Posts Tagged ‘the ex’

I know that normally I skip the introductions, but here’s a good bit from Fromm’s:

I wish to express my gratitude to my wife not only for the many suggestions which have been directly incorporated into these chapters but, far beyond this, for what I owe to her searching and penetrating mind which has so greatly contributed to my own development and hence indirectly to my ideas about religion.

The 1950s were a time when women couldn’t get a lot of recognition, so I’m glad Fromm gives credit where it’s due. It’s unfortunate that when he talks about all of humanity he uses masculine pronouns – it was standard practice back then, but now we recognize that it excludes somewhere around half of the population. I know that there are slightly more women than men, worldwide, but I’m not sure if those figures account for transpeople, and I don’t know whether there is a statistically significant difference in the number of transmen and transwomen. So yeah, the book is all sexist and transphobic, but that’s the time Fromm was writing in.

This book is a continuation of Man for Himself, Fromm’s book on psychoanalysis and ethics that I read back in June. He refers back to Escape from Freedom a lot as well, so it really seems like he’s building each book on the previous writings published in English, so this business of reading his books in order of publication was probably a good idea. This one is also really short, so it could be considered a final section to the previous book on ethics. As ever, he uses a lot of italics, so the italics in the quotations below are all his, not mine.

He issues a caveat close to the beginning, that even though we usually associate the word religion with Christianity in this country, he doesn’t intend that connotation.

For lack of such a word I shall use the term religion in these chapters, but I want to make it clear at the outset that I understand by religion any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.

Which means that, for the purposes of today’s discussion, anything can be a religion. Writing about literature, for instance, or the pursuit of romantic love. I’ve been getting agitated with facebook recently, and I think it’s because my friends are getting so insistent on their secular religions. Even my friends who embrace a belief system tend to orient their lives around a secular concept to which they give their devotion. To some it’s patriotism and the flag, which I disagree with completely because I think dividing people into nations is useful in governing them but dangerous in the tendency to nationalism and partisanship. To some it’s guns, and I explicitly unfollow these people. But to others it’s social justice, and while I’m in favor of that, their passion and extreme devotion to the specific aspect of injustice that bothers them is difficult for me. I have people posting that not enough of us are talking about Puerto Rico, but I feel like a third of the things I see are about the disaster there. I see so many terrible things in the news that I’ve become less sensitive to tragedies that I don’t see with my own eyes. There are so many tragedies that I’m exposed to that I seem to have lost the ability to be surprised by them, and without the element of surprise I don’t get shocked, angry, or passionate about things the way my friends do. I feel like I’ve lost some essential human element in my personality – it often feels like a physical pressure bearing down on me, that I don’t care enough about people-first language or injustices that don’t affect me personally. Think about the metaphor for feelings from Brave New World – a pipe with one leak builds up a lot of pressure and shoots that water pretty far, but the more leaks there are the weaker the pressure. My facebook newsfeed is like this leaky pipe, and every fresh injustice pokes a new leak, so that I feel like I don’t have any empathy left over for people outside the gay community. The demand to care about every single person on earth is draining, and it leaves me feeling tribal and misanthropic. It makes me think that the world is an awful place full of horrible people, which includes everyone I know. I don’t actually believe that, and it hurts to have those ideas pushed into my head. I am already in pain; stop poking my bruises with sharp sticks.

In some ways, I was better at loving people en masse back when I was more explicitly religious. I was raised in an authoritarian version of Christianity, and as an adult I tried to embrace a more humanist version, but after reading Fromm I’m not so sure whether I was successful. According to Fromm, the authoritarian/humanist divide cuts across all faiths, and he clearly favors the humanist side. In describing the effect of authoritarian religion, of projecting authority and virtue to a being outside of ourselves:

When man has thus projected his own most valuable powers onto God, what of his relationship to his own powers? They have become separated from him and in this process he has become alienated from himself. Everything he has is now God’s and nothing is left in him. His only access to himself is through God. In worshiping God he tries to get in touch with that part of himself which he has lost through projection. After having given God all he has, he begs God to return to him some of what originally was his own. But having lost his own he is completely at God’s mercy. He necessarily feels like a “sinner” since he has deprived himself of everything that is good, and it is only through God’s mercy or grace that he can regain that which alone makes him human. And in order to persuade God to give him some of his love, he must prove to him how utterly deprived he is of love; in order to persuade God to guide him by his superior wisdom he must prove to him how deprived he is of wisdom when he is left to himself.

I’ve lost God, but I haven’t recovered the parts of myself that I gave up ten years ago. Maybe in some ways I still feel like a sinner, but one that is no longer penitent. If I’m a sinner, then I love the sin in me as well as the virtue. The Ex never could quite understand that there were some things that I believed to be wrong, but that I did anyway because I enjoyed the wrongness of them, and maybe that’s still true of me. These days I damn myself through projection differently, thinking and saying that my kids have the best parts of myself, as if I lost some virtue in giving it to them. But this is illogical, because that’s not how genetics works. When I see my personality traits in my children, but without the anxiety, I get excited and happy, but those traits are still present in me, and I want to be better at recognizing my strengths and not only my limitations.

When he gets into talking about love, I do see my limitations quite clearly.

The command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, with only slight variations in its expression, the basic principle common to all humanistic religions. But it would indeed be difficult to understand why the great spiritual teachers of the human race have demanded of man that he should love if love were as easy an accomplishment as most people seem to feel. What is called love? Dependence, submission, and the inability to move away from the familiar “stable,” domination, possessiveness, and the craving for control are felt to be love; sexual greed and the inability to stand solitude are experienced as proof of intense capacity for love. People believe that to love is simple but that to be loved is most difficult. In our marketing orientation people think they are not loved because they are not “attractive” enough, attractiveness being based on anything from looks, dress, intelligence, money, to social position and prestige. They do not know that the real problem is not the difficulty of being loved but the difficulty of loving; that one is loved only if one can love, if one’s capacity to love produces love in another person, that the capacity for love, not for its counterfeit, is a most difficult achievement.

