Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Weltschmerz

"The Germans have a term for what you're feeling: Weltschmerz. It means the depression that arises from comparing the world as it is to a hypothetical, idealized world."
                    ~Sheldon, "The Maternal Congruence" episode, The Big Bang Theory


There used to be a middle-aged Armenian who owned a secondhand bookstore called The Phoenix, across the river from New Hope, not too far from where I live. He had an unusual face, almost entirely covered by a purple birthmark, and he had an unusual name. He told me that one summer he and his wife drove across the country looking up everyone with exactly his first and last name; they had found perhaps five men in all, as close as Ohio and far away as California.

          He had wanted, he told me, to discover all his possible selves. Until then, they had been unaware of each other's existence, as if each was the same man leading a secret life in five parallel universes. He interviewed the men, some young and some old, one who lived in a trailer park, and none bore any resemblance to the others.

          All the while my friend boasted about his adventure, he seemed heavy with disappointment. I asked him what he had learned from his experience.

          "Well, I can say this, it's not a vacation I'll be repeating," he rubbed his beard and made an effort to grin. "They're no one I want to know."


At the heart of all melancholy is one of the ugliest words in human language: Weltschmerz. It is a compound word meaning, literally, worldpain. We are accustomed to thinking of Atlas bearing the weight of world upon his shoulders, but the earliest Greek mythology tells a different story. As punishment for his attempt to overthrow the gods, the burden of Atlas is to carry the celestial sphere, which is weightless but unfathomable. It is his task to keep heaven and earth apart. In that cosmogony, the return of heaven and earth to their primordial embrace would, quite logically, result in obliteration. This painful dichotomy could just as well describe the origin of Weltschmertz, or our longing for the divine.

          The pain of the world exists, in some sense, as a result of our imagination; we rarely accept things as they are. As a species, we are prone to fantasizing and misinterpretation. But what happens when imagination ceases and all hope is lost? Perhaps instead of despair, regret, rage, desire, or fear, we experience the kind of perfect wholeness that is only possible with obliteration. Like the great yogis and other spiritualists, we will do whatever we can to improve the circumstances of others and ourselves but, in the absence of hope, we are no longer attached to a particular outcome. In this way it might be possible for a Tibetan monk being tortured in a Chinese prison to have compassion for his captors.

          Maybe like me you are a dreamer, not a Buddhist; I seek refuge in imagined possibilities. Our private, intangible acts of creation seldom result in an outer transformation. Sometimes I wonder if there are people who are simply by nature unhappy, but I don't believe in fate. For the same reason, I am unconvinced by astrology, but I never doubt the veracity of my own natal chart. At the time of my birth, there was a rare astrological occurrence. All the planets were in retrograde, appearing to move backward through the heavens, foretelling a life of dynamic inertia. A life which is backwards-looking and progress, if any, is difficult and late—I'm always late. Of course, you don't need to have my birthday to be a procrastinator.

          Logically, given our full surrender at the impasse between real and ideal, Weltschmerz should be easily cured. But instead, hopelessness rekindles our desire. Rumi offers us advice on this type of divine madness. "Judge the moth by the beauty of the candle."


I first heard the word doppelganger from my Aunt Lottie, after whom I was named. I was 12 and so nervous at the prospect of being alone with her that I couldn't pay proper attention to what she was saying. She had been very beautiful as a young girl until, overnight, her appearance changed dramatically.

          As an older woman, Lottie had a generous, witty smile which exposed large, yellow teeth. She always wore her long, graying brown hair in a chignon and favored brownish tweed suits and clip-on pearl earrings. The wrong shade of powder often made her face look dusty and white, but she had marvelous, dark catlike eyes. Her hands were also very beautiful and well-cared for, with long tapered fingers, each oval nail varnished in the palest shade of lilac.

          Lottie lived alone in a posh neighborhood of London. Her apartment was tiny and fantastically elegant, packed with heirloom furniture, and on the walls hung old oil paintings of landscapes in ornate gilt frames, as well as some of her own exquisite watercolors. Although she was a gifted painter and writer, she was most proud of becoming vice president of a printing company. In the early seventies, it was a rarity to find women in the workplace in well-paid positions of authority.

          Because of her vocation, birthday gifts from Lottie were often sets of ballpoint pens in primary colors, each one embossed in gold by her company with our full name. Since we were both Charlotte Heckscher, the pens made me feel privileged, like we were sharing an inside joke. We were also both born in the first days of October, so when she died she left me an antique opal ring, our birthstone, surrounded by tiny, rough diamonds. Inside the lid of the ring-box was a folded slip of paper, about the same size as the fortune in a fortune cookie. It said, in her handwriting, "For Charlotte: This ring could only be for an October girl." Her gifts conveyed genuine warmth, but awkwardly, in a style that felt a bit impersonal. Perhaps it is only in retrospect that I feel this way, because I had not yet quite grown into my own personality when we met, and now I regret our missed opportunity to know each other.

          When I saw her alone that first time, which was also the last time, my lank hair was parted down the middle and I longed for a cigarette—I'd recently taken up smoking (when I was 11)—and I was troubled about my acne and the fact that I hadn't learned French or become an interesting person. Lottie set out a plate of butter cookies, poured us each a cup of Earl Grey tea and asked, in her aristocratic English accent, with a hint of German breathiness, if I believed in doppelgangers.

