To the Far Side of the Earth and Back Disintegration and Reintegration as an Expat, Part II

We rejoin Max as he is in the midst of a positive disintegration, launched while living in China and recounted in Part I.

I returned to America in 2008, where we were in the throes of a recession. There was no serious work to be found, even for a young ex-TV star, of dubious Chinese fame. I did manage to find a temporary job in the call center for an online university; ultimately, however, I decided that it would be best to ride the downturn out in graduate school. My earlier academic idiocy, however, meant that most reasonable programs would not take me, and I had to go where I would be received.

This pointed me, once again, to China. I enrolled in the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a program run with reluctant cooperation by the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and Nanjing University, which accepted me largely based on the strength of my language skills and standardized test scores. Thus did I spend two years in the capital of Jiangsu Province, trying to understand the country and its history. My time there contained several stories that could fill separate essays on Dabrowskian development. In one important instance, I had a romantic relationship with a fellow American student that could have lasted—but I deliberately held it at bay, too firmly shaped as I was by a life that had been consistently transitory thus far. This kind of sad behavior, I think, is typical of the early level III individual, particularly under stress: I perceived that there was an alternate path, and one that was higher; but I utterly failed to follow it.

The Leveler

In the months before I completed my master’s degree, I had decided that—in addition to Mandarin, Ancient Greek, Latin (which I’d started to pick up a couple years before), and Classical Chinese—the time had come for me to start learning Persian. It seemed like the perfect bridge between the worlds of China and antique Western civilization; and so I would start this when I got back to the States. The vista for learning seemed expansive and I felt an understanding of the intersection of foreign worlds ripening within me. Who knew how far it would go? Perhaps, after Persian, I would teach myself Arabic? Yes! Arabic! The modern language first, naturally, but that would then have to be followed by the ancient form. Of course! And then? And then, I…

…I would be old.

I realized that there were only three possible ways forward: I could obsess over death and decline, which was perverse; I could attempt to ignore or reject my realizations, which was vain; or I could accept this new reality, and focus on my life within it.

This tiny moment—the first appreciation of how limited, how bounded is life, and how necessary decline and death—rammed into me with a force irresistible. And over such a pleasurable thing as the learning of languages, which had been so central a part of my guiding, greater good! I was twenty-nine at the time, which seems young for that kind of thing.

So I missed class. I lay in bed and felt terrible, both over my moral weakness, and because of the simple and inevitable fact of an end, which made all things hollow. As I lay there, I realized that there were only three possible ways forward: I could obsess over death and decline, which was perverse; I could attempt to ignore or reject my realizations, which was vain; or I could accept this new reality, and focus on my life within it. I saw no reason in any choice but the last. If my deep regret over how terrible I’d been to a young woman was the dry kindling, my realization of mortality was the spark that set it ablaze—and set me on the path toward a more directed multilevel disintegration.

A Return to America, after the Rain

The situation to which I returned in America in 2011 was still not good. Once again I struggled to find work. I had no background in economics, and most people in the Washington, DC area were interested in China solely from the perspective of trade. I did temp work again. My loans were crushing: over the course of undergraduate and master’s studies, I’d racked up $97,000 in debt, much of it at rates of interest over seven percent. Some of the work I found that would have been suitable for me (I’d wanted to get into the think tank world) I simply could not take because I would have been unable to make the $1,100 monthly payments on my debt that would have to come before I even started to think about anything like food or rent.

When I finally did track down work doing language training for federal employees, it became precarious for bureaucratic reasons beyond my control. My best friend married a man with whom I quarreled. My mother began a terrible mental decline, depriving me of my closest companion, and my father was diagnosed with a cancer that nearly killed him. I fell in love with the woman whom I had mistreated so terribly, and was devastated when she inevitably and understandably chose another over me. I felt regret—consuming regret, of a kind that teaches.

Return to Sender

This set of circumstances primes the mind for disintegration, and disintegration is alienating. Over all of American society, there seemed to be a transparent membrane that would transmit light to my side only hazily, and oxygen not at all. My social isolation was heightened by a cultural incompatibility acquired over long years of life abroad. When I was invited out to gatherings at trivia nights or happy hours, I would not understand why the activity itself was desirable or what was actually going on. I had these terrible, shriveling sensations, as if my heart was a flower that was closing in on itself, wrinkling into a tight, nut-like bud.

One day when we got news about my father’s cancer, I came home to mail from my loan company. I couldn’t open it. It was a moment that could not be fought against; I would not open my mail. I developed something like a phobia of correspondence, the unceasing bearer of terrible news, and refused to check my mailbox for over a year.