[…]

Psychoanalysis also shows that love by its very nature cannot be restricted to one person. Anyone who loves only one person and does not love “his neighbor” demonstrates that his love for one person is an attachment of submission or of domination but not love. Furthermore, anyone who loves his neighbor but does not love himself shows that the love of his neighbor is not genuine. Love is based on an attitude of affirmation and respect, and if this attitude does not also exist toward oneself, who is after all only another human being and another neighbor, it does not exist at all. The human reality behind the concept of man’s love for God in humanistic religion is man’s ability to love productively, to love without greed, without submission and domination, to love from the fullness of his personality, just as God’s love is a symbol for love out of strength and not out of weakness.

As I think over my relationships, I think that Fromm is more correct than I want him to be. In fact, I feel a bit like he’s pulled my pants down in a public place – not embarrassed exactly, but exposed to the possibility of being perceived as inadequate. I do sometimes wonder if the emotion I excite in people is not love so much as pity, since I do very little to hide my suffering, and I seem prone to suffer at the least inconvenience. And while my relationship with him may have started in a good place, it ended up in possessiveness, dependence, sexual greed (on my part), and the inability to move away from the familiar “stable” (on his part). Then I think about my life here without him, and I’m shy about meeting new people because I’m concerned about not being thin enough, or wealthy enough, or cultured enough, or interesting enough, or handsome enough, and it’s a well-documented fact that our community focuses more on the external than heterosexuals do. A friend told me recently that there’s nothing quite so attractive as a rich, handsome lawyer in his jogging outfit. So maybe what I really want is not love, but just to find someone who will touch me. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but they do present a very different focus, and probably a different approach (if I knew anything about locating men for either purpose, I could be more specific about this).

I was chatting with a medium I know – practicing my tarot readings, learning more about the symbology – and she introduced me to a divination schema I had never heard of before. The main takeaway point I got was the idea that this instability and restlessness that I’ve been suffering from my whole adult life is not a trial; it’s who I am. The argument is that for me (not for everyone, mind you) it’s my desires for stability and domesticity that are culturally determined and foreign to my nature: the ease with which I get bored isn’t a flaw that I need to correct, it’s just me. Some of us just have explorer personalities, which means that I’ll be better and happier, more my natural self, if I stop thinking of my journey as having a destination and just focus on making sure it doesn’t end. For me, the joy will have to be here and now, in the temporary and elusive, because the permanent will always leave me unsatisfied and the future will never look as I think it will. I was talking it over with another friend, and she pointed out that this doesn’t mean I have to keep up the nomadic lifestyle. It just means that I have to keep looking for something to explore, something new. Life always has something new to offer – new activities, new ideas, new disciplines of study, for example. This self-evaluation meshes well with my Gallup Strengths Finder results and my Myers-Briggs type, which is why I think it’s worth relating. I know that astrology isn’t science and there’s no logical reason to believe in it, but I left that conversation feeling more comforted, more at peace with myself than I have in weeks, and I’m not going to let the logical voice in my head take that away from me.

As with any book about religion, Fromm has a clear goal for us and our belief systems, and I think it’s a good one:

Our unconscious – that is, that part of our self which is excluded from the organized ego which we identify with our self – contains both the lowest and the highest, the worst and the best. We must approach the unconscious not as if it were a God whom we must worship or a dragon we must slay but in humility, with a profound sense of humor, in which we see that other part of ourselves as it is, neither with horror nor with awe. We discover in ourselves desires, fears, ideas, insights which have been excluded from our conscious organization and we have seen in others but not in ourselves. It is true, by necessity we can realize only a limited part of all the potentialities within us. We have to exclude many others, since we could not live our short and limited life without such exclusion. But outside the confines of the particular organization of ego are all human potentialities, in fact, the whole of humanity. When we get in touch with this disassociated part we retain the individuation of our ego structure but we experience this unique and individualized ego as only one of the infinite versions of life, just as a drop from the ocean is different from and yet the same as all other drops which are also only particularized modes of the same ocean.

Or, more concisely:

The psychoanalyst is in a position to study the human reality behind religion as well as behind nonreligious symbol systems. He finds that the question is not whether man returns to religion and believes in God but whether he lives love and thinks truth. If he does so the symbol systems he uses are of secondary importance. If he does not they are of no importance.

One of the reasons that this book is so short is that Fromm circumvents a lot of the religious debates by focusing on the issue of his previous books, authoritarianism. As mentioned, authoritarianism exists in all religions, and he finds it more productive to focus on this difference than the differences between Buddhism and Catholicism, or between Mormons and Muslims. And I think he’s right, that the outward trappings of belief statements and whether you say ‘debts’ or ‘trespasses’ are really unimportant, far less important than whether your faith leads you to love yourself and others or to hate yourself and others. Any faith group where people are increasing in love is okay with me, and any in which people are sowing the seeds of destruction is not. The fact that the same group can have both tendencies just makes it complicated, and reminds me that it’s not my job to judge someone else’s beliefs.

I do want to disagree with Fromm on one point: he argues that secularists don’t have rituals, and I disagree. I may have given up prayer as an individualized ritual of finding comfort through communing with my subconscious, but I’ve switched to tarot readings, which for me have very little sense of mysticism and more to do with the logical application of symbols. There are other rituals I do every day, like flossing, brushing my teeth, and rinsing with mouthwash before going to bed. Or, I fasten my safety belt, put the key in the ignition, press and hold the brake, turn the key, release the parking brake, and then shift into gear before releasing the brake. These may not confirm my position in a group, but they are established patterns of behavior that I hope will bring me safety and good oral health. We all have our rituals, but I guess in 1950 it was a little harder to recognize the secular ones for what they are. Fromm only recognizes ritual in the community sense, as in taking Communion as a congregation.

