December 11, 2004
Our book group is now reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Everyone is excited about it, eager to read it. Some people read it years ago, and have fond memories of it, others have never read it, but have heard good things about it. It’s widely regarded as Wolfe’s best novel, and Wolfe is widely regarded as one of America’s best novelists. It was published in 1929, when Wolfe was 29 (he was born in 1900). It’s a fat book, like Wolfe’s other books; Wolfe isn’t known for brevity, but rather for verbosity. Wolfe wrote three novels after Look Homeward, plus lots of short stories. He died in 1938. Click here to visit a Wolfe website.
Look Homeward deals with Wolfe’s early years, his parents, his siblings, his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina; it’s a highly autobiographical novel. His later works deal with his later years, and are said to lack the vitality and freshness of Look Homeward. The title (Look Homeward, Angel) is taken from Milton’s “Lycidas.” Thomas Wolfe should not be confused with the contemporary author Tom Wolfe, who was born in 1931, who is still living, and who’s known for wearing white suits.
I’ve read the first one-fourth of Look Homeward, Angel, and I’m a big fan of it. Wolfe is a great writer because he’s naive, he’s honest, he has enormous vitality, he has the ecstatic confidence of youth, he has raw genius, he has a deep grasp of evil (the dark side of human nature), he depicts a broad spectrum of characters and actions, and he has a deep commitment to literature. Look Homeward is much easier to read than Faulkner’s Sound and Fury, and it has as much vitality as Sound and Fury.
Wolfe seemed to understand the nature of his own work; in a prefatory remark at the start of Look Homeward, he wrote, “this book was written in innocence and nakedness of spirit... the writer’s main concern was to give fullness, life, and intensity to the actions and people in the book.” He achieved this goal. As he knew his own work, so he knew his own genius; at age 23, he wrote: “I don’t know yet what I am capable of doing but, by God, I have genius — I know it too well to blush behind it.”
Wolfe begins Look Homeward with a few prefatory sentences that are poetic and obscure; in my edition, these sentences are printed in italics. Don’t be “turned off” by these prefatory sentences; it’s a readable book once it gets started. These sentences are like the overture to an opera; they introduce themes and phrases that Wolfe picks up later, in order to give the novel form and unity.
The introduction to Look Homeward is a touching piece by Wolfe’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, who was also an editor of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Let’s look at a few sentences of Look Homeward, and try to get a better understanding of Wolfe’s strengths and weaknesses. In the following passage, the protagonist, Eugene Gant, is four years old, and is traveling by train from North Carolina to St. Louis (his mother is hoping to turn a profit at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904):
What a magical phrase: “stilled in great wonder.” It perfectly describes a child’s naive response to the world. This is fine literature, a fine description of an American child’s train-ride. Wolfe is content to describe the world, he doesn’t moralize or politicize. If I had to complain about something, I would complain about the word “tenanted,” which makes the sentence in which it occurs somewhat obscure. Wolfe’s prose lacks what I regard as the supreme literary virtue: classical simplicity, the grand style. Wolfe’s prose isn’t crystal-clear, as Forster’s is. But Wolfe’s many virtues make one overlook his few vices.
Here’s another passage about traveling; in this passage, Eugene is about 10, and he’s traveling with his father to Augusta, Georgia, where his newly-married sister is living:
Again, Wolfe captures the child’s naive response to the world. Though some might describe the prose as verbose, I would describe it as elegant.
Wolfe sometimes uses commas as I use them; he sometimes uses commas where other writers would use periods or semi-colons. As an example, let’s look at a sentence that describes how Eugene and his friend are affected by the sight of “an enormous serpent”: “Shaken with fear they went away, they talked about it then and later in hushed voices, but they never revealed it.”1 This is how I like to use commas, but I’m sure many English teachers would say it’s incorrect, it’s a “run-on sentence.” But Wolfe and I don’t care what they say, we just run on, and on, and on, defying textbooks, thumbing our noses at grammar, because we believe that running allows us to reproduce the flow of speech, and the flow of thought, so why should we stop running, why shouldn’t we run forever?
