Sunday, September 29, 2013

Introduction to "I Am Your Brother": Short Story Studies (Part I)


rank O'Connor opens his book The Lonely Voice by arguing that the short story has always "functioned in a quite different way from the novel,” insisting that however difficult it may be to describe that difference, describing it is the critic's “principle business" (14).

This is not a popular academic notion in the early twenty-first century when considerations of genre and artistic form are overlooked in favor of social and cultural issues. Few have taken O’Connor’s theories about the short story in The Lonely Voice seriously. Perhaps because O'Connor's ideas are largely intuitive, critics have not thought it worthwhile to follow up his perceptions and ground them in a comprehensive theory. American author Richard Ford is a happy exception in his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Short Story, calling The Lonely Voice “the most provocative and attentive” study there is on the form (vii-xxii).

In his Introduction, O’Connor cites the passage in Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat” when a young clerk in Akakey Akakeivitch’s office recognizes the little man’s humanity. Akakey cries out to his colleagues, "`Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?' and in those heart-rending words he heard others, 'I am your brother’." O'Connor says if one wanted an alternative title for a study of the short story, he might choose the phrase, "I Am Your Brother" (16). I like to think that Frank O’Connor would approve my taking that sentence as the title of my own book, for I have always thought that what he grasped is the central way the short story maps its characteristic world.

Admitting it is a bad phrase, but that he has no other, O’Connor then introduces his controversial term "submerged population group," before leaping to the most provocative theory in his book:

Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society . . .. As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness. Indeed, it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again for companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal's saying: Le silence eternal de ces espaces infinis m’effraie. (19)

Some recent cultural critics have appropriated the notion of the submerged population group, assigning it to postcolonial and marginalized societies. However, O’Connor is more interested in the formal implications of this theme—particularly how the management of time creates form in fiction. The chronological development of character or incident constitutes what O'Connor calls "essential form" as we see it in life, adding that the novelist "flouts it as his peril." But for the short-story writer there is no such thing as essential form, for he must always be selecting some point. Because the moment is chosen so carefully, it must be lit by an “unearthly glow,” says O'Connor (22).

My own experience with reading and teaching the short story leads me to agree. However, what needs to be explored is what it is about the very nature of the short story that makes it focus on characters outside of a specific concrete cultural/historical context. O'Connor is not the first, nor the last to make this suggestion. In the early nineteenth century, when the German novelle--the short fiction form that predates Poe's stories and theories--was being developed, Friedrich Schlegel said that the novelle is like a story "torn away from any cultural background” (Bennett 9).

As Frank O'Connor recognized, this trans-cultural character of the short story seems related to the typical kind of characters usually found in short stories, who are more apt to be like emotional “gestures” or lyrical embodiments of feeling than actual people in the world. Part of the reason for this may be that short stories often present characters in a crisis situation, and as American writer George P. Elliott once said in a discussion of the form, "At the brink, people are apt to behave much alike, less according to their personal nature than according to human nature generally." This is related to the short story’s primitive origins in myth, which, as Mircea Eliade has suggested, narrates, "all the primordial events in consequence of which man became what he is today…. Myth teaches him the primordial stories that have constituted him existentially” (Myth and Reality 11-12).

I believe that what Frank O’Connor has perceived about the central focus of the short story as a genre is the primordial story that constitutes human beings existentially--their basic sense of aloneness and their yearning for union. As British literary theorist Roger Poole once pointed out, according to phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, 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.  Poole cites Paul Ricoeur as noting, that 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 (Ricoeur, 131). As Poole concludes, since “There is no way of knowing what the other actually sees, feels, intends, as if I were he, we are born into solipsism” (130).

The human yearning that this would be otherwise is best expressed by Austrian Jewish philosopher 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" (27). Studies in anthropology and child psychology support Buber's assertion that both in the history of the race and in the development of the individual, 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,” i.e. a story or myth.

According to Swiss psychologist 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. 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 second year 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 (14).

Buber describes this realization 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 (23).

Thus arises, says Buber, the "melancholy of our fate" in the earliest history of both the race and the individual.

In Western culture, the origins of this separation in the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel in the Old Testament have always fascinated poets and storytellers. Major critics agree that the stories of the Fall of Adam and Eve and the crime of the outcast wanderer Cain are central myths of Romantic literature. It is perhaps no accident that the short story, as we know it today, received its most important impetus in the early nineteenth century. Robert Langbaum says that the Romantics see the Fall in much the same way that Piaget sees the young child's early development, that is, as a fall of perception--"a fall into analytic fragmentation of a world which was once perceived singly, a world in which subject and object, fact and value . . .had no separate name" (51) The primal story in the Judeo-Christian tradition that exemplifies the separation of human beings, one from the other, is, of course, the story of Cain and Abel—a story centrally embodied in the archetypal Romantic narrative of the discovery of separation and the obsessive need to implicate the other--Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Cain’s murder of his brother is the first sin of one human being against another in the Old Testament. But it is a sin that is only possible because of the Original Sin of humankind against God. As a result of eating the apple, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden—separated from the God and nature with which they were formerly at one. However, perhaps the most far-reaching result of the Fall is the separation of human beings from one another. 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 as separate beings. The realization that they are no longer one causes their shame, guilt, and anxiety (47.)

