In today’s environment of openness and explicitness, when virtually anything can and will be said and written, it’s a logical assumption that our level of communication and understanding is higher than ever—that very little is left to be revealed.
This has always intuitively seemed wrong to me, but it was the happy coincidence of reading Andrew Sean Greer’s best-selling novel, Less, and Anthony Trollope’s 1867 opus, Phineas Finn, more or less together, that helped me understand why.
If you’re not familiar with Trollope, or with Victorian writing generally (or, for that matter, with Henry James, the primary link between 19th and 20th century aesthetics and sensibilities), it helps to know that these novels are really, really long. As in 800 pages or more. They feature a plethora of characters, mainly from the English upper-class gentry and aristocracy (though Phineas Finn is Irish). The plots revolve obsessively around courtship, romance, marriage and love—or the lack of it—among these characters. And they contain lengthy, elaborate discussions mostly involving what is left unsaid between them. Which is very nearly everything. This sensibility is of course very English, but it’s also true of many cultures apart from contemporary America, and it seems to me that we have a lot to learn from it.
Enter Arthur Less, fictional American novelist. The protagonist of Less suffers from “imposter syndrome,” thinking himself to be much less than he is, doubting his achievements as a novelist, his viability as a friend and, most crucially, his appeal as a lover. But behind all of Less’s misconceptions about himself is his inability to read and hear unspoken signals—the height of irony for a novelist who succeeds in portraying ambivalent and ambiguous characters in his books. Less’s failures have as much to do with 21st century American cultural explicitness—our habit of discounting anything that isn’t up front, out loud and in your face—as it does with his own personal frailties. This is why it takes an unplanned world tour—embarked upon as the only excuse he can think of to avoid attending the wedding of a former lover—for him to finally awaken to his own strength, talent, and beauty.
Less finds this awakening in unexpressed reactions to him of foreign acquaintances and friends, and in the intentional silence and stillness of foreign landscapes. It is fitting that his culminating epiphany occurs in Japan, in a completely stylized and silent garden, where he discovers an echo of his forgotten childhood self. Other muted encounters, in India, Morocco, Germany (where he is politely allowed to think he can speak the language fluently despite his repeated hilarious flubs), and Mexico demonstrate to him, step by unspoken step, the many feelings, ideas, and interactions his life and writing inspires in others, until he finally opens up to the reality of his fifty years of life rich with relationships and experiences that modern “communication,” far from conveying, has managed to obscure.
It took Phineas Finn for me to appreciate the depth of this dysfunction in our modern culture. Finn too, an exceptionally handsome, exceedingly “agreeable” and reasonably talented young man, consistently misreads the upspoken signals of all those around him, in friendship, in financial dealings, in his aspiring political career, and of course in romance. His failure to understand how others see and feel about him originate not in anything like our present-day dystopian cacophony—he is perfectly at one with the British reign of reserve, understatement, allusion and metaphor—but because he has such skewed ideas of what constitutes personal success and happiness. In other words, he fails to filter out the noises in his head.
For Finn, these noises come from the heavy-handedness of the British class system, its ostensible valuing of “blood,” origin, and background against its real, objective, hidden in plain sight: money and power. But for Arthur Less, like any contemporary American seeking equilibrium in daily life, satisfaction in personal relations and happiness in love, the noises come from our own obsession with perpetual “communication.”
By endlessly demanding and delivering explicitness in every interaction, in art, in the news, in politics, in commerce, and in our personal relations, we suffer immense impoverishment. As Trollope shows us in his thousands upon thousands of pages of portrayals of relations in which very little is made explicit and volumes are left unsaid, so much of human experience—our feelings, our ideas, our perceptions and misperceptions—can only be adequately explored indirectly. This is why we have metaphor. This is why allusion, suggestion, irony, absence and silence are all indispensable to art.
This is why, now more than ever, we need to say not what we think and—as often as not—encourage others to say not what they think. I have no doubt that both Trollope and James—neither of whom loved America—would agree that when it comes to understanding our true selves, less is surely more.