Posts Tagged ‘ Anton Chekhov ’

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 3)

The Childish Longing for Protection and Belonging

There was only knowing that she must find somebody, anybody,
that she could join with to go away. For now she admitted
she was too scared to go into the world alone.
The Member of the Wedding

In her unfinished autobiography McCullers tells of an incident in June 1940 shortly after she had moved to New York with the money that Houghton Mifflin paid her for the publication of her story “The Heart” (and anticipating payment for her soon-to-be-published first novel). She had long been desperate to move out of the squalid one-family house she and her husband Reeves McCullers shared with eight other people in Charlotte. But their marriage was already in such a state that when the good news came, instead of going together, Reeves accepted an invitation to sail with a friend to Nantucket, while Carson rode to New York alone on a bus. She took lodging in a cheap boarding house on the West Side and was still there when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published on June 4.

That month her editor at Houghton Mifflin telegrammed her an invitation to lunch at the Bedford Hotel. Pleased to finally enjoy a social occasion she bought a new dress just for the meeting. As it happened, staying at the same hotel was Erika Mann (Thomas Mann’s eldest daughter, to whom McCullers had written requesting an interview in connection with a story she planned about a Jew from Germany). After lunch, while McCullers was in Mann’s room, Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach entered. McCullers neither knew the Swiss heiress and literary dilettante, nor was she expecting her. But that day would begin an intense (but not sexual, at least not consummated, according to McCullers) short-term intimacy between the southern precocious naif in a failing marriage and the liberated, world-traveling gay sophisticate who had been addicted to morphine since she was 18. The relationship would survive Reeves’s abusive jealousy, Carson’s excessive dependence, Annemarie’s commitments to asylum’s and suicide attempt and even the latter’s escape first to Africa and then to Switzerland. (Reflections in a Golden Eye is dedicated to Clarac-Schwarzenbach, and Clarac-Schwarzenbach was planning to translate it.) Switzerland is where she died, however, in a bicycle accident on a mountainside. But what is important for this discussion is not the subsecquent relationship, but simply is the very moment the two met. McCullers describes it as something like an emotional singularity. “She had a face that I knew would haunt me to the end of my life, beautiful, blonde, with straight short hair. There was a look of suffering on her face that I could not define.” She immediately thought of Prince Myshkin’s experience meeting Nastasya Filippovna in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot—which brought him a sensation of “terror, pity and love.”1

A moment like that, filled with the agitation of intense emotional excitement together with the vague suspicion of its potential for chaos and ruin, is at the heart of McCullers’s fourth novel.

[Part 1 of this series is found here; Part 2 can be read here.]

The Member of the Wedding (1946)

19442 was a disruptive year for 12-year-old Frankie (Frances) Addams. Her best friend had moved away to Florida. Her slightly older friends would not let her join the club they formed. “She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.” She was growing at an alarming rate. And she had become a criminal after she stole a three-way knife from the Sears and Roebuck. But that was not all. She took her father’s pistol and shot it in an empty lot. She committed a “secret sin” with Barney MacKean in his parents’ garage, and she hated him for it and wanted to kill him. These things made her afraid, first of the law, and then of her father, and then of not belonging to anything. The summer was lonesome and hot. “Every day she wanted more and more to leave the town to light out for South America or Hollywood or New York City. But although she packed her suitcase many times, she could never decide on which of these places she might go, or how she would get there by herself.” So she spent her time hanging around the kitchen and being “too mean to live.”

We learn all these things from the narrator, who tells them in desultory manner, merely as background to what takes place mainly during a three-day period in August and its aftermath seen on one afternoon three months later. And mostly what takes place happens around a cheap table in a kitchen whose walls are marred by the drawings of children and inside one of those walls we occasionally hear the scratchings of a rat.

At this table are always the same three characters. In addition to Frankie, there is the African-American cook/housekeeper, Berenice Sadie Brown, and Frankie’s six-year-old cousin, John Henry West. This trio is very similar to one we encountered in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. One of the five main characters in McCullers’s first novel, 14-year-old Mick Kelly, occasionally is found in the kitchen with her younger brother, George (“Bubber”) Kelly, and the black cook, Portia Copeland. Mick and Frankie, though two years apart in age, are somewhat alike. Both have some creative inclinations: Mick is obsessed with music; Frankie, though she gave it up that summer, used to write “shows” that were performed under a tree outside. (Carson McCullers herself, when she was a child in Georgia, studied piano and wrote plays that her siblings performed for the family.) Both had unpleasant first sexual encounters (although Frankie reacted much more violently than Mick). Both are out-of-sorts, trying to figure out how they fit into the world. Both long to travel north, to see snow, and to become famous and important. Bubber Kelly and John Henry both look up to the young protagonists, and while they both play important roles in the plot at the end, their roles before then are quite limited, not much more than accessories. The two cooks are also very similar. Both are something like a mother or older sister substitute. In the first novel Mick’s mother is too busy running the boarding house to have much interaction with her and her older sisters ignore her; in the second Frankie’s mother had died in childbirth and Frankie is an only child. Both cooks have experience with marriage. Portia is currently married to Honeyboy, whose involvement in the plot is so limited that we never know his last name. Berenice has been married four times; the first time to a loving and respectful man, Ludie Freeman, who treated her well. He once bought her a fox fur stole, which she still had. He took her to Cincinnati where they saw snow and where they lived for nine months. Ludie made a decent living there as a brick mason. (Note his name and the place Berenice keeps returning to in her memories. Frankie is not the only one who is confined in Georgia.) The rest of Berenice’s husbands were one worse than the other, as she puts it. The last one put out her eye, and now she wears an odd blue glass eye. In both cases the cooks provide the conservative, common sense, “adult” point of view. Portia is more grounded in mainstream religion (the gospel of submission as her father sees it). Berenice relies on known sayings to guide her life, and she is less mature and accepting than Portia. She is often combative and frequently butts heads with Frankie. The two also spend Sunday evenings dressed in their finest, promenading about town with two men: in Portia’s case her husband Honeyboy and her brother; in Berenice’s her gentleman caller, T.T. Williams (the owner of a restaurant but “he and me is just good friends,” Berenice says), and her brother Honey. In both cases the brother becomess caught up in the racist legal system.

The points of comparison are true but largely irrelevant because The Member of the Wedding is not a narrative in the way The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is but rather, in essence, something like a philosophic dialogue. But unlike, say, Hume or Berkeley, the dialogue is not built on a scaffold of intellectual steps. Nor is it even like the overheated set piece dialogues throughout Dostoevsky’s major novels. At times it reaches for Buber’s idea that dialogue confers meaning by uniting the participants into one,3 but at others it descends to talking over each other’s head as in Chekhov’s plays or even into outright outbursts or altercations. MacDowell describes this dialogues thus:

“When Frankie and Berenice talk philosophically and with deep emotion, one sometimes hears dynamic dialogue as the women clash with each other and alternately reveal the anger and the tenderness they feel for each other. More often, however, one hears a rising antiphony in which one woman speaks, the other speaks in a contrasting tone, and finally the two join to achieve unified utterance, sometimes revealing a deep accord, sometimes a frustrating inability to communicate. In these antiphonal scenes, the two women do not necessarily speak to each other or to John Henry. Rather each speaks aloud to herself or to a vaguely conceived and undefined audience, which may or may not include he other two people present.”4

McCullers herself described the contributions of the three participants as “fugue-like parts.”5  (She was discussing the work as it had been translated by her into a play that had a long run on Broadway, but the approach to the dialogue was the same.) By that I think she meant that, as with a fugue, the two (and sometimes three) voices sometimes create a harmony, sometimes are heard in unison, frequently produce counterpoint and at some points create a cacaphony. Where the metaphor fails, however, is that the two (or more) statements made by the voices in a musical fugue are essentially the same (with certain changes permitted by the rules of fugal writing) simply begun at different times. So in a fugue the effects created by the different voices are inherent in the statement itself when played against different parts of itself. But that’s not how the dialogue worked in this novel (or the later play).

The points of view of Frankie and Berenice are diametrically opposite. Most of the attention of the story is on Frankie so the novel is often described as being “about” alienation, specifically adolescent alienation. While it is certainly true that Frankie is out-of-sorts and that she is constantly brooding about how she doesn’t belong or is unconnected to the world, Berenice has the opposite complaint. She believes she is fixed by the racist structure of society, trapped in her position and cares and wishing only to “burst free.” She doesn’t reveal this to Frankie at first, but it informs all of her advice to her and also all of her criticisms and disparagements of her. But until the last Friday in August, the two just talked past each other “their voices saw against each other, saying the same words,” as this conversation when Frankie’s cat ran away:

“‘If only I just knew where he has gone.’

“‘Quit worrying yourself about that old alley cat. I done told you he ain’t coming back.’

“‘Charles is not alley He is almost pure Persian.’

“‘Persian as I is,’ Bernice would say. ‘You seen the last of that old tomcat. He gone off to hunt a friend.’

“‘To hunt a friend?’

“‘Why, certainy. He roamed off to find himself a lady-friend.’

“‘You really think so?’

“‘Naturally.’

“‘Well, why don’t he bring his friend home with him. He ought to know I would be only too glad to have a whole family of cats.’

“‘You seen the last of that old alley cat.’

“‘If only I just knew where he is gone.'”

And then on that last Friday6 in August that ends Frankie’s “scared Spring” and her “green and crazy summer,” Frankie’s brother, Jasper, who had been serving in  the U.S. armed forces in Alaska, came home on leave and brought with him his fiancée, Janice, who lived in Winter Hill, 100 miles away. They stayed for lunch, brought Frankie’s father a bottle of liquor and Frankie a china doll, invited the two to the wedding to be held on Sunday in Winter Hill and then returned by train. Frankie had not expected much (except a present from Alaska) when she heard they were coming, but when she saw them, she was transfixed. As she was coming into the living room she first was startled by the quiet, for Jarvis had turned off the radio in the kitchen which had been playing all summer, night and day, providing a background noise of sweet jazz and war news that everyone had grown accustomed to. When she saw the betrotheds, however, she received another, bigger surprise: “She stood in the doorway, coming from the hall, and the first sight of her brother and the bride had shocked her heart. Together they made in her this feeling that she could not name. But it was like the feelings of the spring, only more sudden and more sharp. There was the same tightness and in the same queer way she was afraid.” It was the same emotion that McCullers herself describes erupted in her when she met Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach.7 This moment would animate the next two days with meaning and terror.

After the couple left to return to Winter Hill, Frankie would brood about the encounter. As the trio played cards at the kitchen table, Frankie repeatedly asked Berenice for her impressions of the couple and her conduct. Berenice at first teased her sarcastically by saying she was “jealous” of her brother. But Frankie could not let it go. All afternoon she returned to the subject until Berenice, out frustration or spite, taunted her by repeatedly saying “Frankie got a crush! Frankie got a crush! … On the Wedd-ing!” Unable to take the mockery Frankie picked up a kitchen knife, much alarming Berenice, but she again taunted Frankie into throwing it. “The empty house seemed to be waiting. And then there was the knife whistle in the air and the sound the blade made when it struck. The knife hit the middle of the stairway door and shivered there. She watched the knife until it did not shiver any longer.” The act calmed Frankie, but Berenice could not let the hostility end. “You are not fit to live in a house.” And here Frankie revealed a resolve instantaneously formed at that moment by instinct. “I won’t be living in this one much longer.” Berenice again scoffed at her, asking where she was going. Frankie replied with a sudden resolve: “I’m going to Winter Hill. I’m going to the wedding. And I swear to Jesus by my two eyes I’m never coming back her any more.” The seriousness, and suddenness, of this resolve, is emphatic.

“She had not been sure that she would throw the knife until it struck and shivered on the stairway door. And she had not known that she would say these words until already they were spoken. The swear was like the sudden knife; she felt it strike in her and tremble. Then when the words were quiet, she said again:

“‘After the wedding I’m not coming back.'”

One of the remarkable talents of McCullers is her ability to show the inner world of a character by his actions. Not simply by a single act but by a pattern or sequence or repeating motif. What her characters think is usually revealed, even to them, in what they do. (This insight is consistent with, as I understand them, current neurological findings.) This is not an adolescent trait, but rather she applies it to all alike. It is perhaps one reason that some critics have called her work “clinical” or “cold” or her characters “freaks” or “unrealistic.” Like everyone else book reviewers and literary critics react to challenges by denying their validity.

Once Frankie articulates the way she intends to resolve the conflict that has been building within her, she experiences great relief. She now understands “connectedness.” The same sense of belonging that she sees others have, she now finds in her connection to her brother’s marriage. The betrotheds are, as she puts it, “the we of me.”  When she joins the marriage she will be complete. The thought grew within her all night, even after Berenice left, until it became a twin certainty within her—a certainty that it would happen and a certain that it was meant to happen. “At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going. She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together. And finally, after the sacred spring and the crazy summer, she was no more afraid.”

Like all who discover the thing that truly completes them (whether it is god or ideology or movements or a lover or the Truth), Frankie became an immediate enthusiast. And all enthusiasts become evangelists.8 So Saturday, the day before the wedding, Frankie ventured into the town, not circumspect and quiet like she used to, but with a new confidence and, more importantly, a desire to tell everyone of her new determination. And like many who have begun a new life after a revelation, Frankie took on a new name. She now called herself F. Jasmine, so that she could share the Ja- of Jarvis and Janis. Everything about her and everything around her was new.

Her day began with her father at breakfast. She no longer felt the resentment that began last spring; she even felt tenderness towards him, for she realized he would be lonely without her. Outside, the children foolishly trying to dig a swimming pool (whom she no longer led during this year of dissatisfaction) awakened in her a sense of nostalgia, as did the scattered evidences of her childhood which she regarded with the eye of one who would never see them again. When she reached town, her view of the place was not now colored by her desperate desire to escape. Instead, as though she were a traveller who stopped in this one town for only a day, she took in everything with much interest. She was especially attracted to the people. She looked at them directly in their eyes. And with everyone she felt a “connection.” She wanted to tell each of them how she was about to be a member of the wedding. And she went looking for people to tell, from the Portuguese manager of the Blue Moon (the seedy bar/flophouse that catered mostly to the servicemen from the army base nine miles outside of town) to a man operating a tractor as part of a crew laying tar on a road, who she ran along side of, cupping her hand around her mouth ro amplify her voice over the noise of the tractor. No one disputed her claims. Indeed, no one seemed to have much of a response at all. All of this F. Jasmine took as confirmation of her membership and the proof of her connection.

By mid-day she circled back to her father’s shop near the Blue Moon Café, where she learned that John Henry’s great-uncle Charles had died. Since his death had nothing to do with the wedding (he was not a blood relation of her or her father), she gave it no thought beyond expressing the pity of it. More importantly, she got permission from her father to buy a wedding outfit, although it was at the local clothing store where he had a credit line. Having to buy a wedding dress at a cheap local store annoyed her, but it was a minor annoyance all things considered.

On leaving her father’s shop, F. Jasmine heard the sounds of the monkey man whom she had not seen all summer. She went to find him for it would be her last visit with the man and his darling monkey, both of whom she had grown fond of over the years. But when she located him, a soldier was quarreling with him and shoving a fist full of money his way. He was evidently trying to buy the monkey, who was cowering on the ground away from both. F.. Jasmine came closer, and the monkey quickly climbed up her and perched on her shoulder where the monkey man was able to snatch him and disappear, leaving F. Jasmine alone with the soldier. After an awkward exchange the drunken soldier led the bewildered but intrigued 12-year-old back to the Blue Moon Café, where he bought her a beer and persuaded her to return at nine that night so that they could go dancing. On the way home, after buying her wedding dress, F. Jasmine passed an alley. Out of the corner of her eye she glanced a “half-seen thing”—an apparition of her brother and his fiancée. It was an alarmingly real image, so much so that she had to slowly turn around to look again, even though she knew that the two were 100 miles away. But when she brought herself to look, she saw nothing except two “colored boys,” one with his arm on the other’s shoulder. It surprised her, and she contemplated it the whole way home.

