Posts Tagged ‘ Fyodor Dostoevsky ’

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 4)

the “… how can the living go on living when there is death?”

When The Member of the Wedding was published in March 1946, Carson McCullers had published four novels within six years, all before she was 30. This time, however, she did not immediately commence work on the next one. In fact, it would be five years before she took up work and 10 more before she published her fifth and final novel, Clock Without Hands. The book was a popular success, remaining in the top 10 of the New York Times best seller list for four months. Its critical reception, however, was mixed, with nearly all agreeing that the latest novel did not have nearly the same merit as her previous novels, although they contradicted each other on how the novel fell short. And much of the criticism had more to do with preconceived notions than the actual text.

[The first three parts of this series are linked here:  Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.]

Clock Without Hands (1961)

McCullers’s last novel was in many ways quite different from the four others. Perhaps the most important difference is that it has no major female characters. This characteristic itself gives the work an unfamiliar cast. Unlike the other four novels, there is no character who faces the prospect of a life trapped in gender bonds, who has unwillingly accommodated herself to them or who faces communal retribution for breaking them. This undoubtedly disappointed some. Moreover, there are no themes of economic privation. Money is not at issue for the main characters in this novel.

The four main charters are: (1) a middle-aged pharmacist, who, although married, is physically and emotionally estranged from his wife, who plays almost no part in the story; (2) a very old judge and former congressman, who is a widower and has only one relation, his grandson; (3) that teenaged grandson is a repressed homosexual, who never knew his parents (first his father committed suicide, then his mother died in childbirth), who develops a close relationship with a young black man; (4) that black man seems to have no friends of either sex and eventually becomes a secretary to the old judge. The judge has an African American cook, but she plays a very minor role, unlike the housekeepers in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding.

The second departure can be seen in the architecture of the novel. It is true that each of her four previous novels employs a different narrative method, but in each of them the major elements (themes, characters, images, subplots, etc.) were tightly bound to each other. This is the case whether the plot played out over many years (as in The Ballad of the Sad Café) or in a couple of days (as in The Member of the Wedding). So important to McCullers was adhering to a recognizable structure that she sometimes points the reader to the struts and ties (as with the spokes-of-the-wheel metaphor with Singer at the center in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or the title of The Ballad of the Sad Café). Clock Without Hands, by contrast, seems at first like two barely related stories. The two stories are regularly connected as a matter of plot (although sometimes these connections seem a bit forced), but thematically they are not effectively related (at least by anything the narrator says).

The first story is about the 40-year-old pharmacist, J.T. Malone, a man who has led an entirely uneventful life, almost, in retrospect, a purposely uneventful one. He has been guided by a vague sense of what was expected of him. That was how he got married; his wife was the daughter of the pharmacist from whom he bought his store. She was, it now seems, part of the package. He did not set out to become a pharmacist either. He once had been a student in a Northern medical school, but he was not one of those who “studied every night in the library until closing,” as he remembered it, and so he flunked out. And it seemed to him that from then on all his life amounted to standing behind the counter “listening to complaints, prescribing medicine, making cokes and sundaes, compounding prescriptions.”

This realization did not come to him until he was diagnosed with leukemia. The news was delivered by his good friend and customer Dr. Kenneth Hayden, who practiced on the second floor above Malone’s drugstore. The consultation during which Malone learned his prognosis is given in painful detail. He learned that he has no more than 12–15 months to live. The news flummoxed him and caused him to lose his composure. When he gathered his thoughts his reaction was to hate: first, his friend Dr. Hayden (who he now realizes is a Jew, like the Jews who drove up the curve in medical school and caused him to flunk out) and then everything that would survive his death. He looked back over his existence and realized he had not really had a life. So a question plagued him, How could he die if he hadn’t lived? He would begin his last chapter facing a mysterious drama, which terrified him. “The terror questioned what would happen in those months—how long?—that glared upon his numbered days. He was a man watching a clock without hands.”

In his remaining months he fitfully seeks to make sense of his life in the face of death. Some have said that this story is McCuller’s Death of Ivan Ilyich. There are indeed some indications that McCullers had Tolstoy in mind in connection with her tale, not the least of which is the similarity her novel has to the famous “unhappy families” opening of Anna Karenina. Her novel begins: “Death is always the same, but each man dies in his own way.” And perhaps Anna Karenina is what led McCullers to believe that she could attach the second story to Malone’s. After all, the sub-plot involving Konstantin Levin, which introduces many themes that might be thought incongruous to the main story, often seems entirely unmoored to Anna’s story. So let’s look at the second story in McCullers’s case.

Here we see the third departure from McCullers’s other novels. Instead of introspective character-examination almost entirely removed from the larger world, this story is steeped in the political-social ferment of racial politics in the South in the early 1950s. This might be strange enough given her output (not only the novels but also her play and the stories she wrote and published in the 1950s), but her method for this examination is also utterly unexpected, for she employs broad satirical portraits of the characters, close to burlesque. The old judge, Fox Clane, is described as “an enormous man with a red face and a rough halo of yellow-white hair.” His weight is not simply a physical attribute; it helps explain his peculiar habits and for the narrator it is a reason for ridicule. The judge, for example, took baths around 9 at night and 4 in the morning every day. Says the narrator: “The Judge held that a person as corpulent and free-sweating as he was needed two baths a day, and those who were around him would agree with this. So at those crepuscular hours the old Judge would be splashing, snorting and singing … his favorite bathtub songs were ‘On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ and ‘I’m a Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech.'” He is not only ridiculous but also remarkably ignorant. But that did not prevent him from holding his opinions tenaciously. It did not matter how trivial his opinion, he obstinately held onto it rather than make even the simplest accommodations to reality. After the only doctor he trusted died, the judge developed a severe tooth ache. But instead of finding another doctor he “went to Doc’s brother who was the best mule doctor in the country” and the veterinarian extracted the tooth “with novocain and antibiotics which he uses for mules.” Yet the judge’s own mulishness got him into his ninth decade, and he had cheated death more than once. While his wife (Miss Missy she is called!) was alive, the judge suffered a stroke. She kept him on a diet that maintained his weight under 300 pounds. But after her own death, he went back to his preferred diet filled with gravy-soaked biscuits and sweets. He again had a stroke, this time while teaching his grandson to golf. He fell into a pond, and it took his son and the “little colored caddy” to save him. They were both seven at the time, and the event took place 10 years ago. He went to Johns Hopkins after this stroke, and the doctor gave him the choice of eating as he wanted and dying soon or going on a diet. After much agonizing and seeing that the diet said nothing one way or the other about liquor, he agreed, and then had his grandson secretly supply him with bourbon. (He had brought his young grandson along on the trip because he was afraid to die alone in a place with nothing that belonged to him.)

Among the many unappealing ideas maintained by the judge was one that reached far back into Southern social history and mythology—white supremacy and the need to maintain it strictly. The enforcement of Jim Crow was a large part of the judge’s judicial career. In Congress he battled to limit federal intrusion into Southern ways (which largely consisted of opposing economic and racial justice). But as we will find out in the novel, the judge not only supported legal and quasi-legal means to subordinate blacks economically, socially and educationally, he was also willing to promote vigilante-style violence. These were not quirky beliefs of a senile grandfather. They were those of a terrorist. And the judge harbored these beliefs not as an idiosyncrasy but viscerally, as part of his tribal beliefs, replete with the fears of sexual contamination/forbidden allure that lay at its heart. To him, the slightest relaxation of the Southern regime of repression was a threat to whites, particularly their beloved women. He articulated this fear by his question to his grandson, who seemed to the judge rather dull on the issue of segregation: “How would you like to see a hulking Nigra boy sharing a desk with a delicate little white girl?” He was proud when he learned that the Atlanta Constitution called him a reactionary, because, he explains, a “reactionary is a citizen who reacts when the age-long standards of the South are threatened.” The judge himself, who wanted nothing to change, is himself a clock without hands.

Everything considered, the judge is a buffoonish character, and this raises a number of objections. Dorothy Parker saw the judge as one of “the old familiar idiots” that authors about racial relations in the South “feel obliged to use … to drive home their point.” What surprised Parker was that McCullers had never found the need to resort to such tired stereotypes in the past.1 Parker seems to have wished the novel was more “realistic,” a common enough perspective of newspaper and magazine critics (the”how-I-would-have written-it” review). This perspective makes her miss any other feature of the novel while she counts the ways in which the judge’s family is a “type.”

Irving Howe, the Times reviewer, was also disturbed with how unrealistic the judge was. (He panned the book more generally though.) What he found particularly unbelievable was the judge’s proposal, which the judge thought would propel him back to the House of Representatives and once there to immortality as one of the great American statesmen. The judge disclosed his plan to his grandson during a Sunday dinner at the beginning of the novel. He explained that no vanquished country had been allowed to languish in poverty and that the victors had always “redeemed” the currency (perhaps at some discount, he allowed). He pointed to the mark, the lira and even the yen. It was only good policy, therefore that the federal government allow the South to get back on its feet by redeeming the paper money issued by the Confederacy. This was fair, according to the judge, not only owing to the physical destruction of the war but principally to compensate the South for emancipation, because slavery was the key feature of the Southern economy. A matter of self-interest was also important in the judge’s calculus—the family had bought up large stashes of this currency which was now stored in a safe in the judge’s library. His grandson was stunned by the peculiarity of the proposal and wondered whether the strokes had significantly impaired his grandfather. Howe sees this proposal as a fundamental flaw of the novel, “for a man shrewdly realistic enough to be a Southern politician,” he assures us, “would hardly succumb to anything so fatuous as redeeming Confederate money.”2 It is curious that Howe would believe that reactionary politicians could not have fatuous ideas. One wonders if the likes of Louie Gohmert and Steve King are only an invention to mock our current politics. But this criticism, like Parker’s, fails to see the portrayal of the judge as anything other than an attempt to describe a more-or-less realistic character in a conventional political narrative. We will see later how this proposal functions not only as a plot device (as Howe sees it) but also as part of the larger view McCullers had in creating the character.

The judge’s grandson, John Jester Clane, is 17.  He is on the verge of adulthood but is plagued by doubt, indecision and lack of “passion,” according to the judge. Jester was stung by the accusation because he agreed with it, although the two attached entirely different meanings to the word. For the judge “passion” meant “the passion of the posse, the passion of the Southerner who defends his womankind against the black and alien invader.” To Jester, it was heterosexual desire, and Jester was a virgin. Jester’s father, the judge’s son, also had passion, but of a type the judge did not approve of or understand. At the beginning of the novel Jester has tentatively come to the conclusion that his grandfather is wrong on the race question, but it takes all his strength just to offer his opinion. He was trapped between his affection and duty to his grandfather, who constantly prattles on about race, and his own nascent feelings about justice. Two things allowed him space. The most important one was flying. He saved his own money and without seeking his grandfather’s approval took flying lessons at the local airport. His other personal buffer zone was music. He spent much time practicing classical music on the piano. It was this latter interest that caused him to meet the fourth major character, a young black man his own age.

Sherman Pew boards in a house owned by his foster brother not far from the judge’s house. It is so close in fact that Jester was able to hear from his bedroom Sherman singing and playing the piano. (Perhaps the building is a former servants’ quarters, but the novel really gives no reason why the Judge happens to live so close to the lodgings of a black man. That it does not seem to bother the judge makes what happens in the novel all the more remarkable.) Jester, who was dispirited from the quarrel with his grandfather over segregation and his proposal, gravitated to the sound, and Sherman invited him in. During this first encounter Sherman revealed his odd character. He saw himself as a distinguished gentleman, one who serves only Lord Calvert whiskey and brags of eating caviar. He preens himself on his possessions, his vocabulary and his knowledge of German lieder. It was the singing of such a German art song that attracted Jester’s attention. How an orphaned black child in the deep South of the 1940–50s, now alone at 17 and apparently living off odd jobs, could have learned to sing and play Schubert is never explained. But this talent soon disappears from the novel once it has served its purpose of showing us that Sherman has personal ambitions above what was available to him in the time and place he found himself. In the first meeting with Jester, Sherman constantly belittled his new friend. Jester did not react because he was erotically attracted to Sherman. We learn that Sherman does not know his mother, who he believes was raped by a white man. (Sherman has blue eyes and was abandoned shortly after birth inside a church—hence the last name he was given.) Attempting to construct a bridge to him, Jester gives Sherman the idea that Marion Anderson might be his mother, a foolishness that propels Sherman to write a letter to her (addressed to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial). Sherman also has delusions about his role in avenging white oppression. He pretends he is a member of an organization, the Golden Nigerians, who pledged their lives to register and vote.

