Posts Tagged ‘Shirley Jackson’

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” – it wasn’t as easy as she claimed.

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Between the playpen and the frozen vegetables? Not.

We missed June 27, the official day Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery” takes place.  It’s a counterpart to Bloomsday earlier in the month, on June 16.  You know the story:  In a small-time American town, citizens gather every year to implore an unnamed force to grant a good corn harvest. The citizens draw slips of paper from a wooden box to select a victim for human sacrifice. A young mother draws the losing card, and is stoned to death by the community.  The end.

Hundreds of letters poured into the New Yorker when it was first published in 1948.  What did the story mean?  According to her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, “she consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements. She believed that her books would speak for her clearly enough over the years.”

That’s not quite true.  She told the San Francisco Chronicle a month after the story was published:  “Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And how was the story written?  According to Jackson, speaking at a lecture, “I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later I decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft.”

The single change was a request from the  New Yorker editor who reviewed the first draft, who asked “that the date mentioned in the story be changed to coincide with the date of the issue of the magazine in which the story would appear, and I said of course.”

That’s not quite true, either.  William Brennan‘s article in Slate, which came out last month in time for Lottery Day, corrects the record, after he made a trip to the Library of Congress, which holds Jackson’s records.  You can read the list of his discoveries in “How Shirley Jackson Wrote ‘The Lottery'” here.

Here’s something I didn’t know.  Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House, which was adapted in the Robert Wise film The Haunting, with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom.  Scared the bejeebers out of me when I was an imaginative little kid. I’ve refused to go to horror movies ever since.

René Girard and the verboten four-letter word

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

What is the forbidden, unspeakable four-letter word in the English language?  René Girard has the answer:

“We often brag that no one can scandalize us anymore, but what about ‘envy’? Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant.  We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation.  If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?”

The words are from his 1991 book A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare – the only book he has written in English (fittingly, about William Shakespeare, who has been a lifelong passion for this devotee of French literature).  My copy of the book arrived a few days ago, and just in time.

He has a lot to answer for.

Coincidentally, I checked out Arcade a few days later and found that João Cezar de Castro Rocha of Rio de Janeiro is extending René’s argument about “mimetic envy” to include  colonialism and the notion of “Shakespearean countries”:

Perhaps the best way of outlining a brief definition of what I propose to call Shakespearean countries is resorting to V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, whose title already suggests a Girardian reading of the work of the Nobel Prize [writer]. Reflecting upon his life, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Ralph Singh, identifies a common feature between him and a “young English student”: “He was like me: he needed the guidance of other men’s eyes”. A little further, the narrator acknowledges the mimetic nature of his desire: “We became what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others”.

Whoever experiences this cultural circumstance lives a sort of “half a life”, always dependent upon someone else’s eyes and opinions – very much like Shakespearean characters, according to René Girard’s study William Shakespeare: A Theater of Envy. Indeed, Half a life is precisely the title-metaphor of another novel by the same writer. In it, Naipaul deals with the same fundamental issue expressed by a character [a Brahmin] who has casually met the English writer W. Somerset Maugham. Due to a series of revealing cultural misunderstandings, the writer considered the Brahmin a sacred and wise man, and wrote about him as a holy man in one of his novels. Then, the Brahmin immediately became “famous for having been written about by a foreigner”, as J. M. Coetzee aptly summarized the plot in an important review of Naipaul’s novel. However, to the Brahmin this fame did not come without its pitfalls: “It became hard for me to step out of the role”. The role created by someone else’s eyes, and as the character has to accept:  “I recognized that breaking out had become impossible, and I settled down to live the strange life that fate had bestowed on me”. In this case, fate has a proper name and refers to the foreigner’s gaze. And since the foreigner is seen as an undisputed model, he has the authority of defining what he looks at.

Naturally, the Brazilian scholar focuses more on Latin American literary and cultural history.  He’s made several posts already: “Mimetic Theory and Latin America” is here, “Mimetic Theory and Cannibalism” is here, and “Shakespearean Countries?” (cited above) is here.

Incidentally, W. Somerset Maugham inspired some mimesis of his own.  Leonard Nimoy has said that when he was creating a voice for Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, he listened to hours of recordings of the English writer reading his works.


Postscript on 5/13:  I thought the name João Cezar de Castro Rocha sounded familiar – he’s one of René Girard’s interlocutors for the book Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture.

By the way, René’s theories are getting some new traction not only from a mini-revival of Shirley Jackson, whose landmark short story, “The Lottery,” describes the “scapegoat mechanism,” but also from The Hunger Games, another exploration of societal scapegoating.

A priest’s explanation of The Hunger Games in light of René’s theories (below) has been making the rounds … but there’s a curious omission. He describes the need for scapegoating when tensions arise within societies, but he skips a huge chunk of René’s thinking when he overlooks the cause of that tension – that nasty four-letter word taboo again.

What next, Library of America?

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Thoughtful critics suggested Shirley Jackson‘s oeuvre was a little slender for a Library of America volume.  After all, she’s mostly famous for a single short story.