Once home, John Henry and Berenice were in the kitchen and informed her they also would be attending the wedding because John Henry’s parents had to make arrangements for Uncle Charles’s funeral. That his new arrangement might encroach upon F. Jasmine’s wedding caused her to display her annoyance, which set off another round of hostile exchanges. Berenice grilled her about her morning, then belittled her not only for her plans but mostly for telling strangers about them. F. Jasmine had wanted to tell Berenice about the soldier, but each time she was about to begin, something warned her off. The exchange reached a climax when Berenice demanded to know what she would do if the couple refused her. She would kill herself, F. Jasmine said defiantly, with her father’s pistol.

At dinner the conversation took on a different tone. Berenice began something like an ode to love, or at least the virtues of having a beau. F. Jasmine for the first time listened to such a talk. Previously she had never believed in love. But she balked when Berenice turned the conversation to F. Jasmine having a beau, particularly Barney MacKean. But with fits and starts, interrupted by the unresolved scales of a piano tuner in the distance, they eventually transcended the particular and began talking not only about universals but also to each other. Berenice told of her vision for a better world—one where there were no colored race, where everyone was the same and one family; a world where there was no war, no bodies hanging from trees and no armies of young people leaving in uniforms; and no hunger. “No killed Jews and no hurt colored people. No war and no hunger in the world. And finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.” F. Jasmine and John Henry added their fine tuning. Then F. Jasmine told of her apparition which turned out to be two boys in an alley. This launched Berenice into a narrative of how each of her husbands was introduced by a similar apparition out of the corner of her eye, like Frankie’s. What she wanted Frankie to learn was that this all came from inside: “I loved Ludie and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward.” F. Jasmine lingered in the doorway, because she knew this would be the last conversation they would in the kitchen, or perhaps anywhere. Yet she could not express what troubled her and what her aspirations were. Instead, she began marching about and speaking in a jumbled way, “but they were the wrong words, not what she had meant to say.” Berenice grabbed her and pulled her onto her lap and then began the last “queer conversation”:

“We are all of us somehow caught. We born this way or that way and we don’t know why. But we caught anyhow. I born Berenice. You born Frankie. John Henry born John Henry. And maybe we wants to widen and burst free. But no matter what we do we still caught. Me is me and you is you and he is he. We each one of us somehow caught all by ourself.”

She explained how she, as a black woman, was especially trapped. She was caught like everyone else and “they down drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people.” But the problem is universal:

“The point is that we all caught. And we try in one way or another to widen ourself free. For instance, me and Ludie. When I was with Ludie, I didn’t feel so caught. But then Ludie died. We go around trying one thing or another, but we caught anyhow.”

The conversation made F. Jasmine “almost afraid.” John Henry needed comfort as well and tried to hang onto Berenice from the back of the chair. F. Jasmine saod that when she looked at people she saw them “loose” and while that is almost the opposite of “caught,” she said they meant the same thing. “I mean you don’t see what joins them up together.” She agreed with Berenice that there was birth and death, but “what is it all about? People loose and at the same time caught. Caught and loose. All these people and you don’t know what joins them up. There’s bound to be some sort of reason and connection. Yet somehow I can’t seem to name it. I don’t know.” There was silence for a few moments. Then F. Jasmine uttered what was on her mind while they were all close together, touching, for the very last time: “Here we are—right now. This very minute. Now. But while we’re talking right now, this minute is passing. and it will never come again. Never in all the world.” And a moment later all three began to cry.

And that was the last of their kitchen conversations.

The final fifth of the book follows the transformation from F. Jasmine to Frances during the approximately 30 hours from Saturday evening to early Monday morning with a final view of the result one afternoon in October. Unlike the rest of the novel, this is not an exploration of her interior monologue, for she does not engage in introspective thoughts. Since she has finally begun to act, she is forced to make decisions not based on rational plans, but rather by improvisation, because she never considered things realistically, never considered what others might do or thing, never doubted for a moment that her impulsive desire would come to fruition and solve all the unresolved longings and conflicts that buffeted her.

The night began with a trip to Sugarville, where Berenice’s mother, Big Mama, and her brother, Honey, lived. F. Jasmine would ask for Big Mama to tell her fortune by reading her palm. John Henry tagged along, wearing one of the costumes F. Jasmine had given him (because she would no longer need childish things). They passed the penitentiary, and John Henry heckled a prisoner looking out from behind his barred window. When they arrived F. Jasmine made John Henry wait outdoors, while she heard the fortune she only half believed. Outside again they talked to Honey as he was on his was to Forks Falls and his own destiny. When F. Jasmine reached the town again, she made John Henry go home. But “as she watched him going away from her down the crowded street, she felt a hollow sorriness—he looked so babyish and pitiful in the costume.”

Then came her encounter with the soldier, which proved a formidable challenge to her self-reliance and left her terrified of the consequences. Then the next day brought the tedious bus ride to Winter Hill, the prelude to the wedding where she was treated as an inconsequential child, the wedding itself, which she finally ruined, the miserable bus ride home, and then the fulfillment of the threat, when she set off at night with her father’s pistol. It will end again at the Blue Moon.

These scenes contain a sense of terror and humiliation that often mark plot turns or character revelations in Dostoevsky, but McCullers employs none of the melodrama. Her writing is perfectly measured and expository. In fact, when something surprising takes place anywhere in the novel, the narrator will take pains to explain it or relate it to something more ordinary. We are not to take any of it as out of the ordinary, much less entertaining; it is all simply more scenes of the human comedy.

Three months later we see Berenice and Frances (as she now is) in the late afternoon. Everything has changed. The kitchen has been painted over, and the furniture, except for the kitchen, is gone, because Frances and her father are to move the next day. Berenice will not be going because she has decided to marry T.T. But there is another reason—Berenice has been inalterably changed. She has seen John Henry die in great agony from meningitis in the course of a week. She is haunted by the last thing she said to him that he understand: “Run along for I don’t have the patience to fool with you.” She said it because she had a headache, and John Henry said he had one too, but she thought he was simply imitating her.

Berenice helped the nurse with him every day, as he was dying, and she couldn’t bear it. “‘I don’t see why he has to suffer so,’ Berenice would say: and the word suffer was one she could not associate with John Henry, a word she shrank from as before an unknown hollow of the heart.” Around the same time Honey was arrested. He was now on a chain gang sentenced to eight years. And so Berenice became smaller, less assured. She was sitting in a chair wearing an old raveled sweater with her fox fur in her lap. Frances was busily making fancy sandwiches for her new friend, Mary Littlejohn. They met in the middle of October when the troubles with John Henry and Honey were going on. In fact, they went to the Fair the week that John Henry was in the midst of his ultimate agony. The two were now obsessed with art and poetry, and they planned to travel the world together when Frances was 16. “I am just mad about Michelangelo,” Frances would say. Frances suspected that Berenice did not like Mary, because she had long braided hair, because she was Catholic. So Frances used the words that were designed to hurt: “You could not possibly understand her. It’s not in you.” Berenice no longer challenged Frances.

And so we see how Frances has become, after the wedding (which she never spoke of again), and it is something of a surprise. What we have been through was not a Bildungsroman, however much we expected it to be. It fact Frankie Addams is one of the more unusual children in Western literature. Dickens established the customary way children were used in literature. They are essentially guileless, innocent receptacles who need nothing more than protection. They have only potential and are empty of the selfishness, cruelty and greediness which is only acquired later in life. They are, in short, the only representatives who truly constitute Rousseau’s man in the state of nature. This portrayal, especially if uniformly rendered, make children the perfect vehicle for exciting emotions of empathy from the reader. Even in Dostoevsky, children are almost always innocent, and so when an ultimate outrage is to be depicted, it is perpetrated on children (consider the crime in Stavrogin’s confession), or when the utter baseness of corruption is needed, it is a child who is corrupted (for example, Kolya). That is how McCullers treats John Henry. Entirely innocent, he seems to have no trace of cunning, duplicity or deceipt about him. He is unerringly loyal to Frankie. When she tells him that her former frineds had spread the rumor that she smelled bad, he hugged her and said, “You smell sweet. … Like a hundred flowers.” He seems to not resent the numerous insults, put downs or malice she hurls at him. He is an undemanding font of love.

McCullers uses this same ingrained presumption to reveal a truth in Frankie—that even a child is fundamentally selfish, indifferent to others and unfazed by the tragedies around him. Frankie’s dream of fulfillment is fundamentally self-absorbed and self-delusional. Those two aspects are what doom her plan.

And it is there that we see a hint that this behavior of Frankie is not simply a case of adolescent immaturity. There is one metaphor that recurs throughout the novel—that of moths and butterflies. These insects are of course the prime example of metamorphosis in nature. Each transform into an adult from a larva through a pupa stage. From the beginning we are teased with the prospect that the story will be transformative. Frankie seems to hope for it: “I wish I was somebody else except me.” The first time we see the insects, they are moths attracted by the lamp in Frankie’s room. John Henry says: “Those beautiful butterflies. They are trying to get in.” Frankie associates their plight with her own: “To me it is the irony of fate. The way they come here. Those moths could fly anywhere. Yet they keep hanging around the windows of this house.” After she writes the run-away note addressed to her father (which she signs “Sincerely yours”), the “green and white moths were nervous at the window screen and the night outside was queer.”

Butterflies are associated with adult skillfulness. Frankie notices her father’s hands (the hands of a jeweler) hover over tiny watches “as carefully as butterflies.” And Honey, who was an educated and articulate person, forced by racism beneath his station, was able to talk like an educated person, with lips “as light as butterflies.” But at other times, when weighed down with oppression, he would only talk “with a colored jumble that even his own family could not follow.”

But butterflies did not signify metamorphosis. They did not even associate themselves with the joy that John Henry saw in them, for the day of his death was “a golden morning of the most butterflies, the clearest sky.” He gradually recedes in the mind of Frankie, until he is barely thought of except “occasionally at twilight time or when the special hush would come into the room.” Instead Frances’s search for “we-ness” is directed towards Mary Littlejohn and their planned trip around the world. Although the object has changed, Frances’s essential idea of what would complete her (partnership with another and escape from her present environs) remains the same.

It is worth pointing out here that McCullers does not solely rely on literary techniques like metaphors to create a juvenile or immature worldview. It is inherent in all the narrative. Not only does she have a superb ability to capture the manner of speech of the characters, including the children (without making them sound oddly foreign, as is often the case in Mark Twain’s stories). But she was also able to reveal the point of view in the voice of the narrator and the manner of narration (without having the narrator adopt the child’s voice). Descriptions of things visible is a perfect example. For example, when F. Jasmine thinks of the monkey man and his animal as she remembers him from past summers, the narrators describes him as follows:

“The old Frankie had always loved the monkey and the monkey-man. They resembled each other—they both had an anxious, questioning expression, as though they wondered every minute if what they did was wrong. The monkey, in fact, was nearly always wrong; after he danced to the organ tune, he was supposed to take off his darling little cap and pass it around to the audience, but likely as not he would get mixed up and bow and reach out his cap to the monkey-man, and not the audience. And the monkey-man would plead with him, and finally begin to chatter and fuss. When he would make as if to slap the monkey, the monkey would cringe down and chatter also—and they would look at each other with the same scared exasperation, their wrinkled faces very sad. After watching them a long time, the old Frankie fascinated, began to take on the same expression as she followed them around.”

The description manifests the kind of close attention that a child would have for the monkey and his keeper. By depicting the details of the monkey’s behavior that would most amuse a child it describes the viewer as much as what is being viewed.

Another example is the representation of what Frankie saw when she looked into the bedroom of the dying Uncle Charles:

“He looked like an old man carved in brown wood and covered with a sheet. Only his eyes had moved, and they were like blue jelly, and she had felt they might come out from the sockets and roll like blue wet jelly down his stiff face. She had stood in the doorway staring at him—then tiptoed away, afraid. They finally made out that he complained the sun shone the wrong way through the window, but that was not the thing that hurt him so. And it was death.”

In this case, the child focuses on the frightening aspect of the dying man’s appearance. An adult would more likely sympathize with the fate than a child. And for Frankie death really is simply something that appears in dreams to frighten her.

McCullers’s ability to convey something close to a non-idealized, but still sympatheic, view of childhood and adolescence is not simply a matter of autobiographical recollection. Although she did not create a large body of short stories, by the time she wrote The Member of the Wedding, she had written a handful that dealt with children. In each of them, McCullers has the child dealing with a problem of adult perplexity. And instead of treating the child as solely (or even largely) a receptacle for adult sympathy, she sees the problem through the child’s point of view, and by doing so she brings the adult reader into complete empathy with the child, even when the child is acting selfishly or immaturely. “Breath for the Sky” is an example. That story treats the condition of a child with a serious lung infection (possibly tuberculosis) who is about to be sent to a sanitarium 300 miles away. She struggles with her resentment of her family, who seem to be enjoying their lives despite her sickness, and her hatred for her nurse. “Wunderkind” tells of a 15-year-old girl who was once proclaimed a musical prodigy who has come to grips with the fact that she has been defeated in her quest to be a concert pianist. “The Haunted Boy” tells of a boy who having experienced the attempted suicide of his mother comes home to an unexpectedly empty house. His terror turns to fury when his mother returns unharmed. These stories treat children as agents fully capable of facing the crises before them and also responsible for their choices. It is this view of children that makes them fit subjects on their own for serious literature.

Frances in the end is also responsible for her choice, however much she fails to live up to our own expectations of how she should have acted. It is quite true that she has been given limited options in life, and that, like Mick Kelly, she will probably be forced to give up and expect the confined existence of a backward Georgia mill town. After all, Berenice, who in the ends proves capable of deep empathy and heroic efforts, ends up having to settle for a life below her expectations. Frances still pursues a dream that is inherently incapable of fulfillment, but to do so she ignores the suffering of Berenice and John Henry, the only two who showed her any real affectionate regard, despite her poor treatment of them.

So how does this all related to McCullers’s “One Big Idea” that we began this series with? By probing how this adolescent attempts to account for what seems an existential void at the center of life, McCullers makes several points. First, meaning is not the same thing as gratification of self-love. The latter can never be obtained or if once tasted is soon lost (as Berenice testifies). Second, a person does not achieve his “true purpose” at the expense of others. Finally, the more frequent metamorphosis is not one where a childish wish matures into a noble purpose but rather one where a person uses self-delusion to settle for what is convenient.

McCullers would only publish one more novel during her life and that would be 15 years after The Member of the Wedding. In the last post on this series, we’ll look at that novel and see what generalizations we can make about her fiction.

 Notes

1Carlos L. Dews (ed.), Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Auobiography of Carson McCullers (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), p. 21.  To call this work “unfinished” gives the impression that it is at at stage of completion that it had yet to achieve. In fact, it is a collection of drafts of incidents without any organizing principle (not even chronological). Basic facts are omitted, and scenes that seem to describe specific incidents often cover longer periods collapsed by dropping details and sequences. It is frequently difficult to tell how one paragraph is supposed to relate to what precedes or follows it. It has none of the direct and simple eloquence that her published prose shows. In other words it is not particularly rewarding in its own right. It would have taken much more work to turn into something that could be published, and the editor of this edition does very little by way of notes or explanations to render the manuscript very useful. It does, however, contain interesting photographs from the Photography Collection of the University of Texas, which has a collection of McCullers’s papers. [Return to text.]

2The year is never specifically stated in the novel but can be deduced from events heard on the radio (citizens chasing Germans from Paris, Patton marching across Europe). Given the year, the novel begins on August 25, 1944 (“the last Friday of August.”) This is confirmed when we learn that Frankie was born the same month that Berenice’s first husband died, November 1931. When Frankie, in figuring how fast she is growing, considers that she is “twelve and five-sixths years old,” it shows that it is August 1944. [Return to text.]

3Buber’s Ich und du was translated as I and Thou and published in New York in 1937. The concept of existential dialogue had become familiar among New York intellectuals by the time McCullers had arrived there. [Return to text.]

4Margaret B. McDowell, Carson McCullers (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980), p. 87. [Return to text.]

5Carson McCullers, “The Vision Shared,” in The Mortgaged Heart ed. by Margarita G. Smith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), pp. 262–65. This essay was originally published in Theatre Arts (April 1950). The paperback edition was published by Bantam in 1972, and this essays is found on pp. 297–300 with the quoted passage on p. 300. [Return to text.]