Sherman Pew is thus something of a complement to the judge. Both are self-delusional and have vaguely romantic notions of their importance. It is therefore not odd, for purposes of the story’s structure, that the judge hires Sherman to administer his daily insulin injections and to act as his personal secretary (his “amanuensis,” as the judge called him), however unlikely that would have been in reality. Tying the fates of the three together more closely, it is revealed that Sherman Pew was the young caddy who dragged the judge out of the pond on the golf course ten years before. But their relationship has also a mysterious deeper dimension to it, one that involves also Jester and ultimately even Malone by the end. While Jester, the judge and Sherman are almost destined to unravel their secret interdependency, Malone’s involvement is his own doing, an accidental result of his own restlessness following the diagnosis of his terminal disease.

After his initial diagnosis, Malone was admitted to the hospital for further tests. When the diagnosis was confirmed, he was cut loose from humanity. He found himself “surrounded by a zone of loneliness.” He was so alienated from his wife that he did not even tell her of his condition, afraid that this might provoke her to display affection that he was unwilling to reciprocate. He realized that the subject was one that people recoiled from discussing, at least with the terminally ill patient himself. Even Dr. Hayden fumbled with his letter opener and avoided eye contact with Malone when delivering the death sentence. So Malone wandered about the town looking at things in disbelief, unable to accept that ordinary objects would exist after he was gone. He walked about with “the bewildered look of an absent-minded person who seeks something but has already forgotten the thing that is lost.” Thoroughly bourgeois, Malone believed in things of financial worth. And to him the First Baptist Church had the imprimatur of wealth. The leading citizens of Milan, lawyers, bankers and the mill owner, all attended. Wealthy men were its trustees. And one of the founders of Coca-Cola left the church a half-million dollars to construct a wing. Even the judge, the first citizen of Milan according to a local paper, was a regular (and we later learn that his wife was a member of the choir). So Malone prized the teachings of this church and when, shortly after his diagnosis, the preacher delivered a sermon in which he proclaimed that salvation had drawn a bead on death, he was at first impressed. But the more he considered it, the more nonsensical it seemed. So he left church to return to the drugstore no more fulfilled than before, when the banality of his family life and his daily routine “swirled around him as dead leaves ring the center of a whirlpool, leaving him curiously untouched.”

It was on this Sunday that Malone broached his illness for the first time. The judge was in the habit of dropping by Malone’s store after church each Sunday where he would chat with locals and eventually retire to the compounding room to have a drink with Malone. It was then that Malone asked the judge to make his will, as an opening to tell someone he had leukemia. The judge feigned ignorance and insisted that doctors could not be trusted in such matters. And then he turned the conversation to himself: how he had cheated death, how his doctors were wrong, and especially how he suffered in the past with the death of his own son (17 years ago). By the end Malone, the terminally ill, found himself comforting the judge, over a tragedy 17 years past. The scene is our introduction to the judge and shows both how monumental his ecocentrism is and how that self-promotion has a hypnotic effect on listeners like Malone. Malone, of course, was predisposed to believe in the eminence of the judge and had followed him politically all his career. But it took only minor blandishments (about things Malone wanted to hear) that not only calmed and flattered Malone but also made him grateful to the judge. Now that the judge became his only confidant in this dark knowledge, Malone would take the opportunity to see the judge more frequently.

Malone thus becomes an occasional and mute witness to the judge’s relations with Jester and Sherman, both of whom he disliked. Malone is also witness to the casual cruelty of the town towards its black citizens, but he has no reaction, even when an innocent boy is killed by a policeman who unnecessarily struck his head with his club. As time goes on, he seems less perplexed, less lost. He was so concerned at the beginning that he visited the Baptist minister at his parsonage and asked him point blank what was behind death. But the minister was uncomfortable with the question and dodged it so obviously that Malone politely left him without further discussion. Perhaps Malone realized then that there was no point seeking opinions from others. Perhaps he came to agree with the judge, who answered his question with a more responsive, if no more enlightening, answer: “No, I don’t believe in eternity as far as religion goes. I believe in the things I know and the descendants who come after me. I believe in my forebears, too. Do you call that eternity?”

It was not until Malone’s health declined significantly that his questioning revived, although by accident. In November about eight months after his diagnosis, a relapse forced him back into the hospital. Bored with a murder mystery he was reading, when the book cart was wheeled past him, he took a book he knew nothing about, attracted by its title: Sickness unto Death. But Malone found nothing interesting in Kierkegaard’s turgid writing and soon dozed  off. When he awoke, he came across the sentence: “The greatest danger, that of losing one’s own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc., is sure to be noticed.” The sentence awakened something in his mind, but he could make sense of nothing else in the book. Yet he pondered back over his life to find out when he lost himself. It was the certain knowledge of death that “quickened his livingness” and made him desire the answer. He resolved to make this his priority as he remained in the hospital, “but even while he was there he was worried about the twenty-dollars-a-day bill.” Even though Malone did not become a Christian existentialist from reading Kierkegaard, the quote would help him save his “immortal soul” when the crisis came. And in the end, he ultimately played out the essence of Kierkegaard’s thought by giving up all forms of despair.

The judge on the other hand was wrapped up in himself. All of his memories and interests were fascinating to him, and he believed others would find them so too. He was excessively vain for an old obese man. Despite his diabetes, he believed he followed his motto: mens sana in corpore sano. Nor can he believe that his weight was excessive. “Fat man: of course not. I was just stout and corpulent.” Indeed he finds nothing about himself objectionable.  Even his bathroom odor pleases him: “since he was pleased by anything that belonged to him, and his feces were no exception, the smell rather soothed him.” The judge wastes no time in despair over the loss of himself, because it was clear to him that being alive was the ultimate virtue (at least being alive as Judge Fox Clane). He tells his secretary Sherman Pew the reason he preferred being himself to Shakespeare or Julius Caesar or Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain or Babe Ruth: “Because I’m alive. And when you consider the trillions and trillions of dead people you realize what a privilege it is to be alive.” To him death was what happened to other people. As for his connection to it, he did not conduct deep searches into Kierkegaard or any other professional thinker. Instead, he dredged his wisdom from the Ladies’ Home Companion, a magazine he studied for its pictures of food that accompanied the recipes. The magazine had occasional sidebars with inspirational quotes—”the sayings of Emerson, of Lin Yutang, and the great sages of the world.” What he remembered was a saying from an Indian proverb: “How can the dead be truly dead when they are still walking in my heart?” Always susceptible to sentimentality (he would have Sherman read him Dickens and the judge would cry over the mistreatment of orphans), the saying comforted him over the loss of relatives. As for himself, his hopes were pinned on ever longer life.

The contrast between Malone and Judge Clane is not meant as a debate between legitimate viewpoints. If it is offered as a contrast at all, it only further shows how untethered to serious concerns the judge has become. His proposal comes from this same state. It came about when he was convalescing from his second stroke. He worried that his productive life was over, that he  had nothing to offer. And then gradually he began to see how everything interrelated, how he could be the instrument for a New Deal for the South, how it was supported by objective considerations of justice and historical practice and how it would not only send him back to Washington, but also insure his fame for generations to come. It was, in short, a desperate gambit, by an old man who had, really, only one more chance for glory. Perhaps all his latest peculiarities were from the same source. Perhaps his common sense was as palsied as his left hand. But it is useful to note that the judge’s proposal is designed (notwithstanding the aspects of self-interest) as a means to ingratiate him among the only constituency he cares about, the South of mythology. The principal attraction of the proposal was how it would make him beloved. (Walking in the heart of others?) His need to be admired and esteemed was at the root of his peculiar history of making people love him. It became easy among whites once the judge attained prominence. As with Malone, all the judge had to do was draw his listener into his orbit of intimacy. With blacks it require strange gifts and little liberties. He “spoiled” his servants (as his cook saw it). He had a history of giving them expensive (but useless to them) gifts. After fishing him out of the pond, for example, the judge gave the seven-year-old Sherman a watch engraved with the motto mens sana corpore sano. When he hired Sherman as his secretary, he treated him like a protégé or perhaps like a dependent relative. Although he did not allow him to eat lunch with the whites, he did not require him to eat in the kitchen with the cook, instead permitting him to make “fancy sandwiches” and eat in the library. He indulged him in ways that seem inconsistent with his proclaimed bigotry. Indeed, so long as the strict Jim Crow rules were obeyed, the judge seemed quite willing to treat blacks with more than a modicum of decency. But when any African American asked him for anything as of right, he immediately resisted. He lost his cook rather than pay his share of her Social Security contributions. And when Sherman Pew made his much greater demand in the face of Jim Crow, the judge was thrown back into his role as the enforcer of segregation and racial inequality.

I will not here follow that story through because it is deftly handled by McCullers and deserves a fresh reading. Considering how the political part of the novel functions both psychologically and thematically (for example, by having the peculiar personality traits so prominently displayed earlier now operate to make the climax inevitable), it is easy to dismiss Howe’s complaint that the novel is so “fragile in its structure” that “the symbolic scheme fails to carry strength or conviction.” I will go a step further. While maintaining its thematic and symbolic purpose, the climactic scenes offer an entirely realistic account of how anonymous racial crimes are committed—their spontaneous origin, their liquor- and testosterone-fueled plotting, their haphazard execution—showing how it comes from a roiling boil of insipidness and terror. It recalls the shuffling feet of the village men silently deciding on how to deal with Miss Amelia in The Ballad of the Sad Café. 

The events sweep J.T. Malone up into a conspiracy he did not want to be part of. His new vague sense of what it means to have lived, however, served him in making a courageous decision to disassociate himself. He does not prevent the crime or even urge others to give it up, for the pathology of Jim Crow is too powerful for a man like Malone, who spent his life uncritically conforming to the mores of a morally corrupt society. But having for some time (even if only very late in his allotted life) considered his purpose, he was able to make a decision for himself. Living involves making such decisions.

McCullers does not let us reach an easy conclusion, however. A memento mori is not a moral guide. The judge, after all, despite trivializing his strokes as “falling-off spells,” understood how close he came to death. And he told Sherman that “if I hadn’t gone through the shadow of death I might never have seen the light.” The light, however, did not show the judge a morally ordered universe; rather, it showed him his proposal, the one that would turn the clock back a hundred years, as Sherman put it. “Livingness” is one thing, properly living is entirely different. In fact, the conditions of both Malone and the judge are described by Kierkegaard as types of sicknesses (he calls them “despairs”) that result from misunderstanding one’s place in the universe. Malone’s is the simplest. He is unable to see himself separate from his finite limitations. The judge is caught in a separate despair, for he cannot see himself outside of his “immediacy.” Both lead to inauthentic existences because those suffering such despairs have yet to see how their lives are part of an enveloping purposefulness.

It is in the denouement that McCullers returns to the question that propels all of her novels. This time instead of negating the possibility of meaning, she seems to offer a path, one grown over with weeds, perhaps, but nonetheless, not one blocked by the negations of her earlier novels. Jester, who has resolved his questions (“Who am I? What am I? Where am I going?”) with the decision to emulate his father by becoming a lawyer to work for social justice, in the end must decide whether to succumb to the desire for the instant gratification of revenge or inform his new found direction with forgiveness. He makes his decision in an airplane he is piloting. It is largely based on the pitifully hollowness of the criminal. It was an aesthetic rather than a judicial decision. But once the decision was made, he was able to take a larger picture of life.

Looking downward from an altitude of two thousand feet, the earth assumes order. A town, even Milan, is symmetrical, exact as a small gray honeycomb, complete. The surrounding terrain seems designed by a law more just and mathematical than the laws of property and bigotry: … The earth is finite. From this height you do not see man and the details of his humiliation. The earth from a great distance is perfect and whole.

That is not the height that men, in their self-centered obsessions, are able to see the world. Perhaps it is an unnatural perspective.

[T]his is an order foreign to the heart, and to love the earth you must come closer. Gliding downward, low over the town and countryside, the whole breaks up into a multiplicity of impressions. … As you circle inward, the town itself becomes crazy and complex. You see the secret corners of all the sad backyards. Gray fences, factories, the flat Main Street. From the air men are shrunken and they have an automatic look, like wound-up dolls. They seem to move mechanically among haphazard miseries. You do not see their eyes. And finally this is intolerable. The whole earth from a great distance means less than one long look into a pair of human eyes. Even the eyes of the enemy.

