In 1996, in the weeks before my first child, a daughter, was born, I was trying to finish the first draft of a first novel. I was writing fast, by hand, around 2,500 rough words a day, inspired by a sense of both urgency and excitement. Urgency because I wanted to get the first draft down before the child came and upended my life, as everyone warned me would happen; excitement because this novel-in-progress was to be the first book in a so-called two-book deal I’d recently signed with my first big publisher.
My publisher seemed excited too. The mid-’90s was a time when the larger presses in Canada began dispensing relatively generous advances to young, sometimes all-but-unpublished writers, partly out of real literary enthusiasm but also in hopes of getting lucky with a lucrative rising star. My new publisher—effectively pestered by one of the skilled international agents now arriving on the scene and persuaded by the reviews I’d gotten for my first couple of books—ponied up and purchased me as one of its tickets in the great chicken raffle of 1990s CanLit. My agent, my publisher, my friends, and my colleagues (especially, I see now, the colleagues who disliked me) all assured me I was on the brink of a brilliant success. That sounded nice. Above all, though, I was delighted about the cash advance that helped buy me at least another year of full-time writing and stabilized my income at exactly the moment I was starting a family.
The protagonist of my first novel, The Shadow Boxer, is a young guy who grows up in a northern town and ends up going down to the big city—Toronto, in his case—to try to “make it” as a writer. Like the hero of any Bildungsroman, he is seeking both success and love as conventionally defined. At the time I wrote the first draft, I was about ten years older than the protagonist and, as I mentioned, about to become a father. In other words, I was a decade further down the road. But I couldn’t have written about my hero’s “quest” with any authenticity if I hadn’t shared his obsessions when I’d been his age—and if I wasn’t still driven by them while writing. Yet, as I look back now, I can see I already understood that he and I were gripped by unhealthy illusions. This must be why I wrote, in the first draft’s concluding pages,
How was it that both “illusion” and its opposite, “disillusion,” could mean negative things? To drop illusions should be a good thing, yet when push came to shove you never gave them up happily. Each one had to be frayed, through struggle and blunder, to a painful thinness, then stripped away with violence, a scale of still-living cells.
In a sense, I was trying to give my protagonist—in some ways my younger self—a memo of advice. Yet I wasn’t applying the advice in my own life. Clearly, I still believed or hoped that success could transform me—that it was not in fact an ungraspable, shifting, fickle thing but instead a concrete destination I could reach and then reside in securely. In other words—or in Leonard Cohen’s—I was fighting with temptation, but I didn’t want to win.
Then again, who ever takes their own good advice?
The Shadow Boxer was to be published in the spring of 2000. My publisher honoured its promises and got behind the book, obviously keen to push it and make it a hit. It prepped ads for the big newspapers—a marketing measure that even twenty years ago was not all that common—while sending out scores of review copies and setting up interviews with newspapers and magazines. It had garnered some flattering blurbs from big names in CanLit. The advance buzz—i.e., the ignorant consensus of folks who mostly hadn’t read the thing—was encouraging. As a writer friend said at the time, “I think you’re on the cusp.”
The cusp of what? I should have asked.
By the end of The Shadow Boxer, my protagonist’s own first novel—a novel-within-a-novel called The Islands of the Nile—has fallen apart and failed, like his other lazy, romantic dreams. His life, at least the false life he has been constructing, collapses. He files for a kind of emotional bankruptcy.
And does he go on to take his creator’s advice about the virtues of disillusionment? Hard to say, but at last sight, we see him living less manically—more intentionally—and assuming responsibility for a child he has fathered. He’s slowly, more attentively rereading all the Western classics he’d mainlined as a teenager, when he had absorbed their style but not grasped their lessons. Disabused of his less useful illusions, he seems a grown-up at last. Failure, it seems, has been the making of him.
But, while I wanted my character to grow up through disillusionment, apparently I didn’t really want that for myself. In early May 2000, while in Toronto for interviews, I was chuffed when a media friend confided that my first big review, due in a few days, was a rave that urged everyone to go out and buy or shoplift the book.
Disabused of his less useful illusions. I find that word, disabuse, a powerful and intriguing one. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions: to free from a mistaken idea, or to disillusion. So the word is a straight-up synonym for disillusion while having the advantage of not confusing the issue, semantically and psychologically, via a double negative that still somehow yields a negative. Because both dis- and abuse—clearly negatives—do, when fused together, correctly yield a positive. Or so I’d argue. True, being disabused of an illusion may be a painful process, but the word itself implies a kind of liberation from some form of abuse. And, if cherished illusions are in a sense self-administered, the word implies further that our attachment to them is a form of self-abuse.
Which raises yet another implication. Could clinging to illusions be a form of substance abuse—our illusion-attachments a kind of addiction? Disillusionment, then, becomes a state of withdrawal. No wonder it hurts like hell. No wonder it can scar or kill you.
