I’ve always been fascinated by Dickey’s classic cautionary tale about four middle class suburban men who decide to answer the call of the wild and go for an adventurous canoeing trip into uncharted territory. As a city boy who was brought up soft, I’ve always entertained fantasies of being a macho survivalist, living off the land and killing my own food. So to see the psychological underpinnings of my own longing for the wild life examined in Dickey’s sharply insightful yet poetic prose was a harsh lesson in reality.
Dickey’s novel is a carefully crafted assassination attempt at the reader’s inner tough-guy. At first, he lulls us into the dreamlike fantasy of escaping from the boring lives we lead to go on a wild adventure. We want to be there with the four intrepid explorers, learning how to live in the woods and bend nature to our will, singing campfire songs at night and navigating the river’s rapids under the open sun in the day. Sure, it would be slightly uncomfortable, we think; but that’s nothing compared to the payoff of rediscovering our place in the world, knowing what is was like for our ancestors to eke out a survival in the wilderness, what it feels like to be a part of nature and to understand it’s signs. And that’s when Dickey gives us the uppercut.
The truth, as we all secretly know but don’t want to admit, is that modern society for all its boring routine and soul-deadening schedules is far better than the wild life. The reality is that in the wild, there is no medical aid or ordered society; no protection from infection or disease, and no protection from the tyranny of evil men. It is through the second of these tough realities that Dickey stabs at us the most – the heroes become victims at the hands of the very people they sought to imitate. Without warning, our heroes find themselves far out of their depth, and they are forced to either truly become base and wild like the men who stalk them, or else be shown to be unfit for the reality of survival.
I like to think of Dickey’s tale as a re-telling of Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”, with adults instead of children. While in that book, the children are faced with savagery in the form of losing respect for human life, Dickey’s book touches the more adult fear of losing respect for oneself.
Dickey’s writing style is perfect for delivering the punch in the most effective way possible. Its dream-like almost stream-of-consciousness flow and elegant phrasing are perfectly offset by his sharp black wit and the cold realism of the subject matter. The writing at once captures the beauty of nature and it’s indifference to human life. Most disturbingly, Dickey’s insight into the human condition reveals the extent to which nature’s indifference infects those who are exposed to it, making them just as uncaring for human life.
We all want to escape from our dreary lives from time to time, but Dickey forces us to think hard about where we should look and what price we should pay for deliverance.
A ‘drama group’ (I use the term loosely, you understand) visited my office some weeks past. We were enticed to the ‘presentation’ (I use the term loosely) by means of morning tea, and, one surmised to oneself, someone’s child might be taking part, or the cake might at least be quite good. At the very least, one’s eyes could benefit from a rest from glaring screens.
Dear reader, though these seem valid enough reasons, I will never again be misled by the term ‘drama group’ which seems wont to be applied as loosely as a two-bit whore’s…never mind. One’s eyes were not rested, but were ravaged and ravished by the relentless failure that is the adult ‘hobby.’ And herein lies the fallacy of the hobby.
Our troupe was a collection of well-meaning psycho-something types with a message, or at least with a passion, or, well, with a passing interest but severe lack of skill in—
Playwright skills possessed they not, nor theatrical capabilities. What unfolded, after an unintentionally polyphonic rendering of a homemade tune whose many stanzas proved all alike, a very long explanation of how the group came to be about, who was in it, whose idea it was, the storyline, excuses for this being the first performance and apologies for half the cast being absent, what unfolded, was a slumping, screeching, gutted sewer-mutant of a play that seared my retinas and scraped my eardrums without mercy. Scene after pointless scene of prancing rainbow-mullet-wig characters wailing, ‘I’m your per-son-aaaal-it-eee!’ and ‘I’m your feeeeeeeel-ings!’ and ‘I’m your cre-a-tiiiiv-it-eee!’ as if hexing all present.
I waited, dodging marshmallows thrown into the crowd by gloved hands, for something profound to emerge from the chatter. But this was all that was offered, that personality, feelings and creativity are the key to relationships. But surely the three are incommensurable, thought I, why choose these three? Why not choose passions and love and ethics? Morality is surely integral to the interaction between moral beings? Why not honesty or trust? What about those whose personalities are destructive, or reactive, who seem unable to tap into creative sources?
But here the tale ended, with a brief iteration of the buzz words, some more screaming and marshmallow tossing and a final song sung inadvertently in canon thanks to the piano being at the opposite end of the chain of ‘songstresses’ (again, loosely) to the more highly revered tape deck. I was left to ponder over my cake, what had just happened? And why had my co-workers applauded, and why had certificates been handed out to grown people without disabilities who had acted in such a way as would humiliate a child?
