April 4, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’ll admit it: “Nightmare as a Child” (available for viewing on YouTube, at least for now) freaked me out. It struck me as easily the most effective piece of horror in the first season.
Now, part of this is intentional and related to the good work of the principals: Serling, the director Alvin Ganzer (also the director of the also-effective “The Hitch-Hiker”), the stars Janice Rule and Terry Burnham. The Freudian bent of Serling’s episodes for women in the first season reaches its culmination here, in a wonderful scenario: a woman meets a young girl outside her door. She invites the strange girl in, and it’s slowly revealed that the girl is her younger self, visiting her to help her remember an important but traumatic memory that could now save her life.
But it’s especially creepy partly because of two unintentional elements of the episode.
1) Terry Burnham, the astounding child actor who portrays Helen Foley’s childhood self, sounds an awful lot like the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. The two also share a similar matter-of-fact delivery. The monologue that young Helen (aka Markie) delivers to her older self, as the younger self “remembers” for her the violence of the night that she has repressed, delivered in the voice of a Peanuts character, is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard — the twisted flip-side of Linus’s “meaning of Christmas” monologue. (It starts at 19:00.)
The monologue, by the way, starts with a truly remarkable piece of business. Markie begins to confront Helen with the truth, asking, “You still don’t understand, do you?” Helen responds, “Understand what?” and we see Markie mouth these words along with Helen, over her shoulder, quite deliberately. It gives you chills. It’s a stroke of genius. And yet, it’s conceivable that this was a mistake — a very young actor mouthing the lines of the other actor — that was retained by the director. Was in the script, or was it an intentional or serendipitous ad lib?
2) The villain of the tale, one Peter Selden (played by the wonderfully named Shepperd Strudwick), bears a striking resemblance to Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks. The particulars of the episode make this especially uncanny, as we’ll see later.
The best thing about the episode is Terry Burnham. Her dark eyes contrasted with blonde hair, her knowing playfulness varying with solemnity, her sense throughtout of being somehow both more and less than she seems, are the keys to the episode’s power. It’s an incredible performance for a child, and obviously that has much to do with the adults creating the episode. However, part of the episode’s core meaning is the amazing power of perception and retention held by children. Burnham’s performance not only reveals that, it embodies it.
We have here, again, a variation on the theme of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing another self, another reality. We also have here, again, a woman finding herself supplanted, to a degree, by a doppelganger. Markie, the younger self, is in control throughout the episode. It disturbs and disorients Helen.
Girls, the control that they could (or were not allowed to) exert, the intelligence that they could (or were not encouraged to) display, and the ways in which they would become women, were certainly on Serling’s mind. He had two daughters growing up throughout the filming of the Twilight Zone. This would come up again in the final woman-focused episode of the first season, “The After Hours.”
And so Helen has forgotten the most important event of her childhood, and Markie goes about carefully leading her to this realization, having worked an invitation for a cup of hot chocolate from what we initially believe to be a total stranger.
The subtext of the episode throughout, of a woman not trusting her own self, her own childhood, and her own instincts, is brought to a head with the arrival of the wolfish Peter at her door, asking, “Do you remember me?” One gets a sense throughout the episode of Helen being a kind of non-person, the kind of thing a fellow non-person, Markie, sees when she looks in the mirror. The twenty or so years since her childhood trauma have revolved entirely around forgetting said trauma and building routine upon routine to fill the day. She does not think of the past. She does not even recognize herself as a child. She lives alone, she teaches school, and she invites strange children in to have hot chocolate.
Peter shows her a photo of herself as a child, and things get exceptionally uncomfortable. “You were an exceptionally beautiful child,” he says. “And you look so like your mother.” Helen enters a kind of fugue state, and relives the memory of the night that her mother was killed. The superimposition of the childhood memory on Helen’s body, reclined on the couch as if in psychoanalysis, may be a visual cliche, but its power may explain why this particular effect became a cliche.
