The Path Not Taken: Reflections on Power and Fear – Allen Wheelis

.
.
.
.
Chapter II
World

.
.
.
.
I am nine years old and am bullied by the other boys. As we stream out of school, they tug at my clothes, trip me; one confronts me in unexpected friendliness as another kneels unnoticed behind me. A bad time. Always toppled backwards.

One day I encounter Roy, my arch tormentor, on a deserted road. He drops a loop of rope over my head. “Nice tie,” he says, takes the short end and yanks as, with his other hand, he forces the knot into my throat. We scuffle. He slaps me. I push, he falls. When he gets up, he has become serious: I have been aggressive, that’s what he wanted; I have given him license; now he need not hold back. I see in his face a surging zeal. I flail and retreat; he moves in. Unexpectedly I land a blow that interferes with his breathing, and immediately press my advantage, hit him in the face. He throws up his left arm, I hit him in the ear.

I am moving forward. Now I feel the fierce joy. What my father has done to me, I can do to another. I land my fist in his midriff; he reels back. A different expression comes to his eyes. Fear, that despicable thing, that cravenness uniquely my own-it has leapt from me to him. There it is, mine, in his eyes. And with that leap we are transformed: I now am the brave one, he the coward. I push him back. He twists away, I deliver a rain of blows.

And now I encounter in myself something new, something other than bravery: I have become my father, I am going to crush him. I feel deep joy. I grab him by the shirt, jerk him toward me; he sees my fist coming at his eye; his face crumples. I hesitate. Predator with partially mangled prey, what shall I do? He has been tormenting me: Why not take revenge? Delight in it? He begins to cry.

The paths diverge. I look both ways. I see myself more truly in Roy’s fear than in my father’s harshness. I let him go.

I did not fight again. Often with longing and with loss I remembered the fierce delight, the exultant moving in for the kill. I went the other way, found my place and my work among those who are afraid. I understand them better. I help them be less afraid. I cannot help myself.

My Father entered into me. Day by day, insidiously, he usurped inner ground that should by rights be mine. There now is his voice, his fury, his judgment. What he demands is that I demand nothing. Meekness and self-abnegation are the price of his tolerance. If I regard myself as nothing, he will leave me alone, but should I get any fancy ideas, he will slap me down. To exist, I must abjure power.

The World is full of danger and opportunity. The strong adapt by changing the world, the weak by changing themselves. The weak look inward at desires, outward at possibilities of gratification, measure the danger, find the risk to be high, and try to bring things in line by reducing their needs. The unafraid leap into the fray, seize such power as they can, move things around, rearrange the world to fit their needs.

I am seventeen. The woman I love, ten years older, has told me never again to call her. I wander the streets of Baton Rouge. A drizzle of rain, the air motionless and chill. A day of vast silence, the drip of water, and, far in the distance, the disappearing sound of a car. Visions of violent acts, of tuberculosis, suicide notes.

I walk along a wall of gray brick topped in wisteria. Heavy purple blossoms hang beside my face. I stop before an iron gate, look into a garden of oleander, gardenias, roses. The heavy scents pour forth. Sinuous vertical bars rise above me to a filigree arch of vines, leaves, grapes. I grasp the bars, think: I will remember this moment. However long I live. Pain is branding it into my soul: the chill of wet iron, the flaking green paint, the whisper of rain, numb feet in wet shoes, the drip, drip, drip. My knuckles become white, my arms rigid. The pain swells, moves toward a more ample expression, perhaps a throwing back of my head and sobbing, perhaps a shaking of the gate till someone appears to love me, to drive me away, or to call the police.

Then there comes to me a thought, fully formed, coming not from the center of the pain but from a place slightly apart: It is not necessary to suffer like this. I stand still, startled, pursue the thought: I must be doing this to myself. The pain is given, but I am choosing to hallow it, to drive it toward some dark fruition, to walk for hours through a wet city, staring into forbidden gardens.

This is an order of power not much needed if one can bend the world to one’s wants. When Nero is bored, he is not thrown back on inner resources; he tosses Christians to the lions. But if one is powerless in the world, power over one’s self is a matter of life and death.

Works of imaginative reach bear a reciprocal relation to the lives of their creators. They portray, and in fantasy realize, things lacking and longed for and only potential in the creator’s life. What the artist aspires to but can never achieve in living becomes that which exerts the most lasting and powerful effect on his imagination, becoming thereby the subject of his work, his task.