The world is a mysterious place. We put up with the gaping inadequacies of others who should know better, for no reason that I can determine. Is it because we dare not mock their hobby? Is it because we all have our own secret half-baked pastimes that would flop like beached whales if they saw the light of day, and for this reason we admire the courage of those who would bare their ‘passions’ to which they devote a small slice of the few hours a day remaining to them after work?
This all points to the fact that if it means something to you, you’d better devote your fucking time to it, or your path will be lined with cringes.
We know too much. If you want to get the best knowledge about something, you need to do a lot of research. The reason is that every interesting question has already been thought of by people much smarter than you, who spent most their lives thinking about it. Sure, this isn’t true for silly things like “what number am I thinking of?” or “who lives next door?” but it is true about the `big’ questions. What is the Earth made of? Is there a God? How old is the universe? Any fundamental question you can think of has a huge history in human thought.
You could contemplate an interesting question for an hour or so, maybe in discussion with some intelligent friends, and you might form some opinion about what you think the answer is. But you can be sure that some old bearded man a hundred years ago probably wrote something that captures your opinion in a very elegant way and also created an entire philosophy around it that endures to this day and is taught to university philosophy students as something with a name like `Explainarism’ – and if you had just taken the time to do some research, you would know this and you could just say to people, any time the question pops up, `oh, I’m an Explainarist’ and then you could answer any question they might have by pointing to the classic text on Explainarism by Professor Dr. Pheebington-Blatt Esq. Many university students are familiar with this state of affairs.
How can we recover the joy of learning in a world where everybody apparently already knows everything? The answer is that knowledge is not the same as understanding. To know something you only need to read it in a book, but to really understand something, you have to experience it. Most science and history is based on real things and places – experiments you can witness and ruins you can visit. Even the more abstract sciences pertain to imaginary worlds that can be imagined in terms of visual things – a good scientist doesn’t just see a bunch of equations as numbers and letters, but rather has a picture in their head of the physical system that those equations represent. A number like 0.5 is not just a number, but a probability, or an energy, or something else that is conceptually tangible. Therefore, we still live in an age of discovery, but it is now an age of personal discovery.
Sure, anybody can read about China. But how many people have actually been there? Similarly, anybody can read that E=mc2. But how many people know what that means in terms of energy, and mass, and speed? Knowledge is abundant, but understanding is not. It is in extending our personal understanding of the world that we are able to cross new frontiers, and the reward is still great even though many others have been there before us.
I read the book Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, on the recommendation that it was a modern day Jane Eyre, the Charlotte Brontë classic. Remembering Jane Eyre, my first foray into classic literature, which attracted me as a young teen with its deep burgundy cover, patterned with fleurs-de-lis and a mysterious old lock, and how it altered my thinking so dramatically, I pocketed a second-hand copy of Rebecca with some relish, imagining dark secrets and frightful revelations verging on the supernatural to be contained within its blood red covers. Alas, Rebecca is not that book.
Rebecca begins charmingly enough, with a young, painfully shy girl on the verge of womanhood; poor, obscure and friendless; working for her keep. Her dizzying anxieties and excruciating social interactions are endearing enough, she is so sweet and so inept that one is transported to that youthful period of feeling one’s way and learning about the world in a halting manner. Likewise, Mr de Winter, though somewhat bitter and distant and twice the girl’s age, has without a doubt locked some dark secret in the depths of his soul, and the scene is thus set for a gothic romance, scaling the passions and the pits of thwarted love.
It is some surprise, then, that only a few pages into the book, this artless proposal of marriage takes place between the two:
‘If you think I’m one of the people who try to be funny at breakfast you’re wrong,’ he said. ‘I’m invariably ill-tempered in the early morning. I repeat to you, the choice is open to you. Either you go to America with Mrs Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.’
‘Do you mean you want a secretary or something?’
‘No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’
And a little fool she is, the nameless anti-heroine that wafts half-heartedly through Rebecca’s pages. Her namelessness remains her most interesting feature. A pitiful modern counterpart to the gutsy, rational and self-sufficient Jane, who, at nineteen, is conscious enough of her own youthful shortcomings, and sensitive enough to her humble position in society and her lack of beauty, but bold enough to defend herself with reason when treated unjustly.
Where Mrs de Winter cowers from human interaction and allows her flimsy will to be trampled, Miss Eyre embraces her lot and works it, like the servant entrusted with one tenant, multiplying it rather than burying it in the ground:
Still indomitable was the reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.’
Jane has spunk. Poverty does not crush her, nor force her into abrupt marriages. So strong-willed is she, despite her mild and usually obliging character, that she defies marriage to the man she loves on a point of principle, knowing she could not hold herself in esteem if she agreed to less than optimal terms:
‘Never,’ said he, as he ground his teeth, ‘never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable. A mere reed she feels in my hand!’ (And he shook me with the force of his hold.) ‘I could bend her with my finger and thumb: and what good would it do if I bent, if I uptore, if I crushed her? Consider the eye: consider the resolute, wild, free thing looking out of it, defying me, with more than courage—with a stern triumph. Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it—the savage, beautiful creature!’