This seems totally at odds with the teachings of Kierkegaard, which Malone gave up trying to understand. It suggests that it is not simply “despair” that keeps man from uniting with creation, it is part of man’s makeup. He must connect with others, not the whole, in order to continue living, at least as we have been taught to live.

For Malone too there was need for a pair of human eyes. A year ago, in March 1953, after an unusually bitter winter, he thought spring had brought him a fever. Death had crept up on him so furtively that “for a time he confused the end of life with the beginning of a new season.” But the spring of 1954 did not confuse him. Living with death for a year had changed him.

[T]here was no longer a revulsion against nature, against things. A strange lightness had come upon his soul and he exalted. He looked at nature now and it was part of himself. He was no longer a man watching a clock without hands. He was not alone, he did not rebel, he did not suffer. He did not even think of death these days. He was not a man dying … nobody died, everybody died.

He eventually becomes confined to his bed, and while there his resentment towards and alienation from his wife disappear. On May 15, 1954, Malonoe’s new doctor came twice, the second time having a private consultation with Mrs. Malone in the living room. That night she gave her husband a bath and put cologne behind his ears. “Malone said, ‘Darling, no man has ever had such a wife as you.’ It was the first time he had called her darling since the year after they were married.” He would call her that twice more before he died.

Two days later he read in the paper about a man who had died saving a boy from drowning. Although he did not know either the man or the boy, he cried. That day the life seemed to drain from him. In the evening, the judge arrived in an apoplectic state. He announced that the Supreme Court had made a decision about school integration and that he was going to fight it, first by going that very night to the radio station to give a speech about resistance. “It will be a historic speech and will do you good, dear J.T.” Malone barely understood what was going on around him. And when his wife turned on the radio to hear the judge, the speech turned into a disaster. The judge was so seized by “passion” that he was unable to form a coherent thought, and instead recited an oration that was entirely the opposite of his opinion. There was confusion in the studio and Malone’s wife said she did not understand what happened. “‘Nothing, darling,’ Malone said. ‘Nothing that was not a long time in the making.'”

As Malone died that night, “living assumed an order and a simplicity that Malone had never known before.” He asked for a glass of cold water, but before his wife returned, he died.

And so the hedgehog McCullers ended her pursuit of the one Big Idea that dominated her long fiction. She probably did not plan this as her last word on this subject. But sickness (she developed breast cancer) and treatment for old ailments (she had surgery on her palsied hand) and new calamities (she would break her hip in a fall) combined with various businesses related to her old properties (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter became a movie and Edward Albee staged a Broadway production of The Ballad of the Sad Café) to prevent any further long fictions. She suffered another stroke, went into a coma and 47 days later died in 1967.

This, her last treatment of her big idea, was not entirely successful. In her first novel she anticipated the concept of the “absurd” that Camus would begin examining the following year. And in her last novel, she seemed to circle around the existentialism of Kierkegaard. But there is nothing in the work that suggests that she really engaged in the writing of Kierkegaard. I suppose that she had been directed to the Danish author either by Dinesen or, more probably, by W.H. Auden. From 1940–41, McCullers lived with Auden (and several other New York intellectuals and oddly Gypsy Rose Lee) in a brownstone in Brooklyn. Throughout the 1940s Auden, who was also obsessed with the isolation of each person, sought his cure in Kierkegaard. In 1952 he edited a collection of the writing of the Danish theologian/philosopher.3It is probable that McCullers received regular does of Kierkegaard from him, at least second hand. I also suppose (but on this point I depend only on what I have gleaned from the novel, having never closely compared McCullers’s writing with Kierkegaard’s, although I believe that someone might pursue a graduate degree in this area) that McCullers herself had not much more interest in Kierkegaard than did Malone. She never showed any interest in theology, existential or otherwise (although I noted echoes of Martin Buber in The Member of the Wedding). Indeed, Malone’s interview with the town’s Baptist minister was a strong argument that theology was irrelevant on important existential questions. It is true, on the other hand, that Kierkegaard himself disdained the comfortable religiosity of the type displayed in Milan, but there is no indication that McCullers subscribed to Kierkegaard’s more severe form or any other type.

Consider, for example, what is missing from McCullers’s fiction. There is almost no treatment of nature (broadly what Kierkegaard considered as “the creation”). Animals and birds are almost wholly absent. The most memorable are the rat behind the kitchen wall and the moths outside the window in The Member of the Wedding. The horse in Reflections of a Golden Eye, Firebird, is less Black Beauty and more Moby Dick—metaphysical rather than entirely natural. Plants and natural landscapes receive little mention. When Jester flies above Milan, he see cultivated land and the city plan, not a vista of natural beauty. In the Ballad of the Sad Café the only prominent natural feature outside of town was a swamp. The creation that is found in McCullers’s books is one made by man—cotton mills, diners, houses (some quite shabby), roads under repair by convict laborers. If there is “grotesque” in McCullers, it is in her natural world, not her characters. Some of the characters long for a world of natural beauty. Frankie Addams and Mick Kelley desire to visit a place covered by snow. Martha Malone dreams of seeing the ocean. J.T. Malone wants to go to Vermont by himself. Everyone in the fictional world of McCullers longs to be anywhere but where they are: in a sad, poverty-plagued, bigoted backward town in the deep South, that finds itself further and further behind the rest of the world.

So if McCullers is not underwriting Kierkegaard’s resolution of the existential question, what does she offer in this her final novel? It might be argued that she suggests that nature will take care of everything. After all, Malone slowly descends into death without pain and without any terror. Perhaps, we should accept that is what it is. But this does not explain how one can live in the face of death. Perhaps Jester is the answer: take on a romantic or heroic quest and dedicate one’s life to it. But McCullers hardly makes any effort to sell that thought. And Jester is probably the least realistic character in all of her long fiction. And it is unlikely that she actually is lauding the work of liberal white Southern lawyers as heroes. This book is not To Kill a Mockingbird with its white savior (who actually does not save anyone) at the center of the story. And that brings up one last feature of the time theme in Clock Without Hands.

The final deus ex machina of the novel is the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That case and its follow-up decision directed integration “with all deliberate speed.” When McCullers novel was published in 1961, that decision was already seven years old, and almost nothing had taken place, except when federal marshals were used. White Southerners had tried all varieties of subterfuge to avoid integrated public schools, including disbanding public schools altogether. Litigation had achieved, at best, very small gains and created a very big backlash. The hope generated by the Court’s decision would be weakened even further in the years after 1961 as Nixon’s court watered down the rules and circumscribed remedies, most especially by allowing states to hide behind the artificial boundaries of school districts to prevent bussing from one district to another. The Supreme Court did not in fact go very far to solve the injustices of the South, and everyone knew this by 1961. So Jester’s decision about how to lead his life looked less heroic and romantic in retrospect, and, in any event, there is no guaranty he would follow through. For all we know he became a partner in a corporate law firm in Atlanta. In any event, far from producing results “with all deliberate speed,” the Supreme Court’s promise of justice itself became a clock without hands.

It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that McCullers’s conclusion was that there is no answer at all to the existential isolation she probed her whole life. And furthermore the ending seems to show there was no hope that any social justice would come to the socially corrupt South, whose social organization was based on inequality and oppression. The judge makes that point to Malone clearly when he explains to Malone that segregation is necessary as a matter of justice to poor whites

[Y]ou and I have our property and our positions and our self-respect. But what does Sammy Lank have except those slews of children of his? Sammy Lank and the poor whites like that have nothing but the color of their skin. Having no property, no means, nobody to look down on—that is the clue to the whole thing. It is a sad commentary on human nature but every man has to have somebody to look down on. So the Sammy Lanks of this world only have the Nigra to look down on. You see, J.T., It is a matter of pride. You and I have our pride, the pride of our blood, the pride in our descendants. But what does Sammy Lank have … ?

This pessimism, and the foundation for it, subjected McCullers to criticism from both conservatives and leftists. The reviews of Parker and Howe principally derided the article for not presenting a version of the tale which would have more neatly packaged the liberal version of the Southern racial problem: uniquely venomous bigots who oppress blacks from motives of pathological greed and spite (Harriet Beecher Stowe, after all, furnished a view of the South that rallied Northerners under a similar programme.) Conservatives, unwilling to enter the fray over the origins of and solution to the Southern pathology over race, took up a different, and frankly irrelevant, criticism—that McCullers did not write a artistically or realistically satisfying “Southern” novel.

Delma Eugene Presley was the most strident of this approach and her 1974 article in The Georgia Review4 influenced many academic critics whose approach to literary criticism is of the “sorting” variety. Things either fit into pre-defined categories or they don’t, so much the worse for the latter. Presley herself was a teacher of English at a small Georgia college, which remained all white until 1965 (four years after Clock Without Hands was published.) Among her other duties would be to run the school’s Museum of the South. Presley has written several journal articles on Southern writers, all of which tend to opine on how faithful their work was to the Platonic ideal of a Southern novel. As for her critique of McCullers, the thesis is that the quality of her work varied inversely to the time McCullers spent away from the South. Her first novel was written in the South (North Carolina, but that’s closer to Georgia than New York City) and the rest were written in the North after McCullers permanently moved to New York City. Of course, Clock Without Hands is the worst because it is the longest from her stay in the South, and significantly so because it was considerably farther than her stay in writers’ Eden. What McCullers was doing after publication of The Member of the Wedding that prevented her from writing another novel until much later, Presley helpfully speculates: “After 1946, she embarked on a slow voyage in the shallow waters of uncritical public acclaim. It was to be an undistinguished tour of life’s harbors—a journey which ended only at her death some twenty years later.” When she was unable to form a self-satisfied sneer, Presley was forced to rely on the worst sort of unreliable sources to fill in her view of McCullers’s biography. A principal font of insight into the mind of Carson for Presley were letters written by the troubled alcoholic Reese McCullers, who after a first divorce, begged Carson for a second chance, which she granted until she found that he had passed forged checks on her account. After the second divorce Reese eventually committed suicide. (Presley says that his friends considered him “a disciplined young man whose goals and accomplishments were noteworthy.” At the time she wrote that she had to know this turned out differently. She, however, decided to take the part of the serial killer’s neighbor who says that he was a nice quiet guy.) She also quotes unpublished remarks about McCullers delivered by her high school math teacher to a Milledgeville, Georgia book club in 1969, 30 years after this teacher knew McCullers.  If anything else were needed for Presley to analyze the shortcomings of McCullers’s inner life, she was able to find in her writings. After all, a novelist’s characters are clearly an unerring source of insight into the psychology and biography of the writer. You don’t have to run a Museum of the South to know that. It hardly matters, however, that Presley was factually wrong in a way that invalidates her critical theory. McCullers, for example, tells us in her unfinished autobiography that she substantially wrote The Ballad of the Sad Café in Columbus, Georgia. Because Presley did not know that she rates it lower than the previous two novels which were closer in time to when Presley last thought she was there. The point is this: Faulkner stayed in the South (except when he was in Hollywood or Europe) and that’s that. The fact that Tennessee Williams hardly set foot in the South after he left Missouri when he was eight (except for a brief stint in New Orleans) does not affect her view of his work. But her essay on him proceeded on a different critical theory. (The fact that Williams was one of McCullers’s most fervent supporters also does not faze Presley.) But when you finish the essay, you are left with the question: What exactly is it that demonstrates the deterioration of her talent once she was deprived of Dixie’s healthful atmosphere? Well, she quotes Howe (not his radicalism of course, just his panning of her last novel in The Times). And she gives us the helpful portrait of an indifferent math student who actually worked on her novel rather than prepare herself by reading up on current literary trends as her husband Reese did. (In the end Reese would never publish anything.)

But a good, albeit unsupported, theory should never go to waste. And Presley’s concept that McCullers belongs among the “Southerners” (except that she wasn’t good at it) has a long heritage. Klaus Lubbers shortly after the last novel lumped her in with two other Southern women writers (a group that she remains chained to), Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. Helpfully he defined the criteria of the Southern novel, based on the “basic Faulknerian themes” of “lust, disease, mutilation, defeat, idiocy and death.”5 (It might have surprised Euripedes, not to mention Shakespeare, that Faulkner invented these themes in 20th century Mississippi.)

