This site is moving to a new domain: check out

“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“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

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Criminal Sublime: Walter White's Brutally Plausible Journey to the Heart of Darkness in Breaking Bad

Art by Buffalo Bonker

Even non-literary folk think they know what Nabokov’s Lolita is about, but if you’ve never read it you really have no idea. If ever a work of literature transcended its topic and confounded any attempt at neat summary, this is it. Over the past half century, many have wondered why a novelist with linguistic talents as prodigious as Nabokov’s would choose to detail the exploits of such an unsavory character—that is, unless he shared his narrator’s unpardonable predilection (he didn’t). But Nabokov knew exactly what he was doing when he created Humbert Humbert, a character uniquely capable of taking readers beyond the edge of the map of normal human existence to where the monsters be. The violation of taboo—of decency—is integral to the peculiar and profound impact of the story. Humbert, in the final scene of the novel, attempts to convey the feeling as he commits one last criminal act: 

The road now stretched across open country, and it occurred to me—not by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a novel experience—that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might as well disregard the rules of traffic. So I crossed to the left side of the highway and checked the feeling, and the feeling was good. It was a pleasant diaphragmal melting, with elements of diffused tactility, all this enhanced by the thought that nothing could be nearer to the elimination of basic physical laws than driving on the wrong side of the road. In a way, it was a very spiritual itch. Gently, dreamily, not exceeding twenty miles an hour, I drove on that queer mirror side. Traffic was light. Cars that now and then passed me on the side I had abandoned to them, honked at me brutally. Cars coming towards me wobbled, swerved, and cried out in fear. Presently I found myself approaching populated places. Passing through a red light was like a forbidden sip of Burgundy when I was a child. (306)

Thus begins a passage no brief quotation can begin to do justice to. Nor can you get the effect by flipping directly to the pages. You have to earn it by following Humbert for the duration of his appalling, tragic journey. Along the way, you’ll come to discover that the bizarre fascination the novel inspires relies almost exclusively on the contemptibly unpleasant, sickeningly vulnerable and sympathetic narrator, who Martin Amis (himself a novelist specializing in unsavory protagonists) aptly describes as “irresistible and unforgiveable.” The effect builds over the three hundred odd pages as you are taken deeper and deeper into this warped world of compulsively embraced dissolution, until that final scene whose sublimity is rare even in the annals of great literature. Reading it, experiencing it, you don’t so much hold your breath as you simply forget to breathe.  

            When Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth cook in AMC’s excruciatingly addictive series Breaking Bad, closes his eyes and lets his now iconic Pontiac Aztek, the dull green of dollar bill backdrops, veer into the lane of oncoming traffic in the show’s third season, we are treated to a similar sense of peeking through the veil that normally occludes our view of the abyss, glimpsing the face of a man who has slipped through a secret partition, a man who may never find his way back. Walt, played by Brian Cranston, originally broke bad after receiving a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer and being told his remaining time on earth would be measurable in months rather than years. After seeing a news report of a drug bust and hearing from his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank how much money is routinely confiscated in such operations, Walt goes on a ride-along to get a closer look. Waiting in the backseat as Hank and his fellow agents raid a house an informant tipped them off to, Walt sees a former underachieving student of his named Jesse (Aaron Paul) sneaking out of the upstairs window of the house next door, where he’d absconded to have sex with his neighbor. Walt keeps his mouth shut, letting Jesse escape, and then searches him out later that night to propose they work together to cook and sell meth. From the outset, Walt’s overriding purpose is to make a wad of cash before his cancer kills him, so his family won’t be left with nothing.

Jesse Pinkman. Art by Martin Woutisseth

            That’s the first plotline and the most immediate source of suspense. The fun of watching the show comes from seeing develop the unlikely and fractious but unbreakably profound friendship between Walt and Jesse—and from seeing how again and again the normally nebbishy Walt manages to MacGyver them both out of ever more impossible situations. The brilliant plotting by show creator Vince Gilligan and his writers is consistently worthy of the seamless and moving performances of the show’s actors. I can’t think of a single episode, or even a single scene, that falls flat. But what makes Breaking Bad more than another in the growing list of shows in the bucket list or middleclass crime genres, what makes it so immanently important, is the aspect of the show dealing with the consequences to Walt’s moral character of  his increasing entanglement in the underworld. The imminent danger to his soul reveals itself most tellingly in the first season when he returns to his car after negotiating a deal with Tuco, a murderously amped meth dealer with connections to a Mexican cartel. Jesse had already tried to set up an arrangement, with he and Walt serving as producers and Tuco as distributor, but Tuco, after snorting a sample off the blade of a bowie knife, beat Jesse to a pulp, stealing the pound of meth he’d brought to open the deal.

Walt returns to the same office after seeing Jesse in the hospital and hearing about what happened. After going through the same meticulous screening process and finding himself face to face with Tuco, Walt starts dictating terms, insisting that the crazy cartel guy with all the armed henchmen standing around pay extra for his partner’s pain and suffering. Walt has even brought along what looks like another pound of meth. When Tuco breaks into incredulous laugher, saying, “Let me get this straight: I steal your dope, I beat the piss out of your mule boy, and then you walk in here and bring me more meth?” Walt tells him he’s got one thing wrong. Holding up a large crystal from the bag Tuco has opened on his desk, he says, “This is not meth,” and then throws it against the outside wall of the office. The resultant explosion knocks everyone senseless and sends debris raining down on the street below. As the dust clears, Walter takes up the rest of the bag of fulminated mercury, threatening to kill them all unless Tuco agrees to the deal. He does.

This is not meth
            After impassively marching back downstairs, crossing the street to the Aztek, and sidling in, Walt sits alone, digging handfuls of cash out of the bag Tuco handed him. Dropping the money back in the bag, he lifts his clenched fists and growls out a long, triumphant “Yeah!” sounding his barbaric yawp over the steering wheel. And we in the audience can’t help sharing his triumph. He’s not only secured a distributor—albeit a dangerously unstable one—opening the way for him to make that pile of money he wants to leave for his family; he’s also put a big scary bully in his place, making him pay, literally, for what he did to Jesse. At a deeper level, though, we also understand that Walt’s yawp is coming after a long period of him being a “hounded slave”—even though the connection with that other Walt, Walt Whitman, won’t be highlighted until season 3.

The final showdown with Tuco happens in season 2 when he tries to abscond with Walter and Jesse to Mexico after the cops raid his office and arrest all his guys. Once the two hapless amateurs have escaped from the border house where Tuco held them prisoner, Walt has to come up with an explanation for why he’s been missing for so long. He decides to pretend to having gone into a fugue state, which had him mindlessly wandering around for days, leaving him with no memory of where he’d gone. To sell the lie, he walks into a convenience store, strips naked, and stands with a dazed expression in front of the frozen foods. The problem with faking a fugue state, though, is that the doctors they bring you to will be worried that you might go into another one, and so Walt escapes his captor in the border town only to find himself imprisoned again, this time in the hospital. In order to be released, he has to convince a psychiatrist that there’s no danger of recurrence. After confirming with the therapist that he can count on complete confidentiality, Walt confesses that there was no fugue state, explaining that he didn’t really go anywhere but “just ran.” When asked why, he responds,

Doctor, my wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn't intend. My fifteen-year old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable. And within eighteen months, I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?

