I will be perfectly honest and say that I am glad the practice of photocopying people’s letters and photographs and them destroying the originals is not widespread, I find it an absolutely horrific assault on the art of letter writing, and especially personal and intimate possessions such as photographs. At the same time I can well understand the reasoning behind it, but that does not make things any better. I have lately been reading an excellent book – called Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman – about women spies in the seventeenth century, the use of invisible ink and other strange means of getting messages across without their content being discovered by the enemy, and see the use of similar means suspected in the transfer of drugs into prisons, across borders and so on. Admittedly in very small quantities, but that is hardly the point when, as in your case, public safety is at stake as well as law and order. It would be far easier for the authorities – and considerably cheaper – to do a quick chemical check on the papers coming through the mail room than to take every single letter and envelope (and photographs) and copy them. Perhaps someone will make the suggestion one of these days, and gain extra points or a financial benefit for their contribution to workplace improvements, security and financial savings.
I am also surprised that there is not a simple quarantine system in place for new arrivals – or for people coming back in after having parole revoked – to ensure not only that they are not bringing any contraband into the system, but also to ensure medical safety, that they are not carrying a communicable disease, as well as to allow instruction into the workings of the facility. This would be of benefit both to the system, allowing many checks to be made to ensure safety and compliance, and to the prisoner who, perhaps arriving for the first time, can be acclimatised to the system, its rules and methods of working. Going cold turkey into such an area cannot be the most pleasant of experiences and, no matter what some people in authority or power may think of anyone convicted of a crime, they are still human-beings with feelings and needs, fears and emotions. It would also give the authorities in any facility a chance to run very quick assessments on the mental state of their future ‘customer’, and the likelihood of them proving to be a burden to the system in one way or another. But I am outside the system, so what do I know!
Two sides to a person, and two faces are, as you rightly say, different aspects of a character. The one is fine and to be expected, the other less so; especially when we are faced with good and bad in public and private. I fully expect people to have two sides to their character when it comes, as an example, to the differences between work and home life. People need to be able to separate the two, need to react to those around them in a completely different manner, so two characters are vital. I, personally, would say that this is the minimum, since there are so many different situations in life where a different character trait comes out, or is needed at any given time. The perfect example of this is one which many, many people have a very hard time grasping: how can someone involved in the mass extermination of people – and I’m thinking of Germany in the Thirties and Forties as well as the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time and, to a certain extent, the USA against Native Americans in the nineteenth century – be a killer without remorse during their working hours, and a kind, gentle, loving parent at home? How can a killer, on the loose in any city you care to name, appear to be a quiet and friendly neighbour to all those who know them? This is not necessarily the separate of good and bad – the two-faced beast – but a separation of two aspects of a person’s life which, for those capable of doing it, do not intersect in any way.
There are many people capable – in the style of a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or even that green television monster whose name I cannot remember – of switching from one character to another when faced with certain situations, and hiding all clues which could lead anyone to suppose that there is more behind the facade than anyone would otherwise suspect. In modern society it is one of the things that we expect from actors, although that has changed a great deal since the Sixties when the real Greats were still about and before the film world began making the same film over and over again. Why the Sixties? Because that’s when Sean Connery really began to make way in the world – in the James Bond film Doctor No – and bring the art of character acting crashing down. The first of many who kept his accent no matter which part he played, where others did their best to get into a role in every imaginable way possible.
I’m not sure that you’d really have enjoyed the discussion over whether a woman should use her hard-earned Doctor title or not, it was a vicious slashing match filled with obscenities and bad feelings. Even now it is not over, and probably won’t be for quite some time. Just today I witnessed a male professor referring to a female professor he has never met by her first name, as a means of belittling her, putting her in her place. He’d never have done that to a male professor in the same situation. And I see it too with the case of a certain justice who is being considered for one of the highest legal positions in the United States judiciary: an accusation of sexual misconduct has arisen and within twenty-four hours someone has gather sixty-five names of women who claim that he did not do anything wrong with them when they knew him. Personally I doubt very much that anyone could find sixty-five people from thirty years ago within twenty-four hours to support any claim, so clearly someone knew it was going to happen, which means it is probably true and he expected his past to rear its ugly head.
