Friday, September 9, 2011

I am vulnerable, therefore I am... vulnerable.

I used to begin my 9th grade Honors English class with the teaching of an unlikely (yet fitting) pair of short stories -- "A & P" by John Updike and "The Guest" by Albert Camus. Though decidedly different in setting and style, the two stories share the theme of making difficult individual choices in the face of contradictory societal beliefs. In short, they pose the question of how a person defines his own personal ethics... and they imply the bravery required therein and, further, the potentially dangerous consequences of countering the herd mentality.

Recently, though, in rereading these stories, I noticed an altogether different thematic affinity. "A & P" takes place, not surprisingly, in a grocery store of the sort that existed in the late 1950s. Sammy, a local resident in the blue collar New England town, works at the checkout -- a job he got through his parents friendship with the store manager, Lengel, thereby suggesting he doesn't possess a lot of alternative career options. The gist of the story is that three upper-class girls come prancing into the store wearing only their bikins, a passive-aggressive act of rebellion because as Sammy explains, "it's one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with that glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the florescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor." Not to mention the fact that this A & P is "five miles from a beach, with a big summer colony out on the Point, but we're right in the middle of town, and the women generally put on a shirt or shorts or something before they get out of the car into the street."

After ogling and objectifying the girls for the first half of the story, Sammy begins to see the girls as more and more human. At first notice of the girls, he deems their leader, 'Queenie' and describes how she moves through the store: "She didn't look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on these long white prima-donna legs. She came down a little hard on her heels, as if she didn't walk in her bare feet that much, putting down her heels and then letting the weight move along to her toes as if she was testing the floor with every step, putting a little deliberate extra action into it. You never know for sure how girls' minds work (do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?) but you got the idea she had talked the other two into coming in here with her, and now she was showing them how to do it, walk slow and hold yourself straight." Clearly, a description that exudes the sort of oozy confidence Sammy assumes to drip from the fingertips of the wealthier residents of the town, like the perspiration on their martini glasses. Yet, when Queenie finally arrives at his register to check out with her items, the reality of her is quite different from the fantasy he projected upon her from a distance.

Queenie?? (aka Botticelli's The Birth of Venus)
Lengel comes over (after all this time that the girls have spent in the store, he picks now to voice his opinion...) and reprimands the girls on their inappropriate dress: "Girls, this isn't the beach." Sammy observes Queenie's reaction which is that she "blushes, though maybe it's just a brush of sunburn I was noticing for the first time, now that she was so close." In short, Sammy recognizes that Queenie is embarrassed, uncomfortable... exactly the opposite of the breezy aplomb and comfort he assumed the girls possessed because of their social class. Queenie, it turns out, is quite vulnerable. So, what does her vulnerability mean to Sammy? This question begins to get at the central dilemma of the story. If the girls are vulnerable, then they are in need of protection. And, what is Sammy willing to risk in order to be the one that provides said protection? This is the question he asks himself. And, as it turns out, he's willing to risk his job and perhaps an even deeper security -- that of belonging in the community, sharing their values and outlook, and potentially never being able to work in that town again. What other prospects does Sammy have? We don't exactly know, but it seems not many. "I don't think you know what you're saying," Lengel tells Sammy after he announces he is quitting. And a few moments later, "You'll feel this for the rest of your life" and Sammy admits "I know that's true" and then when he finds himself alone, unrecognized (for his 'heroism' by the girls who have disappeared): "my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter."