The first big review of The Shadow Boxer was indeed a rave, but others were mixed and rightfully so. Some of the mixed reviews diagnosed structural and tonal flaws (in the book’s middle section) that I had sensed while writing—issues that a few prereaders had tactfully flagged but that I, attached to my romantic illusion that dynamic style conquered all and my natural hope that the book would be both great and a hit, had denied, downplayed, or talked myself out of addressing. As we tend to do when our dearest illusions are challenged. Anything, anything to not be wakened from our obstinate trance, to not be forced to reconsider, to work harder, to start over, after demolishing the very house we live in.
The book actually sold decently, though not well enough to earn back my advance. It created a certain postpublication “buzz” but didn’t win any of the big prizes that are now, and were even then, essential to a perception of success. By the end of 2000, the media consensus seemed to be that the book was notable but not the big thing many had predicted and some had hoped for.
We’d probably all agree, initially, that hope is a term with a positive value. Renowned Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh, however, begs to differ. He perceives something tragic in hope. Hopefulness, Nhất Hạnh suggests, is a harmful emotion because it is based on an illusion. A hope is not something real that exists but rather a wish that something might exist—or might disappear if it now exists. Unlike the present moment, which is real and occurring, hope is speculative, an abstraction projected into the future. And, by hoping ourselves into the future, we miss out on the good things—miracles, few though they might be—happening even now, despite our problems.
The basis of hope is biological. Any creature registering a lack, or pain, is being alerted about a deviation from homeostasis that it needs to correct—a response vector without which it would not survive long. But, while nonhuman creatures act to end negative stimuli as soon as possible, the human mind’s roster of responses is various and, at times, maladaptive. To hope for eventual change or relief instead of acting immediately is sometimes necessary (e.g., so as not to get fired or jailed) but often damaging. What’s more, early in life we learn to equate any form of unease—some of it potentially instructive, most of it fleeting—with pain-as-urgent-physical-warning or -as-potentially-permanent-condition. So we grow into a state of comprehensive, at times constant, aversion and hope for relief.
Which is to crave the impossible: a struggle-free life in a world governed by the second law of thermodynamics, a world where all things are subject to entropy. Our flus, back spasms, or spiking anxiety may subside, but something will come along to replace them. In the meantime, conjecturing ourselves past our distress robs us of the one thing we truly have: this moment and the potential for action and change that exists here and here alone.
As every athlete finds out, action contaminated by hope (If only I can nail this next serve . . . I’ll win if I nail this next serve!) usually fails. Hope is a fatal distraction. It creates a kind of skip, jitter, or satellite delay in the nerves. Where there’s hope, there’s fear, their relationship an alternating current. On the other hand, a play or movement executed in a fully present, fearless frame of mind—without hope—often succeeds.
Worst of all, hopefulness—that “if only!” state of mind—becomes a mental habit that does not just go away once things improve a little or a lot. The relief of every hope realized creates a new hope, new fears. So we go on, slinging ourselves ahead of ourselves toward death—in fact hastening its approach, our actual lives left uninhabited.
What is hope, in the end, but the antipodal twin of memory? A bright mirage projected on the clouds ahead, like a distorted image of the mirages cast on the clouds behind. We spend our lives framed, hemmed in by these dense fog banks, rarely realizing we’re alive in the sunlit space between. Or we’re like drivers at night, barely registering a never-heard-before song on the speakers or the sleep breathing of the passenger beside us as we squint ahead to where our high beams diffuse into fog, fearing a collision or watching for a sign, then checking the rearview yet again, ruminating on the rose-lit or blood-lit dimness behind. A prudent protocol for driving, maybe, but no way to live.
For a few years, I’ve been pondering a marvellous German compound noun: Lebenslüge, or “life-lie”—the convenient if sometimes fatal fiction around which you build your life.
The compound is built out of Leben, “life,” and Lüge, “lie.” A Lebenslüge, in my own elaboration of the term, is a primary illusion around which other, lesser illusions constellate. Naturally, the term can also be applied in a larger, collective way, suggesting the lie or illusion around which a nation shapes its identity. The American life-lie is the belief in American exceptionalism: the land of the free, the greatest nation on earth, etc. The Canadian life-lie is the fantasy that we’re the good ones, the nice guys, fundamentally better than Americans or Brits because, allegedly, we’re innocent of such atrocities as slavery, empire-building, and Indigenous genocide.
The life-lie of Canadian niceness has, it’s safe to say, been outed as an illusion, yet even now, in the wake of the residential-schools exposé, it seems many of us continue to believe that We the North are somehow “nicer.” We resist disillusionment to save face, to keep up appearances, to shore up the foundations of a house of smoke and shadows. The truth hurts, as false friends—or “frenemies”—sometimes say when they turn on us and tactlessly point out our flaws. But what hurts worse than a painful truth is a lie outed, especially one we’ve been telling ourselves. Worse is discovering we’re our own frenemies.
Worst of all is discerning, over the course of many sleepless nights, that you have not one life-lie but many—a web of illusions that, over the years, you’ve told yourself about yourself (whatever “I” and “myself” might be, or whatever they once were, if they ever were at all).
