In The Last Puritan by my beloved Santayana, an older, cultured man is discussing Whitman with his teenaged son. The son reads a line from an earmarked page in his father’s Whitman collection: “I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid…They do not weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.” There is a pause and then the son asks his father: “Don’t you like that?” The father responds: “I like the first three words: I could turn. Deeply felt, they would mean conversion, repentance. They might have been spoken by Buddha or John the Baptist.”
I’m taking this somewhat out of context because the character goes on to discuss how Walt Whitman is as superficial as Rousseau and is like “Marie Antoinette playing the shepherdess”, I just got stuck on the idea of leaving it as “I could turn”. There is so much potential in that line. Earlier in the passage the father expresses his admiration for “orientals” remarking: “their way of using words is far subtler than ours…”
I’m a wordy person, in speech and in writing. I talk excessively and use too many words when writing, probably for lack of a strong vocabulary. Simplicity does not come naturally to me in thought either. I obsess over seeing things “as they are” so much that I think I kind of miss the point. Objectivity is an impossibility, I am stuck within myself, and I feel as though I’m fated to always be as I’ve always been, and I’m not always sure what that is, but then sometimes I feel so very sure of what that is, of who I am, that I constrain personal growth, yet still I grow all the more, and probably miss out on a lot of it. More than anything I wish I was subtler, more enigmatic.
[“The animal looks at us and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there.”
-Derrida from “The Animal that therefore I Am.”]
I’ve spent a good deal of my time at the Outer Banks, for whatever reason (possibly because I’m as far east as one could get in United States, I’m on the outskirts, I’m sort of a bystander), pondering what the American identity is, if there is one. The issues arise that arise for everyone who is American and thinks about this; “is there a congruous train of thought, mode of being, idea of self in relation to one’s culture carried through from person to person in this nation?” Well, the obvious answer in my mind is no, though probably most members of other nations would admonish this conclusion in favor of the stereotypical conception of Americans as well, all of those things people say about us. “Us”, funny I wrote that inclusive term just after saying we are incongruous.
I was watching some Yale lectures on Youtube one day and a psychology professor discussed some sort of syndrome that most people have, the name of this syndrome has escaped me, in which a person feels that they are far more transparent to others than they actually are. I found this interesting, because I tend to think that people more introverted than myself probably feel the opposite,that they are more opaque than maybe I perceive them to be. But this gloats my own powers of intuition, which usually are not as dead-on as I’d like to believe, and this might also somewhat paradoxically support the presence of said syndrome.
People are complex. One thing I’ve noticed from person to person to person whom I have encountered over the years is a deep, often unadmitted dissatisfaction with life. Hiding from isolation is a sentiment I see in so many folks, including myself. It’s a coping mechanism, a form of endurance in life. Americans: We are good at enduring. Maybe people think we’re greedy, maybe people think we are shallow, fat, dumb, lazy etc. And sometimes these things may be valid, and I’m not even trying to be romantic or complimentary when I say we endure. There are some negative aspects of sustained endurance. You can’t stay on a treadmill forever without eventually contemplating that the mechanical track controls your every move. We do think about these things. We think about how much we hate our lives, our routines and sometimes even the people we see every day. We are deeply existential, so much so that we pretend we’re not. We live as though we will always endure, as though we have the stamina to outlive death.
Hiding from isolation. That’s what we do best. People think it is taboo to eat alone and they feel sad for people who do. To feel something for a stranger is kind of bull shit. It’s like personifying a rock. It’s useless and unfair. And this leads me to think about the world created by the individual and the conceptualizations we have about the different things that we see. Are we ever right about anything? Probably not.
A bi-product of the self-absorption that somewhat satirically has come to define the American identity is a mutated self sufficiency. I’ve made lots of phone calls in my time trying to talk to someone about some sort of emotional issue that has arisen in my life and even without being able to read facial cues, I can tell the person is only half listening at best. And I’ve played the role of the shitty listener many a time too. True transcendental empathy just doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore if it ever was. We are fundamentally alone and we constantly distract ourselves from what is closest to us; from ourselves, from “aloneness”.
I spoke with a co-worker recently and admitted to my deep love for heady, haughty literature. This is not something I openly share with others. In a sense, I’m sort of ashamed and embarrassed about it. Well I told him that the reason I read the stuff that I do is because I like to get an understanding of just how much these people overthink everything, to sort of absorb others’ intellectual intensification of their surroundings, and to bring it back down to actual reality in my mind. Which is a total paradox, a sort of reversal of critical thinking which does nothing but make me just as hyper-observant and absurd in my interpretations of experience as these weirdo eccentrics that I love to hate and hate to love are. My co-worker said to me “Yeah sometimes Tom Sawyer is just Tom Sawyer.” I liked that a lot. But who is Tom Sawyer, really? jk