My interest in such matters has its down side too, sadly. I have recently been reading The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, which was written in eleventh century Japan and concerns the life of one man – Genji – as he experiences the ups and downs of court life within the royal household, including banishment and positions of great power. It is exceptionally difficult not to judge him and all those around him with our modern social standards, but I find myself exasperated by some of the things he does, by his whole attitude towards women, even though times were very different then to what we expect today, and Japanese social customs are certainly foreign to many westerners even in modern times. But when I read of him visiting his highly pregnant and very ill wife as she awaits the birth and is edging towards death, and asking her what she thinks she is doing to him, then my patience tends to come to an end. Of course I am going to read the book all the way though, and of course I know that there are massive differences between then and now, between royal or aristocratic Japanese social custom and modern customs and attitudes, but even so, the blood does tend to boil. Fortunately, since do quite a bit of reading out in the public arena, in cafés and coffee houses, I have not yet reached the stage of shouting at my book, or throwing it toward the nearest corner.
I saw a wonderful French film a few weeks ago, the name escapes me at the moment, where a young Arabic student comes a few minutes late into the first lecture of her law course, and is belittled and insulted by the professor, leading to a number of complaints against him by other students. The head of the college, in order to avoid problems with the internal court, or committee on ethics of you like, suggests that he take this young woman as his own student, and prepares her for a series of lectures to win a debating prize. He is confronted by his own racism, misogyny and sexism as a result, and she with the disadvantages of her attitude and ethnic appearance – meaning the clothing she wears, the language she uses in order to make it clear she belongs to a certain ‘tribe’. A lesson, if you like, for both sides.
She, to follow the final theme of your last letter, is trying to follow her dream of a career in law, without knowing how to go about it in a manner which will guarantee success, since there are unwritten rules about all aspects of life which an outsider – meaning someone not specifically in that trade – would not immediately recognise or understand. And you are quite correct, we all have dreams, hopes, aspirations as well as dreams of better things. Our dreams can be targets we set for ourselves, or just pleasant thoughts of better times and places. They can be something we enjoyed as much as something we imagine enjoying, should it ever be available to us. Without dreams we would have no challenges in life, nothing to aim for, nothing to look forward to, and that would, indeed, be sad.
Another correspondent of mine wrote to me this week about his dream of being published, of having his written works presented to a large public and, through them, entering a sort of pantheon of the immortal along the lines of a Voltaire or even a Charles Dickens. He wrote to me about hope and determination, but also fear and disappointment. Sometimes it is better to not set your goals too high, to aim for something a little but further down the scale of achievement and then, when you’ve reached that point, move up to the next. This doesn’t mean that a person is taking the easy option, or not exerting themselves, more that they are being realistic and accepting that not everything comes all at once. There are very few people who learn to ride a bicycle without wobbling, putting their feet down a few times, stopping, even falling off, and then beginning all over again.
Stricken with regret to have it known she was born in a humble home, the broom tree you briefly glimpsed fades and is soon lost to view.
We all pretend to be something we are not and, as someone approaches, that character we have created fades and either disappears completely, along with us, or is seen through and our true selves is revealed. The “Hahakigi (broom tree) … had the poetic reputation of being visible from afar and of disappearing as one approached.” And yet it still had substance as, outside of the poetic, it existed and was of use. The idea that it could be used in poems as a philosophical symbol rather than having a true existence does not make it any less real. And so it is with the characters and the characteristics of ourselves which we create for other people, either to enhance our reputation or to protect ourselves. As people approach us, as they get to know us, the Hahakigi we have created begins to fade and the true character underneath, which may well not be as bad as we had feared, begins to shine through.
To put it another way: at birth we are nothing but a ‘vapid shell’ of demands. We create, through our own understanding, through the influence of others, through the experiences we gain in this world, a character which becomes our very essence. There are very few people indeed who have nothing inside them, who are really a vapid shell waiting to be revealed, waiting to be cracked and shown to the world as empty, without substance, lacking in any characteristic which could make them of interest to anyone else. No matter what we attempt to project, the facade that we create, the character we attempt to portray to others, our true selves will always shone through at some stage and be recognised as a thinking, breathing, living individual entity. What we make of our own true character is another matter entirely: we can hide it, we can show it; it will always be there regardless. The thing to remember, however, is that many people can see through a character we create as they have information from many different sources, or they have experience through a lifetime of looking and learning. And who do we do a disservice to when we insist on creating a character which is not ourselves? There is a difference between a dream – of being a different person – and the reality of Self. But sometimes it is far harder for us to accept ourselves as we truly are, than it is for other people to accept us. We will never be good enough for the plans we had made, for the targets we had set, for the impression we wished to create when faced with other people, and that is fine, in its way.
And then, one day, you come to realise that there are people who see you as you are, without the shadows and shades you’ve attempted to draw around your character to mask yourself, and who are quite happy with the real you, under all those layers. To put it another way: sometimes the shell we discard is a cocoon which has changed us from the crawling caterpillar we fear we will always be, to the butterfly everyone else has seen in the making.