I was almost inclined to begin my letter ‘Dear open-minded, sexually confused vegetarian’ and continue through a long letter about all manner of things before signing off as an ‘open-minded, non-sexually confused vegetarian’ which might have amused some, but would not necessarily be appropriate without a good deal of explanation. The explanation would have had to come after the signature at the end of the letter, which would have ruined the whole effect, and I doubt, with such an opening, many people would have read that far anyway. These are the types of things we read in well-meaning but often equally well off-the-mark newspaper columns aimed at the socially insecure, in magazines aimed at children and the more conservative periodicals who always claim to know best about everything, where someone who knows nothing about the person they are addressing attempts to give good advice which, in the majority of cases, and because they do not know who they are talking to, is absolutely useless. Another reason, as if that wasn’t enough, that such an entry would have been inappropriate is that you wrote those words back in August 2015, and a great deal can change with the passage of time. We come to know and accept ourselves and, for some, the delight of being a vegetarian wears off in the face of opposition from all around us. I can’t recall how many times people have told me that I am wrong, that I cannot live without meat, that I will have stunted growth and never make anything of my life. I want to go back to those days, slap a few people (figuratively speaking) across the back of the head and tell them how wrong they were.
We sometimes imagine that our problems – or conceived / perceived problems – are unique to us; that no one else has ever had the same emotions as we are having, the same experiences, the same setbacks in life. We are never, it would appear, understood by those around us. And it is true, each one of our thoughts is unique to us, because no one else has had those thoughts, those feelings, those raw emotions in the same fashion as we have. We are unable to explain them, because the other person, the listening person, cannot climb into our lives and be us in order to appreciate every single iota of what we are. And yet, in reality, every single feeling, emotion, experience has been lived by someone else, perhaps even by thousands of other people, in their own way. We are individual and unique, and still part of a mass encompassing the entire species. And, even though we are all essentially the same, some of us simply do not fit in with the whole scheme of things. And that, to my way of thinking, is a good thing.
School, college, university, society: everyone tries to mould us into one acceptable form; we have to fit in; we have to be one of the team working together; we shouldn’t stand out from the crowd. And then, society, school, college, university, work: can’t you think for yourself, step outside the box? Your work is not individual enough, everyone has had the same thoughts and put them down on paper before you: show some initiative. Be original!
The term self-sufficient, however, we employ with reference not to oneself alone, living a life of isolation, but also to one’s parents and children and wife, and one’s friends and fellow citizens in general, since man is by nature a social being.
So Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics with his first description and explanation of the individual, which he terms the self-sufficient person. Here we see that he combines the individual with society, luckily cutting the long list of people with which one must be involved off at this point, mentioning that the inclusion of one’s ancestors, friends of friends and so on would make the whole impossibly and unnecessarily complicated. The individual, such as you or I, is and must be a part of society; we have no choice. But he goes on to write:
Also the activity of contemplation will be found to possess in the highest degree the quality that is termed self-sufficiency; for while it is true that the wise man equally with the just man and the rest requires the necessaries of life, yet, these being adequately supplied, whereas the just man needs other persons towards whom or with whose aid he may act justly, and so likewise do the temperate man and the brave man and the others, the wise man on the contrary can also contemplate by himself, and the more so the wiser he is; no doubt he will study better with the aid of fellow-workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient of men.
Those of us who tend more towards introversion, to contemplation and thought are, in Aristotle’s opinion, closest to the Supreme Good, and that is Happiness. I’ve suspected it for quite a while, but having such a philosopher put it down into words which even my lecturer – many years ago – can understand has its advantages. And we are, as you say, also expressive: we can put our thoughts into words, we can communicate with other people when the need arises, but we are, and wish to remain, individuals. Not necessarily outsiders, but that type of pigeonholing comes from other people, but aside to a certain extent. Accepted for what we are, and not forced to fit the mould of modern society or any individual’s conception of what that mould should or must be. The last thing we want is to be a mere cog in the Brave New World created by Aldous Huxley, more an individual, a fount of specialised knowledge as those living in the forest, each a banned and otherwise forgotten book, as Ray Bradbury envisages the future in Fahrenheit 451.
At the tender age of eleven I was consigned to a boarding school in the wilds of North Yorkshire, having survived my early years in the firm belief that my home in London was secure and inviolable. I was let loose into a world where children reading books was frowned upon, unless the reading consisted of a set of titles designated as being suited for a certain age group. I was taken out of my own room high above the streets of the capital, a stone’s throw from the expansive grounds of Buckingham Palace, and cast into the midst of thirty other boys in a dormitory: no privacy; no peace and quiet; no adequate reading matter. It was something more than a culture shock, it was an intellectual catastrophe. Where I had been able to take books at random, and without comment, from my father’s shelves, or visit the nearest library and browse without anyone glancing over my shoulder, I was now being told what I could and what I could not read in my leisure hours. It is one thing to study Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Frost and William Shakespeare in the classroom, quite another to be told that we should not read their contemporaries as we were still considered too young. Death and destruction, the violence of Macbeth were preferable to the bawdy eroticism of Chaucer. Unless it was assigned as course work, then anything was acceptable. It came as a surprise to my family that I disappeared within myself.
