Watching an old episode of a favorite show, I was amused at a line one of the characters quipped about another. The current boyfriend of the girl had been making fun of the recent literary work of her ex as the three of them awkwardly sat at dinner. When her insulted ex stormed off and she confronted her boyfriend about it, he dismissed it with the phrase, “He’s a writer. They’re always sensitive.”
Of course, he was just being facetious. It was funny, though, because it was true. The other guy was the girl’s ex for a reason. He had been moody, unreliable, quick to take offense, spontaneous in a lot of unpleasant, inconvenient ways, but also brilliant, well-read…and a newly published writer. All the stereotypes in one smooth blow.
There is some practicality behind the stereotype. Writers have to be sensitive. It is an occupational necessity, an innate requirement. It encompasses not just emotional sensitivity, but also sensual receptivity. A writer has to be able to let things in so that they can accurately relate the true nature of things. To be closed off from your subject makes for bad writing–it would show in every line.
Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to turn off. There is a fine line between sensitive writer and a tortured writer. Life under that sort of constant stimulation can become tough to handle. We’ve all heard stories of various self-destructive means many writers have taken to get relief. I know this world, which makes it hard for me to understand the reverse state.
Imagine my delight to find the poem “Egg-head” by the great Ted Hughes. In the poem, we get a glimpse into the experience of the not-so-sensitives. I hesitate to call these people ‘insensitive,’ because it brings up images of those with an obvious moral lack, rude or even cruel people. No, I’m talking about those who by nature or by conscious choice do not let outside stimuli affect them, whether physical or emotional. Or, plainly speaking, they don’t let things in.
Hughes begins his poem with a list of intricate, delicate attributes of nature that sensitive people would find beautiful, but which our Egg-head would experience as “manslaughtering shocks” if they were let into his consciousness. Other people (you know, those self-destructive sensitive poet types) ‘dare to be struck dead’ because they let in overstimulating nature, but the Egg-head is all about self-preservation. He is a ‘veteran of survival,’ more concerned with ‘defense’ against the overwhelming outside world.
We learn, then, that some people choose to cut themselves off from the world to protect themselves. Fear is king here. They are afraid of being overcome; they are afraid of the loss of control, the possible loss of self, the possible hurt and devastation. Perhaps they had suffered a great emotional blow in the past and subsequently decided it is too risky to ever allow anything in again. So, they shut the world out. We all know people like this, don’t we?
With masterful language, Hughes describes what this kind if thinking would look like. He speaks of the brain being in “opacities” and “walled in translucencies” as the person “shuts out the world’s knocking/ with a welcome.” The outside world speak only to the “deafnesses” of this brain. The highly poetic language shows us how blind and deaf the person has made himself out of “prudence,” to keep the self safe.
But how safe is he or she?
Hughes’ poem explores the idea of the title. This person is an egg-head, a.k.a quite fragile, unfortunately. There is huge risk, huge danger, huge drawbacks to living life this way. Hughes speaks of the “fragility” that “rounds and resists receiving the flash of the sun, the bolt of the earth.” It takes a lot of work to keep the world out, people! The poem describes “juggleries of benumbing,” among other things the Egg-head must utilize to keep himself from feeling and sensing things. It’s a losing battle. The poem compares the fight to a “dewdrop frailty” having to stop “the looming mouth of the earth with a pin-point cipher.” It is an impossible fight, but the Egg-head will not give it up.
The whole point of it is keeping the self intact, right? What else could fuel such a panicked obstinacy than that? The Egg-head wants to keep that “staturing ‘I am’,” that “upthrust affirmative head of man,” no matter what. He would even “trumpet his own ear dead,” or remain in his closed, cramped—but safe—egg shell forever rather than let in the sun.
That’s downright impressive…if tragic.
I had a friend like this. He was smart, successful, and attractive, but he seemed incredibly ignorant about the emotional states of others (even himself). Not that he was mean-spirited, but you could just tell that he was protecting himself from possible emotional harm by cutting himself off from all perception of other people’s states of being. It was as if he could not see, hear, or feel the world around him for fear of getting involved, and therefore knocked off balance. It was tragic, too, because it was obvious that he desired emotional connection. Yet, that required vulnerability and vulnerability wasn’t about to happen to someone protecting a fragile self-identity, so he chose to stay protected, even if unfulfilled.
In a way, our whole society is like that. We’re all a bunch of Egg-heads. Just watch any of our TV shows or movies. We idealize the unfeeling intellectuals or the tough guys who couldn’t care less about other people’s emotions or the sunsets appearing in the windows. No, they need to be smart and tough to solve crimes and blow up buildings to save the world. Perhaps it mirrors our own fear and uneasiness about negative situations? Sadness, loss, fear, disappointment…if only we couldn’t feel anything, we would be safe, right?
Like Hughes’ poem indicates, though, there are huge drawbacks to this stance. If all negative emotions and sensations are dismissed, the positive ones go with them. Our appreciation of the finer, more beautiful things in life go, too. The pursuit of tenderness, the enjoyment of love…gone. Is it worth it?
What do you think? Is it better not to feel, not to get involved, not to let the world in, just to be safe? Meanwhile, check out Hughes’ poem. It is nothing short of amazing.