          I answered yes because I didn't want to admit to not knowing what a doppelganger was.

           Lottie nodded her head and said, "Good, so do I." She spooned sugar into our tea and told me about the ghost living in her apartment, that she was really no bother, once you got used to her, she was even a sort of company. I nodded my head and by the time I tuned in again, she was telling me about her favorite animal, a boa constrictor, and how they're often misunderstood.

          "They are cold-blooded creatures, you know, and so they quite naturally seek human warmth," I recall her saying. She described how cozy it was to have a heavy boa draped over her shoulders, how when she patted his giant head like a dog, he seemed to grow sleepy. "And they're so lovely to touch," she said, leaning forward over the tea tray. "Not slimy as people tend to assume, but really quite dry."

          I wanted to impress her and, of course, be loved, but I was nothing like her. I was mortally afraid of snakes and wanted to grow up to have romance and children and, though I didn't see the contradiction at age 12, I wanted freedom. The thought of being a spinster vice president made me almost as squeamish as the boa constrictor. Though we shared the same name and were both Libras, secretly, we knew we were still strangers. Like my bookstore friend, I found no resemblance in my namesake.


When my doppelganger finally found me I was delighted. I recognized her at once although, of course, I couldn't see her. She had grown up in God's Pocket, the 19th-century house where I spent my solitary childhood summers on Martha's Vineyard; we had even slept in the same bedroom under the eaves and daydreamed by the same window. She found me with the words, "I grew up in God's Pocket, which was named by my mother."

          I had pleaded with my own mother for us to live year-round on the island, which has since become a haven for the rich and spoiled, but in the end we would always drive home to New Jersey. I haven't been back for many years, but I dream about it sometimes.

          My doppelganger shares tales of her Vineyard childhood—an enchanted childhood peopled with cousins and family, friends and neighbors. All the grownups seemed to play a musical instrument—guitars, fiddles, a harp, even a squeeze box. The morning after a jam session, the kids would wake up early and secretly polish off the dregs of home brew their parents had left out. She supposed the house had got its name because everything can be found in God's Pocket. The stories she tells me are far better than what I had been able to dream up myself.

          Lately, though, the tempo of our conversation has changed; she tires of nostalgia and grows restless for change.

          "I miss the Vineyard every day of my life," she says, "but this life I have now is amazing, too."

          My doppelganger is alive and well on the other side of the country, by the Pacific Ocean now. She has been married and divorced, like me. My children are teenagers while hers have grown up and had children of their own. Joan tells me her life is filled with music and wonderful cooking, a new man, lots of books, and miles and miles of beaches. She asks me to tell her about myself and I suddenly feel shy.

          When Joan had found a sentimental post I'd written last year about my time in God's Pocket, she wrote to me. We were curious about each other. I asked for stories about her childhood and she endeared me with wonderfully detailed emails. Worried about being boring, the last one was signed, "Blah, blah, blah xxx Joan." When I suggested to Joan that she write up all her stories, she said, "Not to be a brat, but I have no desire to publish." She must be too busy living life to write about it.

          Let's see, Joan. It took me five middle-aged years to overcome a ridiculous case of unrequited love. The experience was more like an embarrassing venereal illness than adoration, and I had expected to feel genuine relief when I was cured. Instead, I find myself baffled by my misguided choice of love object. But the real shock is that I feel bereaved in an entirely new way. I so miss the feeling of being in love.

          How do I sum up this life without being a disappointment to my doppelganger? Harper Lee said, "Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself. It's a self-exploratory operation. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent."  To do that, of course, one must be willing to discover the truth and drag it out, kicking and screaming, across the page, or risk always remaining a ghost.

7 comments:

  1. I was there ... sitting with Lottie and drinking her ultra strong Earl Grey tea!
    Your first and last Lottie meeting is so beautifully and truthfully described.

    She used to send us her hand made animals adding that she sewed her love into everything she made for us. She was remote, close and personal at the same time. She loved style and to be elegant, so being a bit remote captured those qualities for her.

    This piece is for me also about change and how we are always changing and being changed ... how we think we can clearly define who we are but also can't be sure who we are.

    Wonderful!

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  2. It seems you long for everything you already have. Beautifully written. Sue x

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    1. What a wonderful thing to say, Sue. Big hugs xxx

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  3. What an amazing experience to read this very engaging piece by you when we have not been face to face for 40 years! I absolutely love it. I am always late too. You are an inspiration.

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    1. Betsy, thanks so much for reading this! xx

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  4. Charlotte, how nice to make me remember Lottie. During our first year in London Dida and I would go to Lottie's lovely apt. every Thursday night after dinner. We would have something nice to drink (probably tea) and something delicious on a pretty plate. Much later Lottie knitted lavender woolen baby pants for Sonia. I never threw them out of course, they must be in an old suitcase full of baby clothes. Like every Heckscher I know Lottie was a very special and truly original person!

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    1. Anyez, your evenings with Lottie sound so cozy. How nice that you really got to know her. She must have enjoyed tucking you and Dida under her wing.

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