“. . . Above the eagle a serpent was coiled about a shield and in the spaces between. . .” (Flannery O’Connor)

. . . interested in] what we don't understand rather than in what we do . . .

. . . interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . .

A couple of days ago when I showed up at Tigger’s Body Art studio in Dallas to have my tattoo finished, the young clerk greeted me by name. Two tattoos, and they know me because I’m the only person they’ve ever tattooed with a snippet of medieval music on his arm. A 69-year-old codger at that.

As I have told students repeatedly through the past fifteen years, one cannot conflate a writer’s discussion of (or creation of) fiction with what one knows from real life—either one’s own or someone else’s.

However,
. . . if the [fiction] writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious . . . then 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 . . . pushing [fiction’s] own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because . . . the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. . . . [The writer is interested in] what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . . in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” Mystery and Manners.)

In O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” Parker is a young man covered in tattoos.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color . . . [The] arabesque of men and bears and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. . . Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed . . . a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge, 1964.)

This is tricky. Merely three weeks ago I was tattooed for the first time. I did not see a tattooed man in a fair. I first read “Parker’s Back” in the summer of 1973 (give or take a year). I have read the story probably 25 times since then. I don’t know why I wanted a tattoo. It’s not Flannery O’Connor’s fault.

I first contemplated a tattoo in the late ‘80s. A friend had tattoos I thought were exceptionally attractive—Greek key designs covering his shoulder and biceps. The day I had my ear pierced, I was with him, and somehow my “body modification” has always felt incomplete without a tattoo. Don’t ask me why. I wrote about it on February 16, 2011.

Like my friend's Greek keys

Like my friend’s Greek keys

Again, don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. I am not, like O’Connor’s Parker, “filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes” when I think of having one myself. I do live most of the time with a sense of “wonder in [my]self,” with an understanding that there is something “out of the ordinary about the fact that [I exist].”

It is possible that a church organist, a college professor, or a steel worker (another secret—no, I’ve written about it several times here) would want a tattoo. (I first read “Parker’s Back” sitting hour after hour in the Kaiser shipping office.)

Life imitating art. “The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology . . . have been exhausted.” Writing such a story “a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . .” For such a writer “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.”

We engage ourselves in therapy, study Frankl and Heidegger, Freud, Jung, and Dr. Phil, attend 12-step meetings, and try myriad other analytical or self-help activities to discover “who we are.”

Or we avoid that complicated and not-very-fulfilling process altogether and simply adopt a belief, religious or otherwise, to explain our existence to ourselves and to others.

And we are left with—I think, if we’re really being honest—the nagging suspicion (no, the absolute certainty) that we don’t know where we came from, why we do what we do while we’re here, and where we will go when we die.

Let’s say my getting a tattoo serves the same purpose as someone else believing for the sake of political expedience that human life begins at conception. The anti-abortion crowd have invented a belief that explains to them where they came from. They hang onto that belief so they don’t have to think about where they will go when they die. It’s all tidied up.

Perhaps I have discovered a way to feel as if I have some control over my body, to shape it in my own image, to help me think about or avoid thinking about where I came from and where I will go. If one knows with absolute certainty where they came from, one can assume one knows where they are headed. You believe absolutely that life begins with conception, and I’ll be interested in “what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.”

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death compared with the horrors of war and subjugation of those who think differently (Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171).

Besides, my tattoo looks groovy.

A Medieval snippet

A Medieval snippet

“. . . to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty. . .”

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Yesterday a student came to my office to talk about her final writing assignment–from last semester! She took an incomplete in December so she could go home to be with her family as they sorted out a trauma that no family should—but very few families don’t—experience. The violence to her family happened the last week of last semester.

I assume all of her professors did what they could to ease the burden that had fallen on her. I knew that giving her time to finish her work was the only legitimate response to her situation. Twenty years ago I would have reacted the same, I am sure.

However, my response was based on a very different premise than it would have been twenty years ago. Twenty years ago I would have imagined I had the ability (the power?) to help rescue this young woman from the horrible ordeal she and her family were experiencing. However, neither in December nor yesterday did I have any illusion that I could make anything right for her. The only thing in my power to do was to help her understand the writing assignment she needed to finish in order to change her incomplete grade to a letter grade.

And be kind.

And let her know that what she was doing was perfectly acceptable both to the university and to me. And to check once more to be sure that she had followed through with the counseling from the university’s student life center that I had helped her arrange. What we were doing was totally about her and her work. I did not need to tell her anything about my own personal experience of the kind of trauma she had experienced, was still experiencing. I did not need to try to fix anything. All I needed to do was be open and as generous as it is possible for a professor to be.

