Of free will, love, and Timbuktu.

Paul Auster’s Timbuktu features a young lady later described as a “prisoner of circumstances”. The reason is that Polly – that is her name – finds a Summer job just before her sophomore year, has one of her customers fall in love with her, becomes pregnant, drops out of college, gets rejected by her parents, marries her daughter’s father, and spends four years nursing her baby to recover from severe medical problems. When a second baby is born, she renounces her ideal of graduating to become a teacher, and understands she loves her children and home, but does not love her husband. Polly will never actually become, she will never be; she will be content with existing or having existed, like any prisoner would. She will have been a “prisoner of circumstances”. 

The question is, what is it that is not circumstance.  Everything is circumstance, in the sense that everything stands around you.  Maybe the only ‘thing’ that is not circumstance is you yourself; and even then, it would not be difficult to demonstrate that even within your own self, there are circumstantial elements. So what is not circumstance is your freedom. Of this, you cannot become a prisoner, though obviously it is likely to become one of the circumstances that are bound to make others “prisoners of circumstances”, even unhappy prisoners. Among these circumstances, we find her parents’ rejection, the fact that Dick, her husband, is the sole provider – Polly earns no money — her impossibility even to think of divorce. What about her feeling for Dick? As far as the early days are concerned, Auster writes: “she found him so handsome and so sure of himself that she let herself go farther than she had intended. The romance continued […].” The novelist remarkably sums up how subjective, private, the initial attraction is: it’s all within her; Dick is handsome in her estimation, self-assured from her point of view, she allows herself to transgress her own limits. Circumstantial ? Coincidential ? (“Literary critics have noted how coincidence plays a large part in the lives of your fictional characters.”*)   

In fact, isn’t circumstance just another name for the fact of never having a choice? At that point, one remembers Moore’s seminal reflection on Free Will as against the causal chain (“those who deny [man’s having] free will are really denying that we ever should have acted differently even if we had willed differently. [T]his is what we mean [by saying we have Free Will].” Ethics (1912), ch vi, § 14). Eventually, can Polly legitimately count Dick’s love for nothing. Can he be rightly blamed for her frustration? Timbuktu, Auster says, is mainly about personal affection relationships (“This book is much more nakedly about feelings. I wanted to try to enter a world in which passion and the intensity of emotion are the dominant subjects” ibid.) Even if Dick offers his total support and brings comfort where there was anguish, he appears to reduce love to an exchange of material help and assistance.  Says Aaron Brewington (‘Infinite Jester’) in his blog**, “Dick financially provides a good home for his young family; however, he withholds his affection from everyone failing to see that in doing so, he makes all of those around him unhappy in imposing his misplaced values upon them. Thus even though he has purchased a home for his wife (Polly) that she loves, she never really loves her husband because to him it is enough to provide without any real connection (159). We learn that those things that make life comfortable really aren’t so bad, but putting absolute worth in them is” bad. Referring to the dog (Mr. Bones), Dick says to his daughter, “don’t feel sorry for him, Alice. He’s not a person, he’s a dog,” (144). Dick shows he cannot “care for others since this mindset also carries over into other relationships that he has : Dick would probably say “she’s not an adult, she’s a child,” in regards to Alice and “she’s not a provider, she’s a wife” in regards to Polly. Thus Mr. Bones “pitied him for not knowing how to enjoy life” (149). [… Dick] lacks the ability to truly connect in a significant way that elevates the relationship to” the level of pure love.** 

G.E. Moore found in “personal affection relationships and aesthetic enjoyments” an approximation of “the Ideal”, and added, in a phrase that Augustine would have greatly appreciated, that the supreme form of love is the love of love – when the persons are put aside and and the pure connection is cared for. 

* http://www.bluecricket.com/auster/articles/qanda.html)  ** http://infinitejesterings.blogspot.com/2008/11/throw-old-dog-bone-paul-austers.html 

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