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Je rêve donc je suis
If only I could explain to you how changed I am since those days! Changed yet still the same, but now I can view my old preoccupations with a calm eye. In the thirty years which have passed, the preoccupation has changed its form, become inverted so to speak. When it began, it grew in me and emptied me out. I ignored it at first, then admitted it to myself, then sought consolation from friends, then resigned myself to it, and finally learned to exploit it for my own wisdom. Now, instead of being inside me, my preoccupation is a house in which I live; in which I live, more or less comfortably, roaming from room to room. Some winters I don't turn on the heat. Then I stay in one room, warmly wrapped in my leather coat, sweaters, boots, and muffler, and recall those agitated days. I have become a rather cranky old man, given to harmless philanthropies. A few friends pay me calls because they are lonely, not because they greatly enjoy my company. Decidedly, I have become less interesting.
Even as a child, there were traits which distinguished me from my playmates. My origins themselves are unremarkable: I come from a prosperous family which still resides in one of the larger provincial cities. My parents were well into middle age when I was born, much the youngest of three children, and my mother died when I was five. My sister was already married and lived abroad. My brother had just come of age and entered my father's business; he married young (shortly after my mother died) and with equanimity, and soon had several children. I have not seen him for many years. Thus, I had ample opportunity to be alone as a child, and developed a somewhat premature taste for solitude. In that large house, from which my father and brother were chronically absent, I was thrown upon myself, and early evidenced a seriousness, tinged with melancholy, which youth did not dispel. But I did not seek to be different. I did well at school, played with other children, flirted with young girls and brought them presents, made love to the maid, wrote little stories — in short filled my life with the activities normal for my class and age. Because I was not particularly shy, and never sullen, I managed to pass among my relatives as a sombre but likeable child.
It was when I completed my schooling and left the town of my birth to attend the national university, that I first became unable to suppress the sense of being different. In everything one's surroundings are of great importance. Up to now I had been surrounded by my nurse, my father, relatives, friends, all of whom were easily pleased with themselves and me, and lived in comfortable agreement with each other. I was fond of their society. The only one of their traits I found distasteful was the ease and complacency with which they assumed a posture of moral indignation; otherwise they were to me no more and no less than people might sensibly be expected to be. But when I moved to the capital, I soon realized that not only did I not resemble the stolid provincials among whom I had been reared, but I was also unlike the restless cosmopolitans among whom I now lived and with whom I expected to have more in common. Around me were young men and women of my own age, some like myself from the provinces but most from the metropolis in which the university was situated. (I omit the name of this city not to tease the reader — for I have not excised from this narrative certain words and the names of local institutions known to every would-be tourist, so that the reader will soon be able to identify in which city I lived — but because I wish to indicate my conviction that where I lived was not of importance in the matters I shall relate; I make no complaint against my homeland or against this city in particular, which is no worse and perhaps better than most places, a center of culture and the residence of many interesting and gracious people.) At the university, then, were gathered the ambitious youth of my country. Everyone was preparing for accomplishment, some in medicine, the law, the arts, the sciences, some for the civil service and some for revolutions; while I found my heart empty of personal ambition. Ambition if it feeds at all, does so on the ambition of others. I did not come into this sort of relation, part conspiratorial and part envious, with my peers. I have always enjoyed being by myself, and the company of others is more pleasant to me when interspersed with large quantities of the refreshment which I find in myself, and in my dreams and reveries.