Thus he covers his omission of one truth with the revelation of another truth. In the show’s first episode, we see Walt working a side job at a car wash, where his boss makes him leave his regular post at the register to go outside and scrub the tires of a car—which turns out to belong to one of his most disrespectful students. At home, his wife Skyler (played by Anna Gun) insists he tell his boss at the carwash he can’t keep working late. She also nags him for using the wrong credit card to buy printer ink. When Walt’s old friends and former colleagues, Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz, who it seems have gone on to make a mighty fortune thanks in large part to Walt’s contribution to their company, offer to pay for his chemotherapy, Skyler can’t fathom why he would refuse the “charity.” We find out later that Walt and Gretchen were once in a relationship and that he’d left the company indignant with her and Elliott for some reason.

            What gradually becomes clear is that, in addition to the indignities he suffers at school and at the car wash, Skyler is subjecting him to the slow boil of her domestic despotism. At one point, after overhearing a mysterious phone call, she star-sixty-nines Jesse, and then confronts Walt with his name. Walt covers the big lie with a small one, telling her that Jesse has been selling him pot. When Skyler proceeds to nag him, Walt, with his growing sense of empowerment, asks her to “climb down out of my ass.” Not willing to cede her authority, she later goes directly to Jesse’s house and demands that he stop selling her husband weed. “Good job wearing the pants in the family,” Jesse jeers at him later. But it’s not just Walt she pushes around; over the first four seasons, Skyler never meets a man she doesn’t end up bullying, and she has the maddening habit of insisting on her own reasonableness and moral superiority as she does it.

In a scene from season 1 that’s downright painful to watch, Skyler stages an intervention, complete with a “talking pillow” (kind of like the conch in Lord of the Flies), which she claims is to let all the family members express their feelings about Walt’s decision not to get treatment. Of course, when her sister Marie goes off-message, suggesting chemo might be a horrible idea if Walt’s going to die anyway, Skyler is outraged. The point of the intervention, it becomes obvious, is to convince Walt to swallow his pride and take Elliott and Gretchen’s charity. As Skyler and Marie are busy shouting at each other, Walt finally stands up and snatches the pillow. Just as Marie suggested, he reveals that he doesn’t want to spend his final days in balding, nauseated misery, digging his family into a financial hole only to increase his dismal chances of surviving by a couple percentage points. He goes on,

What I want—what I need—is a choice. Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems I never, you know, had a real say about any of it. With this last one—cancer—all I have left is how I choose to approach this.

This sense of powerlessness is what ends up making Walt dangerous, what makes him feel that all-consuming exultation and triumph every time he outsmarts some intimidating criminal, every time he beats a drug kingpin at his own game. He eventually relents and gets the expensive treatment, but he pays for it his own way, on his own terms. Of course, he can't tell Skyler where the money is really coming from. One of the odd things about watching the show is that you realize during the scenes when Walt is fumblingly trying to get his wife to back off you can’t help hoping he escapes her inquisition so he can go take on one of those scary gun-toting drug dealers again.

One of the ironies that emerge in the two latest seasons is that when Skyler finds out Walt’s been cooking meth her decision not to turn him in is anything but reasonable and moral. She even goes so far as to insist that she be allowed to take part in his illegal activities in the role of a bookkeeper, so she can make sure the laundering of Walt’s money doesn’t leave a trail leading back to the family. Walt already has a lawyer, Saul Goodman (one of the best characters), who takes care of the money, but she can’t stand being left out—so she ends up bullying Saul too. When Walt points out that she doesn’t really need to be involved, that he can continue keeping her in the dark so she can maintain plausible deniability, she scoffs, “I’d rather have them think I’m Bonnie What’s-her-name than some complete idiot.” In spite of her initial reluctance, Skyler reveals she’s just like Walt in her susceptibility to the allure of crime, a weakness borne of disappointment, indignity, and powerlessness. And, her guilt-tripping jabs at Walt for his mendacity notwithstanding, she turns out to be a far better liar than he is—because, as a fiction writer manqué, she actually delights in weaving and enacting convincing tales.    

            In fact, and not surprising considering the title of the series is Breaking Bad, every one of the main characters—except Walter Jr.—eventually turns to crime. Hank, frustrated at his ongoing failure to track down the source of the mysterious blue meth that keeps turning up on the streets, discovers that Jesse is somehow involved, and then, after Walt and Jesse successfully manage to destroy the telltale evidence, he loses his tempter and beats Jesse so badly he ends up in the hospital again. Marie, Skyler’s sister and Hank’s wife, is a shoplifter, and, after Hank gets shot and sinks into a bitter funk as he recovers, she starts posing as someone looking for a new home, telling elaborate lies about her life story to real estate agents as she pokes around with her sticky fingers in all the houses she visits. Skyler, even before signing on to help with Walt’s money laundering, helps Ted Beneke, the boss she has an affair with, cook his own books so he can avoid paying taxes. Some of the crimes are understandable in terms of harried or slighted people lashing out or acting up. Some of them are disturbing for how reasonably the decision to commit them is arrived at. The most interesting crimes on the show, however, are the ones that are part response to wounded pride and part perfectly reasonable—both motives clear but impossible to disentangle.

Art by Beerpaintings
            The scene that has Walt veering onto the wrong side of the road a la Humbert Humbert occurs in season 3. Walt was delighted when Saul helped him set up an arrangement with Gustavo Fring similar to the one he and Jesse had with Tuco. Gus is a far cooler customer, and far more professional, disguising his meth distribution with his fast-food chicken chain Los Pollos Hermanos. He even hooks Walt up with a fancy underground lab, cleverly hidden beneath an industrial laundry. Walt had learned some time ago that his cancer treatment was working, and he’d already made over a million dollars. But what he comes to realize is that he’s already too deep in the drug producing business, that the only thing keeping him alive is his usefulness to Gus. After a meeting in which he expresses his gratitude, Walt asks Gus if he can continue cooking meth for him. No longer in it just long enough to make money for his family before he dies, Walt drives away, with no idea how long he will live, with an indefinite commitment to keeping up his criminal activities. All his circumstances have changed. The question becomes how Walt will change to adapt to them. He closes his eyes and doesn’t open them until he hears the honk of a semi.

