Reflections on the Classical Condition : O’Brien’s Prairie, Cather’s Nebraska, and My Student’s Handheld Mirrors

5:28 AM – Slept in for TGIF.

***

“Farewell to story tellers, hello to memoirists.”  – Dr. Myles Werntz

*This is the disclaimer where I confess I’m drastically out of my element, but I’m going for it anyway.

After work yesterday I continued my pre-dinner ritual of drinking decaf coffee and reading Tim O’Brien’s If I Die In A Combat Zone when I came across an interesting sentence:

“The essential thing about the prairie, I learned, was that one part of it is like any other part.” – Tim O’Brien

I found this interesting because it reminded me of a line in one of my favorite classic novels, a book that I’ve highly recommended but for which few people have shared my affections, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. The sentence comes from Jim Burden as he and his family travel west across the plains. Jim says:

“The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.” – Willa Cather

What’s remarkable about these two sentences, besides how greatly O’Brien’s narrator echoes Jim Burden, is that neither character is actually speaking about the prairie or Nebraska. Jim Burden was actually referring to his own ennui of travels and his dreaded notions of a life lived isolated among the expanses of land and land and unchanging land. O’Brien metaphorically uses the prairie as a concrete symbol of something far more complex and abstract. Look at O’Brien’s sentence, embedded in a chapter about his hometown, in its fuller context:

“I tried going to the Democratic party meetings. I’d read it was the liberal party. But it was futile. I could not make out the difference between the people there and the people down the street boosting Nixon and Cabot Lodge. The essential thing about the prairie, I learned, was that one part of it was like any other part.” – Tim O’Brien

The double-entendre there jolts the reader’s attention. O’Brien expresses his boredom with politics through a concrete reference to the boring landscape. This is good writing. This is – although O’Brien published If I Die In A Combat Zone in 1975 – indicative of classic literature.

This also reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, when a distraught Tess roams down a country road in search of Angel, Alec has just been stabbed, and the narrator describes the road, its dying floral boundaries, as illustrative of Tess’s despair. The narrator never directly relays Tess’s emotions. Instead, the reader gets descriptions of dirty paths and wilting foliage, but we know we’re not really reading about paths and foliage. We’re reading about Tess.

I allude to Tess because I clearly remember reading that passage, and suddenly many things my English instructors tried to teach me about literature finally clicked into place. I read that passage many times. So many times that years later Tess still swirls up in my coffee while reading Tim O’Brien’s book about the Vietnam War, which, of course, is not actually about the Vietnam War.

Here’s the statement I want to make that my disclaimer pre-referenced:

One reason our modern literature, even our modern mindset, is no longer infused with the classical condition is because we have become more obsessed with what is inside ourselves than what is outside. 

Let me say it like this. When Thomas Hardy or Willa Cather or Tim O’Brien want to express abstract internal emotions they used concrete external imagery. When Robert Burns says, “My love is like a red, red rose”, we snicker because it’s cheesy, but it’s also concrete. At least I can see a red rose. I can’t see bloody hell of Burns’ love. (Especially because Burns is so bloody hell dead.) Unfortunately, this type of writing and figurative language requires the writer – even the reader – to possess a vocabulary rich with the language of the world, not just the language of the self. And we’ve long abandoned such a bilingual education.

The sad reality of our singular self-speak became evident in class yesterday.

We’ve spent several days – if not the majority of the semester – discussing rhetorical analysis. How to pull apart a text. Examine it at various levels. Discuss the elements of the text rather than personal reactions to the text. Then we watched a documentary. I paused it often and modeled for them, early in the film, how to analyze the film. I asked questions. I told them things to look for. I stopped the film and asked them to take notes. When it was all over, I asked them to write a review of the filmmakers’ rhetorical devices. What they brought me back were combinations of climatic summaries and sentimental spittle about “I feel” and “I think” and “It was so sad.” And when they finished sharing their reviews I had to point out to them that only one person in nine actually wrote about the film. Everyone else wrote about themselves. Two days we spent watching a film about other people, about land, about big corporations, about injustice, about governmental sins, about death, about life, about making better choices – two days we gazed deeply into something larger than our immediate now – and all my students saw in any of it was themselves.

But I cannot blame them. This is their modern America. This is their country’s condition. If O’Brien looked out at the political landscape and saw only a vast expanse of repetitive prairie, I look out at our current creative capacities and see only a bumper crop of compact, handheld mirrors.

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About Kiki Malone

Girding till the break of dawn.
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14 Responses to Reflections on the Classical Condition : O’Brien’s Prairie, Cather’s Nebraska, and My Student’s Handheld Mirrors

  1. Chad says:

    Two things in this resonate with me (and notice that’s it’s all about how the blog resonates with ‘me’), first is your observation about how these acknowledged writers use the physical to express the internal. That’s a trope that I’ve tried to utilize in my own writing, yet I have never been able to express what it as you just did.The physical landscape in writing matters.

    Have you read In the Skin of a Lion by Ondaatje? You should. He’s good at the internal externals.

