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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Other - The Fascinating, Unsettling World Of Freaks, Misfits, And Outliers

The characters of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio are emotionally wounded and troubled by shame or regret - a former schoolteacher once accused of intimacy with his students; a pastor who hides in the darkness to watch his neighbor undress; a clerk who, after being jilted by her lover, runs naked through the streets.

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People have affairs; they hide histories of theft and perhaps murder; they think of killing their spouses, and they bury their savings so their husbands won't get at them; they worry they can't run away from their pasts or that they'll never escape their provincial lives. There is nothing predictable about Anderson’s characters. His sense of what he calls the ‘grotesque’ pervades every story. By grotesque he did not mean anything deformed or twisted, but just so unique, so secret, so hidden that if and when it was expressed, it would resemble nothing normal, nothing familiar to the people around. 

Anderson writes about these characters with compassion and understanding. They are only ‘grotesque’ because of their own, private, secret ‘truths’ and suffer because they are unable to keep them theirs. There is an underlying desire to make these truths known and have them realized and accepted by others. They do not realize how strange and distorted their visions are, but Anderson never portrays them as truly grotesque, freaks, and lunatics.

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Winesburg opens with ‘The Book of the Grotesque’. In the beginning, writes Anderson, when the world was young, there were many thoughts but no such thing as truth. “Man made the truths himself, and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts”. All these truths were beautiful, and then people came and co-opted and compromised these truths. “It was the truths which made the people ‘grotesques’…The moment that anyone person took a truth to himself and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

The stories of Winesburg are remarkably similar to those of Flannery O’Connor. Both writers have captured a sense of the marginally sane – men and women not only confined within the limits of restrictive social norms, but confined within their own peculiar humanity, one which has little to do with the normal course of life. Their characters have impossible expectations, distorted views of themselves and those around them, and act in an almost unrecognizable world of imagination and almost perverse fantasy. O’Connor’s story A Stroke of Good Fortune begins this way:

Ruby came in the front door of the apartment building and lowered the paper sack with the four cans of number three beans in it onto the hall table. She was too tired to take her arms from around it or to straighten up and she hung there collapsed from the hips, her head balanced like a big florid vegetable at the top of the sack.

She gazed with stony un-recognition at the face that confronted her in the dark yellow-spotted mirror over the table. Against her right cheek was a gritty collard leaf that had been stuck there half the way home. She gave it a vicious swipe with her arm and straightened up, muttering, “Collards, collards,” in a voice of sultry subdued wrath. Standing up straight, she was a short woman, shaped nearly like a funeral urn. She had mulberry-colored hair stacked in sausage rolls around her head but some of these had come loose with the heat and the long walk from the grocery store and pointed frantically in various directions. “Collard greens!” she said, spitting the word from her mouth this time as if it were a poisonous seed.

Ruby, like many of Anderson’s characters, is an emotional misfit with little sense of adjustment to the world around them. They have a vague notion of peculiarity, understand somehow that theirs is neither the vision nor the world of others, but they make do, manage, and remain. There is nothing sophisticated, worldly, or demanding of them. Bad things happen to them, to be expected, to be worked round, but which will never change.

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Thirty-four wasn’t old, wasn’t any age at all. She remembered her mother at thirty-four—she had looked like a puckered-up old yellow apple, sour, she had always looked sour, she had always looked like she wasn’t satisfied with anything. She compared herself at thirty-four with her mother at that age. Her mother’s hair had been gray—hers wouldn’t be gray now even if she hadn’t touched it up. All those children were what did her mother in—eight of them: two born dead, one died the first year, one crushed under a mowing machine. Her mother had got deader with every one of them. And all of for what? Because she hadn’t known any better. Pure ignorance. The purest of downright ignorance!

Ruby is concerned with life, death, and meaning without any rational coherence; instead in a scattered, part mystical, part religious, part circus way. She consults a medium, ‘a stout woman with green eyes that moved in their sockets as if they had been oiled’, she listens to friends who are just as fragmented and unhinged in their thinking as she is.

“Noooo,” she said and leaned her round red face between the two nearest poles. She looked down into the stairwell and gave a long hollow wail that widened and echoed as it went down. The stair cavern was dark green and mole-colored and the wail sounded at the very bottom like a voice answering her. She gasped and shut her eyes.

