Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Winner Takes it All

When we are young, our parents tell us what the world is and that we have to accept the world as it is. When we grow up we have to face the fact that we will never get the world we want and our outlook will change. While I do not want to get cynical nor be naively idealistic, I try to adopt an open mind and attempt to see things from various angles as I believe that there are many sides to every story. Not all black is black nor white is white.

Free will is an illusion as we live in an informed world with both unsolicited and solicited information. We  live with what we have been told since infancy days. Those who manage to lead  tell the other people what they actually want. In order to progress you cannot assume that you have things all figured out as that might stifle your growth. I can never be certain of my perceptions of things nor think that I  know all about the workings of the world. All I know is one must be able to break free from  social expectations and all those rules that have been implemented by people who think they can make you think the way they want you to think. You do not necessarily know  the stuff of thought others carry in their heads and their intentions and they may not think like you. What matters is you must know the thoughts you carry in your own head and where your sentiments lie. 

We grow up and live in a world that is full of prejudices and bigotry.  I so want to  avoid acting  unjust and  be more tolerant than most people around me and  I often find myself failing in such attempts. In Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee writes, " Every man's island, Jean Louise, everyman's watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience." 

When I first read about Harper Lee’s new book and all the write up about how the character, Atticus Finch had become a different man in his old age, my first response was : “ I do not want to spoil the image of the heroic character from Mockingbird and I probably should not read Go Set a Watchman” . A couple of days  after  Watchman was launched,  I  rationalized that Atticus Finch was after all a fictitious character and  I could not possibly idolize a fictitious character. I have always been one who finds inspirations from reading fictions and I learn things from watching movies and reading fictions. Fiction writers  tell us who we are as human beings.

La Sagrada Família, Barcelona
The novel Go Set a Watchman has courted much controversy.  While I am certainly not in the position to comment about its writing, I find that the writing could do with some editing as it feels raw unlike Mockingbird that was extremely well crafted. Mockingbird moved me to tears when I read it while Watchman made me ponder. I read from the news articles that  the original manuscript now published as Watchman was first  written in the mid-1950s. The editor then persuaded Harper Lee to rewrite the story from the voice of young Jean Louise aka Scout hence To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer prize winner and the lawyer character, Atticus Finch that we came to love by reason of  the ideals he represents, integrity, kindness, a loving father and a fearless lawyer who believes in justice and fairness for all men.  In Watchman, Jean Louise Finch is now 26 years old and practises law in New York city. When she makes her annual visit to her hometown in Maycomb, she has an  awakening as she comes to know about her dad’s racist stand at a time of early civil unrest. She feels cheated and becomes hysterical when she realizes that her dad is not what he has stood for in her life. It is all a little confusing at times but as her uncle explains to Scout ,

Dr Finch stretched out his legs. “It’s rather complicated,” he said, “and I don’t want you to fall into the tiresome error of being conceited about your complexes-you’d bore us for the rest of our lives with that, so we’ll keep away from it. Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”

   This was news, coming from him. But let him talk, he would find his way to the nineteenth century somehow.
   “ ….now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings – I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”
      She listened to the figure on the sofa.
    “ When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the antithesis of his conscience – your conscience –you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth for you. You had  to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity.”’
La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Dr Finch calls his niece a bigot.
Dr Finch bit his under lip and let it go. “ Um hum. A bigot. Not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot.”
 Jean Louise rose and went to the bookshelves. She pulled down a dictionary and leafed through it. “ Bigot,” she read. “ Noun. One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party , belief ,  or opinion.”  Explain yourself, sir.”
‘ I was just tryin’ to answer your running question. Let me elaborate a little on that definition. What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out. Now you, you were turned inside out by the granddaddy of all father things, so you ran. And how you ran.
    You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘ I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ‘em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow. You ‘ll be the same at sixty as you are now – then you’ll be a case and not my niece. You have a tendency not to give anybody elbow room in your mind for their ideas, no matter how silly you think they are.

In the book, Harper Lee describes Scout’s uncle:
Dr  John Hale Finch was no taller than his niece, who was five seven. His father had given him a high-bridged nose, a stern nether lip, and high cheekbones. He looked like his sister Alexander, but their physical resemblance ended at the neck : Dr Finch was spare, almost spidery; his sister was of firmer proportions. He was the reason Atticus did not marry until he was forty – when the time came for John Hale Finch to chose a profession, he chose medicine.

Dr Finch became a bone man, practiced in Nashville,played the stock market with shrewdness, and by the time he was forty-five he had accumulated enough money to retire and devote all his time to his first and aiding love, Victorian literature, a pursuit that in itself earned him the reputation of being Maycomb County’s most leaned licensed eccentric.

Word on the Water, London
Scout’s  uncle was  the other aging man ‘who saw her through her loneliest and most difficult hours, through the malignant limbo of turning from a howling tomboy  into a young woman.’  I can imagine that the eccentricity of the uncle can make him seem like a borderline case.  There is something else the uncle says that resonates with me .

“ Remember this also : it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick , you’ll get along.”

