Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Maya Alexandri’s fiction piece, 4p16.3
John: Almost everybody, I think, has the experience of seeing some of their parents’ behavior patterns emerge mysteriously in them—clearly a great fear of the narrator. Is this, as the narrator fears, the signs of an inborn trait? Are we always doomed to repeat the mistakes of our mothers and fathers?
Maya: These are great questions. I am not sure how qualified I am to answer them. The last question interrogates the nature/nurture dialectic. The relationship between genes and environment is poorly understood, and my personal and professional forays into attempting to understand its dimensions have left me befuddled. I think you have provided a wee bit of an out by using the word “always” in the question: I believe we are not always doomed to repeat the mistakes of our mothers and fathers. I do, however, believe–pace Homer–that the scope for our exercise of control over our lives is minor: as regards major matters, we are the playthings of fate. So if we are making fresh and innovative errors unexplored by our parents, maybe we should hold off on congratulating ourselves on the exercise of free will. It could just be that ours is a different fate.
With respect to the narrator’s fears about inborn evil transmitted from his father, the narrator has an opportunity to conflate nature and nurture: to use the physical location of a gene as a geographic locus for the source of his father’s incomprehensibly cruel behavior. The temptation to collapse the spectrum between genes and environment is great: if the narrator does not have the gene, he is out of the woods! But, of course, where does that leave him if he does have the gene? I think the story supports the narrator to make peace with his temptation and reconcile himself to a less black-and-white (if no less cruel) world…but maybe the narrator disagrees.
One of the great things about this story is the interplay of ancient and modern myths—the narrator essentially rejects the Catholicism of his childhood for the Star Wars canon. Here in the Information Age, we are increasingly free to choose the myths by which we live our lives. Is this a good thing?
I am so happy to see that the premise of this excellent question is that we ARE still choosing myths by which to live our lives. Myths, as far as I understand them (and I am no expert, so maybe get a second opinion), have historically been heterodoxical, local, and subject to the choices of their tellers and audiences. All this officializing of myths—settling on the canonical and definitive versions—is a function of modernity, and the selection bias of editors ranging from the brothers Grimm to Disney and countless academics on either side and in between. In my view, the important thing is to connect with myths, which put us in touch with the distilled psychological wisdom of the foregoing generations and orient us in a continuum of human interaction over hundreds and thousands of years. If we are choosing to understand our lives in terms of myths, I think we are engaging in a fundamentally beneficial process. My concern is that people seem increasingly not to value myths—to see them as irrelevant, inefficient, inaccessible, and boring. The myth-rejecting perspective is the one that I find suspect.
Another theme that you explore is the contrast between surrender and action. The people at AA advise their members to surrender to their higher power, which sounds like a form of passivity. But leaping into space is a very dramatic act. Are these two things really the same?
Another fantastic question, and one that I am not sure I can satisfactorily answer. If I ground the question in the context of the story, I can say that the binary surrender/action is a false distinction. For the narrator, to surrender to a higher power is to take a courageous action requiring all the trust and faith that he has. That is one option for him.
Another option that he mulls for the course of the story is also an action–and, perhaps, also courageous and requiring trust and faith—that is, to commit suicide. The difference between these options is where the narrator places his trust and faith. If he chooses to surrender to a higher power, he is trusting that, although he is incompetent to control the situation, he will not become an instrument of evil by staying in his marriage and fathering children with his wife; he puts his faith in a future he cannot know in advance. If he decides to commit suicide, he is trusting that he is competent to manage the situation by removing himself from it—by killing himself; that he will not become an instrument of evil if he is dead. He is putting his faith in both his wife and his higher power to understand him, forgive him, and appreciate his self-sacrifice. So, yes, in the context of the story, surrendering and action can be the same thing.
Which of the three parts of the serenity prayer is the hardest to achieve?
I see I am not going to get a softball question! This is a tough one and, I think, depends on the individual at different stages of life. As between serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference, wisdom is not the province of the young; not to say that the young cannot have it—just that the younger one is, the more likely wisdom is beyond one’s ken. Wisdom arises after an individual grows from experiences over time. By contrast, both serenity and courage may be present, to a greater or lesser degree, at any age, as part of the composition of an individual’s personality. I think the story supports that view: the narrator is not particularly wise, though he shows both courage and restraint—maybe even serenity.