No. No. It couldn’t be any baby. She was not going to have something waiting in her to make her deader, she was not. ..She shuddered and held her hand tightly over her mouth. She felt her face drawn puckered: two born dead one died the first year and one run under like a dried yellow apple no she was only thirty-four years old, she was old. Madam Zoleeda said it would end in no drying up. Madam Zoleeda said oh but it will end in a stroke of good fortune! Moving. She had said it would end in a stroke of good moving…

She sat on the step, clutching the banister spoke while the breath came back into her a thimbleful at a time and the stairs stopped seesawing. She opened her eyes and gazed down into the dark hold, down to the very bottom where she had started up so long ago. “Good Fortune,” she said in a hollow voice that echoed along all the levels of the cavern, “Baby.” “Good Fortune, Baby,” the three echoes leered. Then she recognized the feeling again, a little roll. It was as if it were not in her stomach. It was as if it were out nowhere in nothing, out nowhere, resting and waiting, with plenty of time

In Anderson’s story Paper Pills, the main character, ‘the tall woman’ has similar fantasies, less dreams than twisted notions. She is being courted by two young men, one who ‘talked of virginity’ and the other, ‘a black haired boy with big ears’ who said nothing at all but wanted her.

Beneath his talk of virginity, she began to think there was a lust greater than all others. At times it seemed to her that as he talked he was holding her body in his hands. She imagined him turning it slowly about in the white hands and staring at it. At night she dreamed that he had bitten into her body and that his jaws were dripping. She had the dream three times, then she became in the family way to the one who said nothing at all but who in the moment of his passion actually did bite her should so that for days the marks of his teeth showed…

In the end she becomes involved with her doctor, a man as unsettled and strange as he, a final fitting affair before she dies

The condition that brought her to him passed in an illness, but she was like one who has discovered the sweetness of twisted apples, she could not get her mind fixed again around the round perfect fruit that is eaten in city apartments. In the fall…she married Dr Reefy, and in the following spring she died. During the winter he read to her all the odds and ends of thoughts he had scribbled on bits of paper. After he had read them he laughed and stuffed them away in his pockets to become round, hard balls.

There are strange, unsettling people everywhere.  A young boy whose father had taken him to a Yankee World Series game, was headed down to Grand Central on the subway. As the train made its way to Manhattan a man with no shirt, sequined tights and a multi-colored beanie came through the car. He held a Bible and quoted from it.  He had a crazed, wild look as he preached about Jesus, salvation, damnation, hellfire, and eternity; the boy’s first look at the demented.

Rectangle Lady was a woman all dressed in black who marched in straight lines up and down the block between 114th and 115th Street on the Upper West Side.   She did precise military turns at the end of the block, pivoted, and marched back up the way she came but on the curb side.  She had a vacant, long-distance stare into a dark universe.

A well-dressed man who took the Red Line to downtown Washington every day at the same hour.  He talked to himself the whole time.  He doesn’t mutter or mumble, but converses.  Who was the unknown communicant who rode the train with this commuter every day? In what fantasy universe or unspeakable hell of his mind did he reside?

Or the man who boarded a train and no matter what the weather, dressed for an Arctic winter. He wore four layers of clothing – a parka on top of a car coat on top of gabardine on top of sweaters and thermal insulation. In his mind an Ice Age must have come.

Patrick McGrath writes about the insane without the compassion of Anderson or O’Connor but with a psychiatrist’s vision of the demented mind.  Spider is the story of a disturbed, psychotic boy who kills his mother and is committed to a mental institution where he spends thirty years.  Although he is released, he is no less psychotic than when he entered.  He is a timid, frightened but still violent man who lives in a distorted world of twisted, demented illusion.  He sees women who are his mother, beings in the attic, and feels the sinister, unholy power of the gas works.

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Craziness, dementia, and psychosis are not unique but generalized – alternate universes alien and troubling.  The biographical film about the Nobel mathematician John Nash explores his obsession with the imaginary figures who pursue him.  Those visions and his logical brilliance lead him to crazed fugues of mathematical formulations to explain a dissolving, frightening world.  

An old woman with severe dementia lived in a nursing home in Connecticut, and despite her final mental detachment from family and friends, her alternate world was far more fascinating than the bounded, logical one she left.  The Pope came to visit, male striptease shows played in the auditorium, she was a cheated upon wife in an afternoon soap, a murderer, a jewel thief, a channel swimmer.  Yet, whatever Leona Thompson was had not left.  She just laughed at people who were not there, who did impossible things, but who were as real as the brick and mortar of Fairhaven Home. It was difficult for her sisters and children to see her this way, and only more distant relatives could enjoy Auntie Leona who hadn’t changed a whit, and was still the same irreverent, ironic woman she was when she ruled her West Haven roost.

We are all Auntie Leona, Spider, Ruby, and ‘the tall woman’.  Our dementia is on hold, our psychoses in the closet. We are on some verge.  The freaks around us are unsettling reminders of not only where we might be but for the grace of God, but where we actually are.  It is not hard to see the world as Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, or Van Gogh did.  We have never outgrown monsters under the bed or strange shadows in the trees. It doesn’t take much to unhinge us; and perhaps the most aware and perceptive of us come to believe they are still there,

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