Commentary Magazine


To Be A God

Among the first to arrive, we climb to a bench beneath a tree. Beside us over a low stone wall the vineyard falls away across the hillside. Gnarled vines uddered with grape, evenly spaced and pruned, manacled each to its low frame, descend in long green lines. Among them move a horse and plowman, slowly, with unsure footing, the red earth turning between the vines, plowshare flashing in the sun. In the grass along the wall, a column of ants; on stage two, young men arranging chairs for the string orchestra. The sun is past the zenith, throws a pattern of leaves on my wife’s bent head. To the west a tidal wave of fog spills over the coastal hills, is burned by sun to incandescence. To the east, down-sloping fields, a line of trees and a ravine, another vineyard, a meadow and more trees, and the level valley floor, cities and towns, the freeway like an ant trail, the silver bay, the far mountains, summer . . . the blue sky over all.

My summer too, far enough along to see the end: work a little harder, make more money, children off to college, freedom then and the world tour, back and more work, weddings and thrown bouquets, and then the coronary. Is this the way to live? Who knows the question knows not how; who knows not the question cannot tell.

The amphitheater is being filled: a chatter of voices, a false laugh, chic women in spike heels and beehive coiffures crowding up the grassy path. How do others live? The musicians settle themselves on the stage with a clatter of chairs, begin the tuning of instruments. Around us gray-haired men with white handkerchiefs bend gravely and dust benches; young women in sundresses, with firm brown arms, glance at each other, compare clothes, compare . . . compare. There’s Arthur Lapham with a flaming redhead, looking over her to all who enter, nodding, waving, ready always for the big chance. And Dr. Naserhof, psychoanalyst with the sad yellow face, shoulders stooped as if by an invisible weight, a tall spare frame that lay stretched on my couch (for I, too, am an analyst), feet dangling, four times a week for—how many?—years; for a while analysis itself becoming for him the meaning of life, a kind of formal minuet in which the learning of new psychic steps replaced lost illusions; with insight to spare but no change, coining in time to feel betrayed, but still on the couch for years . . . years, creating for my ears elegies of transience and disillusion, laments on the wandering restlessness of man—saying, “I came to this hospital as a resident, and still remember how it was. And how I was. Patients would arrive sick and leave well. Something would happen—insight—that made a difference. So I thought. It’s the same now; but I’m different, and what they achieve is respite, not change. For any significant change proves illusory, and any real change proves insignificant. Whatever was wrong with them stays wrong, recurs, the same or slightly different, and they muddle along for a while with ups and downs, and then come back. And the second time is like the first—some new insights, some new ‘realizations,’ some new ‘turning points’—like the wind turns”; now, himself behind the couch, making fifty thousand a year, his heart still feeling the sterility of life, great gifts going to waste, wanting to give himself to something—research perhaps, or teaching, maybe the Peace Corps—but can’t be sure, putting it off, never deciding, moving meanwhile from wife to wife, coming back to see me at his third divorce (that young woman on his arm with the tight dress and plunging neckline, is she number four?), hesitating at the door, vaguely touching the books with his long fingers, saying, “I read a little Tillich . . . very good . . . very stimulating . . . try to find out something, some meaning . . . the style is difficult. . . .” Prisoner of the past. . . could he choose a different life? Could I?

Near the stage I see my friend Simon; the place is full of psychoanalysts. He raises a hand in greeting, starts up the grassy path—a barrel of a man with a rolling walk, sun gleaming on bald head, a bristling mustache, swarthy skin with genial wrinkles, black eyes darting furiously, mouth working over a black cigar, rolling it, chewing it, issuing billows of smoke as if for a festival. I know from his manner he has something to tell me. “C’mere,” he says, plucking my arm, and leads me some distance away from possible interruption; “got a gem for you.” He backs me against a tree, puffs harder in anticipation of brief abstinence, explodes in smoke shrouding us both. “Listen to this!” He puts the cigar on a branch near my head, fixes me with restless, tormented eyes, and pokes me lightly on the chest to prevent my attention from wandering. “This happened yesterday in a supervision hour . . . candidate reporting on the analysis of a thirty-seven year old man. The patient remembered something from early childhood: he had waked at night with an earache and called for his mother. She came in her nightgown, took his temperature, and said he had to have medicine. He cried; she insisted. When she went to get the medicine he got out of bed, ran silently down the hall to his parents’ bedroom, and slipped in beside his sleeping father. When the medicine was prepared his mother couldn’t find him. . . . O.K.? Understand? That’s the memory. At that point I interrupted the candidate: ‘Stop right there,’ I said; ‘I will predict for you the content of the next hour!’”