The shortness of the book does make me wonder how comfortable Fromm was writing on this topic. However, the shortness of it also means that I read it in one day, even though it’s taken me three more to write about it. Life is getting busy. Sometimes a shorter text serves as a good introduction to a writer’s thought, but because this one relies so heavily on the ideas in his other two books, I’d still recommend people start with Escape from Freedom.

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Many of you will recall Hoffmann’s name from the Offenbach opera, or from the opera that he himself wrote. Others may recall comments about German ghost stories of the Romantic Era, and you’ll want to connect those with Hoffmann’s name. It seems strange to think that these stories were published at the same time as Jane Austen’s, though a trifle less strange to think of them as contemporaneous with Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Another thing to think of as strange is the fact that the editor chose this group to package together. He wasn’t looking for a broad sampling of Hoffmann’s work; he put together the stories that were the most similar, that all have pretty much the same central idea. These are allegories of thought, intuition, and inspiration, and therefore of identity and art.

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we would never otherwise have set foot on – if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task. If our minds, strengthened by a cheerful life, are resolute enough to recognize alien and malevolent influences for what they are and to proceed tranquilly along the path to which our inclinations and our vocation have directed us, the uncanny power must surely perish in a vain struggle to assume the form which is our own reflection. Lothar also says there is no doubt that once we have surrendered ourselves to the dark psychic power, it draws alien figures, encountered by chance in the outside world, into our inner selves, so that we ourselves give life to the spirit which our strange delusion persuades us is speaking from such figures. It is the phantom of our own self which, thanks to its intimate relationship with us and its deep influence on our minds, casts us down to hell or transports us to heaven. (The Sandman)

So, unlike a lot of supernatural stories, these are deeply humanistic – it’s always ourselves, our divided selves, that control our lives and destinies. We make choices, so responsibility is never assigned to external forces like God or Fate. We each make our own world.

Nor do I quite see what you mean by wonders, my excellent Mr Peregrinus, or how you contrive to divide phenomena into the wondrous and the non-wondrous, since the reality they manifest is the same as ourselves, and we and they determine each other reciprocally. If you wonder at something because it has not yet happened to you, or because you think you cannot perceive the connection of cause and effect, that simply shows that your powers of perception are limited by the deficiencies of your vision. Whether your vision is naturally deficient, or sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, I cannot say. But, with respect, Mr Tyss, the most comical aspect of the matter is that you are trying to divide yourself into two parts, one of which perceives what you call wonders and readily believes in them, while the other wonders at this perception and this belief. (Master Flea)

As in this quotation, all this is often tied into vision and perception. Characters look through magnifying glasses or spyglasses or into mirrors, and their value is often determined by what they are able to see, which could also be named how they see, which is informed by their beliefs. Worth is conferred upon those who see wonders in the midst of everyday life, who know that the world is a miracle and more fantastic than we can imagine. Those with this gift are often found to belong to the world of fairy more than the world of work – these are stories like those of Diana Wynne Jones, where characters have more than one identity, so a bratty little brother can become a legendary hero, or an unemployed Welsh uncle can really be a powerful magician.

You are now, kind reader, in the fairy realm of glorious wonders, whose mighty strokes summon up both supreme bliss and extreme horror, and where the grave goddess raises her veil so that we may fancy we see her face – but her grave expression often breaks into a smile, and that is the impish humour that teases us with the bewilderment of magic, as a mother often teases her dearest children. In this realm, which our spirit often reveals to us, at least in our dreams, try, kind reader, to recognize the well-known shapes that, as the saying goes, cross your path every day. You will then believe that this magnificent realm is much nearer at hand than you had previously thought; and that is what I heartily wish you to believe, and what the strange story of Anselmus is supposed to convey. (The Golden Pot)

I do love narratives that teach this concept, that this is a world of endless wonder, that the bird that flew against my window this morning was a miracle of life trying to get into my apartment, and that by keeping it shut out I lost something more than the opportunity to clean bird shit off all my stuff.

At this point, my kind reader, you must be prepared to hear a story which seems quite unconnected with the events that I have undertaken to recount and is thus open to criticism as a mere episode. Sometimes, however, it happens that if you resolutely follow the path that seemed to be leading you astray, you suddenly find yourself at your journey’s end. And thus it may also be that this episode only appears to be a false trail but in fact leads straight to the heart of my main story. (Princess Brambilla)

These are also stories about storytelling, because the mythical aspects of the stories are told explicitly as stories, which then bleed into the supposedly realistic portions of the narrative until actual reality is compounded of both.

There are other ways that these stories speak to me, as in pieces of advice like this:

I tell you again, give up your solitary life. You’ll feel much better if you do. If you knew any other girls, you’d hardly think Dörtje the most beautiful of all; and if you had made advances to any other woman, you wouldn’t think that Dörtje was the only one who could love you. Come, come, Peregrinus, a bit more experience will teach you better. You’re a good-looking man, and I wouldn’t have to be as intelligent and perceptive as Master Flea is, to foresee that you’ll enjoy happiness through love in a quite different way than you now imagine. (Master Flea)

