One day a young Henry James (Senior) saved a barn and possibly all Albany from fire. Henry, the son of a self-made and emotionally distant man, was already a secret alcoholic early in his teen years. (Here I remember my first love drinking stolen vodka from an emptied salad dressing bottle on our first date–a bicycle ride to a nearby park at the age of 13). In the 1830’s everyone drank. Not everyone became an alcoholic.
Henry, though sent to good schools and housed in good neighborhoods, hung with the wilder prep-school boys. Seeing pictures of his more famous sons, William and Henry Jr., I think we can gather that he was a good-looking and rakish teenager when his life was changed forever by a science experiment gone wrong.
Henry’s science teacher gathered the boys on a lawn near the school to fly tiny hot air balloons and when one caught fire the boys probably thrilled at the display until the wind carried the fireball into the stable hayloft nearby. Maybe Henry thought of the horses housed below, maybe he thought of the school and the city, but whatever he thought of, it propelled him to race into the stable, climb the ladder and stomp out the fire. I imagine the other students cheering on his reckless bravery and even Henry’s own heart thrilling at his heroism.
But Henry’s trousers had the oil from the experiment still on them and within seconds young Henry’s legs were aflame. The fire was put out and Henry was dragged away in unimaginable agony. Robust young boys don’t like to sit still, but Henry lay bedridden for months. Infection set in. The doctor, with heavy heart, cut as little of Henry’s rotting leg away as possible. Infection set in again, but this time most of the boy’s leg was taken.
For months Henry, in dark loneliness, contemplated life. We have no idea exactly what he or his parents thought about those teen years, but we do know that Henry married, traveled, hobnobbed with literary greats and infected his two oldest boys with great intelligence, great drives and sad yearnings.
Henry spent his life consumed with the desire to prove himself great–and masculine. Great men wrote great books, gave moving speeches and stood on their own two feet. They went to war and made money. Henry did none of these things. His own mediocrity and striving may have led to his sons’ greatness but not to his own happiness.
Where is the line between self-awareness and self-absorption? I heard someone recently say that life is about finding out who you are and that the more knowledge you have about yourself, the happier you’ll be. Is this true?
Henry seemed oblivious to how his obsessive search for self left his children conflicted and unsteady. I wonder if this search for inner enlightenment is just a limitless black hole.
There’s a simple way to escape this, but it’s not easy. One has to believe that there is meaning in suffering and that God accepts us AS-IS. I find the second part harder than the first.
I’d love to know what you think. Has suffering in your life led to absorption or enlightenment? How does one counter self-absorption without a sense of God and a moral universe? How do we even know that we’re self-absorbed when we’re self-absorbed?
***Inspiration for this post: House of Wits by Paul Fisher