6There is a curious chronological mistake (as far as I can tell) that has greatly bothered me, enough to look at several editions of the novel to see if it was simply a typographical mistake, but all editions (including the first) that I consulted have it, and I cannot account for it. The mistake is that in the first two pages of the novel, it is made clear that the day is “the last Friday of August” and that as Bernice recounted, “Your brother come home with the girl he means to marry and took dinner today with you and your Daddy.” And yet several pages before the end of the first part, the narrator says: “So that Sunday when it happened, when her brother and the bride came to the house …” The latter cannot be a simple printer’s error, because it is the day that Berenice “changed into her Sunday clothes” and goes out with her brother and beau on her night off, Sunday night. Nor can it be a mistake that the novel sets the arrival of the brother and his fiancée on Friday, for it is on that day that Frankie makes her decision, which sets in motion what takes place the next day, Saturday, the day before the wedding, which is the subject of Part II. What makes this oversight hard to explain is that this novel was worked over by McCullers herself to convert it into a play, and surely she must have noticed this problem. Perhaps there is some other explanation, but if so, I cannot see it. [Return to text.]

7In Illumination and Night Glare McCullers describes how she received the “illumination” that Frankie’s reaction to the wedding was the key to the story. In McCullers’s drafts to that point, Frankie “was just a girl in loved with her music teacher, a most banal theme.” On Thanksgiving Day, she and her Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis hosted a dinner in their house in Brooklyn. That night McCullers and Gyspy Rose Lee stepped outside and “the fresh air after the long, elaborate meal cleared my head and suddenly, breathlessly I said to Gypsy, ‘Frankie is in love with the bride of her brother and wants to join the wedding.'” (p. 32). [Return to text.]

8Enthusiasts, etymologically, have been “inspired” or “inhabited” (en) by a god (theos). The ancient Greeks regarded madness as the immanence of the divine. Evangelists are those who announce (angellos, the same root as “angel,” who are simply divine messengers) the good (news) (eu).  [Return to text.]

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 2)

McCullers on Love and Isolation

… every lover knows this.
He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing.
The Ballad of the Sad Café

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter became a best seller and allowed McCullers (and her husband) to live in New York City permanently. She was quickly introduced to and became friends with some of the most eminent literary and artistic figures in New York. Her lifestyle almost immediately became immensely more complex as her relations with her husband cooled and her unconventional attachments to others became the norm. (The first such relationship was with Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a gay woman estranged from her gay husband and given to suicide attempts.) She would divorce and remarry her husband and then reluctantly divorce him again when he forged her name on checks. (In this her emotions seem remarkably like Lucile Wilson in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.) Throughout the rest of her life she would be subject to serious physical ailments, including a stroke that took place before her second novel was published in 1941 and temporarily blinded her. Depression plagued her incessantly until she began psychotherapy with Dr. Mary Mercer in 1958. She died in New York in 1967. During the 27 years from the publication of her first novel, she wrote four long-form fiction pieces, none of them, however, nearly as long as the first one. And while her life since her first major publication would never again resemble the world of Columbus, Georgia, where she was raised, she continued to write exclusively about people with confined lives, living in the Deep South. Within eight months of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter her second novel was published, and on first impression, was considerably different from her first. But we will see that that novel and the one that followed really were part of her continual pursuit of that One Big Thing she knew. These two novels were an inquiry into one aspect of that thing: Whether love is the means to break out of the aloneness in which we are trapped.

[The first part of this piece is found here.]

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

 McCullers’s novel Reflections in a Golden Eye had a smaller scope than her first one. Its subject was the domestic intrigues of two married couples, officers on an army base in the South and their wives. One officer, Capt. Weldon Penderton, a repressed homosexual, is locked in a toxic marriage to a wife, Leonora, who is having an affair with her husband’s superior and their next door neighbor, Major Morris Langdon. Langdon’s own wife, Allison, is psychically crushed by the death of her small child three years before. The pain of that loss and the humiliation from the recent discovery of her husband’s affair caused her, in a moment of extreme crisis, to commit a particularly brutal act of self-mutilation four months ago. While the couples frequently dine together at the Penderton’s, Allison, has no affection for the other three and spends her days indoors listening to classical music tended to by her flamboyant Filipino houseboy. One additional character adds the sinister aspect to this conventionally dysfunctional set of relations: Private L.G. Williams, one of the post’s stableboys—a quiet, backward, brooding loner who becomes a voyeur of Leonora and a strange object of Penderton’s desires. In all these loveless relationships communications have ceased altogether by circumstances that have stunted each person. Only the two most superficial characters, Langdon and Leonora, maintain a semblance of love, purely erotic, only because they have no essence to share with anyone.

In many striking respects this novel is quite unlike The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The action, location and characters are circumscribed to the point of claustrophobia. The setting of the story is largely responsible. The (male) characters are not only military men, they all live on an army base. The military prizes above all else conformity and mindless obedience: “once a man enters the army he is expected only to follow the heels ahead of him.” Regularity induces boredom: “Things happen, but then they happen over and over again.” The physical plant reinforces the tedium: “the huge concrete barracks, the neat rows of officers’ homes built one precisely like the other, the gym, the chapel, the golf course and the swimming pool—all designed according to a rigid pattern.” In short, the characters are cut off from the world, and their lives are distinguished by enforced meaninglessness.1

The second difference is that there are so few characters (Weldon Penderton and Alison Langdon are really the only characters given any depth) and their attitudes toward each other are vivid and without nuance. The major’s wife, Alison Langdon, the least self-delusional of the lot, sums up the other three characters: “Morris Landon in his blunt way was as stupid and heartless as a man could be. Leonora [Penderton] was nothing but an animal. And thieving Weldon Penderton was at bottom hopelessly corrupt.” And given how the narrator describes the characters, this, if anything, is charitable.  And it does not even include Private “Ellgee” Williams, who the narrator tells us “had neither an enemy nor a friend … In his eyes, which were of a curious blend of amber and brown, there was a mute expression that is found usually in the eyes of animals.”2  There is none of the empathy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

The combination of the first two differences also produces a third; namely, that not much happens in the lives of these characters outside their interactions with each other. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter each character was motivated by the search for his own “meaning” or the pursuit of his “real true cause.” Here the Army is the overriding purpose and therefore none of them has any individual life. This means that the narrative is much tauter and the scope appears much narrower.

Finally, let me suggest that the fundamental difference is in approach. While The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is deadly earnest in its approach to the characters, their losses and the universal application of the lessons, Reflections in a Golden Eye is in its construction, approach to the characters, plot turns and tone a very black comedy. This does not mean that there is anything particularly funny that occurs. Nor does it mean that there is a happy ending. The happy ending was a contrivance of Renaissance comedies, and we are definitely deeply within a post-Renaissance period. Chekhov after all had suicides, bankruptcies and failed murder attempts end his comedies. But if you take a far enough view, all human endeavors are part of a grand comedy (which was recognized even at the beginning of the Renaissance by Dante, who produced the most famous unfunny and divine comedy). The modernist tragico-comedy depends on finding that the unexpected dread derives from the fabric of the banal. While in this novel all the characters are trapped in a banal existence, the emergent dread comes from the two principal characters.

The two figures around whom the novel revolves are fundamentally defective, but in nearly opposite ways. Penderton “was something of a savant.” He stuffed his heads with facts and statistics of all variety and could write three languages. But it was empty of ideas, because that required fusing two or more facts and “this the Captain had not the courage to do.” By contrast Williams, for all the narrator tells us, seems to have nothing in his head but ideas, or if not ideas, then at least ill-formed concepts devoid of facts or even contours, for at the important events of his life he was able to prepare the way and bring them about without having any conscious intention to do so. This is how he became a voyeur and how he could get into the Penderton house (and Leonora’s bedroom) every night. “The mind of Private Williams was imbued with various colors of strange tones but it was without delineation, void of form.”

When it comes to psychological adjustment (in one respect), Penderton “on the whole had  lived a most rigid and unemotional life,” while Williams would daily ride a horse to an abandoned field where he sunned himself naked. As for social conformity, Penderton (though impotent) married the attractive and appealing (though dim-witted) daughter of a General, while Williams is terrified of women, having been drilled by his Bible-thumping father that women carry in their bodies loathsome diseases (a belief reinforced by the Army’s monthly check-ups testing for venereal diseases). Penderton grows to long for the communal life and imagined camaraderie of the privates. Williams has no friends at all. He seems to have no need of them. Although he lives surrounded by enlisted men, he remains on the periphery, and they are happy to ignore him as well. This is what allowed him to slip out of the barracks at night to stare at Leonora.

In one respect, however, both have what might have been called at the time “deviant” sexual orientations. (It is here that Bloom’s reference to Freud might be useful, although he was not applying it to this novel.) Williams may seem to represent pure id, but until he saw Leonora naked (she had flung her clothes off in the living room with the windows open in front of her husband to outrage him), his superego thoroughly repressed it. The vision, however, awakened his id. He would become obsessed with her and eventually become trapped in his voyeuristic compulsion. Penderton also became obsessed, but with Williams. Penderton’s feelings are a form of love, translated through the mind of a person so psychologically malformed that it is expressed as one of its variants, hate. “There are times when a man’s greatest need is to have someone to love, some focal point for his diffused emotions. Also there are times when the irritations, disappointments, and fears of life, restless as spermatozoids, must be released in hate. The unhappy Captain had no one to hate and for the past months he had been miserable.” He despised Allison and her Filipino houseboy Anacleto but he did not hate them in this sense. He had several unpleasant encounters with Williams to that point but nothing to rise to the degree of white-hot intensity. That would change over an encounter with his wife’s horse.

Firebird was a spirited horse, once thought unridable especially by a woman. Leonora was a good equestrian and determined to ride this beautiful animal, which she eventually mastered, although they would have daily ritualized struggles before he yielded to her leadership. Penderton was a timid man, not a good rider, certainly inferior to his wife and Major Langdon, who usually rode together. (This was where their attraction began and was first consummated—in  a berry patch a couple of hours after they first met.) The enlisted stableboys admired Leonora for her beauty, friendliness and horsemanship. They called her “The Lady.” Williams took care of Firebird. He was especially good with animals, something akin, I  suppose, to a “horse whisperer” and he therefore greatly prized Firebird. One day, as the frustration  and self-loathing reached a peak, Penderton decided to mount Firebird alone. He came to the stable, ordered Williams to prepare the horse and mounted him. Williams let the animal go, on Penderton’s command, and watched as he warily went forward with this awkward rider. As they proceeded further, Penderton yanked the reins up short; the horse nearly lost his balance and had to rear but he suppressed his anger. The captain repeated his maliciousness twice more. The third time the horse stopped short, turned his head back to look at the captain and then flattened his ears and lowered his head as though to throw Penderton. The gesture terrified the captain, but the horse did not throw him, so they galloped on again. When they reached the top of the ridge, however, the horse plunged down the other side at breakneck speed. The horse took the helpless rider into the woods with the same perilous momentum. Penderton held the horse’s neck for dear life. The ride became hallucinogenic as the scattered images reached the petrified mind of the captain in a blur, and he was unable to comprehend what was going on around him. He even once thought he saw a naked man lying on a rock in the woods. At the point the captain concluded that he was about to die the ride became exhilarating: “A great mad joy surged through him.” He did not know how long the ride lasted but eventually the horse emerged from the woods and slowed down to a trot and then, exhausted, stopped. Penderton warily dismounted, tied the horse to a tree, then viciously beat the horse over and over with his whip until the horse gave a cry and hung his head down. Exhausted, bloodied from thorns and branches and a rash from the horse hair his face and neck clung to, the captain collapsed on the ground, began sobbing and passed out. When he awoke he saw Williams walking naked from the woods towards him. “He looked at the Captain with vague, impersonal eyes as thought looking at some insect he had never seen before.” He stepped over the prostrate captain, and took the horse’s reins and led him back to the stables.

And this was the beginning of Penderton’s obsessive hate towards the private. The passion became all consuming. Penderton would contrive ways to see Williams, to pass by him during the latter’s routine or to watch him from his car. Penderton was stalking the private during the day, as Williams was entering Penderton’s house at night to watch Leonora sleep. Penderton’s emotion as he passed Williams was charged with sexual excitement. Soon he was pitying himself for not being young like Williams and sharing in the enlisted men’s routines.

As this dynamic moves towards its inevitable climax, the major’s life is upended by what happens to his wife Allison, which everyone believes is a nervous breakdown. This would soon enough separate her from him, and the loss profoundly affects Langdon. Even though he had neglected her (and worse betrayed her) and considered her strange and weak, he could think of nothing else when the break came. It affected the lives of Penderton and Leonora as well, although the captain soon tired of pitying the major. At one point the major even shows regret at losing the Filipino (who he felt was effete, ridiculous and frivolous). He tells Penderton that his barbs that Anacleto should join the army to be made into a man were simply jokes, but he really did believe that he would have been better off, even if more miserable. Penderton asks the major if he meant that “it is better, because it is more honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?” Langdon affirms that is what he meant and asked whether Penderton agreed.

“‘No,’ said the Captain, after a short pause. With gruesome vividness the Captain suddenly looked into his soul and saw himself. For once he did not see himself as others saw him; there came to him a distorted doll-like image, mean of countenance and grotesque in form. The Captain dwelt on this vision without compassion. He accepted it with neither alteration nor excuse. ‘I don’t agree,’ he repeated softly.”

After this the actual climax seems something of a plot device to end the story, excused only by its near inevitability.  No neat resolution of the psychological or moral contortions that the characters are put through is attempted. So how does this show McCullers’s One Big Idea? The novel is her first try at an answer to this question: This isolation we we find ourselves trapped in, can it be broken through by means of love? The answer seems to be no, because love of any sort makes demands on the other which cannot be reciprocated. Of course in Reflection in a Golden Eye the “love” expressed by each of the characters is stunted, self-interested, not tender and not “normal.” But even the conventional “love” expressed between the major and Leonora does not seem to have any merit in this regard; it is their own banality, their inability to see beyond their basic desires, and not an achievement of meaning or purpose, that allows the two to avoid existential doubts and their “love” to be frustrated by lack of reciprocity. Major Langdon believed that only two things mattered: “to be a good animal and to serve my country. A healthy body and patriotism.” Leonora didn’t even think on this level of abstraction.

That this view of the uselessness of love to resolve the existential dilemma or our absurd predicament is universal, and not limited ot the stunted characters in Reflections in a Golden Eye, can be more easily seen in the next long fiction work of McCuller’s, The Ballad of the Sad Café, a novel that was published in the August issue of Harper’s Bazaar. It did not receive much critical attention, however, until it was published (unrevised) in a collection of her short stories (together with her first four novels) by Houghton, Mifflin in May 1951.

The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943 / 1951)

As she did after finishing her first novel, McCullers plunged right into completing another long fiction work after completing Reflections in a Golden Eye. Much of the work on The Ballad of the Sad Café was done at the Yaddo arts colony in Saratoga Springs, New York in June–August 1941. She was also working on another work that year and the next that would become her fourth novel. She finally completed The Ballad of the Sad Café in November 1942.

As with her second novel this one also adopted a new narrative format. The story is called a “ballad” not because it follows any of the literary rules of the romantic ballad, but rather, I think, because the folk ballad was not only the most prominent form of folk poetry/song in the American South, it was also the form of folk art that collectors (and eventually students) of Southern folk traditions most carefully curated and catalogued.3 A study of the folk ballad of the first decades of the twentieth century summarized its two features as: (1) its “dramatic presentation of action is the ordinary narrative method”; and (2) “impersonality of approach of the theme is the ordinary narrative attitude.”4  McCullers makes both of these choices in The Ballad of the Sad Café, but enhances the folkloric ambiance of the story by setting the action in an utterly isolated Southern town, by employing almost fairytale-like features and by stripping down the plot to its essential simpleness.

  The setting is not just remote, it is cut off from normal human commerce. It is visited only by the likes of the tax man or an agent of a store who comes to see if a resident is creditworthy enough to buy some small appliance on installments (he never is) or travelers who became lost and are seeking the way to their true destination. The train is so far away that a faint whistle is only occasionally heard on very still winter nights. The Greyhound bus station is three miles away. McCullers makes this unnamed town something like Macondo at the beginning of the story:

The town itself is dreary, not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street, only a hundred yards long. On Saturday the tenants from the near by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.

