Our Words, Ourselves

 

henrymiller1 rick bass

 by Christopher Eisenhart
 

Any time we communicate, we have an opportunity to invent ourselves for our audience. Literature is no different.  When we read a new story, just as when we meet a new person in our lives, we take cues from what they say and how they say it to see whether or not we trust their account, what their biases are, and whether or not we’ll decide to like them.
 

The following excerpts are taken from two short pieces of literature. They each carry the same purpose:  to begin the story and to introduce the antagonist. But along the way, what they also do is “invent” and tell us an awful lot about the narrators themselves.  And that’s where I’d like to focus our attention.

 
So please take a minute to consider each…and this’ll work all the better if you’re willing to read each excerpt aloud…

 

Excerpt #1 :Henry Miller’s A Devil in Paradise (1956)
 

It was Anais Nin who introduced me to Conrad Moricand.  She brought him to my studio in the Villa Seurat one day in the fall of 1936.  My first impressions were not altogether favorable.  The man seemed somber, didactic, opinionated, self-centered.  A fatalistic quality pervaded his whole being.

It was late afternoon when he arrived, and after chatting a while, we went to eat in a little restaurant on the Avenue d’Orleans.  The way he surveyed the menu told me at once that he was finicky.  Throughout the meal he talked incessantly, without its spoiling his enjoyment of the food.  But it was the kind of talk that does not go with food, the kind that makes food indigestible.

There was an odor about him which I could not help but be aware of.  It was a mélange of bay rum, wet ashes and tabac gris, tinctured with a dash of some elusive, elegant perfume.  Later these would resolve themselves into one unmistakable scent—the aroma of death.

 

  Excerpt #2: Rick Bass’ “Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses,” in The Watch (1989)
 

I got a roommate, he’s tall and skinny, when we get in arguments he says “I went to Millsaps,” uses the word like what he thinks a battering ram sounds like.  He’s a real jerk, I could break both his arms just like that!  if I wanted to, I’ve got a degree in English Literature from Jackson State, I was the only white on campus, I can’t use “I went to Jackson State” like a battering ram, but I can break both his arms.  I got a doctorate, it took me three more years.  I teach out at the junior-college—Freshman Comp, Heroes and Heroines of Southern Literature, Contemporary Southern Lit, Contemporary Northern Lit, that sort of crap.  Piss-Ant studied geology, “pre-oil” he calls it facetiously, makes quite a ton of money, I swear I could tear an arm off his thin frail body and beat him over the head with it, I’m 5’6” tall, eighteen inches shorter than he but I’m thirty pounds heavier, an even 195, I played for the Tiges three years and can dead lift 700 pounds and run a marathon in under three hours six minutes.

I swear one of these days I’m gonna kill him, he may have gone to Millsaps (“’Saps,” he calls it, there, you hate him too) but he doesn’t know how to use a Kleenex.  Instead he just goes around making these enormously tall wet sniffles, if you could hear just one of them you would first shiver and then you too would want to kill him.  If they catch me and bring me to court I suppose I can always bring that up in the trial, I must go out and buy a tape recorder first thing tomorrow but first the cat needs feeding, he’s a violent little sunuvabitch.

I will tell you about the cat after I tell you what I did in Arkansas….

 

So, each excerpt accomplishes the same narrative purpose:  introducing the antagonist and the conflict of the story.  Both, I think, are effective.  But we come away with strong and differing senses of each narrator, and we can specify why by focusing on the details they relate and on the style they use.

 
Miller’s language emphasizes his literary character; I mean, when was the last time you heard someone use the words “tinctured,” “didactic,” “indigestible,” or “mélange” in casual conversation?  Even the words he uses to insult Conrad Moricand are very proper (e.g. “finicky”).  Miller begins the work of assassinating Moricand’s character, but does so in the most civil, literary way imaginable.
 

The narrator in “Cats…”, however, chooses words that are vulgar, colloquial, and explicitly insulting.  This piece is very conversational, and runs contrary to type:  is this what we expect English professors sounds like?   How does that violation of our expectations affect our image of the narrator?  Do we like or trust him more, or less, for being unconventional here?

 
Miller uses relatively short sentences, which are precise and grammatically correct.  This conveys a sense of measured consideration.  Of education and even temperament.  Miller’s credibility lies largely in this civility.
 

On the other hand, we know that Bass’ narrator is educated, but his sentences run on, and almost none are grammatically correct. He seems angry, hot-headed, and irrational.  His credibility, and I think he does have credibility, is in his sincerity.  We trust the genuineness of the emotion conveyed in his hateful and unmeasured rant. 

 
What other features convey senses of the narrators?  For instance, what do you make of the second narrator’s use of direct address (“you”)?  Does anyone else find Miller’s characterization of  Moricand as “finicky” to be somewhat hypocritical?  Does it matter that Miller’s genre is creative non-fiction, but Bass’ genre is fiction?
 

What other ways do you find that authors invent themselves—intentionally or not—through their voices? What impact do these authorial choices have on us as readers and on our ability to identify with the text?

 


 

Christopher Eisenhart studies and teaches rhetoric as an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

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12 thoughts on “Our Words, Ourselves

  1. Interesting discussion, Chris. The comparison of the narratives here raises a slightly different kind of question for me, one having to do with non-fiction vs. fiction. Where is “the truth” in these narratives? I suspect it’s in the language, the curve of the narrative, so to speak. If so, does it matter if the narrative is “creative non-fiction” or “fiction”? I know Oprah thinks so. But what do you think?

  2. Maybe Miller’s non-fiction is closer to fiction while Bass’ fiction resembles non-fiction? I don’t think it matters.

    I’m more sympathetic to Bass’ protagonist. He seems to have valid reasons for his hatred of his antagonist – the content of the roommate’s comments indicate an obvious snobbery and a choice to rub salt in the wounds of the professor at any opportunity.

