College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

On Being Fierce

By Dr. Susan Neville, Professor of English

Last summer my daughter brought home a dog that weighed two pounds and still weighs less than five, and as I'm writing this she (the dog) has got a cat toy, a red felt mouse with chewed up ears that holds a plastic ball filled with beads between its two front fake fur paws. The beads rattle as the dog holds the toy within her teeth and shakes it hard from side to side and growls. To her it's not a cat toy; it's the primordial mouse her DNA taught her to catch and kill, the plastic smiling red felt mouse with its death rattle, and she hardly ever lets it go. All day long this dog is fierce.

When I thought about what I might tell my writing students in a last lecture, I decided I wanted to tell them to stay as fierce as this less than five pound dog. And so some rules:

I

Whether it was a photograph in a shop-window that had first prompted me, or a chance remark negligently dropped in my hearing, I do not now remember nor does it much signify. I know only that some time before that spring day the word Eskimo had rung inside me and that the sound had begun to swell like the vibrations of a great bell and had eventually filled the whole of my subconscious being. I had not been possessed instantly by a conscious and urgent need to go into the Arctic and live with a primitive people. These things operate slowly, like the germ of a cancer. They brood within, they send out tentacles and grow. Their first effect is not decision but restlessness. You find yourself feeling that something is obscurely yet radically wrong with your life. You fidget. Your world becomes progressively more stuffy , less tolerable. Probably you show it, and show it unpleasantly; for your friends seem to you more and more to be talking nonsense, leading a meaningless existence, content with a frivolity and a mediocrity to which you find yourself superior. In their eyes, very likely, unbearably superior. But no matter. The thing is at work in you. Finally, there comes a moment when you waken in the middle of the night and lie still, eyes wide open in the dark. Life, you sense, is about to change. Something is about to happen. And it happens. You have made your decision.
From Kabloona by de poncin

 

I've always loved this opening to de poncin's book Kabloona because it describes the way a subject takes hold of a writer, how something as simple as a word will for some unknown reason begin to resonate inside you, and suddenly everything but that idea, that word, seems meaningless and even if in your daily life you have difficulties with decisions, you have no difficulty with this one. Why Eskimo? Any reasonable person would ask himself that and do his best to ignore it. De poncin didn't. And so there he was, a French aristocrat in the 1930's and he had to present himself before some priests to ask for a ride. They said all right, but treated the whole thing as a joke, he writes, like a Sunday picnic. The bishop took him along as a lark and spent the whole plane-ride absorbed in a book while de poncins, alert to the mystery of the word that brought him here, looked below and saw "a wide land of forest sown with thousands and thousands of shining pools, an unfinished world from which the waters had still to recede and where you would have said that no man lived." But "the airplane is radioactive," he wrote "and itself a creator of life." You "did not drop down from time to time because life suddenly appeared below" you, for wherever you looked, no life was to be seen. "Yet wherever 'you' stooped, life sprang up as if spontaneously generated by 'your' coming; and it died down again when 'you' rose as if 'you' were carrying off the seed of life."

And so while the bishop read his breviary, expecting to see what he expected to see, de poncin's attention was itself radioactive because he stayed that prayerfully alert throughout the writing of his as yet unwritten book.

He was open to mystery. If de poncins was searching for a topic, as long as it was this or that, he wouldn't have ended up in the Canadian arctic, wouldn't have felt possessed, the subject wouldn't have caught him in its hooks. Or even if he'd been caught, if he'd been reasonable, he would have had a drink, dreamed a few minor dreams, talked it all out at bar or two and let it pass.

