Sunday, February 19, 2017

Carson McCullers and "A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud"

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Carson McCullers.  Although better known as a novelist, McCullers is the author of one of my favorite stories, “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” I included it in my textbook collection Fiction’s Many Worlds, and I assigned it and discussed with my students many times. When the story was selected by Paul Engles, editor of the O. Henry Award anthology in 1942, Engles said he considered "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" "the most perfect short story in American Literature." 
That’s a very powerful statement—“the most perfect short story.”  One might well ask what qualities of the story would make Engles make such a statement.  The story is available online, and I recommend it to you. 
The plot is very simple: A young paperboy stops at a café one morning while making his route and is called over by an elderly man drinking alone. The man tells the boy a story about having won and lost a woman he loved and then developing an explanation of what that loss meant. Throughout the encounter, the owner of the café makes scornful comments on the man’s story.
The enclosed situation of the cafe in the early morning, the confrontation between the young initiate and the experienced older man; the cynical and ironic observer, the silent chorus of men in the background--all this suggest a paradigmatic short story situation.  Moreover, the story's focus on loneliness and the difficulty of loving fits with Frank O'Connor's famous definition of the short story in The Lonely Voice.
The story echoes Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—both because it deals with a man who has a story to tell and grabs a passerby to insist that he listen, and the fact that it deals with empathetic identification of one person with another and therefore with the basic injunction that we love the other as the self. I have written about this in the first chapter of my book, I Am Your Brother. I agree with Frank O’Connor that it is one of the archetypal themes of the short story as a genre.
What needs to be understood about the story is the notion of love that it presents.  Some readers may be as cynical as the cafe owner Leo in their reactions to the notion of loving a tree, a rock, a cloud. What exactly does that mean?  How indeed is that possible? McCullers provides a suggestion about what she means by love in her essay, "The Flowering Dream:  Notes on Writing' in The Mortgaged Heart.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1941:  "How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being?  He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage."
If we ask why it is easier to love a tree, a rock, a cloud than it is to love a person, the answer must be that love is indeed synonymous with identification with the other.  The aim of love is to dissolve that which separates us and to swallow up the other.  This is difficult with a person because the other is a subjective consciousness who wishes to maintain self-identity.
  However, as the transient tells the puzzled boy, one can gradually learn to identify with the other if one begins simply with the less threatening. This story is about that primitive sense of the sacred that constitutes true reality, the basic religious yearning of human consciousness to lose the self in the other.  Leo knows the transient is right, but he also knows that such a demand is impossible for the ordinary human; the boy, of course, has yet to learn this hard fact of human reality.
The most important passages in the story, it seems to me are the following when the man tries to explain his situation and his science to the young boy:

“It was like this,” the man continued. “I am a person who feels many things. All my life one thing after another has impressed me. Moonlight. The leg of a pretty girl. One thing after another. But the point is that when I had enjoyed anything there was a peculiar sensation as though it was laying around loose in me. Nothing seemed to finish itself up or fit in with the other things. Women? I had my portion of them. The same. Afterwards laying around loose in me. I was a man who had never loved.”

“Then I met this woman. I was fifty-one years old and she always said she was thirty. I met her at a filling station and we were married within three days. And you know what it was like? I just can’t tell you. All I had ever felt was gathered together around this woman. Nothing lay around loose in me anymore but was finished up by her.”

“I meditated on love and reasoned it out. I realized what is wrong with us. Men fall in love for the first time. And what do they fall in love with?”

The boy’s soft mouth was partly open and he did not answer.

“A woman,” the old man said. “Without science, with nothing to go by, they undertake the most dangerous and sacred experience in God’s earth. They fall in love with a woman. Is that correct, Son?”

 “Yeah,” the boy said faintly.

“They start at the wrong end of love. They begin at the climax. Can you wonder it is so miserable? Do you know how men should love?”

The old man reached over and grasped the boy by the collar of his leather jacket. He gave him a gentle little shake and his green eyes gazed down unblinking and grave.

“Son, do you know how love should be begun?” The boy sat small and listening and still. Slowly he shook his head. The old man leaned closer and whispered:

“A tree. A rock. A cloud.”

“For six years now I have gone around by myself and built up my science. And now I am a master. Son. I can love anything. No longer do I have to think about it even. I see a street full of people and a beautiful light comes in me. I watch a bird in the sky. Or I meet a traveler on the road. Everything, Son. And anybody. All stranger and all loved! Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?”

The notion of things lying around inside of one until love unifies them into a complete whole seems to me a crucial description of the short story as a literary form.

Karen Allen, who played Indiana Jones’s girlfriend, has obviously been as captured by “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud” over the years as I have. She has recently adapted the story and directed a 30-minute film version of it, which debuts today in Columbus, Georgia, McCuller’s hometown, to commemorate her 100th birthday. Here is what Allen said about her admiration of the story in a piece in the Columbus newspaper:

“It’s hard to not want to share it with people, and honestly, throughout my life, let’s say I’ve know this story for 45 years, I have almost never met anybody who had read it. And I think I just want people to have the experience of her as a writer, and the beauty and the depth of her writing. I feel like in some almost mystical way, I am the caretaker of this story, like I’m meant to bring it to people.”

A trailer of the film is available online.  It looks like a very fine and faithful adaptation of the story.  I wish Ms. Allen luck with her film. I hope it is available where I can see it some day. Anyone who loves a short story that much is near and dear to my heart.


Anonymous said...

I must have read this story over 50 years ago, almost certainly in "Ballad of a Sad Cafe", and I still remember it, remember its premise, although it is time to reread it I think.

"The notion of things lying around inside of one until love unifies them into a complete whole seems to me a crucial description of the short story as a literary form." Not sure if that could be applied to the entire short story form as form, unless you mean it in the sense that Poe used it where everything in the short story must be subordinated to the total unity of effect.

Charles E. May said...

Yes, that's how I mean it, although I do push the concept a bit further than Poe did.

Sam said...

That's seems interesting to me.