Conversations July 27, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

3:50 AM. Sixty-four years old today. It sounds like so much, and I feel so scarcely begun.

All right, Papa, nearly 4 AM. Your parents and you?

It isn’t that I’m shying away from the subject but that like all the guys upstairs as your mind constellates them, I circle around and provide context so that you get a better idea of how any given thing is placed in its context. It’s important that you see how things interrelate. It’s much less important that you see any given thing in isolation — as if “in isolation” could exist.

So, to understand me — as an example of life, you will remember, not as a sort of embalming or even of reconstruction — realize that I, as you or as anyone else, contained a series of mechanisms, or robots as you are calling them, that tended to act on their own when triggered, and acted sometimes with and more often without the knowledge and modulation of other parts of the person-group that was me.

Have you never erupted in rage, or found yourself compelled to act in some manner, in response to some stimulus, quite independent of the will of what you would normally call “you”? You know you have. We’ve touched on this before. That which I would do, I do not. That I would not do, I do. It’s a very old problem.

When I came home from the war, I was not the person who had left home for Kansas City after high school. How could I be? Yet it was very convenient to live at home, and thus not pay rent, and be surrounded by support, during my year of convalescence. How else could I have stretched out my insurance payments? And that was all that I had. Beyond that finite series of payments, I had no job, no career, no real direction. Even if I could have asked my father to pay my way through college, how could I reduce myself to a somewhat older college boy when I had lived among veterans? It is true, I wasn’t exactly a veteran, not technically, but I had gone in harm’s way and had gotten wounded, and I had had the willingness if not the eyesight. That would have to be close enough. A few months in the hospital, absorbing the life and atmosphere of real veterans, was enough to separate me forever from the life of college boys.

And even if I could have had my job back at the Star, in the face of so many de-mobbed journalists, I couldn’t have done it, hobbling around with a cane. Is that any way to chase ambulances? And anyway I wanted to be a writer. I had my insurance payments to buy me the things I needed, and I had a house to live in; let me use my time writing.

But it meant fitting in where I didn’t fit.

I don’t say my parents were unreasonable. Maybe they lacked imagination, to see that the changes in me were not necessarily bad, but were just different. But they couldn’t stretch so far.

My father tried so hard to live by a few rules, and he took those rules to be absolutes, in the teeth of the evidence all around him that they weren’t absolutes. What was he going to do with me? And still more, what was he going to do with his daughters, who defied his rules openly instead of surreptitiously as I did?

As I look at it now, I can see that he took it — as he did everything else — as evidence of his personal failure. His children were going to hell figuratively, and maybe literally, and he couldn’t do anything about it.

Oh, we had some blowups, my parents and me, for they were together in that. My father was more religious, my mother more noblesse oblige, but neither one of them had any doubt about their standards, and I wasn’t living up to them. And I alternated between trying to get along and trying to get them to give me space, as your generation says.

Only — and this is the real point here, not particulars of my biography except as illustration — it wasn’t me reacting to that situation, so much as it was what you are calling robots. It isn’t as if there was a consistent individual giving direction. At most there was a consciousness observing the interplay of external and internal.

I know you understand what I’m saying. Can you translate it?

I don’t know. I can try, I guess, because it’s true, I do know what you’re saying.

Let’s put it this way. When certain triggers were pulled, a robot within you went into motion. Different triggers evoked different robots. But you as a 20-year-old didn’t have any insight into this, nor much control over any of it, nor much memory of what you never observed because you weren’t there at that moment, the robot-du-jour being there instead. So you would retain a memory of the situation before and the situation after, and some part of the actual explosion or conflict, but not the psychological links that would have made sense of it.

Yes. And so I’d put on some patches afterwards to explain it to myself and to others. And naturally since I knew I didn’t intend any of it, it must be either the justifiable result of intolerable pressures from them or their misunderstanding me, or something like that. And such patches over time acquired their own consistency regardless of what any outside observer would have said had happened.

Nor was I the villain of the piece. My sisters certainly didn’t think so. My parents were expressing their own robots too, naturally. So any what you call victims-and-villains scenario would miss the point. It was conflict, not warfare, and nobody in the conflict was “wrong” in their own eyes or even objectively except in this or that particular instance.

