When we are young, our parents tell us what the world is and that we have to accept the world as it is. When we grow up we have to face the fact that we will never get the world we want and our outlook will change. While I do not want to get cynical nor be naively idealistic, I try to adopt an open mind and attempt to see things from various angles as I believe that there are many sides to every story. Not all black is black nor white is white.
Free will is an illusion as we live in an informed world with both unsolicited and solicited information. We live with what we have been told since infancy days. Those who manage to lead tell the other people what they actually want. In order to progress you cannot assume that you have things all figured out as that might stifle your growth. I can never be certain of my perceptions of things nor think that I know all about the workings of the world. The more I know the less I know. All I know is one must be able to break free from social expectations and all those rules that have been implemented by people who think they can make you think the way they want you to think. You do not necessarily know the stuff of thought others carry in their heads and their intentions and they may not think like you. What matters is you must know the thoughts you carry in your own head and where your sentiments lie.
We grow up and live in a world that is full of prejudices and bigotry. I so want to avoid acting unjust and be more tolerant than most people around me and I often find myself failing in such attempts. In Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee writes, ” Every man’s island, Jean Louise, everyman’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.”
When I first read about Harper Lee’s new book and all the write up about how the character, Atticus Finch had become a different man in his old age, my first response was : “ I do not want to spoil the image of the heroic character from Mockingbird and I probably should not read Go Set a Watchman” . A couple of days after Watchman was launched, I rationalized that Atticus Finch was after all a fictitious character and I could not possibly idolize a fictitious character. I have always been one who finds inspirations from reading fictions and I learn things from watching movies and reading fictions. Fiction writers tell us who we are as human beings.
The novel Go Set a Watchman has courted much controversy. While I am certainly not in the position to comment about its writing, I find that the writing could do with some editing as it feels raw unlike Mockingbird that was extremely well crafted. Mockingbird moved me to tears when I read it while Watchman made me ponder. I read from the news articles that the original manuscript now published as Watchman was first written in the mid-1950s. The editor then persuaded Harper Lee to rewrite the story from the voice of young Jean Louise aka Scout hence To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer prize winner and the lawyer character, Atticus Finch that we came to love by reason of the ideals he represents, integrity, kindness, a loving father and a fearless lawyer who believes in justice and fairness for all men. In Watchman, Jean Louise Finch is now 26 years old and practises law in New York city. When she makes her annual visit to her hometown in Maycomb, she has an awakening as she comes to know about her dad’s racist stand at a time of early civil unrest. She feels cheated and becomes hysterical when she realizes that her dad is not what he has stood for in her life. It is all a little confusing at times but as her uncle explains to Scout ,
‘Dr Finch stretched out his legs. “It’s rather complicated,” he said, “and I don’t want you to fall into the tiresome error of being conceited about your complexes-you’d bore us for the rest of our lives with that, so we’ll keep away from it. Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”
This was news, coming from him. But let him talk, he would find his way to the nineteenth century somehow. “ ….now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings – I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.” She listened to the figure on the sofa. “ When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the antithesis of his conscience – your conscience –you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth for you. You had to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity.”’
Dr Finch calls his niece a bigot.‘Dr Finch bit his under lip and let it go. “ Um hum. A bigot. Not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot.” Jean Louise rose and went to the bookshelves. She pulled down a dictionary and leafed through it. “ Bigot,” she read. “ Noun. One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party , belief , or opinion.” Explain yourself, sir.”‘ I was just tryin’ to answer your running question. Let me elaborate a little on that definition. What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out. Now you, you were turned inside out by the granddaddy of all father things, so you ran. And how you ran. You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘ I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ‘em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow. You ‘ll be the same at sixty as you are now – then you’ll be a case and not my niece. You have a tendency not to give anybody elbow room in your mind for their ideas, no matter how silly you think they are.’
In the book, Harper Lee describes Scout’s uncle:‘Dr John Hale Finch was no taller than his niece, who was five seven. His father had given him a high-bridged nose, a stern nether lip, and high cheekbones. He looked like his sister Alexander, but their physical resemblance ended at the neck : Dr Finch was spare, almost spidery; his sister was of firmer proportions. He was the reason Atticus did not marry until he was forty – when the time came for John Hale Finch to chose a profession, he chose medicine. ‘
‘Dr Finch became a bone man, practiced in Nashville,played the stock market with shrewdness, and by the time he was forty-five he had accumulated enough money to retire and devote all his time to his first and aiding love, Victorian literature, a pursuit that in itself earned him the reputation of being Maycomb County’s most leaned licensed eccentric.’
Scout’s uncle was the other aging man ‘who saw her through her loneliest and most difficult hours, through the malignant limbo of turning from a howling tomboy into a young woman.’ I can imagine that the eccentricity of the uncle can make him seem like a borderline case. There is something else the uncle says that resonates with me .
“ Remember this also : it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick , you’ll get along.”
Though her perceptions of what her dad stands for have crushed drastically, Dr Finch shows Jean Louis that she has to figure out her own conscience and also the fact that despite all the terrible things she has said to her dad including calling him a ‘double dealing, ring-tailed old son of a bitch‘, the love of her father remains unchanged. Nothing is absolute. Humanity is complex. Maybe that is what Harper Lee is telling us.
Both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are about growing up and coming of age. There is an excellent article by Randall Kennedy under Sunday Book Review in New York Times that says ‘“Go Set a Watchman” demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school and the film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird“‘.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/14/books/review/harper-lees-go-set-a-watchman.html?emc=edit_bk_20150731&nl=books&nlid=54605499&_r=0
Go Set a Watchman is definitely more ambitious and the constant presence of ambivalence is real and not only in fictions. As I write this, Abba’s song ‘The winner takes it all’ is ringing in my head and next to me is the new book “Why Grow Up” written by Susan Neiman. Go Set a Watchman is the winner of the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards for fiction.
( This is an old post from Coffee Chocolate or Tennis https://lifang-leehong.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-winner-takes-it-all.html )