It’s been noted, astutely, that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. Both love and hatred require tremendous emotion and engagement with the object of the emotion. Indifference?
“Yeah, yeah, it looks profound at first blush,” said the skeleton, “but given the choice between a mother who whips you in the face and a mother who is merely indifferent?”
Context is everything, as you have noticed during your long dirt nap, as you may have known all along. You tell a story with your life, hopefully. Oddly enough, that helpful young woman from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux was not all fool, the story of life is about change, evolution, becoming a more nuanced and able person, learning from a lifetime of mistakes. Becoming more humane.
“Well, your friend Adolf bragged in Mein Kampf that his philosophy of life, his weltanschauung, was fully formed by the time he was fifteen. He had hardened into the mature genius he would later become by the time he was a pimply, enraged adolescent. Impressive, no?”
My point exactly. The mark of the complete asshole is a refusal to change, no matter what transpires. It may seem like a small thing, but when I used to accompany Francoise on guitar and I’d make her so nervous and self-c0nscious she’d sing out of tune, I came to recognize something ugly in myself I had to change.
“A little spark of the man who made you, eh?” said the skeleton.
Which was transmitted to my father directly from the woman who made him, who had in turn had received it from Leah, Azriel or some combination of people in Truvovich prior to her journey to a life of misery and privation here in America, starting in the summer of 1914. It’s a choice between a cycle of blame and anger or striving for change.
“Well, blame and anger are much more immediate, they’re right there in front of you in a given moment. Anger is tangible and blame is straightforward, they’re satisfying in some immediate way. Change is subtle, chimeric, it moves backwards, forwards, sideways, it’s unpredictable, often invisible. Rage is dependable and easy to hold on to.
“That’s not to disagree with what you’re saying, that it’s better to learn not to be a complete asshole than to insist on your right to be one. It’s just not something that most people feel they have the luxury to do. Or the self-confidence to try to do, maybe.
“Look, we fought about this your whole life– how much people can or cannot meaningfully change. We’re born hard-wired with certain abilities, talents, predispositions, reflexes. Not everyone is born with the same degree of equanimity, for example. Some babies are more easily frustrated than others, they’re cranky little fucks and they give their parents a hard time from day one. Other babies are by nature placid and easy-going.
“You can change many of the surface things about yourself, I’ll grant you that, but the deeper ones, the hardwired reflexes — it’s an open question. I’ll leave it at that, it’s a coin toss, although my personal view is that the propensity to easy anger, for example, can’t ever really be defeated.”
Fine, but you overcame the understandable impulse, instilled by your violent, enraged little mother, to whip your own children in the face. You never did it.
“Well, I never used a whip and lashed either of you in the face, though what I did was just as bad, really. You know, when I think of those brutal skirmishes around the dinner table I’m ashamed of myself. I was the fucking adult, even though I acted like a two year-old. All you and your sister wanted were parents who had some wisdom and sympathy to offer. How powerful are the words ‘I understand’ to a child who has just poured their heart out to a parent? Those are two words you and your sister never heard from us. That’s my fault, you’re supposed to develop some fucking insight as you go along.” If a skeleton had eyebrows, he would have furrowed his.
This brings us right back to the point I was getting at above. Being shouted down when you’re trying to express your frustrations is aggravating as hell, but at least there’s engagement. Worse by far, oddly enough, is getting no reaction at all.
“Well, that’s why you started acting out so much in school, class clown, playing the harmonica in class when the teacher was trying to teach, ostentatiously pretending to sob every time the class sang ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’– a song about pot, by the way, according to a long time urban myth, anyway– all the rest of that attention-seeking behavior.
“Your mother would get into shouting matches with you and your sister, I learned early on how much more effective it was to just clam up at crucial moments. Elegant, simple and very direct way to whip a child across the face with complete moral deniability.”
Well, moral deniability is important, I’ll grant you that. As long as you can deny moral responsibility, you’re home free. Hey, do you remember mom shaking me that time, demanding to know…
“‘What did anybody ever do to you to make you so fucking angry?!!!’ and she chanted it rhythmically as she shook you by the shoulders. That was great. I mean, you have to love something like that, looking back on it,” said the skeleton cheerfully.
Oh, I do, absolutely. That was great, makes a cool anecdote, even struck me at the time as brilliantly insane. You know, the mother shaking the upset kid and demanding to know what his fucking problem is. It’s classic. But you were the real stylist in that scenario. Do you remember what you were doing?
The skeleton said nothing, just regarded me with that inscrutable rictus.
“Well, I did a pretty good job fucking you and your sister up with that silent movie sphinx routine. And look, the beauty part was, by doing nothing I could always insist I hadn’t done anything. You know, what could be more satisfying than having the person you abuse believe they did it to themselves? You say nothing, it’s their word against your non-word.”
Yeah, like Switzerland during Nazi times. Neutral, you know, fair is fair. We don’t like the Nazis, we don’t dislike the Nazis. We are even-handed, you know, and we are nobody’s enemies. We don’t take a moral position, we deal strictly in wealth and discretion. They were ahead of their time, the Swiss.
And you know, it worked. It was years before it dawned on me that the Swiss were not peace loving people who took a principled stand that two wrongs don’t make a right. They were the bankers for the fucking Nazis.
“You know, Nazis are going to give you a lot of shit about the constant Nazi trope in this ms.,” said the skeleton, “not to mention the fucking Swiss.”
Well, at least I won’t be like Switzerland about it, eh?