Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Two literary models of me
Of the two characters in literature I most identify with, one is a drunk and the other is a robot.  I am neither, but I often wonder why not.

1.  The drunk

The drunk is James Agee's uncle Frank in A Death in the Family.  (He is called "Ralph" in the abridged edition published in 1957 by David McDowell, but is revealed as Frank in the full edition published in 2007 by Michael A. Lofaro.  I strongly recommend the latter, whether or not you have read the former.)  The book is autobiographical in that the people in it are real (and even, in the restored edition, are called by their real names), but fictional in that the author applied his astonishing powers of empathy to imagine how the grownups around him saw things when he was six years old (in 1915) and his father Jay was killed in a car accident.  He spells everything out, which is a great help to me, because my own powers of empathy are as stunted as his were prodigious.  Largely for that reason, A Death in the Family is one of the great books of my life.

Frank is Jay's brother, and is the closest man available when their father, who lives some miles north of town, has a heart attack.  Frank is impressed with his responsibility in that situation, and that causes him to exaggerate the seriousness of the attack.  He calls Jay, who can tell he is somewhat drunk and "whickering up his feelings", but who doesn't dare take the risk of being skeptical.  (I am a sentimentalist of Frank's kind, always trying to have appropriate feelings.)  "Wants babying, Jay realized....  Of all the crybabies,...".  (Just the kind of thing people must think of me, when I'm not careful.)  So he has a hurried breakfast & rushes off.  When he gets to his father's, his skepticism is confirmed.  Frank goes on being sentimental & officious & embarrassing.  Out on an errand, he humiliates himself with grievance-hunting fantasy:
His first impulse, when he saw the horse and rider ahead, was to honk, both in self-advertisement, warning and greeting, but he remembered in time the seriousness of the occasion and did not do so, reflecting, after it was too late, that Thomas might feel he was snubbed, as if he had passed him on the street without speaking, and he was angry with Thomas for possibly having such feelings about such petty matters, at such a time.

The way I do.  Whatever he tries, he can't pull it off:
...and he called, in a voice which sounded unfriendly, though he had meant to make it sound friendly to everyone except Tom,....

Eventually he gets drunk & makes a complete fool of himself.  Then he bangs his head & more or less comes to his senses:

And looking at himself now, he neither despised himself nor felt pity for himself, nor blamed others for whatever they might feel about him.  He knew that couldn't ever really know what they thought,....  He was sure, though that whatever they might think, it couldn't be very good, because there wasn't any very good thing to think of....  And it was respect he needed, infinitely more than love.  Just not to have to worry about whether people respect you.  Not ever to have to feel that people are being nice to you because they are sorry for you, or afraid of you....

Right.  But how am I different?

I'm smarter, for one thing.  I am sensitive to such patterns in my own behavior, and recoil from them.  That doesn't do me any good, but it makes me less of a nuisance.  In particular, I have some astonishingly effective feedback loops that protect me from addiction.  The recognition of incipient dependence on anything external, such as alcohol or pornography, turns me off, I think because I am afraid of its being recognized by others.  My addictions are internally satisfied --- I have a man within, as Burroughs puts it.  That saves me from some humiliations.

Also, I am lucky in belonging to a class that didn't put a lot of pressure on me to be normal --- in particular, to get married & have children.  What is more, it has trained me to value & emulate independence of mind, tho I do not have the courage that ought to go with it.  Thus, I have been saved from Frank's biggest mistakes.

2.  The robot

The robot is the protagonist of a charming little sf story, "Period Piece" (1948), by J. J. Coupling.  (The author's real name was John R. Pierce, and he was an important electrical engineer.  He wrote a good popular book on information theory, Symbols, Signals, and Noise.  For some of his fiction he named himself after JJ coupling, a limit used in the quantum-mechanical theory of atomic structure.)

The robot was made, in the 31st century, to simulate a man from the 20th century as an amusement at parties.  People ask him questions about the 20th century, and he comes up with canned answers:

Smith could not remember having been asked just this question before.  For a moment he could think of nothing.  Then suddenly, as always, the knowledge flooded into his mind.  He found himself making a neat little three-minute speech almost automatically....

The people do not tell him he is a robot, and he does not tell them that he is conscious.  Eventually, tho, he figures out the situation and, after a "little review of twentieth century psychology", jumps off the tall building where he lives.  Alas, that only wrecks his body; his mind is a computer program that was controlling it from the building.  He hears his owner and a technician discuss turning it off & (to put it anachronistically) finding the bug in the program.

A directory of 3-min lectures seems like a pretty good model of me.  I produce them in response to questions, with little thought of the people who ask them.  It is hard for me to ask other people questions.  Maybe Pierce was like that too, but escaped.

  • 1
(Deleted comment)
I should add to Section 2 that in my copious solitary life I continually & repetitively rehearse lectures on all subjects.

"Period Piece" (1948), by J. J. Coupling.

I think I'd like to read it. Have you a suggestion for where I might find it?

(Hello there, by the way. I'm here via the discussion of advertising psychology over in snousle. I note you list alt.usage.english in your profile, and as a professional brandisher of figurative pens both red and nonrepro-blue and a veteran slogger through usenet myself, I appreciate that; if you've a moment, have a laugh at my list.)

I have it in _Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction_ (1983; Bonanza, 1985). It originally appeared in 1948, I think in _Astounding Science Fiction_. I'll be glad to scan (photocopy) it & email (snailmail) it to you if you'll give me your email (snailmail) address.

As to nitpicking, I hope you are also aware of the newsgroup sci.lang (more scholarly & descriptivist, much worse crackpot infestation, much worse manners) & the Web site (mostly linguists; cheerful). I'll browse thru your list, but it might be easier to comment on it in real email.

Woof %^),

(Deleted comment)
  • 1

Log in

No account? Create an account