Life & Living I (Introit) [Second Try]
“The IQ test results have come in.” In her cartoonishly intimidating German accent, the venerable psychoanalyst continued, “They place you in the second percentile of intelligence.” American intelligence, intelligence among Americans, I forget just how she put it, but the accent was very much on the second percentile. “This is not uncommon among college graduates,” she went on.
I pursed my lips in a gesture of modified satisfaction. Second percentile wasn’t so bad. I should have been surprised to hear that I was in the first, because I was terrible bad at arithmetic. Geometry, trigonometry: I did fine with them, but the moment I had to compute integers (much less fractions!) I broke down. My addition was whimsical; I often confused seven for nine and vice versa; and when it came to subtraction I had to write things down. Not uncommon among college graduates, though? That was ambiguous. What’s “uncommon”? Which college? It never occurred to me that most second-percentilers with scholarships or affluent parents would be college graduates.
“I’m telling you this because I think that it is time that you gave up pretending that you’re in the first percentile.” Which, as you can see, I hadn’t been doing; but I knew what the doctor meant. She had earlier remarked that, as I had not yet done anything remarkable by the age of twenty-five, it was unlikely that I would ever do anything remarkable. Knowing I might think that she was talking about science — no concern of mine — she mentioned her beloved Goethe.
Then, after a pause, “I think that it is time that you stopped pretending that you belong in the first percentile.”
A little slow, as usual, I was still dwelling on the commonness. Can such intelligence be common among college graduates? There are so many college graduates, and even the second percentile must be rather small. Of course, I might have been getting it all backwards, proof perhaps that I really wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. I was hearing the doctor say that it was common for college graduates to belong to the second percentile. I wasn’t hearing that members of the second percentile were common among college graduates. It never occurred to me, for example, that members of the first percentile must be even more common among college graduates. Then again, I do think that I was hearing quite accurately what the doctor was trying to say.
Then I caught up. Stop pretending.
If I were a journalist, I’d look into the claim about how common second percentilers are among college graduates. But I’m not, and even as I sat there, over forty years ago, in what was masquerading as therapy, I was ever more persuaded that terms like “common” and “college graduate” didn’t mean anything very definite — and as for “intelligence” — ! I had undergone the two days of IQ testing, in a pleasant office overlooking River Oaks, with a kind of bountiful condescension, as though I had volunteered to share my specialness with the administrators of such tests and perhaps teach them a thing or two. Now, my good behavior was being rewarded with unpleasant news. Stop pretending. Did I pretend to have a high IQ? Never. I’d met a few people who did (although I never stopped to wonder how they knew, since it was a given that one could never be told one’s score), and most of them seemed to be brittle and humorless. I was very smart; I’d been told that all my life. But it meant more to me that I was special. “Special” meant that I was off the charts, not a point on the line from moron to genius.
When the therapist, Hilde Bruch, who was one of the first theorists of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders, expressed doubts that I would ever do anything remarkable, she meant that, while I might get rich, I would never be Goethe. But I probably wouldn’t get rich, either, because, well, that was why — as we both knew without our saying anything too grossly candid — why she had taken me on. I was not the victim of an eating disorder. I was the son-in-law of one of her close friends on the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine, and it was Dr Bruch’s job, as a favor to her friend, not to make me feel better about myself, but, quite the reverse, to prod me into getting a real job and buying responsible insurance policies, so that her friend could stop subsidizing the lifestyle that her daughter and I were pursuing at the time, cheap though this may have been.
It was a reckoning. I had been weighed in the balance and found second rate. I didn’t know it, but my brief marriage was falling apart; my ties to Dr Bruch were about to evaporate. I was functionally broke, with no prospects. My ill-paid job was a continuation of something that I’d done in college, a way of putting off going to law school, as my father wanted me to do. It was, how you say, a low point, possibly the low point. I had never heard the saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I’m not sure that I would have found it very encouraging. Death looked pretty good, for a few weeks there.
When I told the IQ story to my sixth and last psychotherapist, he smiled and said, “And yet all of her theories turned out to be wrong.” I haven’t checked that out, either.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself — before I tell you a whole lot more.
An early Baby Boomer, I was born at the beginning of January 1948, in New York City. Almost immediately, I was adopted by a couple living in Westchester County, to the north of the city. In 1955, I flew with my parents to Bermuda in a Pan Am Stratocruiser — the second level was below the main cabin. I was a few months shy of ten when, in October 1957, Sputnik circled the earth. In 1963, when I was fifteen, the Beatles took off while I settled in at boarding school; weeks later, JFK was assassinated, right before Thanksgiving. In 1970, after graduating from Notre Dame, I found a job with a radio station in Houston. I was twenty-six when Nixon resigned. Three years later, I went back to Notre Dame for law school. In 1980, at the age of thirty-two, I passed New York State’s bar exam, and in the following year I was married a second time, to Kathleen Moriarty, at St Thomas More Church. In 1985, I bought a PCjunior, and eleven years later, when I was forty-eight, I joined an online listserv. Now you know everything.
My father, who was dear to me even if he wasn’t my father, once quipped, to a visitor who remarked on the impressive display of books in my room, that I had “more books than sense.” This was all too true.
“Sense” covers a lot of territory, but what my father probably had uppermost in mind was schoolwork. I read a great deal, yes, but not always what was on the reading lists. Instead, I read a lot of stuff that was not on the reading list. Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King, for example, sparked an interest in Louis XIV at Versailles that was shared by no one I knew. (More about that anon.) The books that I read indicated that I was not only an unusual person, but an unusual kind of unusual person. Unlike the run of weird kids, I had no interest in science fiction or fantasy. Except at the barber shop, I never touched comic books. What bothered my father was that I seemed allergic to prescribed reading. All it took to kill my interest in a book was its appearance in a syllabus.
