Thursday, April 29, 2010

Natural storytelling I - The sweetness of disgrace

This post is part one of a final (probably) wrap-up to the issue of natural versus purposeful storytelling in contemporary society. The essay turned out to be so long that it overtook Blogger's capacity to keep up with my typing, so I've split it into four parts (even though I posted them all at the same time). The four parts are:
  1. The sweetness of disgrace (this post)
  2. Hierarchy and meshwork
  3. The authorities of story
  4. Solutions
[To those who haven't been following this issue: over the past few years I have been pondering something I keep hearing people say in regard to stories. At this point I've heard dozens if not hundreds of people, in person, in groups, even in online story collections, respond to the questions I and others have posed to them with a statement about the quality of their stories and their qualification to tell them. People say: I don't have any stories; my stories aren't real stories; my stories aren't good enough to tell; I've had experiences, but no stories. This response has mystified me since I first heard it about ten years ago, because for most of what stories have been used for since people were people, that is, transferring complex knowledge and communicating complex feelings and points of view, all stories are good stories, and all stories are real. I've been exploring the origins of this phenomenon: how natural and purposeful (packaged, usually commercial) storytelling are out of balance and what can be done to improve the situation. Click on the Natural storytelling heading to see other posts on this topic.]

In my last post about this topic (It's not a puzzle; it's a piece of a puzzle) I promised to start posting some solutions. I have the first inklings of a few possible solutions now, some lights at the end of a tunnel (hopefully not a train). They are in part four of the essay, but I would not advise reading them without the rest as they will not make sense alone.

The dissolute sweetness of disgrace

Over the past month I've been slowly re-reading Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, a masterpiece of a treatise on the modern world started before World War I and completed in 1924. (This is by the way one of the best backflow stories ever composed, but if I tell you why that's true...) According to the rules of serendipity, I found much food for thought in The Magic Mountain with respect to the purposeful/natural storytelling issue. (Whether the book addressed the issue or the issue shaped my reading of the book is one of the mysteries of serendipity.)

The shortest and most banal summary of The Magic Mountain is this: we follow a promising young naval engineer, Hans Castorp, as he visits his cousin Joachim at the International Sanatorium Berghof, a tuberculosis treatment facility (and posh hotel) near Davos. Hans Castorp's visit lasts for three weeks, but his stay at the Berghof lasts for seven years.

On re-reading this book it is clear to me (this time) that it is all about the interplay between hierarchy (order, structure) and meshwork (unorder, complexity and chaos). (The next time I read it, it will probably be about something else.) And that is why it relates to natural and purposeful storytelling. To find out why, come and walk with me, but be warned: we will go far afield before we return home.

As the story begins, Hans Castorp, a promising young naval engineer with a plum internship lined up at a shipbuilding firm, arrives at the Berghof. Hans Castorp is a young man who habitually does what is expected of him blindly and without the slightest thought. On the train he carries what seems to be a textbook called Ocean Steamships as though it were a badge of identity (or a security blanket). But the sanitarium is high in the mountains, and the people "up here" behave strangely, or so it seems to Hans Castorp ... at first.

What first got me excited about the connection between this book and storytelling was this quote from near the start of the book. One day soon after Hans Castorp arrives at the sanitarium, he overhears Herr Albin, whose case has been deemed incurable, defending his "outrageous" behavior (smoking, eating chocolates, carrying around a revolver) thus:
You simply must grant me the license that results from my condition. It's much the same as in high school when you know you'll be held back -- they don't bother to ask you questions, you don't bother to do any work. And now I've finally come to just such a pretty pass again. I don't need to do anything anymore, I'm no longer in the running -- and I can laugh at the whole thing.
Hans Castorp's thoughts on hearing this run along these lines:
[A]lthough he was not quite certain if Herr Albin was a phony or not, he could not help feeling a little envious of him nevertheless. That comparison taken from life at school had made an impression on him, because he had been held back in his sophomore year, and he could recall the somewhat ignominious, but humorous and pleasantly untidy state of affairs that he had enjoyed in the last quarter, once he had given up even trying and was able to laugh "at the whole thing." ... [I]t seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless. He tried putting himself in Herr Albin's shoes and imagining how it must be when one is finally free of all the pressures honor brings and one can endlessly enjoy the unbounded advantages of disgrace -- and the young man was terrified by a sense of dissolute sweetness that set his heart pounding even faster for a while.
This is the crux of the matter. Before he came to the Berghof, Hans Castorp was embedded in a hierarchy of hard work, progress and all the things society expects of promising young men (who have promised by being promising, and therefore must deliver). The Berghof offers release from that hierarchy. The advantages of disgrace provide a ticket into meshwork, into the freedom to create one's own path. And create he does. Hans Castorp follows a bewildering array of interests: physiology, botany, skiing, philosophy, political science, astronomy. He builds his own social and romantic connections with the people "up here."

