Friday, August 23, 2013

The Lottery (Shirley Jackson)

On Thursday, I went to a session for Mythology instructors at the university where I teach. We discussed many procedural and technical things, but one thing that came up in several conversations was understanding that “myth” does not mean “untrue” or “fictional”. The assertion that “myth is making a comeback” usually gets the rejoinder, “it never really left”. Myth informs all of our beliefs, experiences, and interpretations of the world. It comes in many guises—propaganda, popular culture, stereotypes, and tradition, to name a few. If my students come away with nothing else, I want them to understand how they are often unconsciously affected by myth. If you are asked about a particular behavior or custom, and your response is, “that’s just how it is”, then you’re unconsciously playing out a mythical narrative.

“The Lottery” is a classic story that puts tradition in our faces, and is metaphorical of the horrific consequences of blindly following tradition. Shirley Jackson has always been adept at the best kind of horror, the psychological thriller. The movie “The Haunting” is based on another of her short stories, “The Haunting of Hill House”. If you’ve never seen this movie, see the 1963 original rather than the 1999 remake. (The last time I saw this movie it was projected on the side of a mausoleum at Forgotten Hollywood Cemetery in Los Angeles, which was a weird experience.) One does not need scary-looking monsters, chainsaw killers, or zombies to be scared out of their wits. “The Haunting” leaves us unsure if the house is haunted, or if this is some kind of weird projection of the main character’s own neurotic condition.

“The Lottery” begins normally enough, on a beautiful summer’s day, and the lottery is clearly a big event, but the ritualistic, traditional procedure for holding the lottery tells you that this is not the Pick-Six or the Powerball. The lottery is, for this town and many others, an ancient tradition. The names are put into a black box, and even that is venerated as a sacred object. It is falling apart, but it seems taboo to replace it. All families participate, and the heads of families draw from the box.

There is talk while the drawing is going on of abolishing the lottery. Someone mentions that many towns have stopped doing it. But this idea is quickly put down—they are fools to give up the tradition—it can lead to no good. An early mention of the harvest in connection with the lottery gives it a sort of pagan feel, a la “The Wicker Man”. Much of the to-do during the drawing of lots is from Tessie Hutchinson, who feels that her husband did not have enough time to choose properly from the box. She must have had a premonition, because she was the lottery winner. The people promptly picked up rocks and stoned her to death, so that they could get home in time for lunch.

This disturbing narrative is meant to show us the pitfalls of blindly following tradition. The ritual of stoning the woman to death is reminiscent of old “scapegoating” rituals, the basis of many human sacrifice rituals. The person is an offering to make the harvest fruitful, to take the collective blame for the sins of the citizenry. The fact that this takes place in a more modern time, with such nonchalance, should give us pause about the kinds of beliefs that we have that are harmful to others. When we treat a particular group as inferior because “that’s what the Bible says”, or “that’s the way God intended it”, or, “that’s just the way it’s always been”, it would be worthwhile to read this story, and reflect on it. While no one may be literally stoned to death (though some communities would advocate the death of those who are different), we can do harm to others by making stereotypical assumptions. Continued racial and gender conflicts in our society are sufficient evidence of this.

The collective action of the community is also something that seems out of joint in the modern world, where the freedom of the individual is of the highest value. The development of ego-consciousness was a bastion against blood ritual—there was no need to protect the tribe from numinous forces. The individual identity fights this battle on its own, albeit in a pluralistic collective context. We have not stopped being one group of humans, but we do not all share a common belief, language, or purpose. Some aspects of our being are collective, but our societies are made up of individuals. Hence, the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson just seems senseless and barbaric.

In one of my conversations on Thursday, we discussed why it is that people persist in beliefs that have been disestablished by facts. People don’t think rationally; they think mythically, and certain types of mythical thinking need to be balanced with rationality. One’s story is tied up with one’s identity, and simply stating facts is not enough to change the story. Individuals have to change their own stories, or find new ones that are more suited to contemporary society. As Jung said, it is only individuals who can change collective consciousness.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Standard of Living (Dorothy Parker)

Dorothy Parker had a way of saying things that was metaphorically clear, and like a slap in the face. Her brutal satire was a reflection of her personal unhappiness, and her expression was absolutely brilliant. Some of my favorite expressions from her include, “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice,” “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to,” and “I require three things in a man; he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.”

