Posts Tagged narrative
Greetings From Chicago!
It’s hard to believe that August starts tomorrow. Summer is moving along fast. My summer has been both restful and productive this year. Reading for my book progresses nicely and I even managed to finish revisions on my First Year Writing course early. Now I can enjoy the weeks leading up to the Fall semester without stressing over the changes needed to my course schedule and writing assignments. This year I’m teaching four sections of Academic Writing I in the Fall and I decided to focus more consciously on the concept of genre. I’ve always felt that genre represents something of an unspoken contract between the reader and the writer. It generally gives you a sense of what you are about to read and (as a writer) it gives you some parameters to work within to make sure that what you are writing is properly understood. Beyond that, I’ll be using the class to focus on implicit versus explicit argumentation. The plan is sketched out. Now I just need to make sure it actually works for the students. I should have a greater sense of this by about week 4. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow I head off for my last trip of the summer. I’m flying north to Vermont to visit my family. It’s interesting to read about my home state in the books associated with my research. The Green Mountain State keeps coming up in discussions on the various attempts throughout US history to reform agriculture and improve human relations to the land. Apparently Vermont is not only imagined as some sort of vacationer’s paradise but also as an Agrarian Utopia. Having living in Vermont for nearly 21 years of my life, I can’t help but laugh. This isn’t really the Vermont I know. Author’s on the topic of agriculture and environmentalism seem obsessed with the eclogue. I lived the georgic. I was part of the labor mechanism that supported the outsider’s illusion. Oh well, it’s good for local business and there are worse ways to make a living. Like painting old dumpsters. (Yes, this is a job I have done. Don’t recommend it for people with weak stomachs.)
For this month’s post, I want to comment a bit on the relationship between history to literature. This topic seems especially important now that shows like The Man In the High Castle and Confederate are being produced. Generally speaking, I have no problem with counter-factual narratives. Some are quite entertaining. We shouldn’t hold fiction to the same standard as non-fiction. Engaging the imagination is the point, after all, of figurative language. Getting us to imagine a world of “what if’s.” History is a different story. It relies on narrative and imagination, just like literature, but it should be held to a more vigorous standard. History needs to show us what the world was actually like at a specific place and time (good, bad, utterly horrific). We should then be able to imagine as accurately as possible what people lived through during the time period examined. Perhaps a good way to sum up the distinction I see between history and literature is that history complicates and literature creates empathy.
Of course, there are exceptions to the little schema I’ve provided above. Many of the historians I enjoy reading create empathy with the characters in their non-fiction narratives. Ken Burns is a great example of this in a visual narrative medium. Also, there are plenty of good fiction writers who complicate our relationship to the fictional world they have created. Empathy in Gone Girl is a difficult enterprise. What worries me, however, is that the line between history and literature is starting to blur to an unhealthy degree. Even more worrisome, we don’t seem to be talking enough about this blurring. It’s like I tell my writing students, you have to know the rules of writing before you can break them. Otherwise it’s just a grammatical error and not a cutting edge technique. The same is true when mixing elements of history and fiction. You have to know (or want to know) the truth before you can start engaging in the act of imagination. Otherwise you end up with narratives that consciously or sub-consciously serve dangerous ends. You start to forget what is the fictional story and what was the real course of events. You also might start to not even care anymore about the distinction.
Others have written more eloquently than me on the problems of our “post-truth” era and its relationship to “fake news” and “reality TV.” So I’ll spare you my analysis of those trends. What I want to end this discussion with instead is a provocative juxtaposition of Mad Men with The Walking Dead. Neither of these, of course, are history. They are both Television shows. What they share, however, is a similar emotional starting point. Nostalgia. In Mad Men, this nostalgia is painfully obvious in the mid-century modern details of each frame. (Material nostalgia is rampant right now and deserves a good book.) Yet it is also ambiguous in its message. Are we supposed to mourn the loss of a world where straight white men ruled the world? Where smoking and drinking happened everywhere with impunity? Or are we supposed to look back at this episode of US history as a warning and take a moment to reflect on how far we have come and how far we have yet to go? With The Walking Dead, more subtle messages (at least for me) are hidden behind the gore. If you can set aside for a moment the fact that the living dead are killing and eating people, you start to see that the show both feels nostalgic (for a world before the crisis) and also points to that nostalgia as a source of crisis.
