July 9th Fyodor Dostoevski, A Novel in Nine Letters – the Epistolary POV, or how we talk at Each Other

The epistolary story has been around for a long, long time, though I ran into someone who was under the impression that he was inventing  it. “Hey, I’ve got this really clever idea…” he said and I just thought to myself, “you’ve never read Dracula, have you?”

Though instead of letters, diaries and news articles he was going to use dueling technical manuals to tell his zzzzzzzzzz….. oops! Just fell asleep thinking about how unique his take was on the epistolary story.

According to the book Points of View (eds James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny, Mentor Books, 1966) the epistolary story was invented in the 18th Century in order to make the fiction more precise, or rather make it as accurate to describing real life as they could get it. I’m assuming that everybody realized that fiction is always a device of artifice and decided to just use the epistolary for interesting affects on the story they were telling – like convincing everyone that Dracula was more than just an old folk tale told in Romania to frighten their children. We do the same thing today with fake documentary films telling ghost stories.

I like the epistolary story. It’s written in letters – the characters write letters to one another and that’s the only story we get. Sometimes we see manuals or newspaper articles or even journal entries interspersed with the letters to give an outside perspective on events, because the world that the letters describe is the only world we can know; the story that the character is telling is the only story he can know. This is different from an interior monologue, because he’s telling the story to someone within the story and so his point of view is affecting how characters act within the story, including the letter that they might write back.

They are one of the rare type of story that can be written in second person. “You did this…” “You did that…” The editors point out that the POV is coming from only the character writing the letter, and like the dramatic monologue he’s talking to someone directly, but this time there’s a distance between the two characters (not a spontaneous reaction) – and the other character gets to respond.

The editors picked Dostoevski’s story “A Novel in Nine Letters” because it is literally exactly as they described: a story told in letters sent back and forth between two correspondents. It’s also quite literally nine letters. What’s interesting is the way the letters cause the characters to act within the story. They show how each sees the world and each other, but more interesting than that is how those letters change their view of the world, or at least each other.

It’s a story about two gentlemen who are both friends and business partners who keep trying to meet up, but end up missing each other, so they’re forced to communicate with one another via letters.

It seems to be a comedy of errors. One character, Ivan, is pig-headed, money-driven and a bit paranoid. He suspects right away that his business partner, Pytor is trying to wriggle out of a business contract and pay what is owed to Ivan. Pytor is a bit of a dandy, though a good gentleman who doesn’t understand why his partner thinks he’s welshing. He’s a bit like Berty Wooster of Jeeves and Wooster; he’s a bit oblivious to reality and can’t quite understand what Ivan is so very peeved about, especially since his little outings are just spontaneous bits of fun. He doesn’t think anything of it – that is until we get to the eighth letter when we realize that neither Ivan’s nor Pytor’s outings were accidental.

What’s fascinating about this particular story is how misunderstanding is created between the two corresponding characters. Certainly there are outside characters misdirecting them, but because of the distance between the two in correspondence, they interpret each absence differently. One feels slighted, the other wonders if he’s got the date correct, or if his friend was mistaken like he often is.

Ivan is sure that Pytor is trying to sink him, both fiscally and socially. He becomes more and more crazed hiring cab after cab to find his friend, writing his letters at Pytor’s desk and then asking around about Pytor like he’s trying to solve some unscrupulous crime.

Pyotr as you expect isn’t terribly affected, simply going along with the directions (or mis-directions as the other characters work their magic) without questions, but finds himself in an odd predicament as he has to apologize to his friend for actions he wasn’t sure he’d done. He starts believing that he must be a giant screw-up to do so wrong by his good friend. He does correct Ivan when Ivan tells him that Pyotr mislaid the contract on their loan. “If it had been a loan,” he points out, “then there would have been a receipt, but there isn’t one.” Ivan now is certain that Pyotr is putting one over on him pretending to mislay the letter and then destroying (as he surely must have been the whole time with all of their contracts – Ivan surmises from Pyotr’s letters). But both are wrong – someone has intentionally mislaid the letter of contract.

Ivan thinks Pyotr is a weasel.

Pyotr thinks Ivan is a meanie.

Their friendship dissolves, because the letters have completely changed the images that they had had of each, and then…they find two letters that change everything.  Ivan finds a secret letter that Pyotr’s wife sent to a lover and sends it to Pyotr, then Pyotr finds an illicit letter of Ivan’s wife (who had been seeing the same lover) and sends it to Ivan. It becomes clear (okay, clear-ish, I had to re-read a couple or five times) that the two have been blaming the wrong person. Their wives and the unscrupulous friends of the wives (including the lover) have been misdirecting them the whole time.

But were they easily confused? Or was something deeper going on?

Certainly the narrative between the two gets confusing. But that’s the point. Communication is never as straight forward as we would like to think that it is. We often miss each other’s meanings just as the characters in “Nine Letters” miss each other’s appearances. Through letters neither of the characters can see what the other is doing, so they dream up circumstances. Ivan believes that Pyotr is standing him up and lying to him. Pyotr thinks Ivan is joking – he, his friend, can’t possibly mean all of those hurtful things!

Even I got horribly confused and had to re-read the whole thing several times…and take notes.

What makes it worse is that this is a translation of Russian – and from a previous era – so there’s a lot more I’m trying to figure out than just what’s going on, but that too also proves Dostoevski’s point. Communication is muddled, and there are barriers there even when we don’t realize it. Letters ought to be the most straightforward way of talking. You have a piece of paper in your hand to sit with and analyze and yet still the characters get it wrong.

