Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Lessons of Childhood and History

The Irish wrote the book on passive-aggression. A small, agrarian society, they were brutally colonized by a larger, heavily militarized neighbor and kept in virtual slavery for over two hundred years.

“Virtual slavery,” too strong a term, you say? Not fair to the real slaves? If you enslave an entire country, every citizen is a real slave. The difference is, you own the country, the individual slaves have no value, no owner, no one to care if they eat or starve. They’re “free,” free to work in your fields or die.

The religion of the Irish was banned. There grew up a network of “mass rocks” out in the woods where people could secretly meet and worship. There was a bounty on priests, paid for the heads, as though they were wolves or something. The Irish language was banned. The Irish were systematically reduced to penury. The Irish had no money, no money at all, and there were taxes to be paid for any small convenience. There was a “window” tax, to be paid for every window that you had in your house; there was a “door” tax. In this way, the Irish, who were perfectly capable of building windows and doors into their houses, were reduced to living in houses with no windows or doors, because they couldn’t pay the tax. They could not afford to buy food. By the benevolence of the colonial power, they were allowed to have a small potato patch for their own sustenance.

Irish farms were the most productive in Europe. The products of Irish agriculture were coveted all over England and the continent. Irish livestock, dairy products, and field crops created a huge annual treasure of money. The farms were all owned by the colonizers, and the products were exported for money, money that went to the colonial power. Everyone remembers the “Potato Famine.” Forgotten, though, is the fact that while the Irish were dying of hunger, Ireland remained the greatest exporter of agricultural products in the world. There was plenty of food, but the Irish couldn’t have any. When their own little potato patch failed, they starved to death.

To his everlasting credit, the English Prime Minister, the great Robert Peel, cared, a little bit. The Irish population fell from over twelve million to less than eight million, with half lost to emigration and half lost to death. It would have been worse without Mr. Peel, I don’t remember any estimates of the number of Irish lives that his policies saved, but it was a lot.

This was the time of the Raggedy Men in Ireland. Men, alone and out of doors, children dead already, with a farm tool over their shoulder, no money and no food, forced to walk around looking for work until they died sitting under a tree somewhere. The emigration wasn’t much better. It was forced; the administrative power provided aptly named “Coffin Ships” to take surplus Irish men and women to America. The colonial power’s largess ended with the provision of transportation, for food on the ship they were on their own. If they didn’t die of hunger on the boat, they were home free. Most of my mother’s family came to America this way, at this time. Their first hundred years in America were not easy, what with all the hard work, the early deaths, the still-born children and the grinding poverty. The story of Irish immigration: Oh! Danny Boy!

In this powerless condition, the Irish refined passive-aggression to a fine art. Required to greet every Englishman with a polite tip of the hat and a “good morning, squire,” the Irish began to greet everyone in the same fashion, man, woman, boy, girl, and beast. “Top of the mornin’ to you, Mr. Carriage Horse!” Forced to speak the English language, the Irish employed it with such verbal flair and Irish inflexions that the English could hardly understand them. After the Potato Famine, when the deadly earnest of the colonial power had become apparent, “Captain Moonlight” became more and more active. All back in the fields the next day, “Aye, that great house, and now not a cinder standing on a burning cinder, it’s a shame, it is.” People were killed. Closely knit, secret groups with names like “the Hearts of Oak,” “the Waterford Boys,” or “the Hearts of Steel” raised holy hell while the lights were out.

I learned all of this history much later, but I learned the technique quite young. My mother, a good Irish girl, was an expert. She learned it from her mother. My grandmother had a big dinner for the entire family on every St. Patrick’s day, and she always served corned beef and cabbage and meatballs and spaghetti, so that we could remember that this was America, and we had to learn to live with the guineas. My experience of childhood provided me with a lot to be angry about, but left me without the means to directly face my oppressors, so passive-aggression was a natural for me.

Faced with a fight started by a big, athletic boy, I might give him a bored expression and request, just don’t break my glasses. In my Catholic high school, the brothers were obsessed with our sex lives, mostly with the fact that we had them. They constantly harped on the dangers of girls in general and masturbation in particular. I got through the first giant lecture about masturbation without knowing what the hell they were talking about, I’d never heard the word before. “Self-abuse,” another one, what the hell is that? We talked about it afterwards, oh! they mean jerking off! This was their welcome to four years at their institution. I was already sick of this kind of hostile condescension, so I just signed off.

You want me to read? Ok, I’ll read. All through high school I read about one novel a week, lots of history books, every issue of Newsweek, Life and National Geographic, newspapers every day, front to back, plus all of the magazines that I could steal. I’m not bragging, the novels were mostly crap, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Doc Savage, Dr. Fu Manchu, James Bond. Some good stuff too. Junkie, by William Burroughs, some Waugh, Oscar Wilde, I don’t even remember it all now. But I never even cracked the books they gave me at school. Oh, an exception, they assigned “A Canticle for Liebowitz,” I did read and enjoy that. I refused to read any other assigned material. I remember liking only two classes in four years: geometry, my enjoyment of which I cannot explain, and it was my highest mark in high school; and studio art, Brother Etienne Cooper was the only brother, or lay teacher for that matter, that I got along with. I finished at the very bottom of my class, and I was proud of it. Fuck you, I’m out of here.

I graduated high school at the age of sixteen, in 1965, and I went straight to college. This was a colossal mistake for two reasons: 1) I was only sixteen, so why waste two years of a college draft deferment? That was just stupid, and I got no advice on the subject; and 2) I had a supremely bad attitude towards organized education. I was thirty five years old before I could relax and enjoy other-directed learning.

This is what the psych’s call “maladjustment,” or “mal-adaptation.” The techniques that enabled me to make my way through my childhood and adolescence were totally unsuitable when applied to adult life. I still suffer in little ways for these early adaptations. Even if I now understand the dynamics, you can’t just flip a switch and “get it” all of a sudden.

I suppose we’re all in the same boat, that’s usually the case. I wish us all well.


Anonymous said...

This should be a book. Your book.

Anonymous said...

Too old too soon; too wise too late!

fred c said...

Thanks very much. I started this one not knowing much about what I wanted to say. I as very surprised not only at how it turned out, but also at how I felt about it.

Anonymous said...

O Please. No books. No one really cares that much about your life. Except you. And not all that much. Apparently.

fred c said...

Thank god for that, I was afraid only my friends were reading.