Homer and Langley (2009) and Andrew’s Brain (2013)
by E. L. Doctorow (1931-2015)
In the Simple Reality Project we advocate turning away from the world of form, the realm of illusion, to the realm of what is real, from the world “out there” to the inner world. Our failure to do this in the human community is broadly speaking why many of us find ourselves here, at this time, in this place, in this vale of tears. A similar theme seems to be present in at least some of the novels of E. L. Doctorow.
Let’s start with the Collyer’s, the eccentric brothers, the recluses Homer and Langley, who lived holed up in their Fifth Avenue digs. Doctorow based his novel Homer & Langley on these two agoraphobic compulsive collectors. They filled their mansion with so much stuff they could barely move. Homer is the narrator and by the end of the story is blind and almost deaf. He had long sought the refuge of his intellect to escape the world outside leaving “only my blank endless mind to live in.” In P-B we often seek escape by distracting ourselves by the world of form “out there” and by retreating into the mind or as some might say the “brain.”
Most of us live in the endless narrative of the mind but we find it anything but blank. Our lives probably don’t seem as unhealthy as the Collyer brothers but we probably are similarly dysfunctional in our own unique and less dramatic way. How do we escape this “monkey mind” and its phobias and neuroses?
Reviewing Andrew’s Brain in The New York Times Book Review, critic Terrence Rafferty seems surprised by this “inward-turning.” “The sense of being trapped in your own consciousness is, of course, an occupational hazard for writers, but it’s not a problem you’d expect Doctorow to worry himself much about. His fiction has always seemed driven by intense curiosity about the people of other times and how they lived. So it’s odd that in the past few years he has seemed so interested in characters like the Collyer’s and Andrew, who prefer to look inward and shun the wider view. They’re exotic specimens, baffled and lonely and pacing in their cages. It’s touching that Doctorow should want to study them, and although they’re essentially comic figures, he’s strangely solicitous of them; he respects the narrow space they find themselves living in.” Why might that be?
Andrew’s Brain uses one of our favorite Simple Reality terms, namely response. In the context of this story it means the opposite of what it means when we use it in the context of P-A. “‘I’ve always responded [reacted] to the history of my times,’ says the beleaguered narrator of Andrew’s Brain, almost ruefully, as if he wished it weren’t so. He has no choice, though: Responding to the history of one’s times is the sworn duty of a character in a novel by E. L. Doctorow, who has in his half-century of writing fiction placed a remarkable number of people, both real and imagined, in their history just to watch them respond.”
Doctorow’s characters are not really “responding,” they are “reacting” and by doing so, they are creating a lot of suffering. Andrew, Doctorow’s protagonist, makes the classic mistake that most of us make—he identifies with his brain, his mind—but takes it to the extreme. This behavior, as we know, can lead to a zombie-like personality. Andrew reveals that in his strong identification with his mind, he loses contact with Simple Reality and the ability to respond. “I am finally, terribly, unfeeling.”
Being a student of cognitive science or behavioral conditioning, Andrew has some key insights into his own behavior, but not enough to address his own self-destructive behavior. “‘Pretending is the brain’s work,’ he explains. ‘It’s what it does. The brain can even pretend not to be itself.’” In other words, the brain can pretend to be a false self and create an elaborate personality, or several personalities that do not want to acknowledge the self-created illusion into which it has escaped.
These story lines will resonate with students of self-transformation as they would have with Buddha who would have known exactly what they were about. Along with our body and our emotions, the mind robs us of our freedom if we cannot find a way to break out of the prison which results from our identifying with these false identities. Returning to Andrew, enamored of his brain, but suspecting all is not well: “‘It’s a kind of jail, the brain’s mind,’ he says. ‘We’ve got these mysterious three-pound brains and they jail us.’” Exactly!
Andrew, like the Collyer’s, can feel imprisoned by both his conscious and unconscious mind. “This is a prisoner’s story, the cracked apologia of a lifer.” The jailer in this prison is the intellect but we, much like Andrew, don’t tend to realize this. We like to think of our intellect as beneficent, solving our problems and leading us to freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. This identification with our mind is a major cause of our enslavement and misery.
“This babbling Andrew is a casualty of his times, binding his wounds with thick wrappings of words, ideas, bits of story, whatever his spinning mind can unspool for him. His homemade therapy doesn’t heal him, really, and Andrew’s Brain is in most respects clearly a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to think yourself out of pain.” The brain which led us into prison is not the guide we should turn to to get us out.
This irony of the old story is that it imprisons us, and the identity derived from it clings to the intellect that promises to unlock the cell door but in fact does not have the key and only pretends to be our savior. “You pass through endless mirrors of self-estrangement. This too is the brain’s cunning, that you are not to know yourself.”
Now it’s time for a little side-trip, back in time, with our guide C. G. Jung. Jung discovered the collective unconscious the collective memory of the human race residing in the human unconscious. We are all influenced and at times “blindsided” by this collective unconscious, what Doctorow calls the “neuronal record of previous ages.” Andrew senses this content in his brain and suspects it might be problematic. “Perhaps I’m carrying in my brain matter the neuronal record of previous ages.” No “perhaps” about it, Andrew, you have a problem with your brain, a serious problem.
Our freedom depends upon an epiphany that empowers us with the realization that there is a “false self,” the same self that tormented the Collyer’s and Andrew, which stands in opposition to an alternative True self. We are the creators of that false self, the authors of the narrative in which it resides. “And in any event, what has happened to Andrew matters less than how he tells it to himself, how he walls himself in with words.”
Doctorow is right that we can’t think ourselves out of our pain because the process of thinking is used primarily for creating pain by identifying too strongly with our own self-created story.
There is another story ripe for the telling within each of us. We will only hear it if the clamor of thinking (monkey mind) subsides and we stop listening to that false self that urges having, doing and knowing. We will only hear it if we create silence and solitude for ourselves and turn within the still small voice of the True self.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.