The three main characters are taken right out of a fairy tale and dropped into this Southern equivalent of the Black Forest. Miss Amelia Evans is first introduced, and we get a full picture of her in two paragraphs. But given the deliberate pace of McCuller’s prose, we see her character revealed slowly, the way we would see a corpse whose body is exposed when the morgue’s winding sheet is pulled back. At first she is quite unremarkable. The building that once housed the café of the title, was before that a store which sold mainly farm supplies and staples (like feed, guano, meal and the like). She became the proprietor at 19 when her father (her only parent) died. She also sold the best liquor in the county which she made herself from a still located in the swamp. We then learn of her appearance. “She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles of a man.” But she still might have been attractive if she were not cross-eyed. But it did not matter, because she cared nothing for love. And yet at one time she had “a strange and dangerous marriage, lasting only for ten days, that left the whole town wondering and shocked.” She had an unusual ability to make things with her hands. But with people she had no talent and ultimately only one use: “to make money out of them.” She also had a strange intolerance for perceived injustice and indeed slights of any kind for she was constantly involved in litigation. Not just to recover money owed her but also over anything that annoyed her. “It was said that if Miss Amelia so much as stumbled over a rock in the road she would glance around instinctively as though looking for something to sue about it.” She was 30 years old at the beginning of the ballad and with the combination of physical and personality characteristics, she was a force to be reckoned with. The picture we see is of a woman not given to talk but who was propelled by principles that were stored deep in a well inside her that was almost never explored. She is as inert as one of Chekhov’s peasants.

She would have gone this way indefinitely except that the second character mysteriously enters the town: Cousin Lyman. He is the one “freak” in all of McCullers’s long-form fiction. One evening in April close to midnight, Miss Amelia was standing on the porch of the store while three men and two boys sat on the steps in front of her. (Although she was reclusive, she allowed her customers to drink the liquor she sold them on the porch if their wives objected to having it at home; it was only good business.) A stranger came down the street. From the distance one of the boys first thought a calf had gotten loose. The other corrected him when it got close, saying it was someone’s youngun. When the strange figure arrived, he was seen to be a dwarf with a hump on his shoulders. His head was large and his chest was “warped,” but he had thin legs, barely able, it seemed, to carry his disproportionate body. He was dressed in dirty clothes and carried an old suitcase. While his physical appearance was odd, it was the personality that he would reveal as he wormed his way into the center of the town that marked his strangeness. As he became secure in his position, he became an unctuous meddlers in others’ business. He has some of the attributes of Rumpelstiltskin or Norse trolls.

The third major character does not enter the story until late, but we know of him even before his entrance, for he is Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia’s husband. He is a fairy tale villain. His backstory is laid out much as Miss Amelia’s was. We learn that he was one of seven children abused and neglected by the “wild younguns” who sired and bore them. “T]he first thing they learned in this world was to seek the darkest corner of the room and try to hide themselves as best they could.” One winter when the mill closed for three months, the parents left town abandoning their children. Marvin Macy was luckier than most of his siblings for he was taken in by a kind and loving widow, Mrs. Mary Hale. The rescue was not enough. As the narrator notes: “the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.” And Macy grew up self-centered, lazy and extremely cruel. But then he saw the 19 year old Miss Amelia and fell in love with that “solitary, gangling, queer-eyed girl.” This love changed him. Too shy to make his love known, he nevertheless reformed over the course of two years, became polite, saved his wages and even became religious. When he finally declared himself (“carrying a bunch of swamp flowers, a sack of chitterlins, and a silver ring”), she accepted. She proved a strange bride at the church and afterwards, walking home two paces before her husband. And over the next 10 day she proved a strange wife and eventually threw him out. The experience reverted Macy to his previous character with a vengeance. “For the true character of Marvin Macy finally revealed itself, once he had freed himself of his love.” He left town, robbed gas stations and a grocery store with a sawed-off shotgun and was rumored to have killed a man. His name was in all the newspapers until he was eventually arrested, tried and committed to the state penitentiary in Atlanta. “Miss Amelia was deeply gratified.”

This decade-old story was never forgotten by the town folk, who were at first amused by the humiliation and squalid nature of the affair. But they never spoke of it to Miss Amelia. Yet the narrator warns us (like a balladeer): “do not forget this Marvin Macy, as he is to act a terrible part of the story which is yet to come.”

Perhaps a fourth character should be described as well—the town’s men folk. I say men folk, rather than “community,” because, aside from Miss Amelia (and Mrs. Hale in Marvin Macy’s back story) there are no women actors in this tale. And apart from Miss Amelia there is only one woman’s voice in the story. It was a voice heard by Cousin Lymon one moonlit summer night when he was bored and lonely: “Somewhere in the darkness a woman sang in a high wild voice and the tune had no start and no finish and was made up of only three notes which went on and on and on.” Unlike these three women, the men folk never acted alone. They came to conclusions as a group; they acted collectively. They are not seen as coming to anyone’s aid, but they are always ready to ridicule, they delight in other’s misery, and they always seem to be on the verge of violence. Like the time that the rumor spread that Miss Amelia had murdered Cousin Lymon. A group of eight men got themselves up and went to Miss Amelia’s store. They did this unconsciously, as though guided by a power outside them:

“Some eight or ten men had convened on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store. They were silent and were indeed just waiting about. They themselves did not know what they were waiting for, but it was this: in times of tension, when some great action is impending, men gather and wait in this way. And after a time there will come a moment when all together they will act in unison, not from thought or from the will of any one man, but as though their instincts had merged together so that the decision belongs to no single one of them, but to the group as a whole. At such a time, no individual hesitates. And whether the matter will be settled peaceably, or whether the joint action will result in ransacking, violence, and crime, depends on destiny. So the men waited soberly on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store, not one of them realizing what they would do, but knowing inwardly that they must wait, and that the time had almost come.”

They stood on the porch watching Miss Amelia working on her books in her office. When she shut the door they were looking through, it triggered their action:

“Now to the group on the porch this gesture acted as a signal. The time had come. They had stood for a long while with the night raw and gloomy in the street behind them. They had waited long and just at that moment the instinct to act came on them. All at once, as though moved by one will, they walked into the store. At that moment the eight men looked very much alike — all wearing blue overalls, most of them with whitish hair, all pale of face, and all with a set, dreaming look in the eye. What they would have done next no one knows.”

But then they see Cousin Lymon unharmed and their collective resolve evaporates. This “collective” is alway in the background, always provides the ominous undercurrent. For the men folk, as a group, enforce the conservative, misogynist, racist, embittered ethos of this place. There are some men, however, who are not part of this collective, for example, Henry Macy, Marvin’s brother. In every respect he was unlike his brother. Not only kindly and honest, but also “a shy and timid person with gentle manners and nervous ways” There are others like him, but they don’t take action or effect change. They are feckless. They withdraw at the sign of trouble. They become emotional and frightened. Just as Miss Amelia is the Man-Woman, they are Women-Men.

Cousin Lymon was one such a Woman-Man. When he slinked into town to throw himself on the charity of Miss Amelia, his supposed cousin, the three men and two boys watched him cry when he thought he would be turned out. The five on the porch assumed that Miss Amelia would physically throw him out of town on his ear. For Miss Amelia was more of a man than they were, and that is what the men folk would do. But she surprises them all. She first gives him a bottle—for free!—of her prized liquor. Then she takes him in and feeds him. The rest was not seen by those five.

After many days it became clear to the town that what Miss Amelia had done was even stranger than murder, and to many even more grotesque. Miss Amelia had taken Cousin Lymon in permanently. It was an odd development. What was even odder was that Miss Amelia had fallen in love with this little hunchback. She cleaned him up. Made sure he was fed and comfortable. She attended his little wants. This great change in Miss Amelia was the source of much rumor in the town. This six foot woman with bulging biceps and the manners of a farmer, who wore overalls and physically abused and ejected her husband, was now in love. But what kind of love? The majority believed they were living in sin. Some minority of “good people” excused this: “if those two had found some satisfaction of the flesh between themselves, then it was a matter concerning them and God alone.” But the opinion of “all sensible people” was “a plain, flat no.”

But if not physical, it was certainly transformative, this love. For Miss Amelia gave him the run of the place, and he responded by becoming puffed up, soon comfortable in the notion that he could have what he wanted and take without even asking. Those who saw this change were astounded. But the most astonishing product of this love was the café. The beginning was that night when the eight men saw Cousin Lymon, who came down and spoke with them sociably. And soon there would be drinking in the store, and one thing led to another and the store was turned into a full bore café. The town had never seen anything like this before. The concept was strange: a place to go to have polite social intercourse while dining. But it soon proved salubrious to the town’s psychic and social well-being. It was a civilizing force:

“For people in this town were then unused to gathering together for the sake of pleasure. They met to work in the mill. Or on Sunday there would be an all-day camp meeting—and though that is a pleasure, the intention of the whole affair is to sharpen your view of Hell and put into you a keen fear of the Lord Almighty. But the spirit of a café is altogether different. Even the richest, greediest old rascal will behave himself, insulting no one in a proper café. And poor people look about them gratefully and pinch up the salt in a dainty and modest manner. For the atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly, and a certain gaiety and grace of behavior. This had never been told to the gathering in Miss Amelia’s store that night. But they knew it of themselves, although never, of course, until that time had there been a café in the town.”

Is this the effect of love? To improve the conditions of those about the lovers and add one small drop to the well of general happiness of the world (usually at drought level)? Well, that is not born out by the story. As with all love, evidently, the object is never satisfied. Cousin Lymon, who was exalted by the grace of Miss Amelia, and truly without any desert on his part, soon grew restless with his situation. He began instigating trouble with the customers and soon began to worry Miss Amelia. And then the crisis came. Marvin Macy was released from the penitentiary and was returning to town. He brought with him an ill wind, but no tornado at first. Yet Miss Amelia watched warily because Cousin Lymon was the kind of weak, defenseless, guileless sort that Macy would squash for sheer pleasure. As the inevitable builds, it is Lymon who betrays Miss Amelia, but even that does not defeat her. She goes on to stage a monumental battle with Macy, which excited the town’s bloodlust but left her beaten in every respect. The café, of course, is boarded up, and only occasionally does anyone get a glimpse of her peering from an upstairs window. What they see is “a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.” She has replicated the pattern that undid Marvin Macy himself, love. What the narrator said about his desire, now applies equally to her: “though the outward facts of this love are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover himself. So who but God can be the final judge of this or any other love?”

The story ends with an epilogue entitled “Twelve Mortal Men.” In two paragraphs it tells of the chain gang where every day they are set to work digging at the hard clay and rocks to widen the road out of town. And every day there is the music of their work song, their ballad:

“One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great hoarse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.”

What type of gang is this? asks the narrator. The same kind of gang that watched ominously as evil undid love and destroyed what was civilized among them. The kind of gang that Miss Amelia was capable of facing down, until she let her guard down, until she became a lover. “Just twelve mortal men who are together,” the narrator concludes.

Before returning to McCullers’s One Big Idea, I should say something about the writing here. In my view this is the most tightly written and graceful of McCullers’s five novels. It is deliberately paced and probes the corners of the story with an attention to what envelops the plot that some might take for languor. In fact, V.S. Pritchett criticized the writing because McCullers “winds her way backwards and forwards into her people in a way that is sometimes too dilatory.”5 But he is quite wrong. The narrator turns his (for, though the narrator is not one of the men folk, he does not challenge the prevailing sexual, moral or social realities, all of which are the province of the men folk) attention to those persons, actions and objects that justify comment, and those comments are patiently amassed into the argument that the story ultimately delivers. And that point is that Love is not the answer to humanity’s prison of solitariness. And this is why it fails: it requires an impossible congruence between the Lover and the Beloved:

“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring—this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.”

The object of love is arbitrary (there is no predetermination of it, there is no explanation for it), a “preacher may love a fallen woman,” and there is the perfidy:

“The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.”

And this is where the Beloved has his say, for it is better in this case to be the lover than the beloved: “the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being be loved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

Love is a state of disequilibrium; it cannot last. From the beloved’s part, it is intolerable to be loved. From the lover’s it is a state that creates more rather than less isolation. It is thus not the solution to the existential question that McCullers first posed in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

These two novels are McCullers’s only treatment of sexual, erotic, romantic (however you will) love. It is perhaps here that Bloom’s recourse to Freud’s theories (quoted in the first part of this series) might be appropriate. But Freud is looking at a different phenomenon, and he goes about his investigation by a method distinct in two ways: He treats only one person (the lover), and he sees it in a developmental context. McCullers rejects the supposition that there is a normal or even ideal (as in “ego ideal”) form of love to be aimed for or diagnosed. There is nothing “abnormal” in Captain Penderton’s, or Private Williams’s, or Marvin Macy’s or Miss Amelia’s desires. Only the town’s gossipers enforced by the men folk judge love in that manner. And McCullers, unlike Freud, is looking for a metaphysical solution to the dilemma of human solitude. In these two novels, she strikes off love as the answer. She will look at mechanisms for avoiding the problem rather than ameliorating it in her final two novels, which we will look at in the next post.

Notes

1Some time during the cold war and certainly after the Vietnam misadventure had produced its impression on public opinion and the popular media the idea of the military as an organization filled with soulless automatons who cannot think for themselves became commonplace (perhaps best summarized by George Carlin’s quip illustrating the word “oxymoron” with the phrase “military intelligence”) But at the time McCullers wrote the work (1940) and when it was published (1941), the United States was facing a very perilous world and while most hoped the United States would stay out of the global conflagration, it was a not popular conception that the U.S. military was anything other than heroic. They after all “won” the Great War. It is therefore no wonder that McCuller received such push back, especially from Fort Benning in Georgia, which was assumed to be the model for the novel. [Return to text.]

2McCullers is fond of this construction, where the eyes or expression betrays something found elsewhere. It occurs twice in this novel. You may recall she also uses a similar construction (more memorably) at the end of the first chapter of her first book to describe John Singer, also without friends or enemies: “In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” The same vacant expression is described differently depending on how the narrator wants us to feel about the character. [Return to text.]

3For an early example of how studiously collectors tried to catalog Southern ballads, see Reed Smith, “The Traditional Ballad in the South during 1914,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 108 (April–June 1915), pp. 199-203, which can be seen on JSTOR (open access). [Return to text.]

4Gordon Hall Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), pp. 10–11. [Return to text.]

5V.S. Pritchett, “Books in General,” The New Stateman and Nation (August 2, 1952), pp. 137–38 reprinted in Beverly Lyon Clark & Melvin J. Friedman (eds.), Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996), at 41. [Return to text.]

“… before an unknown hollow darkness of the heart”

Carson McCullers at 100

Isaiah Berlin based his most famous essay1 on a fragment of Archilocus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin forced this enigmatic apophthegm into a classification for writers and thinkers: “there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” The first group are the hedgehogs, and the second the foxes. He illustrated this division by putting, among others, Plato, Dante, Hegel, Dostoevsky and Proust among the hedgehogs and Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac with the foxes. His use of this dichotomy is something of a rhetorical trick, because his essay is about Tolstoy for whom he says the division does not apply. But it is, perhaps, much better suited to the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967), who, unlike almost all  American novelists, is a hedgehog.

When one considers the celebrated novelists of the first half of the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine any of them conceiving of the need for a systematic organization of thought into a single way of looking at things. Such thinkers are rare enough throughout history, and American fiction writers, with the exception, perhaps, of Hawthorne and certainly, of Melville, have not been been systematic moralists or practicing metaphysicians; rather, they have usually preferred psychological, and occasionally political, approaches to stories, and both are notoriously digressive methods.

Nabokov hated the kinds of novels hedgehogs produced, deriding them as books with “messages.” But all novels more-or-less have messages, even Tolstoy’s. (Anna Karenina after all begins with the epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”) The difference with hedgehogs, however, is that the central view is not a moral of a particular story or even an organizing principle for a work; it is rather a way of looking at the world which informs (and usually is the reason for undertaking) a writers total output. And given that the author so concentrates on that central vision (it is perhaps the reason why he becomes an author), it casts the story in a slightly heightened light, immediately noticeable, often by the adoption of a tone that is emotionally noncommittal and measured, although Dostoevsky’s prose is often urgent and frenetic.

