September 29, 2010

Missing Pieces

I used to be somebody’s boss. I was a friend too, in that mitigated way that befalls the manager and the managed. He said I was the best boss he’d ever had. He was ten years older than me. He was clinically depressed. He was probably a genius. For one reason or another, he came up in conversation recently, and I was given pause to think why this man was, in most respects, an abject failure as a man. Let us call him Sebastian.

Sebastian had somewhat miraculously survived a rain of arrows, but the course of life had left him scarred. His father left in early childhood, occasionally reappearing to open up old wounds. At thirteen or so his mother committed suicide, and the ensuing years were dogged by shadowy thoughts and dark depressions. Institutionalised for a time, he never again could entirely break free from the shackles of guilt, anguish, and deep pain. Lacking a father figure, or any strong character to guide him, he floundered through adolescence, emerging as a peculiar and singular adult.

He was educated, by virtue of a scholarship, at a famous Northern English public school (for North American readers, that means he was among the elite). Without much effort, he mastered the classics, and saw life as the endless re-telling and re-working of those fundamental ideas and plotlines. Existence, for him, lacked the joyous sense of the discovery of the new. Everything had already been said. The creative instinct had died shortly before he was born, and this was to him the tragedy of his timing. He obsessed about the lives of Picasso and Bob Dylan, as if they were the last humans to signal new directions. When he experienced their art, it was not to him a joy, but a lament. Humanity had peaked, and he had missed it.

Most people found him impossible to engage in conversation, for he could not abide small talk, and he heard little else. If you could engage him, you would find him in deadly earnest, and should you approach him intellectually he would stop in his tracks at the wonderment of a mind worthy of his contemplation. On the whole, he was an intellectual recluse, unfit for society as he saw it (essentially an uncivilised place). He had a pathological fear of the exhaust fumes of motor vehicles, causing him to cross all roads with wanton abandon for his life and limbs. He could not enter parts of the city where cars went, and would not wait on the kerb for anything. Our walks together were curious, for he knew every route that kept him out harm’s way. And yet he smoked incessantly. He told me he was aware of the inconsistency, and that it was his problem.

His home was a scantily furnished hovel, bedecked with books and LPs. The sky-rise towers of tomes, on every seat and every square inch of hidden carpet, were interleaved with scraps of paper, marking his place in each. For all of these books were being read and re-read. He wrote songs lamenting lost love – he had loved only once, and she had absconded with a Welshman – and sang them to himself. I told him, jokingly, that his was the pyrrhic victory, since the reward for her cruelty had been the Welsh. He took me very seriously, and brightened for a moment.

Toward the end of my relationship with Sebastian, just prior to circumstances throwing me upon the world in a new way, he broached the topic of his father. He said that he had come to the conclusion that his father was a bastard while he was shaving. Nobody, he reflected, had taught him how to shave, and in his mid-thirties he was only just realising that he had always done it badly: trivial, perhaps, but also the thin end of the wedge. Here stood a man, broken in spirit and suspicious of his fellow man, acknowledging that he was only partly formed. Formal education had opened to him the power of thought, but the lack of informal guidance had left him stranded, and all too aware of the impossibility of recovery.

Sebastian had been the innocent victim of the lives of others, and the aloofness of the safety net. He had not fallen and failed as a man, but he had been failed as a boy. In my naiveté I had tried to find ways to direct him, to encourage him, to thrust him into the light. But I was no antidote for a fear instilled in formative years, and I was not then a teacher. The manly man is never timid, I have said, and so say again. We must also, however, be the enemies of fear, and guard against its installation. Without shaping, without careful guidance, without ideas of the men boys should come to be, we risk the emergence of men like Sebastian: men whose heads knew of the good, but whose hearts had never felt it.

10 comments:

  1. What a beautiful post, yet so very sad. In a way, Sebastian reminds me of a character in the novel "Her Fearful Symmetry." As a mother, my heart aches for Sebastian. Yet, it also makes me feel fortunate that my kids have such a wonderful dad.

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  2. Thank you JMW. I have been trying to 'follow' your blog, but the device doesn't seem to want to let me. I shall persevere.
    VB

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  3. Insightful and thought provoking. Certainly we are all aided and shaped by a solid family life and involved parents...if we are lucky enough to have same.
    I cannot help but wonder if "Sebastian" might not have been helped by some psychiatric attention and some of the really splendid anti depressants that are available.

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  4. Yet another fantastic read ... I sadly have a cousin who is a Sebastien in so many ways ... sad, but the complete truth that many who are explicitly educated from the books lack street smarts and social skills beyond repair.

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  5. That is a really amazing story-I was totally captivated-great writing. I agree-so very sad. Fear of feeling. So much of life missed.

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  6. Touching, indeed. Reminds me to strive to be a better, more supportive father. Thank you.

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  7. This really is such a well-written, haunting and sad post. "Sebastian" definitely echoes Sebastian Flyte of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited - also a privileged golden child who was unable to quell the inner torment.

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  8. Thanks all. Knowing that you're reading is most motivating.
    VB

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  9. I would completely agree with JMW, it makes me want to give your acquaintance's inner child a big hug, poor guy.

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  10. so well-written, thank you

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