myself. Now that the Midwestern guy and I have separated our daily lives, no longer eating and watching TV together, it’s becoming apparent that we don’t have much to talk about, and talking is sort of the essence of long-distance relationships. I’m not much of a talker (only this verbose when writing); I need someone I can do things with. Surely it can’t be impossible to find a gay man who loves books, music, movies, and the outdoors?

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I’ve been in the mood for this book for a while, and I think it’s because my subconscious has been trying to remind me of this:

I never think those men wise who for any worldly interest forego the greatest happiness of their lives.

And this is precisely what I’ve been doing, accepting the fragments of love from someone who has been financially useful to me, finding jobs far away from my children, seeing my dearest friends on Facebook instead of in real life. Now, my life in the last five years has been amazing – reading Gone with the Wind in a New York subway station at two in the morning, kissing the man I’ve loved since I was nineteen (and watching him run away), flying over the Mediterranean and the Sahara, seeing the Moulin Rouge and the Eiffel Tower with a handsome North African, watching an enormous religious pageant in Nauvoo with a group of gay Mormons, attending The Big Gay Church in Dallas with more than a thousand strangers, playing house with a Midwestern man who is determined to be as conventional as possible – but my happiest times have all been right here in North Carolina. I don’t know if this is the residence I’ll settle down in, but this is clearly the best place for me. As I was looking back through the summer’s entries last week, it struck me that my search for happiness has been a dominant theme these past months, and I hope that I’ve found it. I’m underemployed, and threatened with eviction if I don’t find more work, but I don’t feel nearly as frantic as I should. There is a feeling of deep contentment here, which I have missed. This move may have been foolish from a financial standpoint, but there are other considerations which I hope will prove this to have been a wise decision.

There is nothing more difficult than to lay down any fixed and certain rules for happiness; or indeed to judge with any precision of the happiness of others, from the knowledge of external circumstances. There is sometimes a little speck of black in the brightest and gayest colours of fortune, which contaminates and deadens the whole. On the contrary, when all without looks dark and dismal, there is often a secret ray of light within the mind, which turns every thing to real joy and gladness.

Perhaps some day I will meet a man who will give me such a secret ray of light, but I can assure you he is as yet hypothetical.

Fielding is writing in 1751, which means that while his earlier novels were delightfully bawdy with a few too many lurid details, he is more reserved now. This is after the Fanny Hill trial, which proved that writers can be fined and imprisoned for obscenity. In many ways this story is much more serious than Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews, with more sharply pointed satire. Think of it as a predecessor of Bleak House. Our protagonist, William Booth, is always falling into some legal scrape or another – I think he ends up in jail three times – and his devoted wife Amelia is always (indirectly) rescuing him. Booth’s problems generally come about because he trusts people and institutions, and only in the end do others figure out how to make the system work for him.

Fielding has dropped much of the mock epic from his style, but there are several allusions and quotations to the ancient Latin and Greek authors, and our story is divided into twelve books like the Homeric epics. We also begin in medias res, with Booth being brought before the justice, and we get the backstory later, Books 2, 3, and 7 being taken up with flashbacks. The editor claims to have corrected Fielding’s spelling, or at least modernized, but he changes the spelling of ‘gaol’ to ‘goal,’ which is a very different word and even an indifferent Enlightenment scholar like myself recognizes the mistake. He does, however, preserve the variations on Amelia’s name, which are more due to sound than spelling – she can become Emily at a moment’s notice.

This is a book about sex and money, the different ways that one can be exchanged for the other. As I said, the racy bits are all glossed over in such a way that even the most prim reader would be hard pressed to find something to complain about, though I imagine that if the most prim reader were reading eighteenth-century novels, she actually wouldn’t mind a little hard pressing.

Booth gets locked up in Book 1 because he’s poor. The justice examining his case knows and cares little about the law and always sides with whoever looks richest. There, he runs into an old flame, Miss Matthews. He tells her about his happy marriage with Amelia, despite their difficulties, and Miss decides to sleep with him. Because this preliminary type of jail is co-ed, he spends the better part of a week fucking her while she pays for the room and food. He feels terribly guilty about it, but not guilty enough to stop, and not guilty enough to confess when Amelia finds him and brings him home.

Booth’s major problem is that he’s poor. He was an officer in the army, but a couple of injuries sent him back to London on a fraction of his former salary. He spends this latter two-thirds of the book trying to find favor with powerful friends who can effect a return to gainful employment by using their influence to get him a new commission. While Fielding’s satire is mainly directed against his own profession, the law, this system of patronage comes under close scrutiny as well. Booth doesn’t know how to do anything except be a soldier, but in order to get that sort of job again, he has to bribe the right guy, whether a higher ranking officer like Colonel James or a peer like the unnamed lord, and then hope that his patron’s word is good enough to get him into a good position, or any position at all. As a result, Booth spends most of the book in debt, too afraid of the law to leave the house. He does get arrested for debt twice, but Amelia is keeping a closer eye on him this time, so he doesn’t get to spend his jail time in another woman’s bed.

