Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Alone but not lost

Back in the Before Time when I was in college, a certain very young and intense man read this passage from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel to me; it's from the point of view of the main character Eugene as a baby in his crib:
...he knew he would always be the sad one: caged in that little round of skull, imprisoned in that beating and most secret heart, his life must always walk down lonely passages.  Lost.  He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her arms a stranger, and that, caught in that insoluble prison of being, we escape it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart may warm us.  Never, never, never, never, never.
This young man felt that this and other similar passages in Wolfe's books were very profound and moving indeed, and they touched him deeply.*

And while I in turn was moved by this young man's passion for literature (Reader, I married him), these particular sentiments left me cold.  My feeling was that this eternal separation from others, this inability to ever completely know another being, was essential to sanity and happiness.

26 years later, I still feel that way.  My own skull isn't my prison; it's my refuge.  Interaction with people, whether it's superficial or deep, can be exhausting and fraught - being alone in my head is a saving grace, not a tragedy.

Of course, sometimes it's not so fun being trapped with oneself, unable to escape one's thoughts and very existence.  In that case there are only 3 possible remedies for me:
  • Mindfulness meditation (if I could ever make myself practice it regularly enough to get competent at it)
  • Running (in a miraculous alchemy, stressful thoughts transform into invigorating adrenaline)
  • Reading
Reading.  It doesn't solve any problems, nor does it treat the underlying causes of stress.  And yet the relief it offers is pure, reliable, and immediate.  The mind stills,  thoughts cease to circle and flap like maddened crows.  More than just distraction, books offer a focus for one's attention that is utterly engrossing.

And going back to Wolfe and his despair, running as a constant theme through all his books, at the human failure to every truly know or communicate with others (in another passage, this one from Of Time and the River, a character wonders "What is wrong with people?...Why do we never get to know one another? ...Why is it that we get born and live and die here in this world without ever finding out what any one else is like?") - well, I submit that reading books is a fine way to get to know one another (especially for us natural-born hermits). 

An author is setting down carefully crafted words that communicate thoughts and ideas and visions and stories that can resonate deeply with readers.  Books communicate truths both mundane and profound; I've never thought so much about what it means to be human as when reading books.  I may not be getting to know those writers personally, but we are sharing ideas and concepts that go deeper than that. 

And even a "frivolous" story well-told can spark associations and ideas for days, weeks, and years after the book has returned to the library and almost forgotten.

Some of us are like Thomas Wolfe, always striving outward, always yearning for meaningful human connection from the people they meet, constantly seeking out true companions.

And some of us would rather be reading.

*My husband read that passage aloud again to me a couple nights ago, this time with melodramatic flair, laughter, and some nostalgia for the young man he used to be.  But he added that he still understands and agrees with the sentiment, though he doesn't feel it with quite the same Weltschmerz that he used to.

1 comment:

  1. "Some of us are like Thomas Wolfe, always striving outward, always yearning for meaningful human connection from the people they meet, constantly seeking out true companions.

    And some of us would rather be reading."

    HOW TRUE!!!

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this whole entry.