Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Charles Baxter's "The Cousins": Puzzle the Prof Contest--Short Story Month 20011

The third head-scratcher for my Short Story Month 2011 “Puzzle the Prof” contest comes from Ray, who at Southern Oregon University’s version of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is taking a course that studies the annual Best American Short Story collection. In the 2010 edition, edited by Richard Russo, the story “The Cousins” by Charles Baxter provided a puzzle for the class with Baxter’s introduction of an apple at the end of the story. Ray points out that the narrator steals the apple on page 59 and then informs us on page 60 that he could have paid for it, “but shoplifting apparently was called for. It was an emotional necessity.” Then Ray notes that the narrator has it with him when he gets home on page 61. “There it is, deliberately and repeatedly,” says Ray, adding emphatically, “What the hell is it doing there?”

Apples are notorious for causing problems in literature, especially the short story, where the thematic demands and the mythic sources of the form often seem to require that certain objects have symbolic, often mythic, significance. And, of course, the most famous apple in all of myth and literature is the apple in the Garden of Eden that Eve purloined against the warnings of Jehovah and gave to Adam.

Many years ago, I was in a graduate school course on literary criticism conducted by a professor I admired, Dr. Eric Thompson; we had read the short story by Eudora Welty entitled “A Visit of Charity,” in which a young girl hides an apple before visiting a home for the elderly and then retrieves it and takes a big bite out of it at the end of the story. I posted a blog on March 5, 2009 in which I discussed how the class debate about the story centered on the Edenic implications of that apple and how my dissatisfaction with that debate lead me a few years later to write and publish my first academic article.

Of course, in no translation of the Bible I am familiar with is the forbidden fruit identified as an apple. It is simply referred to as a “fruit.” Some scholars think it probably was a fig rather than an apple. However, since the apple seems so irresistible with its solid shiny roundness, it has trumped the fig in the popular imagination. When Milton referred to the fruit as an apple, he seems to have settled the forbidden fruit issue for artists and cartoonists for all time.

Of course, there is no compelling reason to associate every apple in every short story with that archetypal apple that Eve bit and shared with her husband, thus introducing the knowledge of good and evil into the world. Sometimes, an apple is just an apple. Just as Freud supposedly said, (although I cannot find the exact citation of his saying this), sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

So, we will hold the apple in abeyance and start by looking at Charles Baxter’s story to see if there are other elements in the story that might thematically compel us to read his fictional apple as the apple in the Garden of Eden.

“The Cousins” originally appeared in Tin House in 2009 and was later collected in Baxter’s most recent book, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, 2011. As Ray has already mentioned, it was also chosen by Richard Russo for the 2010 Best American Short Stories. In the Contributor’s Notes to BASS, Baxter says, “I have always liked stories with dubious narrators given to rationalizations, and ‘The Cousins’ has one such narrator, someone who should give what used to be called ‘moral support’ but doesn’t do so until it is too late.” Baxter further says the story is built from several bits and pieces: an anecdote told to him by a friend, another anecdote told to him more recently, a dream, his memories of New York City in the 1970s, a stanza from one of his own poems, and a monologue he heard from an Ethiopian-American cab driver. Baxter must have seen some thematic connection between the various bits that urged him to “build” the story.

By “dubious narrator,” Baxter may be referring to the concept that Wayne Booth introduced in his classic 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction—the “unreliable narrator.” Booth says, "I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work ... unreliable when he does not.” When the reader feels that a narrator (usually a first-person narrator) is what Booth calls, "morally and intellectually deficient,” the reader may judge that narrator unreliable and thus his judgments and observations questionable or suspicious, or as Baxter has it, “dubious.” Often we classify narrators as unreliable when their value system clashes with the prevailing value system of the society, the story, or our own notion of what constitutes basic human decency and moral behavior.

The narrator of “The Cousins” is named Benjamin, but called by his childhood nickname “Bunny” by his cousin Brantford, named for the grandfather, who made a fortune from a device used in aircraft navigation. Brantford has spent his entire college fund frivolously, while, it is assumed, Benjamin has used his to get a degree in law. Benjamin says that although he is twenty years older than Brantford, they are “oddly similar, more like brothers than cousins.” This theme of “brother” occurs later in the story at Brantford’s funeral when Benjamin meets Camille, the woman Brantford had been living with and the mother of his child. She tells Benjamin that his face is like Brantford’s, that they both have the same cheerful scowl. She also says Brantford talked about Benjamin “as his long-lost brother, the one who never came to see him.”

