Schizoid resonances: Jude in ‘A Little Life’

A Little Life is a novel by Hanya Yanagihara published in 2015.

“When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel painter pursuing fame in the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realise, is Jude himself; by midlife a terrifyingly talented lawyer yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by a degree of trauma that he fears he will not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.

In a novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, Yanagihara has fashioned a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark and haunting examination of the tyranny of experience and memory.”

Jude’s silence is a profoundly schizoid one, in my opinion. He battles with the ‘schizoid dilemma’.

Here’s some quotes from the novel that I think illustrate Jude’s schizoid-ness:

“… those moments alone in the kitchen were something akin to meditative, the only times he found himself truly relaxing, his mind ceasing to scrabble forward, planning in advance the thousands of little deflections and smudgings of truth, of fact, that necessitated his every interaction with the world and its inhabitants… he’d had years to lean how to keep his thoughts to himself; unlike his friends, he had not learned to share evidence of his oddities as a way to distinguish himself… “

“… he understood, primally almost, the concept of losing, of loosing oneself from the world, of disappearing into a different place, one of retreat and safety, of the twinned yearnings of escape and discovery.”

“After that first night at Harold’s, their relationship became both deeper and more difficult. He felt he had awakened Harold’s curiosity… and wasn’t sure that was a good thing. He wanted to know Harold better, but over dinner he had been reminded that that process – getting to know someone – was always so much more challenging than he remembered… He wished, as he often did, that the entire sequence – the divulging of intimacies, the exploring of pasts – could be sped past, and that he could simply be teleported to the next stage, where the relationship was something soft and pliable and comfortable, where both parties’ limits were understood and respected.”

“Whenever Harold asked him questions about himself, he always felt something cold move across him, as if he were being iced from the inside, his organs and nerves being protected by a sheath of frost. In that moment, though, he thought he might break, that if he said anything the ice would shatter and he would splinter and crack… when Harold was asking the other questions, he felt smothered by their weight and frequency and inevitability… And yet despite his discomfort, he kept coming back to Harold, kept accepting his dinner invitations, even though at some point in every encounter there would be a moment in which he wished he could disappear, or in which he worried he might have disappointed.”

“… what is he willing to do to feel less alone? Could he destroy everything he’s built and protected so diligently for intimacy?… He doesn’t know; he is afraid of discovering the answer. But increasingly, he is even more afraid that he will never have the chance to discover it at all. What does it mean to be a human, if he can never have this?”

“… there are so many topics he has never discussed with anyone… His past, his fears, what was done to him, what he has done to himself… His silence had begun as something protective, but over the years it had transformed into something near oppressive, something that manages him rather than the other way around. Now he cannot find a way out of it, even when he wants to. He imagines he is floating in a small bubble of water, encased on all sides by walls and ceilings and floors of ice, all many feet thick. He knows there is a way out, but he is unequipped; he has no tools to begin his work, and his hands scrabble uselessly against the ice’s slick. He had thought that by not saying who he was, he was making himself more palatable, less strange. But now, what he doesn’t say makes him stranger, an object of pity and even suspicion.”

“He shook his head. ‘No, thank you. But I’m not hungry. And I can do it myself.’ Now he was subdued, controlled: the person I had seen earlier was gone, caged once more in his labyrinth in some little-opened cellar. He was always polite, but when he was trying to protect himself or assert his competency, he became more so: polite and slightly remote, as if he were an explorer amongst a dangerous tribe, and was being careful not to find himself too involved in their goings-on.”

“‘You have to tell someone,’ Ana used to say, and as he had grown older, he had decided to interpret this sentence literally: Some One. Someday, he thought, somehow, he would find a way to tell some one, one person. And then he had, someone he had trusted, and that person had died, and he didn’t have the fortitude to tell his story ever again. But then, didn’t everyone only tell their lives – truly tell their lives – to one person? How often could he really be expected to repeat himself, when with each telling he was stripping the clothes from his skin and the flesh from his bones, until he was as vulnerable as a small pink mouse?”

If you’re not familiar with A Little Life, I highly recommend checking out this review from the Los Angeles Times: A Little Life: a darkly beautiful tale of friendship and love.

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