Which is advice that I’ve needed at some points in my life. As things are now, I’ve been pulling toward hermit-ness more than is needful. It made a little sense in the Midwest because I didn’t feel a connection with either the people or the place, but now that I’m back home in the midst of people who love me, I would be happier if I made more of an effort to spend time with those people. Then there’s the him from the Midwest, the memory of whom is keeping me from actively looking for the romance my heart cries out for. He was going to come down for a visit this weekend, but ran into some administrative difficulties – an ex had rented a car under his name a few years ago and not returned it on time, so there was an unpaid charge for a few hundred dollars attached to his credit card number, which they didn’t bother telling him until he showed up to pick up the rental he had ordered for Friday morning. He paid it off and is postponing the trip for a few weeks, which is frustrating for the both of us, but what lends poignancy to the situation is that I’m planning to tell him that long-distance is not working for me, and he needs to either commit to leaving his family for me or let me go. I think that if I phrase it that way he’ll pick the option I think would be best for us both, which is breaking it off. I don’t think he’ll be happy far away from his family, and if it takes this long and this much trouble to schedule a visit to see me, it’s going to take just as much time and effort to go back to see them, and before I left he had been talking about moving down here and getting up there twice a month. I think his expectations (for the world, not necessarily for me) are unrealistic. I also think that he loves me because I try to make people feel safe and comfortable (in real life, not necessarily on the blog), not because of who I am. He likes the feeling of security, and frankly, any gay man who thinks monogamy is important could fill that role, and most of them would fit his lifestyle and tastes more easily than I would. As for my own happiness, I haven’t felt fulfilled in the relationship for a long time; as The Ex did, he made me feel loved in spite of my weirdness and not because of it, as if I needed an interpreter to interact with real, normal human beings. I’d rather not be with someone who encourages my sense of isolation or alienation. It’s strong enough without the help. Which is sort of why I want him to come down here for the conversation instead of trying it over the phone – I don’t think he’s ever really seen me happy, and seeing who and what does this for me could be a good education for him. If you’ll excuse the cliché, an eye-opener.

All this stuff about identity doubling is not where I needed to be this week, which is why I was reading so slowly. About ten days ago, my car had serious trouble on the way to work, so it’s been parked at the college ever since. A week ago, my good friend (who comments here as Scribble Feather) took me to a car dealership to look into buying a new vehicle, but I was denied financing because of my income and credit score. Granted, I know my income is low, but my credit isn’t bad, so I checked the credit report. Apparently someone stole my identity and ran up three credit cards in my name – they applied for a fourth, unsuccessfully. I’ve been calling around to these different financial companies and declaring fraud, but it’s going to take some time before it’s all cleared up. Just thinking about finances is enough to give me the shakes, so it’s been an unnerving experience, the type where I have to shove all my emotions into a back room so that I can take care of what needs my immediate attention. I stayed with the good SF for a few days, and now I’m borrowing a vehicle from another friend, so we see how important communities are, and how grateful I am to be in the middle of one. And now that I’m done with a lot of that, the depression I’ve been delaying is starting to seep in. It’ll get better, though. The day the car gave up on life was the day of a job interview, which was successful, so tomorrow (Monday) I’m starting a new position, Library Clerk. This is in addition to my position as a part-time English instructor, and in the new year I’ll shift the schedule around so that the library job will be my main focus and I’ll only have one class. The new schedule will also make it easier to find a third part-time job, which I think will be necessary.

Oh, it might be helpful if I were to list the stories in the volume:

  • The Golden Pot, in which Anselmus writes his way into the heart of a snake
  • The Sandman, which has very little to do with sand and is part of Offenbach’s opera
  • Princess Brambilla, where Carnival goes on for far too long thanks to the commedia dell’arte
  • Master Flea, where a man learns confidence when he’s given the power to read others’ thoughts
  • My Cousin’s Corner Window, which is much shorter than the other stories and which fits almost nothing I said here

As is implied, this is a collection of stories that would be better read one at a time instead of all at once, and in truth, it was never the original author’s intent that they should be combined like this. Despite my disagreement with that editorial choice, I will say that Ritchie Robertson’s 1992 translation is a good one and feels very contemporary, even though the stories were written two hundred years ago.

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?

There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.

Before I get into Shen Fu, I have a confession to make. Because I love The Woman Warrior, I’ve been trying to read Maxine Hong Kingston’s fiction, but it’s been killing my motivation pretty quickly. This is the second time it’s happened, so I checked something. Tripmaster Monkey, the one I was reading last week, features a character named Wittman Ah Singh, and I find him thoroughly unlikable (in the first chapter, which I didn’t finish). I looked back at The Fifth Book of Peace, which I’d started a few years ago – the first section, the one on the San Francisco Fire, is great, but then she starts telling a story about that same guy, Wittman Ah Singh! I couldn’t stand him then either! Maybe I need to find a book of hers that isn’t about him.

Shen Fu lived in the later part of the Eighteenth Century, in China. Some things were weird and foreign, yes, but what surprised me is just how similar he is to British authors writing around the same time, like Coleridge, Blake, and Wordsworth. Lavish descriptions of nature, interest in ruins and other picturesque features of the landscape, travel, and fragmented narrative. Each of these six records shows a different side of his life, but they don’t follow each other chronologically.

First, he talks about the happiness of his marriage. He marries a girl who seems like his intellectual (but not social) equal, so they make jokes about literature and laugh all the time. He and Yün are very happy and love each other very much. Yeah, sometimes they leave a party drunk and he sends her on ahead so he can have sex with a stranger, but attraction to third parties doesn’t change their feelings for each other. They live in beautiful places and find joy in their everyday lives. Besides, in China at the time lesbianism was kind of a normal thing that didn’t upset straight marriages. His wife has a couple of very dear friends, and whenever they come over the three women get the bed and he gets the couch, which he accepts with the same good cheer that men in my society accept “Girls’ Night Out.” In their early thirties, she starts looking for a concubine for him, but she’s really looking for a woman she can love too. When they find one, she falls hard for her, but it doesn’t work out and she becomes seriously depressed.

But later Han-yüan was taken off by a powerful man, and all the plans came to nothing. In fact, it was because of this that Yün died.

Ending the chapter like this, it seems like we’ve started a murder mystery, but there is no mystery. Grief and stress rob Yün of her health and kill her at the age of forty.

The second part is about his hobbies, so there’s a two-page section on flower arranging. He likes entertaining and landscaping. He is quite the aesthete.

Third, we have the story of his sorrows. Life with Yün isn’t a bed of roses, like it may have seemed in the first part. His parents don’t really like her, which makes for some serious problems. He’s not that great with money, or holding down a job, so they’re always poor and relying on friends for help. His parents also don’t like Han-yüan, so they’re part of the plot to prevent the concubine thing from working out. Nevertheless, he takes his father’s death pretty hard, as well as his younger brother’s attempt to take over as head of the family. He talks about his children here, but not in the first part, and I take that to be a little odd since my children were the happiest part of my marriage, but he is separated from them and his son dies in childhood, so it makes sense.