            The most moving and compelling scenes in the series are the ones featuring Walt and Jesse’s struggles with their consciences as they’re forced to do increasingly horrible things. Jesse wonders how life can have any meaning at all if someone can do something as wrong as killing another human being and then just go on living like nothing happened. Both Walt and Jesse at times give up caring whether they live or die. Walt is actually so furious after hearing from his doctor that his cancer is in remission that he goes into the men’s room and punches the paper towel dispenser until the dents he’s making become smudged with blood from his knuckles. In season 3, he becomes obsessed with the “contamination” of the meth lab, which turns out to be nothing but a fly. Walt refuses to cook until they catch it, so Jesse sneaks him some sleeping pills to make sure they can finish cooking the day’s batch. In a narcotic haze, Walt reveals how lost and helpless he’s feeling. “I missed it,” he says.

There was some perfect moment that passed me right by. I had to have enough to leave them—that was the whole point. None of this makes any sense if I didn’t have enough. But it had to be before she found out—Skyler. It had to be before that.

“Perfect moment for what?” Jesse asks. “Are you saying you want to die?” Walt responds, “I’m saying I’ve lived too long. –You want them to actually miss you. You want their memories of you to be… But she just won’t understand.”

The theme of every type of human being having the potential to become almost any other type of human being runs throughout the series. Heisenberg, the nom de guerre Walt chooses for himself in the first season, refers to Werner Heisenberg, whose uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics holds that subatomic particles can exist in multiple states simultaneously. Song of Myself,” a poem in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the one in which he says he is a “hounded slave” and describes how he “sounded my barbaric yawp,” is about how the imagination makes it possible for us to empathize with, and even become, almost anyone. Whitman writes, “In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less/ and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them” (section 20). Another line, perhaps the most famous, reads, “I am large, I contain multitudes” (section 51).

Walter White ends up reading Leaves of Grass in season 3 of Breaking Bad after a lab assistant hired by Gus introduces him to the poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to explain his love for the “magic” of chemistry. And in the next season Walt, in one of the only instances where he actually stands up to and silences Skyler, sings a rather surprising song of his own self. When she begins to suspect he’s in imminent danger, she tries to convince him he’s in over his head and that he should go to the police. Having turned away from her, he turns back, almost a different man entirely, and delivers a speech that has already become a standout moment in television history.

Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the Nasdaq goes belly up, disappears—it ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler—I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No, I am the one who knocks.

Just like the mysterious pink teddy bear floating in the White’s pool at the beginning of season 2, half its face scorched, one of its eyes dislodged, Walt turns out to have a very dark side. Though he manages to escape Gus at the end of season 4, the latest season (none of which I’ve seen yet) opens with him deciding to start up his own meth operation. Still, what makes this scene as indelibly poignant as it is shocking (and rousing) is that Walt really is in danger when he makes his pronouncement. He’s expecting to be killed at any moment.

Much of the commentary about the show to date has focused on the questions of just how bad Walt will end up breaking and at what point we will, or at least should, lose sympathy for him. Many viewers, like Emily Nussbaum, jumped ship at the end of season 4 when it was revealed that Walt had poisoned the five-year-old son of Jesse’s girlfriend as part of his intricate ruse to beat Gus. Jesse had been cozying up to Gus, so Walt made it look like he poisoned the kid because he knew his partner went berserk whenever anyone endangered a child. Nussbaum writes,

When Brock was near death in the I.C.U., I spent hours arguing with friends about who was responsible. To my surprise, some of the most hard-nosed cynics thought it inconceivable that it could be Walt—that might make the show impossible to take, they said. But, of course, it did nothing of the sort. Once the truth came out, and Brock recovered, I read posts insisting that Walt was so discerning, so careful with the dosage, that Brock could never have died. The audience has been trained by cable television to react this way: to hate the nagging wives, the dumb civilians, who might sour the fun of masculine adventure. “Breaking Bad” increases that cognitive dissonance, turning some viewers into not merely fans but enablers. (83)
Rolling Stone

Nussbaum’s judgy feminist blinders preclude any recognition of Skyler’s complicity and overweening hypocrisy. And she leaves out some pretty glaring details to bolster her case against Walt—most notably, that before we learn that it was Walt who poisoned Brock, we find out that the poison used was not the invariably lethal ricin Jesse thought it was, but the far less deadly Lily of the Valley.

Nussbaum strains to account for the show’s continuing appeal—its fascination—now that, by her accounting, Walt is beyond redemption. She suggests the diminishing screen time he gets as the show focuses on other characters is what saves it, even though the show has followed multiple plotlines from the beginning. (In an earlier blog post, she posits a “craving in every ‘good’ man for a secret life” as part of the basis for the show’s appeal—reading that, I experienced a pang of sympathy for her significant other.) What she doesn’t understand or can’t admit, placing herself contemptuously above the big bad male lead and his trashy, cable-addled fans, trying to watch the show after the same snobbish fashion as many superciliously insecure people watch Jerry Springer or Cops, is that the cognitive dissonance she refers to is precisely what makes the show the best among all the other great shows in the current golden age lineup. 

No one watching the show would argue that poisoning a child is the right thing to do—but in the circumstances Walt finds himself in, where making a child dangerously sick is the only way he can think of to save himself, his brother-in-law, Jesse, and the rest of his family, well, Nussbaum’s condemnation starts to look pretty glib. Gus even gave Walt the option of saving his family by simply not interfering with the hit he put on Hank—but Walt never even considered it. This isn’t to say that Walt isn’t now or won’t ever become a true bad guy, as the justifications and cognitive dissonance—along with his aggravated pride—keep ratcheting him toward greater horrors, but then so might we all.

Pillars of Creation
The show’s irresistible appeal comes from how seamlessly it weaves a dream spell over us that has us following right alongside Walt as he makes all these impossible decisions, stepping with him right off the map of the known world. The feeling can only be described as sublime, as if individual human concerns, even the most immensely important of them like human morality, are far too meager as ordering principles to offer any guidance or provide anything like an adequate understanding of the enormity of existence. When we return from this state of sublimity, if we have the luxury of returning, we experience the paradoxical realization that all our human concerns—morality, the sacrosanct innocence of children, the love of family—are all the more precious for being so pathetically meager.

I suspect no matter how bad Walter’s arrogance gets, how high his hubris soars, or how horribly he behaves, most viewers—even those like Nussbaum who can’t admit it—will still long for his redemption. Some of the most intensely gratifying scenes in the series (I’d be embarrassed if anyone saw how overjoyed I got at certain points watching this TV show) are the ones that have Walt suddenly realizing what the right thing to do is and overcoming his own cautious egotism to do it. But a much more interesting question than when, if ever, it will be time to turn against Walt is whether he can rightly be said to be the show’s moral center—or whether and when he ceded that role to Jesse. 

If Walt really is ultimately to be lost to the heart of darkness, Jesse will be the one who plays Marlow to his Kurtz. Though the only explicit allusion is Hank’s brief mention of Apocalypse Now, there is at least one interesting and specific parallel between the two stories. Kurtz, it is suggested, was corrupted not just by the wealth he accumulated by raiding native villages and stealing ivory; it was also the ease with which he got his native acolytes to worship him. He succumbed to the temptation of “getting himself adored,” as Marlow sneers. Kurtz had written a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, and Marlow explains,

The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, “must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity.”