Booth’s major obstacle to advancement is, unfortunately, his wife’s chastity. These guys keep promising to help Booth get ahead, but once they meet his wife they decide not to move on his case until they can move on her. She’s innocent, but her friend Mrs Bennet gives her a timely warning. Book 7, her backstory, is a rather sad story which feels a little too modern for comfort. The unnamed lord promises to help her poor husband advance, all out of deference to her, then engineers a situation where the husband is out of town and the wife is invited to a masquerade. At the masquerade he slips an Enlightenment Rohypnol into her drink and rapes her while she’s too impaired to resist. Apparently this has been the price of preferment all along. When the husband finds out, the stress kills him and she’s left with nothing. Using this story to demonstrate the evils of patronage seems timely to us, but Fielding does stick with some conventional misogyny, using her learning of the Latin classics in the original language to lampoon the idea of women getting a decent education. This is an eighteenth-century novel, after all, so the castoff mistress gets married to a sidekick, eventually deciding that it is better to have a husband who loves her and has common sense than one who can keep up with her in a literary discussion. Indeed, the men who can match her in learning have so entrenched an idea of women’s inferiority that they spend their time insulting her instead of respecting her.

Well, when Amelia finally figures out what’s been going on, why the peer has been making gifts to her children and promises to her husband, she gets out of that trap right quick. And then the colonel tries the exact same trick, with the exact same success. The last few books involve men tricking Booth into debt so that they can imprison him and try to date-rape his wife. Fortunately for Booth, his wife’s fidelity is stronger than any man who tries to tempt her, even after she knows about the affair with Miss Matthews. As a reader, I feel a little cheated that we don’t get to see her reaction to this, but when Booth finally confesses she tells him that she’s known about it for a while now, and already forgiven him. This seems to be the crux, the issue that proves she’s a perfect wife: quick to forgive her husband for straying, but absolutely determined never to stray herself. The double standard feels outdated to me, but in the twenty-first century we have different expectations for women and chastity.

Another significant character is Doctor Harrison, Amelia’s priest. He’s always hovering around, disapproving of Booth, Mrs Bennet, and nearly everyone except Amelia. He represents the voice of Christian morality and all its weird biases. Booth and Amelia spend a lot of the earlier part of the book laughing at other people, but the longer Doctor Harrison is around the more inclined they are to be serious. Booth spends most of the book as a sort of closet atheist, saying things like,

Compassion, if thoroughly examined, will, I believe, appear to be the fellow-feeling only of men of the same rank and degree of life for one another, on account of the evils to which they themselves are liable. Our sensations are, I am afraid, very cold towards those who are at a great distance from us, and whose calamities can consequently never reach us.

Which Doctor Harrison would be quick to contradict with his words and confirm with his behavior. Personally, I think Booth is right. In my life, I have found that living is more bearable if I limit my awareness of the world’s ills. There is so much wrong with the world and so little I can do about it that I used to get depressed over this all the time. I had to learn to stop caring so much about people I will never meet and can do nothing to assist. I need to focus my emotional life on what’s immediately around me or I will drown in the sea of suffering that is 2017. This may sound cold and selfish, but it’s how I attend to my own survival. Compassion has to have its limits, or the one who lives it will destroy herself.

The ending feels a little tacked-on, as if Fielding knew he had passed five hundred pages and needed to end the book quickly. Booth gets reconverted to Christianity in jail, a minor character from Book 1 reappears with the key to Amelia’s fortune, Doctor Harrison pushes his testimony through the court system and they all end up rich. Except for the bad people, who end up unhappy, dead, or both.

This book is great for people who are into dramatic serials, but aren’t intimidated by eighteenth-century language or excessively frustrated by eighteenth-century gender roles and morality. Betrayals, shifting alliances, and sex, it sounds like an HBO show. There was a BBC serial in the 1960s, but it’s been lost. Maybe now that viewers are demonstrating more interest in this type of story, it’s time for a new film. I know I’d watch it.

Written in the late 1990s, this is a novel about Taiwanese homosexual men. In many ways, the story was really depressing, not just because the first-person narrator writes as a way of coping with his grief after his friend dies.

I boarded the first plane to Tokyo, then took the Ome Line train to Fussa. At the Fussa Clinic I saw Ah Yao, sunk into the hollow of his bedding, and spent his last five days with him. I can still say that AIDS is horrifying, but the price of loneliness is higher.

No, the much more depressing fact about the book is just how little of it is uniquely Taiwanese. With different names, this could have been about gay men in the United States. They follow the same culturally approved pattern that gay men in the west do: they accept their sexuality sometime in their teens or early twenties, then they run after sex like they have to meet a quota – like if they don’t sleep with a thousand different men before the age of twenty-eight, they have to give up being gay and marry a woman – and then they die of AIDS. Thanks to advances in technology, the dying-of-AIDS part is happening a lot less now than it used to, but this book is set during the 1990s, so the gay community is more strongly marked by absence and loss.