We have here, you may have noticed, a subtext (just barely sub) of sexual abuse, as close as any television program in 1960 could dare to come to addressing the issue, endemic in American society then as now. I do not know if David Lynch or his compatriots working on Twin Peaks saw or were influenced by “Nightmare as a Child,” but the moment below certainly made me think it a strong possibility.
Peter’s words right before this? “I want to be the first, I want to be the very first.” He’s ostensibly talking about “imparting some information,” and the murder of Helen’s mother was ostensibly over Peter’s embezzlement. But could viewers even in 1960 have missed the meaning here? Especially given the remarkably ugly tone in Peter’s voice when he delivers these lines?
Twin Peaks, in some ways, can be seen as a story of a town desperate to return to 1960 or thereabouts, precisely because it was a time when awful things like sexual abuse within families was not spoken of. Its very existence could be denied. Hence the bobbysoxers, the beatnik jazz, the “darn good pie.” The truly terrible, pollyanna ending of “Nightmare as a Child” was essential to television in 1960; I remain glad that, however messy it got in its second season, Twin Peaks did not have that.
February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Vertigo; 20 Lines a Day.
Reading next: The Encantadas, by Herman Melville.
There are physical and metaphysical kinds of vertigo in Vertigo. Sebald also incorporates the themes of the better-known text entitled Vertigo, the Hitchcock film, into his text. He makes his meditative, memoiristic work a kind of thriller, too. A tongue-in-cheek reference to this aspect of the work occurs when he says to the manager of the hotel he stays at in Limone that he’s writing what may be “a crime story” that “revolved around a series of unsolved murders and the reappearance of a person who had long been missing.” And indeed, the serial murders perpetrated by the “Organizzazione Ludwig” do appear as a subplot in the work.
A motif of vertiginous seasickness appears throughout, as does vertigo inspired by standing at the edge of high places; people are often standing at the edge of a cliff, abyss, or void, and trips in a boat or ship also appear throughout the text (sometimes in dreams or paintings). These two kinds of vertigo inspired by physical conditions both refer to one of Sebald’s touchstones, Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus.” The hunter falls to his doom from a high cliff in the forest after chasing a chamois; he then sails the seas in a state of living death.
The more metaphysical vertigo, the feeling of standing at the edge of the cliff of life, of existence itself, afflicts Sebald and others in the book. Marie-Henri Beyle (aka Stendhal) experiences “a vertiginous sense of confusion” at “The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place.” Earlier, Sebald tells us that “Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say destroy them.” In Sebald’s telling of tales, it is difficult to untangle art from reality, especially given the presence of photographs as “evidence.” Art, in memory, can take the place of reality, as lines from “The Hunter Gracchus” infiltrate the apparent reality of Sebald’s travelogue. In Vertigo the film, art also infiltrates reality and memory, as in the portrait that Madeleine adores (of Madeleine’s ancestor, whom she resembles — and of course, Sebald’s narrator is also gazing obsessively at art throughout his Vertigo) and the reenactment of her suicide (both in staged artifice and then in accidental reality).
When else does Vertigo strike? It hits Sebald when he wanders the streets of Vienna, following (as Jimmy Stewart’s detective, Scottie, follows) a series of ghostly figures from his past; people long missing, either from the world or from his memory. It recurs when he returns to his hotel after his epic, compulsive walks, and sees that his shoes are in tatters. An association occurs to another episode of vertigo earlier that day, hearing children singing Christian songs in a Jewish community center. A series of murders. Missing persons.
Later, twin boys who look just like young Kafka on a bus provoke another bout of vertigo, and the doppelganger theme so important in both Vertigos is introduced: the uncanny return of the dead, and/or the remaking of the living in the image of the dead. (Sebald’s imagining of Kafka himself will also encounter twins and doppelgangers in the third section of the book.)
