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What causes patterns of dysfunction to repeat themselves across generations in a family? And how can these patterns be altered?
Literature throughout history has dealt with the problem, and despite the efforts of the most creative minds in humanity, the root cause of pernicious behavior transmission remains murky.
Moreover, the idea that the behavior patterns across familial generations can be altered seems to be a new one. The Greeks were convinced that generationall familial disaster was the will of the gods and impossible to evade. Even modern writers find moderate versions of that position palatable: in his preface to A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and their Remarkable Families
, author Michael Holroyd remarks that "the configurations of family life today still echo and
reflect the concealed lives of a hundred years or more ago" (as reported in a NYT
One obvious possibility for dealing with such fatalism is to flee. Oedipus tried with dismal results. Writers, as recounted in Louise DeSalvo's, On Moving: A Writer's Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again
, seem particularly inclined to follow Oedipus' lead and obtain similarly disappointing outcomes. "In . . . detached moments, . . . [Virginia] Woolf understood that her moves --
like many discussed here -- were efforts to obliterate the past. The
next house was always, she said, the 'ancient carrot before me,'" writes Amy Finnerty in a NYT
review of DeSalvo's book.
My own sense is that, literature and the experiences of writers notwithstanding, physically disassociating oneself from dysfunctional behavior is a step towards breaking the pattern. That said, running is not a solution in itself; rather, conscientious and extreme uprooting of the environmental triggers that lead to behavior patterns seems to be necessary. Oedipus, for example, seeminly could've avoided all his familial woes if he'd joined a monastary.
I don't mean to be blithe about the difficulty of altering behavior patterns, and I'm not typically a supporter of radical measures. But because the causes of pernicious behavior transmission are difficult to identify with any precision, broader remedial measures seem justified. Whatever the cause, eliminating all triggers will prevent the harm. Whether Oedipus slept with his mother and killed his father because of the gods, bad luck, or a mixture of perversion and over-competitiveness, joining a monastary would've averted the evil.
Of course, we resist radical measures. They're inconvenient. Also, "[w]e typically take comfort in any discovery of connection to ancient peoples. See, we reassure ourselves, nothing has changed," writes Brad Leithauser, reviewing Anne Carson's An Oresteia
. But, whether examining the House of Atreus or the House of Alexandri, the comforts of nothing changing are outweighed by the pain of nothing changing.
In recent months, I've thought a great deal about the limits of human compassion. We seem hard-wired to relate to individuals and their stories, but our compassion breaks down when we're asked to relate to groups. We can empathize with one Holocaust survivor; 6 million dead, on the other hand, are a number.
I was put in mind of another limitation on human compassion as I read D.T. Max's recent New Yorker
article about David Foster Wallace. Wallace, he says, perceived "that America was at once overentertained and sad." Speaking to Salon
in 1996, Wallace said that living "in America around the millennium" was "particularly sad . . . . It's [a] like a stomach-level sadness. . . . It manifests itself as a kind
Wallace's experience of the 90's made me gape in amazement. Sad?! The 90's? The Internet boom? The swinging Clinton years? When America was good and loved and Whole Foods was becoming mainstream and salaries were rising and everyone was making money hand-over-fist in the stock market?
Of course, Wallace's 1990's included stays in mental asylums, a half-way house, a failed relationship, as well as the pre-Infinite Jest
stage in his career, when he was worried that his career had ended before it'd begun. His diagnosis of the American condition during those years strikes me -- and I say this gently, cognizant of Wallace's suicide six months ago, and
feeling that engagement with his ideas is a proper way to honor his
memory -- as a projection of his own profound sadness onto the country writ large.
That Wallace felt the need to address the state of the nation is a reflection of his ambition, but whether he could have come to any other conclusion of the world around him -- be it his closest circle of peers or the broadest circle of the globe -- seems doubtful because of another of the limits of human compassion: the tendency to generalize about others based on ourselves.
For example, my default assumption is that most people value time efficiency; my experience, on the other hand, is that my default assumption is wrong. Nonetheless, it's difficult for me to restrain my frustration at the Beijing taxi driver who has resignedly driven me into a traffic jam instead of taking a faster detour; unless replenished through conscious effort, my compassion dwindles for people who operate on rules different from my own.
This limitation makes challenging any individual's ability to relate to another person; applied on a group level, it's even more likely to cause distortions ("All Americans want fast services"; "All Beijing taxi drivers waste time"). Wallace was, without question, aware of his pain, but the fact that he detected sadness in himself does not mean that other Americans were aware of their own conditions, sad or otherwise. Self-awarenes, in my experience, is among the least useful of characteristics to project on others if the goal is obtaining accurate deductions about them.
Of course, maybe I'm falling into my own trap; my generalizations about the limitations of human compassion could be wrong; I may be completely misconstruing the basis of Wallace's conclusions. And perhaps Wallace was right about millenial sadness in America (for example, the musical Rent
makes the same point).
