"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Saga Of Henry Marker–Finding Identity, Meaning, And Purpose And Then Losing Them

Henry Marker had impeccable progressive credentials.  He had cut his teeth as a freedom rider in the Sixties, won plaudits from internationalists thanks to his tireless efforts to promote world peace through nuclear disarmament, and evolved into a secular evangelist for many liberal causes.  He wrote  extensively on the dangers of climate change, the unbreakable glass ceiling, the corrosive, predatory nature of Wall Street and the One Percent, male privilege and female servitude, and restitution for people of color and for all Native Americans.

His most recent book was entitled The Put-Upon – Female Chattels In A Harem Of Rogue Males.  Men, Henry wrote, were innately misogynist – retrograde, barely evolved throwbacks from the Paleolithic.  Irremediable, hormone-driven, hopeless tied to failed notions of patriarchy and male superiority.  It made no sense, Henry wrote, to differentiate ‘good’ men and ‘bad’ men.  Men were all bad, prisoners of their genetic destiny, and perpetrators of aggression, hostility, war, and brutality.  The world would be better off without them, and sooner rather than later, genetic engineering will make them redundant.  Women will finally have their due and men their comeuppance.

Now, Henry’s case is unusual not because of his harsh, uncompromising views of men – these had been said as eloquently and with as least as much passion by many women since the 70s – but because he was a man himself.  After all he, a happy child of happy parents, had spent his younger years untroubled by such contentious issues.  He was an easy-going C student, congenial fraternity brother, and as eager to make weekend trips to women’s colleges as any undergraduate.  Then, as abruptly as a change in the weather, Henry became political.  He had found religion – and make no mistake about it, the social causes of the 60s and beyond were no less than religious crusades.  He felt a certain divinity in his actions.  Marching for social justice in Twentieth Century America was no different than Paul’s mission of salvation to Ephesus and Galatia.  His reversal of intent – from diffidence to engaged passion – was indeed an epiphany, a turning point from which he could never go back.

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From a more practical, realistic perspective, Henry’s epiphany was nothing of the sort.  There are no such things, said his less sanguine and idealistic colleagues.  People are infallibly conditioned by nature and nurture; and while it takes some years to finally listen to their own musical score, for others it takes no time at all.

In Henry’s case his father’s words from the pulpit had finally sunk in.  Sunday after Sunday Pastor Marker had preached the Word of God and the gospels of Jesus Christ from a compassionate, human, and social point of view, all of which had passed over the head of his young son who had other things on his mind and no interest in his father’s insufferable droning.  Had the culture of the Fifties continued for another decade or two, Henry might never have awakened to the scherzo within him; but they did not.  The Sixties took American by surprise so revolutionary were they.  What had been a settled, peaceful, respectful, orderly, and pious world was transformed into ugliness and dispute.  Henry’s orchestra played allegro con brio, and even after four movements just kept on playing with more percussion, thunder, brass, and chorus.

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Looked at from another, even more personal perspective, Henry's sexual timidity might well have provoked his anti-male anger.  If he couldn’t be like the campus jocks whose sexual confidence, prowess, and insistence were the standard, then harsh criticism of their uber-macho behavior would provide the perfect cover for his immaturity.  As a convinced feminist, one committed not only to gender rights but to exposing the empty theatrics of male posturing and braggadocio, he could remain sexually neuter, neither challenged by conflicts of sexual will nor seduced by feminine allure.  His political stance inoculated him against sexism, misogyny, and abuse.  Some collateral damage was inevitable.  Henry was a virgin far longer than any young man should be, and only when a young activist from Radcliffe had seduced him one late night in Harvard Yard, did he become ‘whole’.  To keep sexuality and politics in perfect equilibrium, he left all initiative to Martha who quickly grew tired of Henry’s sexual prostration and moved on to a more normal relationship.

Being left on the curb by Martha Vibbers was a further damaging blow to Henry’s already low self-esteem, and he compensated for his sexual inadequacy by ever more impassioned demands for women’s rights and the overthrow of male dominion.

It wasn’t much of a reach for Henry to graduate from feminism to civil rights, to environmentalism, to world peace.  There was very little difference in righting a civil wrong whether it be the ill treatment of women by a hereditary, patriarchal society, the de facto servitude of African Americans, or the marginalization of gays and lesbians.