Though her perceptions of what her dad stands for have crushed drastically, Dr Finch shows Jean Louis that she has to figure out her own conscience and also the fact that despite all the terrible things she has said to her dad including calling him a 'double dealing, ring-tailed old son of a bitch', the love of her father remains unchanged. Nothing is absolute.  Humanity is complicated. Maybe that is what  Harper Lee is telling us. To me both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are  about  growing up and coming of age. There is an excellent article by Randall Kennedy under Sunday Book Review in New York Times that says  '"Go Set a Watchman" demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school and the film adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird"'.  

Go Set a Watchman is definitely more ambitious and the constant presence of  ambivalence is real and not only in fictions. As I write this, Abba’s song ‘The winner takes it all’ is ringing in my head and next to me is the new book “Why Grow Up” written by Susan  Neiman. Go Set a Watchman is the winner of the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards  for fiction.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Time in a Bottle

Since I need to be fully functioning at every hour of the day to accomplish all that reading, writing , learning and work that has to be attended to, I reckon it is such a waste of time and energy to get wound up over things. How debilitating it will be if I allow such feelings of disenchantment to affect my being. I therefore resolve to live in the present and endeavour to be mindful of my thoughts.

In order to keep ourselves happy, we have to free ourselves from thinking unhappy thoughts. We have to free ourselves from the damage caused by the incidents that happened in the past, sometimes there are childhood traumas that need to be revisited to understand our fears, our worries and our dilemmas. Like Rosemary Cooke in the fiction We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves written  by Karen Joy Fowler, we cannot go forward without going back to the times when certain happenings or memory of these incidents had caused a mark in our lives.

In the fiction written by Fowler , Fern had arrived when Rosemary  was just over one month old and Fern was just shy of three months. Rosemary felt her loss in a powerful way when Fern was sent away. This is how Rosemary’s mother described her and Fern:


         When Fern woke up, she woke up. Spun like a pinwheel. Burst like a sunburst. Swung through our house like a miniature Colossus. You remember how Dad used to call her our Mighty Whirlitzer? All the noise and color and excitement of Mardi Gras, and right in our very own home.

       When you got just a little older, you and she were quite the team. She’d open the cupboards and you’d pull out every pot, every pan. She could work the childproof locks in a heartbeat, but she didn’t have your stick-to-itiveness. Remember how obsessed she was with shoelaces? We were tripping over our feet because Fern had untied our shoelaces without us noticing.

     She’d climb up in the closets and pull the coats from the hangers, drop them down to you below. Fetch coins from my purse for you to suck on. Open the drawers and hand you the pins and the needles , the scissors and the knives.’

As the daughter of a psychology professor at Indiana University, Rosemary was raised with a chimpanzee as part of a scientific experiment. When Fern was sent away, both Rosemary and her brother Lowell were shattered. Lowell blamed Rosemary for Fern’s departure and he became an animal activist to the point of no return. Rosemary asked her mother if she was worried about her and what the impact might be to adopt a chimpanzee and introduced her as her twin sister.  Her mother replied,

Of course I did,” she said.” I worried about that all the time. But you  adored Fern. You were a happy, happy child.”
“ Was I ? I don’t remember.”
“Absolutely. I worried about what  being Fern’s sister would do to you, but I wanted it for you, too.”  The candlelight was casting shadow puppets in the kitchen. The wine was red. Mom took another sip and turned her softly sagging face away from mine. “I wanted you to have an extraordinary life,” she said.
Is the reason given by Rosemary’s mother good enough to exonerate her parents from all that damage caused by her early years growing up with a chimpanzee whose exile had subsequently caused her to carry the weight of her guilt till her adult years ? It was an interesting story about how  parents might have damaged their children even if they have the best of intentions.

When Rosemary went to college,  as part of her brand new start, she made a careful decision never ever tell anyone about her sister, Fern. She shared a room with Scully who was gregarious and outgoing. So they had all these people who came to their room and they carried on about  "the Whac-A-Mole dynamics of the homes they'd just left. Their parents were so weird!!"

I’d come back from class or dinner, or I ‘d wake up in the middle of the night, and there’d be a half-dozen freshmen, sitting with their backs against the walls, carrying on about the Whac-A-Mole dynamics of the homes they’d just left. Their parents were so weird! Like Scully, they’d just figured that out. Every single one of them had weird parents.

One of them had a mother who’d once grounded her a whole summer because she’d gotten a B-plus in biology. Her mother had grown up in some part of Delhi where they didn’t abide B-pluses.

One of them had a father who made the whole family stand at the refrigerator and down a glass of orange juice before going out for breakfast, because restaurant orange juice was too expensive to order, but you could hardly call it breakfast without.’

So it appeared to Rosemary that every single one of Scully's friends had weird parents.

I was first drawn to the title of the book We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  so when  my daughter’s package that she had shipped home finally arrived, I was glad to get my hand on her copy of the novel. The fiction is smartly told about sibling love and rivalry and what constitutes a family. This is the first book by Karen Joy Fowler that I have ever read  and  I will be seeking out her earlier fictions when I next hit the bookstore.