Nor did I read the books that were popular with other smart kids. I stayed away from Catch-22, for some reason, and I still haven’t read it. I didn’t read Camus or Kerouac, or any of the other writers whose books predictably filled the shelves in others’ dorm rooms. What were these books? They were books by men who were thoughtful about real life and true justice, and who undertook adventures to harden themselves and sharpen their awareness of the world’s problems, which usually boiled down to materialism. Capital-m Materialism, I should say, not the philosophy. They were all books that a college student could grasp without effort, and they managed to be individual in the same way. They were very respectable books, and I sensed that they had nothing to tell me. That’s the kind of sense I had.
I became someone who wanted to have read many books. Well, don’t we all? The best way to simulate this impossible ambition — for the many books that one has not yet read is a very conscious and ever-growing multiple of the ones that one has — is to read the books that are mentioned in other books. This is how I assembled my shelf of English history books when I was studying the subject at boarding school. The library had just about nothing. So, when I read about Blackwells, the Oxford bookshop, in The New Yorker, I contrived to open an account. Don’t ask me how I paid for anything, but the books were duly shipped. I still have them all. I’ve managed to read them all, too, over the years. Most of them were about the Wars of the Roses — a term, I learned, that serious historians never use. What I learned from this batch of books was that if you read about the same events in a couple of history books, you get a perspective that makes the events far more present in the mind, so that just by reading key bits of books you will appear to be frighteningly knowledgeable, at least to anyone who isn’t a scholar. The only way to be a person who has read many books when you are young is to cheat like hell.
It was years before I could discipline myself to read books from beginning to end, and not to open them in the middle.
Although I’d have died had anyone accused me of consumerism, I was as attentive to brands as any fashionista. A row of Penguin Classics, all the spines conforming to a single design, packs a punch. In those days, the Penguins were even more austere than they are now; they hadn’t yet discovered basic black. Signet Classics were no less uniform. Washington Square Press books, which were very inexpensive, bore a family resemblance when lined up on the shelf. The simple truth is that an organized bookcase suggests an organized mind, and I took all the help I could get. I judged books by their covers all the time.
In any case, for most of my life, I really did have more books than sense. The world of experience was so unruly! The great thing about books was that everything happened in the book. If you closed the book, everything stopped, and stood still, right where it was, until you opened it up again. The other day, I was reading a story by William Trevor, and I reached a very uncomfortable point. A young and innocent Irishman was about to be assigned a terrorist bombing job. The title of the story was “The Mourning,” and I took it at face value. I put the book down for a while. You can do that, when you’ve had too much, when things are about to get too unpleasant. You can get used to the new situation. Then you can go back and read it. Who would prefer real experience to that? Not I.
Books are great companions; I always have one with me. But in public they are a kind of armor. Books make a lot of people uncomfortable. While still in my twenties, I began to notice that people who asked if I had really read all the books on the bookshelves in my living room were really asking something else. They might be asking if the books were a pose. They might be asking if I finished what I started. What they mostly seemed to be asking was what to do if you find yourself in the same room with someone who has read all those books. Where is the panic button?
You don’t read much about people who don’t like books, because there is no market for the reader who isn’t one. But I believe that people who don’t care for books are in the majority, and that this is not a cultural phenomenon but a somatic one. I have decided, on the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever, that the ability to read fluently is a talent, a gift like any other physical gift. We don’t think of it as physical, because we’re slugs stretched out on a sofa, but of course it is physical, utterly dependent upon functioning organs — eyes, nerves, and even hands. For people who like to read, the effortless transformation of inkblots into narrative has to be recognized as a gift, which, like any gift, can be improved into a skill with practice. But the person who is not born with the right eyes or the right nerves will probably never be a reader, and it’s incumbent upon readers to recognize this. I think that it’s the second hardest thing to do. (The hardest thing to do is to imagine not knowing something that you know.) Good readers rightly do not think of themselves as virtuosos. But they do have a skill that isn’t equally distributed. I don’t think that this is anything like sufficiently understood by people who wind up in the professional élite. We’ve been too prone to regard non-readers as lazy.
Here is a little test.
Basil: Seriously, Sybil, do you remember, when we were first … manacled together, we used to laugh quite a lot.
Sybil: Yes, but not at the same time, Basil.
My bookishness, constructed as it is of language, leaks into everyday speech. I love talk. I don’t care for talk that is merely clever, any more than I like overly salted soup; but without cleverness talk is hard going. Unlike salt, my kind of cleverness is a rather local thing, limited, perhaps, to people who laugh at the exchange between Basil and Sybil not just because it scores yet another point for Sybil in their ongoing hostilities but because her riposte takes advantage of a vagueness in his memory. It also replaces the expected commonplace, “things,” with “time,” sharply underscoring that their laughter was not a manifestation of togetherness. In other words, it’s funny as language. Words, as some women say of their inexplicable boyfriends, make me laugh.
Distraction used to be a serious problem. My eye is drawn to the unusual, the piquant, the momentarily amusing. That’s why I never mark up books anymore. I’m too likely to underline the least important sentence in a paragraph, simply because it has an interesting turn of phrase, or it mentions something that has caught my attention elsewhere or the name of someone I know (from reading), no matter how ephemeral in the context. It’s not that I miss the important points as I read, necessarily; I just underline the other ones.
The movie Contact is a favorite of mine, not because I believe in extraterrestrial intelligence — I don’t, and yet at the same time I think it’s a bad idea to go looking for evidence of it (my conservatism in a nutshell) — but because my personal SETI arrays are always picking up interesting signals that make me set aside whatever it is that I’m supposed to be doing. Parents, teachers, and employers scolded me for being incapable of focusing on the problems that they assigned, incapable on their part of understanding that for me those problems were lifeless, compared with the distractions. Worse happened when I re-understood their problems in my own terms, and tried to convince them to see things through the correct end of the telescope. [Poseidon? Walking toward the bow.]
