Monday, June 26, 2006

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Elijah, and Text

Last Friday my sisters took my two youngest children and me to De Smet to see the Ingalls' homestead. What a minimalist experience! It was surprisingly engaging. I loved the five cottonwood trees, the last of thousands planted by Laura's father.

I want to talk about Laura not historically but literarily; not as a fronteir experience, but as a textual experience. I hope to avoid dichotomies, and beg forgiveness if I oversimplify anything.

The speaker in Seamus Heaney's poem, "Digging," lauds his relatives who are good with spades for cutting "turf" and planting potatoes, and concludes, referring to his poet's pen, that "I'll dig with this." There are different ways to work the land.

Laura's parents gave the family a real (as in terms of real property) inheritence; she gave her parents a type of inheritence, a mortal immortality, by writing about the family land experience. The land is still there; the story is there, too--they give to each other.

Maybe the biblical idea that "children are an heritage of the Lord" comes through in such cases--children both receive the inheritance and ARE the inheritance--a sort of back flow. Have you seen in rapids how some currents go downstream and some go up, it seems? Maybe the conflict of generations is really the fact that energy goes two ways--we just don't give to our children (good and bad, pleasing and painful, counsel and knowledge); they give to us.

Finally, Laura. Her life is a life, and became literary because she crafted it in text. It was not necessarily an amazing life that gauranteed a good story; it was a good story that made the life of interest to others. A life is not important because it is well-known, but the fact that sincerely writing about an authentic experience created an awareness and recognition of her life and lives like hers is a remarkable thing; even in autobiographical fictions we sense the turning of the hearts of the children to their fathers, and there is a chariot of fire driving the whole experience.

Text gives meaning to life, life gives meaning to text--in the reading and the writing.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Words in Need are Words in Deed

It amazes me how lines of text can stay in the mind and appear in a time of need, interpreting the moment and being interpreted by the moment.

Strange and beautiful are words that become more than words as they are crafted into purposeful text.

Words live.

  • Borges in "The Aleph" says something like (this is from memory): As a boy I used to marvel that the words in a closed book did not get mixed up and lost in the discourse of the night.
  • Flannery O'Connor in The Violent Bear It Away has the words of Tarwater's calling come to his mind like seeds quietly sprouting one by one.

Fortunately, words to live by are not hard to come by--only hard to live by.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Gregor and Willy

I am reading Death of a Salesman. I do not wish to sound judgmental; I hurt for Willy. I remember Kafka's Metamorphosis and think: Here are two travelling salesmen: Gregor Samsa and Willy Loman. Who is more absurd: the one who turns into a bug and is trying to figure out how to make his train, or the one who turns from himself and is trying to make a life?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Stage Directions in Death of A Salesman

The setting description for Act I of Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller make me wonder how feeling such as Linda has "she more than oves him, she admires him, as though his mecurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties, served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings within him, longings which she shares but lacks the temperament to utter and follow to their end" (1557) are communicated to the audience? Can they be? They can help an actor, perhaps, set her mind to how to speak and act.

I also wonder about the symbolic directions for when one can and cannot walk through the invisible walls of the house. Will the audience pick up on this? And even if it doesn't, will it work on subconscious minds to create an effect?

Text has the luxury of getting or attempting to get inside of people and seeing them even better perhaps than they see themselves. Some things I suppose cannot be visually communicated. I'm thinking of Dr. Harry McCraw's relating of a comment he once heard about the carriages sent to Tulkinghorn's funeral in Bleak House: a film cannot quite communicate the fact, as Dickens so clearly presents it in text, that people sent only their carriages and driver to the funeral but did not attend themselves . . .

The Hierarchy of Literary Needs

But I can't get off that easy--to just enjoy the pleasure and duty of producing and responding to produced words. Literature is perhaps not so much a pool as a pipe. Where does the water need to go, and what thirst does it need to satisfy, and what do the thirsty need to do once they have done drinking?

It is back to Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo": with the aesthetic experience is the mandate: you must change your life.


Resist the idea of you want. Dismiss the idea if you want. Be empowered by the idea if you choose.