But even though the loss is devastating, I have to come back to this cultural question. Why are gay Asian men so similar to gay North American men? Is Taiwan so invested in American culture that some people are losing their connection to their own traditions? Ah Yao runs off to live in San Francisco and New York, just like any other gay man of the time, but the narrator lives primarily in Taipei. Is it true what I read in that homophobic French book about masculinity a while back, that there are noticeable cultural similarities among all gay men, no matter what their culture of origin? Or is it as the narrator thinks, that being gay necessarily separates us from the culture of our country, and that without procreation we have no place in normal society?

This last question I must answer with an emphatic No. I admit that the world has changed in the last twenty years, so I may not be reacting to the same world that these characters are, but I do not see any great separation between Us and Them. Thinking of my own experience, Dallas has a Gayborhood, but we’re not required to live and work there. Two of my friends got together because they taught in the same school, and the students encouraged them to get together – at a time when I would have been in middle school. Most of my gay male friends have close relationships with heterosexual women. And, oddly enough, a lot of gay people seem to be closer to their parents than straight people. Because we have fewer responsibilities with spouses and children, it is easier for aging parents to rely on us to fulfill their needs. That doesn’t really apply to me, since I have six siblings who are all more willing to care for our mother than I am, and a couple of them could be coaxed into caring for our father. Also, I’ve spent more than thirty years cultivating the image among my family that I’m useless in practical concerns, so I doubt they actually expect much from me.

But from what I can see, gay people are actually quite interested in whatever culture is happening around them. Maybe they’re in local theatre companies, or attending local art exhibitions, or reciting a liturgy in some High Church service, but we’re pretty deeply involved in local culture. The specifically gay aspects of our lives we save for the people who care about them, just like Christians who don’t talk about their religion at work. For example, I’m interested in my family history, which is one of my mother’s big interests, encouraged by her religious beliefs. I don’t have to believe that they’re converting to my way of thinking in the afterlife to want to learn who they were and how they lived.

We do see a hint of this with Ah Yao, who lives with his mother and tortures her by bringing his boys home to have really loud sex while she tries to turn the television loud enough to cover the noise. It’s one thing to say that your parents have to accept who you are, but being rude about it is something else. I mean, straight people don’t shove their sex lives in their parents’ faces; there’s no need for us to do that.

But I suppose the cultural similarities make the book easier to relate to. It seems to have been one of a short series of Taiwanese novels to be translated; I think the translation process is difficult because so few works make it across the Pacific. And really, find a forty-year-old gay man who can’t identify with this:

Eventually we had to admit to ourselves that there was no true hair restorer anywhere, just as there was no elixir of immortality. We admitted that our youth was gone and that we were paying the price for exhausting our energy and vitality as young men. We aged earlier, developed addictions, were afflicted with hidden illnesses, and died young.

I take issue with the idea here that aging prematurely is the result of too much gay sex, as if they’re being punished for having enjoyed their youth. I was celibate until marriage (age 24), completely faithful to my wife for eight years, and didn’t have gay sex until I was 34. Still, at 37, my hair is getting thin enough that I’ve nearly got a bald spot in the back, it’s greyer than that of people fifteen years older than I am, and I have to work hard to keep my weight reasonable. Age happens to us all; it’s not a punishment. And even if it were, it would be happening to everyone, regardless of their sexual habits or orientation. The signs of aging are much more likely to be caused by stress, or in other words, not enjoying life enough. Being happy in a way that doesn’t make you feel guilty seems key.

Paradoxically, Narrator and I seem to have reached the same conclusion by taking opposite paths:

My greatest consolation was to be alone with words in a clean house.

Eventually he finds someone like himself, who enjoys quiet activities and great sex, and they’re very happy together. I keep hoping that someday I’ll find my Yongjie, but I haven’t yet. I meet people (and hear stories of them) who realize that they’re happier without trying to find someone, so they live their lives alone. I’m not there yet, and I don’t think I ever will be. As I described myself to one such friend, when I’m eighty-five and living in a nursing home I’ll be flirting with the hot young seventy-year-olds. I don’t believe that I’ll ever stop looking for love. Now that I’m certain that it won’t happen with my current him, I keep looking outward, hoping one day to meet someone who likes reading and hiking and being quiet as much as I do. I’m not quite ready to leave him yet, but I’m gearing myself up for it.

Narrator gives his memories in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, so sometimes it’s hard to know what the timeframe is. I’m not sure it’s all that significant, anyway.