What Marlowe discovers is that Kurtz did in fact take on the mantle of a deity after being abandoned to the jungle for too long, until his

nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself.

The source of Walter White’s power is not his origins in a more advanced civilization but his superior knowledge of chemistry. No one else can make meth as pure as Walt’s. He even uses chemistry to build the weapons he uses to prevail over all the drug dealers he encounters as he moves up the ranks over the seasons.

Jesse has his moments of triumph too, but so far he’s always been much more grounded than Walt. It’s easy to imagine a plotline that has Jesse being the one who finally realizes that Walt “has to go,” the verdict he renders for anyone who imperils children. Allowing for some (major) dialectal adjustments, it’s even possible to imagine Jesse confronting his former partner after he’s made it to the top of a criminal empire, and his thinking along lines similar to Marlow’s when he finally catches up to Kurtz:

I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him—himself—his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air… But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.

Kurtz dies whispering, “The horror, the horror,” as if reflecting in his final moments on all the violence and bloodshed he’d caused—or as if making his final pronouncement about the nature of the world he’s departing. Living amid such horrors, though, our only recourse, these glimpses into sublime enormities help us realize, is to more fully embrace our humanity. We can never comfortably dismiss these stories of men who become monsters as mere cautionary tales. That would be too simple. They gesture toward something much more frightening and much more important than that. Humbert Humbert hints as much in the closing of Lolita.

This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies. At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe. (308)

But he did probe those forbidden waters. And we’re all better for it. Both Kurtz and Humbert are doomed from the first page of their respective stories. But I seriously doubt I’m alone in holding out hope that when Walter White finds himself edging up to the abyss, Jesse, or Walter Jr., or someone else is there to pull him back—and Skyler isn’t there to push him over. Though I may forget to breathe I won’t hold my breath.

And Bad Men (on that other great AMC show)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Imp of the Underground and the Literature of Low Status

Image courtesy of Block Magazine
The one overarching theme in literature, and I mean all literature since there’s been any to speak of, is injustice. Does the girl get the guy she deserves? If so, the work is probably commercial, as opposed to literary, fiction. If not, then the reason begs pondering. Maybe she isn’t pretty enough, despite her wit and aesthetic sophistication, so we’re left lamenting the shallowness of our society’s males. Maybe she’s of a lower caste, despite her unassailable virtue, in which case we’re forced to question our complacency before morally arbitrary class distinctions. Or maybe the timing was just off—cursed fate in all her fickleness. Another literary work might be about the woman who ends up without the fulfilling career she longed for and worked hard to get, in which case we may blame society’s narrow conception of femininity, as evidenced by all those damn does-the-girl-get-the-guy stories.

            The prevailing theory of what arouses our interest in narratives focuses on the characters’ goals, which magically, by some as yet undiscovered cognitive mechanism, become our own. But plots often catch us up before any clear goals are presented to us, and our partisanship on behalf of a character easily endures shifting purposes. We as readers and viewers are not swept into stories through the transubstantiation of someone else’s striving into our own, with the protagonist serving as our avatar as we traverse the virtual setting and experience the pre-orchestrated plot. Rather, we reflexively monitor the character for signs of virtue and for a capacity to contribute something of value to his or her community, the same way we, in our nonvirtual existence, would monitor and assess a new coworker, classmate, or potential date. While suspense in commercial fiction hinges on high-stakes struggles between characters easily recognizable as good and those easily recognizable as bad, and comfortably condemnable as such, forward momentum in literary fiction—such as it is—depends on scenes in which the protagonist is faced with temptations, tests of virtue, moral dilemmas.

The strain and complexity of coming to some sort of resolution to these dilemmas often serves as a theme in itself, a comment on the mad world we live in, where it’s all but impossible to discern between right and wrong. Indeed, the most common emotional struggle depicted in literature is that between the informal, even intimate handling of moral evaluation—which comes natural to us owing to our evolutionary heritage as a group-living species—and the official, systematized, legal or institutional channels for determining merit and culpability that became unavoidable as societies scaled up exponentially after the advent of agriculture. These burgeoning impersonal bureaucracies are all too often ill-equipped to properly weigh messy mitigating factors, and they’re all too vulnerable to subversion by unscrupulous individuals who know how to game them. Psychopaths who ought to be in prison instead become CEOs of multinational investment firms, while sensitive and compassionate artists and humanitarians wind up taking lowly day jobs at schools or used book stores. But the feature of institutions and bureaucracies—and of complex societies more generally—that takes the biggest toll on our Pleistocene psyches, the one that strikes us as the most glaring injustice, is their stratification, their arrangement into steeply graded hierarchies.

Unlike our hierarchical ape cousins, all present-day societies still living in small groups as nomadic foragers, like those our ancestors lived in throughout the epoch that gave rise to the suite of traits we recognize as uniquely human, collectively enforce an ethos of egalitarianism. As anthropologist Christopher Boehm explains in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarianism,

Even though individuals may be attracted personally to a dominant role, they make a common pact which says that each main political actor will give up his modest chances of becoming alpha in order to be certain that no one will ever be alpha over him. (105)

Since humans evolved from a species that was ancestral to both chimpanzees and gorillas, we carry in us many of the emotional and behavioral capacities that support hierarchies. But, during all those millennia of egalitarianism, we also developed an instinctive distaste for behaviors that undermine an individual’s personal sovereignty. “On their list of serious moral transgressions,” Boehm explains,

hunter-gathers regularly proscribe the enactment of behavior that is politically overbearing. They are aiming at upstarts who threaten the autonomy of other group members, and upstartism takes various forms. An upstart may act the bully simply because he is disposed to dominate others, or he may become selfishly greedy when it is time to share meat, or he may want to make off with another man’s wife by threat or by force. He (or sometimes she) may also be a respected leader who suddenly begins to issue direct orders… An upstart may simply take on airs of superiority, or may aggressively put others down and thereby violate the group’s idea of how its main political actors should be treating one another. (43)

In a band of thirty people, it’s possible to keep a vigilant eye on everyone and head off potential problems. But, as populations grow, encounters with strangers in settings where no one knows one another open the way for threats to individual autonomy and casual insults to personal dignity. And, as professional specialization and institutional complexity increase in pace with technological advancement, power structures become necessary for efficient decision-making. Economic inequality then takes hold as a corollary of professional inequality.