Who but a weakling would analyze power?

In this work, glancing back at the path taken, I examine the path not taken.
.
.
.
.
Chapter VI
Sovereignty

.
.
.
.
People have always believed-have seemed driven and determined, in the face of overwhelming countervailing evidence, to believe-that moral society as well as moral individual life is possible; that however rare or partial its actual achievement, it is in principle possible for individuals to live morally with the advantages of security, order, and opportunity provided by a powerful state, and for that state itself to behave morally with its constituents and with its neighbors. It was the accomplishment of Machiavelli, in a kind of Godel’s Proof of political economy, to show that such is not the case, that the good and moral life within an orderly society is contingent on the amorality of the state that makes it possible.

Chapter VII
Tarzan
.
.
.
.
Why don’t I ask? The overwhelming humiliation of the question. . . the intrusion of bodily need . . . I can’t. I writhe. Why doesn’t he move? Why doesn’t he resign? Can’t he see it’s hopeless? Why don’t I resign? . . . But with a sure win. . . it’s crazy, would be perverse. If I should ask to use the bathroom, they would hear. Mr. Allison ponders patiently. I make little hopping movements. It shakes the table. He adjusts the pieces. The pain is unbearable.

Then it happens. Exploding. Suddenly, copiously, irresistibly flowing, silently, down my leg, into my shoe, onto the floor. With slow inevitability the smell of warm urine and wet wool rises between us. Mr. Allison shifts slightly, but-God rest his soul!-says not a word, registers the mishap only by taking somewhat less time with his next several moves and soon resigning.

I disappear into the night, in my wet pants and squishy shoe, know that I can never enter that house again.

A splendid fellow, Peter, chunky, good-natured, quick-tempered, smart, a bit on the coarse side, fond of anal jokes. A strong player, he crouches in his chair as if to spring, sinks into the board; his face darkens; he growls. I lean back, away from the board, relaxed, move delicately, taking a piece between middle and ring fingers, palm up, lifting it lightly, putting it down like a feather. The more devastating the consequence of a move, the more important to me that it be executed lightly, elegantly. Peter grabs a piece in his fist, bangs it down.

One evening he is relentless, parrying every thrust, crowding me, driving me irresistibly toward impotence. Finally, a&er a long deliberation, he finds the crushing combination, crashes his bishop down on R6 as if driving a nail, jumps up out of his chair, tweaks my nose, roars, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Now I’ve gotcha!” and dances a little jig.

I am offended by this eruption of aggression, however jovial, into a game designed in its essence for the translation of such aggression into formal patterns. My nose tingles. I withdraw stiffly. Our weekly games come to an end.

“You’re being stuffy,” my wife says.

Always I delay calling my mother-because it is so hard to get off the phone. One thing reminds her of another; the chain of reminiscence is endless, not only ranges over her own long life, but gathers in friends and relatives, extends back into what her grandmother told her about her great-great-grandmother. After five or ten minutes I begin trying to say good-bye: “It’s time for me to stop. I must help with dinner now.” Whereupon she tells me what she has had for dinner, and the wonderful dinners her mother used to prepare, the vegetable garden when she was a child, and Mamie, the black cook, and the time when her sister Mittie Mae left the arsenic in the pantry and everybody got sick and they all thought it was Lit, the handyman, who had done it. “Now I really have to stop, Mother,” I say; “there are things I have to do before-” “Yes, I know,” she says, “and I mustn’t keep you, but before we say good-bye, I want to tell you that . . .” and off into another story.

That’s the way it was until her ninety-seventh year, when, one day, I realized with surprise that I had called her during my ten-minute break between patients, that I had fallen into the habit of calling at such times, and that it was easy to get off the phone. The stickiness was gone. Her densely peopled past had, like old film, faded to uniform gray.