It’s also prescient of the Twenty-First Century where people have to discuss how to carefully format email. They don’t want to sound offensive to the other person when they don’t mean to be. I could write, “I don’t like your choices.” But unless you hear the wistful tone in my voice and see my resigned smirk and shoulders shrug, you think that I’m offended by your choices when I write that.

The two bickering gentlemen become so angry at each other that they don’t want to see the other any more, even if it took Pyotr a while to be offended. Friendships are broken, businesses are dissolved and lives are destroyed, because of miscommunication. Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding is this: letters are personal. That is the greatest myth. Letters are actually an abstraction of communication, a depersonalization of it. It strips out the things that humans look for when talking (the gestures, the tone of voice, pitch). But even then it’s still difficult. After all, the reality is that clear communication isn’t a given, it’s a skill and an art that we often take for granted.

Letters back in the day where very rarely just written on the fly. They were composed, and people who spoke before they thought, or before they listened ended up misrepresenting themselves and their issues. This is food for thought in these divisive times. And the best question I think we can ask ourselves when we hear or read a message that makes us react emotionally is this: did I hear it (read it) correctly? And then stop before we reply.


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June 24 Mary Shelly: Frankenstein: Or Monsters To Eat or not to Eat – that is the question

Monsters are a particular favorite topic of mine. I think that most people like to talk about them. We have urban legends, folk tales, campfire stories, gossips about things that we heard lurking in the woods. Monsters were stories before we had every other story, probably even before we had kings and gods to tell legends about, because we were afraid of stuff before we revered anything.

Think about when you were a little, little kid. You took for granted that mom and dad were going to take care of you – the hero worship came later – but you knew how to spot entities that could harm you and how to have the right amount of respect and, well, how to get the hell away from them.

When I think of ancient folklore monsters, the image comes to mind of Grendel from the tale of Beowulf lurking outside the main hall during winter where all of the villagers were gathered to keep warm and sit out the difficult winter months. He’s the aberration, the outsider, the thing that is profane to the gods where we are sacred. There’s something deeply wrong with him – he shouldn’t exist, he isn’t natural – and it’s us versus him. And he will do something terrible to us if he gets his paws on us.

Sound familiar? It should. He’s the basis of most monsters. Think Freddy Kruger, Jason the Hockey Mask wearing psycho who dismembers campers. How about Michael Meyers from the movie Halloween? He lurks outside of the calm suburban houses during the dead of…well, not Winter, but the darkest time in Fall, Halloween. (And the Ancient world only had two seasons Summer and Winter, so it could count as Winter.) He’s an aberration who has a supernatural madness that causes him to stalk and kill his victims. He, like Grendel, is the stuff of legend, the story kids tell each other to frighten each other. And when he gets his paws on you, you are dead meat. It’s the normal suburbs versus the abnormal creature: us versus him – and somehow he has the upper hand. I said that he’s supernatural, right?

Jordan Peele did a magnificent reversal on that with his movie Get Out, where the monster was lurking in the houses and the outsider was the innocent victim, but here we still have that malicious us versus them dynamic going on.

But I picked Frankenstein to talk about monsters. He’s definitely Grendel, he’s unnatural and makes people uneasy just by his presence. I could say that it’s his hideous appearance, but also seems as if when the Swiss villagers see him they pick up on a vibe as if to say, “something’s just not right with this guy.”

Now, why’d I pick Frankenstein? There are earlier monsters and Frankenstein actually is inspired by old ghost stories (or so the tale goes) which are the proto-monster tale. But Frankenstein is considered the first official horror story (and the first official science fiction story). Here’s where literature and pop culture is going to pick up from and create every other monster story you’ve ever heard of.

But that’s not why I picked it.

Here, is where I tricked you. Because I’m not examining the book Frankenstein (which I have read several times), I’m using it to talk about a different book called How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. He has a monster chapter where he does a reversal on a previous chapter. In that chapter he talks about how any group eating scenes are a re-enactment of the sacred ceremony of the Communion where we are all bound together as a community through our meal and to our god at the same time. We’re connected and made sacred by our human-ness. The symbolic point is to show the harmony of the human community, or when something goes wrong during the meal, the dis-harmony when someone breaks the rules of Communion and doesn’t connect with others. In the next chapter he talks about how monsters eat humans.

He uses vampires as his main example. They suck the blood out of people, but blood is our life and their food source, so in essence they are eating us. So are werewolves and zombies and many other monsters that he picks on like the governess from Henry James’s Turn of the Screw…huh?

Okay, that’s a pretty far cry from flesh eating zombies. Here’s where his monster and mine might touch base. He says that the monster is the individual who breaks the rules of society, but in a way that is harmful to the life-force of individuals. They do so either as vampires do by eating it, or as the governess does to the little boy in Turn of the Screw by smothering him, even though in her mind she protecting him from a ghost that may or may not exist. According to Foster, “[It’s a story] in which the psychological state of the governess matters greatly, and in which the life of the child [she’s duty bound to protect], a little boy, is consumed. Between the two of them, the Governess and the ‘specter’ destroy him.” He also talks about how groups of snobs consume an innocent American in “Daisy Miller” by destroying her reputation little by little with gossip. She doesn’t die, but her life is destroyed by their lack of care for her. She comes to them for help after being raped and they blame her for it instead (she was flirting with the guy after all). She goes into a psychological tailspin after that. They become Grendels attacking the villager – hey, wait, that’s Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Hmmm….