And I had no ability to concentrate; I could not shut out the ambient world. This is why I could never get anything done in a library. Nor anywhere too brightly lighted. At boarding school, I began to understand that my mind worked best when I had a typewriter in front of me, and that I wrote better at a keyboard than with a pen. It wouldn’t be until personal computers came along, however, that I profited much from that.
But this was little more than the jitteriness of youth. All little boys have trouble sitting still. Physically indolent, I might sit still but I couldn’t keep my mind still. There was so much to learn, and every bit of learning took so long! It was a chronic panic that lasted all through college, where I ended up distracting myself further with LSD. My mind was a mystery to me, mercurial, inventive, capable of remarkable eloquence but thoroughly unreliable. It led its own life of the mind.
The truant that I became in school — showing up for class, perhaps, but reading something else — was the person I kept on being long after school was over. My course was set before I reached college. I had no idea where I was going — not then. Not for a long time. But I was still on a course.
My lack of control over my own intellect, my inability to give any clear idea of what I was looking for in all the books that I was reading, and my willingness to accept circumstances instead of shaping them to my liking — these were all offenses against manliness that must have repelled potential mentors, if there ever were any. I did encounter one older man who seemed to respect that I was stumbling along earnestly, and who seemed to understand that my confusion was genuine, and not evidence of a want of seriousness, and I shall sing his praises in due course. For the most part, I lived in disgrace, a manifest failure to make the most of ample gifts. Worse, I exhibited characteristics that were common among women. I was intuitive and compassionate. I avoided every kind of violence. I became an articulate defender of women’s issues. My father told me that he and my mother expected me to grow up homosexual.
I was always at odds with the consensus about masculinity; a lot of learned male behavior struck me as soul-killing, or at least anaesthetic. Why would men spend so much time and effort disciplining themselves not to feel? Was that something to look back on with pride — I spent my life keeping my feelings to myself? It seemed stupid and suffocating to me. My idea of cooperation was feminine from the beginning: let’s get something done, and it doesn’t matter how coordinated we look doing it. For all their silence and stoicism, men just seemed to be role-playing. My problem was, really, that I could not take being a man seriously.
Before Dr Bruch, I had been to two psychiatrists. I had even read Freud, and pondered the mechanics of how the ego, the id, and the superego interacted. I wondered how much of the unconscious could ever be revealed to the light of day, mildly aware that consciousness often makes us clumsy. I shared the general liberal view that individual maladjustment was the source of unhappiness. If we could only figure ourselves out, then we would be smiling all the time, and psychiatrists were there to help us with that. Only, psychiatrists did not appear to be tremendously helpful. We had to do all the work. Most of the time spent with them was devoted to talking about ourselves, not the most interesting of topics. We knew that psychotherapy took a long time, but it was hard to believe that anything at all was happening. It often felt like a terrible waste of time. Every once in a while, I walked out of the office feeling a little better; sometimes I was quite unnerved. But most of the time I was relieved that another boring session had come to an end.
If we could all get our little houses in order, society would be a wonderful thing, instead of the suffocation that it was often felt to be. There was never much thought given to the possibility that society might be altered in ways that would make it easier to be individually happy. That kind of thinking was frowned upon; it might provoke the authorities to complain of socialist tendencies. Long before Mrs Thatcher claimed that there was no such thing as “society,” Americans were taught that the community was nothing more than an amalgam of individuals. Individuals shaped the world, which is why they had to be in good shape to begin with. Most people had no need for psychiatry, of course; they just needed some clear rules and a bit of discipline. It was oddballs like me who needed their heads examined.
Things things felt wrong to me in Eisenhower America (Eisenhower was one of the few good things about it, but he kept that a secret). I don’t mean that I had any sense of the big picture, politically or otherwise. I just noticed that nobody was quite as happy as 1950s television said we were. I don’t want to overstate my perceptiveness; lots of young people were suspicious of the consumer culture. We had a powerful sense that deeper values were going untended, that the surface glitter was both unattractive and misleading. But what deeper values? And what did these values feel like in every day life? Were they monumental, parts of a grand philosophy (such as communism or existentialism) that had an answer for everything? Or were they small, tiny perhaps, and unique: moments of genuine contact with other people? Such moments were rare, at least for most of us, who didn’t know any better but to wait for them to happen; and too many of them involved mind-altering drugs. The hard question was whether to go forward or backward. Going backward meant “growing up” and doing all the adult things, whether we wanted to be parents and homeowners or not; going forward seemed more and more to be a matter of going inward, of pursuing states of consciousness to which various Asian philosophies were thought to hold the key. I wasn’t drawn in either direction, but I could imagine being a lawyer without being a parent or a homeowner — actually, I already was a parent by this time — and then, in law school, I fell in love. Living some kind of life with the woman I loved became an effective organizing principle. It still is.
But I retained a very Sixties skepticism about received wisdom and the institutions that benefit from them. Schools, businesses, churches, clubs; any entity that was supposed to go on existing no matter how often the faces of people who ran it changed — institutions were somehow not what they were cracked up to be. There was something about them that people didn’t understand. Later, when I found out what it was, I would see why they didn’t want to understand. For the time being, though, my skepticism about institutions meant that I was not a joiner.