While I’m on the subject of gay culture, I want to mention a couple of other things. Yes, it’s great that we have the right to marry (in the United States) and there’s a general degree of acceptance. However. We’ve accomplished this by pushing the idea that ‘We’re just like you,’ which means that whatever truly unique aspects our community had are passing away. My friends are skipping the Columbus Pride parade because “it’s too family-friendly.” Gay is the culturally approved method of being edgy and cool, so we’re targets for hipsters who don’t want to try too hard. Sometimes I feel like we’re pit bulls who have had our teeth pulled. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the concept of the Gay Best Friend. To see this in action, watch the gritty reboot of the Archie comics, Riverdale. Now, most of this I thoroughly enjoyed, but I seriously object to the way that Veronica treats Kevin. When she first arrives in Riverdale, she’s happy that she can have a GBF, but she basically treats him like an adorable accessory instead of a human being. Most of the time she ignores him, but when she wants to rebel she takes him out for the evening. It’s odd because the writers try so hard to humanize and soften her in every other respect. I guess it’s still cool to Other gays as long as you do it in the same way you shave your poodle. Betty just treats him like her best friend, where being gay is about as significant as having brown hair, which I take as a sign of sincerity and moral value. I was a little worried about the series because I don’t have a lot of patience for high school drama, but this first season at least is a murder mystery, which I love. Riverdale isn’t as good as How to Get Away with Murder, but it held my attention. The series I’m enjoying with (I think) a healthy attitude toward sexuality is Sense8. It’s about eight people whose minds are linked, so as they share ideas and experiences, the sexuality becomes more fluid. The gangster and the cop, tough as they are, get mentally linked into the gay sex and participate, but it doesn’t diminish any of their stereotypically masculine qualities or behaviors. It’s like in Penny Dreadful when Ethan Chandler has a night with Dorian Grey without compromising his identity.

Anyway, back to Taiwan. This book was short and kept me reading, but it’s not happy. It’s one of those stories where being gay is a tragedy and leads to death, and even when Narrator finds his husband and settles down, he tells us of his insecurity and unhappiness rather than his joy. There are so many great things in the lives of gay men; I don’t want to spend all my time with this kind of depressing material. Maybe back then people weren’t talking about our joy, but we are now. Let’s tell happy stories; after all, Ginsberg’s line in “Howl” is about screaming with joy, not pain. Let’s spread the joy – the world has enough of the other stuff.

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.

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And lo, from the very beginning, I am in love again.

There is something about this book, this woman, that makes me feel all relaxed and happy, Smollett’s ‘agreeable lassitude.’ I read the first page, the first line, and I am instantly more composed, more reconciled to the world I live in. I’ve been analyzing myself on this reading, trying to figure out why Mrs Dalloway should affect me in this way, and I think it’s her approach to life.

And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park, now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.

Mrs Dalloway enjoys life indiscriminately. Everything and everyone pleases her. Her servants love her because she makes their work easy for them without losing the ineffable sense of glamour that she casts on everything. I find her enthusiasm compelling and irresistible, though not quite infectious. She awakens in me the desire to love the world as she does, but I’m not quite there yet. She has a gift for making things beautiful that I do not possess. She certainly has a way with people that I do not. For all I try, I do not have the manners that make strangers feel comfortable, and that deficiency makes it harder for me to make new friends and enjoy large parties as she does.

Though I suppose that I lack discrimination as well, and this is one of the reasons that I didn’t quite succeed in academia. Edmund Wilson said that the true connoisseur is the one who can distinguish between the various qualities of literature and always prefers the highest; I’m more in love with the B-List. I can read and enjoy Dickens, but I get much more pleasure from Wilkie Collins, who is not quite as reputable. Indeed, I even find my appreciation for George Eliot fading a bit, though my late-20s self thinks it sacrilege to admit the possibility. As you can see from this blog, I mix classics with zombies and sci-fi. I may be able to distinguish between the various cuts of literature, but I don’t insist on the absolute best. The apathy toward discrimination keeps me from being a true literary connoisseur/critic.

And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element. But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves. There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodenness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, take her leave.

Mrs Dalloway as a mermaid here makes me think of that line from Prufrock, and to Peter Walsh she does seem a little inaccessible, uninviting. She and Peter and Sally Seton spent a lot of time together thirty years previously; Peter and Sally were both in love with her, and Clarissa and Sally even shared a kiss that Mrs Dalloway still lingers over in memory. Peter proposed, which she finds much less agreeable. And yet, she chose Richard Dalloway, who seems so much less of a person than the other two. There’s a much clearer portrait of him in The Voyage Out, chapters three through six. It was published ten years earlier, and the Dalloways serve as a type of ideal for the young protagonist. In the earlier novel they travel briefly with a group of academics and/or artists, of that type that you’re not sure if they create art, criticize it, or both. The Dalloways bring a certain elegance to the party, however much the other members may dislike it. But what I really wanted to point out from the earlier story is that Clarissa explains why she chose Richard. He was the first person she felt truly understood her. Despite their devotion, Peter and Sally don’t see to the heart of her. I think that in order to see something in other people, the same quality has to exist in ourselves. Clarissa Dalloway is essentially different from Peter Walsh and Sally Seton. A part of it is class, a larger part is patriotism and duty. It sounds a bit mad to me, but the parties, the clothes, the house in town, the frivolity, all that Peter can’t comprehend, is her responsibility to England. The upper classes have a duty to adorn the nation. The desperate poor need something to hope for, and the wealthy give them that ideal. To many people it seems like selfishness, but Mrs Dalloway sees it as service.