It is interesting that Presley, the guardian of Southern aesthetic virtue, never discusses what McCullers herself had to say about Southern writing. In July 1941 a month after The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published, McCullers wrote in Dissent an article entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Literature.” This remained one of McCullers’s few efforts in literary theory/history. She did not expressly include herself in a Southern literary tradition (having published only one work at the time, it would have been pretentious to do so), but she found the source of the tradition to go back before Faulkner and located it in late 19th century Russia. The reason for the similarity in literary approaches was sociological. According to McCullers both Tsarist Russia and Jim Crow America treated life as worthless.

People are born into a world of confusion, a society in which the system of values is so uncertain that who can say if a man is worth more than a load of hay, or if life itself is precious enough to justify the struggle to obtain the material objects necessary for its maintenance. (p. 288.)”6

While realism had developed in Western Europe just before the middle of the 19th century, according to McCullers, it took the politics of brutality and degradation in Russia to propel their literary figures to become moral agents. She points to Dostoevsky especially.

It is almost as though having a long looked on life and having faithfully reflected what he has seen in his art, he is appalled by both life itself and by what he has written. And unable to reject either, or to delude himself, he assumes the supreme responsibility and answers the riddle of life itself. … Dostoievsky demands magnificently, but his solution, the “new Christianity,” does not answer; it is almost as though he uses Christ as a contrivance. (p. 298.)

It is interesting here to note, in connection with the discussion earlier on whether McCullers accepted the conclusion of Kierkegaard, that in 1941 she not only rejects  the “new Christianity” (albeit in Dostoevsky’s not Kierkegaard’s garb) but seems to suggest there really can be no answer.

The important effect of the political situation is not to propel moral thinkers to an answer to the dilemma of whether living has meaning, but rather on how it impacts literary art.

But the measure of success achieved by these metaphysical and moral exploration is not of the greatest importance in itself. Their value is primarily catalytic. It is the way in which these moral problems affect the work as a whole that counts. And the effect is enormous, for Dostoievsky, Tolstoi, and the minor moralists brought to Russian realism one element that had hitherto been obscure or lacking. That is the element of passion. (p. 290.)

So at the beginning of her career the quality of passion was singled out as preeminent. Its degraded use by the judge in Clock Without Hands must be significant to McCullers. It is yet another imposture by the man who claimed he could have been as great as Shakespeare (or at least Ben Jonson). But he can only recite great sentiments (as he does at his final, disastrous, public performance in what he considers the gravest of perils—his radio address designed to gin up opposition to Brown v. Board of Education). Political hucksters in the end cannot usurp the power of art.

This passion that she evokes is “a new tenseness, a gathering together of resources, a radically tightened nervous tone.” (p. 291.) It is something that Southern literature had not fully arrived at. That is why, according to McCullers, critics pointed to the “cruelties” of Southern literature. She acknowledged that there was some truth to the charge. Writers had reached the point of acknowledging the spiritual inconsistencies of life, however, “without asking the reason why, without attempting to propose an answer. Undeniably there is an infantile quality about this clarity of vision and rejection of responsibility.” (p. 292.) McCullers believed that Southern literature had to take the next step.

Southern writing has reached the limits of a moral relativism; something more must be added if it is to continue to flourish. As yet there has been no forerunner of an analytical moralist such as Tolstoi or a mystic like Dostoievsky. … If and when this group of writers is able to assume a philosophical responsibility, the whole tone and structure of their work will be enriched, and southern writing will enter a more complete and vigorous stage in its evolution. (p. 292.)

In Russian literature McCullers believed that only two writers had reached that level—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And while McCullers acknowledged that Tolstoy was the more beautiful writer, she was always closer to Dostoevsky. I hope over the last three essays I have demonstrated the connection. Let me give one more. The metaphorical concept of Clock Without Hands is the moral dilemma of a man who knows he is soon to die but not knowing the day or hour. Dostoevsky treats the converse of that situation in The Idiot. Prince Myshkin on his first day in Moscow (having travelled from Switzerland where he was undergoing a cure for his seizures) twice explains the problem of the man who has been condemned to death. Myshkin believes that the most inhumane part of this is how it makes the condemned man concentrate his mind on dividing up the time until his death which he knows will take place at a specific time. In desperation he tells himself on the way to the scaffold how many streets are left and tries to convince himself that there is plenty of time, an eternity of time, before the next street is reached. It is only when the hood is about to be put over him that he realizes, or is no longer able to deny, what faces him. And at that moment Myshkin saw the most extraordinary transformation: “he suddenly grew as white as a sheet of paper, a sheet of white note-paper. His legs must have grown weak and wooden and he must have felt sick too—as though something were choking hi and that gave him a sort of tickling sensation in his throat … I can’t help feeling that, for instance, in a moment of unavoidable destruction, if a house is collapsing on top of you, you are suddenly overcome by a desire to sit down, and close your eyes and wait—come what may! … It is odd that people seldom faint at those last moments. On the contrary, the brain, tremendously alive and active, must, I suppose, be working hard, hard hard, like an engine going at full speed. I imagine all sorts of thought—all unfinished and absurd too, perhaps, quite irrelevant thoughts—must be constantly constantly throbbing through his brain: ‘That man is looking at me—he has a wart on his forehead—one of the buttons on the executioner’s coat is rusty. …’ and all the time he knows everything and remembers everything; there is one point which one can never forget, and one can’t faint, and everything goes round and round, round that point.” (pp. 87–88.)7 Malone acts out that same drama, in his own way, watching Dr. Hayden fumble with his letter opener, on the first day he knew of his sentence.

Malone at first, without the deadline, tries to make every moment count, but really cannot. None of us can. In the face of death, we continue to muddle on. And this too Myshkin anticipates on the same day during his conversation with the Yepanchin daughters. He tells them of an execution that was called off, something that the author Dostoevsky was quite familiar with, since a similar thing happened to him. Myshkin describes a group of prisoners lining up for a firing squad. The first three were tied to the posts and long white smocks were put on them before white caps were pulled over their eyes. (This scene follows Dostoevsky’s death sentence farce, following his arrest for political crimes.) The convict who told Myskhin of this story is not among the first group as so he too divides up the rest of his short time and plans how to use it. “The uncertainty and the feeling of disgust with that new thing which was bound to come any minute were dreadful, but he said that the thing that was most unbearable [according to Myskin] was the constant thought, ‘What if I had not had to die! What if I could return to life—oh, what an eternity! And all that would be mine! I should turn every minute into an age, I should lose noting, I should count every minute separately and waste none!’ He said that this reflection finally filled him with such bitterness that he prayed to be shot as quickly as possible.” (p. 83.) The prisoner (like Dostoevsky) received an unexpected reprieve. After a moment of silence, one of the daughters eventually asks Myshkin “Well, what did he do with with that wealth afterwards? Did he count every minute separately?”

“‘Oh, no, he told me himself—I asked him about it—he didn’t live like that at all, and he wasted many, many minutes.’

“‘Well, let that be a lesson to you. It seems it’s impossible actually to live ‘counting every minute separately.’ Whatever the reason, it’s impossible.’

“‘Yes, whatever the reason, it’s impossible,’ the prince repeated. ‘I thought so myself. And yet I somehow can’t believe it. … ‘” (p. 84.)

Malone, as we have seen, first sets off to make every minute count, wandering the streets to look at the things that will outlast him, taking in the teachings of those he thought were spiritually wise than he. But eventually, he drops his quest and falls back into his routine, perhaps more resentful and occasionally dreaming of a change, a trip to Vermont, but nothing comes of it, because it is really impossible to contemplate “livingness” every moment. But when the end comes he dies much like Myshkin’s reprieved convict thought he would die: “There was a church not far off, its gilt roof shining in the bright sunshine. He remembered staring with awful intensity at teat roof and the sunbeams flashing from it; he could not tear his eyes off those rays of light: … he felt that in three minutes he would somehow merge with them.” (p. 83.) Although Malone was much weaker, to weak for any kind of intense scrutiny, he died in much that same way, by merging into his surroundings: “his livingness was leaving him, and in dying living assumed order and a simplicity that Malone had never known before. The pulse, the vigor was not there and not wanted. The design alone emerged.”

McCullers and Dostoevsky were two hedgehogs who knew the same big thing: that one can tug and sniff and rattle the question, but death confers a mystery on life that really cannot be resolved by some edifice of philosophy or belief in orthodox spirituality. There is simply the intense desire to hold on to livingness. When McCullers accepts a challenge posed by Dostoevsky that is the best she can do. But perhaps it is the best even Dostoevsky could do. For if you take away all the breathless writing, all the bizarre characters whose characterization borders on the burlesque, all the operatic plot devices, all the tumult of words of half-formed ideas (all of which McCullers recapitulates in a less grandiose way in Clock Without Hands), does Dostoevsky have anything more to add? Stavrogin in the Demons (The Possessed) says that a man would accept to live in a four by two space rather than die. In the same book, a radical, who has promised to commit suicide as an act of anarchic revolution, has terrified second thoughts at the last minute. Is this any more than McCullers asserting that “livingness” takes priority over everything?

McCullers, of course, is not Dostoevsky. But she was following down the path of intense moral scrutiny of the ultimate question. That she did not find the answer is not as important as that she was one of the few American writers who even cared to ask the question.

Notes

1Dorothy Parker, “Clock Without Hands Belongs in Yesterday’s Tower of Ivory,” Esquire (December 1961), pp. 72–72, reprinted in Beverly Lyon Clark and Melvin J. Friedman (eds.), Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (New York: G.K. Hull & Co., 1996), pp. 58–60, at 58. [Return to text.]

2Irving Howe, “In the Shadow of Death: The Clock Without Hands,” New York Times Book Review (September 17, 1961), p. 5. [Return to text.]

3W.H. Auden, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, Presented by W.H. Auden (New York: D. McKay Co. [1952]). [Return to text.]

4Delma Eugene Presley, “Carson McCullers and the South,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 28, no. 1 (Spring 1974), pp. 19-32. (JSTOR; subscription required.) [Return to text.]

5Karl Lubbers, “The Necessary Order: A Study of Theme and Structure in Carson McCullers’ Fiction,” Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien, Bd. 8 (1963), pp. 187-204  (quote at p. 187). (JSTOR; subscription required.) It is slightly unfair of me to lump Lubbers in with Presley since the former has many useful things to say about McCullers’s work. [Return to text.]

6The essay is reprinted in the collection entitled The Mortgaged Heart ed. by Margarita G. Smith, originally published in 1971. The page citations are from the Bantam edition (1972). [Return to text.]

7Quotations from The Idiot were translated by David Magarshack. Page citations are to the Penguin edition (1955). [Return to text.]

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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 of 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.]

“… 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.]

Rodoreda’s last novel: A haunting portrayal of a disordered world

We read certain novelists, like Dostoevsky and especially Dickens, relatively quickly, anticipating something astonishing around the corner. There are others, like Mercè Rodoreda, that one reads slowly, anticipating something astonishing in every paragraph.

Mural of Mercè Rodoreda at 163 Numancia Street during Barcelona's 2014 exhibition Discover 10. (Photo by diveuniversefest under CC licennse at Flickr.

Mural of Mercè Rodoreda at 163 Numancia Street during Barcelona’s 2014 exhibition Discover 10. (Photo by diveuniversefest under CC license at Flickr).

Rodoreda is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Catalan language. Her modernist novel La Plaça del Diamant (“Diamond Square” after a place in Barcelona), first published in English as The Time of the Doves (New York: Taplinger, ©1981), a woman’s growing understanding of love and life over two decades, has been acclaimed as the best fictional treatment of the Spanish Civil War in any language. All of her mature works, both novels and stories, are characterized by simple yet meticulously concise expression, making her one of the greatest stylists of any language.

It is therefore a major event that Open Letter, the press of the University of Rochester dedicated to new translations of literary works, publishes this month War, So Much War, a translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennant of Rodoreda’s Quanta, quanta guerra… the last novel published during Rodoreda’s lifetime (Barcelona: Club Editor, 1980). (Open Book first published in 2009 Death in Spring, a translation of the posthumously published and unfinished La mort i la primavera (Barcelona: Fundació Mercè Rodoreda: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 1997). In September, Open Letter came out with a paperback edition.) As for the newly translated novel, unlike many major events, this one does not disappoint expectations.

