The social significance of an idea is not necessarily proportional to its truth, its coherence, or even its comprehensibility. In his introduction to a new edition of Warrant for Genocide, which is the history of the concoction of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a clumsy forgery that even now has a certain political resonance for the susceptible and weak-minded in an important region of the globe, Norman Cohn writes:
It is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious.
Nor, of course, is all writing concerned with communicating ideas, at least in any sense that an intellectual might recognize.
Ungrammatical and ill-spelt written utterances, of very restricted vocabulary, might yet reveal the workings of the human heart . . . and suggest the ultimate philosophical questions.
I first learned to read with attention the writings of those who had no abstract truths to express after I had read Nathanael West’s novella Miss Lonelyhearts, which was published in 1933. Here I discovered what I, like many young men, had been too proud, snobbish, or callow hitherto to accept: that ungrammatical and ill-spelt written utterances, of very restricted vocabulary, might yet reveal the workings of the human heart, lay bare the deepest suffering, and suggest the ultimate philosophical questions. It is a lesson that I have never (I hope) entirely forgotten.
Miss Lonelyhearts, a male journalist, is the agony aunt of The New York Post-Dispatch. He receives letters from uneducated people asking for advice on how to cure suffering that he soon realizes is incurable—at least in the absence of a religious faith that human existence, including or especially its suffering, has a transcendent meaning and purpose. Modern man can neither believe in such a meaning and purpose, nor yet dispense with the need for that belief: this is his tragedy and his predicament, and it is a truth revealed to Miss Lonelyhearts by the letters that he receives daily. He tries nonetheless to resolve the contradiction between the impossibility of and the need for belief by involving himself, Christ-like in his own fevered imagination, in the lives of his correspondents, and is shot dead for his efforts (the title of the chapter in which he dies is “Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience”). We live in a world in which no good deed—or compassion and good feeling—goes unpunished.
Miss Lonelyhearts explains to his fiancée, Betty, what effect the agony column has had on him.
Let’s start from the beginning. A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column. . . . He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.
The joke is a cosmic one, however, not a mere witticism. Why is there undeserved suffering in the world? A sixteen-year-old girl with a facial deformity, who cannot get a boyfriend like other girls, and knows that she never will be able to do so and is therefore condemned to a life of loneliness, asks:
What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didn’t do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins.
The obvious insufficiency and intellectual absurdity of these explanations, combined with his inability to think of any others, reduces Miss Lonelyhearts to silence.
What is the purpose of life? A man who reads gas meters for a living writes to him:
I am a cripple 41 yrs of age which I have been all my life and I have never let myself get blue until lately when I have been feeling lousy all the time on account of not getting anywhere and asking myself what it is all for. . . . What I want to no is what is it all for my pulling my god damned leg along the streets and down in stinking cellars with it all the time hurting fit to burst so that near quitting time I am crazy with the pain and when I get home all I hear is money money. . . . But that aint what I mean either because you might tell me to change my job and where could I get another one I am lucky to have one at all. It aint the job that I am complaining about but what I want to no is what the whole stinking business is for.
Miss Lonelyhearts was published at the lowest point of the Depression, but its pessimism is existential rather than economic or political. This is proved by the obvious shallowness and insincerity of Miss Lonelyhearts’ replies to his correspondents.
Life, for most of us, seems a terrible struggle of pain and heartbreak, without hope or joy. Oh, my dear readers, it only seems so. Every man, no matter how poor or humble, can teach himself to use his senses. See the cloud-flecked sky, the foam-decked sea. . . . Feel of velvet and of satin.
Life is worthwhile, for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy.
His very need to italicize the word “is” proves his uncertainty, almost to the point of hysteria, about the value of life, or about its having any purpose, that might compensate for its pains. The absurdity of human desire is apparent to Miss Lonelyhearts when he sees “a man who appeared to be on the verge of death stagger into a movie theater that was showing a picture called Blonde Beauty.” In the face of permanent oblivion, man wants a little short-lived stirring in his blood.
Miss Loneleyhearts’s editor on the Post-Dispatch is a man called Shrike. His cynicism is a defense against the very feelings that overwhelm Miss Lonelyhearts. In a passage that brings to mind Johnson’s Rasselas, that marvellous parable about the vanity and incompatibility of human desires, Shrike takes Miss Lonelyhearts on a tour through the possible escapes from his—from all of our—predicament. A return to the soil, lotus-eating in the South Seas, a life of pleasure, dedication to art: all sound equally ridiculous in his mouth.
