He Was Himself. And He Knew What He Had Been.

61UbQXxc-iLThe other weekend, I was eating cottage cheese wrapped in toasted tortillas (my go-to snack), and casually flipping through the New York Times magazine. I came upon an article that took me in by surprise. Afterwards I contemplatively stared into space and had one of those “What does it all mean?” moments. Maybe I was in a dark mood when I read it.

In any event, it’s a short and simple piece. The writer, Steve Almond, extolls his favorite book ever: Stoner by John Williams.

I bought the book, of course, but in the meantime, Almond’s summary is as follows.

First, take your inner life seriously: “Stoner argues that we are measured ultimately by our capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments, not by the burnishing of our public selves.”

Second, you’re probably a rather ordinary and flawed human being — just like the protagonist William Stoner:

William Stoner is, in many ways, a dubious leading man, introverted and passive. He fails even to protect his daughter from the deranged whims of his troubled wife. The story of his life is not a neat crescendo of industry and triumph, but something more akin to our own lives: a muddle of desires and inhibitions and compromises.

And if you think you’re really special, get real:

Put your wit — or your craft projects or your rants or your pranks — on public display.

Otherwise, you wind up like poor Stoner: a footnote in the great human story.

But aren’t nearly all of us footnotes in the end? Don’t the dreams we harbor eventually give way to the actuality of our lives?

Stoner’s creator seems to argue that self-knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, especially when the actuality of our lives isn’t anything special (as is the case for 99.9% of us):

Soon enough, fate confounds him. His marriage devolves into a domestic horror. His daughter falls into despair. A senseless feud undermines his career. He suffers no delusions about his place in the world. He recognizes that others find him absurd and that his intellectual contributions to his arcane field are at best minor. Over and over again, Stoner is forced to confront his own weakness, his limitations as a son and father and husband and scholar. And yet he refuses to turn away.

As Stoner lies dying, his creator observes: “There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

How many of us can say the same of ourselves?

He was himself. And he knew what he had been.

6 Responses to He Was Himself. And He Knew What He Had Been.

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    Another book in this vein is “Jean-Christophe,” which won the Nobel Prize in 1915. It’s an immense book that focuses on every detail of the life of a single, flawed character. I only read it once, but some of it still sticks with me.

  2. DaveJ says:

    The summary seems to suggest, though, that “knowing oneself” is equal to facing one’s shortcomings. But in fact many people in their self-analysis overemphasize their shortcomings and never really accept and appreciate their strengths. An evenhanded self-knowledge would include both. It is that peculiar trait of the literary and psychological class that values the negative as deep and the positive as shallow.

    But maybe the book’s not really like that and it’s just the summary.

    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Completely agree with this: “It is that peculiar trait of the literary and psychological class that values the negative as deep and the positive as shallow.”

      Great observation.

  3. Dave Carlson says:

    I sometimes read articles about the deathbed regrets of the dying, and invariably men say “I wish I hadn’t worked as hard.”

    I wonder if “Put your wit — or your craft projects or your rants or your pranks — on public display.” can be reconciled with that idea.

  4. Friv 2 says:

    He is an intelligent mind and very good.

  5. Jesse says:

    And that’s important you don’t need to explain your goals and dreams to every-one

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