Our Way

I am reblogging a post from several years ago that makes the point I was trying to make in my last post in a slightly different — and more effective — way.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can set pen to paper or manage a spot on a daytime TV show that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Sigmund Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a quality that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian, and narrator of this story. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

“I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.” Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that explosion, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers who may never have read the man’s works, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. Repression does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — even caused early-on in history by numerous tribal taboos. Freud knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and “sublimating,” i.e., redirecting, our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his beloved grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she has the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.


2 thoughts on “Our Way

  1. “Angle of Repose,” is indeed a great novel. Stegner is a master writer, and he’s clearly in control of the material here. One of the things that makes it great is exactly what you said, Hugh: Stegner asks us, as readers, to weigh the comparison between a 1970s young woman and his Victorian grandmother — which one was happier. He doesn’t tell us, he gives us examples, information and leaves the decision to us. In the end, I don’t think either woman was happy, which also speaks to your point about neuroses, and difficult human emotions, always being a part of the human condition. It’s a matter, then, of how we handle them, how we express them. (It’s one thing, I think, to talk them through with a therapist in a professional setting, privately. We need to do that for the sake of mental and spiritual health. It’s altogether different to go on TV and bare the whole soul — either in a reality TV show, or as a candidate trying to show he is “rehabilitated” after some scandal and ready for re-election, or simply as some of the uninhibited performers of our time will do for a dollar. With the latter, I don’t just mean sexual depictions but the look-at-me provocations of some comics, singers, but, yes, also the sexual self-exploitations of someone like Kim Kardashian. Idk.

    Back to “Angle of Repose,” I often thought Stegner or perhaps Lyman Ward was unduly cruel to Susan Ward, the grandmother. She was put through so many ordeals, subjugating her own talents and desires for a rather curmudgeonly, self-absorbed husband. It’s little like “The Jungle,” where Sinclair puts one family through about every tragedy and calamity that can befall an entire city / era — an allegory in Sinclair’s case. I’m not sure if that’s what it is in “Angle of Repose.” But I pretty much wanted her to dump the husband. She stays with him, which is maybe to her credit, all those years. But maybe not: it’s like rewarding him for his behavior. He loves her, yes, but always on his terms. Even the moment of sexual intimacy are dictated by him. Her spirit is gone, broken, especially after they leave the first home which she’d taken so much care to actually make a home. Maybe that’s what Lyman Ward admires, and identifies, about her, I suppose: He’s broken, too. Physically. So as he pores through the notes of his grandmother’s life, trying to find how she kept going on, maybe he is looking for answers for his own condition.

    It’s a tough book — as in showing the hardness of life, and how we live through the hardness.

    Maybe that’s something to consider, too, as we think about your theme here — how much do we let it all hang out, and to whom do we let it hang? Life is hard. But we work through it. Hanging it all out, especially in public, seems to be a diversion or distraction from doing the work.

    • Life is hard. You and Stegner are both right. And Stegner is right to suggest (not tell, as you point out) that dealing with that hardness may make us or break us. In our age everyone is a victim, everyone wants to tell everyone else how they hurt. But no one is listening because they are too busy feeling sorry for themselves. Ward’s Grandmother was a women of infinite courage and admirable for the way that she lived her life — as a victim, to be sure, but not wallowing in self-pity.

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