But while Hans Castorp has left one hierarchy, he has entered into another: the hierarchy of illness, where he enters into the role of a patient. The existence and strength of this hierarchy becomes apparent soon after his visit begins.
Hans Castorp had not been up here for two weeks, but it seemed much longer to him, and the Berghof's daily schedule, which Joachim observed so dutifully, had begun to take on the stamp of sacred, axiomatic inviolability in his eyes as well, so that when viewed from up here, life in the flatlands below seemed strange and perverse.
As one hierarchy (the path of a promising young engineer) has been abandoned, another (the path of a tubercular patient) replaces it; and one freedom (to feel oneself able to achieve physical goals -- to run, to breathe deeply, to travel anywhere) is put aside in favor of another (to learn, to explore, to ruminate, to socialize, to "waste" time). The novel hints at all of these gains and losses obliquely (as all good novels should) but repeatedly. In particular the issue of membership, or qualification, is prevalent throughout. This connected, for me, to what I heard people saying about stories: that they were not qualified to tell them.

Life underground

Hans Castorp's extended stay at the Berghof begins when Director Behrens obligingly suggests he come along with his cousin for a physical exam, because he looks anemic and has a slight cold. I'd love to type in the whole passage where Behrens "grants" Hans Castorp "admission" to the sanitarium, but it's long and I'll just pull out the most telling parts of it.
"Yes, Castorp," he said ... "[I] was pretty sure of my guess that you were secretly one of the locals.... Now listen to me, young man, I am about to utter several golden words.... [A]s things stand and on the basis of my examination, and seeing that you are already here -- it would not pay for you to return home, Hans Castorp. Because you would be back to see us in a very short order.... I knew at once that you'd be a better patient than visitor, with more talent for being ill than our brigadier general here [his cousin], who tries to slip away the moment his fever goes down a tenth or two."
Does Director Behrens find tuberculosis in Hans Castorp during this examination? It's not clear. But notice the hierarchy-shifting words in these excerpts. Doesn't every tourist envy "the locals"? I grew up next to a pick-your-own strawberry farm, and on a certain week in June hundreds of cars would cram our rural road. My siblings and I would proudly stand out in our yard pursuing activities expressly chosen to demonstrate that yes, we really did live here, unlike those pitiful tourists who could only gawk at our riches. That sounds utterly insane now, but my point is: if a strawberry farm could produce that effect in vulnerable youth, how much more strongly could a natural beauty like the Alps pull people in? A place where the very air is different, where entry requires a long train ride up, up, up? What better to place to seem unattainably exclusive and seductive?

Why does Behrens say "I am about to utter several golden words"? It is a twisting of the usual portrayal of medical diagnosis. It seems disrespectful, heretical, obscene even. Hans Castorp has been given the chance to enter an exclusive club, the wasting-time club, the free-from-promises club, the abundant-excuses club, and Behrens fully knows he wants in. Notice how Behrens says "you would be back to see us in a very short order" -- but elsewhere the book mentions that there are several other sanitaria in the area. These words are carefully chosen. It's more of an invitation to take on a role than a diagnosis. And the most telling line -- "I knew at once that you'd be a better patient than visitor" is tantamount to a certificate of qualification.

