In late June 2000, I wrote to Betty about something that had often bothered me—about biographies in particular but about human discourse in general. The question of motive(s). We are quick to explain the behavior of others (maybe even of ourselves), but can we ever really know why someone does something—and is why even a sensible question?
Here’s what I wrote in my email: I have much trouble—in the books I read, the films I see—with the whole question of motive. I think, for example, that everything I do arises from an awfully complex series of causes, some proximate, some distant, some ineffable? In many instances I simply can’t tell you “why” I did something. Yet writers/filmmakers don’t hesitate to identify motives of characters/subjects, sometimes in the most simple-minded fashion. I think psychology resembles calculus more than arithmetic, but so often I read/see accounts of people whose acts the writer/filmmaker attributes to a single cause. Psychology reduced to a single sum: x + y = z. I just don’t agree. I don’t think that the behavior of you or me or anyone else with a brain can be easily explained. And this, of course, makes the writing of biography all the more difficult.
I went on to use the example of William Godwin’s accepting the friendship of Bysshe Shelley (before the latter eloped with the former’s daughter Mary). And I suggested a number of “reasons”—but how can we know? This enterprise, I concluded, is difficult, horrendously difficult, teeth-grindingly difficult. But—[was I feeling optimistic now?]—also more fun than just about anything else.
In early July I wrote to tell Betty I had just returned from five days in Massachusetts, helping my mother move from the assisted living unit where she and Dad had been (in Pittsfield) to an independent apartment in Lenox. Now that Dad was gone, Mom no longer needed to be there—and she was eager (too pale a word) to escape. Packing, unpacking, setting up things … we all know the drudgery. Betty wrote to say I know the kind of work you did for your mom’s move is very draining—on different levels. And, yes, it was.
Oh yes. I also vowed at the time that I would never again help out in a move—someone else’s or my own. Seven years later, of course, Joyce and I packed up and moved from Aurora to Hudson, Ohio (about twenty minutes’ distance). So go resolutions.
I notice now, too, that Betty and I had at some point commenced a tradition of closing our email with “Fondly.” I smile in wonder. Who started that? And when?