Moving Is Like Grieving

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I recently moved to suburban Virginia, USA, and I do not fit here. Not at all.

Logic tells me this could be for one of three reasons:

  1. I do not fit in the suburbs.
  2. I do not fit in Virginia.
  3. I do not fit in the USA.

There are many potential variants of these these propositions. My discomfort is probably the result of a tangle of factors. Wisdom says: wait for the rough edges to wear off. There are happy humans around you: they can’t all be misfits.

I blogged a couple weeks ago about the main reasons for my discontent: my new environment is set up to herd humans into a dead-end life of car-driving and money squandering. If you enjoy piling into your car for the fifth time on any given day to travel a few miles to buy a piece of junk from a big-box wasteland roamed and staffed by zombie cretins, well, voila–the perfection of mankind exists right in my neighborhood. Come check it out.

If, however, you wish to do something noble or decent, like walk somewhere useful or look upon a public space of even minuscule appeal, you are–to put the point as politely as it deserves to be put–shit out of luck.

There is an antidote to my unease, of course. As I I told my wife the other day, adult humans can and do get used to anything. This idea is from Camus, and he was right. Even in Europe’s 20th-century death camps, prisoners conversed, got in petty squabbles, had secret love affairs. A few survived, like the fabled frogs, in water that was insensibly being brought right up to the boiling point. Like the frogs, they got used to it without becoming uneasy.

Mutatis mutandis, this will happen to me too. I will, in all certainty, wake up one bright suburban morning in the not-too-distant future and discover that, like Winston Smith, I have given up the fight and learned to love my tormentor. I will have forgotten my dreams of being able to walk anywhere useful or to shop without brooking idiotic harangues for my personal data.

Well and good for grownups, I suppose. We will survive, albeit with diminished dreams. But if Camus is right about us adults, surely it is Whitney Houston who is right about our children, and herein lies a deep problem. I believe that children are our future. What if my placid surrender to a life gravitationally fixed to the bogus, the tawdry and the wasteful denies my children a life spent in mindful pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful? Have I not done them an irreparable harm by giving up?

Here is the thing I can’t get past. Very recently, my children could do the most amazing thing. Each one could walk out the door, point her nose in the direction she wished to travel and then by god go there. It might have been a bike, a bus, a streetcar, or her own God-given feet that propelled her, but there she went, free as you please, chasing her dreams. She would return with tales of friendly camaraderie, joyful loafing, and city charms unbidden.

The child who can do such things is, without even trying, developing the autonomy commonly attributed to adults. In other words, she is growing up. What she doesn’t know (yet) is that it takes a certain kind of world–a world fitted out to abet humans in the natural expression of their desires–to enable this miracle.

The way we must treat our children here in suburbia, though, is a cruel satire on the idea of freedom. Children must be transported from one protective bubble to another to get anything done. And the transporting must also be done in a bubble–the family car or a school bus–never in the fresh, open air or by any public means. In Virginia, schools are required to provide bus service to children living any distance from the school, even if they live just across the street and could easily recognize the face of a friend standing on the school’s front stoop.

This farce is performed under strong institutional pressures. Parents and schools alike demand the bubble system. Policemen oversee it. Traffic engineers assume its sanctity. The schools’ grounds are laid out to reinforce it. (One of my children’s schools would easily satisfy the U.S. State Department’s high demands for an embassy compound’s physical unapproachability, or what it calls “setback.” That means no sidewalks, no public transportation stop, and and hundreds of feet of unused space to buffer against a potential car bomb. The only thing missing is the blast wall. The armed security guard is present here in suburban Virginia, as s/he would be at a foreign embassy.)

In case you think I am indulging in uninformed speculation, I assure you I am not. I have already engaged parents, school officials, political activists and traffic engineers on this topic. I have gathered information, outlined a plan of resistance, and already achieved some (meager) results. A shiny new crosswalk now exists leading from my subdivision to a swimming pool. It crosses five lanes of traffic. It is not perfect, but it does enable an attentive 14-year old to walk to the pool instead of asking his parents for a one-minute car ride.

