Commentary Magazine


Coming of Age on the Carob Plantation

The first time I tried to come of age, my sinews turned to butter and my father threw me. Another try, the girl was a fundamental Baptist and swerved in time. So I quit trying, and just let it happen. But as soon as I’d made it, Maturity loomed before me like a mountain. What is this 20th-century Maturity that it should loom so before us as it did not in front of our ancestors? “In 1901,” says Ernest Jones in his biography of his master, “Freud, at the age of forty-five, had attained complete maturity, a consummation of development that few people really achieve.” A man-made mountain up which a 20th-century Sisyphus is expected to push the boulder of his life.

Do you suppose there really were tribes that would insert boys into one end of a rite and extract men from the other? (A Bar Mitzvah is meant to do that: “Today I am a man.” But nowadays among us, the ceremony is about as impressive as a wedding in a judge’s office in the county courthouse.) I don’t really doubt that there were actual people called Manus, any more than that there were actual people called saints. I’ve seen photographs of the one and thigh bones of the other. I am as willing to accept Margaret Mead’s word that she actually stayed with the Manus as James the Deacon’s word that he was in front of the basilica in Antioch with Nonnus, his bishop, and seven other bishops when Pelagia, the first of the dancers, came riding by on an ass. Yet I question the truth of their stories. On the whole, I go further with James than with Mead, because he tells a tale so much better than she does. (This excerpt from his narrative is taken from Helen Waddells’s The Desert Fathers.)

Passing through our midst, [Pelagia] filled the air with the fragrance of musk and of all scents that are sweetest. And when the bishops saw her so shamelessly ride by, bare of head and shoulder and limb, in pomp so splendid, and not so much as a veil upon her head or about her shoulders, they groaned, and in silence turned away their heads as from great and grievous sin.

But the most blessed Nonnus did long and most intently regard her: and after she had passed by still he gazed and still his eyes went after her. Then, turning his head, he looked upon the bishops sitting round him. “Did not,” said he, “the sight of her great beauty delight you?”

Now there is a bishop whose fairy-tale virtue delights me. To such a man a harlot might well come begging to be converted. How pleasant that, when the devil wailed and tempted at the feast celebrating Pelagia’s conversion, Bishop Nonnus gave her the strength to beat the devil.

I have yet to read a Mead-type anthropologist who tells a story as well as James the Deacon. Even if he were naturally endowed, he would not do justice to the story of his experiences “in the field,” because he goes to study people. To him, studying people means figuring out the motives for their observed behavior and finding the patterns those motives describe. To me, it means, also and ineradicably, attributing alien motives to the characters he is telling about and making alien patterns of his own out of their motives—splendid and much-employed devices for story-wrecking. Here is an example from Growing Up in New Guinea of how Mead aborts her stories:

Main had been five times widowed. Her only child had died at childbirth. Her first husband had died, her second she had left, her third had taken her by force. From him she had returned to the second, who died soon after. A fourth and fifth [sic], first as intrigues, later solemnized, had followed. Her path was strewn with infidelities. Of the Pontchal clan only two men still lived, all the rest had died in the influenza epidemic. In native belief the two who lived, lived only because they had confessed to what the others no doubt concealed, intrigues with Main. She was a jolly impudent woman, self-sufficient, sensuous, sure of herself, devoted to various nieces and nephews—those who remained after their brothers and sisters had died for her sins. She was a little stupid and went about at night in fear of the spirits of her five dead husbands.

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Mead’s specialty is interfering with her characters in such a way as also to interfere with the reader’s understanding of them. In fact, labeled “anthropological interpretation,” this interfering is the reason for her book’s existence. I do not think that Main’s going about at night in fear of the spirits of her five dead husbands proves that she is stupid, but I think Mead thinks so, and this seems to me like alien arrogation on her part. (By fuzzy writing, she has made it not quite certain what she meant; perhaps she intended the conjunctive and to be taken disjunctively.)

If Mead had known what she was doing, she would have told saints’ legends as James the Deacon did, for her intention is to reprove us for our evil ways by drawing morals from the stories she tells—in this following instance an obviously sound moral.

