The Illusionless Man: Some Fantasies and Meditations on Disillusionment – Allen Wheelis

The Illusionless Man and the Visionary Maid

Once upon a time there was a man who had no illusions about anything. While still in the crib he had learned that his mother was not always kind; at two he had given up fairies; witches and hobgoblins disappeared from his world at three; at four he knew that rabbits at Easter lay no eggs; and at five on a cold night in December, with a bitter little smile, he said good-bye to Santa Claus. At six when he started school illusions flew from his life like feathers in a windstorm: he discovered that his father was not always brave or even honest, that presidents are little men, that the Queen of England goes to the bathroom like everybody else, and that his first-grade teacher, a pretty round-faced young woman with dimples, did not know everything, as he had thought, but thought only of men and did not in fact know much of anything. At eight he could read, and the printed word was a sorcerer at exorcising illusions-only he knew there were no sorcerers. The abyss of hell disappeared into the even larger abyss into which a clear vision was sweeping his beliefs. Happiness was of course a myth; love a fleeting attachment, a dream of enduring selflessness glued onto the instinct of a rabbit. At twelve he dispatched into the night sky his last unheard prayer. As a young man he realized that the most generous act is self-serving, the most disinterested inquiry serves interest; that lies are told by printed words, even by words carved in stone; that art begins with a small “a” like everything else, and that he could not escape the ruin of value by orchestrating a cry of despair into a song of lasting beauty; for beauty passes and deathless art is quite mortal. Of all those people who lose illusions he lost more than anyone else, taboo and prescription alike; and as everything became permitted nothing was left worth while.

He became a carpenter but could see a house begin to decay in the course of building-perfect pyramid of white sand spreading out irretrievably in the grass, bricks chipping, doors sticking, the first tone of gray appearing on white lumber, the first film of rust on bright nails, the first leaf falling in the shining gutter. He became then a termite inspector, spent his days crawling in darkness under old houses; he lived in a basement room and never raised the blinds, ate canned beans and frozen television dinners, let his hair grow and his beard. On Sundays he walked in the park, threw bread to the ducks-dry French bread, stone-hard, would stamp on it with his heel, gather up the pieces, and walk along the pond, throwing it out to the avid ducks paddling after him, thinking glumly that they would be just as hungry again tomorrow. His name was Henry.

One day in the park he met a girl who believed in everything. In the forest she still glimpsed fairies, heard them whisper; bunnies hopped for her at Easter, laid brilliant eggs; at Christmas hoofbeats shook the roof. She was disillusioned at times and would flounder, gasp desperately, like a fish in sand, but not for long; would quickly, sometimes instantly, find something new, and actually never gave up any illusion but would lay it aside when necessary, forget it, and whenever it was needed back it would come. Her name was Lorabelle, and when she saw a bearded young man in the park, alone among couples, stamping on the hard bread, tossing it irritably to the quacking ducks, she exploded into illusions about him like a Roman candle over a desert.

“You are a great and good man,” she said.

“I’m petty and self-absorbed,” he said.

“You’re terribly unhappy.”

“I’m morose. . . probably like it that way.”

“You have suffered a ‘great deal,” she said. “I see it in your face.”

“I’ve been diligent only in self-pity,” he said, “have turned away from everything difficult, and what you see is the scars of old acne shining through my beard; I could never give up chocolate and nuts.”

“You’re very wise,” she said.

“No, but intelligent.”

They talked about love, beauty, feeling, value, love, life, work, death-and always she came back to love. They argued about everything, differed on everything, agreed on nothing, and so she fell in love with him. “This partakes of the infinite,” she said.

But he, being an illusionless man, was only fond of her.

“It partaketh mainly,” he said, “of body chemistry,” and passed his hand over her roundest curve.

“We have a unique affinity,” she said. “You’re the only man in the world for me.”

“We fit quite nicely,” he said. “You are one of no more than five or six girls in the county for me.”

“It’s a miracle we met,” she said.

“I just happened to be feeding the ducks.”

“No, no, no, not chance; I couldn’t feel this way about anybody else.”

