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

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Inner Voices, Inner Rooms–The False Notions Of Intimacy And Understanding

One would have thought that Henrietta and Frank Balder would have completely understood each other after decades of marriage.  That, if anything, is what marital longevity is all about – communicating in a shorthand that can eliminate unnecessary explanation and avoid conflict.  A couple, perfectly attuned to word, gesture, look after so long should be smoothly running. Yet it was not to be.  In fact, the longer the Balders were married, the less they understood each other.

It is true that no one really ever knows another – one’s inner rooms, sacred, individual places, hideaways whose contents are never given up or if so, as a last resort.  Even at their most intimate, trusting, and combined, couples never tell it all, for doing so would be a denial of their real past, who they really are.  Instead they share safe bits and pieces at odd angles.  A woman may get a glimpse of what her husband is thinking, but never a frontal view.  That he keeps to himself, his own currency which loses value when it is traded.  Women are said to withhold less, but they simply are more expressive in what they choose to tell and how they tell it.  As a relationship moves on both husband and wife realize that not only is it not worth sharing inner secrets, the longer such secrets are kept in the dark, the more unseemly and difficult they tend to be when exposed.

Henrietta Balder cruised along in her marriage after the usual turbulence of the early years when she figured out how much give there was to the ship’s sails and buoyancy to the hull; how the ship fared in rough waters, responded to command, and righted herself when foundering.  Not so much a trial run, but a shakedown.  Frank Balder wondered how the former lone wolf would respond to tethers? How much could he run wild and untamed before the traces were fixed? 

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Once that period had past successfully – Henrietta decided to accept Frank’s delinquencies with the equanimity of her own mother; and Frank came to realize that toleration of his wife’s bulldogged insistence was the path of least resistance; and there were always ways around everything, even if the circuitous route was long and winding.

So after many years, children, professional careers, and family vacations, the unexpected arrived – a solitary, united, and bound life that neither of them had ever expected.  How could they? Life is programmed for activity, enterprise, fun, and hard work; not for a semi-passive routine and certainly not for hours alone with each other, both congenitally created to keep secrets.

It was then that they realized that they had never really talked, never truly shared anything but the most practical and irrelevant. Notwithstanding those who, like D.H. Lawrence, claim that sexual intercourse is the only human communication worth noting, and at its mutual best can be epiphanic, most older adults realize that sex is not what is cracked up to be, especially not as a means of better understanding.  Sex turns to diffidence more often than not and to jealousy at worst, becoming routine, obligatory, and boring.  Once affairs are over and done with, jealousy no longer an issue, and sexual hijinks things of the past, couples are faced with the bare facts – a life of accommodation, practicality, camaraderie, but little or no understanding. 

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What happened to all the tough nuns with clackers, report cards, baseball on the green, aunts, uncles, long-gone grandparents, and the minutiae of jobs, dogs, burst pipes and car repair? Too insignificant to be stored in one’s inner rooms, useful when it came to retelling at Easter dinner, but all in all not the stuff of sharing.  A vast array of bits and pieces, never assembled, always assumed to be important and to be put together for meaning when the time came; but when the time did arrive, and when Henrietta began reviewing her life and that of the man in the armchair, it was just as jumbled as ever.  A bag full of shards, smudges, and reflections.

So despite this great landfill of memories, decades of events seemingly so meaningful at the time, the Balders sat across from each other with nothing to say.

If this was the case of Henrietta and Frank, one can imagine how it plays out on a larger stage.  If two people who have lived together for decades still pirouette emotionally around each other and then stare blankly, one can only imagine the chasms between families, neighbors, communities, and nations.  At each step up the social and geo-political scale, the impossibility of knowing becomes harder and harder.  If the Balders, two well-educated, Eastern Establishment, professionals with two children and a good retirement income, lives as alone and separate from everything as Tibetan monks or Indian sadhus; then what can one expect from more complex social orders? The social multiplier effect is common to all.  The more the history, courtiers, wars, conflicts, and seats of power, the more impossibly knowable the culture and those who represent it.

Secrets come in many forms – husbands’ cinq-a-septs, off-shore accounts, cash in the safe, anger, resentment, flight, tax forms – but these are common and expected.  Intimate secrets – poorly articulated, private, and never expressed - are what most define us and answer the existential question, “Who am I?”

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However much we may be shaped by society and culture; no matter how our behavior conforms to accepted norms and standards or strikes a particular, unique balance within them, our existential validation comes from these secrets.  While they may be common by category – parental resentment, religion, bullying, sexual inadequacy – they are ours alone.

I am what I do not tell.

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”; but that too is limited to epistemology.  As intellectually complex as it was, it was too simplistic and far too removed from individual experience to be of any use in understanding individualism. Nabokov looked at the ‘I am’ question in temporal terms.  The present exists only in milliseconds.  The future is only possible and not even probable.  Only the past exists, and only if one retains, relives, and experiences the past through memory can one exist.  ‘I am’ = ‘I was’.

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Yet this too skirts the issue.  Such a memorist explanation of being is no more satisfying than the Nietzschean or the moralist; for it avoids essence – that particular, inarticulate collection of personal fears, expectations, frustrations, hostility, and ambition that no one knows.

Tolstoy described the pain and existential moment of the death of Ivan Ilyich in the novella of that name.  Ivan, as he nears his death, still consumed about questions of worth and value but only in terms of others, finally realizes that we all die alone.  We go to our graves equally, universally, and and alone with no consideration of belonging.

At his moment of death he finally admits to his secrets – who he was and still is.  “It is finished” says someone at his bedside, repeating the words of Christ.

Henrietta and Frank Balder went to their graves in silence as unresponsive to each other as they had been for sixty years.  One might hope that one of them at least had been an Ivan Ilyich, realizing that one lives and dies alone, and faces eternity without regret; but that is unlikely.  Neither were of Tolstoy’s bent.

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