I read The Voyage Out three years ago, and in response I wrote, “I read to escape as most fiction readers do, but I also read for the people. I see patterns of being that I would like to emulate, models of what I could be. Some are happy, some are sad, some are lovable, some are evil, but I see the seeds of them in myself, and I see that it’s possible for me to be other than as I am. Novels serve as a mirror in which I see my own potential.” It continues to hold true. I love Mrs Dalloway because she has a grace and social talent that I don’t have but that I would like to develop. My social anxiety and social position keep me from large parties with the Prime Minister, but the comfort under observation would be a real benefit.

Mrs Dalloway is all light and beauty and elegance, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her dark Other is Septimus Warren Smith, a young man still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of World War I. The officer he loved and served under died in the War, and five years later Septimus is still insane with grief.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

Paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur . . . It’s bad. Many of his symptoms were Woolf’s own, such as the belief that the birds were giving him messages in Greek, which he does not speak. The thing that touches me about the portrayal is not so much him as his wife. He married Lucrezia in Milan before he came back from the war, and she does her best to take care of him. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be afraid of going crazy, and then inventing a character who loves you and takes perfect care of you. And then acknowledging that it isn’t enough. Rezia can’t save him. The doctor comes again, but he just can’t take it any more and escapes.

Even though they never meet, Mrs Dalloway hears about what happened and she understands. She knows that the pressure of doctors could drive someone to suicide, and she doesn’t judge him for it. She knows, and feels sympathy. Between The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway, there was the influenza epidemic, and Clarissa fell deathly ill. She recovered, but with a fresh awareness of death, which follows her throughout the day of this story. Facing the reality of her death takes some of her sweetness away. There is strong rage hiding under the white or red roses and mermaid gowns. Most people see only the surface; Peter and Sally see only the depths; but she is both. Mrs Dalloway is a real human being, which means she has rivals and hatreds and friends and loves and everything that makes a life. She sees all of life, whether good or evil, and values it all. She loves life so much that she loves even the pain. She accepts herself completely.

Last week, when I went back to North Carolina, I was baffled by these last six months. How could I have imagined I could be content in the Midwest, when so much of what I love is hundreds of miles away? My children, the friends who helped me through my divorce and coming-out, so much of what really matters to me, so much of what I consider my life is there. I want to go home. And when I think of Mrs Dalloway, I’ve been realizing that I don’t have faith in myself. I don’t think that I will be able to make it there. The him that I’m with now I think can really help me reconcile myself with my family, as well as give me the courage to go after what I really want in life, even if it’s without him. He can show me the way, but I have to do the work myself. I need to continue to decide that my happiness is worth working toward. That could involve a new life, a new career, all kinds of scary things. But if it gets me home, that will be worth it. I just can’t bear the thought of dying here.

 

When I try to remember the house where we lived when I was young, the thing I remember most clearly is a picture of a dog with enormous eyes that was hanging high up in the living room. Not big anime eyes, big 1970s eyes, the kind when someone wants to draw a picture of a sad dog that is going to make everyone who sees it just as sad because the dog watches them with a forlornness and a desperation that they can never comfort or heal. The picture always made me feel very small and afraid. But after we moved when I was twelve, I never saw it again. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken to any of my family about it; by now, I’m not even sure if the picture really existed or if I’m superimposing this image of a depressing decoration on my depressing childhood. I’m kind of afraid to bring it up; I’d prefer not to be told I hallucinated the whole thing.

Stephen King’s short stories are what you would expect from reading his novels or watching his films. They’re him in miniature, a workshop where he can see how ideas play out. I’m interested in the number of first-person narrators he uses; like Pamela or Dracula, these stories are interested in their own production; it’s not enough to tell the story, he also has to tell how the story is told. There must be eyewitnesses telling their account.

It’s a great relief to write this down.

And as a writer, sometimes that’s true. But it’s not always a great relief to read what’s been written.

It is not surprising to me that Stephen King originally published some of his stories in the more literary pornographic magazines. I’m not saying that they’re trashy (some porn is actually well-filmed; I like it when the director pays attention to the way light reflects on skin. Light is beautiful); horror and pornography share a common ideology: There are opportunities for the fantastic all around us that most people don’t notice or take advantage of. In pornography, those opportunities are for pleasure; in King’s novels, those opportunities are for terror. But I appreciate the reminder that there are opportunities for a life that is bigger and stranger than the one I habitually lead.

Speaking of the overlap of horror and daily life, King takes a few minutes to explain why people enjoy the stories he writes:

I remembered talking with a writer friend who lived in Otisfield and supported his wife and two kids by raising chickens and turning out one paperback original a year – spy stories. We had gotten talking about the bulge in popularity of books concerning themselves with the supernatural. Gault pointed out that in the forties Weird Tales had only been able to pay a pittance, and that in the fifties it went broke. When the machines fail, he had said (while his wife candled eggs and roosters crowed querulously outside), when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.