Her Life, in Brief

Rodoreda with her grandfather, Pere Gurguí, and bouquet of flowers. Photo from the collection of Carme Arnau.

Merc¡e Rodoreda i Gurguí was born in the Sarrià-Sant Gervasi section of Barcelona (where the Diamond Plaza was located) at a time (October 1908) when modernity and tradition were vying for supremacy. This conflict took place in the fields of culture and politics. In culture Modernisme was temporarily defeated by Noucentisme but the dialectics of these opposites produced a synthesis which led to a modern Catalan nationalism. In politics, Barcelona (the largest center of industry in Spain) found both its bourgeois and working class interests unrepresented in parliament, where both the Conservatives and Liberals were captives of the land-holding classes. Not willing to admit other groups the two parliamentary parties managed elections and agreed to a rotation in office (el turno) and left it to the Army to manage dissent without interference by the civil authorities. In Barcelona anti-militarism, on the rise among the workers and the intelligentsia, especially after the loss of the empire in the war with the United States in 1898,  was met with open hostility on the part of the local barracks. The climax came a year after Rodoreda was born with the demonstrations against the Army’s call up for the Moroccan. The Army responded during the Tragic Week, la Setmana Tràgica in 1909, with an iron fist, and the civilian government supported the unauthorized repression by executing five protestors and sentencing 59 others to life for their opposition and supposedly participating in the violence that followed. This event proved the turning point for Catalonia, and the working class would now organize for serious confrontations, a pose that would last for nearly three decades until Franco’s forces permanently subdued the region and executed, imprisoned or expelled everyone associated with Catalan nationalism, socialism, anarchism and democracy.

Exiles in Roissy-en-Brie (l to r): Magin Muria, Armand Obiols, Rodoreda, Jordi Murià, Amalia Casals, Agusti Bartra, Muria Anna and Anna Romero at Villa Rosset in Roissy-en-Brie. October 16, 1939. (Source: Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Exiles in Roissy-en-Brie (l to r): Director Magí Murià, writer Armand Obiols, Mercè Rodoreda, Jordi Murià, Amàlia Casals (wife of Enric Cluselles), poet Agustí Bartra, writer Anna Murià and Anna Romaní at the Muria house, Villa Rosset in Roissy-en-Brie. October 16, 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

According to Rodoreda’s elliptical memoirs, she was an unlikely participant (as activist or memorialist) in these struggles, growing impoverished and only receiving two years of formal education. But a recent examination of her childhood shows that it was less impoverished and disadvantaged than she suggested. In El paradís perdut de Mercè Rodoreda (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 2015) (available since last month on Amazon, but only for Kindle and only in Catalan) Carme Arnau Faidella reconstructed Rodoreda’s childhood from unpublished letters and other memorabilia. She concludes that Mercè had a happy, somewhat Bohemian life. Her parents were devoted to the theater (both had taken classes at l’ Escola d’Art Dramàtic) and books. Her mother was fond of music as well. But she was especially fond of her maternal grandfather, Pere Gurguí, in whose house they lived. Gurguí was a journalist who had once been editor for the short-lived L’Arc de Sant Martí (“Rainbow”) and La Renaixença (“the Renaissance”), both conservative Catalan newspapers, which promoted the cultural identity of Catalans. Gurguí was dedicated to Catalonian history and culture and imparted his love to his granddaughter. He had been a friend of Jacint Verdaguer, poet and member of  the generation of Restoration of 1874, which led to La Renaixença, the rebirth of Catalan language and culture. Mercè remembered her grandfather telling her that a guardian angel watched over her, and occasionally those angels appear in her writing. He also read to her the works of Català, Ruyra and other Catalan modernists. The most important to him was Verdaguer.  In 1910, eight years after the poet’s death and two years after Mercè’s birth, Gurguí built a monument to Verdaguer in his garden,

“a hill of big stones, with pans of dirt in between, where rosemary plants and other typical Mediterranean plants grew, surrounded by a strip of pink cement that wound around the rocks and had the titles of Verdaguer’s main works engraved in it, El Canigó, L’Atlàntida, etc.” (from Images of Childhood.)

Rodoreda in 1980. Photo by Tomi Socies for Revista Canigó. (Universitat d'Alacant.)

Rodoreda in 1980. Photo by Tomi Socies for Revista Canigó. (Universitat d’Alacant.)

The garden and its flowers became a recurring figure in her writing especially after her exile. Almost as if flowers represented the Catalan culture they were associated with in the garden, flowers would spring up everywhere in her stories and novels. They could be symbols of love as in “Blood”: “My husband would say the dahlias were our children.” Disinterest in flowers could signal a breach in a relationship as in “Engaged”: “‘ I don’t understand your obsession with flowers. All that …’ he made a gesture with his head as if shaking off something that suddenly vexed him.” Flowers are sometimes provide subtle symbolism, as the bougainvillea in Isabel i Maria, a plant whose bracts imitate flower petals and in the story reflects the duplicity between the characters. But mostly flowers represented home, especially in exile. As Rodoreda herself said (in the preface to Mirall trencat (Broken Mirror) Rodoreda explained why she made a gardener and his garden the center of her novel Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea), the first novel after her exile: “Linked to flowers, without flowers for years, I felt the need to talk about flowers, and to make my main character a gardener.” Flowers therefore represented above all homesickness, which is probably why an idolized and innocent childhood is part of almost all her works. Arnau said that the nostalgia for a lost childhood is always contrasted with adult hypocrisy and corruption.

Her own childhood paradise came abrupt to an end when she was 20. After her grandfather’s death, evidently her uncle, her mother’s brother, who had been in the Americas to make his fortune, sent stipends to her family to keep it afloat. When he returned, he married Mercè. A year later she had a son. Her marriage and domestic life made her miserable. She chose to escape the life she seemed destined for by means of journalism and then through novels.By 1936 she had published her fourth novel. The the Civil War came. Barcelona, which had already been a center of great intellectual and artistic activity under the Second Republic, as well as one vastly more liberal when it came to the place of women in society, became one of the strongest centers of loyalist resistance to Franco. The eventual victory of fascism in Spain was a calamity of historic proportions, not only putting the resisters in physical danger but also bringing about a spiritual and cultural disaster much like the Saints experienced when Charles II was restored, or the proletariat in Paris in 1849 or the partisans in France only a few years after the defeat of the Spanish Republic.

When the civil war began the great liberal experiment of the Second Republic with its benefits for intellectual women, for Catalans and for many others came to an end with the victory of Franco’s fascist army. Catalonia, one of the centers of loyalist defense of the Republic (and more significantly from the rightist point of view, one of the most advance workers’ movements ever undertaken), felt the heel of repression. Though not technically banned, the local forces suppressed Catalan in many ways, including signs that said: “Don’t bark, speak Spanish!”

Rodoreda and Armand Obiols in 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Rodoreda and Armand Obiols in 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Rodoreda escaped repression and her family in well fell swoop. She left behind her son as well as her husband. She lived from 1939 to the Nazi occupation in Roissy-en-Brie, a small commune in the Île-de-France region east of Paris. She was doubly exiled: away from her country, but also because of the suppression of Catalan by the Falangists, exiled from her native tongue, and therefore from writing. In 1938 she had written Aloma, according to Pope dealt with “the violence of society, the degrading routine of marriage, the dangers of romantic delusions, the repression of the body, and the exploitation and abuse of women.” In France Rodoreda would meet writer Armand Obiols, with whom she would live until his death in 1971.

Obiols would offer extensive editorial advice to Rodoreda and her work thereafter became what made her internationally famous: objective, dispassionate, sparse and concrete. Pope showed, for example, how the influence of Obiols changed the narrative tone of Aloma between the time it was first published (before he knew her) and the 1969 edition. For years there were rumors that Obiols wrote her books, a charge that she told Castellet was “stupidity” (una bestiesa). As proof she said that most of her books were “women’s books” and men know nothing about women.

Untitled by Mercè Rodoreda. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1950? Institut s'Estudis de Catalan.

Untitled by Mercè Rodoreda. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1950? Institut d’Estudis Catalans.

In France Rodoreda did not complete any writing. She supported herself by sewing. When she fled the Nazi she moved to Switzerland. There she took up painting. Over 80 of her watercolors, gouaches and collages are held by the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 30 of which were exhibited at Barcelona’s La Pedrera in 2008 during the centenary of her birth. They were stark portraits of women (mostly) with expressions of wonderment and silence.This would become a characteristic of her narrators when she took up writing in earnest again in 1958.

Her Writing, Briefly

Rodoreda’s writing spanned the styles of the twentieth century beginning with psychological realism, to modernist interior explorations to a unique form of fantastic realism. But in all these styles the narrative approach was much the same. The protagonist/narrator was usually a women of lower socio-economic status. José Ortega says that this helps contribute to her ingenuísmo. The nature of the narrative voice is unique, and the effect at first is hard to pinpoint. Scarlett points out that unlike most first person narrators the narration is almost exclusively testimonial and not confessional. Moreover, Restina says that by shutting off the “intellectual function” the narration achieves a descriptive power making the things observed more “real” and “concrete.”

Because there is no “intellectual filter” between the narrator and the reader the narration gives the effect of the kind of writing André Breton described as “pure psychic automatism.” The surrealist techniques of Rodoreda are anything but subliminal. Her “disorientation, random association and misogyny” in The Time of the Doves (as Everly points out) have specific and quite precise narrative functions. But beyond the surrealistic technique, the oddities that permeate her stories (especially the later ones) create what Garcia Marquez called an  “atmosphere”  from which her revelations take place. And the last novel, War, So Much War is the culmination of her experiments in this regard.

In 1973, with Franco turning over his role as head of government to Carrero Blanco, Rodereda returned to Catalonia where she would live until her death in 1983. Franco was in ill health for much of the time after her return, and he died in 1975.  Perhaps his death made partisanship reside in her last novel, published in 1980, because no sides are expressly identified. (It is possible to surmise, however, that the narrator belongs to the loyalist militia, given how the enemy has airplanes and repeatedly bombs civilians.) The novel is not so much about a war, as it is that the war is the thing that makes everything else the way it is.

War, So Much War

war, so much warRodoreda’s last novel is a story told (or experienced for the most part) by Adrià Guinart, a young man who goes to war to escape his mother and see the world. But he soon regrets his decision to fight and he runs away when he can. Although unlike almost all other works by Rodoreda the narrator is male, his youth (he is barely past puberty) and his conduct make his gender ambiguous. When he was young and taken to school for the first time, Father Sebastià told his mother that they did not admit girls. The priest soon found him to be a “veritable archangel” and had his desk placed next to his own.

We know very little about his childhood but what we are told is told lyrically and so we seem to get a full sense of him. He evidently loved his father dearly, and his time with him is described tenderly: “On the Sundays when my father wasn’t of a mind to visit his cousins, he would take me for a walk. We spent hours sitting by the side of the road, and sometimes the air winnowed threads from the hearts of stunted flowers, and some would catch in my clothes.” His father, a railroad engineer, was haunted by a ghost—a man who would walk on the tracks, causing his father to screech the train to a halt, but in the examination later, no trace of the man would be found, and he received criticism. On the third time, he closed his eyes when the man refused to leave the tracks, and he felt bones being crushed when the train passed over him. The father died shortly after that experience, when Adrià was 11.

Adrià had a birthmark on his forehead, and when angry his mother told him it he reminded her of Cain. She raised carnations for sale near the train line, where trains could be heard all night from the house. The house had a yellow rose bush growing up its side. He grew to find the house suffocating, and began escaping from night to dawn. Then when he was 15, the war gave him an excuse to leave, and he went with his friend Rossend to join the fighting.

Adrià was not meant to fight, and they put him to work in the kitchen. Still he deserts. He can’t defend himself even when forced to fight and suffers severe beatings as a result. Even when they attempt to teach him to first a rifle, he refuses to learn, purposely aiming wide, because he had no interest in killing. (In fact the only two people he strikes are women: the miller’s wife, when she tries to seduce him and the old woman in the woods, when she discloses her vile acts.) His escapes are often fortuitous, often by deus ex machina. But his story is not about war directly. In fact, Rodoreda says in the prologue that the novel is not an account of war in terms of weapons but rather an internalized ordeal of disruption displacement and dead bodies. And most of the takes place outside the war zone but still where the state of war has untethered all bonds of normal morality and traditional attachments. The people Adrià meets live solipsistically in a world that offers nothing beyond their self-interest.

