Angry Young Men—today the concept in its simplicity seems quaint, almost charming. Among millennials, there’s an underground subset of young males wrecked amidst the storms of self-creation and signification. The internet is now nearly the exclusive domain of social and cultural life. For many born without memory of life before the web, there burn weird heart-fires of grievance and resentment, imbued with the alien green hue of nocturnal computer monitors. How to forge an identity out of an endless succession of ironic poses? Quiet, repressed desperation has become for many the sole constant; slacker irreverence just a means of socialization. This identity crisis defines the white male millennial most acutely. As whiteness and maleness rightfully lose their stranglehold on social status, a generation who would have had their identities and privilege bequeathed to them fifty years ago, now have to figure out the hard work of actually being human beings. I’m with them.
My Midwestern Fundamentalist-Baptist schooling and upbringing left its mark on me through negation. Like that poor sap in Brave New World, it must have been some in utero accident of alcohol in the blood surrogate that left me uniquely unqualified for healthy adaption. I determined, in fact, to become the polar opposite of what was expected. But in a small town, with no concrete alternatives, there seemed only one way to get my change: mythologies. I tried on for size the mythic personas of bohemian intellectual, doomed romantic seeker, Tim-Leary-consciousness-expander, and (without realizing any contradiction) William Burroughs/Hunter Thompson conscientious junkie. I lived out myths of ascetic and libertine, stoner and Situationist, idealist and wizened cynic. Though without formal commitment to any pose, I prided myself on being above the Fan. I took each myth in full, living them all in spite of their contradictions. I was seeking a synthesis in which my truest self would triumphantly emerge. I had no reason to suspect chronic damage to any sort of personal soul: I hadn’t yet located one in the first place.
No wonder then I ended up two thousand miles from home, spun out into a psychiatric ward at the Arizona-Mexico border after learning through psychosis the speed around here ain’t quite what it is back home. I was cranked out and withdrawing in the foothills of the Sonora Desert. The altitude was nearly a mile high but also I was undoubtedly in the southern-most position of my life. After a day or two of Ativan and Clozapine, I was able to root around and begin to find my bearings. I’d fucked up I realized, got caught; a week or two of telling these people what they wanted to hear and be out (but where to?). Plus, there was a mystique, a mythology, to the sanitarium; didn’t T.S. Eliot write The Wasteland in one? I sat down to write. I wanted far out, but settled for far gone: no doubt bad stream-of-consciousness like I was the hero in some favorite author’s Wiki-bio. When that got old, however, I was forced in my confinement to, momentarily, Shut Up.
The ward had a small bookshelf on wheels patients could peruse at their leisure. The books weren’t placed there for therapeutic reasons. The selection was random (who donates books to mental hospitals?). There were a lot of romance novels, a couple Grisham/Clancy type thrillers etc. The only one that caught my eye in the beginning was some “introduction” by way of academic gobbledygook to 20th century classical music. I picked that up with but after an hour or two, Eh, I’ll come back to it.
I was set to be released in two weeks; they needed to be sure the delusions had completely passed (if they only knew). I’d need something hefty to pass the time. I finally picked up the biggest volume I could find: Middlemarch, by George Eliot. I remembered him (her) benignly: my Baptist school had forced Silas Marner down our throats as a paragon of Godly litra-chore, but it hadn’t left a definitively icky aftertaste as so many school-books had. I thought I’d give Middlemarch a try: I fancied myself as not below the (Victorian?) classics and plus, it’s a very loooong book.
My first impression was the incongruity of pairing Shakespearian epigrams to chapters about unassuming domestic life. Eliot was supposed to be a realist, right? Why this mystic undertone in expounding the lives of rural, not especially enlightened countryfolk? I found it hard to concentrate on the dailiness of the characters; my idea of British literature was Coleridge and de Quincey, but I started to get intrigued when I locked on the links between the undramatic interior lives revealed by the novel and the grand utterances appended to the chapters.
Between medication doses (Show us you swallowed the pill!) and recreation hours, I began to devour Middlemarch, or more exactly to be devoured by it. I was completely consumed by its world and the voice of the author tracing it out. George Eliot was Mary Ann Evans, which I knew, but the voice of the narrator was something beyond feminine or masculine identity, without being sexless. Sometimes I thought in its clarity it must be the voice of God, tracing the intricate relations of his creation. Indeed, Middlemarch affected me to the core not just as an immersive, realistic experience. Eliot creates a convincing world sure enough, but beyond that she explores the poetical reality (her term): a near-divine delineation of human psychology and actions and events. Eliot’s voice wasn’t pious; it wasn’t the voice of some distant god but embodied a vision of a regenerated Humanity: not sinless or perfected, but clear-sighted and strumming with a sorrowful empathy the mystic chords of the human heart.
George Eliot wrote of Daniel Deronda, her last novel, “I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else.” And that’s something I got from Middlemarch, but it seemed a revelation of the real world too. I gained eyes to see the interconnectedness of human feeling and thought and action, of human beings and their inescapable relation to others. I saw the human condition not as a striving after a fixed form or identity but as a painful yet glorious process of Becoming. No fixed identity could be bought as bulwark against the stream of life. That might make for a terrifyingly unstable existence, yet I realized this was the state of play that allowed for being fully human and not simply yielding to death-in-life before death. I saw my past self as a Casaubon futilely searching for a Key to All Mythologies in which a single Method, hard-won through intellectual conquest, could solve for all time problems of identity and experience. I saw myself as a lost and wounded child, battered against the shores of adulthood, crying out for a stable place to stand. What George Eliot taught me was a way to see this all and say…Yes. Rather than intuiting the painful Mystery and fleeing into a phantasmagoria of shadows, I saw that in some way identity was from the start an illusion: our lot is not a search for Being but a process of Becoming. Of course, nowhere is all this explicitly stated, but in Eliot’s epic sweep I gained such realizations, or something like them. In this way George Eliot helped me begin to develop a soul.
The paperback was badly fraying at the start; halfway through the book I was required to read in now fifty or sixty page separate segments. When I completed each one, I would stack it neatly into the pile of preceding segments. Throughout those two weeks, a book, but also my way of thinking, slowly fell apart and was stacked together again. I’m slightly ashamed to say I stole several books from Sonora Behavioral Health Center (“Nobody but me would read this anyway”), but Middlemarch, though in tatters, I left there. I’d like to think someone else, in whatever tortured state of mind, has picked it up and received a Revelation from it like I did. In any case, it was too hallowed an object of human connection to make it my own property.
When I left, and returned like some prodigal son back to where I began, my problems did not magically disappear. I fell back into an even more profound opiate dependence, though one that was now in those final stages before resolution. What came (is still coming) after that was even harder, too: tearing down the house can be accomplished in months, building it back can take a lifetime. After I got my mind in an acceptably stable condition, I got to come back to another fruit of years of dissolution, but one of another order. I saw the eyes of my daughter, now nearly two years old, and the process that began with Middlemarch continued on. What was offered by these influences was not, could not be a fixed salvation, but something which in this life may be our best lot: a second chance.