My Uncle Seth, myself and my brother.
At the end of WWII, Seth piloted the plane that took editors of major newspapers and magazines
to see the death camps because Eisenhower said without their witnesses,
no one would believe they happened.
When the Middle East wars began, Richard Stern — celebrated writer and liberal thinker in his role as a U of Chicago professor — wrote something about how the wars must not amount to much since no one he knew had sons fighting there and his friends never talked about it. I was shocked, since here on the prairie High-Line everyone was consumed with worry about the dozens of fine young athletes who had joined the army as a way of getting out into the world, so had put themselves in harm’s way. They were admired, because the elders here still vividly remembered WWII and slid back into those attitudes. The grocery stores, using their big plate glass windows, put up photos and celebrations of the young enlisted, which now included women. Every small town knew at least a dozen soldiers.
So I wrote to Stern, who had been my writing professor, and told him about this, pointing out that his “class” lived in a different world. He was abashed and quickly wrote a follow-up article. It was before the Internet made more connections across class, but they don’t seem to be connecting even now.
Why haven’t I stayed in my “class”? What the heck “class” was it anyway? Why did I double back to the world my Scots homesteader grandparents had left in search of a good life where it rained? What use is this doubling back? Here next to the rez, what has “white” done for me compared to all these “red” people? Why don’t they count politically as much as “black”?
What I’ve been trying to do is to explore what some theorists call “the Architecture of Hallucinations.” That is, the assumptions about what is true that I became convinced of in my earliest years, partly because they were the beliefs of my family and surrounding culture and partly because of experiences. They’re hard to make conscious — the old fish-who-doesn’t- know-it’s-in-water dilemma. And then people can’t easily grasp other people’s hallucinations anyway.
Properly, the concept of INCONSOLABILITY comes first before the JJ Sublimation Syndrome and was a trigger for it. I don’t know whether my mother was raising me in that period when babies were supposed to “cry it out” if they failed to settle, but she did report that I was hard to get to sleep. In fact, she claimed that even in the womb I was restless. During the “adrenarche,” the years of primary school, I was always terrified and aching but then curious and up for exploration. My younger brothers necessarily got most of the attention.
One root of inconsolability is the cultural belief that people, even children and women, should “man up,” and not make a fuss. Bad and painful things happen for which there is no remedy, and therefore a person should get over fighting against it or even mourning. This is not an idea that persists much among today’s younger prosperous people. Even people who are poor and uncouth occasionally feel the right to object and demonstrate. But the culture on the prairie won’t like it. Those constantly seeking therapy are mocked. Anyway most therapists see their work as making the client “normal,” a Procrustean enterprise at best.
Inconsolability leads to separation and loss of empathy.
So then Jimmy Jeffers Sublimation Syndrome comes out of yearning desire that would make big trouble if it were acted on. One should convert sex to romance that is simply fiction. At least that was the conviction in my childhood. Now youngsters just damn the consequences and plunge into sex and drugs. Young teens whose bodies are craving sex — inchoate as it may be and as much like a child’s need for cuddling as an adult’s need for hot fucking — are encouraged to find ways to push that ardor off into art or toys or music and dance. The part of the culture that sends their children to college agrees with this, recognizing that the kids are not adult-brained until they are 25. (They generally are not looking for sophistication but pursuing economic security by going deeply into debt — which makes no sense.)
I think about this is terms of gay men in the culture shift of the ’60’s and 70’s, who didn’t have the threat of pregnancy on them and could fuck anyone male anytime. I think about the total abandon and freedom of the gay movement before HIV, what an outburst of joy it was. Didn’t last long, but wasn't it a consolation for the heavy burden of being male in the Vietnam Era?
The danger of too much sublimation is that the individual might never return to mature sexuality. The cold woman, the aloof man, can get discarded or turn mean. I wasn’t those, but without consolation I became passive, secretive, and to some degree numb — or maybe unconscious is better. But the restless curiosity persisted. The hallucinations were useful for writing if I could just figure out how to keep eating.
The next step in this process is that if an individual gets one message about him or herself at home and a different one in — for instance — school, then there can be splitting, so that in one cultural context a person’s identity is a gifted poet with a love for words but in another one the same person is a night marauder full of trickery. My split was between the conscientious and competent student and — at home — a rebellious, selfish refuser of care-taking, a hoarder of resources, submerged in books. Both were consoling to some extent.
This plays out in the cultural dimension, so that here in this small town I’m seen as “that little lady” and everyone is startled when my old officer/warrior-for-justice identity comes out. Now some people hide from me and others want me to take on their causes. I just want to write, which they understand as Chamber of Commerce magazine articles. To them local history doesn’t start before white people came, but I begin with the melting of the last great glaciation and am beginning to learn about even earlier time, “deep time”. They think that the salvation of Valier is tourism and “settlers” who want to bring back the Fifties. I’m trying to understand the worldwide uses of irrigation in a time when water is disappearing. So it’s partly an issue of timescale. Partly awareness.
A person who didn’t know about my Architecture of Hallucinations might trip a spring that meant they were suddenly shut out. They would have no way to know that I was badly needing consolation and therefore, fearing to be invaded during this vulnerability, I would push away the person. Of course, I might just not like them and feel free to exercise my narcissism. Or time is a pressure if you have a long agenda and are growing old. Or they just don't "get" it.
Much of culture is responding to economics, so a single woman here who treats men as equals is seen as either looking for intimacy so a man will pay her way or she is some kind of troublesome anomaly. An old car, old clothes, old house means to them “needy, helpless.” Except to the old men who like history and who remember my early life here, which is one of the aspects that pull me. Since 1999 when I returned, many have died. Their sons are quite different. Scholars away from here consult me, since they see me through writing rather than physical presentation, so crucial to women in our tangled cultures.
My paternal grandfather in Swan River, Manitoba
Of course, this blog writing is partly to exploit an archive of photos taken by my father, beginning on the prairie in his youth and continuing all his life. Photos are also a kind of hallucination, shadow pictures, coded for those who can interpret, who recognize and name.