But I had to disagree with Dr. Foster just slightly, because I believed that there was more to it than that. This is okay. Academia is supposed to be something that you listen to, absorb, think about and then make an argument for or against.

I’ll go with the argument that monsters consume, but I think that there’s more to monstering than just sucking out life force. For instance, I read Turn of the Screw and didn’t see what the the governess gains at the end. I saw a women who instead was no longer able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. She didn’t gain anything, she’d lost something – something BIG!

His argument was that the monster gains power while the monster’s victim loses it (and the thing that the monster does to gain it is outside of human decency), but Freddy Kruger just kills. Jason, Michael Meyers, same. They don’t get more powerful, they just continue in the same old destructive cycle.

I think that the argument is focusing on the wrong “monster quality”.

Their behavior is aberrant, outside of human morality. They do things that we consider to be bad – perhaps outside of that which is considered sacred? Outside of god’s grace? Okay, I’m getting a little religious, so let’s look at it from a secular point of view, they do something that decent humans should not do. If they aren’t breaking god’s law and falling from grace, they’re breaking humanity’s social contract and losing their humanity in the process. They’re the ones losing out, not the victims – they’re just dead.

I want to use another famous example to get my point across. You remember Oedipus Rex, right? Who could forget the guy who kills his father and marries his mother? He does the worst possible thing a person could possibly do. He goes so far outside human norms that all you can be is shocked by him – repelled even? If so, your disgust is the correct response. He’s the object lesson of what not to do. Well…Dr. Foster could chime in and point out that that isn’t really what’s going on, and he’d be correct. Because the question is why is Michael Meyers a monster and Oedipus not? Because Michael pursues his victims knowing that what he’s doing is wrong, but Oedipus had no idea that the guy he was killing (an oppressive tyrant) was his father and that his wife was his mother. What can you learn from that? (Take a DNA test before you bring somebody justice?) Oedipus couldn’t know he was his father, because his father abandoned him as an infant thinking he’d die, but the kid got found and raised by someone else. So, why use this example? I’ll get to that later.

I wanted to use Frankenstein as a good example of what I mean by monster for a very good reason. Victor Frankenstein’s creature doesn’t start out as good or evil, but a blank slate. He’s a fearful creation to be sure, but has no malicious intent to start with. He’s shunned as an outsider and hides in a barn looking in from the outside at a family. But he’s not lurking angrily like a Grendel waiting to attack, instead watching and admiring the nice family in the house. He meets up with a blind man later who teaches him civilities and the creature learns to be a good person. He learns morality. Now, he can choose whether to be inside of morality or not. (Inside the Longhall or not.) But when the blind man’s daughter comes by and drives the creature away, he starts to consider whether or not he wants to be a moral person. Little by little as the villagers drive him away he becomes less desirous of the moral life, until he gets to meet up with his creator, Victor, who he threatens unless he makes him a wife.

Victor refuses on the grounds that the two creatures would procreate (okay, maybe that could happen, but we’ll just go with it) and fill the world with monsters. But up until that point, the creature isn’t the monster. Victor is the one calling him that, but he isn’t one. He’s frightening and doesn’t make very good choices, but he still stays within the confines of morality, until Victor takes away his chance to have community with his own kind. That is when he decides to become a horror to Victor. He kills off everyone he loves and then haunts him. This does eventually destroy him, but I think that it’s more than the act of undoing that makes the creature a monster. It’s the choice to destroy his creator and in the most horrific fashion – in the most malicious ways he can think up – that makes him a monster.

Horror as a genre is all about that choice – the choice to do evil for whatever reason instead of good. But I think it is also about circumstances creating that choice. The creature becomes cruel, because he is surrounded by cruelty. He is transformed by a society that is slowly turning its back on its own humanity. You might call it a fall from grace, you know, if you were a religious person.

A fall from grace, where have a heard that description before? Oh, yes, applied to a somewhat musty genre we call Tragedy. Which brings us back to Oedipus. But I said that Oedipus was NOT a monster. In fact, throughout all of the play he’s a hero – he saved his people from a horrible tyrant that, get this, left his infant son exposed on a rock. That’s how bad he was. Oedipus fought off the Sphinx and won! This guy is so awesome he’s almost god like – he’s got virtue, strength, leadership skills and that Elvis glow. Some might call him…wait for it…noble. So, when we find out that he did the worst thing a human could possibly do, he not only loses his god-likeness, he becomes less than human. We can never look at him the same again. And, well, he can’t either. He gouges out his own eyes.

But the monsters we encounter in pop culture we’re never even close to god-like ever. They might have started out as common, then became something horrible, or perhaps they were horrible to begin with, so where did the fall come from? “The call is coming from inside the house.” The Humanity that let them down. In horror, it isn’t a noble hero falling from grace, it’s Society. The thing that’s supposed to protect us, becomes the thing that is attacking us – the thing that decides that it doesn’t want to honor its end of the social contract.

Kind of like a king that decides to leave his infant son out to die, or an ancient ruler who decides to literally suck the life force out of his the people who serve him, or suburbites who decide to take over the body of a young black man, or a society that decides that teenagers who have sex (a natural biological process) must die! (Or any mass persecution of someone within our community who looks or acts in a way that we have decided is too different despite being benevolent.) Or a man who breaks the laws of nature, then refuses to take responsibility for what he’s brought into the world – like a decent person ought to do. These are the choices that corrode a society, that brings all of us down just a little bit more – just a little bit further from grace, from our own humanity. An endless cycle. These are the choices that make monsters of us all and that’s horrifying.