The question is whether nurturing such doubts is a means of transcending those limits and expanding the scope of human compassion. I am hoping the answer is yes.
Immediately after I wrote the post British authors mentally masturbate about physics, stories suffer
, I read Peter Dizikes essay
in The New York Times
about C.P. Snow, the physicist and novelist who coined the term "the two cultures" to describe the rift between scientists and literary types -- and I knew I would have to write an addendum to my previous post.
According to Dizikes, Snow made three claims that are worth considering in light of Ian McEwan's The Child in Time
and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen
. First, Snow laid the blame for the rift between these two cultures on the literati
. Plainly, that claim is untenable today. With the advent of string theory, the mathematics required to understand physics has become so complicated that even other physicists, much less literary scholars, don't understand it. (See, for example, this New Yorker
article about Garrett Lisi, renegade physicist, or this review
of a couple of books about string theory.)
Moreover, the strenuous efforts at bridging this gap between the scientists and the poets is coming from the poets' side, with novels like McEwan's, plays like Frayn's, and countless other examples (Huxley's Brave New World
, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go
, etc.) Oliver Sacks alone cannot make up for the majority of scientists who are incapable of communicating with the rest of the world.
Second, Snow argued that science, not literature, is what safeguards the progressive betterment of society because scientists are more morally reliable that the literati
. This claim, also, is one that cannot be credited. Science, as the history of scientific advances in the 20th century amply demonstrates (atom bomb anyone?), is amoral. The job of scientists is to discover the truth, regardless of the outcome; the moral ramifications of the discoveries are someone else's job.
That "someone else" often, increasingly, is a writer. McEwan has reached the stature of "England's national author" (in the words of New Yorker
profile) because, in novels like The Child in Time
, and Saturday
, he undertakes the task of sorting the moral ramifications of technological and social developments. Copenhagen
, as well, is an attempt to parse the morality of working on an atom bomb in World War II, examining the question from multiple perspectives. (Whatever might be said about the moral failings of Ezra Pound, Snow's example of a literary moral degenerate -- or P.G. Wodehouse, or Gertrude Stein, to name a couple of other literati
who behaved abysmally during WWII -- none can approach the scale of damage done by physicist Werner Heisenberg who, in addition to being a Nazi, was also almost certainly developing an atomic weapon.)
Third, according to Dizikes, Snow maintained that "20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists." This claim, of course, is risable. To whatever extent 20th century progress has been stymied, governments, corporations and academic mismanagement have been vastly more responsible that poets and novelists -- who, as the novels and plays cited above demonstrate, have been anything but "indifferent" to 20th century progress.
That said, something can be salvaged from Snow, namely his prescription for a generalized education. Specialized education, especially too early in life, narrows the mind and exacerbates the gap between "the two cultures." Moreover, a broader educational platform might obviate the need for incorporating physics lessons into novels and plays, leading to better, more elegantly-told stories about these issues (the point I raised in my previous blog post). After all, only when we're able to communicate easily across this divide will we be able effectively to bridge it.
Thinking about Ian McEwan's The Child in Time
, I cannot help but relate it to Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen
When I saw Copenhagen
in 2002, at the Kennedy Center, it was much-buzzed as the play
to see. I remember leaving the theater befuddled at the buzz: "boring" was the word I would've applied, followed by "repetitive."
The play three times enacts the famous walk that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg took in 1941, during which they had a conversation -- the substance of which remains unknown -- which fundamentally altered their relations for the rest of their lives. At the time, I recognized fully that the repetitive enactment of the walk-and-conversation was a dramatization of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
, which is colloquially (though controversially, from a physicist's point of view) understood to mean that our understanding of any situation is always limited by our perspective; shift the perspective, and the content changes.
However boring Uncertainty might be to learn in the classroom, Copenhagen
didn't make the case that dramatizing it improved the learning experience. On the contrary, I found the physics lesson to get in the way of Frayn's proper task: storytelling.
The number one priority in telling a story, so far as I'm concerned, is maintaining interest, entertaining the audience. This imperative is among the most difficult of the novelist's tasks. "Most novels incredibly
boring. It's amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge." That's McEwan talking, quoted in a recent New Yorker
piece (at p. 48).
But McEwan appears as vulnerable as the rest of us to recognizing principles that we don't apply in our own lives. The Child in Time
makes the same blunder as Copenhagen
(although, seeing that Copenhagen
post-dates The Child in Time
by a decade, perhaps it should be the other way around.) The entire plot line involving Thelma and Charles Darke, Thelma's long physics lectures, Charles' regression into childhood, as well as the lorry accident and Stephen's near-miss driving around it -- these some hundred pages or so are all peripheral to the story of Kate's disappearance, and Stephen's reuniting with Julia.
