April 30, 2005
Banjo Was Flaming!
Saturday was a grand evening for all in attendance at the Longview Community Theater for the final performance of The Man Who Came to Dinner. I had early apprehensions about acting quality . . . the minor characters were pretty much abysmal and their accents were positively dreadful. In particular, the guy playing Mr. Stanley was as stiff as a board.
But the really cool characters were perfectly cast and performed beautifully . . . Lorraine Sheldon, Beverly Carlton (played by LeTourneau's own Dr. Mays), Banjo (who actually did all sides of the character justice), and (best of all) Sheridan Whiteside.
The prop department and set builders did their usual great job, and all of the other technical elements came off quite well. It was without a doubt the best non-musical I have seen them put on, and a very fitting end to the 2004-2005 season.
And really that's all I have to say.
April 28, 2005
Freud for the Masses: A Brief Examination of Psychology in Cinema
Psychology and people with psychological disorders have not fared well overall in the hands of Hollywood. When the psychology we see in movies is not either completely wrong, being employed for evil purposes (of all things), or something to laugh about, it is often the object of a great deal of disdain. Somehow psychology is always the cold, clinical voice of modern science, droning at us to straighten up and get in line while missing the point of what makes life worth living. Psychology is just trying to break the beauty and intricate design behind the human brain, the choices we make with it, and the personalities it forms into a mass of chemical impulses which we have no real control over.
Anyway, all of this could easily make for a rather large and sprawling subject, but I’ll try to approach it in as orderly and brief a manner as possible while covering as wide a range as I can. And I know there are plenty of movies I don't talk about here that I could have . . . It's just that none of them came to mind while I was writing. Hopefully this is a good cross-section and everyone has seen at least some of these. I hadn't realized before I really started thinking about it in-depth how important and commonplace psychology is in the movies.
I know that often elements of psychology in fiction are laughably erroneous, but very few sterling examples of this leap immediately to mind because most of the time I probably don’t even notice the mistakes like I would in, say, a “historical” movie. Two that come particularly to mind as probable offenders are Don’t Say a Word and Gothika. Both belong to the subgenre of so-called “psychological thrillers.”
In the former, a psychologist must extract the location of long-lost stolen goods from a deranged woman in order to save his family from the original thieves. In the latter (which contains heavy supernatural elements), a psychologist who is baffled by a particularly bad case in the asylum where she works suddenly finds herself interred in the same asylum and experiencing the same symptoms.
A movie character can exhibit the most bizarre and unheard of behavior in the world as long as the writer slaps the label “psychological disorder” on it. Of course, I don’t know how many of these actually exist . . . probably all of them do in some form. I hear that even the odd behavior of Dr. Strangelove's right hand has a real-world basis. In Clean Slate and 50 First Dates, major characters wake up every morning with their memories of the day before gone (in both movies this is played for laughs). A minor character in 50 First Dates loses his short-term memory every ten seconds.
In Memento, a man loses his short-term memory every fifteen to twenty minutes. The movie’s “gimmick” is that the scenes are placed in reverse order so that we are almost as disoriented as he is each time his memory disappears until the movie’s secret is finally revealed. Nurse Betty has a woman go into shock after witnessing the brutal murder of her husband and then believe that she is a character in her favorite soap opera.
And, ranging quite far afield into the realms of the fantastic, The Butterfly Effect has a young psychology major with a history of insanity in his family discovering that he can travel back in time to key moments in his life by reading his journal accounts of those events and can even manipulate the situation. Although this movie is more of a cautionary tale, raising tough questions about the deep effects that even seemingly small things can have on peoples’ futures, it does pretend to operate within a pseudoscientific psychological framework.
I can go on quite a bit longer about the constant portrayals of some of the more “common” disorders, particularly amnesia, obsessive/compulsive disorder, various phobias, and multiple-personality disorder/schizophrenia. Amnesia is a very widely used plot device. Soap operas (so I’m told) pull it out at every opportunity. It forms the entire basis for a number of movie plots. In The Bourne Identity, a CIA-trained assassin fails to complete an assignment and loses his memory when he is shot and falls into the ocean. He spends the rest of the movie trying to discover who he is. Amnesia is the only possible way to explain the decades-long absence of a missing member of the Russian royal family when she reappears in the classic Anastasia, although ultimately the real Anastasia’s fate is left up in the air. Amnesia is used to particularly good effect in The Majestic, where a Hollywood screenwriter, blacklisted unjustly during the McCarthy Era, loses his memory in a car accident and is mistaken in a small town for a local hero from World War II, long believed dead. Even Kermit the Frog is a temporary victim of amnesia when he is hit by a car in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Characters with obsessive/compulsive disorder are usually at least partially comedic in my experience. Extremely popular lately is the brilliant but ultra-neurotic detective Adrian Monk from the TV series Monk, who is terrified of germs and touches every pole and post he passes in the street. Another example is the main character from Matchstick Men, a con artist who opens and closes every door three times before passing through them, has a number of nervous tics, and spends days at a time compulsively cleaning his house. While both characters have experiences with personal tragedy, most of the time we watch them for their amusing idiosyncrasies.
Phobias can, of course, play either a serious or humorous role in the movies. Vertigo has Jimmy Stewart’s character crippled by his fear of heights, with tragic results (see post with Freudian analysis). What About Bob?, on the other hand, provides with a very sympathetic but hilarious title character, an extremely clingy patient who drives his therapist nuts (literally). The real gag of the movie is that the psychologist is ultimately far less stable than his patient, all initial appearances to the contrary aside. The joke (as usual in the movies) is on psychology.
Multiple-personality disorder has been a popular (often cop-out) plot twist to drop into movies ever since Psycho terrified movie audiences in 1960. The character of Norman Bates, based on a real-life serial killer, has murdered his mother and taken on her personality in addition to his own. The mother half of his personality will, in turn, commit murder in a jealous rage to keep her son to herself. In Secret Window, an author who is being tormented by an insane stalker who claims his story has been stolen discovers (after the stalker has left a trail of bodies in his wake) that this killer is another personality living inside of him.
Fight Club pulls a similar trick, when two main characters with seemingly opposite personalities are revealed to be one and the same near the end of the movie. Identity goes one step better, with ten characters, all trapped at a motel in a heavy rainstorm and dying off one by one, who are revealed to exist together in the head of one man, a convicted murderer. In all of these cases, people with multiple-personality disorder are dangerous killers, and we are made to feel very afraid of them.
This isn’t the whole story, though. A Beautiful Mind, which tells the true story of Nobel Prize-winner John Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia, won the Best Picture Oscar for 2001. Pi, a disturbing head trip in which the main character (another incredibly brilliant mathematician . . . what is it about those guys, anyway?) may or may not be a paranoid schizophrenic, won a number of awards as well.
People don’t exclusively enjoy being frightened by people who hear voices in their heads. The interesting thing to me about Nash’s struggle in particular is that he finally denies medication and other treatments, determined to beat the problem on his own. Often in movies we find that the psychologists’ solution is far from the best option. People like to watch their fellow humans beating diseases of the mind on their own, without having to rely on head doctors.