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June 11 Katherine Mansfield and Sinclair Lewis – POV: Dramatic Monologue

This is my second installment of a chapter from the textbook Points of View edit by James Moffett and Kenneth R McElheny. They devoted an entire book to the literary trope known as Point of View: basically who is telling you the story or where the story is coming from. In school they referred to it as a camera. Who is holding the camera as the story is being told. Is it high over-head watching in a disinterested manner while the actors act out the scene like in a movie, or it a handheld being shot by someone in the scene asking characters questions like in a documentary?

In the case of the dramatic monologue, the camera is being held by the person telling the story to someone (so perhaps she’s holding the camera to put herself in the shot too). With the interior monologue, it was a story within the main character’s mind as she or he observes the world, but the observations are only from that character – we don’t get to peer into anybody else’s mind and the story forms mostly within her or his mind – with little interaction between characters around her.

As in “But the One on the Right” an interior monologue where the story doesn’t come from what happens outside of Dorothy Parker as she sits and eats at a dinner party, but from her interior observations and clashes with herself or her ideas of the people around her. She wants to talk to the guy on the right, but has been paired with the guy on her left. She grumbles about the hostess and how she must have the wrong impression of Parker to think she’d like this guy on the left. She imagines how wonderful the guy on the right must be, but also chastises herself for not making an adequate conversation with the guy on her left – she tries and he doesn’t. Even though her observations are on the outside world, the drama is coming from her interior world. Also the story is really telling us more about who she is as a person rather than how the world is.

The editors take a step away from the Interior monologue, or rather from the Main Character, with the dramatic monologue, by choosing stories in which they are still in first person, the observations are still coming from the main character, but now they are telling their story to another character in the story. “Imagine you are watching a play and one of the characters starts telling another character a story about his life,” is how the editors put it. Now, keep in mind the character being told the story isn’t in it.

In Katherine Mansfield’s “The Lady’s Maid”, she is a lady’s maid and telling the story to her Lady, but her story is about a former Lady that she was in service of. She gives an account of how she came into the service and the story of her service unfolds. The story is told as a conversation in which she’ll be asked questions by her current lady, though the Lady’s questions go unrecorded, we only hear the maid’s responses as she intermittently offers tea or to move a pillow. Point of View still does not shift from first person.

Neither does it do so with the main character of Sinclair Lewis’s “Travel is so Broadening” where the main character chews away a couple’s evening by telling (going on  and on and on, never actually letting them respond) about his big road trip with his wife across the American Midwest and how he learned so much. He only includes to couple to get them to confirm what he already believes. “Isn’t that right?” he asks them, fully expecting an, “oh, yes, of course!” He talks with great authority on the proper traveling clothes one must take on trips as if he were a famous archeologist going on his tenth dig abroad. He tells the couple about the type of people who live the various towns he went through – “you know the types” he tells them as if he knew what to expect before he got there. And how he knows how things ought to be even if the country hicks don’t.

In one anecdote, he tells the story of going into one town and hitting a local’s car with his and then bullying him into backing down, because he was so rude being angry about his car being hit – I mean the gall! The main character was right and the other guy was wrong. In other words, he’s just talking to talk – he hasn’t learned a thing. Ironic, that he notes that people say that a person can learn from going to school or to lectures (places where you get talked to), but he says – again with authority – that that isn’t how it works, you need to travel to learn.

I agree, but think that you must be as receptive to your surroundings (and humble to them) as you are in school or at a lecture in order to learn anything. He list off facts that he learned or observations that he made, but it is all superficial (and if you aren’t aware of this at a certain point the editors of the story – not the book – interject a note that they took out one of his very loooooong lists of things for time and relevance), but he didn’t learn any deeper wisdom. It was all trivial facts and figures. Once again the dramatic monologue tells us more about the person telling the story than the world that they are traveling through.

The Lady’s maid tells us how she has devoted her life to her Lady, focused herself upon her while we focus on the maid telling the story (as her current Lady focuses on her).

And where “Traveling” is a story of self-congratulations (where it ends with a hyphen, meaning he’s still talking as the editors chop off the words and end the story), “Lady’s Maid” is a story of devotion.

In “Traveling” we get to take a step away from the interior of the Main Character’s mind and the distance is enlightening. We see a buffoon whose ego takes up an entire room even though within his mind, he’s being worldly and enlightened – bringing light to the darkened minds of his little town (which he believes is more cosmopolitan than Minneapolis or St. Paul – he’s from a town named Zenith, famous…yeah, I’ve never heard of it either). But because we are on the outside looking in, we can use our own perspective to measure the information that he is giving us, instead of being solely reliant on him as we are in Parker’s story. Could the one on her left actually be a terrible person and the one on the right actually be the most wonderful person on earth? We can’t say, we simply have to believe her, because we don’t have the distance to reach out to the other characters who are simply props in her own internal drama.