Real life has quite a lot of horror in it already. Look at 2016. Artists who make us happy die by the truckload, while the least electable candidates are fighting for an election that a great many Americans just don’t want any part of. A workmate and I were talking about politics, and we agreed that while neither of us likes either of the mainstream candidates, I’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Trump and she’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Hillary. So when you’ve got this going on, a tiger in the kindergarten bathrooms seems familiar and reminds us that things must not be too bad if they could get this much worse.

In King’s stories, and I suspect in his mind, regular society is a pretty awful place.

The third thing that struck me was The Eye. You know about The Eye once you let your hair get down below the lobes of your ears. Right then people know you don’t belong to the Lions, Elks, or the VFW. You know about The Eye, but you never get used to it.

People are pointlessly cruel to each other, and I don’t comprehend it. For example, he tells the story of a 350-pound woman getting married. People laugh at her all the time, as if an obese woman is somehow amusing. I used to be friends with a woman who weighed more than this, but no one ever laughed at her. She always looked nice; the type of girl who never goes out without makeup and seldom wears an outfit twice. And in small-town North Carolina, she was always completely accepted. She even had a pretty busy love life. The United States today is pretty evenly divided into three groups these days: regular weight, overweight, and obese. That wasn’t the case forty years ago. People in the story are also pretty weird about race, which is more obvious to me. That was a struggle I have always been well aware of. This week, I was sitting in the university library and some kid started making Harry Potter jokes in my direction, and I kind of wanted to beat his ass and say, “Harry Potter didn’t wear a bowtie, mother fucker!” but then I remembered that all white people look alike, so he probably couldn’t tell the difference between me and Daniel Radcliffe.

I will say that Stephen King seems to honor and respect women, even though his genre isn’t known for that. For example, here’s a female character explaining the gender divide:

But in her heart what every woman wants to be is some kind of goddess, I think – men pick up a ruined echo of that thought and try to put them on pedestals (a woman, who will pee down her own leg if she does not squat! It’s funny when you stop to think of it) – but what a man senses is not what a woman wants. A woman wants to be in the clear, is all. To stand if she will, or walk . . .’ Her eyes turned toward that little go-devil in the driveway, and narrowed. Then she smiled. ‘Or to drive, Homer. A man will not see that. He thinks a goddess wants to loll on a slope somewhere on the foothills of Olympus and eat fruit, but there is no god or goddess in that. All a woman wants is what a man wants – a woman wants to drive.’

People are people, and are happier when they are treated primarily as a person. Gender is an attribute, it’s often the first one other people notice, but it’s not the most helpful in determining someone’s personality, goals, or desires. One of my sisters wanted to become an astronaut, and the other was a gifted athlete. The astronaut dream didn’t play out, but she’s now studying neurophysics, and the track star trained as a police officer. Either of them would be more handy in a fistfight than I would be, and they’re both more conservative politically. The science genius and I once talked about political labels as working more in a circle – extreme left and extreme right can actually be pretty similar if you let go of the party names. Which is why we get on so well.

That sense of doom had hung about the boy so palpably that there had been times when Richard had wanted to hug him, to tell him to lighten up a little bit, that sometimes there were happy endings and the good didn’t always die young.

The one thing that I differ from Stephen King the most on is the idea of a happy ending. I think that happy endings are much more useful than tragic ones, because I believe so strongly in integrating all elements of a society. People die in real life because they get sick or are in accidents. In real life death is random and unfair and doesn’t make sense. In fiction, people die because at some level the author believes they deserve to. Victims are in some ways as guilty as the murderers; it’s not random, it’s not an accident. The author kills them because he can’t fit them into the reintegrated world at the end of the story. So I think that horror authors must have a lot of people they’d like to kill (or parts of themselves they’d like to kill) because that’s what their imaginations enact when they sit down at the typewriter. In this collection, there are twenty stories and two poems. Happy endings, where I felt good about the story I’d just finished? Three. “Word Processor of the Gods,” which fits my own sense of justice. “Mrs Todd’s Shortcut,” where like-minded people end up together and live in a natural world of speed and divinity. And “The Reach,” where death comes as a big reunion where you sing with all your friends. Saying that the story that is most explicitly about a woman dying has a happy ending may seem odd, but I believe that death can be kind, especially when it comes to the old as a reunion with the lovers and friends they’ve missed.

So if I have such a hard time with tragedies, why do I read horror stories? Fear is familiar to me, as I’ve mentioned. But, aside from his troubles with humanity in general, Stephen King writes for someone that he loves, so when I read his prefaces and consider myself the Constant Reader, I feel that he loves me.

Grab onto my arm, now. Hold tight. We are going into a number of dark places, but I think I know the way. Just don’t let go of my arm. And if I should kiss you in the dark, it’s no big deal; it’s only because you are my love.

The language is often gruesome, but it’s also beautiful. He knows how to catch the light reflecting on skin. The skin more often covers a body that is dying horribly than on one that is fucking mechanically, but beauty is beauty, and it can be found everywhere. Find the awe, the wonderment. The opportunity is there, always. Daily life doesn’t have to be mundane. It can be ecstatic, or horrifying, or peaceful, or whatever you like. So make it what you like.

