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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Divide

While watching an episode of "Dexter," I came across a bit of dialogue that really stuck with me. In the scene, the imaginary projection of Dexter's dead father, Harry, is warning him about allowing someone to get to close to him and his dark side. As with all of Harry's warnings, it came across like a fortune cookie, but a particularly good one:

"No matter how close two people are, an infinite distance separates them."

Think about that for a second.

In the show, Harry is saying that no matter how like-minded Dexter thinks his new friend is, Dexter will always be isolated, wholly and completely. I took the line a bit further, as I think it was intended to be. (It's lines of dialogue like these that make me think about the writer(s) behind them, rather than the actor who says them.) If Harry's sage advice holds true (which is debatable), then that means that no matter how close you are to someone, no matter how well you think you know them, love them, understand them, there will always always always be that uncrossable divide.

How despairing is that? I guess if you're 100% confident and self-assured, this isn't that big of a deal to you. But if you're a little bit sensitive, struggle with feelings of isolation and measure yourself through the eyes of others (in other words, if you're like me), then this could be a crippling revelation. This one line feels like it comes right out of a nihilist's guidebook. And I feel like writers (or artists in general, who tend to be more sensitive), suffer more acutely from this realization.

So I got to thinking about a few of my favorite authors and how they dealt with the overwhelmingly oppressive feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, guilt and so on. Neil Gaiman once said that "Writing is, like death, a very lonely business." Now, Gaiman isn't exactly sunshine and roses, but he isn't the "woe is me" writer type either. However, I came across a short story of his in "Fragile Things" that unnerved me a little. It's about a man being tortured by a demon in Hell; first physically, then mentally and emotionally. Here's an excerpt:

"It was like peeling an onion. This time through his life he learned about consequences. He learned the results of things he had done; things he had been blind to as he did them; the ways he had hurt the world; the damage he had done to people he had never known, or met, or encountered. It was the hardest lesson yet."

~ excerpt from "Other People" by Neil Gaiman in "Fragile Things"

Now, to me, this story rings of guilt, of a heavy burden shouldered by the tortured soul that is not alleviated by confession, but rather remembered fresh each time, pain laid bare like a new wound. And while the story is simply about an unnamed man, each story is, in itself, about a part of the author. What I wouldn't give to sit down with Gaiman and tease out the reasons for that guilt, to swap stories of sin, to confess under the protection of an author's honor. But even if that were to happen, I'd experience his sin in a secondhand nature, from my own side of the divide.

I feel that the more intelligent you are, the more you tend to become oversensitive to things, to the point of shutting down. In my mind, nothing exemplifies this more than the following excerpt from Daniel Keyes' short story, "Flowers for Algernon":

June 15

Dr. Strauss came to see me again. I wouldn't open the door and I told him to go away. I want to be left to myself. I have become touchy and irritable. I feel the darkness closing in. It's hard to throw off thoughts of suicide. I keep telling myself how important this introspective journal will be.

It's a strange sensation to pick up a book that you've read and enjoyed just a few months ago and discover that you don't remember it. I remembered how great I thought John Milton was, but when I picked up Paradise Lost I couldn't understand it at all. I got so angry I threw the book across the room.

I've got to try to hold on to some of it. Some of the things I've learned. Oh, God, please don't take it all away.

~excerpt from "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes

"Flowers for Algernon" was one of the most memorable things I read as a kid and I remember having a gut reaction to it, even if I didn't fully understand it at the time. The story is about a man of low IQ who submits himself to surgery that will increase his intelligence. Algernon is a lab mouse who has undergone the same operation, but soon shows signs of social, mental and physical deterioration. The test subject, Charlie Gordon, goes from one end of the IQ spectrum to the other and back, finding himself isolated for different reasons at either extreme.

Keyes could have been commenting on the advancement of science outpacing humanity's social evolution, or perhaps someone close to him struggled with a regressive memory disease. I tend to think that Keyes was expressing frustration at his own level of intelligence and the lack of understanding by the people around him. Perhaps Keyes' longed, during some moments at least, to be as dim-witted and blissfully ignorant as Charlie Gordon began.

And now, for your favorite mope and mine, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe:

"From childhood's hour, I have not been as others were. I have not seen as others saw...I could not awaken my heart to joy at the same tone. And all I loved, I loved alone"
~excerpt from "Alone" by Edgar Allan Poe

Oh, the questions I'd ask... Poe knew he was different from an early age and struggled with that difference up until his death. For all his many works and posthumous fame, who among us can say we truly know him, or understand him? With countless scholars devoted to studying his works, are they any closer to him than the people he kept close by in life?

Personally, I'd love to hear Poe's interpretation of this "infinite distance" between individuals. Perhaps he would slink further down his chair, tip a bit more absinthe into his mouth and lament that the void of the space without pales in comparison to the emptiness of the space within. Or, perhaps he would surprise me, as writers are wont to do, and flip the coin from dark to light.

“Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.”


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