I asked the county traffic engineers for the crosswalk, and, after determining it would not excessively infringe the rights of King Car, they made it happen. It constitutes a mere millimeter of progress in a struggle that calls for miles of great, swooping advances–bike lanes, crosswalks, overpasses, underpasses, pedestrian lights, and other outlandish ideas from the radical left. I get the dull sense that one crosswalk every six months just might just be the pace of future progress.

No sidewalk

Try walking here: a too-typical suburban “walkway”

What elicits hot, desperate tears, though, is the depth of ordinary citizens’ ignorance of the travesty being perpetrated on them. When one explains to them that it is possible for children to walk to school, once receives a blank, imbecile stare. It is as if one just explained to a goat that geosynchronous satellites orbit the Earth, and this is what makes enhanced telecommunications possible. One weeps.

In closing, I’d like to return to my three-part guess at cause of my complaint, the part where I treasonously conjecture that the idea of a free human being just might clash, not just with something in suburbia, not just with Virginia, but with the basic setup of our beloved country itself.

Although I haven’t made the case in detail (maybe a topic for another day), I hope I have at least outlined an argument that suggests, by driving our kids from one bubble to another, we dramatically limit the scope of their freedom. In so doing, we bring them into a social world made up of buffers and protections that mock the notion that America is the land of the free. We are training our children to be fundamentally unfree and to accept their condition as normal. To speak directly to the Whitney Houston problem: we are proliferating an anti-libertarian model of American citizenship. This model is one in which highly regimented institutions collude to intervene in our public lives, protecting us from making basic life choices, starting with crossing the goddamned street.

kinder
German kids being trained to inhabit a world fit for walking

And what of the home of the brave? It turns out to be another cheap joke. Right up to the age where we can legally enlist our children in the military and send them to trumped-up foreign wars to be maimed or killed, we treat them like babies. Why? Because life is too scary. The streets teem with psychopaths.

There are real dangers out there, but they are mostly of our own making. What the streets actually teem with are cars, driven by distracted people on smart phones, many of them carrying–not just driving–lethal weapons. The police guarding our children know in the backs of their minds that every encounter with a citizen could escalate instantaneously to a gun battle, and they are driven by this pervasive fear to a chronic state of trigger happiness.

Fear. This is what drives the decisions of everyone complicit in the travesty I now inhabit. Principals and school boards fear losing a pedestrian student to a car accident while crossing the busy street in front of the school. They designate their institution a no-walk school. (I am not making this up. One of my children’s schools is deliberately set up to quell the idea that it can be approached by walking. It has the official designation of no-walk.)

Fear drives the parents who every morning and afternoon crowd the roads approaching the school just so they can drop off and pick up their children. The safety bubbles must exist! In the pursuit of safety, the phalanx of parents each day exacerbates the unsafe conditions that lead the school officials to repel walkers in the first place.

Fear also drives the traffic engineers who have determined that certain roads are too dangerous to be crossed by pedestrians. The idea that such roads can be made safe does not enter their calculations. My impression so far is that the traffic engineers, sensible people for the most part, might be led to think humanely on this point, but their mindset is entrenched by the interlocking fears of the parents and schools involved. It all works together.

Our myths tell us we are a nation of lions. We stood up to the world’s most powerful empire and won our freedom through raw courage. Since then we’ve gone from strength to strength, showing the world what a truly brave country can accomplish for its citizens. Nonsense. Washington may have crossed the Delaware, but we, his progeny, can no longer cross the street. Or, to be more precise, we are no longer permitted to cross the street. We accept the bland, presumptive authority of a system that says our world just cannot be made safe for play, self-locomotion and purposive behavior, traits that define humanity and have been honed by 70,000 years of evolution.

Moving, I find is like grieving. Anyone who has lost a loved one can recall the kind assurances made by people around us promising that we will emerge from the deep pain of loss to accept a new world in which only memories of the late loved one exists. The first response to this counsel is rejection. We may have to accept the loss of the departed loved one, but we do not have to accept a new self that makes this accommodation.

Moving is like that, or at least it is for me. I may ultimately have to accept that public space here is denuded of the things that make it possible to walk with dignity or purpose, but to let go of my old self, the one who expected these things and taught my children to do the same, seems not just like a loss but a betrayal.

 

 

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Reading America

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

My plan to “read America” this year has gone off the rails. I knew it would.

