Josna Rege

300. Mistrusting My Inner Voice

In 1960s, 1970s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, reading, reflections, women & gender on February 19, 2015 at 12:12 pm
Tears of a Clown

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.

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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?

d076091226823762201983572cd1e7b7A 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.

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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.

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  1. Love this one. Thank you for sharing so honestly. This bit comes to mind,
    immediately:

    Taken from, in my opinion, the most shining paragraph of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself.”

    It’s comforts my heart to read that – I’ve spent a lot of energy scorning myself for things I’ve said in a nervous effort to impress or “be seen.” What’s funny about that (ha-ha), is that the person I’m exhibiting isn’t actually me! What a trip. Humans…

  2. I have to say, Jo that your true,delightful and authentic self is normally there whenever I am around and I agree that it is always much more satisfying to try to be true to yourself rather than some imagined portrayal of another personality.
    Steven taught me a long time ago that what other people think of me is none of my business. I confess that it took me a while for that to sink in.

  3. Your openness and honesty is so refreshing Josna. Just a joy to read. When you said that our identity slowly evolves out of our mistakes, I also thought about the developmental stages of our lives and how that influences the way we hear that inner voice. I think we often put expectations on people’s identity without any reference to these stages and that is certainly not helpful. In fact it can be downright insensitive to where people are in their lives. Thanks again, Josna.

    • Thank you, Don (and it’s good to hear from you again after your break). As you often do, you’ve given me a new perspective on the story. What you wrote about our expectations of others reminds me of a time when I shared a group household with a young woman I found intensely irritating. After a time I realized that a large part of my irritation stemmed from my seeing my younger self in her. But even as she engaged in behavior that I found terribly immature (and which, if truth be told, I was still wrestling with myself), I found myself surprised by her deep insights–into novels and situations–even if she wasn’t willing or able to act on them at the time.

      • I can really identify with this Josna. Thank you. I believe that sometimes it’s the ones who irritate us most that are our best allies in understanding ourselves, and especially the darkness that lurks just below our “respectable” lives. I had a similar problem with someone I worked with once. It was an extremely trying time for me and the other person, but I remember it as one of those stand-out moments in the journey of coming to know and understand myself.Wonderful comment.

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