Because I was not a joiner, and because my interests were so peculiarly difficult to mention, I did not have many lasting friends. Not shy, and rarely at a loss for words, I always had a good time at parties, but it was all something of an act, because I could never talk about what really mattered. My loneliness was intensified by a lack of sympathy for all the other bright young people who thought that there was something wrong with American society. They wanted to reform it, revolutionize it. They wanted to tear down old restraints. Hating destruction of any kind, I wanted at least to find out what those old restraints had been expected to accomplish, and why they were no longer a good fit. I never succumbed to the notion that the world used to be a better place, but it seemed obvious that we couldn’t understand what was going on until we understood what had happened before. And yet this put me at odds with nearly everyone. On the one hand, radical students regarded history as a distracting waste of time, a story about the abuse of power — period. On the other, traditionalists were affronted by my habit of analyzing things. And they were insulted when I suggested that most of their traditions were of fairly recent origin.
I expect that anyone who is lonely is going to consider suicide, as I did quite often when I was young. Once, I even gave it a try, although I made sure that I didn’t succeed. It was certainly not a play for attention; the attention that I got in aborting the attempt was embarrassing enough. Everyone wanted to know why, of course; I could only reply that I didn’t know but that I was very unhappy. I was a freshman in college at the time, the perfect age for such despair. As time went by, though, I had ever less reason to believe that I was in for a rosy future; despair ought to have increased. When I graduated with my all but useless bachelor of arts degree, I had no career plans of any kind. All I wanted to do was sit somewhere and read. I was always looking for people to talk to, and not finding them, because I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to talk about. Suicidal or not, there was clearly something wrong with me. And yet I never believed this for a second. There was nothing much wrong with me, and nothing much wrong with everybody else, either. But the language was screwed up.
Later, I would learn about the prophets. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible don’t play a big role in Catholic teaching, and like everyone else I assumed that prophets were men who could see the future. (Like everyone else, I made assumptions about things that I didn’t consciously think about.) The prophets foretold a grisly future for the Israelites, and that is what befell them, but prophecy as such was not involved. The prophets were simply exhorting their countrymen (especially the rich and powerful ones) to adhere with greater fidelity to the terms of their covenant with God. Their many derelictions would surely bring down divine punishments! From a more secular viewpoint, it might have been seen that that covenant defined a society in which the Israelites could live; experimenting with alternative lifestyles, which is what the prophets were on about, was probably a bad idea. It still is, I think, unless you are living where your lifestyle is at home.
Without being aware of it, I discovered that I was comfortable with complexity and that other people weren’t. I often wonder to what extent this comfort with complexity is an inborn feature of my brain. That’s a depressing conclusion, because it means that I might as well not bother to open my mouth. I like to figure things out as much as anybody, but I don’t like to solve problems. The difference is that problems vanish when they’re solved, while figuring things out always leads to expanded understanding. I learned that I was not competitive, genuinely uninterested in demonstrating my superiority to anyone else. To say that sport of any kind bored me to sobs is to say everything there is to say on that subject — although, if taken to a baseball game, especially a night game in a small park, I will pay attention (but I will not remember who won).
There was a great deal about real-world sexuality that I never imagined, because it could only be hinted at with words. I truly did not understand desire. Perhaps because my prevailing desire is really little more than curiosity — I want to know things — I did not imagine how powerful desire could be. I associated desire with crime, and crime with mental affliction, and mental affliction with therapy. If you wanted something too badly, you went to a doctor, and the doctor would talk you out of it. Because — as I knew all too well from books — intense desires, given enough air, always burn themselves out, so what’s the point?
My phlegmatic constitution, even more than having been the youngest kid in the class, may explain why it took me so long to understand why sex was such a big deal. I am not going to have very much to say about my sex life, for general (not personal) reasons that I’ll go into later, but one very uncomplicated little fact about me is that my curiosity about what books called wet dreams was never satisfied. That’s a delicate thing to confess, I know, but I feel obliged to acknowledge the fact, which I take to be an abnormality.
At the age of thirteen or thereabouts, I was overcome not by sex but by art. Overnight, I developed a passion for Mozart and a thirst for English history. It was now that I became a real reader. As a child, I had read Hardy Boys mysteries, partly because they were mildly thrilling but mostly so that I could boast of the speed with which I got through them. I never had any interest in children’s books. As for music, I listened to WQXR, the classical radio station then owned by the Times whenever I was home sick from school. I also liked dance music from the Thirties and Forties but not the up-to-date stuff that my father listened to on WNEW. If I’d known his name, I should have been able to tell you that I loathed Nelson Riddle. (I don’t anymore.) One thing led another, and then I was knocked over by a tidal wave of Mozart and anybody who wrote before he did. It would take me a very long time to approve of anything connected with or dating to the Nineteenth Century, even Jane Austen, whom I thought I liked, and Tchaikovsky, who was gorgeous. My thoughts about sex remained those of a child until I was in college, when considerations of status rather than desire finally got the motor running.
For years, I thought that I would one day write a book about my terrible relationship with my mother. It seemed obvious that the conflict between us must have shaped my personality. But when I got round to starting on this exposé, the relationship between the fights that she and I had all the time and the person I grew up to began to look less causal and more occasional. I came into the world with a character of my own, just as I saw my grandson do a few years ago. Of course I was socialized by my parents, housebroken if you like. But I’m quite sure that they didn’t change me. They just slowed me down a bit.
One of the last things that I remember happening in Bronxville occurred midday one Sunday. We would be moving to Houston soon, although I’m not sure that I knew that at this time. I was home from college, where, by now, I had fallen in love with Wagner’s Ring cycle. It took a long time to acquire the recordings, because they were so expensive. Finally, I had Die Walküre, the best-known and -loved of the bunch. While my parents and my sister were at Mass, I took the advantage of being alone in the house to turn up the volume. The music was so loud that I didn’t hear the car pull into the garage or the door open and close. When at last the music died away from natural causes, all I heard sobbing. It was my mother, sitting at the kitchen table downstairs. She had burst into tears upon walking into the house. She simply couldn’t stand the noise. She was overwhelmed by a sense of having gone wrong with me.