None of this is to suggest that the advance of civilization inevitably leads to increasing injustice. In fact, per capita murder rates are much higher in hunter-gatherer societies. Nevertheless, the impersonal nature of our dealings with others in the modern world often strikes us as overly conducive to perverse incentives and unfair outcomes. And even the most mundane signals of superior status or the most subtle expressions of power, though officially sanctioned, can be maddening. Compare this famous moment in literary history to Boehm’s account of hunter-gatherer political philosophy:

I was standing beside the billiard table, blocking the way unwittingly, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and silently—with no warning or explanation—moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing. I could have forgiven a beating, but I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me. (49)

The billiard player's failure to acknowledge his autonomy outrages the narrator, who then considers attacking the man who has treated him with such disrespect. But he can’t bring himself to do it. He explains,

I turned coward not from cowardice, but from the most boundless vanity. I was afraid, not of six-foot-tallness, nor of being badly beaten and chucked out the window; I really would have had physical courage enough; what I lacked was sufficient moral courage. I was afraid that none of those present—from the insolent marker to the last putrid and blackhead-covered clerk with a collar of lard who was hanging about there—would understand, and that they would all deride me if I started protesting and talking to them in literary language. Because among us to this day it is impossible to speak of a point of honor—that is, not honor, but a point of honor (point d’honneur) otherwise than in literary language. (50)

The languages of law and practicality are the only ones whose legitimacy is recognized in modern societies. The language of morality used to describe sentiments like honor has been consigned to literature. This man wants to exact his revenge for the slight he suffered, but that would require his revenge to be understood by witnesses as such. The derision he can count on from all the bystanders would just compound the slight. In place of a close-knit moral community, there is only a loose assortment of strangers. And so he has no recourse.

            The character in this scene could be anyone. Males may be more keyed into the physical dimension of domination and more prone to react with physical violence, but females likewise suffer from slights and belittlements, and react aggressively, often by attacking their tormenter's reputation through gossip. Treating a person of either gender as an insensate obstacle is easier when that person is a stranger you’re unlikely ever to encounter again. But another dynamic is at play in the scene which makes it still easier—almost inevitable. After being unceremoniously moved aside, the narrator becomes obsessed with the man who treated him so dismissively. Desperate to even the score, he ends up stalking the man, stewing resentfully, trying to come up with a plan. He writes,

And suddenly… suddenly I got my revenge in the simplest, the most brilliant way! The brightest idea suddenly dawned on me. Sometimes on holidays I would go to Nevsky Prospect between three and four, and stroll along the sunny side. That is, I by no means went strolling there, but experienced countless torments, humiliations and risings of bile: that must have been just what I needed. I darted like an eel among the passers-by, in a most uncomely fashion, ceaselessly giving way now to generals, now to cavalry officers and hussars, now to ladies; in those moments I felt convulsive pains in my heart and a hotness in my spine at the mere thought of the measliness of my attire and the measliness and triteness of my darting little figure. This was a torment of torments, a ceaseless, unbearable humiliation from the thought, which would turn into a ceaseless and immediate sensation, of my being a fly before that whole world, a foul, obscene fly—more intelligent, more developed, more noble than everyone else—that went without saying—but a fly, ceaselessly giving way to everyone, humiliated by everyone, insulted by everyone. (52)

So the indignity, it seems, was not borne of being moved aside like a piece of furniture so much as it was of being afforded absolutely no status. That’s why being beaten would have been preferable; a beating implies a modicum of worthiness in that it demands recognition, effort, even risk, no matter how slight.

            The idea that occurs to the narrator for the perfect revenge requires that he first remedy the outward signals of his lower social status, “the measliness of my attire and the measliness… of my darting little figure,” as he calls them. The catch is that to don the proper attire for leveling a challenge, he has to borrow money from a man he works with—which only adds to his daily feelings of humiliation. Psychologists Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky have conducted experiments demonstrating that people display a disturbing readiness to compensate for feelings of powerlessness and low status by making pricy purchases, even though in the long run such expenditures only serve to perpetuate their lowly economic and social straits. The irony is heightened in the story when the actual revenge itself, the trappings for which were so dearly purchased, turns out to be so bathetic.

Suddenly, within three steps of my enemy, I unexpectedly decided, closed my eyes, and—we bumped solidly shoulder against shoulder! I did not yield an inch and passed by on perfectly equal footing! He did not even look back and pretended not to notice: but he only pretended, I’m sure of that. To this day I’m sure of it! Of course, I got the worst of it; he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had achieved my purpose, preserved my dignity, yielded not a step, and placed myself publicly on an equal social footing with him. I returned home perfectly avenged for everything. (55)

But this perfect vengeance has cost him not only the price of a new coat and hat; it has cost him a full two years of obsession, anguish, and insomnia as well. The implication is that being of lowly status is a constant psychological burden, one that makes people so crazy they become incapable of making rational decisions.

            Literature buffs will have recognized these scenes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (as translated by Richard Prevear and Larissa Volokhnosky), which satirizes the idea of a society based on the principle of “rational egotism” as symbolized by N.G. Chernyshevsky’s image of a “crystal palace” (25), a well-ordered utopia in which every citizen pursues his or her own rational self-interests. Dostoevsky’s underground man hates the idea because regardless of how effectively such a society may satisfy people’s individual needs the rigid conformity it would demand would be intolerable. The supposed utopia, then, could never satisfy people’s true interests. He argues,

That’s just the thing, gentlemen, that there may well exist something that is dearer for almost every man than his very best profit, or (so as not to violate logic) that there is this one most profitable profit (precisely the omitted one, the one we were just talking about), which is chiefer and more profitable than all other profits, and for which a man is ready, if need be, to go against all laws, that is, against reason, honor, peace, prosperity—in short, against all these beautiful and useful things—only so as to attain this primary, most profitable profit which is dearer to him than anything else. (22)

The underground man cites examples of people behaving against their own best interests in this section, which serves as a preface to the story of his revenge against the billiard player who so blithely moves him aside. The way he explains this “very best profit” which makes people like himself behave in counterproductive, even self-destructive ways is to suggest that nothing else matters unless everyone’s freedom to choose how to behave is held inviolate. He writes,

One’s own free and voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness—all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil… Man needs only independent wanting, whatever this independence may cost and wherever it may lead. (25-6)
Arthur Rackham's Imp of Perverse Illustration

Notes from Underground was originally published in 1864. But the underground man echoes, wittingly or not, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s story from almost twenty years earlier, "The Imp of the Perverse," who posits an innate drive to perversity, explaining,

Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object. Or if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say that through its promptings we act for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but in reality there is none so strong. With certain minds, under certain circumstances, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more sure that I breathe, than that the conviction of the wrong or impolicy of an action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us, to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution to ulterior elements. (403)

This narrator’s suggestion of the irreducibility of the impulse notwithstanding, it’s noteworthy how often the circumstances that induce its expression include the presence of an individual of higher status.
Dov Cohen