Her unbeatable spirit pursues a feminism before its time. Unsatisfied with sewing and knitting and other such feminine accomplishments, Jane devours what knowledge comes her way, perfecting her French, acquiring some German, trying her hand at ‘Hindostanee’ when a tutor presents himself. She is chided for her masculine mind, though this makes her a desirable companion to the men in her life who, whatever role they attribute to women generally, feel that Jane is of a more admirable stock.
Indeed, upon marrying, after a prolonged and tumultuous romance and several obstacles, near deaths, religious frenzies and bodily mutilations, Jane declares, ‘No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.’ Godly vengeance resulting in tragedy levels Jane and her beloved to an equal footing—he needs her as surely as she needs him, and with no embarrassment or self-revulsion. That he loves Jane and that she should love and aid him is the world to him, and no cause for feeling weak and unmanly.
Her own religious fervour that guides her harshly principled steps is matched and augmented through a second man, St John Rivers. Were the blood-red moons not enough, and eerie wails rolling across the hills, and disfigured faces of demonic creatures roaming the old mansion, the supernatural meets the religious head-on. St John, brooding and Calvinist, his eyes fastened on the hell opening up like a chasm beneath his fellow beings, recognises this potential for religious ecstasy in Jane and morphs into a demonic being himself, using it to manipulate her:
‘I want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death.’
I shuddered as he spoke: I felt his influence in my marrow—his hold on my limbs.
‘Seek one elsewhere than in me, St John: seek one fitted to you.’
Jane resists his commands that she and her talents give themselves up to God to be a missionary’s wife. His proposal is all the more frightening because his sound arguments about her capabilities are laced with chilling and domineering threats: ‘Do you think God will be satisfied with half an oblation? Will he accept a mutilated sacrifice?’ Religion is amplified to a fearful climax, a parody of itself, a satire of a crucial theme of the book—it is religion has led us here, and now we see it as a beast devouring its best and truest follower. The spell is broken by a supernatural voice carried across the winds—or as Jane considers these inexplicable forces that delve into her life, ‘preternatural.’ Religion, though able to incite frenzy, remains natural, and defeated by something far less definable, and external to the realm of nature.
I have forgotten our unnamed girl. She comes of age as well. It goes something like this: though she heard mysterious things in the forbidden west wing of her mansion, there is no one living there, mad or deformed or otherwise. Her aimless wanderings through darkened passages yield no hidden wives. Rather, her husband admits to her that he murdered his first wife, the elusive Rebecca, and upon realising she never had a rival, our girl is content and grows some self-esteem. She and Mr de Winter are suddenly in love, just in time for their house to get burnt down in a last-ditch echo of Jane Eyre:
There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew toward us with the salt wind from the sea.
Jane Eyre is filled with countless improbable happenings, overly spooky moonlit scenes, abrupt changes and inexplicable coincidences. None of these detract from the narrative. It is a torrent of a tale kept on the ground by a level-headed heroine, though augmented by fantasy that blurs with fast-held religious belief. Jane lets you imagine a little bit, and get swept up in something, and increases your heart rate at exciting junctures, without inventing any magical creatures or unfamiliar terrain.
Rebecca gives us insight into what it is to be a shy girl married to a murderer, happily forced into exile since there is no society with which to contend. Perhaps if I’d known all along, I would not have expected any more from it. It is for this reason I am seeking to distinguish it from Jane Eyre as a shallow read with gothic pretensions.
Perhaps the most appealing thing about Jane is that it is not purely a gothic work, but one that came out of the Romantic period. The darkness is met by grandeur; the emotive skies—far more expansive than the earth—are sublime renderings of pitiful human passions, as the heavens peering between the boughs of a lightening-struck tree illustrate, a sombre presage of the future of Jane and Mr Rochester:
The cloven halves were not broken from each other; … though community of vitality was destroyed—the sap could flow no more: their great boughs on each side were dead: … as yet, however, they might be said to form one tree—a ruin; but an entire ruin.
‘You did right to hold fast to each other,’ I said: as if the monster-splinters were living things, and could hear me. ‘I think, scathed as you look, and charred and scorched, there must be a little sense of life in you yet; rising out of that adhesion at the faithful, honest roots: you will never have green leaves more; … but you are not desolate: each of you has a comrade to sympathise with him in his decay.’ As I looked up at them, the moon appeared momentarily in that part of the sky which filled their fissure; her disk was blood-red and half overcast; she seemed to throw on me one bewildered, dreary glance, and buried herself again instantly in the deep drift of cloud. The wind fell, for a second, round Thornfield; but far away over wood and water, poured a wild, melancholy wail: it was sad to listen to, and I ran off again.
