There are always antecedent causes. A beginning is an artifice, and what recommends one over another is how much sense it makes of what follows.
Like a self in a dream, I was both first and third persons. I acted, and saw myself act. I had my thoughts, and I saw them drift across a screen. As in a dream, my emotional responses were nonexistent or inappropriate.
It is clearly not true that without language there is no thought. I possessed a thought, a feeling, a sensation, and I was looking for its word. As guilt was to the past, so, what was it that stood in the same relation to the future? Intention? No, not influence over the future. Foreboding. Anxiety about, distaste for the future. Guilt and foreboding, bound by a line from past to future, pivoting in the present—the only moment it could be experienced. It wasn’t fear, exactly. Fear was too focused, it had an object. Dread was too strong. Fear of the future. Apprehension, then. Yes, there it was, approximately. It was apprehension.
If I didn’t make conscious choices now, I knew I would brood and drink. I didn’t want to see friends, I had no need of entertainment, I wasn’t even hungry. Voids like these were familiar, and the only way across them was work.
Self-persuasion was a concept much loved by evolutionary psychologists. I had written a piece about it for an Australian magazine. It was pure armchair science, and it went like this: if you lived in a group, as humans have always done, persuading others of your own needs and interests would be fundamental to your well-being. Sometimes you had to use cunning. Clearly you would be at your most convincing if you persuaded yourself first and did not even have to pretend to believe what you were saying. The kind of self-deluding individuals who tended to do this flourished, as did their genes. So it was we squabbled and scrapped, for our unique intelligence was always at the service of our special pleading and selective blindness to the weaknesses of our case.
I felt that empty, numbing neutrality that comes when one person in the room appears to monopolize all the available emotion. There was nothing for me to do for the moment but wait.
What I saw in Jean’s grief reduced my own situation to uncomplicated elements, to a periodic table of simple good sense: when it’s gone, you’ll know what a gift love was. You’ll suffer like this. So go back and fight to keep it.
There’s an uneasiness I have to conceal when I meet a child. I see myself through that child’s eyes and remember how I regarded adults when I was small. They seemed a gray crew to me, too fond of sitting down, too keen on small talk, too accustomed to having nothing to look forward to. My parents, their friends, my uncles and aunts, all seemed to have lives bent to the priorities of other, distant, more important people. For a child it was, of course, simply a matter of local definition. Later I discovered in certain adults dignity and flamboyance, and later still these qualities, or at least the first, stood revealed in my parents and most of their circle. But when I was an energetic, self-important ten-year-old and found myself in a roomful of grownups, I felt guilty, and thought it only polite to conceal the fun I was having elsewhere. When an aged figure addressed me—they were all aged—I worried that what showed in my face was pity.
I could not think of a way of refusing, much as I wanted to. Was my life to be entirely subordinate to other people’s obsessions?
People often remark on how quickly the extraordinary becomes commonplace. I think that every time I’m on a motorway at night, or on a plane as it rises through cloud cover into sunlight. We are highly adaptive creatures. The predictable becomes, by definition, background, leaving the attention uncluttered, the better to deal with the random or unexpected.
That preverbal language of instant thought linguists call mentalese.
I felt a familiar disappointment. No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favor, and we persuaded ourselves along the way. Pitiless objectivity, especially about ourselves, was always a doomed social strategy. We’re descended from the indignant, passionate tellers of half-truths, who, in order to convince others, simultaneously convinced themselves. Over generations success had winnowed us out, and with success came our defect, carved deep in the genes like ruts in a cart track: when it didn’t suit us, we couldn’t agree on what was in front of us. Believing is seeing. That’s why there are divorces, border disputes, and wars, and why this statue of the Virgin Mary weeps blood and that one of Ganesh drinks milk. And that was why metaphysics and science were such courageous enterprises, such startling inventions, bigger than the wheel, bigger than agriculture, human artifacts set right against the grain of human nature. Disinterested truth. But it couldn’t save us from ourselves, the ruts were too deep. There could be no private redemption in objectivity.
The alphabet of my society described a limited degree of failure and a fair amount of success, and all of it occurred within a narrow band of education and money. Not great wealth mostly, but reasonable sufficiency. There was simply no need to take other people’s cash. Perhaps middle-class crime is mostly in the head, or in and around the bed. Battery, assault, abduction, rape, and murder were dourly fantasized when appropriate. But it’s something less than morals—more like taste, politesse—that holds us back. Clarissa had taught me Stendhal’s remark: “Le mauvais goût mène aux crimes.”
Xan gave his judgments the ring of fundamental truth by adorning them with basically. “Basically,” he said, looking at me, “your allergy is a form of imbalance.” When I said this was unfalsifiable, he looked pleased. I began to think he might not detest me after all. He had the same hostile regard for his porridge as he had for me. What I had thought was an expression was actually his face at rest. I had been misled by the curl of his upper lip, which some genetic hiatus had boiled into a snarl.
I’ve never outgrown that feeling of mild pride, of acceptance, when children take your hand.