But he was not in the least bit reasonable, and hook is the metaphor I would use for the beginning of his obsession. Something in the universe is always trolling the waters for a curious mind, an open heart. There are an infinite number of hooks in the watery air at every moment, invisible glass ones that you can hear sometimes in the wind, and each one of those glass hooks is attached to an invisible string, and each string, if followed, is attached to all there is. It doesn't matter if the hook is the word Eskimo or factory or gingko trees or frogs or pine needles or spiral galaxies or Shakespeare or image restoration and calculus. All that matters is that in the moment when you feel that pull toward some subject, you've been caught. The hook is in you. You've fallen irrationally in love. The priests will laugh at you, You're dressed like a dandy. You couldn't possibly bear the cold. Your husband wife, your children mother father friends and neighbors. All of them might laugh. It will seem absurd to anyone but you. But the fast is that you ignore it at your peril. It won't go away. The word will stay inside you, joining the other hooks you have ignored, creating a nest of them, a messy coffin of a tackle box that you can sometimes feel right before you go to sleep. When I feel that box, I'll untangle an old hook and try to follow it, but usually it's lost its hold on the invisible string. I'm left with nothing but the hook. The fisherman has shrugged off the loss, reset another hook. It's drifted back into the air. Little by little I'll feel the hook, my hook, itself dissolve. And then I'll look around and see it:
The damn book with someone else's name on it.

Because the obsession, the writing or the research, takes hours away from other things, things that a good person might do instead, it takes a certain faith, an irrational leap, and it takes, most of all, a gathering together of every bit of courage at your disposal to go ahead with it. Being caught is only the beginning of the struggle. You have to hold on and follow the thread, take risks.

Rule One? You may in fact be crazy. You may in fact be one of those people who spends his life building a replica of the Vatican out of popsicle sticks. It may be a good replica of the Vatican built of popsicle sticks. Someone may be deeply moved by that replica. Or not. Who knows? Rule one: Despite the risks, just let yourself be caught.

II

Not long ago my sister Melinda shocked me by saying she had always assumed that the book on Mooreland Indiana had yet to be written because no one sane would be interested in reading it. 'no no, wait,' she said. I know who might read such a book. A person lying in a hospital bed with no television and no roommate. Just lying there. Maybe waiting for a physical therapist. And then here comes a candy striper with a squeaky library cart and on that cart there is only one book-or maybe two books: yours, and Cooking with Pork. I can see how a person would be grateful for Mooreland then.'

From A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel

I lived for five years in New Castle, Indiana, a town whose primary industry was a large Chrysler foundry. The town, coincidentally, was about ten miles away from Moreland. The foundry was so important to the town that, when the high school built the world's largest high school gymnasium, they named it Chrysler Fieldhouse and in fact renamed the high school Chrysler without even thinking of asking the corporation for any money. Why not make it a sponsorship deal? In New Castle, Indiana, it would have been simply impolite to ask. They named the high school Chrysler in gratitude. Chrysler wages paid for the evening meal, for the kids shoes, they paid the mortgage and made the car payments. Sometimes those wages sent the kids to college. Of course if some big shot in Detroit happened to notice how much the town fathers loved their company and decided to keep the plant open, if there was a choice between closing the one in New Castle and the one in, say, Richmond, it was assumed that Chrysler would recognize this selfless gift, this true devotion and like the gods they were, they would be just.

Of course Chrysler didn't notice New Castle's devotion, didn't care, closed down the plant, but oddly the high school still bears its name. 100 years from now, if the town still exists, the high school will no doubt still be Chrysler High.

My students often remain in the Midwest, and in the provinces we think in our heart of hearts that we're invisible but maintain the eternally optimistic belief that someone somewhere will, despite all the odds against it, see us. When the bad thing happens, as in your heart you knew it would, when the powers that exist, always, someplace else, do the thing they were bound to do you get over it, and your fatalism grows.. Fatalism is our fatal flaw in the Midwest, stoicism perhaps a virtue.

But fierceness? It's tough for us. We don't ask for what we want or recognize what we have.