Then, of course, we have the evil psychologists, like in The Manchurian Candidate, who will brainwash you as soon as look at you. In the eerie Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, psychologists might be benign medical professionals who are just there to help, or they might be megalomaniacs, devoted to exploiting the human mind to suit their own needs. Certainly at the end of movie, the former explanation seems to be the true one (the rest of the movie is revealed to have been the paranoid delusion of a lunatic . . . probably). However, by that time we’ve already seen an evil doctor use a hypnotized subject to commit murder for him multiple times.
And then there is the crème de la crème of villainous psychologists, Anthony Hopkins’ most chilling character, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs and its sequels. Lecter is an evil genius times twenty. Formerly a psychologist moonlighting as a serial killer in a previous life, now he uses his deadly wiles to play mind games with prison authorities and the FBI analysts who come to him for help in their criminal profiling.
Really, though, you never know quite how a psychologist is going to be portrayed when he or she crops up at random in a movie. The big-city psychologist in What Women Want is self-centered and bored by her patients and their problems. The small-town psychologist in Groundhog Day is a comical character, well-meaning, but left uncertain, even baffled, by anomalies. Malcolm in The Sixth Sense (another moving that tosses psychology and the supernatural into the mix together) is a psychologist whose failure to provide a proper diagnosis in the past had dire consequences for both him and his patient. He is compassionate, insightful, and desperate to redeem himself this time around.
My favorites of all psychology-related movies, however, are those which communicate a positive and valuable message about life and the human spirit. Unfortunately for the psychology involved, it is usually depicted as the problem rather than the solution. I realize, of course, that the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater when it comes to psychotherapy and new medications. In fact, I happen to have a great deal of faith in the merits of both. However, it is always possible to get carried away with them as well, and some movies that I really enjoy address this problem from different perspectives.
Man of la Mancha is a musical based on Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes and starring Peter O’Toole as the title character. Considering that the book was written about 400 years ago and is set in about that same time period, one might wonder how it comes to mention psychology. Technically, it doesn’t. However, in the musical, Don Quixote’s perception of reality is rather skewed . . . in fact, he is basically crazy. But he is also in pursuit of an idealistic dream based on virtue, chivalry, and charity.
As a cynic, I may not have a lot of faith in his ability to accomplish his mission of bringing light back into the world (or whatever), but I can certainly agree with the principle of what Quixote is trying to do. His relatives, though, don’t see things quite the same way. They feel that he is making them look stupid, and send a man out to shock him back to reality. Their idea is that people cannot be allowed to pursue even the most worthy of causes if they have to live in a crazy, made-up fantasy to do it. Don Quixote is roughly shocked back into reality and winds up totally demoralized, lying on his deathbed before a final musical number rekindles his dying spirits.
The point of this movie is brought home nicely in a more modern context in one of my favorite movies: Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, the kindest, friendliest man in the world. Elwood’s one and only flaw seems to be his best friend, an invisible six-foot rabbit named Harvey. His sister, Veta Louise, and his niece, Myrtle Mae, are sick of his eccentricities leaving them socially bereft, and they make arrangements to have him committed . . . but a funny thing happens on the way to the asylum. Veta Louise is committed by mistake and Elwood wanders off before anyone notices the mix-up.
The audience soon realizes that Harvey really does exist, but the asylum doctors are a good bit slower. Elwood really is a great guy. At one point, when he’s talking about what he and Harvey do with their time, it struck me that it’s a pity that Christians don’t witness like this more often:
We sit in the bars, have a drink or two, and play the juke box. Very soon the faces of the other people turn towards me and they smile . . . We came as strangers - soon we have friends. They come over. They sit with us. They drink with us. They talk to us. They tell us about the great big terrible things they've done and the great big wonderful things they're going to do. Their hopes, their regrets. Their loves, their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. Then I introduce them to Harvey, and he's bigger and grander than anything they can offer me. When they leave, they leave impressed.
Elwood (once he is finally rounded up) defies all attempts at psychoanalysis, saying, “Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.” The movie suggests that that is the entire purpose of psychology, to return us to reality, even if reality is the last thing we need. As Elwood is about to receive his treatment, another character observes, “After this he'll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!” Movies of this type seem to basically be saying, “Psychology calls this madness. Well, if it is, aren’t we better off crazy?”
Garden State came out just last year, and it is one of my favorite recent releases. It has a great deal to say to the present-day generation of twentysomethings left dead in the water by a search for purpose that has led only to things like apathy, hedonism, and overmedication.
We are introduced to Andrew Largeman as he lies on his back in his bed, staring up at the ceiling with a totally expressionless face. The room around him is a shocking-sterile white. The phone rings, but he lets the answering machine get it, and his father is heard weeping and telling him that his mother has just died. We find out that he is originally from New Jersey, but hasn’t been home in nine years.
As he begins to reconnect with old friends back home, we see that relations are very strained between him and his father for some reason. And then there’s Sam, the very unique girl he randomly meets at a doctor’s office. As the story unfolds, we find out that, at a young age, Largeman was accidentally responsible for his mother becoming a quadriplegic. His father is a psychologist and has basically kept him on emotion-deadening medication for his entire life.
Largeman’s relationship with Sam deepens, and the two of them spend an entire day on a quest around the area with Largeman’s friend Mark. Only Mark knows what they are looking for, but, as so often happens, in the end it isn’t the destination, but the journey that is important.
Talking with his father later that night, Largeman announces his decision to go off of the medication: “This is my life, Dad. This is it. I spend 26 years waiting for something else to start. So no, I don't think it's too much to take on because it's everything there is. I see now it's all there is.” He talks about how numb he has been to everything for his entire life. His dad only wanted them all to be happy and normal, but there was no way to accomplish that through the methods he was attempting to use. Later on, Sam brings up this point again: “I know it hurts. But it's life, and it's real. And sometimes it f--king hurts, but it's life, and it's pretty much all we’ve got.” The movie states that we’re better off facing life, good, bad, and ugly, than hiding behind a medical solution to life’s problems.
I really enjoyed most of the movies I’ve discussed in here. Some of them are even on my top favorites list. But I think it is worthwhile to recognize that, when it comes to their picture of psychologists and the disorders they study and help treat, we are dealing with an incomplete picture more often than a complete one. I still think many of the messages (particularly in the last two) are worthy of consideration from one angle or another, but if Intro to Psychology this semester has taught me nothing else, I have at least learned a bit about what psychology is and, more importantly, what psychology isn’t.
April 27, 2005
That'll Be the Day
I really don't like Westerns, as a movie genre. I think they're hopelessly mired in cliché, all but a few are poorly made, and as for any semblance of historical accuracy . . . Don't get me started. From a purely artistic standpoint, an overwhelming percentage of Westerns are useless things.
Now, before any Western lover out there get all up in arms, I'll be the first to concede their immense cultural value. After the American frontier was declared to be effectively closed in the census of 1890, a historian named Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. This paper stated the famous "Frontier Thesis:" that the frontier was what had given the American people their unique individuality and vitality . . . their very identity, really. The frontier was effectively the source of American freedom.
There can be no doubt that our country was largely shaped in its formative years by westward expansion, or that our cultural identity is closely tied to this same movement. Westerns are so important to the American spirit that they own their own genres in American literature, and (much to my frequent annoyance) American film. Westerns were dominant box office contenders for decades. With the passage of time, subgenres have even been spawned . . . and I'm not sure which is worse sometimes, the "classic" or "revisionist/enlightened" Western.
