Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Wanting to be normal

Rereading Coetzee's Boyhood, I was struck by the issue of being "normal." The issue is raised in a disturbing way, in a discussion of the beating of children in school: if John, the third-person Coetzee in this memoir, is finally beaten by a teacher, then "he will be able to come out on the other side a normal boy" (7). A few pages later, then, it is no longer just a matter of beatings at school: "He wants his father to beat him and turn him into a normal boy" (13).

What would be beaten out of him so that he would be normal?

Once, during their early months in Worcester, a boy from his class had wandered in through the open front door and found him lying on his back under a chair. 'What are you doing there?' he had asked. 'Thinking,' he had replied unthinkingly: 'I like thinking.' Soon everyone in his class knew about it: the new boy was odd, he wasn't normal. (29)

Thinking, then, is not normal, and the irony is brutal: when he speaks "unthinkingly," his inner world of thinking is exposed. Implicitly, then, "thinking" is what needs to be beaten out of him for him to become "normal."

This is connected to lying:

If he stopped lying he would have to polish his shoes and talk politely and do everything that normal boys do. In that case he would no longer be himself. If he were no longer himself, what point would there be in living? (35)

This reveals the other perspective on normalcy: John wants to be normal, but he also wants to be himself, the thinker and, here, the liar. If thinking and lying make him feel guilty, they still make him who he is: the boy who is different.

His mother is also responsible for his difference: "He wishes she would be normal. If she were normal, he could be normal" (38). Does she create the thinker and liar? Perhaps in part, John thinks, because she does not let his father beat him.

One odd effect of Boyhood is that it is in the present tense, so everything seems to happen at the same time. The boy's development is thus obscured. But his perspectives do change, as do his ability to articulate them:

He is just a boy walking beside his mother: from the outside he probably looks quite normal. But he thinks of himself as scuttling around her like a beetle, scuttling in fussy circles with his nose to the ground and his legs and arms pumping. In fact he can think of nothing about himself that is still. His mind in particular darts about here and there all the time, with an impatient will of its own. (59)

Here, his external perspective on himself grants an apparent normalcy that could not be articulated earlier in the book, and the internal depiction of thinking is much more complex.

And a while later, he rejects normalcy entirely—at least temporarily:

'Can't you just be normal?' asks his mother.
'I hate normal people,' he replies hotly. (78)

His mother, previously seen as partially responsible for his failure to be normal, now wants him to be normal, but now he rejects what, as a younger boy, he so vehemently desired. Still, it is better to be on his mother's side:

He is chilled by the thought of the life he would face if his father ran the household, a life of dull, stupid formulas, of being like everyone else. His mother is the only who stands between him and an existence he could not endure. (79)

Once, his father's failure to beat him was a lack that contributed to his difference; now, the father is a representation of the normalcy he rejects.

John's sense of his difference, then, gradually turns positive, until he can finally feel "convinced that he is different, special" (108). But this cannot be a stable, positive feeling, as this frightening passage makes all too clear:

... if all the stories that have been built up around him, built by himself, built by years of normal behavior, at least in public, were to collapse, and the ugly, black, crying, babyish core of him were to emerge for all to see and laugh at, would there be any way to go on living? Would he not have become as bad as one of those deformed, stunted, mongol children with hoarse voices and slavering lips that might as well be given sleeping pills or strangled? (112)

His outward appearance, as when he was walking with his mother, is "normal," but the restless "thinker" disappears here in a maelstrom of feelings. The move toward a positive sense of "abnormality" can never be permanent and ends in the horrifying image of the strangling of children with Down's Syndrome. (An image that deserves lengthy discussion in the context of Coetzee's work as a whole!)

So a dialectic remains (inevitably?), between normalcy and difference: "Though he blames his parents because they have not brought him up as a normal child, he is proud of their education" (124). Education (thinking?) is something to be proud of even if it does not make one "normal"—and one's "normalcy" remains, always, it seems, the responsibility of one's parents. (Is this a theme in the life of many writers? — Educated parents who have come down in the world? Certainly, mothers who gave up a "creative" side to raise children are a theme in artists' lives.)

"Thinking," as the source of difference, is expressed through education, and most of all, through examinations:

He is good at examinations; if there were no examinations for him to be good at there would be little special about him. Examinations create in him a heady, trembling state of excitement during which he writes quickly and confidently. He does not like the state in itself but it is reassuring to know it is there to be tapped. (131)

Here, his difference from others, what makes him special, is reduced to his good performance in school. The problem with this does not appear in Boyhood, but only in Youth: what do you do when you stop doing well in examinations, or when there are no more examinations to take? ["Never in his life has he been forced to call on his utmost powers. Less than his best has always been good enough"—Youth, 13]

Near the end of the book, a new claim is made about John:

Once upon a time he used to be full of ideas, ideas for places to go, things to talk about, things to do. He was always a step ahead of everyone: he was the leader, the others followed. Now the energy that he used to feel streaming out of him is gone. At the age of thirteen he is becoming surly, scowling, dark. (151)

This is quite surprising, given that the book contains no evidence at all of John, the leader. His energy has only appeared as the energy of thinking about himself and normalcy, and he has largely seemed "surly, scowling, dark." Has Coetzee's older self colored his sense of his younger self? As he says in Youth, "ruthless honesty is not a hard trick to learn" (Youth, 164). Perhaps Coetzee's desire to be "ruthlessly honest" has led him to avoid depicting himself as a leader, for fear of glamorizing himself. In any case, Boyhood is not self-aggrandizing—and Youth, with its scathingly ironic self-portrait of the artist as a young man, is even less so.


mrjumbo said...

The old joke is a guy walking into a bar claiming he can be three times as average as anyone else in the bar.

There's a line somewhere in Seneca's Oedipus (don't ask; it's been years) about how the one who represents society cannot, by his very role, be like everyone else.

Folks who study autobiographies as a means of getting insight into an overall population have to remember that by writing autobiographies the authors have already set themselves apart, in a significant way, from most of those who surround them.

"Normal" is a tricky goal to achieve. Tolstoy brushes off the happy families that he says are all alike, but where are those families, really? Which family is really like any other?

I suppose there's a standard deviation for foibles, and when you look around you, the mind generalizes everyone you see as within that standard deviation, unless there's something strikingly different about that person. It's in our nature.

But of all those "normal" people, once you lift up the rock and look under, which of them are really alike? Which really represents the norm? Is lying an aberration, or is it normal? Do normal people think? What do normal people think? "Normal" is a tricky target to find.

Speaking of thinking and lying, does one have to lie to think? Or is one just lying when he unthinkingly says he is thinking? Is thinking an excuse for lying?

Intriguing scene!

Donald Brown said...

some good thoughts there from mrjumbo, particularly about the very notion of autobiography already setitng one apart from 'normalcy.' I'd go further and say that the impossibility of attaining 'normalcy' in all the passages cited have to do with thinking about oneself to such an extent. It's the degree of self-absorption, which makes writing possible, though not inevitable, that is not 'normal.' Though it is so 'normal' for writers and other artists as to be barely worth remarking; so then what becomes worth remarking, I suppose, is the degree to which their 'unhappy families' are unlike the 'unhappy families' of other writers, or 'unhappy families' in general. Which is a bit of a bore, actually, unless the writer is able to make it interesting in and of itself, as writing. Otherwise, it's just the usual vicissitudes of childhood.