Her essay is a two-part study of the work of Orlan, the French performance artist. The first part is research—to write a description of Orlan’s work and discuss Orlan’s ultimate “project.”  The second part is to write an argument either pro or con for the proposition that Orlan’s artistic work is “grotesque.” The topic of my seminars in Discovery and Discourse is “writing about the grotesque,” and the students write about short fiction in light of Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” They also write about the 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The work on Orlan is the culmination of this thinking about what makes a work of art “grotesque.”

I was prepared to read the last of 60 essays from the semester arguing that “Orlan’s work is/is not grotesque because – – – “ I was dumbfounded to read, “Orlan’s project is to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty – – -“

In nine semesters of using the topic of the “grotesque” for my classes’ writing and researching, I have not read another paper in which the student turned the proposition on its head. The grotesquery has nothing to do with Orlan; rather, society’s almost universal understanding of beauty for women is grotesque.

The student was, in fact, using the academic assignment to work through and talk about the trauma of her family. And doing it brilliantly. Her essay will be one of the two I submit for publication in our department’s annual journal.

. . . the grotesque?

. . . the grotesque?

To have drawn the conclusion I did about my interaction with the student is perhaps self-serving. But my conclusion is this. My willingness to give the student a tiny (one hour!) bit of extra help, simply to be kind, and to help her summon the courage to seek the professional help she needs gave her the freedom to use a purely academic assignment to begin to work through what had happened to her.

I did not talk with her about the importance of what she has written, but I will find a way to discuss it when she comes back for the final review of her essay.

My response as a 69-year-old and what might have been my response as a 49-year-old may not on the surface seem different. But when I was 49, I would have been sure that I was supposed to DO something, that the result was up to me. That, from the goodness of my heart and my concern about the student would come some wonderful result for her.

But today I know that simply being where I am supposed to be, doing what I am trained, paid, and expected to do, and doing that with compassion and concern is enough. Watching the student think through a topic from a new perspective, and knowing she will be OK in spite of her almost impossibly difficult situation is my reward—for doing my job.

“. . . interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. . . “

What we don't understand

What we don’t understand

Inception (1) haunts me. I didn’t follow it well when I saw it, and I don’t know for sure how the images in my memory fit together to make the story. The film won the AFI award as Movie of the Year, and it was nominated for oodles of Academy Awards including best picture, so I know it’s a great movie. No. I know it’s a great movie because I know it is.

I have a remarkably limited language for discussing movies. Because I haven’t seen many since about 1980. My former students will testify that the movies I “get” (sort of) are old black and white things that no one should bother to watch. Movies like Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948), The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962), An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Robert Enrico, 1962), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962), Summer and Smoke (Peter Glenville, 1961), and Howards End (James Ivory, 1992). Oh, I forgot, Ivory films are not black and white. It appears the movies I think I understand tend to be from my high school days.

These are some of the movies I’ve used in class. The movies on the list have (at least) two things mostly in common. They are based on other literary works and/or they have some element of mystery that propels the stories. Or both.

I was thinking about Inception this morning (and hence, all those others) because it suddenly occurred to me that I should use it in class this semester. I won’t, but I should. It would not fit our semester’s topic (“Writing about the Grotesque”). But it would give me a lead-in to what I really want my students to think and write about, using the “grotesque” as a spring-board. I want them to think about mystery. Not as in Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, but as in “What’s the meaning of life,” or, “why do people act the way they do?”

In about 1990 I was living alone for the first time in my life. Yes, I was 45. I was working professionally at a real job (Professor of Music at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston) for the first time in my life, too. I was living in a condo I purchased, unfortunately, at the top of the Massachusetts real estate bubble of the ‘80s (and because of which I eventually lost not only my shirt but my hope of a comfortable retirement). I was able to read again as I had not been able to since college. And I had begun writing short stories (short stories that could barely be called stories).

The grotesque on a back?

The grotesque on a back?

A good friend gave me a copy of the complete short stories of Flannery O’Connor. My inner life changed. I discovered a new way of thinking about the mysteriousness of my life. I found the grotesqueries of all of the people I had ever known (myself included) presented in both harsh and loving reality. And—don’t assume I’m talking about religion—I discovered a way of thinking about the grace that allows us to continue to the end of our days in spite of our grotesqueries (or, O’Connor might say, because of them).

Most of the students in my classes will miss the point. They’re not at university to think about anything important except how to get rich. Their assignment for today after reading O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back,” is to contemplate (can they “contemplate,” or will I do well to get them merely to “think about”?) if and/or how the story is rooted in her explanation of writing that

. . . if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then 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. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do (2).