“If you’d come down the other side of the hill,” he said, “you’d be feeling this way right now about somebody else. And if I had fed squirrels instead of ducks I’d be playing with somebody else’s curves.”

“You’re my dearest darling squirrel,” she said, “and most of all you’re my silly fuzzy duck, and I don’t know why I bother to love you-
why are you such a fool? who dropped you on your head?–come to bed'” On such a note of logic, always, their arguments ended.

She wanted a wedding in church with a dress of white Alencson lace over cream satin, bridesmaids in pink, organ music, and lots of people to weep and be happy and throw rice. “You’ll be so handsome in a morning coat,” she said, brushing cobwebs from his shoulders, “oh and striped pants, too, and a gray silk cravat, and a white carnation. You’ll be divine.”

“I’d look a proper fool,” he said, “and I’m damned if I’ll do it.”

“Oh please I It’s only once.”

“Once a fool, voluntarily, is too often.”

“It’s a sacrament.”

“It’s a barbarism.”

“Symbols are important.”

“Then let’s stand by the Washington Monument,” he said, “and be honest about it.”

“You make fun,” she said, “but it’s a holy ceremony, a solemn exchange of vows before man and God.”

“God won’t be there, honey; the women will be weeping for their own lost youth and innocence, the men wanting to have you in bed; and the priest standing slightly above us will be looking down your cleavage as his mouth goes dry; and the whole thing will be a primitive and preposterous attempt to invest copulation with dignity and permanence, to enforce responsibility for children by the authority of a myth no longer credible even to a child.”

So . . . they were married in church: his hands were wet and his knees shook, he frowned and quaked; but looked divine, she said, in morning coat and striped pants; and she was serene and beautiful in Alencon lace; the organ pealed, weeping women watched with joy, vows were said, rice thrown, and then they were alone on the back seat of a taxi, her red lips seeking his, murmuring, “I’m so happy, darling, so terribly happy. Now we’ll be together always.”

“In our community,” he said, “and for our age and economic bracket, we have a 47.3% chance of staying together
.
.
.
.
Suddenly, all at once, she looked at him with a level detached gaze and did not like what she saw. “You were right,” she said, “you are petty and self-absorbed. What’s worse, you have a legal mind, and there’s no poetry in you. You don’t give me anything, don’t even love me, you’re dull. You were stuck in a hole in the ground when I found you, and if I hadn’t pulled you out you’d be there still. There’s no life in you. I give you everything, and it’s not enough, doesn’t make any difference. You can’t wait to die, want to bury yourself now and me with you. Well I’m not ready yet, and I’m not going to put up with it any’ longer, and now I’m through with you, and I want a divorce.”

“You’ve lost your illusions about me,” he said, “but not the having of illusions. . .”

“While you,” she said, “have lost your illusions about everything and can’t get over being sore about it.”

“. . . they’ll focus on someone else . . .”

“Oh I hope sol” she said; “I can hardly wait.”

“. . . you waste experience.”

“And you waste life!”

He wouldn’t give her a divorce, but that didn’t matter; for she couldn’t bear the thought of his moving back to that basement, and anyway, she told herself, he had to have someone to look after him; so they lived together still, and she cooked for him when she was home and mended his clothes and darned his socks, and when he asked why, she said, with sweet revenge, “Because I’m fond of you, that’s all. Just fond.”
.
.
.
.
“Give me some money,” he said tonelessly. “We haven’t any.”

He got up, walked unsteadily to the table where she was sitting, opened her purse and took out her wallet. A few coins fell to the table, rolled on the floor; there were no bills. He turned her handbag upside down: an astrology chart tumbled out, then a Christian Science booklet, a handbill from the Watchtower Society, “Palmistry in Six Easy Lessons,” dozens of old sweepstakes tickets and the three new ones, “Love and the Mystic Union,” fortunes from Chinese cookies (one of which, saying “He loves you,” she snatched away from him), a silver rosary, a daily discipline from the Rosicrucians, the announcement of a book titled Secret Power from the Unconscious through Hypnosis-but no money. He shook the bag furiously and threw it in a comer, surveyed the litter before him with unblinking bloodshot eyes, his face expressionless. “Stupid fool” he said thickly. “Purse full of illusions. . . suitcase full of illusions . . . whole god damned lousy life full of illusions . . .” He turned away, stumbled back to the table, put the empty gin bottle to his mouth, turned it over his head, broke it on the hearth.

