When asked why he quit his job as clerk of the university post office in Oxford, Miss., William Faulkner replied that he was damned if he "would be beholden to any son of a bitch that can afford the price of a two-cent stamp." I had occasion to remember that this morning at 7:03 a.m., when I looked up over top of the coffee mug and saw a fierce face of executive mien pressed demandingly to my living room window and an authoritative hand beckoning me to get out on the front porch, immediately. It seems that I had put signs advertising a yard sale and, foolishly, had not specified the time of day. So I went out there and took his dollar and 35 cents and, as I did, noticed a look of elief on the face of his harassed-looking wife that struck me as strange. At last, after giving me a stern frown that said my business practices were contemptible, the executive-looking fellow strode forcefully off with his F. Scott Fitzgerald novels under his arm.
Later it occurred to me that I mighthave saved a marriage. Because if the morning papers were to be believed,homes were being broken up all over town when "emotional problems that might normally be alleviated by a shopping spree" were allowed to explode inside the family. "Couples are beginning to argue more", a psychiartrist said." "I hear it all the time: 'How are we going to cope?'"
My yard sale, too, had something to do with coping -- literary coping, in this case -- because I passionately wanted to get rid of my 20th-century American novels, which, with the exception of Faulkner and Henry James, had been one long whine, wherein "the death of love" had been one of the chief preoccupations. And in fact, that was one of the chief themes the mental health professionals were alluding to in seeking to explain the psychic havoc wrought by money worries and joblessness. For they seemed to take it as scientific fact, woven into the fabric of the universe, that inflation kills love, and that having to scrimp obliges people to turn viciously on one another -- makes the wife dig insiduously away at her mate until he drops dead of a stroke, or makes him prove his potency by breaking her jaw. So maybe it was a good thing for the woman that i got out there and sold those books.
But if "inflation kills love" is a law of the universe, it is a brand new one, because a reading of one's books on American history, which were not made available at the yard sale, shows that we used to stick all the more closely together when times were tough.And this raises the question of when, and why, psychic assassination of one's family became regarded as a normal response to times like these.
That it is so regarded requires no psychiatrist to tell us, because the evidence is all around. For instance, we had a couple over here for dinner just last month, people we had known for years. And when he remarked, upon entering, that he had won his tennis match that she murmured in an undertone, "It's a good thing that he can do something right, don't you think? uThis kept up all night. When he ventured the opinion that Carter had been an ineffective president, she smiled brightly and told the others that he was an expert on ineffectuality. And when he said cheerfully that it was hard to get good hamburgers like these anymore, she said, with heavy irony, that in some families it was hard to get food at all Later I learned that he had missed a promotion, was in danger of being fired, and that they were being obliged to struggle along on $20,000 a year. When he went out of the room, his wife explained to the assembled company that "it does me good to get rid of my aggreessions like this".
Whether it did him good is another matter, because he ended up in a mental institution, heavily drugged on Thorazine-- the victim of a nervous breakdown. iAnd when i visited him yesterday, all he had to say was, "There's nothing o for me out there"--a phrase he kept repeating.
He'd had the breakdown while reading a new book called "Office Politics" insipid mass Machiavelli that in days gone by he would have backhanded. But having bought into his wife's idea that aggression was not only mentally healthy but the sovereign cure for everything, he cherished the hope that if he could be less sheep and more wolf,he could get the pressures off him -- and ended up turning that into a huge tinker toy of a cosmic system, in which magical potions of dew, astrological quiverings, erupting volcanoes and emanations off the moon (from which money was named) played some complex part I do not understand. In short, he became a lunatic. And according to the majority view, what put him in that condition wasthe economic indicators for April, or the woes of meatless Fridays,or having to be late with the rent.
According to a more ancient and unscientific view, however, what put him there was malice, and his own passivity and a credulous frame of mind, wide- spread amoung us, that canonizes viciousness as common sense and regards it as "healthy" to "get rid of one's aggressions." This has much to do with psychiatrists assuming the role of priests -- so that the malicious destructiveness they call scientifically normal one day is looked on as morally desirable the next. And this, one might suggest, has very little to do with any whimper- ing over "death of love". Possibly she never loved him. What? That never stopped people from trying to be kind to one another in hard times before. But the psychiatrists are right in suggesting that there are men and women among us whose rage, absurdly, can be sated only by shopping. And when these don't get what they want, look out.