THE INDEPENDENT CHILD: HUCK AND TODAY
One may find Mark Twain's Huckleberry
Finn an extremely independent child for a young boy of fourteen
years old. He is first abandoned by his father and then forced
to go out on his own. When he grows totally accustomed to his
own way of life, the Widow Douglas adopts him exposing him to
the strong feelings towards the new restrictions which we all
have in society. At this point, the limitations bestowed to him
make him feel as cramped and uncomfortable as do his new clothes
(190). He heads out on his own with the freedom of the river,
but even the river has its own restrictions. He is not alone.
There are other people on the river with him, and he cannot ever
tell anyone or let anyone suspect who he and Jim really are. The
King and the Duke, who would certainly hand them over if they
knew who they were, make Huck help them with their schemes. They
even take away Jim and Huck's sleeping place, but Huck has no
real choice. Huck has an apparent independence which is greater
than that which most children have, but, at the same time, is
more confined and limited than any other. This ambiguous freedom
is not only true for Huck but also for many children today.
The average teenager today, even
in the best family, wants to get away from the confines of the
family and find his own individual identity. This is not necessarily
something bad. The teenager wants to see who he is himself when
there is no one to define him. There is a time when he must be
able to stand alone and he wants to be prepared for this first
stage of adulthood. During this preparation period, he also wants
to enjoy himself. After all, it is true that he will never be
a teenager again. Half of himself in adolescence and half aiming
for adulthood, he sets off for his life of independence. Like
Huck's life on the Mississippi River, the good times are wonderful,
but the bad times are oppressing and painful. Independence, although
necessary, can be a lonely state of mind. The only ideal independence
exists in an ideal world. The teenager has a gift for distorting
the size of a problem. He would rather die than get a low grade
on his SAT scores. The end of the world comes when his girlfriend
breaks up with him. He may even feel the need to get his own extra
"medical help" to get the energy to cram for college entrance
exams. Whether alone in a school dorm room or among his family
at home, he is often consumed with feelings of loneliness and
fear of rejection. Although he may have his independence, the
restrictions of society allow a "freedom" which takes a great
deal of adjusting to. Once out of the confines of the family structure,
the young person must survive the cruelties of society without
being consumed by the rigid molds which it offers.
Many times, the restraints brought
about by the parent feels greater than any controls on children
from the rigid molds we are used to in our society. In the poorest
parts of Argentina, mothers leave their newly born babies in the
street because they cannot afford to feed them. Most of them die,
but many are picked up and raised by young children who have lived
through the same treatment. The children raise themselves and,
like packs of animals, they survive on their own. All of them
beg for food when they see a person who is better off, but one
cannot give a child food or money without having ten more children
run over for the same treatment. Not surprisingly, their main
source of survival is stealing. The condition of these towns is
so extreme that they cannot be helped but are given an unlimited
"freedom." There is a similarity between this and Pap's treatment
of Huck when he locks him in the cabin and leaves him alone for
days. Huck enjoys the independence that he does not have at the
Widow's house (203). However, he admits that he suffers physically
and feels lonely and scared. Pap rejects him even when he is treating
him like an animal. The rejection of the Argentine children is
also one which originates from the parent and spreads to the whole
society. They have nowhere to run, but these restrictions do not
come from the customs of their society. The condition begins with
the parent who, pressured, supplies this drastic independence.
The independence of a child turning
into an adult and facing adult limitations is not always negative.
I cannot imagine Huck Finn dying in the Western Indian Territory
after his being the rational survivor on the raft throughout the
trip. The Huck we know would probably use the resourceful survival
skills he applies from the river adventure to survive his adventures
in the "uncivilized" territory and make himself a capable, ingenious
man. He is somewhat like a young adult who moves away from home
and the influences at home, but finds himself saturated in the
molds of his previous homelife. In this same way, Huck lives with
the mercy and love which the Widow shows him, the inventiveness
of Tom Sawyer, the deceptive cunning of his father, and the caring
of Jim. He brings these characteristics together to form his own
very special personality. The ingenious Huck fabricates his own
death so that he never has to return to any society. He does this
a second time when he wants to cut off any connection with the
society in which the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords destroy each
other, disgusting Huck. But he cannot escape the restrictions,
for Jim is a fugitive. Huck feels that he cannot become a permanent
part of society again, and he does not want to. Free and independent
on the raft with his good friend, he has everything he has ever
wanted. He proves to himself that, in a serious atmosphere, he
can live without compromising with society. Many people have bargained
their desires away to conform in society or family, when influenced
There was a time in my own life
when I felt like Huckleberry Finn. I felt I needed the independence
from the conformist mold of my family. I simply did not agree
with my parents in a specific area. Like Huck, I tried to be happy
in my confinement at first. I tried to see it from their point
of view, but finally accepted that I was right. My parents may
not have been wrong but I certainly was not either. I converted
from my set family beliefs, contented and exhilarated. My parents
were not as happy when they decided to move away and leave me
alone. Still a teenager, I did not know quite what to do with
this sudden independence. I went to school, worked, came and went
as I pleased, yet I could not shake the feeling that I was imprisoned
by the rejection of my family. I gradually adjusted to being on
my own, and I made peace with my parents. At this point, I simply
could not go back to the dependent state in which I had been.
