Nothing Left Inside Hal
When I was 16, I would put on a Sony Walkman® and take an anhedonic night-time walk through my empty suburban neighborhood. Very un-Randy Lenz-like walks, I might add. Among my favorites of the time was Black Flag’s Damaged:
Nothing / Nothing / Nothing left inside
Love / Love / Nothing left inside
Pain in my heart / Pain hurts my heart / Nothing left inside
Lies / Your lies / Nothing left inside
I built it up / I broke it down / Nothing left inside
Leach / Drained me dry / Nothing left inside
Lonely, lonely, lonely / Lonely, lonely boy / Nothing left inside
I want to see you / I want to see you / I want you to see my eyes / Nothing left inside
Nothing left inside
As Mark Grief points out in his excellent article, Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop, much music looks rather banal when printed on the page, but nevertheless has a very different power when you can tie it to music. (Perhaps he might have also added that clichés, Gately-style, have a depth to them that needs excavation.)
Listening to the screams and sludgy distortion of Nothing Left Inside could, paradoxically, make me feel, when everything in my life at the time seemed hellbent on preventing me from feeling anything. This was before “the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. [began to] treat anhedonia and general emptiness as hip and cool” (p. 694). I developed a deep and soul-mutiliating horror of what passed for pleasure and happiness in a vacuum-sealed and -packaged world. It was, at that age of “spiritual puberty” (ibid.), difficult to identify the difference between my anger at false sentiment and the “fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded engagement in the self” (ibid.). Bob Hope (we never called it that, btw) was a way to make the interior world match up with my experience of the outside world: empty of meaning and values and humanity and anything that might remotely resemble a future. It was a means to face and become the transcendent loneliness without the horror – a way to deaden the inside without creating a sense of loss and nostalgia.
So many of us have thought for a while now that Hal is in some way the narrator of IJ – as he imagines being greeted at the hospital in the Year of Glad, ‘So yo then man what’s your story?’ (p. 17). As the narrator, we are endeared to him. We enjoy his wry humor, envy his word play, follow dreamily every detail of a tennis match or a sweeping broom or a brotherly conversation. We sympathize with his tragic circumstances, and admire his resilience. After nearly 700 pages, though, it turns out we didn’t know Hal as well as we thought we did.
Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarefied equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being – but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne. (p. 694; underlines are italicized in the original)
Hal is anhedonic and empty. He is, for those who have been following my earlier posts, the anti-Orin. For O. is a mass/mess of internal emotions, night shakes, despair, dread, passion, contempt, desire – though he still experiences these in the mode of bad faith. Hal, on the other hand, is void, lack. Or anyway, so “he” tells us.
That is, I don’t take the narrational authority here too seriously. For instance, just a few pages earlier we see Hal hiding from Mario his affection for J.O.I.’s Wave Bye-Bye to the Bureaucrat, telling him that it is “goo” but “Hal secretly likes it, too, the cartridge, and likes to project himself imaginatively into the ex-bureaucrat’s character on the leisurely drive home toward ontological erasure” (p. 689). That is, the search for the internal void is taken consciously and conspicusly, rather than being a fundamental condition. And DeLint has properly identified Hal’s emotional vulnerability that lies under his mask:
‘Hal looks just as perfectly dead [as John N.R. Wayne] out there, but he’s more vulnerable in terms of, like, emotionally. […] Hal’s susceptible to fluctuations. Discouragement. […] This emotional susceptibility in terms of forgetting being more commonly a female thing. Schtitt and I think it’s a will issue. Susceptible wills are more common to the top girls here. […] But the one we see this most in is Hal.’ (p. 682)
But perhaps most important of all is that Hal, in the quote above, finds himself unable to be convinced that “he’s in there.” Whereas we know, again from the Year of Glad opening of the novel, that Hal as clear as day (if also aphonically, if that makes sense) tells us “I am in here” (p. 3).
The section on p. 694, then, serves as an effective vehicle for a DFW-type insight that seems right on to me: that anhedonia is a cover for the reality that geuine humanity has a sentimental core. We are shown masks of cynicism, ennui, and jaded irony, and we wear them at that age when we are most susceptible to the fear of loneliness, being apart. But,
[W]hat passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic […]. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what he is really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia. (p. 695)
Hal’s longing for a rich, internal self, even if one that is a bit gooey and incontinent, comprises a search of its very own, and thus takes Hal from being a true anti-Orin to a more simple inverse. Whereas Orin seeks to overcome his despair at finitude by losing himself in the roar of the crowd or the orgasm of the Subject, Hal seeks not to lose but to find. His self is thus a potentially creative one, one that may discover finitude on the other side of sobriety, and in discovering finitude will also discover that self-worth and value are not transcendent norms to be sniffed at, but ones to perform as he creates possibilities for meaningful self-engagement.
Of course, it might be that we all – or at least some of us – are too Damaged.