Alienation (I)

alienate (al’yen-at’, a’li-en-at), v.t. 1. to transfer the ownership of (property) to another, 2. to estrange; make unfriendly; as, his behavior alienated his friends. 3. to cause a transference of (affection).

alienation (al’yen-a’shen, a’li-en-en-shen). n. (M.E., OFr.; L. alienation, separation, aversion, aberration (of the mind); see ALIENATE. 1. an alienation or being alienated. 2. mental derangement; insanity.

alien (al’yen, a’li-en), adj.1. belonging to another country or people; foreign, strange. n.a foreigner. 2. a foreign-born resident in a country who has not become a naturalized citizen. 3. an outsider.

(Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1959)

In rebellion the imagination finds a home. The bourgeois (one is tempted to say sybaritic) pleasures of childhood reading go hand in hand with security, serenity and wonder, during which we middle class boys and girls slumber larva-like inside the family. Rebellion is the chrysalis that cracks open. As an act of Oedipal, and later, political, defiance, leaving home prompts the reader to discover on his own a new home, that being most often in the arms of a prophet. Rebellion is big defiant news giving birth to the idea of a private life (more of this later) armed to the teeth with ideas. At college, you bring to your dirty apartment those crimped paperbacks in which Vonnegut and Hesse and Marx and Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse and Hegel and Nietzsche (oh, especially Nietzsche) preach their hearts out. You grow your hair long and march endlessly against the War, finding in the street a solidarity that replaces the falsehoods and niggling compromises of family life. You’re strong enough now to hate your father’s guts. You’re reading Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider”, Camus’ “The Plague” and “The Stranger”, not to mention “Resistance, Rebellion and Death”, Sartre’s “La Nausee”—Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky. The outside world is on fire with terror, anti-colonial uprisings and Third World unrest. A high school girl named Bonnie sneaks out of her comfortable suburban house in Lawrence to make love with you on cold winter nights. You drop Acid, mescaline and DMT. You smoke a lot of weed and hash.   It’s all a Naked Lunch back-grounded by the Beatles and Stones. A skinny, pimple-faced hired cop for a buck slips you through the side door of a concert hall one night and you sit at the feet of Grace Slick and the Airplane, whose stated goal is “to get louder”. These are the days of the great hurrahs. These are the days of books in action. You scream epithets at Lyndon Johnson from the tarmac at McConnell Air Force Base and are “detained” by FBI goons. Pretty soon it is determined that calling the President of the United States a “war criminal” is no Federal offense. The malleable world marches to your tune. It’s fun as hell. Reading’s a glob of spit in the eye of all Adults. In the spring of 1968, Parisian students take over the city in the name a distant revolution. You feel their joy.

In some such vein, the people of Britain welcomed in 1789 the fall of the Bastille, Whig leader Charles James Fox remarking enthusiastically ‘How much the greatest Event it is that ever happened in the World! & how much the best!’ Even William Pitt, who became Prime Minister of the British government in 1783 (at age 24!), felt sympathy for the French Revolution, telling the House of Commons that “the present convulsions…must sooner or later terminate in harmony and regular order.”

