Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Open And Shut Soul

"There are moments when a man says to a woman more than she ought to know about him. He speaks and forgets, but she remembers. Perhaps jealousy comes from the fear of degrading one's soul, of being humiliated and ridiculous? Not that a woman is dangerous who holds a man by his lusts but she who holds him by his soul . . ."

I came across this quotation third-hand: Harold Bloom quoting Gorky quoting Tolstoy. I've been grappling with the issues contained therein. Head Wide Open: are some heads better kept shut? Part of me says that life is too short to keep the mind hidden. But we all have, and need, a persona for a social mask. Where should the persona end and the authentic mind or soul begin? The persona should bear some relation to the soul, for reasons at least of personal sanity. But there is also such a thing as inappropriately authentic, uncomfortably authentic speech. Social etiquette is built around keeping certain articulations out.

An embarrassing personal example: at a bar I was talking to a woman and said something wrong or insufficient, so we parted ways. I came across her later that night and said something to the effect of, "I know you're not interested in me, but for the future, what did I do wrong?" Her response made it clear that that's not something you're supposed to ask, and that by asking I had confirmed what I did and do wrong. My honest and drunken attempt at asking what was authentically on my mind ran aground against the shore of social reality. Since I dislike most social reality, I tried to circumnavigate it by "cutting the bullshit": but trying to cut the bullshit with people who are all bullshit tends to end stickily. Best to stay to the script of your social persona.

But when is it appropriate to break the social persona and confide the horrible truth about our hidden aspirations and fears? The manly response is: never! The unfortunate emblems of masculinity in our time, rappers, certainly never would. They understand the game and by keeping it real, get their just rewards. But for some of us keeping it real involves transcending "the game" and seeking truth, communion, compassion and all that blather. Such idealism causes us to forget Tolstoy's "fear of degrading one's soul, of being humiliated and ridiculous" - and we usually end up being humiliated and ridiculous as a result, before retreating into cynicism. But idealism is a hard instinct to quench, and when the opportunity presents itself we again reveal our souls to the first compassionate-looking face we see - to predictable results.

The purpose of a journal is to have somewhere to confide all these uncomfortably, inappropriately authentic thoughts. If it serves purely as an instrument of purgation, it can be kept locked in a drawer like a dirty secret. Exhibitionists of the internal, however, have a uniquely modern temptation in the form of the public journal, the Internet journal. This provides the opportunity to degrade one's soul and be humiliated and ridiculous in front of a wider audience - or, possibly, to find likeminded souls who can mitigate the feeling of spiritual isolation that caused the writer to turn to a journal in the first place.

If one of those hypothetical likeminded souls is a woman, Tolstoy's statement that, "Not that a woman is dangerous who holds a man by his lusts but she who holds him by his soul," acquires new resonance. Of course Tolstoy is right about the danger, but he doesn't mention the tantalizing aspect of being held by the soul as much as by the lusts. After all, if a part of us didn't want to rip off our skin and pull down our pants to show the world the naked truth, there would be no love. If a woman finds a soul already revealed and judges that it is good, idealism blooms forth again.

. . . And if rejection subsequently ensues, the following clause is to be bolded: "There are moments when a man says to a woman more than she ought to know about him." Perhaps the head should remain shut, or open only to a selective audience. At the very least a careful distance should be maintained between the exhibitionist mind and investments of the soul. The persona is required in large part so the soul is not damaged by the dangers of exposure. Even the most confessional writing inevitably takes the form of a persona: perhaps a more honest persona, but still a persona. Beneath all the layers of the persona, what Kabbalists might term sefirot or "emanations," is, perhaps, the true soul. And since a humiliated god is a dethroned god, so too must the soul be allowed to radiate creatively but remain fundamentally unknown to all but the chosen one(s).

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