Now look. There I was, entered onto that course in my life when the simple existence of childhood with its real joys and pains was being replaced by the agonies of adolescence. Where I was trying to become my own person, and kept getting stuck on the twin horns of the ecstasy of meaning revealed and the depression of meaning withheld. That period has lasted until right now. I'm still hung up on meaning. I'm still seeking a way to be my own person in a world where the gods are dead, where all authority is suspect as mere convention, and where my own inner voice is as suspect as all the rest. By now, I've been wiped out in my beliefs. There was a time when I could ride the horn of meaning revealed, grasping it tightly; but I would be shifted as easily to the other horn. All the while, however, the bull managed to keep on its feet. How glad I am of that.
Masturbation is OK. It's natural, Howie told himself. Lies about hairy palms and idiocy were invented by the same world that told boy scouts to take cold baths when they get strange feelings. A repression of what is natural. A healthy person explores his body and learns to know it. Authority ends where his privacy begins and that's the way it should be. These lies were attempts to lead that authority so deeply that it would pervade even physical privacy to the depths, apparently, of the unconscious.
Howie was learning about guilt, and its dangers. But he had also seen caged monkeys in the zoo, and wondered how natural was their constant playing with their genitals. Natural, yes, but what bars could there be circumscribing his life that made it so like that caged chimpanzee. It was a theme in his life. The discovery of some intense feeling --a joy, a revelation -- and then the repeated and compulsive return to the source of the joy that in the end, of course, only insured that it was lost.
A very masculine theme, for aren't men bent on repeated ejaculation. The goal is all. And let it come in a burst of glory. It seems built into the anatomy. The active twin in whose power lies the goal achieved cannot disengage himself from the attainment. Cannot for a minute value the way there. Cannot, because, so it seems, the body won't allow it. Such at least goes the naive argument which subtly refuses all other responses than those which seem unlearned because they were learned so remotely. Repress them by accepting them as an art that needs to be learned. So are men convinced of the value of the feminine without often remembering that the art learned is another one unlearned.
As you know, Howie had to learn to masturbate, and had no help after the humiliation of his initial failure. Again, when he learned, it was revelation. Is it to all boys? I don't know, but for him it had unbounded power. It became a private shibboleth for mocking all deceitful social restraints at the same time that it enacted the mockery of his own cage. What could cause that insane repetition? Sure, it felt good. But as the gratification became more and more automatic, why not leave it and progress? Why keep furtively trying to reawaken a discovery that was only alive in its discovery? The goal is forever lost, once it has been achieved.
But eating is gratifying each time anew, and so are other things. In actual frequency, he later found out how normal he was. But the cage was real, and normalcy meaningless. It wasn't just guilt; he hardly felt guilty, though he was furtive. It was a cage he refused to see was erected by no-one and removable only by himself. Oh, there were lots of possible places to lay the blame. Guilt was only one. His inability to do what he wanted described the cage, and the misunderstanding of his family, the misunderstanding of the school and of society, and finally the blindness of fate, were what was keeping him caged.
It was simple adolescent disappointment. He wasn't happy and it must have been because, either he was restricted by parents who thought they still needed to control him for his own good, or by a school which insisted on his need for an education by which he was literally bored to tears. Or simply because he hadn't been lucky enough to have the means to do what he wanted to be.
Are there more of him out there? Who see and hear about other lives both more and less fortunate than their own by means of the television which is the only intrusion of the world beyond the playground? Who digest both the good fortune of being who they are and the bad fortune of not being wealthier, flashier, earthier, more lovable, more real in comparison to the images on the screen. Who digest both the good fortune and the bad in the one paradoxical pill which makes his own life both unreal and the only reality.
Life in the suburbs, where everyone who doesn't belong is suspect -- whether luckier or less fortunate -- and where the deep suspicion grows that life throbs elsewhere. What then? Why, get out of course. Be richer or more earthy or more poetic or more urbane or even be a bum. But get out. Why for Howie was it all unreal? He looked until he found the death behind the mask of all of these escapes. They were acts in direct response to the fear of death they were impositions of something else that was not yet life.
An arbitrary response, so he felt. Where is the rule that says the richer are more powerful and the powerful are more alive? He unwound all the rules until finally, there was only a tangle. Yes, he was drawn to the thrill of power, to the earthiness of a gypsy, to the erudition of a scholar, to the fame of a poet, to the selflessness of a bum -- to everything in which he ever had fleetingly felt the pulse of life and in which when he measured his soul against the mask he found a poor fit.
"Do you mind untangling this, Howie? And then, please, come off it."
I am getting carried away. Too far afield in the story. They weren't masks. He saw the faces, and they were lighted. But the light was not communicable. So that gradually, as he discovered that these others were not him, he would be disgusted that they had no way to communicate their light to him. They hadn't found the answer he was seeking. He pried enough to discover that, and then they turned with some demonic power that was his alone into masks for him. Stupid, petty people, ultimately, who hid behind their masks so people wouldn't discover how little they know.
"You're making him pretty hateful."
That's good. Because he's me. And there's too much of me here. He wasn't like that. Never with friends. He liked people simply and with feeling. He... It doesn't matter.
He became angry at all those possible jailers and at his fate, but that didn't ease the feeling of being limited. That is, it didn't ease his depression and he continued to clutch at whatever could release him.
"You know, your attempts at weighty language are unbearable at moments like this. I'd laugh harder than I am except that I get the feeling you want ‘clutching at whatever could release him' to be made weighty by its vagueness. But it's so obvious that it stinks. It's worse than laughable. It's pathetic."
I'd better try a different mode.