Tonight I watched The Searchers (a classic Western), which I had not seen for many years. This is not a terrible movie by any means . . . and yet by Western standards it is considered to be one of the genuine greats. I found it to be a quality grab bag. It made me want to love it and hate it at the same time.
John Wayne stars, John Ford directs, and the supporting cast includes names like Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, and Ford-regular Ward Bond. The story begins in Texas in 1868. Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, the Confederate who never surrendered, returns suddenly to his brother's home with no real explanation of where he has been since the Civil War ended three years earlier. Some initial groundwork for the story is laid when Ethan produces a large quantity of Yankee money which may or may not have been stolen, and reveals a very strong prejudice against Indians when the adopted son of the house (Martin, a foundling rescued by Ethan many years earlier) enters and we discover that he is one-eighth Comanche.
The next day, a group of local men ride up and recruit Ethan and Martin to go out after cattle rustlers, but this proves to be a Comanche feint meant to draw the men away from their homesteads. The Indians attack the Edwards' home, killing everyone but the two daughters, Lucy (probably 16) and Debbie (9). Thus begins an epic search to recover the two girls which will last five years and cover not only Texas, but parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico as well. (Incidentally, none of the movie was actually filmed in any of those places.) Within weeks of the beginning of the search, Lucy is found dead, and only Debbie remains to be saved. Martin and Ethan form an uneasy alliance (although Ethan's authority is never really in question) in pursuit of their mutual goal.
I say mutual . . . Martin wants to rescue Debbie, but before many of the years have passed, Ethan's mission is to kill her. To him she has ceased to be his niece, and has become only the "leavings of a Comanche buck." Thus, even though the two men have the same destination, they have very contradictory ideas of what they will do when they finally get to it.
As the search drags from months into years, further random subplots wind their goofy ways into the main story. Martin has a sweetheart, Laurie, the sister of Brad, who was in love with Lucy and was killed in a mad, vengeful suicide charge at the Comanche camp after her body was discovered. Laurie is, incidentally, also the daughter of the man whose cattle were originally . . . errr, "rustled," thereby spawning this whole thing. Laurie loves Marty, but he isn't the only suitor. A triangle is formed when he just won't stay put and ultra-hayseed Charlie comes a-courtin'.
Meanwhile, random happenings on the trail try to provide comic relief and advance the plot. Martin accidentally gets himself an Indian wife when he doesn't understand what he's trading for. Her name is "Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky" (that's "Look" for short), and she runs away when she finds out that they are searching for Chief Scar, the Comanche who perpetrated the raid and stole Debbie. (I have very strong feelings about the consequences to the screenwriter who perpetrated that name . . . is he a Texas Comanche, a Chicago crime boss or a Pirate of the Caribbean?) Anyway, Look leaves an obvious trail behind her which eventually leads them to an abandoned camp where Scar was attacked by the US Cavalry. Talk about a Wild Goose chase.
Get it? I didn't until after the movie was over. Ow.
I'll summarize the climax for you briefly now . . . sorry if I leave a few characters in the dust. Martin and Ethan, having failed to either rescue or kill Debbie once they find her, arrive back at "base" just in time to interfere with Laurie and Charlie's wedding. The resulting brawl between Marty and Charlie is interfered with in turn by the arrival of a Yankee cavalryman who wants the local Texas Rangers and all other able-bodied men marshalled for an attack on the Comanche encampment where Debbie is being held. Ethan and Marty join the group as scouts . . . and, of course, with their own respective agendas.
They find the Indian camp at night, and decide to charge at dawn. Marty goes in alone to attempt a daring rescue (I should note that I was quite shocked to discover that this sequence was ripped off wholesale, visuals and all, by George Lucas for Episode II . . . just add lightsabers). The cavalry charges in, but Marty has already killed Scar. The American troops are victorious, Ethan spots Marty and Debbie running for it and chases them down on his horse. Marty tries unsuccessfully to stop him and he chases a panicked Debbie over a hill and down the other side where she collapses, cowering before him. He leaps from his horse to stand in front of her . . . then reaches down, scoops her up in his arms, and utters those touching and immortal words (which I've heard in at least 378 other movies) "Let's go home."
The Searchers, like all John Ford movies, makes fantastic use of Western scenery. The locations are gorgeous and shown to their full advantage. Ford does some really great things with cinematography. I love the way the movie is bookended by almost identical opening and closing shots. After the credits finish at the beginning, we see a view of the rugged frontier through the doorway of a humble homestead, and Ethan's silhouette approaches from the distance before the woman of the house spots him as she appears in front of the open door. In the final shot of the movie, the various characters re-enter the house, again with the camera aimed out through the darkened doorway onto the bright Western terrain, before Ethan (left alone outside) moves slowly away.
But I hated some things, too. The addle-brained Mose Harper baffled me (which is probably why I haven't really discussed him). Is he a half-wit because he is a half-breed? How can he be so shrewd and so scattered at the same time? Is he in the movie purely for comic relief, and if so, why? The scene that disturbed and annoyed me most, however, was when Ethan and Marty inspect a number of women captives that the cavalry has rescued from the Indians. All of them have been driven completely out of their minds . . . one begins to scream uncontrollably when the men enter before subsiding and returning to her crooning and rocking back and forth. Two fourteen-year old girls with red paint smeared across their foreheads simply stand and stare at the men with empty eyes opened unnaturally wide and immense, frozen smiles.
I have read quite a number of Indian captive stories, both fictional and nonfictional, and I know of no historical precedent for this madness produced by living with "savage" Indians. Yet the movie implies that every woman who was captured was either raped and killed or has gone totally insane. Whether from blacks or Indians, perceived threats to the "womenfolk" have always been the fastest way to get a red-blooded Southern white male up in arms . . . The movie plays off of this to manipulate its audience far more than I would like.
The main plot is tense and full of pathos . . . You are drawn into the struggles of the characters on the frontier, and you wonder how the tension between racial prejudice and familial love will finally play out.
Herein, however, lies the movie's greatest problem: Ethan is totally unapologetic in his attitude about Indians, and the Indians themselves are stereotyped brutally in the movie. Strange, ultra-subtle half-hints are dropped here and there throughout the production to indicate that perhaps the movie does not hold the same beliefs as its characters, but when that final moment comes and Ethan takes Debbie in his arms instead of coldly plugging her between the eyes, can it hope to counterbalance nearly two hours of violent slanting? Can anyone really cite a John Wayne movie where he disappears into a character? I can't think of one. For the viewer, this is not Ethan Edwards, a fictional character, who believes that all Indians are brutal savages, this is John Wayne himself.
The Searchers is a movie which captures fragments of the frontier spirit, culture, and strife, but its perspective is so completely one-sided that it cannot convey a historically-balanced view of the West. Nor, for that matter, should it be required to do so. I certainly wouldn't plop, say, a Russian citizen down in front of this movie if I wanted him to know what life in the United States was like 150 years ago. But I would use it in an upper-level course about the history of the West in showing how the stories of our life on the frontier came to be told, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s.
Roger Ebert's review of the movie, which I found to be very insightful, suggests that The Searchers was made at a time when Ford was struggling to pull his Westerns out of the "classical" mode and into a more holistic view of the various historical factors that made relations between settlers and Native Americans what they were. That his product is ultimately deeply-flawed does not mean it is not a valuable, influential piece of American culture and cinema, but I don't necessarily have to like it.
