Looking back through my recent posts on Traces, some still here and others I’ve since taken down, I’m struck by something. Again and again, I’ve been drawn to the same scenario: solitary individuals in an empty land.
Floodwater drives a couple from their home in When the Waters Came. In Waiting, we meet a hermit who has been living for decades on a mountaintop. At the Crossroads is a dialogue about a journey through a deserted landscape. In Flyoverland, a man sits alone inside his nondescript house on a featureless street in Anytown, U.S.A. Only the Watchman is my retelling in prose of the eerie scene with which Aeschylus begins his tragedy Agamemnon. In Words, I composed journal entries for a castaway who discovers a great cave on his desert island:
I walked deeper into the widening cave, and with each step, the syntax of the sentences became more elaborate, the ideas bolder, the arguments subtler. Just before the flames died, I stepped into a soaring cavern, a natural cathedral, and its walls and ceiling and even floor pulsed with the silent voices of the dead and gone.
Absence tries to capture the aura of an isolated ravine deep in the woods, the interior of an old toolshed, even “the chambers of our hearts, too, which no light can reach, unless maybe through our eyes when at dawn we have turned them eastward, in the direction of the sun as it comes up through haze on the far horizon.”
I have a memory from childhood, surely inaccurate in some details. In this memory of mine, my great-aunt gives me a picture book. It’s about a boy who wakes at night to discover a mysterious train sitting on the railroad track near his family’s house. He creeps out of the house and climbs aboard. To his shock, it immediately sets off down the track. Or maybe he himself opens the throttle. In any case, adventures ensue, all taking place in the course of that single night. One in particular stays with me: the train racing through the flames of a huge forest fire. In the finale, the train returns to the boy’s hometown just before dawn. He jumps down from the locomotive and walks away. Looking back, he sees his train — black, motionless, impassive. Only he and it will ever know about their journey together.
I recall my emotions better than I do the story and illustrations. I was intrigued, certainly. Stronger than that, however, was a feeling of dislocation. The book had divided the world into two. There was a boy’s day-to-day existence: waking in the morning, breakfast, school, chores, play, dinner, bedtime. Now there was this secret knowledge of another kind of existence, full of danger and daring, independence and adventure. Once a child discovers this new world, moreover, nothing can be the same in the old one. The child can’t fully inhabit it anymore, not in the unselfconscious way that he once had.
He’s become a stranger in his own life.
For those private memories are forever with him. On his face the cold night air. Behind him the long, dark curve of boxcars edged in silvery moonlight. Thump and throb and ceaseless vibration coming up through his feet. The searing heat of the fire, the locomotive groaning at full throttle, the surprise of fear. Followed closely by a feeling of triumph, and soon the sight of a familiar belfry high above a sleeping village.
His hometown, that is, and yet not his home, not anymore and never again.
I have a sentence in The Burdens of Aeneas, addressing my father: “Departing a life into which you could never really settle.” If that’s more obviously true for some of us, it’s not untrue for all of us. To one extent or another, we’re all strangers in our own lives, guests in our own homes. Which means, of course, that we’re always susceptible to loneliness, even when we’re surrounded by people.
I’m not really here to be a poor man’s Sartre, though.
Why am I here? I suppose I’m here to ponder what my own mind is trying to tell me. After all, it’s one thing to share with all of humanity an estrangement of the self both from the world and itself. It’s another thing to pick at that scab, isn’t it?
This is not something with which the ancients can be of help. At least, I don’t think so. I say that because you and I live in a quite different world.
Tradition pervaded and constrained the lives of the Greeks and Romans. Truth in those societies was formulaic, to use sociologist Anthony Giddens’ term. Ritual words and actions produced the desired result — rainfall, victory in war, success in business – or they didn’t. “True” meant “efficacious.” If a prayer or sacrifice failed to produce the desired result, it was because the priest had stumbled over a word, or the offering had not been ample enough, or the gods were simply in a bad mood. Think of tradition as being like computer code: it worked or it didn’t. If not, there had to be a glitch somewhere. It wasn’t because it was “false,” not in the way we use that word.
All of which meant — I can only assume, as I can have no real idea what anyone who lived two millennia ago was thinking and feeling — that so much of what we grapple with today was entirely beyond their ken and concern. Tradition was authoritative. It incorporated power relations. It defined an “us” and “them.” It supplied identity. It demanded deference. It “render[ed] many things external to human activity,” as Giddens puts it.
So much that was closed, as it were, is open now. For we live in a post-traditional society. “Is that true?” means something entirely different for us. “Who am I?” is a question that we ask ourselves, and for which we may have no sure answer. Each of us is born into a life that necessarily involves what Giddens calls a “reflexive project of the self.”
Stop for a moment and think about the implications of realizing, presumably during your adolescence, that the question is not “Can you perform this sequence of actions regularly for the rest of your life?” but “Who are you?”
A reflexive project of the self (me) versus participation in collective rituals (us). Personal decisions to make versus traditional roles to perform. No, the ancient Greeks and Romans can’t help.
There may be something, however, in this idea of being a stranger to oneself.
Georg Simmel defined a stranger as someone who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is not a wanderer, who comes and goes. Instead …
He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.
Now back to that boy who pored over a picture book about a boy who has a nighttime adventure on a train, unbeknown to his family and friends.
To say that he thereby experienced a dislocation, that there came about a kind of schism, a doubling, that resulted in his becoming a stranger to himself, is not to say that he no longer recognized himself.
The stranger, after all, comes and stays. The community hosting him admits and accommodates him, without necessarily assimilating him. As long as it postpones that last step, the stranger is a reminder to the community of an out there, of the boundary between it and the rest of the world, of its difference and separation.
And so might it be for the boy/young man/older man.
That solitary individual in my writings? He’s me, the stranger in me. The blogger looking down on him? He’s me, too. I suppose the question, therefore, is this: what should happen to the stranger, after all these years? Should he move on? Should he be assimilated? Or should he remain the stranger, the ever-present reminder of the unknown, of the not-yet-experienced, of ineradicable mystery.