Some think the Library of America is running out of ideas.  I mean, really.  American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes? Poems from the Women’s Movement?

Over at When Falls the Coliseum, Ricky Sprague wanted to offer a few ideas of his own. Think  Snooki, if you can. Think  William Shatner.

He also suggests a special volume for Rotten Tomatoes, including such RT selections as “Give up your career as a ‘critic’ or die!”

Check it out here.

Joseph Brodsky, Shirley Jackson, and the “no-fault Holocaust”

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Literature as “moral insurance”

“As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine. Since there are no laws that can protect us from ourselves, no criminal code is capable of preventing a true crime against literature; though we can condemn the material suppression of literature – the persecution of writers, acts of censorship, the burning of books – we are powerless when it comes to its worst violation: that of not reading the books. For that crime, a person pays with his whole life; if the offender is a nation, it pays with its history.” — Joseph Brodsky, 1987 Nobel lecture

At the time, I had reservations about Joseph Brodsky‘s absolutist view of literature as “a kind of moral insurance.”  I am less ambivalent now.  I was reared … or rather, I reared myself … on the novels of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and the Brontës; I suppose the great heart of the 19th century formed much of my moral and political education.

Great-hearted Hugo

As Susan Sontag said, “Reading should be an education of the heart.”  In a world where offline reading is occurring less and less, I wonder where and how such a shaping of the heart will occur.  (The graphic novel is a promising form — but, as in the case of “Borderland,” I think it is better as an appeal to pre-existing values, and lacks the nuance required for “the education of the heart.”)

Yesterday, I ran across this 1997 article, “A No-Fault Holocaust,” in U.S. News and World Report:

‘In 20 years of college teaching, Prof. Robert Simon [of Hamilton College] has never met a student who denied that the Holocaust happened. What he sees quite often, though, is worse: students who acknowledge the fact of the Holocaust but can’t bring themselves to say that killing millions of people is wrong. Simon reports that 10 to 20 percent of his students think this way. Usually they deplore what the Nazis did, but their disapproval is expressed as a matter of taste or personal preference, not moral judgment. ‘Of course I dislike the Nazis,’ one student told Simon, ‘but who is to say they are morally wrong?’

She refused punditry

The article also discusses a Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Kay Haugaard, a writer who teaches at Pasadena City College, about Shirley Jackson‘s famous 1948 story, ‘The Lottery,’ which used to be a staple of high school reading lists.  The story:  A sunny small-time American town that gathers every year to implore an unnamed force to grant a good corn harvest. Annually, the citizens draw slips of paper from a wooden box to select a victim for human sacrifice. A young mother draws the losing card, and is stoned to death by the community.

“Until recently, she says, ‘Jackson’s message about blind conformity always spoke to my students’ sense of right and wrong.’ No longer, apparently. A class discussion of human sacrifice yielded no moral comments, even under Haugaard’s persistent questioning. One male said the ritual killing in ‘The Lottery’ ‘almost seems a need.’ Asked if she believed in human sacrifice, a woman said, ‘I really don’t know. If it was a religion of long standing. . . .’ Haugaard writes: ‘I was stunned. This was the woman who wrote so passionately of saving the whales, of concern for the rain forests, of her rescue and tender care of a stray dog.’ …

“The search is on for a teachable consensus rooted in simple decency and respect. As a spur to shaping it, we might discuss a culture so morally confused that students are showing up at colleges reluctant to say anything negative about mass slaughter.”

Jackson refused to explain “the meaning” of her story, except to tell the San Francisco Chronicle a month after the story was published in the New Yorker:

Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.

According to one critic, Jackson intended “a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb.”  But what to do when readers are tone-deaf to “symbols” and even meaning?

Mind, Jackson’s story was written at a time when anyone’s stoning seemed unthinkable and archaic, and not part of the daily news — today?  different story.  Think of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, among others.

Undoubted courage (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

So I wonder at the popular appeal of the Dalai Lama last week, and the euphoria at his teaching, which suggests that our compassion should be motivated by the universal search for happiness, and also by the knowledge that compassion contributes to our own physical well-being — it lowers our blood pressure, releases endorphins, etc., etc., etc.  Is compassion motivated this way compassion at all — or just an extension of endless cycle of self-help routines? Is that the only common denominator left? And how will such a self-serving compassion help one when the Nazis bang on the door, looking for the Jews? Or when the NKVD asks for names during a Lubyanka interrogation?  The most immediate response — to lower one’s blood pressure, reduce one’s heartbeat — is to hand them over.

What bugs me is that the Dalai Lama — the man who faced off bloody Mao Zedong, one of the last century’s immortal genocidaires — is a man of endless courage.  He knows this stuff.  It’s a peculiar reverse case of our current malaise — he walks the walk, but why doesn’t he talk the talk?

Without a compensatory virtues of independence of mind, and, beneath that, courage — which the ancients believed is the foundation of all virtues — is there any compassion at all?