Self-Absorption and Seeing Deeply
Bil Long 11/27/05
A Misunderstood Connection
One of the most memorable scenes depicting Truman Capote's legendary narcissism in the recently-released movie Capote is his brief conversation with Harper Lee at the latter's reception at the Plaza Hotel after she won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1961. Capote is sitting off by himself, brooding about the continued stays of execution of Smith and Hickock in Kansas.* She is the star of the evening, but still she initiates with
[*I don't know when this reception took place, but if it was in 1961 the stays of execution in the defendants' trials would probably not yet have been given. The way the death penalty worked, even in those days, was that a conviction and sentence by a county court took place first. Then there was an automatic and direct appeal to the state Supreme Court, which usually would affirm the conviction. This would normally take about two to three years from the time of the crimes. It was only after this that federal habeas petitions would begin. Since the defendants were not executed until 1965, it is more likely that Capote's funk about stays of execution would "fit" 1964 and not 1961. Details...]
Capote by coming up to talk with him. He is inconsolable; he cannot take his mind for one second off the personal torment that the courts are "deliberately" inflicting on him because of the delays in carrying out the executions. She pats him on the shoulder and walks away. Truly he is an example of Luther's phrase--of a mind incurvatus in se. It is a brilliant little scene.
Words from a Review
And so I read many eloquent reviews about the movie, which provided me with tons of little snippets of information that I can tuck away into my memory bank. But one sentence in the wonderful view by Slate's film critic David Edelstein seemed to misunderstand Capote completely, and it is this quotation that got me thinking. Since I often learn more from people who get things wrong than those who get it right, I am grateful to Mr. Edelstein for the review. Here is his sentence, near the end of the review:
"Hoffman (who played Truman Capote) lays bare this whiny, wheedling, self-absorbed little man who nonetheless could see more deeply than almost anyone alive."
The little word with which I want to take issue is "nonetheless." My contention in this and the next essay is that self-absorbtion actually is the key to deep probing into others. This little-recognized phenomenon is actually at the heart of Capote's brilliance in In Cold Blood. I think I need to defend my point.
Characteristics of Self-Absorption
Let me say at the outset that self-absorption per se doesn't qualify one to be a depth psychologist. Other things must be added to the mix. But, in the case of a self-absorbed person (henceforth "SAP") with a "94 percent recall of all conversation," as Capote twice describes himself, he has all the ingredients for seeing "more deeply than almost anyone alive." First, a person who is self-absorbed is not simply always thinking about himself but is thinking especially of the pressure points in the past that shaped him to be the kind of person s/he is. Even if the results of this thinking process don't always come to the surface, the SAP is always living in the deep recesses of past events. For example, such a person will want to understand and continually revisit the meaning of various events from the past. He is always able to describe the past from a prismatic perspective. That is, though most people might give a unitary interpretation to an event from the past, the SAP is able to play with the images created in the mind in order to limn what they might "mean."
And meaning isn't simply extracted from the "big events" of the past. Little events also play a huge role for the SAP. What does it really "mean" that one grew up in a particular place at a particular time? What does it mean that men wore hats until a certain time in the 1960s? Why would one's mother have said certain things to the kids at different times? What is the significance of having several stairs going up to the sanctuary of churches when it was quite evident that older people, who have always populated the churches, couldn't very well navigate the stairs? Why did someone from the past say X to me? Why did a friend begin to get more pimples after his mother died when he was 12-years old? Thousands of meaningful and meaningless questions fill the mind of the SAP, and they don't go away. They need attention, and the mind of the SAP will not rest until all of them are turned over in the mind. The SAP sees his personal past as a gold mine of information, a sea of inexhaustible depth, a storeroom containing the most fascinating mysteries in the universe. Rather than looking at the past as examples of "clutter" filling the mind, the past becomes little gems that shine brightly with ever more attentive polishing.
The SAP always is able to draw upon the treasury of the past in getting one's bearings in the present. The past will "trigger" certain events from the past that bring to mind feelings associated with those events. We all know the phenomenon of smelling something from today and then being transported back into another time and place where the smell was part of the kaleidoscopic image bank from our childhood or youth. But the SAP person does that on a daily basis, seeing in something as common as a blade of grass or a clod of dirt something that triggers something so powerful from the past that it just must be attended to before the mind moves on. SAPs then, can be royal pains in the ass simply because they don't fully get with the "program" that someone is trying to push in the present.
But what is the connection between an absorption with the meaning of events from one's personal past and the ability to see deeply into another? It is really quite simple, and the next essay considers it.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long