Suspend Your Disbelief

Against Meaning: On Outpunting One’s Coverage and Achieving Greatness Anyway
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Against Meaning: On Outpunting One’s Coverage and Achieving Greatness Anyway

The voice Welty created is so entertaining on its own terms that for more than seventy years the political aspects of this story have gone essentially unremarked upon – even undiscovered, at least as far as I can tell.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty-On occasion we may feel moved to make some sort of point with our fiction (fratboys are pigs!  being gay is fine!) and we’ll set off into our material armored with good intentions.  If this intention is what gives rise to our story, what we tend to produce is either wooden propaganda or fiction in which the meaning is so accessible it is not worth accessing: fool’s gold.  Better compose an essay than to ask a reader to slog through fiction that is in essence all exposition.  Better still, of course, not to approach our writing this way – better to discover some worthwhile statement within whatever material one is already engaged with on its own terms.  And we might decide that using our art for political ends is in fact beside the point.  After all the making of art is itself a political act, as to make art the artist must acknowledge the complexity of all experience, must be at least sometimes humble, reflective, and generous, at least with respect to his or her own achievements, and must certainly attend to the richness of the world with an open heart, and all of these requirements amount to political positions, especially in a world where – well, fill in the blank with whatever outrage you like.

In fact we might propose a ratio whereby the better the writer the less likely he or she is to be even capable of writing political fiction[1], with the greatest artists finally favoring – notwithstanding what they actually originally meant to do – the artistic impulse over the thematic.[2] Two examples illustrate this phenomenon with particular clarity: Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”

“Ivan Ilych” never fails to terrify with its punishing description of what appears to be a slowly advancing cancer, which debilitates Ilych bit by bit while leaving him cruelly aware not only of excruciating pain but the approach of death.  As in a nightmare his condition announces itself, after a fall, first as a “queer taste in his mouth and…some discomfort in his left side”. A visit to the doctor fails to reassure him, though he is able to convince himself that “‘perhaps it isn’t so bad after all.'”  But bad it is, and worse and worse, as Ilych passes through a series of increasingly doomsome portals, experiencing disbelief, denial, puzzlement, anger, despair, just as we imagine we would in his place:

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiezewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite, separate from all others.  He had  been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse….What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of?

The striped leather ball is terrifying, because we have all possessed something like that somewhere along the way, which is of course Tolstoy’s purpose in including it, pointing us to the fact that we are all mortal, though like Ilych none of us quite believes it.  As the disease progresses Ilych loses his ability to walk, to care for himself, to speak, until he becomes just a consciousness experiencing pain.  And then comes the terrible, unforgettable imagery:

Till about three in the morning he was in a state of stupefied misery.  It seemed to him that he and his pain were being thrust into a narrow, deep black sack, but  though they were pushed further and further in they   could not be pushed to the bottom….He was frightened yet wanted to fall through the sack, he struggled but yet co-operated.  And suddenly he broke through, fell, and regained consciousness.

The black sack is horrible: humble and domestic and hideously familiar.  We have had dreams like this, in which nothing is quite right, in which we are trying to effect something but cannot, fever dreams in which our metaphorical minds seem to build our metaphors into physical things, as happens later, when Ilych thinks:

“There is one bright spot there at the back, at the beginning of life, and afterwards all becomes blacker and blacker and proceeds more and more rapidly – in inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death,” thought Ivan Ilych.  And the example of a stone falling downwards with increasing velocity entered his mind.

There is no escape:

For three whole days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible, resistless force….He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into that black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it. 

The Death of Ivan IlyichBut the stubborn fact is this: these unsurpassable lines are not, in Tolstoy’s mind, and by his own accounting, anything remotely resembling the point of this story.  For Tolstoy, these experiences are only the context for the real story – which is that Ilych, an unremarkably worldly man, proud of his job, his house, his salary, has lived a life without meaning or purpose, and now he is experiencing the consequences. Why can’t he get into the bag? Because he has yet to renounce his secular life with its petty ambitions:

He was hindered from getting into it by his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life held him fast and prevented his moving forward, and it caused him most torment of all. [3]

But jeez, who cares why he can’t get into the bag?  The terrifying fact is: there is a bag and he must get into it.  The painstaking account of Ilych’s illness is so harrowing that it utterly  blots out Tolstoy’s explicitly expressed purpose, which, by his own testimony, was to demonstrate that one must pay attention to the important things in life (charity, equality, sincerity, humility) in order to live a life of meaning.  If you live a meaningless Ilychian life, you will die a meaningless Ilychian death. 

