Excerpts for Essays of Leonard Michaels


what's a story?

I

THRUSTING FROM THE HEAD of Picasso's goat are bicycle handlebars. They don't represent anything, but they are goat's horns, as night is a black bat, metaphorically

Come into the garden . . .

. . . the black bat night has flown.

Metaphor, like the night, is an idea in flight; potentially, a story:

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children she didn't know what to do.

Here, the metaphorical action is very complicated, especially in the syllables of the second line, bubbling toward the period--the way the old lady had children--reflecting her abundance and distress. The line ends in a rhyme--do/shoe--and thus closes, or contains itself. With her children in a shoe, the old lady is also contained. In effect, the line and the shoe contain incontinence; but this is only an idea and it remains unarticulated, at best implicit.

"Can you fix an idea?" asks Valéry "You can think only in terms of modifications." Characters, place, and an action "once upon a time" are modifications deployed in rhythm, rhythmic variation, and rhyme--techniques of sound that determine the psychophysical experience, or story, just as the placement, angle, spread, and thrust of the bicycle handlebars determine horns, a property of goat, its stolid, squat, macho bulk and balls behind, like syllables of a tremendous sentence.

Lo even thus is our speech delivered by sounds significant: for it will never be a perfect sentence, unless one word give way when it has sounded his part that another may succeed it.

Saint Augustine means perfection is achieved through the continuous vanishing of things, as the handlebars vanish in the sense of goat, as the dancer in the dance, as the bat in the night in flight.

Here is a plain sentence from Flannery O'Connor's story "Revelation," which is metaphorical through and through:

Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps.

Those pumps walk with the weight and stride of the moral being who inhabits them, as she inhabits herself, smugly, brutally, mechanically good insofar as good is practical. The pumps vanish into quiddity of Turpin, energetic heave and thump.

Taking a grander view than mine, Nabokov gets at the flow and sensuous implication of Gogol's story "The Overcoat."

The story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

No absolute elements, no plot, only an effect of passage, pattern, and some sort of change in felt-time. The temporal quality is in all the above examples; it is even in Picasso's goat, different parts vanishing into aspects of goat, perfection of bleating, chomping, hairy, horny beast.

The transformation, in this seeing, is the essence of stories:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears.

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

Life is remembered as a dream, her as a "thing," and himself not feeling. Amid all this absence is an absence of transition to the second stanza. Suddenly:

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth's diurnal course;

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

The transformational drama is deliberately exemplified, in the best writing lesson ever offered, by Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. He tells how he forces himself to remember having seen the cowardly and inept bullfighter, Hernandorena, gored by a bull. After the event, late at night, slowly, slowly, Hemingway makes himself see it again, the bullfighter's leg laid open, exposing dirty underwear and the "clean, clean, unbearable cleanness" of his thighbone. Dirty underwear and clean bone constitute an amazing juxtaposition--let alone transformation of Hernandorena--which is redeemed (more than simply remembered) half-asleep, against the blinding moral sympathy entailed by human fears.

In this strenuous, self-conscious, grim demonstration of his art, Hemingway explicitly refuses to pity Hernandorena, and then he seizes his agony with luxurious exactitude. Though he does say "unbearable," he intends nothing kindly toward Hernandorena, only an aesthetic and self-pitying reference to himself as he suffers the obligations of his story, his truth, or the truth.

The problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of "and then") and the latter belong to art. Most impressive in the transformations above is that nothing changes. Hernandorena is more essentially himself with his leg opened. Wordsworth's woman is no less a thing dead than alive. The handlebars, as horns, are fantastically evident handlebars.

II

IN CHEKHOV'S GREAT STORY "The Lady with the Dog," a man and a woman who are soon to become lovers sit on a bench beside the sea without talking. In their silence the sea grows loud:

The monotonous roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, or the eternal sleep waiting for us all. The sea had roared like this long before there was any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, the utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of life on our planet, and its never-ceasing movement toward pefection.

But this man and woman care, through each other, about life, and they transform themselves into the creatures of an old and desperately sad story in which love is the vehicle of a brief salvation before the sound of the sea, the great disorder that is an order, resumes and caring ceases.

The man's feelings in the story, like those of Wordsworth and Hemingway in their stories, are unavailable in immediate experience. He lets the woman go, time passes, then it comes to him that he needs her, the old story.

The motive for metaphor, shrinking from

The weight of primary noon,

The A B C of being.

The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

He goes to the woman's hometown, checks into a hotel, and is greeted by the sight of

a dusty ink pot on the table surmounted by a headless rider, holding his hat in his raised hand . . .

A metaphor. To find his heart, he lost his head. Nothing would be written (ink pot) otherwise; nothing good, anyhow, and that is the same as nothing. "There is no such thing as a bad poem," says Coleridge. In other words, it doesn't exist.

The best story I know that contains all I've been trying to say is Kafka's:

A cage went in search of a bird.

Like the Mother Goose rhyme, it plays with a notion of containment, or containing the uncontainable, but here an artifice of form (cage rather than shoe) is in deadly pursuit of spirit (bird rather than children). A curious metaphysic is implied, where the desire to possess and the condition of being possessed are aspects of an ineluctable phenomenon. (Existence?) In any case, whatever the idea is, Kafka suggests in eight words a kind of nightmare--chilling, magnificently irrational, endless--the story-of-stories, the infinitely deep urge toward transformation. "One portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring," says Blake, a great storyteller obsessed with cages and birds.

III

THE ABILITY TO TELL A STORY, like the ability to carry a tune, is nearly universal and as mysteriously natural as language. Though I've met a few people who can't tell stories, it has always seemed to me they really can but refuse to care enough, or fear generosity, or self-revelation, or misinterpretation (an extremely serious matter these days), or intimacy. They tend to be formal, encaged by prevailing opinion, and a little deliberately dull. Personally, I can't carry a tune, which has sometimes been a reason for shame, as though it were a character flaw. Worse than tuneless or storyless people are those with a gift for storytelling who, like the Ancient Mariner (famous bird murderer), go on and on in the throes of an invincible narcissism, while listeners suffer brain death. The best storytellers hardly ever seem to know they're doing it, and they hardly ever imagine they could write a story. My aunt Molly, for example, was a terrific storyteller who sometimes broke into nutty couplets.

I see you're sitting at the table, Label.

I wish I was also able.

But so long as I'm on my feet,

I don't have to eat.

I went to visit her when she was dying and in bad pain, her stomach bloated by a tumor. She wanted even then to be herself, but looked embarrassed, slightly shy. "See?" she said. "That's life." No more stories, no more rhymes.

Published as "What's a Story?" as an introduction to Ploughshares, Spring 1986, edited by Leonard Michaels.

Excerpted from The Essays of Leonard Michaels by Katharine Ogden Michaels.
Copyright © 2009 by Katharine Ogden Michaels.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.



----------------------