We express ourselves in many different ways, perhaps your method is through the many interests you have, through contemporary art or music. Mine was, and still is, through the written word. There is something about setting thoughts and ideas down on paper which inspires, which fires up the mind and causes it to bring forth all the fantastic thoughts which have been cowering in the background, unsure of how they should express themselves, if at all. Being an introvert does not mean that a person cannot express themselves, often we are quite verbose in the right situation, but stand back when others are loud or when they attempt to control a situation through overpowering it, even one where we have an interest or considerably more knowledge and experience.
Throughout my school years I was told I needed to come out of myself. Being introverted was something unacceptable, it was almost on a par with having some disease, non-contagious, but deadly all the same. Introverts, although the word was not used at the time, do not make it in society; they remain on the outside and are generally unsuccessful in life. I wrote my first book during senior class in school, had my first poems and short stories published in reputed magazines.
Of course, not all introversion is good, we can over-think a subject – if our introversion is of the contemplative kind – and work it into a meaningless mess of nothingness which merely confuses and pulls us further down, away from social mores. When we have a means of expressing ourselves, though, then taking time, watching from the sidelines, learning from others and generally waiting until the moment is right, that form of introversion is good and beneficial. We can also be introvert through innate shyness, through an instinctive but unexplainable need to protect ourselves, or a feeling that we will say or do something wrong, embarrass ourselves, embarrass those around us, and never live it down. So many forms, so many descriptions for such a simple name, for something which, for us, is natural and ordinary.
Bookstores, libraries, museums: three words which resonate in my ears like the sweetest music and bring memories of big city dwelling and childhood. I’ve never been able to walk by a bookstore without, at the very least, looking in through the window and wondering whether I can afford the books on display. It used to be a family joke that I would be sucked into a second-hand bookstore one day, lost to mankind, never to be seen again. Some of my most prized possessions come from such emporiums of desire and relief: works by Thomas Carlyle; the letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Cervantes Don Quixote, both illustrated by Gustav Doré, a first edition of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War; even Schopenhauer und Nietzsche: ein Vortragszyklus by Georg Simmel, the Leipzig edition from 1907, unread by anyone else, the pages still uncut.
As a small child, before I discovered the pleasures and freedom of travelling alone, I would gather together my pennies to pay the Underground fare and travel, full of trepidation and anticipation, to South Kensington in London, where many of the major museums were located. I would hurry through the tunnels from the station to the museums as quickly as possible, worried that I could miss something, eager to be within the quiet, spacious arena of the past. I fell in love, at a very early age, with the Victoria and Albert museum, that marvellous collection of collections covering so many different, fascinating subjects. Here I could look at the minute, hand-carved wooden representations of myths and legends as seen by those who were there, or wonder at the imagination, the fantasy of people like William Morris and other great artists of more modern times. There was only one thing which could stop me from visiting the museums during the school holidays and at weekends, and it was not wind nor weather, no storm impeded my desires: a man.
Pennies, back in the days of my London youth, were large and unwieldy coins, unlike today where, I am told, a penny can be lost in your hand it is so small and insignificant. I would collect a few pennies wherever I could, from doing someone a favour, helping here and there, occasional pocket money. Ideal would have been the three penny piece – a wonderful, tarnished and burnished bronze-coloured coin, in my memory, with corners – or the silver sixpence. A shilling, half-crown, such wealth was unknown to me. Farthings had gone, beautiful coins with a humming bird depicted on one side, and the halfpenny was on the way out. Pennies, cumbersome and plentiful, some of them dating back to the beginning of the century and still holding strong, worn and loved, but circulating amongst the people as they were designed to do. And then there were the Rules and Regulations. A ticket seller on the Underground was entitled to turn down more than a certain number of coins if he so wished, and there was one who did just that every single time I came to buy a ticket. I could say he was entitled, and perhaps he was, but in later years he would refuse cheques from me, with a guarantee card, making my travel to work at the beginning of each month, when I came to buy a ticket for the following thirty or thirty-one days, all the more stressful. But, as a child with my fist full of pennies, my mind longing for the museums, his face at the counter, selling tickets to everyone else but me, was the end of a good weekend before it had even begun.
When Memory is full
Put on the perfect Lid
We all move on. These are only some of my childhood memories, all a part of the experience of life which has shaped and formed me and which, as Emily Dickinson so rightly writes, should be cast back into the realms of memory, and left there.
I could write on, taking up your mention of confused sexuality, but I suspect such a massive subject would change this simple letter into a package of paper heavier than anyone would wish to deliver. We have, in this aspect, and I shall leave the topic as it is with this one comment, very much in common. The only difference, perhaps, is that you are looking to the future and wondering, while I am recollecting the past.