It is unfortunate that the Open Letter edition does not contain Rodoreda’s prologue, because it gives a good perspective on what she was trying to achieve. She says that the story was inspired by the 1965 Polish movie The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie), a movie directed by Wojciech Has and released in 1965. The film is based on a novel of the same title (and subtitled “A Collection of Weird Tales”) by Count Jon Potocki published a century and a half previously (and released by Orion Press in 1960 in an English translation by Elizabeth Abbot). Both the movie and book begin with a battle in Saragossa, Spain, where an invading soldier, entering an abandoned building discovers and becomes engrossed by a manuscript and while reading it is captured by Spanish soldiers. He gets his captures to translate the story and the film proceeds mis en abîme fashion with the captive and the soldiers playing out the scenes in the manuscript. The main character (the prisoner) becomes the captain of the Walloon guards under the King of Spain, and he sets off on various adventures to prove his courage and worthiness to during his travels through Spain. This 19th century Don Juan must pass numerous tests to prove his courage and worthiness. The witty and intricate interlocking of the stories influenced none other than Spanish director Luis Buñuel. The Polish novel it was based on may have had an equally distinguished literary influence. Rodoreda  says that her motivation was to create a story that experiences the world as poets do, “surprised at everything seen.” And while the novel and the film contain several symbolic images in common (eyes, hanged men, sleeping next to dead bodies) and while the protagonist in both is more a witness than actor, the novel is unlike the film. While the film is the unfolding of a gothic story, Rodoreda’s novel is a metaphysical exploration undertaken by one who has no experience in the world or in philosophy and therefore learns as he goes along.

The world Adrià wanders is fantastical, nightmarish and insubstantial, and his deep unconscious soul reverberates with what he sees. His experiences are sometimes no more than fleeting encounters, such as when, shortly after his first desertion he sees a boy in this distance about is age while artillery is being fired. The boy points to the direction of the cannon sound and shouts “Go home,” then disappears. Other encounters amount to complete episodes with conflict and resolution and then the need for Adria to move on. All of the encounters seem at first unrelated, except by subtly related symbols. For example a girl he falls in love with asks “out of the blue” whether he liked soap bubbles. She said: “The best thing about them was that, after one has waited so patiently to see them emerge from the tip of the reed and admire their iridescence, they burst while floating away as if they had been pricked.” He love her because she is unafraid, because she is independent, because it pained her to think of him dead and because she wants no one to follow her. Rather than have her reject him, he lets her go. Once gone, however, he decides he needs her and sets out to find her. Along the way the symbol returns. One night he fell asleep with uncommon peace and dreamed: “a boy who looked like me was blowing soap bubbles with a cane he periodically dipped in a tin can; the bubbles hovered over a drowned girl whose body was being swept in and out by the waves. … Many of the bubbles turned into human heads  that floated upward gazing at the sky. … Death, with green teeth, sat on the belly of a cloud. Seven women with feet of gold huddled together blowing seven long trumpets that spewed bubbles into the sea, while death’s scythe awaited th order to begin reaping the floating heads …” His encounter at last with the girl provides the climax of the novel, it follows with the most fantastical elaboration on the symbol.

Despite the disorder, the horror and the fantastic of an unrecognizable world Adrià is constantly befriended by strangers who offer him unsolicited charity at crucial moments. Perhaps it is because he is young, or has blond hair, or looks like a girl or, as old woman who feeds him says, “those helpless creature eyes of yours.” Or maybe they recognize as disoriented by the world being out of joint as they are. Even nature reflects the disorder of the times. When Adria sees a meteor shower for the first time, the old man watching with him says: “The stars are weeping because we are at war.”

Even when war is far distant, the people Adria meets seemed hollowed out, or maybe it is just that with everyone looking after himself those who would be hollowed out whether or not there was war are now understandable. In the longest episode in the book Adria lives with a man who has a house, income and books. Unlike most, he doesn’t need to scramble for food, or indeed to do anything but contemplate. He goes to the sea at night to think quietly.  His library is filled with mystical philosophy, which he practices by means of a mirror. When he dies Adri¡a reads his papers and learns of his discovery, one that involves a vision that haunts Adrià and a discovery that earns him nothing but hostility in the future.

The adventures that Adrià experiences are enough to earn the description “weird tales” but they are not gothic like Potocki’s are. In fact, their weirdness stems from their surreal nature in the literal sense of the term as above real or extra real. Everything that happens is strange only when we think of the world as normal and ordinary. But it is only ordinary when we stop examining the strangeness of it, the incompatibility of everyone’s selfish motives. Perhaps war is simply the metaphor for that incompatibility. And even those who want nothing more than to be ordinary (like the bricklayer whose house and wife are destroyed by the lone airplane on dropping a single bomb or the mother who amid all the corpses refuses to believe her baby is dead) can’t escape the immense incompatibility of others. Adrià’s travels, his quest, when he is forced to articulate it, is an expression of his need to see all the oddity in the world, to express his own selfish interests: “[T]he only thing I have is my own life. If I speak about it, it escapes, I lose it.” The generous man who wants him to quit his journeys, to stay and be his son, understands and pats him on his back: “… but the moment will come when you have a false life on your hands. You, what do you have inside? A garden or an inferno?” They discuss what it means to be Cain and the old man says: “… whenever you want to go, just go. Don’t say anything. I don’t like goodbyes.”

The novel races to its end. It is not a picaresque with a satisfying moral. Rather, like all great literature it ends with hard truth about the disparity between our desires and our possible attainments. It woud be almost unbearable but for the poetic telling, lyrical enough to soften the blow.

Sources

Carme Arnau, Introducció a la narrativa de Mercè Rodoreda: El mite de la infantesa (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1976).

Emelie L. Bergmann, “Flowers at the North Pole: Mercè Rodoreda and the Female Imagination in Exile,” Catalan Review 2:83-99 (1987).

J.M. Castellet, “Mercè Rodoreda,” Êls escenaris de la memòria (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1988).

Kathryn A. Everly, Catalan Women Writers and Artists: Revisionist Views from a Feminist Space (Lewisburg, [Pa.]: Bucknell University Press, ©2003).

Josefina Gonzalez, “Verbal Absences and Visual Silences in Quanta, quanta guerra …La mort i la primavera, and Isabel i Maria,” in Voices and Visions: The Words and Works of Mercè Rodoreda edited by Kathleen McNerney (Selinsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1999).

José Ortega, “Mujer, guerra, y neurosis in dos novelas de M. Rodoreda (La plaza de Diamante y La calle de las Camelias“) in Novelistas femeninas de la postguerra española, ed. Janet W. Perez (Madrid: Porrúa, 1983).

Randolph D. Pope, “Aloma‘s Two Faces and the Chacter of Her True Nature,’ in The Garden across the Border: Mercè Rodoreda’s Fiction ed. Kathleen McNerney & Mancy Vosburg (Selingsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1994).

Joan Ramon Resina, “The Link in Consciousness: Time and Community in Rodoreda’s La Plaça del Diamant,” Catalan Review 2:22-46 (1987).

Elizabeth A. Scarlett, Under Construction: The Body in Spanish Novels (Charlottesville [Va.]: University Press of Virginia, 1994).

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.

100 Years Ago Today: The Russians Claim Ballet for Modernism

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

One hundred years ago today, on May 29, 1913, occurred one of the defining moments of modernism: the premiere of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The riot that took place to greet Stravinsky’s score and Nijinsky’s choreography is often used to show how violently New Music or Modernity in general was an offensive shock to an unsuspecting public. The fact is the “riot” was almost certainly staged by a faction with a preconceived agenda, and it likely represented nothing other than the expression of self-satisfied “patrons” who were offended that the theater was not catering to their narrow views on entertainment. I saw something of the same thing back in the early 1970s when Pierre Boulez was routinely heckled in New York for daring to introduce pieces that were not at least 75 years old. On one occasion a gentlemen in a dinner jacket stood up on his folding seat to better offer up boos at the premiere of a Ligety piece. He undoubtedly felt that he belonged to the honorable tradition that goes back now 100 years, a tradition where wealthy arts patrons act like children in the name of preserving artistic traditions. (Or perhaps he simply hadn’t yet learned that Leonard Bernstein was no longer the musical director of the New York Philharmonic.)

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Nicholas K. Roerich, ethnographer, mystic, philosopher, lawyer and artist, designed the sets of Rite of Spring from his research into Russian folk history. This painting shows the first scene, “The Kissing of the Earth,” which depicts a sacred Slavic guessing game with dancing in the Valley at the sacred hill. In the score this part is titled “L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth).” (roerichsibur.ru.)

The actual “riot” in Paris in 1913 was shabby enough, according to the New York Times cable report (which translated the title of the work as “Consecration of Spring”).  It apparently amounted to hissing and some shoving. The affair was summarized by Alfred Capus (who would go on the defend the “purity” of French culture as one of the “immortels” ) in Le Figaro. Capus claimed that the production itself was nothing more than an attempt by the Russians to flatter the “idle rich” of Paris into paying double ticket prices and then insult them with “the last degree of stupidity.” He was referring to the stupidity of the ballet, not the Parisian idle rich. The Times correspondent noted that since “M. Capus’s article there have been disorderly scenes at the Champs-Élysées Théâtre …” (The writer also noted that management learned to quell the disorders by turning on the lights; Parisian upper crust, unlike those of 1970s New York, were not willing to be seen acting the boor and settled down.)

Roelrich's design for the second part, "The Great Sacrifice." which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead.

Roelrich’s design for the second part, “The Sacrifice on High.” which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead. In the score the part is called “Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice).” (roerichsibur.ru.)

The vulgarity of the riots notwithstanding (their intensity and significance undoubtedly increased as the memory of the witnesses grew older), there was no better place or time for Modernity to throw down the gauntlet. If anywhere, Paris had for decades been the center of advanced ideas. In fact, the taproot of Modernism goes back to the Paris of the 1860s and 70s with Baudelaire and the Impressionists. And poetry and art had made significant leaps in those areas since then. 1913 was also the year that the first installment of Proust’s great experiment in memory, autobiography and art, À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), would be published. Even in music Debussy was working his way out of the prevailing Romanticism. Nowhere else were there such combustible elements waiting for an ignition to explode.

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

New York, of course, was a backwater at the time, looking to Europe for all its cultural instruction. It generally did not criticize its betters. The New York Armory Show, which opened in February 1913 and put together the largest collection of Post-Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists ever seen outside of Europe, offended mainly cranks and was embraced, as these kinds of things usually are in New York, by self-satisfied financial and business elites as a sign of their enlightenment, particularly inasmuch as more than 160 pieces were purchased. This was much the reaction when Mahler conducted in New York a few years before, although he remained in safe territory by not straying far from Mozart and Beethoven. Perhaps because it married business, finance and industrial enterprise with design, architecture, in the form of office skyscrapers, would become the first quintessentially American art form. If so, 1913 was a signal year in New York arts, because the newly completed Woolworth Building became the world’s tallest structure.

London’s musical scene, at least as far as English composers went, was barren at the time. In art it had never really assimilated Impressionism, much less Post-Impressionist advances, dominated as the London art scene was by Whistler’s legacy. Theater appeared ready for a change, but the only real avant-garde was taking place in poetry and fiction. Yet the various proclamations of Ezra Pound, including the introduction of the Vortex (which would take place in 1914), seemed to spark debate mainly in high-brow literary and cultural journals. D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 to mainly indifferent reviews. Joyce would begin writing Ulysses the following year and it only later dribbled out in a small literary journal in the United States, but when it finally attracted notice, it was more as an example of modern smut rather than modern sensibilities.

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on March 31, 1913. (Die Zeit, April 5, 1913 from Wikipedia.)