Will we choose the Zombie or the ash tray? And are they not the same thing? A reminder that obsession with the past can be unhealthy. That what is past is never truly past. Perhaps HBO can redeem itself by staging one of Faulkner’s works like Go Down, Moses instead of a stupid fictional docudrama imagining a world where the southern states won the Civil War. Or we can take a break from imagining the past or the future and look at our present. Beautiful, Scary, Confused, Ugly, and Poignant. I’d like to see that on the page and screen.
Here is where I end my post. I just have one more thing to add. A reminder that the deadline for NeMLA paper submissions is fast approaching (September 30). You can check out the various CFP’s here <https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp>. I have several sessions that I have proposed. You can see descriptions of them in my last NeMLA post (#19) along with links to the CFP for those sessions. Let me know if you have any questions about what I’m looking for. If you can possible afford to attend and see a session of interest, I would very much like to meet you in Pittsburg.
Until Next Time….
My research has had me reading a lot over the past few months about trauma, specifically combat related trauma. As I prepared my remarks for a presentation at the New England Modern Language Association (NEMLA) conference a few weeks ago on this subject, I was particularly struck by the conundrum presented to scholars by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
On the one hand, PTSD has now made a vast field of study possible in non-medical and non-scientific disciplines that simply was not there prior to the 1980s. Without PTSD’s seemingly stable foundation, it’s hard to imagine “trauma studies” finding much ground in academic and public circles. Yet, on the other hand, PTSD prevents us from seeing and understanding a wide range of responses to horrific events that simply do not fit within its paradigm.
These thoughts came to me most strongly in relation to Ulysses S. Grant. The former President and Union General’s Personal Memoirs (1885) played a minor though significant role in my dissertation. His experience of combat was so different from that of front line soldiers such as Ambrose Bierce and Sam Watkins that I hesitated to include him in the same chapter with those authors. Our current conception of trauma seemed to exclude him from the kinds of troubled and troubling memories that marked much of Watkins’ and Bierce’s work.
Nonetheless, I persisted in my curiosity at what impact (if any) combat trauma had on Grant’s narrative. What I found in his chapter on the battle of Shiloh rewarded my persistence.
On the night after the first day of battle Grant says:
“During the night rain fell in torrents and our troops were exposed to the storm without shelter. I made my headquarters under a tree a few hundred yards back from the river bank. My ankle was so much swollen from the fall of my horse the Friday night preceding, and the bruise was so painful, that I could get no rest. The drenching rain would have precluded the possibility of sleep without this additional cause. Some time after midnight, growing restive under the storm and the continuous pain, I moved back to the log-house under the bank. This had been taken as a hospital, and all night wounded men were being brought in, their wounds dressed, a leg or an arm amputated as the case might require, and everything being done to save life or alleviate suffering. The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain.”
Throughout most of Grant’s memoirs, he maintains a firm hand on the narrative. Even though Grant wants his readers to see him as a man driven by the dictates of fate (“Man Proposes God Disposes” are the first words of his text), his narrative technique is strictly controlled by the author. It is only in rare moments such as the one above that Grant drops his public persona and we gain a glimpse at the ordinary man behind that name.
What we see is a man who may not fit the paradigm associated with PTSD. However, he is clearly touched by what he has witnessed, so much so that he writes about it over 20 years later. Grant is confronted in that log-house with the consequences of military command. He doesn’t like what he sees.
Would it cheapen what soldiers at the front line experience to consider this trauma rather than simply garden variety guilt or regret? I don’t know. It’s still an issue I’m puzzling over as I consider the traces of war in Civil War veterans’ writing.
What I do know is that it’s time for scholars to find a way to talk about trauma that doesn’t automatically gravitate towards PTSD.