Sunday, May 17, 2020

Deep in our own heads

Feeling a little scattered these days. Aren't we all? How to get back some coherence?

Henry James, from his notebook, March 29, 1905:
The question, however, is with, is of, what I want now,and how I need to hark back, and hook on, to those very 1st little emotions and agitations and stirred sensibilities of the first Cambridge hours and days and even weeks--though it's really a matter for any acuteness, for any quality, of but the hours, the very first, during which the charms of the brave handsome autumn (I coax it, stretching a point with soft names) lingered and hung about, and made something of a little medium for the sensibility to act in. That was a good moment, genuine so far as it went, and just enough, no doubt, under an artful economy, to conjure with.
Lord, I hope we're not still doing this when the "brave, handsome autumn" arrives, but I have my fears. The stasis we're in certainly doesn't feel anything like a "medium for the sensibility to act in." Differentiating moment from moment feels like the most I can manage right now, as a creature of habit who find himself now somehow even more of one, without the usual interruptions of outside activity to punctuate the days.

But it's worth remembering that these pains are minor compared to those being suffered by many of our fellows. And even more so when set in the context of a reminder like this, which opens Francesca Wade's new book Square Haunting:
A few minutes past midnight on Tuesday, September 10, 1940, an air raid struck Mecklenburgh Square. From number 45, John Lehmann heard gunfire rumbling in the distance, the hum of airplanes at an insistent crescendo until "three whistling, ripping noises" directly overhead were followed by the unmistakable tinkling of breaking glass. Climbing out of bed, he opened the blackout curtains to find his windows shattered and the London skyline obscured by flames. His friend Stephen Spender's house on nearby Lansdowne Terrace, usually visible from his second-floor window, appeared to be enveloped in a burning cloud. "Well," Lehmann found himself thinking, surprised at his state of calm, "poor old Stephen's the first to go."
As some of you will know, Lehmann was, fortunately, wrong: Spender survived the war and lived into the 1990s. The fear, however, was real. For most of us living in the shadow of COVID, the immediate fear for our lives has passed, transmuted into fear for our livelihoods and our communities. That's a wholly legitimate fear, but I will confess that reading even that one paragraph about the Blitz offered a bracing restoration of perspective.

We're all in our own heads a bit right now, aren't we? Even as we attend work meetings via video and chat with friends on the phone or partners or roommates (or pets) in person, our inner monologues, I think, are rising in volume. How could they not, as we're faced with such a strange combination of new experiences and stultification? The moment-to-moment living of our lives has shifted to autopilot, but the deep bass thrum of fear is ever present, telling our minds they need to work overtime solving the problem. But it's a problem our minds can't solve, so they simply . . . work. To little avail.

That situation made Anita Brookner's The Rules of Engagement seem wholly apt for our moment when I read it recently. The novel, which tells the story of Elizabeth, a middle-aged woman, and her mostly failed marriage and brief affairs, leaves the reader almost completely in the head of its protagonist. Relatively few novels strike a realistic balance between our external interactions and the movements of our minds--in most novels dialogue flows back and forth without acknowledging the unspoken reactions, the flights of thought and reference, the lightning interpretations that necessarily occur between the end of one person's speech and the start of another's. Anthony Powell, in his way, does this. James certainly does, sometimes to a fault. Brookner in this novel pulls it off brilliantly, and to an explicit effect: We are in Elizabeth's head primarily because that is where she is trapped. She has no real confidantes, in part because society refuses to admit that a married woman might need them, that her dissatisfaction might be legitimate.

What that means ultimately is that Elizabeth is not only always assessing her own thoughts and actions but also doing the same for those of the people around her--and rarely seeing or taking an opportunity to check those assessments. Here's a brief example:
"Thank you for dinner."

"It was my pleasure."

It did not then seem as if it had been a pleasure. He had retreated into his earlier mournful self. What he had no doubt wanted was not something I could supply. The brief recitation of his emotional history had served some purpose, but I was not able to evaluate this. No doubt it had been defensive, even pre-emptive, in order to forestall any more leisurely enquiries. It now seemed entirely irrelevant, yet I knew that I should give it further thought. He seemed to regret it, but it was in keeping with his general stoicism not to offer excuses.
As the advice columnists so often have to remind us, if we want to know what someone thinks or feels, our best course of action is to ask them. Yet again and again we don't. It's a default form of self-protection in many cases, rooted in fear of responsibility and involvement. Yet it's also a denial, one that can easily warp us, of the separate reality of those around us. James Schuyler, in "Hymn to Life," captures the problem in a plainspoken way:
Reticence is not a bad quality, though it may lead to misunderstandings. I misunderstood silence for disapproval, see now it was

I think far more often than is probably reasonable about Reed and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four, and how many times Reed has discovered an existential threat to the cosmos and decided that he had to solve it himself, rather than burdening his wife and family with the terrible knowledge. Always, Sue finds out. Always, she's righteously angry. It's a playing out in superhero terms of a drama common to many a deep relationship. Reed substitutes his own judgment for that of his wife, assumes that she shouldn't have to handle the stress of his knowledge, shouldn't have to help bear the burden, rather than honor her separate existence and trust that she can be a full participant in their shared life. It's the purest solipsism, one that cuts us off from so much of what relationships have to offer.

Schuyler again:
You see death shadowed out in another's life. The threat Is always there, even in balmy April sunshine. So what
If it is hard to believe in. Stopping in the city while the light
Is red, to think that all who stop with you too must stop, and
Yet it is not less individual a fate for all that.
We are all in our heads. We are all there alone. But we can open the doors. Right now that's more than ever worth the effort.