“First world problems”: I hate that phrase, if only for its cringe-inducing note of virtue signalling – as if we should constantly apologise for not suffering more because of where we live. Still, there are problems and then there are problems. As I fretted over a particular quandary a couple of weeks ago, even I was moved to think, This might justify the “first world problem” phrase. I couldn’t decide what to read.
I went through my library – a patchwork collection of shelves and bookcases, some store-bought, some second-hand, others knocked together by yours truly, and loaded with nearly a thousand books – hesitating over the spines of several novels. The issue was not a lack of something I wanted to read, it was a surplus of novels calling for my attention. I would take one from its shelf and glance across the front and back covers, skim its pages, read a few lines, imagine sitting down to read it, then imagine which books I might enjoy doing this with even more, and a strange anxiety about missing out would move my hand to return the book and go find another.
I know, I know: Cry me a river. And then drown this self-indulgent fool in it. But this scene manifests something many of us face frequently. So enamoured with a broad, ill-conceived, cheap notion of freedom, and having been raised in age of rejecting all boundaries and restrictions, making a choice about anything has come to look uncomfortably like choosing to get into a cage. A decision settled, all other avenues are closed off. Bridges do not burn – in most cases choices can be undone, mistakes rectified, paths followed back to a prior junction to take a different route. And yet making even a temporary choice and momentarily reducing one’s freedom is not seen as something to indulge.
I finally decided to re-read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I had come to the conclusion that apart from her magnificent We Have Always Lived In The Castle, I did not rate Jackson’s work very highly. Haunting in particular had left me feeling underwhelmed. There is much to admire in her writing, much to be frustrated by, but the sum total for me amounts to a sad lack of enthusiasm. My re-reading of Haunting made me see how wrong I had been. I still have my issues with the book, but I am anything but apathetic about it now. And the main theme I detected in its pages spoke to that inability to decide, inspired by an adolescent worship of freedom.
At the opening of the novel, Eleanor Vance is summoned to Hill House by Dr Montague, who hopes to study the alleged psychic phenomena haunting the property. Now thirty-two, Eleanor has been emancipated from caring for her mother by the matriarch’s death. Invited to take part in something bizarre and seeking the wide world from which she has been removed for so long, Eleanor takes a pseudo-mythic journey from one life to another, from the city in which she had been trapped to the house she will never leave.
Eleanor’s cross-country drive is punctuated by discursive fantasies. She lives an entire lifetime in a house guarded by lion statues, all in the few seconds it takes her to speed past the building. Later, she breaks the fairy spell keeping her out of a garden in which she “shall live happily ever after”. The fantasy expands, and not only that secluded garden but the whole kingdom turns into “a soft green picture from a fairy tale”. And there are other, more realistic, lives she might choose along the way.
In order for any of this to happen, however, she must get out of her car and choose a dream to pursue. But choice is a kind of containment, and Eleanor has the immature, reckless fascination with change that so many mistake for freedom. “Another day,” she thinks, “I’ll come back and break your spell.” For now, she wishes to remain dazzled by the enchantment.
Eleanor drives past many places she might redirect her journey towards, but she prefers the open road and the illusion that it is endless. Perhaps she fears picking anything for all the other options lost as a result of having decided. This seems to be one of the defining neuroses of our time: So determined to hold onto every opportunity and option, so obsessed with a specific form of freedom from chains shaken off in the twentieth century (often thrown together in a box taped shut and labelled with “Tradition – DO NOT OPEN”), we insist on committing to nothing.
The great nonsense of cultural relativism has been superseded by personal relativism. Values are now relative to each person. Various institutions to which individuals once belonged are now jettisoned in favour of the individuated institution of me in this moment. Marriage was rightly tipped upside down and shaken so its sexist and commerce-driven baggage fell from its pockets, but then marriage too was tossed aside with nothing offered in its place as a progressive alternative for symbolising a firmly-decided romantic commitment.
In fact, the idea of making such a promise became taboo, a contravention of the shallow individualism that is the only thing still seen as sacred. Individuals seemed to take the approach that it is better not to commit to anything long-term in case something “better” comes along, and not to promise oneself to anything that will require sacrifice on one’s part. As we will see, this is not a rewarding way to live nor a solid route to real freedom.
Eleanor so stubbornly resists infringements of her freedom that she fails to see how this can restrict her. Like the little girl she watches later in a café, who stubbornly refuses to drink boring milk from an ordinary glass, Eleanor too wants to drink from a “cup of stars”. When the girl’s parents attempt to cajole her into drinking from a plain cup, Eleanor silently wills her to rebel, because “once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again”. She thinks of conforming as a cage, the credo of our hyper-individualist age that insists on a cup of stars for each person, or a cup of planets if you prefer, or why not no cup at all if your individual tastes take that preference. They insist on it at any cost, never seemingly understanding that much of that cost is at their own expense.
The little girl, for instance, may have won the battle over using the ordinary cup, but it means she does not get to drink anything. Her freedom to quench her thirst has been anchored to the cup of stars, so she will not drink until she gets home to that cup. And what of the non-personal costs? Her “victory” has cost her family the pleasant lunch out that her parents had put in the work to try to achieve. Instead, they have had to argue with and console a spoilt child.