T.S. Eliot (descendant of the Puritans, America’s quintessential hedgehogs) may have been America’s chief literary hedgehog. But the system he tried to construct, involving old -fashioned reactionary politics and unintelligible Catholic-Buddhist mysticism, was too solipsistic to be seriously entertained by anyone. McCullers was quite different. Her systematic quest was the result of experience and self-knowledge, and it appealed viscerally. And regardless of any limitations she might be accused of, one always feels she is driving at something beyond ordinary literary insight.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

From the beginning of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter it is obvious that McCullers had in her sights the roots of human isolation. “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together,” is the opening sentence. The picture it produces is the paradigm of isolation. Cut off from the rest of the town not only by their disabilities but also by the social segregation the disabled suffer, they have only each other. The chapter describes, in precise, unsentimental prose, the life these two lead. One, John Singer, a tall, thin, impeccably neat and refined man; the other, Spiros Antonapoulos, short and obese, and, we soon learn, mentally challenged. The two, over the course of the decade they lived together, made a life out of their simple and unvaried routine. Antonapoulos worked for his cousin, the owner of a fruit store. Singer was a silverware engraver. They would walk together to work, arm in arm, and come home together at night, where Antonapoulos cooked the meal (food was his one joy), and Singer washed the dishes. Singer did all the communicating, often signing for great stretches of time. Antonapoulos rarely “spoke,” except before bed when he prayed to “Holy Jesus” or “Darling Mary.” Silver did not know how much his friend understood of what he signed. “But the two mutes were not lonely at all.” Until one day, when Singer was 32, Antonapoulos became ill. He was ordered on a strict diet—a great privation for him—and he blamed Singer, who enforced the doctor’s regimen. Antonapoulos became spiteful and soon began acting out by committing small misdemeanors and indecencies in public. Eventually, without consulting Singer, Antanapoulos’s cousin had him committed to the state mental institution. The loss of his friend was a devastating blow from which he struggled to recover. At first, and for a long time, Singer wandered the streets of this deep Southern town until late at night. Singer was not of this place (“more like a Northerner or a Jew,” the town’s African American doctor concluded after receiving a small kindness from him), and this made him even lonelier. After weeks of this solitude, his grief changed him: “His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” He reached that state of numbness that is the only outcome of deep heartache.

That first chapter, we realize after finishing the novel, is really an encapsulation of the entire novel, like a sonata movement in a Classical era work, whose statements would be developed in various ways by the rest of the work. But Singer’s fate is not just emblematic; it sets him on a course that would make him a central character in the lives of others. In fact his relationships with the other major characters becomes a unifying plot device as well as a central metaphor in its own right. In each of the next four chapters we meet in turn the other four main characters who would become unlikely (and unsought for) disciples of Singer and whose stories unfold as something like variations on the theme of Singer’s.

The second chapter introduces us to Bartholomew “Biff” Brannon, the owner of the town’s dinner, the New York Café. Biff was not a man of action: “[h]e usually stood in the corner by the cash register, his arm folded over his chest, quietly observing all that went on around him.” His perch on the edge of this world allows him to watch, cogitate and try to puzzle together the half-conclusions he comes to. We meet his wife, Alice, who has no respect for him, and it’s clear that there is no longer any love in this marriage. Their current point of contention is a drunk, Jake Blount, who has taken up something like permanent residency in the diner. Alice wants him out, but Biff is too passive to take action. And he finds Blount an interesting object of his contemplation. Meanwhile, as Saturday turns to Sunday, Blount passed the stage of inebriation and has become a sloppy drunk, trying to declaim radical politics to the late-night diners and drinkers, most of whom consider him an object of ridicule. As a result of the outcome of that evening Blount would become a major character in his own right.

In this second chapter, we meet the two other new major characters, Mick Kelley, a 14 year old member of a large, downwardly mobile family who operate a run-down boarding house. Mick is one of six children and is barely supervised by her overworked parents, and this explains how she is at the diner past midnight buying cigarettes. Biff finds himself strangely attracted to the tomboyish girl. In this chapter we also meet the town’s African American doctor, Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland, who in the middle of that night is brought by Blount into the diner and is enraged when he believes that he has been tricked into coming to a segregated eating establishment soley to be mocked. Even John Singer is there, having during his wanderings made arrangements with Biff to take all of his meals at the café every day. Through Mick we learn that Singer has taken up lodgings at the Kellys’ boarding house, and after Blount that night makes a scene owing to acute alcohol poisoning, Singer offers taking Blount to his room for the night. To continue the symphony analogy, this chapter is something like a scherzo, and there are three movements left.

The third chapter follows Mick’s around the next day, Sunday, and shows us her family and acquaints us with her aspirations, at the same time both unrealistic and cramped. She is obsessed by music. But her parents cannot afford any additional expenses (even if they knew her interest); almost any connection she might have with music is out of the question, so she listens outside the room of a boarder who has a radio. She discovers that the music she is particularly entranced by was written long ago by someone named “Motsart.” She dreams of someday having a piano, but for now she has tried to make a violin from a broken mandolin and wires. When she realizes it won’t work, she is disgusted with her own foolishness. She wonders why she so enthusiastically worked on a thing that was so ridiculous. ‘Maybe,” she thinks, “when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”

We also discover in this chapter that the black cook at the boardinghouse, Portia, is Dr. Copeland’s daughter, and while she maintains her filial regard for him, she tells Mick of his estrangement from the family. She attributes his loneliness (despite being “full of books”) to his rejection of religion,. Religion gives peace, she explains, like what she, her husband, her brother Willie (who works in the kitchen of the New York Café), and their boarder Mr. Singer. (By using the same word as the narrator, peace, to describe the current state of John Singer, Portia ironically compares the numbness of personal devastation with the grace of God.) She warns Mick that she will experience the same emptiness of her father without God. “Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t have love and you don’t have peace.” Mick is cut to the quick by the accusation that she hadn’t loved, but she keeps her own counsel. When she wanders off she is gripped by an indescribable agitation and wrestles with an unquenchable longing for what she knows not. While sitting on the stairs hoping a boarder will turn on her radio she became lost in thought: 

“She thought a long time and kept hitting her thighs with her fists. Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want—I want—I want—was all that she could think about—but just what this real want was she did not know.”

In the fourth chapter we come to understand the obsession that Blount was unable to articulate during the previous night’s binge. Having been cleaned up by Singer he goes off to look for work. In the want ads he learns of a broken down amusement show looking for a mechanic. He finds the owner and tells him of his experience in all sorts of mechanical work is hired to run the flying jinny, an aging and splintered carousel that is taken from one vacant lot to the other to provide amusement for the town’s underbelly—mill hands, children and blacks. After taking the job he walks back through the white mill workers’ part of town. The buildings and inhabitants are both dreary and hopeless. He sidles up to three workers with “mill-sallow, dead pan faces” sitting on a porch. After offering them tobacco, he begins asking about strikes and their opinions about the owners of the mill. He asks them if their exploitation makes them mad, but all he can elicit is mocking laughter. “The men laughed in the slow and easy way that three men laugh at one.” He is enraged, but returns to Singer with bottles of beer because he knows that Singer is an empathetic soul and can provide him solace. He explains how he has spent his life studying the system that chews up people for profit on capital. He tells Singer that they are two of the very few who understand and when two such find each other it is something like a miracle. Singer, who clearly does not understand, writes a question on a card: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Blount looks into Singer’s eyes, which seem to hypnotize him. “‘You get it,’ he said in a blurred voice. ‘You know what I mean.'”

Chapter five tells the story of Dr. Copeland, a man dedicated to the liberation of his people. So certain of the righteousness of his goal, he tried to enlist his children into the fight, giving them the names Karl Marx, Hamilton, Willie and Portia. Hs book study and life experience have taught him what it will take for the Negro to reclaim his rights: discipline, hard work, dignity and exemplary behavior to emulate. He knows this to his core; spreading this word has become his “real true cause.” He saw his children as agents in this work and hoped to teach them of their special places and their own real true cause, but they wanted to fit in with their peers, to avoid the stigma of being “uppity.” Dr. Copeland’s wife did not openly resist him, but she sided with them. She allowed the children their minor vices and childish wishes, and worse, she took them to church and instilled in them “the cult of meekness.”  It was more than he could bear, and the result of the conflict was his wife moving to the farm of her father and taking the children. She died, but the children remained estranged. Only Portia occasionally visited her father, but neither she nor any of the others became the scientists, lawyers and teachers Copeland knew his people needed, and he was now bereft of his family and his dreams.

These introductions are followed by the large central part of the work, where the destinies of these characters play out. The stories are presented much like the introductions, with one chapter for each of the characters, although the stories occasionally cross paths. Each chapter has subtly different narrative language appropriate to the character whose story is told.  Words or phrases that peculiar to a particular character are inserted in a non-intrusive way, and this softens the artificiality of an omniscient narrator’s voice. But these insertions do not substitute for the characters’s internal dialogue, they merely illustrate the level of intellectual maturity and social adjustment of the character. The narrator’s tone remains the same throughout: sympathetic without pathos, exposition without any unnecessary emphasis, objective rather than like-minded, all accomplished with clear expository sentences designed to show the reader external events and the characters’ responses, suggesting some deeper meaning, but without idiosyncratic style or obvious technique. She always allows the structure of the narrative (with occasional rhetorical emphasis) to permit the reader to form conclusions of a deeper sort.

As for the key feature of the structure most critical comment has focused on the relation of Singer to the three who most avidly seek out his attention. (Biff is too busy at the café to spend much time with Singer at the boarding house and doesn’t sit with him at the diner. Besides, his interest in Singer is clinical: Unlike the other three, he sees that Singer does not understand what they offer up to him. He tries to understand why they delude themselves.) The three become more and more dependent on Singer: “Each person addressed his words mainly to the mute. Their thoughts seemed to converge in him as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub.” Singer does not seek this position, nor does he do much to maintain it. He barely understands what they tell him, and they interpret his smiles or nods as suits them. He is happy for the company but finds them strange. One night he has a dream where Antonapoulos was knelling atop a set of stone stairs holding something above his head and he seemed in an attitude of prayer. Below him Singer himself, also naked, was looking up at Antonapoulos. Below Singer were the four other main characters looking at him. The dream ends when the stairs crumble. Much has been made of the metaphorical implications of Singer’s relation to the others. And just as Singer’s “disciples” attribute to his reactions the meaning they wish them to have, critics have assigned as the meaning of the metaphor their own hobbyhorses. I’ll give one example: Harold Bloom, one of America’s most prolific critics, and one who often appeals to non-academic readers, sees this metaphor in terms of classic (early) psychoanalysis and refers to Freud’s “The Dynamics of Transference” (1912) to note that inability to love results from early channelling of libidinal impulses in ways that withhold it from conscious personality (etc., etc.).2 But McCullers in this novel does not addressing the expression of erotic love by this metaphor. She is not even dealing with any of he other forms of love that bear Greek names (such as agape or philos). What the “disciples” want, is not “love,” but rather affirmation of the meaning they have chosen for their lives, the meaning they have selected consciously, not as a result of innate drives. This may or may not be susceptible to psychoanalytic description, but not in the reductive way Bloom suggests.

In much the same way other academic critics have forced this work into the confines of their own specialties. Let’s put aside feminist and queer theory critics and look at earlier critics who regarded the novel as another of the Southern Gothic genre begun by Faulkner. Most of the support for that categorization stems solely from the southern location and the supposed treatment of “freaks” and “outcasts.” (The reed that often supports the claim that McCullers is obsessed with “freaks” is Biff’s statement to Alice that “I like freaks.” But when he thinks of it Blount (to whom he applied the term) is not a freak, and those he was thinking of do not appear in the novel.) That the characters were ground down by poverty, the Depression and racism does not make them freaks or otherwise bizarre. In fact, McCullers treats each of the characters with a kind of respect, and thereby gives them a dignity that is apparent even in the first glance. McCullers’s characters are overall much more articulate than Faulkner’s, her African American characters in particular are real people rather than props. Her style and narrative structure avoid any self-referential “literary” technique. Nor does she emphasize the morbid or construct elaborate but implausible plot developments. In short, there seems really very little in common between McCullers and Faulkner. But for me the most important difference and what makes McCullers unique is how she can make a novel of ideas out of people and events that remain realistic throughout. In this novel almost all the characters are living on the edge of financial disaster. Privation distorts their possibilities as well as their relations to others. And yet in addition to trying to retain their dignity, the main characters are also searching for deeper meanings to life, and it is that quest and the answers they tell themselves that are at the heart of the mystery that we feel reading her novels.

Characters searching for meaning was not a Southern, or even American, literary commonplace. Of course, there were all sorts of existentialist theories and treatments of existentialist themes and outlooks from as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. (One could even go earlier with Büchner’s Woyzeck.) But whether one could (or even should) define a meaning for one’s self was a question that would become a central issue only in the middle of the twentieth century and later. An important early step in that direction was Camus’s The Stranger, but that novel was published a year after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And the French work dealt only with the preliminary issue: the absurdity of our isolation (to translate it into more McCullers-friendly concepts). Camus would elaborate his concept (and its consequences) in many essays and criticisms, which gave him intellectual heft among academics. McCullers was never an accomplished essayist, possibly because she formulated her ideas in terms of stories. (In this she might be said to be Southern.) But in her first extended story she examined her existential (or absurdist, for she is more like Camus than either the atheist Sartre or the deist Kierkegaard) thesis from several different angles, not just one  (exceedingly abnormal) point of view as in The Stranger.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is also the only work that puts her existential thesis in the context of common religious beliefs (for the South in the late 1930s). There are only two characters (and they are secondary) who subscribe to any form of systematic religious belief. The first is Antonapoulos, whose religious rituals, as far as we can tell, are extremely childlike and rote, almost superstitious. Singer’s dream acknowledges his friend’s superiority ot him in matters spiritual (and in the same sense his superiority to his own “disciples”), but in the end the edifice collapses. Portia is the other believer (or at least practitioner) in the work. She believes that membership in her denomination and moderate practice of ritual (not too “sanctified” she insists) results in peace and the ability to love.  It is true that she is the only character who demonstrates something close to selfless concern for others, even those outside her own insular race (for she expresses concern for the Kelly children). Her behavior, however, seems more in keeping with the cult of meekness (as Dr. Copeland calls it), the kind which reinforces conventional social and ethical rules without any appeal to heightened consciousness (the kind, in short, that William James seems to prefer in The Variety of Religious Experiences), and nothing she says shows it gives any meaning to her life. It certainly is not a motivation to seek social justice. The other characters dismiss religion outright. Mick believes no more in God than in Santa Claus, she says, but her early indoctrination bubbles up in snatches of scripture at an oddly inappropriate moment. Blount is plagued by a street preacher out to convert him, but Blount’s response is mere mockery. He regards it all as a lie, unlike the gospel of worker liberation which he preaches and for which he himself is mocked. Biff is also reminded of religion. His wife teaches Sunday School and at the beginning of the novel, he hears her preparing a lesson involving the verse from Mark, to the effect that all men seek for Him. The talk only effects nostalgia in Biff, who remembers the days before he gave it all up. When each reach their own crisis, none considers religion as a sensible recourse.

Even the one central teaching of conventional Christianity, altruistic love (Christ-like in its self-abnegation) does not give us permanent relief from the isolation the characters experience, because it depends on the existence of the object of our devotion. When Singer loses Antanapoulos, his reason for living disappears, and with that, he takes away the affirmation he was supplying to the others. The short denouement part of the novel concludes their stories in reverse order of the characters’ introductions. Copeland, having met his wall, the realization that his life work of self-actualizing into a respectable, dignified man was no match for the entrenched institutionalized forces of racism, gives up. He is carted off (literally) to the farm of his father-in-law, whose meekness and religiosity Copeland spent his lifetime opposing. It is perhaps the fact that the farm is away from the town, itself isolated from the arena that Copeland had tried to contend in, that makes it any refuge at all. Blount, having not convinced any person of the idea he found so simple, and indeed becomes the reason that the oppressed end up attacking each other, has to leave town, to escape questions and possibly to find converts elsewhere. Biff gives him a little help, but without Singer, Blount has not reason to stay. Mick made a decision, forced by circumstances that effectually compelled it, which for all practical purposes will end her dream of pursuing music. Barely on the edge of adulthood she can expect a future as dreary of her father’s, but evidently because we cannot live without meaning, however illusory, she thinks she can save $2 out of $10 weekly salary to some day buy a piano. These thoughts console her while she drinks a beer and has a chocolate sundae at the café at the same time realizing that she is angry all the time. Only there is no on to be angry at. Biff suffers no great trouble, because he had no meaning he would commit to. He realized he would no longer love again, and he never understood the mystery of Singer. But suddenly in the middle of the night, as he tends the customer-free café, he comes to a transcendent realization. “For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded.” But the exhilaration of the vision soon turns to terror. What he was looking at was the past; the future, however, holds “blackness, error, and ruin.” It was necessary to wash his face with a wet handkerchief and to actively impose self discipline to dispel the terror. He was, after all, a “sensible man.” And so he composed himself “soberly to await the morning sun.”

