Friday, July 22, 2011

The World of Broken Unicorns: Echoes of Three Fictional Searchers (Jake Blount, Larry Slade, Philip Carey)


"And how many of us are there in this country? Maybe ten thousand. Maybe twenty thousand. Maybe a lot more. I been to a lot of places but I never met but a few of us. But say a man does know. He sees the world as it is and he looks back thousands of years to see how it all come about. He watched the slow agglutination of capital and power and he sees its pinnacle today. He sees America as a crazy house. He sees how men have to rob their brothers in order to live. He sees children starving and women working sixty hours a week to get to eat. He sees a whole damn army of unemployed and billions of dollars and thousands of miles of land wasted. He sees war coming. He sees how when people suffer just so much they get mean and ugly and something dies in them. But the main thing he sees is that the whole system of the world is built on a lie. And although it's as plain as the shining sun — the don't-knows have lived with that lie so long they just can't see it." —Jake Blount via Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Part II, Chapter IV)

"I'm through with the Movement. I saw men didn't want to be saved from themselves, for that would mean they'd have to give up greed, and they'll never pay that price for liberty. So I said to the world, God bless all here, and may the best man win and die of gluttony! And I took a seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment to fall asleep observing the cannibals do their death dance." —Larry Slade via Eugene O'Neill (The Iceman Cometh, Act I)

"But there's this. You see, we just can’t settle down after knowing, but we got to act. And some of us go nuts. There’s too much to do and you don’t know where to start. It makes you crazy. Even me — I've done things that when I look back at them they don't seem rational. Once I started an organization myself. I picked out twenty lintheads and talked to them until I thought they knew. Our motto was one word: Action. Huh! We meant to start riots — stir up all the big trouble we could. Our ultimate goal was freedom — but a real freedom, a great freedom made possible only by the sense of justice of the human soul. Our motto, "Action," signified the razing of capitalism. In the constitution (drawn up by myself) certain statutes dealt with the swapping of our motto from "Action" to "Freedom" as soon as our work was through. [...] Then when the constitution was all written down and the first followers well organized — then I went out on a hitchhiking tour to organize component units of the society. Within three months I came back, and what do you reckon I found? What was the first heroic action? Had their righteous fury overcome planned action so that they had gone ahead without me? Was it destruction, murder, revolution? [...] My friend, they had stole the fifty-seven dollars and thirty seven cents from the treasury to buy uniform caps and free Saturday suppers. I caught them sitting around the conference table, rolling the bones, their caps on their heads, and a ham and a gallon of gin in easy reach." —Jake Blount (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Part II, Chapter IV)

"Since he had been at Lynn's he had often gone there and sat in front of the groups from the Parthenon; and, not deliberately thinking, had allowed their divine masses to rest his troubled soul. But this afternoon they had nothing to say to him, and after a few minutes, impatiently, he wandered out of the room. There were too many people, provincials with foolish faces, foreigners poring over guide-books; their hideousness besmirched the everlasting masterpieces, their restlessness troubled the god's immortal repose. He went into another room and here there was hardly anyone. Philip sat down wearily. His nerves were on edge. He could not get the people out of his mind. Sometimes at Lynn's they affected him in the same way, and he looked at them file past him with horror; they were so ugly and there was such meanness in their faces, it was terrifying; their features were distorted with paltry desires, and you felt they were strange to any ideas of beauty. They had furtive eyes and weak chins. There was no wickedness in them, but only pettiness and vulgarity. Their humour was a low facetiousness. Sometimes he found himself looking at them to see what animal they resembled (he tried not to, for it quickly became an obsession,) and he saw in them all the sheep or the horse or the fox or the goat. Human beings filled him with disgust." —Philip Carey via Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage, Chapter LXXXVIII)

