Day 208: the continuation of love

“Grief is the continuation of love.”

(Robert C. Solomon, In Defense of Sentimentality, 2004, p.90)

A couple of sessions ago, Dr. F asked me if I felt angry with my father when he died. After thinking it over I said no, that while I was angry more generally, I didn’t feel anger directed specifically at him.

But later I remembered that, yes, I had actually felt angry about something quite specific; and I had also felt—still feel—embarrassed by this anger; perhaps that’s why I didn’t think of it or didn’t mention it when she asked, because it felt too trivial.

When my mother told me on the phone that my father was dead, the thought that shuddered through my mind like an electric shock was “but he promised me that he wouldn’t die.”

This promise—to perhaps state the obvious—was one he made to me when I was a young child. As a child, I worried a lot about my parents dying—not that they would die in an accident or something; simply the prospect that I would one day have to live in the world without them caused me immense distress. I remember crying in bed and being unable to go to sleep because the idea was so awful to me.

I’m probably conflating a lot of different memories here—but what I have experienced as a distinct memory for a long time is this: I am in bed and both of my parents are in the room near my bed. I am younger than eleven because I’m in the bedroom I shared with my brother until that age. I am crying and begging them to promise me they won’t die. My Mum promises me that she won’t die until she is a “very very old woman,” which doesn’t make me feel better at all. My Dad promises me he won’t die and, while my Mum makes disapproving noises at his making such a promise, I immediately feel better, like a weight has been lifted.

Obviously, even if I believed him at the time, I understood as I grew older that this was not a promise he could keep. And it didn’t bother me; I understood it as something he’d told me at the time to comfort me and make me feel safe, knowing that I wasn’t yet able or ready to live with the truth.

It was therefore surprising to me to find how violently this sense of the promise having being broken coursed through me at the moment I learned of my Dad’s death.

***

I’ve been reading a book by the late philosopher, Peter Goldie, called The Mess Inside (OUP, 2012), which is about the importance of narrative to the way we experience emotions. One of his insights is that, when we reflect upon past experiences, we often inhabit a point-of-view that Goldie views as the “psychological correlate” of free indirect style. What he means by this is that, when we reflect on the past, we encounter “an unelectable ironic gap (epistemic, evaluative, and emotional) between internal and external perspective”; and that when we inhabit this point of view, it performs the same function of free indirect style: that is, “simultaneously closing the ironic gap and drawing attention to its distance” (43, 48).

I’ve been rereading Pride and Prejudice this week for my class on the novel with Goldie’s observations in mind. Austen is famous for her use of free indirect style; but what I now notice is that she also puts her characters in situations where they inhabit the point of view that Goldie suggests is the psychological correlate of free indirect style. So, for example, the following sentence describing Lizzy reflecting on Wickham’s past behavior is not in free indirect style, but it expresses the point of view that concerns Goldie:

“She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before.”

Or consider another example, which is both in free indirect style and represents its psychological correlate in such a way that proliferates the number of viewpoints that the sentence brings together: the free indirect style merges narrator and Lizzy, and the retrospective point of view merges present Lizzy with past Lizzy. Again, here, Lizzy is reflecting on Wickham:

“How differently did every thing now appear in which he was concerned!”

Goldie focuses on grief as a case study of this way of narratively thinking about the past. As he observes, in grief, “you remember the last time you saw the person you loved, not knowing, as you do now, that it was to be the last time. And this irony, through the psychological correlate of free indirect style, will infect the way you remember it” (65).

Goldie describes here exactly how I think about lying with my head on my Dad’s knee while he stroked my hair, the night before he died. He died when I had just turned eighteen, at a time when our relationship was combative. Our conversations always turned into arguments in those days. But his stroking my hair and back, as he always had, still soothed me. That memory took on an aching poignancy after his sudden death because of not knowing at the time, but knowing ever after, that it was the last time.