“Oh, my dear,” Lorabelle cried, her eyes wet, “you keep waiting for the real thing, but this is all there is.” He turned ponderously, facing her, eyes like marble; she came to him. “These are the days . . . and nights . . . of our years and they’re passing-look at us! we’re getting old – and what else is there?”
.
.
.
.
That night they slept in each other’s arms and the next day the windfall was gone: it had been a mistake, the officials were terribly sorry, it was another man with the same name and almost the same telephone number, who owned a candy store and had five children, weighed three hundred pounds, and was pictured in the newspaper with his family, seven round beaming faces. Lorabelle was in despair, but Henry was tranquil, still felt that lightness of heart. He comforted Lorabelle and stroked her finally to sleep in the evening, her wet face on his shoulder. It was an illusion, he thought, and for a while I believed it, and yet-curious thing-it has left some sweetness. Throughout the night he marveled about this-could it be that he had won something after am-and the next day, crawling under the rotting mansion of a long-dead actor, he looked a termite in the eye and decided to build a house.

He bought land by the sea and built on a cliff by a great madrona tree that grew out horizontally from the rock, a shimmering cloud of red and green; built with massive A-frames, bolted together, stressed, braced, anchored in concrete to withstand five-hundred-mile winds, a house in the best illusory style, he thought wryly-to last forever. But the cliff crumbled one night in a storm during a twentyfour foot tide; Lorabelle and Henry stood hand in hand in the rain and lightning, deafened by crashing surf and thunder, as the house fell slowly into the sea while the great madrona remained, anchored in nothing but dreams. They went on to live in an apartment, and Henry worked as a carpenter, built houses for other people, began planning another house of his own.
.
.
.
.
One afternoon Lorabelle came home in a rapturous mood. “Oh, Henry, I’ve met the most wonderful man!”.
.
.
.
.
Henry caught her at the door, turned her over his knee, applied the flat of his hand to the bottom of his delight; and it was perhaps that same night -for she did not go out-that Lorabelle got pregnant, and this time didn’t lose it: the baby was born on Christmas, blue eyes and golden hair, and they named her Noel.

Henry built a house of solid brick in a meadow of sage and thyme, and there Noel played with flowers and crickets and butterflies and field mice. Most of the time she was a joy to her parents, and some of the time-when she was sick or unkind-she was a sorrow. Lorabelle loved the brick house, painted walls, hung pictures, and polished floors; on hands and knees with a bonnet on her head she dug in the earth and planted flowers, looked up at Henry through a wisp of hair with a happy smile; “We’ll never move again,” she said. But one day the state sent them away and took over their house to build a freeway. The steel ball crashed through the brick walls, bulldozers sheared away the flower beds, the great shovels swung in, and the house was gone. Henry and Lorabelle and Noel moved back to the city, lived in a tiny flat under a water tank that dripped continuously on the roof and sounded like rain.

Henry and Lorabelle loved each other most of the time, tried to love each other all the time, to create a pure bond, but could not. It was marred by the viciousness, shocking to them, with which they hurt each other. Out of nothing they would create fights, would yell at each other, hate, withdraw finally in bitter silent armistice; then, after a few hours, or sometimes a few days, would come together again, with some final slashes and skirmishes, and try to work things out-to explain, protest, forgive, understand, forget, and above all to compromise. It was a terribly painful and always uncertain process; and even while it was underway Henry would think bleakly, It won’t last, will never last; we’ll get through this one maybe, probably, then all will be well for a while-a few hours, days, weeks if we’re lucky-then another fight over something-what? -not possible to know or predict, and certainly not to prevent, . . . and then all this to go through again; and beyond that still another fight looming in the mist ahead, coming closer, . . . and so on without end. But even while thinking these things he still would try to work through the current trouble because, as he would say, “There isn’t anything else.” And sometimes there occurred to him, uneasily, beyond all this gloomy reflection, an even more sinister thought: that their fights were not only unavoidable but also, perhaps, necessary; for their passages of greatest tenderness followed hard upon their times of greatest bitterness, as if love could be renewed only by gusts of destruction.