Finally, there are a number of references to vertigo symptoms from contact with others, from an encounter with the reality of other people. Kafka, Sebald writes, feels “the terrors of love” to be “foremost among all the terrors of the earth.” Stendhal suffers from “giddiness… roaring in his ears… shaking” due to his syphilis and the attempts to treat it. (He also idealizes past lovers, and returns to woo his Beatrice, who he calls “Lady Simonetta,” eleven years after first conceiving his love for her.) Sebald’s vision goes blurry when lightly touched by women he barely knows: a landlady, an optometrist.
The book is structured around returns and reenactments of the past, and the final section of the book “Il ritorno in patria,” acts something like the final act of the film Vertigo, as Sebald returns to his childhood villages and encounters as much of his life there as remains, just as Scottie convinces Judy/Madeleine to reenact the scene of the earlier, staged suicide. And here, too, a “real” death, that of Schlag the hunter, is narrated, after (through chronologically earlier, in Sebald’s telling, creating a complex labyrinth of memory) the earlier “staged” deaths of the hunter Gracchus in Kafka’s stories, in the mannequin in the attic, dressed as a gray hunter, that has been haunting Sebald’s dreams for decades.
November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
Reading Molloy gave me that uncommon feeling — half exhilarating, half unsettling — of knowing I wasn’t getting it all, and enjoying it. (A lot of “known unknowns” here, as well as the inevitable “unknown unknowns,” to be Rumsfeldian about it.) It’s as layered, dense, and fecund as the soil in a very old graveyard. As Beckett/Molloy himself puts it, in a typically metafictional moment, “That movements of an extreme complexity were taking place seemed certain, and yet what a simple thing it seemed…”
In my last post I mentioned the insanity in the book as well as its “moments of clarity.” But — and I’m correcting myself here — this simplifying sane/insane dichotomy is precisely the kind that Molloy exists to complicate. Both Molloy and Moran exhibit signs of mental illness or at least temporary bouts of madness, but as in Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, the telling of the tale complicates these signs, especially in Moran’s case. (See here for the first of my series of posts on Schreber’s book.) The lucidity with which the tale is told confuses the reader, who expects his narrator either honest and invisible or duplicitous and foregrounded, but not confused about his/her own state of mind, not carefully recollecting a deranged state of mind. In the case of Molloy, Beckett inserts an authorial meta-narrative, especially in the case of Molloy’s monologue, to further complicate matters.
As with Schreber’s Memoirs, difficulty in identifying objects and events as one kind of thing or another is a key sign of the protagonist’s illness — or, to view it from another angle, is the distinguishing characteristic that elevates the supposedly mad to a higher level of understanding. That nature resides on a continuum, rather than exclusively in the socially constructed either/or relationships to which we relegate it: this is Beckett’s point, and also something that would have struck, say, Victorians as the kind of thing you’d say before they cart you off to Bedlam.
There’s trouble with gender, of course. Moran at one point says his kneecap feels “like a clitoris”; Molloy finds himself dressed in a woman’s nightgown at one point, and confuses the gender even of his sexual partners. The body is a site of great confusion, as it is to Schreber: it really is “the body’s long madness,” as Molloy puts it, and it is unclear how much of the trouble that goes on here with toes, legs, eyes, and just about anything else is mental and how much physical.
But beyond that, Beckett muddles other dichotomies such as living/dead, conscious/dreaming, truth/lie, and self/other, as well as playing with tense to disrupt our sense of past, present, and future time within the narratives. It’s as yet unknown to me whether Beckett read and was fascinated by Schreber’s case, or if the resemblance between the books is an accident. I tend to think that Beckett must have read Schreber, what with the references to Moran’s “bellowing” here, a distinctive symptom from Schreber’s work. It is amazing how the material of Schreber’s tortured mental state is transmuted, though: some of the most beautiful, oneiric passages of Molloy could be seen as based on Schreber’s waking nightmare of God’s confusion of living and dead.
