In a “Comment” on my last post, Sandy expresss the same lament I have expressed over the years—the uncertainty about whether as readers we have been true to the deeply human complexity of the story—whether as teachers we demonstrate to our students that we are both trained professional readers and wholeheartedly human readers responding with our whole being to deeply human writers.
Back when I first started teaching, I was twenty-five years old, just out of graduate school. Lord, only six years out of high school. I was teaching a short story one day to a class of freshmen and sophomores and had worked the story pretty hard, I thought, doing my best to get the students to interpret, explicate, analyze--to figure out what the story meant and how it meant what it meant rather than just to process plot. When I finished, I asked if anyone had any final questions. One older man in the back of the room, who had remained quiet through the whole proceedings, raised his hand and said, with the exasperation years of experience with the work-a-day world often brings: "Well, hell," he said, "if that's what he meant by the damned story, why didn't he say it that way in the first place?"
I took a deep breath and gave some version of answer all literature teachers have given in one way or another over the years. I stumbled and stuttered about how stories could never be reduced to explanation, that they were about stuff that couldn't really be talked about any other way, and so forth and so forth. He listened with pursed lips until I straggled to a halt, finishing hopefully, "Does that answer your question?" He shook his head indulgently--the older man putting up with the earnestness of the younger--and said, "It's a mystery, ain't it, son?"
Sandy is a dear friend of mine; we met in graduate school at Ohio University in the literary criticism class of the professor she mentions in her comment: Eric Thompson. He was my favorite teacher also—a model of the combination of the focused professional and the broadly human that I admired.
It was in one of Professor Thompson’s classes that I developed an idea for the first article I ever published. We were talking about a story by Eudora Welty entitled “A Visit of Charity,” and my fellow students seemed quite satisfied with their trained academic reading of the story, but Professor Thompson was not satisfied. Nor was I. A couple of years later, I wrote an article, a portion of which I excerpt below, that I felt more fully expressed my human response to the story.
Last year, I made a presentation on Frank O’Connor’s theory of “the lonely voice” at an international short story conference in Cork, Ireland. I excerpt a brief section of that below also. As you can see, over forty years later, I am still struggling with developing a “focused professional” and “broadly human” response to literature that Eric Thompson might have approved of.
1969: “The Difficulty of Loving in a Visit of Charity” (Excerpt)
The most significant critical problem in Eudora Welty's short story "A Visit of Charity" is: What does Marian's frightening and crucial visit to the Old Ladies' Home have to do with charity? Past critics of the story have tried to account for the little girl's strange experience without considering the concept. In order to understand how the visit is actually a crisis in charity, it is first necessary to see that charity in the title means love. For Marian's visit is her first experience with the difficulty of loving. It is also an ultimate challenge of the biblical injunction, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
As Erich Fromm points out about this brotherly love the most fundamental kind of love, "In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core. If I perceive in another person mainly the surface, I perceive the differences, that which separates us. If I penetrate to the core, I perceive our identity, the fact of our brotherhood." What most shocks Marian about the old ladies and throws her into an unfamiliar world is their basic difference from her. The experience is a strange one of her because she is a stranger in the most extreme sense. She has left the comfortable world of belonging and entered the nightmare world of separation and isolation. From the very beginning Marian does not think of the old ladies as people like herself.
Marian's final act--retrieving the apple she had hidden before she entered the Home and taking a big bite into it as she rides away on the bus is the final symbolic gesture that unifies all the complexities in the story of man's basic separation and his refusal to heal that breach by loving. Ruth M. Vande Kieft suggests that in Marian's biting into the apple, "there is a subtle hint that this little Eve has had her initiation to the knowledge of evil." If so, it is not the brutal evil of the Home itself that Marian has become aware of. Her very concrete bite into the apple shows that she has forgotten the misery of the Home is once more in her own familiar world of sunshine and indifference.
If indeed she is Eve, her awareness is of the most basic evil that resulted from the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Here again Erich Fromm gives us the clue. He suggests that the knowledge that Adam and Eve gain when they eat the apple is the awareness of their own separateness. They become aware of themselves and of each other and thus know that they are different. This is the meaning of the Old Testament loss of Paradise. Man becomes aware of his separateness from all other men. Fromm goes on to explain Adam and Eve's response to this new knowledge by noting that "while recognizing their separateness they remain strangers, because they have not learned to love each other."