Nor could Henry ever build a house that would last forever, no more than anyone else; but he built one finally that lasted quite a while, a white house on a hill with lilac and laurel and three tall trees, a maple, a cedar, and a hemlock. It was an ordinary house of ordinary wood, and the termites caused some trouble, and always it needed painting or a new roof or a faucet dripped or something else needed fixing, and he grew old and gray and finally quite stopped doing these things, but that was all right, he knew, because there wasn’t anything else.
.
.
.
.
Every morning Henry took his tools and went to his work of building houses-saw the pyramid of white sand spreading out in the grass, the bricks chipping, the doors beginning to stick, the first tone of gray appearing on white lumber, the first leaf falling in the bright gutter but kept on hammering and kept on sawing, joining boards and raising rafters; on weekends he swept the driveway and mowed the grass, in the evenings fixed the leaking faucets, tried to straighten out the disagreements with Lorabelle; and in all that he did he could see himself striving toward a condition of beauty or truth or goodness or love that did not exist, but whereas earlier in his life he had always said, “It’s an illusion,” and turned away, now he said, “There isn’t anything else,” and stayed with it; and though it cannot be said that they lived happily, exactly, and certainly not ever after, they did live. They lived-for a while-with ups and downs, good days and bad, and when it came time to die Lorabelle said, “Now we’ll never be parted,” and. Henry smiled and kissed her and said to himself “There isn’t anything else,” and they died.
.
.
.
.
The League of Death
.
.
.
.
. . . Ah, my “problem.” I like your way of putting it. Makes it sound definable. There’s therapy in that already. Holds out hope, suggests that one may say “My problem is . . .” and find a way to finish. Not right away perhaps, but someday. And as soon as a problem is defined it’s on the way to being solved. Isn’t that right? So, let us begin. My problem is-it really is quite simple now that I think of it-my problem is boredom.

I know boredom, doctor, as do few others. Have lived with it, absorbed its quality, taste, felt its weight on my bones. Look, that wall of fog outside the Golden Gate-see the slow relentless boiling? It will sweep in after a while under the bridge, extinguish every sparkling point of light and water, every bright sail, will rise, envelop the city, the hills, may enter even this room up to the ceiling. A sinister and fatal boredom, like that fog, chums at the edges of my life, is never far away; rolls in, creeps in, worms in; into mouth and lungs, a gray gorge rising, choking me, rising higher, behind my eyes. I’ve grappled with it for years only that’s just the trouble, you can’t grapple with fog, there’s no hand-hold. On countless days I’ve looked out on such a scene as this-my office has the same view–on such splendor, and felt like a prisoner on Alcatraz. But they were luckier; could believe that bars confined them, dream of release or escape, while I know the prison to be the walls of my skull, or some stiffening perimeter of spirit, perhaps, and no getting away. Oh, I know boredom.

. . . Hard to say, I don’t know that I’m bored about anything. More like the color of hair: boredom pertains to me as, say, hope to others. Look, it’s not so complicated: if you’re committed to people you’re not bored, if you’re not you are. It’s that simple. We just don’t like it. And being committed to people means doing something for them -teaching a class, building a house, fixing a car-not just a job, but putting some heart in it. But when you’ve done that for a while, whatever it is, and got good at it, just then the corruption begins. It seeps in through the first cracks – some indifference, some cutting of corners-the cracks get bigger, and then one day your heart’s not in it any more. The work goes on, looks pretty much the same from the outside, but now it’s more for the money or to keep busy or distract yourself or maybe to pretend that nothing is changed. That’s when you get bored. You know what I mean? Somehow the forms of social committment betray us, slip away; the visions of service become shabby. They stand around in our minds still, like the dusty scenery of some old play, but generate no action. It happens to all of us, to you too perhaps? No?
.
.
.
.
Good afternoon, doctor. You look tired. Tuesday is perhaps a bad day? It is for me: the pleasures of the weekend already forgotten in the strain of Monday; the weekend to come still too far away to lift one’s spirit. And five o’clock is the nadir of this low day. You’ve seen nine patients, I imagine, and two to go. You have a right to be tired. I work the same way, and never at a loss for a creditable reason, but suspect all reasons. You know what my accountant said? “You’re a money-making machine. IBM should copy you. ”

