An abecedarian

A review of Joseph Harrington's 'Things Come On {an amneoir}'

Things Come On: {an amneoir}

Things Come On: {an amneoir}

by Joseph Harrington

Wesleyan University Press 2011, 108 pages, $22.95, ISBN 9780819571359

A
Amneoir. An amnesiac’s memoir. What would this look like?

Art. (See Collage.)

B
From Alan Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy, translated by Louise Burchill (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011):

“There are only bodies and languages except that there are truths. […] Taking the form of sciences, arts, politics and love, these ‘things,’ endowed with a transworldly and universal value, are what I name truths.” (22)

“this Second Manifesto is the result of our confused and detestable present time forcing us to declare that there are eternal truths in politics, art, science and love.” (129–30)

C
Collage. (See Art.)

Collage frustrates, or helpfully restrains, teleological narratives because its disparate parts intervene repeatedly to slow the drive toward the conclusions of these parts; this is salutary for the narrative when it is already highly teleological, namely, the story of death, or when it is the story of a public event whose conclusion is already universally known: the death of Elizabeth Harrington, in the former case, and Nixon’s resignation, in the latter.

Collage allows the writer to broaden the text’s point of view by allowing in other voices, and as this textual cobbling foregrounds difference, it becomes possible to position contrasting registers and narrative concerns without forcing the reader to reconcile everything into one uniform and coherent voice or narrative.

Moreover, the constant textual intrusions aid in deepening the sense of the overall pertinence of the themes as the reader sees that these concerns are under discussion elsewhere as well: how to deal with the death of a loved one (Love), how to deal with insufficient scientific knowledge (Science), how to deal with political deception (Politics), and how memory serves as an artistic and agile means of recovering and understanding experience (Art).

Amidst the collage’s many juxtapositions, one dominant point of comparison and contrast emerges: the mismanagement of Elizabeth Harrington’s breast cancer and the nefarious deceptions practiced by a democratically elected president. Collage allows coincidence; it affords chance to be meaningful. It offers an analogy, two situations for mutual contemplation, without a one-to-one relation having to obtain.

Yet in any analogy, there is a first term and a second: the second comments back upon the first, whose importance is greater. The first is a breast cancer patient’s death. The second is Nixon. For me, the most pointed moments of insight provided by way of Tricky Dick & Team include the following:

EX 1
“Going back to the analogy of cancer and the war in Vietnam, the ‘medicine’ we gave that country was too strong to attack only the invaders. B-52 bombers, massive artillery, napalm, and defoliants were too random and indiscriminate to hit just the ‘enemy’: hundreds of thousands of helpless, innocent people were killed or wounded as well. In the end, the country was destroyed by the evidence.” (23)

Comment:
Poignant, closely analogous situation to Elizabeth Harrington’s breast cancer “treatment.”

EX 2
dr. a: “In order to keep [family and friends] from falling apart, the woman tries to keep her chin up and have a smile plastered on her face — at a time when she herself is most defenseless and in need of support.”

dr. d: “It was my particular concern with the fact that the President did not seem to understand the implications of what was going on.” (26)

Comment:
An anonymous woman, brave and strong, suffering from the pathology of cancer; an international man, the president, cowardly and delusional, suffering from the pathology of paranoia.

EX 3
“without going into the details — don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is a comedy of errors, without getting into it.” (59)

Comment:
Misplaced trust in figures of authority — the president and the doctor.

            *

If the writer senses the unavoidable imbalance within the analogy, this insecurity is in no way damning:

there’s a strange conflation of Nixon with the mother. I’m not sure that’s OK […] Are we meant to feel empathy for Nixon in the way that we do for the mother? […] What does it mean to put an enemies list up against psychological strategies for dealing with cancer? It continues to be unclear to me what kind of analogy is building here. […] The documentary materials […] seem to function only as distancing devices, a strategy to escape the overwhelming pathos of the personal story. Is the reader only an observer of tragedy here? (19)

This reads like a reviewer’s comments — feedback notes given to the writer on a draft — valid to a certain point, though inaccurate in evaluating the artistic technique: collages don’t produce 1:1 correspondences, and analogies don’t give equal weight to each situation under consideration.

These moments of doubt recur in the text, and often their voice seems equally to be that of society impinging upon the narrative and that of self-doubt. The writer, active within the collage, considers his possible objectives:

Perhaps this isn’t an analogy […] perhaps it is the record of a person’s death. Or a history coming apart. A descent into the underworld, where Ulasewicz taped a key to the bottom of the locker. Presenting skullduggery; oncology astrology indicated. (44)

If erasure would displace the writer making voice an ambient mirage, collage allows the writer’s voice to remain present; and this is a good thing since the complete absence of the writer’s voice here would eliminate the possibility of pathos, which arrives at the end most clearly for me not in the depiction of the patient or the writer, then a boy, but in that of the patient’s husband: “[The nurse’s] face in real pain, upturned slightly, she said, ‘Mr. Harrington? I’m sorry; she’s gone.’ He grimaced jerkily and made to snap his fingers, like he did when he remembered something he’d left at home. ‘Oh, I wanted to be there!’ he said” (64). Imagining myself the husband in this situation is very difficult to do; and being able to convey the scene’s emotional sense relies upon the details of personal experience.

