Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Docent Tour of the Soul

“Academics are like psychedelic drugs. They force you to see patterns where there are none.”

The above epigram was coined in 1968 by a woman I’ll call Anne Thripus. She and I were briefly in the same class at a small women’s college that had a reputation for producing elegant, erudite and compliant wives. Ann was one of the exceptions. She was a large, angry woman with a barbed wit and a thirst for revolution. I believe she left after a year and went to Berkeley. I’m not sure if she ever became someone’s wife.

Her statements have lingered on. I was a Latin major and in love with patterns. Ancient languages and archetypes, Homer and Euripides, Catullus, Horace, Virgil. Our college’s pride was an integrated humanities curriculum, dedicated to making connections: Homo sum, wrote Terence in what should have been our motto, et humani nihil me alienum puto. (I am human and I think nothing human is foreign to me.) We studied history, art, music, literature and science from antiquity to the present day. We knew Arthur, Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde, Dante. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Montaigne. We watched inner myth, literature and religion morph into global exploration, into expository information: the great systematic philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the scientific revolution and finally, myth reborn as novel: Dickens, Elliott, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and at the end, at last, the beginning again: the cry of the first peoples that would echo through the decades of my later life. Because my childhood had been dominated by the pieties of a smug Christendom, I blamed the Christians for the loss of mythic paradox. I wrote my senior thesis on the moment that the pagan world turned Christian, which, by the way, was for me the moment the world ended for real. Without Rome and the gods there was nothing left. I would therefore not develop an adult interest in Christianity until much, much later, when it found itself threatened by the fire-breathing fundamentalists of the far right.

Christianity was a pretty tired religion at the time I came of age. It was all about good behavior, sex and priests. There was no overarching narrative to guide our spiritual lives, no communion of saints to set our young hearts on fire. Rather, we kept indifferent pieties or nibbled at the buffet of syncretism. We believed we could believe whatever we chose and we believed our choices had consequences only for ourselves, that we could shield ourselves from others. Community was only conformity.

Since I was a classicist, I saw echoes of my own world in the frightening instability that rocked the ancient world when Alexander the Great rumbled east with his armies and broke down the coherence of polis leaving an unruly empire, which destroyed comfortable local narratives and released a host of foreign deities and demons. Beneath the veneer of our gracious afternoon college teas, a great deal was simmering. Potent, mind-altering drugs arrived daily from Mexico and Southeast Asia. The war in Vietnam was raging. African Americans, awakening across the nation, realized that history had screwed them royally and that for them “The Land of the Free” was a big, fat lie. Believing that a professor’s caress would make them wise, young girls were tempting a group of older men in ways that they could scarcely bear. In 1972, the year I graduated, our beautiful quads and courtyards erupted as the first wave of the feminist movement rolled over us. As a married woman, which I was for at least part of the time, I could not apply for a graduate school loan without my husband’s permission, which he refused to give.

I experienced other overwhelming changes. Having grown up in Berkeley, I had never met a Republican. In Southern California, at the edges of Orange County, I was inundated by their group-think, squeaky clean with gleaming teeth, eager to please, their little voices tittering at the “demonstration” they planned to hold in honor of Richard Nixon by releasing 250,000 helium balloons. The Republicans also contributed to my first scandal, when an eighteen year old blond who appeared mysteriously in our midst one summer tried to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of Midol®. She claimed to have been raped by a band of ravening Mexicans. Others said that these “Mexicans” were really a Republican caucus in San Diego who loved having fun with their white man’s hands. Having already seduced Brian with the Adam’s apple away from his girlfriend, she had to be rushed, by this same ex girlfriend of the man she stole, to the hospital.

During my freshman year, a group of us got very involved with reinventing the world. Our first visions were idealistic and nurturing, a social welfare state that provided lifetime subsistence in return for two years of national service, not necessarily in the military. By my junior year, the vision turned nasty. Rollerball was the movie of the day, cynical multi nationals the enemy, keeping an entire world pacified with mass entertainment and stupefying doses of drugs. It was the second vision that won out: high priced sports, reality TV, a nation medicated by drug lords and high priced doctors and anesthetized by “action.” Hedonistic despair is addicting. It was already taking its toll. People forget how hard it was to live and work during the late 1960's and early 1970's when there seemed so little for work for. At least by 1980, Ronald Reagan had produced his gospel according to greed and people could become addicted to getting rich.

My college was located in a semi arid basin of the type that defines the geography of Southern California. Ringed by mountains to the north and east, and filled with tons and tons of particulate matter and automobile pollution borne our way on the prevailing westerlies from the coast, we breathed a stagnant and poisoned air. It inspired no one to drive less. Southern California was car country. Gasoline was 29.9 cents a gallon. Speeding was self expression, an escape from the monotony of strip malls and canned culture. Seven million souls inhabited this semi arid basin (the number is quadruple that now) and they irrigated like crazy, growing lawns, filling swimming pools, running air conditioners day and night. I remember that during the spring of my senior year, the year I finally broke down completely, we had a heat wave where temperatures rose to 114-117 for days on end. I would go out and feel the humidity rising from an inland sea of swimming pools. Temperatures that high accompanied by humidity represent nearly the extreme edge of habitability.

Everything about Southern California was supremely unnatural. From the streets with their garish signs to the stars being reduced to a few pinpricks in a garish, polluted sky, to the ponderosa pines in the mountains above, their needles curled and dying from automobile emissions, this was a life that forced you indoors. It was a life that threatened implosion. But people embraced this life as if it were the only life.

In my junior year, an arsonist set fire to the whole basin. I remember standing in the library and watching a swollen, red sun hanging in the sky like a portent of the red giant at the end of the world. When I walked out, ashes fell from the sky like snow and the ridge glowed with red flames, like a volcano, or someone’s idea of Hell.

I graduated from that school with a Phi Beta Kappa key in one hand and an Interlocutory Divorce Decree in the other. I had no inner coherence whatsoever, but I had been gifted with images that would take the rest of my life to name. It would take a good story to put me back together again.

1 comment:

Padre Mickey said...

Wow, Carol! That is quite a story!
I was particularly moved by the imagery of the last paragraph.