There are two influences that I think profoundly influence the organization and approach of this novel, and both are Russian.3 The first is the mature work of Dostoevsky. In the first place, the techniques of Dostoevsky’s first effort to mesh more than one story into a single work, Crime and Punishment, are evident. Long stretches of independent stories, occasionally crossing with the other story, are allowed to develop under their own logic, almost independent of the design of the others. What gives The Heart is a Lonely Hunter such expansiveness is the careful construction of the separate stories, not as accessories to each other, but almost in their own right. The parallels are not overstated, and the details allow us to consider the psychological makeup of each character. A particular point of comparison is the introduction of Blount in McCullers’s book and the introduction of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment (in both cases in the second chapters of the respective novels). Like Blount, Marmeladov is quite drunk and attempts to tell his story. Like the customers in the New York Café, those in Dostoevsky’s bar treat the drunk with ridicule. But out of the encounter a relationship is formed between the two drunks and the two central characters in the novels. A second characteristic of Dostoevsky that McCullers also uses is the sudden shocking moment that drastically changes the relationships of the characters and their possible future courses of action. This is probably best seen in Demons (The Possessed) and The Idiot. Finally, Dostoevsky also dwell on the human need to express out inner thoughts to others. This is what in Crime and Punishment undoes Raskolnikov legally (although we are led to believe at the end, it formed the basis for his spiritual renewal). It is also evident, more perversely, in the character of Stavrogin in Demons. What McCullers does not take from Dostoevsky, however, is his tendency to descend into the maudlin. For her restrained tone and objective recounting of narrative, she more closely resembles Chekhov.  Both of these two Russian influences also  can be seen in the next two novels.

With her first novel McCullers staked out a territory that became her own over the next two decades—the mystery of human isolation and its consequence. Dostoevsky likewise spent his career exploring the spiritual dimensions of human suffering. Although neither fully answered the questions they posed, they both came near an answer by the final novel. In the next post I’ll discuss how McCullers came to almost know that “one big thing.”

Notes

1“The Hedgehog and the Fox” in Russian Thinkers (London: Hogarth Press, 1978), reprinted in Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays ed. by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [Return to text.]

2Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” Carson McCullers (Modern Critical Views) ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), pp. 1–2. [Return to text.]

3McCullers wrote an essay in 1941 entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Writers” in which she compared the Russian aristocracy to the Southern social order: “The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance.” It is not for this reason, however, or at least not for this reason alone, that I think she owes a debt to the Russians. [Return to text.]

Demme, Shawn and Gregory Take on Ibsen

A Master Builder, Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play is the last of three great theatrical projects of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn that have been made into movies. The film opened this week at the New York Film Forum.

Master Builder Halvard Solness confronts the object of his final desire and the agent of his punishment Hilda Wangel (Lisa Joyce).

Master Builder Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) confronts the object of his final desire and the agent of his punishment, Hilda Wangel (Lisa Joyce).

Normally filmed stage productions, no matter how talented the actors or how brilliant the playwright, end up being stilted affairs, so much so that the general feeling is that a play cannot be successfully filmed other than as a method of archiving the stage production.

Much younger Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss the meaning of life over an elegant dinner in

Much younger Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss the meaning of life over an elegant dinner in My Dinner with Andre.

This truism is disproved by the collaborations of the experimental stage director Gregory and the performer-writer-collaborator Shawn. The first, My Dinner with Andre, came out more than 30 years ago (in 1981) and proved to be a quirky and engaging experiment in both theatre and film in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are filmed doing nothing more than talking during dinner, albeit, eventually, the meaning of life and more important things.. A decade later Gregory and Shawn collaborated in bringing the rehearsal of David Mamet’s version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to the screen as Vanya on 42nd Street. Both of those projects were filmed by Louis Malle. Malle died not long after the latter movie (his last), and so this latest collaboration by Gregory and Wallace was filmed by Demme, who is perhaps best known for Swimming to Cambodia (a theatrical performance film) and Silence of the Lambs (a highly successful commercial crime drama/horror film).

Solness's marriage to Aline (Julia Haggerty) is an empty set of bonds of mutual recriminations. Halvard tells Wangel that Aline is

Solness’s marriage to Aline (Julie Hagerty) is an empty set of bonds of mutual recriminations. Halvard tells Wangel that Aline is “dead,” that all the blood has been drained out of her. And yet they both have a tenderness for the other when it looks like they are about to be thrown over. Or is that Halvard’s illusion as well?

I’ll return in a bit to the differences between the filming by Malle and Demme, but for the moment it’s worth noting that the surprising immediacy of all three of these films has very little to do with the film direction. All three movies have something that is almost completely absent in modern American film—intellectually challenging dialogue exchanged by actors who actually appear to be engaging in conversations with each other. This may seem like something that ought to be inherent in any drama, whether staged or filmed, but when you see a production by Gregory, you realize that the essence of theatricality, done right, is the ability to draw the viewer into the drama, solely based on the words and how they are delivered, and that the trick is seldom seen anymore. In each of these three films, the power of words exchanged by actors totally guided by a particular view of the playwright’s script is astonishing. In each of the three, there are moments when you simply lose yourself in the exchanges of ideas and emotions that are so deeply personal that you forget that you are watching a production and become a spectator of a genuine human interaction. In Vanya on 42 Street, in which the actors arrive in street clothes to rehearse the Chekhov play in a condemned theatre in Manhattan’s Time Square district, the interaction is so absorbing and the pace of the drama so compellingly managed that when intermission is announced the viewer is shocked into realizing that it is a play he is watching.

Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and George Gaynes bring the audience from Midtown to Czarist Russia by sheer theatre magic.

Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and George Gaynes bring the audience from Midtown to Czarist Russia by sheer theatre magic.

The effect is not merely owing the Gregory’s genius as a stage director. It is because of the immense amount of work and attention to detail that the director and willing actors lavish on these projects. Vanya on 42nd Street was in rehearsal for several years and in the end never saw the stage. A Master Builder was rehearsed by Gregory for over a decade. This kind of dedication and meticulousness has no analog among spoken performances. Movie productions are hailed for their preparation when actors spend several weeks together. The economics of theater require that projects are rehearsed largely during out-of-town productions. But by the time Gregory’s plays (and all three were only movies) are seen by the public, all artifice has been wrung out of them. The acting has reached a point that it is no longer “acting.” There should be another word for it. It has reached the point that you do not need to suspend your disbelief—the characters are actually delivering their words from deep within their actual beings and they are saying them to people who they know will react in the unpredictable ways that humans react to each other. It is a method of acting that no other director, stage or film, can elicit.

The avenging angel discovers the wreckage Halvard has caused.

The avenging angel discovers the wreckage Halvard has strewn about himself. Their tragedy is having come to accept the lot assigned them.

In some ways A Master Builder is the most challenging of the three projects. The first one, My Dinner with Andre, is an exploration of wonder and imagination by two intellectuals who respect each other and are grappling to explain their souls to each other. This was remarkable enough, but it only involved the exchanges between Shawn and Gregory who have an extraordinary degree of mutual stage empathy. The Chekhov project involved a large ensemble, and therefore was many times harder to elicit genuine interpersonal interactions in Gregory’s way, but the gorup acted a play that, though tragic, was shot through with humor, absurdity, flamboyance and pathos so that audience reactions took a ride that was unpredictable, but not uniformly intense.

They want little enough. Solness's employe (Jeff Biehl) wants out from under the master's thumb and to marry the bookkeeper; his father (Andre Gregory), who was ruined by Solness, wants only to see his son succeed before his own death. Solness considers only his own fears in crushing them both.

They want little enough. Solness’s employee (Jeff Biehl) wants out from under the master’s thumb and to marry the bookkeeper; his father (Andre Gregory), who was ruined by Solness, wants only to see his son succeed before his own death. Solness considers only his own fears in crushing them both.A

A Master Builder, on the other hand, is (at least to me) an almost impossibly difficult work to perform. It is uniformly grim. The relations among the characters have been frozen over time into unrelieved misery. The cause of this is the central character, Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn), a man who dominates those around him so imperiously that his desires are all met: sexual, material, social, professional. And yet Solness is sick of life and too craven to even consider ending it. He has climbed the bourgeois ladder, accepting all the requirements that such a life exacts and adopted all the beliefs that such a life depends on. To Solness everything is a negotiated bargain. For everything received, one must pay. He is obsessed with the knowledge that his professional success is an asset that must have a corresponding liability. He also knows that it is not only he, but also all those around, that must pay. The obligations he has imposed on others, his wife, his employee, the man whose business he ruined for his own career and his personal assistant, all pay for his success. He acknowledges, however, only a debt to his wife. But she is beyond willing to accept anything from Halvard. Bourgeois herself, she has been reduced to considering only her “obligations” and “duty,” to her husband and to everyone else. She fits in the bourgeois scale as servant to Halvard’s master.

Henrik Ibsen. (Photograph by Gustav Borgen. 1898. Norsk Folkemuseum.)

Henrik Ibsen. (Photograph by Gustav Borgen. 1898. Norsk Folkemuseum.)

The story, therefore, is a kind of social realist melodrama from a century ago that is unlikely to appeal to a contemporary audience, whose attention span as well as their empathy has been reduced by our own narrowness. But the difficulty is greater than that. The play is not one of the earlier works like Doll House or Ghosts, which sensationalized the Western theater with their brutal political-social critique. (Perhaps only Strindberg could flog the bourgeoise like Ibsen.) At the point in his career he wrote The Master Builder (unlike the film, the usual English rendering of the play uses the definite article; the title in the original is simply Bygmester Solness), Ibsen took as a given the relentless criticism of social convention. This play, however, began a new phase, one where he would add psychological insight and (necessarily) expand his theatrical palette by adding approaches that would stretch the stage’s power to represent. The Master Builder can plausibly be presented as a performance of Halvard Solness’s internal thoughts. And that is the approach taken by Wallace Shawn who produced the screenplay. The liberty he takes with the play makes the point. Solness is first seen hooked up to modern hospital monitoring devices. The point is that the main character is approach an end-of-life crisis and that everything that takes place must be seen in that context. If you miss that point, there are several added “dream-like” sequences which suggest that Solness is slipping from consciousness. This particular contrivance, it seems to me, is unnecessary. Those who cannot pick this point of view from the dialog or direction are probably not going to be watching this film anyway; the rest (including all who watch it) are likely to be offended by the condescension. But the device is not long employed and is not a great distraction.

Solness tells a “strange story” to Doctor Herdal (Larry Pine) who is unable to grasp the essence of Solness’s self-deception.

With this solipsistic psychological approach, one can understand the perspective of Solness without having to accept each of the details. Solness often comes across as the more long-suffering of the greatly suffering characters, but the fact is the suffering is all engendered by Solness himself. He claims to Doctor Herdal that he allows his wife to believe a slander against him because he owes her a great debt. “Debt” is a bourgeois concept. Solness committed a crime against her, but believes he can buy off his guilt, even though the coin he offers itself turns out to be false.

The equilibrium of suffering is upset by the unexpected introduction of the young Hilda Wangel, who soon reminds Solness that 10 years ago to the day, he had forced himself on her when she was 12 (or 13 the play says, making it somewhat more clear her unreality), when he promised to come back in 10 years to take her away and make her a princess. She has now come to claim her right. Solness remembers none of this, but soon accepts it because she seems not to incriminate him for the violation. And she is the only person who has not become irredeemably broken by his callous selfishness. She prods him on to act less selfishly, and does so by also bringing life back into his empty soul. Solness was more than willing to accept her dreams for herself and him, even though, at every turn, she with good nature reminds him of his own short-sided meanness and how much of a cad he was to her and everyone else. Their exchanges make up the central intellectual debate of the play. The audience is never quite sure where Wangel stands, but watching Solness pour out his withered soul to her is gut-wrenching.

In the end Solness desires his own destruction, even if he only vaguely realizes it.

In the end Solness desires his own destruction. Perhaps even he vaguely realizes it.

It is difficult to imagine a more perfectly realized production of this play. It is true that its point of view is not necessarily the definitive one, but it follows that choice with relentless logic. The acting is impeccable. Those, like me, who watch almost no television will be shocked to see Julie Hagerty (Aline Solness), who was last seen in Airplane in 1980. Her appearance not only shows that tempus fugit, but also that she has acting chops that Hollywood inexplicably failed to employ for over three decades. Her interactions with Solness are achingly icy, but she has so thoroughly internalized the damage done her that she in the end does not want to see his destruction. Larry Pine plays the perfectly good-natured Doctor Herdal, the only character who has not been manipulated by Solness and the only one who fails to comprehend the strength of the web that has trapped the rest of the characters. Andre Gregory’s small role as the dying and ruined mentor of Solness is powerful. The relationship between Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce (Hilda Wangel) form the central pivot of the play. She is perfectly ambiguous. Is she seducing him or teasing him? This depends on whether she believed his promises to a small girl he took advantage of or came for revenge. Solness denies vigorously that he acted the monster, but soon accepts it because he thinks she provides his last hope for a relationship unspoiled by his fear, his manipulation and his self-centeredness. But he is such a narrow character that he can do nothing but offer unrealistic acts of bravado, after much coaxing. Where this will lead becomes as inevitable as his own unrelenting wretchedness to those around him had proved.

His entire life was guided by the same impulses. And though he should have seen the result, he is impelled by those same impulses to the very end.

His entire life was guided by the same impulses. And though he should have seen the result, he is impelled by those same impulses to the very end.

Of course the entire project revolves around Wallace Shawn. I must admit that it seemed implausible to me that Shawn could pull off the role. After all, Solness is sought after by all the women he encounters. Those reading the play without sufficient imagination (like me) would probably think that a “leading man” actor was necessary to make the role plausible. Shawn, however, is such a talented actor that he can use the audience’s initial discomfort with the dissonance between his appearance and his effect on women to dramatize the fact that the narrative is a non-naturalistic story told from his own perspective petrified by years of unchecked self-indulgence. His attempts to seduce Wangel become exercises in self-delusion. That delusion has an inevitable price, which is obvious to all who watch the unpleasant behavior of one who is so used to acting the lecher that he cannot see his own ridiculousness.

While the stage direction and acting are top-flight, I will offer a quibble here. The film direction of the other two projects by Malle was essentially unobtrusive. It was not static—there were close-ups and cross-curing—but it did not draw attention to itself. Demme’s filming, however, relied much less on the sure-handedness of the stage direction. At the beginning, for some reason, some of the scenes were filmed by hand-held cameras. Moreover, the use of cross-cutting during dialogs became so pronounced that it diluted the in-the-moment magic of the stage directions. The use of music, although not as excessive as most movies make it, was nonetheless  unnecessary. The acting itself was quite enough to produce the desired audience reactions. In fact, the music tended to draw attention to itself by overemphasizing what the production is trying to convey. The use of the music of Sibelius (a Finn) evidently to provide suitable Scandinavian flavor to a play by Ibsen (a Norwegian) came across as a typically pretentious Hollywood affectation. That said, the film direction was fluid and for the most part stayed out of the way of Gregory’s staging.

For those unfamiliar with Ibsen, be warned that this is not an “uplifting” experience. It is, however, a nearly perfectly realized work of art. And great art, which is hard as granite, is seldom “uplifting.”

Stories by Machado de Assis

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. 1890.)

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. ca. 1880.)