One of my students has a boyfriend who lives in Henry County. For years he's been thinking deep depressing thoughts and he'd decided that meant he'd be a writer. Two weeks ago, we read Chekhov's Ward #6 in my lit class and the girl said "That's my boyfriend. Those are all his thoughts." Here's what Chekhov said and what some boy in New Castle Indiana is at this very moment thinking: :Oh why is not man immortal? What is the good of the brain centres and convolutions, what is the good of sight, speech, self-consciousness, genius, if it is all destined to depart into the soil, and in the end to grow cold together with the earth's crust and then for millions of years to fly with the earth round the sun with no meaning and no object? To do that there was no need at all to draw man with his lofty, almost godlike intellect out of non-existence and then, as though in mockery, to turn him into clay. …Only the coward who has more fear of death than dignity can comfort himself with the fact that his body will in time live again in the grass, in the stones, in the road.. To find one's immortality in the transmutation of substances is as strange as to prophesy a brilliant future for the case after a precious violin has been broken and become useless."

My student sent a copy of the story to her boyfriend and he wrote back on email:

"So. I knew I was miserable, but I thought at least I was original. And here's some guy who said the same thing 100 years ago and better. I give up. It's all I had. Who wants to read about Henry County?"

In Ward #6 Chekhov is writing about a very specific hospital in a very specific time and place. He's in conversation with Tolstoy's theories of nonresistance to evil, with Marcus Auerilius and Schopenhauer and with his own demons. But most of all he knows the doctor's "coarse peasant like face'' as he thinks these thoughts, he knows that this particular night is not broken by a single sound, that the room in which the doctor thinks is filled with books and a lamp with a green shade. And he knows, in particular, that the doctor thinking these morbid thoughts actually feels delight and enthusiasm over them and at the same time he's thinking, he knows that his thoughts are "floating together with the cooling earth round the sun" while "in the main building beside his abode people were suffering in sickness and someone was making war upon the insects or moaning over too tight a bandage or playing cards with the nurses and drinking vodka."

The ideas are universal, but the particulars-the boy in Henry County Indiana with its particular light, the way the girl is sending him Chekhov's story in the mail even though he could get it on the internet because he needs mail, she says, the Xerox copy of Nicholas Chekhov's painting of Anton that she's sending her boyfriend to make him jealous (Chekhov looks in that picture, she says, like Johnny Depp mixed with Leonardo di Caprio). That will only happen once in space and time. It may very well remain invisible. There's much of world that does, and much of literature that will in fact simply float with the cooling earth around the sun, that it will grow cold with the earth's crust and exist with no meaning.

Chekhov believed this. He believed it throughout the 400 some stories and the great plays, all written simultaneously with his dying from tuberculosis, taking care of his family, innumerable love affairs, the building of schools and libraries and the planting of at least 1000 trees. And he said it despite the fact that he lived in a still medieval Russia surrounded by the red and green candles of orthodoxy. The boy in New Castle may not write because he thinks it's all been said before. Of course it's been said before, but not by him. Second rule for the fierce writer: Know this-Every place on earth is filled with stories, with layers of forgotten history. It's Chekhov's brilliance or Alice Munro's or Thomas Hardy's or Welty's or Kimmel's or Faulkner's or Flannery O'Connor's-regionalists all-to excavate those layers and include them in one human story. To deny invisibility. In the Midwest, we need to work at being fierce.

III

Which leads me to rule three.

In an essay titled "Writing in the Cold," the poet Ted Solataroff researches O'Henry Award winning writers who are still writing ten years later. He tracked all the writers down and discovered that the key to holding the course is your ability to handle rejection-which is relentless and never ends.

Flannery O'Connor was hooked early on by her particular vision. There was never any question of not following it. Her writing itself is fierce, but she was personally fierce as well. Right out of graduate school she received a letter from the publisher, Rinehart (who had given her an award to complete her first novel, Wise Blood) and this is part of the response she wrote to her agent:

"The criticism is vague and really tells me nothing except that they don't like it. I feel the objections they raise are connected with its virtues, and the thought of working with them specifically to correct these lacks they mention is repulsive to me. The letter is addressed to a slightly dim-witted Camp Fire Girl, and I cannot look with composure on getting a lifetime of others like them."

