[This piece appeared in January 2009 on the blog site of The Kenyon Review. I want to repeat it here partly in the interest of completeness and partly to help contextualize some upcoming material.]
O arms that arm, for a child’s wars, the child!
And yet they are good, if anything is good,
Against his enemies . . . Across the seas
At the bottom of the world, where Childhood
Sits on its desert island with Achilles. . . .
–Randall Jarrell, “The Lost World”
It’s a commonplace of aging that childhood, trailing clouds of glory as Wordsworth conceived it, grows ever more distant and ever more difficult of access; the children we once were turn more and more into mental mannequins, polished fictions, as unreal to us in fact as any of the great dead. And we are supposed to mourn the child we were. The archetype of a “normal” life bends toward sentiment where childhood is concerned. If the reality of a particular childhood prohibits this–if a child was a victim, of vicious parents, vicious communities, vicious nations, vicious circumstances, vicious gods–then the adult who survives is required to mourn twice: once for the unhappy child who suffered, once for the happy child who never was.
This is as much the stuff of counseling as it is of poetry. Not only is there an Inner Child, we learn, there is more than one: a Bad Inner Child, who serves as a mask and a diversionary tactic for the Good Inner Child. As part of the act of mourning, one must confront the Bad one and transform him or her–turn Bad to Good, or, push come to shove, Bad to Dead–in order to find one’s way to the Good one. That journey is supposed to lead to healing.
But what, really, are “a child’s wars”? In Randall Jarrell’s poem “The Lost World” (quoted above), trees provide the child’s arms that “are good, if anything is good/Against his enemies.” A good stick is about the best weapon the average child has. How hard can the confrontation with the Bad Inner Child really be? Perhaps the hard part is the journey, the twenty years required to sail from one’s own childhood war, where the best weapon is a wooden horse on wheels, to the island where not the child but Childhood waits–and not Childhood only but also Achilles! Let the dead Greek drink from a bowl of goat’s blood and he will utter truth: I would rather be a slave in a beggar’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the great dead. How useless was my war, Achilles will tell you. How stupid was my death. I played their game and they killed me. Toy sword. Wooden horse. Watch your back. Beware.
What if, when you journey to the Isle of the Inner Child–across the seas, where he or she has retired after childhood’s wars into the polished fiction, the death that is History–your inner child is Achilles?
Or what if your inner child is the product of a vicious community, the image of it: a nasty little racist?
I’m dreaming of a wolf, as Mama wakes me,
And a tall girl who is–outside it’s gray,
I can’t remember, I jump up and dress.
We eat in the lighted kitchen. And what is play
For me, for them is habit.
–Randall Jarrell, “The Lost World”
Childhood for me is an ambiguous zone, precisely double. I entered the world into circumstances enviable in many ways. I was the second and youngest son of an essentially loving family which maintained a peaceful household; we were not wealthy (and so I avoided the problems that wealth can convey) but neither were we poor. We lived on a working farm that was diverse in a way quite unlike most farms now: there was a wide variety of crops (cotton, corn, wheat, milo, and “truck” crops of all kinds; there were beef cattle and a dairy; there was poultry, both chickens and turkeys; there was an apiary), and we grew virtually everything we ate. We children had chores, but our work was not onerous; we learned about animals and plants at close range, and also about life and death.
It was a pretty place–not beautiful, exactly, but appealing and accessible; I was allowed from a very early age, when I was not in school, to roam much of the time where and as I liked. The family collie went with me, and in his presence I felt both befriended and secure (he was intelligent and diligent; he had a passionate hatred of snakes, which he killed on sight; he had an unerring sense of direction and could always find his way home, and mine with him in the event I should get lost). There were other children, cousins, I could play with if I chose; but it was also easy to avoid them if I wanted solitude, which mostly I did. In this polished fiction of my childhood, I trailed Wordsworthian clouds of glory; I wandered lonely as a cloud; I was “young and easy under the apple boughs /About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.”
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo.
So that when the day arrived when I understood–suddenly, it seems in retrospect, as if I had been struck by lightning–what a lie it all was, the shock of the discovery almost blinded me–though in fact I had been blind all along, and the blindness of the realization was the beginning of something like real sight.
What was it I realized? There is a long answer and a short one. For the present I’ll give the short one: it was Mississippi, it was the 1950s, we were white people. Everything we had was stolen, even ourselves. Therein lies the doubleness: I had a pilfered Eden. I lived in it even though I had no real right to it. Already fallen, I lived there like a tiny god. When in the fullness of time I learned the truth of my situation, it was too late to know the truth. I was broken; I was fallen; I was compromised.
