“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Monks: a Short Riff on Hemingway and Porter
He told me the story of a third member of our tribe trying to get him to participate in a threesome. I pretended like I’d never heard it happened. In truth, some new details emerged. As he spoke, I looked over his shoulder to watch the cook through the service window. She was cute, rangy but in a graceful way. She looks really young. They all do.
We were talking about the woman, the mistress, the third, about whether we should feel sorry for her. I feel sorry, I said, for anyone on the decline. Women have it especially bad. Just imagine part of what makes you special, a large part, a majority, is your youth and your beauty. Only you never fully realize how major a part youth and beauty are playing until yours are on the wane.
“It would be like coming up with a program for success, having it work really well for years, only to realize that the program you’ve been following is actually useless because your success stems from the fact that you happen to be a genius—and the way you discover this is that you start becoming less and less successful because for whatever reason your genius is fading.”
“That’s a really depressing thought. That’s depressing me. Why would you be thinking about that? Are you depressed?”
“No—well, I’d say I’m lonely. A little frustrated that nothing seems to be happening in my life. But, no, I’m not really depressed.”
I’d brought up a woman I work with and how much of a turnoff it was to hear her talk about how much she wanted to get married—how it always seems like women who talk like that put their preplanned schedule ahead of finding the right guy, and how that doesn’t seem as tragic as it used to because we both have come to the conclusion that even the idea of there being such a thing as the right guy or girl is pretty suspect.
As much as it still doesn’t sit right with me, I explained, I could see the logic in having your life scheduled out. Women have a briefer window in which to establish their family lives, and their general success tends to begin with healthy family ties. Although, in the context, I was putting two and two together and getting a sum of being a man ain’t no different.
Walking home from the pub we talked about “making it” and about how we don’t care much for big houses and cars. They’re not worth the work. I guess there was a pretty overt strain of asceticism being expressed. Still, when he said, “We’re monks,” it surprised me a bit. It surprised me because I’d actually anticipated our conversation after inviting him over and thought about saying I was living like a monk to sum up my situation. So, when he said it, I had to wonder if I’d said it in an earlier conversation, or whether he might have said it and I picked it up from him.
Back at my apartment we got high and talked about how excited we got as kids about skee ball and the prizes you could get with the tickets. He’d been to Cedar Pointe and was talking about the abandoned arcade he’d wandered into when his neck was too sore for any more rides. We laughed at how foolish we’d been.
“It’s really stupid, but really when’s the last time you got that excited about anything?”
We talked about Christmas and Star Wars toys and pellet guns—about how all briefly thrilled before all briefly disappointed before all permanently faded into oblivion. Prizes no longer compel us forward. If we move at all, the impetus comes from discipline. I want to lose a little weight. I want to get a better job. I want to meet more people. I want a woman I can love.
I was drunk, and then I was high. So, naturally I talked too much about the woman I haven’t been with for close to a year and a half. The cook through the service window at the restaurant reminded me of her.
We talked briefly about politics, about how the free market solution for deadly chemicals and toxic customer service was supposed to be the consumers’ perogative to vote with their feet. But you can’t vote for an option that doesn’t exist, or against one that’s an industry-wide standard. We talked about getting badgered every time we try to buy something. Everyone’s trying to squeeze just a little more out of you. In the short term, they may make a few extra pennies—but, big picture, they’re probably depressing the economy by gently punishing consumers. People in China and India are starting to want more. The seeds of a middle class may have been planted.
This was me riffing on a theme from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:
Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.
I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for anything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had.
Perhaps that wasn’t true, though. Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.
And from Katherine Anne Porter’s “Theft”:
In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible: things lost or broken by her own fault, things she had forgotten and left in houses when she moved: books borrowed from her and not returned, journeys she had planned and had not made, words she had waited to hear spoken to her and had not heard, and the words she had meant to answer with; bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inescapable: the long patient suffering of dying friendships and the dark inexplicable death of love—all that she had had, and all that she had missed, were lost together, and were twice lost in this landslide of remembered losses.