Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
There are a few things I might do differently if I could go back through my life and do a bit of editing. Sadly, I know that’s not possible for me, although I’ve heard of people who used to work for Stalin, who broke the rules and went out of favour, being erased from memory – all the photos that featured them would be retouched, all their documents would be removed or rewritten, and even their nearest and dearest wouldn’t escape the harshness of their fall from grace.
On the other hand, it’s possible to change the past in some ways. Brits always used to complain that American films made it look like they won the war single-handed. That used to infuriate my parents, but it didn’t bother me as much, unless the film was bad, and most young people nowadays have hardly any idea what went on back then. It’s all ancient history. Or if it isn’t today, it will be by tomorrow.
They didn’t do it for the fame or the glory
During that war, as during every human conflict, there were countless acts of self-sacrifice and extraordinary courage that went completely unnoticed and unrecorded. That doesn’t make them any less courageous, nor would it have stopped those extraordinary people doing what they did, because they didn’t do it for the fame or the glory, and I doubt in the heat of the moment that it even crossed their minds. That’s why we have an unknown soldier, to stand in for all of them, good or bad, brave or cowardly, no matter what their contribution was.
I find this interesting, because when I think of some of the things I’ve done of which I’m most proud, I’ve been very aware that I didn’t want anyone to know about them. Sometimes someone would find out and I would find it embarrassing, and the other times – well, nobody knows, and they won’t find out from me. On the other hand, I might be more interested in brushing out some of the things I did which I’m not at all proud of.
Was Rachel a wronged innocent, or a very clever deceiver?
Recently there was a film called My Cousin Rachel, starring Rachel Weiss. It’s one of those stories that leaves you wondering. I haven’t managed to see it yet, but I heard a very good interview with Rachel Weiss. She was asked about the ambiguity in the main character – was Rachel a wronged innocent, or a very clever deceiver? Rachel Weiss said she thought about it, and made up her mind before shooting, and decided she would never tell anyone what she had decided. Once the filming started, the director asked her which side of the fence she had settled on, and she refused to tell him. He was, apparently, delighted by this.
I liked that story, and I’m looking forward to watching the film, wondering if I’ll be able to spot which way she jumped. We live in a time when everyone wants to find out why things happened, with a quick-fix, file-it-away decision, even when there’s no such clear judgement to be made. They’re impatient for a result, even though everything is so complex and opaque. My children always wanted the stories I read them to have a clear ending where the bad people got their desserts and the good people lived happily ever after. That reminded me of myself, when I was a child.
The easy stories with the good endings usually felt very unsatisfying
At some point while I was growing up I started realising that life doesn’t work like that, and I started to like stories that were ambiguous, or where the hero got what he or she wanted, but in such a terrible way that they never got any pleasure from it. That felt more like real life to me, and the easy stories with the good endings usually felt very unsatisfying. I loved reading to my children, and I didn’t mind their choices and expectations, because I believed they would grow up and have the same thoughts as me and their tastes would become more varied.
I assumed that all parents felt that way, but of course every parent is as different as every child. Some cling to the happy ending and seek to manufacture images of that dream, and others comfort themselves in the face of disappointment with happy stories, and many don’t read, and many don’t take the care to learn enough to make an informed opinion about things. So we live together, all of us, with our multitude of dreams and stories, and we manage to co-exist, even though our internal lives are so varied and contradictory.
No matter who I fool, I can never fool myself
I decided that it doesn’t really matter if I’m remembered for one thing or another, because it’s the past, and we can’t change the past. Representations of the past are always flawed, in the same way that history is always written by the victors. What matters to me is the balance I hold in my mind of the things I did well against the things I did badly. Only I can know this, because these are my memories of what I did and what I was feeling about those things inside.
I know whether I was brave and truthful, or cowardly and evasive, because that was me. I know when I’ve rewritten my own history to gloss over things I’m embarrassed about, and I know when I try to change those other versions into the truth, because no matter who I fool, I can never fool myself. I do wonder about other people, though. Do they do the same thing I do? Do they think about it like I do? Are they able to fool themselves completely, or do they just not care whether it’s truthful or not?
Because I was incapable of writing about a horrible person
I never was able to get inside the head of someone who did terrible things. I was once told I couldn’t be a proper writer because I was incapable of writing about a horrible person. I agreed with the inability to write a bad character thing, but I disagreed completely about the proper writer thing. To this day I’ve not been able to make up someone evil, and I don’t know whether I simply can’t, or whether I don’t want to, or whether I’m frightened that I might like it too much.
I’m told that most authors of horror or extreme violence are really nice people, completely uninfluenced by the ghastliness that flows out of them onto the pages of their books. I’m gathering the courage to write another novel soon, and this is one of the things I’m struggling with. Only one of the things, of course. I wonder if there’s a well of badness in each of us that we could all access in specific circumstances, and whether that well of badness might get out of hand, like the genie when released from the bottle, or Pandora’s box. Maybe I’ve tried too much to be good.
Those evil people out there might have a well of goodness
On the other hand, perhaps those evil people out there have a well of goodness, which they would have to fight against in order to release that goodness into the world, and perhaps they fear being good as much as I fear being bad. I expect a lot of people would think that worrying about these things at my age is a bit pathetic, but I think it’s very important to keep these considerations in our minds, especially when we make decisions, and I never was able to factor in popularity when deciding what I needed to do. I care about being popular with my internal voices, but that doesn’t necessarily extend to other people.
There was a series of experiments once, set up by Stanley Milgram, at Yale, in which ordinary people were paid by someone with an authoritative manner to help with a learning experiment. The learner, played by an actor, would be given an electric shock by the volunteer if they answered wrongly. At first they were very unhappy about it, but many of them found themselves able to give the learner increasing levels of electric shocks, even to the point where they were apparently screaming with pain. When this story is told, it always emphasises the many who were willing to do this. I reflect on those who refused, and I’d like to imagine that I would be in that number.
That wouldn’t change me at all
If I managed to do something I really believed in, and that became very popular with lots of people, of course I would be delighted. But I wouldn’t kid myself that their agreement or adulation counted as much as my own. Maybe I’ll decide to try once and for all in the next book to create a truly bad character, and I’ll allow him or her to do truly terrible and unpleasant things. And maybe it’ll become a best-seller and make me rich. But that wouldn’t change me at all. Of course.
Just to prove that I have been thinking about this a long time, here’s my mantra about it. ”I only get to sleep with one person every night of my life, and that’s me. And nobody wants to sleep with someone they don’t like and trust”.
If you have been, thank you for reading this. Sweet dreams.
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