Apropos of nothing in particular, it seemed at the time, a colleague in North Carolina once said something to me about how people who moved to California ended up sad. Her idea was a variation on the old “closing of the American frontier”. Until these people moved to California they were buoyed by the hope of one day moving to a better place—a paradise even, where life was easy, happiness guaranteed. But once they moved—not only were they forced to realize that they had been wrong, California was an actual place, where life could be as much of a struggle as anywhere else—they were at the far edge of the continent, with no land left to nourish their dreams.
At the time this comment seemed perfectly reasonable and unremarkable, but unlike most such comments it did not fade from memory. And then, a few years later, the person who had made the comment moved, with great enthusiasm, to California. And I came to realize that the elliptical way her mind had found to air her interest in moving to California touched on a consequential, but little appreciated behavior of the human psyche, my own certainly included.
For example, with one exception, I have been able to fantasize about having sex with women I have already had sex with and about having sex with all sorts of different women and even some men whose paths have crossed mine. The one exception are women who I would indeed like to have sex with, but have not, women with whom, at times when I have been single, I might actually have ended up having sex. I have come to recognize this as a signal: if I find myself fantasizing about someone new, this means I do not find her all that attractive; if I try to fantasize about her and cannot . . . !
It would seem that in general my susceptible imagination and not unexpansive libido find exercise in fantasies that take off from physical and psychological phenomena glimpsed in others. However, when the other in question is a potential lover, the mental task becomes quite different and more complex. There is the eagerness to make myself aware—there is someone attractive in the vicinity! And there are the fears of rejection and acceptance that accompany attraction, fears that only increase if I recognize my desire to get closer to this other person, my desire for her to want to get closer to me, for us to “make love”. It would seem that my psyche has a cryptic way of alluding to both the desires and the fears—by announcing boldly to itself, “Desires! Not me.”
With some regularity I am seized by unhappiness and panic, a feeling that I do not have enough time for my writing, myself, life. With the birth of my son I expected to feel overwhelmed even more frequently, if not constantly. And yet there was a day, about a month after my son was born—I was going to the Y to swim, and I thought proudly how, on account of my good time management and sophisticated understanding of life and my psychology, I had experienced much excitement and euphoria, but not the least panic. An hour later a task turned unexpectedly difficult, my computer went on the fritz, a long phone call ate up yet more time. Should I ever manage to get through all this unpleasant, unimportant work in time to get home to take care of my son, tomorrow I am going to be buried under the next load, I felt (with some truth). Back again was the familiar sense of desperation (it was as if all these trivial tasks were depriving me of oxygen), the familiar hopelessness (it was as if, burdened by such work, by the responsibilities of fatherhood, my life had come to an end).
Some might say that this is simply one not particularly significant variant on the idea that pride comes before a fall. Because of my boasting to myself, problems that would otherwise have seemed minor now loomed large. Others might propose that taking note of something—proudly or otherwise—is to bring it to the fore of one’s consciousness, and this prepares one to take further note of similar events, and this leads to the drawing of erroneous conclusions based on a misunderstanding of the frequency and significance of such events. Having recalled the possibility of feeling overwhelmed, my mind was ready to transform an unfortunate turn of events into the beginning of the end.
These hypotheses contain their bits of truth, but as a result of having had so many related experiences I believe that, at least for me, prideful thinking is also a kind of half-hearted forewarning. My unconscious picks up clues that some good fortune is about to come to an end, but my conscious mind does not want to accept this unpleasant truth. As a compromise the problem is simultaneously recognized and dismissed. “There is such a problem,” I tell myself, “but I don’t have it.”
Twenty years ago I quit smoking, but then there was a ten-year period during which I would have a cigarette or two (or ten) of a Friday evening, after a good meal, etc. Let’s say a pack of cigarettes every two months. This would have been an ideal arrangement if my lungs hadn’t also been wrestling with other past and present toxins, if nicotine weren’t so addicting, if the cigarette companies had not been doing everything else they could to hook me. Thus in between my smoking evenings I had to devote time and energy to quitting smoking again, denying myself a drug that I craved.
During this process there was always a day when I would see someone or a series of people smoking—smoking while walking, for example, or standing smoking in the cold out in front of their office buildings—and I would feel sorry for them and think what a disgusting habit smoking was and how glad I was to be done with it. Inevitably, it was that very night that I found myself having a cigarette.
Some might say that this is proof of the existence of a malignant force, in me above all; it was the very wrongness of smoking that appealed to me. My sense is that, rather, on days when I felt a strong desire to smoke, my id would scan desperately for cigarettes while my superego insisted that since I shouldn’t smoke, I couldn’t want to. My ego would respond in what it thought was a most clever fashion—it would call my attention to a succession of repellent smokers. Eventually my id would tire of the game and, with a mocking laugh, walk into a deli and buy a pack.
Thinking about how other people play this particular game, I am reminded of a friend’s report of a Bible study class. He had recently moved to one of these small American cities where the members of the local elite may all be found at just one or two churches, and ambitious new arrivals adjust their religious affiliations so as to be able to make connections before and after worship. My friend had married a woman who belonged to such a church, and since it counted among its members some of the sharper people in the town, he was not prepared for the nature of the discussion in the Bible study class. Instead of focusing on historical, literary or spiritual aspects of the Bible, the participants spent most of the class identifying passages that either directly stated or could be construed to mean that homosexuality was a sin.
Clearly these people were fascinated by homosexual sex—by its attractions and the possibility of engaging in it, I presume. Clearly they were also horrified, perhaps particularly by what giving in to temptation might do to their social status and self-images. “Homosexuality, homosexuality,” they seemed to be telling themselves, “thank God it’s so wrong!”
One spring I was taking a month away from job and home to study Russian and work on my writing. I had not been getting much writing done, and walking through St. Petersburg one afternoon, I decided that the problem was that for the moment I was too excited about my Russian studies and Russia. It’s bad to repress one’s enthusiasms, I told myself. It’s bad to force oneself to write when one has nothing to say. I am ever wishing for more time to read, and I decided that here was a good opportunity—instead of writing I would read. Not half an hour later I witnessed a little scene along Nevsky Prospekt that suggested a way to approach a philosophy essay that had been brewing in my mind for several months. I sat down in a restaurant and in three hours, and with great pleasure, drafted the piece. Similarly, on several occasions years ago, after putting aside my fiction to concentrate on writing essays I told friends or myself that I no longer had the least interest in fiction writing. I came to recognize this as a signal that within a few days I would be back at work on a story.
This perverse game, I have decided, evolved to minimize my sense of responsibility and my potential frustration. For example, if I had said, “How I wish I could get started on that essay,” I would have felt that this was something I should do and that if I did not do it, or if I tried and failed, I would have let myself down. I find it hard to work under such pressure. But having announced to myself that I had no interest in writing, the words flowed.
Image is from an animated film by Sarah Wickliffe: Art’s Desire (2006). Found on Ian Lumsden’s rich “Animation Blog: The Best of World Animation.” See http://www.animationblog.org/2010/06/sarah-wickliffe-arts-desire-2006.html.