            The famous shoulder bump in Notes from Underground has an uncanny parallel in experimental psychology. In 1996, Dov Cohen, Richard Nisbett, and their colleagues published the research article, “Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honor: An ‘Experimental Ethnography’,” in which they report the results of a comparison between the cognitive and physiological responses of southern males to being bumped in a hallway and casually called an asshole to those of northern males. The study showed that whereas men from northern regions were usually amused by the run-in, southern males were much more likely to see it as an insult and a threat to their manhood, and they were much more likely to respond violently. The cortisol and testosterone levels of southern males spiked—the clever experimental setup allowed meaures before and after—and these men reported believing physical confrontation was the appropriate way to redress the insult. The way Cohen and Nisbett explain the difference is that the “culture of honor” that emerges in southern regions originally developed as a safeguard for men who lived as herders. Cultures that arise in farming regions place less emphasis on manly honor because farmland is difficult to steal. But if word gets out that a herder is soft then his livelihood is at risk. Cohen and Nisbett write,
Richard Nisbett

Such concerns might appear outdated for southern participants now that the South is no longer a lawless frontier based on a herding economy. However, we believe these experiments may also hint at how the culture of honor has sustained itself in the South. It is possible that the culture-of-honor stance has become “functionally autonomous” from the material circumstances that created it. Culture of honor norms are now socially enforced and perpetuated because they have become embedded in social roles, expectations, and shared definitions of manhood. (958)

            More recently, in a 2009 article titled “Low-Status Compensation: A Theory for Understanding the Role of Status in Cultures of Honor,” psychologist P.J. Henry takes another look at Cohen and Nisbett’s findings and offers another interpretation based on his own further experimentation. Henry’s key insight is that herding peoples are often considered to be of lower status than people with other professions and lifestyles. After establishing that the southern communities with a culture of honor are often stigmatized with negative stereotypes—drawling accents signaling low intelligence, high incidence of incest and drug use, etc.—both in the minds of outsiders and those of the people themselves, Henry suggests that a readiness to resort to violence probably isn’t now and may not ever have been adaptive in terms of material benefits.
P.J. Henry

An important perspective of low-status compensation theory is that low status is a stigma that brings with it lower psychological worth and value. While it is true that stigma also often accompanies lower economic worth and, as in the studies presented here, is sometimes defined by it (i.e., those who have lower incomes in a society have more of a social stigma compared with those who have higher incomes), low-status compensation theory assumes that it is psychological worth that is being protected, not economic or financial worth. In other words, the compensation strategies used by members of low-status groups are used in the service of psychological self-protection, not as a means of gaining higher status, higher income, more resources, etc. (453)

And this conception of honor brings us closer to the observations of the underground man and Poe’s boastful murderer. If psychological worth is what’s being defended, then economic considerations fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, since our financial standing tends to be so closely tied to our social standing, our efforts to protect our sense of psychological worth have a nasty tendency to backfire in the long run.

            Henry found evidence for the importance of psychological reactance, as opposed to cultural norms, in causing violence when he divided participants of his study into either high or low status categories and then had them respond to questions about how likely they would be to respond to insults with physical aggression. But before being asked about the propriety of violent reprisals half of the members of each group were asked to recall as vividly as they could a time in their lives when they felt valued by their community. Henry describes the findings thus:

When lower status participants were given the opportunity to validate their worth, they were less likely to endorse lashing out aggressively when insulted or disrespected. Higher status participants were unaffected by the manipulation. (463)

The implication is that people who feel less valuable than others, a condition that tends to be associated with low socioeconomic status, are quicker to retaliate because they are almost constantly on-edge, preoccupied at almost every moment with assessments of their standing in relation to others. Aside from a readiness to engage in violence, this type of obsessive vigilance for possible slights, and the feeling of powerlessness that attends it, can be counted on to keep people in a constant state of stress. The massive longitudinal study of British Civil Service employees called the Whitehall Study, which tracks the health outcomes of people at the various levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy, has found that the stress associated with low status also has profound effects on our physical well-being.  
When Americans are asked to imagine an ideal distribution of
wealth, the results show far less stratification than actually

            Though it may seem that violence-prone poor people occupying lowly positions on societal and professional totem poles are responsible for aggravating and prolonging their own misery because they tend to spend extravagantly and lash out at their perceived overlords with nary a concern for the consequences, the regularity with which low status leads to self-defeating behavior suggests the impulses are much more deeply rooted than some lazily executed weighing of pros and cons. If the type of wealth or status inequality the underground man finds himself on the short end of would have begun to take root in societies like the ones Christopher Boehm describes, a high-risk attempt at leveling the playing field would not only have been understandable—it would have been morally imperative. In a group of nomadic foragers, though, a man endeavoring to knock a would-be alpha down a few pegs would be able to count on the endorsement of most of the other group members. And the success rate for re-establishing and maintaining egalitarianism would have been heartening. Today, we are forced to live with inequality, even though beyond a certain point most people (regardless of political affiliation) see it as an injustice. 

            Some of the functions of literature, then, are to help us imagine just how intolerable life on the bottom can be, sympathize with those who get trapped in downward spirals of self-defeat, and begin to imagine what a more just and equitable society might look like. The catch is that we will be put off by characters who mistreat others or simply show a dearth of redeeming qualities.

Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

and Can't Win for Losing: Why there are So Many Losers in Literature and Why it has to Change

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Tree Climber: A Story Inspired by W.S. Merwin

            Everyone in Maplewood knew Clare as the little girl who was always climbing trees. But she was so dainty and graceful and reserved that at first it surprised them all to see how deftly, even artfully, she could make her way up even the most formidable ones. It wasn’t just the trees in her family’s yard either. She climbed everywhere. “Oh, that’s just Clare Glendale,” people would say. “She’s got tree-climbing craziness.” 

            A lot of stories circulated about how Clare first came to love going up and down the trees of the neighborhood and the woods surrounding it. Some said her mother told her stories about how fairies lived up in the canopies, so she was constantly going up to visit them. Some said she once escaped bullies at school by climbing a tree on the playground, so now she feels secure hidden high in the foliage. And some say it began one day when she espied a lost treasure—a toy or an heirloom—from her high perch and now re-experiences that feeling of relief and reconnection whenever she’s up in the highest branches.

            Even when she was still just a little girl, though, what kept her climbing was much more complicated than any of these neighborly conjecturings could comprehend. Every child eventually climbs a tree. Clare did it the first time because she’d seen some girls on her way home from school dangling from a low branch and thought it looked appealing in its manageable absurdity. The girls were squealing and kicking their earth-freed feet.