Another insight Goldie makes about grief is that it does not endure but, rather, perdures. Things that perdure tend to be processes as opposed to states. To say that a process perdures is to say that “its identity is not determined at every moment of its existing” (61). This is very abstract; a helpful example of a thing that perdures that Goldie takes from the philosophers Thomas Hofweber and David Velleman, is the process of writing a check. Here are Hofweber and Velleman:

“A process of writing a cheque is a temporally extended process, with temporal parts consisting in the laying down of each successive drop of ink. What there is of this process at a particular moment – the laying down of a particular drop – is not sufficient to determine that a cheque is being written, and so it is not sufficient to determine which particular process is taking place. That particular drop of ink could have been deposited at that moment, just as it actually was, without other drops’ being deposited at other moments in such a way as to constitute the same process. Not only, then, is the process not present in its temporal entirety within the confines of the moment: it is not fully determined by the events of the moment to be the process that it is.” [1]

Goldie’s point, in bringing the concept of perduring to grief, is that grief, like writing a check, is a process with many features, “none of which is essential at any given particular time” (62). This observation might seem obvious or banal but I think it’s actually profound. It is its perduring quality that makes grief so particular, and so painful. Goldie quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961), a passage that captures the way that grief’s capacity to subside for a while is part of its agony:

“It’s not true that I’m always thinking of H. Work and conversation make that impossible. But the times when I’m not are perhaps my worst. For then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss. Like in those dreams where nothing terrible occurs—nothing that would sound even remarkable if you told it at breakfast-time—but the atmosphere, the taste, of the whole thing is deadly. So with this. I see the rowan berries reddening and don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember.”

I remember, after my Dad died, the feeling of awakening, day after day, from the oblivion of sleep into the memory of loss. Every night I would forget, and every morning I would remember.

This is part of grief’s cruelty; if it was enduring rather than perduring, perhaps you could get used to it. But there’s no getting used to it nor getting over it either, not so long as you love the person you have lost; for grief, as Robert Solomon writes, is the continuation of love. As Goldie cites Wittgenstein,“‘grief’ describes a pattern which recurs, with different variations, in the weave of our life” (from the Philosophical Investigations, cited in Goldie, 62).

Like writing a check, grief perdures. The analogy only goes so far. Unlike writing a check, there’s no being done with grief. It’s a check you’re forever writing that never gets deposited. It’s a check that, like a reckless promise, can’t be cashed.

 

Notes

[1] The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 61, Issue 242, January 2011, Pages 37–57, p.50.

 

Standard

Day 137: outrageous stimulation

The morning after the election, my Mum wrote an email to various U.S. based family members with the subject heading “Commiserations!” Her tone, frankly, was more reproachful than commiserating.

“How could your people vote for this misogynistic, lying, dangerous madman?” she demanded.

Her message ended, as if to assure each of us that she was willing, just about, not to hold us personally responsible for the U.S.’s ignominy, “we still love you all.”

Thus began a family email thread in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

Among the answers that various U.S. based family members gave in answer to my Mum’s question were “a lot of undereducated angry white people”; an emboldened alt right, and (above all), the “strange system” of the Electoral College.

Most of the family members on the thread were Muslim Bengali-Americans (though the person who commented on angry whites was white.) All who chimed in were unified in voicing shock and dismay at Trump’s victory. Yet alongside the shock and sorrow, there was also a perceptible and poignant (to me) strain of residual idealism about the U.S. “The beauty of American society is that the pendulum swings back and forth,” wrote one cousin. Even as another cousin lamented that in the wake of Trump’s election recent immigrants faced “a bleak future,” he referred to the U.S. unironically as “the land of opportunity.” Most striking, though, was the email message that another cousin forwarded from Apple CEO, Tim Cook, in the spirit of a pep talk, enjoining us all to “try to follow Tim Cook’s message now.” The following message was then pasted below:

Team,

I’ve heard from many of you today about the presidential election. In a political contest where the candidates were so different and each received a similar number of popular votes, it’s inevitable that the aftermath leaves many of you with strong feelings.

We have a very diverse team of employees, including supporters of each of the candidates. Regardless of which candidate each of us supported as individuals, the only way to move forward is to move forward together. I recall something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said 50 years ago: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” This advice is timeless, and a reminder that we only do great work and improve the world by moving forward.

While there is discussion today about uncertainties ahead, you can be confident that Apple’s North Star hasn’t changed. Our products connect people everywhere, and they provide the tools for our customers to do great things to improve their lives and the world at large. Our company is open to all, and we celebrate the diversity of our team here in the United States and around the world —regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship or who they love.

I’ve always looked at Apple as one big family and I encourage you to reach out to your co-workers if they are feeling anxious.

Let’s move forward —together!

