Freedom and private matters

by Rob Tiller

I finished Franzen’s Freedom on the flight back from Dallas earlier this week. Although the last half of the book was not as surgically precise and constantly surprising as the first, it was still very fine, and I was glad I read it. It passed my test for a novel that is in every sense worthwhile: it explored questions and won insights that just can’t be got at through any medium other than a novel. The subject matter involves some of the big issues of our time, such as global warming, overpopulation, environmental irresponsibility, and species extinction. But just as in other great novels, most of the interesting revelations relate to private matters — interior lives and intimate relationships.

Writing about things that are generally considered private is a risky business. Even with the license of a novelist, it takes a degree of courage close to recklessness to be direct and truthful about intimate aspects of our lives. For all the things Freud got wrong, he was surely right that civilization depends on a degree of repression of our basic urges. By the same token, our social lives would be unsustainable if we lifted all self-censorship. It’s true, as Jack Nicholson once violently asserted: we can’t handle the truth! At any rate, we can’t uncritically expose all of our feelings and our emotional lives without causing outrage and social havoc. But this is part of the gift of the great novelist: to guide us into and through these hidden things in a way that enriches rather than injures.

I’m constantly struggling, when I write for the Casual Blog, with the question of what is too private for public exposure. Where one draws the line plainly depends on what kind of person one is, which in turn depends on every other social variable — personal history, family, community, customs, laws, etc. And the line may also vary according to the subject involved. And the best answer for today may not be the best in the future. Pushing the line may actually change the kind of person one is or is perceived to be, either for better or worse. My current model involves trying to be conscious of the line and to get close to it without going over it. But it’s always a judgment call made in the fog of complexity. Mistakes are sure to happen. In such cases, I have to hope the parties affected will forgive and eventually forget.

I’ve wondered whether it crosses the line to explore the implications of Jocelyn’s latest adventure — free form travelling in South America. This is not all happy stuff. As a dad, I’m in a fugue state: full of admiration for her spirit and courage, full of pride, but also full of worry. As I told her very bluntly, she is throwing herself in front of some existential risks without understanding them very well. She did not appreciate this criticism, and just as bluntly told me so. She is highly confident of her ability to deal with the unexpected, which is impressive, yet worrisome. Does she have any idea how vulnerable she could be? Is it better if she doesn’t? At any rate, I’m sufficiently on edge and preoccupied with such risks as kidnapping that I will refrain from discussing her itinerary. But I should also say, according to her emails, she’s having a fantastic time.