Friday, December 08, 2006

I'm Mature and They're Not

Twelve years ago I was in a van hurtling from summer camp to the nearby farm where we had riding lessons. Among the members of my riding class was a new girl, Erica, three years my junior. She was in the bunk where the youngest girls lived, Peach. The van driver, in a slightly awkward attempt to make conversation, asked her if she liked her bunk.

Erica sighed and rolled her eyes. "No," she said.

"Why not?" asked someone else.

"I'm mature and they're not."

Spoilers are Alan Ayckbourn's play Absent Friends, Claire Messud's novel The Emperor's Children, and—if songs can be spoilers—Dar Williams's "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed."

24 seems as good an age as any for an examination of the concept of "adulthood." I'm not a student at the moment, though I intend to be again someday; I am beyond The Year I Graduated from College, which is a cultural entity all its own in America, and by now I'm really expected to be figuring out, in some ways to have figured out, my own way in the world. These are American expectations, of course, but lo and behold I'm an American. However, I find myself at a ridiculously liminal point. I had one monumentally important part-time job for two years after I graduated from college, which I left behind this year; the part-time job I currently hold, and the brief freelance bits I do along with it, have limited emotional significance. I'm looking for a new job, but slowly, which pace is my genetic tendency. If I get more than one interview I won't send out another resume for a good week or so. Since college, it has been my responsibility alone—not shared by an institution like a university, a significant other, a family—to make my day-to-day life what it is. But at the moment I feel in a holding pattern.

My mother has said that one's twenties inevitably suck, which is not something I want to commit to. My father has pointed out, correctly, that the Freudian model (by which, loath as we often are to admit it, we still live) doesn't provide for human development and change after adolescense. As we see it through Freud, we're formed in childhood; any difficulty in adulthood is the result of an incompletion, dissatisfaction, emotionosexual vestige of childhood. (Naturally, I oversimplify; psychologists, feel free to yell at me if necessary.) In other words, or from another standpoint, nothing new happens to adults; we're doomed, or in rare cases privileged, to repeat the patterns of our preconscious childhood. And while I don't buy it, the fact is we don't quite have another working model, at least not one that's taken hold of the collective Western society as Freud did. We think somehow our adulthood means our development is complete, though anyone who's lived for longer than twenty years knows that's ridiculous.

It's that absence of a working alternative that Messud examines in The Emperor's Children, a strange and fascinating novel of relentless privilege, and a novel that uses September 11 as an examination of American internalism and individualism in a way I had not yet seen. It follows three college friends living in New York City at age thirty, in 2001: Marina, the beautiful daughter of wealthy leftist intellectual Murray Thwaite, unemployed and living at home after a bad breakup with a man; Danielle, a competent, self-contained, lonely public television producer; and Julian, a trendy columnist promiscuous with men and money and uncertain of how to manage his life. It follows several other characters, among them Marina's erstwhile father and her nineteen-year-old cousin, an overweight and provincial boy on a desperate quest for the pure intellectual life, but for purposes of this argument, looking at this particular thread and thesis in the novel, I want to focus on those three. The intimacy of their friendship, as one reviewer said, has the same weight as romantic relationships are usually given in literature; by the end of the novel, when all three of them have, in one form or another, loved and lost in the days leading up to or in the wake of September 11, their triumvirate has separated in a manner clearly permanent, their secrets and privacies and personal losses too much to keep up after both the disaster and the gradual unraveling that was happening beforehand. September 11 serves to make the changes in their lives irreversible, that the world has changed and it's no longer any of their jobs, nor is it within their powers, to change it back or change it more.

Marina really thought she could change the world as her father had, though Julian's boyfriend, David, is used to delineate the limits of the world that Murray Thwaite has changed, to show that (I'm oversimplifying) intellectual change only matters to intellectuals, but Julian wanted simply to be cutting-edge, and Danielle never thought she could do more than make a television program about the concept of revolution. Still, the idea they are left with is that the power to turn the world over is completely outside of their control, and that acknowledging that lack of power, at some disturbing level, constitutes maturity.

Ayckbourn's Absent Friends, which I worked on a production of last summer, works from a perspective similar to Messud's, though it is ultimately both less grandiose and less intellectual. A group of friends whose youthful friendships led, in one form or another, to marriages, gathers to support Colin, whose fiancée has drowned in the sea. Paul, John, Colin and the absent Gordon were close friends in their youth, and Paul's romance with Diana and Gordon's with Marge brought the two women into this tight-knit, ambitious group. At this tea party, though, everyone is straight-out miserable, the bereaved Colin ironically the most content with his lot. Absent Friends finds that conventional Western maturity—marriage, children, a stable income and some level of control over your home life—is emotionally expensive to maintain. It's a point that's been made before, and I'm not sure Ayckbourn's even the most skillful at it (in this play, at least; I haven't read
enough of his other work to make a wider point). But Absent Friends allows us to question who or what is absent, leading us to understand that a character's ostensible maturity lies in his or her ability to accept and live with these absences. Thus
Colin, seeming almost unaware of the absences in his life—he knows that Carol is dead, certainly, but is blissfully oblivious to the implications, perhaps more so on seeing the combative and embittered marriage Diana and Paul inhabit—is in simultaneously the most and least mature character in the play.