When I go to visit her in the nursing home, I try to bring it back. “Do you remember our house in San Antonio?” She looks puzzled, then troubled. “No. . . I can’t say I do. . . . Not exactly, no.” I then describe it for her, the kitchen, the long veranda, the hackberry tree, the mesquite, the honeysuckle that covered the fence, the cot on the back porch where I slept. As I talk, I see in her face glimmers of recognition. I step up my pace, try to compact those glimmers into a chain reaction of recall. Everything is lost. I ask about her marriage. Nothing. Her years in college? Nothing. I remind her of the time when her father took her as a little girl on a riverboat to New Orleans, where, having bought an entire bunch of bananas, he locked her in the hotel room so she would be safe while he went off to play poker. The high point of her childhood. I’ve heard it a hundred times. Don’t you remember? Nothing. She peers back into a void.
.
.
.
.
Chapter IX
Psychoanalysis

.
.
.
.
Several People love me. Many think highly of me. Were you to ask, they would tell you of my kindness, intelligence, generosity, empathy. And offer little by way of qualification- other than that I am difficult to know.

Viewing myself, I see a different person, find no ground for love. Anxious, petty, self-centered, tormented, meanspirited, weak. Too bad. I would have it otherwise, would wish for the noble features others ascribe to me. But I know myself better than they, make reference to a range of thought and feeling, of motivation and behavior, unavailable to them. Even those closest to me can know but a fraction of what I know. I’ve really got the dirt on me.

And beyond what I know lies what I have not permitted myself to know, wherein things even more damaging are hidden.

Since I intend in this work the utmost honesty, the reader, if I am successful, cannot in the end think well of me. If he does, I will have failed.

Is this credible? Is not every book written in the hope of love? Could any writer knowingly undertake such candor as would call for rejection?

Well. . . stranger things have happened. And anyway there’s no end to my deviousness. Perhaps I’m angling for some kind of meta-acceptance; perhaps I hope the style with which. . . Enough!

Self-Awareness comes into being in the midst of struggles for power and is immediately put to use. One defends oneself or seeks advantage by misrepresenting oneself. One doesn’t think about it; it happens instantly, automatically, inalienably. It is not possible to abstain. One cannot be oneself. To be human is to be false. Awareness is inseparable from misrepresentation. The soul of self-awareness is deception.

One must bend the world to fit one’s needs or bend one’s needs to fit the world. Unafraid, one moves for power and bends the world; afraid, one flinches at power and bends one’s self. The peasant thinks the prince has a free ride; the prince thinks the peasant’s life is easy.

The bending of self is renunciation. But needs die hard. We can renounce the having, but not the desiring. The hungry nose against the glass of the patisserie; the young man alone, alone, on the windy street, seeing, as the Mercedes takes the corner, the pretty girl fling herself across the driver and kiss him on the mouth. What can one do with that? It won’t go away. One is stuck with it, bitten by it, one turns it over and over, endlessly, the worm of envy burrows deeper, and it comes presently to seem that this agony of heart is unique, that it has never happened this way before, that it should be rendered in words.

And here, very indirectly, the warded-off, the renounced, is allowed back into play, for-who knows?-the novel about to be begun may prove a masterpiece. One will be acclaimed, honored, sought after by beautiful women; and here, exactly at this imagined future moment, is invoked the love that in the present one has not the nerve to seek. In the present it is hidden, out there somewhere perhaps, but withheld; one would have to go knocking on doors; but in that illusory future it will be lavished. Thus the strategy of withdrawing from power and changing the self may subtly transform itself into the ambition to change the world, by way of literary accomplishment, to fit one’s needs.
.
.
.
.
There are the seekers, and there are those others. The seekers are hoping still to find it; someone powerful and wise will lead them to it. Those others, knowing that what they yearn for does not exist, strain to escape a wounded self.

Two kinds of longing ensue. In the first instance, one’s pain construed as remediable, a river of longing flows out to the healer. Though it may clamor for closeness, such longing is contingent on distance; for the master capable of such healing must obviously exist at a higher level than one’s self. Should a condition of mutuality come about, belief would be lost. One sits at his feet for as long as it takes. Perhaps forever. Such longing is the stuff of psychoanalysis.

In the second instance, construing one’s pain as incurable, one longs to escape the self. One seeks a beautiful face, falls sick with desire. Such longing is not content with distance, wants union, a flying together like magnets, arms outstretched, rushing together, clinching, fusing. Such longing is the stuff of despair.
.
.
.
.

Advertisements

One response to “The Path Not Taken: Reflections on Power and Fear – Allen Wheelis

  1. Robert Earleywine

    How positive that despair is defined with such fine prose in such a gentled rhythm.

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