Thursday, February 21, 2008
Written Word 66 - THE END OF INSIGHT
Words. Faith in words. I think of the saints, all of whom wrestle with faith in ways that mere pious people never do. I was no saint, in either life or literature, but I had wrestled with faith in words the way correct, orthodox writers never do. And I had fled writing for six years, like a monk fleeing a monastery.
I had lived on writing for thirty years and then come to despise writing, which came to seem as false and useless to me as would a failed religion. When I did come back to the written word after six years away there were certain things I did not anticipate – as in making the mistake of thinking I could also come back to my old faith in the logic of outcomes, logic being so tied to the use of words. I was back as if my return had been inevitable, my sudden need now for words as well as images to find out what had happened and who I was. And now I had to figure out what this return to words would mean in a life that had been so satisfying without words.
The changes that had come in my life in this period when I was not writing had led to many surprises, not the least being conscious awareness for the first time of spiritual hunger for realms where I did not have the illusion I could know outcomes before I stepped into them – real life being like real writing in which so much happens that I would be a fool, I now thought, to start with a fixed, untested if logical conclusion and think I could live my way into it.
My world had changed so much that at the time when I was returning to writing I was studying at a university – something I would not have gone near in my professional writing years and was very careful about now. But I did not go to study writing. I went to look into theology.
The university was this marvelously open and liberal Jesuit place, Boston College – part of a Catholic world that I had often respected when seen as an agnostic, and that I had been careful to avoid intellectually, though its intellectuals attracted me.
What really attracted me most, over the years when I was outside it, was its warmth and daring. I had missed warmth and daring in a self-consciously respectable Episcopalian family - though in adolescence I did have a loving Catholic girlfriend. Most of what I knew of Catholic worlds at first hand came later and had nothing to do with harsh nuns wielding rulers or silly anti-Communists or people who picketed worthy movies, but rather with people I encountered in dangerous places who did not fit the anti-Catholic clichés – especially quietly heroic clerical and lay activists in places like Taiwan and the Borneo part of Indonesia, and Somoza’s Nicaragua and the Haiti of the Duvaliers and the Philippines of the Marcoses.
And right now, as part of what I was doing at Boston College, I was across the Charles River at a place called Weston exploring the 16th-century Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola – and it meant writing again. For the exercises entail stepping right into stories, which might be stories from the past but will inevitably be the writer’s most crucial stories in the present. People I knew now had used the exercises to change their lives – to leave religious life or go into it – to leave or go into marriages – to leave or to take on careers and vocations – and I was captivated by the Ignatian proposition that you could find God’s will if you stepped into your story this way. It was not that I thought there was no revelation outside the Catholic church. And not that I had a liking for the right-wing Pope. But I went now for Ignatian spirituality. And I went now for the reassuring view of James Joyce whose definition of Catholicism, as reiterated by Tom Groome, was “Here comes everyone.”
Yet in conflict with what I was discovering, I made a serious error in my return now to writing. I thought that with words I could and should bring logic back into my life again. Some saints, after all, had spoken of logic as one of God’s gifts. And so I wrote with intense rationality to figure out something that concerned me night and day at this moment I was studying Ignatius.
I was on the verge of making a major move in my life – another marriage, this time to a bright and sexy woman with two children. The connection I was about to make meant I would have to come to terms with how one of the children, a coddled, sarcastic boy, lorded it over everyone as the designated prince in his family – the one who got the good grades and always managed to please his elders – which to me meant an insufferable good-boy, this potential step-son. This boy who took short cuts to please his elders, and spent energy on putting down his vibrant younger sister. It was so disturbing, the prospect of living with this guy, that I thought maybe I better drop the marriage, even though I wanted it. I was keyed up and horny and did not want to back out. And maybe was overreacting. So I decided I would write about the situation as honestly as I could, and see where I came out.
And I got a good part of the story right, including that the adventurous younger sister seemed to have the real potential in fields that were supposed to be her older brother’s alone – writing and drawing included . And that this was forbidden to anyone else in the family except her brother. Some members seemed to delight in predicting a horrible end for this engaging girl, who was just now entering her teens. The boy was skilled at putting his sister down and was not above lies and some larceny and at the same time, in the family version, he was still the good little boy – the good littlle boy even thought his actual age was 20.
And as I wrote about all this – about it more than in it – I began to see an overriding reason why the situation was so upsetting to me that it felt like unmanageable chaos even though I wanted the marriage. This son was a family policeman enforcing a false family version of reality. He was billed as the artistic one, but he was also, it seemed to me, the one stopping art and life from breaking out. It seemed to me as I wrote that he had exactly the role in his family and with his sister that my twin brother, Peter, had had in our family and with me. (Years after we had left home, my parents acquired two gray cats who were brothers and named them Good Cat and Bad Cat.)
Both Peter and this boy, I thought, had been forced into what they did for the benefit not of themselves but of their families. Fulfilling sick needs of others. But although I could feel, or at least thought I should feel, compassion for them as victims, these were situations dominated by the the most harmful sorts of false versions of reality.
And then I made the mistake of thinking that this insight, tying the boy to my brother and to ideas about false and also alternative versions of reality, was enough. I was thinking again, as I had before big changes in my life began, that insight ever could be enough. And so again I used insight to go against something I knew. If I could get to the correct formulation of what I faced, I could handle it all, I thought. And so I did what I had wanted to do in the first place. I went ahead with the marriage. And I really did want this woman.
And the marriage started to fall apart at the start, and despite energy and money and insight, and some inadequate couples therapy, it very soon fell apart altogether. And I very soon knew I never would have gotten into it if I had really stepped into the story when I wrote about it, which was probably what Ignatius meant – recreated the story so that it was in my bones, as opposed to burying it in insight.