March 29, 2004
Naked is a state of mind

The other day I was talking to my mother about the subject of her dissertation, adolescents' reading. One point she emphasizes in her research is how the reader is an active agent in reading -- he forms the message he gets from the book by how he reads it.

When I think back on my own teenage reading, the most glaring example of that was Orwell's 1984. I read it when I was about 12, and read it several times over in quick succession. My mother couldn't figure this out, because the book was so painfully depressing to her.

But actually, I only read the last third -- about Winston's imprisonment and brainwashing -- the first time I read the book. Later I just read the first two-thirds, about his life and his affair with Julia, repeatedly. When you do that, it becomes a very different book. I understood that Orwell was making a political commentary about communism and totalitarianism, but I really read it as a kind of rescue fantasy.

It's not hard for me to see why I identified with Winston and his world when I was in middle school. My middle school wasn't particularly authoritarian, but it was more the peer environment that alienated me -- the conformity, the mistrust, the nosing into your business, the feeling that so much of it was fake. Like Winston, I felt the artificiality of it all but didn't know what to do about it. So imagine one day somebody passes you a note saying "I love you." You meet in secret and since you're outside the rules of society already, there's no reason not to be totally honest.

The way that Winston and Julia join with no courtship and no preamble oddly appealed to me. At that age, people were starting to flirt and "go steady", and yet that seemed like a game also. I was extremely ambivalent about what a girl was expected to act like. 1984 showed a romance that was completely outside those social rituals, that was all about human connection and had nothing to do with reputation or self-protection. It was the kind of relationship I wanted to have, more than the models that were generally presented to me.

Although I never thought of it this way before, I can see how I've followed that model in the last couple years. When I first wrote to Telford in the summer of '02, I'd been suffering an increasing feeling like I had in middle school -- of alienation from others, and the feeling I had to be false to get along. Writing to him, and then going to church and started this blog, were efforts to carve out that space of honest communication I needed so badly.

On the other hand, I can see how the novel's template was also limited. Even cutting off the last section, it was not a very hopeful story. Winston's and Julia's relationship didn't really have a future; they were unlikely to ever marry, have children, or do anything except go on in secrecy. They would have to overthrow the whole system to do that. It says something about me at the time that I didn't really notice or care, I was so entranced by the simple idea of escape.

There was also an appealing simplicity about relationships in 1984. There are the "real" people you can be yourself around, and there are the fakes who buy into Party propaganda. Julia can just sort of intuit which is which; she knows Winston is "not one of them" before she even knows his name, and she's apparently done the same with many men before him. (Though her instincts turn out to be wrong in one glaring case.) That sort of sharp division of the good guys from the phonies is pretty popular with teenagers; I gather Catcher in the Rye appeals to the same feeling, though I haven't read it.

For me, transcending the blueprint from the book has been the hard part. The bold moves of reaching out to people were a bit intimidating, but I knew how to do them. Widening the space of trust, changing my relationship to the world rather than just carving out a refuge from it, was what I didn't know how to do. I remember when I went to church with Telford he was frustrated with how I kept meeting friendly people there but for one reason or another wouldn't pursue relationships with them. I particularly recall a conversation that went something like this:

Me: I don't know what to do when I run into a theological disagreement with somebody. Like last week I bumped into G. after the sermon about substitutional atonement, and he asked, "So did that make sense to you?" I didn't want to start a huge debate about the problems I have with subtitutional atonement, but I also didn't want to lie to him. It makes it hard to talk with him.

Telford: Well, you don't have to talk about that stuff with everybody you meet.

Me: What else am I going to talk about?

Telford: Just make small talk.

Me: I'm no good at small talk. And anyway, I could do that anywhere else in L.A. -- at work, in clubs, at the golf course, whatever. I didn't come all the way to this church to make small talk!

That shows how much I wanted church to be different from society at large -- about real connection, not social ritual. I've never found a church that was really as subversive as I'd like it to be, but I've also realized that I was being too absolutist in my dealings with people. I thought I had a Julia-like instinct for people I could connect with and people I couldn't. Sometimes, as with Telford, a bond really does happen with practically no pretense or preamble. But I've also realized that just because getting to know somebody takes work or yields only an incomplete understanding doesn't mean it isn't worth doing. People often surprise me. And perhaps realizing that is how I can ultimately get out of Big Brother's world.

Posted by Camassia at March 29, 2004 02:48 PM | TrackBack

This is why I like reading your blog, Camassia. You have found a way to open yourself to others, but also to gather people together in stimulating, searching discussions. You founded a community where great, languid conversations can take place.

And without the small talk. Thanks.

Posted by: Dash on March 30, 2004 07:28 AM

Thanks Dash!:-)

Posted by: Camassia on March 30, 2004 06:39 PM

Nice post. You use your blog in a powerful way - i.e. saying things that are difficult to bring up in casual conversation. Blogs that link to news articles bore me. Bad news we will always have with us.

I've always thought readers have a more difficult time with small talk because we're used to reading deep thoughts delivered at 200+ words per minute instead of shallow thoughts delivered at 50.

But then I listened to a mission preacher last night who said he liked what he heard at a recent donuts & coffee gathering after Mass. He said one parishioner came up to another and said, first thing, "how's your family?". The preacher said so often we just say "Hi" and can't think of anything else to say but wondered if that was because we don't really care enough about that other person to be truly interested in asking about his/her family. I felt "convicted" as the Protestants say...

Posted by: TSO on March 31, 2004 10:43 AM
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