With my parents’ situation and the new distance between me and my best friend, I felt rudderless in a flood of panic. I wanted to reach out to someone, anyone, but there was simply no one there. I remember squatting on the floor of my newly-rented apartment and just waiting for the emotional waves to finally pass and the horrible waters to recede. I could do nothing. One day when we got news about my father’s cancer, I came home to mail from my loan company. I couldn’t open it. It was a moment that could not be fought against; I would not open my mail. I developed something like a phobia of correspondence, the unceasing bearer of terrible news, and refused to check my mailbox for over a year. The Post Office continued to cram documents into it to the point of overflow, but I would not deal with it, except to take the contents and recycle them unread once every two or three months. And yet, in all this, I never thought of self-harm. I don’t know why. It would have been understandable if I did, but it never happened.

I made my way through by persistence. I remember that I thought often to myself that “I walk through shit and knives every day,” but I kept on walking.

Blown Out

The man who came out on the other side of this disintegration was very different. I have learned that the word “crisis” (κρίσις) actually means something like “judgment”; this fact is significant because it highlights how we are tried by such experiences. When I finally resettled—when my crisis passed—I had been emotionally simplified. The typical term I use to describe this is “blown out.” I do not mean that my emotions were muffled; it’s probably better to say that I simply had fewer of them. I no longer experience embarrassment or awkwardness, for example. I have no anger. No jealousy.

I also no longer feel any kind of hope, which is a strange development. I take aim at things and pursue them in my life to the greatest degree that I can, but I await the results of my efforts with something like disinterest. It’s not, of course; but I do not experience anything that could be described as positive anticipation of a happy outcome. To gather all these changes together in a single result, I would say that all my baffling emotions fell away, and the world became simpler.

Through this, I finally achieved moral clarity. I saw the Stoic truth that most things did not matter—that they are things undifferentiated, adiaphora (ἀδιάφορα), not rising to the level of moral importance—and that the number of moments addressed in human experience that actually require ethical engagement are very limited in number. But these few are vital, and I could now see them more clearly, more plainly than I had before when the world was a crazy plaid, woven of confusion.

The number of moments addressed in human experience that actually require ethical engagement are very limited in number. But these few are vital, and I could now see them more clearly.

Perhaps relatedly, I developed the ability to act as a mentor. In a forest of seeming obstacles, it became easy for me to isolate the few factors of real import and describe them simply, so that another person could understand them. This comes with a certain sensation of disembodiedness that allows vigorous action. After I’d been through this change, I found myself in a situation very like the time in Yancheng, over a decade before, where the girl was hit by the bus: in the subway, I saw a woman accidentally fumble and drop her tablet onto the tracks, just as a train was entering the station. Another woman foolishly dove to recover it, but then could not pull herself back onto the platform. In the moment that needed action, it was easy for me to disregard all and shove ahead to haul her out of danger, while others stood by, uncertain of how to act.

Quo Vado?

In the years since my return, I have become stable. I am functional. I have a job, which permits me to keep up on the loan payments, and I find the occasional outlet for my personal thoughts. My first novel has just been published by a small press. I am more capable than once I was, which is a direct reflection, I think, of my navigation of the trials of multilevel disintegration.

But I am also more isolated. Of others I have learned to expect very little, but to not judge them harshly for that. Circumstances define men and women so readily, and there is often little that a single person can do to correct the path through life, in the awesome face of their circumstances. My memory of my own suffering and errant foolishness also permits me an understanding and a sympathy for neighbors, co-workers, in-laws, friends, and strangers that I lacked before. My wife, the editor-in-chief of this magazine, suggests that this is a level IV dynamism that Dabrowski called “subject-object in oneself.”

When I say that I am isolated, though, I should take care not to imply that I am lonely. Now that I have learned to say “yes” in those moments when a good thing is going, I have strong friendships. China is now mainly behind me, but I am finding new ways to live in America that are good in their own right, but different. I am also drawn strongly to anyone or anything that has a bold, forceful declaration of principle behind it: this is what took me to Whisk(e)y Tit, the strange little press that ultimately published my novel. It was their mission statement that took me in, and I’m providing a copy of it below, to illustrate the sort of thing that resonates to me with companionship, these days.

Whisk(e)y Tit is committed to restoring degradation and degeneracy to the literary arts. We work with authors who are unwilling to sacrifice intellectual rigor, unrelenting playfulness, and visual beauty in our literary pursuits, often leading to texts that would otherwise be abandoned in today’s largely homogenized literary landscape. In a world governed by idiocy, our commitment to these principles is an act of civil service and civil disobedience alike.

I think that these are real values, in great part because they stand on their own: they call out to no sub-culture and adhere to no particular movement. And yet, in a sui generis way, they are rigorous and call out the things that matter, in a world of undifferentiated trifles.

I know that I am not at level V. I read once in Ortega y Gasset that man is by nature in a state of confusion, and that metaphysics is any attempt that is made to orient oneself, to eliminate that confusion. I found this is a good definition, and it shows that what Dabrowski called secondary integration is, in effect, an ultimate, metaphysical realignment, after which certainty is possible. It is obvious that I have not achieved this kind of final heading, but I am able to persist.

At the end of it all, I am still here.

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Maxwell Olin Massa is a novelist, policy droid, and former Chinese TV star.  His first book, House of Apollo, is available from Whisk(e)y Tit Books.