Finishing The Emperor's Children and working on Absent Friends gave me a slightly watered-down version of the feeling I've often had listening to Williams's "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed." Because you can do this with songs, I want to here reprint the full lyrics:

I'm not a leader, I'm not a left-wing rhetoric-mobilizing force of one,
But there was a time way back many years ago in college—don't laugh—
But I thought I was a radical,
I ran the Hemp Liberation Group with my boyfriend
It was true love with a common cause, and besides that he was a Sagittarius

We used to say that our love was like hemp rope
Three times as strong as the rope that you buy domestically
And we would bond in the face of oppression from big business and the deans
But I know there was a problem
Every time the group would meet, everyone would light up
It made it difficult to discuss glaucoma and human rights, not to mention chemotherapy

Well, sometimes life gives us lessons sent in ridiculous packaging
So I found him in the arms of a Student Against the Treacherous Use of Fur
And he gave no apology, he just turned to me stoned out to the edge of oblivion
He didn't pull up the sheets and I think he even smiled
As he said to me

"Well, I guess our dreams went up in smoke, heh-heh."
And I said, "No, our dreams went up in dreams, you stupid pothead."

And another thing—what kind of a name is Students Against the Treacherous Use of Fur?
Fur is already dead, and besides, a name like that doesn't make a good acronym

I am older now; I know the rise and gradual fall of a daily victory
And I still write to my senators saying they should legalize cannabis
And I should know, 'cause I am a horticulturist
I have a husband and two children out in Lexington, Mass.
And my ex-boyfriend can't tell me I've sold out,
Because he's in a cult
And he's not allowed to talk to me

Whatever I think about Williams as an artist overall, and my feelings are incredibly mixed, my favorite thing about her is her ability to use in songs words that have rarely, if ever, showed up in lyrics before. But nonwithstanding, this song has for several years, if somewhat irrationally, terrified me. My concern is that by the end of it, those are the only two options for adulthood. Certainly it's not a rosy picture Williams paints of collegiate activism and passion, but by the end of the song those passions can devolve into either a conventional American household (albeit with a working and scientifically-minded mother) or isolation from society at large. And even broader than that, the implication that maturity implies convention. Tyromaven asked a long time ago where the activists of an older generation, people really passionate about change, have gone, that is those who were not assassinated, and this song to me feels like the answer: they got conventional. Why is what I, at 24, don't know yet and am therefore terrified that I won't know how to avoid it. In many ways I and my life am/are/is already conventional—I live in a fairly large apartment with a roommate, live comfortably without paranoia regarding my inability to survive from day to day, work for money and don't try to change the structure and power of the world everywhere I go, nor is my work devoted to that goal, even as I for the most part repudiate the structures I see. I know the ways in which I'm not conventional as well, and they're the ways I want to cultivate, the things I hope to encourage in myself. But convention is required to function in society, and even to change it, in that you have to understand the conventions and their appeal to understand the best way to change them. The question is, can you commit to that knowledge without losing the motivation to make those changes?

In the works on my mind, Williams's character is the only one who doesn't seem openly to suffer from her adherence to convention. She has a life she values, she maintains political activism in a form that feels to her more effective if less direct, and her passions in college have led to a career that could create actual progress on the issue her fellow students fogged. (Yes, I am probably reading too much into this song. Please be quiet.) Nor does Williams imply, as I used to think, that radicalism and maturity are at odds. We don't see any radicalism in the speaker's adult life, per se, but we certainly
understand that most self-styled young radicals are radical in word rather than in deed.

So what does Williams's speaker have that the characters in The Emperor's Children and Absent Friends do not? (Aside from a narrative to short to go into many details and complexities?) "A career" is not quite the answer—Paul and Danielle both have one—but it feels close. A knowledge of "what else," perhaps; a knowledge that neither convention nor maturity is not in itself an end.

Is there something to the idea that maturity implies convention? From my perspective, maturity involves an acceptance of reality as fact, but not as immutable fact. Williams's character has that; the characters in Absent Friends lack it, even Colin. The characters in The Emperor's Children walk the most interesting line. (When I say "convention," by the by, I'm assuming that the narrower definitions vary somewhat—that is to say, the conventions to which Messud's characters adhere are different from those of Ayckbourn's characters, but the requirement of adherence to convention applies in either case.) At the beginning of the novel, Danielle is, by conventional definitions, the least lost. She has work she cares about, she has a lifestyle that suits her, she has loyal friendships that include the petty jealousies and confusions common in literature and only slightly less common in reality, she has sexual desires that are often fulfilled, she has a clear idea of what happens next and why. At the end of the book, and the end of Danielle's affair with Murray Thwaite (dude, I *told* you there were spoilers), Danielle has fallen to a depression and confusion that she marks as temporary but still in need of repair to make it so, and Marina is in a position closer to Danielle's at the beginning of the novel, which demonstrates the hollowness of that position. Messud and Ayckbourn both feel strongly that maturity does not automatically imply happiness; that's a distinction almost completely absent from Williams's song, but she offers some kind of solution, where Messud and Ayckbourn only offer the inevitability of hollowness. We've a few concepts to connect here, then: maturity, convention, acceptance of convention, happiness. The last is far and away the most elusive, of course; the novelist and the playwright accept its absence, while the songwriter doesn't seem to consider it one way or the other. Judging the cult to which the ex-boyfriend belongs is acceptable, but it's hard, in the three-minute piece, to see how to look at the speaker's life. She knows the rise and gradual fall of a daily victory, sure, but what does that mean about her larger view of her life? It's almost as if what she has that the other characters lack is simply freedom from context. We know more about the characters in Absent Friends and The Emperor's Children and therefore see more clearly their opinions on their choices.

What, I had to write a whole post to say *that*? I may be trying to get my readings to mirror my more abstracted thoughts, or, well, they may just be doing that automatically. There are also at least two ways of defining maturity, and the more dominant one is Erica's way.

So yes, as far as I'm concerned, maturity, by any definition, does imply an understanding of and at least a nominal commitment to convention. (I could throw Russell Banks's The Darling in here too, now, but I think it'd make things too overwhelming.) Yet wholehearted acceptance of convention, that is to say *indoctrination* with Erica's version of maturity, can work to exclude happiness. At least according to my limited interpretations of three relatively obscure works of art.


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