“It is difficult to write about a real person.” — T. H. White
In my summer travels I have considerable time to catch up on my reading—there seems little else to do on airplanes, for example. As I hopped the Atlantic this past week I read The Once and Future King by T. H. White. I had started reading it when I was younger, but never made it past book one because the second book doesn’t have the same carefree facade as the first. I missed a lot of marvelous truths embedded in a compelling story in so doing.
In the third book, thirty-fourth chapter, White attempts an explanation of Guinever’s character. Removing the specifics particular to her, we have the following:
One explanation for Guenever, for what it is worth, is that she was what they used to call a “real” person. She was not the kind who can be fitted away safely under some label or other, as “loyal” or “disloyal” or “self-sacrificing” or “jealous”. Sometimes she was loyal and sometimes she was disloyal. She behaved like herself. And there must have been something in this self, some sincerity of heart, or she would not have held two people like Arthur and Lancelot. […] It is difficult to write about a real person.
When I read that, I was moved. “Self,” thought I, “This is the right way to describe someone. Humans are complicated. I cannot reliably describe even one of my emotions verbally; why then should I think I can describe any human in any number of pages?” It is difficult to describe real people. There might not be anything more difficult to describe.
There are two underlying implications in White’s description, though, that I do not find myself immediately accepting.
One implication I reject is that some people aren’t “real”. There may be simple, easily fitted-away folk but I have yet to find evidence of their existence. I do have evidence of people who think themselves simple, but I have thus far believed this belief to be mistaken. I suppose this is rather arrogant, coming very close to believing that I know people better than they know themselves, but it is nonetheless what I believe.
The other implication I reject is that a real person can’t have some accurate labels applied. White himself applies labels to Guinever—generous, for example—so I may be unfair in saying this is an implication he makes, but it is an implication of the portion I chose to quote. And it is false. One of the most complicated people I know is also the most honest person I know—indeed, more honest in practice than I can imagine being in theory for I do not know how to express as much truth as he does.
I have been accused by several people of “wanting to appear different,” of doing things particularly to convey the message “I am not like you expect I am.” I do not know if this is true or not. I am not conscious of setting out to convey the message “I am odd” but I do deeply believe that any quick judgment of anyone’s character is incorrect, even misleadingly flawed. As Lennon and McCartney put it in “Hey Bulldog”, “You think you know me, but you haven’t got a clue.” I wonder if my belief that I (and all others) are real and might ever honestly sing that line to anyone colors my actions subconsciously?
As this post does not seem to be leading anywhere in particular, this sentence shall be its last.