Truly Sorry

We are all familiar, by now, with the “non-apology apology.”  I certainly want to apologize if anyone misunderstood what I was trying to say.  The guy stands up at the microphone and says all the words.  We try, of course, to see how he is feeling about the words he is saying.  Is he truly sorry?  Is he experiencing remorse?[1]  Nope.  He’s just reading off the sheet his agent handed him.

I don’t think this topic would really have engaged me if it were just a political phenomenon, but it is now thoroughly woven through professional sports.  That’s understandable too, as I think about it.  Sports is now America’s Soap Opera.  Ticket prices are incredibly high.  Audience share is crucially important.  Players who violate widely held public norms need to seem penitent. I get all that.

But I think that a much broader dissociation between “what I think” and “how I feel” is contrite 5affecting us.  I don’t want to postulate a Golden Age of the past, where people really felt sorry when they said they were sorry.  On the other hand, we do take our cues from culture.  That’s what it’s for. And the cues we get don’t come in little boxes labeled “cognition” and “affect.”  They come—used to come—in clues that said “this is what you did and this is how you feel about it”  It takes some effort to disentangle those and most people didn’t put in the effort, so the two things, what I did and how I feel about it, tended to stay together.

Can there really be a schizophrenic culture?[2]

People who know schizophrenia from the movies tend to think of it as a multiple personality disorder.  This is especially engaging if one of the “persons” inhabiting a particular mind is a social worker and another a sociopath.  Schizophrenia means, or is supposed to mean, a splitting off of the normal relationship between cognition, affect, and behavior—between what I think, how I feel, and what I do.  Try this.

I made up my mind. It was almost a simple question:

Is it worth the lying, the guilt, the trouble—and without any idea of what it will lead to, if anything? And the answer was a simple yes.

I disapprove of myself for feeling this way, but I’m not sorry I do.

contrite 4This is Ella Price, writing in her journal—writing for her own eyes only.[3]  She is contemplating an affair with her English professor.[4]  She is contemplating a period of lying to her husband, violating marital norms she really holds, and complicating her life enormously.  It’s all going to be worth it, she thinks.  She disapproves of herself for thinking it is worth it, but she is not sorry that she feels the way she does.  What does it mean to disapprove (that’s an attitude, a moral position) and then not to feel the way you “should?”  For Ella herself, it means that her life is changing faster than she can assimilate the changes, but for the culture more generally, it means the culture that produced her old self and the subculture that sustains her current self, are out of synch.

Does that make her an oddity?  An outlier?  A beta version of what all the new models are going to be like?  It’s a question worth asking.

It is for people like Ella—and a few others I will come to shortly—that I am pushing for the resuscitation of the word orthopathy.  It could mean, and sometimes does mean, “feeling the way you ought to feel.”  So you would feel proud of being courageous and guilty for turning your back on your friends and ashamed of giving in to pettiness when you know you could have done better.  All those feelings (that’s the –pathy part) are ortho- (what they should be).

Here’s my quick and dirty theory of moral discrepancy.  Sometimes a culture changes so rapidly that the feelings that used to belong to the view of reality you hold, don’t seem to be attached to it anymore.  Or, at the individual level, change from one role to another can be so rapid that you still have all the thinking/feeling combinations that belonged together in your past, but they have come unstuck from each other in your present.  That’s what happened to Ella.

But what happens to a culture where the discrepancy persists until the notion is born and spreads that there is no necessary or desirable relationship between thinking this and feeling that?  Here’s an example.

Danforth Keaton III:   I just killed my wife.  Is that wrong?

Leland Gaunt:             Hey…these things happen.

Gaunt’s point is that there is no necessary relationship between the act Keaton just committed and the feelings he is auditioning.  There is a special poignancy to this exchange, when you realize that Keaton is the butt of most of the jokes in Castle Rock, Maine and Gaunt is the Devil.[5] Keaton, called “Buster” behind his back by nearly everyone is a special case, being the Devil’s protégé, but maybe Ella is just an example of where we are going.

Certainly the character in Pride and Prejudice who displays this pattern of thinking/feeling is criticized sharply for it.  I am thinking of Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth’s father.  Having erred badly in allowing his daughters too much freedom and having been stung by the shameful behavior of Lydia, his youngest, Mr. Bennet says.

“Who should suffer but myself?  It has been my own doing and I ought to feel it.

You must not be too severe upon yourself, replied Elizabeth.

You may well warn me against such an evil.  Human nature is so prone to fall into it!  No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame.  I am not afraid of being overpowered  by the impression.  It will pass away soon enough.”

I should feel bad about this and I do, but don’t worry, the feeling will pass soon enough.

So…Mr. Bennet has behaved badly, as he sees things, and he feels bad about it.  He is contrite 7ashamed of himself, as he should be—as orthopathy requires.  But he confidently predicts that this feeling will go away soon and then he will no longer be ashamed of his shameful behavior.  And he’s fine with that.

And then there’s Sophy Metcalfe, the principal character of Elizabeth Young’s, The Wedding Date.[6].  It isn’t an episode with her.  It’s a verbal style.  It may be a moral style.  I suspect it is.  And if I’m right about that, it puts her clear out on the other side of Ella Price. Since it characterizes the way she sees the world, I’ll offer only one example.

I felt guilty for the rest of the meal, but that didn’t stop me from cursing the pair of them for making me feel bad in the first place.