Simon pauses, and I register an obliging astonishment.

“So,” he says, poking me a little harder with the stubby forefinger, “what did I tell him?” Having long since given up these psychoanalytic puzzles, along with three-move chess problems, I shrug in amiable defeat. “It’s easy,” Simon says. “‘The patient will stand up his wife and try to seduce his analyst.’ The candidate’s mouth fell open when I said that—because that’s exactly what had happened. In the very next hour the patient reported having forgotten to meet his wife, left her standing on Union Square; she was furious. And in that same hour, at the end, when he got up from the couch—whatdya think?—he gave the candidate a stock tip: ‘Buy Sundown Oil,’ he said. ‘It’s a sleeper; there’s going to be a sellout. It’ll double at least.’ Get it?” Simon shouts, the finger jabbing gleefully. “Get it? ‘Sleeper’! ‘Sellout’! Isn’t that beautiful! Isn’t that a gem!” A few more exclamations, and the story is over. I rejoin my wife, furtively rubbing my chest. Simon wanders off, billowing smoke again, hails a friend, launches into another story.

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And the others here around me . . . how do they live? On a Sunday afternoon like this they drive out of the city into hills and meadows, in sunlight, to a concert; and tomorrow will wake and dress and eat, go to work; will sell houses, buy stock, examine patients, teach classes, settle estates, look after children; then home to the two cocktails and dinner, then the movie or committee meeting or television or party, and more to drink and so to bed and the making of love—with love or without—and to sleep, the earth turning, the sun rising, and so all again. And all this is perhaps nothing of choice, no creation, but the life process as given—to this species in this time and place—a role we play with a make-believe of independence, but then we die for real.

And I? The same: ten patients a day now, make more money, pay more taxes, buy more stocks and better clothes, drink more wine, worry about practice, reputation, Russians, cholesterol . . . the same old things. Is this the way to live? Is there a choice?

The cacophony of tuning dwindles, ends; the conductor enters to applause; the hush, the raised baton, the poised bows; then a lyric soaring, light as a butterfly, deft as a hummingbird, and oh I wish I had lived in the time of that music. That’s the harmony of the spheres, Boccherini plucked it out of the air. That’s the Heavenly City being erected on Europe’s green and pleasant land. That’s the graceful motion of infinitely perfectible man, the serene processional on the path of progress. That’s the 18th century. Never before or since has man achieved such an orderly image of life. Maybe I would have been stifled by its smugness, but I envy its certainties. When one is so sure one can afford to be good. We are in the slough of doubt; it has a bitter taste and a discordant sound.

The audience is still now, faces fixed on the stage like a bed of strange flowers combed by the wind. The bows move in unison, while above us the leaves of poplar turn simultaneously at the touch of inaudible breeze; we are caught and held by a pattern of notes from the 18th century, and are caught up beyond this music in something not of our choosing, a solemn procession, living out assigned roles, disappearing like leaves. Choice? Where is choice? We look like gods but are like that horse, in invisible harness, pulling an invisible plow, obediently, day after day, down the same furrow to the same end.

It is easy to admit to this malaise provided one is willing to label it sickness—middle-age depression, perhaps, or involutional state. Life is not impugned. One may go then to an analyst for help, may even speak of it to friends. But those who regard it as the stuff of which our days are made cannot speak. When truth indicates despair we seek illusion, and who dare attack such a choice?—who, indeed, other than those who covet the freedom to make it. We cannot, having no other life to offer, betray the life that betrays us. I too have been silent, speak now only because—sitting here in this pleasant company on this sunny afternoon, feeling days run through me and on like an unknowable river, seeing my image in that horse and plowman—I am again in search of a freedom beyond constraint.

