Commentary

Realism

by Posted on June 22nd, 2010 at 10:07 am

Nov/Dec 1853 issue of Putnam's Monthly, where "Bartleby, the Scrivener" was first published

On April 25, Joshua Cohen interviewed Joseph McElroy for a Triple Canopy podcast. The theme of the podcast was realism. About ten minutes into the interview, dance-responding to a question about “the disturbing puzzle of the real,” McElroy mentions a reaction he once had to Melville’s main character in “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” McElroy says, “What on Earth is going on here in this increasingly intimate and puzzling relationship with this…creep?”

Confucius warns us against settling for mere wealth and honor.[1] These are material things. They are relative, unsubstantial, changing—like passing clouds. He asks us, like most religious and philosophical figures, to seek the eternal instead of the material. He wants us to achieve both “wealth and honor” and “righteousness,” not one contrary to the other. Otherwise we’d be missing out something very important: Reality.[2]

But how do we do this? How do we follow Confucius’s advice and stay in touch with reality? One way is to enter into an “intimate and puzzling relationship” with the “creep” of the material. Come to know the born and dying, the grotesque, the dirt and blood of the world. If we take an exact picture of what’s going on around us in our concrete experience, we can then use this picture as an entrance point to the eternal. If we look precisely at what’s in front of us, we’ll be better able to understand what goes beyond it.

The job of the realist is to show us the material world around us, show us the passing clouds with artistic precision, so we can go beyond it to the eternal. That way, we follow Confucius’ advice. That way, we experience Reality.

Like in Walter Moore’s piece “B’Hamster: Mine Shaft Blues” in Ten Thousand Monkeys. This is a story of two people in a burnt-out town. An anonymous man sits in a cafe and muses about a blue-eyed waitress, describing the city:

Low brick buildings line the street, more than half of them empty and dusted-up inside. There is the United Mine Workers of America hall. Here is the police department, silent.

This is sad, dull, lifeless. The man has a short interaction with the waitress, who asks him an inane question. There’s a precise parenthetical alongside his response to her:

(Go east out of town, past the sign telling all the businesses that used to be there. Cross the low spot where the railroad tracks once ran. Find the sign that tells you where the coke ovens were. Imagine the field full of rows of company housing, a company store. That was Blocton. Gone.)

Everything in the man’s world is inane. Dull. Drab. But at the end of Moore’s story we see a light, something shining, a rip in the curtain of the gray; we see humanity in the blue eyes of the waitress. Here, Moore uses the facade of the drab-material to get to the eternal.

Graphic for Doyle's story at Pulp.net

Jo Dolye’s piece “Work” in Pulp.net also takes place at a restaurant, though it explores the deflated concept ‘restaurant’ more deeply than Moore’s, delving into this particular kind of sadness with a more pedestrian voice. Crispin Best’s “Thoughts Before a Parachute Fails” is funny instead of sad. He gets us to a feeling of eternal absurdity as a character lists through a series of concrete details before his parachute fails to open. Thomas Mundt’s “Thundercat” in Is Greater Than is funny, too, and uses CVS as a material backdrop to the see eternal absurdity of haphazard ambition. Rob Todd’s nostalgic account of teenagers watching surfers in “The Shape of the Winter Wind” at Thirst for Fire uses realistic detail to get to the eternal anachronism of feeling in memory. He writes, “An Indian cried when we threw trash out the car window. We were afraid of Russians but not strangers. The Miracle on Ice and Richard Pryor on fire. Pinball and KISS and ’1984′ in 1982.”

Bonnie Odell’s “Uncle Rempt” in Storyglossia is a terrific study in concrete detail, both in character and in image. There’s a “crazy” uncle selling crystals to old women, and a strict Christian lifestyle that is broken through. Here perhaps we find the kind of righteousness that Confucius’ meant.

If you haven’t heard of the Significant Objects project, you should read Heidi Julavits’ tragic account of a dying girlfriend and a wooden apple core (and then bid to buy the actual object so your money goes to charity). J. Christopher Silva writes a snappy imagination-riff that reeks of grotesque masculinity and Internet-dating inspired obsession. (And I want to mention Kyle Minor’s “The Prerogatives of Posthumous Self-Improvement” here because of the last line. Go read it.)

A little later in the Triple Canopy interview, Cohen asks McElroy about the difference between realism and reality, citing the city as a major theme in McElroy’s work. Cohen says that McElroy’s fiction shows us that “the city is us.” According to a conversation I had with Ariane Lourie two summers ago, the idea of nature didn’t come about until the 17th or 18th century, when large industrial cities started growing in Europe. We didn’t have a concept of nature until we had the city.

It’s the same with reality and realism.

There’s a fundamental difference between the humanity in a waitress’s blue eyes and the failed town around us. Between surfers and nostalgia. Between tragic loss and a wooden apple core. Between the material and immaterial. Despite this categorical difference, we experience one in terms of the other. We can use the material to experience the immaterial.

So, to respond to McElroy’s question about Bartleby: This is what on Earth is going on with this “intimate relationship” with the “creep.” The creep (in this case Bartleby sitting in his office) is the material world around us. The job of the realist is to give us the material details of the creep and put us into a puzzlingly intimate relationship with him. Then we see reality.


[1] Len Yu, Pt. VIII, chap XV. Confucius says, “Wealth and honor achieved contrary to righteousness are to me like a passing cloud.”

[2] I’d like to take this mention of reality to note that I’m not an expert on literary anything, and to thank to Michael Copperman for pointing this out in my last essay “Whimsy.” There, I flippantly place Amy Hempel with other writers online without at the very least footnoting that she’s considered one of the great writers of the late 20th C\century. I’m not an academic. In these reports on online fiction, I try to present a series of stories that I found in a month’s-worth of reading the Internet. There are many lists of links out there. I try to provide a list of links that’s interesting to read.