Sunday, December 23, 2012

Freedom from Chaos

I've spent all my life studying stories and learning to tell them. Since I was first able to read for myself, I've just devoured them. Comics, novels, the classics, science fiction, westerns, and literature. All of it. I wrote my first piece of fiction when I was seven. The course was locked in then, and the few times I've tried to deviate from this life plan, I've found myself severely lost.

Along the way, I have enjoyed many, many stories for many different reasons. Star Trek was fascinating to me for the sociology, the history, and the way that vastly different events could relate to each other across different locations and sets of characters in the franchise. It was really the first shared world that made me able to see how to create a civilization and a people and not just characters in a location. Frankenstein helped me to understand alienation and the unintentional harm that men can do when they don't think through the consequences of their actions. Dickens' way of describing children's reasoning showed me that you can find an honest way of showing inexperience without compromising your respect for the autonomy and dignity of a character.

All of the books that I bothered to read all the way through taught me something. Even the ones I didn't like did, and I valued that. At the same time, as I matured and entered into a formal education in literature and writing, I discovered that the feelings other people had about books were not the feelings I had about books. I first noticed this because of my father. He was not fortunate enough to be able to attend college, but he educated himself by cultivating a home library of fiction, nonfiction, and classic literature. He read his way through Gray's Anatomy, World War II histories, classic science fiction, and the Foxfire books. When I watched him flip through his books, I noticed that he had a reverence for them that I had only seen in one other place: my mother's face at church.

When I started to read novels for myself, he spoke to me of them in quiet tones that conveyed a respect for the artifact itself, as if it had the power to magically transform one into something else. He was not the only one that acted that way, either. On Reading Rainbow, Levar Burton wove descriptions of books and stories that always invoked a language of wonder. Stories were magic, they transported you, they were transformational.

Well, maybe for him. For me, they were entertaining, and each one taught me something about how to build my own stories, but they were not magical. They were devices that were built by human hands. To my mind, that made them more like engines. Maybe it's true that not everyone could learn to build one, but the principles that drove them were not anything that the average person should have trouble understanding.

When I went to college, I found most of the other English majors also had this magical reverence for books or stories. Some of them marveled at the artifacts that were the physical books, others concentrated on how the stories had some kind of transformative impact on the world. I never quite understood these feelings, and I alternated between thinking that that made me incapable of learning to write well and thinking that my writing constantly was part of the reason that I saw books in this other light.

Then it happened. At the age of twenty-eight, after two decades of constant reading and writing, after ten plays, a screenplay, countless short stories, and only-my-transcript-knows-how-many essays, I found that book. The one that made me feel transformed and new and clean, the one that showed me a deeper level of meaning in the world and pulled back the curtain to reveal its mechanations.

That book was Naked Lunch. I'd read excerpts from it over the years, and I was always intrigued by it, but it took reading the entire thing for me to really understand what it was, and it was something beautiful. It was as chaotic and unhinged as life, as uncompromising in its tapestry of obscene and improbable scenarios as a slow ride past a car accident, and as dark as a night in a shooting gallery. Everything about it spoke to me.

I don't know if Naked Lunch would have affected me in that way if I had been younger when I read it. It's easy to sensationalize its graphic sexuality and violence, and to miss the more attractive and subversive themes as you revel in its shock value. Being nearly thirty, the novelty of literature that was shocking for its own sake had worn off for me, and I was looking for something else when I read it. I was also just starting to grapple with the truth about myself, being only six or seven months past the point where I had discovered I was autistic. My life was not where I'd hoped it would be--I'd taken my master's degree at the beginning of a recession and had trouble finding work. I was trying to transition into my mother's family after eight years of refusing contact with them. I was just barely beginning to understand why it was that I was not able to keep my life in line and on track like other people did--why I could not maintain friendships with people I did not physically see every day, why I often found myself unable to speak up when I was feeling uncomfortable, and why keeping my clothes and house clean was overwhelming.

In the midst of all this chaos, I found myself staring at a hardcover 50th anniversary edition of this book, and I just remember thinking that it was something I'd known about since high school and that I had always intended to read, and so I did.

It took me about thirty pages to realize that it was not a novel, and that everyone who had ever told me it was had probably not read it. Once I came to terms with that, I was able to view each story as a discrete episode, but I had a hard time getting my head around Burroughs' reasons for not separating them with anything more substantial than a scene break. It took until I was almost done with it for me to understand. Naked Lunch is not about sexual transition. It's not about heroin, or homosexuality, or BDSM. It's not about government authoritarianism or the public consensus on sexual mores.

It's about the relationship between these things. It's about social forces that are larger than the individual, and how they rob us of our dignity and integrity. It's about control and being controlled, surrendering control and reclaiming it. It's about the fact that addiction is something we seldom enter into blindly, but instead something we give ourselves over to because as bleak as it is, it is a focal point that can distract us from the disorder in other parts of our lives.

It's a hell of a book to read when you're drinking too much and you can't find full-time work.

At its core, its argument is simple: Addiction is an attempt at control, but control is itself an addiction. Burroughs' understanding of addiction is (I think rightly) that it is something that exists only to acquire more of itself. It comes to control us because the appetite that addiction creates for itself eventually grows larger than the individual's ability to feed that appetite. At the same time, though, he understands control to be an addiction in and of itself. Throughout the book, he outlines scenario after scenario that drives this point home. Showing how a housewife who only wants to be sure that her guests' outfits match her decor is psychologically the equivalent of a woman who forces her husband to have sex with other men in front of her, he deftly demonstrates the lust for specificity and perfection in our demands that can grow from the submission of other people to those demands.

It resonated deeply, very deeply, with my autistic nature. As I understood my condition at the time, I was prone to ritualistic, even compulsive behavior that was designed to stabilize my environment so as to force me to deal with as little change as possible. Behind my inability to understand the shifting emotional states of others, my problems working up the drive to apply for work that would force me to leave my home, even my inability to force myself to rearrange my own furniture, there lurked this spectre of ultimate control. The uglier parts of my social demands on others started to become clear to me as symptoms of this need.

And eventually, I just let go. Something in Burroughs' arguments made me suddenly feel ill at the thought of imposing my will on other people. It seemed like a distraction from what I really wanted to be doing, and so I started to divest myself of these behaviors.

The greatest day of my life was the day that I decided not to have expectations any more, but instead to work to relinquish them. If I was going to live within my own abilities, then I needed to accept that there were limitations on me, and I needed to submit to them. I also needed to realize that refusing to contort myself into uncomfortable behaviors was not being obstinate or immature, it was refusing to feed the addictions of others who were still under the influence of control.

In submission, I found freedom. In chaos, I was finally able to achieve structure. I was able to come to terms with my deficits, which suddenly made my talents much easier to use to my advantage. Since then, I have striven to make decisive choices based on what I can see, and not to attempt to force the world, bansai-like, into a shape that conforms to my whims.

All it took to get me there was 300 pages of sexual mutilation, violence, and drug abuse. The moral of this is not that we should expose ourselves only to the ugliness in our natures. It is that we must confront that ugliness and make sense of its role in the universe as a real, discrete set of events caused by identifiable social forces, so that we may be able to to decide not to bow to those forces.