. . . This chatter bothers you, I think. You want me to get down to business. . . . Ah, my cure for boredom. I’m glad you ask. It’s my major interest, my life work, there’s nothing I’d rather tell you.

It goes back a long time; I discovered the cure, in fact, before I knew the ailment. Death was the whole of my childhood: the broken doll, the stuffing coming out of my teddy bear, the flies and mosquitoes killed without a thought, the snail stepped on after a rain. Everywhere I looked there it was, and sometimes terribly close: once my mother dropping a live lobster into boiling water, and I simply could not believe that this was she who tucked me in and drove away my demons at night. How can one reconcile such images? If you’re interested in psychodynamics. doctor, put that down as the primal scene for me, the trauma that shaped the future. It was then I think, that death got in my eyes, and ever since they’ve been still and make people uneasy. In the car by my father I would watch with dread for the next smear of fur and gore; and after a while I wouldn’t get in a car. I refused to eat meat. became thin. One day as I got up from the table my father said, “That belt you’re wearing. ‘Genuine Cowhide…. “I’ll use a string,” I said. “And your shoes,” he went on, “you know what they are?” “I’ll go barefooted.” “And the sweatband of your cap?” I threw it in the comer. He took my ball, tossed it lightly; he was relentless: “Now this,” he said, “is covered with the skin of a horse.” So I was defeated, knew that my hands too were red, went back to eating meat and never felt innocent again.
.
.
.
.
“Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.,” said Kafka, “for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” Someone has indeed been telling lies; we have, for centuries; and when finally they get brushed away a sentence of death is exposed. Copernicus swept out a pretty big lie; Darwin and Einstein tossed out two more. The pace of this housekeeping gets faster all the time, and by now the cupboard is nearly bare of the great lies we call absolute verities, and that’s all we ever had to hide death. After the First World War we took time out of its secret pocket and put it on our wrist and now everybody can hear the tick. I heard it very loud. I sat there alone and read, and after a while began to feel myself dying.

It was there that Mariette found me. She was the landlord’s daughter, and one evening-the fourth of July, as I learned-she came in my room, raised the shades, and said, “Look at the beautiful bursts of light, yellow and green and blue and red. Look at the fountain of fire!” She came back often, looked in my eyes and was unafraid. She didn’t like to be indoors, wanted sun and wind on her skin, made me walk with her. She laughed, looked everywhere and always saw something beautiful. We fell in love, were married. “What shall I do?” I said, looked in her face, and found no answer. I became a partner in a trucking firm, bought a fine house, drove a Lincoln; was bored. “It’s an accumulation of things,” I said. “I want life to mean something.”

“Better it be something,” Mariette said. “I don’t want to live just for myself,” I said. “Look at the swallows building a nest,” she said. I studied economics, mastered price theory, became an advisor to the Department of Commerce; and was bored. “Why does everything fail” I said. “Look at the yellow leaves,” Mariette said. “I don’t want to look at any god-damned leaves!” I shouted. “I’m looking for meaning, don’t know where I’ll find it, but not up any tree.” I studied philosophy, learned about essence, appearance, reality; and was bored. “Why can’t I make anything last?” I said. “Look at the storm clouds,” Mariette said. I changed to law, studied due process, equal rights, argued with brilliance, wrote books, became rich; and was bored. It was the same in law as everywhere else and too late then for still another change, and the great gray tide swept in, over me, as if to stay.

I turned back then to death. Only the bored have the leisure, the reflectiveness, and above all the proper frame of mind to study death. Because-do you know? – everything we do to fight boredom has a death-tasting quality. Have you noticed? Gambling, adultery, LSD-that sort of thing. Anything healthy is useless. So – our life is under the ax. with an indeterminate but limited stay of execution. What does it mean? What can one make of it? Not much, I thought-we die, that’s it. And most people if they consider it at all find it gloomy, I too.

