Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hearing voices

Young men of your age carried in their bindle the memory of fable and legend where the protagonist was out on a road somewhere, proclaiming to some older person who'd asked him what he was up to the received answer of the time, "I go forth, sir, to seek my fortune."

By the time you'd chosen which fortune it was you were to seek, a number of legendary and fabulous voices had whispered in your ear and a significant number of others had caught your eye in a clamor of books and essays. Among the more persistent of these were the voices of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. These had your attention not so much because of their thematic heft or stylistic way of setting forth their bombast, which were considerable, but because of your own sense that if you were to be noticed at all, you had to elbow your way past them merely to get the bartender to recognize you.

This caused you to swagger at a time when mere pace would have been enough, sneering recognized as less valuable and study infinitely more valuable. Nevertheless, you were a boy, reacting to the voices of your zeitgeist as you might have responded to playground bullies who, even worse than picking on you, ignored you in search literally and figuratively of bigger game.

After the juvenile swagger subsided, you were more likely to be attracted to voices as guidance frequencies, finding comfort in the awareness of the voices of Huck Finn and later, in another sense, Holden Caulfield, the former a clear beacon to self-hood, the latter as spokesperson for an age in time. Huck Finn lit out to find himself and prosper amidst the metaphor of the discovery, space, and freedom his creator had known first-hand, then forsaken for the civilized comforts of the East. Holden was spiraling downward into the landscape of distrust, pain, and withdrawal. John Steinback had similar characters roiling within him. George was tied to by a promise to the gentle brute, Lenny, at the cost of his own freedom of choice. Tom Joad finally got to light out for some territory somewhere, but it was the territory of the life of a fugitive, to which he'd been driven by his own reckless compassion. Like Twain, Steinbeck moved East and more or less hated it. Barnaby Conrad reports being back on Cannery Row in Monterrey with him and Steinbeck morose, looking down, finally having to leave the restaurant where they'd gathered for drinks, disappointed at what had been made of what once was.

Ever on the alert for such voices to heed as Samantha, the young protagonist from Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, sent forth so vulnerably to solve a large problem created in the first place by adults, you watch carefully for the situations where individuals find themselves mired in emotional bogs, spinning wheels, digging themselves more inevitably into the soggy terrain. Then you watch as they try to extricate themselves. What you identify in these young voices is your young self, trying to get some form of traction, any traction, with which to grip the ground and move forth. Of course you factor in your more mature self because you understand the reach of physical behavior by which you may be out of some but by no means all. Nor is there any guarantee about the integrity of the road ahead.

We accept honest voices, those telling us how some changes might be inevitable, how indeed these chances may be bad for us but pretty good for others. We are less sure of voices that try too hard to cheer us up with glib tropes and reassurances. One of the pleasures that inhere in our line of work is the arrival of the voice that says things are hopelessly screwed up, our external acknowledgment of this being so, then the coda, the tail arriving in the form of an idea by which we might possibly get something down in readable form that will, for a moment or two, make us feel better.

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