Imagine our naïve Eleanor at a roundabout in her journey. She circles it, eyeing up her options. There are three new roads she can choose between, but her awareness that choosing one means losing the others keeps her in indecision. Like a spinning top, she goes uselessly round and round until she runs out of energy and topples over. Perhaps she tentatively drives some way up the first road, glancing around but always bothered by what she might be missing down one of the other roads. She doesn’t get far before turning back and making her way down road two, which she also pays half attention to and quickly gives up for road three. Eventually, she finds herself circling the drain at that roundabout again, going in slowing circles, wasting time.
What if, instead, she voluntarily sacrifices that freedom of choice by choosing one of the roads and committing to it. She no longer allows herself the option of other routes, and so she gives everything to exploring this road, going further, seeing more, experiencing the journey to its fullest. That first, indecisive Eleanor, so devoted to keeping as many opportunities to hand as possible, has none of the opportunities afforded to this second Eleanor, who discovers places forever hidden to those who cannot commit themselves to the exploration.
David Foster Wallace once said, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” He warned that if we fool ourselves into believing we do not need to choose, we slip into a default mode of worship: of money, intellect, power, etc. We most often seem to fall into worship of freedom, the kind of freedom that makes itself its own goal. There is no such thing as not choosing; you either choose for yourself or let someone or something else choose for you.
We cannot go on indefinitely into an infinite sunset on a road that just keeps unrolling ahead; eventually, a destination is arrived at, and if we don’t choose it, it chooses us. Eleanor refuses to make up her own mind about where to end up, so Hill House chooses for her. She follows Dr Montague’s directions straight into a new cage.
On the first night that Eleanor spends with her new group of friends inside Hill House, they play a game. Here we have Eleanor and Dr Montague, joined by Luke and Theodora. They throw out fictional autobiographies, and Eleanor gets quite into it, trying on the identity of an artist’s model who lives “a mad, abandoned life, draped in a shawl and going from garret to garret”. This quartet of amateur ghost-hunters slips in and out of other identities including a princess and a bullfighter.
They are enacting an overt rendition of what we now see so many of us doing in the real world, and not for a single evening but extended portions of our lives. Encouraged by magazines and make-over shows to “fix” this or “alter” that, and by increasing and increasingly mainstream preoccupations with self-help courses and books promising to turn you into “the best you that you can be”, a substantial portion of our cultural gaze is aimed directly at the navel. This self-defining and self-aggrandising tendency is at its most virulent in the form of identity politics that champions who you are over what you have done. Your voice is not validated by what you have earned and accomplished but by who you claim to be while speaking.
There are many factors contributing to this social phenomenon, but one that connects with this pursuit of empty freedom is the way these shapeshifting identities are a response to anxiety over the obligations and duties that might hamper freedom. If I can simply become someone new the moment the responsibilities of my old self become a burden, I am “free” from unwanted burdens. There is no need to analyse my reasons for giving up, no soul searching required because I can simply torch that soul and seek a new one.
Midway through the novel, Dr Montague admits that Hill House seems to have the ability to “find out the flaws and faults and weakness” in all of them and “break [them] apart”. On the back of this, he recommends that their only defence against such strain and testing of their character is to flee, to run away as quickly as possible – “At least it can’t follow us, can it?”
We witness in this the unspoken, unanalysed motivation beneath so much of our race towards freedom: Fear is the fuel to the engine that keeps us speeding down the open road. We are not merely running towards freedom, we are fleeing from fear, fear of failure and hardship and obligations and perceived cages. “I think,” the doctor tells the group, “we are only afraid of ourselves.”
“No,” Luke responds. “Of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.”
It might just be and often is the case that life’s prodding at our weak spots and poking at our flaws is precisely what we need to become strong enough to break out of the chains that such faults can bind us in. We can destroy the cage by choosing to remain in it and learning from weakness to find the strength to break those bars. Instead, we flee as soon as a door opens – as Eleanor did the moment her mother (and so her duties to her) died – and we must continue to run in case the cage catches up. What kind of freedom is this that demands we pursue it? It is no more freedom than was found in the unfreedom left behind.
Throughout The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor sings to herself the line, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” A few times, Jackson also drops in the line “In delay there lies no plenty”. These are both lifted from the fool’s song in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a carpe diem ditty admonishing the one who constantly roams, lingering in indecision, instead of seizing a moment. “What is love?” Shakespeare asks, and then answers, “’tis not hereafter.” It is not to be found in the afterlife. Love, as with all opportunities, should be grabbed decisively, because although “what’s to come is still unsure”, refusing to choose leads only to waste.
“In delay there lies no plenty,” but in deciding for oneself, in closing certain doors and ignoring unexplored roads to more fully experience the chosen place, there is much to be gained – including a liberation denied to the reckless chaser of all-consuming freedom. And there is no not choosing; by holding off, you do not abstain from choice, you choose delay. And in that state of indecision, you are chosen. Hill House chooses Eleanor because she did not have the strength to choose something else.
In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor seeks freedom and ends up trapped inside Hill House, a cage she willingly walks into as if freedom means trading one set of walls for another. Her final act, which will define her to all who come later, is one she is forced into, unable to resist by deciding differently. She is made prisoner forever, confined to Hill House as one of its many ghosts.
How do we avoid similar (if less melodramatic or supernatural) fates? I believe we do so by voluntarily submitting ourselves to something greater than the self-centred nature of absolute freedom. We give ourselves up to something within which we find greater freedom than that which can be found wandering aimlessly, rejecting every perceived shackle and shunning any responsibility that doesn’t allow us to pursue every whim. As David Foster Wallace put it:
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad, petty, little, unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
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• The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (1959)
• Commencement Address at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace (2005)
• Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare (circa. 1600)