Wolfe has the gift of being able to reproduce reality, to depict the look and feel of everyday life, to make the past come vividly to life. In the following passage, the young Eugene visits his father at his father’s store, and his father invites him for a soda:
Although Look Homeward has many poetic passages, it also has many passages that focus on the dark side of human nature. Everyone is torturing and being tortured: little Eugene is tortured by his older siblings, his parents torture each other, Eugene himself (in concert with his friends) tortures blacks, Jews, and poor whites. Has a writer ever portrayed his relatives in such a negative light, while they were still alive? It isn’t surprising that (as Maxwell Perkins said) “what he had written had given great pain even to those he loved the most.”
Eugene’s father rehearses by himself and then, when his tirade is well rehearsed, he attacks his wife: “‘Woman, would you have had a roof to shelter you today if it hadn’t been for me? .... Fiend out of hell! ....’Twas a bitter day for me when I first came into this accursed country.’ At times, when she tried to reply to his attack, she would burst easily into tears. This pleased him: he liked to see her cry. But usually she made an occasional nagging retort: deep down, between their blind antagonistic souls, an ugly and desperate war was being waged.”2 Perhaps Wolfe should be compared to Strindberg, who was “obsessed by the problems that married couples face when love and hatred ride hand in hand.”3
Wolfe describes not only the war of Husband vs. Wife, but also the war of Introvert vs. Extrovert. Jung coined the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” in his 1921 work, “Psychological Types.” These terms passed into common usage so quickly that Wolfe was already using them in the late 1920s, when he wrote Look Homeward. Did Wolfe know that Jung speaks of hostility between introvert and extrovert? Possibly. My hunch is that Wolfe read an essay on Jung, not Jung himself. I don’t think that Jung had a big influence on Wolfe, but I do think he had some influence.
One of the extroverts that Eugene/Wolfe clashes with is his brother, Luke. Eugene’s mother, ever eager to make money, sends her children out to look for work, and Luke has found a job selling The Saturday Evening Post:
As Jung put it, the extrovert has “the same unconcealed distrust of his inner world which the introvert feels for the outer world.”5
Luke is irritated by Eugene’s introversion, by Eugene’s “deep inward turning of the spirit, the brooding retreat into the secret place.” Luke regards Eugene’s introversion as “not only a species of indolence... [but also] the indulgence of a ‘selfish’ family-forgetting spirit.”6 As Jung would say, “The extrovert has the same repugnance, fear, or silent contempt for introversion as the introvert for extraversion.”7 Wolfe’s comments on introversion must have raised the spirits of generations of introverted American teenagers. What did extroverts think of Look Homeward? Did they regard it with “repugnance”?
Luke’s criticism of Eugene as selfish reminds us of The Sound and Fury, in which Mrs. Compson often faults her children for being selfish. In my discussion of Faulkner, I said,
The morality of unselfishness is an extroverted morality, congenial to the extroverted Luke, but not to the introverted Eugene (who represents Wolfe himself). Eugene is uncomfortable when Luke bestows gifts on him, because Eugene thinks that Luke is trying to win praise for generosity and unselfishness, that Luke has a “hunger for gratitude and esteem.”8 Eugene thinks that Luke is trying to help himself by being unselfish, that Luke’s unselfishness is actually selfish. And since unselfishness is the essence of morality in a Protestant family (like that of Eugene/Wolfe), Eugene’s skeptical attitude toward unselfishness makes him skeptical of morality in general: “he found himself loathing that which bore the stamp of virtue, sick with weariness and horror at what was considered noble. He was hurled, at eight years, against the torturing paradox of the ungenerous-generous, the selfish-unselfish, the noble-base.”9 Wolfe speaks of “those deep springs of desire in the human spirit that seek public gratification by virtuous pretension.”10 Wolfe says that moral actions aren’t what they seem to be. Thus, Wolfe reminds us of Nietzsche, who was skeptical of morality, and believed that “moral actions” could be traced to motives that were “human, all-too-human.”
Perhaps I made a mistake when I said that unselfishness is the highest virtue in Protestant morality. Should I have gone further, and said “Christian morality” or “Western morality”? Is Christian morality an extroverted morality, and is Western civilization extroverted, perhaps as a result of Christianity’s influence? Does Christianity’s extroversion explain its emphasis on unselfishness? “Under the influence of Christianity,” Jung wrote, “whose principle is Christian love (and by counter-association, also its counterpart, the violation of individuality), a collective culture came about in which the individual is liable to be swallowed up because individual values are depreciated on principle.”11 It is these individual values, these introverted values, that Wolfe defends, and it’s the Christian emphasis on unselfishness, on extroverted virtue, that Wolfe questions.