My friend, I know of course that neither the soil, nor the South Seas, nor Hedonism, nor art, nor suicide, nor drugs, can mean anything to us. We are not men who swallow camels only to strain at stools.
West caught with precision the repetitions, the bad spelling, the lack of punctuation, the stream of suffering consciousness, the lack of awareness of any difference between the written and the spoken language, that —seventy years of compulsory education later—still characterizes the writing of a large proportion of the population when, against the grain, it puts pen to paper. Here is a suicide note that accompanied a patient to my hospital yesterday who took an overdose of tablets after having been raped by two men:
Feeling really bad I can’t get what happened last night out of my head. I still could feel them two men touching my body and just want it to go all way. I feel so dirty in what they did me and I just don’t know what to do. I fell like screaming crying but I seem to not be able to I just feel so numb I want it to all go away but it wont. . . . Soon I’ll be able to be at peace and I’m glad I made the choice I did I’ll never have to feel this way again. . . . I don’t want any treatment for it just let me be that’s what I want.
Of course, life has become a little more complicated than it was in West’s day. The elevated, almost celebrity status accorded to victimhood has made unselfconscious accounts such as Miss Lonelyhearts received almost impossible even for people of limited educational attainment. Self-dramatization gets in the way of simple truth. As it turned out, the writer of the suicide note had not been raped or even assaulted. When the police came to interview her, they recognized her as someone who had made several such allegations before, at different hospitals. She had withdrawn them all because they were not true. In an attempt to deflect everyone’s exasperation with her, she said that she made such false allegations when she had not taken her medication properly, and she had run out of it on this occasion. Lack of medicine made her lie.
Everyone was furious with her, and she left the hospital much subdued and in disgrace. She is almost certainly in another hospital now, having made the same or similar allegations. A nuisance, a drain on society, then: but it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that her existence must have been very unsatisfactory for her to behave like this. I couldn’t help recalling Freud’s famous dictum, as I thought about her, that the purpose of psychoanalysis was to replace neurosis by ordinary suffering.
But what was her ordinary suffering that led her to adopt such a way of being in the first place? We soon return to the existential impasse suggested by West in Miss Lonelyhearts. The young woman in question was physically unattractive and neither intellectually gifted nor well-educated. Culture, in the sense of anything higher than the thin gruel of popular entertainment, was almost certainly closed to her, and religion, being dead, meant nothing to her. She was unskilled and if ever she got a job she was unlikely to be much better off than if she didn’t, though she would receive a burden of many responsibilities with her salary. No doubt she had emerged from a background of squalor, moral, spiritual, and physical, in which everyone behaves as a hedonist without obtaining any lasting pleasure thereby. The brief period of solicitousness that her lies about her own victimhood evoked in others, before they were exposed and the solicitousness changed to exasperation, was perhaps the best solution to the problem that she could manage. Her suicide note, therefore, revealed genuine suffering, albeit at one remove from the direct revelations of suffering vouchsafed to Miss Lonelyhearts.
Only the old now write as unselfconsciously as those who wrote to Miss Lonelyhearts. Here is a letter from a woman aged seventy complaining that her son, who took drugs, was repeatedly violent towards her.
I have not had an easy life being widowed quite young with six children to bring up. I feel the system fails people like him and he just seems to keep falling by the wayside because of his Mental Health.
Miss Lonelyhearts would have understood (and been lacerated by) the depth and intensity of the suffering implied by her words, understated and unselfdramatizing as they are.
A generation or two later, such communications require something like epigraphical interpretation to reach their true meaning. Layers of self-pity have to be scraped away before one reaches the bedrock of real suffering.
I learned an important stylistic lesson from a study I once conducted on suicide notes. To do this, I had to enter the dark bowels of the City Coroner’s office, where the documents were kept. The disorder was terrible, and the light an almost pre-electric mouldering gloom. Passing between the stacks in which the dusty records were kept, in which even the spiders had mummified, I stumbled over such artifacts as an electric heater, with a label attached: Mrs Jones electrocuted in bath 23 Jan, 1951, verdict Suicide.
What I discovered is that a suicide’s note is very rarely an apologia pro vita sua. An uncertain hand across a scrap of paper writes, as if almost too weak to continue, “I’m sorry, I can’t take no more.” Grand rhetorical flourishes there are none, and none of the fury in the notes of those who fully intend to be found and saved.
I mean it this time. Mood swing my backside. You lot have done this to me. You shud lison to me When a sad I need help. This is why I dont want to be around no one belives me. Your all regret.
As Miss Lonelyhearts knew, when it comes to the true and honest expression of emotion, less is more, and vehemence is nothing.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 3, on page 17
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