As a small child, I misbehaved in all the usual ways, but was made to feel uniquely perverse. For example, I redecorated the quilted bedspread in my parents’ room with a vivid red lipstick. I have since learned that this sort of thing is bound to happen, if lipstick is available. Nevertheless, the aura of perversity stuck. I began to be aware that I was getting into trouble for doing things that really were unusual. I remember liking to nuzzle my face in the skirts of my mother’s mink coat, only when she was wearing it but not because. I liked the luxuriant softness. I am not a connoisseur of touch, but I don’t think that this is owing to my mother’s retreating disapproval. I was also keen on lifting the skirts of girls’ uniforms on the playground. I’m pretty sure that I did this because it was naughty and involved girls, but not to peek at underwear. Later, I would find it irresistibly hilarious, in dancing school (which I loved for all five years), to untie the bows at the back of my partners’ party dresses. It’s sick and disgraceful, but I laugh as I write this.
So my mother may have been right to sob. When I think about my unhappy childhood, I usually conclude that I simply didn’t fit in. I didn’t fit in with my mother, and I didn’t fit in with Bronxville. There were enough points of contact to make the other points of conflict hard to explain. I could be a very good boy, and I liked being a good boy, but I could also decide to find out what happens when you pull out the chair behind someone who is sitting down. Someone almost as tall as you are, but also, once again, a girl. I was always curious about girls, but not in the normal way. What, you may ask, does pulling out chairs have to do with my mother or with Bronxville? I don’t know, but I’ve a strong hunch that there’s a connection. Hazarding a guess, I’d say that it was something like the appeal of a pie-throwing scene in a Three Stooges movie. [?]
My mother, who was not my mother, was an unusual snob. She did not keep up with the Joneses. She kept up with Jackie Kennedy if she kept up with anybody. (I don’t know what she did prior to 1960.) Like my father, she came from an Irish Catholic family that crossed the Eastern seaboard as quickly as it crossed the Atlantic, and settled in the Midwest. Both of my parents were born in Iowa, as it happens. Their backgrounds were similar in a negative way: they weren’t like the Irish from New York or New England. They were much more mainstream Protestant in their culture. My father’s family was reserved and somewhat ascetic. My mother’s father was an insistent extrovert.
I don’t think that either of my parents’ lives was stunted in the least by the Depression. My mother’s father was an insurance adjuster, and apparently pretty good at it, because he wound up with his own bureau, headquartered in New York. Or at least that was my impression; my father always whispered that he lived beyond his means. My father grew up in Clinton, on the banks of the Mississippi, and came East only when his father was appointed to the bench of what was then called the Customs Court. My mother grew up in Wilmette, outside of Chicago, but went to high school in Bronxville, of all places, when her father transferred to New York. She was already there when my father’s family arrived and settled in a rented house not far from a distant cousin who founded a well-known law firm that (amazingly, if you ask me) still bears his name. One of the unusual things about growing up in Bronxville was the fact that my parents had grown up there, too, sort of. It amused me to think of us as “old Bronxville” — we were so not old anything.
My mother had a taste for pretty things. I thought they were all hideous, and sometimes said so. Either that, or I clumsily knocked them over. I had much better taste, I thought. To be honest, I had no taste at all. Had money been no object, I’d have wound up with the same sort of country-house-library look that Ralph Lauren has been peddling for decades. I’d have chosen my books one by one, but I’d have lined the walls with suitable prints by the yard. The idea — and I shudder to think how easily I might have embraced it — was to live like an old family congenitally deprived of imagination but generously endowed with Cape Cod Chippendale. I should have posed as an unconscious snob.
My mother saved her snobbery for parties. Her fetishes ranged from the tortellini served at Barbetta to Orville Redenbacher popcorn, which, you may be surprised to learn, started out as a niche product, not easy to find. If she did not actually discover these things herself, she knew how to buy them in bulk. Her parties almost always featured what you would call beef fondue — chunks of tenderloin that you were to boil in oil until cooked to your taste. My mother called it something else, and the way she said it came out “beef bourjenon.” It seems cruel to say this out loud, as it were, but she certainly did, and no one corrected her. I can still remember how dangerously I blushed when I learned what it was that she thought she was saying. As a rule, I was always keenly aware of how fatally, if slightly, her aspirations exceeded her sophistication.
But her taste for hideous pretty things saved me. I still have a few of her treasures, and I rather love them all. I love them because I’ve learned to live with and to see them — that’s really all there is to good taste. I should be disinclined to save anything for purely sentimental reasons, if only because such things remind me how mortal my sentiments are and how denuded of value objects without other redeeming qualities will be when I’m gone. I have also learned to make the most of what I have, and to make room for anything interesting. When we moved into this apartment, not long ago, I took advantage of the blank canvas, so to speak, to hang things in a way that reflected how I felt about them, and not the order in which they had been acquired. One picture that moved from obscurity to prominence was an ink drawing of the Place de l’Étoile, washed with green and brown, that Kathleen’s uncle was given by his Princeton roommate, who made it. For one reason or another, this picture wound up in the dining room of the apartment in which Kathleen grew up. We have a few of her family’s treasures, too.