In response to John Selby, the editor at Rinehart, she wrote: "I can only hope that in the finished novel the direction will be clearer, but I can tell you that I would not like at all to work with you as do other writers on your list. …I do not think there is any lack of objectivity in the writing; however, if this is what your criticism implies; and also I do not feel that rewriting has obscured the direction. I feel it has given whatever direction is now present. In short, I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise. The finished book, though I hope less angular, will be just as odd if not odder than the nine chapters you have now. The question is: is Rinehart interested in publishing this kind of novel?

P.s. I thought a bloody semicolon was for a long pause. What is it for?"
And O'Connor's stories and characters are as fierce as her letters

If you've been redeemed, Hazel Motes says to Mrs. Hitchcock on the train in the first chapter of O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, "I wouldn't want to be." Like a kid who says something you'd like to say but wouldn't have the courage to, that's O'Connor.

After Hazel Motes says this, he turns his head to the window. "He saw his pale reflection with the dark empty space outside coming through it. A boxcar roared past, chopping the empty space in two, and one of the women laughed." That reflection with the dark empty space is both carefully observed and symbolic and bare. Every hook for O'Connor is in the shape of a cross.

Fiction, she said, in Mystery and Manners, is an incarnational art. The artist seeks revelation, she explained, through sense perception.

O'Connor was a Catholic writing in the south, but hers was a Catholicism influenced by 20th century existentialists, and so her characters learn that a human being needs "to live constantly in the face of death, in the awareness that here and now may be the last moment." And that's the way she wrote. She read and read and read while she wrote. And she kept the windows of perception clean. For O'Connor, learning to write meant learning to see, and the fierceness required of a writer is the courage it takes to follow the thread of perception even if it means that, like the character of Motes, you might "come off into the dark where (you're) not sure of your footing, where you might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly (through self consciousness) know it and drown."

O'Connor says about the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" that she would have been a good woman if there had been someone there to shoot her every day of her life. In this she echoes Chekhov, who says there should be someone standing next to every happy man with a hammer waiting to hit him in the head. Why? To keep him awake. Third rule? Great literature takes both the reader and the writer out of the comfort of illusion and into the real. Only fierce honestly will get you there. Get yourself a hammer. Chekhov's a good hammer, as is O'Connor, as is any great art. Rule number three: Think of rejection as a hammer as well. Most people don't. And don't go back to sleep.

IV

Rule four: You can whisper and still be fierce.

Or you can scream.

Recently I've rekindled my adolescent love for Sylvia Plath. I teach a madness and literature course and of course she had to be in there but I came away with an appreciation for how incredibly good her poetry is. It's not the romantic vision of her illness that attracts me, it's the fierceness of her struggle with it. As she said, when she was crazy she was too busy being crazy to write. Though what she does maintain from the illness is the thing that mental illness and creativity have in common-those enormous leaps against the tide of logic, an easy skimming from lamppost to redbird to St. Thomas Aquinas. Divergent thinking. But the other thing she has in her arsenal is her intelligence, her ability to draw the divergent ideas into something that make sense. Convergent thinking.

Oddly, she was obsessed by hooks. The first stanza of this long poem reads:

 

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.

Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons….
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff….

 

This is a fierce, courageous poem. The initial simple hook is tulips. They're too excitable. Follow them. Why? Because it's winter here. Why? It's white, which leads to snowed-in which leads to absence, to being nobody, to giving away her name and clothes and history and body, to being propped between the pillow and sheet cup like what? Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut, will not die. Eye? And in the next stanza she's become a "stupid pupil that sees." Sees what? "Nurses that are like gulls" and that leads her to the image of caps, and that leads her to the image of water and that leads to an image of the body lying in the hospital bed "as a pebble being smoothed."