Genuinely, I believe, lacking all the usual motives of ambition such as spurred my fellow-students — not even the ambition to displease my family, this being a time of great strain between the generations — I nevertheless proved myself a capable and enthusiastic student. Inspired by the prospect of becoming learned, I enrolled in the most varied courses of lectures. But this very thirst for inquiry, that led to the investigations which subsequently preoccupied me, did not find a proper satisfaction in the divisions and faculties of the university. Do not misunderstand, it was not that I objected to specialization. On the contrary, genuine specialization — the neat and sensitive marking off of a subject, and its accurate quartering and adjacent subdivisions — was just what I looked for and could not find. Neither did I object to pedantry. What I objected to was that my professors raised problems only in order to solve them, and brought their lectures to a conclusion with maddening punctuality. My stubborn commitment to learning was comparable to that of a hungry man who is given sandwiches and eats them in the wax paper, not because he is too impatient to unwrap them but simply because he has never learned or else has forgotten how to remove the paper. My intellectual hunger did not make me insensible to the unappetizing fare of the university lecture rooms. But for a long time I could neither peel off the tasteless wrappings nor eat more moderately.
I studied in this way for three years. At the end of this time I published my first and only philosophical article; in it I proposed important ideas on a topic of no great importance. The article was controversial and excited some discussion in the general literary world, and because of it I was admitted to the circle of a middle-aged couple, foreign born and newly rich, who had an estate in the suburbs and collected stimulating people. On weekends, the Anders provided horseback riding in the afternoon, chamber music in the evening, and long formal meals. Besides myself, the regular guests included a professor who had written several books on the theory of revolution, a Negro ballet dancer, a famous physicist, a writer who had been a professional boxer, a priest who led a weekly forum on the radio called "Confessions and Remedies," and the elderly conductor of the symphony orchestra of a neighboring city (he came sporadically, but he was having an affair with the young daughter of the house). It was Frau Anders, a plump sensuous woman in her late thirties, who really presided, her husband's presence being irregular and his authority nominal; he was often away on business trips; I gathered that their marriage was one of convenience rather than sentiment. Frau Anders insisted on punctuality and deference, but was otherwise a generous hostess, attentive to her guests' idiosyncrasies and skillful in drawing them out.
All of Frau Anders' guests, even the vain and handsome ballet dancer, were virtuoso talkers. At first I was irritated and bewildered by the looseness of their conversation, by their readiness to express an opinion on any subject. These exchanges over a sumptuous dinner table seemed to me no more responsible intellectually than the acrimonious café debates of my fellow students. It took me a while to appreciate the distinctive virtues of the salon. Having opinions was only part of it. The more serious part was the display of personality. Frau Anders' guests were particularly accomplished at this display; no doubt that was why they had come together. I found this emphasis on personality, rather than opinions, restful. Already I had detected in myself a certain paucity of opinions. I knew that entering the estate of manhood meant purchasing a set of more or less permanent opinions, yet I found this more difficult than others apparently did. It was not due to intellectual torpor nor, I hope, to pride. My system was simply too busy receiving and discharging what I found about me. And in Frau Anders' circle I learned not to envy others because I had less certitude than they. I had a great faith (it seems a little naive in retrospect) in my own good digestion, and in the eventual triumph of patience. That there is order in this world still appears to me, even in my old age and isolation, beyond doubt. And I did not doubt that in this order I would find a place, as I have.
I ceased attending lectures at the university after acquiring this new circle of friends, and soon after officially resigned. I also stopped writing the monthly letter to my father. One day my father visited the capital on business and took the opportunity to see me. I assumed he meant to reproach me for neglecting my epistolary duties, but I did not hesitate to tell him immediately that I had abandoned my formal studies. I thought it better to deal with his reproaches in one interview than to have him hear the news, which he would interpret as truancy, indirectly. To my great satisfaction, he was not angry. According to his view, my older brother had fulfilled all the hopes he had for a son; for this reason he declared himself willing to support me in any independent path I might choose. He made arrangements with his banker to increase my monthly allowance, and we parted warmly with assurances of his continued affection. I was now in the enviable position of being entirely at my own disposal, free to pursue my own questions (the treasure I had accumulated since my childhood) and to satisfy, better than the university had done, my passion for speculation and investigation.
