The other day I was asked, “Why do you give so much of a damn about _____?” The _____ was Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men, a book I first read less than two years ago and yet have already written two academic papers about (one short, one uninteresting). If you’ve talked to me about literature in the past year, you’ve heard me gush. Recommending the novel has become muscle memory. I don’t rack my brain in a selfless attempt to find just the right book for just the right person, I spew the spit from the tip of my tongue that hits the listener square on the nose and when they wipe away the spit with their hand and look at their hand while trying hard not to bring up me accidentally spitting in their face they read “READ ALL THE KING’S MEN,” all capital letters sticky between their fingers.
The truth is that the question posed to me was not so antagonistic as I relate here. It was far more open-ended. I was to explain why I like the book. But “the book” could translate as easily to any other thing which has captured me and held my attention far, far longer than the course of reading. Asking me why I like All the King’s Men is like asking me why I liked High Fidelity so much in high school, a book that, in retrospect, has many qualities of a proto-All the King’s Men (despite being written fifty years later, it functions as a prototype in my chronological life). It’s asking me why I listen to mewithoutYou on repeat, singing it to myself in the shower, when falling asleep. It’s why I like Swamp Thing more than Batman. These related media aren’t me, I have to constantly remind myself, but they’re about me. They’ve become more than enjoyable reads, some lighthearted summer fare or even a great novel in a college course that you enjoy but didn’t enjoy as much as your peers, but philosophical approaches to life. And maybe the philosophy of my favorite things only makes sense to me because I’m me. Maybe I can never ever relate the struggle. Maybe others will read it and go “It was ok, I liked it alright,” and I’ll have to roll with the physical assault. But you at least deserve an answer.
I’ve learned to not be a human. My self has fallen into discrete categories. This book is a part of me. This book is another. This video game, another, this podcast, another. No one but me has the full picture, the full history. I’ve written diatribes that mean a lot and say nothing. I’ve taken secrets to my grave. In the effort to “grow up and be an adult,” I’ve left a lot of passion behind. I’m very happy to not constantly be making an ass of myself, on one hand, but on the other I sorely miss the enthusiasm, the depression, romance, hate, unbridled infectious liveliness that caused me to be an ass fifty percent of the time and a saint the other fifty.
So I’ve turned to metonymy.
The Deep, Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010? aren’t anything I’ve ever lied about, but they are topics I steer conversation clear of. They’ve become isolated incidents, things I can parse out as aberrations of my “usual” self. “That was a weird summer.” “It was a different time in my life.” “I apologized already.” I work hard at making them irrelevant today. I remind myself that people change, they evolve, they don’t grow into bigger, meaner versions of the snips and snails that created them. The Deep, Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010? are excised from the body, cut off like a gangrene leg, all screams and flails and then sleep and phantom pains.
At least that’s how I try and sell it. Problem is, all these books from people infinitely smarter than myself show me the end of that road. And they show me how to dig myself out. And the digging myself out fucking hurts.
Middle-class white men with ego issues attempt to reconcile their past with the present and in doing so admit their sins. Jack Burden drives West to replay his mental home movie because he cannot deal with the fact that he pushed Anne Stanton away with his carelessness and false bravado. Rob revisits past relationships when Laura dumps him for being insensitive. Aaron repeats old lyrics with new meaning when Amanda is long, long gone and he gets married to someone his old self had never planned on (Nature Had Another Plan!). Reconcile, replay, revisit, repeat, rewrite. Relive and arrive at some conclusion you hadn’t thought possible. Maybe you two will get back together or maybe you never will and no matter the matter who you are and what you are is not a separate being than the egotistical self-centered jerkwad but the inevitable conclusion of it. The Deep, Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010? are shared, first inwardly, then outwardly, and they lead to some path that you are afraid will lead to loneliness but will probably just end up leading to a functioning human.
I hit my girlfriend. Back in 2009. We were fighting, a bit too much for a relationship considered serious, and then, smack, without even thinking about it. Knocked her glasses off and they fell to the cold dormitory floor and didn’t break. Her face, shocked, made mine, frenzied. I couldn’t believe it (God, I still can’t) and ran for the knife for the obvious solution, certainly before apologizing to her, which would be to “…cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire.” So after slapping her across the face she was the one to comfort me, to tell me she forgave me and understood the reasoning even if the action wasn’t good and that no, no, I didn’t literally have to amputate. I said I’d never do it again. And I d
You know what I did the next night? We were fighting again, and I did it again.
“The Incident” is no longer an incident, it is a living reality no fun tricks of nomenclature can cover up. “The Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010?” pale, absolutely pale, in comparison to others but my own ego, my own false strength insists that the worse is the worst simply because I’m the one who did it. I’m the worst. Social media would crucify me, and they’d be right to. I’m as big a shithead as the rest of them. I’m a Lifetime movie villain. I’m the manipulative ex-boyfriend dead in the ditch flung from the open jeep off the bridge with mud in my blood. I’m an abused abuser (or does it sound “better” as the abuser abused?) who swore the self to secrecy not because of ramifications but because of the lack of them. I had to protect myself and I had to punish myself and in the protection I punished and I punished and I punished. I practiced Suburban Ritualistic Self-Denial.
Suburban Ritualistic Self-Denial is the Protestant practice of self-isolation, self-subservience, self-mutilation, self-Self-Denial when no confessions are available, no penance can be made, no incense can be burned, when the father can berate you and the counselor can arrest you and the friends can abandon you (maybe they won’t, but maybe the chances increase with knowledge), when the Thanksgiving Feast is eaten alone in the bedroom on the floor by the record player and the shed fur of the dead cat and you say to yourself, “I will enjoy this life! But I will enjoy it by the smell of gasoline and the cockroach-ridden walls!” It’s the price of freedom, of too much money and too much time, of not having to wake up at eight in the morning every day and allowing yourself to ruminate in bed all day to turn inward upon yourself upon the universe a thousand times creating, not recreating but simply creating, a thousand separate names for the hit, the incident, the slap, the dark secret, a Thousand Names for God. It’s what you’ve got when you’ve not got.
I say I “see myself” in All the King’s Men, but that means nothing in its short, innocuous phrasing. Is he a Student of History? Is he neurotic? Is he cold? Or is it I’m on that trip out West and it hasn’t taken me three days but has taken me five years and my home movie is on repeat and I never took the advice to burn it and live callously? Or did I live callously, because when I look down at my toes I see callouses burning off? Did I make a mistake, or did He make a mistake, He being me of some different era and different Name that I can partition into a locked safe while I bleed out in Real-Time and not All-Time? Because that’s what I mean when I say I “see myself.” I see myself loving, angry, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, heart beating coffin thumping up to surface worms between teeth saying I need another chance, I need another chance, I don’t need to hit again but I need to be angry enough to hit and then not hit and maybe my right arm can write poetry or play music or hold an infant and not be all severed tendons and bloodsoaked bedsheets.
I have made my penance and no one saw. Here it is. It’s in an condominium in Hunter’s Chase, off Celanese and next to the Krispy Kreme, and the floor is dirty and sagging from pacing and jumping and falling and kissing the ground when landing. It’s nasty and it’s mine but it can’t be only mine.
So there’s your answer.
“…for any place to which you may flee will now be like the place from which you have fled, and you might as well go back, after all, to the place where you belong, for nothing was your fault or anybody’s fault, for things are always as they are.”
I am very sorry.