There’s always conflict open or suppressed between a grown son and his father, and it’s worse if they have to live together in the father’s house. And the conflict between mother and son can be worse. The father at least wants to see the son independent. The mother maybe doesn’t. The son wants independence — but he also wants that security of the nest, especially if he can get it for nothing.

Nothing particularly special about that situation at the Hemingway’s in 1919. It was exaggerated because the war had given me a huge amount of freedom sooner than I would have had it otherwise, and had filled my mind with experiences of other ways of seeing the world and enjoying the world, and Oak Park looked awfully provincial to me.

But perhaps the important point is how easy it is for the biographer to assume a consistency of motive, a consistency of participant, a consistency of a situation, whereas in fact everybody’s robots changed their motives from moment to moment (potentially) and this in effect meant that different people were standing in for each of the people involved, which meant that what looked like an easy-to-summarize situation was at best an average of what really happened.

If I was told to leave the cottage until I could stop swearing and loafing and taking advantage, that’s true, it happened. But happy times also happened, times when my parents and I not only managed to get along but had renewed glimpses of what we appreciated in one another. The Ernest who wrote a loving note to accompany the gift of a lily was as real and as much part of my total person-group as the Ernest who fought wildly to show them that the world was larger than their ideas, that he was larger than their idea of him.

Beware believing biographers! And yet, absorb their point of view of that life (for that’s what their work amounts to) and use it to pry beneath the surface for the varying aspects that are so easily glossed over or made consistent in the telling.

If you were to ask my parents to describe my life and actions and attitude after I returned home in 1919, they’d probably say I didn’t want to do any real work; didn’t want to contribute my fair share of the household expenses or upkeep; didn’t want to follow the rules I had been raised to follow; had been coarsened in language habits and morals; in general, I had gone seriously downhill. For this is what they could see. What they couldn’t see was the writer struggling to be born; the war veteran struggling to remain a man and not be forced back to being a dependent boy; the traveler who was oppressed by new/old narrower limits. Most of all they couldn’t see that scared boy over-compensating with over-confidence. I made sure they didn’t see that! I hadn’t really gotten into an army. I hadn’t really been a hero. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to really be a writer. Maybe I wouldn’t really be able to get out of Oak Park. That was a terrific load of worry to carry. It was a hard way to start life — and for the moment I couldn’t do much about it.

And what I couldn’t see is that nothing between my parents was as simple as it looked, because they too were not simple, nor was either one a singular person, but person-groups often expressing through automatic reactions, or robots. Maybe no child sees his parents accurately either as individuals or as a couple. I certainly didn’t. And, as I said, after the fact I nailed up a few posters expressing the situation as I wanted to remember it, and left it at that. So for the longest time, my father was a coward and my mother was a bully and that explained my childhood and background. That emotional history became the only history I could hear, and so the facts were rearranged, reinterpreted, forgotten, distorted, invented, according to the emotional need.

Did you ever see it clearly?

Moments of clarity would be terribly upsetting to my mental stability, for they would mean that I had nowhere to stand. So, I couldn’t afford them.

And you put robots into place to screen you from anything that would provide that knowledge.

It’s almost more that my robots installed robots — or filters as you call them. It wasn’t conscious on my part. I couldn’t have afforded that it become conscious.

How did it happen, Ernest?

You mean, I think, why did it happen. I suppose you could say, because I never examined my life — my inner life — the way I examined life around me. That might possibly have made me more aware, and might possibly have helped me to get control of some of my automatic mechanisms that did so much to complicate my life. But that’s almost asking me to be a different person.

Yes, I can see that. I can imagine if somebody asked me the same thing about my own life. I’m sorry you paid such a high price, though I can imagine your life being equally creative and far less turbulent.

Maybe. The thing is, though, everything interconnects. Start tinkering with the mechanism and you don’t know what happens down the line.

True enough. Okay; I guess we don’t need to talk more about you and your parents in 1919 and 1920 unless you want to sometime.

You’ve gotten the main point of it. If people get the idea of how complicated their lives are because of how complicated they are, that will do.

All right. It’s 5:15 and on that note I’ll sign off till Thursday.

Happy birthday.

Thanks. (One wonders: How many more?)


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