But no moral program can compare with the terror Tolstoy has created.  As the moment of death nears:

 …suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides.

From ten sides. Ten sides!  What could this lovely, terrifying, mysterious image possibly mean?  In what hideous, infernal origami have we found ourselves confined?  And how strange that our black bag turns out to have been more solid than we knew, turns out to have had geometrical qualities heretofore unsuspected….And how does an abstract ten-sided confinement relate to the imported, moralized notions of forgiveness and salvation that bookend this moment?  Well, it doesn’t.  The imagery here, especially the hideously familiar strangeness of it, overwhelm any moral Tolstoy may have hoped to convey.

Tolstoy intended his story as a lesson in how to live one’s life, but it is indelibly – and far more powerfully – a story about exactly what it is like to die.

Tolstoy intended his story as a lesson in how to live one’s life, but it is indelibly – and far more powerfully – a story about exactly what it is like to die.

Well, this is all fairly straightforward.  The intended purpose of Tolstoy’s story is well known and we can compare our reading of it with the author’s intentions and decide, as we must, that Tolstoy the artist is greatly superior to Tolstoy the moralist.  But what about a story like “Why I Live at the P.O.”? 

What is “Why I Live at the P.O.” actually about?

Strangely this question seems to have gone unasked, or at least unanswered, since the story’s publication.  At first glance the story’s meaning seems to consist of nothing more than the surface triumph of the narrator’s voice, which struts and preens and otherwise dominates the stage Welty has constructed  in her leafy, embowered, deeply rural and more or less benighted Mississippi theater.  What goes almost completely unnoticed – and this is to Welty’s credit – is that this story would appear to be meant not as a piece of voicework but as instead a carefully built critique of American isolationism and stupidity in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor.

That is to say: “Why I Live at the P.O.” is meant not to deliver local color or humor but to indict the idiotic complacency of her countrymen.

But Welty, too, has outpunted her coverage.  The voice she’s created is so entertaining on its own terms that for more than seventy years the political aspects of this story have gone essentially unremarked upon – even undiscovered, at least as far as I can tell.

Eudora WeltyWelty was no stranger to the intersection of the personal and the political and in fact one of her last stories, “Where is the Voice Coming From”, was composed in an angry fugue in the days after the assassination of Medgar Evars.  As a young woman Welty made many hundreds of photographs of the vanishing rural South, including – unusually for the era – poor blacks, “taking photographs of human beings because they were real life and they were in front of me and that was the reality.”  Welty was always careful, it must be noted, to disavow any political agenda.  “I was the recorder of [the time],” she wrote in 1971, “I wasn’t trying to exhort the public.”  This reluctance to engage in explicit politicking is the mark of a born artist, of course, especially one whose native place and native material was and remains irreducibly complex.  And it suggests, too, that a careful reader of Welty will not expect her meaning to be, in every case, easily discovered.

If “Why I Live at the P.O” had appeared in 1935 or 1955 we would be foolish to read too much into the imagery it deploys.  But because it was written and published in 1941, in the furious and frightening months before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, we might be inclined to read something into the intimations concerning the growing Japanese threat (well understood at the time), and we might decide the story in fact recreates, in hothouse miniature, the willful indifference many Americans felt toward the growing threat of war.

Though it’s easy to forget, powerful isolationist forces were at work in the 1930s and early 1940s, and it’s likely no mistake that the family patriarch, Papa-Daddy, is an ancient, irascible, bearded Uncle Sam figure

about a million years old and’s got this long-long beard

and not only doles out government positions (it is Papa-Daddy who gets our narrator her job at the P.O.) but also jealously guards his position in the precious hammock, where he is inclined to take his complacent ease.  In fact the world of China Grove is supposedly fine, just fine, until things start to change.  And in this regard, the story’s opening line is critical: 

I was getting along fine until my sister Stella-Rondo  just separated from her husband and came back home again

the story commencing at the moment Stella-Rondo brings into the isolated world of China Grove not only a troubled history with the errant Mr. Whitaker (who is himself from elsewhere) but “a little adopted girl” named Shirley-T, of uncertain parentage.  Trouble, from the moment the story opens, arrives from the larger world.

