Tears of a Clown
Readers of Children of Violence, Doris Lessing’s five-volume Bildungsroman, follow the protagonist Martha Quest from her stormy adolescence to her old age. This series of novels, published over a 17-year period between 1952 and 1969, with four set in Southern Africa and the fifth in Britain, has all of life crammed into it, but it is through the developing character of Martha that we understand the events, both as they unfold and retroactively.
One of the central truths that I take from Children of Violence is that we see the reality of who we are very early on, but are only able to act on that self-knowledge after we have made all the mistakes that most people inevitably make in life. Martha’s inner voice speaks to her throughout, but in her earlier years it is often drowned out by the passions of youth and by little-understood patterns of behavior that stem from her upbringing and even from the upbringing of her parents. For many years she acts as if programmed, even when she knows that she is making a mistake. Thankfully Martha does grow, and one of her insights is into “Matty,” the protective persona that she created as a young woman which continued to speak and act for her long after it no longer served her, if indeed it ever did.
“Matty” was a clown, the life of the party, always using self-deprecating humor to mask her intelligence and her sober, questioning Self. It is a pleasure to watch Martha recognize Matty as a construction and eventually outgrow her. And this reader, at least, squirms with self-recognition. For who among us has not created a persona as a protective mask against the world, and who among us has not seen that creation taking on a life of its own and outstaying its welcome, like an party guest who sets up on the living-room couch?
A succession of memories swims into view as I recall created personae that I have inhabited, consciously or otherwise. Sometimes they “worked,” in that they served their purpose, while at other times they completely backfired on me. One such instance was when, at age 13 or 14, we went on a school outing to see The Sound of Music (for the umpteenth time). Sitting next to a boy who had recently become my boyfriend (as this relationship was defined in boarding school in 1960’s India), I remember thinking, as a sentimental scene approached, that it would be “feminine” to cry and, amazing to me now, I turned on the waterworks on cue. Unfortunately it didn’t have the desired effect; curling his lip, he expressed his contempt for such soppy sentimentality: “just like a girl!”
It served me right! I had deliberately been untrue to myself in order to present an appealing model of femininity, but it hadn’t worked—the object of my deception had reacted just as I would have done if I had been him. Of course, reinforced by society, such “feminine wiles” must pay off in some way, otherwise women wouldn’t continue to deploy them. Although it is troubling that people feel the need to perform such stereotypical identities, it is tragic if they thereby lose access to other, deeper selves.
Another incident still embarrasses me all over again whenever I remember it. It was in 1972 or 1973 while I was at university, perhaps 18 or 19 years old. One of my favorite Bob Dylan songs was, and still is, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. Although there are many interpretations of Dylan songs that I love, by artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, and Johnny Cash, in the case of this song I have never heard a version that comes close to Dylan’s own. At the time my college suitemate was dating an older student who had a twin brother, and she had recently found herself getting involved with the twin as well. Anyway, another artist—I forget who—had just released a cover version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” which I had heard and immediately hated. The very next day, one of the twins—the brother of the first, I think—was visiting our dorm, and mentioned Dylan’s song, my favorite. I was in awe and not a little envious of these sophisticated friends of my suitemate, and found myself wanting to impress. Before I had a chance to think better of it, out of my mouth came the following travesty: “Oh, did you know that so-and-so has just come out with a terrific cover of it?”
His rejoinder served me right, as he said exactly what I had been thinking: “Oh, I love Dylan’s version, but that cover changes it out of all recognition. I hate it.” My attempt to impress had completely backfired on me, making me look like a tasteless idiot. Why, oh why, hadn’t I had the self-confidence to say what I actually thought?
I’d like to be able to say that I have learned to trust my inner voice, that these early experiences taught me to tell the truth about my responses to art and life. But of course they didn’t. These inauthentic performances continued into my adult life. Did they ever serve me well? I don’t think so.
Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)
Chronological Table of Contents