So Hans Castorp accepts the offered role and is put on three weeks of bed rest (to get over his cold, ostensibly, but it reads more like a ritual of passage), and the transformation begins. During his bed rest the director's assistant visits him daily, which pleases him:
Yes, Dr. Krokowski no longer circumvented Hans Castorp when he made his independent afternoon rounds. Hans Castorp counted now. He was no longer an interval or hiatus, he was a patient; he, too, was questioned, instead of being left lying there to his own devices, as he had been every day until now -- much to his slight and secret annoyance.
Lodovico Settembrini, a humanist (and actually quite ill) patient who speaks for the view of enlightened human progress throughout the novel, repeatedly warns Hans Castorp about the path he has chosen. He calls Hans Castorp "one of life's problem children." He visits him during his bed rest, and is at first as inclusive as the director:
"[You are] Like a pious monk. One might say you've ended your novitiate and have taken your vows. My solemn congratulations. You're already calling it 'our dining hall,' yourself."
But Settembrini also sounds a warning, hinting that not all of Behrens' diagnoses are correct and telling some stories about X-ray "spots" that turned out to be nothing but shadows. He also gives a more general warning:
"Permit me, permit me, my good engineer, to tell you something, to lay it on your heart. The only healthy and noble and indeed, let me expressly point out, the only religious way in which to regard death is to perceive and feel it as a constituent part of life, as life's holy prerequisite, and not to separate it intellectually, to set it up in opposition to life, or, worse, to play it off against life in some disgusting fashion.... For as an independent spiritual power, death is a very depraved force, whose wicked attractions are very strong and without doubt can cause the most abominable confusion of the human mind."
Settembrini later compares staying at the Berghof to a visit into the underworld.
Catching up with the young man, but with the intent of moving right on past him, Settembrini said, "Well, my good engineer, how did you like the pomegranate?"

Hans Castorp smiled in confused delight. "I'm sorry -- what did you say, Herr Settembrini? Pomegranate? We haven't had any pomegranates, have we? I don't think I've ever ... no, wait, I did once drink some pomegranate juice and soda. It was too sweet for me."

Already past him now, the Italian looked back over his shoulder and carefully stated: "The gods and mortals have on occasion visited the realm of shades and found their way back. But those who reside in the nether world know that he who eats of the fruits of their realm is forever theirs."
(I think the words "It was too sweet for me" have something to do with the fact that the freedom of unadulterated disgrace is too good to be true. Maybe.)

Alas, Settembrini's words are not heard, and Hans Castorp continues to revel in the freedom of his disgrace. He takes to sitting or lying in favorite places and "playing king" -- meaning, doing just what he wants to do, without considering the obligations of his former life. Though of course he is perfectly dutiful in his obligations as a patient (mainly, eating, eating, lying down, chatting, and eating).

The conversion is complete

By the time Hans Castorp's uncle James visits him, nearly a year later, his transformation is complete. Hans Castorp refers to James' visit as an "attack" and a "raid," but receives the news "with great calm," sure of his new position. When Uncle James arrives, he is stunned by Hans Castorp's response to his inquiries. Hans Castorp ignores the news from home, diverts his uncle with descriptions of the constellations (about which he knew nothing before his new role began), and expounds new and unexpected philosophies of illness as "exuberant" and a "celebration" of the body. What's even more striking is the way Hans Castorp talks about himself.
[T]he crisp autumn evening was close to freezing, yet there beside him sat Hans Castorp without hat or overcoat. "The cold doesn't affect you, does it?" asked James.... "We're never cold," Hans Castorp replied calmly and curtly.
James asks Hans Castorp to return home with him.
"Well, let's not be reckless about this," Hans Castorp said. Uncle James was talking like someone from down below. Once he had been here awhile and looked around a bit and settled in, he would soon see things differently.
The ambiguous complicity of the sanitarium in the "wicked attractions" of illness becomes more apparent as Director Behrens extends his "you look a little anemic" and "it would be a clever move to stay a bit longer" invitations-to-disgrace to Uncle James. After an interview with the head nurse Mylendonk (one of the comic relief staff) James and Hans Castorp have this conversation:
[Uncle James] rapped on his nephew's door and circumspectly inquired if he did not also think the head nurse just a little odd. After first casting a fleeting, speculative glance in the air, Hans Castorp halfway assented to the idea by asking in return whether Head Nurse Mylendonk had sold him a thermometer. [The event of being sold a thermometer had been significant in Hans Castorp's own conversion to fully qualified patienthood.] "No. Me? Is she in the business?" his uncle replied. But the worst part was how clearly his nephew's face said that he would not have been surprised if what he had asked had in fact occurred. "We're never cold" was written in that expression.
Cutting his visit short, James flees back to the flatlands, not so much in reaction to what has happened to his nephew but in horror at what threatens to draw him in as well.
[H]e had turned tail and ran, head over heels, in silent haste, as if he had seized the resolve of the moment, dared not for the life of him to let that moment pass, had thrown his things into his bags and off he had gone. Alone, not with his nephew, not in fulfillment of his honorable mission, but overjoyed at having escaped, even if it was all alone -- the upright citizen and deserter to the flag of the flatlands, Uncle James. Well, bon voyage.
As an upright citizen of the flatlands, James is a deserter from the order "up here" while Hans Castorp fully engages in it.