In the familiar pattern, she has behaved in a way that would ordinarily have made a person feel guilty, herself, rather than blaming other people for “making me feel that way.”  I feel this way; it is their fault; I curse them instead of controlling the behavior I am going to feel guilty about.  You see why one example is enough.  There is one like that on nearly every page.

The final character is Dellarobia Turnbow, about whom I have written several times before in this space.  But in the case of Dellarobia, it isn’t her I want to think about.  It is Barbara Kingsolver, the author who created Dellarobia.  In writing this, I am not trying to position Kingsolver as an advocate of this broad cultural schizophrenia I am exploring, but she has a problem she is trying to work out and to work it out, she has to explore the same territory from a different angle.

Here’s the problem.  She needs to portray Dellarobia as a “bad woman”—a woman who has been making one bad choice after another, knowing they are bad, and is, in this passage, making yet another.  But Dellarobia is the principal character of Flight Behavior so it is important that the readers continue to care about her, so she can’t be a “bad woman” to the readers.  How to do that?

Here are some examples from Chapter 1.[7]

A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.

Note that no choices are being made here.  A feeling comes.  That’s the first line of the book.  We don’t know this woman yet.  We don’t know that these could be her thoughts.  Even “or so it seemed…to a woman” does not place these thoughts in Dellarobia Turnbow’s head.  These are Kingsolver thoughts.  Imagine that she is saying, “Do you know how it is, how it feels sometimes, when you get the rapturous feeling of wasting your life?  Well Dellarobia felt just like that.”  In this formulation, we learn how “one feels”—we feel like that too, surely, Kingsolver says, since it is how “one” feels—and that Dellarobia feels just like that.

 Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.

contrite 2Still no choices are being made, therefore no guilt  is being incurred, although she has “a good life,” she says, and she is in the process of throwing it away.  Note that she “knows” her own recklessness.  She is not feeling reckless or acting recklessly.  She “has” recklessness.  About the catastrophic blunder by which she weighs the “hard little flint of thrill” against the “pillowy…aftermath of a long disgrace,” she marvels.  She is an observer.  She is amazed at how this little thrill could outweigh all that disgrace.  “What a surprise,” she says, “Who would have thought it?”

How they admired their own steadfast lives. Right up to the day when hope in all its versions went out of stock, including the crummy discount brands, and the heart had just one instruction left: run.

The people who would judge her, who would enforce the long disgrace, “admired their steadfast lives” and would continue to do so until “hope…went out of stock” and “the heart” has “just one instruction left: run.”

Here are a few things to notice.  The people who will judge her are people who, when faced with the failure of hope, as Dellarobia is, will do just what Dellarobia is doing.  In this way of looking at it, Dellarobia’s behavior is not bad, really; just early.  She is a moral pioneer of sorts.  Dellarobia does not lose hope; hope “goes out of stock.”  It becomes “unavailable.”

And then “the heart” issues its instruction.  Many times, when “the heart” issues its instruction, “the head” is called in to supervise.  The heart says, “That man is looking the wrong way at my wife.  I’m going to punch his face in.”  The head says, “Maybe leaving the bar would be better.  He is twice your size and he is armed.”  In “the heart issues its instructions,” the “instructions” of the heart are all there is.  There is no mind; no moral code; no community of support; no habit of virtue; no compassion for the children.  THE HEART speaks and Dellarobia obeys.

The whole first chapter is like this.  It is beautifully crafted.  Kingsolver gives us Dellarobia the Victim.  She is weak, of course, but she is not guilty.[8]  As readers, we see what a hard place she is in; we see to what extremes she has been driven.  But, as Kingsolver tells it to us, Dellarobia is not choosing evil.  She is not culpable.  She deserves our concern.

That, I maintain, is first-class writing.  Kingsolver is one of our best prose stylists.  But when we place the character of Dellarobia in the context of the schizophrenic society, where bad feelings are cut away from bad behavior, Dellarobia fits the pattern beautifully.  She is Mr. Bennet; she is Ella Price; she is Sophy Metcalfe.

More and more, she is us.

[1] English gets remorse from the Latin verb mordere, “to bite or sting.”  Remorse, in this picture, is a feeling that bites us.  The pain of that bite would be thought to inspire second thoughts.
[2] We used to hear about “schizophrenogenic cultures.”  These would be cultural forms that tended to make people schizophrenic.  That’s not what I’m talking about.
[3] I may be the only true fan of Dorothy Bryant’s book, Ella Price’s Journal, you will ever encounter.  The story itself is just tacky, I admit.  But the character of Ella is transformed in a very short time and the only words we have are the words of her journal, so Bryant doesn’t tell us about Ella’s transformation.  She changes the whole mental process and verbal expression of this woman on a page by page basis.
[4] Garrison Keillor’s otherwise very engaging advertisements for English majors never really catch the flavor of this possibility.   I’ve been thinking of writing him about it.
[5] The movie is Needful Things: book by Stephen King; W. D. Richter is responsible for the screenplay and undoubtedly for this lovely little pas de deux.
[6] Originally published as Asking for Trouble.  That seems to fit my thesis better, but the movie was called The Wedding Date and in it, the most completely moral person in the story is the “escort” Sophy hires to take to her sister’s wedding.
[7] Many thanks to my friend Bonnie Klein, who helped me work through this chapter with exegetical  tools she owns and which  she loans to me from time to time.
[8] In Luis Mandoki’s movie, Message in a Bottle, Garret Blake discovers that Theresa Osborne, the lady he thinks he loves, has been deceiving him.  “You lied to me,” says Blake.  “I was weak,” says Theresa.  Hm.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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