Molloy is a dream-book of sorts, taking part in dreams’ malleability and endless possibility but also in their maddening anxiety, tension, and relentless desire. Dreams make themselves up as they go along, just as Molloy seems to; and just as in dreams, it is never in fact clear who the “I” of the story is, or if there is an “I” at all. Are Molloy and Moran aspects of the same person on different quests, or opposing sides of a single archetype, or what? Do their tales simply simply partake of similar images and symbols as dreams tend to do? Or is the central false dichotomy author/reader — do we fail to recognize ourselves as the protagonists and joint creators, and the narrative our shared dream with the author?
March 1, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.
Reading next: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.
A brief note about one of the most affecting touches in this deeply alienated book: Schreber’s discussion of his “compulsive thinking” and the “not-thinking-of-anything-thought” which he used to combat it. He introduces the concept in chapter 5:
The nature of compulsive thinking lies in a human being having to think incessantly; in other words, man’s natural right to give the nerves of his mind their necessary rest from time to time by thinking nothing (as occurs most markedly during sleep) was from the beginning denied me by the rays in contact with me; they continually wanted to know what I was thinking about.
This leads to arcane and obscure attempts by Schreber to “falsify” his thoughts, and to use a kind of mental “static” to block out the voices he heard: counting, recitation of names, etc. His only real relief comes from the few activities during which he is actually able to forget about the voices incessantly bothering him. These are playing chess, playing the piano, and exercising. From chapter 12:
The feelings aroused in me when I resumed this occupation [playing the piano]… I can best describe with a quotation from Tannhauser:
“Total forgetting descended between today and yesterday. All my memories vanished rapidly and I could only remember that I had lost all hope of ever seeing you again or ever raising my eyes to you.”…
I must confess that I find it difficult to imagine how I could have borne the compulsive thinking and all that goes with it during these five years had I not been able to play the piano. During piano-playing the nonsensical twaddle of the voices which talk to me is drowned.
Schreber is describing the necessity of getting out of one’s own head. When he plays the piano, he feels, he does not think; when he plays chess, he thinks only of the moves of the game, not the cosmic battle he believes he is fighting with God. The quotation he uses above is touching, isn’t it? How wonderful it feels to forget, and how glad he is to have some preoccupation from his hellish life in the asylum?
In light of Schreber’s reinvention of the Christian cosmology, it’s interesting how Buddhist this idea is: a defense of oblivion, of the “not-thinking-of-anything-thought” as Schreber’s own demons put it, against the incessant Western pressure to do, build, accumulate, think, be. If I’m understanding some of the wonkier aspects of Schreber’s universe (and I may not be), it would also be better for God and the spirits that harass Schreber if they could also accept his right not to think constantly. God is attracted to Schreber the living being whom he does not understand as he does the dead; God’s “rays” are irritated when Schreber is not thinking, because they think him dead, and so they curse and speak in half-sentences to make him think and come alive. If Schreber could just be left alone, not to think, perhaps God could withdraw back to his rightful place in the universe.
February 19, 2009 § 4 Comments
Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.
Schreber’s book was introduced to me by Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, probably the coolest piece of criticism I’ve ever read. It sounded wild at second hand; at first hand, it is wild indeed. The backstory is byzantine, as evidenced by the layers upon layers of commentary, addenda, notes, and postscripts in this edition (the New York Review of Books translation by Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter); the memoirs themselves are mind-bogglingly complex, in a number of ways. One of these ways is the problem of figuring out the relationship of Schreber to his story and the state of his mind as he writes — which I hope to deal with in my next post.
Another is the more straightforward challenge of keeping up with the bizarre cosmology which was revealed to/invented by him during his stay at an asylum in the 1890s. It is a universe dazzling for its originality, its solipsism, its psychological and symbological insight, and its nightmarish detail. To inadequately summarize my incomplete comprehension of this universe: Schreber has come to realize that there is a crisis in the universe, based on God’s being trapped by a human soul, that of Schreber’s doctor, Dr. Flechsig. Schreber has come into contact both with the voice of God and with spirits of the dead (but also the living) in the form of “rays” which commune with his soul (which resides in the nerves which run throughout the human body). He’s come to understand that this crisis has led the rest of humankind to be replaced by phantasms, “fleeting-improvised-men” (in this translation) who exist solely to help him along in his, Schreber’s work: to repopulate the earth with actual humans by transforming into a woman.