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That was a shrewd guess of Simon’s—but that’s all. Most analysts would admit that the evidence did not warrant the prediction, that many unreckoned and unmeasured variables may have brought about (or might have prevented) the outcome. Analysts are modest this way; “We need more evidence,” they say, thereby cloaking a Promethean arrogance. For the assumption implicit in Simon’s story—one which most analysts would share—is this: that there are general laws of mental functioning (repetition compulsion, transference and displacement, etc.) which, together with a sufficiently exact and extensive knowledge of initial and intervening conditions (traumatic event, reactivation in free association, etc.) make possible, in principle at least, the prediction of future mental events.

I used to be fluent at this game, facile in reducing a man to psychodynamics; now am silent, can’t bring myself to mouth the clichés. Yet it was just this arrogance of psychoanalysis that drew me to it in the first place. For, acting with the conviction of freedom and choice, I would see, later, that I had been driven, and so came in time to the sense of being lived by unknown forces. Psychoanalysis promises insight into this darkness, and, through insight, control. Determinism thus ministers to the quest for certainty; it asserts regularity, denies any fundamental chance or chaos. For the lost security of God in the heavens it substitutes an immutable orderliness, not only in heaven but also on earth, in the mind of man and in the heart of the atom—to which Einstein gave voice in his vehement disavowal of chance: “Der Herr Gott würfelt nicht!” (“The Lord God does not throw dice!”).

Yet the history of determinism is a history of paradox—and this, itself, is a paradox, since the whole point of determinism is the deletion of inconsistency. Religious determinism runs a veritable gauntlet of paradox: a wholly good God creating a world marked by evil; man being free to choose, yet God having foreknowledge of man’s acts; God being omnipotent, yet man being responsible. Nor is scientific determinism much better off. All is well when we deal with isolated systems, such as our group of planets, which we can observe and measure without disturbing. This is the determinism of Laplace: the demon stands outside the system on which it makes pronouncements. But so soon as we say, “All is determined,” and really mean all, we’re in trouble; for we’re talking about a system which includes ourselves and our talking—like the map of an area which includes a map of that area—and every word we utter is a change in that which the word is trying to pin down.

No one could have been more explicit or passionate than Freud in insisting that every last wisp and shred of psychic occurrence is rigidly determined, that no event of inner life could be other than it is, that nothing of soul escapes the deterministic net, that the fleeting wordless images are in principle reducible to formula and, though infinitely more complex, are no less lawful than the movement of planets, that free will is but a subjective state to be causally explained like any other. Yet it was Freud who found it necessary to say that the object of analysis is “to give the patient’s ego freedom [his italics] to choose one way or the other.” We, as psychoanalysts, expose to a patient why he has to be the way he is, then expect him to use this insight to become different from the way we have proved to him he can’t help being. We try to climb out of this pit by asserting that causes effecting character change operate not only in childhood but throughout life, that the interpretations of an analyst are one class of such causes, and that these may relieve a neurosis in the same deterministic way that certain other causes produced the neurosis in the first place. The hope of radical change, we say, calls, not for the suspension of exceptionless determinism, but just the opposite—for a more vigorous application of the deterministic principle. Then we’re really in trouble; for we’re appealing for support for a law which, we say, cannot conceivably be disobeyed and hence needs no support. Here, without awareness, we invoke our double standard: expressly declaring our patients to be determined, we covertly regard ourselves as being free. Otherwise we should have to admit that our interpretations are just as incapable of being anything other than what they have been, are, and will be, as the phenomena to which they are addressed.

There is no escape from this impasse, and it has come to explicit formulation by Gödel and Bridgman: a system dealing with itself encounters paradox; its postulates cannot be verified within the system. A deterministic psychoanalyst is like the Cretan passionately declaring all Cretans to be liars; like the barber, instructed to shave all men who do not shave themselves, wondering what to do about his own beard. As psychoanalysts our voices are getting hoarse, our beards are growing longer, and we are getting no wiser.

So what to do? What is a rational man to do—having lost faith in reason? I don’t know. The question trips itself. I don’t suppose it matters. I keep on working—not with hope, not with justification, but as a matter of taste. What else is there? Passivity, suicide, fleshpots . . . all equally absurd. I like the dignity of work. It has at least the merit of defiance, of shaking a fist at the heavens. But that’s just whimsy. Make a value out of that, and it too will disappear.