The fourth story is about his traveling. Up until now, Yün has seemed like the protagonist of this story because everything he talks about involves her. But he spends a lot of time away from her, following the demands of his changing professions, and maybe she really was happier living with a girlfriend than with him. This is the longest section of the book, so I think that spending time away from each other must have been critical to maintaining the happiness that was so strong in the first chapter. When he goes to the Land of the Floating Whorehouses (my title, not his), he looks for a girl who reminds him of his wife, and even though there are several girls living in the houseboat he sticks with the one he likes. His friend makes the rounds, though. He’s always traveling with some close male friend, so maybe there’s some male homosexual behavior going on too, but he never alludes to the possibility of that. The closest we come is when he talks about being in a room with a few friends and all their rented girls and being teased for wanting a private room. I’ve never been in a room with people who are having sex when I’m not involved, so I think it must be very awkward, but I suppose in a society that’s less puritanical it’s like watching a porn video. Except that it features your friends and coworkers. Even when I was in an all-male workplace, I still wouldn’t want to see my coworkers naked. I would be really uncomfortable.

Hsin-yüeh had a son named Chu-heng who was quiet and well bred. We never quarreled, and he was the second close friend I have had in this life. The pity is that we only met like bits of duckweed drifting on the water, and were not together for long.

This is why I hang onto Facebook, even when it’s full of sad news about world events. My entire life has been drifting along a stream, and I meet many interesting and lovely people, but then I move away, or they do, and we are never together for long.

I know it’s called the Six Floating Records, but today there are only these four. The other two have been lost to time. People have claimed to find them, but so far all “recovered chapters” have been forgeries. Some scholars think he may not have finished writing them, like one of those verse dramas by the English Romantics that are only ever published in fragments. He gets to the end of his travels, especially the traveling he does to recover from his wife’s death, and the book just ends with no real conclusion.

I felt very close to Shen Fu while I was reading his book, like he’s telling the story of my hypothetical life in China two hundred years ago, being bad at business but interested in art and literature and history and making everyday life beautiful. The Chinese astrologers would say that this makes sense, because we’re both born in the year of the Goat. Goat babies are unlucky, vain, unable to save money, and very proud of their homes. We like our lives to be nicer than we can afford on our own.

Normally this would be the part where I talk about him and how great it is that I live with someone who has a job and likes to take care of me, but he’s been out of work for the last six weeks and it’s given me a lot of stress because I don’t make enough money to support my kids and myself, much less another person. But he’s being trained in a new position this weekend, so I’m hoping that our financial situation will improve very soon.

Hope is so very important. Shen Fu and Yün are always hoping something will turn up, and it always does. There’s a certain amount of drift involved in living by hope, the Floating from the title. After she dies he loses his hope that anything good will happen again. I’ve heard depression defined as the inability to see a future, and that is his problem not just in his widowerhood but throughout his life. He doesn’t plan specifics – there’s only the vague hope that things will work out. It’s like when The Ex got pregnant for the first time, and we went to the midwife and she asked, “What form of birth control were you using? Hope?” Hope is not an effective method of preventing pregnancy, nor is it an effective tool for taking control of your own life. Relying only on hope means that your life will be determined by external events; it keeps the locus of control outside of yourself. However, for those of us who frequently feel that our life is in fact controlled more strongly by sinister outside forces than by our own will, hope is also the only thing we have to hold on to. Hope gives us a way out, a light in the darkness. Hope is our escape. Hope gives us the ability to sketch a vague plan that can keep us from dying from depression. Yün loses hope and dies. Shen Fu’s friends keep supplementing his hope with their own, keeping him alive long enough to find goodness in the world again.

This is a short and beautiful book, and it apparently gives us the most detailed look into private life in this period of Chinese history. I enjoyed it thoroughly. When I first came out a lot of people were after me to tell my story, but the task always seemed too big. This may be a good approach, though, taking just one element at a time. It could be a way for me to get a handle on it.

The promotion for this book (at least the copy I have) seems to be, “If you loved Possession, you’ll like this.” Yet it was published twelve years earlier, and the author seems to be at a different stage in her thinking and writing. Like Possession, it deals with the private lives of people who give their lives to literature; unlike Possession, these people are not career scholars, they’re teachers at a little school in Yorkshire. Stylistically, she’s writing as an academic instead of as someone who wants people to read her sentences.

He did not look, as she had supposed, perhaps feared, he might, silly.

Do not separate the predicate adjective from a linking verb with a long subordinate clause (and a second clause embedded in the first! Oh my).

This book draws a lot from D. H. Lawrence, explicitly from The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There are also a lot of parallels with The Virgin and the Gipsy. Two sisters growing up and learning about life and love, the older more serious, the younger a bit of a firecracker. Unfortunately, Stephanie and Frederica are being raised by Bill Potter, a verbally abusive, frustrated academic. He’s replaced the Bible and Christianity with Lawrence and the Romantics. It’s a curious trade, and one that leads to results he himself does not condone.

Good teaching is a mystery and takes many forms. Stephanie’s idea of good teaching was simple and limited: it was the induced, shared, contemplation of a work, an object, an artefact. It was not the encouragement of self-expression, self-analysis, or what were to be called interpersonal relations. Indeed, she saw a good reading of the Ode on a Grecian Urn as a welcome chance to avoid these activities.

I agree with Byatt’s comment on the mystery of being a good teacher, but I’m not sure if Stephanie goes about it correctly. Her method was highly valued in the early 1950s, when we were trying to make the study of literature dispassionate and scientific, but my experience with literature professors is that they generally want students to connect with the poem, or with the poet through the poem, or with themselves through the poem. Self-expression, self-analysis, and interpersonal relations are desirable and indeed necessary aspects of today’s classroom, like the time I wrote to my professor that I was having a hard time relating to Shakespeare’s sonnets because I had never been in love. [I glance backward at my twenty-three-year-old self and shake a fist, shouting “Come out of the closet! You’re gay! Pay attention to your crushes on men!”]