The same thing is true in “Lady’s Maid” where we can see something about the story teller that she isn’t aware of: her devotion to her former lady and how it’s actually a deep and spiritual love. She tells of how the person who raised her, her grandfather, fretted over her hair. He was a hairdresser and made her up to look pretty. She later fusses over her former Lady’s hair to make it as pretty as possible (an echo back to her grandfather – though she is now the caretaker of her elderly Lady). She even fusses over the hair of her current lady. She tells of how as a little girl she’d gotten into her head, though she can’t say why, to play with her grandfather’s scissors and chop off all of her hair. He burns her severely with a curling iron to punish her. She gives a little chuckle as she shows her current Lady the scar. “Oh, I was so mischievous,” she quips. But we know the truth, she wasn’t being mischievous, she was rebelling against a strict and severe man who made her stay out of his way when he didn’t want her around, or sit in a window when he needed her for his own means. He didn’t love her, he used her, so she made herself useless to him, but she doesn’t understand this. Perhaps some part of her did. She still loves him even as he never really loved her. We can see it, even as she deprecates herself for the chopping and excuses him for his terrible punishment. She doesn’t know why she runs away from him only that she was now afraid of him.

The same goes for a man who becomes her fiance. He is a florist who decorates her Lady’s house for a party and decides to pursue the maid romantically. She will have none of it at first. She doesn’t like how forward he has become, but eventually she relents and agrees to marry him. But when her lady starts to cry just as she is packing, she tells him the marriage is off. She later decorates her lady’s hair with flowers as she fusses with the hair – a symbol of her true devotion even if she doesn’t understand that her past is weaving into her present and showing us where her real feeling lay, even if she doesn’t tell her current Lady this we wonder if she can see it, because we can.

That’s the magic of Dramatic monologue. Though it’s still within the interior of the main character, it gives us a bit of a different point of view and a wider understanding of the story being told. And though we can each see ourselves in the interior monologue (we get how Dorothy Parker feels even if we don’t agree with her), we can see who the character really is and how their view shapes (or at least makes a dent) in the world around her or him with this point of view.

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May 27: Dorothy Parker, “But the One on the Right” part 2: dining as an act of communion – comically speaking

Okay, so today’s post is going to resemble last week’s, but with a slight hitch: I’m using a different textbook to comment on it. I’m reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster (not to be confused with Thomas B. Foster). I disagree with some of his ideas though, let’s start in on the first.

His book talks about how to parse out what you read and delve in a little bit deeper. The first chapter is on how all journeys in stories (or most of them) are learning experiences, but this chapter was about how to read a dinner or meal sequence. They’re all Communion. Yep, that one, but emphasizes that for this symbolic meal it’s the mood that counts. the meal, he explains, is a time for people to come together, to share. He says that it’s pivotal time to show how alliances are formed or destroyed.

There is an important meal in “But the One on The Right”, but it’s more about separating oneself out from the others. A sort of this-is-what-life-serves-up moral. Perhaps it’s about always wanting what you can’t have as the diner to the right of the speaker is the one she dreams about, but the one on the left, who is actually having a conversation with her, is a dud. It’s the funny version of Communion. A playing on the idea of it being the opposite of what a meal usually is.

Last week, I got all judge-y because Parker didn’t even give the droopy guy to her left a chance, but this week, I’m speaking up for her. I think it’s hard to split the difference between the two points of view. Yes, the world would be a better place if people were more open to communing with one another. On the other hand, the world would be a better place if communing never turned into a power struggle where the communee often sees the open invite as a chance to take advantage of the good nature of the communer (and, yes, I just made up two words). I think that stuff written by women will often show meals as power struggles, because we’re the ones who often have to negotiate them.

And what do I mean by negotiate? Let me elaborate. We’re the ones that are more often asked to prepare the meals and serve them. That’s changing a bit now which is good, but it’s still more often than not our burden. Since Foster is a guy, he’s only looking at meals in one way, something nice to sit back and enjoy, but we women get a different perspective. He sees meals as a common place of balance, a gathering where everyone is equal (or supposed to be), but we get to see the long history of meals as someone who had to prepare the meal (chop the vegetables, get stuff cooked), prepare the table (make it look pretty),  and lay the plates down with a smile (“Did you like your meal, sir?”) and then do the dishes afterwards.

For a woman a meal is a place of imbalance. She’s serving someone, making certain he’s happy. She’s fretting over whether someone has enough of this or that or if her children are getting good enough nutrition (and the inevitable fight that will ensue when they don’t). A meal is a stressful time, also a political time. Sometimes it’s the time for her to put across her needs, or the needs of the people she’s supporting. History shows that mealtimes often turned out to be the only time for a woman to speak out for a cause to her powerful husband (if he’d let her). All other times she’s ignored or told to be quiet (she certainly doesn’t get a place at any other table).

In Parker’s case, she’s placed at a disadvantage by the host, placed next to someone who doesn’t give her any social advantage.

But let’s back up a bit. When Foster refers to Communion, he does state that every religion has a sacred meal, but let’s be real here. He means Communion, Christian Communion. If you look closely at THAT story, you’ll notice that there are no women present at all and I’m pretty certain that neither Jesus nor the apostles prepared that meal. This tells you how this story doesn’t consider the other. Their needs for food or companionship aren’t considered.

In “But the One on the Right” Parker is left mostly to her own devices mostly ignored. Even the gentleman on her left makes no real attempt to connect. That work is left all to her. It is a story entirely within the first person perspective and within her mind and this re-enforces her isolation. It’s meant to be a funny story, but it also highlights how a woman at a meal can be easily disregarded, starved for companionship – the opposite of what the man on her right is receiving.

It makes me wonder how often a meal is portrayed by a woman as a sort of isolation, or a power play by a more dominating force. Instead of good feelings, the meal engenders struggle and worry and loneliness. I don’t think that that’s every meal in every story of a woman, but it is something that we will be forced to write that they will not. It’s amazing what a different perspective can do.


