Wednesday, May 30, 2012

You Can't Go Home Again

I haven't written anything in a long while. I'm inspired to do so after reading Thomas Wolfe's "You Can't Go Home Again." I guess I'm what he would have called a "futilitarian". I love that term, and wear the label proudly, even though he meant it derogatively. He describes the main character as a pessimist with hope, while his mentor in the story is a pessimist without hope. Wolfe argues that with or without hope, you have to keep trying. Ironically, when I read the following passages, and consider that they were written ~70 years ago, Wolfe himself makes the effort seem futile.

About the pre-depression real estate boom in the main character's home town:

The real estate men were everywhere. Their motors and buses roared through the streets of town and out into the country, carrying crowds of prospective clients. One could see them on the porches of houses unfolding blueprints and prospectuses as they shouted enticements and promises of sudden wealth into the ears of deaf old women. Everyone was fair game for them--the lame, the halt, and the blind, Civil War veterans or their decrepit pensioned widows, as well as high school boys and girls, Negro truck drivers, soda jerkers, elevator boys, and bootblacks.
Everyone bought real estate; and everyone was a "real estate man" either in name or practice. The barbers, the lawyers, the grocers, the butchers, the builders, the clothiers--all were engaged now in this single interest and obsession. And there seemed to be only one rule, universal and infallible--to buy, always to buy, to pay whatever price was asked, and to sell again within two days at any price one chose to fix. It was fantastic. Along all the streets in town the ownership of the land was constantly changing; and when the supply of streets was exhausted, new streets were feverishly created in the surrounding wilderness; and even before these streets were paved or a house had been built upon them, the land was being sold, and then resold, by the acre, by the lot, by the foot, for hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

About the pre-depression financiers:

...these men were all victims of an occupational disease--a kind of mass hypnosis that denied to them the evidence of their senses. It was a monstrous and ironic fact that the very men who had created this world in which every value was false and theatrical saw themselves, not as creatures tranced by fatal illusions, but rather as the most knowing, practical, and hard-headed men alive. They did not think of themselves as gamblers, obsessed by their own fictions of speculation, but as brilliant executives of great affairs who at every moment of the day "had their fingers on "the pulse of the nation." 

From a discussion between the main character and his maid, who was far more concerned about the welfare of the rich than the welfare of the poor:

"...good Lord...why should you worry so much about it. Those people aren't going to starve. ...Yet you come in here day after day and read me this if you were afraid the whole lot of them would have to go on the dole. You're the one who will have to go on the dole if you get out of work. Those people are not going to suffer, not really, as the way you'll have to."

"Ah-h, yes, but then, we're used to it, aren't we? And they, poor things, they're not."

It was appalling. He couldn't fathom it. He just felt as if he'd come up smack against an impregnable wall. You could call it what you liked--servile snobbishness, blind ignorance, imbecilic stupidity--but there it was. You couldn't shatter it, you couldn't even shake it. It was the most formidible example of devotion and loyalty he had ever known. 

On the true motives and lies of our leaders:

The politician, for example, would never have us think that it is love of office, the desire for the notorious elevation of public place, that drives him on. No, the thing that governs him is his pure devotion to the common wealth, his selfless and high-minded statesmanship, his love of his fellow man, and his burning idealism to turn out the rascal who usurps the office and betrays the public trust which he himself, as he assures us, would so gloriously and devotedly maintain.  

So, too, the soldier. It is never love of glory that inspires him to his profession. It is never love of battle, love of war, love of all the resounding titles and the proud emoluments of the heroic conqueror. Oh, no. It is devotion to duty that makes him a soldier. There is no personal motive in it. He is inspired simply by the selfless ardor of his patriotic abnegation. He regrets that he has but one life to give for his country. 

So it goes through every walk of life. The lawyer assures us that he is the defender of the weak, the guardian of the oppressed, the champion of the rights of defrauded widows and beleagured orphans, the upholder of justice, the unrelenting enemy, at no matter what cost to himself, of all forms of chicanery, fraud, theft, violence, and crime. Even the businessman will not admit to selfish motive in his money-getting. On the contrary, he is the developer of the nation's resources. He is the benevolent employer of thousands of working men who would be on the dole without the organizing genius of his great intelligence. He is the defender of the Amercan ideal of rugged individualism, the shining exemplar to youth of what a poor country boy may achieve in this nation through a devotion to the national virtures of thrift, industry, obedience to duty, and business integrity. He is, he assures us, the backbone of the country, the man who makes the wheels go round, the leading citizen, Public Friend No.1.

All these people lie, of course. They know they lie, and everyone who hears them also knows they lie. The lie, however, has become a part of the convention of American life. People listen to it patiently, and if they smile at it, the smile is weary, touched with resignation and the indifferent dismissals of fatigue. 

Finally, at the end of the book, Wolfe describes the Enemy of America as the one who says:

"See, I am one of you--I am one of your children, your son, your brother, and your friend. Behold how sleek and fat I have become--and all because I am just one of you, and your friend. Behold how rich and powerful I am--and all because I am one of you--shaped in your way of life, of thinking, of accomplishment. What I am, I am because I am one of you, your humble brother, and your friend. Behold, the man I am, the man I have become, the thing I have accomplished--and reflect. Will you destroy this thing? I assure you that it is the most precious thing you have. It is yourselves, the projection of each of you, the triumph of your individual lives, the thing that is rooted in your blood, and native to your stock, and inherent in the traditions of America. It is the thing that all of you may hope to be, for am I not just one of you? Am I not just your brother and your son? Am I not the living image of what each of you may hope to be, would wish to be, would desire for his own son? Would you destroy this incarnation of your own heroic self? If you do then, you destroy yourselves--you kill the thing that is most gloriously American, and in so killing, kill yourselves."

He lies! And now we know he lies! He is not gloriously, or in any other way, ourselves. He is not our friend, our son, our brother. And he is not American! For although he has a thousand familiar and convenient faces, his own true face is old as Hell. 

Look about you and see what he has done. 

I'll conclude with a passage that rang a eary on in the book that rang a bell of self-awareness:

"Oh, Hank's all right when you get to know him. You know how a guy is when he gets all burned up about somethin'--he gets too serious about it--he thinks everybody else in the world ought to be like he is. But he's O.K. He's not a bad guy when you get him talkin' about somethin' else."

OK, I'm Hank, but good luck getting me to talk about somethin' else.