Always Searching


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There have been Sundays, in bed, in a hotel room, hungover or not, wherein my prospects for getting out of bed seem slim, what with the television right there, and the remote control so near my head. Despite hundreds of channels and the free HBO — generally just showing something directed by Ron Howard over and over and over again — I will stop on Joel Osteen or Rick Warren or some other reprehensible creature in a mega church of some sort. On those Sundays, it’s hard to feel the repulsion I usually have for such views. It’s the perfect hair and the shiny, shiny teeth. These men are always telling me that God has plans for me. “Oh, Joel Osteen,” I say out loud to the television. “Tell me what those plans are.”

  • Meaning in Life and Why It Matters by Susan Wolf. 160 pages. Princeton University Press. $24.95.
  • The Silences of Hammerstein by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. 402 pages. Seagull Books. $29.

He never says. There is big talk about giving yourself over to something bigger than yourself, contributing, community, whatever. He is sympathetic to my longings, but won’t tell me what God wants me to do. Something bigger than myself could mean, I guess, saving elephants from poachers or protesting an abortion clinic. Be specific! Bastard, I think. Whatever it is that God wants, I’m sure it probably involves putting on pants and getting out of bed, and so I consider it. But if I stay long enough, listening, Osteen will tell me that as a woman, my family is bigger than myself, and raising children and being a helpmeet to my husband counts. “I tried that!” I tell him. Well, not really. Sort of. It was discussed. There was a boy I considered marrying 10 years ago, who said I would not have to work. He would Provide. It wasn’t his fault that the word “provide” makes me break into hives and move to another city. With all of Osteen’s talk about wives nurturing and men Providing, I start to wonder if he has heard of Ruth von Mayenburg. For some reason, I doubt it.

In her memoir Blue Blood and Red Flag, Mayenburg recounts an evening in 1930 in Germany, as she was readying herself to hitch her life to a respectable, rich young man. Named Axel (this was Germany, after all). But as she was dressing for dinner, a man knocked on her door.

It was my neighbor from the next room, Kurt Baron von Hammerstein-Equord, General and Chief of Army Command… He immediately went to the heart of the matter: he would think it a misfortune if Axel and I were to marry. He liked the lad, felt somehow partly responsible for his further fate; I was not the right woman for him. I should think the matter over carefully and also consider that I myself would not be happy in such a tradition-conscious German-national atmosphere. “You are much too headstrong. A lively, impetuous spirit.”

Sometimes you just need it spoken out loud, to hear it from another source to realize how true it is. Marriage in 1930 Germany would have destroyed Mayenburg. An endless life of baby-making and dinner hosting and not asking questions. Mayenburg did not simply not marry Axel. She became a major for the Red Army, engaging in espionage in Berlin during the war and feeding the information back to Russia. In The Silences of Hammerstein, Hans Magnus Enzensberger describes her life as full of “the best hotels, the champagne breakfast, the sleeping cars, the hunting parties, the casinos, the good addresses in Berlin’s west end, the elegant yellow spring costume in your suitcase…” Who knows how one manages to go from being on the verge of marrying a man named Axel to wearing a signet ring “with the cyanide capsule under the gold lid.” Joel Osteen sure doesn’t.

I gravitate to books with titles like Meaning in Life, the latest being Susan Wolf’s. These books are mostly nice antidotes to those insufferableables who once dabbled in Wicca and now really love Rumi and tell college graduates to “Follow Your Bliss!” (look, they hand silk-screened it onto a handy little t-shirt so you won’t forget!). Wolf thinks following your bliss is useless. People are passionate about a lot of stupid things. It’s not a great mantra. Meaning, I think, comes from doing a full accounting of your limitations and assets, your passions and your weaknesses, your belief system and your fears, and then rubbing up against the things that cause you to panic, like an allergy skin scratch test, and find out what your reactions are. Once you figure out how you can contribute to the greater good, once you’re able even to define that, you take that information and pour yourself into one direction. Regardless of discomfort or regrets or what-ifs. (And then doing that over and over again, until death.) That does not fit on a T-shirt. That to me is more important than bliss, which would really just lead me back into bed, maybe with a bowl of corn flakes, or maybe I would become like an elderly widower, and just Wait for Death. Or become Alice James.

There is no historical figure who fills me with as much frustration as does Alice James. Whiny, petulant, bratty, arrogant, useless Alice James. And yet I cannot stop reading about her. She is one of those figures Susan Wolf refers to, the people who have no meaning of their own, and are only given meaning by outsiders. Her taking-to-her-bed for her entire life, feigning illness, suffering from illness, and bringing illness upon herself has become a metaphor, an example of lost potential, a feminist symbol. And yet I hate her and I want to pull her hair. She squandered so much. She had the love of two devoted brothers of means who doted on her and took her to Paris and offered to support her. Yet she rejected them. She started to recover her ill health when she gained a teaching position, and yet she quit and went back to her bed. Her illnesses were cleverly timed to go off whenever anyone stopped paying attention to her. Or when she discovered that work is hard.

What makes her life so meaningless — rather than just typically sad and sick — is the willfulness of her disease, and the great talent of her writing. She had a sharp wit — a letter of hers is quoted in Becoming William James, in reference to her face, “My features I have long since ceased to question as the work of an inscrutable wisdom.” In a letter she describes a man as sitting “on the edge of the sofa tight and compact, like a neat little parcel drawn up at Metcalfs.” With her gimlet eye, sense of humor, and fearlessness, you can imagine her rewriting her brother Henry James’ books with a bluestocking sensibility. Your heart cries out for those lost novels. Mostly her gift is spent writing bitchy things about other women, like her reasons why she considers herself vastly superior to George Eliot. She was suicidal from puberty on, never learning the lessons of her brothers William and Henry, or what Wolf sums up as, “What gives meaning to our lives gives us reasons to live, even when we do not care much, for our own sakes, whether we live or die.” And now that is the meaning her life carries: how meaninglessness is so easy to fall into, and how no one is going to drop a meaningful life into your lap. You fight for it over and over again.

Mostly the reason I hate her is because a big chunk of her lives inside of me. I wonder if someone had allowed me to take to my bed the way they did Alice — she was, after all, not turned out to the street by frustrated parents, instead they pitied her and sent for an endless stream of doctors — or had I married the Provider, would I have fallen into the same trap? Or would I have, on the eve of my wedding, turned into Ruth von Mayenburg, defected to Russia and traveled the world with micro-cameras hidden in my hair? It’s hard to say exactly, but on these horrible Sunday mornings I do eventually make it out of bed, into the shower, and back into the world. Almost always. • 20 May 2010