Monday, January 7, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 52 – The End of a Life

I was suddenly in that place where nothing I loved – except for pretty girls who would appear only on weekends in this gray male bastion – was honored. The air was not filled with poetry and music. No one, it seemed, openly wrote or painted. Most students were little old Republicans in their politics. And usually drunk. As was I – not the Republican part. The English professors stressed cold analysis and went to enormous lengths to kill off any reason for being moved by literature. The fake Oxford-Cambridge Gothic buildings had all the discomfort of England and none of the charm. English style casement windows that let in the cold air, creating that subtle British combination of being stuffy and chilly at the same time. On the surface, Harris tweed and Oxford Gray flannel. Below the surface, communal basement lavatories and showers with mildew and slippery floors that never dried, and for meals the undergraduate “commons” where the meat was blue when it was not green.

Then in an otherwise not very interesting freshman English class I read a portion of the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, from an anthology you had to buy that was edited by the young professor who taught the course. It seemed at first a happy story.

Mill had succeeded when ridiculously young in doing what I even now, in the face of malaise and paralysis, still hoped to do – get everything in its place. His father was James Mill, an influential political philosopher in the early 19th century. The elder Mill and his best friend, the more renowned political philosopher Jeremy Bentham, decided they would home school the boy, using all the progressive ideas they had developed about education.

Bentham and the older Mill were the creators and chief proponents of what was called Utilitarianism and they and their followers were known as utlitarians. It seemed to me as I read about it the perfect vessel to contain all that might be good in the world. It seemed to me the sort of idea that had saved me when I was a weak and ridiculed adolescent, apparently doomed forever to the an object of schoolboy sadism.

Their central idea was that all action should be directed towards achieving the greatest good – in 19th century language they called it "the greatest happiness" – for the greatest number of people. They looked to the utility of any action or plan or program, which meant always keeping in mind this idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. And they were leading increasingly successful fights in Parliament to, among much else, get rid of child labor in mines and factories, clean up the open sewers that ran through city streets, stop the widespread executions carried out in England for small financial crimes.

Just like me, I thought, a 16-year-old socialist and pacifist coming out of the most unlikely place, New Hampshire. So very much like me, this John Stuart Mill, a voice calling for justice, and actually getting recognized – like me, the New England debating champion.

I read on. Just as the Utilitarians thought social conditions could be improved, so did they believe that education could be revolutionized. And Bentham and James Mill decided they would prove their theories by taking over the education of James' son, who would be home schooled.

I had learned to read late, taught by my mother because I could make no sense of school. But otherwise my education has been entrusted to institutions. I read now John Stuart Mill’s account of how, though he never thought of himself as being particularly brilliant, his father and Bentham never pushed lessons that did not interest him; they helped him follow up his interests, and let him drop or postpone what bored him. Young John could read classical Greek by the time he was three. By the time he was eight he had mastered the Greek and Roman classics and all important historical literature. By the time he was 12 he had added economics, philosophy and mathematics. He also learned all the main modern European languages, and covered all the principal works of literature, as well as the science of the day. While still a teenager he was writing and publishing learned articles. He himself had become an important leader in the thriving Utilitarian movement by the time he reached twenty. Just what I had wanted to be.

Then it all fell apart – rather like, it seemed now, the new life I had built up had all fallen apart in my final year at school, the year before entering this intensely unsympathetic, ivy-strangled college. How like me, Mill coming to the end of the road. And how awful that the reasons he gave seemed so clear.

For now my heart sank as I read about what he called his crisis. At the very time he was on top of the world, he asked himself if everything he wanted, all the changes in laws and institutions and education and politics, everything to which he looked forward, suddenly became just what he wanted would this be “a great joy and happiness?” And he found he had to answer no. And he knew he had nothing left to live for.

This knowledge of what lay so close to the surface stayed with me for decades. And it seemed yet another reason explaining why all I had achieved in ambition-fueled prep school days had come to seem so minor that in my last year I had walked away from everything good in my life.

I did not feel my life was over. And in fact there was some real happiness and agreat deal of excitement, not just depression, in the years ahead. But it all felt fragile. Immediately I was in a dark, intense depression, fueled by the alcohol that was so much a part of this university’s identity. What happened immediately would in another setting have been called a nervous breakdown, as would what happened to Mill if the context had been different. A nervous breakdown, with suicidal overtones.

I did not look at the Autobiography again for thirty years. One afternoon I had gone, just before a class at the Art Students League, to my local library in Chelsea to look up the painter Joan Miro, whom I was coming to admire. I wasn’t reading much about art but I was doing an amazing amount of looking, night and day, in museums and galleries, and then for a year and a half in studios in every art school in town and many private drawing sessions, starting my day early at the League and ending it around midnight drawing models in a Soho basement. For some reason I had been thinking about Miro, and wondering if I were wrong that Miro was a man, since the first name was Joan. One of those small nagging things that get into your head. So I went to the “ “Mi” pages in Collier’s Encyclopedia, and by mistake opened to the John Stuart Mill entry.

And I read now what I must have read in the past without it registering on me of how in his dark suicidal period Mill began to see that happiness was not, as he had been taught, something you could get by going after you thought you wanted directly. It had to be a byproduct of something more. And he sensed what that something more would be, and so, as the encyclopedia writer put it, he set out to revive his “atrophied emotions.”

He was drawn for the first time to poetry for pleasure, not to complete an education. He was drawn especially to the Romantics. And he was drawn into nature not for botanical and biological studies but for the pleasure of it. And so too he was now drawn to painting and to music.

He did not change all his views – suddenly move to political conservatism and side with the rapacious English rich – none of that nonsense promulgated later by the possibly drunk Winston Churchill that anyone with a first rate intelligence is liberal when young and conservative when old.

But the change was much greater than any movement across a political spectrum – and this time around, 35 years after Mill had hurled me into a black void, I realized that, without consciously trying, what he did was much like what I was finally doing now.

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