    Second resonate thing: your comment about the state of modern American literature. I have many thoughts on the subject, but most of those thoughts are inchoate. I went through–and when I read these days, I’m still going through–a period of reading non-American novelists, particularly Chinese authors but others as well. I was drawn to these authors because their writing felt more vibrant than most of the shit coming out as “American literary art.” A few years ago, after LeClezio won the Nobel for Literature, the Nobel Committee made this statement that has stuck in my craw that American writer’s won’t/can’t win the Nobel b/c they don’t participate in the “grand conversation of world literature.” This seems very related to the sentiment you’re expressing. America has produced a literature of the self that does not go much further than the self.

    I wonder if our obsession with what is inside the self finds its root in the lack of suffering. The one thing that most of the Nobel Lit winners of the last few decades have in common is that they have lived and produced their art in repressive and sometimes violent societies.

    Thanks again, Kiki. These are great thoughts for a Friday morn. I’m looking forward to discussing ’em in my backyard.

    chadly

    • Kiki Malone says:

      Chaddition,

      I’ve got some notions about America’s narcissism being rooted in its very settlement as a nation: we broke from the Queen in order to live the mantra of BE YOURSELF, FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS, ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL REGARDLESS OF WHAT THEY BRING TO THE TABLE! Our identity was forged even before we signed the Declaration of INDEPENDENCE. It’s all in our history. My big, nonfiction, smarty-pants, summer read this year is Theodore Draper’s exploration of the American Revolution titled A STRUGGLE FOR POWER. Draper argues that the American Revolution was not about ideologies but, rather, about power: between England’s power and our own self-governing power. We know which way things went. Our selfishness may have snowballed from our genesis.

      Thanks again, and always, for reading. I’d like your thoughts on this.

      -kiki

  2. Kath says:

    I’ll be thinking about this for a while. We do use ourselves as the reference and mirror, don’t we? Not sure if that’s just an American thing or a first world/Western thing.

    • Kiki Malone says:

      Thanks, Kath. I heard Brian Williams, from NBC Nightly News, say something rather profound to Alec Baldwin. Williams said, “Listen to the dialogue from old movies compared to today. They did not start as many sentences with ‘I’ as we do now.” The conversation from there followed a trajectory of self-importance growing in our nation, particularly with the advent of social medias, even the internet, and Williams sees this as prime reason for anchormen/women and the nightly news: we need to be reminded the world is larger than our immediate arm span. Good points. And it was a great interview. Check out Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing podcast. I haven’t found a snoozer yet.

  3. Tanya Marlow says:

    “Unfortunately, this type of writing and figurative language requires the writer – even the reader – to possess a vocabulary rich with the language of the world, not just the language of the self. And we’ve long abandoned such a bilingual education.” YES. YES YES YES.

    This is probably the most profoundly insightful thing I’ve read all year.

    This is seriously good.

    (Tiny thing: was it Keats whose love was like a red red rose, or was that not Burns?)

    I wonder how much of this is influenced by social media. If we no longer look around the world and see a creation that speaks of the glory of God, a mystery beyond ourselves, but we look into our phones and hear an echo chamber of our own thoughts and feelings, is this why even our language is reflecting it?

    Oo. I’ve got goose bumps. Writing matters. Language matters.

    Thank you, Seth for pointing me to this

    “Bumper crop of compact handheld mirrors” – yes. GENIUS.

    • Kiki Malone says:

      Tanya – High praises. And I thank you for reading, for participating in the conversation.

      My buddy Ian likes to point out every time he or someone else grabs for a cell phone in conversation to gather information rather than, or before, reaching back in their own memory. He says we’ve grown content knowing as little as we need to know because we trust our constant medias to fill-in-the-blanks.

      I struggle with this exact same notion as a teacher. Why learn ANYTHING when EVERYTHING is available to us anyway? At this point, you try to convince students that learning is about more than knowledge: it’s about gaining new patterns of communication and thought and vocabulary. I meet many young people ready and willing to strike fast and hard at the task of rewiring their minds, but not all of them do. And I wonder sometimes which camp I would be in if I were a 21 year old lad with an iPhone burning a hole in my pocket, my dinner chats, my need to remember a poet when I’m writing.

      By the way, thanks for pointing out Burns over Keats. You were right. I looked it up. And I can guarantee I’ll remember Burns a bit brighter next time around. Perhaps I’m apt to give Keats too much credit.

      I’ve always been more of a Wordsworth man myself.

      Please return again and often.

      -kiki

  4. Tanya Marlow says:

    P.s. that moment when I was writing when I suddenly went – oh! The choice of nouns means I can conjure an emotion rather than having to name the emotion itself? – that was that Amber Haines that taught me that. She is genius too.

  5. charityjill says:

    As a fan of concrete imagery in writing and a former comp instructor, I appreciate so much in this post. I’m so glad that Tanya turned me on to your blog!

  6. mwerntz says:

    I have no idea, to be honest, with how to do this well. On the one hand, I think some internal things need to be left internal. Some inside jokes or interior rumblings just *can’t* be turned outside without becoming something else, like Jennifer Anniston’s desire for a baby turning into the cover a tabloid. That being said, people also *need* to do this, I think. So, we’re caught between impossibility and necessity.

    • Kiki Malone says:

      Isn’t this your entire job as a theologian: making the Unseen seen or abstract thought tangible? I think it is. And I’ve read small bits you’ve written and you do that well.

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