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I do not suppose this view to be general, but I know it to be common. It’s easy to hide; and because of guilt (for it is a rejection of life and one does feel guilty) one wants to hide it. Young lovers close their eyes, old lovers dissemble. Does my wife know? I look at her face and remember the storm of our coming together. I was the rock and she the wave breaking over me—tossed, scattered, falling, but reforming, coming always toward me, exploding, dismembered, thrown in a thousand directions, yet coming always back, rising with undiminished force and wholeness, enveloping me, until foam proved harder than granite, and sharpness was smoothed by green caress. This turning away from life betrays that love. I try to keep it from her, and she—since she cannot help—tries not to know.

What I speak of here is experienced by others in different ways: a sense of futility, an intimation of unimportance attaching to creative effort, a vague feeling that the author of any serious endeavor is fooling himself. Most common now is the bomb which lights the world with transience, shows us solid marble as papier-mâché.

My friend Jeff, sitting nearby, sees it as death. He too is an analyst, once a creative one, wrote a few brilliant papers . . . then silence. “I began to feel the black hand coming closer,” he told me once, “the utter unacceptability, the inner shriek. People don’t think about death. They go about their business, months pass, it rarely comes to mind. This is mental health. The self-righteous even call it courage. Psychiatrists affirm it; the denial insinuates itself even into the definition of normality. To be concerned with death, we say, is morbid. It’s not true. The fear and the revulsion are universal, but ignored. We contrive to assume that death is something that happens to other people or at a distant time. The most important death, we know nothing about, don’t want to know. The whole of civilization connives with this denial. All of the temples and bridges and novels and sonnets, all of the pyramids and paintings and symphonies and machines, all of the uses of reason, the clear concept, the unifying theory. These things are made with our life-blood, with the days of our years. And who has it to spare? Why, men who will never die. So—obviously—those who do these things are not about to die. Well. . . I am. So I no longer have the time.”

And this sunny company, prosperous all, well-dressed, educated, cultured—blessed and fortunate, one might think, beyond all others—the cancer grows here too. I’m a clinician of despair, I know the little signs: the wordless shadow in the eye, the furtive pain around the mouth; and the thousand ways of denying it, rationalizing it, running away from it: the distraction with things, the attempt to bribe one’s bitterness with luxuries (cars, houses, fur coats, country places); the flight into hobbies (sailing, chess, tennis, wine, poker); the weekends in Las Vegas and Acapulco; and the final common pathway of sex. We—all of us—go to cocktail parties, smile and talk and talk, we take care of children, and work, and take pride in what we do, and believe the trouble isn’t there. But we fool ourselves. It’s there, and we know it at night when the wind blows. And it’s there, too, after analysis; for when you have been completely analyzed—whatever that may mean—when, at the end of the last hour of your, perhaps, third analysis, you shake hands with your analyst and leave his office for the last time—at just that moment you hear a song, a snatch of melody from the radio of a passing convertible, feel again the pressure of a girl’s head on your shoulder when you danced with her to that song, years ago . . . the fumbling tenderness comes back and you feel an ache of longing . . . for something—not the girl, something else—something which has no name, lies beyond your grasp, and you know that analysis, however fine its net, could not capture this elusive anguish.

Yet so much there is of good, and of such pleasure: iced tea in summer in the south when one is a boy, the glass clouding purple, lemon gleaming yellow, and the thrilling coldness, the pungent sweetness; swimming at La Jolla in crystal water with the kelp waving and bright fish flashing by; and this quintet of Boccherini, and books that catch your heart and sweep you into the lives of others; and friendship and the love of woman . . . and so much more. But still a bondage; for all this goodness, pleasure, is our mandate; in its pursuit is our compliance.

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There are rebels among us, of a kind; I see two here. Martin von Haffner, wealthy, aristocratic, defending Communists in defiance of class and of state. And Amory Stone, golf pro, despite scandal, the anger of husbands, and the shrill and never still tongue of his thin embittered wife of nineteen married years, forever sliding hungry hands up the trembling thighs of other men’s wives—“Every golfer,” he says, “needs a hobby!” Skirmishes at the surface, defiance only of convention; to the twisted law of neurosis, compliance—the obedient living out of hatred of a father in the one, of quest for a mother in the other, and of God knows what else in both, but compliance nevertheless—just the ways they happen to dance to the piper who jigs us all. No rebellion here, but meekness; like singing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the Titanic goes down, like the pacific processions at Auschwitz, and oh the wild tearing sadness that we too, sentenced to die and well on our way, should move with such patience, such kindly grace and decorum, as this fine company seated here in orderly rows with tranquil upturned faces—charabanc to the churchyard.