These irrelevancies are not in the book to advance plot. They're in the book to illustrate physics principles about the nature of time. McEwan is elaborating in prose on his intellectual love affair with physics. These passages are all cerebral masturbation. And, while admittedly they're more masterfully done than Frayn's tiresome redundancies, these diversions are as disruptive to McEwan's storytelling in The Child in Time
as Uncertainty was to Frayn's in Copenhagen
The irony, of course, is that nothing illustrates the importance of perspective to determining content, or the elasticity of time, better than a well-told story. With a page-turner in hand, the content of the world of the page is determined wholly by the author's perspective, and time flies.
My belief is that the world is fundamentally indifferent to any individual's presence. Our course in life is mapped, not by design or fate, but by a combination of individual resource and luck. As individuals, we should care if we're enjoying ourselves (indeed, I believe that joyfulness is an aspect of moral responsibility), but the world itself is as indifferent to our pleasures as it is to our sorrows.
Not everyone shares my perspective. If you were to have asked me why -- what accounts for differences in world view -- I would've guessed that a combination of experience and temperament accounted for the variance. Reading Ian McEwan's The Child in Time
, I discovered a new explanation: world views correspond to our styles of lovemaking.The Child in Time
includes a sex scene between Stephen, the protagonist, and his wife, Julie, during which Stephen wonders:
how anything so good and simple could be permitted, how they were allowed to get away with it . . . . [M]atter itself had dreamed this up for its own pleasure and perpetuity, and this was exactly what you were meant to do, it wanted you to like it. . . . Surely the, he thought . . . surely at heart the place is benevolent, it likes us, it wants us to like it, it likes itself.
(p. 68.) The passage brought an abrupt halt to my reading, as I mused that I'd never found sex to be "good and simple," nor did the pleasure of an orgasm suggest (to me) the fundamental benevolence of the world. On the contrary, the humiliating complexity, searing ecstasy and basic irrationality of sex has always implied a world that, if not indifferent, was sardonic. (My own preference for indifference over sardonicism relates to the my temperament: I'm not a pessimist.)
I nonetheless appreciate McEwan's insight. I recognize intuitively the correctness of his observation: what we like to do in bed, how society responds to those preferences, and how we deal with the societal response, colors our world view. Unlike Stephen, I myself have never experienced the word "home" repeating itself in my mind during intercourse. The sex Stephen and Julie share derives its joys from the habitual: "the known dip and curve [leading to] a deep, familiar place." (p. 68.) The societal approprobation that accompanies such a domestic delight in sex no doubt supports a benevolent world view.
That our behavior in our most primal moments should correpond to the fundaments of our world view is logical, but not necessary. In fact, the correspondence might -- at the opposite extreme -- be viewed as silly. Why should a personal fetish, for example, complicate one's understanding of something universal, like matter (to use McEwan's formulation)? The fact that it so clearly does, however, is yet another instance of the world's indifference to what we think.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince to Léon Werth, a Jewish, leftist, writer friend in hiding in France during WWII. "I ask children who may read this book to forgive me for dedicating it to a grown-up," writes Saint-Exupéry. "I have a[n] . . . excuse," he continues. "This grown-up lives in France, where he is cold and hungry. He needs a lot of consoling."
Why The Little Prince would console anyone is an interesting question. It's a book about loneliness, exile and homelessness. The book is filled with unanswerable questions: why did the Little Prince leave the flower and his home planet? Why did the Little Prince ask for a drawing of a sheep, when what he needed was an actual sheep? Why did he need -- want -- to die? And, although on a strictly rational level, the story isn't fleshed out enough for full comprehension, on a visceral level the book's clarity is searing: the story pulsates with loneliness.
Reading The Little Prince -- for the first time, three days ago -- I ached. I didn't feel lonely reading it, but rather I remembered my own lonely childhood. My empathy for the Little Prince was the vehicle through which I could empathize with my own past self without shame, condemnation or the reflexive defensiveness that normally allows me to think of that time with a cold impassiveness. I wondered why no one had given me the book to read when I'd been a child.
Why would I have wanted to have read it as a child? Because it would've consoled me. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, a book that pulsates loneliness is balm to the lonely. You aren't alone, The Little Prince says to a child. You aren't as lonely and helpless as you were when you were a child, The Little Prince says to the political subversive in hiding underground.
But the consolations of The Little Prince go deeper than its message. The book itself is like a ritual of, if not resurrection of the dead, at least restoration of the missing. Everyone involved in The Little Prince misses someone: the pilot misses the Little Prince, the Little Prince misses the flower, Saint-Exupéry in exile in America misses Werth in hiding in France.
For Saint-Exupéry, the remedy for this pain of separation was writing. He wrote to Werth -- not just The Little Prince, but also the elegiac Letter to a Hostage. Saint-Exupéry's characters also write. The pilot, of course, "writes" The Little Prince and urges child readers to write in turn. The last line of the book is "write quickly and tell me that has returned . . ."
Writing, for Saint-Exupéry, is not merely psychologically soothing, but a means of working a physical return of the lost -- that greatest consolation of all.