Gradually, however, my view changed. I discovered the significance of death to be precisely opposite to what I had supposed: it is not the enemy of life but life’s great pillar, support.
.
.
.
.
“We pretend, gentlemen, to be aware of the ax. But I must tell you we forget, we lie, live basely with the illusion of continuing life.” I presented, then, my new theory, captured them with its irrefutable logic, came to my peroration. “Stay with the Main Show, my friends. Never be drawn into side issues, entertainments. Stay right there at the center ring in the big top. And what is the Main Show? Ah, . . . you know, have only to listen to the muffled drum within, . . . you know! How to live, . . . the despair, . . . the great cutting edge on which your life is turning-that is the Main Show. Never leave it. A man is up there in the big top, the highest point, right under the canvas-see him!-there! hanging by his teeth, arms outstretched, spinning and turning. The colored spotlights play over him, the drums begin to roll. Most people are watching the dancing bears, but you, my friends, must fix your gaze on the dangling man. He’s going to fall in a minute, any moment now, and there’s nothing to. be done about that, there’s no net; but in the meantime he may achieve something truly remarkable, some glittering stunt perhaps, even a moment of heartbreaking beauty. The man is you: Stay with him. Don’t run away from yourself. It is not important that you be happy or that you be sad, that you live long or that you live short; what is important is that you live authentically. Do not run from the true condition of your life. Hold still, feel the cutting edge on your throat, watch the dangling man, study his condition. What in this precarious and fateful state can he still do?
.
.
.
.
I was alone then, and didn’t care. Outwardly it made no difference. I would sit in my chair among things of beauty, and patients would come and I would listen; but inwardly-I hardly need tell you by now, doctor-all was changed. My newest insight had failed me, as had every other insight of my entire life. Nothing avails for long against the leeches of boredom, and they were sucking my blood again. I would sit through the day, listening as I could, and evening would come, the day’s work over, and I would simply go on sitting in my decorated prison. Nothing I wanted. I had money, leisure, freedom, independence, could do anything, go anywhere. What would it be tonight? Music? Krips is playing Das Lied von der Erde. Art? A great Impressionist show at the De Young Museum. Books, plays, movies, night clubs, gambling, girls everything all around. What did I want? Nothing. Not even food. Often would not go out to dinner or even to the kitchen, but sit staring at the sunset drinking gin.

Can you guess what happened” next? On just such an evening? the sun sinking? . . . No? Mariette came back. Key in the lock, door opening in the dusk, and there she was, arms around me, stroking, petting, kissing, dropping hot tears on my face. “Because I love you,” she said when I asked why. “And I hate you because I love you so much, can’t bear thinking of you alone. What’s the matter? You look so pale. I had to come back. Please be good to me.”

And so she began to show me the world again. We walked through the city holding hands: “Look at the children dancing.” We walked at night on the beach, arms around each other: “Look at the wake of the ship in the moonlight”; “Look at the footprints of the wind in the sand.” And in bed: “Look at me. Look at me, not through me.” But the old magic was gone. Nothing helped, the gleam in my eye grew brighter and made her sick. In the hospital I sat by her bed as she got weaker, and when she could no more than turn her head she still would say: “Look at the white clouds drifting”; “Look at the beautiful blue sky”; “Look at . . .”

. . . Sorry. For a moment I was overcome. I have a maudlin streak, you see. I’ll make it brief and dry as dust. She died of course, and only then did I see the obvious: She had known, always, what had taken me a lifetime to learn; she had achieved out of greatness of heart what still was beyond me-to love something enough to risk and lose her life. I say “something,” not “someone,” and maybe that’s my whole trouble. All along I’ve thought of what I sought as abstract, a principle or ideal, while she knew it was I, a particular man, whom she loved.
.
.
.
.
To Be a God
.
.
.
.
A deterministic psychoanalyst is like the Cretan passionately declaring all Cretans to be liars; like the barber, instructed to shave all men who do not shave themselves, wondering what to do about his own beard. As psychoanalysts our voices are getting hoarse, our beards are growing longer, and we are getting no wiser.