April 26, 2005
Amy Tan and the Literary Undertow
I had absolutely no intention of writing anything about the story "Half and Half" . . . until I read it. The first sentence sucked me right in and I remained completely absorbed until the end. The story moved gracefully in and out of multiple time periods, beginning at its end and ending at its beginning . . . both of which are the same point. The story is complex, but easy to follow, and through it run individual threads of no immediately apparent importance, but of endless fascination, which are tied into the narrative one by one as the pages continue to turn. I was absolutely convinced that I was reading a true story about a personal experience until I turned to the biography of the author . . . and even knowing the story was fictional made it no less real to me.
The story is told in the first person by Rose Hsu Jordan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco . . . although I don't believe her first name is mentioned once in the story. She is sitting in her mother's house, wondering how to break the news of her upcoming divorce, knowing that her mother will not simply accept that her daughter is getting divorced. She will want Rose to fight it.
The thought of this sends her mind flying back into her memories of the past. She remembers how she first met her husband, how they came to be married, and the reasons why they are now getting a divorce. Then her mind reels back even farther, to the day when her mother lost her faith in God, and the day Rose herself began to believe in fate.
Her father, deciding that he wants to fish, has taken his wife and seven children (Janice, Ruth, Rose, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing) to a secluded beach near Devil's Slide. A series of unfortunate mischances causes Rose to be the only one watching Bing, and that from a distance, when the four-year old boy tumbles into the ocean and disappears. She is completely frozen, saying nothing, unable to decide what to do or how to react until, after an undetermined amount of time, someone else notices Bing's absence.
The body is not recovered that day, and early the next morning Rose's mother takes her and returns to the beach where Bing was lost. Mrs. Hsu speaks with God there, asking (with complete confidence) for her son back, thanking God for the lesson and promising to be more attentive next time. Nothing happens.
Next she tries to pay back an "ancestral debt," throwing a treasured ring into the water so that the "Coiling Dragon who lives in the sea" will return Bing to her. Her confidence is still complete, but Bing still does not appear after an hour of waiting.
Next, relying on her nengkan (belief that she can do anything she puts her mind to) she throws an inner tube attached to a fishing line off the edge of the reef. The line snaps, but they stand and watch as the inner tube is sucked repeatedly into a partially submerged cavern, emerging each time without any sign of being until finally it comes out completely deflated.
Finally, at that moment, Mrs. Hsu realizes that nothing she can do will bring Bing back, and her faith is destroyed. Returning to the present, Rose tells her mother that there is no hope to save her marriage . . . no point in even trying. "This is not hope," her mother replies. "Not reason. This is your fate. This is your life, what you must do."
Rose is left alone with her thoughts: "I think about Bing, how I knew he was in danger, how I let it happen. I think about my marriage, how I had seen the signs, really I had. But I just let it happen. And I think now that fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention. But somehow, when you lose something you love, faith takes over. You have to pay attention to what you lost. You have to undo the expectation."
Her mother used to carry a small, white, leatherette Bible, but since the loss of Bing the Bible has been wedged underneath the leg of a crooked table, "a way for her to correct the imbalances of life." Mrs. Hsu pretends to ignore it, but she knows that it is there. Now, Rose lifts the table leg and slides the Bible out. It is still clean, even after twenty years, and she remembers that her mother wrote in it before placing it there. Under "Deaths," she finds "Bing Hsu" written lightly in pencil.
What does it all mean, exactly? Rose has been letting life happen to her for twenty years now. Ever since the loss of her brother when she was fourteen she has felt locked into a predetermined path. She cannot make decisions (the source of conflict with her husband) because she doesn't think any decision will affect the outcome of events. If she doesn't learn to have faith, in herself and in her life as much as in God, this is how things will be for her forever.
The key is in her changed perspective on fate at the end of the story. She now perceives fate, not as predetermined, but as self-determined. When, after her mother’s efforts to retrieve Bing, she is so “angry . . . that everything had failed” them, what she is not realizing is that she has also failed herself. Her mother, I think, has allowed faith to take over; hasn't given in to fate. Bing's name, written under "Deaths," is "in erasable pencil." Realizing this, if she realizes this, what steps will Rose take now?
April 25, 2005
Katherine Anne Porter: Staring into the Abyss
A lot of people really hate stream-of-consciousness writing, but I am not one of those people. Sure, it's hard to get used to at first, and sometimes it can get annoying, but it makes for some rather spectacular writing most of the time. Stream-of-consciousness has the potential to completely eliminate the distance between the reader and the reading, and the result is not merely a good story, but an intimate experience.
The key to this is an interesting "voice." Virginia Woolf in "The Mark on the Wall," for instance, allows us a chance to climb inside of her own head and peer around. Other talented authors give us the opportunity to look in on a mind whose perspective we might never otherwise experience. Benjy, the retarded man in The Sound and the Fury, will of course come to mind. And to this growing list of interesting narrators I add the dying old woman in Katherine Anne Porter's The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.
Granny Weatherall, as her name might suggest, has not had an easy life. But she doesn't let this get her down. She has met every challenge as it surfaced: the death of her husband, the death of a child, the hard work of providing for and raising a family alone. Now, at the age of nearly eighty, she feels she has nothing to prove to anyone. As she lies in bed, sick and (though she doesn't accept that this is so) with the life ebbing slowly out of her, a steady stream of visitors pass, some by her bed, some through her mind, and she cannot always tell the difference between the two.
Doctor Harry and Granny's daughter, Cornelia, plus Father Connolly and two of her other children, Lydia and Jimmy, float in and out of the room, and all gather together around her in the last moments of her life. But in her mind they are joined by her dead daughter, Hapsy, her dead husband, John, and George, the man who stood her up at the altar when she was a young woman. From her memories of these people and reactions to them we begin to form a picture of her life and character within a very short space of time. Two things about Granny are crucial: Her buried feelings about George and what he did to her, and the state of her salvation. These two things are intertwined, but must be approached separately.
About the former, we begin to see that it has shaped her life far more than she would want to admit, even to herself. As she thinks back on what she has accomplished in her time on earth, her thoughts continually return to George. She feels an uneasy satisfaction with regards to him. Her mind never strays very far from what he did to her during her last hours, but always when she thinks of him her reaction is smug. The reader almost feels that everything Granny ever did, everything she ever accomplished throughout her life was entirely in response to being jilted. She had to prove to George that she never needed him . . . that life was possible without him. But George wasn't around to notice or care, and in the end she was most desperate to prove it to herself. As her time to die approaches and she thinks frantically of all she has left undone, we wonder whether she has truly convinced herself or not.
As for the state of her salvation, she feels she has the afterlife completely under control. She is secure with her spiritual state. After all, she has a "comfortable understanding with a few favorite saints who [will clear] a straight road to God for her." She is not afraid to die . . . "the whole bottom dropped out of the world" for her once already, and there was someone waiting to catch her then. And yet, when death comes, she is still "taken by surprise."
Death is a great, black void, looming in front of her, and her own tiny light is rapidly dwindling. The great darkness begins to swallow her up, and she calls out for that sign from God . . . that sign which lets her know He is waiting to catch her as she falls. What happens next I feel incapable of re-expressing, so I'll just quote the story:
"For the second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. Oh, no, there's nothing more cruel than this -- I'll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light."