"You asked me why I quit the Movement. I had a lot of good reasons. One was myself, and another was my comrades, and the last was the breed of swine called men in general. For myself, I was forced to admit, at the end of thirty years' devotion to the Cause, that I was never made for it. I was born condemned to be one of those who has to see all sides of a question. When you're damned like that, the questions multiply for you until in the end it's all question and no answer. As history proves, to be a worldly success at anything, especially revolution, you have to wear blinders like a horse and see only straight in front of you. You have to see, too, that this is all black, and that is all white. As for my comrades in the Great Cause, I felt as Horace Walpole did about England, that he could love it if it weren't for the people in it. The material the ideal free society must be constructed from is men themselves and you can't build a marble temple out of a mixture of mud and manure. When man's soul isn't a sow's ear, it will be time enough to dream of silk purses." —Larry Slade (The Iceman Cometh, Act I)


"Philip had cultivated a certain disdain for idealism. He had always had a passion for life, and the idealism he had come across seemed to him for the most part a cowardly shrinking from it. The idealist withdrew himself, because he could not suffer the jostling of the human crowd; he had not the strength to fight and so called the battle vulgar; he was vain, and since his fellows would not take him at his own estimate, consoled himself with despising his fellows." —Philip Carey (Of Human Bondage, Chapter LXXXVIII)

"'The things they have done to us! The truths they have turned into lies. The ideals they have fouled and made vile. Take Jesus. He was one of us. He knew. When He said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God — he damn well meant just what he said. But look what the Church has done to Jesus during the last two thousand years. What they have made of him. How they have turned every word he spoke for their own vile ends. Jesus would be framed and in jail if he were living today. Jesus would be one who really knows. Me and Jesus would sit across the table and I would look at him and he would look at me and we would both know that the other knew. Me and Jesus and Karl Marx could all sit at a table and —
     ‘And look what has happened to our freedom. The men who fought the American Revolution were no more like these D.A.R. dames than I'm a pot-bellied, perfumed Pekingese dog. They meant what they said about freedom. They fought a real revolution. They fought so that this could be a country where every man would be free and equal. Huh! And that meant every man was equal in the sight of Nature — with an equal chance. This didn't mean that twenty per cent of the people were free to rob the other eighty percent of the means to live. This didn't mean for one rich man to sweat the piss out of ten thousand poor men so that he can get richer. This didn't mean the tyrants were free to get this country in such a fix that millions of people are ready to do anything — cheat, lie, or whack off their right arm — just to work for three squares and a flop. They have made the word freedom a blasphemy. You hear me? They have made the word freedom stink like a skunk to all who know.'" —Jake Blount (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Part II, Chapter IV)

* * *

"Perhaps his taciturnity hid a contempt for the human race which had abandoned the great dreams of his youth and now wallowed in sluggish ease; of perhaps those thirty years of revolution had taught him that men are unfit for liberty, and he thought that he had spent his life in the pursuit of that which was not worth the finding. Or maybe he was tired out and waited only with indifference for the release of death." —Philip Carey (Of Human Bondage, Chapter XXV)

"...I've nothing left to give, and I want to be left alone, and I'll thank you to keep your life to yourself. I feel you're looking for some answer to something. I have no answer to give anyone, not even myself. Unless you can call what Heine wrote inn his poem to morphine an answer. (He quotes a translation of the closing couplet sardonically)

'Lo, sleep is good; better is death; in sooth,
The best of all were never to be born.'"

                                                                                                        —Larry Slade (The Iceman Cometh, Act I)

"[Jake] knew and could not get the don't-knows to see. It was like trying to fight darkness or heat or a stink in the air." —Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Part II, Chapter XII)

"All we want is to pass out in peace, bejees! (A chorus of dull, resentful protest from all the group. They mumble, like sleepers who curse a person who keeps awakening them, "What's it to us? We want to pass out in peace!") —Harry Hope (The Iceman Cometh, Act IV)

* * *


JIM: Did something fall off it? I think—


JIM: I hope it wasn't the little glass horse with the horn!

LAURA: Yes. [She stoops to pick it up.]

JIM: Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken?

LAURA: Now it is just like all the other horses.

JIM: It's lost its—

LAURA: Horn!

                                                                                          —Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie


Andrew said...

It's great to see you posting again. (I have yet to watch Cutter's Way, but it should happen soon).

