The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. (Philip Roth – American Pastoral)
Whenever I feel lost with regard to human nature and behaviour, whenever I feel that I’m missing a piece of the puzzle, when I start wondering if getting people wrong is some special sort of gift that only I of all people must have inherited, I turn to Roth. I spent some time with him and his long sentences during my years as a student, wrote half of my dissertation on one of his books and read 9 others. I never ceased to have anything but an escalating admiration for this grumpy man’s lucidity and gripping writing style.
Roth “talks” as if he knew life itself. As if he’d understood the mystery of it. He takes life and moulds it into words – that’s his power. He translates life for us. He chooses human tragedy because it’s endlessly rich: no need to get optimistic with Roth, life is a game at which we all lose; we are doomed to fail from the start and he’s there to remind us, in captivating ways, that we cannot fight conditions and truths that are beyond us. Downfall is his favourite character.
American Pastoral is about the struggle to make sense of people, which inevitable ends in failure even when it comes to the closest ones. About how little we can do to change them or help them or make them see life in the same colours as we do. About how powerless one always is when it comes to someone else. How love, the strongest of feelings is an insufficient ingredient when it comes to “saving” people from themselves and bringing them on the “right” path. How life can and sometimes does go wrong. It is about watching one’s own incapacity to change the course of the game. Helplessness is a crushing feeling. The understanding and acceptance of it are killers, too.
Getting someone wrong takes time and patience. We get people wrong because we have expectations, we make assumptions and we filter the others through our own intimate system of values, secretly wanting them to be the same as us. More often than not, we imagine people to be someone they’re not, we create a hologram, a projection. It comforts us to pretend we understand them while most of the times we do not truly understand ourselves.
We spend time studying someone, thinking we might capture fragments of the soul beneath the skin, that in time and by paying the utmost attention we will finally get to the bottom of the obsession and end up understanding that someone. Isn’t this what we all want, to figure someone inside out, no more questions, no more doubts? To solve the equation taking place somewhere among the brain, personality, reactions, and emotions and finally have a break from this exhausting study and say: “Now I know who you really are!” It would be such a relief, such an amazing solution to save energy, time, ourselves. One look into someone’s eyes to get all the certainty and comfort we’ve been looking for to reach perfect equilibrium. How precious would that be?
Roth sets the record straight mercilessly, like it or not. There is no understanding people. We’re chasing an illusion. It would seem indeed much more reasonable to start from the conviction that eyes cannot be read, that gestures can only be interpreted and that the complex human in front of us is too multifaceted, too intricate a mechanism to decipher in a lifetime. Still, each with our own tactics, we all try to break the code. We are a fascinating species.
You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion.
I often sin by allowing myself to get caught in this natural, primal instinct of wanting to understand people, to have an explanation for everything. Roth punches me in the nose and gives me back my clear vision. And therein lays the Roth supremacy: he knocks one to the ground with one crude food-for-thought observation that puts things into perspective. Why walk the painful road to understanding?
I intend to keep observing people (after all, being insightful is part of my quest as a writer) but, like a harmful vice, I will try to give up the need to understand them. Let us be a bit more wrong about one another every day and deal with it, accept it as part of life’s mischievous games! Maybe even enjoy it.
Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.