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.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Tribute to Bharati Mukherjee

For various reasons, both personal and professional, I have had to neglect my blog for the past few months.  I apologize.  However, there is one very sad circumstance I feel I cannot neglect—the passing of a short story writer whose work I respect. When such a person dies, I feel honor bound to reread some of his or her stories and write a brief tribute on what I admire about their work. Last month it was William Trevor. Today it is Bharati Mukherjee, who died last week of a heart condition in New York City.
I  met Bharati many years ago at one of the International Short Story Conferences in Iowa City, at which I was making a presentation about the form and she was reading one of her stories. I sat and watched her working hard at her large laptop one day while having a cup of coffee at the cafeteria. She looked up and smiled shyly, saying, “We have to take what time we can find, don’t we?”
The headline for the obit in The New York Times stated:” Bharati Mukherjee, Writer of Immigrant Life, Dies at 76.” Since subject matter rather than style is more accessible and recognizable to most readers, especially if it is timely subject matter, I suppose it was inevitable that “Immigrant” was the key word in the headline. It would hardly attract much attention if the key words had been “Writer of Perfectly Constructed Short Stories.”
Bharati and I shared greetings in the halls of various conferences on the Short Story over the years. We did not know each other well; we simply knew each other’s work. The last time I shared the platform with her was in Lisbon, Portugal a few years ago, when she and I and Francine Prose talked about the short story. When I was making my presentation, elevating the form of the short story above cultural content, the cantankerous writer Amira Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) stood up, waved his arms at me impatiently, and stormed out. Later at his own luncheon presentation, he snuffed and snorted about me as if I were the epitome of racist white conservatism. At a cocktail party that night, Bharati came up to me, put her hand on my shoulder, and told me not to fret, for everyone encountered the raging resentment of Baraka at one time or another.
I won’t summarize the facts of Bharati’s life; you can find bios in various online places.  Instead  I want to discuss briefly one of her best-known short stories—“The Management of Grief”—from her collection The Middleman and Other Stories,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1988.
Twelve years ago in an interview in the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, Mukherjee stated emphatically: “I’m an American writer who happens to be from South Asia.  I hope no one sees me or my fiction as representing the entire Indian community…. I think minority writers are particularly prone to turning characters of fiction into representations in a political agenda.  The result is that you may produce novels that are useful as texts in social studies or women’s studies courses, but they will never be fine literature.”
This suggestion that writing directed toward a political agenda is often incompatible with fine literature is the position I expressed in Lisbon that raised the ire of Amira Baraka.  It goes against a popular academic position expressed ten years earlier by the highly respected theorist/critic Frederic Jameson in his essay “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Jameson declared that third world literatures were necessarily national allegories. “The story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third world culture and society.”
In an essay in The Journal of Modern Literature in 1996, critic Thomas Palakeel argued that Jameson’s theory not only attributes a false sense of power to the literatures of the Third World, “but also reduces all the writings of the non-Western world to a tidy, one-dimensional aesthetic.” He insists that it is the “close reading” that scratches off the allegorical and political and reveals the literary.”
This position was Bharati’s view also, as it is the view of many short story writers, who value the precise way short stories focus on the personal and the universal, rather than the local and the social.
“The Management of Grief” focuses on Shaila Bhave’s efforts to deal with the death of her entire family—her husband and two sons—in the 1985 Air India crash over Ireland that killed over two hundred. The title of the story has a certain wry bitterness, for to suggest that grief of such magnitude can somehow be “managed,” as if it were a business deal  is ludicrous and heartless.  However, it seems to be the only way that a government can try to help its people “manage” grief.  Judith Templeton, a government appointee, has her textbooks on grief management that outline the stages of grief.  She has come to seek Mrs. Bhave’s help because she seems to have dealt with her loss with such calm acceptance. But Shaila says her reaction is that of a freak—that the “terrible calm” she feels will just not go away—that she can be no help to others, for, “We must all grieve in our own way.
And this is what the story is about. Although it may be true that death can be “managed” in a social ritual of a funeral or wake in which people gather together to mark the passing of someone.  But it is probably also true that “grief” is purely personal. It is why we feel so helpless to do anything when we witness its external manifestations in another person. As opposed to the government way of managing grief, the Indian way is that of denial, insisting that it is a parent’s duty to hope. The Irish, whose dependence on government has never been very strong, hug the widows and mothers, and bring them flowers.
At the end of the story, Mrs. Bhave says she flutters between two different worlds, two modes of knowledge. She does not know how to tell Templeton that her family surrounds her in her mind like shape-shifters in epics. When Templeton despairs of ever convincing the Indian families that the government is there to help them, Shaila wants to tell her, “In our culture, it is a parent’s duty to hope.”  And then she walks away from Templeton, determined to find her own way to grieve.  The story ends with her hearing the voices of her family telling to be brave, and her admission that she does not know where her voyage will end and which direction to take. There is no resolution to loss, no management of grief; if one can, one simply goes on.
I extend my sympathies to Bharati Mukherjee’s family and friends.  I admired her greatly and shall remember her always.  There is no way to “manage” my profound sense of loss.