I was not sure if I was independent because I had not compromised
and given up anything I believed in, or was still restricted by
responsibilities I had never experienced before. These responsibilities
could have consumed me and made me quit altogether, but they did
not. Time passed and now I see that although we all live an ambiguous
freedom, it is freedom. To not let limitations confine us completely
as human beings, is greater than even what Huck Finn does. Huck
has to run away from society, but we face it everyday. We live
in it, we are part of it, but we are our own selves. Even as young
adults we can prevent being molded and cramped if we want to.
In this way, we hold on to a pure independence, as Huck does when
he "light[s] out for the Territory ahead of the rest"(361).
JOHN MILTON: IS HE RELEVANT TODAY?
Poets and poetic thinkersțmen
who construct myths in which they incorporate their own struggle
to cope with the fundamental questions of lifețare generally "prophetic"
in the sense that they anticipate in their solitude the struggles
and general consciousness of alter generations. Reading John Milton
now, one cannot help realizing at once how close he is to us and,
yet, how remote from us. He is remote in his moral assumptions
and his world view. Yet the ideas and experiences he develops
are often strikingly contemporary.
Concerning Paradise Lost,
Milton's Satan can easily be seen as modern man: the activist,the
tireless mover and shaker who acts and moves and shakes because
these are his only resources. They make him seem able to tolerate
an intolerable hell; they constitute for him a kind of freedom,
a pretense of dignity. For this reason he is attached to themțin
fact, he makes idols of them. They are his substitute for religion.
The Satan of Paradise Lost
is the embodiment of heroic energy, of obstinately futile resistance-a
"freedom fighter," a loser who can't be kept down by superior
odds. This doesn't mean that Milton approved of Satan or sympathized
with him. But the element in Milton that is "modern," that which
brings him close to us, was at work in the creation of this dynamic
rebel, while the elements in Milton that are more remotețthe classicist,
the Biblical thinkerțdisclaimed the rebel he had crated. We are
less disposed to see this because we have become habitually inattentive
to the kind of theology that Milton took for granted. The Satan
of Paradise Lost is not, for us, part of a cosmic whole. He stands
out against a background that does not concern usța modern hero
against the scenery of an old opera.
Paradise Lost begins with
the fallen angels lying stunned in hell, where they have just
made a crash landing. They do not stay that way for long. There
is something curiously American about them. They get up and go,
from a very hot part of hell to one that is slightly cooler, and
there, in order to make the best of things, build a devilish city.
They draw up a plan of action, a diabolical program, an energetically
satanic way of life. The city is a secular one and in many ways
like New York.
Whatever this metropolis may be,
the point is that they built it quickly with a brand-new method.
Their work is itself a rebellions against inertia and defeat.
It is a victory because it is gained entirely by their own ingenuity
and their own resources. The unequaled verve of the first books
of Paradise Lost enables us to surmise that Milton wrote these
pages with special satisfaction, even though he was both emotionally
and intellectually opposed tot his fantastic rebellion. But, in
spite of himself, his own characterțindeed, his own heroic struggle
against the inertia imposed by blindnessțdisposed him to sympathize
with this"sublimation" of beaten energies.
Yet, at the same time, these heroic
energies are important. All the power, the splendor, and the versatility
of satanic technology remain deceptive and pointless. One might
say that, beneath his unconscious sympathy with the rebels. Milton
realized even more deeply the finality of their despair. This
sense of futility, then, is his final judgment on their rebellion,
and an insight of their troubles to come.
The title itself (Paradise Lost)
states the problem: Man is created for peace, delight, and the
highest spiritual happiness. In traditional language, he is created
for contemplation. Not a loss of self in mystical absorption,
but self-transcendence in the dynamic stillness which is found
not in rest, but in spontaneous movement. But man's weakness and
superficiality, his excessive love of self, make the paradise
life impossible. Thus, there is in Milton a tension between his
desire of this ideal and his feeling that it is unattainable.
He never resolved the apparent contradiction. He could not find
the secret of contemplation in action, and thus saw, in practice,
no solution but action without contemplation.