The original idea was to delve into several big American themes, among them flight, democracy, presidents, slavery, war, money, race, and literary criticism.

Here is what I said, rather grandly, to myself when I came up with the plan. I was in my home on the edge of a forest in Germany, which had been my perch for 11 years:

. . . [I]n 2018 I will read only about America. The longer I live overseas the more I feel like I need to re-explain my homeland to myself. The place is always changing, and I think my distance has given me a certain perspective on what is means to be American in the swirling tides of recent history. We’re always in what I.F. Stone called a “time of torment.”  He thought the phrase applied especially to the 1960s. But history never stands still, and neither does our identity.

What happened to my plan? I lost my focus. Instead of reading topically-focused books on the themes I had in mind, heavy on interdisciplinary stuff, I got sucked right in to sprawling, romantic series of American novels–great cycles of stories that tell us what it was like to be alive here at certain times.

I suppose the bug bit me a few years ago when I read Shelbey Foote’s novelistic rendition of the American Civil War, a massive, 2,700-page trilogy that Foote says was inspired by Proust. Foote felt the same devotion to mood, memory, and minute coloration of detail as the Searcher for Lost Time, and it shows.

I also took inspiration from Gore Vidal’s sly, subversive seven-book series of historical novels commonly known as the American Chronicles. It provides what Gore calls a “useful” history of our country, by which he meant a history deflated of myths. The apex of the series, Lincoln, is undoubtedly Vidal at his best. He depicts our greatest president as a human being who need not be made into a god to earn our love and respect.

Who knows–my attraction to long, literary meditations on American life possibly goes back to my fondness for Laura Ingalls Wilders’s Little House series, which I read in the fifth grade.

A paradox: a novelist can only tell large, universal truths if she reflects intimately on what she knows best–the minutiae of a highly particular, individual life. I got this much  from Günter Grass, a German, and Orhan Pamuk, a Turk. They both worried that their masterpieces would flop in English translation because their stories were too parochial, too local to be understood by foreign Anglophiles.

Not so, though. When their big books came out in English, both authors did very well, and this was because they gave English speakers deeply appealing stories whose meanings were heightened, not obscured by their particularity. Grass showed what it was like to be from a Polish-German family before and after World War Two. Very conflicted, and absurdly tragic. Pamuk meditated on how today’s Turks still suffer from the cultural loss that followed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The breakneck social engineering of Attatürk left them wondering who they are to this day.

American writers, I tend to think, come by a universalizing attitude comparatively easily. Since they hail from a big, consequential country, they assume that their stories automatically have broad appeal. Günter Grass and Orhan Pamuk had to sweat over this aspiration; American writers seem to be born with it.

And so it should come as no surprise that Americans have more than our fair share of sweeping national novels that tell our stories on large canvases, with great depth of feeling and insight. When we do things, we do them big. So if you can have sweeping national novels, why not have whole series of them–stories that go on, book after book, rendering America in ever-deeper nuance, ever-finer portraiture? It was the bounty of such series that drew me in and wrecked my plan of interdisciplinary reading. (So far. There’s always next year.)

I started my journey with Willa Cather‘s prairie trilogy, made up of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. They tell deeply personal stories about conservative but adventurous Europeans who come to a wide-open new land and watch their progeny leave off old ways and turn into entirely new kinds of people. So, the stories are bittersweet tales of immigration and alienation–what it is like to love your children as they effortlessly leave you behind to dream new dreams you can’t even understand.

But the stories are also about personal grit, determination and success, solidly “American” themes. Each novel depicts a woman who authors her own life in a way only made possible by the westward push of American frontier life. If you could make it on the 19th-century high plains, you didn’t need a man to tell you you had arrived. Two of Cather’s heroines do precisely this, raising themselves up to master both the forces of nature and the stifling social constraints of a rural patriarchy. Cather’s third heroine, the eponymous subject of My Antonia, fails to master her surroundings in any obvious way but achieves a stoic embrace of frontier life that is lyrically beautiful and affirming of the human experience.