Got that? Yes. Well. It is helpful (and incredible) to remember that this was not willfully invented as a fiction, in which case it surely would have been much less opaque, much less ornate, unless Schreber truly were a kind of extremely avant-garde science fiction writer, the preincarnation of Philip K. Dick: Schreber believed this, as a divine revelation he was continually receiving as he was recovered from a nervous breakdown (which was also related to this divine plan). Incidentally, the book is central to the woefully underrated film Dark City.
There are a zillion things to talk about in this highly evocative cosmology, but I’m fascinated by the God Schreber has created, which he is careful to point out bears little resemblance to the Judeo-Christian God except that he is the only God. Schreber’s God is marvelous: Chapters 2 and 5 contain a huge amount of detail on his complicated structure and place in the universe. God’s functioning in the world is intimately connected to — and limited by — something Schreber calls “The Order of the World”: in other words, the normal functioning of the universe, to which even God is subservient.
Chapter 5 contains a remarkable section in which Schreber discusses God’s lack of omniscience — his fallability, his incomplete knowledge, and the ability, in fact, to tempt him. As a theodicy, or explanation for the existence of evil, it is quite something. Schreber explains that, “…within the Order of the World, God did not really understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because, according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses.” (Italics Schreber’s.) This idea — that God may have started or even created the universe and life, but does not necessarily understand it — is quite compelling, I think. After all, how could God understand life? Having no beginning and no end, and his realms being those of the dead, how could he understand what it meant to be alive?
Because of this lack of understanding, Dr. Flechsig was somehow able to attract and trap God. And this leads to a remarkable, 4-page paragraph in which Schreber attempts to explain why God was, in fact, responsible for trying to “commit soul murder” on him. Because Flechsig has violated the Order of the World by trapping God with his seductive, living nerves, God is motivated by
“that instinct of self-preservation, as natural in God as in every other living being — an instinct which as mentioned in another context … forced God in special circumstances to contemplate the destruction not only of individual human beings, but perhaps of whole stars with all the created beings upon them…. wherever the Order of the World is broken, power alone counts, and the right of the stronger is decisive. In my case, moral obliquity lay in God placing Himself outside the Order of the World by which He Himself must be guided; although not exactly forced, He was nevertheless induced to do this by a temptation very difficult for souls to resist, which was brought about by the presence of Professor Flechsig’s impure (“tested”) soul in heaven.”
Schreber concludes that he has defeated the plans of God and Flechsig to murder his soul, because “the Order of the World is on my side.”
Impossible as it probably is to make any sense of out of context, it is a remarkable argument. God seduced by the vitality of a living human soul, unable to resist making contact with that dangerous “other”!
You can see Schreber, a respected scholar of the law before his mental illness, working out the moral ramifications of the universe imposed on him by the voices he hears in his head. Heartbreaking. And yet there’s a kernel of artistic greatness there, too. The God presented here reminds me an awful lot of the God in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books: a monster of self-interest, clinging to life and desperate to make the world believe in him and the unjust order he’s imposed on it. But Schreber is much more sympathetic to his God: incapable of understanding humans, even when he’s fallen just like them.
January 11, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.
Reading next: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.
Dickens gets really dark in the last third of this book: given how muddled the resolution of the supposed “main” plot of the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits is, I think he simply became more interested in the unremittingly dark, selfish, horrified and horrifying character of Jonas, and his path toward the murder of Montague. (This seemed, by the way, to happen to Dickens a lot: e.g., Fagin and the Artful Dodger as opposed to Oliver, in Oliver Twist.)
