Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obsession and Haunting

One of the wonderful things about a blog is that I get reading suggestions and ideas from those of you kind enough to comment on my entries. I got a comment from Lee, who was interested in my suggestion that short stories are more often mythical mysteries than novels are, which tend toward the realistic. He then asked if I had ever read the stories of Kelly Link.

I went back to the 2005 edition of Best American Short Stories and reread her story "Stone Animals," which originally appeared in Conjunctions. It is a comic suburban ghost story of sorts with a highly stylized tone. I like it. A family moves out of an apartment in the city to a house in the suburbs. The wife is pregnant. The husband occasionally must go into the city. His boss, who they call the Crocodile, is creating a huge ball made of rubber bands. The two children are finding it difficult to adjust.

But the most interesting and predominant motif in the story is the set of stone rabbits at the entrance to the house. As the story progresses, real rabbits (or maybe fantasy rabbits) begin to take over the lawn of the house. All their possessions become haunted.

I t's a funny and original take on the effect of wrenching oneself away from one life and trying to adjust to another one. It's worth reading.

In fact, that 2005 edition of Best American Short Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, includes stories by several writers that I admire: J. Robert Lennon, Charles D'Ambrosio, Joy Williams, Edward P. Jones, George Saunders, David Means, and Alice Munro. If you ever see it, you might want to pick it up.

In the Contributors' notes, Link makes a comment that I found particularly compelling and provocative. After noting that her story owes a special debt to the stories of Joan Aiken, she says:

"I've always loved ghost stories, weird tales, true (and untrue) stories of haunted houses. Sometimes I think all good short stories function as ghost stories, in which the people, themes, events that grip an individual writer occur again and again like a haunting. Readers, too, can be haunted by stories."

I am interested in this notion of stories haunting a writer. Elizabeth Bowen said a good short story had to have a sense of "necessariness" about it, suggesting that a story "must" be told, that there is something obsessive about it. I wrote an essay about this several years ago and include a quote below (Please forgive me for quoting myself, but these issues haunt me.) I am currently reading the new book by Lennard J. Davis, entitled Obsession: A History" and will talk more about the notion of obsession, haunting, and necessariness in the short story in a future entry. I would be interested in hearing from writers who share Link's sense of being haunted by a story and feeling compelled to tell it.

"Ritual is one of the most characteristic obsessional means by which one defends against anxiety, for the ritual act is a symbolic enactment to simulate command of that for which the personality feels it has no control. Freud's famous "fort-da, described" in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which a baby repetitively throws a toy out of its crib to simulate its sense of control over the mother's departure is perhaps the most famous example. If, as Georg Luk√°cs has said, the short story is the most artistic form, it may be because, as Frederic Jameson has suggested, it is the most formal and ritualistic narrative form, for it recapitulates the most basic motivation of the artistic impulse--the "for-da"--the need to create the similitude of control. Randal Jarrell describes the same compulsion when he claims that our stories show that we take pleasure in "repeating over and over, until we can bear it, all that we found unbearable: the child whose mother left her so often that she invented a game of throwing her doll out of her crib, exclaiming as it vanished 'Gone! gone!' was a true poet."

Bruno Bettleheim has suggested that fairy stories, one of the primary progenitors of the short story, are such ritualized defenses or outlets for childhood anxiety. Bettleheim argues that the child is subject to fears of loneliness, isolation and mortal anxiety--existential anxieties that fairy tales take seriously and deal with by objectifying in a highly formal structure, much the way that Sufi healing stories do.

As Leon Salzman reminds us, the obsessional impulse is not a defense against anxiety about everyday problems, but rather anxiety about the most basic problems that arise from our fundamental humanness. Salzman says that realization of one's "humanness--with its inherent limitations--is often the basis for considerable anxiety and obsessive attempts at great control over one's living." Freud noted that obsessed neurotics turn their thoughts "to those subjects upon which all mankind are uncertain and upon which our knowledge and judgments remain open to doubt. The chief subjects of this kind are paternity, length of life, life after death, and memory....”

The entire line of development of the short story--from fairy tale to Poe, from Chekhov to Raymond Carver--has focused on such basic human anxieties and has dealt with them by the creation of a highly formalized, unified, and ritualized aesthetic object. "


Rolf said...

Charles, you have me going back to Munro and reading some of the stories I found most affecting,,, those I have not been able to let go. Then you write this wonderful essay. I have a couple of observations.

I agree, anxiety as a fulcrum for the process of writing these stories, and reading them, is quite right. But as an old purveyor of emotion, in my work and my writing, I’ve come to believe that the word anxiety serves mostly as a euphemism for something more banal: plain old fear, that precursor to terror. (Why not call a thing by its name? Only convention prevents us, sometimes.)

Munro’s stories are charnel houses of fear, angst dissected in every manner. I re-read “Miles City, Montana” over the weekend, relived all those moments of fear over lost children. “Some Women” reflects the fear of awakening as seen from the perspective of the older self, perhaps fearing her own death. In Munro’s “Labor Day Dinner,” the terror of escaping the car speeding through the intersection stuns us. She describes it, writing about the story as “…shooting through the intersection, a deadly fish in the night.” And so on.

As for haunting, isn’t that a part of fear as a child? The sense of some unspeakable destiny ever waiting to exert its control over our paltry attempts? And haunting is a pervasive term, I think among those who find themselves enmeshed in this art. Some stories have haunted me for decades, many for years. I can remember the first one, “To Build a Fire,” Jack London. I froze to death a thousand times in my dreams. Nelson’s story “Dick” haunts me. “Labor Day Dinner” (above) haunts me. A strange play called “Drive In’ by David Kranes. Lot’s of others.

Unquestionably, for me, the stories I write come up out of some haunted place. They take a long time out. People ask why I never write stories about the navy and I would say (if I can get away with it), they haven’t haunted me long enough. And I’ll tell you, in the writing they change to be more acceptable. They are always too raw on the first draft. It’s only after I can work through the raw cloth that I can focus on the true terror of them.

I think anxiety as a word, while accurate, does not give the element its true patina. Fear. That’s it. Even the fear of trying to create something, of not even trying to explain, just depict.

On that cheery note: Cheers, and thanks for the essay.

Lee said...

The idea of haunting (& ghosts) always takes me straight to Hilary Mantel's novels. Here's a quote from a good Guardian piece of hers:

'When we talk about ghosts, we are speaking in layers of metaphor. We are not usually speaking about wispy bodies in rotting shrouds, but about family secrets, buried impulses, unsolved mysteries, anything that lingers and clings. We are speaking of the sense of loss that sometimes overtakes us, a nostalgia for something that we can't name. There is a way in which the question "Do you believe in ghosts?" is unnecessary to ask: we all know a few, and they walk at all hours, if only through our memories. Our ancestors are encoded in our genes. Look at your face in the mirror, and one day you will see one of your parents, moving under your own skin; the next day it may be a grandparent who has come to visit. Within you, there are people you have never been able to mourn because you never knew them, people from the distant past; the traces of your animal ancestors still live in your instincts, in your physiology. As products of evolution, we carry all the past inside us; we are walking repositories of the lost.'


I often think that my own characters haunt me in unsettling ways; they become as real to me as those whom I've lost, either though long absence or death. I often think about how the mind distinguishes between real and created memories - or doesn't.

Any writer (or respectable craftsman) has to be at least somewhat obsessional in order to aim for, even if never attain, perfection. The why of this desire is of course the interesting part ...