Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Me, Myself, and I: Three's a Crowd



I've been rereading Doris Grumbach's Fifty Days of Solitude (Beacon, 1994), about an extended period she spent alone (more or less) while her partner Sibyl Pike was away on a long book-buying trip.  The two had relocated to Maine years before with their bookstore from Washington DC.  It was the winter of 1993, and Grumbach was 75 years old.  (She's now in her late nineties, still alive and still writing.)  Grumbach hoped to work on a novel she was writing, and limited her interaction with the world to mail, the radio, recorded music and movies, and books, though at times she had to talk to people, as when she went into town to pick up mail.  Since I've been known to fantasize about living alone in the countryside and watching snow pile up outside, I found her situation attractive and read the book soon after it was published.

As I recall, I liked it better the first time I read it.  It's interesting to compare Fifty Days of Solitude to May Sarton's early journals, when she was living alone in Maine, though she was just as connected to other people, neighbors and correspondents, as Grumbach is.  As with Sarton, I'm most pleased by Grumbach's reflections on aging, since I'm ten years younger than she was when she conducted this experiment and wrote about it.  But many of her comments bug me.  She's prone to complain about the horrors of "the world today," for example, though those horrors have always been there, but Americans lacked electronic media to report them to us.  I sometimes believe that if there is such a thing as information overload, it lies more in the pileup of atrocities, disasters, and general human misery that the news media collect and deliver.
The radio news, in a single day while I was alone: Disastrous floods in southern California.  Two trains collide in Gary, Indiana, and six persons are decapitated.  One hundred fifty miles from Ankara, Turkey, an entire village is buried in snow.  The United States and its allies bomb Iraq, killing many civilians.  An Estonian ship breaks up near Finland, spilling two hundred thousand gallons of oil.
... and more.  But such things have always happened.  If an epidemic wiped out a village in northern India in 1770, say, the news wouldn't have traveled far or fast, and North Americans wouldn't have seen video footage on TV.  If a farmer in North Dakota in 1890 went mad from anxiety over a bad harvest and cut his family to pieces with a scythe, the crime would have been reported in local newspapers, but probably wouldn't have made it to Sargentville, Maine.  Even in Grumbach's and my lifetimes, the newspapers have been full of such stories, but people tend to forget them.  When I see summaries of the news from the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, I'm struck by how many terrible things were happening and recorded then; but I'd forgotten about them.  Evidently so did Grumbach.

The same goes for her lament about youth.
For the young: To be left alone with themselves when they are too unsure to respect the self they have been persuaded by the world to dislike, those who feel unworthy in the eyes of their families, what a terrible condition that is.  The dismayingly high number of suicides among young persons attests to the consequences of such destructive isolation, that is, to their insurmountable loneliness.
I'm skeptical about this.  The number of suicides is hard to know for sure, because so often they are ambiguous or covered up.  It's even harder to know why kids (or adults) kill themselves.  Is it because of "insurmountable loneliness"?  I don't know, and I don't think Grumbach knew either; nor do I think that the self becomes more "sure" with age -- it certainly doesn't seem to be so for Grumbach at 75.  There was a flurry of panic in the early 90s about youth suicide in the US, and it was never clear if more teenagers were killing themselves than previously, why they were killing themselves, or whether diminished media attention to the problem meant that the numbers were smaller or that the media had moved onto the next Shiny Thing.  But I grew up in rural Indiana pretty isolated, a gay bookworm, and though I often felt lonely I never contemplated suicide, nor did I feel that bad most of the time.  And right now I'm reading George Eliot's 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss, set in rural and village England a few decades before it was written.  I gather it is largely autobiographical, and its depiction of a young girl's alienation and isolation shows that the problem is not particularly new.  Eliot's depiction of the superficially better-adjusted folk around her doesn't make them enviable either: they are mostly half-educated, indifferently religious, obsessed with propriety, and fall apart when life doesn't go their way.  I would expect the same to be true of many of Doris Grumbach's Maine neighbors.

But also stuff like this:
When I lived in cities, surrounded on every side by people, served by them constantly, I never knew the names of the person who sold newspapers at the corner, delivered them to the door in the early hours of the morning, collected the garbage, waited on me in the grocery store, delivered UPS packages and the mail.  Rarely did I see their faces, or if I did, they were still, somehow, invisible, a part of the anonymous fog of the overpopulation that pushed upon me from every side.

Here, now, I knew the names and life histories of everyone who had ever come to the house, to plow after snowstorms, ... [etc.]
I can relate, but I suspect that in Grumbach's case, as it certainly is in mine, this was her hangup, not an inevitable part of city life.  I'm getting over it as I get older, and I wonder if it wasn't also true for Grumbach, aided by the move to a new environment.  Right now I'm in a very large city, Seoul, and despite my linguistic deficiency, I recognize and am recognized by the people I buy hot chocolate from each morning, the people in the restaurants where I have lunch, the person at the convenience store across the street, some people in the neighborhood, and elsewhere.  Names are good, and I'm learning them, but I don't think they're absolutely necessary; recognition is.  The same is true in the mid-sized city where I live, by the way.  As I get older my shyness is, thankfully, wearing away.

Cities have their disadvantages; so do small towns and rural areas.  But wandering around Seoul impresses me again with the achievement that big cities are.  They don't just happen, they must be organized and kept working by intense human intelligence and physical effort.  I think this achievement is often slighted.

Speaking of George Eliot, Grumbach quotes from Middlemarch: "There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it."  Grumbach comments:
Determined = formed? or, directed?  But not, I thought, forever.  There may be a time, as now, when the search for the inward being cuts it away from determination by others, frees it for the moment from direction from the outside, gives it stasis, and more than that temporary peace.
I disagree very strongly.  Even shut up alone in her house, and even if she'd stopped listening to the radio or reading her mail, Grumbach would have been connected to and sustained by other people, such as those "who come to the house, to plow after snowstorms, to put up gutters and rototill the garden, to mow down the meadow and to fix the plumbing, the electricity, the telephone, the antenna and the steps."  She knew this.  That she was limiting contact with others for fifty days didn't change it.  For that matter, Eliot wrote of "what lies outside" the creature.  That means not just people but the house, the land, the weather, the air and water and living things that inhabit the environment.  I don't believe we are ever freed from direction from the outside, no matter how fondly we imagine that we've achieved it; or that we ever achieve "stasis" while we live.  Grumbach has a curiously material sense of the self, as if it were a physical organ somewhere inside her, and that's odd, given what she has to say about Christian and Buddhist spirituality as part of her practice in her solitude.

Fifty Days of Solitude isn't a bad book, though; like many books I disagree with, it gives me something to push against, and poses questions I can then answer for myself.  There's no reason why Grumbach and I should have the same answers.