Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Revealing our inner selves

During the last couple of weeks, my juniors have been reading from the diaries of Samuel Pepys. While we have easily discussed Pepys’ social life, his descriptions of the Black Plague of 1665 and the Great London Fire of 1666, one issue we had doubts about was whether Pepys intended them to be read. Our final consensus was that since he wrote in his own private shorthand that most of his contemporaries couldn’t read, he must not have intended them to be for an audience.
Pepys does not, for example, shy away from showing his flaws. In one entry he talks about his violent and jealous temper, which leads him to destroy his love letters which his young wife cherishes. In another he beats her:

Thereupon she giving me some cross answer I did strike her over her left eye such a blow as the poor wretch did cry out and was in great pain, but yet her spirit was such as to endeavour to bite and scratch me. But I coying —[stroking or caressing]— with her made her leave crying, and sent for butter and parsley, and friends presently one with another, and I up, vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black, and the people of the house observed it. [Pepys]

Thoughout, as a Restoration playboy, Pepys details his sexual conquests with a pride.

Having been primed for the topic of diaries and the private self we reveal though them, I listened with interest when NPR’s
Fresh Air reaired Terry Gross’ 1995 interview with author William Maxwell. In the conversation, they talked about his 1992 short story “What He Was Like” (found in All the Days and Nights: the collected stories). The story, according to the author, deals with the disparity of one’s interior life and public life. I had not read the story but was intrigued enough by the discussion that I bought the book to read it.

The four-page story deals with an unnamed protagonist. “He kept a diary, for his own pleasure. …” begins the story. In it the man writes all he feels, who he hates, his sexual fantasies, his dark inner soul. He writes, “To be able to do in your mind what it is probably not a good idea to do in actuality is a convenience not always sufficiently appreciated.”

After the man’s death, his daughter determines that she wants to read the diaries. Her mother (who has never read them) cautions her against it, saying, “They’re private and he didn’t mean anybody to read them.” Ignoring her mother’s advice, the younger woman reads some of the diaries. She is devastated. To her husband she laments,

“He wasn’t the person I thought he was. He had all sorts of secret desires. A lot of it is very dirty. And some of it is more unkind than I could have believed possible. And just not like him—except that it was him. It makes me feel I can never trust anyone ever again.”

So the story and the discussion have led me to question whether we really want to know the interior life of anyone we know.

In a 1976
Playboy interview, Jimmy Carter raised many eyebrows by admitting that he had committed adultery in his heart many times—and had been forgiven by God for it. I don’t think I agree. I don’t believe we will be punished for our thoughts; I feel it is our actions that make us who we are.

One of my favorite authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne, investigates that sense of guilt for the unspoken life in “
The Minister’s Black Veil." The author describes how the minister suddenly assumes a black crepe mask:

Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate.

The story deals with others’ perceptions of and reactions to what the veil hides. Tbe minister’s preaching seems to change.

“The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them.”

Mr. Hooper’s parishioners find the crepe veil alternately distressing, mysterious, threatening. The love of his life leaves him when she cannot convince him that other’s feel the veil represents an inner hideous sin.

After a long life, still wearing the veil, Mr. Hooper reaches his death bed. Another minister tells him that since he has led a blameless life in deed and thought that he should now discard the veil.

“Dark old man!” exclaimed the affrighted minister, “with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?” …

"Why do you tremble at me alone?" cried [Mr. Hooper], turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. "Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his
best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!"

When the Good Father Hooper dies, his veiled corpse is buried. The grave decays his body but the thought of the black veil remains. Hawthorne is a master at describing guilt.

So should we avoid revealing the dark landscape of our inner soul? Or should we all acknowledge that we all have secrets that are better kept private? Maybe we need to trust that it is our actions that truly define us.

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