One is confronted with the suggestion — I had a psychiatrist once who argued with locutions like that, said we all must say “I have been confronted . . .” because statements of personal experience cannot be impersonalized, but I’ve been so very free with the first person singular during my graphomanic seizures lately that a conscious effort to transcend utter subjectivity seems appropriate — that a clever person ought to be able to think his or her way out of depression.
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Let me begin with a rather typical self-help book, which when I borrowed it from the local neighborhood branch of the municipal library, a cylindrical plastic kiosk (reminiscent to my mind of the one similarly constructed standing in the middle of Harvard Square beside the Boston municipal subway station entrance), my former weightlifting partner and free-spirited rebel of a neighbor, Fernando Morales, borrowed from me and kept for over a month. This book has appeal: Fernando likes it enough to be kidded for weeks. As for me, you can see how although I did not, I might have written the whole first two pages [my additions are in square brackets]:
Some years ago, as a result of what I felt as a great personal failure [not finishing grad school] and consequent severely hurt pride, I suffered a very painful depression.
In psychoanalytic treatment, I learned a great deal about myself that I had no previous idea about at all. [repetition of ‘about’ is poor syntax] This included many emotional problems and confusions as well as much about good human substance, too. [a lack of parallelism: “many problems. . . much about . . .”] But despite these quite valid and important insights, my depression and despair went on and on [AMEN] and I began to feel that I never would get better. I became aware that I was, in fact, psychologically beating myself unmercifully.
Sounds like someone you know and wish he’d stop sending you long quotations?
I realized that much of the beating came from a false, perfectionistic, impossibly exalted image of myself. I felt that in falling from this image [failing to complete an academic study of the use of science in early modern Eastern Europe] I had descended to a considerably less than subhuman status [ne-er-do-well ex-hippie].
Despite myself, I could not turn the self-hating machinery off. My nights were particularly horrible [here I skip a sentence: we all have had horrible nights, no?]. Once again I relived the humiliating feelings I had when I was left back in the fifth grade. It was as if none of the development, evolving, and growth [ — why the participle? “evolving and growing” or “evolution and growth,” eh?] that had occurred in me since that time had ever happened. Despite myself I had no mercy for the somewhat confused child I had been and still obviously harbored within myself, and I had even less compassion for the young man I had become. [And then the beautiful thought:] The measure of my right to be was unfortunately based on accomplishment.
Let us recall at this point the words of novelist Dorothy Bryant: “None of the current psychological or social explanations of failure explains this mass suicide [of self-hate]. On bad days I lean toward an evolutionary theory, a kind of psychological Darwinism: so many billion attempts at creating a human being, most doomed to failure.” I think she has an insight there: overproduction of progeny is routine in Nature; certainly a lot of people want to be great thinkers like Darwin and Newton, so the ruthless disposal of their intellectual products by posterity imitates the Mathusian model of biological progress. Let us return to our formerly depressed author.
I was among the most fortunate of people [yeah, the more loved you feel, the more depressed you get]. My wife, Ellie [my wife was named Elly], never faltered in compassion and love and provided much insight too. My analyst, in addition to other human qualities, was also rich in both a fighting spirit and compassion. He employed both and fought valiantly against my self-hate. We won.
There follows the dramatic story of our hero’s conversion. Me, I lost the battle against self-hate long ago, and this letter is an effort, you bored reader of ill-crafted epistles, to explain why.
One night, after his own uncompromising compassionate outlook touched me deeply and I’m sure stirred my own dormant fund of compassion, a radical change took place. Before trying to sleep that night [and I am writing this before going to bed tonight] I decided — not with my head but rather with my entire being, all my feelings — that I would “leave it all be,” that I would simply let go, relax, stop berating myself, stop attempting to be in charge, to put it together — simply to let it go — to let be what would be [in the famous formulation of Hegel, what is real is rational]. On a conscious level I felt as if a great weight had shifted from my chest. I was suddenly filled with a renewed faith in people, in the human condition, in the world, in nature and I suppose in all things some people feel as God. But this represented faith in myself — myself — all of myself — sick and healthy.
[Leave it off, poor devil of a Sub-sub, says Melville, in the introductory quotations of his masterpiece.]