Perhaps the most famous brothers in the Bible are the original brothers, Cain and Able. This story of the “first” brothers seem related to Baxter’s story. When Benjamin and Brantford meet for lunch at the beginning of the story, Brantford tells his cousin, “Sometimes at night I have the feeling that I’ve murdered somebody…Someone’s dead. Only I don’t know who or what or when I did it. I must’ve killed somebody. I’m sure of it.” At the end of the lunch, Brantford says, “Would you please explain to me why it feels as if I’ve committed a murder?”

Brantford’s confession of his feeling that he has committed a murder is important, for it is mentioned later in the story after Benjamin tells of his past life as an actor when he knocks a man down in the subway for urinating in his drink glass and then runs away as the man crawls toward the tracks. When he can find no newspaper account of the man’s death, he thinks he may have dreamed the whole thing, or that someone else dreamed it and then put him as a lead actor in the dream—“a cautionary tale whose moral was that I had no gift for the life I’d been leading.” He then dreams that someone points to his body on the floor, saying, “It’s dead.” He says what frightened him was not his death, but that he had become an “It.” He says that he would not have eve thought of his days as an actor had not Brantford told him twenty years later over lunch that he felt he had killed somebody and if he and Brantford had not had a “kind of solidarity.”

This theme of Brantford’s thinking he has killed someone combines with Benjamin’s concern that he may have been responsible for the man’s death in the subway, evoking that archetypal first murder in the Bible, when Cain rises up and kills his brother Abel because God chose Abel’s sacrificial gift over his own.

The Cain and Abel story always puzzled me as a child. I could not understand why God chose Abel’s gift over Cain’s. It was not that Cain gave the Lord rotten or unripe vegetables from his garden, while Abel gave the firstlings of his flock, nor could I accept the theological justification that in Genesis we are dealing with a vengeful God. I published an article several years ago about how the Cain and Abel story is related to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s great poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I quote a passage from that article below.

Cain’s murder of his brother is the first sin of man against man in the Old Testament. But it is a sin that is only possible because of the previous Original Sin of Man against God. As a result of eating the apple, Man is cast out of the Garden—separated from the God and nature with which he was formerly at one. However, perhaps the most important result of the Fall is the separation of man from man. As Erich Fromm suggests in The Art of Loving, when Adam and Eve see their nakedness and seek to cover themselves, they do so not because of bodily shame and prudery, but because they have become aware of themselves and the separateness. The realization that they are no longer one causes their shame, guilt, and anxiety.

The story of Cain and Abel is the inevitable result of this separation; it is a series of cumulative symbolic objectifications of the implicit reality. Both Cain and Abel bring offerings to the Lord, each according to his own ability and resources. Abel brings the “firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof” and Cain brings the “fruit of the ground.” However, “The Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering: But unto Cain and his offering he had not respect.” No real explanation is given for God’s making this distinction between the two brothers. Cain has given his best just as Abel has. It is certainly not, as many casual readers think, that Cain offered rotten fruit. Moreover, it trivializes the symbolic significance of a powerful story to simply attribute the distinction to the historical notion that the Old Testament God was partial to blood sacrifices.

God’s distinction may be better understood as an explicit objectification of what is implicit in the Fall: men, even brothers, are ultimately separate. By this act, God says, “You are isolated from one another. It is therefore possible to make a distinction between you.” Cain reacts to this realization by testing it in the extreme—by rising up against Abel and slaying him. Cain kills Abel simply because he can, because he is separate from him, because he is free to do so. God’s response is, of course, to make Cain the original symbol of isolated man. He cuts him off from other men completely: “a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.” Thus begins the nightmare reality of man’s isolation from his fellow man—a reality that makes him horrifyingly free to slay his brother because he is separate from him.

I hypothesize that “The Cousins” has something to do with our human responsibility to our “brother,” that is, all other men and women, but that we often have difficulty fulfilling that responsibility because of our inherent separation from the other. As Baxter says in his Contributor’s Notes to Best American Short Stories, the story has something to do with a man, Benjamin, who fails to give moral support to his “brother” until it is too late and then tries to rationalize his moral failure as he begins to realize his “sin.”

In some ways, the relationship between Brantford and Benjamin is like another famous pair of brothers in the Bible in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Brantford spends all his money on an expensive lifestyle, while Benjamin saves his money and gets an education. Although Benjamin says he wanted to help Brantford, he says he did not know how to express compassion with him or how to express the pity he felt. “I think my example sometimes goaded him into despair.”

By the way, I never liked the parable of the Prodigal Son any more than I did the story of Cain and Abel. It just didn’t seem fair to me that the father would welcome back with a big party the son who has foolishly spent all his inheritance, while the son who stayed home and saved his money would get no party at all.

