Friday, June 24, 2011

Interlude: A Moment of Catharsis

Half the work that is done in this world is to make things appear what they are not. -- Elias Root Beadle

My late paternal grandmother, Ann Saling, tried to cultivate in me a taste for the finer things, including serious literature, so she introduced me at a young age to Franz Kafka. When she sat me down to read Kafka's Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), I hated it. It repelled me. I could not stand how unrealistic it was, how wrong everyone's reactions were, how nothing strange was explained. It felt like drinking from a cup of sickness, and I pushed it away.

I missed the point of what she was trying to do until decades later, when I finally came to a place in my life where I could tolerate and even cradle a dark place in my heart for the grim humor, the enraged exasperation and contempt, the grief for humanity in Kafka's work. You need to experience the madness of the human world fully enough to accept it, to be willing to have it called what it is. After that point, one realizes that the status quo is the threat and the messenger is just a healer, a Good Samaritan forced to discuss repulsive things in the hope that a diagnosis will lead to treatment and impoved health.

Until then, one feels polluted by contact with ugly truths, feels that one's health, sanity, even purity are being ruined by hearing them. Until that point, the messenger seems like the threat, so we respond in kind. We accuse the messenger of being mad, polluted, sick, dangerous. We react with hostility not to the real threat, but to its revelation and those who reveal it, and we refuse to believe.

We look for excuses not to listen. If the messenger is upset, then we can rationalize away his message as the exaggerations of an overly emotional person. If he says we face intractable systemic problems, we twist his message to something easier to dismiss, accuse him of believing in conspiracies, of being paranoid or otherwise out of touch with reality.

The irony is that we are the ones out of touch with reality, not the messenger.

As we go about our lives, we fight those who try to warn us that our house is on fire, in the same way that a drowning person sometimes fights the lifeguard. We have powerful vested interests in the way we believe the world works, so those who disrupt our view of the world feel like the threats to all we have invested in our illusions.

When I first encountered Beadle's quote, I reacted as I had to Kafka, by rejecting it reflexively and rationalizing my prejudice to make myself seem more reasonable and the author less so - thereby ironically demonstrating the truth of what he wrote. These days I've concluded that either the human world has grown more in love with illusions than in Beadle's time or he underestimated the scope of the problem.

To those who still find Beadle's summation pessimistic, I offer this explanation:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" -- Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, 1935


Purrsistent said...

This is all right on except that Grandma Ann was your paternal grandmother ;)

Rick Marshall said...

Fixed. Thanks. That's what I get for writing on four hours of sleep.

BrightenedBoy said...

I've never read (or even heard of) "The Metamorphosis" but anything that challenges a status quo in need of challenging is good in my book.

In an environment where Tea Party partisans cheer the idea of letting the uninsured die, something clearly needs to change.