I comment on my comment: between the dramatic account of Theodore Isaac Rubin, M.D., and the poetic satire of H. Melville one draws a parallel and finds them saying the same thing, but while Rubin takes it seriously Melville does not. Attempting to take the former seriously, one finds near the back of the book (p. 240):
Our culture participates in mass masochistic enterprise in which each generation convinces itself that it is witnessing the worst of times, the most acute crisis and disasters, galloping deterioration and immanent world destruction. This kind of disaster orientation functions as a stimulating sadistic goad and is a component of mass addiction to stimulation.
[Why only “our culture”? The Aztecs interpreted Cortez’s arrival apocalyptically, and they were correct; all primitive peoples subscribe to a world picture which is a Fall from Grace, increasingly worse as we are distant from our noble ancestors.]
Unfortunately, it has the cumulative effect of producing vast confusion, disorientation and great distortion.
Yet despite continuing and serious problems, mankind is making progress. There is less overall cruelty in the world, less dehumanization . . . .
But, dear patient, indulgent, forgiving reader, I stop this torture here.
If to be “compassionate” requires a Jewish psychiatrist to deny, forty-odd years after Auschwitz, while an imperialistic Jewish state in the Middle East orchestrates the sale of arms to its most implacable enemy because the Iraqis, who have developed some elements of a secular society which the Iranians despise and the Israelis claim they’re proud of, have the bad geographical luck to be closer to Israel; if watching ruthless Realpolitik being practiced most enthusiastically by its former victims doesn’t make you admit the increase in dehumanization, nothing will. We are talking here about an attitude, not something that can possibly be decided by facts. All the facts are against it.
It would be an act of self-hate to read the rest of such a book.
Doctor Pangloss tells us that smiling will improve our outlook on life. Who wants a cheerful attitude that arrives from the inertia of pulling certain facial muscles? Pascal tells us to gain immortality by betting on the existence of the JudeoChristian God; damn me, go ahead, for not believing in the existence of a divinity so shabby she admits the winners of a lottery into Paradise.
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Just because I get nauseous while reading psychological self-help books, do not attribute to me a well-based internal moral code. Aronson convinced me to oppose Bork, on the basis of Bork’s decision that employers could legally require employees to have themselves sterilized, even though in this case Bork is within the modern mainstream which views surrogate motherhood as legal. I succumb to joining the horde of special interests offended by this appointment because a friend repeated his conclusions from a newspaper account of the same questioning by Metzenbaum which elicited a sense of despair at the lack of persuasiveness, the lack of conviction, of the anti-Bork crusaders, which I recorded in a letter a month ago (but decided not to send).
I am a disagreeable human being, condemning others for insufficient quantities of what I most lack. The cup of coffee I am drinking at this cafe across the street from the main building of the Oakland Public Library was given to me as an act of friendship by the owner, whose name I forgot when he handed me the cup. He — Mazi — says it doesn’t matter that I forgot, but I ask how a person can be friends without remembering the name of the friend.
Yesterday at the clothing store run by the downtown Catholic church across the street from the city jail, where I work a couple of hours a week by telling the poor people who patronize the place No, it’s not for free; yesterday a working-class white woman accused me of liberal guilt and immediately exclaimed at the expletive with which I began my reply. She was right, the very use of a swearword showed the justness of her accusation, no matter how heatedly I should deny it. If only you could have seen the delight in her smile as she said upon exiting, “Oh, Michael . . . have a nice day!” you could understand my resentment at being proved unconscious of something transparently obvious to someone who met me briefly three times.
This morning I shook with agony and remorse that an earthquake centered on Girard’s city happened yesterday and Girard himself telephoned me this morning and all we discussed was my request through Dominic to be put up at Girard’s house on Thanksgiving weekend. What stopped me from asking how Girard felt? How can we be friends when I don’t? — like forgetting the name of the cafe owner [that just happened, it had nothing to do with Girard] who gives me a cup of coffee and then chases away a bag lady from the table next to mine.
The people I am friends with are the butts against which or whom I vent my considerable hostility. It’s so classic a case of self-imposed alienation that I have begun Sartre’s novel Nausée in English translation. I’m a deep thinker who’s perennially fifty years behind, hurting others for reasons of my own, a self-declared illiterate unable to read a book urging compassion.
Isn’t it a part to play, to flare at the superficial label despite myself? To appear to be hostile? Seems to me it’s genuine, from all the evidence. But I don’t feel so selfish as I am. And I can’t abide someone who can accept such a poor devil as I.