Dalkey Archive Press has just released a collection of newly translated stories written by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. The collection is a good occasion for noting that Modernism in fiction was not the exclusive province of Europe and did not have to wait for Joyce. The stories in this collection were published in various Brazilian journals between the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s. This is the period that Machado made a radical shift in style, transforming himself from an amusing teller of parlor romances to a clear-sighted social critic who experimented with a variety of narrative techniques and plot structures.

Machado wrote approximately 200 short stores (in addition to his acclaimed novels) and before this publication only 33 had been translated into English. So the addition of these  13 stories is certainly a boon for that reason alone. But the translation, by Rhett McNeil, is so skillful in following the subtleties in the different narrative voices Macho employs that the volume is both enjoyable and instructive.

What makes the late Machado stories starkly unique is the combination of; (1) blurring the line between naturalism and the fantastic; (2) subtly ironic commentary, which acts as counterpoint to deep psychological insight into the characters and their predicaments; and (3) narrative structures that usually involve at least one significant misdirection and often coil back on themselves to make an ironic or unexpected comment on the nature of the narrative itself.

Other writers around the time were injecting stories with elements of the fantastic. Mark Twain, for example, published Connecticut Yankee in 1889. Maeterlinck would begin his symbolist plays at the end of Machado’s career. Both, however, used fantasy as an effect unto itself. For Twain, it was mainly to produce humorous (or dark humorous) effects. For Maeterlinck the fairy tale structures advertised the symbolism of the themes. Machado, by contrast, admitted fantastic elements as accepted facts, much like a naturalist would use social structures as a given. There is never any mugging over the unreal; when the narrator comments at all it is ordinarily about the characters’ reactions in the given situation, not about the situation. Couples can exchange souls, a psychiatrist is given carte blanche to commit any resident of a town to his asylum, a man drinks an Indian potion that allows him to live forever, Alcibiades returns to life by means of spiritualism. Are these things actually true? In some cases the narrator may have reason to dissemble. But Machado makes no attempt to explain or justify these extravagances. In this way, he was something of a pioneer for later Spanish-speaking Latin American story-tellers, such as Borges (who took this technique to its absurdist conclusions) and the later realismo mágico writers (who employed the fantastic more freely and for other purposes).

As for the narrative point of view, Machado is unflinching in how he reveals the characters’ inner workings and is unsparing in showing the causes and often tragic consequences of the characters’ limited awareness. In this respect, his “psychological” approach was similar to approaches developing in France and Russia. Machado allows the reader to see the inner workings but does not concentrate on the tragedy (as would, for example, Flaubert), preferring instead to allow the character some privacy. Moreover, while Machado was willing to show flaws, some which lead to murder, he never dissects a character to his humiliating core the way Dostoevsky would do. Machado’s view of human nature was no more sanguine than Dostoevsky’s, but his gently sardonic pose made it unnecessary to detail all the attributes of a character’s shortcomings. There is a lightness of touch to his critiques and a willingness to allow the reader to exercise his own judgment. In this respect he reminds one of Jorge Amado, who would be selected to the same Brazilian Academy of Letters 66 years after Machado was chosen its first President.

The last aspect I highlighted, Machado’s plotting technique, is one that I find most interesting. Machado could write a compact short story with an initial premise which picks up momentum before delivering a directly flowing conclusion. A good example is “The Fortune-Teller,” which you can read in a collection of Brazilian tales translated by Isaac Goldberg, Brazilian Tales (Boson: The Four Seas Co.: 1921), found at Project Gutenberg (here). (That book also has two other stories by Machado and is the earliest English version of any of Machado’s short stories.) But Machado’s best short fiction involves narratives which meander as if under their own logic and land in places that are entirely unexpected. Occasionally, the stories do not even land, but just trail off. The effect is something like one has at the conclusion of certain of Chekhov’s tales, when an abrupt or unexpected results induces more reflection than they would if they were inherent in the story’s beginning.

I hesitate to discuss the plot structure of these essentially brand new stories (to English readers) for fear of depriving the reader of the discovery of novelties. Let me simply refer to the story “The Academies of Siam,” which subscribers to Harper’s Monthly can read in the March 2014 issue (here). The story begins with a provocative narration:

Do you know about the academies of Siam? I am well aware that there have never been any academies in Siam, but suppose that there were, and that there were four of them, and just listen to my tale.

The tale begins with a dispute among these academies over a theological point, the gender of the soul. This dispute, as most academic disputes do, becomes intense well beyond its importance. But it soon provides the pretext for one of the concubines in the King’s harem to engineer an intrigue, which will involve the exchanging of souls. The planting of a different soul into an existing person has consequences in the outlook of the new transplant. This in turn requires consultation with the surviving academy, and so the story continues, back and forth, between the concubines’ plottings and the plottings of the academics, neither of which determine the ultimate outcome, which resolves from a different source and yet manages to place in doubt her reliance on the academy in the first place. But of course, as we were told at the outset, that academy never existed. The final sentence is as wry as the opening.

I should note that the stories are both highly imaginative and gracefully told. Beautiful images and flourishes appear unexpectedly, but do not detract from the narrative voice. It is as thought, like the author we are in on some grand joke. “Comedy” exactly as Dante used the term. And while the tales are steeped in learning (classical and Arabic), none of it is flaunted, as it is in too much of European modernism. All of this causes me to wonder why more of these tales are not made available in English.

Images of War in Brooklyn

Mankind has conceived history as a series of battles; hitherto it has considered
fighting as the main thing in life.—Chekhov, Notebook (1892-1904).

Captured Building, Stalingrad (Gelatin silver print. 1942. Clllection of William Broyles.) All the images here are in the exhibition.

Captured Building, Stalingrad by Georgi Zelma (Gelatin silver print. 1942. Collection of William Broyles.) All the images here are in the exhibition.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art is currently exhibiting a massive show of war photographs called “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath.” The show was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and has already travelled to the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles and the Corchoran Gallery of Art in Washitngton, D.C. The show runs through February 2 at the Brooklyn, which appears to be the last stop of the tour. So if you want to see it, you have to take the A Train (or the C or E or the 2 or 3) in the dead of winter. (My last trek to Eastern Parkway took place during heat so stifling that I would have welcomed the cold, windy, wetness that seeps into your soul as well as your soles. Well, it’s here.) Allot yourself several hours to view this installation, and be prepared for many images you have once seen, some surprises, many pictures that confirm things you suspected were true, some blatant propaganda, much that is plainly disturbing, but most of all, sensory overload.

Roger Fentons Photographic Van (Salted Paper Print. ca. 1855. Royal Photographic Society Collection.) Fenton was sponsored and equipped by the British Government to document the Crimean War. That war was exceedingly unpopular among the public and Fenton, as a result, avoided scenes of death, which would shortly become a staple of independent war photojournalists. Click to enlarge.

Roger Fenton’s Photographic Van (Salted paper print. ca. 1855. Royal Photographic Society Collection.) Fenton was sponsored and equipped by the British Government to document the Crimean War. That war was exceedingly unpopular among the public and Fenton, as a result, avoided scenes of death, which would shortly become a staple of independent war photojournalists.

The scope of the project is mind boggling. I counted 69 conflicts represented, from the Mexican-American War in 1846 to the Libyan civil war in 2012. Among the many violent conflicts that won’t immediately spring to mind as ones from which war photos can be seen are the Second Opium War (1856-60), the Moro Rebillion (1899-1913), the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2003), the Tuareg Rebellion (2007-09) and the South Ossetia War (2008). It seems that wherever there are groups intent on destroying other humans, there is the urge to document it visually. That urge is probably the most noble (although not sole) motivation of the great war journalists, and most of the ones who readily come to mind are represented here. From the very beginning of war photography (which coincided with the beginnings of modern total war) people like Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady visited battlefields to bring the raw reality of carnage to an unsuspecting public. But also from the beginning some journalists and photographers, like Roger Fenton, were sponsored by the government to provide an official document of war or to shore up flagging popular support. Many of those are represented here as well. There are others with different motives: spies, souvenir-takers, relatives and profit-seekers. There is such a variety of images that throughout the exhibition, the question recurs, What was the motive behind this picture? And in a few cases: Was it really necessary for us to see this?

Coffee for the Exhausted Conquerers of Engebi Island--the United States Maric Corps by Ray R. Platnick, USCGR (Gelatin silver print. 1944. Museum of Fine Art, Houston.)

Coffee for the Exhausted Conquerers of Engebi Island–the United States Marine Corps by Ray R. Platnick, USCGR (Gelatin silver print. 1944. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

There are nearly 500 photos exhibited, and all of them are, at a minimum, thought-provoking, many of them gut-wrenching. But the sheer size of the show makes it impossible to confer adequate reflection on more than a few items. And given the variety of subjects and sources of the photos a recurring question keeps surfacing: What were the organizers’ intentions? What are we supposed to get from these emotional images of grim events? Clearly, this is not a history of modern warfare. It is not organized chronologically (or in any other way that would allow for historical analysis), and it gives insufficient attention to aspects that would explain wars in historical terms (politics, economics, technology, and so forth). Plus photographs by themselves do not lend themselves to analysis; at best, they are only a piece of evidence.

Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton. (April 24, 1855. Salted paper print from negative. Museum of Modern Art, NYC.)

Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton. (April 24, 1855. Salted paper print from negative. Museum of Modern Art, NYC.)

The exhibition does not portray itself as a retrospective or study of the techniques of photojournalism in war. There are more than 280 photographers (not all technically “journalists,” however), so necessarily there are too few examples from any particular photographer to get much of a sense of a body of work. Moreover, although there are some examples of camera equipment (from early boxes to the iPhone), not much is made of the technology of the photographs.

The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania by Alexander Gardner (1863. Albumen print. LoC.)

The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania by Alexander Gardner (1863. Albumen print. LoC.) Gardner moved the corpse into position to stage the composition.

You might, therefore, wonder (as I did): What is the purpose of assembling such an immense number of photographs of and about war since the invention of the camera? There is no overt ideology behind the organization, as far as I could tell. There is a selectional bias of course. The dramatic is selected over merely informative. And until relatively recently, only advanced technological societies had access to photography equipment and and a class of journalists dedicated to visual record-keeping. But the bias inherent in a photographic record aside, the overarching points made about war in the exhibit is mainly by organization. The show is arranged into a typology of sorts, each category representing a phase in how societies prepare for, fight, celebrate and remember war and how war impacts segments of society, both the conquerers and the losers. But as some of the later photographs show, even on the “winning” side there are large classes of losers.

Congolese women fleeing to Goma by Walter Astrada. (Chromogenic print. 2010. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

Congolese women fleeing to Goma by Walter Astrada. (Chromogenic print. 2010. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

The show’s categories include, for example, Recruitment, Training and Embarkation; Patrol and Troop Movement; Support; Refugees; Children, and so forth. Arranging the show in this way allows the organizers to go beyond traditional combat photojournalism, sometimes with striking results. One particularly effective image was taken by Kadir van Lohuizen in 2004 and entitled, “Diamond Matter, Democratic Republic of Congo.”* In it a diamond dealer wearing a vest and tie as well as a fashionable wide-brimmed fedora sits at a table with an electronic calculator, a scale and a few small rocks. He holds with a forceps a blood diamond for us to see. Behind him stands a slope-shouldered assistant. The wall is stenciled with “NO SMOKING!” and hold several pictures, including an open sacred text and a portrait of an open-armed Jesus. The portrait crystalizes why thousands are killed, mutilated and raped, and how a select few can hypocritically profit from wholesale butchery. Just as war against an entire people has become a late innovation to modern warfare, contemporary combat photojournalists put a faces on the new victims of total war. Walter Astrada is represented by a work from his series Violence Against Women in Congo, Rape as Weapon of War in DRC (taken in 2008), and such images are rightly considered images of war, although earlier photographers concentrated almost exclusively on the combatants.

 A US Marine Drill Sergeant Delivers a Severe Reprimand to a Recruit, Parris Island, South Carolina by Thomas Hoepkner (Inkjet print. 1970. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

A US Marine Drill Sergeant Delivers a Severe Reprimand to a Recruit, Parris Island, South Carolina by Thomas Hoepkner (Inkjet print. 1970. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

The manner of organization allows for the inclusion of a few marginally relevant photos, such as Mathew Brady’s Major Joseph Hooker. Yes, Hooker commanded the Army of the Potomac for a while and yes Brady was one of the founders of combat photojournalism. But what does a formal studio portrait add to this show other than simply another item? Fortunately, there are few of these missteps, and the broad definition of war photographs permits views of war that suggest how ability to fight full-scale modern war requires the harnessing of entire society. A photograph of an American transport plane with hundreds of troops in full combat gear holding weapons, jammed together like eggs in a carton, each one in his own fabric covered chair (not the benches of World War II or the Korean War) shows how we have come to master the commodification of troops and industrialized ourselves efficiently to begin combat anywhere. It is no wonder that we so often do. We no longer have many industrial factories, but we have created armed forces organized with the philosophy and brutality of any 19th century factory exploiting the proletariat. Thomas Heopkner’s photo of a drill sergeant at a Parris Island Marine Corps boot camp shows how training is a mixture of sadism and authoritarianism and how the sheer force of hierarchy permits someone who for all appearances would be a warehouse clerk outside the army to act the role of cock of the walk inside the militaristic cocoon.

Called “Little Tiger” for killing two “Vietcong women cadre” by Philip Jones Griffiths. (1968. Magnum Photos.)

Called “Little Tiger” for killing
two “Vietcong women cadre”
by Philip Jones Griffiths. (1968. Magnum Photos.)

When all these visual aspects are seen in turn, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that war is a central feature in our lives. And maybe the goal of the exhibition was to present the converse (obverse?) of Edward Steichen’s pahbreaking The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. That show celebrated how we are all human, how all our joys are shared, and how much we have a stake in each other. The War/Photography exhibition also shows how alike we are, how war makes us all assume similar roles, how we react to trauma and grief and desolation the same. But war is a different teacher than the family of man. Children likewise can be trained, but in this exhibition they are not trained in the arts of play and music, but rather in the brutal art of hatred, blind loyalty and irrationality. A photo shows Russian children viewing the hanged bodies of other children executed as Nazi collaborators. Another shows a young Vietnamese “tiger” who killed two Vietcong (reputedly his mother and schoolteacher). And a third shows a disturbed young blond girl, drawing endless confused circles on a blackboard, describing Poland, her home. These and many other kinds of barbarities, repeated over and over, are eventually forgotten or explained away and life goes on, and memory only prompts us next time to inflict more destruction so that we do not suffer as much. If you go into this exhibition thinking war is “inhuman,” the images convince you that, quite the contrary, war is a quintessentially human activity, perhaps the quintessential human activity.

Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Córdoba Front by Robert Capa. (Gelatin silver print. Late August-Early September 1936. Museum of Modern Art, NY.)

Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Córdoba Front by Robert Capa. (Gelatin silver print. Late August-Early September 1936. Museum of Modern Art, NY.)

The photos in this collection of actual combat and the immediate aftermath have a dramatic urgency to them. They are startling because they all breath j’accuse. But since they don’t tell the complete story, it’s not usually evident who is to blame. Is it the enemy? Incompetent commanders? Our own government? Traitors? We sympathize so completely with the victims that it is dangerous for the accused to be confronted with such powerful evidence. And often the response is to claim that the evidence is faked. And there is enough instances of it, to make the claim colorable. Gardner moved the corps in his Sharpshooter (above left) to make the composition more dramatic. Fenton’s picture of the Crimean field that had been extensively shelled (above right) is followed by another taken shortly thereafter with the cannonballs moved. John Filo (or his editors at Life) removed the fencepost above Mary Ann Vecchio’s head in the photo of her kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller at Kent State  when it was first published (see here). These liberties did not change the facts (the sharpshooter was in fact dead in Devil’s Den, as was Miller at the hands of the National Guard; the Ukranian field had been extensively shelled in 1855), it softens the accusation to make the debate about the photo rather than the underlying facts. When Robert Capa misremembered where he took the photo of the Republican soldier falling from a Falangist bullet, claims of staging were made (and continue), because otherwise it equates the Loyalist with the patriot in Goya’s famous Third Day of May 1808. Such an identification would undermine the myth that Franco represented the “real” Spain, and instead put him in the position of the foreign forces of Napoleon who imposed their will on Spain. Governments who rely on the military for authority cannot afford to have any doubt about their legitimacy.

