Here and Now‘s Robin Young spoke last July with Andrew Sean Greer about his book Less, which just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Aired earlier this month, the NPR interview focuses on how and why Greer developed his “hapless” Arthur in the way he did. Dubbed by the author as a “gay Job,” the protagonist, we are told, is “a middling novelist who, faced with his lover’s impending marriage and his upcoming 50th birthday, embarks on a series of adventures that go comically awry.”
I’ve never been drawn to humorous novels (the mournful in me seems always in search of its reflection), so I confess that I likely won’t read the book. Still, I was very interested to learn about Greer’s prize-winning approach to writing it, and I listened attentively to what he told Young. One thing he said stayed with me:
“[Arthur Less] is nobody,” he tells the listeners. “That is the whole thing. He’s been attached to a genius, and he’s had some amount of success in his own career, but really by middle age if you haven’t had great success you’re kind of invisible in some way.”
Stuck on that last part, I have been reflecting on the nature of success and invisibility. As a child and then as a young adult, I learned from both the women and the men in my family (and from the larger culture in which I also was raised) that success, for a female, meant being skeletal and sunken-cheeked; hipless; melon-breasted; alabasterly flawless; deadly alluring to, though ultimately submissive in the presence of, men; and emotionally tucked in at all four corners.
Because I could never conform to this ideal feminine, I spent my younger years suffering profoundly over what I thought was a personal failure: It turned out I had a body and a spirit I could never tame, no matter what I tried; there also was in me an acute physical and psychic sensitivity that was ever pained by the inevitability of human ham-handedness.
I saw that loving kindness was at the same time required of a woman and dismissed as her central weakness. Her intelligence, too, was frequently trampled, mocked, disregarded, or even questioned: Years ago now, in response to something I told him during a winding conversation we were having about spirituality, a man I lived with for a time asked me if I was expressing an idea of my own or if I had read it somewhere. When I was accepted into a doctoral program at Berkeley, an honor for which I had toiled, and expressed to my mother that I was worried about whether I would successfully complete it because I wasn’t sure I could afford to pay for tuition, rent, and food (among other expenses), she said, “Don’t worry about finishing. It’s enough that you got in.”
It’s little wonder, then, that I have faltered at every step — doubting my strength, my intelligence, my own kind of beauty. Unsurprisingly, I have never earned much money, despite money being the signatory of success, and I have struggled mightily with poverty and with the looming spectre of homelessness. Partly this was to do with being a woman and a single mother in a society that values neither. Partly it was to do with the being I was when I came whole into the world.
Now, at 66, I am beyond middle age and have few, if any, external trappings that would signal to Greer or to those like him that I am a success. Although I have taught college for more than 20 years and have been devout in my commitment to it, I have always earned what has amounted to slightly more than minimum wage. I have never sought tenure; nor have I looked to become valued in academic circles for my publications or for my teaching prowess. And, despite having written nearly all my life, at middle age I had not achieved “great success” as a creative writer either. In fact, ruminationville, now a little more than six years old, has managed to attract just 315 followers. To those who have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, this is a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.
Yet, I am grateful for each person who makes a decision to read what I write here. Some tell me my work has been affecting. I value, too, every student I have taught, and I know I have made a difference in some of their lives.
To a scattering of people, then, I do not think I have been invisible. Or without success.
– posted by Max Burns (@themaxburns) on Twitter
I have been rereading In Search of the Miraculous, PD Ouspensky’s seminal work on the teachings of GI Gurdjieff, and today I found myself especially drawn to a section in the book where he recounts Gurdjieff’s views about conscience:
Conscience is a state in which a man feels all at once everything that he in general feels, or can feel. And as everyone has within him thousands of contradictory feelings which vary from a deeply hidden realization of his own nothingness and fears of all kinds to the most stupid kind of self-conceit, self-confidence, self-satisfaction, and self-praise, to feel all this together would not only be painful but literally unbearable.
If a man whose entire inner world is composed of contradictions were suddenly to feel all these contradictions simultaneously within himself, if he were to feel all at once that he loves everything he hates and hates everything he loves; that he lies when he tells the truth and that he tells the truth when he lies; and if he could feel the shame and horror of it all, this would be the state which is called ‘conscience.’
While reading this passage, I remembered what I had heard 30 years earlier from someone in the Work (as it is called), who told a group of us drawn to Mr. Gurdjieff’s ideas that we should never believe any of them unless we had verified their truthfulness through our own experiences.
Last Sunday, I was given the opportunity to feel the “shame and horror” of what I am certain was an experience of true conscience, when I had a front-row seat to the theater of my many inner contradictions. I was out to dinner with a kind, solicitous man I had dated a few times, and I very much wanted there to be the possibility of an enduring companionship. We had a good deal in common, I told myself — lonely childhoods that instilled in each of us an abiding need for solitude and self-sufficiency; a deep love of animals, especially dogs; a naive insistence that, above all, people should be honest; and a genuine tenderheartedness towards those brethren among us who are suffering.
As we ate our paella marinara and drank our Blue Moon beer, I listened attentively to him describe a movie he had seen, and gradually I found myself feigning interest in what he had to say. More and more anxious to leave, I was soon taken over by a dreadful irritation in search of outlet. Unable to escape from the discomfort, I looked inward, with not a little pain, as someone deeply cruel replaced the more tenderhearted one in me and began to launch a (mercifully) silent attack on his clothes, his cologne, his voice, his mannerisms, and on.
Once home, and then throughout the week, I experienced the kind of remorse that I am convinced can come only from those moments in which we are made to stare unflinchingly at the machinations of our disunited selves. The hope is that someone more whole will one day emerge from this container of broken bone and scarlet blood I call “I.”
It has been more than six years since I published my first piece on this site, and for five of those years I was diligent about marking the anniversary of each passing year with a post that would somehow measure the progress I thought I might have made during the previous twelve months.
This past year, my sixth as queen of an undistinguished, microminiature cyber realm, I found myself changing in ways I could hardly bear to notice, much less measure, and discovered I had been shaken loose from a habit of writing often and from a feeling that what I had to say would matter to those who visited here. I have come to see that, these days, writing mostly means my having to unearth a personal history that pains me profoundly (and from which I have long fled). Much of my previous confidence has hightailed it, too.
It all began last January, when I saw the country I didn’t even know I loved begin to lose its wheels, and I watched with horror while a man with a soul as dark as death made off with the presidency of the United States.
It enrages me just to see his picture or to hear his voice, which means I have been in a near-constant rage for more than a year because there is no escaping him. And, while it is true that I am angry about what he and his sycophants are doing to the republic and that my feelings appear to be those of a patriot, I have come to see that the fury has more to do with my own afflicted history than it does with the squatter in the White House. Watching him gaslight his way through the first year of a presidency without even a hint of remorse has poured a terrible light on the traumas of my earlier life, when a family of miscreants abused and confused me almost beyond repair.
The #MeToo movement also has forced me to reckon with a history of two failed marriages as well as to reflect soberly on my countless other relationships (or make-believe relationships) in which I sought, and found, the same confusing abuse I experienced as a child. And it has afforded me a certain amount of emotional cover so that I could endure reliving the sexual harassment and molestation I experienced at the hands of employers, doctors, and others I thought I was obliged to trust.