Thursday, August 10, 2006

No Wonder This Review Quotes Beckett!

This discouraging summary in the Sunday L.A. Times Book Review, August 13, of someone arguably more depressed than even the author of "The Unnameable." My Irish reference!

I can't go on, I'll go on
*The Way We Are. Allen Wheelis. W.W. Norton: 160 pp., $23.95

By Jonathan Kirsch, Jonathan Kirsch is the author of 11 books, including the forthcoming "A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization."

IN his 90s now, San Francisco psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis has spent a long lifetime in search of the secrets of the human psyche. " 'Say everything that comes to mind,' the analyst says to the analysand, 'nothing must remain hidden,' " he writes in this dark valedictory, "The Way We Are." And yet he is compelled to confess that the whole effort has been futile. "Below the deepest uncovering one yet deeper is possible," he contends. "Dirt is endless. Fur and feces and bones, and ever deeper, but no bedrock."

Ironically, Wheelis is best known for "How People Change," a book whose title holds out the cheerful promise of self-improvement. Now he declares himself disillusioned with "the promise of psychology" — the notion that we can achieve happiness if we try hard enough — and he is understandably "obsessed with death," a condition he characterizes as "not a private terror but the unchanging backdrop to the stage of our existence." Prodded by his own terrors and obsessions, he seeks to understand and explain nothing less than "the human condition itself" or, as he puts it in a lyrical moment, "the ways of power and the ways of the heart."

"What is the minimum penalty for being a conscious and self-conscious creature living simultaneously in an eternal symbolic world of our own construction and in the natural world in which, looking straight ahead, we see our oncoming death?" This is the question he poses.

If you are bummed out by these preliminaries, be forewarned — the book doesn't get any brighter.

For example, Wheelis confronts us with the unpleasant but unavoidable fact that life feeds on life, no matter how diligently we distance ourselves from what goes on in the slaughterhouse. "Poet and philosopher sit to meat, speak of love, charity, rights of man, sacredness of life," he muses. "Far away blood flows, cries rise in the night." And he insists that human beings do not simply kill to eat and eat to live: He draws an unbroken line from the abattoir to the worst atrocities human beings are capable of committing. "There is no good man," he concludes. "We all are killers, we live on others."

His mind's eye searches anxiously for meaning in human history, ranging from the savannas of prehistoric Africa to the monuments of ancient Egypt to the smoking ruins of Dresden and Hiroshima. His conclusion is that we are not so different, after all, from wild and ravening beasts. "The violence that individuals have given up in the course of becoming orderly and moral has not been eliminated," he writes. "It is passed on; it is handed upward. It collects at the top, in the White House, Number Ten Downing Street, the Reichstag, the Kremlin."

Indeed, Wheelis holds that the lower orders of life are far better off than Homo sapiens precisely because, as far as we know, animals are not cursed with self-awareness. "There is no knowledge of death, no watching of one's fateful progression, no history, no vision of one's actual condition," he writes, "hence no need to transcend that condition." After a million years of evolution, the human animal has finally achieved consciousness, but it's all bad news, according to Wheelis. "This is the Fall," he intones. "Culture is about to begin."

Culture, according to Wheelis, is only a way of describing the various "schemes" by which humankind seeks to redeem itself from the sure knowledge that life is nasty, brutish and short. "If [man] can find such a scheme and make his life 'mean' something in it, that is, contribute to it, make a difference, he will have ferried something of his mortal self across the gulf of death to become a part of something that will live on." But Wheelis seems to suggest that all such schemes are essentially pretty lies we tell ourselves to hide an unendurable truth. "The immediate horror man perceives is his own death, but beyond that he begins to see the entire life process as carnage, as eating and being eaten," he writes. "A terrible screaming pervades the universe. Man is the first to hear it. This is the vision we cannot accept. It drives toward madness or despair."

Wheelis dismisses religion as a collection of failed myths that established moral and sexual boundaries but only until they began losing their power to bedazzle us. "There is no God to establish any position; so every position is arbitrary," he observes. "With no authority beyond humanity, by what standard can we designate anything as absolutely wrong?" Nowadays, the redemptive solace formerly offered by religious rituals can be found in chess playing or stamp collecting. "One seeks distraction," he concedes. "[O]ne may achieve briefly the illusion of mastery. But not for long. Within the confines of a single life, death is unmasterable."

When he shifts his gaze from the individual to the community, Wheelis sees even greater moral squalor. "The state would like to eat up all individual power, all independence, discretion, freedom, autonomy," he writes. The stirring words of John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you … ," remind him of Adolf Hitler: "The unison of Sieg Heil by the packed and disciplined masses at Nuremburg, that is what the state wants…."

Wheelis pauses now and then to recall a vivid childhood memory or engage in a "thought experiment." He admits to his own struggles with sexual temptation. "I want to be fair to my wife," he allows, "but fair also to myself." At one point, he evokes the pleasures of Cape Cod in August and describes in intimate detail his own fantasies on beholding a scantily clad young woman at play with her baby. "I think she knows she is torturing me, making me want to do with her what she is doing with the baby," he confesses.

But even his carnality is the occasion for yet another joyless revelation: "These fantasies are anti-mortality dreams….We all swim upstream against the overpowering current, ever more doomed and desperate, trying at the last moment to throw something ashore, some little thing that will remain, bear witness that we were here."

Wheelis may well connect with the audience that made "Everyman," Philip Roth's gloomy contemplation of death, a bestseller. But I suspect he is content merely to wrestle in public with his own devils — "My plight, my curse, my demon, a savage yearning for something I'm never going to get," as he puts it. For the rest of us, "The Way We Are" turns out to be a sobering and even a shattering experience, the heartrending cry of a man who has lived long, seen and done much and ended up in the grip of cold despair.

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