Best,

Tim

There was something about this smugness of Cook’s message that made me want to smash all of my Apple products immediately. I didn’t do that, because then how would the children play Minecraft and how would I do anything??? Instead I channeled all my iPad-smashing energy into composing a full throttle Professor-splainy email for the family email thread. This is what I wrote:

Hi everyone,

I actually find that message from Tim Cook extremely depressing. I read what he’s saying as, “let’s get back to being productive, team. Let’s not think any more about these very real and profound societal divisions. If we can’t have national unity, at least we can have corporate unity. Go Apple!” It underscores for me that Donald Trump’s ascent is not an isolated event but symptomatic of our (and I include myself in this “our,” myself probably much more than many of the people on this list!) deeper cultural susceptibility to the mesmerizing allure of surfaces, soundbites, and the never-ending cycle of stimulation and reward that is the Siren song of our beloved electronic devices.

The very qualities that make Donald Trump a terrifying prospect as the leader of the free world are what made him (in the election campaign) so appealing to a nation that is conditioned (by the very products that a company like Apple, among others, sells us) to respond reflexively to the unpredictable reward structures that new media (much like the casinos that Trump used to run) depends upon. In a context in which the news media both reflects and perpetuates this craving for stimulation, Trump’s volatility was not a liability but an asset.

I voted for Hillary; but, honestly, I feel complicit in the rise of Trump. He is the dark, ugly side of a culture I otherwise blithely consume and participate in.

I found myself this morning thinking about Wordsworth’s preface to his collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads in 1800. He reflected there on his worry that new communication technology (he’s thinking about rapid developments in print technology) was dulling the country’s capacity to think critically:

“For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.” He says that the uniformity of people’s occupations in the new industrialized economy “produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” He concludes, “When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavored to counteract it …”

His words express better than I can what I’m trying to say. I think Trump’s success is partly the result of our “thirst after outrageous stimulation”: we’d much rather, as a populace, choose someone who feeds our appetite for outrageous stimulation than be, God forbid, bored.

I’m no Luddite — this isn’t meant to be a rant against new technology. New technology can also be harnessed to produce activism and community and beauty. But I do want, speaking for myself, to go forward not in a spirit of togetherness but rather mindful of the way in which the rhetoric of togetherness—“Let’s move forward–together!”–can be manipulated to gloss over real divisions that need to be actively confronted, and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement can be somewhat grotesquely co-opted to encourage people to get back to the higher calling of selling iPads.

Love to all,

Sarah

Today I found myself feeling uncertain about what I wrote above. After all, I adore gothic novels, the very genre that Wordsworth excoriates as symptomatic of industrialization’s vitiating effects upon the modern mind. And I feel similarly smitten by much of today’s new media. Whether it’s alternate reality games, as I’ve written about here, or the Oculus Rift, which produces as close to an experience of the Burkean sublime as anything I’ve ever experienced, I’ve found myself dazzled by the sheer exuberance and creative potential of much new media.

The hermeneutics-of-suspicion version of the connection I draw above between Trump and new media would be that gothic novels or Candy Crush (substitute your own favorite debased cultural form) condition us to be docile subjects … under the cover of fun and games they smuggle in mind-forg’d manacles. But that’s actually not the point I want to make. For my purposes the content is really beside the point. And the point is not, either, that we need critique to come to the rescue of the deluded masses and teach them how to read properly, that is, critically. No, really my point is that I think that my own brain has fundamentally changedthat starting in 2007 or thereabouts, my brain became accustomed to experiencing micro dopamine spikes with every “like” or notification or other electronic alert and that as a result I can only tolerate content that refreshes itself every minute.

I don’t think that my mind has changed, necessarily, any more than advances in print media production changed people’s brains in earlier centuries. The way it has changed is different, yes. Wordsworth’s contemporaries experienced their political lives as gothified: witness Eleanor Tilney and Catherine Morland’s misunderstanding in Northanger Abbey about whether “something shocking” coming “out in London” refers to political unrest or a gothic thriller. Or think of an anonymous review of Frankenstein in an 1818 edition of the Edinburgh Review, which notes that recent “events which have actually passed before our eyes” (most notably the raising of “a private adventurer to the greatest of European thrones”–sound familiar?) “have made the atmosphere of miracles that in which we most readily breathe.”