Stephanie is the older, steadier sister, and as such, is the one I’m more interested in. She rebels against her father, first by leaving Cambridge and teaching in the same middle-of-nowhere town she was raised in, and then by marrying the curate. Wasting her intellectual talents is one thing, but allying herself so strongly to a professional Christian is just too much. Daniel isn’t actually that great of a Christian; he doesn’t believe or care about the dogma. His interest is in social justice, so instead of spending a lot of time studying and writing sermons, he goes around finding ways to help people. This is a mission Stephanie can agree with. Her feelings don’t seem to heat up that much; he wants her, he’s a logical choice, and he represents a way to escape her father. A common sad story.

Frederica is the titular virgin, an unpopular seventeen-year-old anxious to lose her virginity. It’s the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation, so the local artsy people are doing a celebration of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Apparently there are numerous parallels between the life of Elizabeth and Frederica’s story, but I am no Renaissance scholar. Alexander Wedderburn, her father’s younger colleague at school, has written a play about the queen that will serve as the centerpiece to the Elizabethan festivities. They hire a few professional actors, but Frederica is chosen to act the part of the teenaged Elizabeth. The play gives her license to find someone to have sex with, and by the two-thirds point this is the primary element of suspense. Who? When? Where?

He produced a macintosh and laid it out under a somewhat Wordsworthian thorn bush. Frederica sat stiffly on the edge of it, telling herself that there were certain things that when she knew them would not bother her in the same way any more. She had read Lady Chatterley, true, and The Rainbow too, and Women in Love, but it cannot be said that she expected a revelation from the traveller in dolls. She wished her ignorance, part of it, to be dispelled. She wished to become knowledgeable. She wished to be able to pinpoint the sources of her discontent.

She’s not discontented because she’s a virgin. If she were, she wouldn’t have so many near-misses. There are a few times she has the opportunity to have sex but backs out at the last minute. She gets called a cock-tease, but I don’t think it’s intentional. She means to have sex, but gets disgusted with the men. There are a lot of disgusting men out there, and those who want to sleep with a teenager (after they’ve passed into their legal majority) are among them. Austen heroes, I’m looking at you – Colonel Brandon and Mr Knightley, especially. They are both my age when they marry, but Marianne Dashwood is only nineteen and Emma Woodhouse twenty-one. I have no business running after little boys like that. Frederica’s discontentment comes from her social isolation and her volatile father.

When she finally creates the right mixture of partner, place, and time, she finds that sex is different from what she had expected.

She had learned something. She had learned that you could do – that – in a reasonably companionable and courteous way with no invasion of your privacy, no shift in your solitude. You could sleep all night, with a strange man, and see the back only of his head, and be more self-contained than anywhere else. This was a useful thing to know. It removed the awful either/or from the condition of women as she had seen it. Either love, passion, sex and those things, or the life of the mind, ambition, solitude, the others. There was a third way: you could be alone and not alone in a bed, if you made no fuss. She too would turn away and go to sleep.

I found that out too, but since my first time was on my wedding night, it wasn’t immediately. At first it was this cosmic force binding us together, but in time I could also see it driving us apart. I had to learn to accept love without a physical component – love and sex became divided for me because I got love without sex, not sex without love the way most people seem to.

I suppose the reason I don’t find Frederica very interesting is that different versions of her story get told over and over and over again. Bookish teenage outcast finds her place in society? How many times have we told that story?

I identified more with their brother Marcus. He’s sixteen, but I kept visualizing him as younger. Like me, he has family-trauma-induced mental problems, including hallucinations and sporadic extreme sensitivity to light. I pushed it all into religion, where you can pass that kind of stuff off as proof of divine favor (or at least attention – Old Testament prophets did not lead peaceful lives). Marcus’s father doesn’t allow of religion, so he pairs up with a teacher who has some weird beliefs about the natural and supernatural worlds. In another time, Lucas Simmonds would have been a ghostbuster or an internet conspiracy theorist, tracking ley lines and all that good stuff, but in the 1950s the information isn’t available to him. He keeps trying to make something happen, find some proof that the supernatural is real (The Truth Is Out There), and in the process lose himself. There’s something suicidal about his desire to vanish into the air, cast off this mortal flesh and join the elementals or whatever he wants to do. Marcus isn’t really into this like Lucas is, and the self-dissolution aspect of it worries him, but Lucas has answers (however wonky) and gives him time and attention, which no one else is willing to do. It seems like Lucas’s biggest problem is one he won’t face: he’s gay. His flight from the body is really a flight from his own sexuality. If chemical castration were offered to him, I think he would take it. Instead he ends up really going off the deep end. Marcus ends the book in a bad place too, primarily because he feels responsible for Lucas. Lucas’s insanity isn’t Marcus’s fault though; you can blame society for denying the viability of homosexuality as a mode of existence, you can blame Lucas for refusing to accept himself, but none of this can be traced to Marcus. He got to the party too late to be responsible for it. I do wish that Lucas could have danced by the pond with flowers twined through all the hair on his body without being crazy – if I ever have a nervous breakdown, I hope it’s beautiful like that.

I’ve been visiting my kids this week, and I first saw them on a playground. My oldest ran up to me and commented on how many children were there and how scary crowds are, and I thought, “Oh good, you’ve inherited my social anxiety.” I’m happy for any connection with my kids. He unwrapped the book I got him and was really excited – The Ex and I both enjoyed Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence when we were his age, so Over Sea, Under Stone was a good choice – so excited, in fact, that by the time I left the next day he had finished the entire book. It’s sometimes harder to see similarities with my middle boy – he’s more Emilio Estevez than Anthony Michael Hall – but he has my preference for showing love through physical contact and my impatience with unnecessary conversation. The youngest is still sort of a mystery to me; it’s like he’s a batch of muffins that have only been cooking for seven minutes. Just not done yet. He’s sensitive and affectionate, and likes whatever his brothers are into.