I continued to spend many hours of each day in rapid voracious reading, though I fear that as I read I did not think much. Not until years later did I understand that here was reason enough to abstain from reading. However, I did stop writing: except for a film scenario, my journals, and numerous letters, I have written nothing since that youthful philosophical article on a topic of no importance. Nothing, that is, until now, when with difficulty I again take up my pen. After reading, my chief pleasure at that time was conversation, and it was in conversation at Frau Anders' and with a few ex-comrades at the university that I occupied those first fledgling months of independence. Of my other interests there seems no reason to speak in detail. My sexual needs were not unduly clamorous, and periodic excursions into a disreputable quarter of the city sufficed to satisfy them. Politics interested me no further than the daily newspaper. In this I resembled most of my generation and class, but I had additional reasons of my own for being unpolitical. I am extremely interested in revolutions. But I believe that the real revolutions of my time have been changes not of government or of the personnel of public institutions, but revolutions of feelings and seeing, much more difficult to analyze.
Sometimes I have thought that the perplexities I encountered in my own person were themselves symptoms of such a general revolution of feeling — a revolution not yet named, a dislocation of consciousness not yet diagnosed. But this notion may be presumptuous on my part. In all likelihood, my difficulties are no more than my own; nor does it distress me to claim them as mine. Luckily, being of a sturdy constitution and serene temperament, I did not endure my inquietude passively, and have been extracted, through struggle, crisis, and years of after-meditation, a certain sense from it. However, I wish at the start to warn the reader that while I endeavor conscientiously to present a just selection of those events, it is with no more than the eye and mainly the ear of recollection. It is easier to endure than to change. But once one has changed, what was endured is hard to recall.
"Strangeness becomes you," my father said to me that kind May afternoon.
I was, in fact, not as eccentric then as many of the people I knew — in Frau Anders' salon, on the boulevards, in the university — but I did not contradict him.
"Let it be so, father," I said.
One word more. From my earliest schooling, I was exposed to the secular intellectual ideals of my country: clarity, rigor, education of the feelings. I was taught that the way to treat an idea is to break it into its smallest component parts, and then to retrace one's steps, proceeding from the most simple to the complex — not forgetting to check, by enumeration, that no step is omitted. I learned that reasoning itself, apart from the particular demands of whatever problem it is applied to, has a correct form, a style, which may be learned as one learns the right way to swim or to dance.
If I now object to this style of reasoning, it is not because I share the distrust of reason which is the leading intellectual fashion in our century. My old-fashioned teachers were not in error. The method of analysis does solve all problems. But is that what is wanted always: to solve a problem? Suppose we reverse the method, and proceed from the most complex to the most simple. To be sure, we will be left with less than we started. But why not? Instead of accumulating ideas, we might be better occupied with dissolving them — not by a sudden act of will, but slowly, and with great patience. Our philosophers teach that "the whole is the sum of its parts." True. But perhaps any part also is the sum of the whole; perhaps the real sum of the whole is that part which is smallest, upon which one can concentrate most closely. To assume that "the whole is the sum of its parts" is to assume also that ideas and things are — or can be made to be — symmetrical. I have found that there are symmetrical ideas and asymmetrical ones as well. The ideas which interest me are asymmetrical: one enters through one side and exits through a side which is shaped quite differently. Such ideas rouse my appetite.
But the appetite for thinking must be regulated, as all sensible people know, for it may stifle one's life. I was more fortunate than most in that, in my youth, I had no settled ambitions, no tenacious habits, no ready opinions which I would have to sacrifice to thought. My life was my own: it was not dismembered into work and leisure, family and pleasure, duty and passion. Still I held back at first — keeping myself free of unnecessary entanglements, seeking the company of those whom I understood and therefore could not be seduced by, yet not daring to follow my inclinations toward solitary thought to their conclusion.
During this period of my youth, in the years immediately following my resignation from the university, I took the opportunity to travel outside my native country, and to observe the manners of other peoples and social classes. I found this more instructive than the wordy learning of the university and the library. Perhaps because I never left the country for more than a few months at a time, my travels did not demoralize me. Observing the variety of beliefs in different countries did not lead me to conclude that there is no true right and wrong but only fallible human opinion. However much men disagree about what is forbidden and what allowed, everyone aspires to order and to truth. Truth needs the discipline of custom in order to act. I do not deny that custom is usually narrow-minded and ungenerous. But one has no right to be outraged when, in self-defense, it martyrs the partisans of extreme acts. Any discipline, even that of the most sanctimonious custom, is better than none.