Is there then no rebellion? The mandate of life is to live—to avoid death, to enlarge life, to live as well, as fully, according to our natures, as we can, for as long as possibly can be contrived. The only real rebellion then would be the sacrifice of life: not to cling and hang on and hold back, as we are ordered, but to give it up by choice. This is our only glove to throw in the face of existence. Not suicide, not the neurotic act, for that too is compelled; but to part with life freely, without sickness. How? To value something more than life—what?—some part of living more than the whole of one’s individual life. Something, something . . . the creation of music, the discovery of truth, the loving of others—to die for such by choice, that’s what I would do. To declare a love of life, and to give allegiance to it, by creating something which would enlarge the lives of all, at the same time defying the sentence of death by giving up one’s life, precisely to achieve this creation, before it is called for—that’s what I want. Give me an image!

A village square, a fountain, a spray of water pulsing in the wind; sunlight and a streamer of rainbow, and around the square the life of the village: the few—exploiters, manipulators, parasites—who serve only themselves, and the many who serve others while serving themselves; the mother caring for her child, the doctor tending the sick, the baker baking, the housewife cleaning, the psychoanalyst analyzing; children rolling hoops in the street, young people swimming and lying in the sun, everywhere the pursuit of the fullness of life; in a shuttered room the architect seducing the doctor’s wife, while from the tavern comes a polka and the splash of beer, and under the plane tree old men playing chess. But there is one who does none of these things, who sits at the fountain dreaming, watching in the spray of water, curtained by wind and jeweled by sun, a pulsing flag only he can see and none but him will follow, who will die young, having traded a part of life for the making of beauty. This is the real defiance; this is what I would do.

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But I have tried and failed. I feel, at the mere thought, a sick aversion. I have no knack, can find no path, would fail again. Begin to act—even at random—and you begin to hope. Begin to hope and you will perceive your action makes sense, that it keeps the ship afloat and on a steady course, that you will come to a safe harbor rather than a bad end. Is it only by not acting one gives up illusion? Can it be this hard for all who create? And is this really a wish to give something, or a disguise for the wish to get? To wrest something from the world, fame perhaps? How be sure? This doubt can impugn every motive, halt every action, insure that I do nothing, ever. What is it I lack—talent or courage? This is all in darkness.

Anyway, even should I succeed, might it not still be a dance to an unheard tune? To me an improvisation, but to the puppeteer, moving me on unseen threads, just a routine? The poet in the square may be acting out a given destiny, however obscure, as surely as the rest of us—to my eyes rebellion, to some higher vision compliance. Might it not in fact already have been determined that I go through this argument with myself today, that I struggle in just this way toward a decision that, unknown to me, is foregone? What is the issue? To try to create something of value . . . or to hell with it! But is this a decision I’m going to make—or one already made for me by complex and immeasurable causes, fixed within me as an unveering potentiality, to be revealed in time in the illusion of will?

I don’t know. Can one know such a thing? Would it make a difference?

Perhaps a great difference; for if the issue is already settled I shall lose interest—do now lose interest even at the thought—even without knowing which way it has been settled. This kind of thinking is work—or the illusion of work which is just as hard and, being useless, is worse—and I’ll not do it for nothing. If I regard myself as a puppet, I’ll forget the whole problem, will give myself over to the enjoyment of the music, will attend to the grace of my wife’s ankle, her sweet sensuous mouth, will try to live with more style; for if a life can leave no residue of value then the performance is all. What a good life this is with the love of this woman, with health, and the sun coming up every morning. A thousand blessings and no cause for complaints, and why am I spoiling a marvelous afternoon? Who could have more cause to be happy?