            Approaching the big sycamore in her own yard just minutes later, she struggled to figure out how to make it up through the lowermost layer of branches. That the sequence of grips and reaches and toeholds she would have to traverse wasn’t clear from the outset yet gradually revealed itself through her concentrated, strenuous, grasping efforts, like a tactile puzzle she needed her whole body to solve—that was what she remembered as the earliest source of pleasure in climbing. There was also a feeling of overabundant energetic joy in the physical exertion, difficult but surmountable, of hoisting herself with her hands and arms, swinging and pushing herself with her toes braced against the bark. When she made it up near the highest tapering branches, too tiny to hold her scanty weight, she felt she’d succeeded in overcoming earthly constraints she’d never even been aware of up till then. As she rested at last, the breeze blew against her light wash of sweat, setting her skin aglow with the dissipating pulsing heat, like soundless music emanating from her blood into the air, even as she felt her strained limbs shimmer with life, discovered anew through the dancing ache. She breathed in the cascading sighs of the dry undulating sun-sparkled leaves, millions of tiny mirages, and thought about how they reminded her of ocean tides she’d only ever seen on TV. She would dream that night of dancing alone by a high-built bonfire on a moonlit beach.

            But whenever she thought about that day over the ensuing years she was never really sure the memory was really of the first time she climbed a tree. She went back to it for an explanation because not having an explanation, a clear motive, some way to justify herself in depth of detail should anyone show a willingness, or even an eagerness, to hear her out—it bothered her, making her feel her youthful isolation as a lifelong sentence, hopeless.

            When high school first started for Clare, she stopped climbing trees because it was too odd a habit, too conspicuous. But then one day she climbed again, after several months, and things seemed right with the world in a way that forced her to realize things weren’t at all right with the world all those months she hadn’t been climbing. She thought, “Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to let them think I’m weird.”

            Maplewood was a good school in a nice neighborhood. Clare’s classmates talked among themselves about how she climbed trees all the time—as something like a hobby. They knew she sometimes took her digital camera with her. They also knew she sometimes did drawings of parts of the neighborhood or the city beyond from the tops of the trees. They knew she brought little notebooks up there sometimes too and wrote what they assumed was poetry. Sometimes, her classmates even tried to talk to Clare about her tree climbing, asking her questions, saying they’d like to see her photographs or drawings, read her poems. No one was ever cruel, not even the boys. She heard herself described as “artistic” in a way that made her inwardly cringe because it sounded dismissive, impatient—artistic even though she’d never shared any art with any of them because she sensed they were just being polite when they said they’d like to see or read it.

            But Clare was glad to have circulating all the stories explaining away her climbing, even though they were all wrong and her not being given to correcting them felt a little like dishonesty, because if someone had simply asked her, “Why do you climb trees all the time?” she wouldn’t have been able to answer. Not that she minded thinking about it. She wouldn’t have minded talking about it either except that it was impossible to discuss, honestly, without being extravagant, self-important, braggy, snobby—all the most horrible things a high school kid could be. She knew for sure she didn’t climb because she wanted to be seen as interesting. More and more she didn’t want to be seen at all.

            Sometimes, though, she imagined whole conversations. “Well, I’d say I climb trees because I like the feeling. But I don’t always. Sometimes my hands hurt, or I get up really high and I’m afraid I’ll fall, or it’s just really hot, or really cold. I get scraped up a lot. The view is often nice, but not always. Sometimes I go into these really peaceful trances, like dreaming while I’m awake. But that’s only rarely. Really, most of the times I go up it’s not pleasant at all. But when I don’t do it for a while I feel strange—like, my soul is stuck in a tight, awful sweater—you know, all itchy.” She imagines herself doing a dance to convey the feeling, all slithering arms and squirming fingers.

            Every time she thinks about her itchy soul she laughs, thinking, “Probably aren’t too many people out there who’d understand that.”

            It was when Clare was fifteen, months away from getting her license, that she overheard an older boy at school, one who wasn’t part of the main group, but sort of cute, sort of interesting, compare her tree climbing to something awful, something that made her face go hot in a way that had her ducking away so no one would see how brightly it burned.  It was an offhand joke for the benefit of his friend. She couldn’t really be mad about it. He didn’t mean it to be hurtful. He didn’t even know she would hear him.

            She went to the woods after school, hesitated before a monster of a tree she knew well but had always been too intimidated by to attempt, gave it a look of unyielding intensity, and then reached out and pulled herself away from the ground. The grips were just out of reach at every step, making her have to grope beyond the span of her arms, strain, and even lunge. But the tree was massive, promising to take her deeper into the bottomless sky than she’d ever yet plunged.

            She paused only long enough at each interval to decide on the best trajectory. In place of fear was a fury of embarrassment and self-loathing. She couldn’t fall, it seemed to her, because there would be a sense of relief if she did, and she just didn’t have any relief coming to her. Somehow she wasn’t deserving, or worthy, of relief. She reached, she lunged, she grasped, she pulled. The ache in her hands and arms enflamed her pathetic fury. And up she flew, gritting her teeth as she pulled down the sky.

            It was a loose flank of bark coming away from the trunk with a curt, agonized cough that left her dangling from one arm, supported only by a couple of cramped and exhausted fingers. Seeing her feet reach out for the trunk, rubbing against it like the paws of a rain-drenched dog scratching the door of an empty house, and feeling each attempt at getting purchase only weaken her lame grip, she began to envisage the impending meeting of her body with the ground. Resignation just barely managed to nudge panic aside.

            But Clare never fully gave up. As reconciled as she was with the fall that felt like justice for the sake of some invisible sacred order she’d blunderingly violated, she nevertheless made one last desperate maneuver, which was to push herself away from the tree with as much force as she could muster with her one leg. What came next was brutal, senseless, lashing, violent, vindictive chaos. The air itself seemed bent on ripping her to shreds. Her tiny voice was again and again blasted out of her in jarring horrific whimpers, each one a portion of her trapped life escaping its vessel. She thought she’d see the razor green streaking crimson so sudden and excruciating were the lacerating clawings of the branches.

            And then it stopped. She stopped. She felt herself breathing. Her legs were hovering powerless, but they were some distance still from the ground, which was obscured by the swaying mass of leaves still separating her from the just end she had been so sure of. Weak and battered, she twisted in the hard, abrasive net that had partly caught her and partly allowed her to catch herself, without her even knowing she was capable of putting forth the effort to catch herself, and saw that she was bouncing some ways out from the trunk of the other tree she’d had the last ditch hope of leaping into. Looking back to the one she’d fallen from, she saw she hadn’t even fallen that far—maybe twenty feet she guessed. She hurried toward the sturdier parts of the branches holding her aloft and then made her way down.

            Both feet on the ground, Clare turned back to retrace the course of her fall with her eyes, almost too afraid to breathe because breathing might reveal the mortal injury she still couldn’t believe she hadn’t sustained. After standing there until the momentousness of the occurrence dissolved into the hush of the forest, silent but for the insects’ evening calls and the millions upon millions of leaves sent atremble by the wayward wind, both of which seemed only to dimensionalize the silence, she began to walk, hesitantly at first but then with a determination borne of an unnamed passion.