Today I witnessed a heartbreaking scene. Arriving late to the bus stop, hot and out of breath, I came suddenly to a halt behind the man before me, who was standing to rigid attention like a soldier, in dark shades. This image of power was subverted by the tapping sound of his cane, seeking the doorway of the bus.
The elevated platform found, the gap navigated by feel, he stepped up bravely into the bus and forcefully slammed his face into the metal bar that divides the doorway. His glasses clattered to the gutter and he immediately crouched, his face caught between a self-effacing smile and a grimace of pain. The bus driver’s face was the ironic mask of the helplessness that is induced by the helplessness of another.
I picked up the man’s glasses, halting his unknowing search with a brush on the arm. As he inclined his head towards me, I noticed his eyes were held tightly shut, as though he kept all his secrets behind them. Slowly he found his way into the bus, to a seat at the front quickly vacated by a young girl with eager sympathetic eyes.
The poignancy of the situation struck me at first, accentuated by the sound of the clang as his head collided with the metal bar, still ringing in my mind’s ear; how something ordinarily hilarious became, through a simple twist, incredibly tragic. He was clearly new to being blind, awkwardly discovering a new universe in which he was utterly powerless and beset by obstacles invisible to the seeing person. He must still remember the joys of sight so keenly, I thought, that depression must surely loom over him every day. Yet here he was, ploughing into poles so that he could learn to be blind and not be helpless, unable to do something as simple as catch a bus. I wanted to help him, to be his friend and make sure that he got to wherever he was going; my heart went out to this unfortunate man.
But this led me to reflect: surely others felt as I did, swept up in a noble desire to be of assistance? And I had helped already, in a small way, by handing him his glasses – and that girl had helped him by giving him her seat. And at his destination, I felt sure, someone would surely help him find his way to where he was going. He was after all endearing to people in the way that he quietly struggled, trying to shrug off his blindness even as it surely crippled him. He had a nice face and was well dressed, and he invited help without asking for it; he would make many friends, I felt sure, if he didn’t have them already. I was suddenly filled with a conviction that in spite of his problem, partly because of it, he would be just fine. My initial piercing sense of tragedy for this man faded, replaced with nothing but optimism. But the memory of that pang of empathy still troubled me with a question:
Who, if not the blind, really deserves our pity?
In the end, I can’t help but feel that it is more the people who are unafflicted by troubles that deserve our pity the most; the ones who can see, but don’t know where to look; the ones who inspire no sympathy yet suffer the burden of potential; the ones who, because of their mediocrity, have nobody to guide them and no defined path. I reserve my despair for them.
There is a good reason why the tendency religion is so entrenched in the human psyche: it provides us with a sense of purpose and meaning without which we would struggle to survive. Survival after all first requires a motivation to live, and this motivation is strongly tied to a sense of purpose.
Our brains are paradoxical things, because life itself is paradoxical. On one hand, life is pointless; on the other hand, its function is to survive. But if existence is pointless, how can we justify the drive to continue existing?
Mirroring this dilemma, the human brain evolved intelligence to enable us to understand the world around us and make us better at survival. On the other hand, our new understanding of the world threatened to expose the pointlessness of existence, thereby removing the very motivation to survive, even while we had all of the tools. Intelligence seems by nature to be self-destructive.
Fortunately, there is a way out – religion. Our tendency to believe in a higher power without question, that is, our capacity for faith, protects us from the self-destructiveness and depression brought on by existential angst. Unfortunately, as we soar to greater intellectual heights, fewer and fewer of us find satisfaction with the answers religion has to offer. We now question everything, and we no longer see any reason to take things on faith- in fact, we actively reject faith as being misleading and outdated. Religion as we know it cannot keep up with the demands of the advancing human psyche, and the mental tools we now have are too advanced to be curbed by the primitive blade of “God”.
The modern atheist faces a dire problem: how can we save ourselves from the killing apathy of knowing that we are insignificant and that all is futile?
A new solution is emerging. We are sophisticated enough now to realize that the futility of existence has no bearing on our lives, which are nevertheless filled with a richness of experience, both pleasurable and painful, still better than death and non-existence. The new generation is a generation of experience seekers, who realize that life creates its purpose from within. We do not need meaning to be imposed from outside, but prefer to discover meaning through action. We discover our own Gods and superstitions through the mystery of everyday living. The days when a single narrative written in one book could govern the lives of many people is gone; now every person has their own story, their own plot and purpose. The book of the individual is partly defined by character and partly by one’s experiences in the world, different parts of which are accessible to all of us. So even though we still have a common thread between us, we all find a different meaning behind the events that occur, and it is the trading of our interwoven stories that will write the narrative of the new bible.