Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stegner's Angle of Repose - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads a Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel

Life is hard.  It doesn't matter - rich or poor, privileged or not.  Life is hard.  I was not excited about reading another book about America - another Pulitzer prize winner.  I was tired of hearing how wonderful we rich Americans are after having seen us through the lens of the poor in Nicaragua this summer (see posts starting here about that).  But a friend recommended this book about the American West.  It is long, and  captivating.  It tells of how the west was won - not by cattle barons, and not by gunslingers (though those certainly also won the west), but by engineers.  Oh, the engineers wore six shooters, and used them when they had to, but primarily they mapped mines and built dams; they created places for people to live, and figured out how to get water to parched soil so that wheat would grow and livestock would be fed.

The Angle of Repose in the title is the angle of a dirt hill, like one that would hold up a ditch or a dam, and the angle of repose is the angle at which dirt does not roll down the slope.  This is the most efficient angle to use - using a shallower angle requires more dirt, while using a steeper angle causes the dam to self-efface until it collapses.  But it is also a metaphor that is used in various ways.  One application might be the angle a person takes towards themselves that allows them to live with themselves and with others.  Too harsh, and they can't live up to strictures, too lenient and they consistently fail themselves and others.  Written in the first person, the book is primarily about two people: the protagonist, a historian writing in 1970 about the life of his grandmother, which he knows both from having known her when he was a child and from her letters and other records which he is now organizing and turning into the second story, one told in the third person, about her.

The author is looking to his grandmother, who lived before Freud's work (and other factors) ushered in the changing mores that the author self consciously complains about.  The author speculates about the conscience (and consciousness) of people in the late 1800s - people who lived in a more rule governed time.  The author is writing across multiple divides, however.  He is a man writing about a woman.  He is also, almost in spite of himself, a citizen of the late twentieth century - a post Freudian/post modern time, writing about people who lived in the modern era.  From that position, he can't write in the style of the time about the people of that time.  He can't know their subjectivity in the ways that authors in that period pretended to know them, nor can he impose a subjectivity upon them.  He can speculate about the subjective experience of his heroine, and he does, but he also knows that it is much more complex than he can portray and likely than even she knows.

Almost twenty per cent of the book is written by an actual historical figure about whom the fictionalized account is written.  Her letters - beautiful, poetic, and indirect (She lived before Freud pushed towards an era that, probably to his personal horror, includes Oprah-openness as a hallmark) - make up a significant portion of the book.  Some criticized the awarding of the Pulitzer to a man who did not write a big chunk of the work.  OK, then, two pretty talented writers teamed up to write this book.  Mary Hallock Foote also deserves credit, because she lends her voice to this work, which is essential to it. As skilled and talented a writer as she is, her writing hides as much as it exposes - or refers to states through metaphor rather than describing them directly.  And she is a romantic - imagining the world to be a better place - imagining the friends she has left on the East Coast to be living an idealized existence - in ways that seem, at times, implausible.

A book of this size and scope - a book that takes on so many things, that is simultaneously so complex and readable, is a book that I naively expected to deliver a good solid conclusion - to wrap things up in a way that makes them comprehensible.  But the question that drives the narrative of both the characters in the 1880s and 90s and the characters in 1970, is one that is left unresolved.  And I can't imagine that it would be otherwise.  The question is multi-layered.  On the surface it is a question about guilt and forgiveness.  How do we forgive ourselves?  How do we allow others to forgive us?  How do we forgive others?  Concretely, the question is put in the form of a mysterious illness which is petrifying the 1970 figure - the writer - who suffers from a disease that is locking up his bones, making him more and more constricted - unable to bend or turn or see behind him, and, filled with anger and spite that emotionally constricts him - anger and spite that are based on a very real, very painful betrayal, can he rise above this?  Can he become something that he is not - flexible, malleable, and able to connect with others - including in and through his and their vulnerability?  Do we, despite our novel ways of thinking about ourselves and others, still have a character based core - a deep seated conscience - that keeps us locked up in ourselves and isolated from those around us?

For the author, in the 1800s there were external constraints - the constraints of society that simply did not allow marital ruptures, for instance, to occur.  But more importantly, there were constraints of character - and a belief in character - both the character of others, but one's own character.  These constraints came from the depictions of people in novels and in the proper upbringing that many in the upper classes received.  And a central part of this was the construction of a self.  This led to a self consciousness that created a narrative arc that was unbending, no matter what else might occur internally or in the environment.  When things got in the way, the person reassessed the goals and strove for them.

The author's grandfather and grandmother faced a myriad of challenges.  They lived in the developing west and, though they were living privileged lives relative to those around them, they were living in primitive conditions.  His grandmother, raised to be a lady, functioned as one in a whole variety of primitive conditions, convinced, especially early on, that their sacrifices would be rewarded.  Life, especially among those worthy of the kind of consideration that this book gives, involves self conscious self construction that would have a certain kind of integrity and would demand that of others.  Now the book is not as naive as this sounds.  There are many in the book who do not have character of this sort.  But the heroes do.  And, as heroes do, they have tragic flaws.

The author's grandmother, a woman who was privileged through birth, natural talent and education to live as very few women lived, married a man who, though virtuous in many ways - he was hardworking, a brilliant engineer, and highly principled - was not verbal in the way that she was - he was not what we would now call her soul mate, though they were bound together as if by baling - or even barbed - wire, and though he loved her deeply and unswervingly; she was lonely.  She imagined more - believed herself to be deserving of something greater - something warmer, more responsive, more engaging.  And she found this, or thought she did, in her husband's doppelgänger, a look alike who worked for her husband and who, while in love with her was loyal to both of them.

Suffice it to say that no good came of this triangle, and the question of the grandfather's ability to forgive the grandmother becomes central, though I think that her ability to forgive herself is at least as important.  In any case, the primary question is whether the grandson, betrayed by his wife, can display the kind of keen empathy towards his betrayers that he does for his grandmother.  And can he, a grotesque, twisted by his anger and his disease - rise above himself to re-engage with his child, but more importantly, his wife, who has betrayed him?

Steven King was hit while walking on a rural Maine road and severely injured by a driver who was reaching into the backseat to both fend off his dog and grab another beer.  An interviewer commented that the driver sounded like a Steven King character, and Mr. King corrected him; he stated that any human being is more complex and more real than the best character that he could construct.  Stegner, I think, recognizes this as well.  To ask deeply human questions of any character narrows the question.  Our humanity is more complex than any character's handling of it will allow us to appreciate.

Stegner may also be asking us to think about our own character.  Are we strong enough to go where our ancestors, as gifted and capable as they were, could not dare to go?  Can we, with the privilege that they have bequeathed us, exceed them?  Does the privilege they have afforded us serve as a platform from which we can exceed them?  I think this is a question that Stegner does not know the answer to.  And we will answer it based on the complex way that we live out our lives - both individually and collectively as a culture.  Will privilege lead us to waste what we have been given or will it spur us on to new heights?      

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