Thursday, November 10, 2011

Steven Millhauser and The Reality of Artifice

I had just finished reading Steven Millhauser’s new book, We Others: New and Selected Stories, when I received my copy of Best American Short Stories, 2011, which reprinted his story “Phantoms,” from McSweeneys. And then, son-of-a-gun, in came the Nov. 14 issue of The New Yorker with his story “Miracle Polish.” As was said of the ubiquitous Mr. Browne in Joyce’s “The Dead,” Millhauser has of late been “laid on like the gas.” That’s all right by me. Steven Millhauser is always a welcome guest in my mind.

We Others includes fourteen stories from Millhauser’s previous four collections (In the Penny Arcade, 1986; The Barnum Museum, 1990; The Knife Thrower, 1998; and Dangerous Laughter, 2008. It also includes seven “new” stories: “The Slap,” “The White Glove,” “Getting Closer,” The Invasion from Outer Space,” “People of the Book,” “The Next Thing,” and the novella-length title story “We Others.”

The Millhauser story chosen for the 2011 Best American Short Stories, “Phantoms,” is also a ghost story, in which Millhauser explores one his favorite “romantic” concepts—that there is another dimension of reality surrounding us, a dimension of spirits of those who have died. “Phantoms” is made up of various “case studies” in which these spirits appear to people, interspersed with various hypotheses or explanations of what they are. For example, one explanation is that the phantoms are “the unwanted or unacknowledged portions of ourselves, which we try to evade but continually encounter; they make us uneasy because we know them; they are ourselves.” Given Millhauser’s “romantic” view of reality, perhaps his favorite hypothesis is that we are all phantoms, that our bodies are artificial constructs of our brains and we are dream creations. “The world itself is a great seeming.”

Millhauser’s most recent story in the new issue of The New Yorker, “Miracle Polish,” is a “concept” stories that draws on nineteenth-century German romantic notions, which Millhauser has used before. For example, in his story “August Eschenburg,” he explores Heinrich von Kleist’s paradoxical notion that, from the perspective of art, the automaton is preferable to the human--a concept most fully developed in Kleist's dialogue, "On the Puppet Theatre," in which a famous dancer tells Kleist that puppets are better able to express grace and beauty in their motions than human beings because they have no choice but to obey mechanical principles; the more that the human element of the puppeteer can be removed, the more perfect the dance the puppets perform.

The purest form of grace exists, says the dancer, only in those who either have no consciousness or those who have infinite consciousness--either the puppet or God. When Kleist responds that this theory suggests that we must eat from the tree of knowledge once again and then fall back into a state of innocence, the dancer replies, "by all means...that is the last chapter in the history of the world." Critic Robert Langbaum has suggested that this is the central myth of romantic literature: the psychologized and secular version of the myth of the Fall, for the Fall to the romantics is indeed a fall into consciousness. For Kleist, says Langbaum, art becomes the back door to Eden, in that art delivers us from self-consciousness through ritual. And indeed it is ritual rather than self-consciousness that characterizes Kleist's fiction.

Nineteenth-century German Romantic, E.T.A. Hoffman’s “A New Year’s Eve Adventure” is a story within a story which is sometimes published only with the insert story and entitled "The Story of the Lost Reflection." Erasmus Spikher is a man who has lost his reflection; another character in the story, Peter Schlemihl, who lost his shadow, is from Adalbert Chamisso's novel of that name published in 1814. These stories belongs within a romantic tradition in German nineteenth-century Romanticism-- a tradition of the novelle that begins with Goethe and develops in more detail with the works of Ludwig Tieck, Adalbert Chamisso, and Hoffman himself.

American readers are most familiar with the tradition in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both of whom make use of the familiar convention of the double figure which is based on the notion of the split in the self between the body and the soul. The stories of Hoffmann mark the beginning of the Romantic insistence that reality is of the imagination only. Moreover, Hoffmann's combination of psychological realism and fairytale conventions is a key factor in the development of the short story genre in America with the works of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe. Such a transition is part of that major shift in the nineteenth century that critic M. H. Abrams says characterizes the basic concepts and patterns of romantic philosophy and art, that is, as displaced and reconstituted theology or as a secularized form of devotional experience. The resulting basic tendency of the romantic revolution is to naturalize the supernatural and humanize the divine.

Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” begins in traditional folklore fashion: A stranger comes to the door with something for sale called “Miracle Polish.” When the protagonist buys a bottle of the polish and shines his mirror with it, he seems to see himself differently: “There was a freshness to my body, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before… What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, man who expected things of life.” This transformation becomes an obsession with him, and he polishes all the mirrors in his house and buys many more mirrors to polish and hang so that everywhere he turns he sees his transformed self. However, when he tries to involve the woman with whom he has a relationship in his mirror obsession, she accuses him of preferring the woman in the mirror to her actual physical self.

As in many other Millhauser stories, “Miracle Polish” is a metaphorical exploration of the Platonic notion that underlies all romanticism—the reality of artifice. The narrator’s sense of growing obsession is typical of the romantic short story that gave birth to the form in the early nineteenth century. Edgar Allan Poe has always been accused of being indifferent to living, flesh and blood subjects. W. H. Auden has said there is no place in any of his stories for "the human individual as he actually exists in space and time," that is, as a natural creature and an historical person. Richard Wilbur in his famous Library of Congress Lecture in 1959 concluded that Poe's aesthetic that "art should repudiate everything human and earthly," was insane. However, the repudiation of "reality" as being only everyday human experience is precisely what myth and folklore--the primal forerunners of the short story--are based on. Poe's aesthetic, and thus the dominant aesthetic of the short story, has always been based on this same assumption that the artistic objectification of desire is true reality.

Millhauser is motivated by the same obsessions that drove William Blake--to see a world in a grain of sand, to affirm that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

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