            *

As the writer tries to come to terms with this traumatic though distant event, he is forced into the role of investigator, very much akin to the private detective faced with the extra-judicial (because the authorities have failed) task of solving a crime. Again, this role is necessary for two reasons, the first being personal: “Writing all this was supposed to make him feel better, to solve the semantic puzzle, remedy the ontic ache. We should be able to vote on the road to recovery in real time […] Do something other than merely watch” (63).

The second is practical: not only did Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, where the writer’s mother was treated, destroy the patient’s records long ago (11), but she never kept a written record of her own experiences and hardly spoke of her feelings (26): “I have no oral history on paper from her, so I can neither confirm nor deny” (9), and “'She just never talked to you about her feelings?’ ‘Not much …’”(26).

The text creates the possibility that through a thorough investigation — through an accumulation of data and its painstaking analysis — the truth will reveal itself. At least that is its objective presupposition. But the authorial voice doesn’t believe fully in this:

AUG 2 1974
[…]
(all of this is true history — isn’t that enough?
since whatever you’re feeling
stays invisible in you no matter how many words without)          
(56–7)

Data, however much you can accumulate, will never accord with the feeling of experience.

Beyond the writer’s role as an investigator, he is also an observer. The textual polyphony obscures the writer (imagine watching a surgery behind a thick, translucent window …) and provides him the distance needed for skeptical reticence. He is an observer to his desire to construct a history for himself but equally a history for his mother who never had the desire to author the story of her own life, or in some macabre notation, to tell the story of her death:

(10)

This passage captures the ambivalent emotions and thoughts that go with telling this story. The basic task seems almost impossible: to reconstruct an event so long after its fact (1974 to 2004, thirty years …); and to speak for someone whose story, told from her perspective, would be the most vital sort. This perplexity recalls the horror and shame that many survivors of concentration camps felt as they were asked to tell the story of their experience: very many felt that theirs was not the true story, which could only be told by the dead. (Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz). This is a story you want to get right and yet feel like you never can.

Lastly, as an observer, the writer allows the narrative to reach toward the universal and not to get caught up too intimately in the nuts and bolts of personal emotion: “— Joe, Sugar, don’t confuse your readers so. Why don’t you just come right out and say what you mean?” (31). Because the story isn’t about just him. Because the story isn’t easily articulated. Because the story is also that of the historical times and how time’s passage doesn’t imply progress:

EX1
31 July
— progressive — and Progress
(55)

Comment:
A disease is progressive, but as it reaches its end, you could hardly confuse that (death) with “Progress.”

EX2
— What? That’s it? The mother dies, and the country
  (Today We Know) only got worse. That’s the ending?
That’s all you can say for yourself? Where’s the redemption
  in that? The Revelation? The positive example of survival
  and endurance?
— Tragedy means you can only observe,
       static, while everything changed. (71)

Comment:
These are the two poles within which to steer: the forced epiphany/emotional enema of the Hallmark® Resolution, and the passive, nihilist, impulse to deny yourself the right to speak at all. This text avoids both.

There is one last point I would like to make about the collage, and that is how the flipping back and forth to the notes after the narrative, something I did almost on a page by page basis, may well provide an empowering role for the reader. It activates the fingers and then the mind to the suggestion that there are considerable gaps here, and voids that no logic can fill.

In this the text argues again for the possibility, even the necessity, of telling stories — your own or others’ — despite the difficulties inherent in the task. Perhaps the hardest thing is to find your story or your family’s story worth telling — personal stories that include heartbreak, but that rise above it, and so above the simple, feeble cry you would like to emit in the face of time, death and your relative helplessness.

D
Diachronic/synchronic. (See Fact.)

From Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (Verso, 2005):

From a limited series of conventional and reassuringly simple narrative options (the so-called Master Narratives), history becomes a bewildering torrent of sheer Becoming. […] It then proves reassuring to abandon these diachronic dilemmas altogether, and to turn towards a perspective and a way of looking at things in which they do not even arise. Such is the realm of the synchronic, and we may well ask ourselves what replaces narrative and what representational forms are available to articulate this new systematic view of the multiple coexistence of factors or facts, what mode of Darstellung could possibly accommodate this historiographic material. Only to do so would involve a review of everything from the so-called plotless or poetic, “modernist” novel […] to experiments in historiography. (88–9)

Comment:
This text as synchronic, as evincing the coexistence of multiple facts and facets of historiographical matter.