It was the grandeur and natural innocence of Cather’s Upper Midwest settings that led me to read Sinclair Lewis. Although Lewis is not credited with an American series as such, his cycle of Midwestern morality tales–Babbit, Mainstreet, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith overlap just enough in themes and character types to think of them as a single, broad critique of the rising American middle class.

I blogged a few months ago on the enduring relevance of Lewis’s critique. His target was the unthinking ease with which WASPs presumed to dominate America’s Leitkultur between 1890 and 1930. If you want an idea of what the reactionary right wants today when it says it wants to make America great again, you can find it in Lewis’s novels. Read them, and you can see the clock turned back to the very time when America’s can-do, small-time money makers elevated their crass, mediocre ideals of conformity and commercialism to a normative idea of what it means to be a good American.

If Cather’s and Lewis’s novels take in a great sweep of Americana, John Dos Passos‘s USA trilogy captures a more punctuated, crucial juncture in our history. Its three novels–The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money–freeze-frame the societal changes that drew us into World War One and then sustained an economic boom that would set the stage for the defining events of the twentieth century–the Great Depression, World War Two, and the Cold War.

Dos Passos’s leading characters are hustlers trying to make it on a brand new economic playing field– movie actors, airplane designers, public relations specialists–wholly novel professions suddenly made possible by the war’s disruptive changes in attitudes and technology. The trilogy’s overarching story, which the characters swirl in and out of, is a morality tale about what happens when a nation on the go starts believing its own propaganda.

The disquieting message of the USA trilogy is one for which Dos Passos gets too little credit. Democracies being led to war, he indicates, must work themselves up into a nationalist lather, which is fed by widespread, self-flattering lies. Understandable enough: you can’t charge the trenches for ho-hum reasons, even if they are honest ones. To anticipate a U.S. statesman of the Cold War era, the motive reasons for war must be made “clearer than truth.” Dos Passos would have liked that.

After war ends and peace returns, though, the material beneficiaries of the big lies want to keep the profits of the hullabaloo going. (Have you checked out the price of a state-of-the-art fighter- bomber recently? You should.) And so they entrench and normalize the pro-war falsehoods. The chronic fear of “national security threats” have become part and parcel of the nation’s life. We denigrate Iran and North Korea for their trumped-up war rites and the flagrant lies they tell themselves, but we are only about a half a step behind them. Our ad men are better.

Americans’ interlocking beliefs that we are great because we are good and good because we are great are largely a product of wartime propaganda, a one-off, special circumstance that Dos Passos documents in the USA trilogy. The consequences of that special circumstance, though, have, since World War One, come to feel normal to us. The next time you are occupying a $100 seat in a sports stadium, and at the behest of a billionaire corporate sponsor, you set down your nachos to applaud the military veterans in your midst, know that you are obediently playing your part in this cheap and cynical theater.

(A mini-digression: If there is a one-word sentence to describe the purpose of my blog, it is to persuade even one other person that you are born to better things than to play your part in cheap and cynical bits of theater.)

After Dos Passos I jumped ahead in time to John Updike‘s Rabbit series, which spans the 1950s to 1990s. It includes Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest. I had long wanted to read Updike because he authored the gaudily implausible idea that “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” He came up with this quip after the Vietnam war, by the way. Anyone capable of such a one-sided view of our society must have a massive, and interesting, blindspot.

As Martin Amis, one of my favorite novelists, observed, Updike seems unable to write poorly. Good thing. For some 1,500 pages, the Rabbit series pays serious literary attention to what must be one of the most unappealing character types in our history, the complacent narcissist. (Echoes of Sinclair Lewis here.)

The long “parade of days” that Harry Angstrom’s Rabbit character unfurls certainly draws the reader in, or at least did me. There is something so blandly awful about Rabbit’s persona that one simply must witness the next wreck in his life-long melodrama of decline.

Put as briefly as possible, Rabbit sallies forth from one half-baked endeavor to another–he half-asses everything and everyone: wife, career, child, mistress–while cultivating the expectation that he deserves to be made happy by the aggregate mess. When Rabbit dies, his wife forgives him for, in effect, having raised assholishness to an existential art. During their life together, Rabbit habitually referred to her as a mut and fantasized repeatedly about bashing in her head with a decorative piece of glass.

