Since the end of my marriage, Walker Percy has become one of my guys. The Moviegoer is a bleak read, but The Thanatos Syndrome is on a whole other level in my opinion. Dark, funny, mysterious, and hopeful: it is brilliant.
He has a keen eye for modern sexuality and relationships. This:
I discovered that it is not sex that terrifies people. It is that they are stuck with themselves. It is not knowing who they are or what to do with themselves. They are frightened out of their wits that they are not doing what, according to experts, books, films, TV, they are supposed to be doing. They, the experts, know, don’t they?
The Thanatos Syndrome 88.
That is the question: who am I and what am I suppose to do? As I’ve noted before, the modern world has created tremendous amounts of wealth to the point where we all hang loose on society. We don’t need each other like we once did, and because of this, we have all kinds of opportunities to dream, and wonder, and torture ourselves (should I have married her instead of her?!). That’s the paradox: material happiness has created a great deal of psychic unrest. In a way, not having a choice, stern necessity, is psychic liberation.
Every advancement comes at a price.
We try to patch this unrest up with the experts but as much you might follow their advice, you’re still left wondering whether you should have married her instead of her. But that’s a bluebird query.
According to my private classification, people are either bluebird or jaybird. Most women, it turns out, are bluebirds. Most men, by no means all, are jaybirds.
It is a question of being or doing. Most of the women patients I saw were unhappy and wanted to be happy. They never doubted there was such a creature as the bluebird of happiness. Most men wanted to do this or that, take this or that, beat So-and-so out of a promotion, seduce Miss Smith, beat the Steelers, meet their quota, win the trip to Oahu, win an argument—just like a noisy jaybird.
In my experience, that is, with patients who are not actually crazy (and even with some who are), people generally make themselves miserable for one of two reasons: They have either failed to find the bluebird of happiness or they’re failed jaybirds.
The Thanatos Syndrome 89
Women, and some men: if only I could be with so-in-so I’d be happy! Men, and some women: I’m going to get her (or him) to love me!
In a fundamental way this was the divide between my wife and I. Things weren’t going well and I was going to fight for it. Thing weren’t going well, she wasn’t happy, so she called it quits. I wasn’t happy either, but happiness was not my primary concern in the moment. Which leads to another Percy observation:
It is not for me to say whether one should try to be happy—though it always struck me as an odd pursuit, like trying to be blue-eyed—or whether one should try to beat all the other jaybirds on the block. But it is my observation that neither pursuit succeeds very well. I only know that people who set their hearts on either usually end up seeing me or somebody like me, or having heart attacks, or climbing into a bottle.
The Thanatos Syndrome 89
This is a rather self-conscious, male-take on happiness, but he’s right that the majority of us are bad at being what we are and the lack of accomplishment, or the lack of happiness, drives us to the psychiatrist or the bottle. But it’s also sharing the world with the opposite birds that drive people crazy. Both are insufferable to each other. The night she ended the marriage was a perfect display of the chasm between the two types: she wasn’t happy, I wanted to fix that, but you can’t fix unhappiness with gifts, or words, or actions. She just wasn’t in love anymore. There was nothing to be done.
The world is full of imperfect, unsatisfied birds.
But there is a way out and it starts with not blaming the other birds and acknowledging one’s own faults.
As it turns out, she got there too late.