“The Standard of Living” is a Parker short-story that focuses on two stenographers, Annabel and Midge. (Does anyone do stenography anymore?) Her description of their tea room lunch leaves one feeling ill: “Usually they ate sandwiches of spongy new white bread greased with butter and mayonnaise; they ate thick wedges of cake lying wet beneath ice cream and whipped cream and melted chocolate gritty with nuts.” It sounds almost pornographic, and incredibly unappetizing, like someone describing sex as it actually is, and not as it is in romance novels.

The two girls are best friends, and are portrayed as an incredibly shallow couple of floozies. “They looked conspicuous, cheap, and charming.” The core of their friendship is around a game that involves deciding what they would buy if they inherited a million dollars, and couldn’t spend it on anything for anyone else. They had gotten into quarrels over speculative purchases. One day they are walking down Fifth Avenue, and decide to go into a high-class jewelry store and ask the price on an emerald necklace. They find out it is $250,000. They leave in a huff, and the two of them are now disjointed and discombobulated as they walk down the street. Annabel then proposes a new game, where the ante is upped from a million dollars to ten million dollars.

The relationship of the girls is entirely material and superficial. There is no basis for the friendship except shopping, and coveting expensive clothes and jewelry. In her usual way, Parker cuts right to the heart of stereotypical female friendships; everything is about appearance and conspicuous consumption. There are no discussions of thoughts, feelings, or anything at all that relates to the world beyond that. The men in their lives are accessories; they are dating different ones every night, though Parker notes that “there really wasn’t much difference” in the different men.

I reflected on the time period in which Parker was writing; this piece was published in the New Yorker in 1941. When I think about the prevalence of things like “charm schools” at that time, there is an implicit criticism of women as living dolls, to be dressed up and looked at. Like children, they are to be seen, and not heard, and should have nothing of any consequence to say.

I could not imagine someone with Parker’s personality fitting into this milieu of women. I fully sympathize with her on this point, as I find myself with little to say to women (or men) who make exclusively superficial conversation. The equivalent, perhaps, is the man you meet in the bar who brags about his car and his stock portfolio. It says nothing, and means nothing.

Most people seem to find Parker either hilarious or offensive, and I would suggest that she is a bit of both. Satire is a bittersweet medicine that is necessary for us to see the absurdity of the “normal”.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ghosts (Lord Dunsany)

There are many varieties of "ghost" story, and not all ghost stories are about ghosts. The reality of ghosts cannot be separated from psychology, as they are "psyche" phenomena regardless of any independent existence that they may or may not have. I read Lord Dunsany (Edward Plunkett)'s story "Ghosts" last night, based purely on the title. Dunsany was part of the Abbey Theatre circle in Dublin, and was friends with many of the great literary figures of his time. He was related to Oliver Plunkett, the sainted Bishop of Armagh, and was friends with the likes of W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. The story is about a house in Oneleigh, where the narrator visits his brother and has a quarrel with him. The house has all the traditional "haunted house" elements, with the howling winds outside, dark corners, and deathlike stillness in certain parts of the house. There is of course a "door that hasn't been opened", and "spiders watching by the deathbeds of yore". In short, the house is a troubled psyche, and the room is an entrance to the collective unconscious, where we encounter long-forgotten history.

In this room, the narrator sees spirits, and near them dogs that represent their sins. The dogs take notice of him, and circle around him, and their influence preys on his weaknesses, and gives him the urge to kill his brother. So, now we are dealing with the Shadow--and the Shadow is always the first archetype encountered on such a journey. He chooses dogs as his symbol, and "dog" is certainly the reverse of "god". One might also think of the hounds of Hell, or Cerberus at the gates of Hades. Nonetheless it is a confrontation with his own darkness, and his undeveloped emotions.