By contrast, perhaps the way we experience ourselves as political subjects in twenty-first century America is gamified rather than gothified. The atmosphere in which we most readily breathe thrums with the hum of a thousand twangling instruments; their constant murmurings keep us apprised of our progress, while their whisperings—sometimes coy, sometimes urgent—deliver tidings to our ready ears.

Brave new world, indeed.

This vision sounds deterministic—we are stuck in a game we didn’t choose to play—but there are contingencies. Even as media shapes us, the very materiality of media exerts its own agency, throwing new shapes in our path. Take paper, for example. Gothic fiction was not the only new print media form that Horace Walpole had a hand in; Walpole’s home Strawberry Hill boasted architectural innovations that famously relied upon papier-mâché, a craft that reached a height of popularity in the mid-eighteenth century, possibly because of the vast increase in paper production encouraged by the book industry.[1] “My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole quipped, “and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead.” [2] Both predictions, of course, turned out to be wrong.

In a glorious convergence of yesterday’s and today’s new media, this week the elder has been painstakingly creating a replica of Strawberry Hill in Minecraft. Paper castles, pixel castles: all are baseless fabrics, but no less compelling to the beholder for that. I truly don’t know how we go forward from this grim place, but building castles in the air is a way up, if not forward. The art of castle-building, Christopher Smart wrote, is “the craft of erecting baseless fabricks in the air, and peopling them with proper notional inhabitants for the employment and improvement of the understanding” (from Smart’s A New System of Castle-Building[3]. Fiction; political theory; Minecraft; paper crafts: none of these activities necessarily do anything productive; and maybe that’s the point; in a world that is so committed to measuring value based on output and feedback and data, a commitment to making something for the sake of making it: to having a vision, however modest, and executing it, feels like a small, good thing.

Notes

[1] Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi, Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle (London: Frances Lincoln, 2011). 77.

[2] Horace Walpole, “Letter 768. To the Hon. Henry Seymour Conway,” in The Letters of Horace Walpole Fourth Earl of Orford, ed. Paget Toynbee (Oxford: Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1904), 95.

[3] I’ve only just noticed, writing this blog post, that he’s referencing The Tempest with the phrase “baseless fabricks”! Worth it alone for that!

Standard

Day 117: sitting on my hands

A female friend recently told me that my enthusiasm is one of my charms. I think this is true but then, I’m an enthusiast: of course I think my own enthusiasm is charming.

I remember literally sitting on my hands in primary school so that I wouldn’t raise my hand too much. But I find figurative hand-sitting more challenging.

I am an enthusiast in what the OED tells me is the principal current use of the word enthusiasm: I frequently evince “passionate eagerness in any pursuit, proceeding from an intense conviction of the worthiness of the object.”

Trust me, I am also frequently deeply unenthusiastic. There are many things I actively detest, including calculating tips, submitting receipts for reimbursement, and passive-aggressive baseball coaches. But when I’m in, I’m in.

When I’m in a less enthusiastic mood, however, I think of my propensity for enthusiasm less as a charming feature and more as a fundamental character failing. And so we return to a perennial topic of this blog: the duck-rabbit’s inability to be cool.

Strikingly, the OED does not link “cool” as a favorable appraisal of someone’s demeanor (8. a. Attractively shrewd or clever; sophisticated, stylish, classy; fashionable, up to date; sexually attractive) to “cool” as a characterization of a person’s lack of warmth (3. a. Lacking in fervour or zeal, unenthusiastic; lacking heartiness or warmth of interest.) And, maybe, in fact, the two are not historically connected. But they feel intrinsically connected to me today: that is to say, it feels obvious to me that the culture tells me that in order to be attractive I should refrain from displaying “warmth of interest.”

I find this almost impossible. And I’ve been trying pretty hard. Hence the figurative sitting on hands. But it’s a constant struggle. And all of the labor and energy expended in the effort to appear disinterested is, frankly, exhausting. I find myself wondering: is this a constant hidden labor for everyone? Are other people genuinely less enthusiastic or just better at feigning disinterest?