In this way would I dismiss a morbid mood . . . or would try. And if this didn’t work I’d turn on it the tools of my trade, would invoke from childhood the faded image of an implacable father, restate the error of his ways with me, affirm the sense of guilt he must have instilled, then aim the old interpretation: this restlessness, this nagging wish to create, this view of life as a procession to the grave, all this is but the compulsion to expiate a fantasied murder. And if the melancholy still would not yield I might take myself for further analysis to another of my own kind, to a master mechanic of mind, inviting him to treat me as a mechanism, asking him, not for suspension of causality in psychological affairs, but for new links in the causal chain, interpretations to divert the outcome—quite ignoring the curious paradox (he being as much a puppet as I, his interpretations as fully determined as my ailment, and my very going to him as unavoidable as his responding in his particular ways) that nothing new could occur, only the mechanical unfolding of what was there all along and inevitable.

If, however, I should take the view that what I shall decide is still open—not just unknown but really open, not fixed by antecedents, unpredictable at this point by any intelligence however superior, even by Laplace’s omniscient demon—I would incline to continue the struggle, to anguish over it, try to think it out, find my way. Because the decision would be mine, something made, a creation.

So it does make a difference and I must take a stand. What have I—choice or the illusion of choice? That intention may determine action is not in question; but what of intention? Is it but a proximate cause, itself the effect of preceding causes, extending in iron-locked linkage backward in time, ramifying, unbroken, endless? Or may will create something new, something not possibly to have been predicted from any prior state? Freedom, if it exists, has limits: I have such a body as this, I bleed; have two eyes not ten, live at 98° not 120°, am impelled by drives—sexual, aggressive; eventually will die. But within these limits what am I—free or simply unaware of the strings that move me? Is this something that can be reasoned out? What is determined is predictable—if one knows the general laws and the initial and intervening conditions. If everything is determined, so also must be this issue I’m grappling with—to create or not to care. Could this decision, to my knowledge unmade as yet, be at this moment predicted?

Not possible, I think, not even in principle, not even if I knew all—all events, all forces, ill impingements which had bearing, inner and outer, past and present, in measured quanta, infinite ramification . . . not even then. For the predicting would itself inject something new, itself a cause; and there would be no getting around it, not even if I could take this new cause into account, weigh it, foresee its effects near and far—not even then; for just this “taking into account” would again deflect my aim. Nor could anyone else, however fully informed, predict for me; for his observings would alter the observed in unmeasurable ways. Always there is something left over, always the future eludes us.

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Exhilaration in this . . . and paradox. To view the world as determined, this has been man’s courage, even impertinence, and his glory—an assumption most radical, inviting us to isolate segments of experience into closed systems, to discover their regularities, formulate their laws, and so to control the world; and we have: bridges and planes and hospitals and ships, and all of civilization bear witness. But to view ourselves—our visions, our very impertinence—as determined, this is an assumption most conservative, inviting us to conform to such laws of our nature as we may imagine. Can only imagine, never know, for we are involved; and can no more demonstrate than could we the laws of falling bodies in an atmosphere of random rifle fire. By assuming ourselves to be cogs in a mechanical universe, our lives the ticks of the great clock, we encourage ourselves—subtly, unwittingly—to act as we have always acted, to believe as we have always believed. Implicitly we encourage our patients to disparage will, to assume that nothing can be done until insight is complete. We postulate an indwelling essence that determines our lives, regard it as natural law; then come to feel (senselessly, for natural law is that which cannot be disobeyed) that we must act in accord with this essence, as if a break with the past were a breach of decorum, disagreeable, willful. Determinism leads us thus to label the leap as a sickness—Gauguin sailing for Tahiti is “acting out”—and in the very next breath to deny that it is a leap at all, to see it rather as consonant with concealed tendencies, indeed as the unavoidable product of neurotic conflict, even predictable. Not believing in freedom we become inattentive to the choices wherein it is manifest, assume we cannot reshape our lives, that a world state is impossible, that war is inevitable; and so it comes about that dreams are to be analyzed, that visions indicate psychosis—and freedom slips away.

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Ortega y Gasset would have me believe that there is within me a destiny—a vocation in the largest sense of this word—which lies behind my “actual life like its mysterious root, as the hand lies behind the thrown dart,” an “authentic I” which calls but does not compel: I may evade it, run from it, and so perjure my being, or may turn to it as my task, grapple toward its realization. This is Luther’s “I can do no other,” and I have had such moments, I know the feeling. Is this a guide?