Reading in The Brothers Karamazov this morning, I see the way Dostoevsky portrays the characters we would wish to emulate--Alyosha and Zossima. I read Zossima's words with interest and think also of the Bishop in Les Miserables. What I conclude is that if we can read and also imagine the right things to say and the right way to act, maybe we can also say and act rightly in our general lives. What a thought--what a hope.

But Lance Kennington says, "Hope is not a plan."

What is the plan then? What is the plan for happiness?

The art of being based in the art of words; word become flesh.

While you're working on it, or even if you choose not to, you can also enjoy the story.

This Business of Literature

Yesterday evening while reading and commenting on literary blogs, it struck me as somewhat odd that I was getting paid to read and write. What a profession! In today's Writer's Almanac, Tobias Wolff is quoted as saying: "There are very few professions in which people just sit down and think hard for five or six hours a day all by themselves. [If you become a writer] you have the liberty to do that, but once you have the liberty you also have the obligation to do it."

Well, my pleasure is also my duty. I worked on a poem this morning, and I am blogging here right now out of pleasure and duty--and I am glad of it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Representation in Borges, WCW and Flannery O'Connor--a few comments, some stronger than others

Phew, my mind is flying in many different directions, rapidly--somewhat the image of the "big bang"; whether or not I can generate human literature--or rather, a quality response to human literature--from this beginning will depend on something more than chance. Remember: the argument from design is a compelling one.

I have been reading recently in Flannery O'Connor, WCW, and Borges (once again, too bad we can't have posthumous Nobel Prizes for literature). REPRESENTENTATION is a common theme or element I am drawing from what I have read--and I will tug on this thread the way kids--in the old days, anyhow--used to be to unravel entirely their tube socks. Let's see how far I get.

By representation I mean one thing standing for another, indicating another; a thing becoming more than the thing in itself, but something larger or symbolic. (Sublimation may be a form of representation--as my mom would say, kick the dog because you're mad at your husband; the dog represents the thing you can't bring yourself to kick even though you want to.)

The first level of representation is the fact that a writer, through her craft, can represent things beyond the story in itself. One thing a story can represent are the troubling faces of representation.

Representation in general can be a problem when it overwhelms the thing in itself. I am thinking mostly about representation in human relationships. A quick example is in Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. In this novel of the Russian Revolution and after, the idealistic, well-meaning but later brutal Pasha Antipov loves and marries Lara, a lower-class girl. As he speaks with her after marriage, he learns that she has been violated/exploited by a richer, more powerful man. Pasha is so shaken by this revelation that he seeks remedy for Lara's victimization by basically abandoning Lara to go fight for revolution. Of her, Pasha says she is "the indictment of an age"; in a word, that she represents all the injustice that moves him to action and revolution, even violence. The irony is that Pasha compounds suffering (he gets the nickname Stelnikov, "the Shooter") rather than relieving suffering. He could have healed Lara by a loving, conjugal relationship; instead, he saw her symbolically, left her, and joined an ideological stuggle.

(The foregoing is from memory; please correct my details if needed).

So someone has a personal problem, situates it in a larger social or cosmic context, and the response and consequences are also magnified. Now, I believe in seeing things in their contexts, and understanding things symbolically--but only if the desired and actual conclusion is healing, helping, and building. Another day I may work on that idea, but today I'm taking the easy path of examining the troubling aspects of human nature.

In "The Garden of Forking Paths," the internal narrator, Yu Tsun, points out one face of representation: speaking of Madden who is persuing him, he writes: "Madden was implacable. Or rather, he was obliged to be so. An Irishman at the Service of England, a man accused of laxity and perhaps treason, how could he fail to seize and be thankful for such a miraculous opportunity: the discovery, capture, maybe even the death of two agents of the German Reich?" (Norton 546)

Here, if Yu Tsun is correct, Madden wants to gain favor, and even save himself, possibly, by capturing two spies. The spies are no longer just security threats that Madden wishes to stop because they are threats; they REPRESENT a chance for Madden to gain or regain favor. This reminds me of the story of the sinking of the Indianapolis; (see Left for Dead) the captain of the submarine that sunk the ship felt great when he saw the ship so clearly before the moon and had a chance to show himself; to do a great act. The problem with such representational situations is that the mean suffering for others. If a person becomes 'our chance,' shouldn't we examine our motives? People are not opportunities or chances; they are people; things in themselves.