As she blows out the light of her own life, you know that Granny Weatherall will know nothing but lonely, cold darkness for the rest of eternity. What could she have learned . . . What should she have learned from the first jilting that might have saved her from the second? Why, having already experienced a taste of the emptiness of the abyss, was she so complacent when approaching it a second time?
A life spent full of activity and incident, holding back painful memories or trying to wash them away "through works" as it were, is no solution to the pressing problem of eternal security. What happens to Granny Weatherall is something I wouldn't wish on anyone, ever . . . how shocking to watch it happen while we are inside her head.
April 24, 2005
William Faulkner: The Leap from a Mad Carousel
Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Sarty) is a very fortunate little boy. This may not be immediately apparent in the initial reading of Barn Burning, but it is true nevertheless. The only other work of Faulkner's, long or short, which I have read is The Sound and the Fury and believe me, compared to all four of its main characters, Sarty is lucky.
Sarty is a ten-year old boy growing up on the move in Mississippi. He travels from home to home with his father, mother, aunt, older brother, and two "bovine" older sisters. The family never stays in one place long because the father, Abner Snopes (a Confederate soldier turned horse rustler during the Civil War), is a barn burner. He has a nasty temper, a terrible grudge against property owners, and his weapon ("the one weapon for the preservation of integrity") is fire. Snopes arrives at each new destination looking for someone who will give offense to him if properly provoked, and when he finds that person, he burns down their barn.
As I finished The Sound and the Fury I had the strong sense that, were I able to turn just one more page I would find the book beginning again with Benjy's perspective. The book was like the cursed carousel from Something Wicked This Way Comes. You climb on and it begins to spin like mad . . . color, flashing, blinding . . . lights, strobing, whirling, dancing . . . noise, half-music, crashing, deafening . . . and you can't get off. Around and around and around and around, and as you continue to go around, revisiting (reliving) the same little path over and over again, you get old, and then you die. And you've spent your whole life trapped in the craziness, living and reliving more times than you can count.
Life is like this for Sarty, too. As "Barn Burning" opens we find him in a small store where a local Justice of the Peace holds court. His father is on trial for having burned a man's barn, but there is not enough evidence and he is released with orders to leave the area.
They exit the store and we see that this outcome was expected. The rest of the family is already packed into the wagon with all of their belongings, and they have a new destination: the DeSpain house. As soon as they've arrived at the little two-room job where they'll be taking up residence, Abner takes Sarty to go "have a word" with Mr. DeSpain.
When Sarty sees the large, wealthy DeSpain house for the first time, he immediately feels a "surge of peace and joy" because here, at last, are people his father cannot harm. The house and the people who live there seem too important and stable and dignified to be touched by any mere flames. Abner, on the other hand, feels only "ravening and jealous rage." His foot comes down in a pile of horse manure and before long he is wiping it in a long, ugly streak on the expensive carpet in the DeSpain's front hall. With this action complete, he leaves.
Before long, the rug is delivered to the Snopeses for cleaning, and Abner makes the bovine sisters scrub the stains with homemade lye soap (which, of course, ruins the thing). He returns the rug to DeSpain, who shows up and claims twenty bushels of corn (about $10) out of Abner's forthcoming crop in payment for the ruined $100 rug. The matter goes to court and the judge finds in favor of DeSpain, but only fines Snopes $5 of corn.
That night, Abner, "dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence," prepares his equipment for a barn burning. Sarty resists these preparations, and there is talk of tying him up. Ultimately, though, his mother promises to hold him and Abner leaves with the older brother. No sooner are they gone than Sarty is struggling wildly to get out of his mother's grip . . . and he succeeds. There is no one to stop him as he dashes from the house and tears up the road to the DeSpain's house. Bursting inside he screams a quick warning and then he is gone again, running back up the road. DeSpain flashes by on his horse and soon two shots are heard.
Sarty finally collapses, exhausted, on the crest of a hill. He struggles there to come to terms with what has just taken place, then he gets up and moves forward with no more immediate destination than the dark woods ahead of him. He doesn't look back.
Like the Compsons, the Snopes have been in a vicious, ever-looping cycle. Sarty has had no control over his life. He was a trapped character. Sarty, however, is not handicapped with any of the Compson's flaws. The closest a Compson comes to escaping the cycle is suicide. Sarty, moved by his compassion, honesty, and sense of justice, is able, with a tremendous effort, to break free. I didn't expect Faulkner to allow that . . . but I'm certainly glad he did.
April 23, 2005
Robert Frost: Weary Wanderings Down Wooded, Wintry Ways
The interesting thing about a lot of Frost's poetry (to me) is how resistant it is to any interpretation or analysis with depth. The lines of poetry wash gently over you as you read them and your mind is filled with vivid, peaceful scenes of woods and footpaths, green summer days and white winter nights, and . . . who would wish to intrude upon this lyrical setting simply to impose some brutish meaning over its simple beauty?
Or, to think of it another way, what Frost says comes through in his writing in a reasonably clear and (what is infinitely more important) breathtakingly colorful style . . . why would a starry-eyed young reader of poetry want to convert fluid verse into jarring prose? Frost has already written things out very nicely by himself, and a part of me would just prefer to leave it alone.
But enough rambling about that. We all know that I'm not going to just leave it alone. In fact, I'll be hacking at, not one, but three Frost poems momentarily. If you want to read them, they appear beneath the fold . . . so curl up with the keyboard in the warm glow from your monitor and enjoy the words of the Frosty One.
"Mending Wall" has the narrator "walking the line" with his neighbor, repairing the wintertime damage to the wall between their respective properties. Nature, it would seem, doesn't have a great deal of respect for such man-made contrivances, although from the description of the repairs they make ("some [boulders] so nearly balls/We have to use a spell to make them balance") it sounds as if portions of the wall wouldn't stand up to a stiff breeze.
To the narrator, this bit of exercise is little more than a game to wile away a sunny spring day. So, when they come to a portion of wall which divides two stands of different types of trees (on the one side, pines, on the other, apples), he sees no need to rebuild. The neighbor, however, is stubbornly (but mindlessly) determined that a wall should exist. This prompts the narrator to begin to ask the questions which, perhaps, the reader was already asking after the poem's opening statement: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." What does love a wall, and why?
Suddenly, the neighbor takes on a very base aspect. He seems dark and primitive and barbaric, grunting as he shifts rocks around and places them on top of each other, helpless in the grip of a protective instinct which tells him, against all reason, that he requires a barrier between himself and his fellow man.
"The Road Not Taken" is so widely known and widely read that it has practically become cliché. And yet, the reason for this is precisely because it communicates something that everyone experiences at some point (probably several points) in their lives through the artfully drawn metaphor of a traveler who reaches the inevitable fork in the road he has been following and must choose between two ways which seem virtually identical . . . but probably aren't. The choice is all the harder because once it has been made the traveler will never be able to tell whether the road not taken actually was the better choice. It is the uncertainty, I think, which will keep him hearkening back to that choice "ages and ages hence."