Before I conclude these comments on Look Homeward, I’d like to discuss the most profound idea that I’ve encountered in the book, an idea that might be called “fate-arranging.” I’ve discussed this idea in several issues of Phlit, but I doubt whether I’ve succeeded in making it clear to more than one or two subscribers. First I’ll discuss Wolfe’s treatment of the idea of fate-arranging, then I’ll summarize my earlier comments on fate-arranging, and finally I’ll look at a Jungian treatment of the idea.
As mentioned earlier, Eugene’s mother (Eliza) took her children to St. Louis in 1904, at the time of the World’s Fair. The adventure ended in tragedy — one of her children died. A few years later, Eliza buys a big, rambling house, with the intention of renting out rooms. (The house was called Dixieland. Wolfe anticipated that it would someday be a museum, and today it is indeed The Thomas Wolfe Museum.)
This is what I call fate-arranging — the arranging of one’s fate, one’s life, by unconscious or semi-conscious factors. Wolfe captures the idea perfectly with the terms “half-blind” and “groping”. The term “gravitation” suggests an impersonal force, a force beyond our conscious ego, an unconscious force. The phrase “center of its desire” reminds one of the Jungian idea that personal growth means centering, finding the center of one’s personality, the mid-point between conscious and unconscious.
The unconscious can arrange one’s fate in a positive direction or in a negative direction; the unconscious can be a wise friend or a troublesome foe, a god or a devil. Wolfe understands this, and says that Eliza’s ‘half-blind gravitation’ led her first into tragedy in St. Louis, and finally into happiness in Dixieland. Jungians say that, before we become whole, before we find ourselves, our fate is arranged by our shadow, our dark side. Our shadow leads us into suffering, but also into wisdom. When we reach wisdom, and find our mid-point, our shadow recedes into the background, and the Self becomes the arranger of our fate. Now the conductor of our life is a wise friend instead of a troublesome foe. This whole process can take decades; one may be 40 or 50 before one finds one’s center. In Wolfe’s novel, Eliza experiences much, and suffers much, before she finds her center, before her life is “on the rails.”
Though Wolfe’s comments are in agreement with Jungian theory, it’s very unlikely that Wolfe was directly influenced by Jung. In my view, this is a case of two great thinkers reaching the same idea independently of each other. As I’ve said so often before, truth agrees with itself and confirms itself.
My own life has been profoundly influenced by unconscious arranging; indeed, I might even say that my life is nothing but unconscious arranging. So you can see why the idea is of keen interest to me.
“I’m starting to understand this idea of fate-arranging, but it still isn’t completely clear to me. Give me some examples — from history, and from your own imagination.” Okay, that’s a fair request. In Jung’s autobiography, he tells the following story: a woman is obsessed with her friend’s husband, murders her friend, and marries the husband. Now her shadow takes over, and begins to arrange her life, begins to destroy her. First her husband dies young. Then her daughter grows up, grows apart from her, moves far away, and severs all ties with her. Then her horses grow nervous, and throw her off; she is forced to give up riding. Now she has nothing left but her dogs. Her favorite dog becomes paralyzed. Finally, in despair, she visits Jung, and confesses everything (though without revealing her name).13
Jung believed that, in order to grow and become whole, one must come to terms with one’s shadow, one must listen to one’s unconscious, one mustn’t listen only to one’s conscious ego. The shadow takes control of one’s life, arranges one’s fate, and drives one into disaster in order to force one to come to terms with the shadow, in order to defeat the conscious ego, and force it to compromise with the unconscious. We said before that the shadow recedes when one finds one’s mid-point, and acts from one’s center. The opposite is also true: the shadow is aroused, and launches a coup d’état, if one is denying one’s shadow, and ignoring one’s unconscious.
Another example: when my father was forty, he had four children (three children under six), he was the sole breadwinner in the family, and he was fired by his boss, who was also his father. Why did his father fire him? My father was irritated because he didn’t have his own desk, so when it came time to take a company photo, my father declined to be in the photo, and his father fired him. In my younger days, I might have accepted this explanation as “the whole story,” and I might have thought, “what a brutal man my grandfather was, to fire someone who had four children, and depended on him for a livelihood!” Now that I’m older and wiser, however, I suspect that my father may have brought this setback on himself. It may be a case of fate-arranging by the unconscious.