Yu Tsun also reveals himself to be party to such representational thinking: "I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies. Besides, I had to flee form Captain Madden" (547). Here, Yu Tsun's spy work becomes a symbolic act of showing a European that an Asian person could do something of great magnitude. Do you think Yu Tsun really cares about the armed conflict? Clearly, throughout the story, his mind is on more cosmic things.

I can't help but think that part of Yu Tsun's "swarming" sensation (551) in the story comes from so much being represented in his single act.

Finally, Stephen Albert dies in the story because he shares the name of the town to be bombed; mention of his death in the paper communicates the information to Chief (552). What an unfortunate representation!

Let's look at a more straight-forward text: "The Use of Force.” William Carlos Williams himself has said “no idea but in things.” Things, perhaps, then, become containers for ideas or concepts. In this short story, a girl with diphtheria won’t open her mouth for the doctor to examine her throat. The doctor becomes increasingly irritated and finally “wins” by getting a metal object in her mouth. This is the doctor’s story of mounting rage, and it is clear that what is happening is not just a doctor trying to figure out how to help a girl open her mouth. (If we wanted to, we could see this examination, representationally, as a rape; it certainly has the image, feel, and intention). John C. Maxwell’s dictum applies to literary relationships as well as “real life” ones: “anytime a person’s response is larger than the issue at hand, the response is almost always about something else” (Winning with People 29).

So what’s at stake in “The Use of Force?” The girl’s resistance and the parent’s behaviors may represent for the doctor all the difficult, self-destructive people he deals with. The girl is also mentioned as being “an unusually attractive little thing, and as strong as a heifer in appearance” (459). She is also very resistive. Does looking in her throat become a sort of conquest for the doctor? The parents also exhibit a representational attitude. (Representation is also related to stereotyping). They are “very nervous, eyeing [the doctor] up and down distrustfully” (459). What does the doctor represent to them? What does a doctor represent to people generally? A healer? Or someone who knows more about a patient’s body than the patient, and doesn’t care what the patient knows? Who sees a “patient” rather than a “person?” A billable visit rather than a human interaction? Certainly, the struggle in “The Use of Force” is very, very large—and representation has something to do with it.

Finally, let’s look at Flannery O’Connor. In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” part of Sheppard’s failure is tied to representation. Norton is his son, but he doesn’t have authentic interactions with him; to him, his son represents selfishness: “The boy’s future was written in his face. He would be a banker. No, worse. He would operate a small loan company. All he wanted for the child was that he be good and unselfish and neither seemed likely” (375). Poor Norton! His father has reduced him to an abstract human vice. Then, in an act of “telescopic philanthropy” (to borrow a phrase from Dicken’s Bleak House), he seeks obsessively to help troubled boys professionally, especially Rufus. Is Sheppard’s admiration for Rufus’ intelligence representational? Does he care about Rufus as Rufus, or as a smart, wayward thing that can be nurtured to his true nature?) (By the way: it is really crushing and ironic that Sheppard plays baseball with other boys and has his son WATCH. Shouldn’t Sheppard first be helping his own son? Admittedly, Sheppard is doing his “profession” and thereby making a living, but he lacks an authentic, loving relationship with Norton. The problem, to my mind, is largely representational (we can discuss Sheppard’s dogmatic secularism another day).

In “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” a similar family problem exists: a parent and a child are not connecting partly because of representation problems. Julian, the son, ties his irritation with his mother to larger social issues; she becomes the hopelessly ignorant woman of an older, racist generation. While the mother’s comments are embarrassing even to read, Julian clearly makes the bus ride a symbolic event; for example, “he made a point to sit down beside a Negro, in reparation as it were for his mother’s sins” (402). Phew! Why can’t he just take the first empty seat that won’t make him motion sick?