The big question this poem raises in my mind is one of how important the decision really is. I mean, I know the last line declares that it "has made all the difference" but look at the description of the two roads. They were essentially identical, how could choosing one road over the other have made any appreciable difference that he would be capable of judging without having traveled the other road? Perhaps the poem subtly suggests that it was the act of choosing which has so affected the traveler, rather than any variation between the two paths.
Or perhaps Frost is echoing a sentiment from Hamlet: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." The two roads were equal, but the traveler still thinks back on his decision "with a sigh." He is moving forward down the road he chose, but his eyes are continually cast backwards with longing and regret towards the one he did not choose. His obsession with that other road is preventing him from being fulfilled by the path he has taken.
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" concerns yet another traveler, on his way from somewhere to somewhere (a condition which the reader feels he must often find himself in). It is evening and everything is growing dark. Snow is falling, and for some reason he suddenly finds his attention absorbed by the drifts of white gathering in a patch of woods.
The character of this traveler is somewhat suggested by two things. First, his horse is not used to stopping like this . . . it is rare indeed for this traveler to stop for no apparent reason, simply to admire a view. Second, his introspective moment, partially hypnotized by a view of "lovely, dark and deep" woods, is cut short by the pressing call of "promises to keep" and "miles to go."
It is a soothing snapshot of brief tranquility in the midst of a life which seems full of destinations and obligations. This traveler is quite used to being often on his way from one place to the next. People are counting on him, and he has much left to do before he can pause to sleep . . . and yet, this scene stops him dead, if only for a few moments. Here is something different. Here is something he is not often used to seeing. Here is peace, complete and absolute and, for him, sadly transient.
Frost's poetry operates on two levels for me. On the surface, it is beautiful and pleasant and inspiring and calming. These are good poems. Just beneath this surface, however, Frost's poems produce a nostalgic longing in the reader and raise questions we do not often ask anymore. These three poems lead me to wonder:
-Why do we wall ourselves off from each other so much and so often when this is obviously against the natural order of things?
-Why do we live so much in the past when it obviously stunts our participation in the present?
-Why do we often allow details to drown out the parts of life which are most worth living?
Oh, go on and think about it for a second. A little introspection won't kill you. Personally, I’m not sure that I know the answers to any of these questions, but I do think that one way to deal with the problems they highlight is simple and effective: Read a Robert Frost poem or two, and then go share them with someone else.
And while you're doing that, I'm going to go do something else . . . I've still got "miles to go before I sleep," myself. I'll beat all those blasted details yet!
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
April 20, 2005
Revenge of the Dubliners
Well, after much practicing and preparation, and despite a large number of rough spots which cropped up during rehearsal, our presentation on Flannery O'Connor went smashingly well. I expended far too much energy to get us the classroom with the stage and cool lighting arrangements. We had to talk Kubricht and Solganick into swapping classrooms around for us, and we wound up displacing about 90 students (counting our class). But it was worth all that effort in the end, for sure.
Most of our group showed up in Heath-Hardwick Hall about 45 minutes early, and then proceeded to mill around anxiously since we couldn't really do anything until some profs started to arrive and the 8:00 class let out. Anyway, we finally got in and set up at a frantic pace and generally milled around some more, bursting with nervous energy.
The class had been assigned to read "Good Country People" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," these being the focus of our presentation. The original assignment way-back-when was the former story only, but I had long since convinced Dr. C to throw in the latter (he really didn't bother to put up a fight, actually). Martinez gave a devo from Ecclesiastes, tying it neatly to the worldview of The Misfit, and then we were off.
Martinez gave Gallagher a rousing introduction, really playing up the quality we expected from him in presenting O'Connor's biography, and then Gallagher appeared from backstage . . . decked out in a garish green headband with two plastic shamrocks attached to it on springs and carrying a couple of pink plastic flamingos. Martinez appeared confused, but handed him the Power Point slide clicker anyway as he set the flamingos down.
As Martinez took his seat, Gallagher brought up the presentation and enthusiastically launched into a biography of Flannery O'Connor . . . which happened to be a complete fabrication. I think the only thing he got right was her gender. I know he borrowed heavily from the life of James Joyce in creating this farce, and I assume the rest of it came from himself, largely. He discussed her role as a great Irish author, her hobby of raising flamingos, and her startling resemblance to Sinéad O'Connor (the Irish pop star). All of this was delivered in a heavy brogue.
After a few moments of this, the rest of the group was visibly confused, then completely panicked. Before long, we had all dashed to the front and were conferring in hushed, anxious tones just to the right of the stage. Finally, when Gallagher declared that Flannery O'Connor wrote Revenge of the Dubliners in 1944, Randy and I stepped firmly forward and hauled Gallagher off the other side of the stage. While we lectured him quietly and generally waved our arms around, Martinez apologized and Ashley pretended to frantically leaf through a few books so she could throw together a rudimentary bio.
Loudly commanding Gallagher to have a seat next to Coppinger, (who asked him if he was doing alright emotionally, and if he needed counseling) Randy and I turned and stage-whispered to Martinez to stall. So he started tap-dancing a bit, nervously trying to come up with something to say. Now, Martinez had just completed a presentation in his Intro to Research class the period before on Positive Electron Flow from Ion Emitters (or some such nonsense), so he now brought that up on the screen and launched into a discussion of the aforementioned topic. Randy and I glanced at each other and ran up to help Ashley with her research. About 20 seconds later she stepped forward to relieve Martinez and from that point forward we controlled the Power Point slides from off-stage (a tactic which we hoped would allow the presentation to flow more smoothly . . . I would say it worked quite effectively).
What has the presentation thus far had to do with Flannery O'Connor, you ask? Well, absolutely nothing, really . . . but we had a lot of fun and ultimately wasted less than five minutes. It was well-received by the class and left them ready to listen and see what might happen next. After Ashley's brief bio, I stepped up to talk about O'Connor's writing philosophy, style, and the general themes present in her work. You can find the basics of my portion beneath the fold. I read a few prepared excerpts from Mystery and Manners (these being quite difficult to select . . . there's so much good material there). Then I discussed four important aspects of her short stories and how they apply generally to the two stories we were presenting on. Finally, I read excerpts from two of her other stories to help illustrate the "moment of grace."
I hated not being able to talk about more things, but I only had 8 minutes. Ah, well . . . they'd have gotten bored eventually anyway. I just did my best to talk people into going out and reading more O'Connor before introducing Gallagher and Randy. The gimmick for their portion was that they had gotten into an argument over which story had the better set of characters: Good Man or Country People. In an attempt to promote a peaceful solution and actually get them to gather some info for the class, the story went that we had allowed them the option of engaging in a formal debate in front of everyone to help decide the question.
This debate consisted of each one discussing a major character or a few minor characters in-depth followed by a burst of concentrated, scripted witty banter running the gamut from the thumb-biting bit from Romeo and Juliet (verbatim) to derogatory remarks about personal appearance, hygiene, and ancestry. This culminated in Gallagher pulling his trump character: Pitty Sing (the cat from Good Man). Randy responded by referencing Gallagher's failed biography attempt (obviously a sore point), and Gallagher fired back with "You didn't even vote for Bush!"
The inside joke here, of course, is that Randy, in fact, did not vote for Bush . . . but after a momentary pause while this sunk in, Randy howled "You just called me a Democrat!" and chased Gallagher from the stage. At this point, Scholl (who had come to watch) walked forward wearing his thick, black cloak and carrying the Ice Cave's mascot, Murray (a skull on a stick, essentially). He also had another of the Ice Cave's mascots, the blue plush frog, wrapped around his head. Stepping to center stage, he solemnly intoned, "And now for something completely different" and returned to his seat.