    I didn’t feel much sympathy for Henry Miller. He focuses on the superficial attributes of Moricand, doesn’t have any history with him, yet passes judgment at every opportunity. Miller reminds me of artists who rate new acquaintances on the basis of personality and levels of requisite “drama.” I waited for the irony of a reversal in Miller’s evaluation, when the men become friends, but the last sentence indicates that that is not going to happen. Miller did seem hypocritical in accusing Moricand of being finicky – as he himself picks apart Moricand’s every movement.

  3. Author invention aside, I find something very interesting with the idea of identification. The audience tends to read more into the text and identify with the characters whether it is the narrator or a small incidental character.

    For students enrolled in CLTL, the idea of identification is quite important. To identify or acknowledge someone in your own situation or one worse and see results different from your own can have a profound effect on a person’s future actions.

    Students who read Bass’ excerpt whether they agree with him or not, they will read the that he is a teacher, a professor. Although his language goes against the “stereotype” and expectation of an educator, students may identify with him. “He is a bit like me. I could do what he does.”

    In essence, characters who are not perfect and have faults can only aid and possibly inspire. If the author gives characters perfectly human characteristics like poor judgement, hate, love, greed; they have done their job. We can identify with them and the text and thus take something away from the story, good or bad. Both Miller and Bass do this and have an effect on their audience.

  4. “When we read a new story, just as when we meet a new person in our lives, we take cues from what they say and how they say it to see whether or not we trust their account, what their biases are, and whether or not we’ll decide to like them.”

    This is an important observation. When we use literature as a tool for change, it’s important to pay attention to how language choice and narrative style will impact our designated readers. If our goal is to encourage readers to identify with a character (or characters), we should ideally pick texts whose narrative styles resemble their own.

    I suspect that one of the reasons the street lit Tam Neville mentioned in a previous post is so popular is because the language and narrative style are familiar and accessible to the readers. The same can be said for the popularity of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye among teenagers. If Holden Caulfield sounded less like Bass and more like Miller in the piece you quote, I doubt the book would have attained such popularity.

    While it’s not always possible to choose literature with narratives resembling those of Bass or Salinger for CLTL programs, we must always keep in mind your quote that I mentioned at the top of this piece. The storyline is important, but so is the way it’s told. Readers must trust the narrator/character before they become receptive of his or her story.

  5. Bob, I’m going to borrow what you said in your post a while back, and argue that the the *meaning* of literature is created between the author and the reader.

    “Truth”, I suppose, is a judgment that is then passed on that meaning, for which there can be several different standards: narrative fidelity; the “accurate” depiction of what really happened; or the creation of identification with the audience, as Olivia discusses; the recognition of the self in the other’s voice and style that Jenni points to.

    When all is said and done, I tend to agree with Lori here that I don’t find the genre distinction very useful here. I rather suspect it’s largely a marketing distinction, and take as my evidence the fact that Oprah seems to be its primary arbiter, as you say.

    Thanks.

  6. Like Jenni, in the CLTL class I feel it’s important to pick narratives and narrators that my students can trust. The issue of trust in an important one since I feel that there is a great cultural divide between me and my (mainly) black students. I want to bridge that gap in any way I can — though I still feel good literature, not comic books or street lit — is the bridge I want to use. So it’s important what books I pick. I want their narrators t come across to my students, I want them to trust them and to trust me. In an academic classroom I would be much more willing to use an unreliable narrator — and let the students puzzle that out. But in my CLTL class I feel protective of my students — I want them to like what they read and for them to feel that it applies to them.

  7. As Chris mentioned, James’ voice is coiffed and his language rarefied, such that we know the narrator is a smart guy, perhaps writing speaking/writing “above” us. And though the narrator in the Bass piece tells us he’s got a degree, we don’t get the sense that his education had been a success. But much of the satire of the Bass piece locates itself not solely on the aural, what we hear, but on the visual, i.e., faulty punctuation. Apart from the irony of an English professor who feels powerless with language and thinks only in terms of violence, his qualifications for teaching are completely undermined by his complete oblivion to proper punctuation. But the irony can only be appreciated by those who have better training in punctuation, those who are not oblivious to convention, e.g., you and me. So I wonder how this character would be seen by the ever-growing population for whom navigating their own punctuation is like working a Ouija board. Those of us who responded to Chris’s piece get Bass’s joke because we know better; what happens to the piece when read by those for whom nothing seems out of the ordinary?

  8. Jerry : “..read by those for whom nothing seems out of the ordinary.” That’s interesting. But what would be extraordinary in this situation: 1.) the recognition of the conventions OR 2.) the recognition of the errors? Or, to put it a different way: What is out of the ordinary anyway?

  9. Jenni said: “If our goal is to encourage readers to identify with a character (or characters), we should ideally pick texts whose narrative styles resemble their own.”

    I love this statement. Life is a narrative. Our consciousness is an internal narrative. Like when you catch yourself speaking to noone in particular. Narratives and our psychology are closely linked. Beautiful point.

    I’m surprised nobody addressed the fact these are both first person narratives. To the CLTL facilitators (I can’t remember if I’ve asked this before), do you consider the narrative’s point of view when selecting material? One term I’ve been reading about quite a bit lately is free indirect discourse. This is how an author moves a narrative from an omnicient, third-person narrative into a narrative that indirectly represents characters’ thoughts. James Wood does an excellent job of discussing this technique in “On Fiction”.

  10. Well written and nice to read. Both pieces are superb. Henry
    is one of my own WriterHeroes and Bass is still underrated.
    Thanks for the article.

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