I am far from concluding this topic. One never finishes studying the best texts; one just puts them aside. And one never reads the same piece of literature twice no matter how many visits to the text.

Friday, June 09, 2006

"A Souvenir of Japan": Help!

I try to make a rule to approach each literary text with the hope that I will enjoy and respect it. I am having a hard time with this story. I think part of the problem is not just that the narrator has a tortured vision of her relationship and her surroundings, but that the narrator does not seem sufficiently separated from the author so that I can see how the author hopes I should feel about the narrator's world view? (Should that even matter, you ask?)
I suppose what I am dealing with here is the distinction I have tried to make with my son about reading: is this a bad text, or a text about bad things?

What do you think about "A Souvenir of Japan?" Is it about a woman with an unhealthy vision of intimacy and a culture not her own, or is it a story with a bad attitude? (Or am I putting forth an either-or fallacy?)

Hungry for a Kafka Story?

Kafka's stories can be said to deal with the absurd, meaning the sense that human existence is crazy, doesn't make sense, maddens, baffles, is a cosmic joke played on the humans . . . you get the idea. Maybe you sense this from reading "A Hunger Artist."

Even beyond symbol and allegory, I am very willing to consider Kafka's story literally: yes, we really could have a person who fasts professionally in a cage. The fact that a person would want to do such a thing is, well, absurd. Take it from there . . . Maybe the hunger artist represents the fact that people do weird things, not as departures from an otherwise normal life, but as a normal life itself--in other words, a normality of abnormality. There is a small Kafka story that I really like that goes right along with "A Hunger Artist," as well as "Metamorphosis" (a Kafka story you may already be familiar with about a man who turns into a giant bug):

The Watchman
by Franz Kafka
I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back and said to the watchman: "I ran through here while you were looking the other way." The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. "I suppose I really oughtn't to have done it," I said. The watchman still said nothing. "Does your silence indicate permission to pass?". . .

I think one thing that this tiny story has in common with "A Hunger Artist" is that the protagonist (main character) is bound to something by an unhealthy internal control/drive; it is an obedience or discipline out of something other than happy desire or love--which leads to frustration, misery, and an unreal sense of being; to the absurd.

But is this real life? Do people in real life do things they don't want to do as a way of life? Do people engage in unhealthy, dismal practices even when no one seems to be compelling them to do so? Do people have an unhealthy respect for authority sometimes? Do people internalize external controls so that they allow themselves to be dictated to even in the absence of the dictator?

To the degree that people do, "A Hunger Artist," to me, at least, is a very realistic story.

"A Pair of Tickets": an Amiable Story

I like this story because it has a happy tone, even though it deals with a serious subject. It is a story of clear thinking and hope. It has a happy ending. Wow, is that something! Some folks complain that "news" has so much BAD stuff in it. Similarly, "literature" can sometimes be seen as "depressing" or "troubled" or "painful." I remember my intro to lit for English majors class that I took in my undergraduate career. I approached my professor and asked if there was some "happy" literature he could recommend--something that had the substance of literature without the pain. I wonder why I wanted that; now I don't worry about it so much. But still...doesn't literature sometimes strike you as being HEAVY? But maybe I am deceived. Maybe "A Pair of Tickets" is also heavy and I'm choosing to focus on the happy elements

Thursday, June 08, 2006

What's Wrong with Bartleby?

Okay, folks, that is the entire question.

Is it important to know?

Do you accept the explanation that Melville's narrator gives in the last paragraph?

I agree with my high school English teacher that it would be best to end the text with the
quotation from the book of Job which comes just before the "explanation."

A reference to the Book of Job perhaps helps us answer the question, "What's wrong
with Bartleby?"

As you may remember from the Book of Job in the Bible, Job is suffering terribly and his
friends come upon the scene and start philosophizing about Job's troubles, which is rather
small of them and indicative of the human problem of passing judgment and reducing
other people to our ideas of them.

Let me explain the Job-Bartleby connection a bit more.