I saw my dad a few weeks ago, and I’ve been crying ever since. It’s not that I miss him, though I did, it’s that my parents are kind of horrible. In the course of one evening he pointed out that even though I’ve lived in the Midwest/Southwest for two years, he’s the first one to come visit me [subtext: I’m the only one who loves you and you can’t trust anyone else], AND that he had way too many kids and he jokingly/not-jokingly wishes abortion had been more socially and morally acceptable back in the 1970s [subtext: I wish you were never born]. He tried to give me a handshake instead of a hug [subtext: You’re a stranger to me, stay out of my personal space, keep your gay filth to yourself]. This whole love/rejection thing is toxic and hard and makes the concept of family very difficult for me, so I’m not participating in my guy’s holiday family get-togethers the way he’d like me to. I’m not sure what he wants, maybe another version of his brother’s partner, but my relationships with my family (or The Ex’s family) have not prepared me for the kind of interactions he wants me to have with his parents and extended family.

I worry about my family life. I don’t know how to do any of this, being a good son or a good father or a good partner to someone who is close to his family. I try to be myself and act in ways that are natural to me, and show love whenever I can, but lately I’ve been feeling like it’s not enough. The collapse of the Potter family feels like a warning, but I don’t know how to profit from it. There must be a way to hang onto love without losing the self, there must be a way to reach out to loved ones without hurting them, and there ought to be a way to interact with my parents that doesn’t leave me sobbing for months afterward. But twentieth-century literature may be the wrong place to look for them.

What a sad little book.

This should hardly be a surprise; Hesse generally writes sad little books, and this one came out before he got into psychoanalysis. But even here, in his comparative youth, Hesse is one of the writers who can most clearly articulate the experience of depression, and while it can evoke painful memories for me, there is a reward greater than the pain: the knowledge that I am not alone in my suffering.

“Do you think so?”

“Yes. You are suffering from a sickness, one that is fashionable, unfortunately, and that one comes across every day among sensitive people. It is related to moral insanity and can also be called individualism or imaginary loneliness. Modern books are full of it. It has insinuated itself into your imagination; you are isolated; no one troubles about you and no one understands you. Am I right?”

“Almost,” I admitted with surprise.

“Listen. Those who suffer from this illness need only a couple of disappointments to make them believe that there is no link between them and other people, that all people go about in a state of complete loneliness, that they never really understand each other, share anything or have anything in common. It also happens that people who suffer from this sickness become arrogant and regard all other healthy people who can understand and love each other as flocks of sheep. If this sickness were general, the human race would die out, but it is only found among the upper classes in Central Europe. It can be cured in young people and it is, indeed, part of the inevitable period of development.”

I don’t believe everything about depression that Mr Lohe says here, and I don’t think Hesse does either. First, there is nothing imaginary about feeling lonely. The people I love live hundreds of miles away, and the best friend I’ve made here is a student who is graduating in a week. He’s going to school in the Pacific Northwest next year, so I may never see him again. This thought makes me sad. Second, depression would not stop the entire human race. Depressed people are capable of having sex, and many try to use that to treat their depression. And even without that, we don’t all kill ourselves. Thirdly, what do you mean, it’s confined to rich Europeans? Have you ever met someone outside the upper classes of Central Europe? We’re all the same; human nature is a constant, and the same types of personality exist in all strata and in all places.

In other ways, of course, Mr Lohe is completely right. Our society values the mental habit of finding patterns and formulating general theories from a few pieces of evidence. This is what is measured on IQ tests, and I do it well, so people think I’m smart. But people with this habit, people with high IQs who are considered intelligent, will draw huge overarching conclusions about the entire world based on the flimsiest evidence. This is where stereotypes come from. When I was young I thought the world was cold and indifferent because I could not mix with the people around me; now, I think that the people in the town I grew up in are weird and that I was suffering from my family situation without acknowledging the suffering or its cause, which kept me from interacting well with people. I think that my current living situation is temporary, but I still have to fight against the temptation to believe that I will always be alone and that while I may move from one place to another, nothing important will ever change.

When music stirred my being, I understood everything without the aid of words. I was then aware of pure harmony in the essence of life and felt that there must be a meaning and a just law behind everything that happened. Even if this was an illusion, it helped me to live and was a comfort to me.

This week I’ve been grateful for a key to the practice rooms at school. I’ve found it useful to have a language without words; I’m playing Mozart on the piano again. [I wish I still had my Debussy music.] Sunday was Mothers’ Day, and I had been planning to be a good and dutiful son, but when the day arrived I just couldn’t. I went to church as usual, but all I wanted to do was run away and scream. The reverend had a word or two to say to me after the service, and he had to hold me in place to keep me from running. [I crocheted him a blanket for a housewarming gift and he wanted to thank me; it wasn’t anything threatening.] I did scream some in the car later. After church I get a latte and use the free internet to check facebook and wordpress, and my friends were all grateful about their mothers and posting happy pictures – I honored the day by posting Joan Jett singing “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” So I’ve pinpointed my mom as some source of past trauma and present stress, but I don’t know how to deal with it. The music helps, but it doesn’t heal.

I soon realized that these teachings could only be of solace and value to those who could accept them literally, and sincerely believe them to be true. If, as it seemed to me, they were partly beautiful literature, partly intricate symbols, an attempt at a mythological explanation of the world, one could be instructed by them and hold them in esteem, but one could not learn how to live and gain strength from them. One could perhaps be a worthy and religious theosophist, but the final solace beckoned only to those who accepted simple beliefs without too much questioning. In the meantime, it was not for me.