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May 22 Dorothy Parker: “But the One on the Right”: POV, Interior Monologue or the Grass is Greener on the Other Eyed

Today, I thought I’d look into one of my old writing workshop “textbooks”. Why “textbooks” with quotes? Mostly because it’s really just an anthology of stories where the editors (James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny) are guiding us through a literary idea: Point of View.

I find it amusing that the discussion of Point of View (which from now on will be called POV) is a quick and simple one in most workshops. Who is telling the story, the teacher explains. That’s it, plus followed up with: you can tell it in first person (“I did this” or “I saw that” or “I remember something good to tell you”), second person (“you should do this” or “you think that” or “you should know better”) and lastly third person (“he did that” or “she thought that” or “they forgot how to tell a story”).

But not for the book Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. Oh no, we’ve got over thirty stories to use as various examples of POV. Plus, they’ve really broken this sucker down. They define the trinity (yes, they described a literary concept as a trinity) of first, second and third person as narrator, auditor, story (or rather who is telling you this story); and informer, informed, information (what is being conveyed); and transmitter, receiver, message (how or maybe what method is used to convey it). On top of this, they don’t strictly divide up the categories, instead they use a spectrum – a scifi-like spectrum of time and space. “When distance in time and space increases among I, you and he, so does the distance in time and feeling.” The further you get from a place (e.g. France) or time (the Eighties), the less personal it becomes. I disagree some events in one’s life will always be cherished (I’ll always hold on dearly to the night the Thriller video first came out) and some places will always be special (the Eiffel Tower will always be the place under which I got my first kiss). But I get their meaning.

They decided to start their POV spectrum with the closest a story can take a person: first person telling you all of her thoughts. They named it “The Interior Monologue” and compared it to a soliloquy on stage. Sure, we get that the guy on stage isn’t actually saying any of that stuff. I mean, he could be shouting it at the characters, but they won’t hear it, because it’s all in his head. We’re just eavesdroppers listening in to the unfiltered rants, tirades and elations of this person’s interior perspective of events.

So, what’s this got to do with Dorothy Parker? Well, first of all her story, “But the One on the Right”, is really just her inner monologue as she sits down to eat at a dinner party. We go through the various courses and we get to hear what she thinks of the meal and the company.

If this was a movie, we’d see this as a brief scene where not much happens. She tries and fails to make conversation to the guy sitting to her left when she’d really rather be talking to the guy on her right. That’s not much bit a quick ten second scene where we wait for the rest of the action to happen.

But on the inside of her mind it is a great tragedy of epic, nay, Biblical proportions. She mentions a story from the Old Testament, Thoreau (Civil Disobedience no less – “oh, poor me, I will not give in to this grave injustice!”), alludes to a parable from the bible and Greek Tragedy (the Greek God on the right is probably talking to a Greek Goddess who could not be bothered with the mundane affairs of us lowly humans). And what pray tell precipitates this drama? She gets sat next to a boring guy.

Um…yeah…injustice…I guess.

Okay, she is being sardonic. We know that by her tone, comical, that she knows that one night sitting next to a boring guy isn’t going to end her world. But that isn’t the point – or rather, we have to consider… (drum roll please)…the point of view of the character. This story isn’t being told after the fact – where she can look back and laugh or look back and give a sigh of relief that she’s not going to (hopefully) go through that again. We’re up front and center to experience the emotion as she goes through it. And, lets face it, our emotions are a bunch of whining, screaming babies.

The emotion we feel at the time makes the moment into something huge, something epic, something…we later regret – or laugh at. “Oh, my god,” you might think, “I thought that I was going to DIE!!!” And, of course, the pain that the moment causes forces us to make strange decisions (like voting for an idiot billionaire, because, I don’t know maybe he’d help my job situation??) and think strange thoughts. Like for instance, the person on the other side of us must be the more interesting person. Got to be more interesting than this loser!

Her imagination turns the man on her right into a Greek God even though all she can see is his shoulder – the back of his shoulder, but, hey he could turn. If only he’d turn! Save me like the Superman to my Lois Lane that I know that he must be!

This is all in her head. She hasn’t talked to the man on her right, or accidentally dropped a fork on him or spilled her wine within his sight (or whatever scheme she could think of) to get his attention. And neither has she actually tried to get to know the guy on her left. She just sees him all droopy there (I assume he’s droopy, she didn’t bother to describe him, she just sees him and assumes that he’s a loser, so that’s inference I have to make).

And that’s the magic of POV. She describes him as droopy, a loser, someone so boring that he doesn’t drink wine. Describes him as a swine despite the fact that he hasn’t done anything to be horrible to her and we the audience laugh along with her. We see him as she sees him, because that’s all the story is giving us, so that’s what we see. But for us, we have distance, we can back up and say, “hold on, you haven’t actually talked to this guy.”

We walk away thinking he’s a loser, but for the cunning reader there’s another dimension to this. We could consider that maybe he’s just shy. Maybe he’s not very good at conversation. That doesn’t make him a loser, or a swine. What if she asked him what he did for a living and it turns out he’s a surgeon who only helps the poor, or he traveled to the Congo on a mission and found that life was too short to spend it inebriated (“I saw so many people helpless to oppression and poverty, but happy, and thought I should live with less too.”). But she doesn’t bother to ask him anything about himself. She makes her impression and does her best to suffer through dinner.

In the end, the Interior Monologue tells us nothing about the “one on the left” or the right, but more about who she, the narrator is.