But what—or who?—is this self to which I should be true? Something innate, inscribed in origins and depths? I find it inscribed only in past choices and their consequences. Who am I?—why none other than he who chose this work, took this wife, fathered these children, made those countless commitments and undertook those myriad responsibilities in which my life is now webbed. The more consistent these choices—with each other and with prior choices—the more integrated the self which they progressively shape; the more integrated this self the more compelling will be its demand that further choices accord with its values, coincide with its direction; and the further this process is extended, in time and in number of committing decisions, the stronger the self will become, the more nearly irresistible its mandate, until it may at last defy any power on earth and lead one to the stake rather than to recant. This is the destiny which is character. And still nothing, even so, can guarantee its Tightness. There was no blueprint, nothing prior to the free and therefore ultimately arbitrary choices with which it was built. Its authenticity is its wholeness.

Gauguin at thirty-five appeared the authentic banker; only the break in his life reveals the split, the identity of artist behind the role of banker. We say “role” of banker because it’s past and we know, but how was it for Gauguin? How could he know what was structure and what was facade? “Am I a banker with a hankering to paint, or an artist hiding in a banker’s life?” It would have been a comfort to him to label his leaning as destiny, to “realize,” as it were, that an unseen hand had set him on the trajectory of artist, but could he believe that? Can we?—when the warring identities are themselves arbitrary, being but the result of two series of choices diverging now too far for one life to hold, and perhaps neither, if there were a destiny, meant for him? God’s finger does not point: he made a leap, evicted the banker, gave the artist room to spread out, and so began a series of choices which created a self we think more authentic than the old—and so indeed it was if it fused into wholeness the passionate fragments of his nature. As Tahitian artist he disappears from our view, but it is only his death which makes that identity final. To live is to choose and so to continue to be shaped by choice, and a self which has hardened into final immutable shape is dead though its bearer may still breathe and move. Were Gauguin alive and making choices how could we know where they would carry him? Further in the same direction? Perhaps. But how be sure they would not again set his life on a different course, so creating a different self, even one as far surpassing in integration, and hence authenticity, the artist as the artist had surpassed the banker?

There is no help here. To be true to myself is no guide, for it means being true only to what I already am in whole or in part and so can lead to nothing new. To believe the task of my life to be already decided, like orders from headquarters which I as soldier must find and execute . . . this is a turning away from the ultimate choice. The orders I’m most concerned with are those yet to be written, by me. Anxiety may lead me to disclaim creation, construe it as discovery, for much, even most, of life is necessity, but beyond constraint there lies in darkness a realm of freedom where there is no design until I make it. Here is the possibility of creation. Here the question is not “Who am I?” but “Who shall I be?” Who . . . ?

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But might there not be, I must ask, an orderliness inaccessible to me, undemonstrable but invincible, of even the most tenuous events of dream and heart and thought, of these very questionings down to the last twist and comma, an orderliness such that—could one know all yet affect nothing—the future could be seen? Such that, given the 19th century, the history of the 20th could be written in full? Such that, given in its entirety any instant in time, all future instants could be charted?

Along the wall move two columns of ants, one toward the winery, empty-handed, the other away from it with grain. Were it possible for one of these ants to consider this problem, what conclusions would his position in life make possible? That one there, for example, the big one, on his way to the winery but taking his time about it, turning around, standing up and looking about, stopping his returning colleagues, sniffing their burdens, lording it over them, tempted I think to snatch a grain, join the returning column, and so short-cut the trip. He would declare his freedom, I’m sure of it, would say he goes where he pleases, and find in his erratic excursions cogent proof. And should some scientist-ant—to press this analogy as far as possible—set about to prove him wrong, to portray his behavior as determined, this very effort might send the big one scurrying off the path, so, all the more conclusively, to establish his freedom. But I have a larger view and see a lawfulness unknown to him. He is constrained to this path; I know where he will go, when return, and with what burden. His freedom, if he feels it, is illusory.

And might there not exist somewhere a point of view as detached from me as mine from these ants—an intelligence as superior—to which every aspect of my life—including even this decision I’ve not yet “made”—is seen as an immutable sequence of cause and effect and hence predictable? How can I know? I can’t, I suppose, nor can I dismiss it; I am given pause by the thought of an ant’s denying my existence, and of his never knowing the fatuousness of his error.