To treat our children as the Manus do, permit them to grow up as the lords of an empty creation, despising the adults who slave for them so devotedly, and then apply the whip of shame to make them fall in line with a course of life which they have never been taught to see as noble or dignified—this is giving a stone to those who have a right to good bread.

But, having instead turned science into a false religion and having put on robes of priesthood, she announces in her introduction loftier purposes than preaching.

Countless generations of men have experimented with the possibilities of the human spirit. It only remained for those of inquiring mind, alive to the value of these hoary experiments, to read the answers written down in the ways of life of different peoples.

If she knew how to handle English prose, I would take these “experiments” as a kind of metaphor. But she elaborates the idea humorlessly and at length; it infuses all eleven pages of her introduction. One must take her quite literally: “I made this study of Manus education to prove no thesis, to support no preconceived ideas.” This representation of her own intention is sincere. She who presumed to study others knew herself so little that she could think this statement true.

Well, she could have done worse. That is, she could really have done what she thought she was doing, have just studied how the Manus grew up, and have written them into that worst form of narrative, the pure case history. Her interfering was not cold of heart. At least she cared, about them and us too.

“Here,” she is saying in effect, “is the Manus system of raising children, obviously bad. See how the American system resembles it. Convert to the new, Scientific system, which is good.” She was one of several zealous missionaries: we converted. It has not proved to be a good enough system to warrant the disruption of converting, in good part because false science’s Maturity is as hard to achieve as was Calvin’s Heaven. Harder: it took Freud himself forty-five years to make it, whereas Calvin was born elected.

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As nearly as I can make out, Maturity is what used to be called wisdom. But wisdom obviously cannot be exactly defined, whereas Maturity seems to be exact because it seems to be the same as biological and social maturity, only better, and maturity simply means “of age but not yet senile.” Wisdom is a spiritual quality, and if there is one thing for which false science has less use than another, it is spirit, spirituality, the soul; psyche is the word, for you can add ology to it and sound as though you know exactly what you’re talking about. Wisdom is mysterious and rare, and often a man’s wisdom is patchy; but Maturity sounds like maturity, a natural state of development which it is pathological not to attain. Wisdom is given we know not how or why. Maturity, like modern marriage, you work at; you strive for it; you surmount obstacles to attain it.

I was reared in the American Protestant system so loudly deplored by the cultural revolutionaries of Mead’s generation. Luckily my family was neither typical enough nor odd enough to attract the interest of any measurer more intrusive than the census-taker. Anyway the professional offspring of that missionary generation had not yet proliferated as they have come to since the war. The motivational researchers are no great threat because, however new-fangled they seem, they do it for the old old reason, money. It is the institutional problem-solvers that appall, such tinkerers as operate the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at Berkeley: they conceive of a man’s soul as something for them to take apart to see how it ticks. (To find out what they do and how, read Kenneth Rexroth’s admirable essay “My Head Gets Tooken Apart” in his collection of essays, Bird in the Bush.)

To those who hold this least humane of attitudes, a human mystery, even the most intimate mystery of love or artistic creation or religious faith, is a problem unsolved only because it has not yet been correctly stated. As citizens they may or may not be concerned over the human, the merely human, consequences of what they are doing; I cannot tell. But I do know that they restrain their cold passion no more than do those biological-warfare technicians and those engineering physicists who are solving the “problem” of how to annihilate life on earth. They seem to think of themselves as outside good and evil when they assault a problem. They are Mallorys who think it is enough that the problem is there; the consequences of solving it are no concern of theirs at the time of solving it. They are super-Mallorys and exhaust themselves climbing mountains which they themselves have bulldozed into being. I heard a problem-solver say, “In another generation we will have solved the mind-body problem.” Back to Mead! However self-deceived and wrong, at least she wanted people to love one another. If one had persuaded her that the self-consciousness caused by her intruding upon the mysteries would itself pollute love and sometimes make love impossible, she might have stopped.

