Ever Heard of a Pass/Fail Personality Test?

You know in Belt’s interview with Dr. Lionel Manx (Daryl, there’s another name for you that’s also an object!), when Manx says, “I want you to tell me the truth”? I’m pretty sure that’s a superfluous request. This is such a great scene, and part of that greatness for me is Belt’s radical and self-aware honesty.

Belt’s a bright kid (“capable of insight,” Manx says—”of self-reflection”), and when this scene started, I was at least partly expecting it to follow that trope of the child prodigy and the mental-health professional who doesn’t expect the child’s prodigious intellect, and it’s an antagonistic/patronizing encounter at first that may or may not resolve into a respectful and possibly even warm relationship once they get each other’s measure. And to be fair, there is some of that present; Belt gets his hackles up at Manx’s profession of being confused (“You don’t have to talk to me like I’m a baby, alright? … I’ll answer all your questions, but just please don’t ask them to me like I’m stupid”), and although there’s definitely something to be said—especially in a therapeutic context!—for nonconfrontational diplomatic-type pointing out of contradictions, Belt’s objection has merit too. He’s clearly capable of understanding contradictions and double binds (which, I’ve just learned, were conceptualized in the context of schizophrenia research) and cognitive dissonance. He’s just demonstrated that in detail. I’m sure he could handle a less coddling approach to the inconsistencies Manx wants to address.

But it seems like the main reason there’s a thread of friction in this interview is Belt’s expectation that there will be (or maybe ought to be? Does it feel for anyone like he’s working partly from a cultural script he may have encountered?). Belt starts off tetchy because of his protective instinct toward his mom, whom he thinks Manx is slighting. Then he gets a little defensive about the question of whether it’s easier to die than solve one’s problems, and he reflects the perceived attack back at Manx with a parable about his method of helping swingsets that also accuses Manx of not selling his possessions and giving to the poor. It comes across like he wants Manx to feel bad about it, even though at the same time he’s explaining what’s unrealistic about it. I read it as a little conversational fencing. Belt ends up coming around on Manx, not least because Manx will talk with him about animals’ buttholes.

What I love most in this scene, though, is Belt’s impressively thorough ethical reasoning. You can disagree with his choices—he largely expects you to, based on your lack of access to his interior experience of communication with the inans—but he can defend all of them with the ethical calculus he undertook before making them. As a 12-year-old! There’s a beautiful little bit of recursive empathizing when he describes the swingsets’ pleas for euthanasia as the swingsets asking for help in a way that, having considered him and his capabilities, they think he might be able to perform. When he gets to digging into his reasons for picking and choosing which objects to help, it really sounds like he’s considering moral obligations to the whole world—”Plus the people who love you—you’d hurt them. They’d miss you. You wouldn’t have time for them. You’d be damaging them.” No wonder he’s prone to analysis paralysis, if he operates in a moral universe where the ripples of his actions propagate infinitely.

That said, he’s also intensely considered questions of pragmatism, with a pretty sharp eye toward his own failings. Would he repair the swingsets instead, if they asked? Well, if he were the kind of person who knew how to do that, he would be a different person from the one he knows, so it’s hard to say—but if he were basically otherwise still himself, of course he would! Unless it was too much work to be really plausible. “Maybe I wouldn’t repair them if they asked me to repair them. I don’t know. I guess it would depend. Like on how easy it would be to repair them.” That admission about the limits of his own desire to actually do good is something lots of adults would struggle to let themselves make. It’s so honest and unglamorous.

Then just about at the end of the assessment part of the interview, he has this moment that struck me as so touching: “And I understand that maybe I hallucinate. I can see how that’s possible. I can see why you believe that, and even why maybe I should believe it. But I don’t believe it, not usually at least.” We’ve been glancing at this question in comments, whether Belt hallucinates or not, so it’s good to know that Belt’s confronted it too. But aside from that, I find it so mature and sad that he believes it’s real but also has that part of himself that doubts because he should. It’s that normative claim, the recognition of the persuasiveness of the available evidence in the face of his refusal or inability to be persuaded, that gets me.

The interview finishes with a really good change of rhythm from Belt’s long, searching speeches to a rapid-fire bit where he and Manx try to settle on what kind of companion animal he’s going to get. It’s a nicely sharp contrast to the really complex, emotional, philosophically sophisticated dialogue that preceded it. And thanks to its pacing and blunt, surprise punchlines, this, I think, is a perfect way to end the scene:


“That’s slavery.”

“Cats?” said Manx.

“Dumber than everyone says, plus buttholes.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Manx said. “Let’s head upstairs to the kennel, shall we?”

3 thoughts on “Ever Heard of a Pass/Fail Personality Test?

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston May 31, 2020 / 9:12 pm

    I noticed Manx, though might not have known the name for a critter name had my wife’s family not had a bunch of Manx cats years ago. I haven’t really been tracking our animal names, but we have at least Manx and Hogg now. I wonder if there are (or will be) others, and if so, if it signifies or is just sort of fun.

    The argument about (not) selling possessions and giving money to the poor rang out to me less as a reference to the parable you mention (which clearly it is) but more because I had recently been reading some Peter Singer essays. It’s been many many years since I read much in the Bible. Singer’s argument is very similar, no doubt based at least in part on the Bible, or on whatever the Bible cribbed it from if this happens to be one of those borrowings. But the thing about Singer is that he’s well known for arguments that animals have interests and rights. I haven’t read much of his work beyond the handful of essays I’ve read so far in The Life You Can Save, so I can’t comment on whether or how much his work on animal rights is relevant to what’s going on in Bubblegum, but the two do seem at least to be thinking about questions in the same ballpark.

    I have nothing of particular value to add to what you’ve said here about Belt’s maturity and recursive reasoning. This does seem to be A Thing — not just the psychiatrist-patient sparring but the general maturity — that pops up in other books of this sort (I mean ones not working in the like child Buddha tradition or whatever), not least of all in The Instructions, which includes kids being both very kiddish (playing slap-slap on the playground, having kid romantic encounters, and so on) and also very adultish (like actually messianic, but also apparently mature sometimes in complexity of thought and rhetoric). I’m generally not sure how to receive it, so I tend to take it at face value and be ok with the contradictions and just sort of enjoy the kids play-acting adult behaviors. Anyway, nothing to add beyond the observation.

    • Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 2:32 pm

      Manx have no tails. I don’t think that matters to the story, but there could be a thesis paper on that, i suppose.

      The Instructions left a pretty big impression on me–maybe because I was reading it for months on end. It’s hard not to read this without keeping that book in mind, although i am trying not to. Levin certainly has a penchant for writing about precocious children and how they are often too immature to deal with their precociousness.

      I don’t know if there’s a Point to that, or just an underlying idea in these books.

  2. Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 2:28 pm

    As I read the scene with Manx, I appreciated what Belt (Levin) was doing, but I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of Belt being 12. He is very protective of his mother (before even knowing she is about to die). I imagine most children are protective of their others, but he is simultaneously old (at 12) to be so protective but also young (at 12) to think so psychologically.

    It really underscores Belt’s empathy with not only inans, but also Curios. The res of the story make it seem like he is the weird one for not overloading on Blank. Like he is too sensitive. Esepecially compared to the kid who just runs around cursing at everyone.

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