And the idea of being smoothed leads to the idea of numbness, which reminds her, since she's in the hospital, of needles and of "letting things slip" and the word slip reminds her again, because she's been thinking of pebbles and whitecaps and gulls, of a boat hanging onto its associations because it's a cargo boat-and the cargo? The cargo is a "tea set, linen, books, all sinking now," and suddenly in the poem she's become a nun-going back to the water in the third stanza and a reminder of the white caps and moving forward to the nothing that the dead close on "like a Communion tablet," she writes. Communion? You gifts gifts at communion, so her mind goes from communion to "gift paper" to "white swadlings" (white for communion) and then to "an awful baby" and then to the image of red, (a baby's mouth and the tulips) which leads her to a wound, tongues, color, "a dozen red lead sinkers around her neck." And we go on with the red and the water and the rust-red engine and the snags and eddies and back to the tulips again which should, she writes, "be behind bars like some dangerous animals." Which reminds her of the mouths of a great African cat which reminds her of her heart which opens and closes like the mouth of that cat, opens and closes-what?-"its bowl of red" and the tulips, which, like the heart "blooms out of sheer love of me." And all these associative images end with the images of the ocean: "the water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea," the poem ends, "nd comes from a country far away as health."

She follows the hook of the hated tulips, tacks through the water like a sailboat through all the ocean imagery, the religious imagery, the hooks, the lines and sinkers and the hook of the tulip, her fierce wrestling with the red of the tulip leads her back to the tulips to the surprising, to her and to us, image that her heart blooms out of "sheer love of me" and comes "from a country far away as health." Why follow the tulip? Why Eskimo? Because it leads to truth. Follow any thread, and it leads to truth, if you let it. She is one writer who absolutely had no choice. The hook was in there early, and it was one quite deadly hook. This hook would not so easily let go as it would for most of us- no simple instrument played as a teenager resting in a closet and calling to you, no unfinished article or book, no half knitted sweater. This hook was firmly lodged within the heart, and it was sharp, and the thread was strong and to pull against it was impossible. To grab onto the string and pull was the only respite she had. It was a tug of war that finally exhausted her. But while it lasted, it was fierce.

A rule for the fierce writer who also happens to be crazy: Remember that you're a shark, and you cannot ever for one second stop the swimming. Rules for the fierce writer who happens not to be crazy: Trust the thread. Say what you mean.

V

But here's where I've caught myself on my own hook. Why did the word 'fierce' grab hold of me this week and not let go? Isn't there too much fierceness in the world already? Because the question remains: how do you know with the simple absolute knowledge that the word is one to follow or one to resist? When you're writing, you know it. That's all I can say. But I also know that there are those other hooks, other obsessions, the ones that lead toward destruction rather than creation, and they can feel the same. I'm thinking of Paul Tillich's phenomenology of the demonic in The Interpretation of History. The demonic wears the face of fascination, feels like an overwhelming power, we experience it as a seizure, as a revelation of meaning, of 'depths that lead either to what is ultimately real or to utter annihilation.' It's the kind of obsession that feels like an opening up of freedom but which is, finally, the taking away of it.

When I looked at Tillich's essay again, this week, I saw that there was something else he talks about. And that's inertia. Stasis. This is how the obsessions of art are different from the obsessions of power or the sudden rising up of whatever crazy illusion it is that leads to war. In O'Connor's stories, it's violence that leads the characters back out of illusion and into the real. It takes something that big, O'Connor said, to knock her blockheaded characters out of their self satisfied worlds. When the inertial character takes hold, it tends to corrupt the spirit. We may simply resign ourselves to the inevitable, that that is how the demonic power takes hold, diverting the spirit from its sense of justice and, destroying the courage to resist exploitation. Neibuhr said that human beings are by definition anxious because they're free. They have to die and along the way they have to make choices. Stasis seems to be one way of avoiding the knowledge of the one and the necessity of the other. The more I think about literature the more I think that narrative is an engine that brings characters our of stasis, into the real world of that anxiety, away from the illusory world they've created to avoid it and the more I think about the creation of art the more I think it does the same. In our lives, as in our art, we must stay fierce.