I know that the only thing really strange about it is me: I see the things that are strange more clearly than most people would care to do. And I have cultivated the strangeness, often without knowing it. In my book room, there are many primers on foreign languages. I speak no language but English. I can read French quite well and Italian passably, but I can’t understand anything with my ears. I have spent a lot of time memorizing words and speech patterns in Chinese and Nederlands, not to mention the German that I have learned from opera librettos. All to no avail, if proficiency were the objective. But it never was. My time in foreign parts has been brief, never long enough to call for speaking the language. Instead, I have used the other languages of the world to deepen my sense of English. It was a great gift, never having had to learn the basics of English. I don’t know how anybody does it. But to speak a language without being aware of how it works is a limitation. The only way to find out how your language works is to study another.
It took me a long time to understand why I studied foreign languages; I was always afraid that it was yet more snobbery. (I am ashamed of the Latin that I have taught myself.) It took me a long time understand a lot of things, because the ostensible reasons were always so plausible. Take writing. I knew that I liked to write — but about what? Did I want to write fiction? No — although that took a long time to admit. Did I want to be a journalist? Too much risk of formulaic thinking! I was not going to be an academic. So, what then? It never occurred to me that I like to write was itself the springboard. I learned it very slowly, from writing on the Internet, writing about anything that I thought I could make interesting. As the years went by, I wrote more and more every time that I wrote at all, until, just about a year ago, I began to sense that what I was writing was telling me what to write about. And now we are here.
A shorter way of putting it is that I wrote my way out of a cloud.
My wife was concluding that she had made a mistake. I cannot say more about it than that; it is her story, not mine. What I saw was that it was tough, trying to live a modestly countercultural life (but with dinner parties) on two small salaries. We had a baby, but that wasn’t the hard part. We split the child care easily enough. Paying the rent was the hard part. I didn’t know how to make more money, not, at least, without the spell involving no income entailed by going back to school. (Night school never crossed my privileged mind.) Meanwhile, I didn’t believe that I would ever be good at making money; I couldn’t see it happening. Nobody would ever pay me a lot of money to do anything, not because I wasn’t smart enough to do anything worth paying for, but because I got distracted too easily. The things that distracted me had something in common, but I couldn’t have said what it was.
My parents had had a special interest in my being special, which we will get to. Over the years, they had come to the opinion that I was special, all right, but not in the right way. It was from them that I got the idea that I would never flourish in an executive suite, the only workplace that I had ever seen up close. It wasn’t a question of brains, but one of character, or “makeup.” I usually made a good first impression, but I couldn’t keep it up.
I had a terrible time paying attention to things that didn’t interest me, and this was the nub of the problem, because I could not really tell you what did interest me.
Because when people ask you about your interests, you pull up a list of labels: Hiking, science, cooking. Things you like to do. There was usually only one item for me on these checklists, and that was “reading.” But even then I knew that “reading” was meaningless by itself. I did not read to pass the time. I read to figure out what interested me. All I knew was that it wasn’t anything with a label. I was, not surprisingly, made to feel somewhat stupid about my interests.
Looking back, I wonder if it would have taken so long if I had known from the start that I was not looking for an answer. I doubt that such a mission could have been conceived in those ultrapositivist years. I was looking for a question. To put it another way, “learning” was never on the interests list. Learning was assumed to have an end, even if only a provisional one. For example, I learned how to sew. What almost everyone around me considered inappropriate I found very interesting. I got good enough to make myself a pair of trousers. I doubt that anyone would have bought them off the rack — the material was a dark-green chambray that was meant for shirting, and the pocket welts were a little dodgy — but I wore them to death. I also made a jacket, a thoroughly constructed lined men’s jacket. Because I had the sense to treat my first attempt as an experiment, I made the jacket out of a nubbly cotton, not wool, and I never really wore it. But the complexity of the garment was interesting.
Anyway, you learned how to sew at a certain level, and then you stopped learning and just sewed. The purpose was to make things, not to learn how to make things. Why learn how to make something if you’re not going to put the knowledge to work? This question, unfortunately, meant almost nothing to me. I liked learning. Having had a completely conventional education, I could not claim to be an autodidact. I had been taught how to learn, how to teach myself. Sometimes I followed the rules, and sometimes I didn’t. It seemed to me that there were things to learn that weren’t comprised by the standard subjects. I especially liked learning about things that people take for granted. How does bread happen? I taught myself a great deal about classical music, but I didn’t bother learning the many technical matters that underpin the composition of music, because they would not have helped me to describe the pleasures of music — not without losing my audience. Learning how to write about pleasure may be the greatest challenge of them all.
The obvious question is this: why didn’t I become a journalist? And the obvious answer is that the editor who would have given me assignments and the journal that would have published them didn’t exist. That’s how special I was. But in the wake of Dr Bruch’s judgments and my wife’s decisions, I realized that I had to clean up my act — and I couldn’t mean the phrase more sincerely. Most seriously, I suppose, I had to learn how to behave in a way that made it clear that I didn’t expect anybody to think that I was special. That, in the end, is what “stop pretending” meant to me. I had to settle for being, at best, an oddball. Nobody ever questioned that.
I gave up being special for being unusual, and it was the making of me. Eventually; in due course of time.
My laziness has led to some unhealthy physical outcomes, but all my life I have been disinclined to make any physical effort that did not directly feed my mind. Even taking a walk is a bore — restorative at times, but inherently tedious. Why not just sit down with a good book, or have a nice chat over a cup of tea? Had I lived in a milieu that emphasized social dancing, I would have fared better. I really do like to dance. Letting a rhythm flow through was a kind of feeding my mind, not unlike the reset of electro-shock. Music has always organized me. Meanwhile, of course, I am holding my partner and we are talking. We are talking about nothing, but doing so as nicely as we are dancing. The old-fashioned and much more energetic group dancing that you see in Jane Austen adaptations also appeals to me. But life has offered few opportunities for that.