Our narrator then begins to do a geometric proof. When he completes the theorem, all of the ghosts melt away, the room is empty, and he realizes the absurdity of killing his brother. Rationality and logic dispel the demons of the unconscious. A rather tidy ending, and an interesting way of trying to synthesize rationality and irrationality.

But is this really a synthesis? It plays up to the belief that we've held since at least the 19th century, that Reason will triumph and all old ghost stories and superstitions will just disappear in a puff of smoke. It is good that the narrator has talked himself out of murdering his brother rationally. But the ghosts don't really disappear. They may go away for the time being, but they will always reappear. Even in the Gigantomachy of Greek mythology, Zeus battles Typhon, the dragon, but doesn't actually kill the dragon--he simply banishes it to the depths of the Earth. The brighter our light shines, the darker our shadow behind us. These things don't go away, and the idea that Reason will conquer all is as absurd as thinking that paying for indulgences will get you to "Heaven".

Monday, August 19, 2013

Graven Images (O'Hara)

Politics are not logical. We often think of politicians as hypocritical, self-serving, and corrupt. In many cases, we would be right. Even politicians who start out with big visions of making a difference end up disillusioning us by failing to make any real change. But political debate that leads to reasonable results that represent the people is an ideal at best, especially in this day and age. It is largely about who you know, whose side you're on, and in some cases, how much money you have.

John O'Hara's story "Graven Image" is about politics. A man called Browning meets at an exclusive Washington club with a man only known as the Under Secretary. He is looking for a job, knows exactly what he wants, and believes correctly that the Under Secretary can help him. But there is one odd thing that stands in the way. Browning is obviously a member of a secret society that he only refers to as the "Pork". The Under Secretary had sought admission to this club at one time, but was rejected. This is an obvious sore spot that Browning has to handle with diplomatic grace, which he does--at least initially. At the request of the Under Secretary, he pulls out a keyring that has a small, golden pig suspended from it. And here we have the "graven image", loaded with obvious associations of greed. The Beatles were not the first to think of "rich white piggies".

The magic of the graven image gets Browning what he wants, until he lets it slip that the Under Secretary never could have hoped to be admitted to that society, and the whole deal falls apart in that moment, a hallucinatory puff of smoke. Here today, and gone five minutes later.

At a dinner with friends the other night, someone brought up the behaviors of the upper and upper-middle classes. She found their behavior to be unnatural--almost every normal subject is taboo, especially among women. I recalled an expensive lunch at an upper class club, where no topic was appropriate except gardening. There is a lack of familiarity, as though their status must act as a wall keeping out any normal interactions with "regular" people. They seem to have a language all their own that is adept at saying nothing at all about anything of importance. My friend noted that the more she learned about the actual lives of the upper class women, the freakier it got. The kinds of life issues that hid behind mansion doors was crazier than anyone could imagine, and not in a fun way. Like any group, it's impossible to make a generalization based on our limited experience. But this weird social etiquette does exist, regardless of what it may or may not hide.

I thought of this with regard to Browning's failure. He continually "plays the game" with the Under Secretary, and does well. He falls when he decides to talk to the Under Secretary as though he is a regular person, a good friend willing to look at past failures. This moment of familiarity loses him the thing he is seeking. Browning is like a magician that is seeking material rather than spiritual results. His golden pig has a totemistic quality; it is something clearly coveted by the Under Secretary, a sign of status and power. Magic "performed" for material ends is usually less than satisfactory, even if someone gets what they want. And politics is this kind of magic--a jumble of words that have no meaning to ordinary people, that brings about dubious material results. This kind of success is short-sighted and illusory, and perhaps that is the moral of this story. What one gains through such manipulation can be lost in a moment.

Of course, the story could be a reflection of O'Hara's own graven image of a secret society--Yale University. O'Hara was an American writer who had great academic promise, but was unable to afford Yale when his father died an untimely death. It was a sore spot to him the rest of his life, and may have affected his personality. He was described as "irascible" and bad-tempered. Yale apparently refused to give him an honorary degree because he wanted it. While psychologizing an author's motives is not usually useful, there might be an obvious parallel here to the thorn in O'Hara's side.