One thing I’ve learnt in my twenties is the end of exceptionalism. It’s probably a common delusion of youth to think oneself exempt from the laws, patterns, forces which shape everyone else. Unlike those weak people I will not put on weight, do anything I don’t want to do for the sake of money, stop listening to loud, aggressive music, suffer medical indignities, grow hairs on my chest, long to sit quietly at home watching television, save for a house, or fail in my burning but impractical ambitions.
The ultimate expression of exceptionalism is the refusal to believe in one’s mortality. As a small child, I assumed I would live to 100. I did better than everyone else in every other test; wasn’t it only fair I receive the best mark in that too? I was the Judge, Fox Clane, in Carson McCullers’ Clock Without Hands, whose mortality was inconceivable, even at the end of his life.
Immortality, that was what the Judge was concerned with. It was inconceivable to him that he would actually die. He would live to a hundred years if he kept to his diet and controlled himself – deeply he regretted the extra toast. He didn’t want to limit his time for just a hundred years, wasn’t there a South American Indian who had lived to be a hundred and fifty – and would a hundred and fifty years be enough? No. It was immortality he wanted. Immortality like Shakespeare, and if ‘push came to shovel’, even like Ben Jonson. In any case he wanted no ashes and dust for Fox Clane. (p.87)
The end of exceptionalism is inevitably tied to the dulling of idealism. They are not identical, but they tend to go together. Idealism has in its twenties the quality of believing that you can make things work that no-one else has made work or that you can solve problems no-one else has solved. I used to despise the way people lost their idealism as they got older. It wasn’t going to happen to me.
I have a small hope of coming through the end of exceptionalism, and the disappointments of the last years and compromises I’ve made for various reasons, to a post-exceptionalist idealism, the kind of wise idealism which lives quietly for what is right while no longer burning with naive certainty that things will turn out right if only one believes hard enough.
I hate vagueness, and I’ve veered toward it in the last couple of paragraphs. Yet vagueness is sometimes the price of being public. (At other times the price is writing fiction.)