As John S. Tanner writes of Job's friends, "They have ceased to pursue answers,
complacently assuming their own wisdom was enough. And, most important, they have
failed to speak with compassion." Tanner also writes that the book of Job "warns us
against serving up pat explanations to the afflicted, as do Job’s so-called 'comforters.”"
The well-meaning narrator is totally unnerved by Bartleby, but doesn't he do a pretty
good Job not abandoning the relationship--or at least do the best he can?

Bartleby to me in some ways represents the problem of dealing correctly with the
sufferings of other people.

See also

"Hills Like White Hemingways"

Let me Hemingway this posting:

"What's this story about?"
"A couple."
"Lovers? Spouses?"
"Lovers, I think."
"I think the woman (why is she called a girl? Demeans her, doesn't it?) is pregnant.The man wants her to have an abortion."
"So it appears."
"A hill like a white elephant sounds like a caucasian pregnant woman's abdomen at 37 weeks gestation."
"That's silly."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. But there is that reminder in there--it goes along with the plot of the story, doesn't it?"
"This wears me out. Quit talking to me."
"I'll stop. If you want me to."
"I really do."

All that aside, here's the striking thing for me: how this couple is "talking" (which is supposed to help a relationship, right? They aren't yelling; they are being polite, and yet I feel that the woman is needing to be let alone and loved and that the man is being dismissive and selfish, or somehow missing the point of her feelings. What do you think?What is this story about? Failed communication? A man failing a woman? A woman failing herself by not standing up to defend herself against even gentle coercion to do something she probably does not wish to?It seems like an act, too. The fact that the two can be in this intense conversation and slip out of the dialogue to ask for "dos cervezas" suggests or mirrors the lightness with which humans can engage with each other--the destractiblity. (I am also thinking of fetal alcohol syndrome with this woman drinking while pregnant). Let me explain. Have you ever been having an argument or cross words with someone in your household and the phone rings and you're all collected and polite to the person on the other end? To me this suggests a problem in human verbal (oral) behavior. We are as if we are acting a script when we do this, aren't we? That we are saying words when we could as well say other words, but we are choosing these words? Is this, in other words, an authentic conversation in this story? The awfulness of choosing failing behavior or speech also has it's escape in it, however--that it is a choice, and one can choose a healing behavior, or healing words.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

"Sonny's Blues"

"Sonny's Blues" is beautiful--especially the definition of the blues
What interests me in this story, besides the relationship between the brothers, is the relationship of the artist and her/his art, which brings me to Tim O'Brien who has said "stories can save us."

As readers, can stories save us?

As writers of stories, can the writing of the story save us?

And--let us go back to Sonny--what did playing the blues do for Sonny? For his brother (the narrator?) What does art (music, painting, literature...expand it some . . . sports, cooking, animal husbandry) do for those who practice it AS AN ART form?

What amazes, but shouldn't amaze, me is that in coming back to "Sonny's Blues" after a few years' absence opens the story for me further. I feel more of what Sonny feels. The sucessful story, yes, Flannery,you are right, expands in the mind.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Plague and Sor Juana

Life and literature intersect and enrich each other, building meanings and curiousities. As I walk through town in Madison, South Dakota, I see dead birds on the ground. These tend to be smallish birds, so it is possible that they are just youngsters that didn't make the natural selection cut (cold and heartless--please also see Tennyson's In Memoriam). On the other hand, it sets me to thinking of Camus's The Plague, how it begins with rats here and there being dead, and people not thinking much of it until there are quantities of rats and then . . . So what am I saying? Something apocalyptic is afoot and underfoot? West Nile Virus? I really do wonder. . .

On a more cheerful note, my young brilliant daughter (one of them--they are all young and brilliant) was commenting as she was setting the table or some such thing: you can learn whatever you do, and was starting to do some counting or other numeric activity relative to the lights in a chandelier or something. Ah, it reminds me of Sor Juana in her letter to Sor Filotea: how one can learn (in a powerful, intellectual sense) even while cooking. This connection built my appreciation for my daughter's natural drive for knowledge and put it in the context of great female thinkers. Am I boasting? Forgive me; it is not my intention.