So, let’s say that “The Cousins” derives from, or is a variation of, the two “brother” stories in the Bible (or any other “brother” stories from other mythologies or cultures, and there are many of them, for a “brother” story is most always about making distinctions between the two in which one triumphs and one feels envy). Which of the two cousins is Cain and which is Abel? From Baxter’s point of view, it’s not that simple. Both are Cain, and both are Abel. Both are the same, even as they re different. As Camille tells Benjamin, “You look alike, but that doesn’t mean you were alike. You could have been his identical twin and you wouldn’t have been any closer to him than you are now.”

Camille knows that when Benjamin attends Brantford’s funeral he is there to “exercise” his “compassion.” She tells him that he is in his element, that he is enjoying this attempt at a cheap moral payback for his neglect of his “brother,” his moral superiority. She tells him to send her a regular check, for he is one of “those guys who loves to exercise his pity, his empathy. You’re one of those rare, sensitive men with a big bank account.”

Then, in one of the most important lines in the story, Benjamin tells her: “It seems that you want to keep me in a posture of perpetual contrition,” adding, “I was suddenly proud of that phrase. It summed everything up.”

If our hypothesis about this story is right, it does sum everything up. Given the horrible way we treat our brothers, we should all always be in a “posture of perpetual contrition.”

The encounter with the taxicab driver is a coda of this theme of brothers. When the cabbie tells Benjamin that he is Ethiopian, Benjamin says he thought he was Somali. The cabdriver crossly responds, “Extremely not. I am Ethiopian…very different. We do not look the same either.” He further explains what Ethiopians think a Somali has nine hearts and will never reveal his true heart, only his false one, doing this over and over. Thus, you will never get to the ninth heart, which is the true one, the “door to the soul. The Somali keeps that heart to himself.” This coda seems to emphasize the brotherhood theme of the story—that even though we may seem the same, we are different; or even though we seem different we are the same. We are doomed to always be separate, never to be able to know the true heart of the other, always unable to know the difference between the thing that is and the thing that is not. Benjamin’s encounter with the poet at the party who called him the “scum of the earth,” which in turn caused him to treat the man in the subway as if he too were the scum of the earth, only reminds us that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, regardless of how repulsive the neighbor might be. If we treat others in the horrible way others treat us, we have no chance of finding a sense of union in the midst of the separation and loneliness brought into being by the original eating of the Edenic apple.

“The Cousins” ends with Benjamin arriving at his home with his stolen apple and the new bunch of flowers he has bought. He thinks he will ring the bell as a stranger might, “a someone who hopes to be welcomed.” The bell does not work, so he goes to the side door. He thinks if he had been Brantford, the yard animal would have approached him (we recall Brantford’s love of animals). He sees his wife home-tutoring a little Somali girl. He feels the presence of his cousin. He raps on the door, but when his wife looks at him, he cannot see her eyes through her dark glasses (we recall his wife’s sensitivity to light), so he does not know if she intends to ever let him in the house again. The last line of the story is: “I have loved this life so much. I was prepared to wait out there forever.”

So, why does Benjamin steal an apple to bring home to his wife? And why does he feel he has to steal it? If the apple is the Edenic apple, the original theft of which brought separation into life, then it is only right that Benjamin (Adam) gives it back to Giulietta (Eve). It could not have been purchased, for it is beyond price; it must be retrieved in the same way it was originally purloined. We recall that when Benjamin met Giulietta, he recognized her “insubstantial quality. When you looked away from her, you couldn’t be sure that she’d still be there when you looked back again.” Giulietta is a different kind of angel than the “fiery angel” Brantford has seen in the sky and thought might descend on him. When Benjamin looks in and sees his sons and his wife in the house, he cannot be sure that he will be allowed in.

And indeed, how can we ever be sure? One tries to look into the eyes of the loved one and see their true heart, but one never knows. It is the “fear and trembling” of not knowing that requires the “leap of faith” to love the other as the self even if we never know that what we perceive is “what is” or “what is not.” But even if we do not know, we must be prepared, as Benjamin is, to wait to be allowed in. “knock and the door will be opened to you.”

I know this has been a long and complex interpretative journey to get to that apple. But in a good short story, to understand the significance of even one small element requires that we understand the role that the one element plays in the whole story. How do I know if this is the correct interpretation of the apple? I don’t. But it is an interpretation that justifies most all the details in the story, an interpretation that seems unified and gives me meaningful pleasure. I think that is what Charles Baxter wants—a reader who cares enough to give his story the kind of attention that he gave in making it.

I thank Ray for compelling me to spend some quality time with Charles Baxter’s story, and I thank Charles Baxter for writing it with such wisdom and grace. My experience with this story reminds me of why I love the short story and so enjoy sharing that love with readers of this blog.


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