 

 

Well. It has been quite a while since I’ve written something personal here, but sometimes I read long books, and sometimes I read very long books, and I was in the mood for Chaucer, and nothing says springtime like eight hundred pages of Middle English poetry.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan that Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open eye –
So priketh hem nature in hir corages –
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyr for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

See? Nothing. This seems to be one of the earliest accounts of the Spring Break road trip, an urge that I still feel even though I’m in my mid-thirties.

One of the strange mental habits I have is to think of Decent People; generally, in contrast to myself. “It’s so nice driving on the interstates after midnight. There’s so little traffic. Yeah, all the Decent People are home in bed.” “It’s Friday night, and all the Decent People of the world are taking their families to Walmart. I guess I’ll go back home and watch Cary Grant and William Powell.” “You still haven’t changed the oil in the car yet? Decent People would have done that a thousand miles ago.” One of the interesting things about The Canterbury Tales is that it’s quite clear who the Decent People are, and one of the interesting things about the way we study The Canterbury Tales is that we more seldom teach the stories told by Decent People. I guess all of us who study literature professionally feel a bit indecent. It’s a good feeling.

In Chaucer, whether people work for The Church or not has little to do with whether they are Decent or not. Behold, my favorite image from the book:

“And now hath Sathanas”, seyth he, “a tail
Brodder than of a carrik is the sail.
Hold up thy tail, thow Sathanas!” quod he,
“Shewe forth thin ers, and lat the frere se
Where is the nest of freres in this place.”
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hive,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne drive
Twenty thousand freres on a route,
And thurghout helle swarmeden aboute,
And comen again as faste as they may gon
And in his ers they crepten everychon;
He clapte his tail again and lay ful stille.

I can’t say as I’m completely certain why I love the image of twenty thousand friars spewing out of Satan’s ass, swarming all over hell in their tonsures and long rough robes; I’m sure Freud would enjoy explaining that about me. As I enjoy analyzing The Host: He’s always complaining about his wife, and then he goes and flirts with clergymen:

But, by my trouthe, if thou were seculer,
Thou woldest ben a tredefoul aright;
For if thou have corage as thou hast might,
The were nede of hennes, as I wene,
Ya, mo than seven times seventeen!
Se, whiche braunes hath this gentil preest,
So gret a nekke, and swich a large breest!

I guess the Prioress has good taste in priests. The Nun’s Priest’s mock-epic beast fable is one of the more entertaining, a bit like Aesop meets Alexander Pope and foreshadows Henry Fielding. The Host also has this to say about the Monk:

I pray to God yeve him confusioun
That first thee broghte unto religioun!
Thou woldest han been a tredefoul aright;
Haddestow as greet a leve as thow hast might
To parfourne al thy lust in engendrure,
Thow haddest bigeten many a creature.
Allas, why werestow so wid a cope?
God yeve me sorwe but, and I were a pope,
Nat oonly thow, but every mighty man,
Thogh he were shore ful hye upon his pan,
Sholde have a wif, for al the world is lorn!
Religioun hath take up al the corn
Of treding, and we borel men been shrimpes.
Of feble trees ther comen wrecched impes;
This maketh that oure heires beth so sklendre
And feble that they may nat wel engender.
This maketh that oure wives wol assaye
Religious folk, for ye mowe bettre paye
Of Venus paiementz than may we.

In our time, all the hot guys don’t become priests; but then, most churches don’t require celibacy of their priests any more. But really, there’s got to be some other problem with the time if all the wives are out offering themselves to men of the cloth. Judging by the less Decent Tales, The Host is not the only one to notice that women have an eye for a man in a cassock. They don’t always return it; The Monk’s Tale is a catalog of the Fall of Great Men, frequently (but not all) because of the women in their lives – Samson, Holofernes, Solomon, and many others.

In general, the less Decent stories are about sex, or at least the battle between the sexes. Perhaps that’s why we love them so – gender roles haven’t really changed that much in seven hundred years. We still want to figure out how to make people love us back. The Wife of Bath has it that men should submit to their wives, and The Clerk implies that women should submit to their abusive husbands, but I think the truth is this:

Love wol nat be constrained by maistrye;
Whan maistrye comth, the God of Love anon
Beteth hise winges, and farwel, he is gon!
Love is a thing as any spirit free.
Wommen of kinde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constrained as a thral,
And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal.

The trick is to find someone that you love too much to control, and who loves you the same way. We want to feel free, and loved as we are. I’ve yet to find that person, but I’m still hoping. The hope is a bit foolish since I don’t like to go out and meet people, but only a bit because I still end up meeting quite a lot of people, just not gay men that I’m attracted to.

The Wife of Bath rationalizes the existence of us Indecent People:

For wel ye knowe, a lord in his household
Ne hath nat every vessel al of gold.
Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servise,
God clepeth folk to him in sondry wise,
And everich hath of God a propre yifte,
Som this, som that, as him liketh shifte.