Meanwhile, life went on, and my search for that something special, which I could feel but not describe, made me feel somewhat like the blindfolded victim of a tease. I knew only that if I took off the blindfold, I would lose the game forever; what I could see with open eyes was precisely the obstruction to understanding. Every now and then, in a weak moment, I would indulge in a fit of system-building. If this, then that — all clever people are trained to be good at such exercises. But getting this and that right was impossible. Why? Because what I was looking for (even if I didn’t know it) was not an explanation of the universe; nor was it at all arcane. So much is clear to me now. But of course I persisted in thinking in terms of a secret solution, a reduction of everything to one graceful formula, because that was the paradigm of all thought, aside from poetry. Progress would be made, and could be made only, by patient investigations of causes and effects. To say that there were things to be discovered was to say that the answers were hidden. But they weren’t hidden. It was the questions that were hidden. That is actually the root truth of all scientific inquiry, not because that’s how science works but because that’s how our minds work. When we figure things out, something very strange happens. We think that we have found something, but in fact we have lost the ability to overlook it. It is our minds that change, not the world.
For a long time, I correctly believed that I needed to know more about things, but I was wrong about why. I thought that more knowledge would lead to more comparisons and contrasts, a more intricate understanding of the world. In fact, the pile-up of knowledge, instead of yielding a pattern or complex of patterns, revealed a discontinuity in everyday ways of understanding things, particularly ways of understanding people, people as individuals and peoples as members of groups. (People who have been swallowed into masses have ceased to be people, at least during their immersion.) There were at least two ways of seeing everything. It was something like Japanese, with its Chinese characters for substantives and its native characters for everything else. Except, of course, that in the case of my special something, the two sets of characters could not be harnessed to speak one language. Everyone, educated people especially, were bilingual without being aware of it.
And that is my special something, or at least the root of it: I learned — and I hate to put it that way because it sounds like a party trick — how to make one language out of two. [I taught myself...] Just to prove that I really am an exasperating egghead, I proudly announce that my special something is a critique. That’s what I’m calling it, anyway. And that’s all that I’m going to say about it now; I shall give a more enlightening account of it at the end. Between then and now I hope to entertain you with an account of my intellectual biography, which if nothing else will explain why I am under the impression that I have hit on something special. Let me just leave you with an old bit of wisdom: Man is a creature between the beasts and the angels. Although it expresses a truth, it doesn’t do it very helpfully. More anon.
There never has been a model for me, which is why I am writing this. I should like to understand a little better what I’ve been doing, actually. For a long time, it was completely mysterious. I went from day to day without more of a sense of the future than that the days to come would be like the days behind. This never troubled me much as an adult, because by then I was certain that the meaning of life, if there is such a thing, cannot be named by human beings. This doesn’t mean that life is senseless or absurd. It does mean that you can spend too much time thinking about yourself.
In one of Ian McEwan’s novels, Black Dogs, a dying woman tells her son-in-law something that, to her, is very profound, however clichéd:
In the end, though, it hardly matters how you describe it once the essential truth has been grasped — that we have within us an infinite resource, a potential for a higher state of being, a goodness… (17)
This is a pithy statement of something that I don’t at all agree with. For me, the key words are within us — that’s where I disagree. What we have within us is a virtually infinite resource and potential for madness. The higher state of being and the goodness do not come from within us at all. They don’t come from an immaterial supreme being, or from any non-human agency, either. The idea of goodness comes from other people, other people whose goodness we feel and wish to emulate. Left to ourselves, strictly to ourselves, we should barely have minds at all, much less intelligible visions of a better world. We get all that from other people. Other people around us, other people who have died before us. The grosser instances come from experience, from our encounters with people, but a lot of the fine-grained understanding comes from books.
I don’t mean books of philosophy, although I don’t exclude them; I mean any and all books. (Well, not porn.) By this time in my life, my brain is such a repository of half-remembered fragments of passages, characters, situations, hopes and outcomes that I hardly know where I let off and the reading begins. Did that happen to me, or was it in a book? I’m usually pretty good about making the distinction accurately, but it doesn’t matter very much, so long as I don’t go round pretending to be Emma Woodhouse’s special friend. Ease of access to this vast attic is a measure of my good spirits; when I’m anxious, I’m shut in myself, but when I’m confident, I all but disappear outward into a galaxy of real and imagined people.
If I learned long ago that my world expanded outward with every page I read, it has been much more recently that I’ve seen how other people — family, friends, neighbors, strangers — enrich us as individuals. By which I mean that they change us. We don’t like to think about this. We don’t like to admit that we’re permeable and alterable. But simply by causing you to dislike me, if that’s what happens, I’ve changed you. As I do if we become friendly. We might be willing to acknowledge that our world is changed by the other people in it, but I hold that we ourselves are changed, transformed in some cases. When it happens, when we feel that we are changing, we feel that the change is happening within ourselves, but it would be better to see the change as occurring, not in some deeply interior fold in the brain, but in the emotional or affective force field that we all project and by means of which we all interact.
In order to get through the day, we tend to interact according to conventions. In a corridor, we walk to the right — if that is the local convention. If I say “hello,” you say something of the kind, unless you mean to make a point of not doing so. In small towns, everyone greets every passer-by. In Manhattan, people only greet people whom they already know, and usually with an air of surprise, as if to say, “You! Amidst all these strangers!” Conventions come and go. I notice that women are more and more surprised (and gratified) when I stand back in an elevator and signal them to step out ahead of me. I can only wonder how many notice that I have removed my cap. Young men don’t seem to be subjected to much gentlemanly training anymore. But then, fifty years ago, no man of my age would have run an errand to the market across the street wearing Bermuda shorts, no matter how warm the weather. I no longer do so — in the cold months.