Don’t get me wrong. Rabbit figures a few things out about his American life along the way. Having accidentally become rich, and later having been brought to the edge of ruin by a complex web of bad luck, bad parenting and stupid choices:

Rabbit realized the world was not solid and benign, it was a shabby set of temporary arrangements rigged up for the time being, all for the sake of money. You just passed through, and they milked you for what you were worth, mostly when you were young and gullible. If Kroll’s [his once-profitable Toyota dealership] could go, the courthouse could go, the banks could go. When the money stopped, they could close down God himself.

There is, despite the objectionable character of Rabbit himself, one good reason to go ahead and read Updike. Rabbit puts on full display a highly useful concept: the partially examined life. Today, with our iPhones, our robocalls, our TV addictions, and our distance-learning degrees, the partially examined life is probably as much as we will be able to muster. The fully examined life is beyond us now. Read Rabbit and behold the bonds of mediocrity you accept when you breath in the sweet intoxicants of consumerism and pop culture. You’ll still be haunted by the vague longing for a life less tawdry, as Rabbit is, but you’ll have no idea how to summon it.

Philip Roth‘s American trilogy–American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, and The Human Stain–builds up a towering counterpoint to Updike’s Rabbit. With wrath and eloquence, Roth defies the dying of the American light, insisting that the examined life is still possible even in a land given up to the shabbiest of values and the most venal of principles.

philip_roth
Philip Roth  [Image: pulitzer.org]
“The meaning of life is that it ends,” Roth wrote (paraphrasing Kierkegaard). Try escaping that riddle, no matter where you live or what you call your nationality. If you do not have the sense to fear the life-wasting power of your iPhone today, you will come to loath it on your deathbed. Count on it. America cannot insulate you from mortality, try as it might. Roth’s American series examines the lives of three men who believe their country should abet them in their combative quest for meaning rather than abandoning them to money fever and cheap thrills.

The second large theme running through the trilogy is the opacity of an individual human life. In each book, the assiduous novelist Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, is commissioned, in one way or another, to write a biography of the story’s hero. In each case, Zuckerman’s first impression fails him. Then his second one does, and his third. Each novel turns on the idea that humans, as the planet’s only self-creators–with strong motives for deception, deflection, braggadocio, and countless other corruptions of the truth–are impossible to know.

And in each novel, Roth gives America a special role to play as the stage on which the individual’s autopoeisic myths have the widest range to play. The Human Stain is about a light-skinned African American who, shortly after high school, begins passing himself off as white and Jewish, utterly alienating his loving mother and the rest of his family. (This is Willa Cather again. Our children leave us to dream new, unrecognizable dreams. We love them anyway.)

Late in life, the professor of The Human Stain loses his job as a college professor after he lets fly a flippant remark that is understood as a (white-on-black) act of racism. He can’t even begin to deal. The American life he created is based in a network of beliefs, myths, attitudes, delusions so complex they can never be untangled and reassembled into a moral defense of his innocent remark.

Roth opens American Pastoral, the first book in the series, with the Kierkegaardian idea that each person has an inner and outer self. Simple enough–you dig and grope through the outer, and you can get to know the inner. Roth takes this archaeology of the human to be the novelist’s main task.

By the end of The Human Stain, though, Roth has dropped Kierkegaard’s overly simplified formulation. Human selves consist in unknowabilty all the way down; and in America, “all the way down” can be a very long way. You may think you are breaking through the outer self to the inner, but in truth you are merely apprehending the next inner layer:

There is truth and then again there is truth. For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.

My next encounter will be with James Farrell’s O’Neil-O’Flaherty novels, a five-part series about growing up in turn-of-the-century Chicago. It will be about unknowlability all the way down. I know that ahead of time. But that’s okay.

The gift of American literature, like the gift of any literature, is that its gaze into the individual life turns up a thousand little things worth discovering and one big thing worth acknowledging. We all learn this thing from Macbeth in the eighth grade or so–that life is a poor player, that it lights fools the way to dusty death, and so forth–but great novels illuminate this truth in new ways and bring it to life in ways that remind us of our own selves. This kind of self-discovery is still rejuvenating, although here in America it is endangered by a general war on thought. Read our great novels while you can. Our children will dream new dreams that may make them unrecognizable.