The seminal moment for me in Kingsley Amis’s 1954 novel, Lucky Jim, is when Margaret Peel, the intense, thin academic with a fondness for green paisley skirts and quasi-velvet shoes, tells the young hero about her suicide attempt. Margaret is intent upon instilling pity and guilt in James, who skipped his date with her on the very evening she decided to “drop off.”
“And then, just before I went under,” Margaret explains breathlessly, “I suddenly stopped caring. I’d been clutching the empty bottle like grim death, I remember, as if I were holding on to life, in a way. But quite soon I didn’t in the least mind going; I felt too tired somehow.”
Margaret rattles on about it. Her face is flushed by the dramatic memory. James is focused on the rounded contours of a nearby barmaid. The moment is perfect in the way it catches the unconscious self-absorption of the female of the species. Unharried by the need to look after children or cook a meal for her husband, she is free to abandon herself to her neurosis, which in this case has a slightly literary quality, as befitting a lecturer in history.
Amis’s description of that moment has lodged in my memory in part because he writes so well, but also because it mocked the artsy progressive spirit of the late 1950s. Today, of course, Amis wouldn’t write that way at all. Margaret would not be an academic but a television producer or interviewer. She would not take an overdose of pills but would “selfdestruct” through an addiction to food, booze or cocaine. She would not be agonizing over a lost boyfriend but rather over the sexual overtures of her father or brother. She would never be studying anything older or more dense than last week’s newsmag or this week’s top video.
Turn on the television set these days and the noise of women’s inner turmoil made manifest is positively deafening: match the celebrity to the disorder. Do you want Suzanne Somers, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Taylor or Roseanne Barr? Do you want to listen to a bulimic, an
The idea that people have any responsibility for their behavior has long been buried under the vocabulary of ‘abuse’ and ‘victim’
anorexic, an abused wife, an abused child or even a child abuser? Are you interested in a beaten wife or a battered Miss America? A martian would be forgiven for thinking that the primary problem of North Americans is a population of females totally absorbed with their personal misery—addictions, abusive experiences and pain.
The preoccupations of celebrities are significant only because they generally reflect the preoccupations of ordinary people writ large. What all this turgid muck about addictive behavior points to is a general malaise in society. The problem is not simply the glorification of neurotic behavior itself: the larger problem is the acculturation of such behavior. By now, it is virtually normative to describe oneself as a victim of some sort.
The danger of all this comes with the treatment of the problem when “victims” are counselled to concentrate on their inner beings and discover the hurts in themselves. What we are developing is a self-centred, preoccupied society with little incentive to help others or expand intellectual horizons to the outer world. We are suffocating in our own pain.
If one wants to take the Canadian temperature on this, the November issue of Chatelaine will do for a start. I remain a fan of Chatelaine, because as a bit of a lunatic female myself I love the countless pages of tips on how to update an old-style skirt (put a fringe on it) or the dangers of humidifiers (dust mites breed in too-high humidity.) But my flash-and-trash pages are being edged out by articles celebrating victimhood.
The November issue leads with an article on women who are sexually abused by their doctors. This is a new class of victims to me, but Chatelaine claims that one in 10 physicians abuse their female patients. When added to the at least one in 10 of us who, we are told, have suffered some sort of sexual abuse, this makes for a lot of Canadians who are part of the walking wounded. Further in, the magazine has an article on “the lifelong trauma of the children of divorce.” More victims. “We used to believe that any trauma kids suffered when parents divorced was short-lived,” Chatelaine tells us. “Now, new studies show some kids grow up scarred by low self-esteem and haunted by past abandonment.”
Just for good measure, Chatelaine counsels children who have parents who argue to discuss their family with other family members or a therapist. Men can get in on the act as well. The same issue includes an article on the mythopoetic men’s movement in which chaps hurtle around in circles acting out as lions and kangaroos in order to get in touch with their inner selves and confront their imperfect relationships with their fathers. According to the article, the first fellow reaches into his unconsciousness and discovers he has been molested by his mother and resented his father for doing nothing about it. “It would be easy to satirize all that dancing and drumming,” writes David Evans, a former Chatelaine senior editor, “but these men are genuinely trying to find out something about themselves and they’re not afraid to look stupid along the way.” Yup. Meanwhile, Canada burns.
When was it that our values changed and being a psychological cripple became a mark of glamor? I remember writing a book in 1978 that had one chapter about a brief period of addiction I had to some medically prescribed pills. I was bitterly embarrassed by the revelation but wanted to make a point about individual responsibility. That point seems so far away now. The notion that an individual has any responsibility for his or her behavior has long been buried under the vocabulary of “abuse” and “victim.”
In effect, the very notion of character has been buried. That is the one word that can never be found in all the articles on the casualties of divorce, abuse or addictive behavior. We have no time for the notion that people may lapse into overeating or alcoholism not because they have an “illness” or because their parents divorced or their employer stared at their bust, but simply because they lack character.
Canada will survive these current preoccupations, of course, and the pendulum will swing, but it might be nice to once again understand that civic and social obligations are just as important to a healthy psyche as the constant nurturing of inner and private ones.
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