Now let’s make up an example, using our own imagination. Let’s pretend that a 30-year-old man becomes a professor of logic, a respected academic. But part of him is restive, and wants a change; his emotional side is discontent. His shadow grabs the steering-wheel, and begins to arrange his life. He quarrels with the department chairman, and fails to get tenure. Since his wife has a career in the city where they live, it’s difficult for him to move to another university. He’s stuck, out of work. He realizes that he brought about his own downfall, and he realizes that he wasn’t listening to his feelings. He takes up painting and meditation, and he’s happier than he was at the height of his career. Eventually, he finds an academic position in a nearby city, but he spends his free time painting and meditating. Once again, he’s a professor of logic, but now he has more respect for his feelings. His conscious ego has suffered a painful defeat, and now shares power with his unconscious.
One more example, an example from history: when Max Weber was 30, he became an economics professor. “He had an enormous load, working until very late. When [his wife] urged him to get some rest, he would call out: ‘If I don’t work until one o’clock I can’t be a professor.’”14 Clearly, this is a man ignoring his unconscious. And so the unconscious is aroused, seizes power, and begins to arrange Weber’s life, trying to force Weber to come to terms with his unconscious, to become whole. In his early thirties, “Weber became fevered and ill with a psychic malady.... ‘He could not read or write, speak, walk, or sleep without pain; all mental and part of his physical functions refused to work’... For hours he sat and gazed stupidly, picking at his finger nails, claiming that such inactivity made him feel good.” Weber realized that his illness fostered his personal growth. “Such a disease [wrote Weber] has its compensations. It has reopened to me the human side of life, which mama used to miss in me.”15
Now let’s look back at earlier issues of Phlit, and see what they said about fate-arranging. First let’s look at Ibsen’s Wild Duck. In this play, a character named Gregers speaks frequently of “the claims of the ideal.” Gregers gives a pistol to a teenage girl, and at the end of the play, the girl shoots herself.
If the tragic climax of the Wild Duck is “arranged” by Gregers’ shadow, it reminds us of the case of Max Weber. One could summarize both cases by saying, “lofty ideals and long hours of intellectual work cause one to ignore one’s dark side, one’s unconscious. This prompts the unconscious to grab the steering-wheel, and drive one’s life into a crash.”
We also discussed fate-arranging in our comments on Proust. Proust was in love with his chauffeur, Albert Agostinelli.
Proust’s unconscious drove him into disaster, but his disaster helped him to grow, to become wiser, to find his center, and to blossom into the supreme artist that he was.
Now let’s turn to a Jungian treatment of the idea of fate-arranging. Our book group recently read The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, by Marie-Louise von Franz, one of Jung’s disciples. It wasn’t a popular choice. Nobody liked it much, and one person roundly criticized it. Jung’s ideas aren’t easy to grasp, and Jungian terminology (anima, animus, Self, etc.) can be confusing. I was the only person who was fond of the book; I thought it was readable, and filled with deep wisdom; I’m a fan of von Franz. She lived until 1998. Late in her career, she revised and re-issued many of her books, so if you read one of her books, make sure that you read the revised version (I made the mistake of reading the un-revised version of her Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales). At the outset of The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, von Franz says she’s going to teach the reader how to interpret fairy tales. People in the book group decided that it was a specialized book, intended to be read by specialists. I struggled to convince them that the real subject of the book is human nature, that fairy tales are merely a flashlight, designed to illuminate human nature.