In case histories, the narrator commonly refers to himself not as I but as E; he conceives of himself as an experimenter, passionless and amoral as an instrument. Whether one who aims to solve the problems of other people’s souls becomes a sort of instrument, as he believes, or whether he succeeds only in becoming a monstrously de-natured man, as I believe, his way of learning must alter what he learns even as his way of telling does alter what he tells.

After bringing S [a school child] from the classroom to the testing room, an introductory conversation took place during which the establishment of good rapport was attempted. Then E asked S to tell a story to a TAT card. (From Volume 57 of The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology).

Even when such actions do no immediate harm, surely the ambience of self-consciousness they generate is only alienating, their distracting intrusiveness utterly without dignity, and their mere existence destructive of dignity.

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Consider two ways of wrecking the story of Abraham tempted by God to sacrifice Isaac. Mead’s way is to try to present nothing but what happened and what it meant—meanwhile, of course, interpreting Abraham’s motives in such a manner as to lambaste him and us for being horrible parents (there are no divine ordinances in her universe). But the way of the true problem-solver, someone like a personality researcher, would wreck the story totally. I have a fantasy of Abraham’s having his personality researched: a continuous film is being taken of his face as he rides for three days to the land of Moriah; the firewood that Isaac is carrying up the mountain is bugged so there will be a tape recording of Isaac’s asking where is the lamb that is to be sacrificed and of Abraham’s answer: “My son, God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” (How fast, how steady are the voices? How many decibels?) Nothing would please a problem-solver more than to be taking an encephalogram of that hundred-and-ten-year-old man, knife raised over his only son, whom he loves, when the angel calls “Abraham! Abraham!” and he answers, “Here am I.”

Perhaps angels do not, or cannot, come and speak to the studied; perhaps they can and do. But wired, taped, filmed, bugged, Abraham would have been so trapped in the finite world (“of which,” says Kierkegaard, “reason is the stockbroker”) that he would have been too distracted and self-conscious to hear the angel in time. The story would have ended differently. Israel would not have been the same. The history of the world would have been—as it is now being—altered unimaginably. Self-consciousness is one sort of deafness to the word of God.

For many people, solving a problem (like shooting a rifle) is fun in itself, a kind of innocent play. The moral question is: what are you aiming at? Just as no man has the right to shoot into a crowd of schoolchildren, so no man has the right to unconnect us, to violate another’s soul.

In “Behavior in Extreme Situations,” Bruno Bettelheim describes how the Nazis in experimental concentration camps succeeded in alienating men from themselves. Sometimes I fancy that the problem-solvers, in a steady nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday way, would like to find out if they can alienate a man from himself without driving him to madness or suicide, just to see if it could be done and to study what would become of him after they had done it. I more than fancy, I believe, that the drift of their present experimentation is toward self-consciousness without self-knowledge and that this self-consciousness generates self-alienation. Perhaps some of them would agree that this is the case; but I further believe, as they demonstrably do not, that, however interesting self-alienation may be to study, it is bad to bring about, that one should not bring it about no matter what one might learn from doing so.

What will ever restrain the pure problem-solvers? Apparently, it will not be concern for the damage they are doing or repentance for the anguish they cause. Perhaps one can get at the would-be-pure psyche-mechanics through their vanity. Being intelligent, perhaps they could be persuaded that posing for themselves such pseudo-problems of the soul as Maturity makes them look stupid. Take my deplorable coming of age on the carob plantation in the Southern California desert: one who had come to study me might have pried and probed till he learned what happened but he never could have known what mattered unless he were told about it with words, aromatic, slippery words, unsolving and insoluble words.