It made me wonder if the true purpose of the story was to tell us who Dorothy Parker was? (She does name herself as the narrator.) Or does it in effect tell us who we are? When you back away from the story, do you agree with the narrator? (Yeah, that guy sounded like a loser! Sorry you had to go through that, poor, suffering, Dot!) Or do you take a wider view? (I wonder if she’d tried talking to him who he would have turned out to be?) It’s all a matter of….(wait for it)….perspective.

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May 17 Issac Asmov: “The Machine that Won the War”: What is technology really? And where do we humans come into it?

This is a story I revisit often. It has a tinge of irony to it, but in an Issac Asmov sort of way, with a tinkle in the eye, a fun uncle nudge to the shoulder.

Asmov was one of THE writers during the golden age of sci fi. He writes for a category known as hard science fiction. The focus is on facts and figures, future inventions that will become taken for granted as the current ones have been, but also inspects how society will change around that. We definitely are never the same after something new has been invented.

I just watched a documentary show on PBS called “Civilization” where anthropologists discuss what moved ancient people forward.  I think that there is a hard science fiction to that as well. It is a fact that the invention of farming and trade created a new type of human experience, but I wonder what they dreamed it would be like? Who feared it? What monsters (or tales of how it would all go wrong) did they create? And how accurate were those tales? Or perhaps on the opposite scale, who was their Jules Verne? Their H.G. Wells? Who predicted that those inventions would bring in sparkling new and beautiful things? (Asmov is definitely on their side.)

I was an English Major in college and we had discussed how the invention of the written word changed everything. Great classics like the Iliad were being written down for the first time to be preserved. We all believe that there is only one version of that tale, this is beyond not true. Who knows how many tellers told it, added on to it. Who knows if the one that got preserved was truly the best version (we’ll never find out). We do honor that tradition by retelling our favorite tales with a modern twist (the contemporary version of Snow White, or Little Red Riding Hood, even Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale got re-vamped for Hulu). But Plato did not like this new invention. He mourned the death of oral tale telling. For him this new technology was a bad thing, he predicted that the written word would supplant human memory…and he wasn’t wrong.

He also predicted that something human would be lost in the act of tale telling (a uniquely human experience) that the tale would not longer be an extension of the human spirit, but an artifice of it – a poor replication of the gods, or at the very least that feeling intuitive part of ourselves. And as the written word separated us from the spiritual part of ourselves, we would be more alienated from one another.

It’s an interesting speculation. Has technology made us feel more isolated? Recent studies show that social media is not that social, that it actually makes the user feel more lonely, more isolated. Other studies show that more and more Americans are living in single person homes, more isolated from families and other human groups. Is this also the influence of technology? Are machines as helpful as we think, or are they simply replacing one harm with another? How do they change us in good ways? And how in bad ways?

And how often are those machines no help at all?

These are the questions that hard science fiction asks.

In Asmov’s “The Machine that Won the War” he puts a twist on the question of whether the machines control us or we control them. Certainly the giant Multivac computer (Asmov never anticipated microprocessors) helped earth strategize the war with the invading aliens, the Denebs. They needed the computer because this is far into the future where earth has colonized most of the solar system and so it isn’t simply a planetary-wide war, but one of many colonies as well. In this final conversation at the end of the war (we won!), we find out that things weren’t as complicated as we thought and machines weren’t as useful as we thought.

We start the story by talking about the man in charge of running the giant computer, Henderson. He has to crawl about it’s insides (at that time people walked through giant shelves of servers through row after row like stacks of shelves in a library). He is described like one of those symbiotic animals who swim through a shark’s teeth cleaning them, or a little mouse wandering through the rows fixing bits here and there. But as always the machine just chugged along doing what it was built to do: analyzing data, then showing the best strategies for any given battle. It’s pronounced to be the machine that won the war.

But, “Multivac has nothing to do with victory. It’s just a machine,” he says. The other men agree, “…a big machine…is no better than the data we feed it.” So, there was a human element to it after all. That’s when Henderson admits that the data being given it was meaningless – those feeding the numbers exaggerated positive outcomes and downplayed negative outcomes in order to keep their jobs, and on top of that there was bias given to some data that made it inaccurate – so he started adjusting the data and then feeding it his own. He used his intuition to fill in the gaps where he felt that the computer was being given inaccurate information.

Then one of the computer techs admits that the Multivac never even worked correctly. The techs he hired were too inexperienced to service it (the experienced ones had been recruited to fight the war) and the parts being manufactured for it were faulty, so he just rigged together a computer output that “looked accurate to him.” Once again he used his intuition to fill in the gaps where they felt inaccurate.

But the soldier who had to use the data for the armed forces has an even more startling confession. He barely used any of the Multivac suggestions at all. He didn’t trust them, because he didn’t get an interpretation of the suggestions. If a general had made those battle suggestions, he or she would have given reasons why his or her arguments should be listened to – why they are the best fit for this scenario, but the Multivac only gave suggestions. “I could never really be certain,” he explained that those were the right decisions. And he explained that they were heavy decisions with lives on the line. He said that instead he relied on a simpler machine to help take the burden of the weight off of him and took out a coin. He explains, “The horror of the responsibility of such decisions was unbearable and not even the Multivac was sufficient to remove the weight. But the point is I was justified in doubting and there is a tremendous relief in that.”

Perhaps he thought if there was going to be random choices given that didn’t seem to make any sense to him, why not just flip a coin. It was just as accurate.