The story of Cain and Abel dramatizes the inevitable result of this separation; it recounts a series of cumulative symbolic objectifications of the implicit reality that results from the Fall. 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, simply to attribute the distinction to the historical notion that the Old Testament God was partial to blood sacrifices trivializes the symbolic significance of a powerful story.

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

Just as the short story of Cain and Abel is one of Western Culture’s primal myths, so also is Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a prototype of the modern short story since the nineteenth century. The Ancient Mariner kills the albatross for the same reason that Cain kills Abel—simply because he can, because he is free to do so. This is how the slaying of the albatross reenacts the “Mystery of the Fall” as Robert Penn Warren suggests in his essay “Poem of Pure Imagination.” However, the Mariner does not kill the bird as a violation of the “One Life,” as Warren argues, but rather as an affirmation of the Separation of Life. He simply tests and makes explicit what is already implicit in the Fallen World—the separation of human beings and one’s freedom to kill his brother, in this case, an albatross that is hailed by the sailors “As if it had been a Christian soul.”

The only support for the view that the killing of the albatross is a violation of the “One Life” is the assumption that the nightmarish events that follow the act are the Mariner’s punishment. However, it is no more necessary to assume that the Mariner’s nightmarish voyage is a punishment than it is to assume that Ivan Ilych’s death in Tolstoy’s paradigmatic story or Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis in Kafka’s iconic parable are punishments. Is Ivan Ilych being punished, or is he being made aware of the contingency of self that he had ignored before? Is Gregor being punished, or is he being made aware, by means of a symbolic objectification, of his basic human condition?

When Coleridge was questioned about the moral of his poem, he asked in return, what indeed is the moral of the Arabian Night’s tale of the merchant who, throwing aside his date shells, is suddenly confronted by a genii who says, “he must kill the aforesaid merchant because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie’s son?” (Raysor, 88.) Coleridge’s italicized emphasis of the words must and because indicate the irony of his response to one reader’s objection that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” had no moral. And of course it does have no more moral than the Arabian Night’s tale. There is no necessity or causality in what the genie does following the discarding of the date shells, no moral at all. The genie is the impingement upon the merchant of what Albert Camus calls in The Myth of Sisyphus the “primitive hostility” of the world; it is the world becoming itself again. “That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. It withdraws at a distance from us… Just one thing: that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd” (14). Acts that serve to bring such “strangeness” into objective reality are as devoid of moral culpability as bumping one’s side while hanging up drapes, as throwing away one’s date shells, as waking up in the morning feeling stiff, or as killing an albatross.

After the killing of the bird, the nightmare journey in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” objectifies the meaning of the Mariner’s freedom to kill it. The voyage is not a punishment, but an objectification of the isolation and aloneness of all humankind. The poem bears dramatic witness to our deepest fears about our place in the world: a world in which we are whimsically praised or condemned by others, a world in which in the midst of water we die of thirst; a world in which we bear the burden of our shame and guilt like an albatross around our neck; a world in which our fate is determined by a toss of the dice; a world in which we are both punished and absolved for no apparent reason.

When the nightmare has ended, the Mariner, back in his “own countree” and on “firm land,” asks the Hermit to shrive him. But the Hermit, a man who has willingly severed relations with other men to sing “godly hymns/That he makes in the wood,” can only ask: ‘What manner of man art thou?” The mariner’s initial telling of his story is an answer to this question, and his story reveals that he is the manner of all men, for the human condition is just that state of isolation that all must bear, but which most fear to confront.

Many critics have noted the inadequacy of the moral tag of Coleridge’s poem: “He prayeth best, who loveth best/All things both great and small.” And of course, it indeed is weak coming at the conclusion of the horrible nightmare story the Mariner has just related. Although love is the only way man can heal the original breach between himself and others, the mariner’s injunction seems just as deficient and impossible as Christ’s command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is not enough to ease the Wedding Guest’s horror at the Mariner’s story; for it is the “tale” the Mariner is compelled to teach, not some simple moral. And it is the “tale” that makes it impossible for the Wedding-Guest to attend the wedding feast. He realizes the futility of a ceremony that symbolizes humanity’s vain attempt to heal the breach and become one with another, and he is “stunned” by the knowledge.
(Part II of the Introduction will be posted in a couple of days)

1 comment:

Dorothy Johnston said...

Congratulations! I look forward to purchasing and reading 'I Am Your Brother'.