And there are some pleasures imagined by Decent People, like The Knight:

ne how the Grekes pleye
The wake-pleyes, ne kepe I noght to seye –
Who wrastleth best, naked with oille enoint,
Ne who that baar him best, in no disjoint;

Seriously? If my wake is going to have nude wrestling, I’ll hop out of the casket to watch.

When it comes to Decency, no one on this trip is as Decent as The Parson. He concludes the book with ninety pages of prose, mostly about the Seven Deadly Sins, how to avoid them, and how to repent of them. He likes lists, especially numbered lists, and if those lists can be long, even better. Like this list of little-recognized sins:

Now sith man understondeth generally which is venial sinne, thane is it convenable to tellen specially of sinnes whiche that many a man, peradventure, ne demeth hem nat sinnes, and ne shriveth him nat of the same thinges, and yet natheless they been sinnes soothly, as thise clerkes writen. This is to seyn, that at every time that man eteth or drinketh moore than suffiseth to the sustenaunce of his body, in certein he dooth sinne. And eek whan he speketh moore than nedeth, it is sinne; eek whan he herkneth nat benignly the compleinte of the povere; eek whan he is in heele of body, and wol nat faste whan oother folk fasten, withouten cause reasonable; eek whan he slepeth moore than nedeth; or whan he comth by thilke encheson to late to chirche, or to othere werkes of charite; eek whan he useth his wif withoute soverein desir of engendrure, to the honour of God, or for the entente to yelde to his wif the dette of his body; eek whan he wol nat visite the sike and the prisoner, if he may; eek if he love wif, or child, or oother worldly thing, moore than reson requireth; eek if he flatere or blandise moore than him oghte for any necessitee; eke if he amenuse or withdrawe the almesse of the povre; eke if he apparaileth his mete moore deliciously than nede is, or ete to hastily by likerousnesse; eek if he tale vanitees at chirche, or at Goddes service, or that he be a talkere of idel wordes of folye or of vileinye, for he shal yelde acounte of it at the day of dome; eek whan he biheteth or assureth to do thinges that he may nat parfourne; eek whan that he by lightnesse or folye misseyeth or scorneth his neighebore; eek whan that he hath any wikked suspecioun of thing ther he ne woot of it no soothfastnesse. Thise thinges, and mo withoute nombre, ben sinnes, as seyth Seint Augustin.

Wow. I personally have done a lot of these things, and yet I don’t feel bad about them. I mean, loving your children more than is reasonable? Check. Enjoying good food, a little better than is strictly necessary to choking it down? Check. Showing up at church late? Check. Having sex without considering conception? Check. Forgetting to skip meals when other people are? Check. I’m the sort of person who tells jokes and laughs during funeral services, so I guess that counts as speaking unnecessarily. This enormous weight of sin that The Parson dumps on us all seems excessive to me, and a bit ignorant.

Of leccherye, as I seide, sourden diverse speces, as fornicacioun, that is bitwixe man and woman that ben nat maried; and this is deedly sinne and agains nature. Al that is enemy and destruccioun to nature is agains nature.

Has he seen nature? How many species are monogamous? For that matter, how many species of mammals are strictly heterosexual? It seems to me that religious laws are themselves against nature. If working against nature is a deadly sin, then Christianity has a lot of repenting to do –

But war thee wel that swiche manere penaunces on thy flessh ne make thee nat bitter or angry or annoyed of thyself, for bettre is to caste awey thin heire than for to caste awey the swetenesse of Jesu Crist.

– not in chain mail on bare skin or hairshirts, because that sort of mortification of the flesh defeats the purpose. We have life so that we can enjoy it; whether that’s the sweetness of Jesus Christ or the sweetness of the love that The Parson can’t even name, we must find the goodness in life and taste it often. So much of what The Parson teaches seems to work against finding any joy in life at all, but even he admits that hating the life you live is a bad thing. And lest you think he’s a big old hypocrite, Chaucer says in the General Prologue that this Parson is the real deal. He contrasts him with the bulk of the clergy:

And shame it is, if a preest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

Another phrase that I love.

It’s true that Chaucer didn’t finish his project, four stories for each of thirty travelers (and when the Canon’s Yeoman rides up he makes thirty-one), but I think he gives us a fairly good picture of what life is like in fourteenth-century England. There’s a lot of bigotry, a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of sex, a lot of love, a lot of hope and despair. It’s like seeing the entire world, or at least the world as they knew it.

I don’t believe the world or the flesh is here to be overcome, as the old Christian Fathers would have it; the world is here to be loved. We have life so that we can be happy in it. For some people, that means a life of perpetual decency; for others, it’s a little more free. We have to be reconciled to ourselves, we have to love ourselves, we have to find peace with who we are, we have to get in touch with our personal nature (which no one else can define) and live it completely. The Parson finds it one way, The Wife of Bath another. They’re different, nearly binary opposites, but the end result is the same. They each are who they are without shame or self-reproach. And if that is something I gain from spending the month of April with eight hundred pages of Middle English, the time will have been well spent.