This is the situation of racists in a society structured around institutionalized racism. In another context, Marx aptly called this sort of delusion false consciousness. That label works as well as any other. It’s a convenient shorthand for a species of damnation.
Inner child, you little criminal: where is your lost world? Some worlds are better lost. Your Atlantis is cleaner drowned than when it stood in the innocent air.
I said to an acquaintance, who is a therapist by profession, the other day: what I can’t understand is why there are not clinics and twelve-step programs all over the South, indeed all over the world, for the benefit of recovering racists. Alcoholics and drug addicts have programs; why not me?
When I was born, my people came to me and said, in essence, this: you will believe as we do, because we love you, and so you must; if you do not share our belief, you will be the enemy; but what we believe cannot be believed in the clear light and under the scrutiny of clear vision; and so, my child, with love in our hearts, we now will pluck out your eyes. That done, I no longer knew my child’s war was a war; and I could not know that the weapons the good trees would give me were worthless against my enemies. What would set me free?
The truth, yes. And I came to the truth in time. But here’s the rub: the truth will set you free, but it will not heal you. The truth is true, but it is relentless, uncaring, unfeeling. Achilles on the island knows what’s what, but face it: he’s still dead.
You have your scars–honorable scars, maybe, once you know what they are and why you have them–and they are with you forever. If I have one story worth telling, it is the story of my blindness; it is the story of my scars.
Inner child, the truth has drowned your world. Your ghost wanders on an island in the sea of truth, cut off forever from the place that gave you breath. And who is with you there? Achilles, the ghost of anger, forever brooding on the falsehoods that destroyed him. Apt company, old soldier. You cannot have your life back. Your love was blind and your rage was blind and you killed your own world without knowing what you were doing. If there were peace, you could rest in it; but that can never be.
Lost world, lost love, lost paradise. What an epic you lived through. What a waste it was.
We have a new leader who is unlike any we have ever had. His advent, to many of us, feels like a new beginning, a transformation. Is it in fact? Barack Obama is an exceptional man, but he is only a man. Nevertheless, I hear voices echoing in the body of the nation: heal us, they say; transform us, they say; make us whole, make us new, make us good. How well I understand that desire. How well I know the danger there.
Obama has done many extraordinary things already. The one that surprised me the most came in the speech he delivered on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008. He looked America in the eye and he said the word sacrifice.
That same word, I believe, ended the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who told us many unpleasant truths that few were ready to hear. That word, which no U.S. politician has dared to speak from that time to this, returns at the beginning of Obama’s presidency. In my opinion, whether he, and we, accomplish what we need to accomplish in the coming years will depend on how this word is negotiated.
In order to banish my own blindness, years ago, I had to strike a bargain. I would gain something, but I had to give up something. I could have new eyes, yes. And in order to get them, I would not have to exchange what you might expect. I could keep my childhood, such as it was, because no one comes from nowhere. The island would be there in the endless ocean; Achilles would preside. All that I could keep. What I had to give in exchange was sentiment.
I cannot love my childhood. It is tainted and cursed. My childhood, so innocent and glorious, so loving and full of light, was based on a vicious lie: you are what you are because that person over there, who happens to have black skin, is less than you. That is how you define yourself. That difference, that stupid, evil, wrongheaded distinction, is your soul.
What can I say that is worth anything, coming from such a source? One thing, and one thing only: America, my childhood is your childhood. We come from blindness. Our names are stolen. People have died in order for us to be free, we are fond of saying; but people have died in order that we may own land, have lilting houses, grass, apple boughs. People have died laboring under our yoke. We cannot change that. It is our history. It lives on the island in the sea where our peculiar American Achilles sulks. We are, as Columbus first, for his own purposes, called this continent, otro mundo–not new but other world. We seem familiar to ourselves; we have not yet begun to understand our own otherness: the problem of the other is not the other; it is us.
So if that is true, what can we do against it? We can sacrifice the sentimentalism of our vision of history. Our inner child, our Eden, is not pure. We must not cling to it. American atavism is peculiarly dangerous. It produces insularity, surly isolationism, false consciousness.
Ours is a homemade country. That is part of what is problematic about us; it is also our strength, for that which we made once, we can make again and again, the same way (as Whitman understood so well) we make and remake a poem. What we have created we can re-create. But like all true revision, this can be done only through precise and disciplined and unsentimental sacrifice, to re-vision ourselves in ever-refining form.