Their hearts on fire with passion for equality, fraternity and liberty, many English constitutionalists and reformers journeyed to France; some, like William Wordsworth and Mary Wollstoncraft (who wrote A Vindication of the rights of Woman in response to French debates about women’s rights during the revolution) remained for years, interacting with fellow aliens like James Watt junior and Tom Wedgwood, each inspired by the fervor of Helen Maria Williams. Everybody in England and France was reading—newspapers expensively taxed by the British government and French authorities, broadsides, pamphlets, tracts and political manifestos of every kind. Words saturated the atmosphere and filled the banquet halls, pubs and bars, the galleries and the National Assembly in Paris. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man was, by 1791, considered treason and Paine fled to Paris. On both sides of the English Channel, men and women devoured news dispatches. When war finally came on the Continent, town and provincial papers published detailed reports of debates, late and often-inaccurate accounts of military and naval actions, and philosophical manifestos. An interest in politics saturated middle and upper social circles as men and women both discussed the contents of monthly and quarterly journals in book clubs that met in many towns. Lending libraries sprouted up like mushrooms, as did formal and informal literary gatherings like the Birmingham Book Club. In book clubs, members met regularly to chart their course of purchases of books. In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, General Tilney, a “keen book club member” dispatches the young women to bed, explaining, ‘I have many pamphlets to finish before I close my eyes, and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep.’” (See, “In These Times: Living Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1783-1815 by Jenny Uglow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). In those days, less well-off families shared subscriptions to journals and papers. Men read the news in subscription reading rooms, coffee houses and taverns, each of which took a wide range of papers and kept on hand a stock of books, pamphlets and broadsides. Towns maintained their own “reading rooms” and London papers were often hired out by the hour and sent round to suburbs, a policy that annoyed the government because it allowed borrowers to avoid the tax. Workers read aloud in taverns, so that the illiterate could follow the war. Queues formed around print shop windows to see the latest cartoons and satires. People of the time wrote copious letters and maintained regular diaries. Tradesmen and merchants recorded statistics and household information. The aristocracy chronicled exhaustive diaries of social events, the latest fashion and gossip. A letter delivered to one member of a family was regularly circulated among many other members. In that way, news of the war was often recognized as differing from the official government or journalistic versions. Rebellion, war and suffering made for a lively and critical reading life.

Eighteen years after the war things looked different to Wordsworth. ‘To be young’ was to feel that doors were opening and that “dreams of freedom could be realized, the yoke of habit thrown off, the encrusted laws of state overturned. The whole world could be changed.” Coleridge reported in his journal The Friend that Wordsworth looked back on the French Revolution with both fond nostalgia and disappointment. In The Prelude Wordsworth wrote:

                                Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

                                But to be young was very heaven!, oh! times,

                                In which the meager stale forbidding ways

                               Of custom, law, and statute, took at once

                               The attraction of a country in Romance!

                               When Reason seem’d the most to assert her rights.

In rebellion the door swings closed to the world. Life and the reading life are happy companions, books both disclosing and confirming the truth of one’s passions. There is the emotional commitment to the reading life that blots out the “real” world’s stubbornness. One is an Insider. One belongs. You can sense how a previous generation’s young people must have reveled in Knut Hamsun, how Jack London and Ernest Hemingway must have felt their blood boil reading him. How the Klondike and the First World War revealed something deeply imbedded in the revolutionary attitude and how books and literature mirrored that attitude, or, in some cases presaged it.

Philip Beidler (“Scriptures for a Generation”, University of Georgia Press, 1994), describes George Steiner’s reaction to the Sixties: “George Steiner: the 60s as the ‘classical age of reading’. Here Steiner laments, may have been one last ‘oasis of quality in which very great literature, very great non-fiction, did reach a mass audience’; a ‘unique moment’ of interfluence, he goes on, ‘between the best that is being thought and written on one hand, and a very large popularity—great sales, great circulation, massive readership—on the other.’” (And here, Steiner goes on to say that we have now passed to the Information age, in consequence of which ‘reading in the old, archaic, private, silent sense may become as specialized a skill and avocation as it was in the libraries of the monasteries of the so-called Dark Ages.’)—of this, more later.

Once the early excitement of the French Revolution had passed, Wordsworth struggled to organize another approach to the world and his work in it. He and Dorothy walked to the Wye valley and then onward to Bristol, pausing above the valley where he wrote ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’. He hoped that maturity would bring release from ‘the weary weight/Of all this unintelligible world’.

…a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,

A motion and a spirit, that impels,

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

Here is the same emotion that Kerouac later expressed while riding a freight train north to Monterrey. “Let me discover a home,” it pleads. “Save me from living outside.” Sooner or later, though, books become at one with the world, heavy in their own deferments, problems and horrors. In time, books refuse to cooperate with the heart. It is the birth of alienation. We readers read our way into it slowly but surely, in the same way and by the same means we live ourselves into it.