I have always been an enthusiast. One extremely fond memory that comes to mind is hanging out with SJ. I can’t remember if we were in London or Cambridge, or Toronto. But I remember SJ saying casually, hey do you wanna look through this magazine together and we can say which clothes we think look good? And I don’t remember exactly what I said in reply, but the important thing was the affect. It is possible that I actually gasped and clasped my hands with delight. It is quite possible that I said, “that would be AMAZING.” And SJ laughed and laughed at how excited the prospect of flipping through the fashion mag with her had made me.

I’m trying to think through how the economy of desire works in terms of the prohibition on expressing enthusiasm. It’s certainly not limited to romantic relationships. I distinctly remember that when I asked a friend of mine at secondary school why she and the others disliked so strongly the girl that they bullied, she explained that it was because this other girl was desperate to be liked. The whiff of desperation is a turn off. And I guess that makes sense in theory to me. Except. I don’t know. In practice, don’t we only read enthusiasm as “desperation” when we’ve already prejudged someone as “annoying”? If we think that someone is kind and funny and intelligent and all round good company, would that person’s warmth towards us truly be off-putting? That is hard for me to believe.

In fact, I think the opposite is true. In my experience, if I’ve already judged someone to be a good egg, her declared warmth towards me can only be flattering and endearing. Take good Dr. Lake. We had not been five minutes in each other’s company when she collected me at the Cincinnati airport (and, mind, this was the longest we had ever been in each other’s company) when she pulled out a beautiful crocheted scarf from her bag and said, “I made this for you.”

Reader, she crocheted me a scarf.

I wore it this morning, in fact, and every time I do, I feel a sweet pang in my heart that says, “Dr. Lake made this for me.”

Making something for someone is such a gratuitous act of kindness. It’s a gesture that says, so openly, “I’ve spent time thinking about you.”

I don’t want to gender stereotype, but it is harder to imagine a man making something for a friend although perhaps that is simply because they receive less training in the domestic arts. Maybe men make their friends other kinds of things. Maybe they whittle each other little wooden … gadgets.

The sphere, of course, in which I’m most keenly aware of enthusiasm’s unacceptability, is that of dating. Aziz says, “if your messages are in blue and the other person’s messages are green, if there is a shit ton blue than green in your conversation, this person doesn’t give a shit about you.”

Please, don’t sugarcoat it, Aziz.

I was messaging with someone I met on The Internet over the weekend, and looking over our texts now, I am aware of the disparity. All of mine are in vertically elongated blue rectangles. All of his are in squat little grey rectangles and say things like, “Ha.” And, “that’s right.” And, “that’s crazy.” While mine are … well, you know what mine are like.

Likewise, when someone else recently texted me asking if I’d like to get a drink, I texted back immediately, “yes, I would love to!” But that was all wrong, right? I should have texted back something like “Sure.”

In fact, maybe what I need is some kind of autocorrect app. It would automatically make all of my texts more acceptably terse .

For example:

I would love to! Autocorrected version: sure.

That sounds great! Autorrected version: ok.

And, most importantly of all, any texts longer than five words would simply automatically fail to send.

You know whom I blame for giving enthusiasm a bad rap? Jane bloody Austen.

In Northanger Abbey (1818) enthusiasm is at best naïve, like Catherine Moreland’s, but at worst fake and manipulative, like Isabella Thorpe’s. Enthusiasm betrays either a lack of sophistication or else a calculated manipulation of affect in order to exploit others. Either way, enthusiasm is superficial. Austen’s depiction of enthusiasm consciously reacts against the eighteenth-century valorization of involuntary physical symptoms – tears, fainting, blushing – as indexes of sincerity.

Austen’s critique of sentimentalism validates, on the other hand, emotional reserve: still waters run deep, we are meant to conclude, from observing characters such as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Elinor in Sense and Sensibility.

In reality it seems to me that neither philosophy is consistently true. If only people were so consistent! Fervor and effusiveness doesn’t reliably indicate a lack of deep feeling any more than coolness and reserve does. And, after all, coolness is not a lack of affect but its own affective performance. Take this scene in Northanger Abbey in which Henry’s display of composure makes Catherine “restlessly miserable”:

“At length, however, he did look towards her, and he bowed—but such a bow! No smile, no continued observance attended it; his eyes were immediately returned to their former direction. Catherine was restlessly miserable; she could almost have run round to the box in which he sat and forced him to hear her explanation. Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation—instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else—she took to herself all the shame of misconduct.”

