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Character Development

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It’s been a long time since I read Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, and I find, in rereading it, that I’d forgotten a lot of it.  I’d also mischaracterized it in my mind.  There are certainly lots of details about the private lives of people like Ibsen, Shaw and Tolstoy, but there’s a lot else that’s here, too.  And I’d forgotten  how much Johnson admired many of these people as writers, even when he didn’t much approve of them as human beings.

But there’s a bigger issue here, and one that I hammer a lot, so let me go there:  I don’t think it’s possible to write a fictional character who will be as complex, and often contradictory, as the most complex and contradictory of human beings.

Take Jean Jacques Rousseau, a man whose written work drives me up a wall, and one of the most brilliant and destructive thinkers in history.  He was also most likely mentally ill, with a full blown paranoid persecution psychosis that included believing that members of the government of whatever country he was in were plotting against him, subverting all his friends in the process and lying in wait to clap him in prison. This resulted in his doing things like sneaking away from the friend who was escorting him to the boat that would take him back to France from England, dashing into a cabin and locking the door behind him, all in an attempt to escape an “apprehension” that was not only not actually occuring, but had never even been contemplated by anybody.

We like to have our Great Men all of a piece, just as we like to have our heroes in fiction.  We’d all feel better if Gandhi hadn’t had that taste for very young girls, or if Hitler hadn’t been, as he was by most accounts, a consummately funny man. 

Some of the things Johnson covers matter a great deal to the ideas proposed by the men and women whose lives he examines.  Certainly Marx’s claim to be constucting a “scientific” socialism should be reexamined in light of the fact that he did no first hand research of any kind, consistantly rejected any imput from actual working  people on his experiences, falsified a lot of the secondhand research he did use and usually took that research from studies that were decades out of date.

Some of the portraits are, really, just sad.  Ibsen’s childhood was a monument to abuse, neglect and deprivation.  It left him almost entirely incapable of forming close attachments to other people for the rest of his life, something that was not happy for his wife and children.  Still, I don’t see how this invalidates any of the things he said or believed.  He didn’t do the damage to himself, and I’m not sure I’d feel justified in demanding that he at least try to reverse it.  There’s lots of damage in my life taht I’m not able to reverse, and some I can’t even be convinced to want to.

Anotber set of problems seems to me to come not from being an intellectual, but from being a “bohemian.”  The only thing is that when people want to live like that–hand to mouth, no regular employment–and are not “intellectuals” (or “artists”), we don’t call them bohemians.  We just call them bums.  I’ve known a small smattering of people in my life who lived like this, and I’ve never understood.  It looks like a miserable way to live, and also a lot more work than actual work.

But I wonder if some of what is going on here is just the way things are.  It doesn’t matter how much talent you have, if you don’t have the drive to go with it, you don’t get anywhere.

That means that people who do get somewhere, who succeed on a reallyhigh scale, are almost always horrifically driven people, and horrifically driven people tend to be jerks.  

World class drive requires a kind of tunnel vision, the inability to see anything clearly except the goal.  It’s practically the definition of selfishness, and almost nobody acquires it except through pain, failure and unhappiness.

It’s not so much that being driven makes people unhappy, as that being unhappy makes at least some people driven.  Almost all the portraits in Johnson’s book are of people whose early life was marred by one kind of disaster or another, people who were poor, or laughed and spit at, or bullied, or failures, or unwanted. 

The one possible exception so far has been Percy Bysshe Shelley, who seems to have been a kind of spoiled brat who was never forced to grow up.  But maybe that’s not too different from the other thing.

All I know is that I had that kind of drive when I was younger, for reasons that there’s no point in going into now, but I lost it as I got older.  The kind of damage that’s necessary to fuel ambition is first and foremost personal, and I had lot of that as a child and adolescent.  As an adult, though, my life has been remarkably happy in all the most deeply important ways–great friends, an excellent marriage, two children whose company I actually enjoy and who seem to enjoy mine.

The ways in which my adult life have been unhappy–and there have been ways–have largely been in areas external to my own inner self-assessment.  For better or worse, it’s been decades since I was convinced that I was the ugliest person who ever lived and not worth the time it took people to reject me. 

I don’ t want to give the wrong impression here.  I haven’t lost all my ambition–I’ve still got things I want to accomplish, and I still have the energy to go do them.  It’s just that I’d be content, now, with being a decently known and decently successful mystery writer.  When I was twelve, nothing less than becoming the next Hemingway would have done.

These days, I know what you pay for being a person like that.  And I’m glad some people are willing to pay it.

I’m also glad that I’m not one of them.

Written by janeh

April 16th, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Character Development'

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  1. Jane, I just checked Amazon and found two books.

    Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky (P.S.) by Paul M. Johnson

    Intellectuals by Paul Johnson

    Which one are you talking about?


    16 Apr 09 at 2:58 pm

  2. “That means that people who do get somewhere, who succeed on a reallyhigh scale, are almost always horrifically driven people, and horrifically driven people tend to be jerks.”

    I am reminded of a science fiction short story (title and author forgotten)

    The premise was that psychological testing had reached the point of being very accurate. Candidates for US President had to be tested. Anyone who really wanted to be President was automatically rejected!


    16 Apr 09 at 3:07 pm

  3. I’m not so sure. I’ll grant that driven people–the “people of one book”–and that includes the authors thereof–can be very hard to impossible to live with, but I’m not sure that “driven” is the same as “successful.” Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan were all notably successful, and I don’t think they’d qualify as jerks. They just weren’t driven. Same would be true of Jefferson, Jackson and maybe FDR. Napoleon was a first-class monster–well, maybe second-class–but Wellington was not, nor Blucher, nor Cromwell. Mind you, none of them are perfect, but our supply of perfect people is very limited.

    (I would also suggest that our supply of perfect childhoods is similarly limited. Study someone’s personal history in enough detail, and it’s not hard to have some reason why the person ought to have grown up into a monster–but most don’t.)

    But intellectual history does seem to have an unusual proportion of monsters. Perhaps they’re more common among those who feel obliged to tell all mankind how or what to think? And note even there, nothing especially discreditable about Aristotle or Socrates has come down to us. Adam Smith seems to have led an unexceptional life. As a general rule, though, if someone comes by with a plan to reform and benefit all mankind, guard the women and children and lock up the valuables.

    A possibly related point: I think there’s a valid distinction between high competency and genius. Once you see a highly competent person do something, you can generally understand why he did it and how it works. When you get to genius, sometimes even afterward you can’t understand how it worked. Now not all crazy people are geniuses, but it’s hard to find a genius who isn’t at least a bit crazy.

    But I can also name geniuses, who may have been crazy but were not jerks.


    16 Apr 09 at 4:03 pm

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