Perhaps I am more aware of these interactions than most people — not more alert to them, just aware — because I don’t have a job. A job subjects the person who holds it to an array of conventions so much more extensive and fixed than the conventions that obtain among the general public that they require another word, and “uniform” is it. Whether or not special clothing is part of the uniform, the range of suitable behavior is hugely limited by any job. Within the workforce, there are more or less rigid hierarchies, while dealing with customers and clients the only appropriate relationships are essentially formulaic, with personable characteristics serving much the same role as a scent or the decoration of an office (these also severely limited). The uniform is a very practical way of reducing distractions so that a worker can focus on what’s to be done. Even without a job, I have a pretty formidable uniform: I am surrounded by the silence of my apartment. It is a uniform that I can don and doff whenever I want to, but such is the utility of conventions that I find it useful to keep to a schedule. Because I am alone, no one knows what I’m doing and no one cares, so in addition to a schedule I need solid good habits to get through the day.
I was not good with discipline when I was young. I did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Because most of what I wanted to do was solitary, quiet, and not destructive, I was not your typical disciplinary problem. Self-control came fairly easily. But I was often slow to pay attention to what other people wanted me to do. It was hard to do things “because I had to.” That’s true for everyone, I suppose, but far too often I wound up managing to avoid doing what I didn’t want to do. My readiness to accept punishment could further irritate my elders. I was supposed to learn from punishment; instead, as modern economists have come to understand, I was pricing it, and finding that punishment was the better deal. Or, given my o’erweening pride and obstinacy, that it felt like the better deal. Of course, I also hated and dreaded punishment, but I kept that to myself. It never occurred to me that this was extremely masculine behavior, that I was insisting on personal autonomy. I thought I was just being stubborn.
Long before I began subscribing to The New Yorker, I was a devoted reader of Model Railroader. Here is another thing that I did not understand until I was almost elderly: that Model Railroader is not aimed at children. Not children, not even teenagers. It is aimed at prosperous, middle-aged men, ideally with an engineering background and plenty of disposable income, free time, and empty square-footage. I had been started off with the usual Lionel set. My contemporary-minded parents chose a diesel engine for me, one with New Haven (New York, New Haven & Hartford) markings. I hated it. I hated the repulsively unlifelike third rail running down the middle of the Lionel O gauge tracks. I pined for HO. When I was twelve years old, I was allowed to take the train (New York Central) to Grand Central Terminal by myself, and to walk from there to Polk’s Hobby Shop, on Fifth Avenue near 33rd Street. With my Christmas takings, the only steam locomotive that I could afford was a pathetic little thing whose prototype shunted cars in train yards. It did not even come with a coal tender. By now, I was lost in the raptures of very realistic and utterly unattainable layouts. The romance of trains came to an end with our move to a new house with a smaller basement. And puberty.
The sensible way to read a book is to begin at the beginning. I am speaking from experience, having done it the other way for a long time, opening books in the middle and “dipping in.”
The sensible thing, if you think you have a special understanding of something, is to study it conventionally, however insincerely, until you have acquired a nice rack of credentials. Then you can begin raising questions. Then you can start calling attention to the cracks in received wisdom. My difficulty with this approach was twofold. First, I could not work hard at something I didn’t believe in; I couldn’t pursue credentials that meant nothing to me. Second, I suspected that conventions of any kind were lethal to special vision. This was a common notion in the Sixties. Like many other young men, I thought that if I let my hair grow, I’d understand freedom. But that is not what happened. I learned instead that you cannot win friends and influence people if you refuse to answer “How are you?” in a conventional way, or if you insist on making a fuss about “please” and “thank you.” You cannot expect to be regarded as sound of mind if you neglect to sit for final exams.
But while I learned the vital importance of social conventions that govern relations between human beings, between men and women, I grasped that the academic conventions that govern relations between the various “bodies of learning” that have become academic specialties in the course of the past few hundred years ind and the morass of assumption that goes under the tidy-sounded title, generally accepted opinion. I still have no idea what an “intellectual” is, but I will swear that generally accepted opinions are viruses capable of bringing intellectual life to a standstill. I will ask only that you consider the colossal and distracting ruckus imposed on humanity by the idea that man is a rational animal. We still haven’t quite survived that one.
I seem to have realized that people are complicated, more complicated than they think they are, as a child. This probably sounds emotional, but all I mean is that I was aware of all the information that people emit about themselves, most of it unconscious. I didn’t know what to do with this information. I also learned that noticing things about people (especially other men), or at least acknowledging what I noticed (ditto!), was taboo. So instead of learning sense from straightforward interactions, I built a shell. The shell made me look like a preppie — an unusual preppie, one who didn’t know what to do with a ball. I certainly dressed like one. I walked like one and more or less talked like one, although I was probably a little too clever to pass for the real thing. The only thing I learned from other people was how to adjust this camouflage so that it concealed everything that I observed, together with the fact that I was observing. And of course I tried to pay as little attention to my observations as possible. It would be years before I had the courage to make any sense out of them. Meanwhile, books were more easily managed.
Some of the titles were aspirational. The books on mathematics, and the history of mathematics, for example. I had a little shelf of such books for many years, most of them never opened. Mathematics loses me whenever the concept of sets comes up. It is too elementary and too sophisticated at the same time.
Because I’ve kept a distance from academia, I’ve never known many people with libraries as large as my own, I suspect that readers in the first percentile are capable of occult arrangements that do not depend on shapes and colors.
I am not a bibliophile. I own no rare or valuable books, and don’t care to. The value of my collection is entirely personal. Although the sight of my books has never failed to please me, I’m not interested in what
If it’s not true anymore, that is because the Internet came along and a lot of previously unpublishable material presented itself for consideration. From this, I learned a great deal about the world that I would never have noticed on my own, books or no books.