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At the time I wrestled with him, my father (whose first two names are Paul Revere) was a bit older than I am now and already bore an unmistakable resemblance to John Brown. In a photograph of John Brown taken in 1856 when his raids were beginning, Brown’s head stands proudly on its neck like my father’s, his face is shaped and furrowed like my father’s, and his unmatched eyes and bitter mouth are an extreme of my father’s. I see Brown’s eyes as not going with each other, and his mouth as not going with either. One eye is bright and idealistic, the other is heavy and dark from looking at too much evil; the mouth is ferociously determined. But, as I interpret him, his mouth does not have a clean line as it would if he were singly resolved, if his resolution were to perform one upheaving act in which the ideal that made one eye bright should assault the evil the other eye saw. Instead, Brown’s mouth has the irregular line of a man whose own will has been polluted by the evil he has looked at too long, and who knows his will is unclean, and whose knowledge makes his great symbolic act excessively destructive but does not keep him from performing it. Intolerable evil as John Brown saw it took the social form of slavery; he saw that by destroying first some slave-holders and then himself he might catch and fire the conscience of his countrymen, as in fact he did. But his martyrdom was not a pure sacrifice, it was also an escape from guilt; for the killings, those at Pottawatomie, the first ones, had not been merely divinely ordained executions of social criminals, they had also been criminal murders themselves.

The social evil my father loathed was usury, but he killed no bankers. He was that religious oxymoron, a gentle Calvinist—that is to say, a Quaker. He knew he could keep the murder in his heart from reaching his hands; he was not so violently torn apart as John Brown was. In the 1920’s in Indiana my father was building up a dairy farm which he worked himself. When the Depression began hitting farmers, he could not meet his mortgage payments; the local bank, whose president was also an elder of the church (these were high-church Quakers, with a preacher and elders), foreclosed without mercy. Maybe a ferocious Presbyterian like John Brown would have smelled revolution in the air, have scoured around shooting a few bankers and stockbrokers in God’s name till he was arrested, and, by seeing his execution as a sacrifice, have turned his executioners into tyrants against whom the poor and defeated might rise. But in my father’s religion vengeance was the greatest sin, even greater than vanity, and he plucked murderousness from his heart whenever he found it lurking there. That it was there sometimes I have no doubt. Years later he told me that he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan did not ride in Indiana in the 20’s, it was a sort of lodge. Nevertheless, he joined it, and the Klan it was.

Evil as I see it is well-engineered modern warfare, that mutual self-destruction for which “war” is too sweet a name, that utterly dishonorable unconnecting which the world’s rulers advise us toward and threaten us with. I am not well qualified for sacrificial assassination and I am too inept to escape being captured. I am unsure which of them to kill, which generals, problem-solving physicists, heads of state; they are so well guarded that I doubt that I could kill more than one if I tried or that my execution would be presented publicly as other than a sort of pest-riddance, and even if it were to be seen as heroic martyrdom, my drugged, depressed, rich fellow-citizens would not rise; I do not know God’s will, I could not pretend to act in God’s name, no one would believe me if I did. All the same, one of the many mornings when the Kennedys and Khrushchevs were further unconnecting us by an increase of fear (fear caused by their strong threats to undo us with bombs), I caught a glimpse in the bathroom mirror, as I lifted my razor, of John Brown’s mouth and unmatched eyes. It is my fortune that I have neither clan nor creed to support my murderousness and that I have my writing in which to discharge it. I have imagined in detail how.

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Quakers have no sacraments and they put great store in restraining all those natural urgencies by which the soul is kept from a naked confrontation with invisible God; they are against ritual. Nevertheless, they do not restrain every part of their nature all the time, and sometimes natural impulses—my father’s and mine at any rate—need ceremony. Aubrey has this anecdote about Sir Walter Raleigh and his son, who lived in ceremonious days:

Sir Walter Raleigh, being invited to dinner to some great person where his son was to go with him, he said to his son, “Thou art expected today at dinner to go along with me, but thou art such a quarrelsome, affronting . . ., that I am ashamed to have such a bear in my company.” Mr. Walter humbled himself to his father, and promised he would behave himself mighty mannerly. So away they went. He sat next to his father and was very demure at least half the dinner time. Then he said, “I, this morning, not having the fear of God before my eyes but by the instigation of the devil, went to a whore. I was very eager of her, kissed and embraced her, and went to enjoy her, but she thrust me from her, and vowed I should not, for your father lay with me but an hour ago.” Sir Walter being strangely surprised and put out of countenance at so great a table, gives his son a damned blow over the face. His son, as rude as he was, would not strike his father, but strikes over the face the gentleman that sat next to him and said, “Box about: ‘twill come to my father anon.”