This, of course, is the other side of Marian's problem. If she reminds us of the Old Testament loss of man's oneness, she also illustrates the difficulty of following the New Testament message of how man might heal that division through love. Marian's bite into the apple ironically encompasses both these suggestions. In the Gospel of St. John, 21:15-17, Jesus three times asks Peter, "Simon son of Jonas, lovest thou me?" When three times Peter answers, "thou knowest I love thee," Christ replies, "Feed my sheep." When we recall that Addie, the old woman who asks Marian for love, is constantly referred to a s a sheep or a little lamb, the reverse implication of Marian's bite into the apple becomes clear. She has refused to feed the she--literally by refusing to give the apple to Addie, symbolically by refusing to give her love. Thus the irony of the story is more complex than hitherto recognized. At the same time it illustrates both the Old Testament loss of human oneness and the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of following the New Testament hope of recovering that lost state. Marian takes a bite into the apple and the story is over. Nothing is solved. Marian has learned nothing. Now that she is away from the home, she has forgotten her strange and terrible experience. She is once more in control of her limited little world, and the bus stops when she shouts for it "as though at an imperial command." But even as she takes that unconcerned bite into the apple, we still hear the piercing questions of the love starved old Addie: "Who are you? You're a stranger--a perfect stranger! Don't you know you're a stranger?"
2008: The Short Story and the Lonely Voice (Excerpt)
I believe that the central focus of the short story as a genre is the basic primordial story that constitutes human beings existentially--their basic sense of aloneness and their yearning for union. The question story proposes, according to Isak Dinesen, is “Who am I?” and, as Heidegger says, any answer to the question “who am I” that is based on a description of everyday existence is inadequate, inauthentic; the most revelatory state of mind, says Heidegger, is anxiety, which arises from one’s confrontation with nothingness.” Husserl says the problem is the enigma of the other, for I can only see from the other’s point of view what I would have seen if I were there in the same place. But the “as if I were over there” does not permit introducing the ‘here’ of the other into my sphere. My “here” and the other’s “over there” are mutually exclusive. Since there is no way of knowing what the other actually sees, feels, intends, as if I were he, we are born into solipsism.
The human yearning that this would be otherwise is best expressed by Martin Buber. "In the beginning," says Buber, "is relation as category of being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the ”a priori of relation, the inborn Thou." Studies in anthropology and child psychology support Buber's assertion that both phylogenetically and ontogenetically the “Thou” relation precedes the “It” perception, but only in a primal undifferentiated universe from which the adult civilized human is excluded except by means of an aesthetic or religious "As if”-- best expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for.”
According to Jean Piaget, the young baby itself constitutes its sole reality because the baby's universe contains no permanent object, no “It” and therefore no “I” except the total and unconscious egocentric self, that is not a self with which the adult can identify. Piaget tells us that the baby's objectless universe is made up of "shifting and unsubstantial `tableaux’ that appear and are then totally reabsorbed." However, during the first eighteen months of life, a kind of "Copernican revolution" takes place in the child, a general decentering process during which the child begins to perceive the self as an object in a universe made up of permanent objects, a universe in which causality is localized in space and objectified in things. Philosopher Ernst Cassirer locates this “Copernican revolution” in the history of the race as a realization of Pascal’s “The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”
Buber also describes the event phylogenetically in terms that suggest its metaphysical and moral implications. "This actual event is the separation of the human body, as the bearer of its perceptions, from the world round about it...whenever the sentence `I see the tree' is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man and the tree, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word “I-It,” the word of separation, has been spoken." Thus arises, says Buber, the "melancholy of our fate" in the earliest history of the race and the individual.
The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish and the demands of our social self, which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation. The unconscious is where "reality" resides, says Eliade. The human search to know it is equivalent to the desire of the religious man to live in the sacred, which is, "equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality… to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion."
The problem for the critic is to determine how stories reveal the spiritual, how they escape the "naked worm of time" and embody the hierophanic principle. The most emphatic and succinct statement and illustration of this primal nature of story can be found in Isak Dinesen's "The First Cardinal's Tale." In telling his female penitent a story to answer her question "Who am I?" the Cardinal explains to her how the story has answered her question. "Stories," the Cardinal says, "have been told as long as speech has existed, and without stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished without water. The Cardinal then goes on to discuss the difference between the story and the new art of narration known as the novel. This "literature of the individual" is a noble art, says the Cardinal, but it is only a human product. "The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story…. We, who hold our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, verily, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe.”