So, which machine won the war? Was it Multivac? Henderson? The computer tech? the soldier? A coin? Luck? Did humanity abandon strategy or did a giant computer just make things more complicated? The giant computer did make everyone in the field feel more confident, more relaxed that they had this “great advantage” that the Denebs did not. Did they? Perhaps they were their own luck.

And what does our technology today add for us? Is it giving us more free time? Or the illusion of free time? Is it easing up our work load? Or taking away tasks that give us purpose? Keep in mind automation is the reason that people are currently losing jobs.

I think that the question that this story asks us to think about is: what security, what REAL security, do machines actually give us? And what is their true role among us little mice scurrying among them, servicing them, looking to them throughout our daily lives to give us some advantage?

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May 9 Alison Lurie: Another Halloween

The vengeful spirit is a staple of the trade – the horror trade that is. It’s basically your tried and true Ghost Story.

There is different variations on it. There’s the morality tale version: the tale of the person who did another soul wrong and thus causing his death. In the movie Ghost, the greedy antagonist killed Patrick Swayze (thus turning him into the eponymous ghost) to keep him, PS, from telling their boss about his embezzling. He is killed by Swayze (who is only heroically protecting the life of his girlfriend) and then the antagonist is then dragged to an underworld by shadow beings. Being punished is the way of the tale telling us what not to do. Then there is the ghost who is simply angry for being robbed of life too soon and takes his or her vengeance out on the living. I would call this the Folk Tale Ghost, as she or he usually makes her appearance as a Lady in White or a Headless Horseman, thus more of an anecdote shared among the populace than a tale. The Confused Ghost who is scary because she believes that she is still alive and someone living pisses her off. In this tale she only acts the way she would as in life – which is never fun when facing it from the living. And then there is the truly hideous ghost: the Monster Ghost who was a terrible person when alive (truly and ferociously disturbed) and death not only does not hinder this person’s terror, but actually amplifies it with supernatural abilities as in the story the Ring.

The ghost in “Another Halloween” lies somewhere in between the Confused Ghost and The Folk Tale ghost angry at the living.

Part of the terror of ghost stories though is that we rarely know which type each ghost is in the beginning of the story just as we would know what we would be dealing with if we encountered a ghost in our lives, just as we do when we encounter the living souls of our lives. How can we know if the people we deal with are kind or confused or monsters? The latter is rare, but “Another Halloween” makes it clear that that line is difficult to draw. You can’t really know.

In this story the narrator of the tale lives next door to Marguerite who starts out as “daintily pretty” with “cool manners that always make[s] [her] think of words like pleasant and cordial.” The narrator claims that rest of the families on the block are “like family, maybe better than family.” But Marguerite is distant and cold, yet the Narrator feels compelled to visit her and help her out. She attributes this to the fact that their boys are best friends, but she does seem to go out of her way in ways in which most unfriendly neighbors would not.

When Marguerite tells her how difficult she finds Halloween (we’ll discuss the reason later) and pleads with the narrator who is eight months pregnant (and would rather not leave her home) to join her. She humors her and stays the night over at Marguerite’s house and gives out treats.

Marguerite never treats her with respect, every comment is faced with derision, yet the narrator defends her when the neighbors get angry of her lack of community participation.

As the tale moves along, we see Marguerite sink from someone ineffectual to a hideous human being. She isn’t aggressively malevolent, but she is derisive of those that help her, arrogant towards those she considers beneath her (which is pretty much everybody), selfish (she refuses to help out with any of the charity drives). She brags about her mostly absent husband’s successful and profitable career to the narrator who has to raise two young children while working part time to fill in the money gap that her husband can’t. She refuses to befriend anyone, though the rest of the housewives can’t stand her.

The Narrator is a good soul, so she excuses Marguerite’s behavior or finds reasons for it, though she feels disrespected by words that intoned differently would be completely neutral. When the Narrator blows up at her child for bad behavior, Marguerite moves away saying “oh, that’s too bad,” in a way that makes the Narrator feel embarrassed. She moved away from her “as if a wave of dirty seaweed had slopped too close to her on a beach.”

The spirit of Marguerite’s actions are more telling than her words, thus she is haunted by a spirit.

We learn after a little girl in a bunny costume shows up in a group of trick-or-treaters, the most hideous of Marguerite’s actions – also something she sloughs off as if it was none of her fault. It’s never Marguerite’s fault according to her.

We learn that as a girl Marguerite was forced to take little Kelley, the little sister of her friend, with her trick-or-treating. Marguerite, we see, is no less selfish back then as is she is now. She obliges Kelley and takes her around the block, then tells her to go home as she and her friend go on. But Kelley wants to join them and insists on following them. They yell at her, push her away and then run away – and as they run Kelley gets hit by a car and killed.

Most people would feel bad, would feel as if it was their fault, even if it wasn’t. Marguerite doesn’t even claim to have been a part of the incident, “I wasn’t really involved,” she says. But little Kelley disagrees.

Marguerite is haunted and destroyed by Kelley’s vengeful ghost. And then the Narrator is haunted by Marguerite’s ghost because she decided to desert her friend at the last minute.

Does the Narrator deserve this transference? Did Marguerite deserve Kelley’s vengeance? Little girls are often selfish. Is it her past selfishness that she is being punished for? Or is it the fact that she never outgrows it? It’s difficult to say, how often are we truly selfless in our own lives?

There is something pedestrian about the way the story unfolds as if it could be anyone who could be victim, as if we could be victim of our own selfish pasts. But that is what makes this tale a classic ghost tale. It shows how we are ultimately our own worst enemies.

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