Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mystery in the Short Story

Back when I first started teaching, I was twenty-five years old, just out of graduate school.  Hell, 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 we all 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?"

Many writers have talked about this basic mystery.  One of my favorites is Flannery O'Connor, who once explained it (without really explaining it) much more succinctly than I did to my impatient student.  "The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it.  A story," O'Connor says, "is a way to say something that can't be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.  You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate."

Well, yes, sure, that's right.  But what kinds of meanings cannot be expressed in a statement? Are there really such things? Later on, O'Connor says, "There are two qualities that make fiction.  One is the sense of mystery, and the other is the sense of manners.  You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you."  Yeah, O.K. I get that.  But where do you get the mystery?  She doesn't' answer that one.

"Mystery" is indeed Flannery O'Connor's favorite word.  She says that for the writer who believes that life is essentially mysterious, "what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself."  For this kind of writer, the "meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology ... have been exhausted.  Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do."

I love it when she talks like that.  One more:  "The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible....His problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him."  Yes, I believe it.  Somehow the concrete doesn't stay concrete in the short story, but like the mystery of incarnation, is transformed into spirit even as it remains body. But, Lord, what do you make of that?  The "mystery of existence", O'Connor says confidently.  Yes, I believe that.  I just don't know how stories get at it in a way that nothing else quite can.

Most of my favorite writers talk like this.  Eudora Welty is another.  She once said:  "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery.  And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again.  Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement.  As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful."

"The mystery of allurement."  Yes, I believe that.  And yes, when it comes to the stories I like best, the more I read them, the more mysterious they become.  I love being caught in the beautiful mystery of them. 

Umberto Eco uses a metaphor to describe what is required of us from such stories in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods:  “There are two ways of walking through a wood," Eco says.  “The first is to try one or several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not.  Similarly, there are two ways of going through a narrative text. 

Any such text is addressed, above all, to a model reader of the first level, who wants to know quite rightly how the story ends (whether Ahab will manage to capture the whale, or whether Leopold Bloom will meet Stephen Daedalus after coming across him a few times on the sixteenth of June 1904).  But every text is addressed to a model reader of the second level, who wonders what sort of reader that story would like him or her to become and who wants to discover precisely how the model author goes about serving as a guide for the reader. In order to know how a story ends, it is usually enough to read it once.”  However, in contrast, says Eco, “to become the model reader of the second level the text has to be read many times, and certain stories endlessly."

Well, if the short story does not hold together by plot or action, but rather by reiteration through pattern, then the short story is not a narrative form at all, is it?  For what the short story wishes to explore is not to be discovered by narrative--that is, is not to be discovered by recounting events organized by cause and effect in time. 

The implication of this--an issue I have often referred to--is that the short story seems to focus on a moment out of time, or on time as mythically perceived, the way Ernest Cassirer and Mircea Eliade have described it, something that cannot be understood as a time-bound, socially-specific event.  Moreover, the issue of cause and effect is crucial, for the short story seems more apt to deal with phenomena for which there is no clearly discernible logical, sociological, or psychological cause.  

And such an event without a clear cause is hard to sustain over the length of the novel, that is, unless the novel itself becomes circular, mythic, patterned, rather than linear, such as, of course, Moby Dick. If the book had focused only on the plot of Ahab's pursuit of the whale, it would have been much shorter than it is.  Moby Dick is more like a short story than a novel because it is an exercise in accounting for what cannot be accounted for in any practical, logical, sociological, psychological way.  And so, of course, is Ulysses.  Both books are like short stories.  They just happen to be long.

When Frank Kermode in his Norton lectures twenty years ago asked, "Why Are Narratives Obscure?"  he cited Kafka's parable  "Before the Law" in The Trial. It’s about a man who comes to beg admission to the Law but is kept out by a doorkeeper.  So he sits there year after year in inconclusive conversation with the doorkeeper outside the door unable to get in.  When he is old and near death, he sees an immortal radiance streaming from the door.  He asks the doorkeeper why he alone has come to this door and receives this reply: "This door was intended only for you.  Now I am going to shut it." 

A terrible parable, you would have to agree.  "To perceive the radiance of the shrine," says Kermode, "is not to gain access to it; the Law, or the Kingdom to those within, such as the doorkeeper, may be powerful and beautiful, but to those outside they are absolutely inexplicable.  This is a mystery."  "While the insiders protect the Law without understanding it, the outsiders like us see an uninterpretable radiance and die."  A terrible parable indeed.

Kermode is concerned, of course, with the radiant obscurity of parables, a word which in the Gospel of Mark is used as a synonym for "mystery."  It is the radiance Welty refers to when she says the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own.  It is wrapped in an atmosphere.  This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape."

To Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz, to outsiders to the mystery, the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this blog post. It's wonderfully written, and affirming for a beginning writer such as me, to know that the mystery of short stories is what matters. Thank you, Mr. May.