Reading Dickens psychologically is tricky at best, downright dishonest at worst, especially for a layman like myself. But Dickens, here, does seem to be more interested than in many of his books in the self, and its makeup. There’s the whole question of how we come to care about other people, and value them as actual people like ourselves and not as obstacles, comforts, or other satellites of the self — one of the central questions of the book. There’s also the explorations of identity inherent in the non-character of Mrs. Harris, the creation of Mrs. Gamp, who approves of Gamp’s every impulse, notion, and thought; the cipher-characters of Nadgett the detective and the porter of the Anglo-Bengalee Company, whose entire existences are based on being inconspicuous and conspicuous, respectively — entirely internal and external; and the social adventuring and posing and self-creating of Montague Tigg and Bailey Jr.
It somehow seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that Dickens was fascinated by his attraction to the worst aspects of his world and (perhaps) his self: the way his writing explodes to life when exploring London’s seedy underbelly, the way he seems most masterful — to me, anyway — when seeing the world through the eyes of those driven on by their basest instincts to horrible acts. Did Dickens always see the miracle of his avoidance of that life, after the imprisonment of his father and his despair at going to work at age 12?
At any rate, nothing in this book feels as personal for Dickens as the two nightmares: Tigg’s, in chapter 42, shortly before his murder, and Jonas’s, in chapter 47, right before committing the act. You get the feeling, reading each dream, that they were real: that Dickens had experienced nightmares very like these, that they are not created but remembered. Tigg dreams of the door in his hotel room: there’s a “dreadful secret” about this door, and it nags at him in that he feels he both knows and does not know this secret, and this aspect of the dream is “incoherently intertwined” with another, in which the door hides “an enemy, a shadow, a phantom.” The way this door is one thing and another, and the way it maddens him with its known/unknown secret: this smacks of truth, to me. Although it works perfectly for the fiction, it’s also much messier than it necessarily needs to be. This is the way real nightmares work, not fabricated nightmares.
The really brilliant thing about this dream, though, is the way “Nadgett, and he [Tigg], and a strange man with a bloody smear upon his head (who told him that he had been his playfellow, and told him, too, the real name of an old schoolmate, forgotten until then)” work to drive “iron plates and nails” into the door to make it secure. But “the nails broke, or changed to soft twigs, or what was worse, to worms,” and the door crumbles, splinters, and refuses to accept nails. A footnote tells me that one Joseph Brogunier suggests that the “strange man” is Tigg himself, and the “old schoolmate” is Tigg, too: keep in mind that he’s known at this point as Tigg Montague, and has raised himself from a begging, swindling, scrubby scoundrel into the dandified head of an insurance company (still a swindler, but on a grand scale, and therefore worthy of respect).
The nightmare works brilliantly on different levels: for in reality, the door connects to Jonas’s room, and Tigg wakes to find Jonas hovering over his bed (which is some scary shit, frankly, and would’ve made my heart explode in that situation). Tigg has already become ambiguously afraid of Jonas, who creeps him out in hard-to-define ways. But besides fictionally effective foreshadowing of murder, there is also the free-floating anxiety of getting found out: of Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague always afraid he’ll be found out, both as a fraud (although I think he could deal with that alone) and as a kid, a “schoolmate.” I think Dickens — leaving things really mysterious, ambiguous, and unresolved, here, for once in his life — taps into some of that anxiety we all feel in dreams, and it makes an incredible counterpoint to the self-centered monstrousness of both Jonas and Tigg: the fear we (or at least I) often have in dreams that we are somehow not valid people, not adults, never to escape childhood or the people we once were.
Then there’s Jonas’s dream. This whole chapter, incidentally, is a work of genius: it’s frenzied, blood-red, taut, surreal in the way you feel surreal when you’re about to do or have just done something terrifying or climactic. Jonas, riding in a carriage to murder Tigg, dreams he’s in his own bed and is awakened by the old clerk, Chuffey (whom he abused so often). They go into “a strange city” with the signs written in a strange language, but Jonas remembers he’s been there before. The streets are at various levels, connected by ladders and ropes connected to bells. There’s a huge crowd, and Jonas learns it’s Judgment Day. His companion keeps changing from one person to another. A head rises up from the crowd, “livid and deadly, but the same as he had known it,” and blames Jonas for “appoint[ing] that dreadful day to happen.” Presumably, this is Tigg. He tries to strike him down, but they struggle without a conclusion, and he awakes.