Visual expression in Berlin and Vienna was still primarily in the design phase; Expressionism was only in its tentative beginnings. Much of music there was exploring the end of chromatic Romantic music and (still) the implications of Tristan (which fittingly enough had its premiere in Vienna rather than Paris, because of the ridiculous antics of the Jockey Club in Paris at the perforance of Tannhäuser in 1861). It is true that Schoenberg (Schönberg then) had broken more or less completely from diatonic tonality with his second string quartet (of 1907/08), Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, op. 15 (1908/09), his Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 (1909), Erwartung (1909) and most dramatically in Pierrot Lunaire, op. 12 (1912). But these pieces were not well known in the big capitals, although Sir Henry Wood performed the Five Orchestral Pieces (the most conservative of these works) to disapproving audiences in London in September 1912. Just weeks before the Rite of Spring premiere, Schoenberg himself reprised his Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9 (1906) and debuted two pieces by his students, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1909/10) and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, op. 4 (1911/12), as well as a more conventional new piece by his father-in-law, Zemlinsky’s Six Songs after poems by Maeterlinck, op. 13 (1913). Webern’s work produced taunting laughter and Berg’s both taunts and fist fights. The disorder was so great that Schoenberg did not attempt to finish Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The outbreaks were greater and the violence more genuine (the concert produced one more lawsuit than the affair in Pairs), but the event (now known as the Konzertskandal) never became The Case in Point of the clash of the New with the Old, possibly because much worse would befall Schoenberg and his students in the future (and not just humiliation), or because Austrian thuggery, more than a little tinged with virulent anti-semitism, would become much more the rule than the exception not too much longer in the future, or maybe because then as now the music of the Second Viennese School was not considered “serious” in the way that upper class consumers of classical entertainment demand.

Non-representational painting and sculpture was bubbling out of many other corners of Europe, but it would take a while to fully comprehend how radical and permanent a departure this would signal.

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

So if a Modernist bomb was going to be ignited, Paris was the perfect place to light the fuse. It seems likely, however, that neither Stravinsky nor Nijinsky intended to light a fuse (at least in the way that Ezra Pound kept trying to do in London), and Stravinsky seemed genuinely hurt that the work was not appreciated on the merits. And much of the fireworks had to do, not with the merits of the music, but rather with French xenophobia. Capus was plain in his contempt for the Russians (the Russians, he wrote, “are not entirely acquainted with the manners and customs of the countries they visit …”). But it also had to do with the French belief that they defined ballet. (The Times piece noted that Parisians admitted that Nijinsky was “a wonderful dancer,” but “they add that he knows little about stage setting.” The reporter from this observation labelled the Rite of Spring performance a “failure.”)

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

The French believed that they invented and perfected the art form. And even if they didn’t invent it, ballet was certainly central to French art music and performance from the beginning. Jean-Baptiste Lully, himself a dancer, had organized one of the oldest ballet schools, and the choreographer for Lully’s operas, Pierre Beauchamps, established the standard positions for classical dance and  invented the written notation for recording choreography. And while the Russians had a ballet company in the mid-eighteenth century, that was still nearly a century after Lully had founded the Paris Opera Ballet. (Diaghilev himself produced his first French performances of the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera Ballet.)

So all of this was enough to offend French hauteur, but was the event really revolutionary?

First, the company.

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by  August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen).

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by
August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen). Click to enlarge.

The Ballets Russes, as a money-making enterprise, was not revolutionary, although it would increasingly look to the future. Its founder and impressario, Serge Diaghilev, a Russian critic turned performance producer, was educated, urbane, forward looking and a risk taker. He had ideas how ballet should be presented, and it involved using the latest in art, choreography and music. More important, he was willing to raise and spend money to realize his vision. The Ballets Russes would soon number among its set and costume designers giants in the world of art (including Picasso,  Matisse, Braque and Rouault). Its choreographers would become the definers of Modernity in dance (including Nijinsky, Massine and Balanchine). And of course Diaghilev championed the composers of modern music, at least programmatic music. The company not only employed avant-garde artists, it influenced the arts outside of ballet.

The pairing of Nijinsky and Stravinsky was the ignition for the bomb. Nijinksky was an incendiary dancer. His performance in the Ballets Russes production of L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun), choreographed by Nijinksy himself in 1912, was expressly erotic and, as a dance, was itself controversial. Diaghilev had commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate a Chopin piece for the Ballets Russes in 1910. After that came Firebird and the more conventional Petrushka. Nijinsky would choreograph Debussy’s score Jeux, an eccentric ballet about tennis and (possibly) homosexuality, and that odd piece would immediately precede Rite of Spring, which would be the first time Nijinsky choreographed Stravinsky. The combination of the two Russians proved too much for the French audience.

The ballet was based on the great Russian political belief that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic comunal harmony with nature. (roerichsibur.ru.)

The ballet was based on the great Russian political-religious mythos that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic communal harmony with nature. (roerichsibur.ru.)

But there was a third Russian involved. Nicholas Roerich, a polymath whose tastes ran to mysticism and Russian folk history, designed the sets and costumes. His settings were based on his own scholarly recreation of Russian folk past, which was undoubtedly influenced by the great Russian politico-religious mythos first championed by Pan-Slavists of the middle of the previous century, whose central tenet was eventually adopted (to a greater or lesser extent) by thinkers as diverse as the Socialist Alexander Herzen and the reactionary Dostoevsky: The myth held that in some remote past, before the rot of Western Europe corrupted Russia, and even before Orthodox Christianity, the Russian folk lived in a kind of blissful communal state whose economy was governed by principles of common ownership as radical as anything proposed in 19th century Europe and that Russia’s “salvation” would come from that past, separate from all outside influences.

The hidden ideological motif of the performance was therefore a look to the future in the ancient. (In Russia’s case the myth system was a surrogate political language arising from the fact that political repression prevented any real political discussion.) This would not be the only modern work with that subtext, but the particular mythos embedded in the Rite of Spring may have been the one with the longest pedigree of promotion by one country’s intellectuals.

The music.

To recreate the ancient, Stravinsky stripped his score of everything that could be considered modern sophistication. There was no irony, no subtlety and no self-reference. Rhythms were strictly defined and metric. In parts rhythmic patterns were so clearly defined by accented notes that it carried through the section even against loudly articulated counter-rhythms. In other parts the march-like rhythm is so strongly felt that it gives an impression of  exultant euphoria. The forward-driving propulsive effect is achieved through steady crescendos. Climaxes come with rapid crescendos and often with instruments filling a larger and more densely packed range.

All of these things, far from being “new,” are many steps back from the prevailing overly refined Romanticism and Post-Romanticism of both Paris and Vienna. The instrumental tonal color was somewhat novel. In many places it is the strings that act as the time-keepers and the woodwinds and brass convey the melody. The introduction is played by a solo bassoon in an extremely high register creating a odd and ethereal mood, much like the beginnings of spring, arising from the melting snows. Other unconventional instrumentations occur, but this hardly placed the piece out of the mainstream of European art music.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant "harmonizations." Click to enlarge.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant “harmonizations.” Click to enlarge.

The stripping down and simplification was necessary for Stravinsky to undertake and highlight what was in fact his true achievement: dispensing with traditional harmonization. The first critics recognized this experimentation as the most radical. When the ballet premiered on Drury Lane in London on July 11, 1913, the New York Times correspondent sent a cable summarizing the overnight responses of the critics. The consensus was that the music “apparently has no relations whatever to the ordinary rules of harmony and leaves Strauss and even Schönberg behind …” In fact, Stravinsky was not trying to develop new rules for harmonization, but rather dispensing with the ordinary concept that harmony arises out of the melody and instead radically extended the concept he first tried out in Firebird of a sort of ditonality: using unrelated harmonies, or even different keys, against a melody. The melodies were simple enough. They were both “catchy” (Schoenberg’s unachieved desire that cab drivers would hum the tunes of modern music in the future) and grounded in folk music. The “harmonies” were not simply, or even at all, chromatic, they were unrelated to the melody, except through some intuitive (and evidently not rule-based) concept of Stravinsky. (Stravinsky’s instinct in this piece proved true, because many works thereafter, for many years, contain quotes and snatches of the melodies or angular “harmonies.”)

Because it’s nearly impossible to explain music without examples, and because Anthony Newman is insightful and clear, it is useful to hear his  explaination of how Stravinsky used musical “archetypes” with “wrong note” harmonization to create his exotic effects:

The video unfortunately breaks in the middle of a musical example and continues here:

It’s a fair bet that almost everyone reading this encountered the Rite of Spring first either as an audio recording or in the concert hall without the dance. As a disembodied piece of music even today it is jarring on first hearing. But even accounting for our immensely more degraded (or enhanced, depending on your viewpoint) sensibilities, it does not strike one as something a full-scale riot would ensue from. In fact, in hide-bound, conservative London, while it was not a hit is any sense, the New York Times correspondent reported that the first reception was greeted with “a mixture of applause and hisses, although the applause won finally.”

What really offended the French, and what made the piece one of the advanced posts of Modernity, was the combination of the music with the dance.

The Choreography.

Drawing of Marie Piltz in the “Sacrificial Dance” from The Rite of Spring, Paris, 29 May 1913, in Montjoie! (magazine), Paris, June 1913 (Wikipedia).

If you have only encountered the work as a concert piece, you lose altogether its programmatic aspect. The music is clearly program music; it is not organized as a piece of “absolute” music. So a listener needs to know what the music is “about.” It undoubtedly helps to see one of the 200 or so different productions that have been mounted since the original. But modern versions tend to (wrongly) emphasize the outlandish and promote a supposed modernist take by, for example, using naked or nearly naked dancers or appealing to an erotic undertow in the music. It took Millicent Hodson’s tireless choreographic archaeology to recreate what Nijinsky designed. The Joffrey Ballet then nearly a quarter century ago put on the nearest approximation we are ever likely to see of the “intention” of the creators, and it was a stunning eye-opener.

Even today the movements of the dancers can be described, as the New York Times London correspondent did in 1913, as not involving “dancing in the ordinary sense of the word.” It is more like an architecture of movement, where geometric patterns are achieved by groups of dancers using angular movements of legs and arms and posture. The dancers introduce themselves by emphatically stomping on the stage, as though to test whether the earth has returned solid from its capture by winter. One figure, the old lady conjurer, is characterized by an extremely bent body and small shuffling steps. Groups of dancers arrange themselves as you would think ancient tribes did. Celebrations and mysteries are performed according to ancient rules, the antiquity of which provide their justification.

No attempt is made to display virtuosity. Instead, groups move as integrated units in simple and repetitive motions. The secret game to pick the sacrificial victim is repeated with small variations, just as is the music highlighted by pizzicato strings, until one is selected. She briefly shows her grim deference to custom, then her terror, and then her grief in the only solo dance of the performance. She finally succumbs to the communal rules and forfeits her life to ensure that the tribe endures for one more year.

It is extraordinarily effective and had to have come as an electric current to those looking forward to seeing divas performing en pointe. It is difficult to understate how this piece represented a decisive break with the past. You owe it to yourself to see the original:

The Effect.

All together, the piece delivers a shocking, visceral and powerful emotional jolt. And, yes, even if the riot was largely preconceived rather than spontaneous, the French had a right to see in it the revolution that would come. The Future, as the Twentieth Century would tell over and over, was in our ancient past. The New is what we originally were. And whether it came from pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, African masks, Egyptian poetry or Russian folk myths, we are forced to confront what we are by looking to our original fears and aspirations. And a large part of what we are is determined by the Irrational.

Modernity was a way of looking at things that radically departed from not only Romanticism but also the Age of Reason. At a time that science was pursuing a method that validated concepts by trying to eliminate the random, biased and irrational, art proclaimed that we could never escape the irrational, and in fact held out that by celebrating it we help excoriate it. (That, after all, is the original purpose of rites, then religion, then philosophy, then psychoanalysis, and so forth, throughout the progression of history.)

But Modernism was not an unqualified success. In politics, for example, “Modernist” movements that looked to the Aryan or Roman past produced untold suffering and sorrow. Modernism did not automatically bring with it a moral compass and it often sat precariously between progress and vicious reaction. Not all who felt uneasy in Paris that night 100 years ago were necessarily overly privileged snobs who played the connoisseur. There might have been some among the original Parisian viewers who, at least subconsciously, felt the actual (not just artistic) terror of the Modernist revolution at at hand. After all, not much more than a year later France and all of Europe would experience the first consequences of modernity’s political quest for the essence. Those sacrifices were not one at a time as in the ballet that night, and no one had time or interest in experiencing the terror and grief of each victim. It would cost more lives than anyone ever expected or, indeed, could have conceived, but it was just the beginning. That, however, is a different story.

Destroying the Old is not always the way forward. But that was not what Modernism was about. And in any event, there was no choice. The world was changing and art had to reflect that reality or become irrelevant.

It did not become irrelevant. So today we should at least acknowledge that 100 years of the modern have revealed things that the Ancient Order never could have conceived. Many of those things we can celebrate.

