A quality insight from Mrs. Fish
“Mrs Fish had concluded her story by saying that it was a peculiar but an assured fact that some human beings seemed to be ruined by their best qualities.”
This is one of the concluding paragraphs of Delmore Schwartz’s America! America!
An insightful paradox from Shenandoah Fish’s mother, a women all the details on the ins & outs of the neighbourhood’s characters. Our instinct tells us qualities enable achievement. However, we also have this underlying sense (instinctual?) of what she means.
Mrs. Fish is referring to Sidney Baumann, the son of Mr. Baumann, a self-made door to door insurance sales man & Russian immigrant, popular in his neighbourhood, trusted, a strong work ethic, thrives in groups. A man who believes in America because it equates in his mind to opportunity; he is living proof of it, in fact. It is unthinkable to a man with his history to miss out on this opportunity, even if it was originally founded on mostly hope. We admire his dutiful character. Why wouldn’t we?
His son Sidney is spoilt. He is informed, to a media standard. He thinks he is owed something. He is finicky about what he wants to do with his life. He is a snob, lazy. His mother praises this as a “sensitivity to the finer things in life.” It is due to Sidney being able to fall back on the security of his family that mean his best qualities (his good upbringing) struggle, if not outright fail, to improve him.
This is a tough paradox to solve. It is the duty of a family to raise a child well, to see their needs are met, to instruct by example, which is what the Baumann parents do. They are pious, well mannered, respected, well-off but not excessively wealthy, they understand value & worth & they want only what they think is best for their children. Regardless, these qualities are not transferred satisfactorily to their son. In fact, he is more the inverse of their best qualities.
Mrs. Fish’s insight might be re-worded as, some people are ruined by their parents’ best qualities. Of course Mrs. Fish I doubt could possibly believe such a thing, Shenandoah is after all jobless, drifting aimlessly.
Let’s say you are part of a gang of intellectuals, a variety of people who share conversation & wine in common as the group do in Schwartz’s story The World is a Wedding.
Sidney is among them. During a comparison of contemporary America & Depression era America, the subject turns to the presidential family & the natural inclination of Trump to pamper his children by whatever means, even if they are illegal & morally questionable methods that endanger his credibility, like… say… quickly passing through business-trade opportunities for his daughter before closing them to everyone else (wink wink).
You ask Sidney:
“Does Ivanka & her siblings owe their father anything for sticking his neck out?”
“We rebel against our parents because of what they expect from us. It isn’t just love, it is a debt of gratitude. We are never, & never will any human being in the future of humanity, ever be offered the choice of being born.” Somewhat cryptic, but I think we get the jist. Even if we rebel our parents owe us, we owe them nothing for their choices.
I tell him that years ago I read a silly book by Michael Talbot called The Holographic Universe. A hodge-podge of enlightened pseudo-science & human potential, LaLa land rubbish.
There was talk of reincarnation in the book, but the system outlined, hypothesized that we choose what will be reincarnated as, so that the soul might increase its knowledge. This system enabled the soul, encouraged by will, to quest after ultimate understanding.
As a thought-experiment (which is about as useful as Talbot’s book could ever be), let’s pare his outline back a little & say, before birth we are told a little (from the environs of this pre-life state outside time & space) about what to expect from life. On the sheer scale of experience we would, ignorant, be told of the polarities that are very real pressures in life; the creeping dearth of our environment, natural beauty, how difficult a definition of nature is & the polarities this creates; the easiness of loss, the fortuity of gain; love & how its power can both leave us in rapture & despair;— in essence, how easily, based on sensory inputs beyond our control, our mood may elevate, accelerate, decelerate, evaporate & all the bits n’ bobs & in-betweens.
Wouldn’t it seem sort of overwhelming? Would the necessary consequence of this information be a ubiquitous, unquestionable, yes?
Sidney nods in agreement & jumps in…
“There is no warning, no expectation. Life is bull-rushed upon us (this is where I say, ‘this is the reason babies cry on exiting the womb’, but I don’t believe that). For not falling into line with the narrative we are incorporated into, for not meeting expectation, we are labelled disappointing.
This may not be explicit (conscious), but it is implicit (sub-conscious) as our will to independence exposes. Independence is not instinctual in humans, not if we are coddled too long, if the nest is too warm & mother-bird never teaches us the value of aerodynamics & daddy the skill of the hunt. This is why Shenandoah’s father instructed my father to send me to Chicago, out into the world to stand on my own 2 feet. It failed. The safety net was firmly secure; already I had passed the formative years without being acceptably formed for the struggles ahead.”
Sidney owes his parents nothing. He is their responsibility; if he was a mistake, he is a mistake they made & therefore must take responsibility for. If you buy an expensive object, you take care of it. A child is not an expensive object; a child (being human) is an anomaly of nature, a thing without equal in nature or objects, something that is not to be brought into the world if it must meet expectations, if it must be a slave to the ideals & expectations of parents. The world changes as the child grows & their world is not the world of their parents. A child is not an insurance policy against mortality.
I read (or watched) somewhere that the American people are collateral for the exorbitant national debt (a conspiracy); regardless of whether this is a fiction or not, it is a terrible thing to consider even the remote possibility of.
In the final paragraph of Schwarz’s story Shenandoah Fish says into the mirror that
“No one truly exists in the real world because no one knows all that he is to other human beings, all that they say behind his back, and the foolishness which the future will bring him.”
Shenandoah is as insightful as his mother. His insight illustrates something of the absurdity of expectation in an indeterminate future. He also begs us to search for what we cannot see in ourselves, what we cannot know of ourselves, what others might see & how that could & should alter us & moreover, how we are, like Mr. Baumann, tied to people for a definition of who we are (consider this in the context of his profession: he is a door to door salesman).
Not having the full picture of ourselves how can we expect to know what is best for the breathing, breathless, hungry mistake (or choice) that we have made?
Right & wrong, are clear in many respects (aside from the exceptions to the rule, which I don’t like focusing on as they set a default go-to when dealing with generalizations & end up being used for one-up-man-ship in discussions) but don’t assume they’re always straightforward, there are immensely subtle, unregistered, slow burning conclusions to the actions we take.
(I’d like to add, I am not a parent, I do not believe in these ideas, they are simply ideas to be indulged, I don’t necessarily not believe them, they are not proved right or wrong, I am merely entertaining potentials.)