This bit of utter randomocity was followed by the final portion of our presentation, a discussion of the themes in the two stories. This was to be carried forth by Ashley and Martinez, who were pretending to be a couple of random college students on an awkward first date at the Olive Garden. We had a table set up, Randy played waiter with an apron and towel, and Dean Martin crooned quietly in the background to set the mood. As I cued up slides, the class watched Martinez clumsily attempt to engage a bored Ashley in conversation before suddenly remembering the wise words of Dr. Coppinger: American Literature is great date conversation material. At this point, Ashley enthusiastically joined him in a discussion of the similar themes of Good Man and Country People which, we believe, proved enlightening to our classmates.
When they finished with all that, they stood up together, and Martinez moved on to his love of poetry, talking about how he and his lit class had recently "felt Emily" as they went backstage. The sound of a resounding slap was heard, and Martinez staggered back onstage with the accompanying slide: ". . . just don't get too carried away." And that was the end of our presentation.
But wait! Class still lacked half an hour, and we had already secured permission to lead the discussion. So the five of us lined up at the front and attempted to get people talking. And . . . people talked. About six people, to be exact. You know . . . us five and Dr. C.
Actually, a few other people did jump in at various points, and I really enjoyed fleshing things out in more depth with Dr. Coppinger's observations mixed in. We really experimented with a lot of new presentation techniques that we had never tried before, and a lot of things could have gone wrong. Ultimately, however, the presentation was well received, and Dr. Coppinger was pleased with our efforts. We had a great time (as always) throwing it together, and I would classify it as a definite success.
Mystery and Manners
I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relationship to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.
My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable . . . I think that . . . often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
I suppose the reason for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
I think the writer of grotesque fiction does [things] in the way that takes the least [doing], because in his work distances are so great. He’s looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees.
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological . . . approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.
Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated. They seem to think that it is a way of saying something that you aren’t actually saying, and so if they can be got to read a reputedly symbolic work at all, they approach it as if it were a problem in algebra. Find x. And when they do find or think they find this abstraction, x, then they go off with an elaborate sense of satisfaction and the notion that they have “understood” the story. Many students confuse the process of understanding a thing with understanding it.
In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.
Characters: Flawed & Grotesque
-General Sash (A Late Encounter With the Enemy)
-Ruby Hill (A Stroke of Good Fortune)
-Asbury Fox (The Enduring Chill)
Plotlines: Task or Obsession Leading to Exhausting Physical/Spiritual Exertion
-Climbing the Stairs (The Geranium)
-Woodland Chase (The Turkey)
-Lost in Atlanta (The Artificial Nigger)
Violent, Shocking Epiphany
-Arson (A Circle in the Fire)
-Spousal Abandonment (The Life You Save May Be Your Own)
-Drowning (The River)
Moment of Grace: Redemption and Purification
Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.(The Artificial Nigger)
The old life in him was exhausted. He awaited the coming of new. It was then that he felt the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold. His breath came short. The fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion. Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.(The Enduring Chill)
April 15, 2005
Dead by Wednesday
That's what I'll be if next week is any crazier than this one. I thought the week would go downhill after I turned in my monster 15-page Historiography paper on Tuesday night . . . especially since we watched two highly entertaining movies in class that night.
But it was not to be . . .
Going to bed after 1:30 three nights in a row, I found myself woken up before 8:00 on the following mornings to face days full of classes, work, and homework. The last two days:
5:00-8:45: Out and About
11:00-2:00: Ummm . . . ??? (not sleeping)
7:45-8:45: Hallsville Run
12:25-12:50: Make-up Quiz
And as for the weekend . . .
Friday night: Webb Historical Society Movie Night
Saturday night: Longview Symphony
Sunday night: Presentation Practice
And then . . .
Due by Tuesday:
Intro to Psych- 3 Make-up Quizzes
American Lit II- Group Presentation on Flannery O'Connor with Gallagher, Martinez, Randy, and Ashley
Twentieth Century Russia- Test #3
Texas & the American West- Paper #2
Historiography- Critique and Analysis of another student's paper (in this case, Barbour's rendering of the Yom Kippur War)
So . . . I hope to be back in the blogging world in a big way come summer, but for now . . . *disappears*
April 10, 2005
Following the Madding Crowd
Tuesday is a big day: My eight-page Historiography paper comes due at 6:00 pm. I don't know how much I've written about this paper before now, but the general idea behind the assignment is that each student is to choose a historical topic which they can research for themselves through heavy use of primary sources. Dr. Johnson seemed fairly attached to the idea that someone research the events surrounding the Longview Race Riot of 1919, so I decided to tackle it.
After a bit of preliminary fact-finding, I visited the Longview Public Library to inspect their vertical file on the subject and found a wealth of material . . . far more than I had any desire to take notes on. Returning the following week, Rachel helped me make 74 copies and bring the material home with me. My sources include newspaper articles from Longview, Dallas, and Waco, interviews with eyewitnesses from 1978 (conducted by Dr. Kenneth R. Durham, Dr. Johnson's predecessor in the LeTourneau History department and primary chronicler of the events), and official reports by the Texas Rangers and National Guardsmen who were dispatched to Longview to restore order.
Playing historical detective by getting this close to little-known events as I attempt to reconstruct the truth of what really happened in Longview July 10th-19th, 1919 has been quite an exhilirating experience. Tonight, as I sat in front of my computer screen and began to lay out in my mind exactly how I was going to tell this story, I happened to glance over at my materials and spot a map that was included in the vertical file. This map has 11 locations pinpointed on it where important events transpired before, during, and after the riot.
Pulling it out, I read over the sequence of events once again and traced out, in pencil, the route followed by an angry mob on July 11th. Gallagher declared himself to be generally bereft of things to do right then, so I asked him to accompany me on a journey through Longview to locate and inspect the various sites marked on my map.
Our quest began at the Longview Courthouse, where we located the spot on the lawn where the National Guard posted their command tent while martial law was in effect in Longview (July 13-19). Directly across the street was the place where Samuel L. Jones, a local black schoolteacher, was severely beaten on July 10th by three white men. Two of these men were of a family named King. They were the brothers of a woman they believed to have been insulted by an article in the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper which Jones represented in Longview.
That week's issue had featured an article by an anonymous author telling the story of Lemuel Walters, a black man who had been lynched in Longview the previous month for committing "indecencies" of an undetermined nature towards the Kings' sister. I have been completely unable to discover precisely what the nature of his actions were . . . the rumors range all the way from rape to a dinner invitation. Whichever of these extremes is closer to the truth, I have a copy of the article from the Defender and it states that the woman "declared she loved him, and if she were in the North would obtain a divorce and marry him." And so it was that Jones, suspected of writing the article (although he denied it at all times, both then and thereafter), was beaten by the King brothers in front of the Courthouse before escaping to the house of another local black leader, Dr. Calvin P. Davis, to have his wounds treated.