My father and I, Quakers in a desert, blundered foolishly for lack of ceremony. Formal, empty ritual is a tourist cathedral with guides instead of priests. What of the substance of ritual uncontained by its forms? Like other people, Quakers need to come of age.

One Saturday night during the winter I was thirteen, my mother bathed and tucked away the smaller children, and told me to get ready to take my bath. The round zinc washtub was set on the kitchen floor as usual. A few inches of warm water were poured into it, and washrag, bathbrush, and soap were on a stool beside it. But instead of leaving me to wash myself alone, coming and going indifferently, my parents sat themselves down next to the tub and watched me bathe. I cringed invisibly. My mother kept glancing at my sprouting hairs, but said nothing about them or where they were. My father scrubbed my back with the bathbrush. He coughed a couple of times. “We’ve got to work some of the fat off the boy.” Then, on what impulse I cannot imagine, he swiped my crotch from behind with the brush, whacked me on the buttocks, laid the towel across my shoulders, and stomped into the other room.

That didn’t do it.

The next year sometimes things would recede, as though I were looking through a telescope backward. I rather enjoyed playing with the illusion, which did not interfere when I was reading; having the kitchen stove, my next younger brother, or the kerosene lamp suddenly become small and distant did no harm that I could see. When I told my mother about it, she thought I was reading too much, and took me to a doctor, “a specialist.” This priest-like stranger found nothing wrong with my eyes and gave me a general physical examination. “I see you are a man,” he said and poked around my genitals. I nearly fainted. He told my mother there was nothing wrong with me but some functional disorder. It took me twenty years to dispel the miasma of anxiety caused by the word functional. Still, maybe his poking was a placebo of sorts; within a few weeks after the examination things quit receding.

That didn’t do it.

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The following summer when I was fifteen, I began thinking I was stronger than my father. I was taller and heavier than he, and I could run faster. Once I won a secret contest with him. As he was hoeing the weeds from a row of carobs, going at the pace he maintained steadily for a nine- or ten-hour work day, I hoed my row much faster than he did his. Never mind that I only worked for a couple of hours; never mind that he did not know we were in competition: I was better than he. After supper one evening when my parents were sitting out on the porch watching the blue mountains turn black with dusk, I called to them to watch me, went to the Model-T Ford, and lifted mightily till one wheel came off the ground. At least I thought and said it did. Mother squealed gratifyingly and told me to be careful. Father grunted and said that was pretty good. I challenged him to wrestle. He barked scornfully. I baited him. Mother told me not to be silly. I said I was stronger than he was. He scowled, and puffed on his cigar. I bet he was afraid to try me—just once? He laid his cigar on the railing, shook his head, and came down the steps. Mother yelped a little; she leaned forward in her rocking chair, her arms hugging her bosom, and told us not to do anything serious, we were just playing. We were not just playing. I circled Father, who rotated while waiting for me. When I lunged for his neck, he grabbed me around the middle. I got an arm around his neck, to be sure, but my bones melted and my knees buckled; all I was doing was hugging him. He threw me hard enough to knock the wind out of me a bit, put one knee on my belly, and pushed my shoulders to the ground. Mother told him to help me up, but he left me to get up by myself. Mother wanted to console me, but I went off by myself.

That didn’t do it either, but it did something.

As I was shuffling away I heard Father complain that he had wrenched his hip when he’d thrown me. Mother clucked and murmured something I did not catch.

“Heaven on earth,” he said “I don’t know what the boy wants.”

He did not know what I wanted but he gave me some of it. Once in a while I’d catch glimpses of it in a mirror.

I guess I came of age in the usual, unshapely, American way—that is to say, by turning twenty-one. As for this uphill Maturity they’re trying to sell us on—it’s just functional. So far as I know, not even a Mead has found even an empty ceremony celebrating the way anybody attains Maturity. Till I have found, as I have not found, some ill-shaped experience groping for a Maturity-ritual, I will instead pray—archaic and imprecise though it be—for wisdom, for occasional gifts of unstudiable wisdom, and give up trying to climb mountains that don’t need to be there.

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