I am good. I am charming. I am kind, loving, attractive, tolerant, tall, talented, hilarious, respected, dear.
I am awful. I am cloying. I am indifferent, cruel, fat, hateful, average, mediocre, tedious, a joke, forgettable.
Would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us?
My favorite novel, Albert Camus’ The Fall, is unceasing and merciless in its critique of bourgeois society and the need–the insatiable hunger–to be seen in the appropriate way by others. Not to be, but be seen. In the era of social media personas, this has been brutally accelerated. People manage several personalities, innumerable groups and spheres of “friends” of varying qualitative distinctions.
In The Fall, which is written in a cruel second person narrative style, the protagonist–and antagonist–is a well-respected Parisian attorney, Clamence, who has cut his respectable moorings and spends his times in a trashy Amsterdam red-light district bar, pontificating. He addresses us–me–and lays out how he came to deny his bourgeois respectability and accept his venality. All of the events he cites are instances of feeling public shame or negative judgment. In particular–the story that stuck with me–is the story about how he tries to politely confront a man on a motorcycle who is holding up traffic. The man gets irritable and strikes Clamence, who doesn’t respond in kind before his attacker drives off. Clamence can’t shake it, even though,
If I had been the friend of truth and intelligence I claimed to be, what would that episode have mattered to me? It was already forgotten by those who had witnessed it.
In this one passage, Camus sums up so much of what tortures so many of us. Perhaps me in particular–but I think more of us than would care to admit it. Including, I am sure, my family, friends, lovers, who flit and purr and coo and feign, in the ugliest way, sincerity; here we all are, in different circumstances perhaps, but ultimately stewing about the meaningless enemy and the meaningless shame we suffered nowhere but in our own minds. Nearly always, those who shrug the most to the judgment of others are those who most see themselves solely through the eyes of others. Those who insist most on their carefree agency are typically most enslaved to an artificial construction of themselves presented to a world that is savagely, or mercifully, indifferent to their existence.
Oh, would some power the gift give us.
I have heard men on Earth make great lamentation. Their injuries at the hands of others. But what complaints do you hear from your friends and family? At the bar and over the phone in quivering voices? Complaints about injuries to what? We mewl about injuries to our pride couched as outrage to injustice, we puke about injuries to our conception of self–really, to the character we’ve created. About being denied by others our entitlement to our full expression of whosoever we want to be.
Camus’ Clamence was so disgusted with himself, with the bedeviling hypocrisy entailed in being, that he was content only descended to the base level of existence–subsistence–eager to share with others the stories of his fall, to show the world not who he wants to be, but to reveal to them who he actually, wretchedly, pathetically is. Playing on his legal profession, he calls himself a judge-penitent. Fully capable of judging not because he is an esteemed learnéd hand but because he is the most base and corrupt of all. Who but him? Who better?
Clamence flagellates himself that we the reader should don our own horsehair in service of abject mortification. Camus’ novel burns with savage loathing of the phony.
Now follow the turn. You hear great lamentation and hold a mirror to those who suffer that they may–what? Come to loathe themselves? Self-hatred doesn’t manifest as an impulse to self-improvement but in depression and rage facing out. Clamence, our judge-penitent, salves the rending pain of self-awareness through judgment. I’m uninterested in judgment. What, after all, makes us all equal and deserving of love in a godless indifferent universe? The fact of our existence; that no creature asked to be in the world. That the accident of existence is inflicted on us all in equal measure.
Who is more insufferable than the misanthrope parsimonious of empathy, effusive with condescending sympathy? If the human condition is inflicted on us all equally, why bother with hating people who evince it?
Our brothers and sisters in the human family are febrile creatures like ourselves. What a despicable posture, to judge the suffering. Can’t we want instead to alleviate it? That we are all seen by one another equally as limping creatures. That even those in gauze in lace are infected by lice:
Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.
Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.
O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!
Robert Burns, author of the adorable and deeply empathetic “To A Mouse” wrote this poem–called, appropriately, “To A Louse,” and no, he didn’t have a poem called “To A House”–after seeing lice moving around in the bonnet of a “respectable” lady sitting in front of him at his church. Would she only know that no matter the “gauze and lace,” lice affects us all? Obsessed with presenting the Us we want everyone to see, we are uniquely unable to really see ourselves how we are.
How if we all knew that, no matter the number of followers, the indifferent affectation, the absurdity of our fashion or the expressions in earnest, we are all mewed up in equal measure, by the louse; that we all are all of us cow’rin, tim’rous beasties. That we needn’t suck it up and flat stomach present ourselves to the world, but exhale and leave ourselves to be chewed equally by the human condition. That we can not ever exist as abstract persons, that all the world is not a play, properly cast with roles for each to play.
If I believed in prayer I would pray to be. To exhale and sink.