". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Bigger Sinner, Who Can Find?

Some time ago my buddy Rebekah suggested that I read Native Son by Richard Wright. (At least I think it was Rebekah. She can correct me if I'm wrong.) This week I finally took her advice and picked it up. I did not realize what I was getting myself into. It is an incredibly difficult, emotionally totalizing read. I don't mean difficult in the sense of difficult to comprehend but in the sense of disturbing. I have made the mistake several times of reading it before bed, not a good strategy for someone who grapples with insomnia under the best of circumstances. But I can't help it. I have heard of people not being able to put down The Hunger Games trilogy. After the first book, I had no trouble doing just that; I went on to read the other two mostly so as to be able to talk about the books with my teenagers. Native Son is far more compelling and far more troubling than anything I have read in a while.

I have not finished the book yet. I am about to start the third and last part. I am hoping for some sort of redemption or possibility of redemption for the main character but I don't know whether it's coming. I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who may wish to read it, but I don't think it will do so to say that Bigger Thomas, the main character, is a complete sociopath. He has no sense of right and wrong and he lacks any measure of empathy for his fellow human beings. His actions in the novel are shocking and sickening; equally so is his thought process as he reflects on those actions:

"Now that the ice was broken, could he not do other things? What was there to stop him? While sitting there at the table waiting for his breakfast, he felt that he was arriving at something which had long eluded him. Things were becoming clear; he would know how to act from now on. The thing to do was to act just like others acted, live like they lived, and while they were not looking, do what you wanted. They would never know. He felt in the quiet presence of his mother, brother, and sister a force, inarticulate and unconscious, making for living without thinking, making for peace and habit, making for a hope that blinded. He felt that they wanted and yearned to see life in a certain way; they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others were doing if that doing did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was be bold, do something nobody thought of. The whole thing came to him in the form of a powerful and simple feeling; there was in everyone a great hunger to believe that made him blind, and if he could see while others were blind, then he could get what he wanted and never be caught at it."

The passage is terrifying in its depiction of a sociopath's discovery of his own sociopathy and his realization that if he hides it from the world, he can use it against the world. To this point in his life he has not worried about trying to fit in or play the game or seem normal but has flaunted his antisocial behavior for all to see. Now, suddenly, he realizes that it is much more useful to play along with society, at least externally. Bigger has also figured out a basic truth about human beings that he can use to his advantage: namely, that they tend to see the world as they want and to deny those things that don't fit their predetermined conclusion of reality. It is the amazing human capacity for self-deception, and we all have it. Unfortunately, we all also have a great capacity for deceiving others. And that is probably what is most disturbing about this book. While neither I nor you, dear reader, would ever in a million years be able to commit the kinds of acts that Bigger commits in this book, we all have in our hearts the same sickness that makes it possible for us to rationalize all kinds of lies and delusional thinking. We may not be sociopaths, but we are most definitely sinners. And like Bigger, we deceive ourselves into thinking we can keep up the facade and not get caught. I guess that's why even as I am literally kept awake at night by visions of Bigger's atrocities, I also find myself feeling sorry for him and desiring for him some ray of hope--some indication that his mind and heart might be changed. I have met some Bigger Thomases in my day, albeit on a much smaller scale. And if I am honest with myself, there is a tiny little Bigger Thomas inside of me. May God have mercy on us all, for in truth, without Him, we are all equally lost.


Rebekah said...

Probably was me although now my brain is getting too feeble to remember anything that happened after I turned 25. But I read NS before that. I wonder if I read it again now if I'd take it off my "recommend" list. The human condition is much easier to read about when you're 16 and have a nice family and everything you need and nothing really hard or terrible has ever happened to you. :P

Cheryl said...

Good point about the human condition. But I don't think I would recommend this book to my 16-year-old daughter. If she wanted to read it I would let her but would caution her about it and suggest maybe she wait a few years. Sigh. Hard to pick a "good" time to read this book. And yet I do think it is well worth the read, as difficult as it is.

Rebekah said...

I wonder if my parents would have wanted me to read this book if they had read it and knew it had been assigned to me. :D