We discussed the idea of fate-arranging at length, so I hope you understand the idea, and I hope you’re ready to hear what von Franz says about it. First, however, a note on terminology: we’ve been saying that the shadow arranges one’s fate, or the unconscious arranges one’s fate, but von Franz says that the anima arranges one’s fate. The anima is a man’s female side, a man’s unconscious, whereas the animus is a woman’s male side, a woman’s unconscious. So when you see the word “anima,” read “unconscious.” (Jung was impatient with definitions, he encouraged his disciples to look at the particular person they were treating, don’t worry about general definitions.) Now, finally, we’re ready for the Jungian view of fate-arranging (drum roll):
As Aeschylus said, wisdom comes through suffering. Is there any other way to reach wisdom, to foster one’s personal growth? Must we ruin our life, and the lives of those around us, in order to find ourselves, find our center? Zen has devised a technique for promoting personal growth and enlightenment: the koan (a question or puzzle, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”). The Zen student must ponder his koan, but his reason can’t make sense of the koan, so the student is at his wit’s end. “One seeks and seeks, but cannot find. One then gives up, and the answer comes by itself.”19
Of all the parallels between Jung and Zen, this is one of the most striking. Here again, one has a feeling of being stuck; one’s ego-consciousness is defeated, and so one opens the door to the unconscious, and one finds enlightenment. Through the use of koans, writes Alan Watts, “the student is at last brought to a point of feeling completely stupid — as if he were encased in a huge block of ice, unable to move or think.... Totally baffled by everything.” The ego (or mind) is “defeated out of existence.... there is no more sensation of a hard core of selfhood standing over against the rest of the world.”20
Discussing the shadow, von Franz says that the shadow arranges our fate, and leads us into disaster, or into a feeling of being stuck. But if, as a result of this disaster, we become wise, if we find our center, then the shadow gives up the steering-wheel, and the Self takes over, the wise friend takes over. We have come into our kingdom, we have found ourself — like Proust when he settled down to write his magnum opus, like Eliza when she settled down to run Dixieland.
Clearly, this is the ideal situation: for the Self, not the shadow, to play the fate-arranging role in our life.
Jung’s psychology is optimistic insofar as he believed that suffering has a purpose, suffering fosters personal growth. Also, he believed that one of man’s basic drives is a drive toward wholeness, toward the Self. Man is drawn toward his center, toward psychological health, by a kind of gravitation (to use Wolfe’s term). Isn’t this a far more optimistic theory than the theory of Schopenhauer (who said that man is driven by a blind will to life, a will that he shares with other organisms), or the theory of Nietzsche (who said that man is driven by a will to power), or the theory of Freud (who said that man is driven by life- and death-instincts, the same instincts that drive all other organisms)? Though Jung’s psychology is optimistic, it can’t be accused of overlooking evil — on the contrary, Jung was preoccupied with evil.
I’d like to mention one more parallel between Zen and Jung: they both speak of the advantages of not having a goal, not having a purpose. Let’s look at Zen first. One might suppose that the goal of Zen is to reach enlightenment (satori), but actually Zen has no goal. Alan Watts put it thus: “Whereas it might be supposed that the practice of Zen is a means to the end of awakening, this is not so. For the practice of Zen is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view, and when it has no end in view it is awakening — the aimless, self-sufficient life of the ‘eternal now.’”22
Any goal comes from the conscious ego, so the best way to open up to your unconscious is not to have any goal — as if you were asking the unconscious, “what’s your goal today?” Someone once said to me, “my friend tried meditation, but she didn’t get anything out of it.” Perhaps I should have responded, “you’re not supposed to get anything out of it, and if you’re trying to get something out of it, then it’s not meditation.”
Von Franz said that, in many fairy tales, the hero has no goal. (I’m reminded of Don Quixote who, when asked what his destination was, said he was going wherever his horse took him.)
|1.|| I, 8, p. 71 back|
|2.|| I, 5, p. 40 and I, 3, p. 23 back|
|3.|| Strindberg, by Michael Meyer, ch. 8 back|
|4.|| I, 10, p. 95 back|
|5.|| Psychological Types (Collected Works, vol. 6), 471 back|
|6.|| I, 10, 97 back|
|7.|| Jung, 164 back|
|8.|| I, 10, p. 96 back|
|9.|| ibid back|
|10.|| ibid back|
|11.|| Jung, 110 back|
|12.|| I, 11, p. 106 back|
|13.|| Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ch. 4, p. 122, 123 back|
|14.|| From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Intro., 1 back|
|15.|| ibid back|
|16.|| see the August 5, 2002 issue of Phlit back|
|17.|| see the September 7, 2002 issue of Phlit back|
|18.|| The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, ch. 6, p. 95 back|
|19.|| The Way of Zen, ch. 3, p. 161 back|
|20.|| ibid, pp. 165, 166 back|
|21.|| The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, ch. 7, p. 142 back|
|22.|| The Way of Zen, ch. 3, p. 154 back|
|23.||von Franz, ch. 7, p. 143 back|