Sunday, May 6, 2012

American Pastoral Redux - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Ruminates:

         A couple of weeks ago I posted about American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  I wanted to revisit it – I have been haunted by a passage that I hunted down.  In it, The Swede, the All American protagonist, is remembering a series of brief essays that his daughter wrote when she was ten.  The first question, “Why are we here?” she had answered by asking, “Why are apes here.”  This did not please her teacher.  Nor was the teacher pleased by the answer to the tenth question, “What is life.”  Both The Swede and I found her answer, “Life is just a short period of time during which you are alive,” to be profound.
         I have always felt that I must accomplish something with my life.  This has not always led me to engage in behavior that would eventuate in my doing that, but I have consistently expected that I would get there (such as watching sitcom reruns when I have work to do).  I have also done things that do, in fact, lead in that direction.  I have pursued a great deal of education, and some of that education has been explicitly focused on preparing me to “contribute” to the development of science.  Pursuing analytic training lead me off of that track, but also contained within it the thought that I might develop a field that was more theoretically based and/or bring tools from the social sciences that would move psychoanalysis forward.
         There was an implicit contract in each of these moves.  I would “sacrifice” time – and sometimes money – in order to achieve something else – let’s call it for the moment an accomplishment – but maybe it is an affirmation of myself as having value – worth.  One of my thoughts has been that having analytic training behind me would lead me to be wise.  I was trading money and time for wisdom.  I have also not trusted this or, frankly, pretty much any other transaction.  In each of them, I am trading away bits and pieces of myself for the promise of something else.  The promise varies and at any one time might include many things: respect, esteem, appreciation, and sometimes payment – either a salary or a fee for service. 
         There has also been a fundamental fear that underlies this interaction.  The fear has been experienced broadly as the feeling that I won’t make it.  Its most concrete form is that I won’t be able to survive – quite literally to put food on the table.  This fear has not been reality based.  Though even now my thought is, “I could always get a job washing dishes” which, while true and based on having a number of dishwashing jobs before and during college and - while not disparaging dishwashing – it is also the case that others would say I could do many other things as well.  In a true emergency, I certainly could fall back on my family.
As my income has increased – I supported myself through college on summer jobs, work study, scholarships, loans and help from my parents, I worked after graduation for not much more that minimum wage – then got “rich” earning 16,000 dollars a year in New York City before going back to school and surviving on about 6,000 dollars a year for five years, then I had a few more dollars on internship, then on post doc.  Getting an academic position which initially did not pay well, getting married, having a child while in analytic training, getting divorced – at each stage there was a fear that I would not be able to scratch together enough money to eat, to be clothed, to survive.
         But that is not the issue.  For, as my income has gone up, it has been ample while being never quite enough.  There has always been the sense – the sense that I first experienced in college that, if (then) I just had ten more dollars a week – enough for a six-pack of beer and some cigarettes – I would have not a care in the world.  Now the desires are larger – a new car, or refinishing a room – and the amount is larger, too.  But I am equally certain that whatever amount at whichever time would not be enough.  There is an avariciousness to acquisition that just doesn’t stop.  And I can never have enough.  So I end up being disdainful of those I see as nouveau riche, the ones who drive around in ostentatious vehicles, as if that money proves that they have made it - that they have successfully achieved the bargain that I have so long been looking for. 
         I think I am disdainful because I am resonating with the wish not just for the money, but for what it promises.  That the money (or the accomplishment, or the sense of having contributed) will “buy” a different, better life.  And certainly Freud would propose that this life would forestall death – that my motivation is, at root, the fear of my mortality.  And I think that is right.  So, The Swede’s daughter’s characterization of life serves as corrective.  Life is not something that we control.  It is not something that we buy.  It is not even something that we can earn.  It is just a short period of time during which we are alive.  A short period of time during which, I discovered in my own analysis, we get to live and to do things – not a period of time where we have to do things.  And, when that frame of mind is in place, when I realize that life is, indeed, a time limited gift to be savored, ironically I feel less needy – and less fearful that things will not work out.
         Now, my adolescent self would strenuously object to this position.  It would scream that I have sold out.  I have settled for something – I have settled for security, for comfort, and I have fallen short of… something.  Knowledge?  Truth?  Something grand and worth achieving.  Swede’s daughter’s position is a corrective.  And, paradoxically, by making my life less important, less bloated and inflated, it opens it up.  It allows me to make use of what I have – to enjoy what is present.  At least for the moments that I can hang onto that idea…
         The irony in the novel is that the character, Merry, who writes this sentiment, does not use it to satisfy, mollify or to contain herself.  Quite the contrary, she literally explodes her life.  She is an enigmatic character who epitomizes a certain kind of restlessness, a certain kind of failure to be soothed.  And she becomes a continual thorn in the Swede’s side – causing him to question who it is that he thinks he is, causing him to be off balance – to not himself be deadened by his success, by his making the world his oyster.  The Swede, who has always been much more comfortable in his own skin than I – and than Philip Roth – has a corrective that keeps him from that comfort, and that same corrective helps me move a bit from my discomfort towards something that is more balanced for me.

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