If you’ve seen Inception, you may be able to see why I think it might be a way in to help the students think about O’Connor’s understanding that “the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.” I don’t know. In the dream world of Inception all adequate motivations and psychology and determinations have been exhausted. At a depth. Mystery.

AOaOCB blogI suppose the students are lucky I’m not going to drop that idea on them half-baked (or the film, either—I would be surprised if any of them have seen it).

The problem is, of course, that I should not be trying to get university students to help me think about the mystery. I’m “interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do” these days. I have always hoped (even pretended) I was. These days it’s an obsession.

And teachers are supposed to be able to get students to understand, not to not understand.
__________
(1) Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine. Warner Bros., 2010. Film.
(2) O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.”  Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

Why, I write naturally. Why I write, naturally.

Let's stop, grandma. Let's stop grandma.

Let’s stop, grandma.
Let’s stop grandma.

That’s one of those sentences one might give college writing students to remind them of the importance of commas. You know, sentences such as, “Let’s stop grandma before it’s too late!” or “Let’s stop, grandma, before it’s too late.” (Can you tell I’m rethinking Flannery O’Connor in preparation for my classes?)

The clock says it’s only 4:26 AM, and I wake up with my mind going full-tilt (or, should I say, as fast as my mind ever works). I’m thinking about (at the same time) the opening sentence I was trying to construct for a short story last night; my uncertainty how I’m going to support myself a year from now; the noon meeting I need to attend but don’t want to; the need to use my cane if I do go to the meeting; the persistent low-level depression I’ve been in for who-knows-how-long and can’t seem to shake; my giggly delight that a young woman–a stranger–on the elevator at Mockingbird Station asked what my “Das Barbecue” t-shirt referred to; and the nonsensical contradictory messages I receive by email and Facebook–from why the President is acting like a certain German dictator by talking about bombing Syria to why depriving Americans of color of their right to vote is going to save the country; from why we must stop John Boehner from destroying the Affordable Health Care Act and along with it the nation to why gun control laws are somehow antithetical to the natural world and the moral universe, all of those ridiculous “causes” so many people are riled up over that it’s a wonder anyone can sleep.

Fortunately when I woke up at 3:40, none of these things was on my mind. That’s obviously not true–they were there waiting for the right moment to ambush me. If I wake up in the night (although I seldom do–my sleep may seem short to most people, but it’s usually deep and uninterrupted), I go back to sleep quickly. But I know exactly the moment I wake up and the night is over. The fact is, I think, that my brain is already in overdrive thinking about all of those absurdities, and it wakes me up. It doesn’t work the other way around. I don’t wake up and then start churning these useless thoughts around in my mind.

What I want to know is if that’s the way everyone wakes up.

One aspect of the experience is even more discomfiting than the mere waking up and knowing sleep is finished for the night. I have no choice what to do about it.

Why, I write, naturally.

I write about one or all of those subjects that has inserted itself into my mind uninvited. That is, if I’m lucky, I can choose one. Or I find something else to write about that will put those inanities out of my mind.t-shirt

My mother used to say I was always the first one out of bed in the morning. I doubt was writing at 4:30 AM when I was a kid. I don’t know exactly when that started. I know I signed up for organ practice hours beginning at 6 AM when I was in college.  But then I became a drunk, and all of my natural rhythms were suspended until I got sober. Much later. I was finally able to write my dissertation when I was 43 years old. That writing was almost always at 4 AM.

Soon after I finished my dissertation, I changed my mind about what I wanted to do when I grew up, and the serious (to me, at any rate) early morning writing began.

A few days ago a colleague, after I told her about this blog, told me she admired  my discipline in writing every day. Oh, how I wish that were the case.

Here’s what’s going on. It’s hard to tell if this is merely habit or if it some sort of compulsion I can’t control. The compulsion is real enough. Just read Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. I don’t know how much if any of this applies to me, naturally. But I know how much of it seems to apply to me naturally.

Here’s my point this early morning. I know trying to get all of the stuff that’s whirling around in my head written down is my first priority of the day. Almost every day. And then there are the days I can’t. Can’t figure out where to get started naturally. And that, naturally, keeps me from writing and then I have a nagging frustration in my mind all day long.

And this is what the writing accomplishes. It takes away my almost constant feeling that

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Shakespeare,  Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5)

Everyone knows this speech of Macbeth. But the next line in the play is hardly ever included when it is quoted. Macbeth says to the messenger who arrives while he is speaking, “Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.”

Thy story quickly. That’s all I’m trying to do. Tell my story quickly so at least for an hour my life’s more than a walking shadow.

And you have your little compulsion, the thing you do every day that at least momentarily takes away your certain knowledge your “life’s but a walking shadow.” And you indulge that little compulsion, it seems to you, naturally.

Is it natural?

Is it natural?