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.


Blogger C. Meyer said...

hi there

3:02 PM  

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