And everything isn’t fine, actually, as may be gathered by observing Uncle Rondo now conduct his annual ritual:

It wasn’t five minutes before Uncle Rondo suddenly appeared in the hall in one of Stella-Rondo’s flesh-       colored kimonos….He’d drunk another bottle of that prescription.  He does it every single Fourth of July as             sure as shooting, and it’s horribly expensive.  Then he falls over in the hammock and snores…

Now, why does Uncle Rondo feel the need to drug himself into oblivion every Fourth of July?

We will notice that Uncle Rondo isn’t wearing a bathrobe or a cape or a sheet; he’s wearing Stella-Rondo’s precious kimono.  And while we wouldn’t want to read too much into the kimono per se, it’s difficult to otherwise account for the fact that Welty uses the kimono to carry some crucial imagery and language, as when our narrator responds to Stella-Rondo’s cry of outrage:

What in the wide world’s the matter, Stella-Rondo? You mortally wounded?

Or when the narrator describes Uncle Rondo as wearing

some terrible-looking flesh-colored contraption I wouldn’t be found dead in

or later chides Uncle Rondo:

“Do you think it wise to disport with ketchup in Stella-Rondo’s flesh-colored kimono?”

Which prompts Uncle Rondo to action, as he

spills out all the ketchup and jumps out of his chair and tears off the kimono and throws it down on the dirty floor and puts his foot on it.

Surely it isn’t pressing the issue too far to take note of the constellation of warlike imagery: a blood substitute, violence, flesh, a terrible-looking contraption (the kimono).  But we might even dismiss these things were it not for the information we then begin to receive about Uncle Rondo.  Uncle Rondo is a veteran, it is implied (and later stated), of the Great War:

Once Stella-Rondo did something perfectly horrible to him – broke a chain letter from Flanders Field[4]

and whatever happened to him in Europe has left its mark.  And what happens on the Fourth of July?  Fireworks.

So it is the inescapable – though at first only implied – conclusion: Uncle Rondo is drugging himself in order to sleep through the fireworks so as not to hear the sounds that will remind of him of battle.

This information is deeply buried, and because the story is so funny and interesting on its surface, we are likely to miss it.

This information is deeply buried, and because the story is so funny and interesting on its surface, we are likely to miss it and to regard Uncle Rondo as a purely comical figure cavorting in a kimono and reeling out to the hammock to sleep off his choice of poison.  But if we put the pieces together in this way we see he is in fact a deeply wounded veteran who is desperate never to encounter  another reminder of the war that has ruined him.  If we fail to notice this, as we almost surely do, the story fails to achieve of one of its principal aims; and so the story is, in this sense, a failure.  So we might say Welty has decidedly outpunted her coverage here.

In this reading of him Uncle Rondo stands as a warning.  He is an example of what war can do to a person.  And our chattering narrator finds herself in a suddenly warring household – a household to which her sister (who has betrayed her with Mr. Whitaker) has returned with an unlovely and unexplained alliance (Shirley-T.), and where the narrator can find no peace or sympathy from anyone, and where even the usually friendly Uncle Rondo turns against her, such that

 …at 6:30 A.M. the next morning, he threw a whole five-cent package of some unsold one-inch firecrackers from  the store as hard as he could into my bedroom and they every one went off….People tell me they heard it as far as the cemetery, and old Aunt Jep Patterson, that had been holding her own so good, thought it was Judgment Day and she was going to meet her whole   family.  It’s usually so quiet here.

It is usually so quiet, but not any longer.  The world has come to China Grove and brought its violence and chaos along.  Our narrator, as a stand-in for the war-shy American citizenry, is having none of it.  She decides at last to leave home in favor of the shelter of the Post Office.[5]  Our narrator collects her things:

I very politely took the sewing-machine motor…and a good big calendar, with the first-aid remedies on it. I stood on the step-ladder and got all my watermelon- rind preserves and every fruit and vegetable I’d put up,  every jar.  Then I began to pull the tacks out of the bluebird wall vases[6] on the archway to the dining room. 

So supplied, she retreats to the P.O., seeking peace.