When he described the ideal life
of Adam and Even in Paradise, Milton was weak and unconvincing.
The life is too contemplative for him; there is too much leisure;
there is just nothing to do, because they live and work in a garden
that of its own accord produces more than they will ever need.
Strangely enough, this is precisely the kind of society that seems
to be resulting from the fantastically energetic and versatile
progress of our technology. If inertia and lack of outlet for
creative energy create hell, then it appears that the greatest
threat to man is that he may succumb not to hostile nature or
to a stronger species but to the explosive violence generated
by the utter boredom of his own conquests.
The modern tendency is to interpret
the dignity and freedom of the person not as Milton did, but in
a more frankly satanic way. The freedom and dignity for the person,
for most people means, in fact, the ability of the individual
to assert himself forcefully, to get up and overcome obstacles,
to knock a few bystanders down if necessary, and generally get
everybody to recognize that he is around. One of the cardinal
satanic virtues is the absolute refusal to let anyone else change
your mind for you, by any means, reasonable or unreasonable. This
means that you can never be prevented from being the boss at least
in your own small patch of hell. And this is freedom. "Better
to reign in hell than serve in heaven."
To assume that Milton endorsed
such a doctrine would be a misapprehension. He rejected as impotence
this completely irrational misconception of freedom. The misconception
is, first of all, purely subjective, and, secondly, a blind exercise
of will. But a blind exercise of will is doomed to frustration.
When purely subjective whims encounter the opposition of objective
reality, there is only one way to overcome them: Since intelligence
will not serve, violence alone remains. But violence is self-destroying
and, thus, absurd. The concept of freedom, then, which demands
that one be one's own boss at all costs, is worthless. Much of
the talk of freedom today has no more validity than this, and,
therefore, is a potential source of catastrophic madness. What
forms will this madness take? Anything is possible, from street
fights to a nuclear war.
These ideas are associated with
certain basic concepts underlying Greek tragedy, concerning the
meaning and moral structure of life. The most basic of these are
"hubris" and "nemesis." When man, either through his own fault
or simply through some chain of fatal circumstances, begins to
defy the gods and assert his own power against the claims of a
higher power (or, of reality), he is permitted to get away with
it for a while. But in the end, the momentum generated by his
rash and deceptive self-confidence brings with it his own destruction.
But if even the guiltless or unconsciously guilty hero incurs
destruction by defying certain forces, then surely ordinary man's
natural tendency toward hubris (satanic self-assertion)
will inevitably bring nemesis"--a fatal retribution in
which man's power becomes his own destruction, despite his self-righteous
confidence and unquestioning self-esteem.
Thus, it would be tragic to seek,
even unconsciously, to make a satanic and activist nihilism one's
way of life. In fact, this kind of nihilism has entered into the
very essence of all the modern power structures that are now in
conflict. This leads to come frightening conclusions. The first
and most important of these is that the satanic nihilism of the
great power structures represents a fatal infestation of "hubris.
This leads infallibly to "nemesis" and to destruction if
we cannot learn to do something about it. No free man can allow
himself to accept passively and identify with any one of these
structures in an unqualified way. To do so meas associating himself
with its "hubris," forsaking his moral and personal dignity, and
participating in the witches' sabbath to which we are all not
Most of us seem to have accepted
the invitation without stopping to reflect that there is a choice.
Milton insisted that the choice is man himself. Man's true dignity
must lead him to a free rejection of any system which makes the
power of state, money,m or weapons absolute values in themselves.
While we seem to be asked to choose between this power bloc or
that, in reality we find that they all concur in placing ideologies
above man himself, politics above humanity, party above truth,
and power above everything.
Thus, in every aspect of life,
the car is before the horse, ends are sacrificed to means, man
is alienated and destroyed in order to serve what is supposed
to serve him. The state is theoretically for man, money is to
aid his living, and arms are supposed to protect him. But, in
fact, man now lives and works in order to assemble the weapons
that will destroy him, in an effort to serve a power structure
which he worships as an end in itself, but which makes his life
more and more meaningless and absurd. Everywhere we look, we find
the same contradictions and disorders, all symptomatic of one
truth: Our seemingly well-ordered society is a nihilist city of
pandemonium, built on "hubris" and destined for catastrophe.
Is this inevitable? No, because
man is still free to choose. But our future depends above all
on this: The recognition that our present nihilist consciousness
is fatal, and the development of a new state of man--a whole new
way of looking at ourselves, our world, and our problems. Not
a new ideology, but a new man. With a little humility and patience,
the coming hard years may teach us to open our eyes. Meanwhile,
a more accurate understanding of Milton may certainly help.
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