Of Human Bondage is perhaps my favorite novel, or one of them. These selections reminded me of certain entries in Kafka's journals regarding the perils of freedom (I'm still unsure whether is making a specific point about the failures of democracy or cryptically conservative):

"It is often safer to be in chains than to be free."

"You are free and that is why you are lost."

Tyler said...

Sorry for the delayed response.

I read OF HUMAN BONDAGE -- at least recently; I probably would have at some point anyway -- primarily because you used to have a quote from it on your blog, and also because you mentioned it once in a post. When I saw an old copy sitting on a shelf at my friends house a few weeks ago, it just seemed like the perfect choice.

I enjoyed the book a great deal, and I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I value it quite as highly as you do. The first 200-300 pages seem a bit stronger than the rest, unfortunately. And, overall, Maugham just isn't that great of a writer. A lot of the book is overflowing with cliches ("[he] turned his mind inward and called forth those flowers which he felt would never lose their fragrance") and done-to-death similes ("she was like a rosebud bursting into flower"; "her lips... were like a flower"; "like an exotic flower amongst them"). But, lest I give the wrong impression, it's certainly not without its moments and merits, and at almost 700 pages, it has a good deal of greatness (and even great writing). The best component is probably Philip's characterization, which is very complex. As for the ending... I'm not sure. It's a bit weak if we're to assume that it is indeed a happy one, but I tend to think that Philip is betraying his reason (or himself) one final time. It would be a shame to think that, after all of that, Philip gives in to a very traditional approach to "meaning" in life. It's too pat and smacks of "advice giving" (can't think of the word I'm looking for -- not exactly didacticism) on Maugham's part. But maybe Philip's resignation, if indeed that's what it is, is fitting. Frighteningly fitting.

I've always been interested in trying to figure out why some people "care" and why other people don't (or at least don't seem to). Is it because of what they know? Is it something about them as individuals? Why do some people pay attention to the world and try to keep themselves informed while others don't? And why do many of those who don't keep themselves informed convince themselves that they do? Why do many people wear their ignorance and indifference as if it were a badge of honor, as if it represented some wising up on their part, some "you'll understand it when you're older" justification? It seems like nearly everyone becomes disillusioned the older they get, even "those who know" (to use the language of Jake Blount). But the disillusionment of many of the people who "know" often takes the form of someone like Larry Slade, a character who sees humans as enslaved to their worst emotions and therefore doomed (or not even worth trying to help). This kind of (dis)illusion is an easy way to resign from life, a washing of the hands.

All of this this creates a cycle. Every time I come across someone who is disillusioned, I become more disillusioned. Often when I come across someone who is unreachable, someone who either doesn't care about the world around them (outside their small circle), or who will never change anything about the way they live life (everything is about convenience, comfort, and how it affects them personally), I feel like shooting myself in the head. But, after talking to them, I often find that many of these people became disillusioned because they met many other disillusioned people over the course of their life...! People get to the point where it just seems silly not to play along in the giant destructive rat-race since, well, everyone else is going to anyway.

* * *

I've been following the TREE OF LIFE discussion on your blog with interest...

Andrew said...

Your arguments are fair, but my reception of the novel's conclusion was genuinely terrified: the arbitrary end of a chronicle of self-delusion and personal compromise. If there is any 'hope' it must lie in the fact that he has more life ahead of him and will undoubtedly continue to change, but if he settled in to such passive existence then it is a frightening conclusion. Phillip is a smart guy, but often dances around more meaningful self-criticisms. I can't really defend the cliche's except I understood them as projections of the character's limitations and perspectives, which were many.

I hope to respond to again on the Tree of Life thread, but I'm in the process of moving, so it's been quite the slog.

Tyler said...

Not because it will matter to anyone else but because I want this blog to accurately reflect me the best I can, I'm making this note to say that I'm distancing myself from the final two paragraphs of my above comment. They're too general, they sound as though I'm only speaking of political issues, and they have an overall tone I dislike. I agree with what I was trying to say, but I feel the sketch I provided looks quite different from the picture that's painted in my head. So continues my frustrating battle with words.