Religion is not the answer. I convinced myself for a long time that it could solve my troubles, but for all my heroic efforts, I just can’t believe in it. I don’t think that stories have to be literally true in order to be powerful, but the Hebrew mythology is not as useful for me as it once was. I just can’t accept things without interrogating them. No idea really stands up under a steady stream of questions. I think this is part of my attraction to academia; it’s a subculture that doesn’t expect (or fully value) definitive answers. Only the questions matter; answers are necessarily provisional and incomplete, so life is about learning to ask the right questions. I can accept that, though I can’t often come up with the right questions on my own. I have a strong value for and feel a profound connection with those friends who ask me good questions.

Anyway, the book. Our first-person narrator/protagonist is a crippled composer whose ideal woman (Gertrude) falls for his best friend, a depressed but talented singer who drinks too much and beats his girlfriends. There’s another girl who loves him but whom he does not love in return. So for all his teacher’s comments on how wrongly people with depression view the world, in Hesse’s world everyone falls in love with the wrong person, and some of them die.

I think one can draw quite a distinct division between youth and maturity. Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others. That is what I mean. Young people have many pleasures and many sorrows, because they have only themselves to think of, so every wish and every notion assumes importance; every pleasure is tasted to the full but also every sorrow, and many who find that their wishes cannot be fulfilled, put an end immediately to their lives. That is being young. To most people, however, there comes a time when the situation changes, when they live more for others, not for any virtuous reasons, but quite naturally. A family is the reason with most people. One thinks less about oneself and one’s wishes when one has a family. Others lose their egotism in a responsible position, in politics, in art or in science. Young people want to play; mature people want to work. A man does not marry just to have children, but if he has them they change him, and finally he sees that everything has happened just for them. That links up with the fact that young people like to talk about death but do not really think about it. It is just the other way round with old people. Life seems long to young people and they can therefore concentrate all their wishes and thoughts on themselves. Old people are conscious of an approaching end, and that everything one has and does solely for oneself finally falls short and lacks value. Therefore a man requires a different kind of continuity and faith; he does not work just for the worms. That is why one has a wife and children, business and responsibility, so that one knows for whom one endures the daily toil. In that respect your friend is quite right, a man is happier when he lives for others than when he lives just for himself, but old people should not make it out to be such an act of heroism, because it isn’t one really. In any case, the most lively young people become the best old people, not those who pretend to be as wise as grandfathers while they are still at school.

I find much of this to be true. Having children and family can give a meaning to an otherwise purposeless existence; the trick is to find the right people to devote one’s life to. Kuhn latches onto his mother (his father dies shortly after giving this speech), even though they’ve never understood or even liked each other. At first it’s a bad situation, but it gets better with time. They learn to respect each other, and perhaps love too. I spent eight years living for my wife and children, and it just made things worse in the end. She didn’t respect my work (reading Wuthering Heights is not playing when you’re taking a degree in British literature), and in the end she didn’t trust or value me for myself. I was useful to her when I could be controlled, but I hate feeling controlled. She encouraged me to examine my emotions critically, but when I did the result was not complimentary to her. My children are as independently minded as I am, so it was hard to base my emotional life in them because children don’t reciprocate well. They’re excessively pragmatic, in a short-sighted way. But at least their machinations and motivations are obvious. I love my sons and miss them horribly, but I’m so glad to be away from their mother that it’s not often apparent.

So, it’s a book about famous people and the reality of being around them:

Gradually the walk in the night cooled me down, and although my own wound was still open and needed healing, I was induced to think more and more about what Marian had said and about my stupid behavior that evening. I felt that I was a miserable creature who really owed an apology. Now that the courage the wine had given me had worn off, I was seized by an unpleasantly sentimental mood against which I fought. I did not say much more to the pretty woman, who now seemed agitated and moody herself as she walked beside me along the dark streets where, here and there, the light of a lamp was suddenly reflected on the dark surface of the wet ground. It occurred to me that I had left my violin in Muoth’s house; in the meantime I was again filled with astonishment and alarm at everything. The evening had turned out to be so different from what I had anticipated. Heinrich Muoth and Kranzl the violinist, and also the radiant Marian, who played the role of queen, had all climbed down from their pedestals. They were not gods or saints who dwelt on Olympian heights, but mere mortals; one was small and droll, another was oppressed and conceited, Muoth was wretched and self-tormented, the charming woman was pathetic and miserable as the lady friend of a restless sensualist who knew no joy, and yet she was good and kind and acquainted with suffering. I, myself, felt changed. I was no longer a single person but a part of all people, seeing good and bad in all. I felt I could not love a person here and hate another person there. I was ashamed of my lack of understanding and saw clearly for the first time in my young life that one could not go through life and among people so simply, hating one person and loving another, respecting one person and despising another, but all these emotions were closely tied up, scarcely separable and at times scarcely distinguishable. I looked at the woman walking by my side who was now also silent as if she too realized that the nature of many things was different from what she had thought and said.

And about the nature of creative work:

Then my work appeared before me, so familiar and yet so alien, which no longer needed me and had a life of its own. The pleasures and troubles of past days, the hopes and sleepless nights, the passion and longing of that period confronted me, detached and transformed. Emotions experienced in secret were transmitted clearly and movingly to a thousand unknown people in the theatre. Muoth appeared and began singing with some reserve. Then his voice grew stronger; he let himself go and sang in his deeply passionate manner; the soprano responded in a high, sweet voice. Then came the part which I could so well remember hearing Gertrude sing, which expressed my admiration for her and was a quiet confession of my love. I averted my glance and looked into her bright eyes, which acknowledged me and greeted me warmly, and for a moment the memory of my whole youth was like the sweet fragrance of a ripe fruit.

But the depression covers it all.

If you’re not comfortable with reading about depression, stay away from Hermann Hesse. If you’re suffering from it, he can help you feel like someone understands, even if it’s a German who’s been dead for fifty years. I think that the solutions Hesse finds later in his career are more helpful: think Steppenwolf, for example. It’s a good book – Hesse writes beautifully, and his translators do too – but sad. I should go look for something cheerful to read next.