Although it is Catherine and not Henry’s affect that Austen emphasizes (she is the one “possessed” by feelings), his actions—the formal bow; the grave face; the refusal to maintain eye contact—perform feeling just as vividly and deliberately as Isabella’s histrionics.

That’s my reading, anyway. Of course a Henry Tilney sort would pour cold water over all of my speculations and say, smugly,“well of course you’re defending enthusiasm. That’s exactly the kind of self-serving move I’d expect from an enthusiast.”

The rabbit would throw up its front paws in exasperation; but the duck is sitting on them. 

 

Standard

Day 108: Beetle

Having a four (very nearly five!) year-old and a psychiatrist are similar experiences in at least one (possibly only in one) respect: both of them constantly badger me to tell them stories about my childhood. The younger calls them “childhood stories.” Dr. F calls them “screen memories.” Same difference.

One particular story came up recently, and I honestly can’t remember if I told it first to the younger or to Dr. F.

I do remember, though, the context in which I told the story to the younger. The younger cannot write words other than her name, but she can make many letters fairly easily, and it pleases her to do so. Some letters, however, most notably the letter S, present a considerable challenge to her fine motor skills and cause her immense frustration. The other day she was livid at her inability to make an S, and sobbed with rage. I felt for her. I remember this particular frustration of being old enough to imagine beautiful complex things (for example: the letter S; a unicorn; a family of owls) but also being too young to make anything other than clumsy, misshapen scrawls. I remember envying older children and adults’ ability to effortlessly make letters and draw graceful lines, while all my toil yielded crooked, primitive marks on the page.

Recalling that feeling prompted me to offer help to the younger the other day, imploring her, “here, sweetheart, let me help, see, I’ll just make one and you can copy it.” But the problem was, as I should have realized, the last thing she wanted was sympathy or help from someone who knew how to makes S’s. In fact, the offer of sympathy or help from someone who already knew how to make S’s was the final indignity.

“No!’ she practically spat at me, “no, you cannot help, I don’t want to copy your S. I want to make my own S, but I can’t, all I can do is scribble scrabble,” and then she scribbled violently all over the page of attempted S’s. [1]

Later when she had calmed down I told her the story about boiling over with envy that I also recently told to Dr. F. This is the story. I was four or younger. A friend came over to play. We played the game called “Beetle,” in which you take turns rolling a die and, depending on the number you get, select a particular plastic beetle body part. The person who assembles their beetle first wins. My friend completed her beetle first. I remember looking over at her perfect, complete beetle and then looking at my unfinished headless beetle and this rage just rose with me.

Reader, I smashed and completely destroyed her beetle.

I remember both my friend and my mother being shocked and appalled at my behavior.

I described this story just now as a story about envy, but I think, upon reflection, that it’s about two more minor emotions that have nonetheless been central to my emotional life—perversely so because my life has been so very charmed in so many ways: those two emotions are resentment and indignation.

Resentment and indignation are perhaps the two emotions that I find easiest to identify with in fictional characters. I don’t know what that says about me, but vicarious indignation gives me a real buzz, so much so that I find it … really difficult to let go of. I’m going to provide two examples from two of my all time favorite entertainments: the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (published 1813) and the 1953 musical film Calamity Jane, which stars Doris Day as Calam (we’re on familiar terms, I can call her that) and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok.

I have enormous affection for both of these works. And part of my enjoyment, almost perversely, stems from an obstacle that I find to be built into the arc of both plots.

This is the obstacle: I simply cannot get over my resentment that both Lizzie and Calam are given the brush off by the men with whom they are originally smitten (respectively, George Wickham and Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin—who is essentially a less roguish, blander Wickham) and then, to add insult to injury, reprimanded about their liking for these men by two other frankly, much less likable men with whom they are then expected to (and in fact do) fall in love so grateful are they to have had their moral failings pointed out to them.

In both cases, the heroine comes to realize that their first love interest is shallow and they move on from their respective infatuations by maturing and recognizing the superior value of Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Lizzie’s case, and Wild Bill Hickok, in Calam’s. But in both texts, this transition, for me at least, is far too abrupt.

Essentially, I remain hung up on Wickham and the handsome lieutenant Gilmartin past the point in the narrative in which I am meant to have re-centered my narrative desire upon the more appropriate fantasy object.

