The young Proust
I was a sensitive child. Shy. Scared of everything. I was sexually assaulted in an elevator by an old guy when I was in the third grade, and I was so innocent I didn’t understand what actually had occurred and quickly forgot about it. I was routinely bullied. I loved imaginative literature, the music on my father’s phonograph: classical music, folk music of tragic stories and laments. Haiku in sixth grade set me on fire, and a year later, I fell in love with the sad story of Keats, the poet who died young. But gradually I became more able to defend myself, to fight back, to laugh with friends, to fight my way up the pecking order, between feared bully at the top and bullied at the bottom, friends with both, as I became more well-rounded and acquainted with outdoor games—athletics became something I enjoyed.
I didn’t have asthma, or any health disadvantage. I was just sensitive. In high school, and even in my first year or two at college, I was extremely shy. Is acne a health problem?
When we think of writers, we usually think of the blind, the injured, the asthmatic, the wounded, the reclusive, the unfit to work or play—not the merely sensitive.
We don’t think of a writer as someone who’s good at football.
But what about someone who is sensitive and loves sports?
It’s not really on the modern radar.
Byron writing verses and swimming the Hellespont is a Romantic trope.
Hemingway was a physical guy, but he wrote unadorned prose fiction, not poetry. Of course.
And if a writer is athletic, we accept they will soon destroy that with drugs and alcohol. Naturally.
As I slowly—in my case, very slowly—developed into maturity, I prided myself on being well-rounded, a good athlete, as well as a good poet. The balance, I thought, was a good thing. My sensitivity was great, but was never (I thought) an end in itself—never an excuse to feel sorry for myself. If I sinned, it was in the opposite direction—I nursed a secret pride that I was good—a good poet, a good person, and a little bit better than others. And since I identified more with the great (the great dead writers who inspired my love of learning and art) than with the damned, I became, as I grew, into that inclination which is cursed in so many intellectual circles, but thrives in hidden ways, nonetheless: I became a conservative (horrors!). I loved Shakespeare because he was Shakespeare. Gossip about Shakespeare? I wasn’t interested. Not that biography did not interest me. I read about my favorites. But I knew when something was impossible to know.
The same wisdom which currently says gender doesn’t exist except as a social construct, also say it is written in stone whether one prefers to cuddle in bed with a slender, attractive man or a slender attractive woman. Sexuality has never been so fluid on the one hand, and rigidly hyper-sensitive, on the other, as it is today. And the paradox makes sense to me, when I think about it: the more fluid, the more rigid. Sure, why not? The paradox, after all, is the atom of the universe.
Even though I’m a dully heterosexual dude, I’m more sensitive than anyone I know. Probably because I’m a romantic.
We usually think of excessive sensitivity as the path, if not to genius, then at least to beautiful aesthetic accomplishment, or at the very least, romantic love.
I hope the reader will pardon me as I indulge in using myself as the important example—the social science of self-study is often the best—everything, without secrets, is right there.
I’m sure my sensitivity was the basis of my becoming a poet.
Today, the sensitive poet no longer exists.
Why is it different now?
Because politics has replaced sensitivity.
Oppression creates victims—and sensitivity becomes the default setting of the political victim, or the ‘identity politics’ victim. The sensitivity is turned into means for a political end.
Proust, ambiguous and civil, gets a political agenda.
Wilde, aesthete, grinds at the Marxist wheel.
I’m not here to question the validity of the politics. That’s not the point. I’m looking at something which I think is more important, even if maddeningly vague.
What happens when all we mean by ‘sensitive,’ whether it be the path, the wound, or the sorrow, no longer leads the writer downward into themselves, but always upward into the dead-certain, political agenda?
For isn’t it downward, into the imaginative valley, after long study and reflection, from which the great harvest, the great work of literature, emerges?
The sensitive soul, because of today’s ubiquitous political climate, is now “rescued,” steered into self-pity, and subsequently, sooner than later, naturally surrenders to the political cure: a confident ranting pride destroying the very sensitivity which was so important in the first place.
The whole enterprise becomes self-defeating, even as vestiges of sensitivity remain; the poet—truly sensitive because unconsciously sensitive—disappears, and is replaced by the self-aggrandizing organizer, who may have some worth, but is nothing like the soul who writes in beauty, and travels far afield to find the deeper truth.