My own private pomegranate

One of the reasons The Magic Mountain works so well is that many of us have experienced exactly such a dilemma: to make the most of the license that comes with illness (or some other socially valid excuse: house burned down, lost our job, orphaned, jailed, abandoned, etc), or to "fight the good fight" and return to everyday striving? Illness and misfortune can offer a new and compelling role in a hierarchy whose demands may seem, at least at first, refreshingly light.

I experienced exactly this dilemma myself. A memorable episode in my own life's story was the back injury twenty years ago that pretty much ended my career as a field biologist. The shortest and most banal summary of the story is that I slipped on the ice, tore a ligament, and spent several months in nasty pain and several years in slow, two-steps-forward-one-step-back recovery. The relevant part is that in the first weeks and months after this injury, I refused to participate in my own recovery. I didn't try to get better; I didn't want to get better. As I've come to understand it, there were two elements involved in this refusal. First, I felt (not "I reasoned" because I didn't) that if I got better, it didn't happen, and if it didn't happen I could no longer nurse my cherished anger at ... whatever had done it. (Yes, this makes no sense, but read Dostoyevsky's The Idiot for a perfect explanation of the paradox.)

The second element was the same attraction that ensnared Hans Castorp. Frankly speaking, it was liberating to be demonstrably unable to succeed. There was an exuberance and celebration in it, one that I can only see (and admit to) twenty years later. Because my back pain was obvious (I couldn't feign health even if I tried), it served as a legitimate qualification, sanctioned by doctors, to take a "rest cure" from the expectations of a "promising" young biologist, or even a wage-earner, citizen, adult. In The Magic Mountain, Director Behrens provides the valuable service of "admitting" people to the hierarchy of illness, for a modest fee. (Whether he is aware of this service or is simply and sincerely zealous in his work is one of the delicious ambiguities of The Magic Mountain.) Essentially, my back pain was the price of admission to a hierarchy that provided benefits I had never before experienced. Like Hans Castorp, I could take my rest cure, as I often did -- on a work day, even -- with perfect equanimity, indeed with the same sort of unruffled calm that so alarmed Hans Castorp's Uncle James. (And like Hans Castorp, I thought a lot during these rest cures. I thought some of the best thoughts I've ever thought during that awful/awe-full time.) These were indeed strong and wicked attractions. The price of these attractions became apparent, to myself and to Hans Castorp, only later, as the story wore on.

What happened in the end? To me, or to Hans Castorp? It's the same story either way. Eventually each of us had to give up our membership in the great society of victimhood and return to real life. I haven't got to the end of my second reading of The Magic Mountain yet, and I wouldn't want to spoil it for you even if I had, but suffice it to say that Hans Castorp returns to the flatlands. And I returned to taking proper care of myself and healing my back. I got tired of clinging to excuses and started looking for solutions, and I rejoined my first hierarchy, the one you belong to, the hierarchy of the normal productive world, the flatlands.

Next: Hierarchy and meshwork ...

No comments: