Not everyone develops a relationship with a place that feels romantic, a relationship so intense, even when tortured, that when you leave, at last, as leave you must, you are torn apart by knowing the place abused you– and knowing you must go. Still: you love the place and cannot quite bear to not be there. It’s a complicated thing, and as with most tempestuous relationships, this tug of a place on one’s heart must be analyzed, objectified, studied, and understood. I thought I was making progress that way until I was given a chance to look back– don’t ever look back– and even though I did not look the basilisk full in the face, I was nauseated: waves of sadness and anger broke over me at reading a head line and image caption.
I stepped back to consider just what it was about the place and the situation that affected me so. Reading almost always helps. This time, I pursued literary criticism as a means to understanding. Van Wyck Brooks absent from the shelf at my local public library, I took hold of Joan Didion, and found myself rewarded.
“The Seacoast of Despair” described my place perfectly.
‘Happiness’ is, after all, a consumption ethic, and Newport if the monument of a society in which production was seen as the moral point, the reward if not exactly the end, of the economic process. The place is devoid of the pleasure principle.
Devoid of the pleasure principle? In Freudian psychology, the pleasure principle is the instinctive seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain in order to satisfy biological and psychological needs. Specifically, the pleasure principle is the driving force guiding the id. Didion states, “To have had the money to build “The Breakers” or “Marble House” or “Ochre Court” and to choose to build at Newport is in itself a denial of possibilities; the island is physically ugly, mean without the saving grace of extreme severity, a landscape less to be enjoyed than dominated.”
Indeed. Mean with the extreme severity, a landscape to be dominated. Those phrases define the principles that shaped my relationships with a few denizens of Newport, who, in truth worked and did not live there, but who seemed fully to embody, embrace, and imbue their personages with non-pleasure principled forces drove them to dominate others, and to consume, for their own use, much of what they encountered. Didion described my experiences and observations of Newport in language better than I could ever hope to conjure.
Three years ago this week, I came to a realization, first on a drive to Newport, and then on a train to Boston. I saved the tweets from that train trip.
I went to Boston that Saturday–it snowed; the train was an early one–to make a presentation at History Camp on work that related to Rhode Island and to Newport history. Earlier in the week, I’d had a vision in Newport that unsettled and delighted me, and informed those tweets.
“There was a for sale sign on one property (Sotheby’s Realty, of course), and for an instant, I imagined walking into the house and owning it, starting a life completely different from the one I live, with different people and places.”
Between that vision on Bellevue and Saturday’s train trip, I had enough exchanges with the object of my desire to form a fuller notion of what that vision meant. That understanding led to the tweets, which I posted as #fiction to protect the vision, and the desire, from the reality of my seemingly-unalterable situation.
The miracle here is that I had a vision, and have very nearly carried it out, despite not fully understanding how much of my standing life I would have to burn down to achieve that kind of freedom. It had not occurred to me that moving and changing to achieve what I wanted–to no longer have a secret, to grasp those lapels nearly every night when I arrive home from work, and taste that accent on every kiss– it had not occurred to me how much I would have to destroy, or leave behind, and that in doing so, I would leave bones of my former soul to be picked over by opportunists ready to exploit an opening.
The consumption ethic: they have grabbed what they could not get while I was still there, and they run their paws over the work without fully understanding it. And that is where I can take my sole pleasure: the schadenfreude of watching them strive and fail, or perhaps the pleasure of watching them reach and grasp. Either way, I know I cannot look back. Something might be gaining on you, and it’s best to outrun those monsters.
Didion, Joan. “The Seacoast of Despair,” p. 157-158. Reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, New York: Everyman’s Library, 2006.