By the time he was in his late forties, he had hit his stride.  The orchestra was in better fiddle than ever before, playing with passion, perfect harmony, and balance.  He felt as complete and satisfied as he ever had.  Life had purpose, meaning, and intent. He was surrounded by like-minded, sympathetic, and equally engaged colleagues – the big tent was filled with eagerness, optimism, and collective faith.  Nothing could be better.

Most importantly, his persona – his personal identity –  was finally complete.  There were no irritating conflicts between the inner Henry and the outer.  What he felt inside was exactly what he projected to those around him.  Everyone should be so lucky.

Yet, disappointingly, epiphanies come and epiphanies go – there is no such thing as permanent or perfect equilibrium.  Balance is a temporal state, always in a state of adjustment, and more often than not thrown off kilter by surprising, unexpected, and usually unknown factors.

What made Henry Marker start doubting himself at age 57 was perplexing and troubling, and kept him awake nights.  It started as simple lassitude.  Staying in bed a bit longer, holding on to a nice dream, reminiscing about his college days; but it got progressively worse.  His flagging spirits became stale and worn.  He had trouble making his way to the office and his speeches before enthusiastic audiences became flat, emotionless, and perfunctory.  Gone was that old Marker wit and charm, that ability to rouse even the most reluctant student. 

Yet that was not the worst of it.  At the bottom of his insipid, still, and increasingly stagnant pool, was existential doubt.  Perhaps there really was no point to activism.  After all, history if nothing else was boringly repetitious – been there, done that – but still, despite history’s perennial wars, territorialism, ethnic strife, corporate and public greed, antagonisms, and self-centered interests wasn't change possible? Why could there not be a new utopian millennium.  Who was so presumptuous to assume that just because history had shown itself to be predictable, it could not be fundamentally altered?  That men could be better if not good.

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Unfortunately, the black dog depression of futility came over him completely and he felt irreversibly hopeless.  Human nature was a given, he reasoned – petty, venal, aggressive, self-protective, and violent – so what was the point in trying to corral it, neuter it, or spray it with some kind of Monsanto insecticide?

The struggle for sexual dominance hadn’t changed one iota.  The canny observations of D.H.Lawrence, Strindberg, and Ibsen, let alone the Old Testament were never more true.  Sex was the defining factor of human intercourse, and equilibrium did not happen by itself but only as a consequence of winners and losers in battles of sexual will.

The climate may or not be changing; but regardless, human societies for 100,000 years have been adaptable, flexible, and innovative.  There was nothing like environmental threat to hasten adaptation.  The hope for world peace is nothing more than a chimera.  If there were any hope at all, there would be some signs of social evolution; but the 21st century was as bloody and brutal as any before it.  The very idea of progress – progress itself – is a chimera, an illusion, an ill-considered hope.

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Henry had absolutely no idea what provoked the change in him, what hastened his final epiphany.  Perhaps it was the gradual disappearance of logic within the holy roller community of the big tent.  Current believers thought that all thinking about serious issues had preceded them.  Now all that was required was passion, engagement, commitment and solidarity.  Perhaps it was how camaraderie and good times had replaced anything more serious.  The progressive movement had become like a summer camp – archery and badminton in the morning, boating and canoeing in the afternoon, so predictable that one did not have to prepare or bone up.  Everything was too easy, too received.  The avant-garde esprit de corps had long gone. 

Or perhaps it was because he had simply become tired of being and doing good.  Being a model citizen, attentive and faithful to the canon, the liturgy, and the theology, never off-script; being a model of rectitude, a perfectly ordered and orchestrated man of leadership and idealism was exhausting.  Maybe that was it.

In any case, the more his energy and interest flagged, the more relieved he felt.  Goodness is hard, he thought, but it was too late to reverse his ways.  He didn’t have it in him to be bad, so all that was left for this last, final phase of his life, was a happy nihilism.  He had given his life to helping others, trying to make the world a better place; realized too late that while not wasted effort, there were a lot of years when he could have been doing something else a lot less demanding -   Dissolute men have no image to keep up.  Nevertheless, ‘Phase 3’ was an enjoyable coda.  He never looked back with regret on his professional life.  It was what it was, conditioned, predictable, and no more or no less important or significant as any other.  These were the thoughts that one was supposed to have later in life – a kind of settled resolution if not wisdom.

Yet there was still the niggling thought that he had been conned.  How could he have been so…stupid? Why were the insights that age and distance provided not there when it mattered, when it was time to do something with his life not so good and far more enjoyable?  Too soon old, too late schmart was the old, tried and true, perennially wise adage.  More importantly, what difference did it make?

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