“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 26, 2014

on being cowed

In the footnotes to his 1780 edition of Johnson’s life of Joseph Addison, John Hawkins took the opportunity to defend his own character sketch of Addison, which had appeared in a book published in 1770, against the accusation that he had besmirched Addison’s character by describing him as "sheepish".  In his defense, Hawkins reported  two anecdotes about Addison's time as the under-secretary of State under Queen Anne. In the first anecdote, the Secretary of State gave Addison the job of writing the official announcement of Queen Anne’s death to  Hanover (George I). Apparently, faced with the idea of announcing something so grave to a personnage so high, Addison agonized over the wording to the extent that he was paralyzed. After a couple of days had passed and he still hadn’t composed the communication, the Secretary of State gave the task to Addison’s secretary, Southwell, who dispatched it with ease. The second anecdote concerns the time Addison was summoned to testify before the Parliament. I imagine the periwig, the papers, the briefcase, the heals of his shoe, the carriage he arrives in, the clopping of horse hooves on the cobblestones of the street. And there he is, and now he arises to speak. Supposedly he looked at the committee, then down at his papers, then looked back at the committee and said – I conceive… And then fell silent. Again he looks at his papers,  again looks up, again says, I conceive, and again falls silent. After a minute one of the wittier members of the committee said Mr. Under-secretary, we agree that you conceive – but will you please now bring forth.
Addison, as Hawkins puts it, was a man who was easily cowed in his personal relations.  I have an image of Addison as one of those stick-in-the-mud writers who tamed the wild and glorious English of the 17th century and transformed it into polite literature. However, these anecdotes present Addison in another light. He is not here the author of sententious Augustan essays. He is suddenly a character in Kafka.  More than that – he is my brother. For I, too, am a man easily cowed in personal dealings, who suffers, afterwards, with enormous shame and gnashing of teeth over my stupid cowardices.
Here’s a recent instance.
About three weeks ago, I had a strange pain in my left leg. Whenever a pain shows up in my body, I immediately jump to the conclusion that this is it: the hidden chronic disease that I always knew was there is finally showing its hand.  For a while, I decided that this must be some embolism, some cardiac warning, and I was seeing myself keeling over while changing Adam’s diapers. So I went to a doctor who seemed not at all concerned by my story and told me that no doubt the fact that I was intermittently carrying around a twenty three pound toddler had caused the sciatica nerve to act up, on the principle of the neck bone being connected to the back bone, etc. etc. In his opinion, a few exercises would make me as good as new. One hundred dollars please.
Relieved that the death sentence had been lifted, I noticed immediate improvements in the leg until the leg went through the day doing all the things legs do without complaining. Finally, last Monday, I decided to get a massage, thinking that any remnant of a problem would be taken care of by the soothing manipulation of my musculature. I walked up to Montana street, mentally calculating the necesssary tip – it was one of those places where the charge for the massage is cheap, but one is expected to tip the workers handsomely for the massage that one had enjoyed.
My massage, it became immediately evident, was designed to avoid any hint of enjoyment. When I began to explain about the leg, my masseur cut me off immediately, telling me: “I’ve been doing this for forty years.” At that moment I should have got off the table, or at least made a protest. Instead, I turned over and put my head down and let my masseur get to work. It became obvious that at least ten of those forty years were spent in the employ of the CIA at Guantanomo, extracting info from poor Afghan peasant boys. I was ready to give up all I knew, or make up all I knew and give it, in about four minutes. When the pain was too much, I would stop panting and grasp out in a pleading voice, please don’t do that. That was usually two hundred pounds of masseur pressing into my thigh or ankle muscle. I’d paid for an hour, and for an hour I was beat up. The piece de resistance was doing with my legs what I’d done to the legs of baked chickens – pulling them violently outward at a strategic angle. Sometimes, however, the masseur would say things like, tell me when it hurts.
When I limped out of the room, my assailant came out and, assuming a certain air of concern, asked if I was all right. I said I was fine, overtipped, and left.
As I hobbled around the next day and the deep pain in my legs slowly abated, I was bothered by one thing: why didn’t I make that guy stop? What could I have been afraid of that was more painful than being plucked and restrung? Why did I let him cut me off at the very beginning?
Why, in other words, couldn’t Addison simply bring forth?
To be cowed is to be afraid – that seems obvious. But fear, though it may be felt as quickly as touching or heart beat, develops along different lines, and is expressed in different modes. Being cowed is one of those modes in which the sum total of the pain of avoiding the fearful object is greater than the pain which may result from confronting said object. In other words, it is definitionally neurotic. Addison, gnawing his lip and lingering over the wording of his communication (passed away? Ascended to a far larger and better sphere?) was no doubt aware that as time passed, he was becoming ridiculous. He was making a fool of himself. But what if he made a fool of himself positively, by making some mistake? The knowledge that he was losing face didn’t help.
I sometimes take an extraordinarily aggressive tone as a writer; perhaps this is to make up for the extraordinarily cowed stance I take as a man.
The first instance of “cow” in the English language comes in the tragedy of Macbeth. Macbeth, you’ll remember, considers himself invincible, since he can only be brought down, the witches have told him, by a man who is not born of woman.  But as he is battling Macduff, Macduff drops the coin: that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” This sufficiently fulfills the tricky condition contained in the witch’s prophecy, as Macbeth immediately sees. In response, Macbeth says: “accursed be that tongue that tells me so/for it has cow’d my better part of man.”
This is a pretty rich way for a word to introduce itself into the linguistic corpora. Etymologists are still puzzled about a verb that seems to be derived from an old Norse word, since Mr. Shakespeare, although excellent in many respects, had not only little Latin and less Greek, but surely no old norse at all.
I’m no blabbermouth in Old Norse myself. I associate the verb quite naturally with the noun. I think of this moment of freezing as something cow-like within me, something pasture fed and unable to realize my own weight against heard dogs and coyotes – not to speak of herdsmen and the technicians in the abbatoir. That frozenness is not broken by the application of a stick to my thick hide. On the contrary, I go in the direction that the stick wants me to go.
Yet the cow in being cowed doesn’t quite cover all the case, because to be cowed has definite connections to embarrassment. To be cowed is to come up against an invisible but almost overwhelming barrier. An electrified invisibility – one fears the shock, though one knows, rationally, that there is no calculating the shock. This is a state of being that is surely characteristic of developed countries, where the invisible barriers multiply along with the visible ones, and the taboos once associated with totems are now associated with a certain solitude – a lack of totems, in fact. In such a society, why one does what one does becomes a pressing question, which one has to constantly answer – along with why one doesn’t do what one doesn’t do. And not being able to explain the latter make one ashamed.

It all makes me want to sadly moo in some misty valley in the morning.  

No comments: