Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spring Mutiny

It's a Spring morning, as we know Spring mornings here: Spring shuffles into the Northwest casually, all but unnoticed, rumpled and sleepy: a few crocuses here, a fruit tree trying out some buds over there. Not a big fuss. Sure it's green, but it's green in January too.

I dream of the days when everything will cohere and make sense: I'm scattered and confused. One thing at a time. We won't be settled in our hearts until we're settled in a new house, and have accomplished everything that it will take to get from here to there. The biggest difficulty, as always, will be negotiating all the changes in family and social relationships that it will entail. We are such intensely social creatures, and so much of our sense of belonging and hierarchy is wrapped up in place. Moving house puts everything into play: who really belongs? How much territory do they get to mark, how much do they freely traverse?

The life of dogs is so enviable. They need to belong so much that the dog rule is simply everybody belongs: just find your place and stay there. So you establish dominance and submission once and for all, and from then on you just roll with it. But cats and human beings never really settle. Who's boss right now? Who belongs at the moment? No dog ever asks those questions, but cats and people ask them all the time. Forget tool-using and language: the really distinctive human trait is a constant social uneasiness. (Yes, I understand that I've just defined cats as human. That's because they are.)

I can't find the quotation from Samuel Johnson, but he once said something like -- no two people can be together for an hour without one establishing a clear superiority over the other. This is nonsense, of course, but it's fruitful nonsense. There are dozens of overlapping spheres of capability, each having its own importance at its own time: at one time we may be painfully aware that someone is physically stronger and quicker than we are, at another we may silently congratulate ourselves on being emotionally hardier than someone else: at a public meeting a person who can speak forcefully and cogently suddenly becomes a person to be reckoned with, despite his incompetence with a hammer.

We are fascinated by combat and contests: those who don't go in for football are likely enough to be fascinated by academic disputation or political contention. We follow these things avidly even when they're of no real concern to us. I have no conceivable stake in the Green Bay Packers winning the Superbowl, and I have far less stake in the outcome of the political races I follow than justifies the eagerness with which I follow them. (Ireland shall get her freedom, says Yeats' Parnell to a laborer, and you still break stone.) No: it's the drama of winning and losing itself that is perennially gripping. Our ache for winning and our dread of losing attaches itself to any passing conflict. Some time ago there was some spam-ish ad that invited you to vote for Coke or Pepsi: some clever person correctly perceived that a preference as trivial as that for one flavor of sugar water over another would engage people's competitive instincts and get them to click something.

Moving house will be such a visible marker of dropping in class, that I'm abnormally sensitized to class and status just now. My friend Teju Cole has hit the big time with his novel Open City -- rave reviews in the New Yorker and all that sort of thing -- and I doggedly, rebelliously, have not read it yet. There's envy mixed in to that refusal, I'm afraid, but mostly its stubbornness. Several of my friends have books just out, or books I'm reading in draft, and I'm resolutely keeping Open City in its place in the queue. Famous or not, one friend's book has the same importance to me as another's. But I can feel the undertow, the impulse to let it jump the queue because it's more important, and the impulse to drop his name. It's a deeply unpleasant feeling to me, and its resonance with the house-downsizing is more unpleasant still. I feel mutinous, and my socialist convictions have re-engaged. These days, the image of subadult orangutans, jealously tagging after the patriarch orangutans and their multiple wives, keeps coming to me, unbidden. It's not a comfortable image, and it doesn't bring comfortable thoughts.

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