Thursday, March 5, 2009

Making A Focused Professional and a Broadly Human Response to the Story

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.”

9 comments:

sandy said...

Thank you for talking like Thompson--I had forgotten exactly the way he sounded, but you have it down. I wish I had read your article on the story before now. I always thought that Marian had a moment when she could have loved, when she saw Addie closely and plainly and from all sides as if in a dream; she wondered about her as if there was nothing else in the world except the old woman. She saw more than the surface; she saw a little lamb, and she is moved when she sees Addie crying. But she backs away. I have always wondered whether Marian had been to the Old Ladies' Home before--she says we all enjoyed it when the two old ladies speak about someone visiting them earlier and reading the Bible. But if she has been there before, her refusal to come any closer to Addie, to see Addie as one who was once young as Marian is young and who has lived a story that Marian could listen to and through the story come close to the being who is trapped inside Addie is a refusal of grace, which is the unpardonable sin. The grace is the opportunity to see Addie as a Thou just as Christ's grace offers us an opportunity to know Him. Marian can not generate that on her own, but it is given, and she refuses it. I do feel as if this story comes to me right side up--maybe because I had such a experience of it early on. I do not know the Isak Dinesen story you talk about, but I will find it.
Do you relate humanly to Antonya Nelson's stories? I re-read the William Trevor story Woman of the House, and it moved me in a queer way. It overwhelmed me with feelings of such separateness and isolation in the world Trevor evokes that as an older person perhaps facing death, I imagined that I might die and no one notice as the old man dies (is perhaps killed by his woman), and the bare notice the painters pay to his absence is not sufficient to get them to inquire or do anything as long as they get paid for the painting job. The woman is a cypher to me--how could she sell herself for a pound of lambchops when she is not starving. The absence of any hope for any real bridge of the chasm between us all was almost paralyzing. Is there more going on in that story that I missed?

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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I agree with this article, but it raises several questions. It begs the question, does the natural human response and interpretation of a short story hold merit when compared to a professional scholar's interpretation of literature.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with this article. It is very easy to read a story, with a closed mind and at the end be confused or interpret it and ask why the author didn't just "say it that way". The human side of us wants to know things ahead of time and not have to ask questions but the professional reading a story will appreciate the mystery in a story and the search for analytic findings and philosophies. It makes you think: How many stories do I need to re-read to fit what my professor wants me to understand? What is it that the author would have said if he/she were sitting in on our class?

Anonymous said...

Upon reading the story “A Visit of Charity,” by Eudora Welty I was unaware of the Gospel of St. John, 21:15-17. When answering the question of what charity has to do with the story my interpretation was slightly different. Most likely the goal of the campfire girls is to show the girls the overwhelming joy of doing a kind act for another, and to see that there are people out there that need their help even at such a young age. As the story begins the author shows the young girls indifference to helping the elderly or looking for other ways to improve their conditions. Before she even walks in Marian is dreading her visit to the facility stating the cold appearance of the building. Once inside she represents her visit as a forced occurrence and mentioning that her only purpose was to receive credit for her organization. The girl shows little respect to the women, even calling them “old ladies.” She describes the pair as almost animal like, referring to Addie’s claw like hand and the sheepish sounds from the second woman. Marian makes no attempt to connect with the women and escapes as quickly as possible. Once exiting the building wipes her memory clean of the event, symbolized by biting the apple. The story seems to represent an indifference towards human suffering and the need for charity. Though the Campfire girls does successfully get the girls to the community through their extra credit they do not show the girls how to truly help.

Kassidy said...

The comparison made in this blog entry between Marian and her hidden apple to the story of Adam and Eve is simply fascinating. The references to the old ladies' sheep-like behavior and to Marian's apple now carry with them a whole new dimension, presenting the reader with a new angle from which they might be inclined to analyze the story. The investigation of the story of Adam and Eve demonstrates the apposite notion of man's internal battle of union with- versus separation from his fellow human beings, providing yet another tool with which the reader can use to dig deeper into the story. Very enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

After reading this, I seemed to gain a better understanding of how difficult it is to see the underlying meaning that the author is trying to portray. How are we supposed to see exactly what the author intended to be seen? There is no right or wrong answer; it is just the way you interpret it. Having a broad human response is the key challenge when reading a short story. Once a reader can quickly identify a broad theme or idea that was apparent in the story, it is easier to understand. Once I read different ideas, like the main character being compared to “Eve,” it really opened my eyes to read this story differently. I knew eating the apple was significant, but now that I can compare it to Eve, I find it much more important. It is also important to note that short stories have a reason for every word the author decides to include. There is a purpose for the length, repetition, and any details that are said. Learning to love and acknowledge your differences from other people and looking outside of the life you are used to, is one of the broad responses that could be interpreted after reading, “A visit from Charity.”

Charles E. May said...

My thanks to all those who have responded to my discussion of Eudora Welty's story "A Visit of Charity." It has a special meaning for me, because an unsatisfactory discussion I had with fellow graduate students many years ago about this story had much to do with my decision to spend my academic life studying the short story form. As a result of that discussion,when I became a professor a few years later, I published my very first academic article on " Visit of Charity." The article started me thinking and the issue of "love and separateness" as being a characteristic theme of the short story as a genre. Thanks to "anonymous" for these generous comments.