But one can’t keep walking away from one illusion into another. I see the pattern now, and with analysis I stick, and work; and gradually elaborate a criticism, giving up as little as possible. My disillusion, I decide, is not with the science of psychoanalysis but with its dearth of science. Too many unverifiable intuitions, too many glib explanations. Anybody who can learn to say “the opposite may also be true” can get to be an analyst. No search for a crucial experiment that might falsify our suppositions.

The wrath of disillusion is thus focused on one small outpost of science, and science itself goes scot free. Psychoanalysis is scapegoated, but intelligence is not impugned. I’m able to retain the crucial assumption: that there’s no better way to approach any problem than the way of intelligence. The source of illusion and failure-the source, ultimately, of that inner pain-is in ignorance and dogma; the locus of value is inquiry. The urgency is to have the freedom to see what is there to be seen.

This is the last stand of a rational man. From this position there can be no retreat. Lose this and the war’s over. It is also the strongest stand, for it lays claim to so little. Consider what assaults can be thrown back. A hundred thousand people die in Hiroshima: a great crime, to be sure, but not to be laid at the door of science. The evil issues from institutional anachronisms, such as the national state, which misuse the creations of science; with the further progress of knowledge in all areas of experience, such barbarism will give way. In this position I can survive, unthreatened, the despair of Marxist, Christian, mystic-even the most able and dedicated-for I can, in each case, say, “He gave his allegiance to a value which, however disguised, claims to be absolute. Such a value places itself beyond revision, is institutionalized, defended as dogma, becomes an incubus on man, and finally falls. Such disillusion is inevitable for the seekers after certainty. But I, the illusionless man, an immune. I have no platform, hold no value beyond change, believe only in intelligent inquiry.”

So I thought. Now I think this too will fall. Has fallen, I suppose. It’s still true, perhaps, but that’s not enough. For this position-like all the previous ones—is attempting, not just to be true but to diminish the elusive inner trouble. I can’t believe it any more. This malady is beyond the reach of anything. What I ascribe to intelligence is true, but this truth, too, has become irrelevant.
So what to do? What is a rational man to do-having lost faith in reason? The question trips itself. I don’t suppose it matters. I keep on working-not with hope, not with justification, but as a matter of taste. What else is there? Passivity, suicide, fleshpots. . . . I like the dignity of work. It has at least the merit of defiance, of shaking a fist at the heavens. But that’s just whimsy. Make a value out of that and it too will disappear.
.
.
.
.
The Moralist
.
.
.
.
Perhaps that man is social by nature. That even the most isolated of us lives in relatedness and interdependence. Alone in a locked room, despising men, one can’t read a book or eat an apple without becoming indebted to countless of the despised; the room itself was hammered together by them. Man is the animal who remembers the past, preserves it, adds to it, passes it on. To be a man, by definition, means to share in this relatedness, to give to it as well as take from it; and maybe the only source of morality for godless men is the free choice to be a man rather than a beast. For to elect diminished relatedness and participation, less responsibility, narrowed identifications, is to move toward the jungle.

Yet this, too, begs the question. For these alternatives offer no choice, but rationalize an antecedent choice. “Man or beast” means “man or sub-man,” which means “good or bad”; and to elect in this context to be a man means only to wish to be good, and that’s admirable indeed but establishes no basis for morals. Evil, however we conceive it, pursues its course in the lives of countless men who want to be good.

So why, we must ask, must relatedness, however characteristic of man, be identified with good? Cows and coyotes huddle together too. Even if we should accept that man is social in essence and even if we accept that his biological and historical development has tended ever toward more relatedness, larger groupings, wider and stronger identifications-even then we have no ground for morals; for we are talking only of what is, or was, or will be, not of what should be. Teilhard de Chardin, extending into evolutionary time man’s capacity for interrelatedness, foresaw the development of a universal mind, one all-embracing “envelope of thinking substance” covering the world. Let us grant this as a possibility but ask what reason have we for believing it good. Why should Teilhard’s man of the future, lacking unique mind, be viewed as superman rather than sub-man? Why, given a choice, should we not elect Nietzsche’s superman? Why not Jeff? .