Now, it is Sammy who is the vulnerable one. This was the price of his heroism... a heroism which may have had less to do with standing up for the girls than it did with standing up against the conformist non-reflective groupthink of the 'sheep' that populate his town. Indeed, this analysis is supported by an exchange between Sammy and Lengel:
Sammy: "You didn't have to embarrass them."
Lengel: "It was they who were embarrassing us."
And so there is clearly an 'us vs. them' kind of mindset that is the hardly disguised subtext of this conversation and of the story in general. In making a choice -- one could even call it an ethical choice, a choice that defines a personal morality -- that counters the 'us' with which he belongs, Sammy also inadvertently chooses to exist in a state of vulnerability. Yet, this vulnerable state is preferable to a sort of 'death of conscience' as Sammy suggests after Lengel makes yet another argument against Sammy's seemingly irrational and impetuous action.
"Sammy, you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad," he tells me. It's true, I don't. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it.
In Camus's story, the main character, Daru, confronts a similar kind of decision. He has been placed in charge of an Arab prisoner (in French colonial Algeria), very much against his will. He is wary of the captive, yet also not sure he is guilty of an imprisonable offense. After a restless night caused primarily by his internal struggle (whether to resist the colonial orders and government despite his post, whether to believe in the humanity of a person whom his nation views as subhuman, etc), Daru walks the Arab out into the desert, uncuffs him, and points out two roads -- one leading to the jail where he is expected, the other to his compatriots and freedom. He gives the choice to the Arab, which can either be viewed as a meek palming off onto the Arab of a decision he felt too hard to make, or as being a decision in and of itself. With the latter, he chooses to view the other man as an equal capable of making his own decision regarding his future, his freedom, his conscience, his own destiny. In any case, Daru ends up exposing himself to an unanticipated danger. When he returns to his one-room schoolhouse/home, he finds the following written on the blackboard: "Tu as livre notre frere. Tu paieras." ("You have turned in our brother. You will pay.)

Camus believed that a person could create humanity in a meaningless world by self-determination, by making decisions and generally thinking about life outside the confines of the collective, 'sheep' mindset. This makes him a rebel. But with becoming a rebel, as if evident by the above two stories, comes a profound vulnerability. To break against the resounding waves of 'everybody else' means you may be putting yourself in the throes of a rip tide. Yet, looking at things the other way round, vulnerability also means freedom, independent thinking, and conduct directly based on spoken morality which we so rarely witness (though we so often hear spouting forth from the lips of those who could never enact those ethics in practice... perhaps precisely because of the costs and consequences such as becoming vulnerable.)

Vulnerability is an interesting state of being. In the above cases, it means being shunned by the society with which you previously were an agreeable member. However, vulnerability is also tied deeply to our most intimate moments. In his book, Space and Place, Yi-Fu Tuan speaks of moments of intimacy as being more emotionally meaningful than such moments of intentionality as in Updike and Camus.
Intimate experiences lie buried in our innermost being so that not only do we lack the words to give them form but often we are not even aware of them. When, for some reason, they flash to the surface of our consciousness they evince a poignancy that the more deliberate acts -- the actively sought experiences -- cannot match. Intimate experiences are hard to express. A mere smile or touch may signal our consciousness of an important occasion. Insofar as these gestures can be observed they are public. They are also fleeting, however, and their meaning so eludes confident interpretation that they cannot provide the basis for group planning or action. They lack the firmness and objectivity of words and pictures. (Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, 1977, pp. 136-137)
Despite all that intimacy lacks, Tuan explains what it does contain: "Intimate occasions are often those on which we become passive and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, exposed to the caress and sting of new experience." Infants, of course, become the most obvious example. They receive great amounts of intimacy because of their vulnerability; yet, it is also their need to learn such a great deal that requires this sort of vulnerability in the first place. They need to be open to 'the sting of new experiences' or they will never develop or learn new skills. Certainly, it is vulnerability that makes the newly heart-broken so convinced they never want to date again. Vulnerability opens us up to more than just sting... and the experience does not even need to be new. Most of us have our hearts broken many times throughout our lifetimes.

Yet, vulnerability is also the thing that enables us to become especially personal with another human being. There is no way to be open without being vulnerable. Just think of an open window. Yes, one could shot an arrow through that window and kill the unsuspecting observer. But, just as easily, a lover could climb through that window... or even less physically, could call up with words of woo, revealing himself in the dark of naked night.
Romeo: Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized.
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

(moments later... in response to Juliet's question of how he got into her courtyard, especially considering the danger that her family would enact upon him if they found him there)

Romeo: With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls,
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do, that dares love attempt.
Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me.

(Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii)
Perhaps this is part of the tragic flaw of Romeo. Whereas the deepest of intimacies should increase his vulnerability, instead it strengthens his invincibility (or belief therein.) Love cannot, in fact, achieve the impossible. It can only weather the storm if it is strong and prepared enough.

Vulnerability means something further to women. For, as women, we are always, as Natalie Angier puts it, "profoundly and immutably vulnerable to male violence..." (Natalie Angier, Woman, 1999, p. 298) Even for women who go religiously to the gym and really push themselves and can leg press 600 pounds, a man still poses an ever-present physical threat.
Of course, being swift and strong will not protect a woman from being raped or molested. Antifeminists argue the opposite, that women who labor under the illusion of strength and self-sufficiency are the ones who do foolish things, go places they shouldn't, and end up paying for it. In 1989, when a female jogger in Central Park was almost killed by a gang of wilding boys, many people blamed the jogger, an accomplished athlete, for being so reckless as to run in the park at night. But women get attacked in daylight, and in their homes, and when walking from their job to their cars. Obviously there are no guarantees. (Angier, p. 299)
And so vulnerablity is an ever-present state for a woman. I don't mean that in the extreme way that perhaps it sounds. Perhaps it is better to say that women are more familiar with vulnerability... and possibly that explains why women are more openly intimate and can express their feelings much more easily than most men. And yet, ironically, love goes hand-in-hand with violence.... which means that vulnerability is all tied up in the mess... at both ends.

We love for a multitude of reasons (and they are reasons even if some of them are irrational.) "We love for posterity and protection, to preserve the self and to set the self aside... It turns out that to understand love we must think again about aggression, for the pathways of love and aggression are linked, neurologically, hormonally, experientially... When we are madly in love, we are mad. We are sleepless, anxious, panicky. At the thought of the loved one, our heart literally aches and our knees literally weaken. When we see the person, our pupils dilate, our palms sweat, our aching heart pounds. It's as though we were about to give a speech to an audience of thousands. The state of romantic passion is so overwhelming that we can be infatuated with only one person at a time." (Angier, p. 305)

And, so once again, we are vulnerable. Bonding ourselves physically, emotionally to that one person is a great risk. And though love may begin with this kind of delirious passion, it is "in love [that] we seek not just passion but a balm for passion, a cure for our aggression and its sidekicks, anxiety and fear. We seek to feel soothed, safe, and happy." (Angier, p. 306)

Vulnerability is not a curse. It is not even a weakness. It is the opening that opens us up to safety... and happiness. Even in the case of Sammy and Daru. For, despite the social and societal repercussions... and despite whatever threat is posed to their personal safety, they have achieved a sort of inner peace... however inane and simplistic that may sound. At the very least, they become more realistic about life. After seeing the message on the blackboard, Daru "looked at the sky, the plateau and beyond the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had once loved so much, he was alone." Perhaps, this ending sounds negative or pessimistic. From Camus' perspective, however, it is a much more realistic, and thereby healthy, perspective. The landscape that surrounds us is indifferent, so to love it is futile and a waste of time. It is better to see things as they are than to believe that love is all-powerful and then poison yourself when it turns out you couldn't save your beloved.

Vulnerability is scary. But vulnerability is intimate. And ultimately beautiful. And I believe it is the thing that defines and guides our humanity more than anything else. A friend of mine used to speak of the 'tragic beauty' of life. He meant that there was so much pain in life, but without the existence of this pain, there would be no moments of highest ecstasy... and pure beauty. In short, he spoke of all that has to do with vulnerability. Yes, it has costs... and they can be quite high. The cost can, in fact, be your very life. But if we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable, then there is nothing that matters either -- no intimacy, no courage, no principles, no new experiences, no learning, no meaning. If you are vulnerable, you are bound to get wounded. If you are vulnerable, you will also discover life in and amongst other people... and be willing to question what is situated at the heart of your very self. Therein, vulnerability becomes strength.

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