While I was occupied with my initial investigations into what I vaguely thought of as "certitude," I felt obliged to reconsider all opinions which were presented to me. Consequently I felt entitled to none myself. This openmindedness raised certain problems as to how my life was to be guided for the interim, while I questioned content I did not want to lose form. I drew up, for the duration of this period of inquiry, the following provisional maxims of conduct and attitude:
1. Not to be satisfied with my own, or any one else's, good intentions;
2. Not to wish for others what they did not wish for themselves;
3. Not to spurn the advice of others;
4. Not to fear disapproval, but to observe as much as is feasible the rules of tact and discretion;
5. Not to value possessions nor be distracted by ambition;
6. Not to advertise myself, nor make demands on others;
7. Not to wish for a long life.
These principles were never difficult to follow, since they accorded with my own disposition anyway. Happily, I can claim to have observed them all, including the last rule. For although I have had a long life, I have not gone out of my way to provide for it. (I should mention, to give the reader a proper perspective, that I am now sixty-one years old.) And this life, I must also add, I do not recount because I consider it an example to anyone. It is for myself alone; the path I have followed, and the certitude I have found would be unlikely to suit anyone but myself.
Excerpted from "The Benefactor"
Copyright © 1963 Susan Sontag.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE / My childhood and university career. I find friends and become independent. My resolutions. On the difficulties of this narrative.,
CHAPTER TWO / I have a dream, the "dream of two rooms." Jean-Jacques and I discuss it.,
CHAPTER THREE / Aftermath of the first dream. I accept a musician's hospitality. "Dream of the unconventional party." I become the lover of Frau Anders.,
CHAPTER FOUR / Third dream, "the dream of piercing the roof of a cathedral." Conversation in the park with a priest. I exchange a rosary for a ball.,
CHAPTER FIVE / I spend more time with Jean-Jacques. His ideas, his world.,
CHAPTER SIX / My mistress and I take a trip to the city of Arabs. We enjoy the city and I abandon her to a merchant.,
CHAPTER SEVEN / I return to the capital. "Dream of an elderly patron." Professor Bulgaraux acquaints me with the doctrines of the Autogenists.,
CHAPTER EIGHT / I become an actor. Lucrezia: another friendship. Later news of Frau Anders. On the proper narration of dreams.,
CHAPTER NINE / A visit from an unhappy husband. The good intentions of Monique. Frau Anders returns to claim a new life. Fifth dream, "the dream of the piano lesson." A crime.,
CHAPTER TEN / Crime without punishment. I tell Jean-Jacques about the chess player. I visit with my father. The happiness of Monique. The resurrection of Frau Anders.,
CHAPTER ELEVEN / I build a house for Frau Anders. A proposal.,
CHAPTER TWELVE / "The dream of the mirror." I return to my native city and choose a wife.,
CHAPTER THIRTEEN / My marriage. Frau Anders in hiding. A fairy-tale and some anecdotes illustrating proper self-love.,
CHAPTER FOURTEEN / My wife falls ill. A visit from Jean-Jacques and an act of violence. Professor Bulgaraux speaks at my wife's funeral. My grief.,
CHAPTER FIFTEEN / A duel with Jean-Jacques. A dream inventory, and a nightmare, "the dream in the arena." I move into Frau Anders' house.,
CHAPTER SIXTEEN / There are many styles of silence. "The puppet dream." Some aphorisms. A robbery and other arduous disciplines. Either I leave the house to Frau Anders, or she reappears after twenty years. In the latter case, I am evicted.,
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN / On the distribution of handicaps. A distressing rumor. An excerpt from my notebooks. On being old. On the difficulties of concluding this narrative.,
by Susan Sontag,