I have wider and stronger social identifications than Jeff, am more concerned with the welfare of others. Am I thereby superior? Not, I am sure, to his view. Even were he to grant that the difference between us is so marked and so significant that, if I be man, he must be non-man, even then. . . “Don’t press me,” he would say, smiling with characteristic affection and lightness, but in his thoughts he would say, “Very well, if you insist: of the two of us, I am the superman. Because more free, less guilty, more able to live. I don’t think so much as you, nor probe morals, but I enjoy life more; and since from the vantage of the Horsehead Nebula in Orion neither you nor I nor anything we think matters a damn, pleasure is the only referent of value, and by that criterion I’m more advanced than you.” And how is this gainsaid?

Not by force of logic. By leap of heart, if at all.

I am in the fast lane, in a drizzle of rain at dusk; ahead of me, at a safe distance, a gray Mercedes convertible; beyond the convertible a trailer truck. The brake lights of the truck go on; the Mercedes slows; I slow; then the truck speeds on; the brake lights go off on the Mercedes. I put my foot back on the accelerator-then suddenly the convertible is broadside; my foot hits the brake; the blurred horizon spins. . . fast . . . faster . . . raindrops coming toward my eyes, remembering wife, child . . . oh, darling! I’m so sorry! . . . expecting the crash . . . a wild tearing roar of tires, a fountain of gravel rising by the window, the car coming then to a stop, without impact, upright, on an embankment. The Mercedes is not ten feet away, miraculously undamaged, facing the wrong way in the slow lane, a young woman with brown hair stumbling out. I catch her by the shoulders, pull her off the roadway, hold her, trembling, as she twists back as if searching, making then an inarticulate sound of distress and pointing: in the fast lane is a dog, hindquarters crushed (by the truck probably, and that’s why she tried to stop), struggling up on its forelegs, head straining upward, yelping feebly. I look up at four lanes of oncoming traffic-almost dark, faint streaks of rain slanting through the headlights-cars in the fast lane swerving outward to miss the dog, cars in the slow lane swerving inward to miss the Mercedes. The woman moves toward the road. “No,” I say, “don’t!” She twists toward me for a moment, her face frozen in horror and accusation, jerks away, runs for the road; hits me in the mouth as I catch her and pull her back, scratches at my eyes, screaming, “Coward! Coward! Let me go!” I pin her arms and we stand struggling in the rain, locked together, swaying, while the dog yelps; a car skids, a truck hits the dog, then a car with a thud, then another, and the dog is dead; the sirens then and flashing red lights and a police officer explaining that it’s the fault of the dog’s owner, who is liable, and who will be located from the tag on the dog’s collar.

I could never have made it, I tell myself later, driving on alone. But what if it had been a child? I would have tried. . . . Would I? I have an image of my own child, lying there, of my running out to her, of being hit in the third lane just a moment before I would have been able to scoop her up. But I might just make it, not altogether hopeless; I would try; it would be unthinkable not to try.
But there is a child, I think, just not so close as that dog. So the woman is right, and I am a coward. And it seems to me that somewhere, at some forgotten corner, I made a wrong turn-away from the real world that had seemed to betray me, to look inward, to burrow ever more deeply within, coming to live with shadows, the real world lost to me now, no sureness in it, not even knowing where the fast lane is.

Advertisements

2 responses to “The Illusionless Man: Some Fantasies and Meditations on Disillusionment – Allen Wheelis

  1. Fantastic! I’ve been looking for this book for years after I lent it out and it was never returned!
    Some people may find it dark and pessimistic – that’s just a misunderstanding of the difference between pessimism and realism – and indeed – the continuity of self-delusion.
    I find it more amusing now 20 years later after all of these things have come to pass in my life – or is that just prophecy self-fulfilment..? Life imitating Art..?

  2. Pingback: Reasons for Non-Reason | Adam Blatner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s