Saturday, November 10, 2007

You Don't Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Either

Last week I reread Catcher in the Rye. I read it just after rereading Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool. I realize this is a lot of rereading, but you know, when times are tough sometimes a little familiarity is like a warm bath. Repitition induces comfort.

On the face of it, they're pretty different books. The Salinger book is about a rich kid, the Russo book is about a poor grownup -- or, rather, a lot of poor grownups and a few who are somewhat less poor.

One thing they have in common, though, is that they both describe people who are fundamentally in the dark about the reasons for their own behavior. In Nobody's Fool, Sully is constantly surprised by his own impulses, both kindly and otherwise. More than deciding to do things, he just sort of, you know, finds himself doing them.

In Catcher in the Rye, poor Holden is so mystified by his own behavior that he can only say over and over, "Sometimes I'm really crazy. I really am." Why does Holden propose to a girl he has just told us he hates? Why does he try to convince her to move to Vermont with him and start life over from nothing? He has no idea. There are probably reasons, but Holden isn't really in on them.

This resonates with me a big way. It not only describes the way my own inner life feels, it describes how other people seem to me, even when they are pretending they're all, you know, deliberative and purposeful and shit.

I once saw a talk by the philosopher John Doris, challenging the idea that rationality -- the normal quality we attribute to healthy human adults -- could possibly be understood in terms of reflective deliberation followed by action.

He cited study after study showing people could be induced to particular behaviors for reasons completely unknown to them. Like, if you show people word lists, the people who see lists like "Shuffleboard Florida cruise Early Bird special" walk more slowly to the elevator. If you ask them why, they cite some "reason" -- "Oh, my toe hurts today" -- but never the real reason, which is these words just remind them of aging.

He argued in his paper that rationality was more the process of imposing a coherent narrative on the way things have unfolded.

Whatever you think about that, it's certainly true that some people are extremely good at imposing coherent narratives on their past choices -- even when it seems obvious to an outside observer that those choices were made for no good reason at all, were basically the life equivalent of walking slowly to the elevator.

If you're really honest with yourself, you might be less inclined to believe these narratives. You feel, "Well, sure I could tell that story. But who knows whether it's true?" This strikes me as just one of the ways that genuine self-knowledge might be bad for a person. Blind trust in the narrative makes life easier.

Of course, having this self-knowledge may be bad for you, but it may be good for the people around you, since it might make you more forgiving, less dogmatic, and more willing to entertain alternative points of view about yourself.

It's a trade-off.

I realized thinking about it that a lot of my favorite books are like this -- they describe characters who are blindsided, surprised, amused, dumbfounded by their own actions.

I don't know why I like these books. I mean, I could guess. But I'd probably be wrong.

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