The angry citizens met for several hours that evening and were "talked down" for several hours by "voices of reason" including the mayor and a well-respected local attorney, and the meeting had dispersed with the calmer types thinking the matter was resolved and would subside. However, a group of about 15 young men wandered off and milled around for awhile before making for Jones's house at about midnight . . . and that was our next stop.
Jones's house was located around 9 or 10 blocks from the Courthouse, and when the group of armed men arrived there all seemed quiet. Coming up the back street a few of them stepped up onto the back porch and called for Jones to come out. Receiving no response, they moved towards the door, only to be fired upon from all sides. Over 100 rounds were fired in the next few minutes and four of the white men were wounded. One of them crawled under a nearby house where he was found and beaten by the blacks. The unscathed men ran for it.
See, while the young men were getting themselves whipped up to attack, Dr. Davis had not been idle. He had gotten the support of 25 local black men to stand guard over Jones and had laid an ambush around the house, instructing the men not to fire until he did. His plan worked perfectly . . . up to that point.
Gallagher and I followed the route of the fleeing white men back towards the Courthouse, turning off a block short to find the former location of the Fire Station (where they ran). Once there, they rang the alarm bell to summon reinforcements numbering somewhere between 100 and 1,000 men (the sources disagree a bit here, as you can see . . . Longview at the time had a total population of just over 5,000 people, so 1,000 men is probably a bit high). Right next to the Fire Station was Bodie Park where the young men had first gathered before setting off for the house.
A car was sent to hurriedly collect the wounded men from around Jones's house, and the rest of the men got themselves agitated into a regular lynch mob. It was around here that they broke into a hardware store to loot it for weapons and ammunition. At around 4 am they headed back to Jones's house, en masse. Having already been along that route, Gallagher and I took a detour to locate the house of Marion Bush, father-in-law of Dr. Davis, who will enter this story later. This was the most difficult of the locations to find as the town has totally changed in this area.
The street on which the house stood no longer even exists, and, in fact, the general area where it would have been is now occupied by a bank, the public library, and the parking lot in between the two. We parked and hopped out of the car to snoop around a bit, and managed to ascertain that the library wasn't even built until 1987. As a result we could only get a very general idea of the lay of the land in 1919.
From there we went three blocks straight south back to Jones's house. Arriving there early in the morning in 1919, the mob found no one at home . . . so they burned the house to the ground along with the house across the street from it. We followed their route south two and a half blocks to the former location of Quick Hall, a dance hall owned by one Charlie Medlock. The whites believed that blacks were storing ammunition in it and had their suspicions confirmed when they lit it on fire and the whole place started popping like an Orville Redenbacher factory.
Proceeding south another block the mob set Dr. Davis's house on fire. He was not at home (having gone to hide out in Bush's house), but his wife and children were. After some fast negotiating, a black man was allowed to go in and rescue them from the blaze. The mob set a nearby automobile on fire as well before turning east and proceeding two blocks to the homes of Charlie Medlock and a man named Ben Sanders. When Medlock and Sanders's 80-year old wife Belle protested the arson, they were both horsewhipped. After this the sun was beginning to come up and the mob finally dispersed.
All of this area is still a residential district, and there are houses at the locations of Jones and Davis's former residences. A small church stands across the street from Davis's house, and a new house is being built on or near the location of Quick Hall. Some sort of business now exists where Medlock's house was, and, directly across the street, There is nothing but a grassy, tree-filled lot at the former location of Sanders's house. It was nighttime, and this was still south Longview, so we didn't linger . . . I returned to LeTourneau, well satisfied with the trip.
To finish the story, however, the county judge and sheriff called the governor of Texas that very morning to ask for assistance and eight Texas Rangers plus about 200 National Guardsmen were eventually dispatched to deal with the situation. Davis, who was hiding in Bush's house all that day, narrowly escaped discovery when the house was searched twice before finally escaping to Mexico dressed in a soldier's uniform.
Meanwhile, on July 13th, the sheriff came to visit Marion Bush with a friend, asking him to submit to imprisonment for his own protection due to rumors that were circulating which indicated that he might be murdered. Bush agreed and re-entered his house "to blow out the lamp." Thinking, no doubt, of the lynching of Lemuel Walters (who had been held "safely" in the jail), Bush returned with a .45 caliber revolver and opened fire on the two white men. Missing from very close range, he dashed back inside and ran out the back door. The sheriff emptied a revolver at his retreating back, but didn't hit him. Calling a farmer five miles west of Bush's house, he asked him to stop the fugitive.
Shortly afterwards, he received a call that Bush had been stopped, and he loaded up two cars with National Guardsmen and rattled out of town to take custody. He arrived at the spot to find Bush dead . . . the farmer claimed he had ordered Bush to stop, and had gunned him down when he failed to comply.
Later that day, several dozen arrests were made (from among both the white and black populations) and this had a sobering effect on the townspeople. There was no more trouble for nearly a week until martial law was lifted and all of those arrested were freed with the charges dropped. Davis and Jones never returned to Longview, and Bush was, amazingly, the lone casualty of the entire incident.
This is, of course, the short version of the events, and there's a lot more to the story as a whole . . . but that's the basic gist. I had a good time sniffing around Longview finding all these places, and I think that I have a better handle on the events for my paper from having gotten a feel of the general layout. Now to write the dang-blasted thing . . .
April 01, 2005
The Light Brigade Gets Lucky
THE SC PLAYERS PRESENT:
Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw
Myself- Captain Bluntschli
Ardith- Raina Petkoff
Wilson- Sergius Saranoff
Anna- Catherine Petkoff
Scholl- Nicola, Russian Officer
George Bernard Shaw is just awesome. His plays are hilarious, and they always manage to stomp all over some cherished British convention of the period during which they were written. Arms and the Man is Shaw's dig at the popular Romantic notions of warfare as honorable and glorious (this includes some hilarious pot shots at "The Charge of the Light Brigade").
During a war between the Serbs and the Bulgarians, Captain Bluntschli (a Swedish mercenary), finds himself on the run after his artillery unit is accidentally routed by a suicidal Bulgarian cavalry charge (the Serbs just happened to have been sent the wrong size ammunition at precisely the wrong moment). He escapes up into the bedroom of the young Bulgarian woman, Raina Petkoff, whose fiancé, Sergius Saranoff, led this cavalry charge, and she and her mother take him in.
Soon he returns safely home in an old coat belonging to the girl's father. After the conflict ends some few weeks later, he comes back to return the coat and hilarity ensues as Raina and her mother attempt to hide their role in his escape from her father and Sergius (who met Bluntschli during the peace negotiations and have developed an enormous respect for him).
To complicate matters, Raina and Sergius each consider the other's love for them to be the one completely pure and noble thing in their lives . . . and they each find themselves falling for other people: Raina for Bluntschli and Sergius for Louka (the fiercly-independent maid). Fortunately for this ingenue and her Byronic betrothed, Bluntschli's straightforward, unvarnished view of life, and the six hotels he has just inherited from his father, are there to save them from themselves and their hopelessly idealized worldviews.
That's kinda Shaw's thing: Tension arises not only from romantic triangles and the question of who will wind up with whom, but from the intolerable possibility that the play might end while a character still has a fractured worldview. And so, by the end, everyone (at least, everyone important) has been brought peacefully and blissfully into the fold . . . their wrongheaded ideas about life, love, war, virtue, etc. finally cast aside.
Happily ever after, indeed.