 …oh, I like it here.  It’s ideal, as I’ve been saying.  You see, I’ve got everything cater-cornered, the way I like it.

And even while this supposed haven is being invaded (“Hear the radio?  All the war news”) our narrator will insist that everything is fine, and will refuse to hear anything to the contrary.  In fact she claims even the war news brings peace:

Radio, sewing machine, book ends, ironing board and   that great big piano lamp – peace, that’s what I like.  Butter-bean vines planted all along the front where the strings are….Here I am, and here I’ll stay.  I want the world to know I’m happy.  And if Stella-Rondo should come to me this minute, on bended knees, and attempt to explain the incidents of her life with Mr. Whitaker, I’d simply put my fingers in both my ears and refuse to  listen. 

Which is just what a lot of people were doing, not only with regard to the Japanese but with regard to the Germans as well.

Taken altogether, these several thematic elements point decidedly back to the title of the story: why exactly did the narrator decide to move to the P.O. again?  Well, obviously, because the world has come to China Grove, has invaded her world, robbed her of her peace, and the only way she’ll find peace is to pack a first-aid kit, an army cot, preserved food, and a set of domestic supplies – and therewith to isolate herself entirely from the outside world.  But irony!  The P.O. itself is the link to the world.  So surely her isolation cannot last long.

It’s a testament to Welty’s bravura accomplishment that no one seems to have taken any particular note of these suggestive thematic elements for seventy-two years.  This is also a fascinating case of a writer having found, inadvertently, a permanent place in anthologies for reasons probably having nothing to do with her original intention.

But might it not be the case that some crucial energy, some powering interest, adheres to the story even as we enjoy its manic comedy – such that we actually sense the presence of some further, more difficult meaning without in fact apprehending it directly?  Might this be a way to attack this problem for ourselves?  Might we all, in fact, aim to conceal our deeper meaning behind a scrim of such bright and lovely activity?

[1] Some writers are of course plenty effective when melding the artistic with the political in this way.  Dozens of examples suggest themselves; Doris Lessing’s story “Room Nineteen” is a good example of a story that manages to achieve its surface purpose – telling the story of a woman’s depression and her collapsing marriage – while conveying a powerful social critique by implication, in Lessing’s case through the deployment of a minutely evolving point of view.  Lessing’s story, it seems to me, gets the balance right; we notice the point of view shifting, but we may not, at first examination, know why it is doing what it is doing.  One aspires to a certain trompe-l’oeil quality in one’s thematic materials, such that one’s story can be a perfectly reasonable rabbit seen one way, a perfectly reasonable duck seen another.

[2] We may call this “outpunting our coverage”, a term describing a situation in which a punter launches such a huge kick that his kicking team is actually put at a disadvantage.  In this comparison the punt is the fiction, the coverage is the thematic meaning, and the returning team is the reader, I suppose.

[3] It is interesting to note that the language in this small passage (and throughout, at moments concerning the moral angle of this story) lacks a certain texture, becoming abstract and colorless.  We may here detect  that Tolstoy is himself more interested in the actual experience of his character’s suffering than in his own purported purpose as a moralist.

[4] These letters were a staple of post-WWI lore.  A newspaper account from 1921 describes one as having been “started during the world war with the idea of helping the allies to victory”.  One such letter reads:

God bless our soldiers and sailors and keep them in the hollow of His hand.  Amen.  

This was received by men on Jan 10, 1921.  It is said to have been all over the world.  Copy it and see what will happen on the 7th day.  It is said all who write it will meet with some great joy, and all who pass it will meet with some great misfortune.

Send it to seven married women and on the seventh day see what will happen.  Start it on the seventh day and write one a day for seven days.  Please do not break this  chain, as it was started on Flanders Field.  Sign your full name.

Stella-Rondo, in breaking the chain, seems to be partially to blame for whatever has befallen Uncle Rondo.

[5] Uncle Rondo is sympathetic to our narrator’s desire to leave home, and it is only here that we are given the last clue we need – that he is indeed a veteran:

“Well, Sister, I’ll be glad to donate my army cot if you          got any place to set it up, providing you’ll leave right            this minute and let me get some peace.”  Uncle Rondo   was in France.

[6] “The White Cliffs of Dover” was not well known until 1942, so these bluebirds are likely just bluebirds.

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