An Unreal Dream, An Uncommon Man

An extraordinarily powerful documentary premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin this past week, An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story. In an era when civilization has allowed us to avoid most of our primal terrors, this film tells the true story of a civilized terror: An innocent man wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife.

Michael Morton in the grip of the nightmare, wrongly convicted for the murder of his young wife.

Michael Morton in the grip of the nightmare, wrongly convicted for the murder of his young wife. (Photo: 1986, Williamson County Sun.)

The story itself incorporates all the elements of an American tragedy. A young husband, Michael Morton, the day after his birthday, returns home to his young wife and three-year old son, only to find his house surrounded by police cars. Unemotional and sinister police inform him that his wife has been brutally beaten to death. They refuse his request to see her body and that night question him in a menacing way. In an instant his nightmare begins. The suffocating reality of an amoral system unfolds with the logic of a modernist fable.

Anderson_jpg_312x1000_q100

Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, right, and Sheriff Jim Boutwell speak with reporters. Both knew of exculpatory evidence. Both hid it. (Photo: 1986, Williamson County Sun.)

The nightmare, it turns out, was no accidental miscarriage of justice.  Rather, behind it were the decisions of a Texas sheriff and a ruthlessly ambitious District Attorney, Ken Anderson of Williamson County, who withheld exculpatory evidence in order to get the cheap conviction that helped make his reputation and allowed Anderson to take his place on the Texas bench, where he now administers justice. His successor as District Attorney continued the fight for years, opposing efforts to test physical evidence that might expose the injustice perpetrated by his mentor. We who believe in justice force ourselves to hope for a special corner of hell for those who corrupt justice. That is not this story, however.

Director Al Reinert in 2013 SXSW publicity photo.

Director Al Reinert in 2013 SXSW publicity photo.

This story is told in a sparse, unobtrusive way by director Al Reinart, one-time Texas journalist and two-time Academy Award nominee (for director of the documentary For All Mankind and as screenwriter of Apollo 13), who never lingers over any element of the tragedy, whether it was the love shared by the young couple, the travesty of the trial, the years of incarceration of the innocent man or the efforts of a new legal team to do the work that the Texas police and District Attorney failed to do, because they had a much easier way to close the case. The title of the film comes from an observation by Justice Learned Hand: “Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream.” The unreality and dream-like logic of this nightmare unfolds simply with the statements of the witnesses who talk directly to the camera. Everyone speaks as though haunted by their participation (except Anderson and the other perpetrators who are only seen in archival footage, unrepentant), each trying to explain why they acted as they did. It is Morton’s fellow inmates, however, who provide the lucid and nuanced commentary. It is they who spotted his innocence, his grace and his strength and who provide the most trenchant analysis of Morton’s story.

Michael Morton quietly tells his story in the courtroom where justice miscarried.

Michael Morton quietly tells his story in the courtroom where justice miscarried.

But what makes the film emotionally stunning is Michael Morton himself. He tells most of the story, sitting in a chair in the Georgetown, Texas, courtroom where he was wrongly convicted. He talks to us quietly, objectively, without bitterness and, at times, even with humor, the kind of humor that only a man who has suffered to the core of his being can express. There are no theatrics, no obvious accusations, no dramatic courtroom scenes, only a quiet telling of the story that is both heart-breaking and in surprising ways up-lifting. The courtroom is bathed in a brown, diffuse light and is unnaturally quiet, like any other crime scene years after the criminals plied their trade.

Wedding photograph of Michael and Christine Morton.

Wedding photograph of Michael and Christine Morton.

Morton tells how he met his wife Christine in college. He says he was attracted on observing her see through a line his roommate tried on her. Morton quietly listed her virtues, the things he remembers a quarter of a century after her death, things that still make his face light up and bring a barely noticeable smile to his face. He tells how the birth of his son, Eric, changed his life, in the way any young parent explains it, although he is now the age of a grandfather. (He is now in fact a grandfather.) He explains in a simple and tender manner the heart problem his son was born with, the anguish of three years of fearful concern, the surgery and the joy of discovering that his son would live like any normal child. He tells of the happiness of his birthday in August 1986, when he, his wife and son dined out and how “great” he felt walking home, each parent holding one of Eric’s hands. And he directly says how he went to bed that night on his birthday with Christine not in the mood for lovemaking and how he left a note for her on the subject that would help undo him.

The story of the trial is told by his lawyer, who though devoted over many years, did not seem the match for the ruthless Anderson, and by two jurors. The woman juror’s defense of the verdict was perhaps most horrifying. She explained how DA Anderson was so handsome and so sure of himself, how Morton did not show the emotion she expected and, most tellingly, how there was no evidence about anyone else. With no showing that she ever reflected on her role or ever had a real understanding of how American criminal justice is supposed to work, she tells the camera that Morton did not put up enough evidence to show that he was innocent. This earnest juror probably dutifully voted to make Anderson the District Attorney, cheered him on when he won his reward for years of dirtying his hands in the retail dispensing of punishment. At the trial she certainly did his bidding.

The key feature of the trial was the testimony of a doctor, who concluded from stomach digestion that Christine had died at 1:00 a.m., hours before Morton told the police he had gone to work. (John Raley, the Houston civil attorney who was instrumental in Morton’s recent release, explained in a session after the film that the doctor himself admitted that his conclusion was not based on generally accepted scientific principles. In other words, the opinion evidence was incompetent and should not have been admitted.) Defense witnesses showed how stomach digestion analysis was “junk science” in terms of fixing the time of death. But the jury duly convicted nonetheless. The jury foreman told the camera that in most cases the husband is responsible and that belief was in the back of their minds. The testimony of these two Williamson County citizens helps explain why Texas has so many wrongful convictions. But that is not the point of the film.

Christine Morton with son Eric.

Christine Morton with son Eric.

The heart of the film is the resurrection of Michael Morton. He explains how for years he fantasized the murder of those he believed responsible for his plight: the DA, the sheriff, the foreman of the jury and others. He said that his wallowing in his revenge wish was like drinking poison so that someone else might die. He quietly described the horrors of prison life, details of which were supplied by fellow inmates. They explained how visitations were the one thing that brought hope, a breath of air, a show that there was order and freedom out there. The court had ordered that Morton’s son be brought to visit him every six months. He was raised by Morton’s sister-in-law. Morton explained how in the course of these visits he could see how his son was being taken from him. An inmate described how the sister-in-law stared at Morton throughout the visits with hatred. During one visitation, Morton was startled when he heard Eric call his sister-in-law Mom. But the estrangement only was beginning. By the time Eric was a teenager he decided that he knew nothing of his father and did not want to participate any longer in this man’s life. He wrote to Morton asking to be relieved of the visits. Morton replied that he would grant the wish if Eric would come to put his request to his face. Come the visit, his son could not look at him, but insisted he wished that it would be the last. Morton granted his request and left the visit after two minutes.

As Morton tells the story he is gripped by visible anguish, something that is almost completely absent from the rest of his narration. Morton tells the camera that of all the disappointments and tragedies, this one nearly did him in. An inmate explains how visitations can crush a man. And this one put a period to a part of Morton’s life.

In his travails in the Texas penal system Morton eventually asks God for a sign that He exists. And he got “Nothing,” he says. But in a couple of weeks, he has a profound and mystical experience that reveals to him the Three Truths that would sustains him through the remainder of his ordeal: That God exists. That He is wise. And that He loves him.

Soon through efforts of his trial lawyer Barry Scheck’s New York Innocence Project becomes involved. They engage a Houston medical malpractice lawyer, John Raley, who becomes a dogged advocate for Morton, and even better, Morton calls him “my friend.” It would take years to battle the hostile Williamson County Attorney’s office (who played with underhanded tricks) and to interest an apathetic Texas court system, but through DNA evidence, the pro bono lawyers are able to show that a piece of physical evidence ties a known felon to the murder, and tragically, to a later murder committed in nearby Austin in similar style after Anderson had closed the case by charging and urging the conviction of an innocent man. Morton is eventually released, the felon faces trial which will begin tomorrow, March 18, 2013, and the state bar association and a commission of inquiry are deciding the fate of the Honorable Ken Anderson.

Eric Olson and his father Michael Morton.

Eric Olson and his father Michael Morton.

The ending is not so pat. It takes time and reconciliation for Eric (now legally Olson) to reconcile with his father. Eric had long believed that his father had killed his mother. But at their first meeting, arranged at John Raley’s home, Eric listens to his father talk of his love for his mother, and the healing begins. Director Reinert wisely waits to this point to show the homemade videos of the young couple’s life with their child. It is as though only now does their life begin. Even Eric says that as he was always told his mother was his guardian angel, he believed that his mother was present for the reunion, smiling.

From left to right: Director Al Reinert, Michael Morton and Attorney John Raley at media event after film premier in Austin, Texas.

From left to right: Director Al Reinert, Michael Morton and Attorney John Raley at media event after film premier in Austin, Texas.

The film concludes with Morton again explaining how he discovered the Three Truths about God and how he believes that there can be nothing wrong as long as he lives with that knowledge. A clip of Morton testifying at the inquiry on Anderson shows him telling the commissioners that they have to do what must be done, but urges them to treat Anderson “gently.”

I go to this excessive length to describe this film, first to suggest that it be seen. But also for another reason. What struck me about the story of the imprisonment was how similar his description of his resurrection was to that told by Dostoevsky in The House of the Dead. Of course there are significant differences. Dostoevsky tells how he was not accepted by the peasant convicts, who could not overcome class barriers. The inmates interviewed in the film, however, universally testified to how they respected Morton and believed in his innocence (and after his conversion his unworldly unselfishness). But the outline of the years of brooding, the time it took to reconcile to his lot (this also has echoes in the epilogue to Crime and Punishment) and to the eventual salvation through suffering are strikingly similar. Morton (much like Dostoevsky explicitly does) explains how he discovered God through his suffering, and how that suffering is responsible for his present joy. The epiphany that both undergo (as does Raskonikov as well), accompanied as it was by a visual aura (one that Dostoevsky would experience from time to time for the rest of his life, accompanied with his epileptic seizures) seem not only real but palpable. The fervor that both use to describe salvation born through suffering is genuine and convincing.

The inmate who knew Morton the longest concludes that while he would not wish it on him, nevertheless, the sufferings of Morton made him, the inmate, a better person and Morton as well. This observation is delivered with the kind of quiet knowingness that those of us who have not suffered (whether innocent or not) cannot question. This is the same hard theology that Dostoevsky tells from The House of the Dead all the way through The Brothers Karamazov. It is hard not to conclude, at least only from considering it from the foreign perspective of Siberia 150 years ago, that the psychology of imprisonment, the forced labor, the lack of privacy (a thing emphasized especially by both Dostoevsky and Morton), the slow drain of one’s life must have both a debilitating and yet mystical effect on the inmate, much like the self-inflicted physical suffering and privations effected in Western Christian mystics (and perhaps Zen Buddhists). Is this all a matter of human psychology? Is there really anything sacred in a philosophic system that requires a man to be stripped of all personality, dignity, self-worth and freedom in order to attain enlightenment and salvation? Dostoevsky, at least, understands this objection and tries to meet it head on in The Brothers Karamazov, which in the end nearly meets the challenge. Morton is not a philosopher; his “proof” is in his almost beatific manner, his calm dignity and a willingness to forgive that an astonished audience could not fathom.

This, as I said, is a hard theology and one that is not immediately convincing. In the questioning period following the film, Morton himself was asked how he would feel about the real killer when he sees him this week in the trial for the death of his wife. Morton, in life no more given to dramatics or dissembling than in the film, answered that he knew that in the long run forgiveness was required, yet he said, point blank, “But I’m not there yet.”

Whatever you might think of this hard theology, it is worth seeing this man, Michael Morton. We have grown loud, and insincere, and opinionated. (These of course are the characteristics of the legal system that wrongfully imprisoned Morton.) We rarely (if ever) see a man with the dignity and grace of Michael Morton. A man who should be bitter, but who finds more joy in life than most of the rest of us do. Morton explains that in prison it’s possible to have a monastic retreat. He says that it is never easy, but in prison he had the time for intense self-analysis, time to review every word he ever spoke. That undoubtedly is why this rebuilt man says everything with such uncommon depth. Whatever your view on God, the Universe and Everything Else, you will marvel that Great Souls, Mahatmas, still exist. Even in unlikely places like Williamson County, Texas.