_____________

 

But what, if it should exist, would be the nature of such an intelligence? It could not be that of a man, for a man’s observations would be interventions. It would have to be as far removed from us as we from the ants, as superior to us in knowledge and understanding, able to know and measure our most intimate vaporous fancies, including these very speculations, without affecting what was known and measured—in a word, God.

Suppose, then, I postulate God—simply as a vantage point for the observation of man as determined. Such a postulate cannot establish determinism in the affairs of men, but makes the assumption logically tenable. But does not, I discover immediately, dispel the issue of freedom. For what about God’s acts? God’s thoughts? God’s observations? Are they determined. If not determined, then there does exist something outside causality. If determined, then I must postulate a super-God in order to make sense of the assumption that God is not free.

Determinism, it appears, smuggles the idea of freedom past the custom officials of science. Laplace supposes that a demon, fully informed about every particle in the universe, could predict the future—and so, unnoticed, locates freedom with the demon, without whom the image is lost. Always we impute the existence of something, somewhere, which can act in a way that not even in principle could be predicted. For freedom is another word for life; without it there is nothing, not even determinism. If we think of the lawfulness of falling bodies, we presuppose a human intelligence free to experiment, to measure the fall of iron and apples and feathers, in air and in vacuum and in windstorm. And if we shift attention to the creativity of the experimenter and regard that too as determined, then—whether we know it or not—we locate freedom in a suprahuman experimenter. Determinism, declaring no exception, rests solidly on an exception. The idea of freedom is inalienable; if we deny it to ourselves we ascribe it to gods.

So, then, where locate it? There may indeed be a level of observation from which the life of man may be seen as determined; lack of evidence cannot prove its non-existence. Likewise there may, beyond that, be an even higher level of observation from which events at the intermediate level would be predictable. One such, or two . . . or many. Or none. Here knowledge ends in choice: our lives are determined and there is a God; or our lives are free and man is God. This is metaphysics, there is no evidence here; both positions are logical, neither is subject to falsification.

Where lies my heart? Either way I may be wrong; so which error, I must ask, would I rather risk—to be an arrogant puppet who thinks he’s a god, or a humble god who thinks he’s a puppet? For me the answer is clear, better try for too much than too little; I elect to believe our future is unwritten, that we create it as we will.

But freedom is not fortuity, does not war with continuity, means only that we may make out of past and present something new, something which is not a mechanical unfolding and cannot have been foretold, that no law limits how far we may go, how wide, how deep. We are gods because we create.

And I? Tomorrow the sun will rise on the same routine, and what can all this mean? What can I create? Where is the poetry of which I am capable? Of what nature? Where can I. . . .

_____________

 

Applause and the conductor bowing, the audience to its feet with bravos, the orchestra standing . . . then an ending; the scraping of chairs, musicians beginning to leave the stage, the audience breaking up, people turning to each other . . . hello, hello, wasn’t it simply marvelous . . . false smiles, ladies comparing dresses, jewelry, wrinkles, the color of hair, men comparing bosoms, hips, thighs, ankles; champagne around the swimming pool with talk of music and books, introductions to a vintner, a violist, and a critic; dinner on the terrace with four wines, introductions to a judge, an economist, and a college student, talk of delinquency and taxes and schools; then the long walk to the car, cool now with the sun dropping behind the fog bank, the winding road down the mountain, down, down, in darkening twilight and finally the freeway (from the mountain an ant trail, but here a whine and threat and roar of cars), a glare in the mirror of weaving lights separating into two streams to pass, the sharp licking sound of tires as the road gets wet in the dripping fog; then the flashing red lights and stopped cars and . . . yes, yes . . . the twisted metal, the broken glass, the smell of gasoline, and there by the road (my wife’s fingernails biting my arm) a man on a heap of gravel as if on a bier, ashen face turned to the black sky; then beside him waiting for the ambulance . . . about twenty, I’d say, and now a fractured skull, and oh . . . how to live? How to live? and will this one get another chance? . . . nothing to do but hope and see that he breathes, and . . . how will he use it if he gets another chance? How ever can we find our way out of this murk? Then the siren, white sheets and stretcher and he’s gone, and I’m back in the car, wife trembling on my arm, and we go on, lost, in this night of blinding lights and confusing signs—and it has to be this way, we want it too easy, want a routine of creation, a paved road into the unknown, but darkness is our workshop, here creation begins . . . and still time to try.

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