I can’t help feeling that both Lizzie and Calam were slighted and this sense of injury and indignation is so strong that in both cases it prevents me from enjoying the plot’s resolution. And yet—and here’s the kicker—I enjoy feeling indignant so very much that I don’t mind it one bit! At the end I am seething and it feels fantastic. In my real life, while—believe me—I seize on every opportunity to feel indignant that comes my way, I don’t have all that much, frankly, to be resentful about.

Even at the very last scene of Calamity Jane that shows Calam getting hitched to Bill and Katie to Danny Gilmartin, I really want Lieutenant Gilmartin to come to his senses and realize that Calam is so much more kickass than Katie. And shouldn’t Lizzie at least get to kiss handsome, fickle Wickham before settling down with Fitzwilliam ugh-I-can’t-bear-that-I’m-attracted-to-this-plebeian-woman-but-we-all-have-our-cross-to-bear-Darcy? [2]

I feel that this desire, on my part, runs against the grain, as it were, of each narrative. Wickham and Gilmartin serve a clear narrative purpose, and that purpose is transitory. I guess, if I were more psychoanalytically oriented, I could even call them transitional objects: they are just dummy-love-objects, like a child’s “lovey,” and it is in the recognition of them as such and of Darcy and Bill as, by contrast, real and worthy objects of esteem that the maturing of Lizzie and Calam is supposed to inhere.

Why can’t I move beyond my indignation and resentment? I think it partly comes down to the key moment in both narratives in which the Proper Love Object proves his moral authority by shaming the heroine. Darcy shames Lizzie in the letter where he points out her family’s impropriety and Bill shames Calam in front of all of their friends by rigging a shooting contest so that Katie (who can’t shoot for shit!) appears to be a virtuoso shot.

Both the letter from Darcy and Bill’s shooting the glass are displays of their moral authority and virtuosity. This is the moment where my sympathetic identification with each heroine completely breaks down: instead of feeling ashamed—as both Lizzie and Calam feel, therefore showing their maturation, pshaw,—I feel just enraged with Darcy and Bill. Their actions of censure don’t dampen my indignation; they stoke it. It’s like someone coming over to me to offer me help making my S’s when I’m already mad.

Instead of thinking, “Oh, I am grateful for your guidance! I could not make my own S! How lucky I am to have your S to copy!” I think “fuck off I’d rather do scribble scrabble than copy your stupid S.”

My favorite moment in Calamity Jane is possibly the moment when Katie kisses Danny and Calam shoots the punch cup right out of Katie’s hand. It’s a total beetle-crushing moment.

I’m not endorsing beetle-crushing or punch-glass shooting (although I will confess a continuing fondness for scribble scrabble). Obviously, such behavior is immature and destructive. I haven’t crushed any beetles lately. I am not a sociopath. If you and I were to engage in a friendly game of Beetle these days and I lost, I would be able to refrain from crushing your beetle. I might even say, “well done!” I might even mean it!

My point is simply that one of the pleasures of fiction is not only the vicarious experience of feelings that the protagonists feel; sometimes it’s also the vicarious experience of feelings – in the case of sentimental fiction, often, more brutish feelings – that the protagonists resist. Those unrepresented feelings might be thought of as lurking in the narrative’s negative space, just waiting for bad readers to come along and give them life.

 

Notes

[1] Do other children use the term “scribble scrabble”? Both of my children use the phrase “scribble scrabble” as though it were an accepted general term—a technical term, even—used to denote the non-representational art made by toddlers.

[2] I guess that is part of the point of Helen Fielding’s re-writing of P&P in Bridget Jones’s Diary: at least Bridget gets to sleep with Daniel Cleaver before meeting Mark Darcy. As an aside, the other problem with the conclusion with Pride and Prejudice for me as a reader is that I am unmoved by real estate and furnishings. This is true in real life and it is true in fiction. I don’t get people who look through real estate listings for fun, or who read Better Homes and Gardens, or who want to browse in furniture stores, or tour old houses and ooh and ahh. All of those activities fill me with mental pain. As several of you know, I am the worst person to ask for advice about furniture or housing. It’s a failure of imagination, really. I can never imagine myself in the house or enjoying the furniture. So I just cannot relate to Lizzie’s property-gasm when she sees Pemberley. I’m just like, meh, it’s a big house, whatever, there isn’t even a gift shop or a café.

Standard