Again — in the protean companion, Jonas’s anxiety about the way he’s dressed, and the brilliant dreamscape of streets at various levels, for the social rising and falling of urban life — we see a kind of verisimilitude of dreams, I think. We also see anxiety about the self, about identity, about being found out. And, while it’s easy to see the “livid and deadly” head as that of Tigg, you could also see it as that of Jonas’s father, or his own. What’s meant by “deadly,” after all? Is it deadly as in dead, as his father is? Is it deadly as in potentially fatal to Jonas, as he sees that Tigg could be? Is it deadly as in having murder on its mind, as Jonas himself does, constantly, to the brink of paranoid insanity?
I’ll write a little more about Jonas and the murder in the next post. There’s just so much that’s great about this section of the book. It really is very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, especially Crime and Punishment: it’s similarly claustrophobic.
February 5, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Invisible Man.
Chapter 3 presents a wild, wild scene in a bar/house of ill repute called the Golden Day. The narrator, driving a trustee of his college to the bar to get him a “little stimulant”–whiskey–to shake him out of the shock he’s taken, runs into a pack of patients from the insane asylum down the road. They take over the Golden Day; their orderly, named Supercargo, is hit with a bottle of whiskey and trampled.
This is a funny, diagrammatic chapter a la Ulysses: Supercargo is cast as superego, the reckless patients as id, Halley the bartender as ego, just trying to make a buck and keep his bar out of trouble with the law and the local bigwigs. But there are a number of complicating elements, as well, muddling my sense of what Ellison’s trying to do here.
At one point a patient with some medical knowledge calls the trustee, Mr. Norton, “A trustee of consciousness,” adding to the psychological allegory. Supercargo (a noun meaning a ship’s officer in charge of its commercial concerns) is a white-clad orderly; his name, outfit, and place in this allegory would seem to associate him with the only white person in the bar, Mr. Norton. His boorish bullying of the war-veteran mental patients, coming down from his room upstairs to try to establish order in the bar with his boots and fists (and receiving worse in return), seems to indicate that Ellison means to tell us something about the workings of race relations in addition to the workings of consciousness in this chapter. This chapter contains multitudes, a whole bizarre array of social strata (prostitutes to bankers) and events and crypto-events (race riots, nervous breakdowns, self-doubts).
Modernists get a bad rap for this kind of thing, now–this kind of heavily symbolist, deeply weighted narrative–but I’m a sucker for it. Especially the kinds of rich, mingled layers of meaning that Ellison digs up here. And the sentences! I mean, look at this semi-soliloquy recited by the mental patient/vet/former doctor to Mr. Norton:
“Rest, rest,” he said, fixing Mr. Norton with his eyes. “The clocks are all set back and the forces of destruction are rampant down below. They might suddenly realize that you are what you are, and then your life wouldn’t be worth a piece of bankrupt stock. You would be canceled, perforated, voided, become the recognized magnet attracting loose screws. Then what would you do? Such men are beyond money, and with Supercargo down, out like a felled ox, they know nothing of value. To some, you are the great white father, to others the lyncher of souls, but for all, you are confusion come even into the Golden Day.”
I mean, whoa! What a range of styles, meanings, associations.
(Full disclosure: I once wrote a heavily allusive, diagrammatic bar scene of my own. My bar, in the novel I wrote in college, was called the Broken Road; its walls were covered with pictures of hitchhikers; and its men’s room was missing the ‘n,’ so it was the Me room. Obviously I’m not comparing myself to Ralph Ellison, James Joyce, or anyone else in any way whatsoever– but what is it about bars that calls out for this kind of literary treatment?)