            She lay awake all night, upstart thoughts and feelings surging, rolling over each other, crashing into shores of newly imagined possibility. The pain from her several less than severe injuries provoked inner crises and conflicts, setting her mind on a razor’s edge of rushing urgency. She had created a tear in the fabric of commonplace living—the insistent niceness she’d been struggling all her life to fold herself into. When the gray of dawn peeked into her room, she heard herself let loose the first half of a demented laugh before cutting off the second, lest her parents hear and start asking her questions of the sort now more than ever she would be hard-pressed to answer.

            Clare now knew that all her life she had been accustoming herself to a feeling of inevitability, of fatedness, of gradual absorption with growing maturity into the normal flow of life she saw emblems of in every last one of the really nice houses she passed on the way to school. But this morning they all looked different, like so many strained denials of the only true inevitability, a veil protecting everyone from what they assumed could only be some hellish nightmare.

            When after school that day Clare approached Dean Morris, the older boy who’d made the crude joke about her climbing, she managed to startle him with the wild intensity in her unaccustomedly direct glare. “You have to come with me,” she said. “I have something to show you.”

            And that’s how Dean became a crazy tree climber too. At least, that’s what everyone assumed happened to him. He disappeared with Clare that day and kept on disappearing with her almost every day thereafter for the next two years. It was only two weeks after their first climb together that he showed up at home injured for the first time. He told his parents he’d broken his arm in a motorcycle crash, but he refused to name the friend who had allowed him to ride, insisting that he didn’t want to get anyone into trouble and that it was his own fault.

            One or both of them was always showing up at school or the weekend jobs they each had with mysterious welts on their arms or faces. Their parents must have been in an agony of constant exasperated worry those last two years as, despite their best efforts to put an end to the excursions into the woods and the injurious goings on therein, they continued having to deal not only with their children’s defiance but with the looming danger it exposed them to. But everyone at school saw something to admire in the way Clare and Dean so uncompromisingly settled on the existence they would have be theirs. The girls remarked on Dean’s consuming and unselfconscious devotion to Clare and were envious. He always seemed naturally gravitating to a post standing guard close by her, intensely, passionately protective. What would it be like to see your first love nearly fall to her death again and again?

            For those two years, they formed their own region apart from the life of the school and the neighborhood. No trace of teenage self-consciousness or awkwardness remained. They seemed as though they were in the midst of actuating some grand design, some world-saving project only they could be relied on to handle and no one else was even allowed to know about. They knew themselves. They loved each other. And they together exuded an air of contented self-sufficiency that made all the other students somehow more hopeful.

            A lot of people said when it was over that Clare must have run away and started a new life in some far-away place. The truth is no one knows what happened to her. I used to think about those two all the time. When I came back to Maplewood years later, it was just on an odd whim. My parents had moved away soon after I’d left for college. I wasn’t in touch with any friends who still lived there. For some reason, I just up and decided to spend a day driving, get a hotel for the night, and maybe make a weekend of visiting my old home town. The first place I went was the woods where Clare and Dean spent their last moments together.

            Everyone knew the story no one professed to believe. Beyond that, there were quite a few versions of an official account. Some held that an animal, or maybe a few coyotes, had dragged Clare’s body away. Others insisted that she was still alive and that seeing what had just happened to Dean she panicked and fled and never came back. Maybe she was afraid they’d blame her. Maybe she blamed herself and couldn’t bear to face his parents. There was something desperate about this version of the story. The fact seemed plain that Clare had died that day too. I always imagined Dean standing high up in the tree, seeing what happened to Clare, and yet never for a moment hesitating to follow her no matter where it took him.

            I found myself thinking surprisingly little about what had happened on their last trip to the woods together as I drove around town, stopping by the school to see if anyone was still around to let me inside to indulge my nostalgia. What occupied my mind was rather the way those two were together, locked in to each other, suddenly mature. They seemed—what’s the word? Knowing. They both knew something the rest of us, even our teachers and parents, simply didn’t know—or couldn’t know. What that something might be is a question I put to myself with some frequency to this day.

            It was late on a Friday night when I tried the door at the school. It was locked. I ended up wandering around the town in dreamy reverie without running into anyone I recognized and could invite to sit with me somewhere to reminisce. That was fine by me though.

            By Sunday afternoon, I was beginning to question my decision to come. I didn’t exactly have all the time in the world to amble around my old stomping grounds in a feckless daze. Impatient to get back on the road, I responded with mild annoyance to being recognized and addressed at the gas station. When I saw it was Bret Krause, though, the boy Dean had told that crude joke to about Clare’s climbing, his best friend right up until Clare pulled him away into that separate world of theirs, my curiosity got the best of me. I was amused when he pulled out his phone to call his wife and let her know he would be stopping by a bar to have a drink with an old friend from school. Bret hadn’t exactly been a lady’s man back in our glory days, but the picture he showed me was of a striking but kind-eyed beauty. It’s funny how things like that seem to work themselves out.

            I enjoyed hearing all about Bret’s life since high school. We’d never been close friends, but we’d had classes together and knew each other well enough for casual exchanges of greetings and pleasant small talk. I do have to confess, though, I was glad when he spontaneously began to talk about Dean. Anything I knew about the story had come to me in rumors thrice removed, and as curious as I’d been after they found Dean’s body in the woods that day it seemed to me untactful to barrage anyone with questions—though plenty of others apparently hadn’t felt the same scruple.

            Bret had gone away to college and returned to Maplewood to teach Algebra, of all things. He brought back with him the girlfriend he would marry soon afterward. They planned on having a couple kids but weren’t ready just yet. After letting us into the school, he took us directly to the spot where Clare had walked up to Dean and told him to come with her because she had something to show him.

            “I was a little worried coming back here,” he said. “I thought it might be too painful to be reminded of him constantly. At the same time, though—I know it’s a weird thing to say—it was sort of like his memory was one of the things that drew me back.”

            “I know what you mean.”

            “For a long time, I really thought any day we were going to hear that Clare had just shown up somewhere. It’s just such a strange thing in this day and age.”

            Bret turned the key to let us into the classroom where he taught his students quadratic equations, the same classroom where I’d learned pretty much the same lessons all those years ago, with Clare and Dean sitting four rows behind me in the back corner by the windows.

            “What do think happened to her?” I couldn’t help asking.

            Bret laughed good-humoredly. “Everyone knows what happened to her,” he said. “Haven’t you heard the story?” 

Inspired (partly) by:


Stories come to us like new senses

a wave and an ash tree were sisters
they had been separated since they were children
but they went on believing in each other
though each was sure that the other must be lost
they cherished traits of themselves that they thought of
as family resemblances features they held in common
the sheen of the wave fluttered in remembrance
of the undersides of the leaves of the ash tree
in summer air and the limbs of the ash tree
recalled the wave as the breeze lifted it
and they wrote to each other every day
without knowing where to send the letters
some of which have come to light only now
revealing in their old but familiar language
a view of the world we could not have guessed at

but that we always wanted to believe

                 -from W.S. Merwin's The Shadow of Sirius