Ut, Napalm Girl

Fleeing down a road near Trang Bang after a South Vietnamese Air Force napalm attack by Nick Ut. (June 8, 1972. Associated Press.)

The US government would find how its authority could be eroded most dramatically during the Vietnam War. Having enjoyed immensely favorable war coverage during the Second World War (the show is filled with journalists who identified with the mission and even photographers sponsored by the government; there is even a series of photos showing the different flag raisings on Iwo Jima, taken until the iconic photo was eventually framed), the military in Vietnam was completely unprepared for the photojournalists who would report from there. It is difficult to think of any group of reporters, on the whole, who so extensively documented a conflict, with such independence, thoroughness and courage as the ones who photographed that tragedy. Taking advantage of unrestricted access to the troops and battlefields and hospitals, they made a scathing record of Americans actions there. Their valor and integrity made that record as impeccable as it was self-evident. So when the incessant images from that war all pointed in the same direction—that there was no strategy, that our client had no real popular support, that our foes were willing to die longer than we were willing to kill, and that, most crucially, our policies were in fact destroying the very people we claimed to be protecting, and doing so in spectacular, immoral and insidious ways—our government’s insipid pleas that progress was being made were simply not credible. Loss of public support for a costly foreign misadventure was serious enough, but there would be much more to concern those who ran our war-making apparatus. Years of pictures of Buddhist monks immolating themselves, police chiefs shooting prisoners point blank, thousands of acres of forests burning, innumerable bombs dropping, hideous wounds in god-forsaken places, and shockingly in 1968 close-range fighting in urban areas including at the very door of the US Embassy all conspired to disabuse the American public of their belief in the competence and integrity of our National Security Machine. Then in 1972 we saw Nick Ut’s stunning photo of the naked girl running from the napalm attack on her village. There was now widespread consensus that we, our allies and our mission were evil. This threatened to make warfare as a usual method of policy untenable in the future.

Marine Wdding by Nina Berman. ((2006. Inkjet print. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

Marine Wdding by Nina Berman. ((2006. Inkjet print. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

War photography was not the only reason that it took policy makers nearly two decades to coax the public back to war as politics. But the Neo-Cons who most ardently desired to flex military muscle to achieve policy goals thought long and hard about restricting visual records of our war mongering. They would never again allow a news corps like the one that covered Vietnam to influence the public again. So a combination of policies, including co-opting the press, was put in place when we eventually returned to the role of corrupt policemen. Although our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan covered many more years than did our involvement in Vietnam, they did not produce a comparable visual account as intimate and detailed and objective and honest. Real combat photojournalism seems relegated to conflicts in those parts of the developing world in which our leaders have no interest. But this is not to say that contemporary photojournalists are entirely unable to produce images that convey some of the realities of wars we participate in. Often, however, that involves composed photographs, some of which, nevertheless, have considerable power. Nina Berman’s work with disabled veterans on return home, produced an extraordinarily expressive and disturbing image, entitled Marine Wdding. The impact is especially powerful given how large the print shown was. The photograph is simply a wedding picture of a marine and the school girlfriend who waited for him to return from duty. He is dressed in a Marine Dress Uniform, but his face and skull is severely disfigured. (His skull had been crushed and his flesh severely burned while trapped inside a truck after a suicide attack. His ears, nose and chin were missing.) He looks tenderly at his bride from above. She does not look at him, but rather stares straight out with an expression that betrays emotions other than pure joy. They both, in their own ways, show their attachment to selfless Duty: he had already received his reward for it, she was about to.

Partisan Girl by ArkadyShainkhet (Gelatin silver print. 192. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

Partisan Girl by Arkady Shaikhet (Gelatin silver print. 1942. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

As for photographic insight into the wars now fought in our name, and especially those that set up a narrative in opposition to the official one, they now largely, and ironically, come from our own soldiers. The photographs that exposed the crimes at Abu Ghraib are one example. The July 12, 200y, air assault by two AH-64 Apache helicopters in Baghdad, published by Wikileaks as Collateral Murder is another. The desire to document war and especially one’s role in it must be extremely seductive. It probably has to do with the belief that Chekhov wrote of: that warfare is thought of as the main thing in life. From the soldiers who posed for portraits by Mathew Brady before heading off to extreme risk to the Japanese pilot who recorded the attack on Pearl Harbor, there must be a near universal belief that participating in war is the most important thing one will ever do and that it is well worth recording one’s role in it. It is visual proof that one was significant.

Photographs, as I said, are not history. They require analysis and must be placed in context. And despite their power, they are selective. Wars are not caused solely by attacks, despite the images of the World Trade Center, the USS Maine or a rally at the Nürenberg Stadium (all in the “Advent of War” section of the show). But politicians are careful not to photograph themselves concocting attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin or fabricating evidence of weapons of mass destruction. War photographs, like any other museum quality souvenir, are suggestive, and in this case, there are enough good souvenirs to provoke considerable thought for quite a while.

*      *      *

For those unable to make this exhibition or who would otherwise like a more permanent copy of the images, there is a large, hard cover, 600+ page catalog produced by Anne Wilkes Tucker and other organizers from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The reproductions are excellent, and the book provides extensive commentary and historical context not provided in the exhibition.

Notes

*The particular image appears to be an untitled photograph which is part of a series by that name. The NOOR Foundation asserts copyright protection for the image, so I don’t reproduce it here. You may, however, see a black and white version of it at the NOOR Foundation website here. [Return to text.]

†Anne Wilkes Tucker, Will Michels, Natalie Zelt, et al.,War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath (2012: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). [Return to text.]

Sheib adds grunge to Chekhov

Jay Scheib in a 2011 MIT media shot. (Photo by Naomi White.)

Jay Scheib in a 2011 MIT publicity shot. (Photo by Naomi White.)

Having seen the remake of Checkhov’s Platonov by director Jay Scheib yesterday at the Kitchen, I now have an understanding of why Chekhov never finished the play: he was waiting for hand-held cameras and electrical guitars.

Platanov (also called Fatherless in English, although Chekhov never titled it) was an early theatrical attempt by Anton Chekhov that went nowhere. Chekhov wrote the piece (his first full-length play) to be produced at Moscow’s foremost theater, the Maly, in 1878, creating the major female role (Anna) specifically for Maria Yermolova, who refused the part, evidently thereby ending Chekhov’s interest in the matter. (Chekhov was quite perceptive in recognizing Yermolova’s talent and potential. Years later Stanislavisky himself said she was the greatest actress he had ever watched. Yermolova was able to navigate the treacherous politics of Russia during her half century of acting, even becoming a symbol of the Revolution early on.) Chekhov’s sprawling text has been taken up several times, once in a relatively faithful adaptation a century after its composition by the Maly in Moscow in 1997. Before that (in 1984) English playwright  Michael Frayn adapted the test for London’s National Theatre (calling the play Wild Honey). That performance put Ian McKellen in the title role and won several Olivier Awards. McKellen repeated the role in the New York run of the play in 1986 and also reprised the role for the BBC radio (actually BBC7) in 2010, the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth. Other productions have been made, cutting down the text (which provides for some 20 characters which lasts over 4 hours and is still “unfinished”) and diverging considerably

Those remakes, however, lacked what Scheib evidently saw a glaring need: technological pizzazz. This he was able to provide in a production that was spawned at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego for the 2013 Without Walls Festival. This week it came to the Kitchen, a city-supported experimental theatrical, dance and performance space in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Scheib has developed a proficiency for pairing technology with traditional performance arts, having added simulcasts to performances at the Metropolitan Opera and London’s National Theatre. He uses this skill possibly because it is second nature for him (he is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and technology must be in his blood) or possibly because he finds Old Art to be too confining for his vision. I have to believe that he genuinely feels the latter, because he himself was on-stage holding one of the hand-held cameras he introduced into Chekhov’s work.

But first let’s dispense with Chekhov altogether, because the play is billed as “Jay Scheib: Platanov, or The Disinherited,” and only notes inside the playbill (after the title page) acknowledge some indebtedness to the “fragment” by Chekhov. Chekhov might himself be somewhat relieved that the Kitchen does not attach this production to his reputation, because its occasional flashes of Chekhov’s sensibilities are fleeting and perhaps even reflected. (I had the strong impression throughout that Scheib was more familiar with Andre Gregory’s take on Chekhov than on Chekhov himself. But once again, I doubt that Gregory would like this production tied to his influence, although some of the charming ticks of Vanya on 42nd Street, can be seen in the performances, although overdone with considerably less subtlety.)  There are numerous ways to present Chekhov’s nuanced, tragic comedies, but generally there is an emphasis (even when done broadly) on nuance. Scheib has instead gone for frenetic, in many places slapstick.

Chekhov’s untitled play is not The Cherry Orchard, although it does involve the bankruptcy of a landed estate. It is decidedly not Three Sisters, because instead of one off-stage shot that the audience learns is the fatal outcome of a duel, this play has enough on-stage rifle and pistol action (not to mention a knifing and another unknown slaying) to satisfy audiences of Victorian melodrama. But Scheib has rendered the play in such a way that if you had never heard of Chekhov, you would wonder why anyone would have bothered producing him.

It's a bloody play. Laine Rettmer, Mikéah Ernst Jennings and Jon Morris (back to camera). From MIT's Music and Theater New and Events Page.

It’s a bloody comedy. Laine Rettmer, Mikéah Ernst Jennings and Jon Morris (back to camera). From MIT’s Music and Theater New and Events Page.

The play centers on Platanov (played by Mikéah Ernst Jennings, a Kitchen regular), a 35 year-old schoolteacher who, for reasons that are assumed to be part of the necessary audience suspension of disbelief, is a highly successful lothario, so good at his seductions that he can practice them in front of the eyes of his trusting and beautiful young wife Sasha (played by Ayesha Ngaupah, the sole member of the cast not driven to over-the-top melodrama). Plus, Platonov is a lout. He fondles and licks the help (variously referred to a the “maid” and the “caterer,” Jacob, played by Laine Rettmer). The newly-married Platonov couple are the late arrivals at a typical Russian vodka-fest being thrown by Anna Voynitsev (Sandra Choudhury), who is about to be dispossessed from her estate owing to the debts of her late husband, and her step-son Sergey (played by Jon Morris), an exuberant, loud, cowed husband of Sonya (Virginia Newcomb), who is, like everyone else except the caterer, in love with Platonov, although she had not seen him for some time and was unaware he was married. (How this happened is not readily apparent because it seems the other Voynitsev’s are quite familiar with Platonov, and indeed mother Anna goes to great lengths to bed him.) The matron Anna is pursued by Porfiry, a wealthy businessman (played by Tony Torn), who admits in a sauna scene (!) that he is “unlucky in love” but quite successful in business. He hopes to use his wealth to buy Anna. He has already offered to buy the estate at auction, so that the Voynitsevs would not have to deal with the bank. Porfiry tells Anna that, as her husband, he will make her happy, acceding to her every wish, even renouncing conjugal rights, just to be near her. His suit becomes more ardent as vodka is liberally downed, until she rejects him. Before the ultimate ending a farce of sort takes place in which Anna tries to bed Platonov (their ardor at least once interrupted by the devoted wife, who has, incidentally, just learned she is pregnant, having on-screen (see below) performed an instant pregnancy test with a kit), who is more interested in bedding Sonya, who after first announcing her disgust with him, wants to ditch Sergey so decides to run away with Platonov, who agrees after sleeping with her, but then has second thoughts. Sergey comes to challenge Platonov to a duel, and, even though Platonov is in no shape for the encounter (having been plied with more vodka by Anna who came to find out why he did not fulfill their rendezvous and because he was stabbed int he abdomen by a somewhat loopy, crazed (?), criminal (?), backwoodsman, played in this version by a woman), Sergey takes dead aim at him, shooting five times and missing. The backwoodsman eventually is killed (or not, it gets confused at the end) and Porfiry decides he is not going to buy the estate, allowing the caterer (!) to buy it at auction. But that isn’t even the surprising ending.

I guarantee that the above description does not even approximately convey what a mess the plot is in this production. I did not mention the village doctor who romps pants dropped with Sergey in an early frenetic scene (the doctor is another role given to an actress by Scheib, Rosalie Lowe, who also plays the backwoodsman), who appears to be after Sasha (as is the backwoodsman herself), but eventually after much additional vodka is persuaded to report to a call (on her beeper) to perform surgery on a shopkeeper. I also omit the circumstances of how the backwoodsman was killed (or not) because, frankly I couldn’t follow it.

Pratfalls and slapsticks, although I missed the drum major in this photo. From HowlRound's Cinema Commons,

Pratfalls and slapsticks, although I missed the drum major seen in this photo. Perhaps I was too busy reading the subtitles. From HowlRound’s Cinema Commons,

Of course plot details of an unfinished 4+ hour play condensed into a mere 2 hours (without intermission) have to be dropped or summarily dealt with. But Scheib finds at least one time saver: staging. The stage is made up of an outdoor scene, and several indoor scenes, which the audience cannot see directly. Instead there are two cameramen, one of them Scheib, who not only follow the actors to the hidden scenes, but onto the stage. The cameramen (and woman, Rettmer also holds a camera occasionally) put the cameras directly in the faces of the actors, get down on the ground to provide upshots and down shots (many characters are on the ground; lots of vodka has been consumed after all), scan in detail the body of a showering Sasha (front and back), give a close-up of the doctor’s bare behind after she drops her pants, get between characters, providing reaction shots, simulating craning shots, and in general allowing the live audience to watch what is happening on an overhead screen—with subtitles, in English, just like at the Met, I guess. It was like being present for the taping of a two-camera sit-com, except with subtitles.

In fairness to Scheib (but why?), the proceedings were being simulcast so cameras were arguably necessary (the argument is over whether it was necessary to simulcast it at all). And if it must be simulcast, we have to have close-ups and reaction shots just as on TV, because, who wants to see a play? Different performances of this event are being shown at the AMC Empire (in Times Square), the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, the BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. Last night’s performance was simulcast on HowlRound TV Webcast. (Had I known I could have stayed home and drunk vodka with the characters. You get a craving about a half-hour into it.) If you would like to verify anything I have said here, you can actually see future performances streaming on the very computer you read this on January 17 and 24 at http://www.livestream.com/newplay/.

On last thing. There is also music. It’s mostly grunge, because evidently that’s the genre that Chekhov puts Scheib in mind of. If you are going to turn a play into a simulcast, with close-ups and reaction shots, you might as well provide a soundtrack. (There’s another difference from a sit-com. But then again many sit-coms have laugh-tracks.) Some of the grunge is exceptionally loud. Even louder than the numerous rifle and pistol shots. And a bit louder than some of the pratfalls. But Scheib doesn’t leave the grunge as subtle background. (Scheib left nothing to subtlety in any respect.) He gives you his take at the very beginning when an up-to-date Laine Rettmer tells all these same party-goers, this time in contemporary clothes, about her past. This is done in one of the back rooms so we see this mostly on screen, in close-ups by Scheib himself that are rather too close. This modern prologue tells the story of a girl who was cool enough to see Kurt Cobain and Nirvana before they were known (in Nebraska with 10 in the audience) and thus was inspired enough to go for the gusto and become a webzine/90s dot com literary success (the financing and actual business are somewhat sketchy). At her height she had a perfect woman life partner with whom she had a surrogate child (her brother the donor), all the while drinking (just like Chekhov’s characters!) She hit rock bottom, having lost her business, lover and child. But after attempting suicide, she changed core. Now she is sober and reviews art for a “real” newspaper. (In a play filled with intentional anachronisms, the newspaper reference was a superannuated device, which I happen to believe was an intention choice for in-you-face irony, given the other choices made in this production.) But she retained a string that Cobain ripped from his guitar in that very first Nebraska performance. That sting is used once more as a plot device, to bring about the “amusingly wry” ending.

So you see Scheib views the whole thing as a commentary on the excesses of the 90s. (1990s, that is.) And maybe earlier too. (Porfiry, after all, spends some time doing lines of cocaine after his rejection.) So you really can’t blame Chekhov for this.  How, after all, could Chekhov have foreseen the aesthetics of grunge? Or specifically the metaphor of Kurt Cobain? He was too busy with theatre. Fortunately, Scheib has broken through those conventions to give us a fast-paced, multimedia experience for our times, which, I guess, we deserve. For some reason.