E

F
Fact.

From David Shields’s collaged Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Vintage, 2011):

My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists in a multitude of forms and media […] who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work. (3)

Comment:
Facts as reality; breakage and rupture and suture; the trauma of realizing new forms.

G
Gothic.

The Gothic suggests that many of the most familiar things — those things that are even overfamiliar in their routine presence in our lives — are in fact not fully understood. At one point we might have tried to understand them and failed, but now because their presence dominates us in its ubiquity, we never have the chance to distance ourselves sufficiently to understand what they mean. Here, these terms might be the hospital, the doctor, the mother, and the president.

The Gothic also suggests that within these domesticated elements lurks a violent, frightening underlayer, always present; and that, given the right impetus or context, this repressed layer will emerge. This is the advent of horror, and the nightmare is one of its basic modes: “a complete horror story” (12), a “NATIONAL NIGHTMARE” (58). 

Pathology within the body. Paranoia within the mind.

Furthermore, the suggestion is that the conscious mind wants to continue to repress these pathologies at any cost so as to retain power over the body and so maintain the illusion of control. Not only does breast cancer itself imply some environmental hazard whose existence we repress as it threatens our ideology and lifestyle, but also the patient’s body transmogrifies due to the surgeries and medicines, all the efforts to restore the system’s control, and to deny the fact of the system’s failure:

6 AM — very difficult for pt. to swallow — followed by seize of coughing. Tongue and inside of mouth coated blue from Urised, a terrible midnight blue. (58)

Note:
Urised, a urinary fixed combination drug, contains the antiseptic methylene blue.

7:15 — Lt. hand cold — grunting @int. —
                                 Shallow cyanotic (63)

Note:
Cyanotic, as a medical term, describes a condition of a bluish discoloration of the skin due to insufficient amounts of oxygen in the bloodstream.

So fear, terror, nightmare and horror.

Echoes of Frankenstein’s monster, the doctor’s control of science inadequate, his hubris fatal, his ignorance startling.

MRS. G — — : Well, the cancer didn’t kill her, the chemo killed her. (36)

Echoes of the origin of forensic science, the detective story. Poe’s “The Murders in Rue Morgue.” Compile the data — the facts — and the truth will emerge, howsoever strange it might be! 

H
Horror. (See Gothic.)

IJKL

M
Memory.

From Chapter “f, memory” of Reality Hunger:

160
In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, is also the mother of the nine Muses.

161
Tell the story of your life that is the most emotionally cathartic; the story you “remember” is covering the “real story,” anyway.

162
Reality takes shape in memory alone.

163
Memory: the past rewritten in the direction of feeling. (56)

Comment:
And so, the form of the memoir, “truth” telling and fact. The ambiguity of it all, and the positive unreliability of all narrative. Or, alternatively, to break free of the specious debate: how text creates meaning.

N
Nightmare, where the Gothic and the dystopian/Utopian intersect.

OPQ

R
Reality. (See Fact, Diachronic, Memory.)

S
Scrapbook. (See Wunderkrammer.)

Suffering, a note, in relation to the body.

At some point the depiction of the female body in poetry changed. It changed from being the locus of male pleasure to that of female suffering; it changed from being a metaphor for the divine aspect of the carnal to the literal location of female physical suffering, with suggestions both of the depredations (see predatory, prey) and degradations (see humiliate) to which patriarchal society subjects women and also to which capitalism subjects all people.

The contemporary situation argues forcefully that the depiction of the female body is not to be taken lightly: a man must think before putting words to page.

Here the writer does not expound upon the physical charms of his beloved but writes of the suffering of his mother. He does this carefully so as not to fall prey to the second most common cliché about women — the long-suffering mother, true symbol of womanhood. The collage with its an analogy gently shifts the emphasis from the merely morbid to something greater, the political dimensions of an individual’s suffering and the pain of the times, America circa 1972–74.

(Yet I write this full of longing to read carnal depictions of female and male bodies — for bodies of any gender — together in love. Written by men. Written by women.)

T
Truth. (See Badiou.)

UV

W
Wunderkrammer
. (See Scrapbook.)

From Giorgio Agamben’s “The Cabinet of Wonder” in The Man Without Content, translated by Georgia Albert (Stanford University Press, 1999):

Art collections, however, have not always had such a familiar aspect for us. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, in the countries of continental Europe, princes and learned men used to collect the most disparate objects in a Wunderkrammer (cabinet of wonder), which contained, promiscuously, rocks of an unusual shape, coins, stuffed animals, manuscript volumes, ostrich eggs, and unicorn horns. Statues and paintings stood side by side with curios and exemplars of natural history in these cabinets of wonders when people started collecting art objects. (29)

Comment:
The collage — the disparate, the eclectic, as a cabinet of wonder to inspire contemplation.

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