The protagonists of all good novels must discover their Lebenslügen, or at least approach closely before recoiling, disillusioned, having granted the reader a glimpse. I think this is pretty much a hard-and-fast rule of literature. Likewise, writers—the creators of those protagonists—can hope to get closer to their own life-lies over the course of a book’s composition and through the agency of those characters. Yet it may take a writer a trilogy of novels, or a lifetime’s work, to fully arrive there. Protagonists, after all, can be forced to realize what their creators still cleverly manage not to acknowledge or face.
Note that, while obsessions and illusions can fuel a young writer’s work, in an older writer, they can become mere blockages, manifesting on the page as repetitive, self-plagiarizing tropes and patterns. A writer’s work must be the treatment by which their obsessions are gradually unpacked, metabolized, transcended. One problem with early success is that it can cajole an artist—naturally eager for a follow-up fix of addictive celebrity—to stagnate in an inchoate stage.
To be sure, the liberation of disillusionment comes too late for some protagonists. As Leo Tolstoy’s profoundly disabused heroine walks toward the fatal train station in the last section of Anna Karenina, she hears the Vespers bells ringing and asks rhetorically why they ring. “To disguise the fact that we all hate one another,” she concludes. In other words, the bells ring for the same reasons we chatter emptily to someone we don’t much like at a party: to drown out the sound of our true feelings, to avoid being disliked, to avoid being snubbed or shunned.
Note too that this moment, which contains arguably the most important insight in the novel, is never mentioned, never quoted—not by Tolstoy scholars, not by the reviewers of new translations, not by lay readers. It’s the forgotten truth of one of the world’s most closely read texts. But, after all, who wants to know that we human primates, in our less wakened state, are driven more by envy, spite, and hatred than by love?
Late in 2019, I finished a new book, and on its final page, I found myself returning to the paradox of disillusionment that I first broached in The Shadow Boxer—though I’d long since forgotten that I’d broached it. As I wrote this new version of the idea, half feeling I was taking dictation from some other part of my mind, it dawned on me that I’d arrived at this same place a long time ago.
This new book, a kind of memoir, was started and finished about twenty years after The Shadow Boxer and—more importantly—after raising a child to adulthood and losing a mother, a stillborn son, and several friends. Meanwhile, I also experienced some typical midlife setbacks, failures, and disappointments, starting with the disappointment of that first novel failing to become a blockbuster.
Let me repeat that I consider myself lucky that the book did not take off; let me repeat that it didn’t deserve to. I’m lucky because, in the long run, few things damage a career like an undeserved early hit. And, if premature success—as argued above—can stunt an artist’s psyche, it can of course lessen their artistry too. If a flawed product had brought me the success I’d craved, how would I have gone on to get better? Where’s the incentive to push further, to work and suffer, when good enough is good enough? And getting better does require suffering, and there are no analgesics, no shortcuts. Why transcend the grotesque delusion that you’ve already arrived at craft mastery when the world is flattering you that you have, in fact, arrived? The truth is, there’s no arrival, only a frighteningly, beautifully open road, the sun crowning dawn after dawn, the radio playing—and occasional rest stops in roadside Edens.
In the last paragraph of this new book, Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos, I put it this way:
Everyone gets away with certain things for a while but no one gets away with everything forever. . . . But if our illusions—the cherished ones above all—are harmful, isn’t disillusionment a good thing, a necessary correction so painful that our word for it is negative? Nobody ever changes until they have to.
So here I am, twenty years later, still giving myself advice—the same advice—still coaching myself onward up that infinite, indefinite road.
Concluding a book with an insight you wrote down two decades beforehand . . . surely this represents at worst a sign of stagnation or, at best, a coming full circle, a closing of the door on a stage of life. Or maybe it’s more that we need to keep rediscovering and rethinking paradoxical insights so that, decade by decade, by slow degrees, we absorb them and finally begin to act. Instant enlightenment, after all, is another fantasy born of laziness and hope. And we’re all re-amnesiacs, forever forgetting ourselves and dozing back into old habits—though perhaps a little less each time.
But, while that passage in Reaching Mithymna is similar to the one in The Shadow Boxer, one key point is different: that people don’t change until they must, until they’ve suffered enough that they can’t go on with the charade, the facade, the life-lie. The matchbox tower has to topple. The dancer’s gauzy veils have to be pulled away to reveal . . . no dancer underneath, no form at all, nothing. There never was one. Not even a ghost.
In fact, there never was even a me or you that suffered all that pain. The pain itself was real, even lethal—but the solid, unchanging self that seemed to feel it was an illusion. What’s more, the lie of that solid ego gave the pain a place to roost, a place to stick and fester and worsen. And maybe this is another reason radical disillusionment hurts so terribly: it means acknowledging your own death, or the death of the thing that, for years, you believed was you—the false self that your life-lies were protecting.
Excerpted and adapted from The Virtues of Disillusionment by Steven Heighton. ©2020. Reprinted by permission of Athabasca University Press.